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The Oppressive Limitations of Time

Chapter Text

"Five, eight, twenty-six, thirty... aaah..." 

Carlos flipped the dial on his machine over to thirty and sighed in relief. So that was why that hadn't been working. All of his machines were calibrated to his favorite numbers, and for some reason or another, this one had been incorrectly calibrated. 

"Everything okay, boss?" asked Luisa from the table next to his. Luisa was a member of Carlos's team of scientists, the newest of the bunch. She still called him "boss", even though he'd told her several times that it wasn't necessary. 

"Yes, fine, everything's fine, I just forgot to calibrate this correctly this morning. Silly mistake." 

"I'm enormously disappointed in you." 

"Sorry?"

"Sorry. That was for the invisible corn." 

Carlos squinted at Luisa's table as she set up her trifold board. "Are you sure being disappointed at invisible corn is the best experiment? You realize that most people won't be able to see it, and will therefore assume that you're making a joke, don't you?" 

"I know," sighed Luisa, poking at the air above her table (presumably rolling over the invisible corn). "I prefer using potatoes. But getting funding for potatoes is much too difficult these days. John Peters - you know, the farmer? - donated three bushels of invisible corn to my studies, so I'm just doing the best I can." 

"You're not going to win any awards, though," said Mark, another member of Carlos's science team. 

"Winning awards isn't everything," said Nilanjana, the third member of the team. 

"Please stop arguing. It is distracting me," said Carlos. 

The four Night Vale scientists had left town earlier that week and driven in the science van (a white van with the word "SCIENCE!!!" painted on the side) to reach this convention. Leaving Night Vale was something of a gamble. Most people would set out only to find themselves right back where they started. But for some reason or another, the town had decided to work in their favor, and they'd been able to leave without any problems. 

Well, without any problems from the town, Carlos amended in his mind. Although Night Vale had decided to let him leave unhindered, convincing his husband had been a little more difficult. 

"I don't understand why I can't come to your science fair," Cecil had complained. "I'm very into science."

"I know, sweetie, but you aren't actually a scientist. And it isn't a science fair, it's a science convention." 

"You put experiments on a table with a trifold board. That sounds like a science fair to me." 

"Okay, well, I'd like for you to come, but only scientists are allowed, and being married to a scientist doesn't automatically make you a scientist. Just like me being married to a radio host doesn't automatically make me a radio host, right? Correlation does not indicate causation." Which was sort of irrelevant at that moment, but he really liked saying it, so he had said it anyway. "It's just three days. And then I'll be back." 

"Fine, I know, I understand. I'll miss you, though. And I always worry when you're gone." 

Carlos found that ironic, since statistically, he was safer outside of Night Vale than he was within it. 

But in the end both Night Vale and Cecil were understanding, and now here he was, watching Nilanjana and Mark finish setting up their experiments. Nilanjana kept creeping over to the other tables, trying to make their display more symmetrical, and Mark kept having to fix his experiment whenever it fell apart. Carlos checked his watch. 

"We have a half hour left before the convention actually starts," he said. "Are you both sure you'll be ready?"

"Yes," snapped Nilanjana defensively. 

"No," whimpered Mark helplessly.

"Huh." He glanced back at his own table, which was set up with the machine humming away. "Here, how about I go over to the cafe and get you both coffee. Coffee is a stimulant. It will speed up your work."

"Oh, get me some too," said Luisa. "I'll take an espresso. Tell them to hold the metal shavings, though." 

Carlos took Mark and Nilanjana's coffee orders (Nilanjana asked for a latte, and Mark indicated through a rhythmic dance that he'd take whatever), and set off for the cafe in the lobby.

The science convention was a bi-annual event taking place in a large Nevada hotel. Scientists from around the world came to display their inventions, talk in long words that no one outside of the hotel understood, and compete for various awards.

It was a strange system, Carlos thought as he stepped down the patterned carpet of the hallway. Whose idea was it to pit intelligent people against each other for a meaningless scrap of paper that would hang on the wall of a lab most people would never see? To assemble the world's greatest thinkers into rooms of fluorescent lighting and linoleum flooring, pushing caffeine and water into their hands so they could get through what was supposed to be a long-awaited event? 

Humans are weird, Carlos concluded. Weird, but neat. 

He reached the lobby cafe, where several scientists were milling about chatting and drinking coffee. A few of them waved to him, and he waved back. None of them approached him to chat, and he was fine with that. We are creatures of distance and familiarity. We stay distant from that with which we are not familiar. 

The bored cashier took his order and slunk over to the machine. Carlos leaned against the wall and checked his watch again. There were now twenty-five minutes until the convention officially opened. Time outside of Night Vale was normal, or at least as normal as time is capable of being. After the opening, the convention would continue until around five that evening, and then start up again the next morning. With luck, he and his team would be back to Night Vale early the morning after that. Of course, statistically, the town might not want to let them back in, so -

"Excuse me," said a voice suddenly, right in front of him. He lifted his head and was surprised to find himself looking into the equally surprised face of Dr. Sylvia Kayali. 

Oh no. 

Before coming to Night Vale, Carlos had worked at the University of What It Is, with Dr. Kayali. While there, he had come across rumors of a scientifically fascinating town in the southwest, a town called Night Vale. The town that he now called home. Due to the fascinating nature of the town, and the untrustworthy nature of his employers at the University, Carlos had left and never gone back. And he never planned to. All of the things from that part of his life were best left to the past. He hadn't even told Cecil about it. 

""Dr. Kayali," he said eventually, extending a hand even though he didn't really like shaking hands. "How have you been?"

She didn't shake his hand. Her shocked eyes remained on his face. "I have been looking for you," she said. 

"Oh... okay?" 

Dr. Kayali broke off her gaze suddenly and drew herself up to her full height. "I attempted to contact you several times," she said. "But all of my attempts proved futile. I even visited your new town." 

What? he thought. "Oh?" he said. 

"Yes. You see..." Dr. Kayali glanced around. "Well, not here," she murmured. Carlos got the sense that she was speaking to herself more than to him. "I can't tell you here. There are too many people here."

She stuck out her hand and put on a bright smile. Carlos lifted his own hand again and accepted an awkward handshake.

"How have you been?" asked Dr. Kayali brightly. "It's been so long. Your last name is different."

"Oh, yes, I... I got married last December," said Carlos, plucking at his lanyard. 

"To your boyfriend Cecil?"

Carlos started. "I'm sorry, how do you know about-"

"Your coffee is ready," shouted the cashier. 

"I'll leave you be," said Dr. Kayali, with her bright smile that seemed very fake. "But let me give you my card. I always carry these cards. I want to speak to you privately." She pressed a rectangle of paper into his hand. "You'll be hearing from me soon. Enjoy the convention!" 

She turned with a flick of her hair and wandered away, high heels clacking on the lobby floor. Carlos took the coffee tray and went back to his scientists, still puzzling in his mind. 

"Ooh, just in time," said Luisa as he returned. She plucked her espresso from the tray. "You're the best, boss. You are a failure in every way," she added, glaring down at her invisible corn. 

Nilanjana frowned as Carlos handed her the latte. "Is everything okay, Carlos?"

"Huh? Oh, yes. Everything is fine. Why wouldn't it be?" He smiled, hoping to convey the fine-ness that he didn't actually feel. Nilanjana knew him better than the others. 

"For a moment you seemed..." Nilanjana shook her head. "Never mind. Thanks for the coffee." 

"Any time." 

Carlos took his own coffee over to the table with his machine and triple-checked that everything was in order. He twisted his wedding ring with his free hand, a nervous habit. Dr. Kayali had been to Night Vale. Dr. Kayali had met Cecil. What had she told him? What did she want from Carlos? And what in the world had the cashier put into this coffee to make it so spectacularly awful?

No, ignore it, he told himself firmly. Not the coffee. The stuff with Kayali. Ignore all that. You'll ask her when she reaches out to you later. Later. Five. Eight. Twenty-six. Thirty. 

It wasn't until she texted him that Carlos realized he hadn't actually given Dr. Kayali his number. 

Chapter Text

Cecil: You are dying. Well, technically, everyone is dying. But things are looking especially bad for you. Welcome... to Night Vale. 

Hello, listeners. To start things off, I've been asked to read a brief public service announcement. Sheriff Sam, recently returned to their position and given their badge back, wants everyone to know that bumper stickers are now illegal. "That's right!" they shouted in a statement delivered in perfect iambic pentameter. "Illegal! Take them off! If you can't get them off, just get a new car!" The sheriff then hand-carved a 1:2 scale replica of Michelangelo's David to indicate that the ban will take effect this weekend.

Members of the Night Vale chapter of the National Rifle Association are protesting the ban, saying that they recently unveiled a new line of bumper stickers, and now what are they supposed to do with all these? They printed a lot! Are they just supposed to throw them away? They sent one of the new stickers to the station so I could read it, hoping that maybe this would convince the sheriff to change their mind. The stickers are made from good, sturdy vinyl, and read, "Stop marching for your lives and start running for your lives! Violence threatens the whole nation! But this violence is totally not the fault of guns, not at all, guns have never in the history of mankind caused violence and are totally safe, stop saying guns kill people, stop saying guns kill people." No need to order the bumper stickers. If you're meant to have one, it will find you. It. Will. Find. You. 

And now the news. 

A new man arrived in town today. 

Who is he? What does he want from us?

What's with his terrible short blond hair? Look, I'm not a judgmental person, but that hair is really not well thought out. It looks like it was cut by someone who hasn't handled shears in four decades. It's so short. So, so short.

The man pulled into the science district in a red mini-van and hopped out. The shapes of other people could be seen behind the van's tinted windows, but the people have not yet emerged. We cannot yet say what they want from us. 

What we do know is that the man - and, presumably, his team - has rented a lab in the far corner of the science district. Not the corner near Big Rico's pizza. The corner opposite that one. He has a lot of machines and rubber bins, but we're not sure what the machines do or what the bins contain. We can assume, though, that he is a scientist, which is... odd. Scientists should not have short, bad haircuts. Also, Night Vale already has a lot of scientists. In particular, we have one especially good group of scientists, and that group of scientists have an especially handsome leader... 

Yes, I'm talking about beautiful Carlos the Scientist, better known now as Carlos Palmer, because, that's right! He is my husband! And I love him! So, so much! And just for the record, his haircut is neither short nor blond nor awful. It is a long and luscious black with dignified streaks of gray that I won't let him dye over. Ahhh, how I love his beautiful and perfect hair. 

Sadly, Carlos is out of town right now at a science fair. He says it's actually called a convention, but that's basically the same thing, so, whatever. I plan to ask him if he knows this man, since it is a fact that all scientists know each other. But asking him over the phone won't help much, as he won't be able to see the man. I'll just wait until he gets home, I guess. I really miss him. Also, making dinner for myself these past two days has been... something of an adventure. On the first day, I got distracted listening to this new song Michelle sent me, and I set my stove on fire. And so on the second day I had to have dinner out while the stove-repair-lizards came to fix it. The song is really good, by the way. It's called "Eat Your Feelings". Whenever the song comes on, you have to jump out of your car, eat all of your emotions, and then send a video of it to the world government. Really good song. 

Speaking of Michelle, she has asked me to let you all know that Dark Owl Records will be closed this week, because, in her words, "Like, what's the point? The point to anything? And I have a date scheduled every night and no one to cover my shifts, so let's just close. Music is dead anyway, like, so dead. Uggh, music. Uggh, everything."

[papers shuffling]

Ah, let's see here. I've just been handed a report by our new intern. Haven't caught her name yet, since she keeps forgetting her tag. This seems to be a report describing the other people in the red van. 

We know that there is a man, who is tall and thin, and a woman, who has bright eyes like the flashing of a camera lens. We know there is a third man who is short and fat, and a second woman who has eyes like a solar eclipse. We know that the woman with the camera eyes has black hair and wears a suit coat, and that the woman with the solar eyes has freckles and wears a long dress. We know that there is a member of the team who is named Avery, and that Avery is of medium height with long green hair and a slight, wispy beard. 

We know that all of the people seem to be subservient to the original man, the one with that horrible, horrible blond hair. We know that they have locked themselves in the lab and not emerged. We know this because my new intern went to knock on the door, and then tried the handle, which wouldn't turn. 

And now the community calendar. 

Tomorrow is the day my sweet and beautiful husband comes home. There's probably something else important happening, but I will not care about it. Oh, and Nilanjana, Mark, and Luisa will be coming home too. I always forget about those guys. 

Wednesday has been cancelled again. 

Thursday is the re-opening of the McDonald's on Route 800. The McDonald's closes every night at ten, and on Thursday, like all days, it will re-open at eight. 

Friday is family movie night! One family will be randomly selected to have a movie made about their life. 

Saturday will be taking place in another reality, while we experience that reality's Sunday instead. 

Sunday (our reality's) is tag day at the local mall. All of the tags on items will be switched with the tags from another store.

And finally, Monday is an all-day training for Tamika Flynn's teen militia. If you're a member of the militia, make sure you attend the training at... and here it just says, "You know, the place", and also make sure you do not reveal your identity to any one, since the militia participants are supposed to be saving Night Vale anonymously. 

This has been the community calendar. 

Okay, wait, listeners, that person from the new science team is here. Avery. Avery is perched on the top of the broadcast tower - which is actually dangerous! That thing is electrified! Hang on, I'm gonna send Intern Sawyer out there to get Avery down... Oh wait. Intern Sawyer was buried alive in a sand dune. My bad. To the family of Intern Sawyer, he was a good intern, with a real aptitude for radio, but a poor aptitude for safety. Oh wait, that new intern is running out to warn Avery. Okay, good. I still haven't caught her name, though. 

But anyway, Avery is sitting on the broadcast tower, with her legs wrapped around the ladder. There is a strong wind around her, whipping her dress and cape, but she doesn't seem fazed by it. She is... and this is odd... she is watching the station with binoculars. In fact, I get the sense that she is watching... me. The binoculars are trained right at the window to my booth, the window I am currently looking out of. Our new intern is shouting for Avery to get down, and...

Did she just salute me? 

She did.

Avery just gave a clear salute at the window. I... I can't totally make out her face, but she seems to be grinning. She's now climbing down the ladder and getting into her car. There is a notebook tucked under her arm. Huh. Okay, that was weird. The job of a scientist is not to spy on the community radio station. And besides, shouldn't she be helping her team unpack?

Well, whatever, I guess. It's not my place to judge. I'm sure this is not a big deal, and we will never be hearing about it again. 

Coming up after the break, a long interview with the drying paint on the wall of my studio. Stay tuned! 

Chapter Text

Nilanjana didn't care about awards. Not remotely. But the fact that no one in their team had won any seemed to be grating on Mark and Luisa, which meant that Nilanjana and Carlos had to hear about it the entire ride home. 

"...shouldn't even be considered real scientists, I mean seriously, how could they not see the merits of -"

"-totally unfair -"

"-so they choose that for the 'Important Science That Was Well Scienced' distinction, are you kidding me -"

As Mark and Luisa talked over each other, Nilanjana slid two packets of ear plugs from her lab coat pocket and handed one over to Carlos. He took one hand off the steering wheel to accepted the packet and mouthed "Thank you." 

The road back to Night Vale seemed longer than the road out. They kept driving past a roadside sign that read "Welcome to Night Vale", only to pass the exact same sign ten miles later.  This went on for a while, until finally after the fifth time driving past the sign, the city appeared in the distance. 

"Finally," said Nilanjana, and then remembered that Carlos wouldn't be able to hear her. She glanced back at Mark and Luisa, who now seemed to be arguing, and sighed. 

They reached the city limits and passed the car lot, where several of the Erikas were milling about by Old Woman Josie's house. Everyone in town still referred to it as Old Woman Josie's house, even though Josie was dead now, and so it could not, by the rules of grammar and life, actually be in her possession anymore. Old habits die hard. One of the Erikas waved, and Nilanjana waved back. A moment later there was a crack, like a heavenly peal of thunder, and the angel appeared in the back seat sitting between Mark and Luisa. It tapped Nilanajana's shoulder. 

"Yes?" she said, taking out her ear plugs. It occurred to her briefly that four years ago, this kind of thing would have seemed impossible to her. Now it was an everyday sort of thing for an angel to appear in her van.

"Are you guys heading to the science district?"

"Yeah," said Luisa.

"Cool, can I get a ride?" 

Nilanjana looked at Carlos, who had also taken out his ear plugs. "Can we give Erika a ride?" 

"Of course." He glanced at Erika in the rearview mirror. "But you have to wear a seatbelt." 

"Okay, yeah, yeah, sure." Erika buckled up and leaned back in the middle seat. Luisa and Mark, no longer able to see each other over the barricade of Erika's wings, turned to look out their windows and sulked.

"So what do you need in the science district?" asked Nilanjana after a long pause. 

"Nothing in the district. I need to bring a message to someone who's there."

"Who?" asked Carlos. 

"Your husband. I used my angelic powers of deduction to calculate a 99% chance that he's waiting for you outside of your lab." 

Nilanjana noticed Carlos's eyes flick up to check his reflection in the rearview mirror, and he ran a hand through his hair. 

"Actually, I should tell this to you as well." Erika leaned forward and fixed their many eyes on all four scientists. "A new team arrived in town while you were gone. A new science team. They set up a lab in the corner of town opposite yours."

Nilanjana exchanged confused glances with Luisa and Mark.   

"What field are they?" asked Mark. 

"Just regular science." 

"That doesn't make sense," frowned Luisa. "All scientists who are in the science field were at the convention. Why would a new team be pulling into town while we were gone?" 

"It does seem strange, considering that we're widely known as Night Vale's top science team," mused Carlos. "Are you sure they're actually scientists?" 

"Yes," said Erika. "They were wearing lab coats."

"So they have to be scientists," said Luisa, punching her palm. "This seems fishy."

"Yes," agreed Nilanjana, leaning back in her seat. She gazed out the window. "Yes, it does seem fishy." 

A moment later the van rounded the corner, and their lab came into sight. Carlos grinned and checked his hair in the mirror again. Nilanajana resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Standing beside the driveway was Cecil Palmer, flaunting his typically terrible fashion sense in a matching green jean-and-sweater set over a striped shirt, with a purple beret cocked sideways on his head. When it came to clothing, Nilanjana herself was practical in her choices, usually sticking to comfortable and simply colored. But every time she saw Carlos's husband, she felt the urge to put on a pair of sunglasses. People could wear what they wanted, of course, and it wasn't her right to criticize what made someone else happy. But really, did his clothes have to be so very very loud?

Carlos parked the van and jumped out, and after another heavenly crack of thunder, Erika appeared outside of the van beside him. Cecil grinned broadly and raced over to Carlos, jumping into his arms and swinging him around in a kiss (losing his beret in the process). Nilanjana looked over at Mark and Luisa, still buckled in. 

"Should we hang back?" asked Mark. 

"You stay." Nilanjana unbuckled and swung her door open. "I want to hear Erika's message." 

"Ugh, fine." Luisa clicked her buckle and rolled her eyes. "I mean, I want to hear it, too. But I don't really want to witness the Palmers' PDA again." 

Nilanjana got out and rounded the van, joined by her coworkers a second later. Cecil was standing with Carlos's face between his hands, talking quickly. 

"-and I'm so proud of you, but I'm never letting you leave again, hi Nilanajana, I missed you so much and I was so lonely, hi Luisa, stop looking at me like that, stop being so perfect, hi Mark, anyway we're going home now and I love you and I'm never letting you go away again, okay?" 

"I love you too," said Carlos.

"Cecil," said Erika, sounding impatient. "I have a message for you from Erika." 

Cecil held up a finger in the universal sign for "give me a second" and swept Carlos into another dramatic kiss. Then he turned to the angel and beamed. "Yes?"

"Erika warns you. They say not to trust the scientists."

"Excuse me?" said all four scientists. 

"No, not you." Erika waved dismissively. "The other scientists. The new ones." They glanced at Luisa, Mark, Nilanjana, and Carlos. "All of you should take caution as well. Cecil can fill you in on what we were discussing earlier. Hey, do any of you have five bucks?" 

"I might," said Mark, reaching into the pocket of his lab coat. 

"Why shouldn't we trust them?" asked Nilanjana. "Aside from the fact that they came to town when we were gone and are possibly trying to provide competition in our industry?"

"Sorry, that's all I know. If you want more information, you have to ask Erika, or this guy." Erika indicated Cecil and took the five dollar bill that Mark handed out to them. "Thanks, kid. Drop by for corn muffins sometime. Later." There was a blinding flash of light, and then Erika was gone. 

"So what's the information you're giving us?" asked Luisa once Erika, turning to Cecil. 

"Actually, I'm not quite sure what they meant." Cecil dusted off his beret and jammed it back onto his head. "Everything I know was in my broadcast yesterday, and it's not very much. The team is made up of two women, two men, and a person named Avery who was a woman yesterday but is a man today. I don't know the rest of their names yet. Avery has been spying on the station. Oh, and the leader is a man with this terrible blond haircut, ugh, just the worst. No good at all. Not like you," he added, kissing the top of Carlos's head. 

"Have they seemed... I don't know, threatening?" Nilanajana pressed.

"Other than the fact that Avery was spying on the station with a notebook under his arm and binoculars in his hands, not really. I'm doing a broadcast tonight, though, and I'll keep you updated. Oh, how was your fair?"

"Fine." 

"We can probably unpack the van tomorrow if you all want to go home," said Carlos. "There's nothing explosive or hazardous in there, right?"

"That's fine." Nilanjana considered for a moment, then nodded. "Yes, that's fine. See you tomorrow." 

"Oh, are we done here? Okay, byye." Cecil pulled Carlos over to their car and they drove away. The other three scientists watched as the clouds of dust rolled in the distance, and then once the car was gone, Nilanjana turned to her co-workers. 

"Let's go pay a visit to our new... friends," she said. 

 

Rules at Jackie Fierro's pawn shop were very specific. Once she decided the shop was closed, it was closed, and no one ever came in. After the day's affairs were set in order, she went out to the doors and buried them in the ground, vanishing the store. That meant that there was a brief five-minute window between the store being closed and the store disappearing. And during that window on this particular day, the bell on the door hissed, indicating a customer had come in. Jackie rolled her eyes. 

"We're closed," she said, not looking up from the paperwork spread across the counter. 

"The sign on the door says you're open."

"Yeah, that means closed. Signs say closed when the store is open and open when the store is..." She lifted her head to see a man with long green hair and a slight, wispy beard, and stopped in the middle of her sentence. "Wait, are you the new scientist? The one Cecil was talking about on the radio broadcast?"

"I certainly am. Avery North, at your service." The man held out his hand, and after a moment Jackie shook it. 

"Um, nice to meet you and everything, dude, but my shop is closed right now." 

"I'm terribly sorry. A silly mistake on my part. However, I'm in desperate need of a look around. Please, if I could just take a spin as you complete your paperwork?" 

Jackie bit her lip and glanced back down at the paperwork. There was still a good deal left. "If you can be out in five minutes and not make any noise, I guess so." 

"Wonderful." Avery smiled and went down one of the winding rows of items. Jackie turned back to her paperwork, then looked back to where the new scientist was browsing among some record players and table-top guillotines. "So are you, like, looking for anything specific, dude?" 

"Oh no no, just having a glance around." Avery smiled. He had a smile that seemed to be insincere in its sincerity. It made Jackie think of a painting. No matter how masterful and life-like, the viewer would always know it wasn't real. "Though if you happened to have a transistor radio and walkie-talkie I would be overjoyed." 

"What? Yeah, of course I have those." Jackie set down her pen and waved for Avery to follow her. "It's in this corner with all the other kitchen appliances. Here, hand me that ladder."

Avery rolled the ladder over to Jackie. She ascended to the fourth shelf, shoved aside a blender and the floating cat she had adopted from the radio station, and stuck her arm into the opening. "Do you want a vintage transistor radio or a futuristic one?"

"Whatever works better, please."

"Okay, vintage, then." Jackie pulled out a vintage transistor radio and a modern walkie-talkie and handed both down to Avery. She dusted her hands off on her jeans as they went back to the counter, and rounded it to stand by the till. "That's gonna cost you thirty dollars. Shell out." 

"Certainly." Avery took out a crisp twenty-seven dollar bill and three ones. "I'm still not accustomed to the Night Vale currency. Is this sufficient?"

"Yeah, it's fine, thanks." Jackie checked the ones with her counterfeit marker and then slid all four bills into the till. 

"I do appreciate you checking out my order."

"Yeah, no big deal." Jackie leaned forward and dropped her voice. "Between you and me, the scientists already in this town are total drags. Like, this one chick, Nilanjana? She was in here the other day and she kept trying to rearrange my shelves. Told me I'd make more sales if it was symmetrical. And their leader gave me this whacked report saying my shop was full of dangerous materials, and then he got all snappy at me when I told him to shut it. Suuuuuper annoying, you know? My datemate, Sam, says that's what comes with higher education. Inferiority complex. They know that from personal experience." 

"Sam, the sheriff?" asked Avery. "I heard the radio broadcaster talking about them. Speaking of, what can you tell me about him?"

"Who, old Cecil?" Jackie shrugged and snapped her fingers in the universal signal for "I am totally indifferent to the person I'm about to gossip about". "Not a lot. I rarely ever see the guy. He's been around for, like, ever. I mean, I've been around forever and I don't remember a time when he wasn't running the radio station. He's married to the lead scientist, Carlos, and he gives regular updates about their relationship on the radio. It's weird, you know? Being with someone for that long and still being that in love? I don't get it. But then I just started dating Sam a few weeks ago. They're cool. We get along. You seeing anyone?" 

"No, I am unattached," said Avery. "Perhaps this town might change that."

"Yeah, maybe. You could try joining a dating app or something. Worked for me a few times. Wait a second, were you really spying on the radio station last night?"

"Oh no." Avery flashed that smile again. "No, I was making observations on the broadcast tower. I fear that Cecil misinterpreted my intentions. And now I should leave you to your paperwork."

"Sure, thanks for stopping by. Only, next time, when I'm actually open, okay dude?"

"Of course. Enjoy your evening, Ms. Fierro." And Avery left the pawn shop. 

Jackie pulled out another sheet of paper, this time to file a report on the sold items. "Ah, shoot," she said as she scanned the form. She had forgotten to ask Avery what he intended to do with the transistor radio and walkie-talkie. Also, she now had to send a report to the radio station, since her conversation with the new scientist could be considered an update on a trending story. Also, she had promised to attend her brother's dance recital that night. "That is so the last time I let any one in after closing."

Chapter Text

Dark Owl records was open for business. 

As there was currently no business, Michelle leaned on the counter, chatting with her girlfriend, Maureen, who had come to keep her company during her shift. The loudspeakers hummed with the new album from Fall Out Boy, currently playing the obscure song, "I Really Should Be Focusing On My Career and Making Music, but Instead I'm Making This Recording of My Feet Stomping in the Studio." The song was so obscure that it only appeared on five copies of the album. 

Michelle was in the middle of dropping some cute pick-up lines when the bell rang, signifying a customer. Both women rolled their eyes. 

"Hang on," said Michelle to Maureen. "Hiiii, welcome to Dark Owl Records, can I help you?" 

A woman with eyes like a solar eclipse strolled up to the counter and grinned. "Oh, hello, I was wondering if you could direct me to the classical music. My lab partners and I love listening to Mozart while we do our experiments."

Michelle cast a glance at Maureen, who rolled her eyes and smirked. "I'm sorry," said Michelle, turning back to the woman. "We don't sell classical music. It's mainstream. I don't sell anything mainstream here." 

The woman's smile faltered, and her eyes flashed. "But you're a music store." 

"It's an independently run music store," interjected Maureen. "And Michelle is the owner. She can sell whatever she wants."

"Ah." 

"I can order the album for you, if there's one you really want," said Michelle in a tone that clearly meant she didn't want to order the album. 

"No, it's fine... thank you. What did you say your name was?" 

"Michelle." 

"Michelle. Thank you so much. I'll just take a look around." The woman pulled out a humming box with an antenna on the end. "Do you mind if I perform some tests?"

"Sure," said Michelle, no longer paying attention, because the Fall Out Boy CD had started skipping. 

 

Mark, Luisa, and Nilanajana stared down the door for a while, before finally Nilanajana stepped forward. 

"Should I knock or ring the doorbell?"

"Ring the doorbell," said Luisa.

"Knock," said Mark.

Nilanjana knocked. 

There was no answer. She turned back to her colleagues, who shrugged. 

"Maybe they're wrapped up in their experiments," suggested Luisa. 

"That wouldn't make sense. They just got here. No science team can unpack and start working on experiments that quickly." 

"Maybe they unpacked yesterday." 

"I don't buy it." Luisa gestured to the door. "There's not even an 'experiment in progress do not disturb' sign. There's no way they're busy."

"Maybe they're not home?" 

"Try ringing the doorbell, Nils."

Nilanjana rang the doorbell. Again there was no answer. 

"Are you sure we have the right address?" asked Mark. 

The three scientists glanced up and down the streets. The lab where they stood was placed right at the edge of the science district, diagonal to theirs. The old, broken road was lined with the laboratories of other scientists. A brick building stood to their right, covered in vines and ivy, and with plants bursting from the windows, suggesting it was under the care of some particularly eager botanists. Its neighbor was painted with murals of animals, and the outlines of terrariums were visible through the barred windows. The dust of the desert stirred in the street and filled in the cracks of the sidewalks, and few cars lingered on the street or in the meager parking spaces. This part of town was not visited frequently. 

"This is definitely the corner opposite ours," said Nilanjana. "And this building looks like a regular science lab." 

"Hmm." Mark strode up to the door and clenched his fingers in a fist. "Maybe you have to knock harder." He rammed his fist hard into the door, sending a loud knocking echo down the street. A moment later, the door creaked open, and from behind a pair of dark eyes flashed. 

"Can I help you?" asked a raspy voice. 

"Hi!" said Nilanjana, throwing on false cheer like an oversized coat. Friendliness would be more effective than sullenness. "We're scientists from the lab across town and we're here to welcome you to Night Vale."

"We brought you cookies!" said Mark, holding up the box of cookies they had bought before coming here. "As a housewarming gift!"

"Ah." An arm extended around the door, never opening it enough to let them see past the shadowed figure. A bony hand took the box of cookies from Mark's hands. "Very generous. Thank you." The space between wall and door began to shrink as the person on the other side retreated.

"We'd love to see your lab!" said Luisa with a smile that looked faker than Nilanjana's felt. "From one team of scientists to another, you know?"

The eyes appeared again, narrowed. "I'm afraid that is impossible. Thank you for the cookies. Good day."

"But we're so interested in your work!" insisted Mark in an almost desperate tone with an even wider smile. His lips were pulled far back to expose all of his teeth, giving him the appearance of someone having just left a service at the Congregation of the Smiling God. 

"I'm afraid I cannot let you look at it. Why are you prying? Why don't you just mind your own business? Good day."

"But -"

"I said good day!"

Nilanjana debated pushing her way through the door, when suddenly it opened, pushed by a different hand. 

"Now now, Holt," said a female voice, opening the door a little wider. "These are our fellow scientists. We can trust them with the secrets of our work. I am sure they would trust us." She lifted her eyes like a flashing camera to Nilanjana, Mark, and Luisa. "Wouldn't you?"

"Of course," said Nilanjana, but the woman's unsettling eyes and false friendliness made her seem like the last person Nilanjana would want to trust. She thought briefly of Carlos, off at home with no idea that his team was here. What would he think of them waltzing across town and entering the lab of potentially dangerous strangers? What were they doing here?

"You see, Holt? Do come in." The woman stepped to the side and opened the door, and Nilanjana stepped in with Mark and Luisa on her heels. "This is my coworker, Holt Murray." She indicated the tall, thin man holding the box of cookies Mark had handed through the door, then swept her hand to the large room past the door. "And this is our lab!"

"...oh," said Luisa. 

It certainly didn't look like a lab, or at least, not like any lab Nilanjana had ever been in. Rather than being divided up into multiple work areas and offices, the lab was one enormous open space, resembling a warehouse. Scattered at haphazard placements throughout the lab were various tables holding beakers of liquid and electrical equipment, none of which was turned on. There were pictures and graphs posted along the far walls, though Nilanjana couldn't make them out at a distance. Two of the other scientists shuffled around hanging things on the walls, but the man with the blond haircut, whom Cecil had described as the leader, was absent. 

"As you can see, we're a very standard lab," said the woman cheerfully, indicating that they should follow her. She lowered her voice as the tall man wandered away. "You'll have to excuse Holt. I gave him instructions to turn away prying eyes, but then, you're not prying if you're members of our field."

"No, of course not," said Nilanjana after a beat. They may be from the same field, but they were certainly prying. She inspected a beaker as the woman led them through the maze of tables. "What's in this?" 

"Standard liquid solution of lithium nitrate." 

"Lithium nitrate isn't standardly in liquid form," said Nilanajana. 

"Yeah, and it's not neon orange," interjected Luisa, bending down to observe the meniscus. 

"We've added a tincture to it," said the woman through a smile. "To change the form and the color. Please follow me. Please, Miss Luisa, do not touch it. This way. Please.

"As you can see, we're operating under minimal funding. We haven't been able to reach out to any organizations within Night Vale. I'm putting a lot of my own money into the research here - as is our leader, Dr. Kisten. It does pay to have money." She chuckled at her own joke and sidestepped a filing cabinet standing in the middle of the room for some reason. "Our layout may seem unusual to scientists such as yourself, but I assure you that we know exactly what we are doing."

"And what are you doing?" asked Nilanjana.

The woman smiled again. There was an unsettling unease in her smile. It looked friendly, but there seemed to be something hiding behind it, like the gate to a castle concealing dozens of armed warriors. The hair on the back of Nilanjana's neck stood up. Calm down, she commanded herself. There is nothing to suggest that we are unsafe here.

But then, there's nothing to suggest we are safe, either. 

"What are we doing?" repeated the woman, still with that smile. Her eyes were like the flashing of a camera lens. Her eyes were not lit by her smile. "As a matter of fact, I rather hoped you could help me with that."

She led the cautious scientists around a table and up to one of the walls, and there, amidst diagrams and photographs, was a map of Night Vale. 

It was marked up within pushpins, the roads lined by various colored yarn, bright yellow sticky notes indicating places such as "Radio Station" and "Lucinda's Jackie's Pawn Shop" and there, right near the star that marked where they were standing right now, "Palmer Lab". There was a line of red thread coming from a push pin over their lab, and Nilanjana followed it with her eyes to see that it led off of the map and over to a photograph. A photograph of Carlos. 

Carlos Palmer, read an information sheet beside the photograph. Age Unknown. Profession: Scientist. Locations: Laboratory, home, Night Vale Community Radio Station. Relational Status: Married. Associates: Nilanjana Sikdar, Luisa ---, Mark ---. From the word "Married" was a line of pink thread, connecting to a photograph of Cecil placed above Carlos's, with a corresponding information sheet. From the word "associates" were three lines of green thread, and with horror Nilanjana followed them to find photographs of herself, Luisa, and Mark. 

Nilanjana Sikdar. Age Unknown. Profession: Scientist. Locations: Laboratory, home, Midnight All-Night Diner, Church of the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God. Relational Status: Single. Associates: Carlos Palmer, Luisa ---, Mark ---. Her eyes widened as she read the list of locations. These were all places she had visited several times in the past month. They were also marked on the map with those sickeningly bright pieces of sticky note paper. Her eyes flicked over the wall. There was a picture of Carlos's niece Janice, with green lines marked "family" connecting her to Cecil, Carlos, and her parents, who also had information sheets. There was the mayor, Dana Cardinal, and beside her the sheriff, Sam. There were reports written on several businesses - the radio station, the pawn shop, Dark Owl Records, the other labs on this street. There were photos taken from around town. There were screenshots of Google Maps. Nilanjana looked to her left and right and saw Mark and Luisa contemplating the walls with eyes just as wide and concerned as hers. No, not concerned. Terrified. 

"What is this?" whispered Luisa.

"Ah, Avery," said the woman with the camera eyes, and Nilanjana jumped as she felt someone brush against her from the side. "How was the pawnshop?"

"Closed," said a man with long green hair, shoving past Nilanjana, Mark, and Luisa. He held a small cardboard box in his hand. "But the owner let me in anyway."

The woman frowned. "At this time of day?" 

"That's what I thought." The man shrugged. "Who are our guests?"

"This is Nilanjana Sikdar, and her coworkers Mark and Luisa." The woman who should not know their names gestured to them. "They're from the lab across the district. They wanted to see what we're doing here." 

"What you're doing?" Nilanjana gestured wildly to her own face, staring out from the photo on the wall. "You-you're cataloging people's information like data! You're snooping around in our business! Why are you doing this?"

"Do you have the preliminary hypotheses, Avery?" asked the woman, ignoring Nilanjana.

"I have them right here." Avery held up the box, which Nilanjana now saw was full of small slips of paper. Avery lifted them one by one and began sticking them above various photos. Nilanjana's lips moved silently as she read the words on them, observed the photos they corresponded to. 

On the slip of paper above Janice Palmer's photo: Low Threat. On the slips above Mayor Dana and Sheriff Sam: Moderate Threat. Mark and Luisa also received a Low Threat slip. Moderate Threat to the owner of Dark Owl Records, Michelle Nguyen, and likewise to her girlfriend, Maureen. Carlos was labelled Low Threat, and through her panic Nilanjana couldn't help thinking that they'd severely underestimated Carlos if they thought he was a low threat. Then, on two photos, Avery slapped a High Threat slip. The first was Cecil Palmer's. The second was her own. 

"We don't have your last names recorded yet," said the woman with the camera eyes, still smiling at Mark and Luisa. "Hardworking as we are, there was only so much we could discover in such a short amount of time. Would you care to expand our knowledge?"

"Get away from me!" shouted Luisa, stepping back as the woman extended a hand. 

"This is sick!" Mark gestured wildly to the photos on the walls, to the stickers above the faces. "I need an explanation for this. I demand one!" 

"All this that you're doing -" Luisa swept her hand to indicate the beakers and electrical equipment. "It's all a ruse! That's not even real lithium nitrate, is it?"

"Miss Luisa -"

"IS IT?" 

"Why are you labelling people as threats?" demanded Nilanjana, jabbing her finger into the air before the woman's face and planting her other hand on her hip. "Why are you labelling people at all? What are you?"

"Well, if you aren't going to help us, you can just leave." The woman gestured to Avery, who grabbed Luisa and Mark by an arm and began leading them towards the door. The woman herself grabbed Nilanjana's arm and marched her in a way that was rough but imitated politeness. The three scientists allowed themselves to be led by the fake scientists, exchanging concerned glances and studying the walls on the way out. Avery and the woman pushed them into the sunlight and stood in the doorway glaring at them. 

"Please bring a message to your boss," said the woman. Her smile was gone now. Her eyes were flashing like a camera shooting in sport mode. Her face was angry. "Tell him that I will be in contact again shortly. And now, if you know what's good for you, you will be so kind as to stay away in the future. You may be members of our field, but you are also prying, meddling snoops, and I want nothing further to do with you. Our work is our own. If you try to contact the police to say I threatened you, I will tell them that you trespassed, and I happen to know that your town considers that a far worse crime."

"The secret microphones -" began Mark.

"We disabled them."

"Whom should we say is sending the message?" asked Nilanjana. If she was going to do this horrid woman's bidding, she wanted to at least know who she was. 

The woman's smile returned, hardly a smile and more of a grim sneer. Avery was smiling too. They reminded Nilanjana of the pastor of the Smiling God, another woman with a sickening smile, who had been devoured by the giant centipede she worshipped. 

"My name is Dr. Sylvia Kayali," she said. "Oh, and thank you for the cookies."

And she slammed the door. 

 

 

August 09, 2018:

I hope you enjoyed the convention as much as I did, Mr. Palmer. I'll see you again, next time in your town. 

Message read. 

 

August 10, 2018:

It was a pleasure meeting your team today. Say hello to your husband for me. 

Message read. 

Chapter Text

The next day, machines stopped working around Night Vale. 

First, clocks. Clocks hardly ever worked in Night Vale, so no one noticed at first. Next, microwaves and toaster ovens. Any time someone tried to use one, it exploded in a burst of firework-like light. The various members of the media speculated wildly on what this might mean, and then promptly forgot about it a few minutes after their report.  Everyone forgot about it, until it was their microwave that exploded. 

And then the coffee machines broke. 

To be more specific, domestic coffee machines broke. While the brewers of Night Vale homes refused to turn on, the barista district remained untouched by that disaster and entered another. Namely the fact that all of Night Vale now had to drive to the district and shove through each other into the cafes, shouting "I want an iced mocha!" and "Get out of my way, Leann! You're always in my way!" 

Carlos had no intentions of going out into that madness. But when he looked over at the clock beside his bed and saw the numbers signifying the imminent start of his workday, he couldn't help but groan. Facing the morning was going to be so, so much harder without coffee. 

"The coffee machine's broken," Cecil mumbled sleepily beside him.

"I remember." 

Cecil yawned and curled against him. "I want coffee."

"So do I," hissed the Faceless Old Woman who secretly lived in their home, from somewhere in the shadows. 

"I'm going to do an investigation." Carlos rubbed his bleary eyes and wrapped his other arm around Cecil's waist. "To see why the machines are all breaking. It's going to be so scientific. I'm using all the scientific tools at my disposal." 

"Mmm." Cecil pulled the covers over his face. "'m so tired. I need coffee."

"Right, but the coffee machines are all broken, except for the barista district." 

Cecil seemed to consider this statement for a moment. Then he nuzzled closer to Carlos and kissed his jaw. "Sweet, beautiful Carlos..."

This man will be the end of me. "Fine, I'll go buy you coffee." 

"You are the best thing in my life," mumbled Cecil, kissing him briefly as Carlos climbed out of bed. "Dark with extra sugar. Love youuu."

"I love you too," Carlos muttered, still half asleep and throwing on jeans and whatever the first t-shirt was that his hand brushed. "But this is the last time I do this for you."

Cecil grinned and disappeared under the covers again. Carlos slid on his shoes, arranged his sleep-mussed hair into a ponytail, and stumbled down the hall. "What kind of coffee do you want, Faceless Old Woman?" he asked the shadows as he secured the hair tie. 

"I will take a large, with one cream and mayonnaise," whispered the Faceless Old Woman from above the front door. "You are the only person in this town who will buy me coffee. I will not stop liking you if you don't buy me coffee, but I may decide to remove all of the doors in your home."

"Please don't. I'll be back in a little while." Carlos grabbed his car keys and walked out to his hybrid coupe.

The multiple coffeeshops of the barista district were packed with Night Vale citizens, the streets so full that Carlos just parked in the middle of the road behind several other vehicles that had done the same. "Hey, you're in my way!" shouted someone behind him to someone in front of him who was not in their way. "You're always in my way, Leann! I want my coffee, Leann!"

Leann Hart, jumping from car rooftop to car rooftop, whipped out a hatchet from her side holster. "YOU'RE THE ONE THAT READS NEWS BLOGS, TIM!" she shouted. Carlos ducked just as the hatchet went whistling over his head and slammed into a car next to Tim. Tim and Leann looked at each other for a minute, then laughed and went into a coffeeshop together. Carlos shook his head and went into "The Broken Mug", which, ratio-wise, had less people than the other shops on the street.

The bell hissed above the door. Inside, ropes had been set up to show customers the route they should take to the counter, only the ropes seemed to be made of sausage and were held up by spikes of metal. Carlos stepped into line, careful not to brush up against the sausage. 

"Hi," said the barista after a long wait that felt like a small infinity. The barista's name was Robin, the same barista who had taken Carlos's order the last time he visited this shop. Ze had the unique ability to be able to see ten seconds into the future. "Welcome to the Broken Mug. What can I get for you?"

"Um, hi, can I have a -" 

"Large coffee with one cream and mayo, medium dark roast with an unhealthy amount of sugar, and a regular black coffee with two sugars?"

"Yes, please, if it's not too much of a problem." 

"Oh, this is why I like you." Robin smiled. "No, it's not a problem, but we've been so busy here." Ze bent zir head forward onto the counter and clutched zir head in zir hands. "I just - I don't know if I can cope," ze sobbed quietly.

"Hey, it's okay," said Carlos awkwardly. "You're doing great! You're managing a crisis really well, and that's what's important!" 

Robin lifted zir head and smiled. "Thanks so much, Carlos. Your total today is $12.46." And then ze opened the till and handed Carlos his change as he handed zir a twenty-seven dollar bill.

Carlos went over to the other side of the shop to await his order. Instantly he realized this was a mistake. People jostled past him, shouting and shoving each other. The multiple scents lingered in the air - the creamy coolness of whipped cream, the nutty roast of dark coffees, the flavor syrups, the chocolate mocha hints, the caramel in the drizzle on iced drinks. He became aware suddenly of the heat of this side of the room, closer to the coffee machines. The noise and the smells and the heat were overstimulating, and it made him uncomfortable. 

He went back over to the other side of the room to wait and hung near the counter. After a moment, the bell above the door hissed again, and Dr. Sylvia Kayali came in. 

If he had been holding coffee, he would have dropped it. 

"D-Dr. Kayali?"

"Dr. Palmer!" She swept over to him with a bright smile and shifted the umbrella hung over her arm. "How have you been?" she asked, extending her hand. "Why, it's been so long - two days, am I correct?" 

Carlos didn't respond. He was staring at her. 

How could Dr. Kayali, whom he happened to know lived in Idaho, be in Night Vale? He had seen her messages, but he hadn't been sure if he had believed them or not. What explanation could there be? How could a woman whom he had never given his number come to his town and then text him about it? He had been sure it was all some kind of elaborate joke. 

"I had the pleasure of meeting your team the other day," said Dr. Kayali, still smiling, apparently oblivious to his shock. "A charming group of young people, particularly the one woman - Nilanjana I think? You must love working with them. Why, I had expected to see you, but here of all places!" She waved a hand to indicate "The Broken Mug" as here, as much as anything can actually be considered to be here. "Dr. Palmer, are you feeling alright? You don't look quite well." 

Say something. Say anything.

"It's not raining," said Carlos, pointing to her umbrella.

Anything but that.

"Yes," said Dr. Kayali dryly, her smile wavering. "However, the weather report on the radio report wasn't actually a weather report. So I wasn't sure what to expect."

"O-oh, really?"

She waved him closer and leaned in, using the universal gesture for "I'm about to talk quietly." "As a matter of fact," she said, talking quietly, "This entire town doesn't seem to be what it ought to be?"

Carlos swallowed, feeling his palms get sweaty. "And - what ought it to be?" 

"Well, certainly not what it is." Dr. Kayali tilted her head to one side. "I mean, your husband claimed on his show that his pet is a floating cat; time is entirely wrong; and I believe that yesterday I saw a glowing cloud. It seems as if..."

"Coffee for the interloper with the hella good hair," called Robin. Carlos wasn't sure if he should take the opportunity to run or die of embarrassment. He did neither, and instead stood still while Dr. Kayali contemplated. Robin sighed from across the room. "Okay, fine, coffee for Carlos Palmer."

"Oh, sorry, that's me," said Carlos with a breathy laugh. 

"Well, enjoy your day, Dr. Palmer." Kayali smiled, a smile that didn't quite reach her flashing, camera-like eyes. "I hope we'll run into each other again."

Carlos wasn't sure how he felt about that, but he did run as soon as he had the cardboard coffee tray in hand. He ran to escape the angry mob charging down Summerset towards "The Broken Mug".

He would later learn that every other coffee shop's machines had stopped working. 

 

"She's not only a regular scientist," said Carlos, running a hand through his hair. "She's a victologist as well. I don't have a lot of data, but based on what you've told me and what I've observed, I'm assuming that her research involves cataloging the town's information."

Nilanjana, Mark, and Luisa, standing around his desk, turned to each other and then back to him. 

"Um, this might sound dumb, but what's a victologist?" asked Luisa. 

"I'm not actually sure," Carlos admitted slowly. "When I worked with her in the past, she was mainly using her degree in Science, like me. I never asked about her victology work, because I don't actually know what it is." 

Luisa and Mark took out their phones; Nilanjana remained standing with crossed arms. "Dr. Kayali wasn't just cataloging the town's information," she said. "She and her team were labelling people as threats. Why would they view us as threats?"

"I don't know," said Carlos. "Whatever reason, though, you three need to stay far away from that lab. I hypothesize that Dr. Kayali and her team members would be very angry if they saw you there again."

"Ow!" exclaimed Mark and Luisa in unison. Nilanjana and Carlos looked to them. Luisa held up her hand to reveal small cuts across her fingertips. "My phone cut me when I started typing it in."

"Mine too," said Mark, displaying equally bloody fingers. 

"Let me try." Carlos opened his laptop. He clicked open a search bar and started typing in "Victology", and around the "t", one of the keys sliced across his ring finger. "Ow!" 

"We can't use technology to research," said Nilanjana. "Whatever victology is, we're not supposed to know about it."

"But how?" asked Mark, sucking on his wounded fingers. "The phones and laptop aren't sentient. And no one could know what we're searching unless they could hear us talking."

Nilanjana looked up at the Sheriff's Secret Police camera in the corner of the lab, and her coworkers followed her gaze. They exchanged a concerned glance. 

"The Secret Police can override any phone's firewalls," said Luisa. "They could be the ones stopping us from researching this."

Nilanajana hesitated a moment, then grabbed a three-hole punch off of Carlos's desk, climbed onto a chair, and smashed the camera. The electricity sparked against her hands, and shards of glass and plastic rained onto the scientists, who covered their heads with their arms. When it ended, Carlos reached up to help Nilanjana off the chair. 

"We can't research on the internet," said Nilanjana, balancing her hand on Carlos's as she hopped down. "But I hypothesize that the arrival of the new team and the breaking of the machines was no coincidence. I think that Kayali and her team made it happen, like Carlos's machines made holes in the earth a few months ago." 

Carlos cupped his chin in his hand. "It's possible. But unless we understand what it is they're studying, we can't hypothesize what they're doing here."

"We need to learn more about victology," said Luisa, resigned. 

The four scientists stood around the desk for a moment, thinking. Then Mark said, "Shh." 

"I didn't say anything," said Luisa, Carlos, and Nilanjana in unison. Mark shushed them again. 

"Do you hear that?"

They all listened, and a moment later registered the sound of tires pulling into the driveway. 

"It could be Kayali's team," whispered Mark, clenching his hands into fists. Nilanjana picked up the hole punch again and crept to the window, peeking out through the blinds. 

"It's not a van," she said. "It's a small purple Toyota with flame decals,"

"Oh my god," said Carlos with an exasperated sigh as he looked over her shoulder. He opened the office door and went into the lab. "It's not Kayali," he said. "It's Cecil and Abby." 

"What are they doing here?" asked Nilanjana, setting down the hole punch and following him.

"Who is Abby?" asked Luisa. 

"My sister-in-law. She's nice. Come on." Carlos waved Luisa and Mark forward, and after a confused glance and a shrug, they followed. The four scientists went to the door, but before any of them could pull it open, it burst down as if kicked from the other side, and Abby Palmer strode in. 

"Carlos," she said without waiting to say hello. "I don't know what you are trying to do, but you need to leave Steve out of it."

Carlos blinked. "What?"

"Who's Steve?" asked Luisa and Mark in unison. 

"Last night," said Abby, waving the hand that she hadn't planted on her hip. "He was outside staring at all of the stars, where he can see the graph in the sky. He kept saying that the arrows were shifting, and that he had to tell you about the graph. You're trying to have him help you with your research. Do you know what happened the last time you were doing research?"

"Abby, we're not asking Steve to help us -"

"The last time," Abby interrupted, "You almost destroyed the town." 

Carlos's face fell. "I..."

 "He did not almost destroy the town," said Cecil defensively, stepping through the open door. "He risked his own life going through the house that does not exist to bring people back." 

"Yeah, what the heck, Gabby." Luisa scoffed at Cecil's sister.

"It's Abby."

"Whatever." 

"We're not trying to involve Steve Carlsberg in our research," said Nilanjana. "We'd welcome his input, but we haven't taken any so far. This is all a misunderstanding." 

Abby sighed. "Fine. I'm sorry. But I love my husband very much, and I need him. I don't want whatever you're working on to involve him in any way." She frowned. "What exactly are you working on?"

"It's classified," said Nilanajana, Luisa, and Mark. 

"We're trying to figure out what the new scientists in town want," said Carlos at the same time. He blinked as they all glared at him. "What? It's not classified. Besides, she's my family."

"Hey, what does this do?" asked Cecil from the other side of the lab, where he had wandered and was now holding an erlenmeyer flask full of chemicals from Nilanjana's previous experiment.

"That - OH MY GOD CECIL DO NOT DRINK THAT!" 

"If you're really that concerned about our work," said Nilanjana to Abby, as Carlos raced over to take the flask from Cecil, "I guess we can brief you. And if your husband does know anything that might be useful, you really should allow him to contact us." 

"A briefing would be great, thank you." Abby shot a concerned glance at her brother and rolled her eyes, then followed Nilanjana, Mark, and Luisa into the office. Carlos and Cecil joined them a minute later. 

"Please tell me you didn't drink the acetone," said Luisa to Cecil. 

"I didn't."

"Good, because that's the stuff in nail polish remover." 

"Oh, I love nail polish remover!"

Nilanjana ignored them and strode over to the chalkboard by Carlos's desk. She drew a few hearts around the word "science!" right in the middle of the board, and then on the side wrote "the threat we are facing". Under that she sketched a few stick figures to represent the new team of scientists. "Now, I want everyone to think," said Nilanjana, setting the chalk down. She leaned forward with her palms on the desk. "What was the worst danger this town has faced in recent history? The time we came closest to being destroyed?"

"Strexcorp," said Carlos, Abby, Luisa, and Mark.

"When Carlos was trapped in the desert otherworld," said Cecil. 

"Yes to you four, no to Cecil. We were almost taken over by Strexcorp, because they were people. Not giant centipedes, not plastic bags, not any unintelligent thing we could destroy, people. And people are more than just sentience. They have emotions and reasoning and logic. They can plan and think. Now let's look at the recent developments." She drew a coffee cup by the stick figures. "My hypothesis is that the scientists made the machines stop working. When Luisa, Mark, and I went to their lab, we saw that they had mapped out Night Vale and were researching it. They catalogued the people within this town. For some reason, they're trying to damage us. Taking away our machines is likely just their first step."

"I get it," said Cecil. "What easier way to destroy a town is there than to take away their coffee?"

"That seems like a flimsy hypothesis," said Abby musingly. "What kind of scientists are they?"

"Dr. Kayali is a Victologist," Carlos explained. "But we don't know what that is. We tried to look it up, but..." He held up his injured hand. "We think the Secret Police made our phones cut us. That's why Nilanjana broke the camera. But if we google it now, they'll still be able to track it, since they track all the electronics."

"I have an idea. May I?" Cecil took the chalk from Nilanjana and drew a book on the chalkboard. "If you can't use your phones, do this the old-fashioned way. Go to the library and research it there." 

"No," said Mark.

"Absolutely not," said Luisa firmly. 

"No one ever comes back from the library," said Abby even more firmly. "The librarians will kill you as soon as you step through the door."

"That's not true." Cecil handed the chalk back to Nilanjana and faced his sister. "Librarians are verrry dangerous, but you can get past them if you're careful. It's better to fight them as a team."

"It's risky," agreed Nilanjana. She glanced at Carlos. "But what other choice do we have?"

"Well, our other choice is to let it go and not understand what Kayali and her team are or what they're doing, which..."

"Out of the question."

"Yeah. Okay, I'll do it." 

Nilanjana turned to Cecil. "I'm willing to do it too. On one condition. I want you coming as well, and I want you to find someone who knows the library. Someone who can get us all safely in and out." 

Cecil's lips curled into a bright and faintly devious smile. "Oh, don't worry," he said. "I have a friend who's been to the library a thousand times. I think she's up for the challenge."  

Chapter Text

Tamika Flynn was a very busy person. Ever since declaring herself a member of the city council, she found that people were always trying to schedule appointments, press conferences, interviews, hearings, and the like, and that she now had to be present for most of them. Add this to her militia training, high school, and the three hours she set aside each day for reading, and she rarely ever slept. 

But she liked it that way, and when she waltzed into her office that afternoon and looked at her appointments (written in chalk on the wall by her secretary), she was unfazed by the fact that four appointments had been scheduled at the exact same time. "Geoffery?" said Tamika, sitting in her chair and propping her feet on the desk. Her secretary, Geoferry, clomped in from the next room. Geoffery was a deer who only spoke Russian. Tamika held up a polka-dot sheet of paper, which was the sign for "send them in". 

Tamika surveyed the work on her desk, sipping at her coffee as she did. There was a copy of Neil Gaiman's "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" that she wanted to work on; a time table she had to draw up for the next meeting; minutes left to write from the last meeting; three new applications to join her militia...

Geoffery poked his head back through the door. "Ваша следующая встреча, мисс Флинн," he said. 

"I don't know what that means." Tamika composed her hands as Geoffery pushed open the door for her next appointment. Nilanjana Sikdar, Cecil and Carlos Palmer, and Jackie Fierro stumbled through the door as Geoffery nudged them towards the desk with his antlers. "Hello," Tamika said. "Please take a seat." She gestured to the two chairs in front of her desk. The four visitors looked at each other briefly, and after some "no, you go ahead," and "no, I insist, I prefer standing anyway" Jackie and Cecil sat in the chairs while Nilanjana and Carlos remained standing.

Tamika tilted her feet to the side on the desk. "Have any of you ever read 'Heartless' by Marissa Meyer?"

"No," said all four. 

"It's a great book. It's about a vigilante known as the Queen of Hearts, who kills her victims by cooking pumpkin tarts and cutting off their heads." She smiled. People were often nervous when they came to see her. Tamika assumed this was because she could be fairly intimidating at times. She usually started off appointments by telling people about the "Heartless" book, since cheerful things like that set people at ease. "What can I do for you today?"

All four started talking at once. The scientists and Cecil stopped. "Oh," said Carlos. "Sorry. Go ahead, Jackie."

"Thanks, man." Jackie turned to Tamika. "So, like, all four of us are here by total coincidence. Like, those three came together, but I'm alone. But we were chatting in your waiting room, and it turns out we need the same thing. We all need to go to the library. And we were sort of wondering if you'd come with us, since you're there a lot. We don't want to die." 

Tamika took her feet off the desk. "You want to go to the library?" 

"Well, yes," said Carlos. "We -" he gestured to himself, Nilanjana, and Cecil - "are trying to research victology."

"I don't know what that is."

"Neither do we," said Nilanjana. "But we need to. And every time we try to search it on our phones or computers, the phones cut us. The only alternative research method we can think of is going to the library and trying to look it up there. But none of us have been to the library before."

"I have," said Jackie. 

"Really?"

"Yeah, with Diane. I almost died, though." She gestured to Tamika. "That's why I wanted your help, dude." 

Tamika considered for a moment. In this case, a moment was approximately .05 seconds. "Okay," she said, standing up. "I have many, many appointments today. But I love books. I love any excuse to be among books, breathing in the scent of binding glue and old paper, and I love fighting librarians. I will go to the library with you. Geoffery, cancel my appointments and bring me my running shoes." 

"Oh - are we going right now?" asked Cecil, pushing back his chair. 

"Yes, right now. Come on, I have the keys to the City Council's Subaru." 

 

The Night Vale Public Library was situated on grounds that contained a broken parking lot and walkway, a scraggly yard surrounding the building, and some spindly dead trees near the entrance. Jackie observed the scene apprehensively as Tamika parked the Subaru and ushered them out. "This is scary, man," she said with a low whistle. 

"You do not have time to be scared," said Tamika. "The time you spend being scared is the time that it takes for a librarian to get you." She shoved the trunk open and reached inside. "All of you need to follow me, and only me." She handed a pickax to Nilanjana and a crossbow to Carlos. "Do you know how to use these?"

"No?" said Nilanjana. 

"Well, it's a lot like a science beaker. Only it isn't glass, and it isn't full of liquid. And you can destroy things with it. You can destroy librarians with it." She gave a length of rope to Jackie and a large flashlight to Cecil, then unrolled a map on the trunk. "I drew this map myself with crushed blackberry juice on the back of a torn out page from 'A Farewell to Arms'. The science books are in this section, here." She pressed a fingernail to the back curve of the building. "And Jackie - what is it that you need here?" 

"I need to know, like, what someone would do with a transistor radio and walkie-talkie," said Jackie. "Cause I have to write a report on a sale." 

"Really?" Cecil asked. "I could have just told you that. A transistor radio lets you listen to the radio - like my show, for example. A walkie-talkie lets you fry eggs without a skillet. You don't have to come with us."

"Nah, man." Jackie thumped Cecil on the back in a gesture that was supposed to be friendly but ended up being painful. "I've been in this hellhole before. I'll help you guys out." 

"No more of this," said Tamika, rolling up the map and sticking it into her backpack. "We are entering the library now. If you do exactly as I tell you to, we may be exiting it soon." She rounded the car and strode up to the front door, where she glared up at the sign with her hands on her hips for a moment. Then she waved Nilanjana forward, and together they pushed open the broken automatic doors. 

The inside of the library was dim, with pools of light scattered erratically across the carpeted floors. Tamika pressed a finger to her lips and waved the small group forward. Cecil turned on his flashlight. Carlos and Nilanjana raised their weapons. The shelves they crept past stood at random placements, like soldiers at attention, with the fallen shelves signifying gaps in their ranks. Twice, the little group had to swerve around a pile of books fallen from one of the knocked-over shelves. The walls were adorned with ripped posters - bearing messages such as "Get lost in a good book!" accompanied by a stock photo of a lost child - and long smears of dark red liquid. Poor branding, in Jackie's opinion. She sold stock photos at the pawnshop, and hers were way better.

"Is that blood?" whispered Carlos. 

"Shhh," Tamika hissed. 

They turned down a dark hallway towards the back of the library. Signs creaked above the shelves, proclaiming them to be "Biographies", "Children's Fiction", "Jailbreak Instruction Manuals", and the like. Jackie swept her eyes approvingly over the volumes as she mentally calculated their worth. Some of them looked old, older than her even, and yet all were in good condition. These books had probably not been checked out in a long, long time. She ran a finger along a dusty spine, only to have her wrist snatched a moment later in a firm grip. A flashlight beam shone in her face.

"What the hell, man?" Jackie squinted.

"Do. Not. Touch. Anything," Tamika whispered. She lowered the flashlight beam and turned to face the section ahead. "Through here is the science section. Come on." 

Carlos and Nilanjana seemed unimpressed. "Is this all?" Nilanjana said. "There are only a few shelves."

"Books are not about quantity," replied Tamika. "They're about quality. Now, nobody move too fast, and especially do not step into that patch of sunlight over there." They all gathered in a crouch behind one of the shelves, and Tamika set her backpack on the floor in front of her. From it, she carefully removed a pair of plastic gloves and snapped them on, turning to the books. Carlos let go of Cecil's hand to take the volume Tamika passed to him. 

"Okay," said Carlos, rustling through the index. "Victology, victology, vict - I found it!" He flipped back a few pages, excited. 

Nilanjana's eyes fell onto the patch of sunlight Tamika had mentioned, and that drew her gaze to the books on the shelf. She frowned as she noticed that one of the books was tipped slightly to one side, destroying the symmetry. Why does it have to be asymmetrical?

"Victology is a relatively new field of study," Carlos read in a whisper. A shadow rustled in the corner of their vision, and they all ducked lower behind the shelves. "The study of victology dates back only to 2001, when it was introduced at a national convention by Dr. Martin Kister, of the University of Stanford."

Maybe if I just tilted the book slightly, Nilanjana thought. But Tamika said don't step into the light.

"According to Dr. Kister's lecture notes, the word 'victology' comes from two Latin roots: 'victa', which means 'conquer', and 'ology', which means 'the study of'." 

I wouldn't be stepping into the light. I would just be reaching across it to fix the book. 

"Therefore," continued Carlos, "Victology is the study of conquering. A victologist, by extension, is a conqueror, who uses scientific study to take over." 

"Nilanjana, NO!" Cecil exclaimed, dropping the notebook to grab the scientist's arm. Just as his hand closed on her wrist, Nilanjana reached into the light. They both froze in place. There was a moment of complete, utter silence in which Nilanjana and Cecil's hands rested in the light, unmoving. Then there was an ear-rattling scream, like the terrified cries of many people and the shrieks of predatory birds at the same time. Carlos covered his ears, dropping the book in the process. The shadows in the corner of their vision surged forward, and five black tentacles slithered across the floor towards their shelves. 

"Run!" shouted Tamika. 

Carlos and Jackie scrambled to their feet, fumbling with the weapons Tamika had given them. As they stood to follow Tamika in flight, the librarian appeared suddenly in their path. Its empty black eyes glared them down like the eyes of taxidermy animals, and venomous saliva dripped from its brown teeth, leaving dissolved holes in the carpeted floor. Two of the long tentacles slithered out to where Cecil and Nilanjana were still frozen in the light and seized them both. 

"No!" screamed Carlos, sprinting after the retreating librarian. "Cecil! Nils!"

"CARLOS!" shouted Tamika. "BEHIND YOU!"

Carlos whipped around as another librarian burst through the shelves in a flurry of splinters. It reared up, waving the many tentacles and pincers in the air, and let out a terrible scream as its open mouth hovered above him and Jackie. Carlos felt his back hit the wall, which, like him, was shaking.

"Dude," Jackie whispered. "I really don't want to die today."

The librarian bent over them, intent on making them prey. Carlos and Jackie knelt on the dissolving carpet as the acid rained, and Carlos pushed Jackie behind him, trying with his last moments to extend hers a little longer. Suddenly the librarian screamed and fell forward, knocking over a shelf. A javelin quivered from its spiny back. 

"Next time, use your weapons," said Tamika, pulling out the javelin. "Come on!"

They raced through the library as another librarian burst through the wall in hot pursuit. Tamika turned to dispatch it with the javelin, then kept going without breaking stride. Bubbling acid and splintered pieces of wood rained around them, and torn pages of the books fluttered on the air and crunched under their feet. A smaller librarian lunged at them from behind the children's books. Carlos held up his crossbow and pushed on what he hoped was the trigger. The arrow flew into the librarian's eye, and it screamed as it died. Although it was a monster, and he had killed monsters before, Carlos couldn't help but pity the creature as the cries echoed through the library. It had been alive, and now it was not, and he was to blame for that. 

The screams of humans mixed in with the screams of the librarians. Tamika halted to listen. "It took them to the offices," she determined. "Down that hallway."

"W-why would it bring them there?" Jackie's voice trembled slightly. 

"To eat them," said Tamika matter-of-factly. Then, seeing the horror in their faces, she added, "Don't worry. It hasn't eaten them yet." And then she pulled a sword out of her backpack, even though it was much too long to reasonably fit in there. "And it won't eat them if we are there to save them. Let's go."

They ran down the hall and crashed through the splintered office door. The librarian awaited them at the other end of the hall, with the struggling captives ensnared in its tentacles. Cecil's arms were pinned to his sides like a straitjacket, and Nilanjana hung suspended by her ankle, with her long hair hanging in front of her face. 

"Release them," shouted Tamika in a commanding voice. The librarian considered them with dark, impassive eyes. Tamika strode forward and held up the severed hand on her necklace. "You cannot defeat me," she roared. "I have killed your brethren. I was locked once in this very library, and I escaped. I'm going to escape again, and I'm taking my friends with me. So you can die now, or you can die later." 

The librarian screeched. The tentacles not clutching Cecil and Nilanjana writhed towards Tamika, who shrugged. 

"Die now, I guess," she said, and she pulled up the sword and swung it with all her might. The tentacles sliced off with a sickening squelching sound and a burst of acidic blood. The librarian screamed, lifting Cecil and Nilanjana higher with each wound Tamika inflicted. 

"It's going to drop them," said Jackie, grabbing Carlos's arm. "Dude, that's screwed up. It's going to drop them if she doesn't stop."

"I AM THE OVERSEER OF HUNDREDS," shouted Tamika, stabbing the sword through the librarian's scuttling legs. "I AM THE LEADER OF A MILITIA. I AM THE QUEEN OF WARFARE." 

"We have to kill it before it drops them," said Carlos, hefting the crossbow. He shot it, and by luck the arrow struck the librarian right through one of the blank eyes. It screamed, thrashing about and waving the tentacles. Nilanjana swung past Carlos as it raised her high in the air, then swung her low again like a pendulum. "Grab my hand!" Carlos shouted, reaching for her. Nilanjana reached out, and her fingertips scraped briefly across his, before the librarian threw her in the air again, jerking her hand away. 

"I CANNOT BE DEFEATED!" Tamika stabbed the librarian in the side and dodged the fountain of acid blood. "YOU ARE GOING TO DIE, MISTER LIBRARIAN. I WILL USE YOUR TEETH FOR KITCHEN UTENSILS. I WILL MAKE A KNIFE-HILT FROM YOUR BONES." 

"Tamika, you're just making it more angry!" screamed Nilanjana. "It's going to drop us!" 

"DON'T DROP THEM!" Tamika sliced open the place where the librarian's heart should be. 

The librarian dropped them. 

Cecil and Nilanjana pinwheeled to the ground, screaming and flailing. Jackie dropped her rope, sprinted forward, and caught Cecil in her arms as if he weighed no more than one of the torn pieces of paper all around. Cecil blinked. "Wow," he said. "That was impressive. Thanks, Jackie." 

"No problem, man." Jackie set him down and they ran over to Nilanjana, who had fallen in the corner and hit her head. 

"You're hurt," Carlos was saying, crouching next to her. 

"I'm fine, I'm fine." Nilanjana pressed a hand to her temple and waved her hand. "It's just a bruise. I'm fine." 

The four of them turned to watch as the librarian writhed before Tamika. The councilwoman stood motionless, staring down her foe, with her gore-smeared sword hanging loosely from her hand, point-down in a puddle of blood. Slowly, she strode to the librarian and hefted the sword. "You want to mess with me?" she asked slowly, dangerously. The librarian panted. Its eyes were in all the wrong places, and they stared back at Tamika, cloudy. She glared down at the place where the eyes should be. "You want to hurt my friends?  To hurt me?" she whispered. "I am a woman. How dare you think you can defeat me." And with that she cut off its head. 

The librarian did not scream as it died. Instead, it slumped forward, like a cake melting in the rain. The acid bubbled from its wounds and dribbled over its body, dissolving what remained of it. It bubbled in itself and melted, leaving trails of blood on the carpet as the acid slowly ate through it. 

Tamika turned to the others, her face flushed with triumph, as her enemy slowly melted out of existence behind her. "Let's go," she said. 

 

The five emerged from the library with the sides of their shoes melted by acid, their faces bruised and scorched, and slumped wearily against each other - save for Tamika, who strode confidently ahead of the group. 

"I always feel so refreshed after a visit to the library," she said, stretching her arms in the warmth of the sun. "Killing evil makes me feel so alive." 

"But we almost died," said Cecil. "And we destroyed the librarians, and most of the library."

Tamika shrugged. "Oh, they'll be back. They always come back. And the library is destroyed all the time. I wouldn't worry too much about it."

"Guys," said Jackie, pointing into the distance. "There's smoke."

They all followed her pointing finger with their eyes.

"Uh-oh," said Carlos.

"Did we do that?" asked Nilanjana.

Tamika narrowed her eyes and pulled her sword out again. "Let's go investigate," she said. "Stay alert. It could be librarians playing tricks on our senses."

They followed her out of the parking lot and down Earl Street. The road and sidewalk were crowded with parked cars and confused pedestrians. A few hooded figures sat on the cars, holding compresses to their foreheads, which was odd, as they had neither visible arms nor visible foreheads beneath their hoods. Tamika shoved past Trish Hidge and Michelle Nguyen, saying, "Move, I'm an elected official." Carlos, Cecil, Nilanjana, and Jackie followed her warily. Tamika shoved through the remainder of the crowd and into a circle of secret police. Then she stood still. The other four appeared in the circle a moment later, and then they stood still. Everyone stood still. The sheriff's secret police stood in a circle, and the woman with the camera eyes and the man with the blond hair stood beside them, and they all stood still. The citizens of the town stood still as the smoke clustered in the air. 

The dog park was on fire. 

"What happened?" Nilanjana whispered. 

"What happened?" shouted a voice from behind them. Sheriff Sam strode forward with two of their officers behind them. "What happened is that the dog park is on fire. However, that is not for you to ask questions about. You need to step away from your friends now." They gestured to the officers, who grabbed Nilanjana by her arms and pulled her from where she stood between Jackie and Carlos. 

"Hey! Hey! Let go of me!" Nilanjana shrieked. 

"Sam, what are you doing?" asked Jackie. 

"Sorry, love. This is all business." Sam slammed Nilanjana against a car and clamped handcuffs onto her wrists the way that sheriffs do in movies, or in real life, when people do not deserve it. "Oh, sorry. Did I hurt you, Nilanjana?"

"No," said Nilanjana through gritted teeth, "but I would like to know why  -"

"No more talking!" Sam barked, even though they had just asked a question. They let the officers grasp Nilanjana's arm, and turned to the crowd. "I am the sheriff of Night Vale," they shouted, and then they spray painted "I am the sheriff of Night Vale" on the pavement in cursive. They tossed the bottle of spray paint aside and approached the quivering scientist. Nilanajana stared back at them through the tears that the smoke had brought to her eyes, her tangled hair hanging in front of her face, and she trembled as the exhaustion from the recent battle began to set in. 

"Nilanjana Sikdar," proclaimed Sam. "You are under arrest." 

Chapter Text

Cecil: We live in turbulent times. But through it all, you have my voice, a constant in a world of constant confusion. Welcome... to Night Vale. 

Listeners, today's broadcast is a news report. That is - today's broadcast will be made up only of news reports, as there are many things that made news today. I hardly know where to begin, or what order to report the many events in. I guess a good place to start would be: And now, the news. 

First of all, the Glow Cloud is missing. This report comes from Diane Crayton, who says that a joint school board and PTA meeting was scheduled for today. The Glow Cloud (all hail), was not present,  "and this is odd," said Diane, "Because the Glow Cloud (all hail) has been at every PTA and school board meeting." A few meteorologists looked at their scanners and at the cave drawings which change in real time to match the weather, and they are in agreement with Diane. The Glow Cloud (alllll haaaail) is actually missing. "Like, it's gone," said the meteorologists. "As in, it isn't on our scanners. It's completely gone. It's not in Night Vale anymore." If you see the Glow Cloud (aLl GiVe PraISe tO ThE MigHtY ClOuD), please let this station know. 

In our next piece of news, the Night Vale Public Library has been completely destroyed. I... have to confess that I am partially to blame for this. I entered the library with Councilwoman Tamika Flynn and a few others, who have asked that their names and purpose remain anonymous. In the process we kind of killed the librarians, aaand apparently librarian blood is acidic. And there was... a lot... of blood. It dissolved the floors and then the walls, and the library collapsed. Really sorry about that one, book-lovers. 

And on the subject of destruction, my next news report is that the dog park is on fire. We aren't sure who set the blaze and we aren't sure when it was set, but it was set, and it is still burning. The Night Vale Volunteer Fire Department tried to put it out, but we live in a desert, so to get enough water to put out the fire, they would have to tap into the private residents' water supply. And that is just plain mean. So the fire in the dog park is still going. We don't know who set it, but I have a few guesses...

I shared my opinions as to who probably caused the fire with Sheriff Sam, but they didn't want to listen. "Cessil," they said, "If you want to submit a report, you have to do so in writing, like anyone else."

"But writing utensils are illegal," I reminded them.

Sheriff Sam stared into my eyes.  "Did I bloody stutter?" they asked, and then they led Nilanjana to the cop car. Oh, right.

Our next piece of news on this endlessly newsy day is that Nilanjana Sikdar, a close friend of my husband's and protector of this community, has been arrested. Nilanjana was arrested at the scene of the fire, but she was not arrested for causing the fire, because she did not cause the fire. Nilanjana has been sentenced to a day in jail for breaking a Sheriff's Secret Police camera. Luckily, breaking a camera is not a felony, so Nilanjana will not have this on her permanent record. She'll just have to spend twenty-four hours in isolation behind bars in a Police Station. But she's a very strong woman, so I'm sure she'll be okay. 

I looked at the people standing nearby as the trees behind the walls of the dog park slowly crumbled to ash. The man, that new "scientist", with the terrible blond haircut, was standing there holding the hand of the woman with the flashing camera eyes. The flames reflected in her eyes, and I narrowed my own eyes in anger. In that moment, I was entirely sure that they were the ones who had set the fire. I had... um, I have recently learned some things about them which I am not going to share on the radio until it's confirmed for a fact, but which led me to be suspicious about the two of them and their team. I strode up to them and asked them what they were doing here, and what they wanted from us. The woman stared at me with crossed arms, but the man spoke. And this is what he said.

"I am Dr. Martin Kister, and I am a renowned and respected scientist. Dr. Kayali and I are here to pursue our research and our relationship. Our research does not concern you, nor does it concern your husband, nor does it concern his meddling team, including the woman who was just arrested. You should stop prying into our business and leave us alone. I want you to leave us alone. Dr. Kayali wants you to leave us alone."

I looked at the woman in surprise. Until that moment, I hadn't really looked at her closely. And once I did, I saw that she was the Dr. Sylvia Kayali whom I had met while my husband - then boyfriend - was in the desert otherworld. Her eyes flickered across my face in recognition, and she smiled slightly, but still said nothing. 

"There is something wrong in this town," continued Dr. Kister. "I have lived in many places, and this is not like anything else. I am thus convinced that something is not right here." 

"So what?" I said. "You never lived here before."

"So what?" retorted Dr. Kister. "I still know that it's wrong."

"No, you don't," I snapped, feeling angry and very hot, as the flames from the dog park were raising the temperature around us. "You haven't experienced it. So many people have so many experiences. Take the two of us, for example. Our lives have been so different. So different! Like, I have good hair and you don't. I'm a radio host and you're not. I'm gay and you're not. I've lived in this town my whole life and you haven't. But we're both human! Just because an experience is different than yours doesn't mean it's bad."

Dr. Kister glared at me, and I glared back at him, and the dog park burned around us. And then Carlos came to my side and took my hand. 

"Come on honey, let's go home," he said. I didn't back down. I stood glaring at Dr. Kister, trying to show him with my stance and my gaze that I was not afraid of him. But he didn't back down either. Carlos put his other hand, all warm and calloused, on my shoulder, a little more insistent. "Cecil," he said, and I heard a note of pleading in his caramel voice. "Let's just go home. Please." 

I wavered. Then I turned and went with him to our car. And when I looked in the mirror, Dr. Kister was still staring after us. 

Needless to say, I was more than a little upset by all of this. Also, I was injured from my battle with the librarians. Carlos drove us home, and I might have been crying a little, or maybe a lot, and ranting about the general unfairness of these new interlopers trying to destroy the things I loved and make me feel afraid in my own town, and how it was so unfair that Nilanjana had been arrested and I felt so bad for her. And he didn't say anything. He just held my hand with the one that wasn't on the steering wheel and listened to me. 

So, listeners, if you see these scientists, do not speak to them, and above all else, do not trust them. They do not deserve your trust. I believe they destroyed our machines, and now "The Broken Mug" is the only place in town to get coffee. I believe they took away our Glow Cloud (all hail). I believe that they set fire to the dog park. All of these are estimates, not facts. I cannot confirm them, but I can strongly speculate on them. And I will. And I do. 

But here is what I do know for a fact. I know that this town is strong, and that we care for each other. I know that the sun will probably rise tomorrow, even if it rises at the wrong time. I know Nilanjana will be let out of jail and go home soon. And I know that, whatever the new interlopers say to us, and whatever they say to threaten me, I will still have Carlos. He is my constant in a world of variables. I love him, and he loves me, and that, at least, will never change. 

[papers shuffling]

And... now I've just been handed a report by our station intern. I finally caught her name, by the way. It's H.G.

But wait, this is... this can't be...

[long silence]

H.G. has handed me a press release from the City Council, which categorically states that the new scientists did not commit the crimes in the news, and that stating otherwise is now illegal. Anyone who blames these scientists for literally anything will be taken for re-education. The note also says that this is my final warning. 

Today has been a day of tumult and turbulence in this town, even more than normal. The Glow Cloud, the library, and the dog park have all been destroyed. Nilanjana Sikdar has been arrested. The new scientists are watching me - for totally non-nefarious purposes, I am sure. I am sure. And now questioning them is a crime. Giving voice to the confusion in this world only creates more confusion, it seems. 

So... more on these stories as they develop... I guess. 

Chapter Text

Sheriff Sam appeared in the door of Nilanjana's cell with an enormous iron key and a plastic shopping bag. Nilanjana, slumped against the whitewashed wall, lifted her head and looked back at them through her tangled hair.

"What's going on?" she asked.

"You are being released," Sam replied, turning the key in the lock. Nilanjana unfolded herself and went over to them. Sam handed her the shopping bag. "The agent from the Vague Yet Menacing Government Agency who monitors your apartment sent over a change of shoes for you."

Nilanjana peered into the bag and lifted one sneaker indifferently. "I'd prefer a change of clothes and a toothbrush," she said. When they brought her to the station yesterday, neither of those things had been provided to her. Her mouth felt dry. She didn't want to think about all the bacteria that were probably crawling around on her teeth and tongue. She sat down on the bench in her cell and took off her shoes. "A shower and a good meal would be nice as well." 

"You can have those things when I bring you back to your lab."

"You're not bringing me to my apartment?"

"No. The Vague Yet Menacing Government Agency has decided that the street your apartment is on does not exist for today. I am a good public servant and will not acknowledge its existence by going there. We walk a fine line in my department, Miss Sikdar. The line is precisely half an inch thick and painted dark green."

The scientist shrugged and stood up, slipping her old shoes into the bag. "Fine, let's go."

Sam escorted Nilanjana out of the building and into one of the black Secret Police vans in front of the station. This one was distinguished as the sheriff's car in that it was a dark charcoal rather than a pure black, like the others. Nilanjana mounted into the passenger seat and eyed the monitors filling the inside of the van. 

"Please do not roll down the window," said Sam, buckling into the driver's side. "Please do not touch the monitor. Please do not change the radio. Please do not think at a volume of higher than 300 decibels."

"That doesn't -"

"And we're off!" Sam twisted the key with a flick of their wrist and slammed down on the gas. Nilanjana was thrown back into her seat. She fumbled for the buckle.

"Do all sheriffs drive this recklessly?"

"I wouldn't know," observed Sam. "Do you like this song? It is my personal mixtape."

"I don't hear anything."

Sam sighed happily. "Ah, excellent. It's working." 

They navigated the twisting roads, diving in and out of traffic and through lanes in maneuvers that shouldn't have been legal or scientifically possible. Whenever a driver honked at them, Sam rolled down the tinted window and shouted, "I AM THE SHERIFF OF NIGHT VALE!", which made the other driver shrink in fear. Nilanjana was herself a passive driver, and only ever drove in the company of other passive drivers, such as Carlos. This experience is going into my nightmares, she thought, as Sam slammed on the brakes only an inch behind a purple sedan. 

Finally, they came to a screeching halt across the street from the lab. Nilanjana was about to unbuckle, when suddenly Sam pressed a hand over her arm. 

"Wait," they said, and they pointed out of the window. Nilanjana looked, and saw a red mini-van parked in front of the building. Avery, Dr. Kayali, and Dr. Kister were standing beside the van eyeing the door, just like Nilanjana herself had eyed their door only a few short days ago. "Get down," said Sam. They pushed a button on the monitor, and Nilanjana's seat whisked out from under her, folding up to make a wall between the front and back of the car. Another button deepened the tint on the windows. Sam crouched on the floor by the dashboard and turned up the volume on the secret camera that fed to the monitor. "Say nothing," they commanded Nilanjana. "Just watch."

Nilanjana moved closer, hunching shoulder-to-shoulder with Sam in the cramped space to watch the little screen. The three scientists stepped back from the door as it swung open. A moment later, the man who was tall and slim, as well as the man who was short and fat, emerged with Luisa and Mark pinned by their elbows. The woman with the eyes like a solar eclipse held Carlos by his wrist while he tried to reason with the others. 

"Let go of them!" he was saying. 

"Let go of us!" Luisa shouted. 

"Where's the other woman?" asked Dr. Kayali, ignoring their pleading. "She was the one we came here for to begin with."

"I'm not sure," said the tall man as Mark stomped on his toes. "She may not be back from the police station yet."

"Don't they see our car?" Nilanjana whispered to Sam. 

Sam shook their head. "Those interlopers haven't lived here long enough to know our customs. Night Vale is the only town in America where police cars are actually black vans." 

Nilanjana watched with clenched fists as Luisa started to cry about her experiments. "They can't do this," she said. Anger bubbled in her like a pot of caramel on a stove. "They can't kidnap my team in broad daylight! What do they want?"

"What do you want?" Carlos demanded, wrenching his arm away from the woman's grasp. "If you're trying to steal our experiments -"

"Your experiments?" snorted Dr. Kister with a laugh. He shook his head, with the terrible blond haircut, and then he looked at his team, and they also began to laugh, except for Avery. "Your pitiful experiments are entirely worthless to us, Dr. Palmer. It's not what the experiments are that concerns us. It's who is doing them."

"You've saved this town many times," said Dr. Kayali with a simpering smile. "And unfortunately, you can't be allowed to continue doing that. You should have just stayed away from that library."

"We went to the radio station already, but..." Dr. Kister sighed. "Sadly, we were unable to locate your husband. So far." 

"Oh god," whispered Nilanjana, clamping a hand over her mouth. She felt sick. She had insisted that Cecil come with them to the library. The victologists - the invaders - must have found out what they'd all learned. And since they were clearly planning to take over the town, they were now trying to remove the threats. When she forced herself to look back at the monitor, Carlos was glaring at Kayali and Kister, looking more angry than Nilanjana had ever seen him. 

"You think you can hurt my town," he snapped. "Maybe you can. Maybe you will. But you will not hurt my husband." 

Dr. Kayali lifted an eyebrow. "Oh? And what exactly are you going to do to stop us?"

Carlos looked around helplessly. And then his eyes fell on the police car. A flicker of recognition passed across his face, and Nilanjana saw that he had just put two and two together to realize that she was in the van. Her fingers wrapped around the door handle, and for a moment she wondered if she was brave enough and strong enough to push on that handle and run to save her friends - not even to fight the others, just to take that first step of pushing the handle. The curve of metal hovered smooth and cold under her sweaty grip, taunting her. 

On the monitor, Carlos looked at her. He stared directly at the hidden camera on the van. The monitor crackled with wind and silence as he stared at Nilanjana, as if he were staring right through her, with his big brown eyes full of concern. His eyes said no. His eyes told her to stay put. In his eyes, Nilanjana saw that he was going to give himself up, and in that, give her and Cecil a chance. He didn't look afraid. He just looked sad. Somehow that made her less afraid, and she realized that she did not need to be strong enough or brave enough to open the door. She just needed to be strong enough to save herself. 

And so she let go of the handle. 

"I won't do anything to stop you," said Carlos, turning back to the victologists. "But I also won't do anything to stop you from taking my lab. If you promise to leave Cecil alone, I'll come with you. Willingly."

Dr. Kayali hesitated. 

"You can't take him away anyway," Carlos continued. "He's the Voice of Night Vale. He belongs to this town." 

Kayali and Kister looked at each other. Then they looked at Mark and Luisa, who had stopped struggling and were now watching the exchange with confusion written over their flashing eyes. Kayali whispered something to Kister, and he looked around at his team with his hand on his chin. Then he nodded. 

"Fine," he said. "Get in the van."

Carlos shot one last look at the camera, and Nilanjana felt a few tears run down her face. "Sam, you have to stop this," she said. 

"Unfortunately, I can't," murmured Sam sadly. "City council forbids people from questioning the interloper scientists."

Carlos got in the van. After a moment, Luisa and Mark also got in the van. The rest of the victologists' team went into the lab, leaving Kayali, Kister, and Avery standing outside. Avery frowned. "This seems wrong, Sylvia," she said to Kayali. "You used to work with that man. You know him."

"Yes," said Sylvia Kayali. "And I know he is a threat." She rounded the van and hopped neatly into the passenger seat. 

"Martin," said Avery, crossing her arms. "Please. Surely you must see the foolishness in -"

"In eliminating a threat?" queried Dr. Kister. 

"In kidnapping a team of scientists in broad daylight."

Dr. Kister just shrugged. Somehow, that was worse than a long answer. "Help the others investigate," he said, indicating the lab. "And then try to find Nilanjana Sikdar." He got into the van and drove away, taking Nilanjana's team with him. 

Avery stood for a moment on the sidewalk, with her dress rippling from the wind created by the van. Then she sighed and went into the lab, and she closed the door behind her. Dust rolled over the street, noiseless and empty. 

Nilanjana and Sam sat in silence for a while, staring at the monitor that showed the place where people had stood a moment ago, people who were no longer standing in that place. Nilanjana slumped against the wall of the van as her body shook with silent sobs. Slowly, Sam turned all of the dials and buttons back to where they had been, and the seats unfolded and slid back into place. They clicked off the monitor. 

"We're going to Mayor Cardinal," they said. 

Nilanjana didn't object. She didn't say anything. She just watched the blank monitor as the car slowly pulled out onto the dusty road.

 

Mayor Dana Cardinal was seated at her desk, flanked by Tamika Flynn and Pamela Winchell. The three women looked up in unison as Nilanjana and Sam came in. Nilanjana rushed to the desk. "Mayor Cardinal," she said, desperation in her voice. "The new scientists -"

"I saw," said Dana grimly. She gestured to a chair. "Please, Nilanjana, sit down." 

"We all saw," said Pamela, gesturing to a screen mounted on Dana's desk. "We were watching live through the secret police feed."

"The city council saw as well," added Tamika, gesturing to a sheet of paper on Dana's desk. "They sent me over with a prepared statement." 

Nilanjana blinked. Her throat felt dry and heavy, as if there were a weight hanging in the back of it. Her voice was a rasp of barely-controlled panic. "Are you going to go after them?"

"After who?" asked Pamela. "The scientists? No. We can't."

"It's tricky," said Tamika, rubbing her temples. "I'm a member of city council. The rest of city council decided, without me, that questioning the victologists is illegal. We can't acknowledge what they did."

"But everyone saw it!" Nilanjana banged her fists onto the desk. "You can't deny what everyone saw!"

"Oh, pish-posh," said Sam, waving the notion away. "People deny the truth all the time. It's called news."

Dana laid a sympathetic hand over Nilanjana's shaking hand. "I understand how you feel," she said. "I am also feeling bad about this. Carlos is my friend. All we have to do is wait for me to figure things out with the city council. For now, we need to focus on a different concern."

"It's obvious from the monitor's feed that the scientists are looking for you," explained Tamika. "We can't question their motives, but we can protect you. And we will protect you. I'm going to escort you out of this building after the press conference. And trust me, no one's going to mess with you if I'm there." 

"Wait - press conference?" Nilanjana turned to Pamela. "You're holding a press conference? When?"

"Right now." Pamela gestured for Nilanjana to step out of sight, then turned to the large window and thrust it open. Nilanjana retreated to the back of the office and stood out of the square of sunlight thrown from the open window. 

"PEOPLE OF NIGHT VALE," proclaimed Pamela from the open window, to whatever news personnel were standing below. Dana swiveled the desk monitor around so Nilanjana could see the amassed press. One was a young woman with a blond bob and purple shirt, with a name tag declaring her to be "Intern H.G.". The sight of her reminded Nilanjana of Cecil, whom the scientists had tried to kidnap, and who had no idea that Carlos had been kidnapped instead.

"I AM SURE A LOT OF YOU ARE CONFUSED," shouted Pamela. "NOT CONFUSED ABOUT THE GENERAL CONFUSION OF LIFE, BUT CONFUSED BY A SPECIFIC EVENT THAT TRANSPIRED EARLY TODAY."

Tamika, Dana, and Sam joined Pamela at the window. Nilanjana huddled, watching the screen. 

"MORE SPECIFICALLY," Pamela continued, "THIS EVENT THAT TOTALLY DID NOT INVOLVE A NEW GROUP OF SCIENTISTS IN OUR TOWN." 

"THE CITY COUNCIL HAS ASKED ME TO STATE," shouted Tamika, "THAT QUESTIONING THE SCIENTISTS IS AGAINST THE LAW."

The broadcast of the press conference was sent to every home in Night Vale, flickering on television screens and on walls, in the cases of homes that still didn't have television screens after the riots of the Faceless Old Woman. Janice Palmer watched with folded arms as the broadcast suddenly filled the projector in her Algebra class. At home, her father, Steve Carlsberg, watched as the broadcast replaced the sports he had been enjoying. 

"THE CITY COUNCIL HAS ASKED ME TO REMIND YOU," Tamika roared over the snapping of cameras, "THAT THESE SCIENTISTS ARE NOT A DANGER TO US."

Jackie Fierro, still bruised from the encounter with the librarians, rolled her eyes and flipped off the small tv in her pawnshop, which, although not plugged in, was playing the broadcast. 

"THAT THESE SCIENTISTS ARE NOT A DANGER TO YOUR FAMILY."

Earl Harlan, sitting in his living room by the television, glanced at his son, who watched the broadcast as if frozen by it. He drew an arm around him in a comforting, fatherly sort of way, but Roger did not seem to notice.

"THAT THESE SCIENTISTS ARE NOT A DANGER TO THE OTHER SCIENTISTS IN THIS TOWN." 

The biologists and the botanists, enjoying their joint luncheon, stopped enjoying and set down their forks. They cast confused glances at each other as Pamela Winchell's face filled the screen. 

"THE INCIDENTS THAT TOOK PLACE EARLY TODAY ARE CONFUSING," shouted Pamela. "TAXES ARE CONFUSING. LAWS ARE CONFUSING. LIFE IN GENERAL IS CONFUSING. BUT WITHIN THAT CONFUSION, YOU MUST FIND A PLACE WHERE YOU CAN BE UNDERSTANDING." She turned to Sheriff Sam. "OUR SHERIFF WILL SHOW YOU THE VIDEO FOOTAGE WHICH THEY COLLECTED EARLIER TODAY."

Cecil Palmer, huddled in his barricade at the back of the radio station, watched the broadcast on his phone. He watched as the victologists surrounded the lab and pulled Carlos, Mark, and Luisa out of the building. He watched as they argued, and as Carlos seemed to make some kind of deal. The video's sound was turned off, but he, along with the rest of the town, watched as Carlos's mouth formed Cecil's own name. The wind stirred Carlos's beautiful hair, and his lab coat, and sent the dust swirling at his feet in the dance of a gust. Cecil watched as Carlos got into the van, though at that point it was hard to see, since the screen of his phone was suddenly very very wet. 

The entire town saw that the scientists were responsible for the disappearance of Mark, Luisa, and Carlos. 

"AS YOU CAN SEE," continued Pamela, "THE SCIENTISTS ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DISAPPEARANCE OF MARK, LUISA, AND CARLOS. TO SAY OR THINK OTHERWISE IS A CRIME." 

"THE CITY COUNCIL REQUESTS THAT YOU GO ABOUT YOUR DAY LIKE NONE OF THIS EVER HAPPENED," thundered Tamika. 

"Thank you for your time," said Dana. "That's all for now. Bye." She stepped back, closed the window, and drew the curtains. "That was exhausting," she said. "I don't know how you do that, Pamela. I barely had to say anything and I'm exhausted. Why don't we all go downstairs and get coffee?"

"Excellent idea," replied Sam. 

"That's it?" said Nilanjana. "You're just going to leave it at that? They took my friends! Carlos and Luisa and Mark could be hurt, they could even be dead!" 

"City council orders that you don't question them," Tamika reminded her. "I'm sorry. But that's how it is."

"But why?" Nilanjana almost shouted, gesturing wildly at everything and nothing as her brain ran in circles. "There's no logic. Why would the council just let them take over? They've invaded!"

Tamika shook her head with what looked like pity. "No," she said. She looked at Nilanjana the way people look at broken kitchen appliances. 

Nilanjana sputtered, her face flushed with anger. "What do you mean, no?"

"I mean, no," Tamika replied gently. "City council didn't let them take over. Didn't I tell you this? I thought I told you while we were at the library. The new scientists are victologists. Now we know that that means conquerors. But they aren't conquering against our will. City council invited them here." 

Chapter Text

"H.G., I can't see," Ryan hissed to his fellow intern. 

"Shh!" H.G. wriggled closer to the side of the roof and lifted the binoculars to her eyes. She tapped "they'll hear you!!!" in morse code and glared at Ryan. Ryan pantomimed zipping his lips and tossing away the key. H.G. rolled her eyes and glanced into the binoculars again. 

The two interns lay on the roof of the building next to the victologists' lab, spying through binoculars. A day had passed since the kidnapping of Carlos, Luisa, and Mark. Cecil had not been seen since his last broadcast, leaving H.G. and Ryan to cover for him. H.G. had taken the initiative to drive out here, sparked by the idea that perhaps Carlos was being held at the actual lab. Now she trained her binoculars down to the window and clicked her pen over her notebook. "There!" she whispered, breaking her own rule on not speaking. She gestured to the building, where a shadow passed behind one of the windows. "Let's see... tall with green hair and a long dress-"

"Isn't her name Avery?" 

"Je ne comprends pas."

"I don't speak French."

"Neither do I, really." H.G. wiggled closer to the side of the roof. "Can you see anything else? Maybe they're keeping Carlos in their basement." 

"Why would they keep him in Night Vale?" Ryan pointed out. "I mean, if I went to all the trouble of kidnapping someone, I would take them out of the town at least. Besides -" He flipped his phone around so H.G. could see it. "I took this from a secret police monitor." 

"Ryan, that's illegal!" exclaimed H.G., taking the phone from him. The screen displayed a short video clip of a red van hurtling past the city limits. "Yes, that must be them. Red vans are an omen for death, so no sane person around here drives one. Other than these guys." 

Ryan took his phone back. "Here, maybe I can hack into the microphone."

"What microphone?" 

"The one that the secret police use to monitor the buildings."

"Considering that these scientists are evil geniuses, I'm assuming they disabled it." 

"Right, but they might not have disabled the one on this building. So if they have a window open somewhere, and if I increase the frequency - yes!" He looked over at H.G., triumphant. "You never learned how to do this?"

H.G. shrugged. "I'm not big into math. I only got a 500 on the math portion of the SAT." 

"Well, this isn't really ma -"

"Shhh!" H.G. held the phone against her ear and pointed the binoculars to the building with her other hand. 

"-not sure when they'll be back," a voice was saying. "Besides, Holt, aren't you supposed to be in charge of our timetables?"

"Kidnapping the scientists wasn't part of the plan," replied Holt. "It threw our whole timetable off. Besides, we don't know how long it takes to get to Desert Bluffs -"

"So what's the good in asking me?" retorted the first voice. After a moment, they continued, "That's what I thought. So why don't you just do something useful, like pack?" H.G.'s hand moved furiously over the page as she scribbled down notes to what the scientists were saying. 

"I will, in a moment," said Holt. "But I've just realized that there are two interns on the roof of the building next to us, and they're listening to everything we say. 

H.G. and Ryan shot horrified glances at each other and scrambled to their feet, notebooks and pencils clattering from their hands. A moment later, the upstairs window to the lab was thrust open by a tall, thin man with angry eyes. He lifted a flare gun to his shoulder and squinted into the sight. "Say goodbye."

"Guns don't kill people!" H.G. shouted, panicking. "People kill guns! Die!"

And, because people do kill guns, the gun died by crumpling into a fold of useless metal. Unfortunately, the man was able to pull the trigger before that happened. H.G. sprinted to the end of the roof and leapt to another building, shaken but unharmed. But the flare tore through the notebook that her fellow intern held up to protect himself; and while guns don't kill people, the things shot out of them certainly will. The paper shredded and the flare struck home, and that was the end of Intern Ryan. 

 

Across town, unaware of the tragic events that had just taken place but acutely aware of the tragic events always taking place, Maureen and Michelle stood on the front step of the Palmers' house, holding tupperware containers of baked ziti. "Should I knock or ring the doorbell?" asked Maureen. 

"Ugh, both of those are so mainstream," Michelle scoffed. 

"Right? But I think I should pick one anyway. Um." Maureen considered the door for a moment, then knocked twice. No response came. Because human beings are desperate for instant gratification and need to take out frustration when they cannot have it, Maureen knocked again, petulantly, and kept knocking until the door flew open to reveal a red-eyed and angry Cecil Palmer.

"What do you want?" he snapped. He was dressed more plainly than Michelle had ever seen. No glitter, no capes, no neon-green berets or geometric high tops or flower crowns. Just a pair of jeans and plain purple t-shirt. And a bottle of wine that swung from his fingertips, clinking against his chipped nail polish. He looked concerned. No, not concerned. Just so, so tired.

Maureen and Michelle both retreated an inch, literally and figuratively taken aback. "....Hi," said Michelle after a minute. "Cecil, are- are you okay? You don't look great." 

"Of course I'm not okay," said Cecil sharply. "My husband was kidnapped and I am devastated and vaguely intoxicated." 

"Oh...kay," said Maureen. "Um. We brought you food." She held up the tupperware like a peace offering. "We figured you wouldn't want to cook for yourself."

"Maureen is a very good cook," added Michelle. "I even helped a little bit. Not a lot. Cooking is mainstream." She peered past Cecil into the dark of the house. "Can... can we come in?" 

Cecil stared at them vacantly for a moment. Then he sighed and spun around in a motion that sent the bottle swinging dangerously and thrust the door open further. "Fine, come in, I guess." 

Michelle had never been in Cecil and Carlos's house before, but as she toed off her shoes in the entryway, she glanced around and wondered what she had expected. Aside from the vibrant wall colors and the word "SCIENCE!" spray painted over the front door amidst a mural of flowers, it looked just like every other house she'd been to in Night Vale. In the rooms Cecil led them through, she note pictures hanging on the walls, faux hardwood floors leading to a carpeted living room, a drawer in the kitchen marked "caution! Hot milk inside!" - nothing out of the ordinary. The only slight abnormality was the fact that the whole place was a mess, with dirty dishes in the sink, books and pieces of paper strewn across the surfaces, and empty bottles clustered by chairs. Cecil dropped into an armchair and gestured vaguely to the couch for Maureen and Michelle. The two women delicately moved the bottles that had been left there and took a seat. Cecil looked at them from behind the hand pressed to his forehead. 

"Can I help you?" he asked eventually.

"Oh, no," said Maureen quickly.

"We just wanted to see how you were doing," said Michelle.

"Oh, I've never been better," replied Cecil, voice dripping with sarcasm and venom. "I'm fantastic, losing my husband for the second time in three years, useless and unable to even question the people who took him." 

Oh, right. Carlos had previously been trapped in the desert otherworld, and the year the two had spent apart had been difficult for both of them. Cecil had mentioned it in nearly every broadcast. Michelle wasn't sure how to respond. She glanced around the dim room for something to change the subject. "Maybe you should turn a light on," she offered

Cecil followed her gaze to the living room light and glowered. "Yes. Fluorescent lighting, when the light of my life is gone."

And then he pressed his face into his hands abruptly and started to sob. 

"Cecil..." Michelle got off the couch and wandered hesitantly over the radio host. After a moment, she patted his trembling shoulder awkwardly. "I'm really sorry this happened." She looked back at her girlfriend, who seemed equally bewildered. "But, um, Maureen and I, we're totally here for you. Whenever you need us to be. We're always a call away." 

"Right," said Maureen. "What she said." 

Cecil lifted his blotchy face from his hands. "I just feel so lost," he choked out as tears soaked his eyes. 

"I get it." Michelle dropped into the couch again, holding his gaze. "I really do, Cecil. I totally get it. But let me share with you a lesson that I learned from listening to The Crickats. Their music is great, and it's not at all mainstream, and like their best song says, we're all lost. But we're all lost together. And we can find each other on our journeys of lost-ness, and then we're not lost all alone."

"They're a great band," offered Maureen meekly. 

Cecil nodded and said nothing, just twisted his wedding ring and stared at the floor and said nothing. 

"Also, I got a text from Intern H.G.," said Maureen. "She and Ryan have been covering your show, and I offered to do a segment tonight. Dana's doing it tomorrow - you know, showing what former interns have made of ourselves kind of thing. So you don't have to worry about that." 

Cecil said nothing again. But then he nodded slowly. "That's nice of you all." There was no expression in his deep voice, no inflection to convey a mood. Maureen pulled a pack of tissues from her purse and offered it to him, and after a moment he took it and dabbed his red eyes. "Sorry," he sniffed, his voice cracking on the word.

"You don't have to apologize," said Maureen and Michelle together. Another moment of awkward silence hung in the air, which was then interrupted by a knock at the front door. All three turned to look in that direction as the knocking grew more persistent. "I've got it," said Maureen, climbing to her feet. Michelle and Cecil sat alone for about thirty seconds, while Cecil twisted his ring and Michelle chewed on her lip.

"Thank you for the food," said Cecil at length, with visible effort.

"It's no problem," she replied quietly. 

"I really appreciate it-"

"Hey, Cecil, how are you doing?"

Cecil and Michelle both looked up to see Steve Carslberg loping across the living room. 

"Hello, Steve Carlsberg," said Cecil. He took a swig from the bottle at his side and made no motion to stand. Steve Carslberg stood uncomfortably by the armchair with Maureen behind him.

"I'm so, so sorry about this." Steve dabbed his eyes on his sleeve. "I just had to come over and see you as soon as I could. I just thought maybe yesterday wouldn't be a good time... can I give you a hug?" 

Cecil hesitated, then unfolded himself from the chair. Steve hugged him with shaking shoulders, sobbing "this town is so empty without Carlos". He let go, and Cecil quickly sat down again. 

"Abby wanted to be here, but she had a meeting at work. She sends her love, though. Janice is on her way, but she wanted to stop and get something for you first. Isn't she so grown up? Drives, and has a job, and everything!" Steve dabbed his eyes again. "Oh! That reminds me - my silly forgetful brain - I brought you a casserole. I also brought you scones. Nothing for hard times like Steve Carlsberg's famous scones!" He laughed shakily and turned to Maureen and Michelle. "Say, Michelle, Maureen, have you ever been given a taste of my famous scones?" 

"Uhhh..."

Fortunately, another knock sounded at that moment, and both Maureen and Michelle went to answer, scuttling away from the mention of famous scones. 

Earl Harlan stood at the door, balancing two huge containers of food in his arms. He frowned in confusion when Maureen and Michelle opened the door. "Have I come to the wrong house?"

"Nope," said Michelle. "We just beat you to it." She pushed the door open the rest of the way. "Cecil and Steve are in the living room."

"Steve Carslberg is here?" Earl marveled. "Times are changing." He dropped the containers in the kitchen and went to the living room, where he gave Cecil a handshake and ducked the hug that Steve Carlsberg tried to give him. "Hi, Cecil," he said, taking the other armchair. "Roger's staying with friends, so I decided to drop by and check on you. I made some food for you. Vegan hamburgers, gluten-free fruit salad - you know, comfort food."

"Thanks, Earl," Cecil mumbled. "That's... that's so considerate."

"Well, it's no trouble for my childhood best -" Another knock sounded on the door, and Earl stopped. "Oh. Should I get that?"

"I got it," Maureen grumbled. "I'm the official door person, apparently." 

She returned with Janice Palmer, who brought a huge bouquet of flowers, and had Tamika Flynn in tow. "Uncle Cecil," said Janice.

"Mr. Palmer," added Tamika.

"We weren't sure what to do, so we pooled our money to buy you these." Janice held out the bouquet to Cecil. "Because I know these are Uncle Carlos's favorite flowers."

Cecil nodded. "...Thanks, Janice...Tamika... that's really sweet."

Before the two teenagers could get settled, Maureen was off again to answer another knock, and came back with mayor Dana Cardinal, who gave Cecil a tight hug and a friendly kiss on the cheek. A moment after that, there was a heavenly peal of thunder, and a blinding flash of light revealed two of the Erikas, who explained that they had been practicing appearing and disappearing, and gave Cecil a tin of corn muffins. The counter of Cecil's kitchen was clustered with tupperware, Pyrex, and metal containers, as well as a jug of punch with a sticky note that said "XOXOXO - Faceless Old Woman", which none of them had seen arrive. The living room crowded with people and angels.

And then Sheriff Sam came, and then Jackie Fierro. Sam held a carved wooden vase in one hand and Jackie Fierro's hand in the other, bursting with apologies and tears, until finally Cecil told them that he didn't blame them for what had happened. Sam gave the vase to Cecil, and Janice placed the bouquet of flowers inside. She set it on the bookshelf, where the flowers clashed horribly with the wall color, and were beautiful. 

There was another knock on the door, but before Maureen could go to answer it, it burst open and Nilanjana strode into the living room a moment later. She pulled Cecil into her arms and hugged him for a long, long time.

"I'm sorry I couldn't be here sooner," she said. Her voice was like a heavy, waterlogged blanket. "I had to be careful so they wouldn't find me too. I'm sorry I couldn't stop the invaders, I..." She pressed her face against Cecil's shoulder while tears rolled down her face. "I'm sorry I couldn't save him," she whispered. "Please, please forgive me." 

Cecil had stood motionless through this whole exchange, but after a moment, he drew his arms up around Nilanjana and hugged her back. "I don't need to forgive you," he said. "It wasn't your fault." 

Nilanjana nodded. 

"I just... I just want him to come home safely," Cecil wept. "I want him, and Mark, and Luisa, just to be okay." 

"They will be," said Dana in her reassuring voice. She stepped past the others and hugged Cecil. "I am the mayor of Night Vale, and I always keep my promises. We will get them back safely."

"I'll talk to City Council," said Tamika, joining the hug. "I'll see what I can do. Those scientists will be no match for my teen militia."

"No one ever is," added Janice, wheeling her chair over to hug Cecil as well. The Erikas came up behind her and promised Cecil they'd give him their angelic protection as they enfolded the group with their wings. 

One by one, the family and friends of Night Vale's voice gathered in the center of the living room, embracing him and each other as all of them cried - some a little, some a lot. The truth of tears is that they are necessary in times of sorrow. Sometimes they are necessary even when there is no sorrow - just as a reminder, through physical emotion and salty liquid, that we are human and can experience experiences with an acuteness that many other species are denied.

We are creatures of distance and familiarity. We stay distant from that with which we are not familiar. Loss, however, is familiar to us; and when we feel that, we close the distance between those we consider as family, as some of the citizens of Night Vale now drew close to their Voice and friend. Words are not needed in these times to convey what is felt, and they were not needed then. Cecil wept against the shoulder of Nilanjana's lab coat, and Dana laid her hand on his shoulder, and they all stayed still like that, saying nothing and feeling everything, and a little bit of nothing as well. 

Finally, awkwardly, and inevitably, the group broke apart. They stood in silence for a moment. Cecil looked around at the group as Nilanjana looped her arm over his shoulder and brushed away the few tears left on his face. "Will you all, um... will you stay for dinner?"

Everyone nodded. 

"Oh gee," said Steve. "How about I break out my casserole! Should be enough for us all. Are any of you vegetarian?"

"I'm vegetarian," said Nilanjana. 

"Then you're in luck! You'll just love this casserole. Steve Carslberg's famous vegetarian casserole, people call it!" He chuckled as he went off to the kitchen. 

"No one calls it that," muttered Janice. 

A few people laughed, and Cecil managed a weak smile. 

"Have any of you seen the new season of Project Runway?" whispered the Faceless Old Woman from the shadows. "It is exceptional. It's also streaming on Hulu. You have Hulu, right Cecil? Not like you, Earl. You do not have Hulu or Netflix, just cable. How many people in 2018 still watch cable, Earl? This is why I disassembled your television."

"Wait, what?" said Earl. 

"I haven't seen Project Runway," offered Dana as Earl searched for the Faceless Old Woman in bewilderment. 

"Nor I," added Sam.

"Yeah, me neither," chimed Michelle and Maureen in unison. 

"Cecil?" asked Jackie. She knew from Cecil's radio broadcasts that he watched a lot of reality TV, usually with Carlos. 

Cecil shook his head. "I guess... I guess let's check it out."

He sat on the couch between Nilanjana and Dana, and Janice rolled her chair up to the side. Sam and Jackie sat in one of the armchairs with Sam on Jackie's lap, and after a moment of groaning over how mainstream PDA was, Michelle and Maureen climbed into the other armchair in the same pose. Erika and Erika stood in the back of the room so their wings wouldn't block the screen. Earl dragged in a chair from the kitchen and helped Steve Carlsberg carry all the plates of casserole; and after distributing these, Steve sat on the floor by Tamika Flynn, who snatched the remote. The Faceless Old Woman extended an arm from the shadows to pluck the plate Steve held up to her, and then perched on the ceiling. 

Tamika flipped over to Hulu and turned on the new season. The fourteen of them sat or stood in the living room and ate the vegetarian casserole, which was enormously better than any of them had been expecting. Low murmured opinions sounded on which designer was the best at sewing, and which was the best at destroying the garments they created. Tamika Flynn imitated one of the judges so perfectly that Steve Carlsberg snorted water onto the carpet. Jackie and Earl got into a rowdy debate over whether taffeta or silk was better, only to realize neither of them knew anything about fabric. Michelle laid her head on Maureen's shoulder, and they were beautiful. The Erikas sent a glow dancing over the room, bathing the others in light and warmth. 

They all sat in Cecil's living room eating good, home-made food, and gazing at a screen in unison, as night deepened outside the window. The chatter of each others' voices rose and fell in gentle murmurs and quiet laughter. And, while that did not change the fact that Carlos, Luisa, and Mark were gone or in any way compensate for their presence, it was something.

And that something was good. 

Chapter Text

The next day, City Council declared Nilanjana Sikdar to be a fugitive, and proclaimed that anyone housing her was committing a crime. 

"Also, the new scientists booked hotels for us in Switzerland, which was really nice of them," stated the press release, which Intern H.G. read to a bewildered public over the late-night radio. "You should not be afraid of them at all. Afraid? Don't be. Confused? You should be. Alive? You soon won't be. Hotel? Trivago."

The proclamation did not drive Nilanjana from town, however, and it also did not stop her from the work she had appointed to herself - namely, spying on the invaders at all hours of the day and twice breaking in to their lab to see if her friends were being hidden there. It also did not stop the person housing her from committing that crime. 

"I break laws all the time," said Cecil the morning after the release was read, waving away the notion with the steam above his coffee mug. He glanced around, then leaned forward and whispered, "I stash pens under my mattress."

Nilanjana arched an eyebrow. "Everyone does that."

"I know." Cecil plopped another unholy amount of sugar into the dark liquid energy within his mug. "But it's still a crime, and I still did it." 

The two of them sat in Cecil's kitchen, on opposite sides of a table still covered in the uneaten meals left by sympathetic friends and family. Nilanjana had been staying the past two nights in the guest room, which Cecil explained he had been planning to turn into a home broadcast station, but hadn't gotten around to converting yet, leaving plenty of room for her to store the few possessions she had on her person at the time of her arrest, and to lie awake crying and pretending to sleep at night.

"Have you committed any other crimes?" asked Nilanjana as she scooped another serving of microwave hash browns onto her plate. 

"Let me think." Cecil glanced down at the coffee in his mug. "Well, I broke at least five traffic laws driving over to the shop to buy this. And then I poured it out of the paper cup and into this mug, and you're not really supposed to do that. Oh, and I ate at the wheat and wheat by-proudct speakeasy once. Or maybe twice. Alright, five times. What can I say." Cecil sipped the coffee bitterly, and the steam coiling in the air misted his glasses. He sighed and cupped his cheek in one palm, gazing absently at the dishes floating above the rack, a special rack that nullified gravity so dishes wouldn't fall to the floor and break. "I don't know. What about you?"

Nilanjana just shrugged. "I spied on the invaders yesterday, and I wrote questions about them in my notebook. That's a drastic crime these days."

"Oh, that's really dangerous. You shouldn't do that. Did you learn anything?"

"I don't think so. I documented everything I know about them. It seems like Dr. Kayali and Dr. Kister are in charge, while Holt Murray, the short man, and the woman with the eyes like an eclipse, are their underlings." 

"And Avery?"

"Avery takes orders, but I don't think that he's actually as much of an underling as the others per se. She was upset when they took Carlos away the other day. But when I spied on the scientists yesterday, he was filing the threat cards on the wall, so I'm not sure."

Cecil frowned at this, adding another worry line to the ones already present on his forehead. Nilanjana hadn't seen him smile in days. "Threat cards?"

"Yes. They have photos of Night Vale citizens hanging on the wall on their lab, and they have a card above the photo labelling how much of a threat they think us to be. Carlos was Low Threat. Mark and Luisa were both Medium Threat. You and I were High Threat."

"Threat to what?"

"To them, I guess?" Nilanjana shrugged and took another bite of the hash browns.

"Huh." Cecil lifted a shoulder noncomittaly and then dropped it again. "I am slightly terrified, but also slightly flattered," he said, and knocked back the rest of his coffee. 

"So, do you think you'll go back to the station today?" asked Nilanjana, dabbing her mouth with a napkin. "Or, if not, you could come with me to spy on the invaders."

Cecil sighed. "No," he said. "No, and I'd rather you not do that. I don't want the town's only remaining scientist captured. But anyway, I'm just going to stay here. Writing out petitions to the City Council that I'll never send, for fear of getting in trouble for using pens. Wondering if I'll ever see my husband again. Drinking and crying and feeling sorry for myself." 

"You seem to be okay right now."

"That's because I'm half-asleep and mildly hung over. Can I ask you something?"

Nilanjana blinked in surprise. "Um, yes, sure."

"Why did you become a scientist?"

"Why did I become a scientist." Nilanjana rubbed her chin and considered for a moment. "I guess... I guess because I was so fascinated by things. A lot of the time, I wanted to explore concepts that I didn't even understand. I wanted to develop understanding of them. And science let me do that." 

"Concepts like what?"

"Like..." Nilanjana shook her head and pondered, then laughed slightly. "For a while, I had a theory that oxygen was poisonous." She chuckled. "Silly, I know, but that's what I thought. I thought that maybe oxygen wasn't what kept us alive, but what killed us. Maybe it just took longer than, say, disease, or wounds, or other causes of death. Maybe it just takes eighty to ninety years to kill us."

"It's not oxygen that does that," replied Cecil decisively. "It's life." He tossed his plate into the zero-gravity section above the counter and took a bottle of wine out of the fridge. "See you later," he called over his shoulder as he vanished down the hall. Nilanjana sat alone, contemplating the floating plate, and did not eat the rest of her hash browns. 

 

She drove to the lab in her new car, the one she had bought from the Erikas, who, in the vast expanse of wealth they possessed via Strexcorp, had purchased the car lot which they lived near. Although Nilanjana was aware that buying a new car would not be enough to disguise her identity from the invaders who wished her harm, she decided that if she was driving over there, it was a reasonable precaution. 

The radio played a buzzing static that she didn't have the heart to turn off. Usually, the mid-morning broadcast would be well underway by now, replaying segments of Cecil's show from the night before, mixed in with the morning reporter reading the news, regular samples of inhuman screaming, and City-Council approved sounds such as "bike horn", "clinking silverware", and "viscera oozing along marble floors." But, for whatever reason, these broadcasts no longer filled the early hours of the day. Now the city had to content itself with pop music stations, or else silence. Nilanjana chose silence.

She circled to the back of a geology lab and parked behind their dumpster. This building was a few blocks away from the invaders' lab, which made her feel slightly, though not entirely, less concerned about being spotted. She climbed onto the fire escape beside the dumpster and ascended to the roof, where she peered down at the invader's lab through the binoculars she wore around her neck. Although she couldn't know it, Interns H.G. and Ryan had done the same thing just a few days before. 

"Huh," she whispered to herself. The lab's lights were all out, and the van was missing. In fact, it looked completely abandoned. She turned the binoculars to the windows and could see nothing through them. 

Aware that what she was doing was probably very dangerous, Nilanjana climbed back down the ladder and crept through the alleys towards the lab. She hesitated by the back door, then slowly reached out and tested the knob. The door was unlocked. 

This is probably a trap.  I need to be logical. If I go in through this door, they'll probably all be waiting on the other side.

So instead of opening the door, she rounded the building and opened one of the side windows, which was also not locked. The window was a tight fit, but she managed to squeeze through, rolling clumsily across the floor on the other side. She staggered to her feet and looked from side to side cautiously. No one was in sight. Instead, she was in a side room, containing several crates of science equipment that she recognized as being what she had seen on her first visit to this lab with Mark and Luisa. Evidently, none of it was actually being used. Nilanjana opened the door of the room and crept quietly to the other side. 

She found herself in the main lab, which was cast in near-total darkness, and also devoid of human life. A fan had been left plugged in on the wall, and several cardboard boxes sat slumped beside the door. It seemed that the invaders were in the middle of moving the equipment out of their lab, and that they would be returning soon. 

Nilanjana turned on the flashlight of her phone and glanced around, feeling the dull thud of her heart against her ribs. One of the room's walls was bare, with a few strips of tape still clinging to it, but the rest still held the maps, photos, and lines that Nilanjana had seen on her first visit. It felt like another life now. She crept to the one wall that had first so horrified her all those days ago. Her face was still there, staring out at her from under the words "High Threat". With her fingernail, she traced the line leading from her picture to the picture of Carlos. 

His information sheet had a large red "X" stamped over it. The label above had been changed, so that it now read, "Threat Eliminated". She followed the lines to Mark and Luisa's pictures, and saw the Threat Eliminated label there as well.

Nilanjana bowed her head, forehead pressing to the wall as silent tears welled in her eyes. Threat eliminated. Carlos, Mark, and Luisa were eliminated. That meant they were likely dead. And she hadn't been able to save them. 

What am I going to tell Cecil? 

A distant rumbling sounded from outside of the building, trembling the earth beneath her feet. Nilanjana lifted her head, gulping back the sobs building in her throat as tears traced down her cheeks. The ground trembled again, and in the distance, she heard a mechanical whirring. No, not the distance, she realized. The whirring was coming from the center of the very room she stood in. 

Sniffling and wiping at her damp cheeks, Nilanjana staggered to the middle of the room and lifted her flashlight beam. There, seated on a small table, was a machine that Carlos had invented. More specifically, it was a machine Carlos had invented, which recently had opened a number of holes in the earth, transporting anything which fell into that hole to a desert otherworld. He had unwittingly created a disaster with this, but after realizing what he had done and ceasing to use the machine, the disaster was no longer a disaster, as it was no longer anything.

Yet there sat the machine before Nilanjana's eyes. The invaders must have taken it from Carlos's office and restored it. 

Reason came to her, and she swung at the machine, pressing on the controls to stop it. "Stop!" she shouted as the earth continued to rumble. "Stop! Stop!" 

"Shh!" hissed a voice from behind her, but Nilanjana, intent on her objective, kept pushing on the controls. A hand seized upon her wrist, and Nilanjana whipped her head around, lifting her phone flashlight into the startled faces of Intern H.G. and another intern with a nametag that read "Cora". The light glistened off of H.G.'s glasses, and she squinted. "The invaders are coming," she hissed. "We saw them on our way."

"Cecil sent us," added Cora. "We have to go." 

Nilanjana gazed helplessly at the machine. 

"I know," H.G. said. "But you can't stop it right now. We have to go." 

She tugged on Nilanjana's wrist, and after a hesitation, Nilanajana let go of the machine and followed Intern H.G. Intern Cora lifted her own phone and turned on the flashlight

-illuminating Avery, standing in the doorway of the lab. 

Nilanjana and the two interns stared at Avery in fear and surprise, and he looked back at them in confusion. None of them moved. 

"Avery?" someone - Dr. Kister, maybe - called from outside the lab.

"Just a minute!" Avery shouted, snapping out of his surprise. He raced over to the wall. "What are you doing here?" he hissed in Nilanjana , Cora, and H.G.'s direction. "They'll find you! Get out of here!" He untwisted the screws on a vent and waved them towards it. "Hide in here," he said. "It leads to the outside. Hurry!"

"Can't we go out the back door?" whispered Cora in panic as Avery handed a confused H.G. up into the vent. 

"They're using the back door. Go, go!" 

Nilanjana didn't have to be told twice. As soon as Intern H.G. scooted in deep enough, Nilanjana grabbed the lip of the vent and hauled herself up. Being curvy, it was a tight fit for her, but she managed to squeeze in and crawl through the narrow tunnel after H.G. The two crawled as fast as they could, elbows and knees scraping along the cold floor of the vent, turning down the twisting passages. Nilanjana's breath came in short gasps as she inched through the twisting metal. Intern H.G. was silent ahead of her, sliding clumsily through. Nilanjana tried to move quickly so that Intern Cora, whom she hoped was behind her, would be able to move, but it was slow going. Gradually, she realized that there were no sounds from behind her. She dared a glance over her shoulder and saw only emptiness and metal walls. Intern Cora was not in the tunnel with them.

When at last the sunlight appeared through the slats of the vent ahead, Nilanjana couldn't help releasing a small sigh of relief. Intern H.G. pushed hard on the slats, but they were screwed in, and didn't budge. She craned her neck and looked at Nilanjana over her shoulder. "We're stuck."

"Let me try," Nilanjana whispered. 

"I wasn't able to get it, though," H.G. whispered back. 

"Well, you're a toothpick. Move." Nilanjana wriggled past H.G. and rammed her shoulder against the slats, throwing her full strength on them. The screws popped out, and the two women slid clumsily to the ground below. They were in the alley beside the building. Nilanjana could see the geology lab where her car was parked. "There. Follow me."

But H.G. hesitated. "We should wait for Cora -"

"If she were in there, she would have come out right after us. They got her." 

"But -"

"She's gone, H.G. They found her. If we don't hurry, they'll find us too." 

H.G. looked at Nilanjana helplessly for a moment, then back to the empty vent, then back to Nilanjana. "Okay," she said. Her voice was small and faint, like the dying chirps of a baby bird which leaves the nest too early. She trudged through the alley as Nilanjana led them both back to her car, and she buckled silently into the passenger seat. Nilanjana pressed her foot down hard on the gas so that the car shot out from behind the dumpster and blazed down the road in a spurt of gravel and dust. 

They sat in silence for a while. Nilanjana tapped her fingers on the steering wheel, trapped in that awkward moment that exists after most escapes, when it's like - so, am I going to offer the socially acceptable condolences, or are you going to? 

"I'm sorry about Intern Cora," she said finally.

"Oh," said H.G. "Thanks. Well, I mean, I didn't really know her that well. But it was just her, and me, and Ryan before he died, at the station. So now that they're both gone, it's just me." She slumped against the window. "I feel bad. Ryan died because I suggested we spy on the invaders." 

"And Cora died because Cecil sent you to look for me." Nilanjana shrugged. "And I scrambled into the tunnel before she could. So I guess it's my fault. Just like it's my fault that Carlos and Luisa and Mark are dead."

Intern H.G. turned away from the window. "Carlos isn't dead," she said.

"What?"

"No, he's not dead." H.G. looked around, then turned off the static-y radio, since everyone knows that the government can spy on one through a turned-off radio. She then plugged in her phone to the aux cord. "I got this voicemail yesterday." 

Another burst of static sounded, this time from the crackling of the voicemail. A moment later, Nilanjana heard the sound of labored breathing, and then a tap-tap-tap on a hard surface. Nilanjana frowned, her brow furrowed in concentration. 

"Morse code?"

"Yes. I don't understand it, but Cora did, and she translated." A twinge of sadness sounded in H.G.'s voice. 

"Start it again." 

Nilanjana listened as H.G. restarted the message and slowly sounded out the letters in her head as they tapped. "D-E-S-E-R-T  B-L-U-F-F-S (stop). C-A-R -" As the taps for the last letter sounded on the voicemail, a voice shouted, "What are you doing? What -" and then the phone crackled to silence. H.G. unplugged the aux cord. 

"It's not his usual number," she said. "But I'm sure it's him I think he was spelling out his name before they saw what he was doing."

"Have you played this for Cecil?" 

"I went over there to play it this morning. But he sent Cora and I out after you. He was worried about you."

"I'm not sure why -"

"BRAKE!" 

Nilanjana turned back to the windshield and slammed her foot down as a large truck pulled out in front of her car. The tires screeched to a halt, throwing the two women forward in their seat belts. They sat there panting for a moment as the truck pulled out and drove away, and then slowly Nilanjana eased off the brake and pressed the gas. 

"How did you know the truck would be there?" she asked. 

H.G., still panting, tucked back a lock of her hair. "I don't know," she gasped. "I-I just - I knew. I just knew somehow." 

"Well, I'm not complaining." Nilanjana looked over at the intern's phone. "So the invaders are keeping them in Desert Bluffs? I guess it makes sense. Since the town dissolved, all the buildings are empty."

"Exactly," said H.G., "but we can't go charging into the streets without a plan."

"Which is exactly what Cecil will do if we play this for him."

"...right." 

The silence settled over them again. Eventually, H.G. ventured a question that had been weighing now on Nilanjana's mind. 

"Why do you think Avery helped us?"

"I'm not sure."

The silence returned. 

"Let's take the recording to Mayor Cardinal?" 

"Good plan." 

And Nilanjana swerved down a side street. 

Chapter Text

Cecil: Stop. Sit down. Sit with good posture. Breathe in, and breathe out. Maybe drink some water. Now, relax. You can hear my voice. I am here now. 

Welcome to Night Vale. 

[heavy sigh]

So... I'm back. 

I was not planning to come in today, but all three of our station interns are indisposed. Intern H.G. is doing important town savi--Iiii mean interning, so she cannot broadcast to you like she has been recently. As for our other interns, they are both indisposed in that they are now inorganic. As in, they are dead. Sorry.

To the family and loved ones of Intern Ryan: he was a good intern, devoted to his community, and very good at math. We will miss him and his good report cars.

To the family and loved ones of Intern Cora: she was also a good intern. The coffee that she made was bitter but sweet at the same time, the work she did for this radio station was admirable, and the life she led was cut short too soon. She will be missed. 

[Morse code underneath voice, tapping out "We will defeat the invaders. We will have justice".]

I... apologize, for not having the usual metaphorical spring in my step, the one that translates into my voice. It's just... it's been hard for me, these past few days. You all know why. I cannot say why, for obvious reasons, but just know that it has been hard. Focus, Cecil. You are a professional radio host. Well, there's a news report on my desk. Let's look at that... I guess. 

Our first piece of news is that a hole appeared in the earth beneath the place where Jackie Fierro's pawn shop appears when it is open, and sucked the space clear away. Now, this was not a hole like the holes that transported buildings to a desert otherworld in the recent catastrophes accidentally caused -

The catastrophes caused by Car...

By Car-

[static silence]

The, um... the catastrophes accidentally caused by my... my beautiful... beautiful husband. 

Um. 

[muffled sniffle, static silence]

But anyway... the hole in the earth that swallowed Jackie Fierro's pawn shop was different than that. It was a glowing portal, and it sucked in the earth, and the air, and the insects in that space. It sucked in the doors that Jackie used to make the shop appear each day. It did not, luckily, suck in Jackie herself. Jackie wasn't there. 

Then another portal appeared behind the Ralph's, and it took away the people who often huddle there in the vacant lot. And then another, beneath the Brown Stone Spire. 

And then another portal appeared beneath the Church of the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God and pulled in the building and the worshippers, who were at their mid-week smile meeting, whatever that is. According to this news report, Darryl Ramirez ran from the church door screaming and tried to launch himself to safety, but the portal sucked him in, like paper into a vacuum, and then he was gone. And all of the portals are still there. Also, they seem to change every time they suck in a living creature, such as a plant, animal, or person. Stay away from the portals. 

In other news, the sky is gone and all we can see is the void. This is because, as everyone knows, the sky is just flimsy, hastily painted plywood. That's why there are white patches. Now, the sky is gone. The dark void hovers above, all-knowing and all-consuming, but always silent. 

So, lots of bad things happened. Of course. 

Bad things always happen. 

That is life. 

And that is especially life here in Night Vale. 

Because here is the truth: we are an exceptionally strange town, filled with exceptionally beautiful and dark things. We are named after the night because our founders know that there is so much beauty to be found in the night. In addition to being half-starved conquerors wearing soft meat crowns, they were smart people. We all need to follow their example and embrace that which makes us weird. Sometimes, that means embracing what is bad. Embrace it in a way that suggests friendliness, and then drive a dagger into its back. 

Or... whatever. 

[sipping sound]

My advice - and I am an expert on this - is not to wax poetry until after the second glass of wine. I think this is my... third? Third and a half? I have a high alcohol tolerance. 

I just received a text from Intern H.G. She says her missio- I mean, her project - is going really well. However, she just saw the new scientists driving into town again, and she managed to overhear their conversation. It sounds like... it sounds like they were creating an experiment to make objects disappear. 

Now, I'm not questioning the new scientists, but I do feel like I should state that - that we literally just heard a news story about portals making things disappear.

Wait, hang on, the phone is ringing. It's - huh. Okayy... Sheriff Sam? You are on the line. 

Sam: Thank you, Cessil. 

Cecil: Um, my name is Cecil. Rhymes with seashell.

Sam: Well, then, thank you, Cecil Rhymes With Seashell. I just wanted to let you know that the portals are making things disappear, but the new scientists are not. 

Cecil: But, can we really be sure of that, Sam? I mean, it sounds like - 

Sam: Don't question the scientists! People who do that are to be taken away-

Cecil: Ugh, so what? You're the sheriff! If you're not going to arrest me, I'm in no danger. Sam. Would you arrest me for what I say on this show?

Sam:

Cecil: That's what I thought.

Sam: All I ask is that you tread carefully, Cecil. And I ask that your listeners do the same. I also ask that you please report to the station after your broadcast. I need to speak with you privately. That's why I'm publicizing the place and time where we will be meeting. 

Cecil: Sure. Fine. Goodbye, Sam. 

Reports indicate that Avery, the man who is short and fat, and the woman with the solar eyes, were all standing by one of the portals a moment ago. Avery had a box in his hand with dials and wires, and the other two held clipboards. Suddenly, a strong gust of wind roared up, blowing the woman and the man forward. They staggered and fell, and then they began to glow as if caught in a tractor beam; and, glowing and screaming, they were sucked into the portal as Avery stood by, standing just out of the way, watching them with impassive concern. There was nothing he could do. There was nothing he could do. 

Or was there?

I am aware that that was a question about one of the new scientists. I am also past caring. 

And now I have received a message, appearing on the wall of my station in blood, that Dr. Kayali, of the new scientists, demands that I stop questioning them. 

I remind you, listeners, that Dr. Kayali kidnapped - yes, I am saying it, kidnapped - my husband and his team in broad daylight, so any demands that she makes of me will be ignored. 

I alert you that the portals are stretching in size, and you should not go anywhere near them. 

I implore you to resist the evil that plagues our town. 

I...

There's a traffic report on my desk, but I am going to ignore it for now. I feel that I have to say this. 

I am going to tell you a story. A story about me. When I first met my husband Carlos, long ago on June 15th of 2012, my first thought was that he was the single most beautiful person I had ever seen. But as he gave his speech at the town meeting that day, I became aware that he was not only gifted with better looks and more perfect hair than I could ever hope to achieve, he was also among the kindest, most compassionate, and most intelligent people in this world. I wondered for a while if perhaps he was without flaws. 

But then we started dating, and I saw that he is not without flaws. I was swept up into a world of wonder and discovery and love, a world I thought I would live and die without ever experiencing. I got to see all of the incredible sides of him as we fell in love in this thrilling but indifferent universe that we shared. And then I got to see all of the flawed sides of him too, the human sides, and realize that often, they were one and the same. I learned that he was devoted to his work, but that sometimes he focused on it too much. I learned that he could cook the most amazing foods, but that he sometimes would chew a liiiittle more loudly than would be preferred. I learned that he was fascinated by everything, but that he could be disappointed when everything was not within his understanding. 

I learned things about myself, too. See, in my work in community radio, I've always tried to use my gift with words to give comfort to a hurtful world; but to be able to comfort someone without saying anything? That was something truly powerful, and it was something I was good at. Imagine that! Together, we learned all of the ups and downs that come with the meshing of lives. We realized that neither of us liked the couch we bought for our living room, but that we both fit on it, and that was something. We discovered that the words "I love you" aren't always expressed by the words "I love you" - that saying, "What do you want for dinner?" or "I'll call later" or "That looks cute on you" or "Hold me?", can all mean "I love you." And eventually, we learned that we never wanted to live without each other. That's why we got married. Now, we have to live without each other, and it's hard for me. I don't know how long this separation will be. Maybe just a little while longer, or maybe forever. And that... that uncertainty, it is destroying me.  

The truth about relationships, Night Vale: they are not perfect. But how boring would that be? Relationships are an imperfect tangle of laughter and tears, blurred with sunset kisses and long walks, days where you send a thousand texts, days where you send zero texts because you need space; there are times when you are disappointed and times when you are overjoyed; there are times when time stands still and times when it moves all too quickly. A lasting relationship is like... it's like a firework going off, and also like a small candle flame. Finding someone to kiss and sleep with and pay for your dates is all nice. But a lasting relationship is about more than that. A lasting relationship is finding the one person who you want to wake up next to every morning, and still fall in love like it's the first time you ever saw them. 

That's what I had. 

And that's what I lost. 

I...

A report suddenly appeared on my desk; one that I think was placed by the Faceless Old Woman, maybe? It just... it just says, "Look out the window." Okay? I'm looking out the window and...

And...

But that's...

[static silence]

[static silence continues]

Listeners, there's a portal in the distance, but above that there are...

Above that there...

There-there are lights, in the sky, and they say words, and... th-the words... um, I-I can't do.. can't do this, I...

[quiet crying]

It says...

[quiet crying continues; faint sobs]

It-it says...

[sniffling]

It says,

"Cecil: love you.

Night Vale: run." 

[sobbing resumes]

Night Vale...

Night Vale. 

[sniffle]

We are in danger, and this is the fault of the new scientists. I am not questioning them. I am unequivocally stating that they are responsible for our danger. 

Thre has to be a pattern. To the attacks. I mean, why would they attack Jackie Fierro's Pawn Shop, and also the vacant lot behind the Ralph's? Why chase away the Glow Cloud - w-why set fire to the Dog Park? This is... I think I do see a pattern. They used a portal to take away the Pawn Shop, which is where the weird miscellaneous things in the town are sold. They drove out the Glow Cloud and removed the Brown Stone Spire, which are both powerful beings that we worship. They're working with the City Council, and now maybe even the sheriff. They kidnapped Carlos, Luisa, and Mark, scientists who are protectors of this town. They're trying...

Listeners, I think... I think that they're trying to take away the things that make us us. I think they're trying to take the strangeness out of Night Vale. 

"Night Vale: run." 

This is the advice that Carlos gave to us. I have to believe it was Carlos who placed this message in the sky. I don't know how, but I do know that Carlos is our town's protector and friend, and if this is his request, we would be wise to honor it. 

As for me, I will also now run, because there are many black helicopters circling my station. Also, a red van full of angry invader scientists has pulled up. Also, Station Management has come out of their office. Let me just press the controls that open my secret escape hatch... 

And, as I go into a future of fear and uncertainty, you go. Go now, 

...to the weather

Chapter Text

 As secret police officers, members of a Vague Yet Menacing Government Agency, and angry victologists poured into the Night Vale Community Radio Station, Michelle and Maureen drove across town. The microphone in the station hadn't been turned off, and so the car radio buzzed with the sounds of searching. 

"The Intern Break Room is empty," said a police officer.

"Check the walls for passages!" shrieked Sylvia Kayali in distorted fury.

"We checked the walls," came the voice of a Vague Yet Menacing Government Agent. "We checked the offices. Someone just went to check the Station Management's Office -"

A terrible scream followed, distant and warped by the static. Maureen winced and turned off the radio. Turning off the radio in the middle of Cecil's broadcast was an act of questionable legality, but since Cecil had left and everyone with the power to arrest her was investigating the empty station, she didn't think there would be too many consequences. 

"They won't find him," said Michelle, gazing steadily out the windshield. The road around them was suspiciously empty, save for the few clouds of dust skittering along the dividers and gathering in the cracks. Maureen could hear every movement of the tire's treads, every rock the car rolled over. She winced as the car shuddered through another pothole. "Not if we do first."

"Yeah." Maureen looked down at the screenshot of Cecil's text, which she'd pulled up on her screen. 

Have plan, this time a good one. Site of best intern program achievement. NOW. 

The word "now" grew a little larger every time Maureen looked at the message. It had been easy for her to decipher where the "site of best intern program achievement" was. Cecil had told her plenty of times that Dana was the station's best intern, especially since she had gone on to become mayor. That was why Maureen had allowed herself to get into the car that would take her to Dana Cardinal's office. She turned off the phone and glared moodily out the window. 

"Hey," said Michelle, laying a hand on her arm. "You're really brave to want to help him, even if he wouldn't write your credit letter."

"I don't feel brave," said Maureen. "I just feel, you know, annoyed? Confused - kind of concerned, maybe? I don't know." She shrugged and slid her hand into Michelle's, even though they both thought hand-holding was kind of mainstream. Some mainstream things were worth enjoying. 

"I love you, Brave One," Michelle murmured as they pulled into the parking lot, and Maureen smiled. They'd long ago sworn off on pet names, instead referring to each other by their actual names, or by these compliments that consisted of an adjective describing the other person. Grammar, when used to portray emotions of the heart, is never mainstream. 

"I love you too, Beautiful One," replied Maureen, unbuckling. "Come on, let's go save Cecil Palmer's mainstream life. Again." 

 

Mayor Dana Cardinal sat at her desk. Nilanjana Sikdar and Intern H.G. sat in chairs opposite the desk. Tamika Flynn sat on the edge of the desk, sharpening her nails with a penknife. Jackie Fierro sat on the windowsill. All five women looked up as Michelle and Maureen came in. 

"Salutations, my dudes," said Jackie. 

"Michelle. Maureen," said Dana, waving them in. She got up and closed the door behind them. "Please sit down. We have a lot to talk about." 

"Here." Intern H.G. scrambled out of one of the chairs. 

"No, you can keep it," said Michelle. 

"No, it's fine, I don't mind."

"No, really, you can -"

"Thanks," said Maureen, plopping into the chair. "We appreciate it. Michelle?"

Michelle huffed a cute little huff, one that wrinkled her eyebrows and puffed a lock of her hair forward. "We, like, appreciate it," she said with a visible effort, and joined Maureen in the chair. 

"I'm sorry we've fallen out of touch, Maureen," said Dana, as she resumed the seat behind her desk. "It's good to see you again. I wish the circumstances were a little different, but that's life, I'm afraid." 

Tamika Flynn snorted and flicked her wrist. The penknife soared across the room and into a copy of "Twilight", which hung like a target on the back of the office door. 

"That's life," Dana repeated with a sigh. She pressed a hand to her forehead. "Do you mind if I have some dirt? Dirt calms me down." 

"Oh, sure," said Maureen. She didn't eat dirt herself, but some people found comfort in putting the earth to which they would one day be consigned into their bodies. Dana nodded her thanks and plucked a pinch of dirt from a ceramic bowl on her desk. 

"Cecil texted you?" asked Jackie. Michelle and Maureen both nodded. "Yeah, me too." 

"H.G. and I made a discovery," said Nilanjana. One of her legs lay across the other, her foot tapping a nervous rhythm into the air. "A discovery of a scientific nature. We drove hear to alert Dana."

"Who called me in, as a member of the city council," interjected Tamika. 

"Time out," Maureen said. "Go back." She pointed to H.G. and Nilanjana. "You were spying on the invaders?" 

"Yes."

"And you -" she pointed to Tamika and Dana. "Wait a sec. You're city officials. You can stop these people - I mean, you both kind of promised Cecil that you would."

Dana shifted uncomfortably and swallowed. "Things that you say to comfort someone... that doesn't count as a promise," she said. "I meant it when I said it. But, I realized later that what I had promised might not be possible." 

"And when we said that, we didn't know what we know now," added Tamika as she pulled a new penknife seemingly from thin air. 

"Which is... what?" asked Michelle. 

Dana and Tamika turned to Nilanjana, who drew a deep breath. "I can explain," said Nilanjana. 

And then the floor lifted. 

Michelle, Maureen, and Nilanjana screamed, scooting their chairs back as a piece of the floor lifted up, like a card folding in half. A moment later they all realized that this was a trap door, and a moment after that, Cecil Palmer crawled up out of the trap door with dust on his clothes and a spider crawling on his shoulder. 

"Oh, you're all here," he said. "Okay, hi. Good to see you." He dusted the spider off of his shoulder and turned to them. "So my text went through? Wow, I really am surprised at the quality of underground tunnel service. Whoever set that up did a great job." 

Silence hung in the air like fog for a moment. Then Nilanjana ventured, "Cecil... this office is on the second floor."

"I know," said Cecil. "There's an underground tunnel that runs from underneath my desk at the radio station to the mayor's office."

"But the laws of physics -"

"More importantly," Michelle interrupted, "Couldn't the invaders kind of follow you?"

"Oh, no," said Cecil. "The tunnel can only be entered by the Voice of Night Vale. That's me, by the way. Hello." He tried to bow and tripped. 

Marueen lifted an eyebrow. "Are you drunk?"

"Yes. But that's not important right now. I have a lot of explaining to do."

"You certainly do." 

"Yes, I have a lot of explaining to do, I... unngh." Cecil pressed his palms into his eyes. "I can't see straight. Straight is difficult. H.G., you're a writer. Help me explain." 

"Um, I think it would be best to start at the beginning?" offered H.G. 

"Yes! Beginning. Good. So, in the beginning, the void created the -"

"Not the beginning of everything," interrupted H.G. "The beginning of this story."

Cecil slid his hands down his face and blinked at her. "We're in a story?"

"Yes."

"Oh, okay. Well." Cecil looked around at Jackie, Nilanjana, H.G., Tamika, Dana, Michelle, and Maureen. "Fine, but I don't know the whole story. I guess I'll just tell what I do know. This is a story about us."

And he told them. 

He told them about how Dr. Sylvia Kayali of the University of What It Is had shown up in Night Vale over two years ago. He told them how Carlos had returned from his science fair having seen Dr. Kayali there, and how Carlos then began to receive messages from her, and how then she, along with her team, appeared in town to wreak havoc. With help from Nilanajana, he told them about the strange events that had started taking place over town, and how Carlos worked to investigate them. He and Nilanjana told them how Avery had spied on the station, how the invaders had been labeling people as threats on the wall of their un-lab like lab. He told them how sweet it was that Carlos drove out to get him coffee, and even though that was mildly irrelevant to the story, H.G. let him tell it anyway. It made her smile. 

And then Tamika and Jackie told them about the trip to the library, about the way that librarian blood smelled, and the triumph that came from survival. Tamika added that Carlos had killed a librarian, and how powerful he seemed at that moment, and how powerless they all seemed when they saw the burning dog park. Nilanjana told them about being arrested, and then about how she had returned to her lab just in time to watch her friends being taken away by her enemies. She spoke of the anger she had felt, crouched on the floor of Sheriff Sam's car as the screen displayed an injustice she was unable to prevent - but maybe, she said, she could prevent the next one like it.

She and Intern H.G. put together the pieces of their various spying missions and vigilante investigations, with occasional comments from Cecil - that the victologists had come to take over Night Vale by taking away what made it Night Vale, but that Avery seemed to want to help them. They told them about how Intern Cora hadn't survived, but that a voicemail confirmed Carlos, Mark, and Luisa had, or at least corroborated the evidence presented by the lights in the sky. H.G. told them that Carlos was in Desert Bluffs, and wondered silently how they would all get there to save him. 

Michelle and Maureen told them about Cecil's apartment, even though they'd all been there - about how unexpectedly good Steve Carlsberg's casserole tasted, and how unexpectedly badass it was when in Project Runway, Tim Gunn stabbed monsters with sewing shears and roared, "MAKE IT WORK!" They told them about how there can be light in an apartment, even though that apartment did not belong to them, and even though Carlos wasn't there. 

They told these things to each other, and to you. They were only there for pieces of it all, but you and I, dear reader, were there for all of it, even though we haven't realized it yet. The seven women and Cecil Palmer told each other this story that all of them had seen and lived, but that all of them had seen and lived differently, and at different times. They wove together the tapestry of events, tied and united and bound by the oppressive limitations of time, and death, and impermanence. All beauty is made that way. 

And then Maureen and Michelle told them about receiving the text from Cecil, bringing them back to the start, and the middle, and possibly the end. 

Cecil sat quietly, twisting his wedding ring and saying nothing, while they all processed everything they had heard. Intern H.G. started to say something, but then changed her mind and closed her mouth again. A single fly buzzed around the room, nagging at the silence. Finally, Cecil spoke. 

"I know it could be wrong... for me to ask this of you," he said slowly. "And it's okay if you say no. But I can't stay in this town anymore and watch it all fall apart. I can't stay in this town period, because I think the victologists are looking for me now. We can't find what they're doing to us alone. We need science." He lifted his eyes to Nilanjana. "Carlos, Mark, and Luisa are gone," he said. "Everyone else in your team skipped town long ago. The other scientists are too afraid to fight back. You are the only one left who can understand these mysteries, Nils. But you can't do it alone. I know that you can be enough," he continued over her, as she tried to interrupt. "And I know that you already are enough. But I can't ask you to be enough for a whole town. And more importantly, I can't want you to be. You are someone I've come to trust and care about, and I can't wish that on you. So instead..." He took a deep breath. "Instead, I am asking you to help me. I have decided I am going to go to save Carlos. Intern H.G. says that he's in Desert Bluffs, so I'm going there. I'm going to get my husband back." He turned to the intern. "H.G., you have to stay here. Someone has to stand for Community Radio, and someone has to spy on the victologists. That can be you." 

H.G. nodded, her eyes behind her glasses glazed with tears and resigned. Cecil turned to Dana.

"Dana, you're my friend and the mayor of this town. You need to protect our people. I know votes don't count in the mayoral election, but if they did, I would vote for you every single time." 

Dana nodded as well and crunched slowly on another handful of dirt. 

"Tamika - Tamika. You are the bravest person I know. You and your militia are maybe the only chance our town has of being saved! As the Voice of Night Vale, I am using my totally unofficial powers to totally officially declare you to the post of Town Warlord. The City Council is corrupted by the victologists. You have to stop them from destroying what we love." 

Tamika grinned and threw her second penknife into the "Twilight" book. "Sounds good to me."

Cecil nodded. And then he swept his gaze over Jackie, Michelle, Maureen, and Nilanjana. 

"You don't have to come with me," he said. "You can say no. You can stay safe. But when I tried to think about the people I would want with me when I went into that terrible, terrible place, the people I did not have a family responsibility to protect... well." He smiled slightly. "I decided there are no four friends I would trust more. Will you help me save Carlos?"

The four women smiled back at him, determined and strong. 

"Also Luisa and Mark," Nilanjana added. 

"Sorry. Will you help me save Carlos, Luisa, and Mark?" 

"Yes," said Nilanjana. 

"Yes," said Maureen. 

"Absolutely," said Michelle.

"Sure, dude," said Jackie. "It's not like I have any plans this week." 

"Great." Cecil stood up. Jackie, Michelle, Maureen, and Nilanjana stood up. They looked at H.G., Dana, and Tamika, who stood behind Dana's desk, empty air, weapons, and dirt in hand. "We are going to save this town." 

"Yes," agreed Dana. "Yes, I think we are." 

"Great." Cecil turned to his new traveling companions. "Let's go." 

"Oh, right now?" asked Jackie as they all started to the door. 

"Yes, right now." Cecil swung the door open and they stalked down the hall, fanned out with eyes burning, hair streaming in the breeze their motion created, feet stamping in unison. They drew to a halt above the stairwell, beyond which was a huge glass window. The desert rose before them, vast and endless, shades of taupe and brown stirring to a distant horizon of a city that held no life save for the lives they wished to save. The sand rolled in a wind they could not feel, and a smile lit all of their faces as they contemplated the vast emptiness before them. 

"I'm coming, Carlos," said Cecil, striding forward. 

He then proceeded to trip down an entire flight of stairs, and on that embarrassing and ridiculous note, the battle for Night Vale began. 

Chapter Text

The hallway was black and lit by no sun, no flashlights, no ceiling fluorescence. It was as pitch black as the pupil of a human eye. He supposed it was possible that this wasn't a hallway at all, just some enormous room that stretched on and on. The walls could be right next to him or several feet away. He had seen the building when they arrived, and no hall this long should fit inside of it. It defied all logic and physics. Yet here he was. 

His ragged breathing echoed on the walls along with every footstep. So the walls were close. That, at least, was one mystery solved. 

He could see light up ahead; not the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, but actual light, glowing dimly like the screen of a computer. He licked his dry lips and crept closer along the hall, pressing up against one of the close walls. As he looked around the corner of the doorway he saw the light was the screen of a computer, a computer that seemed to be tapped into the Sheriff's Secret Police monitor feed of a camera by the radio station. 

"They've been camped out there for two days," said a quiet voice. "He's not going back. We should go after them."

"No. They told us to come here." 

"Holt -"

"We went all the way to town and then back once before. I'm not going there again, Avery."

"Fine, but we should at least call them."

A hand appeared in his vision, clicking around on the computer so that the monitor switched to an exterior shot of City Hall. Mayor Cardinal was in the middle of a press conference, with Intern H.G. beside her, reporting that the radio station would be closed until further notice. 

"That radio idiot's probably in hiding somewhere, with the scientist chick," said Holt, the second voice. Cecil and Nilanjana would not like to be referred to in that way. 

"Or they're heading here now." 

Holt snorted. "Good luck finding us."

Avery's hand drummed on the desk. "I don't know. I still think we should call Sylvia and Martin back."

"They can't. They said they're not leaving until they find the radio host."

"They said that?"

"Yeah. They said they had to find him." 

"I didn't know about this."

"You were out when they said it."

"Why is he so important?"

"It's not that he's important, it's that he's High Threat. Him and the scientist girl. Sylvia and Martin have to kill them."

Panic shot through him, like a weight smashing against his chest, like electricity coursing through his veins. He burst forward from hiding in the hallway, heedless of the danger and terrified. "NO!" he shouted. 

The room was full of similar computer screens, each tapped into a monitor. Holt Murray, the man who was tall and thin, leaned against the wall with a gun in his hands. He scowled at Carlos. Avery sat in a swivel chair facing the nearest screen. She sighed and spun around slowly. Her long green hair hung limply from her broad face. Her sparse beard was unkempt, and her eyebrows mussed. She frowned and crossed her hands in her lap. "Dr. Palmer," she said. "You are not supposed to be here."

"You can't kill Cecil and Nils," Carlos pleaded as sweat trickled down his face. "You can't, you can't, please. Please don't. I'll do anything. Anything you want, just please, please -"

"That's not your concern. Please follow me back to your room."

"But you can't -"

"This way, please." Avery grabbed his arm with merciless strength and led him back into the pitch-black void of the hallway. Holt's disapproving face hovered in the distance illuminated by the computer screens, growing smaller and smaller until the shadows snuffed it out. 

 

Nilanjana was not big on walking. 

It wasn't that she was out of shape. She did yoga workouts in her apartment every morning (her favorite poses were "empty bookshelf" and "moth preparing to be consumed by the void"). But walking was unfamiliar to her. She walked from her apartment to the lab every day, or, at least, she had before the invaders arrived. What was the point of spending extra time doing what every human needed to do anyway if they wanted to move from one place to another?

But now she was trotting across the desert with four people she barely knew to save the coworkers she had only recently started to consider friends. How the tables had turned. 

The five of them sat in the center of a large clearing in the middle of the Whispering Forest. The fastest way to Desert Bluffs without taking the road was a way that cut directly through the forest. Though they'd entered three hours ago, Nilanjana doubted that they'd come so much as halfway through. Michelle and Maureen sat on a fallen log with Maureen braiding Michelle's silky black hair. Jackie perched on a stump drinking some water. Cecil stood, leaning against a tree. He had said nothing since they started out. Nilanjana was worried about him. 

She got up and walked over to him with her water bottle, even though he had his own. "Here," she said, then remembered he couldn't hear her through the earplugs they were all wearing. So she held the bottle in his direction. 

"I'm fine, thanks," said Cecil, then remembered she couldn't hear him, so he shook his head and gently pushed the water bottle away. Nilanjana shrugged. 

Jackie stood up and came over to them. "We should get moving again," she said. 

Cecil and Nilanjana both frowned in confusion. Jackie sighed.

"I said, WE SHOULD GET MOVING AGAIN!" When they still couldn't hear her, she pointed to the forest around them and pantomimed walking. They nodded. Maureen and Michelle joined them a moment later once Maureen secured an elastic at the end of Michelle's braid, and they all continued their trek. 

The Whispering Forest was supremely beautiful. Tinted sunlight filtering through the dense leaves to spatter like drops of paint across the pine-needle carpet below their feet. A winding path, bordered by logs and blanketed by crunching dead leaves, wound dizzily through the dense foliage. Occasionally, a gust of wind which none of them could hear rustled the leaves around them. Nilanjana looked around and realized that there were no animals here. No squirrels skittered across the path; no birds swooped through the chilly air, which around them was growing dark as the day died. The trees moved as if calling out to the travelers. Nilanjana thought she saw the outline of a human face in the gnarled bark of one. She shuddered and drew her lab coat closer about herself, feeling suddenly cold. 

In the way that people often do in a forest, the group naturally spread out. Maureen and Michelle seemed to be slower than the rest, and they soon fell back out of view. Jackie Fierro, on the other hand, was a jogger back home, and here she dashed ahead of the rest of them and soon vanished amidst the watercolor-like smears of green foliage. Nilanjana stared at her own shuffling feet as they crunched over the ground, trying not to look at the very human trees all around her. When she looked up again, her companions had disappeared. 

Okay, so I'm probably a little ahead of a few people, she thought. I'll wait. 

She sat down on a tree stump, but after a few minutes elapsed, she began to feel restless. What if I'm not ahead? she thought. What if I'm behind? She climbed to her feet and surveyed the dense landscape around her for a flash of movement. "Cecil?" she called. "Jackie?"

No response. 

Nilanjana continued into the forest. "Michelle? Maureen?" Only silence returned to her ears. Silence. Oh, right. The earplugs would keep her from hearing any response. But if she took them out, she would be at the Whispering Forest's mercy. I'll keep walking. 

Minutes slid by as she wandered through the forest, trying to follow any trails her companions may have left. Detecting footprints turned out to be difficult on leaves and needles. Landmarks began to look very familiar as she walked in circles and shouted at the top of her lungs: "Cecil? Jackie? Maureen? Michelle? Cecil? Jackie? Maureen? Michelle?"

I only turn into a tree if I accept the compliments, she reasoned. This couldn't go on. Tentatively, she reached up and pulled one plug from her ear. 

The sudden sounds rushed at her, overwhelming her at first. Suddenly she heard every noise, from the rustles of the trees to her own breathing. She pulled out the other ear plug. Her heartbeat pounded against her ribs, and her pulse hammered in her ears. The forest swirled as she spun in circles, hands cupped around her mouth as she called and called their names.

"Cecil? Cecil? Cecil! Cecil!"

"Oooh, Nilanjana!" whispered a voice from behind her. Nilanjana whipped around, but all she saw was a tree. "That lab coat looks so flattering on you! You must be so smart!"

"I'm not listening," Nilanjana said aloud, and continued to press through branches. 

"You are such a good scientist," whispered another voice. They began to overlap. "The other scientists aren't as good as you." "Your hair looks really pretty today, did you do it?" 

"CECIL!" Nilanjana shouted. She broke into a run, the branches scraping against her arms. "MAUREEN!"

"I love your shirt. Where did you get your shirt?"

She fumbled for the earplugs and realized she had dropped one. "JACKIE! MICHELLE!"

"NILANJANA!" shouted a voice back. Nilanjana froze in place. This voice was different from the voices of the trees, but still oaky, and so wrong -

"Carlos?!"

"Nilanjana! Over here!"

"Carlos! Where are you?" Nilanjana ran towards the voice, slapping leaves aside. "How are you here?"

"I escaped! Over here!" The voice was now coming from a different direction. "Hurry - I tripped and hit my head."

"Where are you?!" The world around her spun, blurred with the tossing brown of her hair as she whipped her head from side to side searching for him. "I can't find you!"

"I'm here!" Now his voice was coming from the left. "Please hurry! You have to help me!"

"Where?!"

"Right here!"

Now his voice was right behind her. 

"Hang on," she said, breaking into a run again. "I'm on my way."

"Nilanjana - you're so brave, you know?"

"I know, I know!" Nilanjana snapped impatiently. "Now where -" She tripped over a root and slammed into the earth. Leaves went flying everywhere, and then she realized what she had just said. 

"Oooh," whispered the forest. "Look who accepted a compliment."

Oh no. 

Vines shot out of the ground, and the trees seemed to bend over her. Nilanjana scrambled backwards and felt her back slam against a trunk. "That wasn't a compliment!" she shrieked as the vines twisted around her legs like evil fishnet tights. "That was Carlos!" 

"Got you! Carlos isn't here, not really. But you are! You're going to be such a pretty tree, because you are such a pretty person!" 

"YOU TRICKED ME!" The vines tightened, and more appeared, winding around her stomach and pinning her arms. The ground began to close around her feet. "Hey, wait - stop! Stop! I don't want to be a tree!"

"That's a shame, because you're going to be!"

"CECIL!" she screamed. "MARUEEN! MI-" Dried leaves appeared suddenly in her mouth. 

"Nils!" 

Nilanjana spat out the leaves and turned her head. Cecil was running towards her with his hands over his ears. He dropped down beside her and flipped a pocket knife open, apparently from thin air, and began to slice her free of the vines. Once her arms were free, she dug back the ground from her over feet, her nails scraping in the dirt. He pulled her up and together they ran, pursued by loud shrieks and writhing vines. 

They burst out of the forest and into the waning sunlight on the other side, where Maureen, Michelle, and Jackie were waiting.

"Duude," said Jackie, lifting an eyebrow at Nilanjana and Cecil. "I thought we agreed to wear ear plugs?"

Nilanjana barely heard. She collapsed to the sand and kissed the desert ground. "I will never enter a forest again," she gasped. 

"Did you hear him too?" asked Cecil. Nilanjana pushed back her hair and lifted her head. 

"Carlos?"

"Did you hear him?"

"Yes. Did you?"

"Yes." He turned away. "We should keep moving."

Maureen knelt by Nilanjana and offered her water bottle, and even though Nilanjana had her own, she accepted it and drank in long, desperate swallows. "I'm fine," she said as Michelle offered her a hand up. She climbed shakily to her feet. "Really, fine," she insisted as Jackie tried to drape an arm around her shoulders. "Cecil's right. We should keep moving." 

She strode away from them as they glanced at her with concern. Already Cecil was a few paces ahead. He strode into the desert, away from the forest and towards the distant city on the horizon. Nilanjana followed him. 

 

When the portal opened beneath Mayor Cardinal's office, Mayor Cardinal was not there. Tamika Flynn was not there. Intern H.G. was not there, and neither were any of the reporters. The building was empty. 

Dana, Tamika, and H.G. sat on the sidewalk, watching as the rooftop of the building sank out of view into the gaping mouth of the portal - along with the podium where they had held a press conference earlier that day. Dana stirred the jar of dirt between her fingers. H.G. cupped her chin in her hands and stared at the portal. Tamika stood behind them holding a battle ax. 

"How did you know that would happen?" Tamika asked H.G.

"Hmm?" replied the intern without looking at her. 

Tamika swung her ax and waved a hand. "You knew that the building would be swallowed," she said. "H.G., you told us to come out here before it happened. Here we are. How. Did. You. Know?"

H.G. shook her head and sighed. 

"It's been a hard day for all of us," offered Dana sympathetically, patting H.G. on the shoulder. H.G. mumbled something. "What was that?"

"I said, I don't know." H.G. murmured. "I don't know how I knew it would be swallowed by the portal. I have no idea. I just know these things, before they happen. It happened before, when I was with Nilanjana. I knew that a car would pull out in front of hers." She wrapped her arms around her knees. "I dunno. I'm confused and so tired. I don't understand anything. But somehow I know these impossible things."

"Hmm," said Dana, wrapping both arms around her in a sisterly sort of way that was oddly comforting. "Well, as your mayor, I have an official diagnosis for that feeling."

"What is it? Am I sick."

"No, you're human." 

"Human who knows the future?" H.G. shrugged, but she let Dana hug her, even though she usually didn't like hugs. This one was nice, and gentle.

The three of them sat and stood, watching the office building vanish into the portal, and said nothing more. 

Chapter Text

After a long time staring at the shrinking portal, Tamika Flynn stood up and stretched her arms above her head. 

"I'm off to the library," she said. "Would either of you like to join me?"

Dana looked at her in surprise. "The library? Shouldn't we be worried about our town, and the invaders?"

"We should be worried. Period," replied Tamika. "We should always be worried. But I love books. Books make me feel less worried and more in control."

"I love books," Intern H.G. said, somewhat dreamily. She was still staring at the portal. "I like to write; did you know that?"

"That's interesting," said Dana. "Is that why you intern at the radio station?"

"Yes, I want to work on my journalism skills. Maybe one day I could even write for the Daily Journal - or have my own radio show, like Cecil."

Tamika paid little attention to H.G. She had just noticed a dark shape appearing on the horizon. Shading her eyes, she stepped from the curb and into the street. 

"I wonder what Cecil and the others are doing," murmured Dana. "I tried to text him."

The dark shape on the horizon was pulsing slowly, descending on the rooftops like a dense fog. It seemed to have reached the edge of town. Tamika furrowed her brow and took another step towards it; when that didn't let her see any more clearly, she lifted the spyglass that she always kept stashed in her crossbody book tote bag. The shape on the horizon was still pulsing, but more vibrantly now...

"I wonder if they've found Carlos yet."

"Guys," said Tamika. 

"They haven't found him," remarked H.G. offhandedly. Dana blinked.

"Wait - how do you know that?"

"Know what?" H.G. processed her words and clamped a hand over her mouth. "Oh my -"

"Guys," said Tamika again, with urgency. Dana and H.G. both broke off and looked up at her. She pointed to the dark shape on the horizon. The other two climbed to their feet and followed her pointing finger. All three stared in mute silence as their eyes converged on the same point. The dark shape was no longer dark, but brightly lit with many changing colors. It was no longer on the distant horizon, but slowly moving closer. Realization dawned on them and their feet shuffled into a run before the thought fully filled their minds as to what they were, impossibly, seeing. 

The dark shape was the Glow Cloud.

And it was destroying the buildings below it. 

The soles of Tamika's shoes slapped against the pavement as she sprinted down the street. The Glow Cloud filled the sky above them, blocking out the blazing artificial light of the sun.  A loud thud echoed behind them, and Tamika turned to see a large dead cow splay across the street. 

"FOOLISH MORTALS!" intoned the Glow Cloud. "BOW BEFORE ME OR BE DESTROYED!"

A car whirred out from a perpendicular street ahead of them. Intern H.G., Tamika, and Dana skidded to a halt, holding up their hands. 

"No! Stop!" H.G. shouted as she waved her arms. "Don't go that way!" 

The car whirred on, headlights blazing, and was lost in the folds of the cloud. A moment later, a sickenining crunch sounded from within the glowing puffs of the entity. Cars in the street behind them sped up, and the three women rushed back to the sidewalk. The squelching thuds of dead animals flopped into the street behind them. The Glow Cloud flared a brilliant neon red and dropped a whole whale onto the KeyBank near to where City Hall had been. The building tipped to the side in a shower of bricks, blocking the few unfortunate cars that could not speed out of its crumbling path. The cars' owners threw the doors open and vaulted the smoking remains, and along with the screaming people streaming from nearby buildings, ran into the street. 

"I WILL OBLITERATE YOU UTTERLY!" shouted the Glow Cloud, dropping a dead elephant onto the Pancake House. "KNEEL BEFORE ME! GROVEL FOR YOUR LIVES!"

A few people knelt in the street and lifted their hands to the sky. "All hail!" they chanted as tears poured from their eyes. The Glow Cloud hovered above them as if considering their fate, and then it swept on through the street, right over them. They were swallowed in its bulk, and when it continued on, the space where they had been was now empty. 

"This - isn't right!" H.G. shouted pantingly to Dana and Tamika. "The Glow - Cloud (all hail) - is - benevolent! - Why would - it destroy - heh -" She broke off, too winded to keep speaking. 

"Something is wrong!" replied Dana, who was in considerably better shape than H.G. 

"The invaders must have corrupted it against us!" Tamika Flynn lifted the whistle around her neck and blew shrilly to summon her militia. "We need to fight!"

"What?!" exclaimed H.G. "We can't fight - Leann, please get out of my way -"

Leann Hart, running ahead of them, whipped her head around. When she saw H.G., she snarled and brandished her hatchet. "YOU WANT A PIECE OF ME, BLOGGER?" 

H.G. paled. "I only use my blog for personal writing!"

Leann didn't reply. Instead, she ran away from them screaming, because at that moment the Glow Cloud dumped a horde of dead snakes onto the street. H.G. paled further and stopped dead in her tracks.

"Mayor Dana," she gasped, clutching at the mayor's arm. "I hate snakes -"

"Oh for Spire's sake," roared Tamika. She scooped H.G. up and threw her over one shoulder like a bag of flour, and they all continued in the crushing of the crowd. By now the streets were so congested that it was difficult to move. "I don't suppose you could do your see-into-the-future thing now?" Tamika shouted to H.G.

H.G. closed her eyes, her forehead scrunching. Then she gasped, and her eyes flew open again. "Turn down this alley!" she exclaimed. 

Tamika obeyed, and Dana followed. The street on the other side of the alley was equally blocked up with people, all screaming and fleeing as dead animals descended upon them and buildings crumbled into bricks and dust. "Now what?!"

"You need to open the hatch to that basement!" H.G. shouted. "The Glow Cloud (all hail) can't destroy us if we're underground!"

Dana scrambled forward and threw the hatch open. Tamika unslung H.G. from her shoulder, and together H.G. and Dana skittered down the stairs the dark basement, while Tamika pulled the doors shut after them, throwing the bolt over them and blanketing the room in total darkness. She stumbled down the steps, accepted the hand Dana stretched out to her, and sat on the bottom step. They huddled at the bottom of the stairs in pitch black darkness. Then, from above, came the sounds of bricks and ash thudding against the metal of the basement hatch. Distant screams echoed amidst the noises of loud swirling and dropping animals. The Glow Cloud roared some distant words that they did not understand. And then it passed into the distance, and the screams died away. 

For a while, the three sat in silence. Eventually, Intern H.G. whispered, "There's a light switch above your head, Tamika..."

Tamika reached up and clicked on the light switch. An old bulb sputtered to life above with the standard bird chirping noise that old bulbs make, and sent a dim green glow onto them. In the shadows outside of the ring of light, Tamika noted the vague shapes of things stored in the basement - cardboard boxes, old furniture, a well pump, an enormous sickle with a blade the size of her body - standard household items. She got up and dragged a dusty couch over to the illuminated circle of the floor. H.G. and Dana climbed on and resumed their silence. Tamika leaned against the railing of the staircase. 

"How can you see all of these things?" she asked H.G.

H.G. shrugged with her chin cupped in her hands. "I've told you, I have no clue." 

"You  know, there's a barista at 'The Broken Mug'?" offered Dana. "Robin? And ze can see into the future. Maybe you could try talking to zir." 

"No, I don't think it's like that," said H.G. "It's not like I'm seeing into the future, it's like... like I'm remembering something that I already know. But I don't choose when the memories come into my head, or how. I just see them. And sometimes they aren't memories at all, just things that are already happening."

"Maybe you're a seer," offered Tamika. Seers were common enough in Night Vale, although they usually had to undergo two years of purification within a bloodstone circle, one year of silence, and then six years of college, after which they would take a vow never to share the terrifying knowledge imparted upon them and disappear into the desert to live as hermits. 

Intern H.G. shook her head again. "No, I don't think it's that either. It's like - like, I don't think it's some kind of power. I think it's who I am. I think I'm someone important and that identity is letting me realize all these things because they're in my memory."

"So maybe you're from the future - like the Blood Space War?"

"Maybe. I -" H.G. stopped mid-sentence and sat bolt upright. "Oh my gosh."

"What?" Dana grabbed her arm as the intern began to tremble. "Oh dear. Here, lie down. You don't look well."

"No, I am well, it's just - I understand. I understand now."

"Understand what?" asked Tamika and Dana together. 

"Why the invaders are here. What they want from us. How they're doing all of this." 

"Tell us!" 

So she told them. 

Dr. Sylvia Kayali, Dr. Martin Kister, Holt Murray, Avery, and the two others (the ones who had recently been sucked up by the portal), were victologists. (Tamika, who already knew this, nodded.) Victology was the study of conquering with scientific methods. Dr. Kayali and Dr. Kister - or, as Dana knew them, the woman with eyes like a camera and the man with the terrible hair - pursued their work at the University of What It Is. This work was on a very small scale. They influenced minor dealings of the World Government, major dealings of local government, and held the entire community of the University under their sway. 

Before coming to Night Vale, Carlos worked as a professor in the University. But, although he didn't understand what victology was, he became suspicious of the way that Dr. Kayali exerted control over the other faculty and students. Around the same time, he began to hear rumors of a town in southwest America. A scientifically fascinating town called Night Vale. So, he told the University that he was going to take a sabbatical, and never went back. He got a team together from other scientists around the U.S. - people like him, unattached, fascinated with the unexplained, and willing to give up everything to pursue the unknown. They all set out, and then they were in Night Vale. Then they learned exactly what a fascinating and terrifying place Night Vale truly was. 

One by one, his team started to leave. After the invasion of Strexcorp, Dave was the first to leave. Then Rachelle, a little while later. After the invasion of the beagle puppy, Stan left as well, and then only Nilanjana, Mark, and Luisa were left. There were other scientists in Night Vale, of course, but his team was the best, even though now there were only four of them. 

But time is weird in Night Vale, and to Dr. Kayali, Carlos had been gone for longer than a few years. For her, it had been many years, and one day she herself decided to look into Night Vale. She drove there and spoke with Cecil, while Carlos was trapped in the Desert Otherworld. And while she was there, she took note of the strange things in this town. The Glow Cloud. The chanting citizens pointing at her as they cried, "INTERLOPER!" The conspiracies that were all true. 

When she returned to the outside world after giving Cecil her phone number (which he never used), she began to see patterns. Strange scientific anomalies were spreading into the real world. Citizens who left Night Vale were causing chaos wherever they went. Weather patterns were disrupted. The people around them experienced mind alterations that gave them strange dreams, dreams about a vast purple desert under a black planet. Bloodstone worship took up a cult following in Mitch-again. Time in the Southwest passed differently than time in the rest of the world. One city that was particularly near Night Vale even lured people into giving vast sums of money, and Kayali concluded that this was due to its proximity with the hypnotic pulses emanating from the strange little town. 

And so she decided that she would put a stop to it. 

But because she was a victologist, she was crafty. She took her time. She decided that she would not only destroy the strangeness of Night Vale, but she would also subvert it, and bend it to her will; and once she had eradicated the threat, the town and all of its scientific fascinations would be under her control.

She called her boyfriend, Dr. Martin Kister, and they assembled a team. Holt Murray, who was an expert in weaponry. Avery North, who was a lead scientist at the University. And two loyal students who were especially influenced by Dr. Kayali's control. 

Knowing that Dr. Kayali would be familiar to the citizens, Dr. Kister reached out to City Council through the victologists' contacts in the World Government and presented his work as standard research. Once he had won their trust, he revealed the extent of the scheme. City Council had wanted Night Vale fully under their control for as long as there had been a city council, so they welcomed the plan. They invited Dr. Kister and Dr. Kayali to come to Night Vale and carry out the plan. Using all of the skills at their disposal, the team invaded Night Vale and determined what threats they might face. They then worked to remove some of Night Vale's defining features. They started out small to practice - cataloging the town's information, sending out pulses to break the machines around town, and the like.

Then they moved on to bigger things. They burned the dog park. They worked with City Council and the Secret Police to make sure that no one could question them. They kidnapped the scientists who were their biggest rivals.

And now, they had moved on to their next plan – to subvert the town, they need to decrease it. They planned to remove landmark buildings such as the pawn shop and the city hall, and with them, remove some of Night Vale's population. Then, once all of the scientific anomalies were removed from town and the population was diminished, they would rule over the people who remained. To their minds, this was keeping the rest of the world safe. To their minds, they were the good guys.

“They won't stop,” finished Intern H.G. Throughout her narration, she had gazed at a fixed point in the distance. “They're keeping Carlos, Mark, and Luisa alive, but they're probing them for information about the town. After that, they might just kill them. I don't know what they're doing to the people on the other side of the portal.”

She finished. Tamika and Dana stared at her in silence for a long time. Eventually, Dana drew in a breath.

“I just have one question,” she said. “Well, no. I have many questions. But the one that I'm going to ask is this. Why are they involving the Glow Cloud (all hail)?”

“Oh, they're not,” said H.G. without hesitation. It truly was as if she was stating memories she already knew. “It left town and came back on its own whim. I think it got sick of being benevolent and wanted to go back to malevolent destruction.”

“Ah,” said Dana. Silence resumed briefly.

“You really don't know how you can see all of this?” asked Tamika.

H.G. shook her head and sighed sadly. “I don't. I feel like... I feel like I don't know who I am anymore.” She looked up at them. “But I'll figure it out. I have faith that I will.”

“So... should we go back outside?”

“No, the door is covered in bricks. Tamika's militia is on their way, though. They'll clear it out.”

“And you don't know how you could see that, either, I'm guessing?”

“Nope.”

 

Far over in Desert Bluffs, Avery stopped in the middle of the dark hallway and grabbed Carlos's arm tightly. “Stop,” she hissed in a low voice. She lifted her head towards the distant glow of the screens, as if confirming that Holt Murray was still there and hadn't followed. Satisfied, she turned back to Carlos and grabbed his arm a little more tightly. “Listen to me. I can get you out of here.”

Carlos blinked. “What?”

“I said I can get you out. You and your team.”

“But you're working with-”

“Yes, but I wasn't aware of the extent of Sylvia and Martin's plan. Ever since they killed the interns...” She shook her head. The light caught on the sheen of her hair, and seemed to vibrate as her head moved. “I can't be a part of this anymore. I'm switching sides.”

“Cecil and Nilanjana-”

“Cecil and Nilanjana are on their way here right now, with three other women. I saw it on our monitors before Holt joined me. Now, listen. We don't have much time.” She unslung a lanyard from her neck with a jangling noise and slid a few keys off of it. She pressed them into Carlos's hand. “You escaped before. How?”

“I picked the lock?”

Avery swore. “That's bad. The security on the other locks tightens if one has been compromised. Okay, here.” She traced his hand along one of the keys. “For the locks, you need to put in this key first, and then this one -” she indicated another key - “and then enter a code. The code is 2, 3, 1. Can you remember that?”

“2, 3, 1?” Carlos stammered. His own favorite numbers jumbled in his head, along with all of the fear pounding through him. It was hard sometimes for his brain to catalog information, especially in such a nervous state.

“2, 3, 1. Here, remember this phrase: 'twenty-three is number one'. Can you remember that?”

That helped. “Yes.”

“Repeat it all back to me.”

“The small key with the ridges, the big flat key, and then the code. 2, 3, 1.”

“Good. Do you know how to get back to your room?”

“Yes.”

“Once you get there, you turn down the left hall and go straight ahead. When you get to the end of that hall it will fork left and right. Luisa's room is at the end of the left hall. Mark's room is on the end of the right hall. But you need to go fast. The code will change in ten minutes as an extra precaution.”

“Can't you override that?”

“Sylvia's the only one who has the code. Now, go. Hurry.”

Carlos sprinted away without another word.

As he ran through the next ten minutes of his life, he wondered how he would remember this in the future. He wondered whether his mind would preserve the incessant throbbing of his pulse or the cycling thoughts of faster faster faster that chased each other in his mind. Would he remember the way that the keys scraped against the wall as he tried to find the lock in the dark? The echoes of his ragged breathing in the dim halls? The sweat trickling down his face and into his hair? Or would he just remember how afraid he was at every moment? 

Everything sounded so loud. Every heartbeat, every echo, every shiver of breath in his body. He panted as he kept running and that too sounded so very loud. A loud noise came from behind him, but when he looked over his shoulder there was nothing there. When he looked ahead, there was nothing there, because as before, the hallway was pitch black. There could be a thousand armies lying in wait, or deadly traps scattered all around, and he would know nothing of any of them. He couldn't see his own hand when he waved it in front of his face. 

The ten minutes echoed like hours. He freed Luisa first and then Mark and then he realized that Avery hadn't told him what to do next, and the ten minutes were almost up, and the back of his neck was soaked with sweat, which was a decidedly unpleasant sensation. Mark and Luisa whispered "What's going on?" and "How did you get here?", but he found he couldn't answer. The three of them ran back down the hall, but now they were lost, until finally with fumbling hands scraping against the dark walls they came to a metal door and pushed it open.

The desert sun blazed brilliantly, and at that same moment, loud alarms began to blare. Carlos, Mark, and Luisa covered their ears as the alarms clanged vigorously - as if the bells and sirens were inside their heads. 

"WARNING. WARNING," wailed a monotone female voice from a loudspeaker in the darkness. "SECURITY BREACHED. DOOR OPENED ON GROUND FLOOR. WARNING. WARNING." 

"What do we do?!" exclaimed Luisa. She shielded her ears with her hands and squinted at Carlos and Mark against the torturous desert sun. 

"We have to go! Now!" Mark shouted over the siren, and his voice was another noise layered on all of the other noises, and it was horrible. 

"Go where?" 

"Anywhere!" 

They raced forward from the building and into the brilliant sunlight, blinking. They were in a building on the edge of what had once been Desert Bluffs, and around them, there were tall buildings casting dark shadows across the sandy streets. Their feet carried them away from the city and towards the vast desert. Suddenly, at the outskirts of Desert Bluffs, Mark stopped.

"They're going to follow us," he said. "We need to change our plan. We can't run all the way to Night Vale!" 

"So what do we do?" demanded Luisa. The alarms were still blaring in the distance. 

Mark looked around helplessly. "I don't know. But the city will offer more cover than the open desert." 

At that moment, the sound of an engine revving echoed through the canyon of buildings. All three flinched. 

"This way," said Mark, taking charge. "Now." They ran along a nearby street, zig-zagging almost at random in an attempt to stay out of the driver's path. 

"Where are we even going?" demanded Luisa. 

"I have no idea!" 

"I'm enormously disappointed in you, Mark!" 

"Hey!" shouted a voice to the left. They looked over to see Avery, waving furiously. 

"Mark, you just brought us back to where we started," huffed Luisa. 

"Over here!" Avery shouted. "Hurry!" 

"Keep running," urged Mark. "It's a trap." 

"Actually, it's not," said Carlos, speaking for the first time since freeing his friends. "She's the one who gave me the keys." 

"Doesn't mean we can trust her."

"Right now we don't have a choice." 

Avery was standing outside of the building beside the red van. "Hurry," she said, shoving another key into Carlos's hands. "Holt just set out in our spare van to go after you. He'll come back when he realizes you aren't in the desert. I'll hold him off. Take the back road out of the city and go straight to Night Vale."

"Wait," said Mark suspiciously. "Aren't you with them? Why are you helping us?" 

"It doesn't matter, just go! Go!" Avery practically shoved them into the van and slammed the doors behind them. Mark and Luisa buckled their seat belts with extreme confusion as Carlos flicked the key left in the ignition.

"What is going on?" demanded Luisa

"Please stop yelling at me!" 

"We're not yelling at you!" yelled Mark. 

"Why is she helping us?" Luisa insisted. Their shouts seemed to echo off of the van's siding and ring in Carlos's ears. The city streets were narrow, and the van was hard to maneuver. Carlos gritted his teeth. 

"How do we know this isn't a trap?" 

"How are we gonna get back?"

"Shut up!" Carlos shouted. "Both of you shut up! I need to concentrate!" 

Mark and Luisa shut up. 

They sped along the city road, weaving through the shadows of the towering buildings. The empty town glared down at them from buildings no longer occupied, eerie and still. Finally they emerged into the bright light and sand of the empty desert, broken only by the winding road ahead. Mark drummed his hand on his knee anxiously. The van sputtered along the road as Desert Bluffs shrank in the distance. Silence hung heavy all around them. 

"Sorry I yelled at you," said Carlos finally. 

"It's fine," said Mark and Luisa too quickly. Then Mark sat up straighter and pointed into the distance. "Look," he breathed. "There are people up ahead." Sure enough, there, on the distance, five figures were striding towards them from across the desert. When they saw the car, they broke into a run in the opposite direction. 

"They think we're the victologists," Luisa said. 

"It's probably just a mirage."

"Wait - isn't that Nilanjana?!"

Carlos slowed the car and rolled down the window. 

"It is," Luisa said. Her face broke into a smile. "It's Nilanjana. Who's with her?" 

Mark shaded his eyes. "I think Jackie Fierro, and Maureen, and Michelle, and is that Ce-"

Carlos stopped the van on the side of the road. The three of them jumped out and shouted after the retreating figures. "Wait! Come back! It's us!" In the distance, the five people stopped and turned around. Then came Nilanjana's voice: "Guys?!"

"Yes!" Luisa was crying while she shouted. "Yes! It's us!" 

And then another voice came echoing back to them, deep and warm as a thousand sunlit canyons - "Carlos?"

Carlos took off running towards him. 

Chapter Text

Everyone was running, the desert sand churning while the van by the road sat idle and empty. Carlos sprinted across the sand even as it sank around his feet, heedless of the distance, and of the fact that scientifically, this distance should not be able to be covered in such a short span of time, but then he stopped caring about all of that at all because then - 

They crashed together and clung to each other, arms entangling, crushing into an embrace so tightly that it was difficult to breathe. All of the emotion of the past few days beat down on him with the heat of the sun, and his knees gave out suddenly. Cecil caught him and they sank to the sand without letting go of each other. 

"I thought you were gone," Cecil wept.

Carlos didn't respond at first. He pressed his face against the hollow between Cecil's neck and shoulder, listening to the pulse throbbing below his skin as he felt his own heartbeat slow down to normal again. They were real, and alive, as much as anyone can be considered to be real and alive. When he closed his eyes, his eyelashes brushed against Cecil's shoulder, and slowly he relaxed into the warmth and rhythm of his Cecil's arms and the familiarity of his pulse. There was nowhere in the world he wanted to be other than right here. 

"I love you," he whispered. 

"I love you too." Cecil hugged him tighter and leaned back slightly; he pressed his forehead against Carlos's. "I thought you were gone," he said again, his voice cracking. "I thought I - I thought I would have to live without you." 

Carlos smiled a little and smoothed a piece of his husband's mussed hair. "Scientifically speaking," he said, "You will never have to live without me." 

They kissed then, slowly at first and then more desperately. When they broke apart, Cecil helped Carlos to stand, and then they kissed again in the heat of the summer sun and neither wanted to be first to let go. 

"I love you," Cecil mumbled. 

"I love you." 

"Hey," called Maureen. "Look, I'm sorry to break up a mainstream display of affection and everything? But we need to get going."

Cecil turned around in Carlos's arms to look at her. "Oh," he said. "I didn't even see you there. Hi, Maureen." 

"Didn't see -" Maureen sputtered. "I WALKED HERE with you, you idiot!"

"Right. We should all get going." Cecil swung Carlos around in another dramatic kiss. "Last one."

"You walked all the way here?" Carlos marveled. 

"The whole way." 

"I love you."

They kissed again. 

"Oh my GOD," shouted Maureen. "Would you please get in the van?!" 

"Right, right, right. Sorry." Carlos grabbed Cecil's hand and they returned to the van with the others following. He let go of Cecil briefly to give Nilanjana a hug. Usually, he didn't like hugs from people other than Cecil, but right now was an exception to that usual feeling. What someone feels most of the time is not what they feel all of the time, and assuming that is not fair to anyone. 

"I'll just drive, huh?" huffed Maureen.

"I can," offered Mark. "You're probably tired from all that walking."

"Oh, look, a considerate person. Hey, Cecil! This is what a considerate - aaaand he's not listening again." Maureen hopped into the passenger seat and slammed the door. Mark glanced to Nilanjana, concerned. 

"She's always like that," said Nilanjana wearily, and slid open the side door to the van. "I've walked with her for the past two days. Are you guys okay?"

"We're fine," said Mark. "You?" Nilanjana nodded vaguely and accepted the hug Mark offered her. "We can explain more in the ride home," Mark suggested as he rounded the car towards the driver's side. 

"You really walked the whole way here?" asked Luisa as Nilanjana buckled in between her and Jackie Fierro. 

"Yeah." Nilanjana swept her dirty hair over her shoulder and dumped her bag beside the seats in the van. "Dana and Tamika are back in town defending it. Oh and Intern H.G."

"H.G. is alive?" called Cecil from the back seat, where he sat with Carlos's head against his shoulder. "Wow. That's practically a new record for interns!" 

"No, it is not!" shouted Maureen from up front. "was an intern, and am also still alive!"

The ringing tone of Cecil's phone cut suddenly across the air in answer, screeching like a knife over a metal countertop. Mark jumped, an action which caused his hand on the wheel to shift, and the car to veer slightly off the road and onto the sand for a few seconds before he righted it. "Sorry, sorry," said Cecil as he fished his phone out of the plum-colored backpack he'd worn on their trek across the desert. 

"Who is it?" asked Jackie. 

"It's H.G." Cecil clicked accept and clicked the machete icon that appeared in the corner of the screen. "Hi, H.G., I just put you on speaker."

"Cecil!" rang out the intern's voice from the contraption, and just like that she was an added passenger to their vehicle hurtling across the sand - a noncorporeal passenger, hovering invisibly amidst their tangible forms. She was invisible but present, as are many things in this world, such as fear, and suffering, and concern. "Cecil, listen. Now that you've found your husband and his team, you all need to hurry back here."

"How did you know that?" exclaimed Luisa. 

"It doesn't matter! Cecil, the victologists are spreading the portals, and they've taken over the space where City Hall used to be! Dana and Tamika both just ran off with Tamika's militia, and I'm standing here in your radio station behind the barricaded I built, while the woman with eyes like a flashing camera is trying to break down the door!"

Cecil frowned and leaned forward as if H.G. were actually in the car and they were having a conversation. "H.G., what are you doing in the radio station?" 

"I came to broadcast the news to the town. The Glow Cloud destroyed a lot of the buildings, and some of the more important buildings were swallowed by the glowing portals appearing around town. But when I got here, the door was ripped from the hinges, and soon after I arrived and built this barricade from the door and several bags of frozen rice, the woman with the camera eyes pulled up in a van." A burst of static cut off her words, followed by a loud shout and a pounding noise. 

"That doesn't sound good," observed Jackie Fierro. 

"Hello?" Cecil frowned. "Intern H.G., can you still hear me?" 

"I'm here," said H.G. after another burst of static. "Listen. I'm a little confused, and I can't quite see this-" A pen clicked on H.G.'s side of the line. "I need to know who's with you. Can everyone who's with Cecil in the van count off please?" 

"How did you know we're in a van?" asked Carlos. Everyone was silent. H.G.'s invisible hand scratched out something with the pen in a place that was not this one. 

"Okay, Carlos. Hi. Nice to hear your voice again. Who else?"

"Luisa here," said Luisa. "I'm disappointed in you for not knowing that already, even though you shouldn't really know a lot of the things you just said."

"Mark here."

"Nilanjana here. I hope you're okay, H.G."

"Thanks, Nilanjana." They could hear the smile in the intern's voice, followed more pounding on the barricade. "I need this roll call, please."

"What's good, my dude." Jackie Fierro flashed a peace sign that H.G. couldn't see. "Jackie is in the van. It's pretty crowded, actually." 

"Michelle here. Being here is mainstream."

"Maureen here, and I totally agree."

"Carlos here. Hi."

"Cecil here, but are any of us really here?"

"Fair point," said H.G. as her hand continued to scratch out the words they couldn't see. Then they all heard the sound of folding paper. "Right. I'm going to escape by smashing the door to the bathroom and climbing through the window, then running for my life while Tamika Flynn's militia coasts over the hill to fend off the victologist with heavily annotated copies of A Song Of Ice And Fire. Then we're all going to rendezvous at the Palmers' house."

"Who's 'we all'?"

"Everyone who contributes to this fight, and who has contributed so far. All of you. Dana, Tamika, Sam. The Erikas. Probably some other people too. Oh, and me. I will also be present. We're going to create a strategy and take back our town from these invaders. We're going to drive them out once and for -" She was cut off by another burst of static and a loud crash. "The militia is here. I need to go before this gets messy. Hurry, all of you. Please." 

"H.G.-"

"I have to go now. Mark, you're the only car on the road. You can drive a little faster." Her voice ceased, replaced by a beep to signify the end of the call. Cecil turned his phone and slid it silently back into his bag. Mark pressed his foot gently to the pedal and the car chugged along with a little more haste than before. 

"How did she know all that?" he asked eventually, bewildered. No one answered. No one could. 

 

In a room with dim windows met Carlos, Luisa, Mark, Nilanjana, Cecil, Sheriff Sam, Michelle, Tamika, Intern H.G., Erika, Jackie, Maureen, Janice, Abby, Steve, Leann Hart, Dana, Pamela Winchell, Earl Harlan, Erika, Erika, and the Faceless Old Woman, perched somewhere on the ceiling. H.G., with sweat on her brow and concern in her eyes, wrote down all of their names. It took her a longer time than was really worth spending. Michelle offered to turn on some music to remove the tension and mentioned that she had a new Panic! At The Disco album. H.G., (who liked Panic! At The Disco) was disappointed to learn that Michelle only had a blank CD; Sheriff Sam, (who wrote many of their own blank CDs), was enthusiastic. 

One by one, the citizens of Night Vale all shared their role in the story. Carlos reluctantly shared everything he knew of the University of What It Is, the things H.G. had already told to Tamika and Dana. Cecil and Nilanjana briefly touched on the march across the desert and all they had learned so far. They all shared what they knew - what was most important - to bring everyone up to speed on the threat to their town. H.G. filled in the gaps with the knowledge that she had, even though she shouldn't. 

"My police monitors report new portals opening here and here," said Sheriff Sam, pointing to a few spots on a large map of the town that they unrolled on the Palmers' dining room table. "They've sucked up the radio station, and... most of your militia, Miss Flynn."

Tamika gripped her copy of A Game of Thrones more tightly. Leann Hart laid a hand on her shoulder and brandished her ax. 

"I'll obliterate them for you," she said. "We can pretend they're news bloggers, and it will be easy."

"The victologist team has been sighted at these locations," Sam continued. "But it seems like they're preparing to leave town. My guess for this is that they're about to do something truly terrible and don't want to be around for it."

"Hmm," said Carlos, rubbing his chin. "Do you have any support for that hypothesis?"

"What's a hypothesis?" asked Erika. 

"It's like a science headcanon," suggested Cecil. 

"Oh."

"The point is that they're leaving," Dana said, reiterating Sam's point. "And we need to stop them." 

"Then we'll make them know pain!" crowed Leann, waving her hatchet. 

"Bake them into pies?" offered Earl. 

"Break all of their appliances slowly before their eyes?" suggested the Faceless Old Woman. 

"We could always make them read Cecil's fanfiction," mumbled Maureen. 

"We shall do none of those base suggestions," replied Sam. "We need them for information. If we know their plan, we can stop them from executing it. Also, I shall be placing the lot of them under arrest for a long time. Perhaps forever."

"This is what I propose," said Dana, plucking the pen from Sam's fingertips. "The scientists will split up and go to the site of the most recent portals and try to close them. Each of you will bring some of us with you: like for example, Cecil and Janice can go with Carlos to this portal here, by the radio station - if you want, of course."

"Sounds good to me." Janice smiled at her uncles. 

"Sam, Pamela, H.G., and myself can go to make a broadcast to the town," Dana continued. "Since Cecil's station was destroyed, we'll have to use the numbers station. Tamika and the rest of her militia will try to stop the Glow Cloud -"

"ALL HAIL," proclaimed everyone in perfect unison.

"-In its rampage. Everyone else will go to stop the victologists before they can leave town." She traced the map with her fingertip. "It's most likely that they'll go by this road, but we can send some people to the back exit just to be safe. Okay?" She looked up and around at everyone. Cecil sniffled. "Cecil, are you okay?"

"Oh yes, it's just that..." Cecil smiled at Dana with quivering lips and from behind fogged glasses. "You've come so far. You are such a good mayor. I'm so proud of our internship program..."

Dana smiled and gave him a quick side hug. "Everyone who wants to go with the scientists?"

A few people raised their hands. 

"Everyone going to stop the invaders?"

Everyone else raised their hands. Dana beamed. "I am proud of us, Night Vale. We are a courageous town, and together we will defeat this evil. I know we will." She glanced at H.G. for confirmation of this prediction, but H.G. was writing something down and did not respond. Instead, Tamika stepped forward. She lugged a heavy case onto the table, opened it, and began passing around books. 

"I have a copy of every book in Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series here," she said. "I want each of you to take one. When danger comes for you, do not fear it. Do not flee it. Instead, stand your ground, Night Vale. Stand your ground and look into the eyes of evil and know that you are very weak. But so is that evil before you. And you are not alone. We are not alone. We are many people joining together for one purpose, and that means that we are strong." She slammed the case shut and handed it up to the Faceless Old Woman, who drew it into the shadows with her. A moment later, it disappeared. "Be fearless," urged Tamika, driving each word home like an arrow to a target as she made eye contact with each of them. "No, be better than fearless. Be brave." 

 

Sam and Jackie kissed before they split up; Jackie to accompany Nilanjana to a portal, and Sam to accompany the other officials to the broadcasting station. Abby and Steve kissed before they split up; Abby to go to the main exit out of town, and Steve to the back exit. Cecil and Carlos kissed even though they were going to the same exact place, together. 

The team of scientists hugged. The Erikas hugged each other and disappeared in a crackle of heavenly thunder. Maureen and Michelle hugged Nilanjana and Jackie even as they grumbled about how mainstream it was to hug one's friends. Tamika scooped up her books, stuck them into the holsters on her belt, and stalked out the door without saying a further word to anyone. Her eyes were as dark and endless as the void of the dark, endless outdoor sky. 

Cars, vans, and police vehicles pulled one by one from the Palmers' driveway, all heading out on their various missions. It had begun to rain, which was rare for a desert and unfortunate for missions. In Sheriff Sam's van, Intern H.G. and former intern Dana sat slumped in opposite directions, gazing out the windows on either side of the sheriff's car. Sam flicked on the windshield wipers silently, and they swirled the water and sand together on the windshield until miniature sandcastles huddled melting in the corners of the glass.  

"We're here," mumbled Pamela. 

They all climbed out and stood before the abandoned gas station that served as the home for WZZZ, local numbers station. A large antenna quivered in the wind out back. 

"Shall we?" suggested Sam glumly as they slid open an umbrella. 

H.G. frowned. She hung back a little as the rest of the group plodded through the sandy puddles. "Something's not right," she said. 

"What is it?" Dana turned to look at her from behind her hood dripping rainwater. "Is it another portal?"

H.G. nodded slowly. "I think..." She gasped suddenly. Her body froze as if encased in ice. Dana started towards her, but then stopped as the ground beneath them rumbled. 

"What's going on?" exclaimed Pamela. "Gah!" She grabbed a nearby light post as the ground tilted to an angle and seized Sam's outstretched hand for support. "She's right! We have to get out of here!"

"H.G.!" shouted Sam. They, along with Dana and Pamela, broke into a run when the ground righted itself. H.G. stood rigid. The WZZZ station illuminated with a brilliant purple glow, and then it began to sink into a gaping portal that appeared beneath it. The desert ground groaned in protest as it started to cave in. H.G. drew in an abrupt gasp of breath and snapped her unfocused eyes away from the portal. The wind roared around them. 

"Dana!" she shouted to the mayor. She tried to stumble forwards, but the wind tugged her back, and so she wrapped her hands around the light post that Pamela had just vacated. "I understand now! I figured it out!" 

"Figured what out?" Dana shouted back over the roar of the wind. 

"Who I am! How I can see these things! I understand - Dana, I understand!"

"H.G., look out!" cried Dana as the WZZZ station folded into the portal. The wind blew things in after it vaccuum-like - stray papers, tumbleweeds, sand, dust. H.G. cried out as she lost the grip on the light post. For a moment she pinwheeled through the air, hovering amidst the swirling. Then she began to glow. Slowly, her writhing figure descended towards the portal, as if drawn in by some invisible hand. 

"I know who I am!" she screamed to Dana. 

"Who?!" Dana screamed back helplessly. It took a good deal of self-restraint to keep her from dashing over and pulling the intern to safety. "Who are you?"

The wind stirred H.G.'s blond hair and knocked her glasses askew, and it screamed as she screamed. Wind should not scream, yet this wind did. Dana and Sam and Pamela clung to the car for dear life, just out of the portal's reach, while Intern H.G. was very close to its maw. As she fell lower and began to flicker out of the existence of that world, Intern H.G. cupped her hands around her mouth. "I AM INTERN H.G.!" 

She said this, and the void consumed her. 

As it shrank, her yell came echoed from the glowing mouth, the yell she had given to explain how she knew the things she did. How she knew about the crises befalling their town. How she knew about the victologists' plan. How she knew things outside of her line of sight. "I am Intern H.G.!" 

And she was right. And it all made sense. 

am Intern H.G. 

I am Intern H.G., and I have been telling this story to you. 

Chapter Text

The radio station was silent because the radio station no longer existed. In its place, the purple vortex of a portal glowed cavernously under the windy sky. Grains of sand drifted into it and disappeared. All around the air hung heavy.

Carlos's science van swung into the dim parking lot at that particular time of day just after the sun has set, headlights shimmering over the blacktop as he parked. The wheelchair ramp hit the pavement of the parking lot with a dull thud, followed by a thud-thud as the driver and passenger door slammed shut in almost-unison. Carlos rounded the car and stood beside Cecil, joined a moment later by Janice as she wheeled her chair to the bottom of the ramp. The three of them gazed silently at the place where the radio station had been.

"Wow," Janice said. "It's just..."

"Gone," said Cecil quietly. "It's... entirely gone." 

Carlos reached over and took his hand. The three of them hung by the car staring at the portal for a while. In the distance, they could see the cold glow of the other portals scattered throughout town. A few of them seemed to be waning, like a slowly dying fire. The one where the radio station had once been also waned - and it also waxed, now glowing brightly, now more dimly, and now flickering. 

"We should do science," remarked Carlos, squeezing Cecil's hand. 

"Right." Cecil nodded slowly and turned to help his husband unload the scientific equipment from the back of the van. The equipment consisted of a portable spotlight, set of beakers (currently empty), a tripod with a camera-like apparatus on top, a three-pronged metal antenna, a portable computer contained inside of a green metal briefcase, and an instrument that looked like a cross between an umbrella, record player, and plant hanger. Carlos arranged them in a specific order at the edge of the parking lot and flipped a few dials on the umbrella-record-hanger device. "Janice, hold the antenna in the direction of the portal," he directed. Janice obligingly scooped the antenna from the sandy ground. "Awesome. Now Cecil, open the computer and press the start key okay? It's the one shaped like a pair of human lungs. Thank you so much."

"What does all of this do?" asked Janice, sweeping her eyes skeptically over the equipment as Carlos scampered about flipping switches and shuffling objects around. 

"Well, it's very simple. The camera there records everything that's happening and thus spares me the trouble of entering everything into a scientific journal later. The catch is that it's kind of heavy, which is why we have this tripod, which also can be transformed into a shelter if we somehow find ourselves in a survival situation. And then these beakers can hold anything from sand to blood to viscera because you never know, right? So I'm going to have you hold the antenna in this direction, and then the readings from it will show up on the computer. Also, this -" he gestured to the strange umbrella-player machine, "- sends out electrical pulses to scan the area sonically. But it also can fold up to be pocket-sized and can function as a projector, which is how I projected the words in the sky earlier from Desert Bluffs. And it functions as a substitute cell phone in a pinch. But none of that is what we're using it for now, so ignore everything I just said. So all I need to do now is press this button and -" 

Carlos pressed a button on the sonic pulses machine. They all waited in silence while nothing happened. Then, slowly, lines of data began to appear on the computer. Carlos scampered over and looked over Cecil's shoulder. 

"Yes! I knew it!" 

"What is it?" asked Janice, wheeling her chair closer. 

"The portals - they aren't growing. They're shrinking. See?" He gestured to the monitor. "It looks like it's gotten smaller each time that a new one opens! The only question now is how to close it."

"But why are they opening, and then why are they shrinking?" asked Janice, her forehead wrinkling in confusion. 

"Because the invaders want to take away enough people in the town that they can control the rest," said Carlos. "They want control." 

"That's right," said an ominous voice from the shadows. The Palmers looked up as Drs. Martin Kister and Sylvia Kayali stepped into the circle of illumination cast by the spotlight. They were both smiling cold smiles. 

"It seems you have us all figured out," said Dr. Kayali casually. "And now here you are, the only obstacle left in our way. To think, we used to work together, Dr. Palmer. Isn't it ironic?"

"You can't win," proclaimed Cecil, shoving Carlos protectively behind him. "We're blocking all of your exits out of this town. And Tamika's militia is on their way to your lab right now. You've lost." 

"Perhaps," remarked Dr. Kister idly. "But that, after all, is life. Perhaps we won't subdue your town or stop it from spreading scientific anomalies. But we have removed a significant portion of the threat. We have expanded our research into victology. We have gained small victories within the larger loss, wouldn't you agree, Sylvia?"

Dr. Kayali nodded, still smiling that same placidly empty smile. 

Dr. Kister spread his hands. "So what happens now, Mr. Palmer?" he asked as if they were discussing the end of an interesting book. "Our portals cannot be stopped. We created them to draw in a certain number of souls, you see, and once that quota has been met, they will go away. That quota will be met any minute now."

"Quota?" said Carlos. Dr. Kister ignored him and continued to address Cecil.

"When that happens, I assume, we will go away as well, one way or another. So, what? Do you get drawn into the void with your husband and niece? Or do you go on, ignoring the scientific crises and catastrophes caused by the very existence of Night Vale, and pretending everything is normal? Just living your usual life as a gay radio host in a town where every conspiracy theory is true?"

"I'd rather be a gay radio host than a monster like you," Cecil snapped. 

Dr. Kister's brow furrowed in annoyance. "Of course you would," he said. "Though I doubt you'll get the chance." At this, he and Kayali whipped small remote-like devices out of their lab coats and turned some dials. "Watch this!" he exclaimed. 

They watched. Nothing happened. 

Dr. Kister swore under his breath. "That should have worked - oh, I see." He adjusted a few dials and then pressed a button. "Watch this!" 

The ground rumbled and lightning flashed across the sky. Carlos's scientific equipment tumbled over in a heavy gust of wind and clattered across the parking lot in the way that discarded shopping carts do. Carlos almost fell over as well, but he managed to grab onto the back of Janice's wheelchair. Kayali and Kister stood impassively with their devices in hand. Behind them, the portal glared a brilliant purple and began to expand like a spreading stain. 

"The final consumption of our portal," said Kayali. "The portals across town have closed and all power is diverted to this. All that is left is for the town's two foremost protectors to give themselves up."

"Wait - you mean my uncles?!" exclaimed Janice. "You think my uncles are just going to walk into your stupid portal?"

Kister glanced at her with distaste. "Shoo, fly," she remarked, flipping a switch on her remote. The ground ahead began to crumble, bringing the portal closer, and the wind picked up around them. She and Kister took off running as the portal drew closer to the little group. 

"Run!" exclaimed Carlos. He grabbed the handles of Janice's wheelchair and the three of them rushed across the parking lot as the void behind them grew. Janice clung to the sides of her chair and glanced over her shoulder at the vanishing pavement as the van teetered on the side. Then the portal expanded and the van fell in, along with the rest of the scientific equipment. She screamed. 

"We're not going to be able to get away!" she shrieked. "We're not going to be able to get away!" 

"Of course we are," Carlos insisted. "We are, we are -ow!"

The air sparked with electricity, either from lightning or from some current sent from Kayali and Kister's devices. The metal handlebars of the wheelchair sent burning pain across Carlos's hands. He let go automatically and tripped on the wheel, falling forward. Unsupported, Janice's chair began rolling back towards the portal. She reached for the wheels, but her fumbling hands couldn't get a grip. "Help!" 

"No, no no no no no!" Carlos exclaimed.

"No!" Cecil shouted, reaching for the falling chair that he would never be able to reach. "Janice!" 

"Uncle Cecil!" Janice screamed, and then the portal sucked her from this world. Cecil's hand fell uselessly to his side as his eyes remained fixed on now empty space. 

"No," he whispered. 

"Cecil," Carlos said, grabbing his arm. He was crying. "We have to run, come on." When Cecil didn't stand he dragged him up. "We have to run or we'll be next!" The pavement crumbled towards them, and he whipped his head around helplessly looking for somewhere to run. "The tower!"

"What tower!?" Cecil mumbled desperately. 

"The radio tower, come on!" 

They sprinted from the crumbling blacktop onto the sand and over the radio tower, where the red broadcast light was still blinking even though nothing existed to be broadcast anymore.  Carlos only had time to hope that the tower wasn't electrified before slamming a hand against the side and gripping the metal line. He hefted himself up and ascended like climbing a ladder, sparing a glance to confirm that Cecil was right behind him. The two men scrambled up the skeletal tower, hands fumbling against the cold metal. Carlos felt his entire body shaking as he reached up for the next bar. The world below was brilliantly lit by the portal, but he was climbing into darkness now, away from all of that. The victologists were gone from view, but he had no idea whether they had been sucked into the portal or whether they were waiting just out of sight. Maybe they would strike the tower with the lightning from their remotes, and all this would be pointless. Focus focus focus, he told himself. Five. Eight. Twenty-six. Thirty. He was terrified. "Talk to me," he shouted to Cecil. 

"Keep going," Cecil shouted back. "You're doing great."

He pressed his forehead against the bar. "I love you."

"You too." Cecil climbed carefully up until he was alongside him and laid a hand on his shoulder. 

The whir of tires in the street caught their attention, and they looked down. Nilanjana and Jackie parked in the street and jumped out. Nilanjana seemed to be shouting something, but the wind carried her voice away. Then she waved her arms desperately, but this didn't convey her message any better. Carlos tried to give her what he hoped looked like a reassuring smile, although he doubted she could see it from that distance.

"No, stop!" shouted a closer voice. He looked down in a different direction and saw that Dr. Kayali and Dr. Kister were standing at the edge of the portal, and Dr. Kayali held a megaphone. "We have a very specific plan, and you are not at all complying with it!" she screamed. "You two are supposed to go into the portal now, alone and abandoned by your friends! You two -" she waved at Jackie and Nilanjana - "are ruining our idea!" 

"They're crazy," whispered Cecil shakily. "They've gone crazy." (Intern H.G. had not foreseen that happening, but it had. The victologists were now entirely mad scientists.)

Dr. Kister snatched the megaphone from Kayali's hand. "I'll fix this," he shouted, and then tossed the megaphone into the portal and whipped a gun from inside his lab coat. Cecil and Carlos screamed as he aimed up at them.

"No! Don't!"

"CEASE MORTAL!" boomed a voice from the heavens

Carlos lifted his head, still shaking all over. There, in the sky above them, was the Glow Cloud, floating in from the distance. It stopped above the tower, seeming to look down upon their small forms as if considering their fate. Carlos felt an involuntary shiver run through him as he clung to the tower for dear life. 

"The cloud?" snapped Kayali down below. "This is not part of the plan!" 

"BE STILL AND HAIL ME," the Glow Cloud intoned threateningly. 

"All hail!" cried Cecil and Carlos automatically. Nilanjana and Jackie repeated the chant in the street. 

"We will not hail anything! We will control this town!" shrieked Dr. Kayali, jabbing a threatening finger at the Glow Cloud. "Or we will expel this threat, or we will expel the threat and then control this town, or -" Confused, she shook her head. "You are a scientific anomaly!" she roared. Dr. Kister demonstrated his agreement by firing a round of bullets at the Glow Cloud. The Cloud roared deafeningly in anger and blazed a brilliant neon red. Dr. Kister dropped the gun in terror and whipped out his remote device with shaking hands.

"You - you can't do this," he cried meekly, pressing buttons on his remote. The ground shook again. Cecil's grip slipped from the tower, and instinctively, Carlos reached out and grabbed his arm. The tower shook again, sending Cecil plummetting from the tower with a scream for about two feet before Carlos steadied his grip on his wrist. 

"I've got you," Carlos said, his breath coming in gasps. "I've got you." Cecil, hanging suspended by one arm above the portal, squeezed his eyes shut tightly. 

"PUNY MORTALS!" boomed the Glow Cloud to the victologists, "TO THINK I CAN BE DEFEATED BY YOUR HUMAN WEAPONS! THE ANOMALY IS YOU!"

With that, it swept lower and dropped a dead shark onto the victologists. Dr. Kayali and Kister screamed, but as usual, screaming did not do much to preserve anything. Carlos looked away as the shark landed. When he looked back, the portal had expanded, sucking all three dead bodies into it. The Glow Cloud flared a matching purple. 

"I AM SATISFIED," it declared as it vanished into the vortex. 

Then there was silence. 

 

Nilanjana and Jackie in the street stood staring at Cecil, swinging above the portal, as if looking away would make him fall. Carlos snapped his eyes off of them and back to Cecil's scared face. 

"I'm not going to let go of you," he said, but even as he said it he wondered if it was true. He was only hanging on to the tower with one hand and his legs hooked around the bar. He could feel them both slipping. Cecil bit his lip and looked down again. The two of them hovered between the purple void below them and the black void above - mostly void, partially stars. Cecil lifted his head. He was crying. They were both crying. 

"The portal should have closed," he said. "They said it would close after a few more souls. It took Janice, and them, and the Glow Cloud. Isn't that enough?"

"I don't know," said Carlos. He shifted his grip on the cold hard metal slightly and his breath came shorter. Cecil wasn't particularly heavy, but then he himself wasn't particularly strong. They were both exactly average, about to die exceptional deaths. No. We aren't going to die. We aren't going to die we aren't going to die five eight twenty-six thirty we aren't going to die. Sweat trickled down into his eyes, but he couldn't reach up to wipe it away. 

"If I fall," began Cecil. 

"You're not going to." 

"But if I do."

"You aren't!" Carlos almost snapped. "You aren't going to fall because I'm not going to let go of you, because I just almost lost you and now I just got you back! Because those people, those, those monsters, they took me away from you, and I'm not going to let their stupid portal take you away from me now, because you are the light of my life and I love you I love you I love you I'm not going to let you fall -" He broke off when he realized he could no longer breathe and drew in a heavy gasp of air. His exhale came out as a sob.

"Carlos," said Cecil gently. Carlos didn't say anything. Cecil reached up and kissed the back of Carlos's hand. "Carlos," he said again. "I'm pulling you down. You have to -"

"No, don't say it. Scientifically speaking I should be able to maintain this position for at least another ten minutes until we're rescued based on that fact that-"

"Sweetie, I'm pulling you down. If you don't let go of me you're going to fall too."

If you don't let go of me you're going to fall too...

...and suddenly he wasn't thinking of Cecil or what Cecil had just said, but of something that Dr. Kayali had screamed minutes ago when a person named Dr. Sylvia Kayali had still existed in the world. You two are supposed to go into the portal now, alone and abandoned by your friends. Well, they weren't abandoned by their friends, for there were Nilanjana and Jackie in the street, watching them with fear in their eyes. Their friends were right there, near them. 

And they weren't alone. Neither of them ever would have to be alone again as long as they lived. They were married, after all. 

Was this the plan, somehow? For the victologists to conquer, they would need to remove the town's protectors. He had never thought of himself as a protector before, but perhaps that was how they saw him. Not as a scientist, not even really as Carlos Palmer - just as some threat to be put out of the way. As terrifying as that thought was, it was also, somehow, reassuring. We all wonder in our lives if we are really important enough to have earned whatever good things the universe gives to us. We need someone else to confirm to us that we are - even if that confirmation comes by being considered so important that someone else feels threatened by you, and tried to deny your existence. 

As he shifted his hand on the bar again he felt the metal of his ring slide against the metal of the tower, he realized he wasn't afraid anymore, and he made his choice. "I'm not letting go of you," he said. 

Cecil sighed and more tears fell from his purple eyes. "Carlos -"

"She said we're supposed to fall, right?." It was hard to see in the night's darkness, especially with the portal's glow silhouetting them, but Carlos held Cecil's gaze anyway. "Both of us. I -" He swallowed. "I'm not going to let you fall into a world without me," he said. "I'm not going to choose to live in a world without you." He squeezed his husband's hand. "You are the love of my life, Cecil Palmer."

Cecil stared back at him. Slowly, vaguely, he smiled, and then everything was alright. 

"So maybe we can close the portal after all," he said quietly. 

Carlos felt a smile cross his face as well. "Yeah."

With strength he didn't know he had, he managed to pull Cecil up closer to the tower. Cecil grabbed hold of him and wrapped his arms securely around his neck, hooking one ankle awkwardly into one of the metal bars. They hovered there, too weak to climb down or wait for rescue. All that was left was to hold on with what strength remained, and then let go and end the battle once and for all. With the portal closed, Night Vale would be safe. 

It is okay to let go sometimes. 

Eventually, Cecil whispered, "Are you ready to fall into this portal together?" 

Carlos kissed him. When they broke apart, he whispered, "We'll always be together."

And Cecil smiled again. "Neat," he whispered. 

They waited for a second longer, and then together they let go. Together, they fell through the air and into the portal. 

Jackie and Nilanjana screamed, but they didn't hear. They held tightly to each other as the air around them brushed past like a gentle breeze, and the world vanished slowly out of view. Carlos leaned his head against Cecil's and closed his eyes as the vortex swirled around them. It was like stepping into a warm room after hours outside in the cold; like falling slowly asleep after a restless night. Although it was the end, it was not unwelcome. For a brief moment, he wondered if the tossing of the vortex would pull them apart, but even as he though that, Cecil's arms tightened around him as if to say "don't worry". 

It felt like a long time, but really it was just a single moment. In that single moment Nilanjana and Jackie watched as Cecil and Carlos Palmer fell into the purple void below the radio tower and passed out of this world.

And then, once that single moment was ended, the portal closed behind them.

Chapter Text

[silence occasionally interrupted by static noises]

[silence continues]

[distant footsteps gradually growing louder]

[burst of static as the microphone is adjusted]

Can you hear me?

Hello Night Vale... I'm back. 

I have to confess, for the past few days, I doubted that I would ever be able to broadcast in this studio ever again. Just yesterday there was a period of time where I thought I would never be able to do anything ever again because in that period of time I thought that my life was about to end. Now that I reflect on it though, isn't that always the case? Every moment of time that we exist it could be our last, even as it is our present. We just don't realize it until that moment comes - or, in my case, until I thought it had come. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before I tell you the story that I'm sure you're all waiting to hear there's something I have to say, and that is:

Welcome to Night Vale. 

So, on to my epic survival story. 

When I fell into the portal in the space where the radio station had once been, I felt myself fade out of existence, and for a while, everything was darkness. When I woke up, I was standing in the middle of a large empty desert beneath a bright sky ringed by... ugh... mountains. Carlos was standing next to me. He said, "Where are we?" He looked around, seeming dazed. "And why?"

I said, "I don't know why we're here or where we are, but we're alive, for now." And I took his hand.

At first, when we looked around, I thought that we must be in the desert otherworld, but slowly I realized that that wasn't the case. I couldn't see a lighthouse on any of the mountains. More importantly, I realized that we weren't alone. I could hear the distant chatter of human voices, just past the circle of mountains fencing me in, but I couldn't figure out how to get to them. I stood there for a while, pondering how I was going to get to the voices, and then suddenly a woman rushed past me and ran up a trail that I hadn't seen before. It was Intern H.G. I called out to her, but she ignored me and continued up the trail. "I think she wants us to follow her," Carlos suggested, so we did. By the time we reached the trail, she had disappeared the other side of the mountain.

As I climbed up the faint trail, trying to recreate H.G.'s steps, I heard the voices grow louder, and louder, until finally, they were so loud that I could hear snippets of what they were saying. And when I reached the crest of the mountain, I saw that they were the citizens of Night Vale who had fallen into the portals. Daryll Ramirez was there, and all of the worshippers from the Church of the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God, and the vagrants from behind the Ralph's, and Intern H.G., and the Glow Cloud, and our niece Janice, who started waving when she saw us. I stumbled down the rest of the trail and she wheeled her chair over to us eagerly, which was difficult because the wheels kept sinking into the sand. "Uncle Cecil! Uncle Carlos!" she exclaimed. "It's okay, we all made it! The portal didn't kill us like I thought it would. Intern H.G. says we can all go back to Night Vale - we were just waiting for you to come and find all of us!" And she hugged me quickly before wheeling back along the ruts her chair had made in the sand. Carlos and I followed her until she stopped and pointed to the distance. "That's where the two people landed before you got here," she said, and her voice took on a sad note. "Daryll just went to check. They're both dead." 

A look of sadness passed over Carlos's face, but he didn't say anything. I put my arm around his shoulder. You have to remember, listeners, that Sylvia Kayali was not always an evil person. She was a person that he once knew, and even perhaps a good person. When I met her all those years ago, she did not strike me as a bad person. But she was. We cannot get lost in the past good that a person could have been when we talk about the present evil that they are. These are complicated emotions and we processed them together, as we also processed that, though the people who had threatened our town were gone, we were not. We are still here, Night Vale. How remarkable is that? 

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Intern H.G. looking at me from where she hung at the edge of the crowd beneath the Glow Cloud's radiance. Just then my gaze was broken from her as a giant rip tore across space nearby. We all shaded our eyes as it glared brightly for a few seconds, like the portals from earlier - but when the glare dimmed, we saw that it was just a doorway with a galaxy behind. It was a void, like the one in the night sky. Then H.G.'s voice rang out across the gathering: "Everyone, you can go back to Night Vale now. This portal is safe. It will take you home."

Everyone cheered and began to flock forwards towards the void, and they were then shoved out of the way by the Glow Cloud. H.G. caught my eye again, and tilted her head in the universal signal for "come over here so I can talk to you". 

I looked back over at Carlos and Janice. "I think Intern H.G. needs something," I said. "I'll just be a minute."

"Should we wait for you?" asked Carlos. 

"No, go ahead. I'll be right behind you."

He frowned, and I could tell that he was nervous. I mean, we had just fallen into the portal together, so all that would be for nothing if we were then separated by a void-like doorway. "Are you sure?" he asked. 

"Yes, I'm positive." He still didn't seem sure. I kissed him quickly and dropped his hand. "I'll see you soon," I told him. 

He kissed me, also quickly, and took the handlebars of Janice's wheelchair. "See you soon," he said.

I turned away and walked across the sand to Intern H.G. She stood at the top of a sloping dune with her arms crossed, the wind tossing her hair and customary intern cape. She smiled when she saw me. "Hi, Cecil," she said. "Walk with me?" 

I started to tell her that my husband and niece were waiting for me, and that we should just enter the void already, and that we could walk together once we made it to Night Vale. But then a sad flicker of recognition passed across her face like she already knew everything I was going to say, so I didn't say any of it. Instead, I said, "Sure. We can walk."

H.G. smiled again and led me over the sand dunes, the shadow of her cape stirring over the shifting desert. For a while, we walked together in silence, gently circling the void in ever-shrinking circles. Then H.G. began to speak, and she talked while we drew closer to the doorway. Her voice lulled up and down, explaining, then pondering, then just talking. 

Actually, I made a recording, since even in the strange world on that side of the portal, I had my microphone with me. I always have it with me. Here is what she said. 

When she had finished, I stepped into the void, and when I turned around it had faded away... leaving her on the other side. 

So to the family and loved ones of Intern H.G.: she was a good intern, a great person, and a fantastic storyteller. I know she will be missed. She will be missed by me, and by all of us.

When I stepped out of the void, Janice was waiting there with her parents. Abby and Steve smiled when they saw me, and Janice waved. Maureen and Michelle were standing behind them. Carlos and his team of scientists were standing nearby, with Nilanjana's arms around Carlos's shoulders. He looked anxious, but when he saw me, he smiled and ran over to meet me. I caught him in my arms and just.. just held him, so close and so tightly. Then I pulled back and held both of his hands. "Carlos," I said. "I don't care if these victologists leave town. I don't care if they come back. I will never let anything take you away from me again, and I will go to the ends of the earth for you." 

He smiled and brushed back my hair. "Oh, Cecil," he said gently. "I don't want you to go to the ends of the earth for me. That's never what I wanted. I just want you to come to the end of our lives with me. I want us to stay together, no matter what happens." He kissed my forehead. "But don't worry," he continued. "We just saw their van leaving town. It's finally over." 

I started to cry. He thumbed away one my tears with his warm hands and hugged me again. I said, "I love you," into his perfect hair, and he whispered back, "I love you too." I pressed my forehead against his and looked into his infinitely beautiful brown eyes, and in that instant, I fell in love all over again. He kissed me and I laughed, and then I kissed him and he laughed and then we hugged again. Love is very, very neat. 

When we finally broke apart, I took his hand and we went over to our friends. "So, everything's well that ends well or whatever," said Maureen, placing her hands on her hips. "Now what?"

"Now we go home," suggested Mark. 

"And tomorrow we can go back to our lab," Luisa said. "I have a lot of invisible corn left to be disappointed at." 

"We have to clean up first," remarked Nilanjana. "I'm sure the victologists made a huge mess after they kidnapped all of you."

I looked around at the smoking remains of crumbled buildings - at our town that was no longer threatened by victologists, but would go on victologist-free, fresh and ready for whatever new threat will come in, but has not yet. In the grey darkness just after sunset, the town was quiet and peaceful.

"Here," Nilanjana said. She flipped the key for the science van to Carlos. "You two go home. I'll see you at our lab tomorrow around eight."

"Can that be tomorrow around ten?" I interjected. It had been a long time since Carlos had made breakfast for me. Nilanjana and Carlos smiled. 

"Tomorrow at ten, then," she said. "We can repair our lab."

"I guess my record store once again avoided the crisis," Michelle mused. 

"I want to join Tamika's militia to train for the next big disaster!" said Janice. "Can I, Dad? Please? I'm almost sixteen, after all." 

Steve and Abby sternly began to argue about why joining militias wasn't a safe thing to do, even after a threat had been defeated. I looked over at Carlos, who smiled and led me over to the science van. And we drove home. 

And now, I am here, sharing Intern H.G.'s final message and speaking once again to all of you. 

We are alive, Night Vale. We have once again survived the crisis that threatened our town, and we are once again safe... for now. 

As I look out the window of my studio, I can see the radio tower where I hung suspended above the portal only two short days ago, and I remember how Avery climbed it when she first came here with the invaders all those weeks ago, and how Intern H.G. ran out to shout her down. It feels like a lifetime has passed since then. 

But that's time, isn't it, Night Vale? I've said it before: all beauty in this world was made within the oppressive limitations of time. It turns out that all fear and confusion is made that way too. 

And here, beyond that blinking radio tower, I can see the glowing sky - mostly void, partially skies - that reminds me of the void my old intern is now trapped behind... forever. 

Oh, hold on, listeners. It looks like I have a new text from Carlos. "Dinner's ready, and I got the movie you wanted on Amazon Prime. Hurry home, xoxo I love you." Awww! Awww, that's so sweet! Listeners, this is the end of our time together... time that will restart tomorrow with more news. 

Good night, 

Night Vale.

Good night.