William A. Hainline: Reality Engineer

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"Chapter 2: Anorak's Dreamquest"

from The Technowizard Guardians Of The Infinite Worlds Of Fandom

Author's Note: This version of the chapter has not been edited.

 


1

 

Gadget—or as he was known in this world, Anorak Prime—blinked. Had he dozed off, sitting in the sun? He felt sunburn on the back of his neck, so mayhap he had. He found himself sitting on the back of a fusion-powered, clockwork horse that stood on the rocky precipice of a high, dagger-like cliff that overlooked a once-verdant valley that now stood barren, arid, and dusty in the shadow of the Fortress of Darkness. Anorak knew that right now, in an Otherworld, a universe next door, he lie in bed in the apartment he shared with his friends, sleeping, the day before going to a convention that celebrated the existence of this, the Real World. There, in that world, he lie in bed, wearing something he called a “Mind-Weirding Helm.” He’d worn it while he slept for about a week, now. Curious to know what effect psionic sensitivity would have on the dreaming, unconscious mind, he had thus endeavored to find out, though Gygax had warned him it might be dangerous. Bravely, he had worn it anyway. He did not understand how he could be two people. And yet, he was. One there, and one here . . .

That world seemed phantasmal, dreamlike . . . fuzzy in his head. As if the time he spent there passed fleetingly, and then faded whenever he returned here, with no time having elapsed from the moment of his absence to the moment of his return. No doubt he would visit it again when he next laid down to rest, just as he always did. This world—the world around him now, that of the valley below, and of the Fortress of Darkness that lay at its center—that made up the true reality of his life, the world he really belonged in, lived in, would die in someday. Were he killed here, in this reality, there was a chance he might awaken in that other, stranger world of doctors and pills that kept you stuck in one place, one universe . . . but there also existed a chance that death did not constitute a bridge between worlds after all, but instead a door that opened onto nothing but a flat, concrete wall onto which the soul went crashing at high-speed . . . The End, period. Not a pretty thought.

The upper part of the Fortress of Darkness resembled a medieval castle lifted from the pages of a Wizard’s grimoire of dark architectural magic. The bottom four levels were exactly those of a place marked as 459 Broadway Ave, Cambridge Massachusetts, also known as “Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School” in that other, less-real world he sometimes visited when he slept. Two of its wings branched off diagonally. Its sensibly square, modernly-styled walls made of stately grey stone were marked at even intervals by no-nonsense, squarish windows with a slight arch situated over their tops. A large rectangular canopy that bisected the first and second floors covered the main entrance—three sets of glass double-doors. Twin columns of stone on either side of the entrance held it aloft, and big letters spelled-out the name of the place in a subtly futurist typeface. The two branching wings of the place fanned out to either side, with smaller, needle-like castle-towers extending upward from them, as though growing out of the smaller structure like stalagmites. Erupting from the high school at its base came the rest of the Fortress: A towering, miles-high, spiraling cankerous bone-spur of blackened stone and steel, a dark rip in the fabric of the daylight that lit the scene, the roads leading to it fanning out from its high school base like the lines of a spider’s web traced into the dusty dirt floor of the valley. A tower of smoldering stone, an endlessly-rising monolith of staircases, balconies, swooping arches, and blackened windows that stared like empty eye-sockets. Its tall, sooty spires spiraled into the sky, like the skeletal fingers of fallen giants who had long-since turned to stone, blossoming into gruesome parapets that pierced the very heavens.

Once, ages before it had been blackened to a crisp, the Fortress had existed as a shining, walled city unto itself, a peaceful training ground where powerful, healing Paladins and mighty, white-cloaked Wizards had gathered, both of whom had stood on the side of Light and Right, a place of healing energies, a repository of great knowledge and wisdom. However, in the centuries that had followed those early, halcyon days—the days of the great “Mind Wars”—the Fortress had fallen into disrepair and neglect, and had grown into an accursed place. No more Paladins came here to train, and the Wizards who dwelled here now no longer drank from the cup of righteousness . . . and no longer carried the flame of white magic in their hearts; they instead indulged in sycophantic and selfish pursuits, served unscrupulous masters, and used their power to pull political strings throughout the entirety of the Realms.

To this place now journeyed Anorak Prime, adventurer. He wore a long, brown duster that billowed in the wind that blew up and over the cliff. The wind carried with it the sage-like smell of the desert-growing creosote bush, what smelled maybe like some carrion off in the distance, and the fresh, crisp odor of the ozone left behind after a lightning storm. On his head, he wore a tanned but faded, wide-brimmed cowboy hat, so as to shield his eyes from the harsh glare of the twin yellow suns that hung in the sky above. The world around him worried him less than the words printed over the entrance to the base of the Fortress. He also wore a pair of beat-up, black denim jeans and a pair of combat boots that had seen better days, and a simple blue chambray shirt, fastened all the way up to the collar, where he had pinned a sigil of affection that the Sorceress Discordia had bestowed upon him: A small, shield-shaped metal emblem, through the magic of which they could speak to each other across vast distances, even the gulf of space. Finally, he wore a pair of gun-belts criss-crossed around his hips, and in the twin holsters, he carried another of the Principia’s gifts to him: A pair of her more dangerous inventions—“phasers,” she called them—a set of deadly weapons, they could unravel any form of matter into which their bolts of energy went flying.

Since the Time of Legends had come and gone, the valley below had become dry, dusty, and barren, the only sign of life among its wrack and ruin the immense Fortress of Darkness that sprang up from the rocky soil at its center. No one pure of heart could enter the Fortress without the shadowy, inky soul of the place staining and corrupting them . . . for within the Fortress, there also dwelled demons, goblins, and other creatures of darkness that guarded the Fortress’s innermost secret: A central chamber in which there hung, suspended over a shaft of eldritch, purple light that ran all the way to the planet’s core, the ancient crystal sword, Dràchynthýr, or “Dragon Slayer” in the Olden Tongue . . . and Anorak needed that sword. The Principia had sent him on a quest to retrieve it. It was the only thing that could unite the various armies of the Realm . . . and also, the only magical weapon she knew of that would allow her to defeat the evil dragon Scyzarchon. Back in what he knew as the “Other” world, he had survived this place only by the skin of his teeth, just barely avoiding becoming a statistic.

Just as he had—once upon his youth in that Other, less-real World—walked to school every day, he knew he had to approach the Fortress on foot, for to approach on horseback would attract too much attention from the watchful Wraiths that guarded the front gates. True, they would see him coming no matter what, but at least on foot he could seek cover, and could fight them with greater maneuverability. What he needed most, he thought, was a spectral energy weapon of some kind, something that could fight the Wraiths on their own ethereal terms. It occurred to him that he sat upon a positronic-clockwork horse, replete with a primitive positronic brain and a more-than-substantial collection of mechanical and electronic parts lurking inside its metal casing. Perhaps he could rig something up; he was a practiced inventor, after all, in any world.

So, thus decided, he dismounted. He patted the clockwork horse on its metallic neck, and quietly thanked the creature for its sacrifice. He went to his saddlebags, retrieved the toolkit he’d brought along, and got out his set of screwdrivers. He reached up into the horse’s fiber-optic mane, found the master power-switch, and turned it off. The horse’s head drooped, the light in its eye-orbs going out. It remained standing, though its posture slackened. Anorak set to work, doing so quickly, for the twin suns would set soon, and when they did, he would be out of daylight . . . and he did not fancy the idea of facing the guardian Wraiths after daylight had fled.

 

 

The poor clockwork steed; it had sacrificed much in the preceding three hours, as the twilight of the twin sunsets began to wash over the valley and the cliff, and found Anorak with his weapon nearly finished. Its metal chassis took the form of a squarish, rectangular backpack device about two and a half feet tall by one and a half feet wide, and about eight inches deep. He had fashioned it from cobbled-together struts, gears, metal pieces, and wheels using his spot-welding kit and parts from the transmission inside the clockwork horse. Shining coils of copper wire stuck out in places. Three exposed, glowing circuit-boards he had rewired stood here and there—he had repurposed their innards as power regulators—and winked with LED lights or tiny flares of current. A translucent glass sphere, the edges of which forks of plasma and lightning danced upon and caressed—the fusion reactor from inside the clockwork horse—sat at the bottom of the whole structure, with tubes and wires running to its base. The upper corner of all this came attached to a large ring-like device. A ring of glowing red lights encircled it, and this attached to a long hose—like that of a vacuum cleaner, and also wrapped in a large coil of wire—that ended in a mechanical “wand” reminiscent of the barrel of a submachine gun, the handle of which reminded one of a motorcycle throttle, mounted in the center of the wand, near a set of switches and dials. The end of the wand’s barrel supported another small circuit board, wired to a glass nozzle that looked as though it belonged on a piece of laboratory glassware. The wand itself hung in a receptacle mounted to the side of the rest of the machine, stowed when not in use, much like a sword or a bow.

“Well, there we go, by gods,” said Anorak, nodding decisively, and laughing with both nostalgia and excitement, wiping the grease off of his hands and onto his duster, and then clicking the final circuit board into place on the side of the main chassis and attaching the last of the dangling wires to it. “Yeah, there we go. Ghostbusters Proton Pack Model Anorak-1A is now—finally—complete! Fuck with me now, wraith-creatures! Ha! Thisll make things interesting, I bet.”

He lifted the machine up, slipped the straps over his shoulders, and hefted the thing onto his back. He stumbled a pace or two, and grunted. Egads, but the damned ungainly thing felt heavy. But, no heavier than the back-load of books he’d carried every day as a teenager when headed to or from Cambridge Rindge and Latin. He would survive. He reached up and over his right shoulder and grabbed for the grip-handle of the wand; he found it, and pulled the wand free of its receptacle, up and over his shoulder, then into both hands, where he held it by both the butt-end and central grips, and aimed it at a nearby outcropping of rock. With his thumb, he threw the switch on the wand, and felt the machine on his back come whirring and humming to life, sounding like a cross between an overloaded power transformer and a tiny jet-engine revving up for take-off. He twisted the grip in the center of the wand, and a slithering serpent made of brilliant, yellow-orange light erupted from the nozzle on the end of it. Bright blue electrical arcs scintillated around the beam, and it slammed into the outcropping of rock. The rock glowed red, then white, then began to vibrate furiously, and then simply exploded in a shower of pulverized pebbles and craggy shrapnel. Anorak had to duck quickly to avoid a large splinter of it that came flying at him. The shockwave made him stagger backward three or four yards, almost knocking him off his feet entirely.

“Whoa!” he cried, coughing from the thick smoke the explosion had produced. “Huh,” he said, when it had finally cleared. “Well, uh . . . successful test. I guess. Definitely gonna do some damage to any rock-creatures I find.”

He then sat back down, and started work on the next phase of his weaponry. The first machine powered the second. He knew that much. So, he attached a long-length of cable to the fusion reactor on the backpack device—about forty feet or so—which he then gathered up carefully and wrapped onto a set of small, protruding hangars he had screwed onto the side of the backpack unit. The cable ran to a much smaller, squat cylindrical device that sat on a set of wheels, and had an iris-like opening on top, with a set of circuits soldered onto its side that connected to the interior, which he outfitted with electrodes and lined with coils that would, when energized, create a very powerful forcefield, situated just above a “nuclear magnet” capable of attracting individual, free-radical quarks en masse.

This device took over two additional hours to assemble, the only light to work by that of the moon and the disconnected eye-orbs of the erstwhile clockwork horse. By the time he had finished, Anorak’s arms had gotten tired and his hands sore from working with so many fine tools and doing so much delicate, small-scale work for so long. A compliment to the Ghostbusters proton pack, this thing was of course a ghost trap, a machine designed to incarcerate phantasms and spirits. It looked nothing like its cinematic counterpart, of course . . . and it operated entirely differently; this one could hold multiple ectoplasmic entities, and could hold them indefinitely. He slid the trap onto two tiny holding rails on the side of the backpack unit, toward the top, and connected a secondary cable to it, which he then connected to a foot-pedal assembly. He clipped that just beneath it. Whenever he disengaged the trap from the backpack, the foot-pedal would fall to the ground.

He reached back behind him, over his shoulder, and clicked the wand into place on its receptacle. He turned around, his hands on his hips, and looked down into the valley, toward his old High School, and the Fortress of Darkness that erupted from its rooftop and towered into the sky above. The constellations above had just now started to become visible, as the Realm’s overlarge moon, twice as big as Earth’s, began to show in the sky as well, as the twin suns settled down into the horizon, blanketing the sky in hues of deep purple, blue, and orange, the far-off clouds draped in mountain shadows. Should he try a run on the Fortress now, at night? Surely he would have the cover of darkness on his side, and the element of surprise . . . but then again, the creatures he would face would be at their deadliest at night, since that was the time when their power was at its apex. Then again . . . if he went in now, they would not expect it. Not in a million years.

Theyre prepared for attacks during the day, he thought, because nobody in their right mind would attack them during the night, and they know that. Right—they’d never expect an attack at night, because anyone who might otherwise attack would be too fucking terrified to go anywhere near them.

So if I attack now, he thought, their guard will be down. I could conceivably get in, grab the Sword, and get out, possibly without even getting noticed . . . if I’m careful enough. Does this mean I’m not in my right mind? Probably.

He heaved a sigh, closed his eyes, and centered himself, as his mentors had taught him to do before riding into battle. He retrieved the Proton Weapon’s wand from its receptacle, and held it in front of him in his hands again.

He flipped the “on” switch, and once more came the whir, the hum, and the revving-up noises as it powered up. He opened his eyes, steeled himself. Then he turned, and started down the dirt pathway that aeons of travelers on this very same road had traveled down ages before, and set himself on a path to the Fortress.

Once the gate-guardians there saw him, there would be no turning back; he would have to commit to the fight, a battle to the death between he and the demons from High School, just as it had once been, so long ago . . . but not so far in the past that he could no longer smell the brimstone.

 

 

Anorak reached the bottom of the cliff, the dirt path bottoming out onto the floor of the valley. The enormity of the Fortress lay directly ahead of him, approximately an eighth of a mile away from his current position. The glass doors of Cambridge Rindge and Latin stood even with the ground, beckoning him closer with pangs of both nostalgia and creeping dread. From this vantage point, he could see no gatekeepers. But, he knew himself a fool for thinking this was so; of course the Wraiths were on duty. They simply couldn’t be seen; a trick of the ethereal substance that made them up. They remained invisible and insubstantial until they struck out to wound or kill; then, and only then, and only for just a moment, would they become tangible, material things . . . and thus, vulnerable to the weapon he’d constructed. One could not “kill” them, per se; one could not kill a thing already dead. One could only hope to banish them or entrap them. Anorak only hoped that his Proton Weapon packed enough juice to wrangle them into submission, to hold them in place long enough to position the Trap he’d constructed, so that he could then imprison one or more of the fuckers—and thus get them to do his bidding. Whatever became of them after that, he didn’t know; he hadn’t planned that far in advance.

A number of rocky outcroppings and the scarred husks of long-dead trees—some of which had once been giants—dotted the dusty floor of the valley, giving Anorak ample cover to run and hide behind as he approached the Fortress in zig-zagging starts and stops. As he got closer, he could see lights burning in the windows of the Fortress, two bright lamps lit on either side of the triplet of forward glass doors. Just then, as he started to turn from where he stood, he caught something out of the corner of his left eye—a quick blur of movement, floating past one of the lamps. He squinted to get a better look, but saw nothing. Then, from out of the corner of his other eye, he saw another burst of movement and illumination, very similar to the first: Just a quick, blurry form, lit from inside itself, that flitted across the features of the rightmost set of double doors.

Everyone knew that whenever a Wraith moved through space, it created a momentary, almost unnoticeable fuzziness upon the skin of Time . . . a blurring of the subconscious’s perceptions. He hunkered down behind a nearby boulder, and then very carefully poked his head out over the top to have another look. He reached down beside his foot and picked up a rock about the size of his fist, and weighed it in his hand.

Please, God, he thought, or gods, whoevers up there listening—please let this be the one time I don’t suck at sports.

He threw the rock as hard as he could. About a hundred paces away, Anorak heard one of the lower windows of the Fortress—one belonging to the Cambridge Rindge and Latin portion—smash into a million pieces. Oops. He’d meant to only create a small disturbance at best. He supposed this would work, too. The Wraiths guarding the entrance fell for it immediately. He watched as two blurry forms zipped away from the front doors to go investigate; they obscured whatever background lay behind them, their effusive inner-light illuminating the path that they took. Anorak reached up and over and grabbed the wand of his Proton Weapon by its handlebar-grip, then took the weapon in both hands and stood up, his eyes carefully watching the direction in which the Wraiths had gone. Checking one last time to make sure he saw no more blurry forms there, he set off at a brisk jog toward the front doors of the Fortress. As he neared the doors, however, his heart sank, for he saw that someone had locked the doors tight from the inside, with padlocks and chains, looping them through the push-bars. Damn!

Oh well. He supposed the stealthy approach had never held much hope of working, anyway. He heaved a sigh, and positioned himself about ten feet away from the doors. He dialed the Proton Weapon’s wand to 15% power and turned the handlebar at its mid-section. The fierce, slithering, whip-like beam of incandescent, yellow-orange fire shot out from the wand’s nozzle, with bright blue electric arcs whirling around it. The beam slammed into the glass of the door—it shattered—and hit the lock and chains on the other side. The metal parts glowed red and then white, and then melted into puddles of white-hot goo. So did the metal of the double-doors themselves. Sparks flew as they sloughed off their hinges and poured down onto the ground, coagulating in pools of molten steel and glass. Anorak relaxed his grip on the handlebar, and the beam shut off. There came a sound like he’d cut the power to a vacuum cleaner, a revving-down sound, a dying electrical hum and crackling sound that dissipated. The air smelled like ozone and tasted like burnt metal. Anorak did not approach the doors; probably a wise move to wait for them to cool off, first. He chanced another glance around at his surroundings. He had to get back to his hiding spot before the Wraiths returned. He would wait there for a few minutes, until the gates had cooled, and—

GAAAH! FUCK!” he screamed, as a burning, crippling pain suddenly burst through his chest. He fell to his knees and cried out in agony. His whole body felt ripped to pieces, starting with his ribcage. He clutched at the place where the pain spread from, and looked down . . . and there, he saw a blue-white, translucent hand—or the suggestion of a hand—reaching right through his chest, effortlessly penetrating his flesh and clothing . . . and then as it withdrew, the pain lessened, only to come back full-force, even more excruciating than before as the entire body of the Wraith passed through him. It felt cold, as frigid as the flesh of a frozen cadaver.

Anorak managed to get to his feet and stumble forward a few paces, only to come face to face with the other of the two Wraiths. Now fully uncloaked, the horror of it fully visible in all its twisted glory, Anorak forgot about his Proton Weapon, forgot about the quest to retrieve the Crystal Sword . . . and instead, turned and ran from the hideous monstrosity looming before him. He ran back the way he had come. The Wraith gave chase. Translucent, it faded at the edges. A billowing cloak the fluctuating color of a thundercloud during a storm formed its body, a frayed form wrapped around the faded suggestion of a torso. It reached out for him with its ghostly arms. The sleeves of its cloak gave way to spectral, skeletal hands aglow with eldritch energy and translucency. It had no legs or feet . . . the bottom of its cloaked “body” simply faded into nothingness as it fluttered, floating in the air. The hood of its cloak formed its head, draped over the place where a head should have existed, but for the fact that it had no head. In fact, it had nothing at all: Just a blank, formless blackness beneath the cloak’s hood, though Anorak could definitely feel the cold weight of its glare as it fell upon him. It might not have had eyes, but it had a look that could turn human blood into ice-water.

He backed up, trying to put distance between himself and the two Wraiths. He stumbled once or twice . . . and they attacked again, this time both at once. One flew toward him and flew through his stomach. He cried out again. It felt a large jellyfish had stung his guts, and he doubled over and vomited. The other one floated through his head. He felt as though his skull would split with anguish and torment. For just a moment, he saw things . . . terrible things . . . bloody, sacrificial bodies lashed to stone altars with barbed wire holding them in place; people screaming as they tore the flesh from their own faces; men and women devoured each others’ bodies in a blood-soaked cannibalistic bacchanal . . . and then the visions vanished, gone from his mind’s eye as the Wraith finished floating through his head. He tried to get to his feet, but his legs didn’t want to work. He staggered and fell to his knees, and vomited again. The Wraiths circled him like sharks, preparing for another attack. He couldn’t take much more of this. Somehow, he knew that if he died here, he would never make it back to that “Other” world he dreamed of whenever he left this place. Even if he made it across the gulf that separated the two worlds, he would not emerge the same person. The thing would shred his mind, rendering him insane . .

And then he realized: He still had the Proton Weapon’s wand in his hands. After a second of feeling like an idiot, he glanced down and cranked the power up to 100% . . . and then tightened his grip on the wand and wrenched the mid-section handlebar to one side. The snake-like, yellow-orange beam exploded out of the wand’s nozzle, with bright, blue-glowing lightning bolts arcing around stream as it flew at its target. As it hit the Wraith, Anorak felt the force of the collision echo back through beam and into the wand. He had to dig in his heels and push back hard against the force of the beam, so that it didn’t knock him off his footing. The beam warped and contorted, and wrapped itself around the Wraith and into a flickering, fluctuating spherical halo—a complex, animated Gordian flux-knot. Anorak kept the wand aimed upward and at an angle, to keep the beam as short as possible. The other Wraith shrieked—a terrible noise that sounded like blunt steel knives or claws scraping slowly down a slab of slate—but it dared not get any closer. It floated above him, near to the other one, shrieking at him. Gods, did that sound ever give him and instant headache!

“D’aww!” said Anorak, mock-pouting. “What’s-a-matter, there, Boo Diddly? Did I capture your widdle ghostie friend? Well, that’s too bad. Screw you, you ectoplasmic asshole! How do you like it when we go all weird-particle-physics-shit on you, huh? How do you like it? Does that taste good? I hope so, ‘cause here comes your next mouthful!”

Moving the Proton Weapon’s wand to the side, he dragged the energy-stream—and therefore the captive Wraith—toward its still-free companion. The second Wraith backed away, but Anorak handled the captive and his energy-stream with a renewed feeling of confidence . . . and whipped it through the air quickly, intercepting the other one too. The moving energy-streams enclosing the first Wraith “opened up” for a second or two, the Gordian knot untying—just long enough to ensnare the other Wraith, as well. In a flash, the energy-flux-knot healed itself with renewed complexity, flickering and fluctuating just as before, the stream that erupted from the Proton Weapon’s wand continuing to pour forth orange, yellow, and blue streamers of electronuclear fire, the forms of the two Wraiths now intermingling, electric arcs leaping between their “bodies.”

Anorak reached up and over his other shoulder, and grabbed the forcefield-based Wraith-Trap he had fashioned, and pressed a button on its handle to release the forty feet of cable that connected it to the Proton Weapon. He sat the cylindrical device down on its set of four tiny wheels, and—still holding the wand and thus the two Wraiths steady in their electronuclear prison—he knelt down and gave it a firm push toward the action. It rolled out ahead of him and out underneath the spot where the two Wraiths hovered. He took a step back and—thankfully, it had worked!—the foot-pedal unit had fallen to the ground when he’d pulled the trap free of the Proton Weapon. He stepped on the rightmost pedal, and the iris on top of the cylinder spun open, revealing a coruscating purple and yellow light-show. He chanced one more look at the Wraiths held prisoner within the writhing beams of nuclear luminance, then felt around for the other pedal with his foot. He found it, then stomped on it as he immediately cut the power to the Proton Weapon’s wand, the holding-streams disappearing. The purple and yellow lights inside the trap exploded upward in a brilliant, upside-down cyclone of green sparks, a yawning vortex of purple incandescence, and blue-white lightning bolts that twisted around each other like two entwining serpents dancing in a corkscrew helix. The light ascended toward the heavens and swallowed the two Wraiths, both of whom shrieked in what sounded like terror mingled with surprise. Anorak turned away, averting his gaze, lest the device suck his soul out through his eyeballs. A few seconds later, and the shrieks stopped dead—the sound suddenly silenced—and the dazzling display of pyrotechnic fury ceased all at once.

Anorak cautiously opened one eye and then the other, and glanced over his shoulder at the Trap. It sat there, a tiny red light on the side of it blinking, indicating success. Two tiny green lights lit up beneath the blinking red one, indicating two trapped phantasms out of the Trap’s holding-capacity for five.

“Yes, yes, oh yeah, yes!” he exclaimed, his heart thundering in his chest. “Ha, fuckers!” He walked up to the Trap, and danced a little jig around it while pointing to his crotch. “Who’s the man, huh? Whos the fuckin man? Ha! Suck on that, you supernatural, phantasmic fucks! I beat your sorry, spectral asses, fair and square! Bet you’ll never slime a guy who’s packin’ a nuclear accelerator ever again! Bitches! Ha!

A few minutes later and his heart had stopped pounding, his nerves had cooled, and his breathing had returned to normal, the heat of battle fading somewhat, the rush of victory subsiding. The thought of, “Oh my gods, did I just really do all that?” came into his head, and made him want to crack up laughing with nervous anxiety. So, he did. Then, recovering from his momentary giggle-fit, he took off his Proton Weapon’s backpack unit, and wound up the forty feet or so of cable that connected the Trap to the backpack unit, put it back where it went, then stowed the Trap back on its two small rails on the side of the backpack and locked it down. It might come in handy later, he thought; after all, it still had three open slots inside it where it could still trap and hold three more ectoplasmic entities . . . and he had a feeling he hadn’t seen his last Wraith on this quest. He put the backpack unit back on, slipping the straps over his shoulders once more, and then grabbed the wand unit and held it in his hands again. It felt as right and true a weapon as any sword he could have chosen; in fact, it felt more right, more true than any sword, for he had forged this weapon himself. And where he was headed, he would certainly have need of it.

So, for better or for worse, he gathered up what courage he could, and approached the main gates of the Fortress of Darkness—the front doors to Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, one of which he had melted into goo—and stepped through it, and into a realm he thought he had forgotten for good, and that he thought he had left behind forever. Sadly, in this world, it had never gone away . . . It remained, a dark place forged from memory and shadow, equal parts nostalgia and terror.

But then, just as he readied himself to face whatever horrors lay within, his feet grew sluggish; he tripped and stumbled, and caught himself on the wall before he fell. He felt tired; exhausted and lethargic. His body felt as though it moved through a thick syrup. His eyes kept wanting to flutter closed, and he felt dizzy. He slumped against the wall of the place, and slid down into a sitting position. He could not keep his eyes open. And so there he lay, until he fell asleep, and returned to the Otherworld, that strange world that felt so much like a dream. And then, “there” became “here,” and the poles of reality reversed . . .

 

2

 

A half hour earlier, Trillian Deschain—feeling drained and exhausted, having just gotten off of a twelve hour shift at Stefan Kingdom Memorial Hospital—walked through a revolving door that served as the hospital’s rear emergency-room entrance, and onto the dimly-lit handicapped walk-ramp that lay beyond it. The ramp led downward toward the still-packed parking lot, the roadway lines etched onto which led toward the road just beyond, which in turn led to the actual road—Bridwell Street—three blocks down which could be found the parking garage where Trillian’s battered, 2017 Ford Focus was currently held prisoner. Trillian sighed. Every night, it was the same routine. One of these days she was going to save up enough money to purchase a parking pass for the actual hospital lot itself. One of these days.

Trillian was a Medicinal Biotechnologies doctoral student at Miskatromyk University of Cambridge, Massachusetts, which meant that she had to do two years of internship as a medical doctor at a hospital of her choice, while working on a senior thesis project. She had chosen Stefan Kingdom Memorial as her hospital, and as for her project . . . well, she had aimed high. Her project was something extra-special, a secret she had enlisted the help of several other students with, and something she had dreamed-up with the help of her best friend and roommate, Gadget. The Physion Bio-Printer, a device which would—she hoped—revolutionize the field of organ transplants. The premise was simple: What if organ donation and tissue rejection was a thing of the past? What if you could synthesize organs? What if you could take a sample of a person’s DNA, and then 3D print synthetic organs and tissues using a bio-printer? What if you could, theoretically, synthesize an entire human body? She dreamed of a day when you could bio-print hearts, lungs, kidneys . . . arms, legs, fingers . . . ears, eyes, cochlear nerves, spinal tissue, even neural matter and nerve cells. The possibilities were truly endless, if the technology could be perfected. And based upon the simulations she had run—and the blueprints and formulas she had derived—she thought she might just have it licked. Of course, there remained the slight problem of funding. It would’ve cost an astronomical sum to build a working prototype of the actual device. Not to mention the legal and ethical hurdles of putting it to actual use . . . But oh well. For now, she was tired. And she had had a long-ass day. She just wanted to go home and rest.

She caught sight of herself in the glass of the revolving door as it rotated around her and she came out onto the ramp. Gods, she was a mess. Her strawberry-red hair had stray strands sticking out here and there, despite her attempts to brush it back into behaving; her blue scrubs had a spot of blood on the tunic, and a spot of vomit on on them, too; her pale skin—her skin always looked pale, a side effect of never getting much sun, thanks to working third shift—gave her a ghastly countenance in stark contract with her black leather jacket; and her eyes had circles under them from not sleeping well. Oh well. At least she still had what her mother would’ve called “a certain dollish prettiness” to her. Or at least she thought so.

Trillian worked the night shift because it suited her; she didn’t like day-shift—the nurses there were cattier, and besides, all that sunlight—ugh!—and hey, this way, she got to spend more time with Gygax and Gadget, who were night-owls anyway. And, she’d been looking forward to today especially, because after today, she had five glorious days off . . . five awesome days that she got to spend at PhantasmagoriCON XVIII with her boyfriend Gygax and her best friend Gadget, partying her fool, fannish head off with the rest of the lunatics there in attendance. She couldn’t wait. She had her cosplay all prepared, too; part Arthurian-knightly Gunslinger from the Stephen King fantasy realm of Mid-World and part crew-member of the Firefly-class smuggling ship Serenity . . . a woman who had a way with swords as well as six-shooters, and who lived dangerously, fought on the side of good . . . and wasn’t afraid to look good doing it, either.

She stepped out into the cool, crisp night air and started walking down the ramp. She hated this part. The three-block walk to her car. Bridwell Street was well-illuminated, and there was a 7-11 on the way there, but still, she didn’t like going it alone. It creeped her out. Oh well. Nothing for it but to get going.

She walked to the end of the ramp, walked down the embankment to the road, and started the three-block sojourn, around the side of the hospital. There was an alleyway just beyond the edge of the hospital, between it and the maintenance building, and then came Avery Street. Then the Professional Arts building, then Dillinger Street, then the 7-11. Then one more block to the parking garage. There were halogen lamps lighting the way on every corner, but still, it got dark between them.

As she passed the alleyway just beyond the hospital, movement caught the corner of her eye. She took a moment to fish in her purse, feeling for the can of pepper-spray she kept there. Then, she saw them. Two street punks were hanging out there, smoking by the dumpster, talking in low voices with two of the maintenance crew. They wore grey hoodies. Both of them were white and fairly young—maybe in their twenties, like her—but beyond that, she couldn’t see any details. She kept walking. The two punks broke off from their talk with the janitors and lazily fell in behind her on the sidewalk, keeping their distance—they tried to play it cool, but they were definitely following her.

Trillian picked up her pace a little, but not too much. She didn’t want them to know that she knew they were following her. She focused on the 7-11 up ahead. If she could make it there, she would be safe. She pulled out her cell-phone. Gygax had “bricked” the fucker the previous day—trying to “jailbreak” it from the Apple ecosystem; his heart had been in the right place, she thought—but the punks behind her didn’t know that. She got it out now and pretended to talk on it, and surreptitiously glanced over her shoulder.

The punks behind her had picked up their pace a little. A sharp gleam flashed in the dark; one of them had a knife out. Trillian’s heartbeat sped up, and she began walking faster. She was almost past the Professional Arts building now, almost to Dillinger Street.

They didn’t so much walk or mosey after her as they did lope from stride to stride, like jackals or hyenas, tailing her about twenty feet behind. Sweat beading on her forehead, Trillian yet again put some extra pep into her step and clutched the can of pepper-spray in her purse a little tighter, hoping she could reach the 7-11 in time. The lights from the store gleamed brightly, the sign in the window advertising Coca-Cola and an ATM. The clerk at the front desk—she knew him, his name was Steve—looked up and saw her coming. Excellent. She made eye contact.

Halfway across Dillinger Street. Almost there. The punks hung back now, stopping their pursuit. They were holding off. She was going to make it.

She put out her hands and reached for the 7-11’s door handle. Grasped it, pushed on the door, and opened it. The air conditioning greeted her. She had made it.

She left the two punks outside. They lurked by the door. Waiting for her. Glaring into the 7-11’s windowed front wall after her.

“Hey Trillian,” said Steve, flipping through the pages of a comic book.

“Hi,” said Trillian, huffing and puffing for breath. “How are you, Steve?”

“Oh, y’know,” he said, not looking up from his comic. “Bored. What’s up with you.”

“Fearing for my life,” she said. “Listen. I need you to call the cops. See those two punks outside?”

“Huh?” he said, and looked up and out at the two punks. They continued to loiter around the 7-11’s front door, occasionally glancing in at her and Steve. Steve said, “What about them?”

“They followed me here,” she said. “I think they were looking to . . . y’know. Have a little fun with me in a dark alley, or something. I need you to call the cops so they can escort me to the parking garage, so I can get my car and get the hell outta here.”

“Oh, sure, no problem,” said Steve. “What, you’re phone outta whack?”

“Uh, yeah,” she said. Outside the 7-11, a brown Cadillac sedan—an old, beat-up one, circa late 1990’s, belching black exhaust fumes—pulled up to the gas pumps and put on its brake lights. The two punks loped over to the passenger side window as it rolled down and thick marijuana smoke rolled out the window. They started talking to whoever was inside.

Steve didn’t pick up the phone immediately. Instead, he continued to read. Trillian figured she would prod him again in a moment. For now, she let out a sigh, walked over to the beverage cooler, and grabbed herself a Coke. She fished in her purse for a dollar and some change.

Then, the front window of the store shattered with a loud BANG! and the sound of shattering glass. Trillian instinctively hit the ground and covered her head.

“Alright, yo! came a rough voice. Trillian looked up. A large black man, accompanied by the two white punks who had followed her, stood in the remains of the shattered front windows of the store, holding a gun on Steve, who had his hands up and was in the process of getting down on his knees. “No!” cried the black man. “Don’t get down on yo knees, motherfucker! Gimme the goddamn money from the register! Now!”

Steve got back up, shaking. One of the two white kids went to the cash register, maneuvering around Steve, and the other one headed toward Trillian. Her heartbeat sped up, and she sucked in a sudden breath. The punk grabbed her roughly by the arm and hauled her to her feet. She fought him—she struggled to get free—“Let go of me, you asshole!”—and tried to wrench her arm away from him. But his fingers wouldn’t budge; he had a strong grip. He put his knife to her throat. She stopped struggling.

“Hey Tyrone!” called the one who had hold of her. “What we gonna do with her?

“Bring her with us,” said Tyrone. He grinned a grin full of gold teeth. “We gonna take her to Reese, Jimmy. He needs him a new bottom bitch. She’ll do just fine.”

“Right,” said Jimmy. “Come on.” He started to drag her to the front of the store.

“Come on, Tim!” said Tyrone to the one behind the counter. He held the gun on Steve, who kept his hands up. “Come on, before the cops get here!”

“I’m comin’!” said the other white kid, Tim. He popped open the register drawer and started grabbing the money out of it, and stuffing it into the pocket of his hoodie. “Gimme a minute.” He grabbed several packages of cigarettes off the shelves behind the counter, and stuffed them into his pockets.

“Come on, let’s roll!” yelled Tyrone, backing out of the shattered front windows as Jimmy hauled Trillian with him and headed that way, too. Trillian staggered and stumbled to keep up.

“Ouch you asshole!” she cried, as the heel of her left shoe broke. “You’re hurting me!”

Tim punched Steve in the face and Steve went rolling over the sales counter and landed face-first on the floor, out cold. Tim smirked and stepped over him, his sneakers crunching on the broken glass scattered across the floor.

They dragged her toward the running Cadillac. The brake lights came on, and the driver—a young Hispanic man with a trim mustache, wearing a backwards baseball cap and smoking a joint—whipped his head around to face them, a tense look on his face.

And that was when the car’s engine just up and died, cutting out as though it had simply been switched off, and Trillian heard the laughter. It rang out all around them, a woman’s laughter . . . though more like a stereotypical witch’s cackle than anything, loud and bouncing off the brick of the 7-11, the metal of the gas pumps, the body of the Cadillac, every surface, echoing all around them, surrounding them with sound. Tyrone, Tim, and Jimmy all froze in their tracks and looked around furtively, pausing with the door of the Cadillac still hanging open.

“Hey! Hey Tyrone!” called the Hispanic driver. “What the fuck is going on, amigo?”

“Quiet!” said Tyrone, glancing around. “Let me think!”

“Tyrone, I don’t like this!” said Tim. He shuffled back and forth on his feet, and looked left and right.

Trillian didn’t know what to think. Where had the laughter come from? Why had their car suddenly died? She was grateful—very grateful—that fate had just intervened on her behalf, but she was also terrified beyond reason. Her heart beat wildly, and she swallowed what felt like a rock in her throat. She felt sweat bead on her skin. She tried to control her breathing, but found it difficult. Jesus, how had this night turned to shit so quickly?

“AVAST, YE UNHOLY SONS OF GREMLIN-WOMEN!” came a loud, echoing voice from nowhere and everywhere—a woman’s voice—bouncing off of every surface. “NOW WHY ART KNAVES SUCH AS YE HARASSING THIS FAIR MAIDEN THIS NIGHT?”

“What the . . . fuck?” said Jimmy. “Jose, quit fuckin’ around and start the fuckin’ car back up!”

“I . . . I can’t!” said the driver. He tried the ignition key several times and then banged his fist on the steering wheel. “She won’t start!

“What’ll we do, Tyrone?” asked Tim. “What’ll we do!”

“Somebody’s tryin’ to fuck with our heads,” growled Tyrone, looking around, and holding up his gun. “We ain’t gonna let ‘em.” He raised his voice, and yelled: “Come on out, bitch! Whoever you are, you ain’t fuckin’ scarin’ me! Come on out an’ face me and quit fuckin’ around! ‘Cause I ain’t fuckin’ scared of you! Fuck you, bitch!”

“THE WEED OF CRIME . . . BEARS BITTER FRUIT, TYRONE,” came the voice again, in a chastising, condescending tone. “GIVE UP THE GIRL. GIVE UP THE GIRL, AND WALK AWAY NOW. SURRENDER. DO NOT CROSS ME. FOR I ALONE KNOW WHAT EVIL . . . LURKS IN THE HEARTS OF MEN!” The voice snickered in a downright mischievous manner.

Tim and Jimmy exchanged a glance, and then both took two steps back away from the car—as did Trillian, because Jimmy made her. Tyrone frowned, and stayed where he was.

“I said ain’t scared of you!” he yelled to no one in particular. He raised his gun and pointed it at nothing, first left, then right. “Come out here, bitch! You come on out, now!”

From somewhere off to the left, a bright, blue-white bolt of witchlight suddenly screamed from out of the shadows, and impacted with Tyrone’s body. It hit him in the chest, and he cried out, blood and electrical sparks flying from the severe wound there as he staggered backward as though shot with a high-caliber bullet, the blast of light blowing a hole in the other side of his body, with sparks erupting there as well. The whole thing took only a moment to happen, and when it was over, Tyrone had a smoldering, smoking hole—one Trillian could actually see through—about the size of a soccer ball in the center of his chest. His eyes wide and staring—and still blinking—with blood pouring from his gaping mouth, Tyrone collapsed into a heap onto the pavement in front of them. Trillian screamed, and Jimmy and Tim backed up another few steps.

“Holy fuck!” screamed Tim. “Jimmy, did you see that!”

“Holy shit,” said Jimmy. “Jose! Did you see that!”

“That’s it!” said Jose, “Fuck this noise, pendejos! You’re on your own!” He rolled up the window of the Cadillac, revved the engine, and peeled out of the gas station, leaving Jimmy and Tim behind. As he was pulling out of the parking lot, another blast of that same blue-white electrical light flew forth from the shadows, zoomed through the air, and hit the rear of the Cadillac. The car went up in a huge, roiling, orange-and-white fireball, blowing itself to bits and rocketing into the air, the metal twisting and warping as the gas tank ruptured and the fuel inside ignited.

“Oh, fuck me, man!” moaned Jimmy, his fingers digging into Trillian’s arm even harder. He dropped the knife. It clattered to the ground, steel ringing against concrete. “Fuck me running! We are so fucked!”

“Come on man,” said Tim, excitedly, starting to run away. “Come on! We gotta jet, man! The cops are gonna be here any second!

Trillian already heard sirens wailing in the distance, and they were getting closer. Please get here soon, she thought. Please. She kicked at Jimmy’s leg and he howled in pain as her toe connected with his shin, and he let go of her. She kicked off her shoes, kicked him again and then ran for it barefoot, screaming the whole time. Jimmy chased after her.

“Yo Jimmy!” cried Tim. “Yo forget the girl, man! We gotta book!

“THAT’S FAR ENOUGH,” came the voice again, this time louder. Jimmy and Trillian both froze in their tracks.

“Where the fuck are you!” demanded Jimmy from where he stood, looking all around him. “Where! Who are you!”

“A FRIEND OF THE LADY’S,” said the voice, and then its owner stepped out of the shadows beyond the gas pumps. She stood about five-foot-seven and wore her neon-blueberry hair beneath a motorcycle helmet in a bob cut; it fluttered at the edges in the breeze. She also wore a mechanical exosuit, but nothing like the bulky, ungainly contraptions she had seen the military demonstrate, nor the bulky, ungainly contraptions she had seen in the Miskatromyk U bionics labs. No, this was a flexible, conforming suit made of pistons, wheels, gears, motors, wires, tubing, and other assorted clockwork, with armored plating in spots and with what looked like ray guns mounted to the wrists, with mechanical gauntlets worn on the hands and clunky boots adorning her shins and feet. The chest-piece held a bright, glowing, plasma-globe-like core, mounted inside a whirling, circular armature. In addition to all that, the woman wore a maniacal, Cheshire-cat-like grin on her face. Her hands on her hips, and her voice now un-amplified and quite normal, she said:

“You talkin’ to me, punk?”

Trillian had never been so glad to see another person in all her life. Jimmy and Tim both took off running in the other direction, toward the approaching sound of sirens. Trillian spun around to watch them leave, surprised, and then turned back around as the Mystery Woman moved again. She was still jumpy as all hell, her nerves wired to the max.

The Mystery Woman stepped forward, toward Trillian, and said, “Easy. I’m not a threat.”

“Oh yeah?” said Trillian, and she backed up a step. “Not that I’m not grateful . . . but you did just murderize two people.

“Hey, y’know, regrettable casualties,” said the Mystery Woman, holding up a hand in a gesture of peace. “But I did just, y’know, save your life and stuff. So I think it balances out, seeing as how you’re probably worth, I’d say, at least two of their ilk any day of the week.”

“Who—who are you,” said Trillian.

“A friend,” said the woman. “Come on, though. We’d better hurry. The cops will be here any second, and they always ask so many annoying questions. Better to just frakkin’ avoid ‘em, y’know?”

“Where are we going?” asked Trillian.

“My ride,” said the woman. “Come on. Follow me.” She turned, and seeing Trillian’s reluctance, she sighed. “Look, it’s safe. D’you think I saved you just so I could turn around and kill you, or something? C’mon, don’t be stupid. You’re a smart girl, Trillian. Use that giant brain of yours.”

“How—how do you know my name,” said Trillian, backing up another step.

“Let’s just say I know a lot about you,” said the woman. “Now like I said—let’s get going. The alleyway behind the store—that’s where my ride is waiting. We need to hurry, before the cops and fire department get here.”

Trillian weighed the options. On the one hand, the woman was almost certainly crazy. She was a killer, and clearly had a destructive streak. Then again, she had saved her life. And it was another half a block to the parking garage; she couldn’t exactly run for it. Not barefoot, not all that way; if she tried, the woman would stop her, and if she was psychotic, and wished her harm, she could most certainly do her in if she wanted to at that point. The alleyway was closer, and the woman was blocking her path, in any case. And she had said she was “a friend,” whatever that meant. And, she had saved her life. So why would she try to kill her now? That didn’t necessarily jibe. Reluctantly—and against a sliver of better judgment—Trillian decided to trust the woman. For now.

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll go with you.”

“Goodie!” said the woman, and grinned. She turned, and began walking. She said, over her shoulder, “Follow me, Princess Peach. The name’s Dizzy, by the way. Desirée Amelia Roentgen, if you want my boring Mundane name. Or Dizzy Aletheiometrique Discordia, if you want the full glory of my ’nym, or my true name.

“Er—nice to meet you?” said Trillian, unsure of what else to say.

“C’mon. This way.” Dizzy turned and set off down the alleyway that lay on the other side of the 7-11, disappearing into the shadows. Trillian sucked in a breath, and followed. She trailed just behind Dizzy, keeping as close to her as she dared. There was something in the way she moved that was odd; the mechanical Exosuit she wore enhanced her movements slightly, but there was something weird about the way it did so . . . as though it were not just enhancing her movements, but enabling them, somehow. Then it dawned on Trillian . . . the Exosuit that Dizzy wore wasn’t just a crime-fighting utensil. It wasn’t just for augmenting strength, dexterity, reflexes, and constitution, though it probably did all of the above; no, it was more than just that—the suit was in fact a prosthesis. It enabled her to walk, period. For a brief moment, Trillian wondered how Dizzy had lost the use of her legs; whether it had been an accident, a birth-defect, or a disease of some kind. She felt a pang of sympathy for her. Then she remembered that Dizzy had just brutally murdered two people in cold blood, and she shivered. Yes, those two people had been trying to abduct her and sell her into sexual slavery, but still . . . Two people. In cold blood. She shivered again.

They exited the other end of the alleyway.

“Okay, we wait here for a sec,” said Dizzy. She reached up and touched a recessed button on the motorcycle helmet, and a small microphone descended from its edge toward her mouth. Then she said, “Siri, call Misto on speaker.”

Calling Misto, mobile,” came the synthetic, computerized female voice from inside the motorcycle helmet.

A ringing sound came next. Then, Trillian heard a voice over the speaker. “Yo, Diz. What’s up? You ready for extraction?”

“That’s an affirmative, Weird Uncle Em,” said Dizzy. “I’m at the coordinates we discussed. And I’ve got the package. I repeat, I have the package. How’s the not-wolfing-out going?”

“Had a partial transformation earlier. Nothing to worry about,” said the voice. “Coming in for a landing now.”

“Oh,” said Dizzy. “I’ll give you another injection of the anti-transmogrification drug in a little while, then. Over and out.”

“Roger that. Over and out.”

“What’s ‘the package?’” asked Trillian, apprehensive. She thought she had an idea.

Dizzy turned to her, smiled, and batted her eyes. “Nothing you need to worry about.”

Trillian almost opened her mouth to protest, but just then, a car came barreling around the nearby corner of a cross-street, headed right for where they stood. It wasn’t a normal car by any means, though it looked like it had maybe once been one. Trillian’s stepfather—a man named Morgan Travers—had worked as a professional auto mechanic his entire life, and absent a son to teach his craft to, had passed on what knowledge he’d had to his daughter. The car that sped toward them and then spun-out and squealed to a stop four feet ahead of them—nearly stopping Trillian’s heart in the process—had originally been, she could see, a Cord 812. A product of the Auburn Automotive company in Indiana in the nearly-Mesozoic era of 1932, the Cord 812 had come equipped with a 4.9 centiliter, 125 horsepower Lycoming 8-cylinder engine, and had been famous for its long, narrow “coffin-shaped” nose and louvered, wraparound grill plating on the front. It had sleek, curvy, chrome-plated exhaust ports that lined the sides of the long-nosed front compartment, and its fenders had concealed, flip-out headlamps (which, for the time being, the driver switched off; they obediently retracted and folded into the car’s large, pontoon fenders). Dizzy had altered the area near the rear fenders so that it now sprouted two swooping, curving pylons that erupted from the chassis, and that terminated in what looked like two small jet-engines, with all the wiring, hoses, and tubing all descending into a maze of esoteric tech that rested in the trunk area. She had tinkered with the engine compartment, as well: She had taken the outer metal cover and swapped it out for a curvy piece of glass, under which sat a strange device that resembled the innards to an old tube-style television that flickered with eldritch sparks, coupled with a sewing machine that ticked and rocked furiously, a Tesla-coil that arced with lightning occasionally, and a large electric rotor that turned a complex set of gears that extended through the floor of the compartment and, presumably, connected to the car’s front-wheel-drive system.

The car’s driver snapped off a salute to her, and in that instant, Trillian recognized him: Of course she’d seen him before; she’d sat in his class and taken notes! This was none other than the esteemed Dr. Joseph Michaelson. He taught at Miskatromyk U! Specifically, he taught Advanced Physics 321, a five credit-hour lecture and lab combo she’d wanted to take, as she needed another upper-level advanced sciences course to round out her electives this next year. Dr. Michaelson was a somewhat portly African-American man who had just snuck past his fiftieth birthday party, but who still preferred to dress in the manner of a youngish, dapper, somewhat-artsy hipster-about-town: He wore black dress-shoes, black slacks—neatly ironed and creased, of course—a crisp, black turtle-neck sweater, and a matching black, unbuttoned sport-coat, plus a pair of dark, aviator-style sunglasses. The mostly-white hair on his head had begun to thin away beneath his black beret-like cap, and the freckles on either side of his nose had become more pronounced in recent years. His gray, immaculately groomed goatee—oddly reminiscent of a billy-goat’s actual gruff—stood out on his face, which had the lines and creases of a man who smiled easily and often, and his blue eyes sparkled with mischief, wit, and wisdom. Trillian remembered him as having a strange sense of humor: He seemed the sort of man who might get in an elevator and stand with his back to the door, just to screw with the rest of the passengers’ minds. The kind of guy who might go into a room, topple all the furniture and tilt all the paintings, and then sit down in the middle of the mess until someone came in and asked, “What the hell happened in here?” To which he would respond in a confused, bewildered voice, “I don’t know . . . it all just sort of . . . fell!

“Well, Trill, are you coming, or what?” said Dizzy, raising her eyebrows, as she held the car’s passenger door open and gestured toward the backseat.

 

 

“And, ah . . . just where are we going, again?” asked Trillian.

“If I said ‘down the rabbit hole,’” said Dizzy, “would you still get in, or would you run away screaming?” She shook her head slightly, silently chuckling. Her eyes gleamed a deep emerald flecked with tiny strokes of blue, like precious jewels that had tiny, brilliant flaws in them, and she fixed them upon Trillian now. They radiated a sense of deviltry and good will that, together with her disarming smile, said that she acted in earnest, and that she meant no harm . . . unless of course you were a gang-banger who dared to not cease and desist when she told you to. When you worked in a hospital—especially the psych-ward—you got good at reading body language, posture, and facial expression; all the subtle tells and giveaways that the other person couldn’t fake, things they weren’t even conscious of. Not unless they were a sociopath beyond all hope of psychological repair. Gulp.

Great, just great, thought Trillian. That means my rescuer is either a psychopathic genius inventor . . . or a sociopathic and psychopathic genius inventor. Boy, can I sure pick em, or what?

It was then that Trillian realized where she had seen her rescuer before. Or at least had maybe heard of her.

“Wait,” she said. “Wait just a second.”

“Eh?” said Dizzy. “Yes?”

“The news. Yeah, those news stories that’ve been all over the Internet these past few months, about ‘real life superheroes’ in Cambridge, Massachusetts.”

“Ye-eah?” said Dizzy, grinning, as though unable to help herself.

“They talked about a woman, in a metal exoskeleton,” said Trillian. “Some sort of ‘power suit’ that people caught on film a few times, and that the security cameras can never get a good enough look at . . . fighting some guy in another exoskeleton, who always fritzes the cameras with static during bank heists and other crimes. That’s you, isn’t it. You and whoever it is you’re fighting. Your supervillain, your nemesis. Whoever that is.” She didn’t phrase it like a question. She simply stared at Dizzy, and folded her arms across her chest, waiting for an answer. In reply, Dizzy only stared at her.

“I knew it was a bad idea to fight him in daylight,” muttered Dizzy, seemingly to herself, and shaking her head. “Blast!”

“The whole Internet is talking about you,” said Trillian. “You’re a hit on YouTube, and I don’t know how many shares I’ve seen those seven-second videos of you get on Facebook and Twitter. And the eight-seconds of video they have of that . . . of that other guy. Who is he?”

“That,” said Dizzy, with a sigh, “is Victor Arkenvalen. Also of Miskatromyk University.”

“No way!” said Trillian, knowing her jaw had dropped open and not caring. “That’s Arkenvalen? The asshole professor who used to teach Artificial Life Algorithms and Advanced Evolutionary Theory? That guy? You’re fucking kidding me! That . . . that can’t be him! He was totally milquetoast!”

“Nope, it’s him,” said Dizzy. “Trust me. Well. Then again. It’s not really him, per se. It’s his alter ego, Aleister Aeon Frankenstein. His other self. The self he used to hide from the waking world. A self that never should have existed in the first place, but that does, and so I have to deal with him.”

“Why you?” asked Trillian. “Why any of this?”

“Because I’m the only one who can,” said Dizzy. “And it really is that simple. I promise you, I can explain all of this. Just get in the car, and try to be patient with me. I have such wonderful things to show you, Trillian. That’s why I tracked you tonight to that gas station. It’s why I interfered and rescued you.”

“Wait,” said Trillian, who suddenly felt a twinge of concern. She took a small step back. “You mean to tell me that if I hadn’t been me, you wouldn’t have saved me?”

“Well, I wouldn’t have been here in the first place,” said Dizzy, “because I wouldn’t have been looking for you. So, really, practically speaking . . . I guess not, no. But then again, if I had been there, and it had been anybody else, of course I would’ve saved them! I’m a hero. I save people. It’s what I do. I couldn’t show my face anywhere—but especially not someplace near and dear to my heart, like PhantasmagoriCON this year, for instated—if I didn’t stay true to myself and do things like that.”

“Wait a second,” said Trillian, and now she felt a twinge of—surprisingly—warmth toward the woman. She allowed a small smile to grace her lips. “You’re going to PhantasmagoriCON?”

“Most indubitably, I am,” said Dizzy, and smiled at her. “Me and Mister Misto Michaelson here, we’ve gone every year since I’ve been back in town. But anyway, like I was gonna say . . . can I really let this killer of a costume go without showing it off in front of all my fellow geeks and nerds? I mean, that’d be a crime in itself, am-I-right?”

Dr. Michaelson leaned over from the driver’s seat, rolled down the window, smiled, and doffed his cap to her. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance again, Ms. Deschain,” he said with an easy-going smile. “You know, I was quite impressed with your performance in that class of mine you took last fall. Quantum Chemistry C-205Q, wasn’t it?”

“Er, uh . . . yeah. I think so,” said Trillian. “To be honest, I’m a little amazed you even remember me. That lecture hall was packed. I guess a lot of people wanted into the section you taught, Dr. Michaelson.”

“Oh, c’mon. Class isn’t in session, and we’re not on campus. Call me ‘Misto’ instead. Everybody who’s important does.”

“So you’re saying I’m important?” asked Trillian, and almost cracked a smile despite herself. “No offense, Dr. Michaelson, but how would you know? We’ve barely met outside of school.”

“Well, I’ve never met anybody who wasnt. What, you didn’t think you were already?”

“Okay, guys. Hold on just a second whilst I change into something more . . . comfortable,” said Dizzy, still standing beside the car. “Misto—I’ll need your help, of course.”

“Right,” said Misto. He got out of the car, and walked over to where she stood. “Okay, Diz. I gotcher six.”

“Thanks,” she replied, then intoned, “Depulso Exosuit!” She stood perfectly still, her arms out to her sides. The Exosuit “opened up”—the gauntlets, boots, arm and leg pieces all split apart in various places, the pistons, gears, riggings, and wheels all repositioning themselves, the chest-piece containing the glowing light rotating off-center to one side, the two pectoral armored pieces moving aside, the neck-piece splitting in two, and the flexible armored segments around her abdomen breaking apart and unlocking from around her waist and stomach. The flexible metal segments of the thing’s spinal-column relaxed its conformity to her shape, and the shoulder-pieces of her armor disengaged from the collar-piece and slid backward. Even the fingers of each gauntlet pried themselves apart so she could easily slip out of them.

Then, the spread-apart Exosuit took a single step back away from Dizzy all on its own, as though an android some kind, leaving her standing there by herself, unprotected and unaided. Dizzy immediately collapsed into Misto’s waiting arms, her legs useless. The suit collapsed in on itself, folding, transforming, breaking itself down until it looked like no more than a large metal suitcase. Misto gently helped her to the waiting vehicle, setting her down in the backseat next to Trillian, who sat there amazed. Dizzy, for her part, remained stoic, her facial expression bold and determined, her eyes facing forward; it came through loud and clear that she wanted no sympathy, no pity, no tenderness from anyone but Misto, and so Trillian did her best to not stare at her.

Without another word, Misto closed the passenger door behind her, went around the car, picked up the suitcase and got back in the driver’s seat, putting the suitcase in the passenger seat.

“Alright, Misto,” said Dizzy, taking off the motorcycle helmet and clearing her throat. “Take us onward and upward, if you would. Circle around a few times and then come back around again, and set us down on top of the parking garage, next to that cute little grey car that’s still there.”

“Roger-roger,” said Misto. Trillian noticed that the car’s dashboard had about as many switches and controls as the cockpit of an F-22 fighter-jet. Misto put the car into gear (or at least did something similar) and flipped a series of switches and turned a couple of knobs. Outside the car, the headlamps came on, cutting through the fog that had sprung up as the night had begun to slowly fade into morning. He then reached down and pulled back on a small lever that sprouted up out of the console between the seats, which sat next to a much larger, double-sticked lever with buttons on it, a lever that Misto now grasped and pulled back on very slowly. The whole car made a several loud whirring and clunking noises, all blended together on top of each other, and then a mechanical grumbling sound as it jostled its passengers; clanging and clinking noises joined in as it shifted its position on its wheels—or its wheels themselves changed position beneath it. Trillian let out a small cry of surprise as her stomach lurched and the car began ascending, heading upward, into the sky.

Whoa my god,” said Trillian, as she looked out the windows. “Hang on just a second, here. Are we actually . . . are we flying?

“Well, technically, no,” said Dizzy. “At the moment, the Fangirl—that’s what I call her—is only levitating, my dear Almost-Doctor Deschain, by means of an invention of mine that I call a repulsivator. It produces a ‘dark energy’ field that causes a small region of the universe to expand very quickly . . . say, for instance, the region directly under this car. Or under me. As far as the car goes, the repulsivators mount inside the wheels, so that they face downward whenever the wheels turn on their sides . . . y’know, kinda like the wheels on Doc Brown’s time-traveling De Lorean in Back To The Future? Y’see, those thruster-lookin’ things on the pylons in the back aren’t actually ‘thrusters’ at all. They’re a variation on concept of the warp-field nacelles attached to the Enterprise on Star Trek . . . They generate a repulsive bubble of dark energy around the car, and then cause the spacetime in front of that field to shrink at an accelerated rate, and the spacetime behind it to expand at a different rate, causing us to move through space. The faster the current, the faster we travel. Man oh man, you shoulda seen this motherfrakker go when dad and I did our test-runs with her out in the Nevada desert six summers ago. We opened her up all the way, and man, lemme tell ya . . . shit got real out at the Groom Lake facility that day.

“Groom Lake?” Trillian stared at her blankly for a few seconds. “Wait, just hold on a second. You mean the Groom Lake, as in Groom Lake, Nevada . . . as in, like, Area 51? As in, your father . . . works at Area 51?”

“Yep. Area 51.”

“Uh . . . the Area 51.” The gears in Trillian’s head screeched to a grinding halt.

“Uh-huh, yeah.”

“Area . . . fifty . . . one.”

“Uh, yeah . . . again. Funny, you’re not dressed as the Doppler effect, but you’re doin’ a darned good impression of it.”

“Of course you’d say Area 51,” said Trillian, and she chuckled. “Because, you. The top secret military base that the government denies even exists . . . the place where they supposedly keep the flying saucers. That Area 51?”

“Well, uh . . . kinda, yeah. What’s so weird about that?” asked Dizzy. “I mean, I know that the stuff they do there is this big secret, or whatever, this huge thing that no one is ever supposed to talk about. They made me sign a frak-ton of paperwork before they let me leave there. So did the bigwigs at dad’s company. Basically, I can be shot, my body burned, and my ashes stirred for ever blabbing to anyone about anything I ever saw or heard while living there. But I feel I can trust you, Trillian. The truth is, I know a lot about you. I knew you before I went looking for you tonight. Plus, I gotta start building my team somewhere. It’s . . . important that I do so.”

Whoa, hold up, hang on,” said Trillian. “Slow down, back up. Now I know where I’ve heard that name. Roentgen, yeah. As in Walter Roentgen, the founder and owner of Mjolnir Propulsion Systems, one of the world’s premiere tech conglomerates and military research contractors. Yeah, now I remember. Are you actually telling me that you’re Walter Roentgen’s daughter? And that the man himself works for the government as some sort of . . . science consultant or something, out at Area 51?

“Well, out at Edwards Air Force Base, also known as Restricted Area 4808 North. But, basically, yeah, that’s kinda where I was going with that.”

“And what do you mean ‘building a team?’ she asked. “Why is that ‘important?’ And what kind of team?” She paused. Something else had just occurred to her, and it pissed her off. “And hey, wait just a goddamn minute, here. If you’re putting together some kind of team, like you just said, is this all just . . . I mean, am I . . . Are you recruiting me, or something?”

“Well, in a word, yes,” said Dizzy. “I’m recruiting you. I’m a big fan of your work. So is Misto, here.”

“Uh, say what?” said Trillian.

“Your work,” said Dizzy. “I’m a fan.”

“Uh, okay . . .” said Trillian. “My work.”

“Yes, your work. Like I said, we’ve kept tabs on you.”

“Ooh-kay then,” said Trillian, her creep-a-zoid detection circuit ringing ten or eleven different alarm bells inside her head all at once. “Turn the car around. Turn ‘er around and set ‘er down, and let me out. Right this damn minute!”

“Aw, c’mon . . . relax, Miss Deschain,” said Misto as he steered the car into a banking motion to avoid an oncoming flock of surprised-sounding geese. “Or can I call you Trillian? Diz doesn’t mean that in the stalker-ish sense. And neither do I. See, I’ve kept up with your work, too. Nobody gets through one of my upper-level courses with an A- and doesnt attract my professorial attention.”

“My work?” she repeated, and shifted in her seat uncomfortably.

“Yeah, your work, exactly,” said Dizzy, laughing—though it sounded more like a witch’s cackle than anything, Trillian thought. “Why, what’d you think I meant, that I’d stalked you? Pfaw! Hardly. Sorry Trillian, but I haven’t got time for that; I got shit to do, understand? Anyway. I’ve tracked the progress of your research at school for a bit now. Myself, I’m gunning for a double doctorate: One in Theoretical Physics and one in Multidisciplinary Engineering. As an undergrad, you got published more often than any other student in the Miskatromyk Journal of Undergraduate Research, even me, and you placed first in the campus writing contest for Best Academic Paper three years running. You also did your Master’s dissertation on programming synthetic stem-cells to self-differentiate using RNA encoding. You’re not a bad writer, either; I read your science-y prose and didn’t nod off even once. But I also know that that paper’s just a preface for the next big discovery you plan on unveiling to your doctoral supervisors in a few weeks, the one you’re doing for your Doctorate of Advanced Medicinal Biotechnology. I know about your big, secret project, the one you’ve kept under wraps. The one you’ve got the entirety of the Physics Club, the Association for Computing Machinery, and the entire Biology department all roped into helping you with, and supposedly all keeping quiet about.”

“How . . . how can you know that?” asked Trillian, who knew her jaw stood slightly agape as she stared with what she knew had to be a look of utter amazement on her face. She also knew that she was, most likely, blushing. In all her work in the field, at the hospital, in class, and in front of her computer, she had never before attracted an actual “fan” or “science groupie” . . . especially not one who was a scientist themselves! Half of her wanted to hide away in stunned embarrassment and claim she didn’t need, want, or deserve the attention . . . The other half of her wanted to revel in it, soak it up, bask in the moment, and milk it for all it was worth. Finally, after years of toiling away in relative obscurity and feeling hopeless at the nanoscale of her own irrelevance in academic circles—and of having the Boys’ Clubs of the sciences force her to find ingenious new ways of getting noticed for her brains while still allowing herself to be feminine—she had found, perhaps, a kindred spirit at last . . . and one who admired her work, to boot. “I mean,” she said, clearing her throat, “that, y’know, most of that stuff is public knowledge . . . but how the freaking hell did you find out about the, uh . . . my ‘secret project?’”

“Notice that I said they supposedly kept quiet about it,” said Dizzy. “Some of ‘em are pretty lousy keepers.”

“Yeah,” chimed-in Misto. “If secrecy were a Quidditch tournament, some of your confidants would have lost the World Cup years ago, Trillian.”

“Hmm, I see,” said Trillian. It simply wasn’t possible . . . was it? Unless they’d hacked into her student account on the school servers . . . or unless someone really had spilled the goddamn beans to one or both of them. There was a third option, though—that these two were bluffing. “So both of you know about my secret project? Alright. I’ll bite. Prove it, Miss Aletheiometrique Discordia, Mister . . . Misto . . . Tell me what it is I’m working on. And be specific.”

Dizzy sucked in a breath and intoned, in the dramatic fashion of an announcer on a game-show describing the top prize of the evening: “The Physion Bio-Printer is a revolutionary new thing. It can 3D-bio-print tissues, even organs, perhaps whole body-parts. It could even theoretically bio-print an entire human body, if ya told it to, though I’m not too sure about the brain . . . Mental note to self: Answer that question someday. Unfortunately, I foresee it as tied up in ethics committees for aeons yet to come. Unless . . .

“Unless what?”

“Unless you’ve got a patron. Someone with access to money; and lots of it. And who has a slew of connections within academia herself. And who believes in you, and in your work, and in the science behind it. Y’know, someone like . . . well, moi, for instance. I could totally help you out with this, Trillian . . . I could help actually bring it to life, like Dr. Frankenstein . . . only, y’know, make it not psychotic and murdering children. We could build a real, working prototype of this thing. I have access to some . . . well, let us just say some pretty far-out, fairly spiffy reverse-engineered tech that’s . . . well, not from around here. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink. Of course, in return, I’d expect you to help me with a few . . . things I’ve got going on. Kind of a quid pro quo deal.”

“Such as?” Trillian had to admit; this had begun to get interesting.

“Well for starters, join the team I’m trying to build,” said Dizzy. “For now, the team consists of just me and my weird uncle Misto, here. We really do need more people. Preferably people of the insanely brilliant persuasion, the kind who make really cool breakthroughs possible. People like you, Trillian.”

“But you still haven’t said exactly what this team is for . . . what they’d actually do. A team for doing research on something? What?”

Dizzy smiled again. “Y’see, I’m gonna come clean with ya here, Trillian, ‘cause I like you . . . I’m not just Walter Roentgen’s daughter. I also work for him, and for his company, Mjolnir Propulsion Systems. I’m currently the Theoretical Physics Consultant for the Energy Engineering Division, which I telecommute to from school here. He hired me just after I graduated high school, right around when I turned sixteen. I’m twenty-five now. Yeah, I know, I’m young for a double-doc student. I was one of those kids. Hermoine Granger Syndrome out the wazoo, I’m tellin’ ya; for reals, yo. I went to—or rather, finished—middle school and later high school at Edwards Air Force Base, in Nevada, after my dad moved us there in 2005 . . . right after my mom, Amelia Buildergeist—yeah, the same family that owns all those ‘Build It Yourself!’ electronics outlets you see everywhere—died in the car accident that regrettably fractured my spine and caused my hopes of one day running a marathon to go the way of the dodo. I made friends with a lot of the soldiers and airmen stationed on the base; my date for my senior prom was a shy, nerdy ROTC kid named Joshua, who got up enough nerve to kiss me on the cheek but then had to reach for his asthma inhaler because he got too nervous.

“Once they understood that I knew my shit, the scientists and engineering specialists there weren’t afraid to let me play around in their labs . . . and the machine shop didn’t care if I futzed around with leftover, broken airplane parts. That was back after dad and I had built the Mark One Exosuit, when I was twelve. I’m on Mark Twelve, now. I also single-handedly—and almost accidentally, really—solved a tricky overheating problem on a new type of engine for a new type of stealth-plane that the boys there had banged their heads on the desk over . . . a problem that had had some of their best and brightest stumped for six months solid before I got hold of it. Based on that, dad’s military liaison on the base—an older guy named General Reinhardt—recommended to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that they bring me onboard something called ‘Project Phoenixfeather.’ The big, huge, super-important, super-duper-classified project that my dad had moved us out there so he could work on in the first place. So, the very next day, dad made me an official employee of Mjolnir Propulsion Systems. Those military goons had me signing so many papers I thought I was gonna get carpal tunnel right there on the spot . . . either that or my hand was just gonna rot off. But that’s when . . . that very night . . . they showed me. Showed me the truth.

“What . . . truth?” asked Trillian, though she thought she had a pretty good idea of where this was headed. Did she believe it? Any of it? She considered the evidence: A form-fitting metal Exosuit that worked just like the suit in the Iron Man movies and comics from Marvel—it even had ray-guns, for crying out loud—and that enabled someone paralyzed from the waist down to walk, like nothing she had ever seen demonstrated anywhere else on the planet or in her lifetime. Weapons that could vaporize a human being in seconds. A classic model car that looked like a prop from a science fiction film and that could actually defy gravity and fly. Was it really such a big leap of faith to go from that, to envisioning the next inevitable part of the story, the one she knew Dizzy had all prepared and ready to drop on her any second now? Maybe if she preempted the madness a bit . . . She cleared her throat and interrupted just as Dizzy seemed about to speak. “Let me guess . . . thats when they showed you the flying saucers. Right?”

Dizzy’s eyes lit up and she grinned again, nodding. “Frakkinamazing things. Almost like something out of a weird, Masonic ritual, or something. Dad picked me up at our on-base housing unit around seven at night. A rainy November night, so it got darker earlier. He blindfolded me, put me in the car, and we drove for what felt like half an hour or so. The base wasn’t that big, so I knew he had to drive in circles, just to mess with me, or something. I mean, for one thing, I never heard him shift into fourth gear, so I know we never got on the highway. Then he parked the car, came around and opened my door, and took off the blindfold. Took me by the hand and helped me stand. We went around to the trunk of the car and got out my Exosuit; he helped me put it on. I remember the smell of his aftershave—Old Spice, his favorite. So there I stood, in front of a large, weatherbeaten airplane hangar on the edge of the base’s property. They had pulled the main doors slightly apart, and I could see inside, but couldn’t see much . . . just a lot of bright lights flashing as he led me inside.

“And, there it stood, or rather, hovered . . . Man oh man, you shoulda seen it, Trillian! Un-frakking-believable! Picture a huge, round, circular craft—kinda shaped like two paper plates, one upside down on top of the other and fused at the edges—some twenty yards across, just hovering there in the air, with nothing holding it up . . . all one big, slick unibody of grayish gunmetal, its hull one huge uninterrupted shape, except for at the top, in the center, and on the bottom, in the center, where the shape puckers and becomes logarithmic, and there’re these two glass hemispheres, these domes, each one about two yards across, and each containing these beautiful red, blue, and purple-white wisps of arcing plasma. The whole hangar smelled like ozone and electricity, engine oil and gear-grease blended together.

“I walked toward the ship, and as I walked into its shadow, I felt my feet—or rather, the Exosuits feet—leave the floor, and I suddenly floated up beneath it, suspended in the air, caught in its cold, cobalt-colored antigravity beams. I remember I laughed, unable to believe it. It was all happening for real, that moment I’d dreamed about since I was just a kiddo watching Star Trek.” She chuckled slightly to herself, seeming wistful, nostalgic. These weren’t the detailed, paranoid fantasies of some random nutter-butter, the kind who hung out in SKMH's Psych Ward. No, these had a vastly different feel to them; they had a warmth to them almost, a kind of genuineness and earnestness in their retelling. Dizzy continued, in a slightly sadder tone: “I only wish the pilots had survived, so I could’ve walked up to them, thrown up the Vulcan gang-sign for ‘Live Long and Prosper,’ and could’ve told them ‘We come in peace,’ even if it was a dirty lie. I’ve waited my whole life to say that, to do that, to say those exact words in that exact situation. Alas, it just wasn’t in the cards this time. They military found the saucer in 1981. They think it crash-landed, and that the crew died on impact. The icy temperature perfectly preserved them. The Groom Lake launch facility had them on display for a while in formaldehyde tanks. I could never look at them for too long without feeling sad. And totes creeped out.” She grimaced, and then shivered.

“So . . . um, uh . . . hmm,” began Trillian. “Perhaps I’m, er, missing something, but . . . what the holy hell does any of that have to do with this ‘team’ you’re building and what it’s for? I’m sorry, but I’ve listened to you explain that to me for the past twenty-five minutes or so nonstop, and you haven’t given me a single actual detail yet, nor anything even remotely resembling an actual answer to my question. Sorry to be so blunt, but this sales-pitch seems rather disjointed, and not that well-thought-out. I mean, thank you for saving my life back there—I mean, Jesus H. Christ, thank you, I owe you one, big time—but c’mon . . . Please tell me you wrote this all down on some index cards or something and then tried it out on Misto here before you spun it all out for me just now.”

“Well, er . . . uh, no, not exactly. I was just sort of winging it.” She breathed a heavy sigh and shook her head. “And, I am getting to the good part, I swear. Y’see, the military treats everything like it’s the prelude to a war. They finally get their hands on a genuine alien spacecraft, and what do they do? They call in my dad and his company to take the frakker apart and reverse-engineer its propulsion and defense systems, so that they can use ‘em to build better fighters, bombers, and weapons. Despite the fact that Mjolnir Propulsion is a military contractor, neither dad nor I are into that . . . Contrary to what everybody thinks about my dad thanks to the goddamn media, we aren’t in this business strictly for the money. We’re into this—and into this project—for the pure science of it, for the wonder in becoming Masters of Space and Time by figuring out the tech in that ship. We’re outta-the-box thinkers, and we need more outta-the-box thinkers to help us with this, and to help us run our own research program separate from the military’s, and definitely off their radar and off their books. Of course, they cant know we’re doing this; something about ’treason,’ ’betraying one’s country,’ or ‘revealing state secrets,’ or whatever. Hence, my need to put a secret team together. A team of people to help me science the shiznit outta that alien saucer—remotely, from here in Cambridge—and to help me do two other important jobs, as well.”

“Oh, gee, nothing massively illegal about any of that,” said Trillian with a shrug. “You do realize that you’re talking about fucking treason, right?”

“Well, yes and no,” said Dizzy. “The thing is, the government has shown, in the past, that they’re willing to turn a blind eye toward certain . . . indiscretions, so long as the final outcome is beneficial. And plus, they’re not gonna go after Walter Roentgen, one of the richest men in America, and his daughter, a famous prodigy. I have enough lawyers—lawyers out the wazoo—who can defend me, and anyone who works for me. Plus we’re talking about a splinter group, within a shell company, working with a black budget, inside a giant corporate entity, that branches off a government research entity. I think we’re covered.

“Yeah, says you. I’m wary. I just can’t wait to hear what the ‘other’ important jobs are,” said Trillian. “Pins and needles, Dizzy. Pins and needles.”

“The first other job,” said Dizzy, letting out a long, slow breath. “Is to help me prepare for the day when the owners of that alien saucer come looking for their missing pilots and the ship they disappeared with. See, back at the base, there’re three theories: One theory says that since the ship crashed here, and there’s been no further contact from the aliens who sent it, we’ve got nothin’ to worry about . . . they’ve forsaken whatever mission it was on, and have essentially forgotten it; they’ve let it go and chalked it up to bad stinkin’ luck. The second theory states that they havent forgotten it, and will come back to check on it eventually, and when they do, we’ll have ourselves a peaceful First Contact scenario . . . the aliens will be totes cool with the ship and its crew both perishing—‘cause that’s totally not our fault—and everything will be peachy-keen and hunky-dory as we humans and aliens all join hands and sing ‘I love you, you love me.’ Now, the third theory . . . That’s the one that says ‘Whoa no, they haven’t forgotten . . . they’re still out there, and they’re still waiting for their scout ship to come back, and if they find out that its crew are dead and that we’ve taken their ship apart and copied its technology . . . it will not go well for us when they eventually show up looking for it.’ Oh, and that theory? That one happens to be mine. So, yeah. If these wascawy wabbits ever come a-knockin’, we’ll of course need ray-guns to fight ‘em with . . . plus maneuverable fighters and battleships, both with hyperdrive, that can hold-off or bring down their fighters and battleships . . . and of course, we’ll need more Cybermechazoid Exosuits and weapons-tech like mine so that our soldiers can go toe-to-toe with these tentacled slime-boogers and boot their sorry arses all the way back to Proxima Centauri.”

“Hmm. I see,” said Trillian. And what’s the other other job?”

Dizzy sighed. “The other other job is this: Help me fight Aleister Aeon Frankenstein. He’s become my arch-nemesis, and he stalks these streets and prowls the city’s shadows, constantly up to no good. My father helped create him, once upon a time in the 90’s. I can’t kill him; he’s a part of Victor, and Victor is far too connected to my father for me to ever allow myself to just up and ‘kill’ him. Hence what I’ve done so far is just work to subdue him when I can, and keep him from getting into too much hot water for his crazy schemes. But what I really need to do is find a way to separate the violent, evil Aleister from the otherwise mild-mannered Victor Arkenvalen.”

“Well,” said Trillian, “can we maybe help you find a shorter name for him, first? How do you find the time to be a double-doctorate student and fight this guy and work for your father’s company?”

It isn’t easy,” said Dizzy.

“When does he find the time to teach and be a mad scientist supervillain?”

“I dunno, but he does.”

“Is he like that all the time?”

“Nah, not all the time,” said Dizzy. “Some nights he stays in, working on dark inventions of his own. He’s particularly concerned with Victor’s almost-dead wife, Alicia, whom he and Victor keep in suspended animation to prevent her from dying all the way. My dad shot her twenty years ago when the three of them—dad, Walter, and Victor—faced her in a showdown at the old mental asylum outside of town. She’d become a rampaging murder-mutant thanks to one of their experiments that went wrong, see.”

“You’re a strange person, Dizzy.”

“I know. But, listen. You must never tell anyone about Victor’s condition,” said Dizzy quietly, touching her arm with the fingers of her right gauntlet. “Never. Not a soul, do you hear? Victor cannot know that anyone except Misto and I know the secret that he hides, the secret that is Aleister.” She paused, presumably for effect, and then returned her voice to its usual boisterous grandeur. “So. Whadda ya think, Trillian—is you in, or is you out, girlfriend?”

“I think that’s an awfully big proposal to just drop on someone like a nuclear warhead . . . especially a scant half-hour after they’ve been viciously attacked, almost gang-raped, and very nearly kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery.”

“Yeah, I’m with Trillian, Diz,” said Misto from up front. “At least wait for the mushroom cloud to dissipate before you start goin’ door-to-door hawkin’ your anti-radiation survival gear, or whatever.”

“That, right there,” said Dizzy, “was a messy, convoluted metaphor, and I’ll have you know I think it somewhat beneath a man of your academic standing, Misto.”

“Oh, whatever,” he replied. “Give the girl a break, is all I’m sayin’.”

“I love it when people talk about me in the third person while I’m in the vehicle with them,” said Trillian. “I just cant tell you how much that endears me to the people doing it. Still, though. You’ll understand if I’m a bit skeptical of . . . all this; I am a scientist, after all, and these are some mighty big claims you’re putting forward.”

“Perhaps they are at that. But, I always prefer to either go big, or go home.” Dizzy momentarily adopted a Scottish accent. “After all—if’n ye don’t go over the top, lassie, ye canna see what ’tis on the other side!” Then, she nodded toward the front seat and said, in her “normal” voice, “Ah, here we are, then. Check it out . . . Curbside service: Your ride, m’lady, twelve o’clock high.”

Trillian looked out the windshield of the car, and sure enough, they had landed on the roof of the parking garage and Misto had pulled forward, descending the ramp to the third level. They turned the corner, came around the bend, and there, about ten feet ahead of them, Trillian’s silver Ford Focus awaited, bathed in the brightness of the Cord 812’s headlamps. She’d been so engrossed with Dizzy’s epic, otherworldly spiel about aliens and government conspiracies that she hadn’t paid attention to the sound or feeling of the car’s wheels moving back into their default position. They came to a stop, once again touching down on pavement. Misto got out of the car and held the driver’s side door open for her. Dizzy fished in her leather jacket’s left pocket and pulled out what looked like a small, metallic Star Trek “Federation” insignia. It had a brooch-like pin on its backside. Dizzy reached over and fastened it to the collar of Trillian’s scrubs, and then gave her a warm smile.

“There. Now then, if you change your mind, just tap the insignia—it’ll emit a cricket-like chirping noise when the com-channel is online—and then say ‘I’—then say your True Name—and then add, ‘solemnly swear that I am up to no good.’ The computer on the other end will do voice-print recognition and then alert me via a text message. Well, then.” She smiled again, and stuck out a hand for Trillian to shake. “I believe this is where we part ways for the nonce, Trillian Deschain. Have fun at PhantasmagoriCON. I know I will.”

“Thanks. Really. Thank you, for everything.” Trillian took her hand and shook it, and regarded Dizzy with a look of genuine curiosity. Normally, she could read people instantly, telling within a few moments of meeting them what kind of person they were, how honest they were, how well-adjusted, or how crazy. But Dizzy defied analysis, and so Trillian honestly didn’t know what to make of her. Friend, foe, or somewhere in between? Do-gooding crime-fighter, or devious mastermind? She seemed, at best, a collection of loose ends, leaving Trillian to wonder what kind of clockworks actually ran behind that wild-eyed grin the girl had. “I’ll say this much,” said Trillian, as she climbed out the backseat. “This has definitely been a night to remember. Take care, Dizzy.”

“You too, Trillian.”

As she climbed out and stood on the pavement once more, the thickets of the fog surrounding her, Misto did something that surprised her. He did not get back in the car immediately. Instead, he ducked his head in and said, “One minute, Diz.”

“Yeah, yeah, yada, yada, whatever, talk amongst yourselves,” said Dizzy, rolling her eyes.

Misto closed the door and smiled at Trillian reassuringly. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s always like that the first time.”

“The first time what?” she asked.

“The first time you meet her. Believe it or not, her schtick kind of grows on you, after a while.”

“Tell me one thing, Dr. Michael—er, I mean, Misto.”

“Sure, ask me anything.”

“Is she serious? About putting together this team of hers, and about the reasons why? Is any of this for real?

“Well,” said Misto with a shrug, “look around you. You did just fly in a classic 1930’s sedan that uses Dizzy’s reverse-engineered repulsivator tech in order to lift off and go places. And you’re wearing a communicator pin that can use quantum entanglement to literally send voice mails across the entire galaxy in a heartbeat. Granted, thus far, you only have our word that said tech even exists . . . but if you’d like to take a closer look at that glowin’, whirligig thingamabob in the engine compartment behind me, I’d be only too happy to arrange for you takin’ a crack at it sometime durin’ the daylight hours, if you like. And if you’re up for a challenge, that is.” He smiled knowingly at her . . . as in he knew that she knew that he knew that he had found her Achille’s heel—her innate scientific curiosity; the romance of the intellect that burned deep inside her like a ten-million candle-power arc-lamp. Damn him!

“Your eyes,” he said, nodding decisively. “Yeah, that’s it. Your eyes. They’re kind. And curious. And they have an appetite for endless wonder burning deep within them. They say you won’t turn us in because you want there to be more to this encounter than just some crazy, rich-girl vigilante with a flair for weapons design and fine taste in handsome drivers. You desperately want a bigger picture than just us meager humans, scurrying about our short, pointless lives on this meaningless rock, floating through a vast and empty vacuum devoid of any higher purpose or plan. You want—no, you demand—more to life than that, and this, Dizzy’s team, promises that there is hope for a brighter vision.” He sucked in a breath, and exhaled a heavy sigh. “So, there. Thats why you won’t turn us in. Now if you’ll excuse me, Miss Deschain, I’ve gotta take Diz back home and then get home myself and grab some z’s. PhantasmagoriCON starts tomorrow, and like you, I need rest enough so I can get Diz and myself all checked into our suite and get our bags up the elevator, too. But, hey . . . with any luck, we’ll see you there!” He laughed, opened the car door and got back in, and nodded to her, doffing his cap once more. “G’night, Trillian.”

“Wait!” cried Trillian. “One more thing.”

He paused in the middle of shutting the driver’s side door. “Ye-e-es?”

“Earlier on. Dizzy asked you about something. Something about the ‘not-wolfing-out’ thing. And you said you had a ‘partial transformation’ and that you needed a dose of something called an ‘Anti-Transmogrification Drug.’ Just what the hell did that all mean?”

Misto smiled. “Well, I could tell ya. But then I’d have ta kill ya.” He closed the door, and with that, the Cord 812’s fenders sprouted headlights once again, and the car toddled off, once again rolling on rubber tires as it drove away, while Trillian fumbled with getting her car-keys out of her purse and unlocked her Ford Focus. Once she managed to get inside and shut the door, she laid back in the driver’s seat and let out a long, slow breath. What the fuck had just happened? An hour and a half ago, she’d been an ordinary doctoral student at Miskatromyk U and a part-time intern at Stefan Kingdom Memorial Hospital. And in the space of an hour or so, street thugs had attacked and almost raped her, they’d almost knocked her unconscious and sold her into slavery, a real life superheroine had stepped in and saved her with gadgets that defied the basic laws of physics, and said superheroine had invited her to help out with some kind of weird, clandestine research team that focused on reverse-engineering alien technology. Jeez, what a freaking night. She now understood the meaning of that ancient Chinese curse, “May you lead an interesting life.” For a brief moment, Trillian wondered if she had managed to somehow piss off any ancient Chinese people.

She sighed, started the car, and pulled out of the parking lot, headed back to the apartment. The clock ticked over to 5:17 AM. Poor Terry and Wayne were probably worried sick about her, seeing as she was normally home hours before now. Should she tell them about Dizzy, the street thugs, and the rescue? About the invitation to work on Dizzy’s as-yet-hypothetical team? Surprisingly, she found herself hesitating. Throughout high school and college, she had always been the one person in all of her social circles who everybody always trusted to keep a secret, the one friend you went to if you needed the confidentiality of your private life kept safe. However, this wasn’t an entirely normal situation, and she barely knew—or trusted—Dizzy and her friend Misto, whereas Terry and Wayne she had known and trusted for half her life . . . though on the other hand, Dizzy had extended trust in telling her about her special team. And she had saved her life. So there was that. Perhaps if she just told Terry and Wayne about Dizzy herself and the rescue from the street thugs . . .

Yes. Maybe that was a decent compromise; she could always ask Dizzy, later on, if she could tell them about the rest. If she herself ever decided to join her team, of course. If. Or perhaps she could go ahead and tell them all of it, and then—if she got involved with Dizzy—she could convince her that Terry and Wayne would be useful. After all, Wayne was a brilliant programmer, and Gadget was a genius inventor. Surely, they could be of use. If she or they were on Dizzy’s team. Which she wasn’t sure she wanted to be. Then again . . . the thought of a Physion Bio-Printer in every hospital . . . the idea of cheap, affordable organs available to whoever needed them, with no waiting lists, ever . . . Maybe collusion with Dizzy and Misto was a price damn well worth paying, if that was the end result . . .

It was now 5:30 A.M. She finally rolled into the parking lot of the apartment complex, pulled up into the space that sat between Wayne’s fire-engine red Porsche and Terry’s bright yellow Volkswagen Beetle, shut off the car’s headlights and engine, and just sat for a moment, thinking, her head swimming with the endless research possibilities that Dizzy’s family’s money could buy her. Eventually, she had to force herself to stop. Daydreaming was addictive; plus, she knew that if she sat there any longer, she would probably fall dead asleep. God, she felt exhausted. So, she sighed again, got out of the car, and walked through the fog to the door of Apartment 42. Put the key into the lock, and turned it. Opened the door.

“Oh there you are!” said Wayne, turning around from where he stood, a warm smile on his face. “Where ya been, babe?”

 “Yeah,” said Gadget, looking up from where he sat. “We were just about to send out a search party. And oh, by the way—what would you say about Gygax here taking the nom de guerre Gygax this week, and you maybe going by the more exotic ‘nym of Akasha Amita Van Helsing? Y’know, since at least one of you has to do something . . . er. Vampirish and whatnot. I’ve got this whole thing logically laid out, and—.”

“Holy shit in a bucket am I ever glad to be home!” cried Trillian. She grinned, mussed Gygax’s hair with her hands, and then suddenly flopped into his waiting arms and hugged him tight. “And god, do I ever have a story for you two. Gather around, gents, ‘cause you are not gonna believe the weird shit that I—hey!” She stormed over toward the sink, frowning at the shrapnel from the broken dishes. “Who the fuck smashed my Hadley Pottery serving plates? I am so gonna kill one of you. Or both of you.” She closed her eyes and breathed deeply for a moment, clenching and unclenching her fists. Then, she turned back around to face them. “But first, I gotta tell you what happened. I had just gotten off work . . .”

 

3

 

Jetta Blackthorne sat at the bar in Sept’s Ankh, drinking a bottle of blood twinged with Everclear, the techno beat pulsing in the air all around her as bodies whirled and thrashed on the dance floor behind her, aglow with multicolored laser light and strobe-flashes. She ignored them, and politely refused the advances of a fellow Vampire—she could recognize them on sight, these days; you had to look closely in order to see the fangs—who rubbed up against her and asked her to dance. He went away, a scowl on his face at being rebuffed. Oh well. He would get over it. The club was a magnet for them; it attracted them like a lantern attracted moths. It was dangerous for her to be here; she knew that. She tried to keep a low profile, avoiding contact with her own kind whenever she could. She did not want the wrong Vampires to discover her. The ones in charge. Whoever they were. And yet, she found she could not stay away from their night-spots, their gathering places, those strange attractors where they swarmed and fed. Their hunting grounds. Why? Why was she inexorably drawn to these places? She hated what she was, what they were. She had been turned into this . . . thing against her will, not given any choice, and the one who had done this to her had immolated himself shortly after he had done so.

She poured another shot, and knocked it back. The Everclear burned her throat, but the blood tasted heavenly; it soothed the savage hunger that raged within her body, sloshing over her taste buds and exciting her in ways that, in her previous life, only really good sex could’ve managed. It satisfied something inside her, sated her. Unfortunately, nothing could ever replace the visceral thrill of killing and suckling the blood from the neck of a mortal, but for now, the bottle soothed her. She was nervous . . . but not because of the other Vampires. Nor her state of being. No; tonight, she was nervous for an entirely other reason. A downright silly reason, she told herself.

Tomorrow—well, today, she reminded herself; it was getting toward morning already, so she would soon need to return to the coffin in her apartment—was the dawning of PhantasmagoriCON XVIII, the annual science fiction and fantasy convention held here in the city of Cambridge. And she was going there to meet someone. A mortal named Joseph Michaelson, a physics professor at Miskatromyk U who called himself “Misto.” They had met a year earlier via Facebook, in a Star Trek fan group—Jetta had always had a love of Star Trek; when she had been a Human, she had lived for that franchise and its characters—and had hit it off big-time. Over the course of the next year, they had, a little at a time, through emails and text messages, fallen in something resembling love. He had told her about the loss of his wife, Coraline, and how he had grieved over her for nearly two years. She could relate to grief. She had not told him what she was. She supposed that cat would come out of the bag when they met; she had no idea how she was going to break the news to him. “Hi honey,” she thought she might say. “Guess what? I’m an immortal blood-sucking being from Hell. Surprise!

She poured another shot, knocked it back, and shook her head to clear it. She would have to walk home. Probably a good idea to go now, while she was still clear-headed enough to walk in a straight line. The last thing she needed was to pass out drunk on the street, and let the sun rise on her. She didn’t fancy being cooked to death.

Jetta got up from the bar, steadied herself on her feet, and walked toward the exit. As she did, she surveyed the dance floor one last time. It looked like the Vampire who had asked her to dance had found a willing partner—a pretty young mortal girl who would not live to see the sun rise. Oh well. It was the way of things. Hearts broke; the strong preyed upon the weak; time ticked onward.

She walked out into the alleyway behind the club, and began her long walk home. She turned right at the end of the alleyway and began walking down the street. She watched the mortals walk past her, and wondered: How many of them suspect the truth? How many of them have any clue that we walk among them? How many of them have any idea that they are the hunted in this game of shadows? She thought not many . . . if any at all. Most of them thought Vampires were a myth, a story to frighten children or to make movies about, or things to be romanticized or fantasized about. They had no clue as to the truth—that their predators walked among them, and that the fantasy was all too real. She sighed. She was still hungry.

She spotted a handsome young man waiting by the bus-stop. He stood about six-foot-six, wore a heavy brown trench-coat, and was dressed in a business suit and tie, wearing dress-shoes and carrying a briefcase. He had sandy-blond hair and had brown eyes. Good-looking face with a strong jaw. Presently, he checked his watch. The bus was late, just like it always was.

“Damn bus,” he said, as she stopped next to him, and smiled at her.

She decided to play the sexy vixen role; it was one she was good at playing. “You going to be late for work? It’s awful early.”

“Yeah,” he said, dejectedly. “Probably. I have to get there early to prep for a presentation to the big-boys this morning. What’s a pretty girl like you doing out this late? Well . . . early, I should say.”

“Oh . . . you know. Just . . . out.” She heaved a sigh, doing her best to show off her breasts. “Say. You want a lift to work? I could help you out.”

“Uh, sure,” he said, and smiled at her. He had a sweet smile. Damn; what a shame. “What’s your name?”

“My name’s Liza,” she lied, and shook hands with him.

“Mine’s Henry,” he said. “Good to meet you . . . Liza.”

“Enchanted,” she said. “Here, let’s go. My car’s this way.” Another lie, of course. She walked ahead of him, down the nearest alleyway, putting an extra sashay into her step, making sure to show off her sexiest walk to keep him interested. When they had proceeded down the alley a good ways, away from the prying light of the streetlamp on the corner and away from the bus stop, he asked her:

“So . . . where’s your ride?”

“Right here,” she said, and turned on him.

She moved quickly, using her power of Vampiric super-speed. It had been one of the first powers she had learned how to use in her early days of adapting to life as a Vampire. She was upon him in a second, her arms embracing him, the fingers of her right hand digging into his right shoulder, her fangs sinking into his jugular, her left hand cupping the back of his head. He cried out as she forced him up against the wall of the alleyway and drank deep, the hot blood sluicing into her mouth and spilling between her lips. She suckled his neck, slurping, swallowing mouthful after mouthful of delicious crimson, feeling his heartbeat hammer throughout his entire body, feeling his pulse thread and accelerate as she drank. Within a minute and a half, she had drained him almost completely.

She let go of him, detaching her mouth, and leaned his body against the wall of the alleyway. A thin trickle of blood ran down from the wound in his neck, the last remnants of his bloodstream gurgling out through the holes she’d made in tiny, rhythmic spurts as his heart stopped beating. His eyes were still open wide, his skin now blanched and pale. His hair had turned white, and his mouth hung open in a slackened expression of surprise. Jetta plucked the handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped off her mouth with it.

Now then—what to do with the body?

She looked left, and then right, scanning the alleyway. No one had seen them. There was a dumpster about thirty feet away, at the dead-end of the alleyway. She grabbed Henry by the collar of his sport coat and dragged him. Having Vampiric super-strength came in handy at times. He felt light to the touch as she dragged his body to the dumpster and lifted him up, and then forced him inside and shut the door. There. He wouldn’t be discovered for a while now. She still had at least two hours before the sun came up. Enough time to go to the chemical store—she knew where it was; she had been there before, many times—and retrieve some sodium hydroxide to break down the DNA evidence she’d left on his body from the handshake and the feeding. Good.

She looked down at her hands. She was trembling. She always got the shakes after feeding. She didn’t know how much of that was the blood-rush, and how much of that was nerves . . . and how much of it was the horror of the whole experience. She had never gotten over the revulsion she felt at having to take Human life to survive, the disgust and terror she felt at the existential creeps she gave herself with every waking moment that she realized the dreadedness of what she was, what it meant to be, truly, a Vampire . . . one of the hungry immortals that fed on, preyed upon, Humans. She hated it, rebelled at it, and yet it did no good. When the thirst overtook her, when every cell in her body cried out for blood, she had no choice. She had to obey the sweet allure of it, that smell that emanated from every one of the passers-by on the street, the siren-song of their heartbeats, calling out to her to feed. She was powerless to resist it. Her only hope was to stave it off for as long as possible, and even then, she couldn’t hold out for very long before she had to find someone—anyone—and drain them. And then would come the intense guilt, the depths of remorse. It was a hellish existence.

Poor Henry. He probably had a girlfriend, or a wife. Maybe even kids. His co-workers would be missing him right about now. His bosses. The “big boys” at work would be wondering where he was, what had happened to the presentation he was supposed to give. They would curse him, revile him . . . and then, when he didn’t show up at all, or at home later on, the questions would start, and the phone calls would begin. The police would be called. There would be a search. And then someone would find his body in that dumpster, and a connection would be made. An identification. And then someone, somewhere, would eventually burst into tears, because Henry would never come home again. And all so Jetta Blackthorne could live another night in her immortal life, spend another ten hours under the moon, preying on further innocents and villains alike. And to what purpose? So she could go to a science fiction convention tomorrow night, and meet a mortal man with whom she could never hope to truly have a real relationship . . . and maybe devour him, as well, in a fit of pique or hunger?

She leaned against the wall of the alleyway and cried into her hands, and then paused to examine them. Blood tears. Because of course they were. She sniffled, and wiped her nose on the sleeve of her leather jacket. Bloody mucus. Dammit.

You’d think that as a Vampire, as an immortal being, I’d get over getting a runny nose when I cry, she thought. But no.

She took a moment to collect herself, but then broke down into tears all over again and slumped against the wall. What the hell was she doing with her immortal life, anyway? From what little she had been able to learn about her “kind,” there were different flavors of Vampire, each one dedicated to a different philosophy of life. From what she had gleaned, there were over ten different ones. Some of them liked each other, while others didn’t. There was some sort of ongoing disagreement between the different groups of families, or “Klythes,” as she’d learned they were called. Another reason to steer clear of all of them. And yet . . . she didn’t want to, not entirely. She ached to belong to something greater than herself; she yearned for meaning in her life, for some purpose to her existence; she had had that, once, when she had been Human. She had a Master’s Degree in Chemistry and a Bachelor’s in Computer Science, for crying out loud; she had once had a job, at a prestigious architectural firm. She had made something of her so-called life. Not that it mattered now, of course.

She dried her eyes, tried to collect herself, and attempted to shake off what doldrums she could. She began her long walk to the chemical store, her mind awhirl with questions. Should she seek out the others of her kind? Give into the desire to belong to something, to have a sense of meaning and purpose? Could they even provide such a thing? She didn’t know. Probably not.

Jetta didn’t know why—after all, what could good could come of it?—but she desperately still wanted to meet Misto at that convention. When she had been Human, she had been so passionate about science fiction . . . she remembered, with a slight smile, that she had collected Star Trek memorabilia and action figures. Hell, she still had her scale-model of the U.S.S. Enterprise, which she had painted herself. It sat in her apartment, on the bookshelf next to her coffin. One of her prized possessions. Misto shared that passion that was for sure; once you got him started on the topic of the importance of science fiction, it was impossible to shut him up. In truth, she hoped he could rekindle within her some sort of love of life, some kind of optimism for the future. God knew she needed that.

She would have to decide on a different ’nym, maybe. Huh. Or would she? She had been “Jetta Blackthorne” for so long, even in her previous life, that her real name—Lillian Gloria McTravers—seemed a distant, fading memory. So be it, she thought; she would just go as “Jetta.” Besides, Misto would be expecting to meet Jetta, not some other name. So that would be less confusing. She hoped the selfie she had sent him had been flattering enough, and that he thought the fangs in her smile were just a dental appliance she used as some artifact of being into a “Vampire lifestyle,” or whatever. At least, she hoped. Then again, she was probably worried over nothing: Misto was a scientist, and scientists, as a general rule, didn’t go around believing in Vampires. Hell, if the truth were to ever come out between them, she would probably have to convince him of it!

She decided that after this grim, messy business was over with, she would stop by the local Walmart—if she had time before sunrise—and buy some fabric, thread, needles, shears, and a sewing machine, and stitch herself together a Starfleet uniform cosplay for the convention—if she could find a complete-enough pattern online—and buy some silly-putty and concoct a couple of makeshift Vulcan ears. She would perhaps go as Commander T’Pol, from the old Star Trek TV series, Enterprise, only dressed in an Original Series miniskirt uniform. Yes, that would do. And she would turn heads. So, sure. Why the hell not. Why not have fun with it? What the hell was being an immortal for, if you couldn’t at least try to have a little fun now and then?

And so, she continued on toward the chemical store, off to retrieve a gallon or so of sodium hydroxide. Thinking of meeting Misto put a slight bounce into her step and lifted her spirits, though she did not know why. Their relationship—if they could even have one—would be doomed to failure from the start. And yet, thinking of the possibility brought her some measure of momentary happiness that even the taste of murder, still fresh in her mouth, could not diminish.