“So you didn’t mean to kill me.” Beta-B sat in one of the leather seats on Hamil’s private jet, across from Rondeau, but not looking at him – gazing instead out the window at the Earth below, vast stretches of nothing punctuated by occasional marks of human habitation. Marla, who’d made herself thoroughly into a city person, found cross-country flights unnerving. So much of this country was just emptiness. Or farmland, which, though she knew intellectually was a long way from being emptiness, sure felt like emptiness to her. But she looked out her window, too, from her seat behind Beta-B, biting her tongue (literally) to keep from jumping into their conversation.
“Yeah. I mean no.” Rondeau appeared sweaty and miserable, dressed in a scratchy-looking brown suit coat that looked like some kind of hemp hippie cerements. “When my body died, it was just like… instinct. Like how when drowning people grab onto the person trying to rescue them, and panic, and end up dragging them both down.” He took in a deep breath, then let out a big rush of air. “Except in my case I ended up using Bradley as a life raft to get myself to safety.”
“So I’m an inflatable pool toy now? You suck at metaphors.” Beta-B tapped on the glass of the window as if checking a barometer, still staring at the ground, or possibly at his reflection. “But okay. I mean, intellectually, it’s pretty fucked up, but it’s not like I knew the guy, your Bradley, even though he was me. We were the same guy at some point, I get that, but it’s not like we were friends. And frankly, I’ve seen a lot of people I did consider friends die over the past few years, so hearing about an alternate-universe version of myself dying doesn’t even break through into the emotion-wrecking top ten. And, well, I don’t know how much you guys know about the world I come from – I get the sense it’s just about nothing – but there’s a version of you there, Rondeau, and he… from what I’ve heard, he doesn’t take over bodies by accident. He does it whenever his boss tells him to, maybe whenever he feels like it, and when he’s done using the stolen flesh, he jumps back to his old body again, leaving the people he took over as brain-dead vegetables, followed shortly by being totally dead. I guess if you got one of them on a ventilator right away the body might keep living, but what would be the point?”
Marla sat up. Rondeau’s ability to jump bodies could be made voluntary? Rondeau could be… weaponized? Some shit just shouldn’t exist.
Rondeau shook his head, hard. “I can’t jump whenever I feel like it. Not that I ever feel like it. And knowing that’s even possible… I didn’t need to know that. Not something I’d ever care to try.”
“Probably took him a lot of practice,” Beta-B said. “The guy’s been training to be a murder weapon his whole life, I think. His name’s Crapsey, but I’ve seen him, via remote viewing and in person, once, and he’s definitely you, or what the illusion you’re wearing looks like, anyway, except he hits the gym a lot more often and he’s got this creepy wooden prosthetic jaw, all carved up with runes, I’m not even sure what they do. Maybe they help him bite through steel cables or something.”
“Bonus points for the vintage James Bond movie reference. Just call me Jaws.” Rondeau rubbed his chin.
Beta-B looked at him now, and laughed. “Yeah. You know, they were considering me for the lead in a James Bond reboot back when I was still acting. Never went anywhere, the whole project fell apart, and I probably wouldn’t have gotten it anyway, too young for the part, but it would’ve been cool to do an action hero thing instead of being soulful moody love-interest guy.”
“Tell me you would’ve played Bond gay,” Rondeau said. “I mean manly gay, you know what I’m saying, but let a little something slip through, get that British-boarding-school vibe in there at least, make some of that buried-deep subtext a little less subby.”
Beta-B laughed again, and something tightened and twisted in Marla’s chest, because that was her B she heard, laughing with Rondeau like he had so often in the past. “You’re all right, man,” Beta-B said. “I can see why Bradley Prime or whatever you call him liked you.”
“Oh, he didn’t just like me,” Rondeau said, raising one eyebrow, and as if that wasn’t enough, winking, and then, for further effect, nudging an invisible companion in the ribs. “He liked me. If you know what I’m saying.”
Beta-B whistled. “You’re saying you and me… you and he…”
“We’d just killed a god, man,” Rondeau said. Marla snorted, and Rondeau shrugged. “Okay, we’d just contributed materially to the killing of a god, and we were in a celebratory mood, and I was always open to whatever, so we gave it a go. Good times.”
“Don’t expect a repeat performance.” Beta-B leaned forward and poked Rondeau in the stomach. “You’ve got an illusion on, but I can see right through it, and you look like me, and I’m not so narcissistic that I want to fuck my double. Especially not with you letting yourself – myself, himself – go like that. What’s with the gut?”
Rondeau sucked in his stomach, Marla guessed, though nothing much changed from her point of view – she couldn’t see through his illusion, not without concentrating hard enough to give herself a splitting headache. She didn’t have Beta-B’s natural gift for clarity. Rondeau said, “It’s been a messed up couple of weeks. Not exactly thinking about working out. And my old body just had that kind of hummingbird metabolism, you know, I could eat whatever I wanted and never gained a pound, but this body, I’ve got to work at it, I guess. I’m still learning the ropes. It’s weird being full-on gay though, I’ll tell you that.”
“Nice to have a definitive answer to the ‘is homosexuality a choice or not’ question,” Beta-B said. “Now we can move on to more pressing issues.”
“Like whether water-based or silicon-based lube is better?” Rondeau said. “Because I’ve got to figure that shit out.”
Beta-B nodded gravely. “A nice thick water-based, always. But I was thinking more like, can you guys get your hands on some rocket launchers and machine guns and grenades and maybe a tank or two, and let me take those back with me when I go? Because it would help a lot.”
“We could get heavy ordnance, maybe, with some notice,” Marla said, and Beta-B swiveled in his chair to include her in the conversation, now that she was doing more than lurking. “Though the boss of San Francisco isn’t a friend of mine, and while I know the lady who runs Oakland, she’s more of a lover than a fighter – sex magic’s her thing, more heavy petting than heavy weapons. But if you want to get back tonight… I don’t think so. Not sure we could take anything we can’t carry with us, anyway, so tanks would be out. But, hey, you’ve got me, and I’ve got a really sharp knife, and I’m good at kicking things over – people, walls, regimes, whatever – and, if shit gets too real, I’ve always got my cloak.” She patted a leather satchel at her side. The cloak was folded away in there, surrounded by runes that blurred remote viewing, dampened magical fields, and generally made the contents seem unremarkable.
“I’ve been meaning to mention that,” Beta-B said. “You… really shouldn’t wear the cloak around my friends.”
“I don’t know how to say this without sounding grossly insensitive, but… it’d be like toting a sniper rifle around a Kennedy family reunion. Like wearing a swastika to a bar mitzvah. The cloak’s a symbol, and it’s not a symbol of something good. Everybody where I’m from hates the Jaguar, it’s barbaric, and I don’t mean white-shoes-after-Labor-Day, serving-red-wine-chilled kind of barbaric, I mean, heads on pikes, hearts cut from chests, mass-murder-human-sacrifice barbaric. But there are people who are happy the Jaguar rules San Francisco, because at least the Jaguar is a big badass, and he keeps us from getting taken over by an even worse tyrant.”
Marla had known they’d get back to this eventually. She was both fascinated and loath to learn more. “That would be me. The tyrant. Your world’s version of me. Yeah?”
“You know how I said sorcerers went public in my world a few years ago? I understand there was basically a secret war for some years before that, with a crazy sorcerer knocking off her enemies, forcing people into alliances, betraying them, consolidating power, ruling with an iron fist, all that. And once this crazy sorcerer got everything lined up just so, she made herself known – she destroyed Washington DC, and Moscow, and London, and Paris, and a major city in every country that has a major city. She didn’t just blow the places up. She drove the inhabitants insane, made them kill each other, and made them destroy their cities. With sledgehammers, and axes, and if all else failed, with their hands. You haven’t seen fucked-up shit until you’ve turned on CNN and watched the entire House of Representatives tearing apart the capitol building with their bare hands, gibbering and screaming while they rip themselves bloody. Then this crazy sorcerer came on TV, and where people didn’t have TV she just appeared like a purple-tinged ghost, and she said, basically: Here’s how it’s gonna be. I’m the new boss. Anyone who fights will die. Anyone who resists will be destroyed. She said, and this isn’t paraphrasing, she said, ‘Your world is now mine.'”
Marla’s mouth was suddenly dry. Must be the pressurized air in the cabin. “That’s… pretty ambitious.”
“Yeah,” Beta-B said. “Some people resisted successfully, other sorcerers, and until the Jaguar came I lived in one of the more benign witchocracies, but everybody knows if your evil twin puts her mind to it, she can topple most any regime. The few holdouts just hope she has bigger problems to deal with, fights that keep her busy elsewhere, you know?” He crossed his arms over his chest and frowned. “So why isn’t that the situation here, Marla? Are you just not that ambitious on this side of the looking-glass? Maybe you didn’t get the right kind of encouragement when you took Global Tyranny 101 or Brutal Subjugation for Beginners in high school?”
“I cut a lot of classes,” she said. “Must have missed those days. Look, whatever turned this… other version of me into the monster you describe… it didn’t happen to me. Maybe she saw her family get murdered in front of her. Maybe she got one of those head injuries that damages the frontal lobe and alters the whole personality – trauma producing a sociopath. Who knows where our paths diverged? But they did. Hell, ask Rondeau. He might admit I have a flaw or two, but I’m pretty sure he’ll vouch that I’m no destroyer of worlds.”
Rondeau nodded. “It’s true. Marla can be cranky, but she’s no epic supervillain. She did take over the land of the dead one time, but not for keeps. I mean, she gave it back, once she found the right guy to take over.”
“You’ve been to the actual underworld?” Bradley said.
“B, you’re the one who got me a ticket on the train that took me to Hell. I couldn’t have done it without you. Or, not you, but Alpha-B. You know.”
B looked at his hands. “I can do that? Summon a train to hell?”
Marla nodded. “You’ve done it at least twice that I know about. Not sure how it can help you now though. It’s, ah… tricky to bring people back from there, I hear, so even if you’ve lost people…”
“Everyone where I come from has lost people. The Mason kills as casually as you’d blow your nose.”
“‘The Mason’?” Rondeau said. “Seriously? Marla 2.0 calls herself The Mason? Ha. Is that the style where you’re from? So you’d be, what – The Bowman? Actually that’s pretty good. Give you a bow and arrow, let you do some Legolas-style shit.” Rondeau mimed drawing and firing arrows, making little “pew pew” noises as he did so. “And I’d be –”
“We already know what you are,” Marla said. “Your name over there is Crapsey. Which, you know, it fits. You look like a Crapsey. Lot of days, you even smell like a Crapsey.”
Rondeau went “Pfft. I was going to say, since I don’t have a last name, I’d have to be The Nameless One, which is pretty mysterious and badass. Sounds kinda like the name for one of those old alien gods from behind the back of the stars, though, the kind with beards made out of tentacles.”
“Okay,” Beta-B said. “I guess I can see why Alpha-B liked you two. It’s just tough because, where I’m from, a couple of people who look a whole lot like you want to enslave me and everybody I care about.”
“So after we get rid of the Jaguar, we get rid of this Mason broad,” Marla said. “I can’t have some lunatic in a cloak going around smearing my good name, even in another universe. I mean, it probably says something about me psychologically, but the idea of going toe-to-toe in a fight with myself? It’s kind of appealing.”
Beta-B looked back out the window. “You can certainly try. But she’ll kill you. She’s spent years doing nothing but killing, all sorts of people, on a very grand scale. I’m sure you’ve got some blood on your hands, but… I have to think she’s more experienced than you are.”
Marla grinned. A challenge. A fight. After weeks spent grieving, it felt good to be planning an assault again. “Maybe. But the Mason’s not expecting me, is she? Give me the element of surprise and I can tip the world over on its axis, Beta-boy.”
They landed at San Francisco International Airport, and Hamil had a car waiting for them; a limo, of course, since it would go against his fundamental magical underpinnings to have some primer-painted gypsy cab in his employ. Marla resisted the urge to sit in front with the driver – the same ruthlessly egalitarian urge that made her want to eat in the kitchen with the servers at restaurants and encourage maids to rob their rich employers blind – and settled into a seat in the back across from Beta-B and Rondeau.
“This sweet ride give you flashbacks to Oscar night?” Rondeau said. “Oh, wait, you were never up for an Academy Award, were you? You got a Grammy, though, in one of the weirdo categories, for that spoken word drug addiction misery memoir thing you did. I’m sure that’s a comfort.”
“Ironically, I later sold that very Grammy trophy for drugs,” Beta-B deadpanned, and Marla snickered. “How many Grammys have you won, Rondeau?”
“I’m holding out for the Nobel,” Rondeau said. “Not in one of the wussy categories like literature or peace. Give me something hardcore like chemistry or economics or fashion.”
“Be sure to invite me to Stockholm. But, yeah, I went to three or four Academy Awards ceremonies, and we traveled in style. Usually there was more cocaine and less existential terror involved in the ride over though.”
“Speaking of business,” Marla said. “Last night we just took a cab and I used my spell-fu to steal us a boat, which Rondeau sailed out to Alcatraz – I can’t believe you actually learned to sail, by the way.”
“You were off conquering the underworld at the time. Mr. Beadle taught me.”
“I can believe someone taught you, I said I can’t believe you learned. Anyway, that’s not a good plan in broad daylight like this, and I know the Alcatraz tours are usually sold out way in advance, so either we can try to stow away on a tour boat with a look-away spell cast on all three of us, or we can give a few ticketed passengers a really nasty stomach bug, the ‘I-think-I’m-turning-inside-out kind’ –”
“How about you leave that part to me,” Beta-B said. “I’ll get us on a boat.”
Marla raised her eyebrow. “What’s the plan? Look for an admirer and hope she’ll fansquee all over herself giving you tour tickets?”
“Maybe your Bradley was a mess of learned helplessness or something, but I’ve been slugging it out with sorcerers for years now. I’ve got a few tricks your B probably never learned.”
Pier 33 was crowded, with a preponderance of German tourists for some reason, and it was a sunny day, if cold, with breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the headlands of Marin, and in the bay itself, Angel Island and the Rock, though Alcatraz wasn’t so breathtaking, looking rather squat and a barren, a maritime keep for a warlord fallen on hard times.
While Marla and Rondeau did their best to look like tourists – easier for Rondeau than Marla – Beta- B went to work. People were standing around waiting for the next Alcatraz tour boat, and Beta-B approached a family of two parents and one teenager. He chatted at them brightly for a few moments, then waved his hand in front of their faces in a showy, swoopy sort of move. They all smiled widely, and the father handed Beta-B some slips of paper. The family walked off, talking together excitedly, and Beta-B strolled over to Marla and Rondeau.
“There,” he said. “No problem. Three tickets for the launch leaving in 90 minutes. See? And we’ve got time to grab some lunch, too. Which, believe me, you’ll want to do. Take-out options in the city of the Jaguar are not fantastic.”
“What’d you do, mind-control them?” Marla said. She was capable of brute-force persuasion, but it gave her the kind of migraine where you see halos, so she tried to avoid it; when she planned in advance, she could enchant stones or other small charms suitable for one-use compulsions, but she didn’t have any such trinkets on her. Beta-B didn’t appear to feel any strain at all. “And what was the deal with the little stage-magician hand-wave?”
Beta-B passed the palm of his hand before her face. “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for. You can go about your business. Move along.”
“Ha,” Rondeau said. “Jedi mind trick, Marla. The hand-swoop is key. Classic Star Wars reference. Bonus points.”
“What exactly are these bonus points redeemable for?” Beta-B said.
“Don’t answer that, Rondeau,” Marla said. “New B, you don’t want to give him openings like that.” She looked at Alcatraz, feeling impatient as always to get started, to move, to do something, but yeah, they should probably eat. “Do you think there’s any place around here that doesn’t serve sea food?”
They found an upscale chain restaurant nearby and sat by big windows looking out toward the Bay. Marla demolished a cheeseburger, Rondeau ate something alarmingly called a “flying tuna platter,” and Beta-B literally ordered one of everything on the menu, only eating a few bites of each, much to the annoyance of the waitress, though Marla left a tip big enough to turn her weird sidelong looks into exhortations to come back again real soon! Then they waited in line (always one of Marla’s least favorite things) and got onto the boat. The ride only took about 15 minutes, during which time Beta-B and Rondeau traded movie and book trivia and Marla mostly paced, watching the island grow slowly larger. She was a little nervous. Not so much about facing the Jaguar – she knew, or was almost certain she knew anyway, an important secret about the risen god, something that would probably give her an edge if whatever Beta-B’s band of revolutionaries had planned didn’t work and she had to take on the big mean kitty cat on her own.
The nervousness was about the likelihood of meeting herself, or a dark mirror image of herself. Marla had no illusions; she could be a bitch, a ball-breaker, and a bad boss, but a tyrannical despot, conqueror of continents, and indiscriminate murderer? Every death she’d ever caused weighed on her mind, and she thought – she needed to think – that such depth of evil didn’t come from the other Marla, but from the constant wearing of the cloak. Marla herself had often felt the seductive allure of wearing the cloak with the lethal purple side showing. The access to destructive power, the complete lack of conscience – it could be exhilarating. If she’d never taken off the cloak after the first time she used it, maybe she would have become the monster Beta-B talked about.
And yet, even knowing how dangerous the thing was, she still had the cloak, right here in her bag, and if she needed to, she’d put it on again, and risk her soul once more, and hope she had the will to take it off and become herself again when she was done.
“We’re there, boss.” Rondeau touched her shoulder, and she didn’t jerk away from his hand. It was nice having him back as a friend. Rondeau was a colossal fuck-up, but he was trying to fix his mistakes, which was pretty much all she had a right to ask. They filed off the boat with the rest of the herd, and while the tour guide addressed the crowd, Marla muttered a little look-away spell to drape herself, Rondeau, and Beta-B in a veil of not-interesting-ness, then set off toward the prison.
“Either of you all-seeing-eye types sense any sorcerers lurking here?” she asked as they entered the first cell block.
“No sign of the Warden,” Rondeau said. “Susan probably reassigned her to Antarctica or something.”
“There’s definitely something here, though,” Beta-B said. “Not human. But… something.”
Rondeau nodded. “The possible witch. She’s something all right. Wait’ll you meet her.”
Marla led the way to the solitary confinement cell, and Rondeau took one of her hands while Beta-B took the other. She closed her eyes. “It’s a little tight for all of us to turn around three times in here,” she began.
“No need,” Beta-B said, and there was a lurch and a cold, biting wind blew past her face.
She opened her eyes, and they were once more in the corridor that led to the possible witch’s throne, a hallway punctuated by short corridors and occasional mercifully-closed doors, but the conditions were even worse now – there were gaping holes in the walls, suffused by sick-looking greenish-yellow light, with howling winds blowing through, and more holes in the floor giving way to darkness. They stepped carefully around the holes, buffeted by the wind, all holding hands, following the bends and curves of the corridor, until they reached the place where the spiral staircase –
– didn’t exist anymore. Not even in half-melted, rusted form. There was no ceiling above them, just darkness, and beyond the darkness, things that looked almost like, but were not quite, stars.
“Shit, Marla, she’s gone,” Rondeau said. “What do we do now?”
Marla didn’t have an answer. But, to her surprise, Beta-B did.
He said, “Let’s you and me tear the fabric of reality a new asshole, Rondeau.”