Broken Mirrors
a serial novel by TA Pratt

Archive for April, 2010

Chapter 8

Monday, April 26th, 2010

“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.”

“Why’s that?”

“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.”

Chapter 7

Monday, April 19th, 2010

“We need transportation.” The Mason stood on the corner near the diner with her arms crossed, surveying the traffic as if deciding which of the passing vehicles she wanted to claim as her own.

Turned out that’s exactly what she was doing. She pointed to a machine just turning the corner. The vehicle – car? van? truck? Crapsey didn’t know the right terminology – looked like one of the military Humvees back home, except it was shiny black, completely undented, equipped with spinning silver hubcaps, and didn’t have any war fetishes wired to the front grille. “Get me that one, Crapsey.”

“Uh. You want me to jump into a guy driving a moving car? In traffic? I mean, I’ll do it, of course I’ll do it, you’re the boss, but –”

“No, you’re right, a crash would be counterproductive. There are too many cars here. Because there are too many people. There needs to be a culling.”

Crapsey shivered. Nothing good ever came of it when the Mason started feeling crowded. Wherever the cloak came from, it must have been a much more sparsely-populated place, because she hated the press of living things.

The Mason stepped into the middle of traffic, right in front of the black Humvee, holding up her hand. Fortunately traffic was slow through here – as it was, the driver had to squeal his brakes to keep from hitting her. Not that even a high-speed collision would hurt the Mason, or even move her, but the impact of such a crash would have driven the engine block into the cab and turned the guy driving into reddish pudding. Which would be a much more painful way to die than the way he was about to get.

The driver leaned out the window and honked his horn and cursed while cars edged around him and the Mason simply stood there in his way, like a living statue. Crapsey sat down on the sidewalk, glanced around to make sure there wasn’t any poop or spit or chewing gum around him, and then reclined to lay on his back. For a moment he stared up at the new morning sky. Nice and blue here. No choking black clouds from the factories or weird yellow striations from the Mason’s atmospheric experiments. He’d forgotten how blue an untortured sky could be.

Crapsey closed his eyes and leapt, flying to the vehicle and through the window – he couldn’t pass through solid objects, though he could squeeze through even very tiny holes, which made him think there was some physical component to his true form – and streamed into the driver’s brain. Once he had the body under control he climbed out on the sidewalk, pulled open the back door, and lifted his own supine Crapsey-body under the armpits, easing him into the seat. This was a young, strong body, at least. Very few of the passers-by paid any attention to the manhandling, though there were still cars honking at the traffic obstruction.

The Mason came around the car and climbed into the passenger side, and once Crapsey had his original body inside, he strolled off toward an alley, found a dumpster, crouched behind it, and then shed the driver’s body, leaving it to slump empty and brain-dead in the garbage. Crapsey reclaimed his body and clambered into the driver’s seat. He considered the array of gauges, levers, dials, and knobs before him, cleared his throat, and said, “Uh, boss, the thing is… I don’t know how to drive.”

The Mason stared at him for a moment. She never drove herself anywhere, but Crapsey wasn’t her chauffeur – they had other people for that. Crapsey had been in her service since he (or anyway his body) was a small child, and driving had never come up. His main usefulness to the Mason was his ability to take over other bodies at will, and he couldn’t very well leave his own body if he was driving a car. He’d been in cars, and he had the general idea, but he wasn’t prepared to take on honking cursing city traffic. Unless it looked like the Mason really wanted him to.

“Of course,” she said. “Change places with me.”

Crapsey climbed into the back, let the Mason take the driver’s seat, and then slid into the passenger seat himself. “You know how to drive, boss?”

“Of course not,” the Mason said. “But she does. Let me just… acquire the knowledge.” The Mason leaned back in the seat, eyes closed and lids fluttering, and then trembled all over. When her eyes opened again they were not so much empty as haunted, bleak and hopeless, and in a voice entirely unlike her usual monotone she said, “Please, kill me, just kill me, end this thing,” and if Crapsey thought there was a chance in hell that his butterfly knife could do the job, he would have obliged her with a blade in the neck. For perhaps the fifth time in his life, he was seeing and hearing Marla, or whatever vestige of Marla remained inside the Mason, her original consciousness briefly allowed to rise to the surface, only to have some aspect of her shredded personhood stolen by the cloak, the parasite that controlled her, rode her, fed on her.

Me and the Mason, Crapsey thought. Just a couple of parasites going on a road trip. We’re like some kind of horrible buddy movie.

Then another twitch, almost a seizure, and the Mason’s cool eyes looked at him again. “There. The poor thing still has some usefulness after all. She doesn’t like driving much, but she knows how.” The Mason made a face as she put the Hummer in gear. “Who can blame her? Where’s the joy in operating a large machine? Unless, I suppose, you were running people down with it… but we’ll get to that.” She drove the huge machine expertly, managing to weave around other cars, popping through an intersection just before the light turned red, which Crapsey vaguely recalled meant “stop.” The Mason was capable of obeying rules, though she preferred to be the one making them.

“Put on your seatbelt, Crapsey. It’s against the law even to endanger yourself here. Madness.”

Crapsey pulled on the strap – most of the military trucks didn’t have working seatbelts, but he wasn’t totally unfamiliar with the process – and felt marginally safer once he was clipped in. The Mason could be a little laissez-faire when it came to matters of personal safety. After all, she wasn’t going to get hurt, not even if she was in a plane that fell from the sky. And as far as she was concerned Crapsey wasn’t ever going to get hurt, either, since he could always take a new host body. She didn’t understand that he had an attachment to his current form, that he liked it, felt at home there, and moreover, he really, really hated pain, something the Mason didn’t even seem to feel.

“So why are we driving, anyway?” he said. “Couldn’t we commandeer a plane or something and get to Felport a lot faster?”

“Marla doesn’t know how to fly. And even if you take over the body of a pilot, it’s not like you’ll have access to his memories, the way I would. I’ve always found that limitation of yours most disappointing. In some ways you’re like a horrible parody of me, have you ever considered that?”

Crapsey leaned his head against the window and looked at the row of Victorian houses streaming by. He thought maybe he’d passed this same block when they’d visited San Francisco back in their world, though it was hard to tell; the houses had been so overgrown with twisting vines and lush green leaves they’d barely been recognizable as dwellings. “Yep, I suck, don’t know why you keep me around.” He could access some abilities belonging to the bodies he stole. If he took over a telepath, he was telepathic, though since he lacked their years of practice, he wasn’t very good at it. If he took over an athlete, the muscle memory was still there, and he could hit a baseball or do backflips or what the fuck ever. If he took over a good dancer he could even dance, unless he started to think about the steps he was taking, and then it became too much of the mind and not enough of the body and he screwed up all the steps.

But, it was true, he had no access to the non-physical memories locked up in the brains he possessed. He threw out their mental furniture and moved in his own. Crapsey preferred it that way. Sharing his head with someone else? It would drive him crazy. He didn’t know how the Mason did it, though he gathered the Marla-part of her didn’t make too much of a fuss these days, not like in the early years, when the Mason would sometimes lock herself up in a cell at the Blackwing Institute and scream and rage until she asserted control over the body again. She would have staged her public takeover years earlier if she’d had that shit under better control. Marla must have been one tough broad to resist for so long.

“Still,” he said, “we could glamour our way onto a flight, ride in first class, and –”

When she interrupted him, her tone was amused. “Really, Crapsey? You’d like to be trapped in a metal tube at 30,000 feet with me and, what, at least a couple hundred human beings, for a minimum of five or six hours? Do you think I would cope well in that situation?”

“Ah. Good point. Road trip it is.” The Mason had been known to throw her own lieutenants off planes in mid-air, just because she suddenly felt crowded, and that was on flights with only a handful of people on board, and everyone else keeping as much out of her way as possible. The only person she could stand near her in close proximity for long was Crapsey, maybe because he wasn’t really a human. Crapsey had looked it up once, and he knew the pathological fear of crowds was called demophobia, but that wasn’t exactly right – the Mason wasn’t afraid of crowds, she just hated them.

Which was why she held the cullings. And why the population of the United States had diminished by a quarter under her reign.

The Mason was not a people person. As far as that goes, she wasn’t even a person.


“See, but the thing is, I’ve got to eat. I know you only need to eat adorable puppies and flowers and rainbows and beautiful things that can never be replaced, but I need, like, actual sustenance. Also, and forgive me boss, you have no idea where you’re going.” Crapsey stretched out his legs – at least the Hummer had plenty of legroom – and wiggled around in hopes of getting his numb ass to wake back up.

The Mason was hunched over the wheel, glaring out the windshield at the cars zipping past them on the interstate, and if looks could kill – well, the thing was, her looks could kill, and it was just luck that she hadn’t started giving the old death-gaze to the other drivers on the highway yet. “I know where I’m going. Felport is east. I am going east. Or at least I was, until this stupid road curved. Why can’t humans just build in straight lines?”

That last bit was a common complaint. Making allowances for geography or existing societal infrastructure didn’t occur to the Mason. She was an A-to-B type person.

“So we’ll stop, I’ll get food, I’ll get directions or find a map, we’ll put some gas in this thing, and we’ll be on our way, all right?”

“Gas? Oh. Fuel. Hmm. Of course, this vehicle hasn’t been… improved.” She glared at the fuel gauge now. The cars in her command had been modified to operate by magic instead of burning fossil fuel, though Crapsey was never clear what they ran on instead – the tears of orphan children or the anguish of whipped factory-slaves or something old-school Dark Lord like that, probably.

“Nope. Nothing here but pure human technology. Though you have to admit the power everything and the awesome radio is pretty sweet.”

“Music is noise,” she said, and reached out for the radio, a brief flash of purple light encircling her fingers. She wrenched the whole radio out one-handed, wires dangling from the back, and tossed it out the window, causing some swerving and honking behind them, which she ignored.

“That was bitchy,” Crapsey said. “Super bitchy. Just for that I’m going to sing.”

“Try it and I’ll take off your jaw again,” she said, and Crapsey could almost imagine she said it affectionately, but he knew better. She bantered with him, but he was pretty sure it was all fake. He was useful to her, and she knew if she let her real personality (or lack thereof) show through too clearly, he’d be too freaked out to work with her, and might try to escape. Powerful as she was, she’d still have a hard time holding him if he wanted to leave – being able to jump body to body was ideal for a getaway.

But she kept up the pretense that they were pals, that he was her one friend in all the world, and he kept up the pretense that he believed it, and mostly he liked his life, because unlike most everybody else in the Mason’s world he got plenty to eat, and a nice place to sleep, and sex with servants of any gender whenever he wanted it, and basically, he was a lazy hedonist. Besides, they’d been together for so long, Crapsey couldn’t really imagine life without the Mason.

Plus, of course, he was afraid she would pursue him if he ran, and that she’d be able to find him after all, and that she’d stop pretending to be his friend, and make him pay.

But for now, they had their pretense in place, so he started to sing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” until she cursed at him and took an exit toward something called a “Travel Plaza.”

If Crapsey had realized what was going to happen there, he wouldn’t have urged her to stop, but hell, he wasn’t a seer, he didn’t have the gift of prophecy or precognition, so how was he supposed to know?


The gas station wasn’t too crowded, and there were more pumps than he could count arranged in several rows. The Mason drove the Hummer expertly next to one of the pumps and then just sat there in her usual switched-off way.

“You want anything from inside?” he asked. “Water, protein bars?”

The Mason appeared to consult some inner gauges and dials and said, “Water, yes. And meat.”

Crapsey tried to remind his boss to eat a couple of times a day. The body she was using might not die if she didn’t eat – who knew what the limits of her healing powers were? – but when she forgot for too long the skin got sallow and her reaction time slowed and she was more prone to casual murder than usual. The body wasn’t just a vehicle the Mason drove around in; the condition of the host affected the parasite.

“Okay.” Crapsey hopped out and walked around the back of the Hummer, figuring he’d deal with fuel first. He’d never actually used a gas pump, but he watched what another guy did, and got the nozzle in without much trouble, though the fact that gas was not instantly dispensed annoyed him. He pressed buttons and banged the pump until a twenty-something guy at the next pump, wearing a hat that read “Vicodin Love Confession,” said, “Dude, you have to swipe a credit card, or else go in and give the clerk some cash.”

“Oh,” Crapsey said. “Thanks.” He went to the driver’s window, where the Mason sat staring blankly forward at the white-cinderblock-and-glass structure at the far end of the vast concrete pad. “Be right back boss.” She ignored him.

Crapsey went into the gas station and began salivating pretty much immediately over the rows and rows of junk food, which were rare and precious treats where he was from. He grabbed a basket and started filling it with the most brightly-colored packages he could find, assuming random chance would give him an appropriate mix of sweet and salty. He grabbed a fistful of assorted jerkies for the Mason, and a couple of enormous bottles of startlingly clear water from a row of coolers. He paused near the checkout counter and selected a pair of sunglasses with silver reflective lenses. If he wore those, someone who looked into his eyes would only see their own face, which struck him as funny, so he got those too.

He waited in line – that sucked about this world, he never waited in line back home – and when his turn came dumped everything on the counter. The surly silent clerk zapped his purchases with a scanner like a ray gun and put them into plastic bags, and Crapsey noted the numbers appearing on the cash register’s display. Huh. He’d probably overpaid at the diner. Oh well. Not like it was his money. The clerk said, “Anything else?”

“Gas,” Crapsey said.

“Which pump, and how much?”

Uh… wait, there’d been a number on the pump, he remembered thinking it was weird, why number them? “Number 16? And… enough to fill a big black Humvee?”

The clerk rolled his eyes. “Just tell me how much you want.”

Crapsey passed him three of Susan’s hundred dollar bills. “There, that much. For everything. And whatever’s left over, you just keep.”

The kid glanced at the total on the register, clearly doing some mental calculations, and said, “You got it, sir,” in a much more polite tone than he’d used before, and flicked a button.

Crapsey gathered up his bags and was almost out the door when he heard the screaming. It wasn’t just a lone scream, or even two screams, but a whole choir of screams, and he had a bad feeling he knew who’d caused it.

Once he got outside he saw why, too. The place had gotten a lot more crowded since he went inside, with all the pumps occupied, and people banging their horns. A big gray bus had pulled into the travel plaza, too, parking not far from the Mason, and a crowd of people must have emerged from it, probably jabbering and milling around… One of them must have said something to the Mason, or maybe someone else in line for gas had asked her to hurry up so they could use her pump, or maybe she’d just had one of her periodic too-many-people freak-outs. Either way, Crapsey emerged into a world full of people screaming, though the ones screaming were at least still alive, unlike the, what, twenty? thirty? people sprawled in various states of attempted escape on the ground near the bus. Some of them were smoking faintly, and some of them looked like they’d swallowed sticks of dynamite which subsequently exploded inside them, and some were in the process of transforming into things that were neither human nor suited for life on this planet. The Mason herself was standing in front of the Hummer, sweeping her head to and fro with the steady movement of a security camera, and where her gaze fell… people fell.

Crapsey saw some of the people running were getting close to the highway off-ramp, and – already thinking about containment – he jumped to their bodies, hopscotching from one to another, dropping ten of them in moments before returning to his body. He sat up on the concrete – ow, he’d banged his elbow when he left his body to fall, and probably smashed some of his potato chips when the bags dropped, too, damn it. He shouted, “Boss, bugs in amber! Bugs in amber!”

She glared at him, then nodded curtly, and raised her hands.

Everyone and everything still moving at the travel plaza froze in place, save Crapsey and the Mason. He gathered his bags, tossed them in the back of the Hummer, got the gas pumping, and stood there in silence while the tank filled.

The people frozen by the bugs-in-amber spell were still conscious, and not completely motionless – they could still breathe, their blood circulated, and they could move their eyes (though not close their lids), and they all stared around, wide-eyed.

“Had a little trouble here, huh, boss?” Crapsey said.

“This one.” The Mason pointed to a headless body at her feet. “He came to the window of the car. He said, ‘That’s a lot of truck for a pretty little thing like you.’ So I made his head explode. And then the others, the ones by the bus –” she gestured vaguely “– began screaming. It was loud. I found it unpleasant. I silenced them.” She shrugged.

“Hey, I get that.” Crapsey watched the numbers on the gas pump roll higher and higher, sort of like the Mason’s death toll. “But we were trying to be discreet, right? Element of surprise, creep up on Marla Mason, no news about suspicious bizarre massacres on the highway, right?”

“Right. You are right. I have become accustomed to things being a certain way. Where we are from. Where I made my home.”

Where nobody would be stupid enough to talk to the Mason without permission, and where if she killed a bunch of people, that just meant it was a fairly ordinary day.

“I will try to do better,” she said.

“Cool.” The gas pump shut off, and Crapsey started to put the nozzle away, then just let it drop to the concrete, where it oozed a little. “So we’re going to have to make this look like something other than a magical massacre. You know?”

“I do.” She got into the Hummer, and Crapsey climbed into the passenger seat, slipping on his silver shades. The mess of corpses on the concrete was a little dimmer then, which was a help. He tore the wrapper off a stick of beef jerky and handed it to her, and she ate it mechanically. They pulled away from the pumps, weaving around people frozen in stasis, and drove onto the freeway.

The Mason put a few hundred yards between them and the gas station before she made all the fuel in the underground tanks explode, sending a black fireball high in the sky with a noise like the end of the world; that was a noise Crapsey knew well, as he’d heard it many times before.

“There,” he said. “Now it’s just a terrible accident, not a sorcerer laying waste to the citizenry. No harm, no foul, but let’s try to ease off on the evil witch shenanigans for the rest of the trip, all right?”

“I am not evil.” The Mason continued to drive while other cars pulled off to the side of the road, drivers emerging to look back at the column of smoke. Police cars and ambulances and fire engines streaked by on the other side of the highway, sirens howling like the inmates of the Mason’s Wyoming Test Facility. “The terms good and evil are meaningless. Since I am the only being of any importance in the world, there’s no need for comparative terminology. No one is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than I am, because no one else matters. It would be like saying Napoleon was more evil than an earthworm. The whole conceptual rubric is nonsensical.”

Then the Mason smiled – like someone who’d learned to smile by reading about it in badly translated books – and said, “But I may not be the only being of importance in the world for long.”

Crapsey frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean, boss? Boss?”

But the Mason didn’t speak again for two hundred miles, and the next words out of her mouth weren’t any sort of answer to Crapsey’s question.

What she said was: “Kill her. No, not that way. Use your knife.”

Chapter 6

Monday, April 12th, 2010

“Out, everybody out, we’ve got to talk.” Marla made shooing motions at Rondeau, Hamil, and Langford, while Beta-B sat wild-eyed and staring on top of the desk.

Rondeau paused in the doorway. “Should I, uh, bring him some water, or –”

Out,” Marla said, in that I’m-about-to-shove-you tone of voice, so Rondeau went.

Langford immediately walked over to Rondeau’s little kitchenette and began peering into cupboards, looking for who-knows-what, and Rondeau suppressed the urge to snap at him. There were certainly plenty of times Rondeau had poked around the shelves in Langford’s lab without permission, and Langford possessed things a lot more delicate than stale saltines and cans of clam chowder past their sell-by dates.

Hamil considered one of the rickety wooden chairs beside Rondeau’s scarred table, obviously decided they weren’t up to supporting his weight, sighed, and settled for leaning against a wall. From inside Marla’s office came muted voices, punctuated by occasional shouts, but there was a basic privacy spell that kept any of the conversation from being intelligible; it sounded kind of like Klingon.

“You just went along with this?” Hamil scowled at Rondeau. “You didn’t think to… try and talk her out of it?”

Rondeau shrugged and sat in one of the chairs Hamil had spurned. Considering how the chair creaked under him, the big man had probably made a wise choice. “Since when can anybody talk Marla out of anything? Besides, I did a bad thing, and I wanted to make up for it, you know?”

“Last time I checked, kidnapping didn’t cancel out manslaughter,” Hamil said. “Interdimensional kidnapping at that. Who knows what the consequences of such an act will be?”

“You know Marla doesn’t worry about consequences. I mean, she knows there’ll be consequences. She just figures, whatever they are, she can deal with them. She’s usually right.”

Usually,” Hamil said. “I’m going downstairs in search of a bottle of cognac. Might you have such a thing in your bar?”

“I keep a bottle just for you.”

Hamil grunted and went down the stairs, leaving Rondeau alone with Langford, which was kind of good. Langford was fiddling with the hot plate to warm a kettle so he could make tea from a desiccated bag of Earl Grey he’d found someplace.

“So, Langford,” Rondeau said. “Have you had any luck working on that, uh, thing I talked to you about?”

Langford was apparently experimentally testing the assertion that a watched pot never boils, staring intently into the pitted and dinged-up shiny convex surface of the teapot. “Hmm? Oh, you mean the fixative? Yes. Very interesting problem.”

“I’m so glad you find it interesting. Does that mean you have a potion I can take or something?”

Langford looked up now, and his eyes behind his glasses were, as usual, a million miles away. “It’s not that easy. I don’t even understand what you are. We call you a ‘psychic parasite,’ as if that means something, or as if it’s a relevant classification, but you’re unique – as far as we know, anyway. And you want me to create something that negates your essential nature, the ability to move to a new host body when your old host dies. How do you stop a creature from finding a new habitat when its old habitat dies?”

“Cutting its legs off would be a good start,” Rondeau muttered, tracing his fingertip over one of the scarred channels left in the tabletop over the years.

“Yes, but you don’t have legs. I do wish I could have been present when you left your old body and took over Bradley Bowman’s – I’d be curious to see what you really look like, if there’s a physical aspect to you at all, even if it’s just a scattering of weakly-linked molecules, or if you’re a purely energy-based form, or –”

“Sorry I didn’t invite you over. I got gut-shot on short notice.”

“Yes. But it would help me to understand your nature more. And you don’t think you’re capable of, ah, leaping, I suppose you might say, at will?” Langford tapped the side of the teapot, and though it wasn’t whistling yet, apparently deemed it hot enough, and poured some water into a chipped coffee mug that said “The Bitch Is IN” on the side. It actually wasn’t even Marla’s mug. It had been here in the cabinet when Rondeau moved in.

Rondeau shook his head. “Haven’t tried. Don’t want to try. The whole point is I never want to ‘leap’ again! The last time I did I killed one of my two best friends in the world. Worse than killed. Consigned to oblivion. Eradicated his soul. B was just erased. So I want to stay in this body, thanks, forever, and if this body dies, I want to go with it.”

“Hmm. Well. It’s that last part, really, that’s the trouble. How can I link the death of a mysterious, possibly immortal, psychic force to the death of the body that force happens to inhabit? It’s a difficult problem. But if you just wanted to be stuck in that body, well…”

Rondeau looked up. “What? You’ve got something?”

“There’s a Turkish/German company that’s created something they call ‘liquid glass.’ They make many claims, for instance that this glass can be sprayed on clothing to make it permanently stain-resistant and eliminate the need for laundry detergent, that it has antibacterial qualities, that their ‘nano-scale glass coating’ bonds to surfaces through some unspecified ‘quantum forces.’ I don’t know how true any of it is – what I’ve read is PR material, not scientific material – but it did get me thinking about your plight. I think I could create a sort of… sealant, you might say. A magical equivalent of liquid glass I could coat your body with, to make it impossible for you to ‘leap’ to a new host.”

“That’s perfect! Let’s do it!”

Langford stirred his tea and shook his head. “But if your body dies, I have no reason to think your consciousness would end. Instead, I suspect you would be trapped inside the corpse, still aware, unable to communicate, and unable to free yourself – like a moth trapped inside a jar, wings beating furiously against the glass.”

Rondeau slumped in his chair. “You aren’t usually so poetic. That… doesn’t sound ideal.”

“It is certainly not optimal in the long-term, no. But if I can figure out what you are, and how to kill the essential psychic core of you, then perhaps that, combined with a magical sealant, would grant your wish to be, if you’ll forgive me, a ‘real boy.’ One who lives in but a single body and dies at some unspecified time, just like every mortal human on Earth.”

“That’s the goal. Call me Kid Pinocchio. So, what, you want to do some more tests on me?”

“You know I love doing tests, but it’s difficult to test methods for killing you without the risk of, well… killing you. But I’ll continue to study the problem. I remain interested, and anyway, Hamil is paying me well on your behalf.”

“He’s been a good friend to me,” Rondeau agreed. Hamil had taken him in after he killed Bradley, and couldn’t stay with Marla during her rage. Hell, even earlier, Hamil was the one who’d replaced Rondeau’s jaw, which Marla tore off the first time she used her creepy-ass battle cloak, and the one who made sure Rondeau got as much of an education as he had, and the one who’d set Rondeau up with meaningful work before he became Marla’s right-hand guy. And now, by helping Marla kidnap Beta-B, Rondeau had disappointed Hamil. Living in an intricately interconnected social framework sure sucked sometimes.

The office door opened and Marla poked her head out. “Where’s Hamil? He better not have –”

“He’s just boozing it up gentleman-style downstairs,” Rondeau said.

“Well, get him back up here,” Marla said. “I need to borrow his private jet.” Then she slammed the door, disappearing back into her office.


After Marla finally got Rondeau, Hamil, and Langford out – she thought for a minute she was going to have to literally kick them out, they moved so slowly – she turned to Beta-B, who was pulling his stinky button-down shirt back on. Marla went around her desk, dropped into her chair, and said, “Welcome to Felport, B. Do you mind if I call you B? I’m Marla Mason.”

His eyes widened at that, just slightly, but Marla was good at reading faces, and she wondered why her name meant something to him. Maybe he’d heard it in his psychic reverie. “I guess you can call me anything you want,” he said, sitting down in front of her chair. “You’ve brought me… where is this place?”

“A city on the East Coast. Felport.” She coughed. “In, um, another universe. Not your universe, I mean.”

“I know that much. I had some terrible dreams, and I didn’t understand everything I saw, but… I got the idea that I’d been taken from the world I know to another world. I just don’t know how, or why.”

“This isn’t just a different world, it’s a better world.” Marla leaned forward. “For you, anyway. Look, I don’t know exactly what your circumstances were back there, over there, whatever, but there are opportunities for you here.”

Beta-B crossed his arms over his thin chest. “So this is, what, an interdimensional save-the-children type thing?”

“You weren’t chosen at random. In this world I met a man named Bradley Bowman in San Francisco. He was a former actor, a psychic, and he knew he had powers, but he was lost. He didn’t understand about magic, he didn’t know any sorcerers, he’d never been taught anything. We helped each other, became friends, and eventually he became my apprentice. There was… a terrible accident, a few weeks ago… and he died. I thought, if I could find a version of him that I hadn’t met, one who was still lost and confused, I could do the same thing over again – teach him, teach you, about magic, offer you a job.” She sighed. “I didn’t expect miracles, I know you aren’t exactly the same Bradley, I know our relationship will have to develop differently, but, even if you’re from the universe next door… give me a chance?”

He shook his head. “You got the wrong guy, lady. I’m psychic, yeah, and more than that, but I’m not looking for a mentor. I’ve known about magic for a while – where I’m from everybody knows magic is real, the whole world’s divided up into fiefdoms and kingdoms, it’s all witchocracy all the time. The sorcerers went public half a dozen years ago, and took over. I was living in the Free State of Northern California, one of the benevolent countries, though we got taken over by some nasty sorcerous types earlier this year. And besides, I’ve got a mentor. I live with dozens of other sorcerers, everybody I know these days is a sorcerer, practically. And we’re doing important work. We’re in the middle of something. Whatever you did, undo it.”

“This is fucked up,” Marla said. “I told the possible witch to bring me a version of Bradley that was miserable and unhappy, not one that wanted to stay –”

Bradley laughed, and it wasn’t exactly her Bradley’s laugh, it was harsher, more bitter, a lot more dark. “Oh, I’m totally miserable, lady. My life sucks. I wish I could say I can’t remember the last time I ate, but I can – it was a week ago – and worse, I remember what I ate. I sleep in a sewer. Literally. In a sewer. But, see, I’m working hard to be less miserable. The world I’m from is bad, it’s seriously broken, but that doesn’t mean I want to leave it, Miss – Marla. It means I want to fix it. And I’ll be damned if you didn’t choose almost exactly the worst time imaginable to steal me away. You need to get me back. And you need to get me back tonight.”

“Why? What’s so important about tonight?”

“Because tomorrow we’re going to kill the Jaguar,” Beta-B said.

Marla waited a moment, then said, “I kinda feel like you expected there to be some kind of dramatic movie ‘duh Duh DUH!’ music when you said that, but I don’t know what you’re talking about. You have to kill… a car? Or do you mean a big spotted leopard thing? You have to murder a cat?”

“No. I need to kill a god.”

“Oh,” Marla said. “Huh. Okay. I think I can get behind that. Want a hand?”

He blinked. “You’re offering to… help me?”

She shrugged. “I went to epic crazy lengths to have a shot at getting back a relationship that was important to me. Bradley was my friend. You’re Bradley. So, the law of a plus b equals c says you’re my friend. I don’t have many friends. I help the ones I have.”

He stood up, and got shouty. “I’m not this guy, your B, okay? Maybe we look the same, maybe we have some of the same history, but –”

Marla stood up too, but didn’t shout. She said, “Except you are. You are Bradley. Just… a Bradley emerging from different conditions. And I’m not totally clueless about what you’re going through, about your world.” The bit about sorcerers going public and taking over the world, that threw her – whose idiot idea was that, and why hadn’t anybody killed the indiscreet moron? Life was so much easier behind the scenes and in the shadows. Still, she could dazzle this new B with some knowledge, maybe impress him a little. “Let me guess. About a year ago a crazy sorcerer named Mutex summoned the jaguar god to San Francisco and your life went to hell. Or, more to hell. Am I right?”

“Did you read my mind? How can you know about the coming of the Jaguar if it didn’t happen in this world?”

Marla shrugged. “In this world, it wasn’t a jaguar god. It was a toad god. And I killed it. I’m a little curious about why I didn’t kill it in your world, but I guess it was just coincidence that I happened to be in San Francisco in time to stop Mutex anyway, so I can see how it might have happened differently. So anyway. Let’s go kill this god of yours. A jaguar could be tougher than a toad, but whatever.”

Beta-B sat back down. “I’ll take your help. We need it, and I… have reason to believe you’re formidable. But just because you help me, that doesn’t mean I’ll become, whatever, your friend, your apprentice, or that I’ll want to come back to this world with you. I have a life, okay?”

“Understood,” Marla said, but what she thought was, We’ll see. She went to the door and yelled at Rondeau to get Hamil for her, then went back inside to B. “Tell me, you ever fly on a private jet before?”

“Yeah. I used to be –”

“A movie star,” Marla finished, “I know, for a few years, when you were like 20, 24, whatever. Before you started seeing demons everywhere and got kicked off a set for trying to tear an invisible monster off your director’s neck, which looked to the untrained eye like assault and battery. See? I do know you, B. Shame you never met me in your world. I bet we would have hit it off.”

Beta-B stared at her for a moment, and then began to laugh. He laughed so hard he squeezed his eyes shut, and tears rolled from his eyes, and Marla – who got annoyed when she felt left out of something – gritted her teeth and said, “What’s so damn funny?”

“You have no idea, do you?” he said. “I have met you, in my world – well, not met you, but I’ve seen you, from a distance, through a sniper-scope, because over there you’re totally immune to psychic viewing. But yeah, I’ve seen you. There are even rumors that you’re funding the resistance organization I’m part of. But personally, I hope that’s not true.”

Marla frowned. She tried to imagine a situation in which she would fund freedom fighters being oppressed by a jaguar god in California, but it was tricky. “Oh? Why’s that?”

“Because as horrible as the Jaguar is, Marla, there’s someone in my world that’s even worse, even more hated, even more cruel, even more dangerous.” He pointed his index finger at her face. “And that someone is you.”

Before Marla could react to that – and how exactly was she supposed to react? – Hamil rapped at the door and opened it. “What’s this about a jet?”

“Your jet. I need to borrow it. We need to get back to San Francisco ASAP, and one commercial airline flight in twenty-four hours is plenty for me.”

Hamil sat on the couch. “You’re leaving? Again? You just got back! Marla, there are things here that need your attention –”

“Whoa, big man, you’re the one who said I needed to repatriate Beta-B here –”

“Beta-B?” Beta-B said, either horrified or amused or both.

“– if he wanted to go back, and he does want to go back, so what, now you’re arguing with me? The doorway to other worlds isn’t here, it’s in San Francisco, so get that jet of yours gassed up, all right?”

Hamil pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes in the classic “I-have-a-terrible-headache-and-its-name-is-Marla” gesture. “How did you even know I have a jet?”

“I’m the boss of Felport. What I don’t know about the other sorcerers on the council could maybe fit into an acorn.”

“The jet’s not even meant to be used. Do you have any idea how bad private plane travel is for the environment? It’s so wasteful!”

“So… why do you have it then?” Beta-B said.

“He’s a sympathetic magic guy,” Marla said. “So in order to be successful he –”

“Needs to look successful,” Beta-B said, nodding. “Five-thousand dollar suits, fancy apartment, nice cars, private jets, like that. Because in sympathetic magic, you are what you seem to be.”

“Indeed,” Hamil said. “It’s also why my… girth… is so impressive. Magically speaking, fat is a sign of prosperity. I stay prosperous by seeming prosperous. It’s not easy for me, either. Naturally my body leans towards more of a runner’s physique – lean and strong and metabolically overclocked. At least I have magic to regulate my blood pressure, or I wouldn’t risk eating the way I have to.” He looked at Marla. “This isn’t your Bradley – our Bradley – but he’s smart, and I’m willing to concede he’s a Bradley. So, fine, yes, borrow my plane, and take him home, but please, Marla, get back here as soon as you possibly can. The city needs you.”

“I know. And I want to sleep in my own bed sometime soon, really. I just need to take care of this.”

“Can I go with?” Rondeau said, leaning in the doorway.

“We could always use another set of hands,” Marla said.

Beta-B stared at Rondeau. “Wait… wait. I didn’t notice that before, I was distracted, but…” He turned back to Marla. “You said I was dead. But he –” now turning to point an accusing finger at Rondeau – “Looks exactly like me, only a little more well-fed, under that admittedly pretty good illusion he’s wearing. So what the hell is going on here?”

Marla sighed. She’d hoped to avoid this part. “Beta-B, I’d like you to meet Rondeau. Your murderer.”

“Uh.” Rondeau shuffled a little in place, looked like he might bolt, didn’t, cleared his throat, and said, “So, man, how’s it going?”

“I’ve been better,” Beta-B said.

Chapter 5

Monday, April 5th, 2010

“Bagdad Cafe, huh?” Crapsey peered up at the sign. “What’s up with the real Baghdad these days, boss?”

“Here? I have no idea. In our world I think it’s been given over to a legion of djinn.”

Susan Wellstone, who was rather impatiently holding the door to the diner open, raised an eyebrow. “Well? You said you were hungry, so come on.”

The sun wasn’t even up yet, but there were several other people in booths and at tables inside the cheerful diner, mostly young and either tired- or wired-looking. Back home the same sort of people would also be awake at this hour – but they’d be laboring in one of the Mason’s labs or factories or collegiums, depending on their skills and ambitions. Except in San Francisco they’d be doing whatever the subjects of a jaguar god-king did with their mornings. The Mason didn’t run California over there… yet.

Susan led them to a table in the far corner, away from other customers, and sat with her back against the wall. Crapsey was used to that sort of thing from sorcerers – never put your back to the door, protect your flank, go wide when you go around corners in case someone’s lurking there, et cetera et cetera. The Mason took a chair facing the wall without complaint. She wasn’t worried about people sneaking up on her. She literally had eyes in the back of her head. Well, not literally, they weren’t actually eyes with corneas and aqueous humor and all that, but she could see in 360 degrees around her at all times. It was a cloak thing. Crapsey sat down beside her.

He’d never eaten in a restaurant before except maybe when he was a kid, and wasn’t sure how to go about it, and though the Mason had experience in such matters she was just sitting there, so he followed her lead. Susan Wellstone snapped her fingers, and a twenty-something blonde with dark eye shadow and several facial piercings approached. Crapsey gave her a big smile, which she returned perfunctorily. Maybe if he hadn’t put on the glamour that hid his distinctive prosthetic jaw she would have been more interested – she was clearly open to the idea of body modification. Susan ordered coffee and something called a crab benedict, then muttered about how it should really be called “Eggs Chesapeake” and why couldn’t any restaurant in California ever get that right, and Crapsey said, “Make that two,” because he didn’t know how you even found out what food a restaurant served, and the Mason said, “Just water,” which Crapsey knew she probably wouldn’t even drink.

While they waited for the food to arrive, and the Mason stared blankly at a spot on the wall, ignoring Susan despite all the woman’s throat-clearings and finger-tappings, Crapsey took pity on her. “Your, uh, city, it’s really nice. I never saw San Francisco before the coming of the –”

“Shush,” the Mason murmured, and Crapsey’s jaw clamped shut of its own accord – or, rather, of the Mason’s accord. She’d ripped off his original jaw the day they met, and later fit him with the prosthesis, which had certain magical enhancements… but which the Mason could also remotely control.

His jaw unlocked, and the Mason didn’t say anything further, so Crapsey figured she just wanted him to steer clear of talking about the Jaguar. Fair enough. “Um, over in my world, I mean,” he said. “The view from the boat was really something, all those lights. And the car ride over here, it was, wow…. Hills. Buildings. Trees. Really great.” He’d only been to the San Francisco in his world once, on a diplomatic mission, and the city there was mostly being devoured by the jungle of its new god-king.

“Thank you.” Susan looked at him speculatively – probably thinking she could get on his good side and develop some influence with the Mason that way, it was a look Crapsey received a lot – and then the food arrived. Crapsey leaned forward and inhaled the odors from his plate, two puffy white lumps placed on top of two golden brown breaded lumps which were in turn on top of two round pieces of bread all smothered in a yellow sauce, with savory potatoes – potatoes being the only thing he definitively recognized here – on the side. He took a bite, and the creamy-tangy-smooth-salty overwhelmed his senses. Crapsey closed his eyes and just tasted the mouthful for a long time before chewing and swallowing. He was suddenly, specifically grateful that the Mason hadn’t ripped off his tongue along with his jaw.

“Oh, Susan, this is the best food I’ve had in ages. But there’s not any crab on the plate. Or is the name crab benedict like metaphorical? I know this English guy, Rasmussen, he runs things for the Mason in the British Isles, he told me about something he ate when he was a kid called toad-in-the-hole, but it’s not even really made with toads. So is it like that?”

“No…” Susan pointed to the breaded lump. “That. It’s a crab cake.”

“They make cake out of crabs here? This place is wild. And these are, what, eggs? They seem kinda eggy.”

“Yes, poached eggs – you’ve never had a crab cake before? Or poached eggs?”

Crapsey shook his head. “Nah. I mean, I eat pretty well, don’t get me wrong, better than just about everybody else, but since my boss here doesn’t care about food it’s not like we’ve got fancy chefs or anything in our headquarters – some people call it the imperial palace, but come on, it’s a warehouse store in Felport the Mason took over, it’s not palatial. What we’ve got is this huge pantry full of scavenged and hoarded canned goods, and crates of vegetables yanked right out of the ground from the prison farms, and if you’re part of the Mason’s inner circle – not that any of us are all that inner, even me, come on, she’s like an alien or something – you pretty much just root around and fend for yourself at mealtimes. The foot soldiers have cafeterias, but you wouldn’t want to eat what passes for food in those – it’s basically just battle-optimized protein/vitamin mush.” He stopped talking long enough to wolf a few more bites, surprised to see half the food on the plate gone already. He could always order more, he supposed… Susan was staring at him. Oh. Right. Manners.

Resisting his desire to rapidly devour the rest of his food – such wonderful meals were obviously commonplace here, no need to inhale it – he put his fork down, wiped his mouth, sipped his coffee (that, at least, was just as lousy at it was in the Mason’s domain), and said, “So anyway, how’d you end up running San Francisco?”

Susan glanced at the Mason. “It’s a long story.”

Crapsey shrugged. “There’s no place I need to be. I mean, there are places I need to be, but they aren’t in this universe, so I figure I’m not going to make it anyway. So tell.”

Susan arranged her coffee cup just so on the table, then looked into Crapsey’s eyes. She had heterochromia – her left eye was green, her right blue – and it was a pretty intense spooky kind of stare, no doubt practiced for just that effect, but Crapsey spent most of his days with one of history’s top ten greatest despots, so he just smiled blandly and took another sip of his drink.

“I took over San Francisco not quite a year ago. Before that I was in Felport, on the council of sorcerers there. Marla was chief sorcerer, she still is. Marla and I, ah…” Another glance at the Mason.

“It’s okay,” Crapsey said. “Talk all the shit about Marla you want. The Mason isn’t Marla anymore. She’s been wearing that cloak non-stop for over a dozen years. There’s still some Marla in there, sure, her personality has an influence, but mostly, it’s the cloak.”

“Is she not listening? You called her an alien, you…. she doesn’t mind?”

“The Mason doesn’t get offended real easily. I mean, don’t get me wrong, she’ll kill you as soon as look at you, and as for insubordination, forget it, better you don’t even think about it. But she cares about actions and results, pretty much. She’s gotten into the human habit of talking, at least sometimes, she likes a little banter, and she likes saying cruel shit to people before she kills them, but I think that’s like a consequence of the body she’s using, the shape of the brain she’s using to think with. Really she thinks most of the things humans say to each other are so much pointless babble. But, hey, we humans have to pass the time and reinforce the bonds of our social ties and exchange information and all that, so why not chat?”

“But you aren’t human.”

Crapsey picked up his butter knife and pointed it toward Susan. “Hey. That’s rude. True, technically true, but we’re talking semantics. Yes, I’m some kind of psychic parasite who can jump from body to body, but I have no memories of a time when I didn’t inhabit a human body. Whatever my true history is, poof, it’s lost to me. I’ve never known a life where I wasn’t human, with all the hungers and urges and desires a human has. So screw you, you say I’m not human. The Mason, she’s totally different. I mean, she remembers whatever came before she possessed Marla, she knows what she really is – not that she talks about it much. Besides, the Mason doesn’t inhabit that body over there. The Mason is mostly the cloak. You think you’re looking at a woman wearing a cloak, but you’re not – you’re looking at a cloak wearing a woman. Except the cloak is, you know, not a cloak. But that’s killing my metaphor so I’ll shut up. You were saying. You were in Felport…?”

Susan looked like she wanted to ask some follow-up questions, but he saw her decide to let herself be redirected. Good. The Mason didn’t like waiting, and if Crapsey didn’t get the info his boss wanted out of Susan soon, things might get nasty. “Ah. Yes.” Another sideways glance at the Mason, then she focused her attention on Crapsey again, since the Mason was displaying as much affect as a piece of painted wood. “I was living and working in Felport. Marla had been chief sorcerer for a few years. I disapproved of… everything about her. I am a very methodical, organized, patient person. Perhaps because my specialty is large-scale ritual magic, where complex procedures must be performed without the slightest mistake or deviation over long time scales – or perhaps I’m good at such magic because I’m a perfectionist. Marla Mason, however, just… blunders in. If she sees a problem, she attacks it directly, without regard for strategic planning or unintended consequences. She is rash, reckless, and stubborn. The fact that she’s had some degree of success with this approach is even more infuriating. I thought I would make a better chief sorcerer than she, and so, in the traditional manner, I, ah…”

Crapsey nodded encouragingly, eyeing the mostly-uneaten crab benedict on her plate. “Tried to knock her off. Assassination. Oldie but a goodie.”

Susan stirred around her potatoes with her fork. “Indeed. I attempted to cast a spell that would erase her from the very fabric of reality. She found out, and tried to save herself by acquiring a certain artifact that could protect her. The artifact was here, in San Francisco. She failed, I might add, but while she was here she became embroiled in local politics, got into a fight with a mad sorcerer from central America, and when all was said and done, Marla found herself in a position to help decide who the next ruler of San Francisco would be. She made me an offer – if I let her live, and let her have Felport, she’d arrange for me to take over San Francisco. As this city is in every conceivable way – climate, economy, culture – superior to the decaying rust-belt relic that is Felport, I agreed. And here I am still.”

Crapsey leaned forward. “This mad sorcerer you mentioned… Guy named Mutex? Wanted to bring an ancient jaguar god back to life?”

Susan frowned. “His name was Mutex, yes, but he was trying to summon some sort of toad goddess, if I recall, associated with the underworld. He didn’t make it that far. Marla killed him.”

“Toad. Huh.” In Crapsey’s world, Mutex had summoned Tepeyollotl – god of jaguars, earthquakes, and echoes – and the Mason hadn’t even heard about his ascension until the god was already born and consolidating his power. These days the Mason ruled most of Canada and Mexico, chunks of Europe (by proxy), and the continental US from the East Coast to the Rockies. The Jaguar ruled most of the West Coast, except for a chunk of the Pacific Northwest that was presently held by a giant fungal intelligence called the Mycelium. Of course, unless they could make it back to their universe, the balance of power was going to shift over there. Not that Crapsey was in a hurry to leave this universe. The food here alone… “You gonna eat that?” he said, and when Susan shook her head, he brought her plate over and began finishing her food, too. What else had the Mason wanted him to investigate? Oh, right.

“So your version of Marla Mason, you said she’s got a cloak of her own? Purple and white?”

“Oh, yes.” The waitress returned with a coffee refill, and Susan meticulously measured three spoonfuls of sugar into her cup and tinkered with the cream quantity as carefully as an alchemist hot on the trail of the elixir vitae. While she stirred, Susan went on. “The story goes that Marla found the cloak in some thrift store in Felport when she was, hmm, perhaps twenty? A mere apprentice, coming into possession of such a powerful artifact… Well, it gave her ideas, aspirations above her abilities, if you ask me. I daresay the only reason she rose so far and fast in the city’s sorcerous society was because she had the cloak.”

“But she doesn’t wear it all the time?”

“No, no. In the old days she wore it more often, but never constantly. Lately I hear she hardly wears the cloak at all unless going directly into a battle she might not otherwise win, and there was even a rumor that she’d sent the cloak away to be buried in some remote location, but I don’t believe that. You don’t give up a weapon so potent, even if it is, ah…”

“Is what?” Crapsey leaned forward with his chin in his hand, smiling at Susan affably. She was pretty, in a cold way. It would be fun wearing her body. He’d try to loosen her posture up a bit, let her hair down, see if her physiology would allow for the possibility of some fun.

Susan closed her eyes. “Poisonous. Marla contends the cloak is poisonous. That to wear it for too long makes her mind fade away, that she senses some… alien inhabitant… dwelling in the cloth, eager to take over her body, her soul, her life. That the cloak is a powerful artifact, but a cursed one.”

Crapsey looked over at the Mason, who’d moved her gaze up a foot or so, to a completely unremarkable different spot on the wall. “Pretty much true. Wear it all the time, never take it off after the first time you put it on, and you end up like the Mason. Which isn’t so bad if you want to be a conqueror of worlds, but if you want to, I don’t know, go dancing, or see a boxing match, or get drunk with your friends, or even have friends, or have sex, or just have a good time, or maybe have a dream… being the Mason isn’t so good for that.”

The Mason sighed, which meant she was impatient, which meant: “So let’s review,” Crapsey said. He began counting off points on his fingers. “Marla Mason is chief sorcerer of Felport. She has a cloak, the same cloak, but she doesn’t wear it often, only for like emergencies. And there’s no giant Aztec gods lurking around the west coast.”


“Okay, then – oh, hey. What about me? The other me, the alternate me?”

Susan nodded. “I don’t know him well. He calls himself Rondeau. He… doesn’t jump bodies as promiscuously as you do. I don’t think he even knows how. He’s still in that body, his original one, I mean, the first one he stole, the one he grew up in. He doesn’t have a prosthetic jaw, either.”

“Huh. Guess he didn’t meet his Marla on a bad day, then. Lucky bastard.”

Susan shook her head. “No, Marla did rip his jaw off, the first time she wore the cloak, but she regretted it, apologized, and made sure he got a replacement jaw from a psychic surgeon. Over the years the two of them have become close. Now he runs a nightclub in Felport, where Marla keeps her office, and he’s her right-hand man, essentially.”

Crapsey punched the Mason lightly on the shoulder. “You hear that, boss? You and me, inseparable across universes. We’re meant to be. It’s kismet. Destiny.”

“There’s no such thing as destiny,” the Mason said, still staring at the wall. “There can be no destiny, no ‘meant to be,’ in a multiverse where all possible things happen. There are surely infinitely more universes where we never met, and where neither the body you wear nor the body I use were ever born. But we’ve learned what we need to know. Remove her.”

“Sorry, Suze,” Crapsey said, and leapt from his body into hers.

Except it was like trying to do a cannonball into a frozen lake. The psychic spiderweb that was Crapsey’s consciousness hit a cold icy wall and bounced. He couldn’t fight his way into Susan’s mind, any more than a fly could fight his way through a closed window.

 “I said Rondeau doesn’t jump bodies.” Susan’s voice dripped with contempt. “But I was aware of the possibility that he might, and since he works for one of my greatest enemies, I erected these psychic protections against bodily possession ages ago. It’s called being prepared, Mason, and being prepared is what I do –”

The Mason leaned forward and extended her hand faster than Crapsey could see – even while he was disembodied, when his senses were far more acute – and a blade flashed. She withdrew her hand, and Susan stared at her, and then her chin dropped to her chest. A tiny spot of blood began to swell on the fabric of her blouse, just over the heart, but it was a dark blouse, and probably nobody’d notice.

Crapsey slipped back into his body and shook himself. “Sorry, boss, she had a good wall up. No protections against physical attack, though? That’s dumb.”

“No, she was wreathed in protective spells. I had to use my dagger of office.”

“Ahhh.” The Mason possessed the dagger of the chief sorcerer of Felport – to be fair, Felport was the first of the many, many cities she’d conquered, and still her home base – and it was a potent artifact in its own right, if not possessed of intelligence like the cloak was. The dagger could cut through anything: steel, concrete, ghosts, magic, whatever. It was useful, though not the sort of thing you wanted to wave around too much, since you might accidentally end up slicing through all sorts of things inadvertently. “So what now?”

“If you’d been able to possess Susan like I wanted, then we could have used her body to call together a gathering of her sorcerers, killed them all, and made San Francisco our base of operations. But since that didn’t work…” She shrugged. “I say we go to Felport and find Marla.”

“Huh. You think Marla has something to do with us… showing up here, in the mirror universe?”

“It’s possible,” the Mason said. “But mostly, I just want to see her. I’m curious to see how she… developed… without my influence.”

“That’s you, boss. Curious to a fault.” The Mason did indeed enjoy turning over rocks, looking under them, and brutally exterminating the life of anything she found underneath. But Crapsey thought this was more than mere curiosity. The Mason had been very insistent about the need to find out if Marla had a cloak, if it was always in her possession, if she was likely to be wearing it, and so on, hence Crapsey’s morning of eggs and interrogations. He thought Marla herself was maybe kind of an afterthought – the Mason was interested in Marla’s cloak. “Going to Felport sounds good to me. I want to meet myself. Hell, maybe me and him can get a three-way going, show some girl a really good time.”

“You sicken me,” the Mason said.

“Right back atcha, boss.”

She stood. “Come, let’s leave before Susan’s body is noticed. If the police become involved I’ll have to destroy them, and if something too dramatic happens here, word may get back to Marla… I’d hate to spoil the surprise of my appearance.”

“Police, right.” Crapsey vaguely remembered cops, or at least trying to avoid them when he’d been a little kid, living in alleyways, new to being human, before he met the Mason and the world changed.

“Don’t forget to leave money, Crapsey. The waitress will chase us if we stiff her… and she won’t recall your flirting with pleasure if she has to pay for your meal herself.”

“Ah, uh, right, pay, sorry.” Currency didn’t have much to do with his day-to-day life, or anyone’s life where he was from, really – the Mason’s world was less a cash economy and more a beg-barter-steal economy. He picked up Susan’s little black handbag from the chair beside her body, found the billfold, and looked at the green pieces of paper inside, nearly all marked “100.” He took out three of the bills and put them on the table, because there’d been three of them having a meal, even if the Mason only ordered water, so one bill for each of them was probably right, yeah? Then he remembered something from a book he’d read once – you were supposed to leave a tip, for the waitress – so he dropped a fourth hundred on the table. “There,” he said, more confidently than he felt. “We’re all set.”

“Excellent,” the Mason said. “Let’s go steal a car.”