Broken Mirrors is now on sale for the Kindle! (And all those other devices that can read Kindle books. I’m working on other formats and venues. But it’s a start.)
Archive for August, 2010
I thought I’d do a little postmortem post, largely about filthy lucre, since it might be of use to other people considering such online serial projects, and of interest to others. Prepare for some transparency.
I have no idea how many readers I had, but I had 215 readers who liked this project enough to donate. (I’ve heard from several others who plan to buy the print edition or e-book versions rather than donating, too.)
Gross donations came to a bit over $13,700. (For Bone Shop I only made about $4,000 in donations. I think offering fundraiser prizes was a huge help this time.)
The average donation was about $63.86; the median donation was $35; the mode was $10. The donations ranged in amounts from $1 to $2,000. (The latter donor will get a chapbook with a new Marla Mason story written just for them, about a character of their choice. I’m already working on it, and it will either be called “A Void Wrapped in a Smile” or “Thirteen Views of Joshua”.)
A dozen people paid the minimum $300 necessary to have a name of their choice Tuckerized in the text. (And every one gave me a great and interesting name to use!) That option was more popular than I expected.
Paypal’s cut of the transactions worked out to around 4%. Taxes account for another third or so. Sending out fundraiser prizes, including postage, will run me a fair chunk of change, too. I imagine postage alone will run me around $500, and I had to pay for the comic I commissioned, and I have to buy copies to send out (I get a good author discount, but still), and pay to print the chapbook, and etc. But that still leaves a lot of healthy profit.
In total I made about 30% less on this Marla book than I did on the previous volumes, which were purchased by Bantam Spectra. Though since I didn’t have to pay my agent’s (always well-deserved!) commission on this project, it’s really only about 20% less than I got from Bantam, in terms of net income. (My agent will get a piece of the print sales, as she negotiated that contract for me.)
My readers, thus, paid me about 80% of what the world’s largest publisher used to pay me. (Hell, it’s a fair bit more than Bantam paid me for my first novel, The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl.) And based on how well my previous project Bone Shop has done as an e-book, I’ll almost certainly exceed that amount once the Kindle edition of Broken Mirrors starts to sell.
My generous donors paid for my kid’s preschool all year, and health insurance payments, and helped dig us out of the hole left by my wife being laid off for half a year. Their support has made this a financial success… but it’s been an artistic success, too. I found a way to continue telling a story I care about passionately, and to satisfy my fans, in a way that would otherwise have proved impossible.
I’m not planning to become a self-publisher exclusively. I’ve sold four other books in the past year, to publishers large and small, both original and work-for-hire novels. (None of them have been announced, either because they’re pseudonymous work-for-hire or because contracts are now being nailed down.) I’m still happy to work with the industry’s editors and marketing people, who labor greatly for not enough recompense. I hope to sell original books to major publishers again in the future, even if it’s under a new name. My experiences with Bantam Spectra were almost uniformly positive, except for the bit where they dropped me — but they laid off my editor and reorganized the imprint out of existence first (it’s Ballantine Spectra now), so in many ways, I was just an ancillary casualty. Plus, frankly, given the way sales diminished over the course of the series from a pretty healthy book 1 to a pretty lackluster book 4, it didn’t make sense financially for Bantam to keep publishing me… but it turns out it makes sense financially for me to keep publishing myself. (Though I had the advantage of an existing fan base for an ongoing series, which is not to be underestimated. Had I tried to start my career with online serials… I doubt it would have worked out so well.)
Self-publishing has been better to me than I would have imagined possible. Which is why I’m trying it again with my science fantasy adventure The Nex. I hope some of you will check that project out, too.
And next year, assuming I have time, I’d like to write a sixth Marla book, about her life in exile, and a bunch of people trying to kill her.
This has been an amazing experience. I’ll post one more time at least, next week, to point to the Kindle edition when it’s for sale. (I’m trying to get other e-book versions available too, but the Kindle is the easiest, so that’ll be first.)
Thanks again, everyone.
“You’re fired,” the Chamberlain said. “There. I could have been more diplomatic, and normally I would be, but I know how much you value directness, so there it is. You are no longer chief sorcerer of Felport.”
“Look, I know you’re pissed.” Marla sat back in one of Hamil’s comfy armchairs. “The Mason did some serious damage, I get that, but I did defeat her, you know. My job is protecting the city, and I succeeded.”
“You were the one who put the city in danger.” The Chamberlain was dressed impeccably as always, this time in a midnight blue evening grown, and she was even wearing an understated diamond tiara. As understated as a jewel-studded crown could be, anyway. “Your hubris led to the deaths of Dr. Husch, Viscarro, Ernesto, Granger…” She shook her head. “This isn’t open to discussion. You’re out. Now, the terms of your exile –”
“This is ridiculous. You can’t just unilaterally oust me. Deposing a sitting chief sorcerer takes a unanimous vote. Tell her, Hamil.”
“She knows,” Hamil said. “The vote was unanimous.”
Marla stared at him. “Et tu, fat man?”
“I have supported you in almost every endeavor you’ve undertaken,” Hamil said gravely. “But I did not support your violation of the laws of space and time. I know you love Felport, Marla… but it’s clear you loved Bradley Bowman more. You put your feelings for him above the safety of your city. You deserted us, and while you were gone, we were attacked by a monster – a monster that only had access to our world because of the choices you made. Yes, you stopped the Mason. We’re glad. But you started the Mason, too, and we can’t ignore that.”
“Sorry, Marla,” the Bay Witch said. Beautiful, blonde, dripping seawater all over the carpet, just like always – but now she had a deep frown line in her forehead, marring her carefree surfer-girl look. “I like you. I think you have pretty hair and you were pretty nice and good to me, pretty nice and good to the waters, pretty good, but what you did was bad. No pretty, just bad.”
“Okay.” Marla thought frantically. “Okay, I fucked up, totally, but what about my past service? Hell, in the past year I saved the city from the god of death and the king of nightmares and the beast of Felport and the great god Xorgothua and those things that claimed to be elves and –”
“We are aware of your past contributions,” the Chamberlain said. “Which is why you are being offered exile instead of execution. You impossible woman, don’t you understand, you caused the death of half the council! If you’d spent another few hours off on your little otherworldly adventure, Hamil and I would be dead, too, and the city obliterated. You. Must. Go.”
“There aren’t enough of you,” Marla said, though part of her was thinking, If I’m arguing on procedural grounds, I’m screwed. “You three aren’t enough for a quorum, so –”
“We elevated Langford to Ernesto’s position,” Hamil said tiredly. “And Mr. Beadle to Viscarro’s. We were all in agreement. Marla, it’s over.
“But there’s still stuff to do! Crapsey and Nicolette are both running around loose out there, somebody will have to –”
Hamil shook his head. “We can take care of them, Marla. They aren’t your concern anymore. Please hand over your dagger of office.”
Marla stared at him, then stood up, refusing to let herself tremble. How dare they. The first time an atomic monster from the center of the Earth attacked, or a cult devoted to the Bad Old Ones summoned something with more tentacles than brains, the council would beg to take her back, and she’d refuse them. For a little while. Just at first. Then she’d come back and save them. After she was sure they were really sorry. But for now, she’d act with dignity. She drew the Mason’s dagger and offered it hilt-first to Hamil. The other dagger, she intended to keep – what they didn’t know wouldn’t bother them. That knife wasn’t really Felport’s dagger of office, anyway. The original blade had been lost, something the rest of the council didn’t know, and its identical replacement was a personal gift from the god of Death. And, damn it, that belonged to her. Giving them the Mason’s dagger was a lot closer to returning the original weapon anyway.
Hamil shook his head. “Don’t give the dagger to me. The Chamberlain is taking over as chief sorcerer.”
“The Chamberlain?” Marla said.
Hamil nodded. “We’re elevating Perren River – the head of the Honeyed Knots – to the Chamberlain’s old spot on the council.”
“Perren’s great, that’s fine, put her on the council, but giving the Chamberlain my job? That’s not the succession plan I worked out –”
“Enough.” The Chamberlain’s voice was sharp enough to slice tendons. “Your plans are irrelevant. I hereby claim the position of chief sorcerer of Felport.”
As soon as the Chamberlain announced her claim, a yawning absence opened in Marla’s center. The part of her that sensed Felport went silent. It was like having a tooth pulled, only instead of a tooth, it was more like her heart.
The Chamberlain snatched the dagger from Marla’s hands. Marla prayed the knife wouldn’t recognize her authority – that it would turn and slice all the Chamberlain’s fingers off – but the dagger recognized its new mistress, and behaved.
“Please,” Marla said, telling herself it wasn’t begging, it was just asking, “Don’t send me away. Felport is my home. I’ve lived here more than half my life. Surely I deserve –”
“You have twenty-four hours to set your affairs in order,” the Chamberlain said. “Which is about twenty-three more hours than I wanted to give you. After that, you leave – via the airport, if you please. I don’t want you squatting on the outskirts of town, moping around. Be gone by this time tomorrow, or I’ll have you removed.”
“I don’t even get a severance package?”
The Chamberlain smiled icily. “We’ve decided not to sever your head from your body. That’s your severance package.”
Marla looked to Hamil for help, but he just shook his head. “Good luck, Marla. I do wish you well, and hope you’ll stay in touch.”
“Yes, don’t forget to write,” the Chamberlain said.
“Fuck you all,” Marla said. “You’ll be sorry.”
“Maybe someday,” the Chamberlain said, “You’ll grow up enough to realize you’re the one who has something to be sorry for.”
“Didn’t seem prudent to mention my new status on the council,” Langford said, packing up his doctor’s bag. Beta-Marla was in Bradley’s old room, nestled in the covers, staring at the ceiling. “My elevation to the council was certain to be a sore point, and we were both too busy for, hmm, shouting and recriminations.”
“I can’t believe you voted to throw me out,” Marla said, staring at her doppelganger. She was catatonic, totally checked-out from the world. Lucky bitch.
“Nothing personal. I’ve enjoyed working with you over the years. It was simply the logical decision. The Chamberlain’s arguments were compelling. I’m taking over administration of the Blackwing Institute, by the way, at least until Dr. Husch can be put back together again. Assuming she’s sane once she’s reassembled, she can have the job back.”
“Who’s going to run your lab while you’re off playing councilman and chief head-shrinker?”
“You haven’t met my apprentice, have you? She doesn’t come out of the lab much. Danielle Ching-Yi Kong. She’ll be looking after my interests in the city. Very bright woman. Started out washing retorts and calibrating machinery for me, but she’s developed into a top-notch experimental alchemist. She’s nearly cracked the problem of chrysopoeia and the creation of the Alkahest, and is making great strides toward perfecting the panacea.”
“You lost me at ‘problem,'” Marla said.
Langford blinked. For as long as Marla had known him, he’d had trouble understanding that not everyone had access to the same inner mental landscape he did. “Ah. Suffice to say she’s a young woman who’s going places.”
“Me too. Though I’m not young, and I’m not going anyplace I want to go.” She nodded toward Beta-Marla. “What happens to her?”
“We’ll keep your, ah, interdimensional twin at the Institute, very comfortably. She’ll have the best therapy. Perhaps someday she’ll recover her faculties.”
“Can I visit her?” Marla said.
“The Institute is outside the city limits of Felport, so I believe the terms of your exile will allow that.” Langford glanced at his watch. “You should collect your personal belongings. The Chamberlain will be over soon to take all your files back to her own office.”
Marla nodded and left the room, not bothering to thank him for his years of service, any more than he’d thanked Marla for hers.
Her office door was open, and Rondeau was sitting on her couch. “Is it true?” he said. “Those ingrates are actually throwing you out?”
“Yeah.” She sat in her chair and looked around the room. What should she take with her? The antique chatrang board her predecessor had given her? Her mummified baby alligator, which she had on the theory that every sorcerer’s lair should have a mummified reptile of some kind? Her scythe-shaped letter opener?
In the end, she just took the little silver bell from her cut-open desk drawer, careful not to let it ring. She looked at Rondeau. “Bye,” she said. “You’ve been a good friend. Better than I deserved, maybe. Take care of yourself.”
Rondeau stood up. “Marla, where will you go?”
She didn’t answer him, just shook her head, and went out into the city. Her walk to meet the Mason hadn’t been her last walk in Felport after all.
But this one would be.
Marla stood in the airport, staring at the departure boards. Numbness had given way to anger and been replaced by exhaustion. She’d walked all night and into the morning before going to her apartment and packing up her last few things She had her leather shoulder bag with a few clothes and a couple of books, and a rolling suitcase with more clothes and toiletries and other essentials. Her entire life in two bags.
She also had an enchanted boarding pass, courtesy of the Chamberlain, which would allow her onto any plane she wanted to board, and insured her a seat in first class. And if the flight was full, well, the airline would figure it was their screw-up, and somebody would get bumped to make room for her. Marla had enough magic of her own to make that happen.
“What’re you thinking?” Rondeau said, appearing at her shoulder. “Scenic Newark New Jersey? Or Scranton Pennsylvania? I hear Scranton is beautiful this time of year. By which I mean almost damn winter.” He wore a loud aloha shirt and sunglasses, and had an enormous rolling suitcase of his own, a garment bag slung over his shoulder, and a bulging backpack.
“What are you doing here?” she said.
“Heading out of town. I haven’t had a vacation in, well, ever. Though this is less a vacation and more a change of life. I sold the club to Hamil.”
“What are you talking about? You love the club!”
He shrugged. “Bradley’s body isn’t as good at staying up all night. Different circadian rhythms or whatever. And he’s got no tolerance for the drugs I like. Nah, that’s a bad scene for me now. Besides, Hamil offered me, like… obscene amounts of money for the club. I knew the place was valuable, what with the special conference room and all, but damn – I think he paid me double what it’s worth because he felt bad about firing you. The cash I have now, it’s beyond fuck-you money, Marla. It’s fuck everybody money. I can spend the rest of my life drinking rum and coke and getting happy endings from buff Swedish masseurs.”
“Lucky you,” she muttered.
“You mean lucky you. You’re my best friend, Marla. Come with me.”
She frowned. “Really? You don’t think I’m a traitor to the city and a danger to myself and others?”
“My loyalty was never to Felport. My loyalty was to you. You forgave me for killing Bradley – I can forgive you for trying to save him. So what do you say? Sit next to me on my flight? You can always go brood in some horrible coal-mining town if you don’t like my idea, but you should try it first.”
“What’s your idea?”
“Hawaii. Specifically Maui. Specifically a luxury resort in Maui where I’m assured the pina coladas never stop flowing.”
She made a face. “Hawaii? Seriously? Isn’t that kind of a cliché? You really expect me to do the whole tropical paradise thing –”
He shrugged. “Do, or don’t. I wish you would, but my flight’s boarding soon, and I’m the one with the bulging checkbook, so this time, I get to pick the destination.”
Marla laughed. “So this means I won’t get to boss you around any more?”
“You aren’t my employer anymore,” he said. “But I’m sure you can still dominate me through sheer force of personality.”
“That’s something, at least,” Marla said, and followed him toward the security line.
Crapsey woke up after dawn under the overpass where he’d spent the night, shivering, with a wicked need to piss. He limped behind a pillar and unzipped, staring up at the underside of a highway as the stream of urine steamed on the ground. How had it come to this? Alone, in the cold, friendless, in the wrong world, trapped in this one lousy body, with nothing but the ill-fitting suit on his back, his butterfly knife, and an enchanted jaw that made him look like something out of a monster movie. Plus, he was hungry. He’d been able to kill and take with impunity when he was the Mason’s right hand, but back then he’d had her support, and he’d been immortal. If he died now, he’d go insane, trapped in a corpse, forever. What the hell was he supposed to do?
“You’re better hung than I thought you’d be.” Nicolette slid down the hill from the freeway above, one arm of her shirt flapping empty, holding the silver hatchet in her remaining hand. “You hear your boss got her ass whipped?”
“What? What do you mean?”
Nicolette shrugged. “Marla beat her. I’m not sure how – my network of spies isn’t what it used to be – but word is, the crisis is over, and the Mason was neutralized.”
“Damn,” Crapsey said. “Damn. That’s the first bit of good news I’ve heard.” He zipped up. “But, with Marla still standing, doesn’t that make you a dangerous fugitive? Just like me?”
Nicolette tucked her hatchet into her belt and seesawed her hand. “Sorta kinda. This is the good part – Marla got canned. Because she’s the reason the Mason came to this world, see – the rest of the council fired her ass, and they’re sending her into exile. Poof. She’s gone.”
“Shitty ending for everybody, then.” He looked around for somewhere to sit, thought, Fuck it, and just sat on the dirt.
“Ending? Oh, no. I’m just getting started. What do you say, Jawface – want to conquer the world with me?”
“I’ll pass. World conquering’s not really my thing. Been there, done that.”
“Good. Just checking to make sure you didn’t have crazy ambitions. My real goals are a lot more modest. Marla Mason is alone, friendless, stripped of her artifacts, and without support. She’s never been weaker than this. So I figure… now’s the time to kill her.”
“Knock yourself out,” Crapsey said. “I’ve got no beef with Marla. Rondeau, on the other hand… that’s a guy I’d like to kill. And if he can’t be killed, then I want him to suffer, trapped in a single meatsack like I am, tormented forever.”
“Sure,” Nicolette said. “You know, when I said Marla was friendless, I should have said almost friendless – except for Rondeau. I hear he’s going with her, wherever she’s going. So what do you say? Help me kill Marla, and I’ll help you torture Rondeau?”
Crapsey shook his head. “It’s a good plan in theory, but Marla beat the Mason. How are we going to stand a chance against her? I can’t even jump bodies anymore.”
“Oh, but you’ve got other talents.” Nicolette draped her remaining arm over his shoulders. “As for how to kill her… to kill both of them… Don’t worry about that. I’ve got some good ideas.”
Oh well, Crapsey thought. Nicolette’s nuts, and we never did get along. But at least it’s something to live for. “Why the hell not,” he said. “Let’s kill them both.”
The next day, Marla sat in a comfortable chair in one of the outdoor restaurants attached to their hotel – which was, indeed, improbably luxurious. The weather wasn’t as hot as she’d expected. This late in the year, Maui didn’t swelter, though it was perfectly pleasant outside. She had a cup of the best coffee she’d ever tasted in front of her, alongside a plate of mostly-demolished macadamia nut pancakes, probably the tastiest breakfast she’d ever had. The view from Kaanapali, here on the island’s western shore, was breathtaking: the deep blue ocean, and the islands of Lanai and Molokai both visible in the distance. Down on the beach there stood a row of white tents, side flaps open to admit the ocean breeze, and in one of them Rondeau was getting the first of what he expected to be many massages. Though presumably of a non-erotic variety; this was a classy joint.
The rest of Marla’s day stretched out before her, vast as the ocean. She thought she might swim in the hotel’s ridiculously huge pool, soon. And then have some lunch. Maybe a walk on the beach after. Thinking beyond that, to what she might do tomorrow, next week, next year… she didn’t dare let her mind go there yet. For the first time in years, she had no purpose, no goal, no center, no services to perform, no responsibilities, no job. The prospect was more terrifying and depressing than refreshing and freeing. She wondered if it always would be.
What she did have, right now, was a nice pen and a thick stack of postcards purchased from the hotel gift shop. The postcards had pictures of the ocean, and palm trees, and islands seen from the sky, and volcanoes, and tropical flowers, and fish, and sea turtles, and birds, and bore legends like “Wish you were here” and “Hello from paradise.” There were enough postcards there for every single person she knew back home, with plenty left over for everyone she knew anywhere else, too.
After the waiter refilled her cup with kona coffee, Marla took the first postcard from the stack – this one had a picture of a grinning shark, appropriately. She took the pen in her hand, thought a moment, and began to write.
“Dear Chamberlain,” she wrote. “I hope wolves eat your guts, sharks bite off your face, and hornets use your asshole for a nest. Also, your fashion sense sucks. Who wears a ball gown to a business meeting? What are you, a Disney princess? Love from the beach, Marla.”
She stuck a stamp on that postcard and placed it face-down on the other side of her plate. One love letter down. A few dozen more to go.
Maybe, she thought, life in exile won’t be so bad.
“So that’s the succession plan,” Marla said, sipping a cup of coffee on the balcony, doing her best to enjoy what might possibly be her last peaceful view of the city, her city, the home of her heart. She yawned. It was only afternoon, but her body-clock was all screwed up. Inter-dimensional jet lag.
Hamil nodded glumly. “Understood.”
Marla reached across the table and patted her old friend’s hand. “I know you don’t want the job, but you’d be a better interim chief than the Chamberlain. She’d let everything south of the river go to hell.”
“I think you underestimate her,” Hamil said, “but I take your point.” They were at his penthouse, a highly-fortified apartment that wouldn’t withstand an assault by the Mason for more than five minutes. But then, as far as they knew, pretty much no place on Earth was safe from the Mason, so why not spend the time they had left in comfort rather than in a cramped safe house? “I wish I had more confidence in your plan,” he said. “It depends entirely on an assumption of ignorance on the Mason’s part that might be faulty. And even if it works, there’s a good chance you won’t survive. What if the Mason knows –”
Marla put her cup down. “Then we’re fucked. That simple. I could come up with a better plan if I had a week, maybe, but I don’t. This is it. Thanks for letting me grab a nap and shower here. And for not tearing me a new one. I know all this is my fault, but I’m going to fix it. I hope.”
“I thought I’d save the screaming until the immediate crisis was past,” Hamil said. “Seemed more prudent. The other sorcerers in the city are… less patient… but I convinced them now was not the time to air their grievances.”
“It’s a clusterfuck all right. Still, I’d rather fight my evil twin than deal with the council’s bitching.”
Hamil laughed softly, without humor. “What council? The only ones left are me, the Chamberlain, and the Bay Witch, and she barely takes an interest in our landward affairs.”
“I’ll avenge them all, Hamil. I should go.”
Her consigliere looked at the ornate watch on his wrist. “You have a little time yet. I’ll have a car brought around.”
Marla shook her head. “No. I’m walking. It’s not that far. And there’s a chance I might not walk away from this meeting, so…” She shrugged. “Could be my last walk. If I don’t come back… thanks, Hamil. Your support over the years has meant everything.”
“I love you like a daughter, Marla. The sort of daughter who breaks curfew and throws plates against the wall and gets tattoos, perhaps, but still – a daughter.”
Marla pushed back from the table. “Take care, fat man.”
The air had a crisp bite that made her glad to be wearing the cloak. The sky was the gray of dirty wool. Dead leaves crunched underfoot, at least until she left the relatively posh neighborhood where Hamil lived and reached the poorer blocks where there were more pawn shops and corner stores than trees. Cabs honked, buses rumbled past spewing exhaust, and half a dozen aggressive homeless men panhandled her – and the one or two who were initiates of the mysteries gave her respectful nods instead. She breathed deep the air of her city, and hoped she’d emerge soon to breathe it again.
She reached Rondeau’s club, pushed open the front door, and stepped inside to strike a bargain with a devil.
The Mason was on the far side of the bar, leaning forward like a bartender listening to a regular’s lament, though she was doing most of the talking, to Rondeau’s dismay. When the door creaked open, Rondeau looked up from his stool, spun around, and gave the new arrival a little wave. “Hi, Marla. So it turns out the Mason wants to hire me.”
“You want to work with this treacherous little shit?” Marla said, looking past him to her dark doppelganger.
Rondeau winced. Marla had to be faking that tone of cold hate and contempt, but it still stung – not so long ago, she’d been calling him stuff like that in all sincerity.
Marla approached the bar. “Rondeau can’t control himself. If he stubs his toe or gets a toothache he might decide he’s dying and leap from his body and kill your best general.”
“We both know his lack of control will cease to be a problem soon,” the Mason said.
Marla took a seat next to Rondeau. “Did you tell him what’s going to happen?”
“A horse doesn’t need to know he’s being bought and sold,” the Mason said.
Marla sighed. “Right. You want to do this thing?”
“Wait wait,” Rondeau said. “Do what thing?”
“We are making a trade,” Marla said carefully. “I’m giving the Mason what she wants, and in exchange, she’s going away.”
Rondeau frowned. “What, you’re trading me? But… I already told her I’d work for her. I don’t need your permission.”
“Silly Crap – Rondeau,” the Mason said. “That’s not the trade. We’re trading this body –” she gestured at herself – “For Marla’s cloak.”
Marla nodded. “Yep. I don’t give a shit about the rest of the multiverse. I care about two things: my city, and my body. I’m not letting the Mason walk around wearing another version of me – that Marla deserves freedom, and peace. She’s suffered more than enough.”
“But you, body-thief,” the Mason said, smiling at Rondeau. “You deserve nothing. Or so Marla says. Besides, I want you. As a host, you have definite advantages over this one. Your will is strong enough to sustain me, if not as strong as my Marla’s – but most importantly, that will of yours currently inhabits the body of a psychic powerful enough to rip holes in the skin of reality. So I’m going to take over your body, and take Marla’s cloak, and rip a portal back to my universe, and from there… conquer the multiverse.” She glanced at Marla. “Excepting this world, of course. As agreed.”
Rondeau tried to stand up, but he couldn’t move – the Mason had cast some paralyzing hoodoo on him, but he could still talk, probably because the Mason was the type who liked hearing her victims scream. “This is bullshit. Marla, you can’t trust her! She says she’ll leave this world alone, but how can you know –”
“I can’t know,” Marla said. “Even if we cast a circle of binding, who knows if compulsive magic like that even works on her? But what’s the alternative? The multiverse is vast. I have to believe she’ll be able to keep herself occupied in all those zillions of worlds without coming back here.”
“I don’t usually bother to keep promises,” the Mason said. “But in this case, I’ve made an exception, because you have something of great value to me. In the near-infinity of worlds to conquer, I won’t even notice this one. Besides, once I take the cloak away…” She shrugged. “There’s nothing else here I want. And there are billions of universes with other cloaks I can gather. I’ll leave, and I won’t come back.”
“So how do we do this?” Marla said. “I’m assuming you can’t take yourself off your own shoulders and put you on Rondeau? And I’m also guessing you don’t trust me to do the transfer, since it’s pretty much the only time you’re even remotely vulnerable. I guess that means you need a lapdog to undress you.” She looked around. “So where’s Crapsey?”
The Mason shook her head. “As if I’d trust him not to drop me to the ground and stomp on me. I went out and procured a mind-slave this morning.” She snapped her fingers, and a gray-bearded man dressed in multiple layers of flannel emerged from a utility closet, walking jerkily, eyes glazed over. Rondeau recognized him as one of the local panhandlers. He drooled and stared glassily, stopping near the bar and waiting like a switched-off robot.
The Mason made a vague gesture with her hand, and Marla grunted. Through gritted teeth, she said, “What. The fuck. Is this?”
“You could call it betrayal,” the Mason said. “I just call it a reasonable precaution. I can’t have you killing my mind-slave while I’m vulnerable and interrupting the transfer. And I know you’d be tempted.” She came over to Marla and gently removed the cloak from her shoulders, then draped it over a barstool and gazed down at it lovingly for a moment. Then she looked back up at Marla. “Though it’s a betrayal, too, actually. I’m not planning to give up this body, of course. I’m trading up to the delicious Rondeau/Bradley hybrid over there, but this body is already so beautifully broken-in, I can’t let it go to waste. After I’ve changed hosts, I’m going to take the cloak that once graced your shoulders and place it over this body’s shoulders. And then the two of us – the two of me – will go on our way, to live happily ever after for eternity. Don’t worry. Your paralysis will wear off soon. And I’ll even leave your world behind, as I promised. This place really is irrelevant to me, once I’ve taken what I want.” The Mason snapped her fingers, and her mind-slave shuffled over.
Marla widened her eyes, and Rondeau tried to nod, and couldn’t. He wasn’t the best strategist, but there was only one thing he could do to stop the Mason from possessing his body. He was very glad he hadn’t revealed his power to jump at will. He’d been tempted, when he thought he might need to prove his value to the Mason to keep her from turning him into pâté, but it was the secret that was going to save their lives.
The Mason unhooked the plain metal clasp that held her cloak fastened, and the mind-slave removed the cloak from her shoulders. When the cloak pulled away, the young-looking version of Marla collapsed, eyes rolling back in her head. The mind-slave shuffled over toward Rondeau, holding the cloak in both hands, and Marla shouted, “Now! Go now!”
Rondeau hadn’t really needed the prompting. He left his body – the trick the Mason didn’t know he could perform – and spiraled up into the air, and then –
Tried to figure out what the fuck to do. He wasn’t sure how long he could survive without a host body, but he didn’t think it was long. Even though he had the panic under control, being out of a body wasn’t a comfortable thing, and the forms down there called to him: Marla Prime on the barstool, Beta-Marla on the floor, the homeless guy who was draping the cloak on the shoulders of Rondeau’s now-empty body, which slumped on the bar as if fallen asleep over a whiskey. The body didn’t move, even after the cloak was fastened. Without Rondeau’s will to animate it, the body might as well have been a mannequin in a department store, and was just as useless to the Mason.
Rondeau tried to sort of tread water up there in the air, but he had to go somewhere, this was like drowning, and he couldn’t hold his metaphysical breath forever. He started toward the fallen Beta-Marla, thinking her body was the best bet, she had to be basically brain dead anyway, but when he tried to take over her body he bounced off, it was just like the time in the pit at Camp Kimke, she was magically impregnable. Then she started crawling away, which meant there was still a mind in there, a version of Marla’s mind, so it was almost lucky he hadn’t been able to –
But that only left the poor homeless guy. He needed to be neutralized anyway, especially since he was in the process of trying to put the other cloak on Beta-Marla, hindered by the fact that she was trying to crawl away. Rondeau had no idea if the mind slave’s consciousness had been totally scoured by the Mason’s magic or if he’d merely been placed under a compulsion, which meant this might be a murder, but there was no choice – if Rondeau didn’t stop the slave, the cloak would take over Beta-Marla and they’d be fucked all over again.
He slid into the mind-slave’s body, and felt the kick and struggle of a soul inside, but Rondeau won. Which brought his tally of annihilated human souls to three. One by accident; one in self-defense; and one… one a simple murder of expediency. Arguably he’d consigned this homeless man’s soul to oblivion in order to save the world – all the worlds – but he wasn’t sure that would help him sleep at night.
Rondeau threw the cloak in his hands down on the ground and knelt beside the crawling Beta-Marla. “Hey,” he said in the new body’s voice, though his lips were parched and his throat dry, and the craving for wine was almost incomprehensibly strong. “Hey, it’s okay, I’m not – no one’s going to hurt you again. Okay?”
Beta Marla just whimpered and kept dragging herself away, as if she’d forgotten how to stand up and use her own legs – which, maybe, she had.
“Leave her for now,” Marla said. “I don’t think she’ll get far.” She rocked a little on her stool, then scowled. “Shit, I’m still paralyzed. It’s wearing off, but not quickly enough. Can you get the cloak off your body’s shoulders? It makes me nervous seeing it on somebody, even an empty somebody.”
Rondeau removed the Mason’s cloak – the Mason – from his body’s shoulders and draped it over a stool. Then he jumped back into his old host, letting the mind slave’s body collapse. The homeless man began convulsing in a seizure, then lay still. Rondeau turned away and vomited up the coffee and stale bagels he’d had for lunch. “Fuck,” he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Fuck, Marla. What if the Mason hadn’t brought in that poor old guy to do the transfer? If it had been Crapsey here instead? What body would I have taken then?”
“I figured you’d take over poor Beta-Marla there. And if you couldn’t, if the Mason had protective magics on her –
“Which she did,” Rondeau said.
“Well, then.” Marla shrugged. “I assumed you’d take over my body. That’s what I was going to tell you on the phone, last night – that if you needed to steal my body to stop the Mason, you had my permission, as long as you promised not to have too much skanky sex with it afterward.” She shivered, and slid off the stool, but the paralysis was fading enough for her to catch herself. “We did it, Rondeau. We won. I figured out what the bitch wanted, and promised to give it to her, and tricked her. Hell, you tricked her. I’m just glad her knowledge was out of date – thinking I hated you, and thinking you hadn’t learned any new tricks.”
“We got lucky, Marla.”
“Some people say it’s better to be lucky than good. I try to be both, whenever possible.”
Rondeau nodded. “I was really expecting more of an epic giant battle, though. The two of you demolishing whole city blocks and knocking over skyscrapers as you raged across Felport.”
Marla laughed. “Would’ve been fun, I guess. But people kept telling me if I tried to fight the Mason, she’d just kill me. I finally started believing them. I like face-punching, but I’m not suicidal. If I’m going to die, it’s going to be for a cause. But godsdamn I’m glad I didn’t have to die this time.”
“That guy did.” Rondeau inclined his head toward the mind-slave.
Marla nodded. “He was dead the minute the Mason decided she had a use for him, Rondeau. She wouldn’t have kept him around afterward. You know that.”
Rondeau didn’t know any such thing – he figured the Mason would have just left the guy with a big hole in his memory, because why bother killing someone so insignificant? – but he appreciated Marla’s effort to make him feel better. “So now what?” he said.
“First, we get the other version of me into bed, preferably sedated, until we can figure out what’s best for her. I’m going to call Langford and get him over here to check her out. After that – we’ll take those two cloaks, stick them in a couple of garbage bags, and take them for a walk in the park.”
“So you’re like all the Bradley Bowmans?” Rondeau said, after grabbing the new Alpha-and-Omega B. in his arms for a ribcage-crushing hug.
“All the ones who were alive when I took this job,” he said, grinning. “More than enough, believe me. Gods, Rondeau, the shit you and me got up to in some of those worlds…” He looked past Rondeau at Marla, and his face became serious. “Do you have them?”
“Individually wrapped.” Marla showed him the two green garbage bags. “I didn’t put them together in the same sack, because even if they’re supposedly totally dormant… why risk it? I think they have some power even when they’re inert, that they can woo or whisper or call, because I’ll be damned if I haven’t thought half a dozen times about keeping them, telling myself I’d lock them up and only hold them in reserve as an emergency measure…” She shook her head. “I’d rather believe they’re whispering at my backbrain than believe I’m that addicted to power.”
“We’ll find out when I make them disappear.” B reached out and accepted the bags. He peeked inside them, making a face. “You’re lucky you can’t see what these things really look like. Imagine a squid face-fucking a manta ray while a bunch of slime eels cheer them on. Yick.”
“Thanks for the mental image,” Rondeau said.
“Where are they going?” Marla said. “You said you’d put them somewhere safe, but…”
B bunched the tops of the bags closed. “There’s a universe where our solar system didn’t form quite the same way. Earth is a frozen iceball there, farther away from the sun. Life never developed in that place, not even bacteria, nothing. I’m going to strand one of these nasties at the north pole, and put the other one down south. I’d hurl them into the sun, but I’m afraid they won’t burn. So we’ll freeze them forever. If they can die of natural causes, they’ll have plenty of time to do so. I’ll keep one of my eleventy-billion eyes on them just in case.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Marla said. “So, uh… will we see you again?”
“I’m a busy guy now, but I’ll try to keep in touch. And I’ll be watching you.” He laughed. “Sorry, that sounded creepy – it’s more that watching is my function. Just, Marla… don’t go fucking with the fabric of space-time again, all right? I’ve sewn up all the holes you made, but with Rondeau’s help you could tear more, and… don’t, please? Some things are off limits for a reason.”
“Witch’s honor,” Marla said. She stretched, and yawned. “It’s nice to be home. Now I want to get some sleep.”
“I don’t have to sleep any more,” B said. “And the best part about that is, no more of those dreams filling my head with cryptic nightmares.” He paused. “I will miss the sex dreams, though.”
“You kidding?” Rondeau said. “You can see into every possible universe. It’s like an entire infinite universe of free porn. A voyeur’s dream. You should get a video camera.”
Bradley Bowman, linchpin of the universe, laughed, hugged his friends, and then disappeared, taking the cloaks with him.
“Now you’re down an artifact, Marla. That kinda sucks.”
She grinned. “Not really. See, I have my dagger of office… and now I have the Mason’s, too.” She held up both daggers. “The Mason’s knife didn’t bite me, so I think it can’t tell us apart. I’m looking forward to dual-wielding these little darlings. You would not want to be the next thing to pick a fight with me.” Marla tucked the blades away, took Rondeau’s arm, and strolled out of the park.
They were almost to the gate when her cell phone rang. She sighed and answered. “Yeah?”
“Marla, it’s Hamil. The council has called an emergency session. Come to my penthouse, please.”
“The council? What, you mean you and the Chamberlain? Look, I know she’s pushy, but just tell her I’m pretty exhausted from saving the city, and I’m going to take a nap. We can talk tomorrow –”
“Marla.” Hamil’s voice had steel in it. “This is not a request. The council is meeting. You will be present… or decisions will be made in your absence.”
“What’s this all about –” she began, but Hamil hung up.
“What’s up?” Rondeau said.
“Apparently,” Marla replied, “I’m not done kicking ass for the day.”
Rondeau and Crapsey were just about to break out the good Scotch when Marla came stumbling down the stairs in a half-fall, half-run. Her eyes were wide, her cloak white and fluttering behind her as she bent over and vomited onto the club’s shiny floor.
“Crapsey!” the Mason boomed from the top of the stairs. “Take her! Take her now!”
“I’m trying!” Crapsey shouted. “It’s not working!”
“Yeah,” Rondeau said, not getting up from his bar stool. “That’d be the fixative. I slipped it into your coffee. Sorry about that, dude. You’re just too damn scary otherwise. Thanks for being so overconfident that you actually drank the stuff though. Plan B involved me slipping some into a drink you made yourself, and for Plan C? I had to spray some in your eyes or some other mucous membranes.” He placed a glass vial on the bar before him, muttered a command word, and winced while his backup supply of the fixative consumed itself in a white-hot flash, leaving behind a puff of acrid smoke and burn scar on the bartop. “I wasn’t looking forward –”
Crapsey grabbed his lapels. “What? What did you do to me?”
The Mason leapt down the stairs in full fury, shadows writhing around her body like the ghosts of pissed-off snakes, lightning crackling from her fingers, smoke rising from her eyes. Marla looked over her shoulder, cast a glance at Rondeau that could only be called stricken, and then –
Teleported away. Just gouged a hole in the air and stepped through it. Leaving Rondeau here in the belly of the beast.
Insofar as there had been a plan, abandoning him to these monsters had not been part of it. “Oh fuck,” Rondeau said, just as Crapsey shook him again and said, “What. The. Fuck!”
The Mason’s shadows vanished, and though his head was jostling from Crapsey’s assault, Rondeau got his first good look at her. Yee-ow. Beautiful and scary, like the statue of a death goddess come to life. Looked like young Marla if you didn’t know better. “Crapsey, your failures are usually amusing, but in this case, I am annoyed. Why didn’t you take over Marla Mason’s body? You let her get away.”
Crapsey shoved Rondeau, who fell as gracefully as he could – which wasn’t, very – and decided to just stay on the floor for the time being. Maybe these two would have an argument and he could kind of slip out through the back door while they were distracted.
“That little shit did something to me, put something in my coffee, it took my power away for a minute, I’ll be okay –”
“Ah, no,” Rondeau said from the floor. “Sorry to interrupt, but… the fixative is permanent. Guy I know named Langford came up with it, as a way to keep me bottled up and prevent me from killing anybody again by accident. It’s like a magical version of liquid glass, though he says that’s more a metaphor than literal, and… I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. It’s an impermeable whatchamacallit. Keeps your psychic parasite self inside that body. For good. But it’s not so bad, I mean, I never learned how to jump bodies on purpose and my life is still pretty awesome.” He didn’t think revealing his recently-developed ability to leap at will was a good idea. Crapsey wouldn’t take it well, and if Rondeau had learned anything from his long association with sorcerers, it was the fact that secrets are valuable.
“No. No, no, no.” Crapsey started toward him, then stopped. “Mason. Fix me. You gotta fix me. You have to –”
“I don’t think I can.” The Mason circled around him. “How curious. It’s like you’re behind glass now, Crapsey. I could break through the barrier, but… yes, the force required would kill your body, and I believe it would even kill you, the real you. If I unleashed that kind of energy, I might even be damaged, just by the blowback. Langford is very good at making things. That’s why his counterpart back home is in charge of my Wyoming Test Facility. No, I’m afraid your days of leaping from body to body are done, Crapsey.”
“So, what, I’m just stuck here? What am I supposed to –”
“Go away now, worthless thing,” the Mason said, not even looking at him.
“Boss. Come on. After all we’ve been through –”
“It is because of your years of service that I am allowing you to leave, instead of striking your body down, and leaving your consciousness trapped inside a corpse, forever.” The Mason gave a dismissive flick of her fingers. “You no longer have anything to offer me. Rondeau has turned you into nothing more than a man with a knife and a few spells and an ugly jaw. Leave me.”
“I can’t believe you and me were ever the same,” Crapsey said, spitting on Rondeau. “You fucking life-destroying piece of shit.”
“I hear that kind of thing a lot,” Rondeau said. “I’d feel worse about dicking you over this way, except, you know. You’re the evil twin. I like you and all, it was cool meeting you – but you’re a murderous sociopath, and if I hadn’t spiked your coffee, you would have killed my best friend Marla.”
“Stop talking, stop talking, stop talking,” the Mason said. Crapsey cast her a look of pure hate, and bolted from the club.
Rondeau sat up. “So. What now.”
The Mason shrugged. “Now I’m in the market for a new right hand. Are you interested?”
“Viscarro told me that Marla hates you now, because you took the body of her friend Bradley. She forced you to open a pathway to another world, using that body’s powers, didn’t she?”
So close, and yet, so wrong. “That’s exactly right,” Rondeau said, hoping this crazy monster couldn’t read minds. Anything to keep from getting his head ripped off.
“And even after all that, after everything you did for her, Marla abandoned you. She left you here, with me. Knowing what I am. What I might do. Does that anger you?”
“It does kinda piss me off,” Rondeau said. That much was true. But even if the Mason did decapitate him, he wouldn’t die – Rondeau wasn’t pinned in by the fixative like Crapsey was, and Marla knew he was capable of escaping in a pinch, though it might mean leaving his body behind.
“Well,” the Mason said. “Wouldn’t you like to get revenge on her?”
“Tell me more,” Rondeau said.
Marla emerged in Fludd Park near the gazebo with a great bloody gash down her back where one of the creatures in-between had raked her with its claw – or some multi-dimensional limb that might as well have been a claw. The cloak’s healing magic began to work on her wound almost instantly, but she tore the cloak off and slung it into the dirt and stomped on it, preferring pain to the touch of the cursed cloth.
“You’re fucked up,” she told the cloak, though she wasn’t sure it could hear her. She thought – she hoped – that when no one was wearing it, the cloak was dormant, but she had her doubts. Sometimes it seemed to exert a subtle influence, even when folded in a drawer… and it had made its way to that thrift store where she found it somehow, after all. Marla looked around. “And why the fuck am I in the park? This isn’t the place I was aiming for.”
“Sorry about that.” Bradley Bowman stood in the entryway to the gazebo and gave a little wave.
Marla’s heart lurched. “Great. Now I’m going crazy. Or am I already dead? No, if I was dead, Death would be here giving me brochures about his new improved underworld. So maybe this is purgatory, or a pre-death hallucination, or what happens when you teleport but never come out the other side.”
“Or,” B said, “It’s real, and you should come sit with me. And maybe bring the cloak. Shouldn’t leave that thing where a kid could trip over it.”
Because she was short on options, Marla picked up the cloak and went up the steps. She peered at Bradley, trying to see which version of him she was hallucinating – her dead apprentice Bradley, the lost Beta-B, some aggregate? But he just looked like B.
He sat on a bench and patted the spot next to him. Marla sat down, still nauseated.
“So tell me what’s got you so upset,” he said.
“I faced the Mason.” Even if this was a hallucination, maybe talking about things would help her process, help her plan…. “She was going to attack me, so I reversed my cloak – I thought it was the only way I had a fighting chance. But the things I felt…” She shuddered. “The cloak tried to take me over, to push me down and steal my body. It always does that, but it really pushed this time. And the things it was feeling, looking across at the Mason, at its counterpart… Bradley, it felt lust. It wanted to fuck that other cloak’s brains out and make little monster parasite babies.”
“I guess that means there’s no incest taboo among the flying tentacle monsters,” B said.
Marla made a gagging motion. “I mean, they’re the same, right? How can they screw? Okay, scratch that, no offense to your gayness, of course they can screw, but how can they make babies? My cloak was sure they could breed – I don’t know if they’re hermaphrodites or if they’re able to change sex at will or if they just mingle DNA or what. Seems like inbreeding would be a bad idea, but maybe their genetics aren’t like ours.”
“They’re not like us at all,” B said. “They’re from a universe with different physical laws, more alien than any mere alien could be. They’re outsiders. I don’t know what they’re doing in this multiverse, if they got lost or exiled or what – I can’t see beyond the branches of this universe. But they’re here, and they’re your problem now… and it would be bad if they bred.”
“I know. Also: gross. The total icky barfiness I felt was what gave me the power to fight the cloak’s influence and reverse it back to white. Just like the first time I used the cloak, after I ripped off Rondeau’s jaw, I was so horrified, I wanted to help the poor kid – that’s how I got out from under its power that time. It’s a good thing the cloak keeps trying to do shit I just can’t allow. But I can’t ever put the cloak on again. I might not be able to fight it next time. The thing was in a mating frenzy, like when Spock goes into Pon Farr –”
“Star Trek reference,” B said. “Bonus points.”
“I just like Theodore Sturgeon,” Marla said. “Damn, B. It’s good to see you, even if you are a figment of my distressed mind.”
He rolled his eyes. “Marla. I’m here. And while I’m not exactly the Bradley Bowman you had as an apprentice, there are parts of me that are awfully close to him, from universes that diverged just a little bit from yours – even some universes where Bradley is still your apprentice, where you’re grooming him to take over.” He paused. “Well, except, not anymore. I’m all those Bradleys simultaneously, but that means they all had to be taken out of circulation, poof, so I’m having a lot of these conversations right now, with a lot of versions of you, though you’re the only one facing an interdimensional monster with the potential to conquer the multiverse.”
Marla thought about that. “Okay,” she said. “It’s fine. Hallucinations aren’t supposed to make sense.”
B put his hand on her knee. “Sorry. I’m still getting the hang of multiple simultaneous consciousness. Um. When the possible witch’s world started falling apart, and I stepped through that door, remember that?”
“Yeah. Duh. Not something I’m likely to forget.”
“Right. Well, when I stepped through, I met the people – but they’re not people – who run things. Or not exactly run things, but… keep things running? Like, the machinery of the universe? And it turns out they had a job opening. For, well.” He laughed. “For the possible witch. So they gave me her job.”
Marla stared at him. “You’re the possible witch? What?”
“Yeah. See, she has a job. An important job. A job she messed up really badly. And when she messed it up, she got fired, only when things like her get fired, they just cease to exist. But her function didn’t cease to exist, and I stepped into it. And when I did, every other version of Bradley Bowman got the job, too, and we squashed into a sort of composite – uh, not to sound arrogant – a composite superbeing, with all the knowledge of all our various iterations. And I can see into all the worlds, all the parallel universes, simultaneously, and be in them simultaneously, and… Here I am. I can have the opening to my realm anywhere in the universe, and I put it in this gazebo in Fludd Park. I really liked this place, when I was your apprentice.”
“You know, I thought as time went on I would get more and more powerful,” Marla said. “And instead, my friends get all the power. Gods, Bradley – I mean, you are a god, now, pretty much. So, this job – what’s the job?”
He cleared his throat. “That’s a bit of a sore point. My job is maintaining the integrity of the multiverse – which means keeping the various realities separate, among other things. You bullied the possible witch into violating the fundamental purpose of her existence, and once she opened a passageway between worlds…” He shook his head. “Major transgression. I mean, she was the protector of the multiverse the way you’re the protector of Felport. Her opening a rift in reality was like you setting the entire city on fire.
“So it’s… my fault.” Marla looked up at the stars. Every star up there existed in a functionally infinite number of other universes. That was a lot of godsdamned stars. “I made her get disappeared?”
B nodded. “Pretty big mayhem for a girl from Indiana, huh? If it makes you feel better, the possible witch’s bosses said she was getting squirrely anyway, starting to go profoundly weird. Living for countless billions of years and experiencing deep time can do that, apparently. They say I’ll probably burn out eventually, though they figure the heat death of the universes will happen first, so I’ve got time.”
“B, I just want to fix things. Trying to drag you into my world, it was stupid and selfish, I know. I didn’t know how stupid until just now, but… what can I do?”
B shrugged. “Just because I’m all-seeing doesn’t mean I’m all-knowing, Marla. Usually I can look across universes and see how different decisions played out in different places, but this is the one and only branch of the multiverse with the Mason and you inhabiting the same space.”
“What? Really? I thought new universes spawned constantly. She’s been here for days – shouldn’t there be, like, zillions of branch universes now?”
B shook his head. “When the rift happened and the possible witch got ousted, those two universes were… sequestered. Locked down by the admins of the multiverse, like a disputed entry on Wikipedia locked against editing.” Marla looked at him blankly, and he laughed. “Never mind. The point is, no more universes are branching just now. The powers that be can’t keep these worlds locked down for long, because when they do stuff like that, a pretty hellacious strain builds up in the structure of the multiverse. If you don’t stop the Mason soon, she’ll find a way to tear more holes in reality – using Rondeau and his psychic abilities, along with her own terrible power, to do the job. She can accomplish almost anything she sets her mind to, magically speaking, and now that she knows there are other worlds, she won’t stop until she’s broken through into them – and if she does that too often, the whole multiverse will fall. Not because she’ll conquer it, but because once the walls start to break down, the structural integrity of reality will falter, and the universes will crash together and try to inhabit the same space. And when billions and billions of stars and planets start trying to inhabit the same space?”
“Big boom,” Marla said.
“Big crunch,” B said. “Now, I can seal up rifts with a little work, it’s part of my gig, but it won’t help if she keeps ripping new ones, which she will. So stop her. Get the cloak off her. Bring the cloaks to me, and I’ll put them someplace they can’t do any harm.”
“But how?” Marla said.
“I know you like brute force, but you taught me, when you can’t punch your way through a problem, you can think your way through it.” He winced. “I really gotta go. There are emergencies I need to tend to that need more than this fragmentary attention. I wish I had time to tell you, like, a billion things, but I can give you a little bit of insight before I take off, since I can spy on anything and everything: the Mason thinks you still hate Rondeau’s guts for stealing my body. She thinks that’s why you teleported away without trying to save him just now – because you don’t care if he dies.”
“Oh,” Marla said. “Oh. I didn’t leave Rondeau because I was pissed at him – I was just freaked out about feeling horny for a space monster, and Rondeau’s an unkillable parasite who can take care of himself. Besides, teleporting is dangerous, I wouldn’t want to drag him with me and risk getting him lost.”
“Well, the Mason’s not killing him – she’s trying to recruit him. She figures, if you hate him, maybe he’ll come work for her.” B shook his head. “The Mason has known Crapsey too long. She doesn’t get that Rondeau’s approach to loyalty is a lot different. Maybe that’ll give you an edge? A secret double agent on the inside?”
“Maybe. Huh. I wonder if the Mason –”
But B was gone, without even the courtesy of a puff of smoke to mark his disappearance. Off preserving the integrity of the multiverse or something, no doubt. “He’s gonna be insufferable,” Marla said. “Bad enough he used to be a movie star, now he has to be master of space-time too?”
She stood up, and lifted the cloak in both her hands. “You and me, cloak. One last play. Let’s go save the stupid universe.”
“I’ll teach you to jump bodies,” the Mason was saying, lounging on Marla’s couch. “It’ll be great fun. For me. It will be quite terrible for you.”
Rondeau was spared having to answer when the phone on Marla’s desk rang.
“Answer it, lackey,” the Mason said, and Rondeau picked it up.
“Hey, you,” Marla said. “I’ve got a plan. Doubt I have time to give you the details, but here’s the main thing you need to know –”
“Who is it?” the Mason demanded.
“Uh,” Rondeau said. “It’s Marla.”
The Mason snatched the phone out of his hand. “Marla. Are you willing to come back and face your fate, or will I have to start tearing your city into little pieces?”
Rondeau watched her face, but it didn’t give much away.
“Oh, very well,” the Mason said. “I don’t see the point in anything less than unconditional surrender, but –”
A longer pause this time, and then the Mason smiled. She looked at Rondeau like he was a pork chop on a plate. “That is an intriguing proposal, Marla. I think… yes, certainly. Come over this afternoon. We’ll discuss it further then.”
She hung up the phone and stared at a spot on the wall for about two minutes straight before Rondeau coughed and said, “Uh, so what’s going on?”
“I’m going to get everything I’ve always dreamed of,” the Mason said, still staring at nothing. “I’ve always wanted a big family. Haven’t you?”
“Oh, I don’t know, I mean, the planet’s so overpopulated anyway –”
“It won’t be for much longer,” the Mason said, and Rondeau didn’t really have an answer for that, so he went and made himself a very large drink instead, and tried to imagine what Marla’s plan could possibly be.