“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.”