“You can feel it, can’t you?” Beta-B’s eyes were half closed, his hands extended, caressing the air tentatively, like a teenaged boy feeling up his very first girlfriend for the very first time.
All Rondeau felt was the willies, the screaming-meemies, and horripilation. A sense of wrongness and weirdness and emptiness and gaping holes. He glanced at Marla, but she just shrugged and crossed her arms. “Not me, guys. I’m about as psychic as your average fire hydrant.”
“Close your eyes, Rondeau,” Beta-B said. “Shutting out the other senses helps, sometimes. If I can feel this, I know you can, too.”
Rondeau obediently closed his eyes and held out his hands, and… there was something, an analogue to touch but not quite touch. The air before him felt… ragged and lumpy, like a rip in a piece of slippery cloth, hastily stitched together with entirely the wrong thread. Only it wasn’t the air. It was…
“When people talk about the fabric of reality,” he said carefully, “how much of a metaphor is that?”
“My power – our power – is largely about making metaphors come true,” Beta-B said. “What I feel, what I think you feel, is a sort of membrane, separating this place from… some other place. And, clearly, it was ripped open recently, and then sewn back up, only not very well. Now, do I think the possible witch literally took a needle and thread and sewed up the fabric of reality? No. But I think she used her power, and yours, to rip an opening that led to my world, and that when she was done, she tried to close it again, and did a half-assed job. Now she’s off to parts unknown, so we won’t have her help in tearing open that hole again… but this time, there are two of us with big psychic mojo, and we’ve already got a seam to rip. What do you think, Rondeau? I’ll grab one edge of the seam, and you grab the other, and we’ll just pull that mofo apart?”
“I guess that’s the thing to do.” Rondeau opened his eyes. He could still sense the ragged space in reality hanging before him – once felt, it couldn’t be unfelt.
Marla cleared her throat. “How sure are you two that this hole you’re about to tear open in space-time actually leads to Beta-B’s world? How do you know it’s not a trap the possible witch left for us, a portal to some nightmarish hell dimension of electrified lava and demons with chainsaws for genitals?”
“We don’t know.” Beta-B tapped his temple. “I’ve got some pretty badass extrasensory business going on up here, but I can’t look wherever this hole leads. You can’t see there from over here. The only way in is through.”
“That’s reassuring,” Marla said.
“Do you want to leave? I have to do this – I need to get back to my world, and my people – but you don’t have to be here.”
Marla laughed. “Beta Boy, if you think I won’t jump through that hole with both feet, you really don’t know me. I only wanted to know if I should have my knife in my hand when we go through.”
“Probably a good idea anyway. I’m not sure where we’ll come out – back where I got snatched from, I hope – but if it drops us in my version of Alcatraz…” He shook his head. “That’s a place we might have to fight our way out of. The Jaguar has something locked up there, nobody’s sure what, but he has his scariest lieutenant guarding the place.”
“Let’s hope for Alcatraz, then. I haven’t had a fight in hours.”
Beta-B snorted. “Okay. Rondeau, you ready?”
“Sure, but, uh… what do we do?”
“Reach out with your hands if you want to. Sometimes grounding the psychic act in a physical act helps externalize the metaphor, makes it easier – makes it seem less impossible, anyway. So find the edge of the tear, and just… grab.”
“You must have a good teacher, Beta-B,” Marla said. “Who is it?” She was pretty sure she knew, probably ninety percent, but this new B was cute when he played coy, just like the old one had been.
“You’ll meet him, unless we end up in that chainsaw-cock hell dimension you mentioned.” Beta-B gave her a lopsided grin. “And I bet you’ll shit yourself when you find out who my teacher is. Rondeau, on the count of three, yank as hard as you can. One – Two – ”
On “three,” Rondeau closed his eyes again – it was too distracting watching his hands touch nothing, even as he felt something – and gripped the ragged edge of the air, slipping his fingers through the gaps in the ugly stitching. His fingertips instantly went numb with cold, and he grunted, then pulled, leaning his weight into it… but not, he realized his physical weight. His body hadn’t moved at all. His mind had, though, and that familiar headache of psychic strain bloomed like a black flower behind his eyes.
“Harder!” Beta-B shouted, and Rondeau grunted, sweat popping out on his forehead, the pain now joined by strobing lights on the insides of his eyelids, but the rip was moving, just a little, and –
Space-time tore open all at once, and Rondeau stumbled backwards and fell, rolling over onto his side and catching himself just on the edge of a hole in the floor. He scrambled up, backing away from the gap in the boards. Sure, he was about to climb through a hole that led to who-knows-for-sure-where, but that was better than falling into the void.
He turned and saw Marla and Beta-B gazing at the air. “I see that, psychic or not,” Marla said, and Rondeau nodded.
He and Beta-B had ripped a seven-foot-high, two-foot-wide slit in the air itself, the edges fluttering raggedly, and inside was darkness shot by lightning, but this was kaleidoscope lightning, bolts of raw scarlet, imperial purple, gem-toned yellow, bile-green.
“Before we jump in,” Marla said, “I’ve got one little question. How do we close it after ourselves?”
Beta-B shrugged. “We don’t. I don’t know where we’d begin to try. Let’s just hope the membrane between worlds is less fabric and more skin – that the tear will heal naturally, like a knife wound.”
“Could leave a scar,” Marla said.
“Should’ve thought about that before you violated several universal laws and kidnapped me from my world, huh? You go first, Marla. I don’t know if Rondeau feels the strain, but me, I can tell I’m holding this thing open wide enough for people to pass through, and if we go first, it might snap shut before you can join us.”
Marla nodded, adjusted the strap on her leather shoulder bag, and stepped into the tear as casually as if she were walking through a door in her own apartment.
“So tell me,” Beta-B said, once she’d vanished. “Do you trust her?”
Rondeau nodded, without hesitation, though the movement made his headache surge back. “Marla’s trustworthy. She does what she says she’ll do. Sometimes she says she’ll do things you wish she wouldn’t, but she comes through.”
Beta-B shook his head impatiently, strain showing on his face. “I don’t mean does she keep her word, I mean, do you think she’s likely to put on her cloak and turn evil and murder all my friends?”
“Um. Likely? No. Not at all.”
“That’ll have to be good enough. I really need to get that dream I had about her interpreted… Anyway. After you, my brother from another version of my mother.”
Rondeau looked into the strobing darkness, said, “Fuck it, then,” and stepped inside, and fell.
Marla landed badly, rolling over her right shoulder onto a hard floor, with only a handy wall stopping her momentum. She’d stepped forward through the portal, but she’d fallen down – a nasty little spatial twist on the way to the universe next door. A look around as she got to her feet revealed nothing threatening or even particularly interesting – a room about twelve feet square, concrete floor and walls, space empty but for a few crates shoved in a haphazard pile into one corner, a single door leading out, and cobwebs in the corners. She crept to the open doorway and peered into the corridor outside. A narrow hallway, decorated with faded graffiti and lit intermittently by dangling bulbs hung inexpertly on drooping wires overhead, with no discernible doorways or branching corridors in either direction. Marla couldn’t be sure, but she had the sense this place was underground – something about the pressure in her ears, maybe, or else a simple sorcerous sense.
She turned after hearing a thump behind her, and Rondeau said, “Ow” and sat up rubbing the side of his face. Beta-B appeared from nowhere at all, about three feet above the ground, and fell straight down to land on top of Rondeau. The two struggled a bit, entangled, while Marla looked on tolerantly. “When you two are done making out? We should figure out where we are. We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore, but I also don’t think we’re in Alcatraz.”
“No, we’re not.” Beta-B grinned, rising to his feet. “We’re in my home sweet stinky home. Marla, Rondeau – welcome to Camp Kimke.”
Rondeau adjusted his jacket, which didn’t make it look any better, really. “Tell me that’s more like a summer camp and less like, I don’t know, a forced labor camp.”
“What’s a kimke?” Marla said.
Beta-B shrugged. “Somebody told me it’s an old German dialect word that means ‘wooden bucket.’ But Camp Kimke is just what my mentor calls our little kingdom under the streets, I don’t know why. Though, come to think of it, we do piss in buckets. Come on, I want you to meet the rest of the revolutionary army of the benevolent Free State of Northern California. We’re the government in exile. Insofar as living in storm drains and steam tunnels and Prohibition-era smuggling routes and defunct underground train lines and forgotten basements counts as exile. Our main base of operations, though, is an abandoned underground military bunker, probably built during some world war. We never would have found the place, but one of our group was a member of the San Francisco Suicide Club back in the day – those guys were crazy, they climbed the Golden Gate Bridge to have a picnic, rode trolley cars naked, all kinds of wild shit – and the club knew all about this bunker, had explored it thoroughly. Apparently the possible witch knows the way here, too, because… we’re there.” He poked Rondeau in the belly. “Good thing we got poofed here instead of having to squeeze our way in through the entrance up above, because the opening’s narrow as hell, pudgykins.”
“So you live like rats in a rathole,” Marla said. “No offense. I like rats. They’re survivors.”
Beta-B shrugged. “I was never into urban exploration myself, but I could see the appeal of discovering forgotten parts of the city, places most people don’t know about. But, yeah – not the place I’d choose to live. We’ve spruced it up a little, brought in generators, hung some lights… but when you come down to it, it’s still just a bunch of concrete boxes. Well-hidden and defended, though, magically and otherwise. And we’ll get to leave soon enough – once we take out the Jaguar.”
“And when do I get to hear the plan of attack, anyway?” Marla said.
“That’s up to the leader of the resistance,” Beta-B said. “So let’s go meet him.” He set off down the concrete corridor, and Marla and Rondeau followed. The passageway curved sharply a couple of times before dead-ending in an impressive solid steel door with a yard-long bar of rusty metal leaning against it. “That’s our door knocker,” Beta-B said. “The door’s so thickly reinforced you can’t hear through it unless you really whack away, metal on metal. Care to do the honors, Rondeau?”
“Sure.” Rondeau reached to lift the bar, but it didn’t budge, and he grunted, grabbed it with both hands, and pulled, leaning his whole body into it, but with no effect.
“Don’t give yourself a hernia,” Marla said. “It’s enchanted or something. Right?”
“Right.” Beta-B grinned and picked up the bar one-handed. “Only legitimate denizens of Camp Kimke can lift this, so no bad guys at our door can whack us over the head with it. One of our little security details.”
Marla snorted. “Security theater, anyway.”
Beta-B frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean it’s pretty dumb. Making a piece of metal too heavy to lift? So what? You think some enemy force is going to make it all the way here to your hidden inner sanctum and then realize, oops, they forgot to bring a weapon, so they’ll pick up this length of rebar? Of course not. They’ll come crackling with charms and lashing sorceries. The big metal door is impressive-looking, but it’s pointless too – it won’t keep out a sorcerer, and who else is going to try to break in, morlock burglars? C.H.U.D.s? This… It’s a defense against a threat that doesn’t exist, the kind of thing people do so it looks like they’re doing something. Do you have anybody in your little camp who actually knows about security?”
Beta-B scowled. “We do all right.”
Marla shrugged. “The Jaguar hasn’t killed you all yet, so I’m prepared to believe it, but I’m not seeing any proof so far. And don’t get all huffy and offended. I wouldn’t be pissed if you told me I was a lousy actor – that’s your area of expertise, not mine. So don’t get mad when I say your security, so far as I’ve seen it, sucks. That’s my gig.”
Beta-B nodded, slowly. “All right. Point taken. Maybe the boss man will take your advice.” He pounded on the door, sending a ringing clang rebounding up and down the corridor.
See, we could have taken you hostage and forced you to knock, and how does your system guard against that? Marla thought, but she didn’t say it, because she was still trying to convince Beta-B that she should be one of his favorite people in the world.
The door cracked open, and a pretty female Asian face appeared in the doorway. “Yasuko,” Beta-B said. “The bird of paradise has landed. Want to let us in?”
The face vanished, and a moment later the massive door swung outward, revealing a vast concrete cavern dotted with cots, couches, salvaged car seats, long wooden work tables, big metal drums, and heaps of miscellaneous junk. A few freestanding partitions tried to divide the space in some meaningful way, but it was a hopeless task in such a hangarlike room. There were ten or twelve people milling around, all sorcerers, probably, since half of them were dressed outlandishly and half of them looked like their minds were very far away. “Let me introduce you around,” Beta-B said. “This is Yasuko Shoji, she’s in charge of materiel – anything we need, she gets.”
“By any means necessary,” Yasuko said. “Who are your friends, B? We were getting worried about you.”
“This is, ah –” He paused, and Marla realized he didn’t want to introduce her by name, since it wasn’t a very well-liked name in these parts; it would lead to too many questions right away.
“I’m Jenny,” she said, “Jenny Click.” Jenny was the name of an apprentice Marla had trained with under her mentor Artie Mann, though the girl had burned out – literally, as she was a pyromancer and had immolated herself – when the pressure became too great. On the rare occasions when Marla needed an alias, she tended to default to that one. “And this is Ronnie, who would be my bodyguard, except I’m more dangerous than he is.”
“I’m more a lover than an anything else.” Rondeau offered Yasuko one of his more endearing grins.
“Charmed.” She looked a question at Beta-B.
“Sorcerers from back East. They need to meet with the boss.”
“He’s out right now,” Yasuko said. “Checking the, ah… you know. But in the meantime, show them around, hit the galley and see if Pie Bob has anything ready to eat.”
“Nah, I’m stuffed,” Beta-B said. “Just ate the best meal I’ve had in years, and you wouldn’t believe it if I told you.”
Yasuko gave him a funny look, shrugged, and wandered off to her own business.
“Come on, meet the gang.” Beta-B led them around, introducing them to his fellow sorcerers: a pair of teenaged cousins, Ryan Rapoport and Joshua Singer, who looked so similar they might have been twins, and who formed a perfect duo of chaos magic and order-sorcery; broody tall Talion, who had enough silver jewelry in his face to kill a dozen werewolves, which had coincidentally been his specialty when he was traveling in Europe (they lost Rondeau there – he apparently saw Talion as a target worthy of his flirtations, and stayed to try his hand); the aforementioned Pie Bob, a scruffy woman in her forties, dressed in a stained chef’s coat, wielding a wooden spoon like a magic wand or possibly a police baton; a leather daddy bruiser type named Jericho with a handshake that could have crushed walnuts; and more.
Marla smiled and nodded and tried to look dangerous and useful. She was never good at names, just assessments, and what she assessed here was a motley crew, a bunch of second- and third-string sorcerers, lieutenants at most, now pressed into positions of greater responsibility. Which made sense. In her world, when Mutex decided to raise a god, he’d murdered the most powerful sorcerers in San Francisco, cutting out their hearts for blood to fuel his ritual, and killing off the best and brightest magic-users in the city. Presumably he’d done the same thing here, even if he was planning to raise a Jaguar instead of a Toad. These sorcerers were the only ones left.
“The boss isn’t around,” Beta-B was saying, “but you can meet our second in command, he’s a great guy.” He led them around a partition, where a man stood at a counter crushing herbs with a mortar and pestle. Even with his back turned to them, Marla recognized him instantly, and her heart did something that was the opposite of breaking.
“This is –” Beta-B began.
“Lao Tsung,” Marla said.
Hearing his name, the man – who’d taught Marla everything worthwhile she knew about fighting, who’d been one of her truest friends when she was a lowly apprentice, and whom she’d seen dead, murdered by Mutex, on her last trip to San Francisco, in another world – turned around, revealing that same half-amused expression, dark eyes, black hair in a ponytail, nasty hand-rolled cigarette dangling unlit from the corner of his mouth.
And then her unbroken heart broke all over again, because he said, “Do I know you, lady?”
Which meant her timeline had diverged from this one at some point before she met Lao. One of her dearest departed friends returned to life, but she was a stranger to him. It was a bitch of a miracle. Though even in her disappointment – hell, be honest, call it grief, or re-grief – she saw the tactical advantage: the Mason hadn’t been trained by Lao Tsung, which meant, by definition, she would not be Marla’s match as a hand-to-hand combatant. Their conflict was unlikely to ever come to mere fisticuffs, but it was nice to know that, if it did, Marla would have the edge.
“This is Jenny Click,” Beta-B said.
“The fuck it is,” Lao Tsung said. “I know Jenny Click, I trained her, and this is no Jenny Click.”
“Uh, well, the thing is,” Marla began, but she didn’t get any farther, because Lao’s eyes widened – just a fraction, but she knew him well, and knew his few and far-between tells. She ducked and spun, sparing her skull, but the blow from behind still hit her shoulder hard enough to make her arm go numb.
Beta-B was armed with a sawed-off broom handle, crackling blue with who-knew-what kind of magics, and he cocked back for another swing. Beyond him, Marla saw Rondeau in a heap on the ground, surrounded by Jericho and Talion and Pie Bob. A spell bubbled to her lips, a nasty one she’d been saving that could take a man apart like a swarm of hide beetles devouring a carcass down to the skeleton. But this was B, and in the fraction of a second before she could choose a more non-lethal attack, Lao Tsung got his arm around her throat from behind and began choking her out.
She didn’t even bother to fight him. Whether she could take him in a real fight – not just sparring – was an open question, one she’d pondered often, but this wasn’t just Lao, it was also Beta-B and the rest of his merry band. Lao was doing a blood choke, not an air choke, so the goal was to make her unconscious, not to kill her or cause her pain, and going gently was better than getting whacked over the head by Beta-B’s glowing blue stick, which she figured was Plan B if she bested Lao Tsung. She’d have to assume they didn’t want her dead, or they’d have tried to kill her already, and she mostly wondered what the betrayal was all about, what she’d overlooked or misunderstood or screwed up, but…
Her thoughts dissolved into a reddish-black buzz, and she was soon engulfed by the dreamless absence of consciousness that was the closest she ever really came to peace.