Cole had a private office, or the nearest next best thing: an old store room with an actual working door, a bookshelf on the wall, a scrounged wooden desk, and a few old kitchen chairs. Practically homey compared to the rest of Camp Kimke. Cole took the swivel chair behind his desk regally and motioned Marla, Beta-B, and Rondeau to sit. Lao brought a teapot and a few cups and set them down on the desk. He started to look around for a chair of his own, but Cole said, “That will be all, Lao Tsung. We’ll talk later.”
Lao frowned, glared at Marla a little more than he glared at everyone else, and left, shutting the door.
“We have privacy now,” Cole said. “The room is shielded from surveillance.”
Marla raised an eyebrow. “Worried about your own people spying on you?”
Beta-B laughed, harshly. “We used to think it was just a sensible precaution, but now…” He shook his head.
“Before we get to that,” Cole said, “I’d like to formally apologize for my apprentice’s actions. You came to us offering help, and Bradley responded with treachery. It was ungentlemanly. When he told me what he had planned for you… while I admired the quick thinking behind the idea, I could not accept it morally or ethically. You were in no danger of being used to assassinate the Mason, and I apologize profoundly for the entire situation.”
Beta-B looked at the ceiling, and Marla figured he would’ve pushed for the whole sacrifice-Marla idea harder if they hadn’t gotten their butts whipped by the Jaguar. “Yeah, yeah, apology accepted. I should thank you. The whole attempted-sacrifice thing brought it home for me – deep down, beyond the intellectual level – that, appearances aside, this isn’t my home. It’s a mirror universe, and I need to remember that.”
Rondeau shook his head. “Technically it’s not a mirror universe. In a mirror universe all the good guys are evil and all the bad guys are good. Like, for instance, Superman and Batman are warlords and Lex Luthor and the Joker are superheroes. If Sanford Cole was over here sitting on a chair made of skulls and eating virgin-girl pate, then yeah, this would be a mirror world. But he’s not – Cole’s still a good guy, he’s just a good guy who lives in a sewer. The only real mirror-type situation is you and the Mason – over in our world you’re a hero, more or less, but here, she’s a monster. But mostly this place is more like a ‘dark world,’ which means it’s just like our universe except shit’s all fucked up. Like Superman’s dead and Batman has started murdering criminals and Lex Luthor runs a space casino.”
Marla looked at him for a long moment. “Nerd,” she said. She turned back to Cole. “Listen, you can still use me to kill the Jaguar. You just have to leave out the human sacrifice parts. So, what happened today? You had an awesome plan and it failed, I gather?”
Cole looked down at his hands. “We were betrayed. We intercepted intelligence telling us the Jaguar planned to visit a temple, in person, in the heart of what was once the financial district. There, in a rather pretty plaza, in front of a fountain that flows with blood – magically anti-coagulated, of course – he intended to sacrifice a dozen women and children and feast on their hearts. The Jaguar is the incarnation of a god, but he is therefore self-evidently incarnate, and not beyond harm. If we killed his body the god would continue to dwell wherever dusty old unworshipped gods live, I suppose, but he’d cease to be a problem for us. He seldom leaves his well-guarded imperial palace – which is located in what was once the Palace of Fine Arts, because the Jaguar has a very literal mind – and is fantastically difficult to harm even if he can be reached. But, we thought, while he was distracted, in an open, exposed area, we could make a coordinated attack. We are not warriors, but Lao Tsung helped us come up with a plan of attack.”
“Why didn’t it work?”
“We were ssaulted before we’d even taken up our positions. The Jaguar’s spymaster and enforcer ambushed us. This spymaster styles himself the Lynx, in honor of his master’s affinity for jungle cats and because, I imagine, lynxes are known as mysterious keepers of secrets, mythologically. The Lynx is a formidable opponent, supported by the Jaguar’s resurrected undead Aztec warriors and his own squad of deadly ghost-cats. Half our number were killed or captured in a perfectly coordinated attack. The only explanation for such a disaster is that we have a, ah – what’s that charmingly apt term, Bradley?”
“Yes, a mole.”
“Spies who pretend to be your friends suck,” Marla said. “That’s why I don’t make many friends. But if you’ve got a traitor in your midst, why don’t they lead the Jaguar down here and just wipe you out?”
Cole chuckled. “Marla, I’m told you’re a chief sorcerer in your own world. You have a profound connection to your city, don’t you?”
Marla shrugged. “Sure. I have an affinity with Felport. Took me a while to develop that power, and it doesn’t work when I’m this far away, but when I’m there, I can tell all sorts of things, from where traffic jams are to where pollution’s the worst or business is the best.”
Cole nodded. “You have the city sense, then. That’s valuable… but there’s so much more. You’re young, yet. I’ve been the caretaker of San Francisco since 1848 – though I was admittedly asleep some of the time, with others ruling as my regents, though they didn’t realize it. Once you’ve been watching a city for that long, you can draw power from the place, and the place, in turn, protects you. Bradley tells me you have a low opinion of our security, and I’m sure you’re right – Lao Tsung made similar observations, but he hasn’t been down here with us long enough to correct any of our mistakes. But the security inside Camp Kimke is nothing compared to the security outside. The city hides us, you see, because I asked it to. The Jaguar may rule San Francisco in name and by force, but the city itself is still mine. The entrance to our bunker cannot be found unless I want it found. I would have said the Camp was utterly impregnable – but of course you and Rondeau found your way inside. I gather a force powerful enough to dwarf even the might of gods had a hand in that, however, and such interventions are difficult to guard against. Even then, I knew of your arrival instantly.” He shifted in his chair, which squeaked like a tormented mouse. “The Lynx’s mole had to goad us outside, you see, to make us vulnerable.”
“Any guesses who the bad guy might be?”
“We can rule out the dead,” Cole said, deadpan. He couldn’t, not really, but Marla didn’t argue the point – if the mole was dead, the problem had solved itself. “I can also rule out you two, as you’ve arrived too recently to commit such treachery – which is why I trust you now, and hope you can help me. I also trust my core advisors implicitly. Most were part of my government when I ruled the Free State of Northern California. Only three people have joined us recently, to become part of the resistance, and I suspect the spy must be one of them. First was Chris Decomain, but he died saving me, and is thus beyond suspicion. A shame. He was an antimancer – a master of counter-magic – and his loss is a great blow. Nice fellow, too. Another is Lao Tsung, the sorcerer who cared for Golden Gate Park. He had a relationship with my government, and I’ve known him a long time, if not well. When he joined us, I made him my second-in-command based on his knowledge of combat and defense. I wonder now if I made a mistake.”
“I’d like to say it can’t be Lao,” Marla said. “And in my universe, I’d be sure of it. But here? I don’t know. Who’s the third one?”
“You haven’t met her,” Beta-B said. “She was one of the council of sorcerers in San Francisco in the old days, before magic went public and the Free State was formed, but she didn’t join the government, she went down to South San Francisco and started a machine shop building defenses to help fight against the Mason. When the Jaguar rose, she made her way up here and volunteered to lend a hand. Her name’s Bethany.”
Marla closed her eyes. “Sexy, smart, acid tongue? Lots of body modifications? Tattoos, piercings, metal stuff implanted under her skin? Likes leather? Enjoys building lethal engines?”
“That’s her,” Beta-B said. “Did you know her, on the other side?”
“She’s your spy,” Rondeau said. “Crazy cannibal witch.”
“She’s a cannibal?” Cole said. “My word. You know this for a fact?”
“She was working for Mutex when he tried to raise a god in my world,” Marla said. “I mean, you might want to lock her in a room and throw some truth-telling compulsions on her to confirm, but she’s your best bet.”
“Bradley, will you go and see Lao and ask him to bring Bethany in for a chat?”
Beta-B nodded and left the room, carefully shutting the door after him.
“If your allegation proves true, you’ll have done us a great service,” Cole said.
“Awesome,” Marla said. “Let me do you another service. I’ll help you kill the Jaguar.”
“Bradley said you’re quite confident that you can defeat our nemesis, but he also says you’re confident about everything. Do you actually have, ah – a plan?”
Marla didn’t so much grin as show her teeth. “Sure I do. Because I know something about the Jaguar you don’t know. And when the Jaguar finds out I know his secret, he’ll piss his leopardskin pants in terror. Want to hear more?”
Bethany was nowhere to be found – she’d never returned from the failed assault on the Jaguar, but no one had seen her fall, and none of her squad had returned, either, which meant they were probably dead and she was in the wind. After two hours of talking over details with Cole, and another hour talking to Beta-B and Rondeau about their part in the plan, Marla addressed the rest of the team.
The survivors of the failed assault and the other members of the resistance – including wounded Talion, still-yawning Pie Bob, and the Trapper with her knee magically reset but her dignity still bruised – were gathered around Cole and Marla. “So that’s the plan,” she said. “Anybody have any useful criticisms?”
“I’m not thrilled about the fact that half the plan hinges on you,” Lao Tsung said. “And I’m even less happy with the part that hinges on Rondeau there. Then there’s the whole fact that our entire premise is based on the assumption that something that happened in your universe also happened here, which is by no means definite. But otherwise, I guess it’s no stupider than what we tried today.”
“I’ll do my part,” Marla said. “And Rondeau will do his.” Rondeau looked up at her, eyes full of resignation. She was asking a lot of him, but she couldn’t see another way… at least, not without racking up a much higher body count. “You guys just need to remember your lines and blocking. Can you whip up the tincture, Pie Babe?”
Pie Bob, who was the resident alchemist as well as the resident chef, nodded. “Shouldn’t be a problem, we’ve got a decent pantry of spell components here. Just something to enhance a sympathetic connection, right?”
“Yep,” Marla said. “Exactly the sort of thing you would have used to strengthen the association between me and the Mason right before lopping my head off.”
Most of the Camp Kimke crew had the good grace to look ashamed, except for Talion and – heartbreakingly – Beta-B. I’m not your B, he’d shouted, and she’d known that, deep down, but she’d hoped he might become her B. Maybe that was a stupid hope. Then again, they were about to risk their lives in a shared enterprise, and if they didn’t die in the process, that could bring them closer.
It wasn’t like she gave a fart in a hurricane about killing the Jaguar. The Mason, sure – that bitch was wearing her skin – but the Jaguar? Not her world, not her problem. She just wanted to save San Francisco so Beta-B would think she was awesome.
“We’ll go in two teams,” Marla said. “One team will be me, led by me, featuring me. The other team will be led by Lao Tsung, with Bradley and Rondeau along as material assets, and Jericho and the cousins and so on providing tactical backup. Cole will stay here with the rest of you in case, you know. Everything goes bad-shaped. You can be the tattered remnants. Now, everybody get some rest. We’ve got a few hours before go-time. Bradley, Rondeau, Trapper, come talk to me – we’ll get you guys set-up for a few practice runs.”
“I can’t believe she’s asking me to do this.” Rondeau sat, miserable, on the edge of the pit where they’d stupidly tried to hold Marla, his legs dangling down inside. “Back home I’ve got a mad scientist type trying to figure out how to make it so I can’t jump bodies at all, and Marla wants me to do it on purpose?”
“The plan can’t work without you.” Beta-B sat beside him. “I don’t think she’d ask you if there was some other way. Besides, being able to jump from body to body at will doesn’t mean you have to. Hell, having some more control would be a benefit. You’re bound to cross the street drunk and get hit by a bus or get shotgunned by a jealous wife someday, and wouldn’t it be better if you could choose your next host instead of leaping blindly? If you had that kind of control, you could have taken over the guy who shot you, maybe, instead of stealing Alpha-Bradley’s body. Right?”
“Stop dazzling me with logic. It’s not like the plan is even going to work. Supposedly it took that guy Crapsey years to learn how to control where he jumped. How am I supposed to figure it out in, what, three hours?”
“Crapsey was stuck with your original body’s brain, which wasn’t psychic at all. Whereas you’re running Bradley Bowman 1.0 in your skull there.” He tapped the side of Rondeau’s head. “That brain is good at disconnecting the personality and letting it fly free. I do it all the time. Astral travel, remote viewing – I can lay back in bed and fly in spirit-form over the city all night, and when I come back, my body’s all warm and waiting for me. With a brain like that and your natural ability to leave your body, this should be pretty easy for you.”
“You don’t know what it’s like, though,” Rondeau said. “The fear, the sense of disconnection, the terror that I might just float away or dissolve or something…” He shuddered.
“I had the same thing the first time I projected my consciousness. You’ve only done it once that you remember – of course it was scary. That’s why we’re going to practice until it stops being scary and starts being cool. So get into the pit, big boy.”
“Okay.” Rondeau didn’t move. “Listen, Bradley. I’m sorry if I, ah, treated you like somebody you aren’t. I know you aren’t my old friend B, you’re a totally different person, and –”
“It’s okay. I’m the one who should apologize. I was a major dick. I do feel bad about what I tried to do to Marla, but it seemed like an act of evil in service of a greater good, and… You have to understand, under this charming exterior, I’m a deeply desperate dude. The fact that you two are still willing to help, despite my betrayal, tells me you’re better people than I am.”
“Well,” Rondeau said, “I mean. We are pretty great.”
The Trapper cleared her throat. “Guys, I’ve got a couple tabs of vicodin waiting for me when we’re done here, so if we can get started?”
Rondeau nodded and went down the rope ladder into the pit. After he reached the bottom, Beta-B pulled the ladder up to the top. At least they didn’t slide the scary metal grate over the top. The Trapper said, “Okay, I’m going to seal you in. The field will be airtight – more than airtight, it’s sound-tight, magic-tight, totally impermeable. So don’t bother screaming. We won’t hear you. You should have enough oxygen for like a day, but we won’t leave you in there that long. We’ll check on you in a few hours, and if you’re ready to come out, just wave your arms over your head in a big X or give us a thumbs-up or something, okay?”
“I’d like to register a formal protest against Marla’s treatment of me,” Rondeau said.
“You and me both, brother,” the Trapper replied. She closed her eyes, moved her hands, hummed – and a rosy hemisphere of pale light appeared as a dome overhead. The dome was really just part of a bubble that surrounded the entire pit. The Trapper and Beta-B waved and walked away.
“Trapped in a snow globe,” Rondeau said. Beta-B had gone over various exercises with him, ways to loosen his mind and project himself outward, and he figured he might as well get started. The sooner he could totally fail at this, the sooner they could come up with a plan that didn’t depend on his ability to do something he couldn’t possibly do.
Rondeau shut his eyes and envisioned dandelion fluff blowing free in the breeze, champagne corks popping, butterflies emerging from chrysali – chrysalises? Chrysalides? What the hell was the plural of chrysalis anyway? He sighed. This is me, failing to clear my mind.
Rondeau tried again, mostly attempting to push down the fear. The last time he’d left his body, he’d accidentally killed one of his best friends, and the idea of doing something similarly horrible here was terrifying. But the Trapper had him in a bubble his essential self could not escape – as far as they knew, anyway, but nobody really knew what Rondeau was, beyond calling him a “psychic parasite,” which sounded good but didn’t mean much. Still, if he got out of the airtight cell and managed to bodysnatch one of the Camp Kimke Irregulars, that was their own fault, wasn’t it?
It’ll be okay, the ghost of B whispered in his head. Just don’t use the power for evil, man, and it’ll be fine. You always had my forgiveness. You’ve also got my permission.
Whether it was really some remnant of B’s thought patterns, or just wishful thinking and talking to himself, Rondeau took comfort.
Deep breaths. A welling spring, water bubbling to the surface. Moths fluttering into the sky, silhouetted against the moon. Being at the bottom of the sea and floating up and up and up until you finally broke the surface and –
His core being tore loose from his body, and the fear set in, the same grasping panicky desperation to find some kind of solid ground that had led him to take over Bradley Bowman’s body when his own original host died. Rondeau flew up, because there were bodies up there, warm human bodies, he could feel them, any of them would do, whichever was closest, but he hit a wall, something glassy and smooth and impossible to penetrate and he howled but there was no sound.
But in that long desperate moment beating against the dome, the fear subsided. Last time, he’d found a new host so quickly, he hadn’t had time to get used to the feeling of weightlessness and disorientation, and he still wasn’t used to it, but the blind unreasoning flight for a new warm body to possess receded, slightly.
His body! It was still at the bottom of the pit! Faster than thought, he settled back into his stolen skin. It was like sliding into a warm bath, and he gasped – he gasped, because he had lungs – and touched himself all over to make sure he was whole. He was kind of sore – he’d banged his elbow – and he was on the floor twisted at an awkward angle because he hadn’t bothered to arrange his body in any kind of sensible fashion before vacating it. That was dumb – he’d have to be smarter about it next time.
Next time. Right. Once could be a fluke. Any good experiment had to be repeatable.
Leaning against the wall of the pit, he went limp, making sure his body wouldn’t fall over and land on one of the chunks of busted cinderblock that littered the floor. Once settled, he closed his eyes, and did circular breathing like Beta-B had taught him, and visualized that rising-from-the-depths image…
Suddenly he could see again, though he hadn’t opened his eyes. And he could see in all directions, not just 360 degree vision, but… however many degrees there were in a sphere. Which was probably not any degrees at all since a sphere was three-dimensional, which meant instead of degrees there’d be some other math thing, and –
Holy hell I’m out of my body again, he thought, and he knew it was true, because his body was lying there on the floor of the pit, empty as a pair of pants left at the foot of a bed. More importantly, he was out of his body and thinking about math (and his own ignorance thereof) instead of just groping around in blind unreasoning panic for a new meat-bag to occupy. He tried to direct his movement and found he could propel himself – though he couldn’t have said how – around the pit, up and down, taking in the sights. Sight, yes, and into spectrums invisible to his human eyes, but he had no sense of smell, or taste, and no sense of touch, though he could hear his body breathing, except it wasn’t so much hearing as interpreting the vibrations in the air. He could also sense the presence of humans, too, sort of like… how a magnet senses north.
What the hell am I? Rondeau thought, and settled back down into his body again.
He stood up, and opened his mouth to yell, but this stupid magic bubble was soundproof. They wouldn’t let him out until it was time to let him out. He had no clue how long he’d been down there, which meant he might have way too much time to brood over what Marla wanted him to do. Knowing he could leave his body at will was one thing – if he could control the panic that came when he first departed the flesh, he wouldn’t necessarily commit any grievous crimes against humanity. After all, knowing how to shoot a gun doesn’t automatically make you a murderer.
But, being told to shoot somebody, and then doing what you were told, did make you a murderer.
Oh well. Screw that noise. Introspection had never gotten him anywhere. He was in a body again, and bodies were glorious things, marvelous engines of pleasure. So while he was stuck in this hole in the ground, bored out of his mind but with a functioning body, he might as well drop his pants and rub one out.
He fantasized about Talion, because even with the missing fingers and all, that guy was still hot.