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.