Join the modern fairies Chaxium and Ladyspiller as they use their transforming magical mecha-snake to intervene in the human world, this time roped into the latest manifestation of the Wild Hunt, where ghosts have possessed autonomous cars.
This is part of a novella series, so I recommend starting with the first.
(reading time: 1 hour, 29 minutes) (reading time for entire novella: 2 hours, 30 minutes)
There’s an Opening
So that was how we defeated the deadly demon of Gougecoin! And with that I guess it’s time to wrap up this post. For the fairies who skipped right to the end to see what we wanted, here’s the notes for the test: Chaxium and Ladyspiller Beezgalore are the feisty frontier pilots of the ferrier Snakewaist! We’re on the roam, helping fairies far and wide with any threats out of the ordinary.
Snakewaist is an ambidextrous arm, and we’re happy to join up with any fairanquin that’s righteously motivated! As far as assisting us, which you should totally do if you enjoy these posts, we are always in need of food, beverages, toiletries, clothes, and ferrier supplies. We can be reached by any North American continental hypnotized bug capable of withstanding Canadian cold.
I happen to be partial to ranch baked potato eyes, cave water taffy, and wildest rice. My partner Chaxium likes sherbet spread, peach pit marzipan, and drowned cranberries. Just send any care packages to magical frequency pisces-malachite-7-9-4. Thank you all in advance, and I’ll post again when there’s something new going on! (Hint: we’re totally in the middle of something right now, so be ready.)
Regards and thanks, Ladyspiller Beezgalore
“There, how does that look?” Ladyspiller asked, handing her girlfriend Chaxium the showing glass so she could read over the draft of the post. They were both seated on the exterior snout of Snakewaist: their lizard-legged but serpent-shaped fairy war machine. The machine itself was coiled cozily on the soft passenger side seat of an abandoned human vehicle. Abandoned, yet it drove along an empty road just fine, its air conditioning blasting on the four-bladed wings of the fairies.
“Looks good to me,” Chaxium approved, “but I don’t know if we can call this ‘in the middle of something’. We’re just taking a ride. I would like to know where this thing is taking us. It’s made enough turns that I don’t think a crosswinds is turning these wheels.”
She jumped and buzzed her wings, making it to the car’s closed window. The trees told her they were still in a sparsely populated area, but she had no idea if they’d crossed back into the United States or not.
They were still fresh from their banishment, politely called a nomadic excursion by the fellows back at their family tree, and they weren’t yet sure how much they should trust the great spells to guide them to their next destination.
Great spells were cast by great fairies, and kept around for all time. One of them guided the couple when they first met, when Ladyspiller was a bumbling human, and it helped lead to her transformation. Another gave them a door so they could combat the demon they bragged about in their most recent post.
So naturally they thought a third was at play when an autonomous car showed up out of the blue and opened its door for them. They accepted the ride enthusiastically, but the vehicle just kept going, giving them no indication as to its direction or purpose.
“I really should’ve said something about how you’re not supposed to get in cars with strangers,” Ladyspiller said. “That’s always been a human no-no.” Now that she’d posted the latest entry in their adventure diary she was back to anxious boredom, cleaning her round spectacles every few minutes even though they were always magically spotless.
“Well nobody knows much about these things right?” Chaxium asked. “Aren’t they brand new?”
“Yeah, this is the first time I’ve seen a self-driving one,” Lady confirmed. “I didn’t even know if they had steering wheels.” She jumped and flew to the driver’s seat, landing atop the black wheel and strolling across it. Even though the car drove and turned just fine, the wheel and pedals never moved. “I thought they were supposed to have operators though, because this technology is so new it still might screw up and run somebody- uhff!”
Lady was flat on her bottom; she’d tripped on something. That seemed impossible, given that the wheel was so smooth as to appear factory fresh. Chaxium was there a moment later to make sure she was alright, helping her up. Both of them bent down and investigated, their probing hands eventually finding the surface of the object.
It was completely invisible, but it had a distinct shape: rounded and malleable. There were also a few projections on top, equally absent, that felt like bumbler hairs. Lady stepped over it, only to have her foot land on another one. She started to jump up and down on it, as its material was slightly springy, but when Chaxium grabbed one of the hairs and yanked the material felt compelled to respond.
The invisibility was replaced with visibility, starting with pale fingernails curled around the bottom of the wheel. Bones grew out of them, traveling away as fingers, then hands, then arms, and then a rib cage. There was no time to judge the core of the figure, for ghostly flesh the color of rain-drenched bed sheets swiftly covered the bones. After that came skin and then clothing.
The panicked fairies barely made it back to Snakewaist’s nose before the driver was complete. He was a man, but clearly not a normal one. His aura, which sent gooseflesh across the fairies and made their wings shrivel slightly, was that of an improperly opened grave, clods of cold dirt and claw marks strewn about. Headstone knocked over disrespectfully. Date of passing scratched off.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” the driver said with a wide smile and empty eyes. “My name’s Trevor; I’m a representative of Auto-auto.” He reached across his chest with his left hand and grabbed Snakewaist’s tail, shaking it up and down as if it were another bumbler’s hand. The ferrier responded by recoiling, its back aligning with the shape of the passenger door. It hissed at him, exposing its brilliant fangs, but Chaxium calmed it with a circular rub of her foot.
It didn’t protest any further, but it did pop open the glass dome of its parietal eye, practically begging its pilots to climb inside where it was safe. The driver couldn’t look at them forever, not while going sixty-five, so he turned to watch the road, keeping the stiff smile.
“Auto-auto is the company that makes this one,” Lady whispered to Chaxium. “That’s their logo there.” She pointed at the dashboard computer screen, which at the moment just displayed a sky blue orb webcam riding a unicycle. She turned to the driver and shouted. “What’s your deal!? Humans can’t be invisible!”
“That was just a little magic!” he said as if it explained everything. “I thought I would give you folks a chance to adjust and get comfortable before I made my offer. Plus, a little magic should let you know that at Auto-auto we really mean business.” Chaxium took a flying leap and kicked a plastic switch on the roof, turning on the small light next to it. It was getting dark outside, and Trevor’s appearance seemed to gather shadows in its details faster than the rest of the world.
That light started a trend, with two more, far brighter, appearing behind the car. Trevor adjusted the rear view and glanced at them, pupils failing to react to their intensity. His smile faltered. Chaxium was confident that Ladyspiller could keep him talking, bumbler to former bumbler, so she quietly tiptoed to the dome and dropped into Snakewaist’s control center.
The console lit up at her presence, its plant-like devices unwilting and its glass implements glittering. The hologram of an alabaster gargoyle with a cat-like body appeared, shoulders nervously knitting back and forth as it walked across the console to her.
“Finally! How am I supposed to scream at you to get out of this thing if you’re not in here!?” he squealed.
“Why do you think we were sitting on the nose in the first place Gigafive!?” she hissed at him. The programmed spirit was mostly an irritation, but one they had to live with, as he kept some minor software corruptions within Snakewaist at bay. His former home, Castle Bountybyte, the most recent of the great spells, stood on an eternal digital hill, guarding fairy data from the myriad criminal, bigoted, and pornographic horrors of the bumbler internet.
“This bumbler is weird!” the gargoyle continued, as if weird was the worst thing anyone could be. “And this man-ferrier is weirder! Let’s get the tail around the door handle and get out of here!”
“We can’t jump out of a speeding car; it’ll rip Snakewaist to pieces. We need to wait until we slow down. Lady can keep him talking while we prepare for taking this guy out, if we need to.”
“And what about the guys following us?” the gigagoyle asked. Confused, Chaxium flicked a copper fiddlehead on the console, causing Snakewaist’s head to slowly turn. Outside Ladyspiller took the movement in stride, strolling along the lip until it stopped, then sitting down with crossed legs to make it seem like it was all planned.
“They’re not following us,” Chaxium said as she stared out the back window. “It’s just some other cars. Bumblers always share their roads.” Still, there were now two sets of headlights where there had been one moments ago.
“Okay, spill,” Ladyspiller said to their driver, as nonchalantly as she could. “How does a guy like you know magic?
“Trade secret,” Trevor answered, glancing out his window for a split second. “Anyway, there are a few fairies over at Auto-auto, whispering good ideas in our engineers’ ears, and they suggested we could really get a leg up on the competition if we incorporated some magic into our software.”
“I assume you found out about Snakewaist on Fairnet?”
“You bet. You two are looking for work, and I’m offering! There’s a test coming up.” Krak! A tree fell on the driver’s side, necessitating a swerve. Another car came careening out of the wilderness, hitting the road and bucking like a drunken bronco. “Really it’s more of a competition,” Trevor rephrased as if the other vehicle wasn’t worth commenting on.
“Oh, there are other fairies vying for the position?” Lady asked. She should’ve been nervous, but she felt something new. Trevor didn’t scare her. He was a strange man that had her trapped in his vehicle, but her normal anxiety wasn’t tightening in her chest. Something moved fluidly in its place, almost daring him to act the creep, daring him to make waves inside her and see if he could keep his head above her determination.
“Yes ma’am. We want only the best input. I think you’re a safe bet though.”
“Why is that?” Tires screeched in front of them, forcing Trevor to brake for a second. Snakewaist shuddered and hissed, paws suctioning onto the window glass to keep steady.
“I read that you used to be a human! Did you have a driver’s license?” She nodded. “Fantastic! That gives you an edge; your advice will go down a lot smoother with the bosses. All you have to do is use your ferrier to drive when I say so. The car will be in data-gathering mode and from there we can build a predictive model!”
The little light on the roof was no longer necessary, thanks to all those surrounding their car. One of them struck their bumper playfully, nudging them forward. A horn sounded, and then ten others, beeping and honking madly. The fairies threw their hands over their ears. Instead of ceasing the horns fell into a rhythm, playing an awful song, like the shanty aboard a vessel that had just killed the last whale in the waters.
Chaxium used her elbows to manipulate the console, focusing Snakewaist’s slit pupils. The dome above became like a fish-eye lens, and in it she saw the growing details of the car closest to them in the obnoxious parade. It was of a similar shape, with a dome full of cameras on top. Another autonomous one.
The driver didn’t have the look of an unpaid intern like Trevor. It was a jowly man in shredded dusty clothing. Clumps of Spanish moss hung from his shoulders almost like a cape, and such a cape would not be that out of place, given that the style of his garb was hundreds of years out of date.
A massive gash and an accompanying flap of skin went across his whole forehead. The flap obscured his vision, so he blew it out of the way every few moments. It did nothing to sour his mood though, as he drummed on the wheel and the horn, singing out his open window, some lyric about a shank of meat so large it made the table buckle.
Snakewaist’s head swiveled to another car, another driver. There was a woman whose long ratty hair went up instead of down, spreading across the roof and spilling out her window as if she was drowning. Another car behind and to the right was controlled by a meaty head with no flesh on its bones below the Adam’s apple.
A noose stuck around a nose rather than the neck, squeezing the head like a grape.
A bullet hole through an eye and out the back.
A musket draped over a shoulder, blood dried to a thick crackle on its muzzle.
“Oh no,” Gigafive whispered. Chaxium had never heard him so quiet. “They’re ghosts Chaxium, and I think these cars are the new horseback. This… this is the Wild Hunt!” Chaxium ignored the lump in her throat, jumping and latching onto the dome; it popped open.
“Lady!” she shouted. “He’s lying! He’s a ghost! Get in here!” Her partner heard, but held her ground, staring at the young man behind the wheel.
“Trevor, what do you have to say for yourself?” His smile didn’t fade, but it did change with the rest of his face. Sunken lines appeared. His shoulders hunched. His ironed collared shirt wrinkled and stuck to him as if he had just flopped out of a pool of his own sweat. His gut swelled and his hair thinned, except on his arms near the wrists where it almost reached bear thickness.
“Trevor sounds like a geek’s name right?” the souring man asked with a sneer. “All these tech types have names like that.”
“What’s your real name?”
“Morley Stepper, pleasure’s all yours. Cab driver of thirty years, but I’m on fresh wheels now.” With his transformation complete a pallor fell over him, one of gloomy mist and cloudy eye. It was clear now; this man was dead. The invisibility was no fairy magic, just a phantom recalling the place it was supposed to be.
“Why’d you really pick us up?”
“I need a copilot. All these other bozos are after the same thing we are. They’re going to try and run it down first. Might even come in here and fight me for the wheels, so I need you cute little lesbos to keep her steady while I kick’em out. Once I’m head of this procession I’ll reward you handsomely. This handsomely.” He winked, then snorted as if his soul was leaking out of his nostril.
“I liked you better when you were Trevor,” Lady said, repulsed.
“Then you just like me, because I was Trevor hehe. That’s what I looked like with a few years scraped off the windshield.” She realized he told the truth about that; both faces had the same eyes. The car shook again as they were struck from the left. Morley grunted and moved his hands as if spinning the wheel. It didn’t move, but the car did, bashing their opponent right back until their lights receded.
“Lady, get in here!” Chaxium shouted, but her partner threw up a finger, telling her to wait just a minute more.
“How’d you die?”
“Tried to kill my boss,” the specter answered, tongue moving as if picking something out of his teeth, though he hadn’t eaten anything in two years. “He’d say ‘ride sharing is kicking our ass,’ whenever he was doing the kicking, putting us out on the curb. I’m no fan of it; it’s a world full of empty-pocket Trevors. People will see that soon and they’ll miss guys like me. Course, I’m not going anywhere.”
“You tried to kill your boss, but wound up like this?”
“I drove my cab, my property, straight through his office. I thought he was in, but he was getting coffee. Lousy bastard. The impact ripped my chest apart on the inside, ticker ticked its last.” Tires screeched again. Chaxium had had more than enough, so she took control of Snakewaist’s tongue. It extended up the outer lip as if licking away icing, continuing until it reached Ladyspiller and wrapped around her waist, pulling her into the mouth whether she was ready or not. Lady grabbed the lip with both hands and pulled, making sure Morley could still see her.
“About your offer,” she grunted. “Get back in your grave and sit on it!” She released her grip and disappeared into Snakewaist’s mouth as it snapped shut.
“What are you gonna do, leave me a one star review?” Morley mocked, hacking and laughing as one terrible rattling sound. “No one ever gets to be rid of me sweetheart. When I want more stars I reach up into that night sky and pull’em down!” The ghost’s hand disappeared into the dashboard. Whumph! In response the back of the middle seat behind them popped open and slapped against the leather. It was a little access hatch straight to the trunk. “There’s your job opening! Better than any gig you’ve ever had! Now get in there!”
They had no intention of following his orders, but he didn’t give them a choice. His right hand passed straight through Snakewaist’s crafted scales, and as long as it was in there the console didn’t respond to any of their efforts.
“He’s possessing it!” Gigafive yelped. Normally the ferrier’s internal balance could keep them on their feet during spiraling acrobatics or punches, but Morley’s crude takeover didn’t include that functionality. The couple was thrown this way and that as the serpent slither-crawled under the ghost’s wrist, jumping to the backseat and then throwing itself into the trunk.
The leather hatch flew back up with a shuff, leaving them in darkness.
“Are you alright Gigafive?” Ladyspiller asked once she had wrapped her arms around Chaxium and confirmed her safety. The gigagoyle didn’t answer.
“I think he’s fine,” Chaxium whispered in the darkness. “The hologram can’t exist without light, so he can’t talk to us right now. We need to get our bearings.” Fairies, able as they were to stare directly into the sun without consequence, had the trade-off of atrocious night vision even worse than that of humans. As they stood, tightly wrapped around each other, they couldn’t even make out the shape of the console, or which way was down the ferrier’s throat.
“We’re not still possessed are we?”
“I don’t think so. I think he can only drive this car because he’s possessing it. He had to reach into Snakewaist to get it. Right now he’s got both hands on the wheel.”
“Can we just bust out of the trunk then?”
“Let’s take a look at it first.” Together they felt their way around until they found the various levers and glass domes of the console. Snakewaist’s irises had an illumination function, but they had to locate the marble in order to pull its string in the first place. They were assisted by artificial fireflies that emerged from the woodworks, settling down in increments and revealing the overall shape of everything. One of them walked in a circle around the marble, allowing Lady to give it a tug.
Eye beams extended and bathed the trunk in pale light. The fairies gasped, for it looked like the night sky. Tiny stars streaked and popped, some even disappearing behind drifting blue and purple cloud nebulae. No, they realized. It looked much too alive to be the actual depths of space. The stars schooled like tadpoles. They blinked in response to the blinks of their neighbors: a conversation of lights. Each disappeared and reappeared with its own rhythm, utterly carefree, like someone singing and flirting with themselves in the shower.
Their eyes wandered down the magnificent display, only to find that it didn’t go on forever. At the bottom there were three large faces, all staring back. Startled, power returned to Snakewaist all at once. The fireflies popped loudly and threw sparks under the shine of the natural lighting. Chaxium and Ladyspiller had to hold onto the console tightly as the serpent recoiled, slamming its back into the trunk’s side and roof simultaneously.
The ferrier hissed before they could get it under control, causing the other faces to recoil, but they didn’t dare go so far back as to touch the night sky; they seemed far more afraid of that. As the light settled they were all able to properly size each other up, and the couple saw that they were face to face with three other unfamiliar ferriers.
The one with the lowest belly and a body not too dissimilar from Snakewaist’s was modeled on a giant salamander. Its rubbery hide generated its own light in the form of intense yellow spots. Tiny glittering eyes, like a pair of binoculars ripped from their embrace, sat on either side of the wide calzone-shaped maw.
Another bore a very strong resemblance to the animal it was modeled after, sleek and aerodynamic as that creature naturally appeared. This ferrier was an opalescent barn owl, the colors of its facial disc like an aurora over the moon. A cloak of chain mail feathers was largely hidden under its shielding wings.
The third was the largest and fattest, resembling a striped boar piglet. The twin tusks on either side of its head were just nubs, so they were likely capable of violently extending into formidable lances during a charge. The three machines kept mostly still, their mannerisms suggesting they were just as frightened as Snakewaist.
“Hello?” a voice said meekly inside Snakewaist. It came through the radio, so Chaxium and Ladyspiller rushed to the blooming microphone to respond.
“Yes, hi!” Chaxium answered. “This is Chaxium and Ladyspiller Beezgalore of the ferrier Snakewaist. We mean no harm.”
“Oh that’s a relief!” The three ferriers relaxed immediately, crawling and hopping away from the night sky behind them to investigate their new friend. Snakewaist’s pilots settled into their seats and started adjusting things while they talked, but it proved difficult to get the serpent to relax its striking posture. They did manage to separate the radio signals down and pin each one to its owner. The one speaking was in the owl.
“My name is Promp Candolier; this is Loftalon.” The owl bowed, its beak catching in the fibers of the floor mat. It screeched, only to have the other ferriers shush it with mouth exhaust. The salamander slipped its flat maw under the owl’s head and helped pull its beak loose.
Promp didn’t seem like she had the firmest grasp on her machine, but that matched her voice, which the couple now realized sounded both female and quite young, like she had but one wing tip in her teens. The screech didn’t help Snakewaist either; its fangs flexed despite the console order to keep the mouth closed. That was when Gigafive reappeared, biting his nails as he waddled across the rim of the eye dome, observing their surroundings.
“I’m another Candolier,” the signal from the salamander announced. Older, male. “Name’s Cirrumstance. Ferrier is Mudguppy. Promp and I got snatched by this weirdo together.”
“More like I got caught in a rolled-up window and you tried to save me,” Promp said.
“Doesn’t matter now,” a third voice said from the piglet. Even older, a woman. “We’re all in the same darkness. My name’s Fleatopia Fernfall… and you might recognize this little piggy as Fatback.” There was silence in the channel; her ferrier sat up straight like a cat waiting for its treat. “No? Three-time ferrier jousting champion?”
“Sorry, never heard of it,” Ladyspiller told her. “I have an excuse though; I’m new to all this fairy stuff. I used to be a bumbler.” Chaxium groaned. That was now a five minute conversation they had to go through before they could get to their present situation. Luckily Lady talked swiftly, and they were able to share information.
All three were subject to the same illusion on Morley’s part; he tempted them with Trevor’s friendly smile and the promise of new experiences. Both Chaxium and Lady knew that it couldn’t be the whole story, because healthy well-adjusted fairies with supportive family trees didn’t just get in bumbler vehicles because one smiled at them. The couple didn’t inquire further though, as they certainly didn’t want to discuss the details of their banishment. Instead the topic of conversation turned to the miniature night sky behind them.
Once the other machines had turned on their external lights the details became clearer. The image was projected onto a curved surface that tapered on one end, and they could clearly see five junctures for ferrier attachment. It was a heartbox. The other three fairies said they had no idea how the ghost had gotten his hands on one, as it had been the first prisoner of the trunk. Not even aware of its name, they’d taken to calling it Cosmos Pops thanks to its active constellation decoration.
“That specter wants a full fairanquin,” Fleatopia explained. “That way it can drive this car-thingy just like a bumbler does while he fights off his poltergeist peers.” The conversation turned friendly enough that the fairies wanted to see each other. Ladyspiller spun three mirrored tiles, the size of fairy playing cards, on the console. When they stopped they saw video footage of the other pilots in them.
Promp’s round colorful cheeks and styled stem ponytail made her head look like a cherry. Cirrumstance had eyebrows for days, so beautifully plumed that he probably had a bag full of products he used on them. They both bore the obvious traits of their family tree Candolier: intensely rouged cheeks and fleshy pads on their shoulders looking like melting wax. Fleatopia had ferns tied in her bushy white hair. The impressions on her forehead, like fern fossils, were likely a trait of her tree.
“Is this the Wild Hunt?” Chaxium asked them. Snakewaist bristled, but she wasn’t sure if it was at the words. The ferrier involuntarily lurched, slithering arrhythmically into the corner where it balled up. Sounds of constriction traveled through the muscles, like a handkerchief stretched almost to the point of tearing.
“We think so,” Cirrumstance said. His ferrier crawled onto the roof and settled down like a lump, its luminous spots acting as an overhead lamp. “Don’t know why it’s showing up now though. There hasn’t been one for… what was it? A hundred and thirty years?
“Oh, I meant to say, before you snake people showed up, that I have a theory!” Promp offered. The owl’s head whipped back and forth, but there were no protests. Ladyspiller made a note that it very much seemed like she expected some. “The Wild Hunt is a bunch of angry ghosts right? They ride because they want to feel alive again, but all they ever get to do is spill blood and make more things dead. The only way they could ride before though, be this powerful, was on live horses.”
“This is the same Wild Hunt on all those old paintings?” Ladyspiller asked her partner in a whisper. “Like, a bunch of Valkyries galloping through dark clouds?”
“It has taken several different forms,” Chaxium answered, “but essentially yes. It used to be led by powerful magical beings seeking a return from the grave. If they killed their prey they were allowed to do so. The last few were disasters though, just a bunch of angry dead humans complaining about taxation, or women, or their slaves being freed.”
“Enter Morley Stepper,” Lady groaned, rubbing her eyes under her glasses.
“-and cars never worked for them because they weren’t alive enough!” Promp continued. “But these cars are different. They’re computery! There’s something like a hard-drive-to-live in them.” What she referenced was the ferriers’ survival instinct, ingrained in their software. “It means the ghosts can sway them a little, just like the minds of horses, where normally they can’t possess objects that big. So now this is, like, their first chance to ride again!”
“Since when do you know so much about bumbler vehicles?” Cirrumstance asked. “You hadn’t even seen one in person until last week.” Loftalon hopped backward and lowered its head, suggesting its pilot had flinched badly enough to jostle the controls.
“Okay, I wasn’t going to say anything Cirry, but I know these two Beezgalore fairies.” The owl’s head swiveled all the way around, apparently so she didn’t have to look at her heroes when she admitted it, though she seemed to have forgotten her actual face was on video at the moment. “I read everything Snakewaist. You guys inspired me to head out on my own with Loftalon.”
“Then I guess they’re the ones who inspired me to come out and make sure you didn’t get yourself killed,” Cirrumstance added.
“Oh, so you knew this car was autonomous because… we posted about it like ten minutes ago?” Ladyspiller asked. Promp nodded with her eyes squeezed tightly shut. “We actually did it!? We actually inspired somebody! It’s officially not a banishment anymore! Now we have to help get you guys out of here, since this is kind of… my fault.” Loftalon hopped forward, but Snakewaist struck at it. Contact was avoided, but the motion gave the couple whiplash.
Such a strike was supposed to be internally accounted for, but Snakewaist was acting like it didn’t have pilots inside at all. Their hands scrambled all over the controls, looking for ways to calm it down, but any switch they threw immediately threw itself back. Gigafive leapt down from the dome and got in their faces.
“None of that’s going to work!” he fretted. “This is luggage claustrophobia!”
“What on Earth is that?”
“Snakewaist is an object pretending to be an animal, but it’s now being stored in a confined bumbler space as if all that pretending doesn’t matter. It’s an assault on its identity. The problem is coming from its mind, especially now that it’s somewhat insecure from Lady’s little surfing problem.”
“So what do we do?”
“We need a space that’s more open and less artificial,” the gigagoyle guessed. “The heartbox is sitting in the middle of the trunk, so if we push it back that might give Snakewaist enough room to breathe. Do it quickly before it hurts the other ferriers!” Chaxium wasted no time, pushing the controls forward, trying to go with the machine’s erratic movement. Snakewaist dropped low and slithered for the heartbox, between the other three machines, but they intervened.
Loftalon’s foot stepped on the tip of Snakewaist’s tail, locking it down with vice-like claws. Fatback threw its bulk onto the midsection while Mudguppy got between its head and the heartbox. Snakewaist thrashed violently, finding frightening strength in its panic. The pig ferrier was easily more than twice its weight, yet it rocked back and forth.
“Hang on!” Fleatopia shouted. “What are you doing? You can’t touch the heartbox!”
“Why not!?” Ladyspiller shouted back. “Our ferrier’s got claustrophobia; we need to open up some space!”
“We’re not alone,” the older fairy explained. “The heartbox is a boundary. There’s another ferrier in the other half of the trunk. We think it’s feral; it won’t answer any communications and it attacks on sight.”
“That doesn’t matter!” Chaxium butted in. “We’re about to tear ourselves up and we need that space. It can share!” She turned to Lady. “Shedcoil.” Lady nodded and initiated the subferrier’s undocking procedure by pulling on something like a crystal zipper. The waxy barrier came down between the two pilots quickly, with Lady’s side turning cloudy and lifting out. Snakewaist’s back changed color before it performed its equivalent of shedding its skin.
“Shedcoil is striking out!” Lady shouted.
“Oh, I read about this!” Promp squeaked gleefully, removing Loftalon’s foot so she could get a better look at the process.
“Promp, what are you doing!?” Fleatopia growled. “Hold them down!” With the tail freed, the thinner subferrier was able to slide out from under Fatback. Lady directed the shed skin to wrap around its limbs tightly, like spider prey in a silken cocoon. The pig squealed, but that was all it could do. “You’ve read all about these two, but you didn’t mention that they got banished!?”
“Well everyone keeps saying it’s not that bad,” Ladyspiller defended even as she squeezed the ferrier tighter. “It was just a couple of mistakes; I did pretty well for a former human! We even have this joke, because we got in so much trouble, that we’re going to start our own family tree called Onthinice, and-”
Her babbling was as good a distraction as the subferrier, even drawing Mudguppy over. Chaxium was free to slip Snakewaist under one heartbox shoulder and enter the other half of the trunk. Immediately she spotted an object, but it was so round and featureless that she doubted it could be a ferrier, more like an abandoned volleyball. Snakewaist was still jerking around, but she couldn’t turn her back on the potential threat, so she turned a tail twitch into a whip, striking the ball and turning it around.
Vizhhhh! Bright blue light, in a hundred rays, poured into the dome and blinded her. It was Gigafive who activated the darkening filter, allowing her her first proper look at it. The orb’s shell was stony and dull, bisected by a horizontal seam. At the center was a single circular eye, but she could see deep into it, into an interior filled with crystal pistons pumping up and down in rippling waves.
There wasn’t time to see more than that, as the orb became a blur rolling toward her. It struck with the force of a bowling ball, slamming Snakewaist against the back of the trunk. It would’ve taken Chaxium out of her seat if she wasn’t wearing her safety belt. Vizhhh! Its second roar was even louder and angrier, as if irritated that Snakewaist didn’t instantly break up into a fine powder on hit. The orb backed up rapidly, bouncing against the other side, before coming in again for an even stronger collision.
“It’s definitely feral!” Gigafive squeaked. “Who knows how long it’s been rolling around back here in the dark!” Chaxium leaned forward, pushing Snakewaist to regain its composure. The impact had pulled a little blood from her nose, so she let it drip onto the console. It sank into a seam, perking up all the displays and artificial plants.
“Yeah, your pilot is bleeding,” she said through gritted teeth. “Get it together girl.” Snakewaist compressed against the wall, building up pressure. It was too thin to take the bulkier ferrier head on, but it could use its own force against it. As soon as the lunge was fully charged she went for it, but pushed Snakewaist’s snout as low as possible, along the trunk’s fuzzy floor. The orb kicked up on the bump of its snout, all its momentum keeping it rolling along Snakewaist’s back.
“Got you now!” Gigafive hooted as Chaxium did the hard work of spinning the coils and tightening them. The orb tried to generate new spin, threatening to tear scales off her side, but Chaxium kept the coils moving, kept her prisoner guessing as to where the force was coming from. Every muscle tightened at once when she saw her target clearly: the seam. It was a strange ferrier, but all of them opened in some way, and she suspected that once its inner workings were laid bare it would be like a whimpering dog rolling over on its back. With a smash of her fist both fangs extended, reflecting the blue beams of its prey. The two snapped together into a single blade, and with full bite force she brought it down precisely on the seam.
Khiting! It penetrated only the tiniest amount, but that was enough to panic her foe. It popped open like a jar with a hinged lid, revealing its mostly hollow and glittering interior. The glassy sapphires ceased their pulsing and the light faded, with most of its energy seeming to have transferred to the small and furious thing that shot out of it, flying up to Snakewaist’s dome and smacking against it like a pigeon on glass.
“You dumb bitch! What do you think you’re doing, huh!? You think you can just march in here with that nasty worm of yours and take over!? I draw a line in the damn sand with a heartbox and you sneak past like it’s nothing! Because you think I’m nothing, right!? Where do you get off-”
Neither Chaxium nor Gigafive could believe their eyes. He was the shabbiest looking fairy they’d ever seen, with gray wings like old feather dusters. His clothes were not in tatters, but they hadn’t been washed in so long that they might initially be perceived as tatters. His fists, clad in black fingerless gloves, banged on the dome over and over as he continued hollering.
“That can’t be a fairy,” Gigafive said, repulsed. “Must be bumbler snot brought to life.” Chaxium examined his screaming face through the haze his ranting left on the dome. She saw something through the greasy skin, dark hair, big nose, and prominently misshapen ears. It was a look in his eye, something trapped in there, that no fairy was supposed to have for long. It was simple enough to call his bluff; she tapped the console. The parietal eye dome flew open, dropping him into the cockpit. His dusty wings barely caught him before he hit the floor, but the moment his feet touched he was in Chaxium’s face, his breath like athlete’s foot spores mummified in a twisted sock.
“That was a mistake,” he snarled. “I’m going to beat the magic out of you!” Such language was unbelievably harsh for their kind, but Chaxium held her ground. She knew it was all show; he could no sooner physically assault her than the ghost Morley could come down with indigestion. Ferriers could fight, there was enough physical separation there, but fairies themselves could not visit violence on one another.
“I’m pushing the heartbox to one side,” she said as if talking to an employee.
“Nuh-uh, no way. This half is my territory. It’s just for Geodin.”
“Oh,” she said, turning to Gigafive, “that pebble ferrier is supposed to be a geode.”
“What did you just say to me!?
“I didn’t say anything to you. If I did I would point out that I’ve never heard a fairy call another fairy a bitch.”
“What do you want, an apology?”
“No, I want to take your ferrier and give it to my girlfriend.” That was the worst thing she could’ve said to him, at least she guessed it was when he performed a back flip in screaming frustration. He waved his arms around wildly, falling short of actually trashing the control center, perhaps fearing she would immediately eject him and then do the same to his machine. She waited for him to run out of breath, then spoke again. “The other fairies in here thought your machine was feral. Why didn’t you introduce yourself?”
“If… I… did…” he said, huffing and puffing, “I would say… my name is Onsyquence Underthought.”
“Alright Onsyquence. I’m Chaxium Beezgalore. If you want to regain your cool I’ve got a geode of my own.” She stepped near him and kicked the top off of the ice geode, revealing the various bottled drinks stored inside. He looked at her suspiciously, but eventually bent down and helped himself to some starfruit soda. She even saw the tiniest grin on the side of his mouth when he noticed the star-shaped magical bubbles rising from it. “You feel like justifying what you just did now?”
“I don’t need to justify anything,” he said coolly, pressing the cold bottle against his forehead. When he lowered it there was a clean spot between his eyes where the moist glass had taken off a layer of grime. His skin was actually the same shade as hers.
“How about explaining then? How’d you get caught by the ghost?”
“I wasn’t caught; he just locked me in.” Onsyquence took another swig and looked around. He seemed to think Snakewaist’s more mechanical controls were quaint when compared to the many prisms of his Geodin. “I was just doing a little eargazing, I see this ripe guy behind the wheel with his window down, so I go in… Try to stand on his earlobe, but there’s nothing there! He only noticed because I fell right through him.”
“Eargazing?” Chaxium’s throat tightened; perhaps it meant something else to different family trees. Her heart throbbed and her fingers prickled. Suddenly she was the much closer of the two to breaking through the violence boundary. If he was saying what she thought he was, there would be no point in letting him live. He would destroy himself soon regardless.
“What, you a prude about it too?” He snorted. “You and every other branch.”
“Tell me what it is first.”
“Everybody knows what it is! Rethinking the tree! Bumbler Brewing! Id-watching!” It was true then. He spoke of the ultimate fairy sin, of the intoxicating pull of the human mind that wafted out of their ears. Fairy kind was born from eggs, left under moss or leaves or the care of a skink, but when they emerged they were nothing but thoughts, invisible and intangible.
These spirit nymphs then followed the winds, looking for a family tree that suited their soul. When they found one they passed through its magical shell and were born into a young fairy body, with all the characteristic features of that tree. That was supposed to be the end of it; a happy fairy was then to grow old and die like most other living creatures.
Humans got in the way. Their selfish souls, described by some tempted fairies as hot tubs of golden bubbling animal fat, offered another possibility. A fairy could instead enter through a bumbler ear and become a permanent idea, losing all sense of self and others, lost in ignorant euphoria, to die whenever the bumbler did.
Some number of nymphs were always lost to it, and it had grown far worse in the last hundred years. Most family trees were struggling, unable to draw in enough nymphs to sustain themselves. To make matters worse, it wasn’t just the young. It was possible for a formed fairy to give up that form, it never being too late to develop a moral failing. If they did give in they could never return, leaving a legacy of shame, and in Chaxium’s case, a ferrier.
“You make a habit of it?” she seethed.
“Hobby,” he clarified. “I love looking at all the sick things swirling around in there.”
“It’s no wonder you act the way you do. You sounded like a human.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Holy shit, don’t!” She couldn’t keep it down any longer. “My… my caretakers did what you play at doing. They abandoned me. Left me with nothing but-”
“A ferrier?” he scoffed. “Oh no, what monsters.” She felt the pink in her cheeks. There was a whitish blur in the corner of her eye, and at first she thought it was the white heat of the anger and humiliation taking over her sight, but it was one of Gigafive’s wings. The illusory gargoyle was perched on her shoulder in solidarity.
“Don’t do it boy,” he warned Onsyquence. “There’s no undoing it.”
“That’s the point,” the fairy snapped. “If you do it you never have to worry about coming back to this awful world. I like knowing that all it takes is one slip on some earwax and I’m gone.”
“Get back in your ferrier,” Chaxium dared him. “There’s no room in Snakewaist’s head for an idea like you.”
“Gladly, bitch.” He flipped her off and then left through the open dome with a wing-powered jump. A second later his empty soda bottle fell back through, startling her with its impact. She angrily kicked it under the console. She was going to get her way, as it would take him longer to climb back into his ferrier and seal it than it would for her to wrap Snakewaist’s tail around the heartbox and shove it to one side.
A moment from following through, the ferrier already wrapped around it once, the trunk opened up on its own. The combination arm rest and cup holder that was their way in opened once more, light from the car pouring in. Chaxium shut her eyes against it.
“Get out here you fairies!” Morley barked. “It’s showtime!” None obeyed. Geodin snapped shut and rolled back to face the corner again. “Now!” Chaxium heard the flutter of Loftalon and the hooves of Fatback backing up. How stupid was this phantom? He couldn’t control all of them at once without- “My steed has a battery! All I have to do is possess it and I can make it blow. That’ll be six dead fairies before you can figure out the locks on the door; now get your asses out here!”
The ghost’s arm plunged into the trunk, where it passed through Snakewaist and possessed it. Chaxium was dragged through the opening, trailing the heartbox. It barely squeezed through, but when it did Shedcoil was right behind. Ladyspiller wouldn’t leave her alone with that man for even a single suggestive wink. Wanting to avoid death by fiery tumbling explosion on the side of a roadkill-littered road, the other ferriers followed. Geodin was the last one through.
The machines gathered in the front seat, at first unaware what Morley had done with Snakewaist and Cosmos Pops. The ghost, having not bothered to don his young disguise, was somewhat transparent, and it was Promp who noticed the stars flying around under his sweat-stained shirt.
“We’re going to switch places,” he said. “Form your fairy robot thing so you can have two hands on the wheel and two feet on the pedals.” The machines stared back. “Look, if I have to say ‘or I’ll blow you all to hell’ every time none of us are going to have any fun. Just assume it.”
“Follow my lead Loftalon,” Cirrumstance said in the shared communication channel, as the youngest fairy had never docked with a heartbox before. Mudguppy crawled through Morley’s right thigh and stuck its tail into one of Cosmos Pops’s leg openings. Its transformation sounded like the mass popping of a frog’s bubble nest as the maw converted into a massive boot and one of the slimy paws became something like a cowboy’s spur. “Mudguppy is cozy.”
Loftalon stumbled its way across Morley’s intangible lap and did its best. There was an unpleasant grinding sound as its facial disc rotated and became a pauldron, but the talons successfully fused and gained joints to become clawed fingers. The wings rotated around the body in a descending spiral, leaving one feather at a time until the metal sleeve was complete.
“Loftalon is cozy!” she cheered. “Cirry I did it!” Fatback was next, with Fleatopia revealing her expertise. The piglet ferrier leapt down below the wheel, and without even touching all four hooves to the floor mat it settled into the right leg notch. Its cheeks rose to about the knee, the tusks extending all the way back down into vicious, hooking, ivory spikes at the toe. There were stains on their tips, a little too off-color to be dried bumbler blood. At some point she must have fought and bested a truly strange creature.
“Fatback is cozy!” Snakewaist was already under Morley’s ethereal skin, so, reluctantly, Chaxium plugged its tail into the socket opposite Loftalon and initiated transformation. Limbs folded under. Fangs became shining dagger-fingers. Shedcoil wrapped around like a bandage and fused back into its inactive mode. When the waxy barrier between them was gone the couple reached out and locked hands for a moment.
“Snakewaist is cozy!” they declared in unison. All that was left was Geodin, but Onsyquence made no attempt to approach. Chaxium growled something untoward, really nothing compared to what he had said. She would’ve reached out, grabbed him, and screwed him on if the ferrier wasn’t incapable of moving. Once docked into a heartbox torso it took a complete set of limbs and a head for the larger fairanquin to function, all in the spirit of cooperation.
Morley did it for her, possessing the slate-colored orb and throwing it up between the shoulders. Geodin would roll off haphazardly if it didn’t react, so Onsyquence engaged with the others, finally joining their communication channel. His ferrier spun until the sapphire eye was centered; then it popped open. The crystals within put on an incredible show as they rearranged, some descending out of the bottom bowl like clinging ivy. Others turned into panels like glass, forming a central prism inside which Onsyquence sat upon a transparent throne.
“Geodin is cozy,” he grumbled.
“Wait, there was a fairy in there? It’s not feral!?” Fleatopia asked.
“Oh I’m feral alright,” he answered. “So keep your distance.”
“His name is Onsyquence Underthought,” Chaxium provided. “He likes to sit on bumbler ear windowsills and stare longingly inside.”
“Woah… that’s really really bad right?” Lady asked in a hush.
“You can meet-cute on your own time,” Morley barked at them. “For now I need you to keep this bucket on the road. Somebody’s been eyeing us, think they’ll be back any minute.”
“There’s no spell installed!” Fleatopia shouted through the speakers in Fatback’s nostrils.
“What does that mean?”
“It means we don’t have full power,” she explained to the ghost. “The heartbox is supposed to have a magic spell installed in it to power the whole collaboration. Without one in there we have minimal functionality: slow running and no jumping.”
“Can you sit in this damn seat, step on the pedals, and turn the wheel!?”
“Then that’s all we need! Glasses fairy, what’s that catchy name of yours… Ladyspiller! Get in the head one; you’re in charge.”
“What!?” Lady and Onsyquence said simultaneously, but when Lady went quiet he continued on in a terrible trail of expletives. Between them his objections became clear. Geodin was his ferrier and nobody else would lay a finger on it. Better they all get blown to smithereens. Better those smithereens suffer in hell for all eternity.
“With six fairies I don’t actually need you little man,” Morley interrupted. “Let her up there or I’ll just squish you under your own rock.”
“What, why am I in charge?” Lady asked.
“I read your stuff online, remember? I know you used to be one of us. You had a license, so you’re the only one who knows what you’re doing. Get up in the head so you can watch the road and give the others orders. Hurry! That weird whore is back.” None of them knew what he meant, but there was only one ghost he could be referring to, as the others surrounding them all had stolen autonomous cars of their own.
Perhaps he called her a whore because the straps of her dress were broken, hanging off and flapping in the wind. The rest of the gown clung to her despite the high speeds of the procession, the end billowing like a drag racing parachute. The fairies had no idea what the top speed of a flying ghost was, but at the moment it was more than enough to pass their vehicle, look back, and smirk wickedly.
“Shit, what’s that she’s got? Shit! It’s a bottle! Hurry up there!” He possessed Fatback enough to press it down on the gas pedal. “You crash you probably die.” Then he flew off, straight through the windshield at his rival. The fairies panicked, knowing only enough to keep their machines in place. Ladyspiller activated her ejector seat, which threw her out of the parietal dome as it popped open.
Her wings filled with blood and she pumped them as hard as she could to maintain altitude. Her gliding was still rudimentary, but she was on target to hit the glass-walled control center of Geodin. Onsyquence needed to actually open an entrance for her, and to her surprise he did. It was so surprising that it ruined her concentration, causing her to slam into the side of the open panel and tumble down to the grime-filled nails of his bare feet. The smell helped get her up and into the other pilot’s seat that the crystal formed for her.
“Were you really a human?” he asked in obvious awe. She didn’t have time to play his games, so she surveyed the controls and made some educated guesses. Every ferrier’s control scheme was wildly different, some even requiring arcane skills like crystal ball reading, bone rolling, or soul bonding, so at first she just focused on communication. She spotted a prism with video feed of the other pilots in each of its faces. She flicked it with her finger and spoke as it resonated.
“Can everybody hear me!?” The others shouted back that they could. “Alright, let’s do this! Snakewaist and Loftalon, hands at ten and two on the steering wheel!” Snakewaist bit the wheel aggressively, cutting into the leather, but at least it was in the correct position.
“I don’t see any numbers!” Promp squeaked.
“Just copy Snakewaist on your side, follow its lead. Chaxium, keep it steady. If the road turns, turn with it, but you’ll need to turn the wheel more than it feels like you should. Fatback, keep that exact amount of pressure on the pedal. We want to be going seventy with the rest of the pack; you can see the number on Geodin’s feed, on that semicircular dial.”
“I see it,” Fleatopia confirmed.
“Good. Mudguppy, don’t press your pedal unless I ask for braking. If I say it, light pressure. If I scream it, push down as hard as you can. Fatback you take your foot off the gas in either case.” Ladyspiller hoped that would stabilize them enough for her to familiarize herself with both Geodin’s controls and the autonomous car’s. She scanned both dashboards, but Geodin’s was highly reflective, and in it, between the crystallized coolant gauge and the snack pellet dispenser, she saw the goggle-eyed face of Onsyquence.
“You really were,” he said airily. “Tell me what it was like.”
“Like being a fairy, but greasier and meaner with a slower metabolism. Oh and taxes. It sucked. You don’t want to be one.” She flipped a few switches, changing the lighting around them, but he didn’t protest.
“I know that. Being one of their ideas isn’t the same thing. They’re just the world you get to live in and-”
“Watch the guy on the left!” Lady shouted. One of the other hunters was probing their stability, unsure what exactly drove the car. There was no telling how many of their neighbors in the honking horde watched the ghostly tussle happening twenty feet in front of their headlights. Lady wanted to watch as well, but first she checked the rear view mirror, searching for any possibility of flight. If there had been an opening she could’ve instructed them to slow down until they were free of the pack; then they could escape through an open window before Morley could get back to the battery he may or may not have been able to blow.
Sadly there was no such opening. Another hunter rode their bumper aggressively, though they seemed more interested in staring through the car’s back window and windshield to watch the fight. Finally Lady joined the rest of the Wild Hunt in observing.
Morley and the woman tumbled as they hovered as if falling down invisible stairs. They couldn’t pass through each other as they could solid matter, so every punch and kick landed, albeit with soft sounds like someone striking a drum made of cotton. Morley’s face was contorted in rage, and hers in careless exhilaration, so it was impossible to tell if either of them experienced anything like pain when struck. There had to be some dimension like that to it, or Morley had no chance of defeating her and returning to his steed.
Lady looked for the bottle Morley mentioned, as it wasn’t in his foe’s hand. She found it when its shards caught the headlights and glittered. It was a wine bottle, judging by the size and olive color. It floated inside her torso in two main pieces, neck and jagged base, with dozens of shards spinning nearby. She guessed that the ghost was possessing the object, the same way Morley could control and move any ferrier he touched.
“Why is he so scared of a bottle?” Onsyquence asked when he finally managed to look away from his copilot. “This car probably weighs half a ton.” The question hung in the air for a moment.
“Oh god,” Lady whispered as she realized. The phantom woman stole a glance in their direction. Her arm extended when Morley’s were occupied locking up her other limbs in a wrestling hold. A few glittering shards flowed through her elbow like emerald silt through a pipe, into her opening hand. “The tires!”
The phantom flexed her waist with a strength that surprised Morley, throwing him off and through the pavement. She used her free moment to soar in the fairies’ direction; when she was close she put her hand near the road, so close that her nails passed through, and dropped a stream of tinkling shards in the path of their left front tire.
“Swerve right!” Ladyspiller shouted. Chaxium, with more faith in her than was probably advisable, used Snakewaist’s inherent flexibility to spin the wheel all the way around. Loftalon had to let go because it couldn’t keep up. Their car jerked in response, smashing into their neighbor on the right and producing nasty black drags on both door panels. The offended spectator tried to return the shove, but Lady asked for a light brake that saved them.
“She’s trying to pop one of the tires!” Chaxium told the other fairies once she had it figured out as well.
“So?” Cirrumstance asked.
“Cars can’t move well without them!”
“But we have four!”
“We need all of them!”
“Human machines suck!” Morley’s head reappeared in the passenger’s seat; apparently it had taken him a moment to find his way out of the subterranean darkness. His wide-eyed expression suggested he’d lost which way was up and had been momentarily terrified of wandering in the Earth’s crust for all eternity. If he hadn’t already experienced being dead it might’ve been more than his mind could handle, but as it stood he shook it off before he’d even risen to being fully seated. He could tell, despite the jittery driving of six fairies stacked atop one another, that their tires were still intact.
“Keep it up Spiller! You’re making this old bastard proud.” He launched himself out the windshield a second time and tackled the glass sprinkler, this time trying to take the bout into the backseat of another car. Strategically it made a lot of sense, as any shards she dropped would stay off the road.
“Ugh, why is that the best praise I’ve ever gotten on a driving test!?” Lady moaned. “Still, I think we can do this… as long as we don’t have to do a three point turn. I can’t do those.”
“I don’t think I can keep this up,” Promp’s shaking voice admitted. “Everything’s so fast… and loud… I don’t-”
“Breathe,” Cirrumstance advised her. “Remember what we talked about. Feel your breath in your wings. It’s an exercise, and exercising is easy as-”
“breathing,” Promp finished. “I remember the mantra, but I don’t think it was meant to cover all this!” Weeeeeeiiiirrrp! the horn behind them blared. “Waaah!”
“It’s all up to our jailer,” Fleatopia said. “If he doesn’t stop her then we’re doomed.” They were all keenly aware of the odds, given that he’d already gotten himself killed once. He had successfully kept her in the backseat of another car for thirty seconds, but then they reappeared, rolling end over end. They rolled all the way across the fairies’ path and into another vehicle on the other side, but the woman rained shards the whole way, and Lady didn’t know of anything that could make the car hop over a straight line.
She yelled for the others to brace themselves. Peersh! The right front tire burst as they crossed her glittering trail, causing them to swerve instantly. A red light flashed on the car’s dashboard, a series of warnings running across the central screen in different languages, most of them featuring exclamation points. The car bounced off a neighbor; the front wobbled like a bicycle’s when its rider suddenly lost the use of their arms.
“We need that tire back or we’re going to crash! Does anybody have any magic that can put it back?” Ladyspiller asked.
“Promp knows some, but nothing that big! It would have to be installed,” Cirrumstance offered.
“I couldn’t even!” Promp panicked. “I can barely hold on!” Loftalon’s claws had left gashes in the leather of the steering wheel that bled blue foam, but her grip was solid.
“That’s all you have to do,” Chaxium told her. “Just keep holding on! Everyone disengage and keep doing what you’re doing!” That was all she had time to say before taking Snakewaist off the wheel. The ferrier popped out of its shoulder socket and transformed as it fell, punching through window glass just before its fist went back to being a head.
With Gigafive shrieking in her ear, she grabbed the crystal zipper that activated Shedcoil’s separation and brought it a third of the way down. Snakewaist’s scales went waxy, swelling on its back until the top half was completely coated in an insulating layer. Using the suction of the toes she crawled out the window and clung to the outer door, the wind whipping all around, making the legs shake like a nervous chameleon’s. The tire had been obliterated, every last shred of rubber already lost in the hunt’s dust. She saw that they were down to the rim.
“Just like riding a waterwheel,” she told herself. “I’ve done that before.” The rim’s spinning created a terrible wail, like a treadmill about to explode. “A waterwheel at the bottom of Niagara Falls.” She held her breath to complete the illusion, which gave her just enough courage to pounce on it. Snakewaist’s snout struck the top of it, but before she could think again the top had become the bottom. Snakewaist’s reflexes were sharp though, and it had flattened itself against the curve as much as possible. The rest of its long body followed suit until it made a complete circle around the rim and bit its own tail to hold the loop closed.
The gambit worked, at least compared to where they were moments before. The makeshift Snakewaist tire steadied their vehicle, but not their nerves. Chaxium’s departure had been sudden, so all of their ferriers locked up briefly, as the fairanquin could not function while incomplete. For a few seconds they were even more out of control than before as they disengaged, became animal shapes once more, and decided on ways to interact with their assignments.
Fatback had its snout pressed against the gas while Mudguppy was poised over the brake with its tail. Loftalon had both feet atop the wheel, spread as far as they could to come close to the prescribed ten and two. The owl had to spread its wings to maintain balance, obscuring the vision of Geodin as it sat firmly in its dock.
“Move bird-bitch!” Onsyquence spat. “We can’t see!” The owl screeched in response, or perhaps it was its owner, but Ladyspiller was quick to calm them both, pointing out that it didn’t matter. Snakewaist couldn’t keep them going for long before getting torn to shreds, so there was no choice but to escape from the hunt and come to a stop.
“Ease off the gas and ease onto the brake,” she ordered the lower ferriers.
“Won’t the ones behind hit us?” Cirrumstance asked.
“Doesn’t matter. Chax dies if we don’t stop. These dead losers can go around.” Saving a fellow fairy came almost as naturally as being one, so they quickly obeyed. Horns blared behind them. A particularly irate ghost, probably because of the endless ringing of the landline telephone receiver that had been stuck through his eye socket for the last forty years, collided with their bumper and tried to push them forward.
Onsyquence dealt with the fellow by disengaging Geodin and spinning it to face him. Blue light bounced around its many crystals and, with the twist of a faceted knob, focused into a blinding beam that convinced him to back off. The others didn’t try, too scared of losing the positions they’d jockeyed so hard to achieve. They parted like fish around drifting garbage, letting the fairies’ car slide into the back and eventually free of the pack completely.
Another smaller road split off, and without understanding any of the surrounding signs Loftalon simply leaned toward it and incidentally turned the wheel the right amount to follow its path. Lady was too preoccupied with the smoothness of their travel, as each bump seemed like it could’ve been a concussion for her lover, to fully absorb that they were headed for a small town with barely enough population for a bowling league.
“Chax, we’re out of it,” Lady said into the channel. “You can stop now.” They rolled to a halt in the darkness, with Snakewaist peeling off the rim in sync with its final rotation. Shedcoil was a blackened and torn mess hanging off its back, like a shredded hangnail. A flick of the tail sent the wreck to the ground where the wind picked it up and dragged it away like just another plastic bag. The ferrier slunk up the side of the car door and flopped into the passenger seat.
Lady flew down from Geodin and dropped in through the dome in seconds. The control center was in complete disarray, as if the ferrier had been thrown into a tumble dryer on its highest setting. The ice geode had popped open and spilled foggy shards everywhere, along with bottles that rolled back and forth with the uncomfortable heaving of Snakewaist’s artificial breath. Chaxium was just another belonging tossed about, less stood on her feet and more upright because she’d landed that way. Lady wanted to hug her, but at the moment she looked like a hug might squeeze the last blob of life out of her, so she settled for grabbing her shoulders.
“Chax, babe, are you okay?” Chaxium’s pupils bobbed up like buoys in choppy water.
“I’ve… never thrown up before,” she moaned.
“Why are you talking ab-”
“Oh my god! Oh my god it’s rainbow!” There wasn’t time to clean up the mess, because the last mess they’d hoped to ditch reappeared through the driver’s door. Morley settled in his seat over Cosmos Pops, shooing the ferriers away until they were all clumped in the passenger’s side. Dejected and frustrated, he had a number of scratches across his face and clothes. Apparently ghosts could damage each other in some capacity.
“Look, I did my best with these losers, so don’t give me any shit!” Onsyquence shouted, his voice resonating through his ferrier’s hollow.
“Why would I do that?” the ghost asked, checking his face in the rear view. “I know what happened; that whore had us boxed in. A blow is a blow. What we got to do now is get a fresh wheel so we can get back in it.” He spotted a sign up ahead for a garage. If it was as rundown as its advertisement, it would be the perfect dark little corner for repairs. Morley possessed the car again, hoping out loud he could get that far on just the rim. His distraction gave the fairies time to recover.
“We lost hurk Shedcoil,” Chaxium burbled from the hammock Ladyspiller held steady. “We can grow it back, but it’ll take weeks or months.”
“All that matters is that I didn’t lose you,” Ladyspiller said, stroking her partner’s clammy forehead. “We’ve got to find a way out of this before he gets us all killed.”
Out of Gas
The garage was called Garretts‘ Old and Young, leading Morley to speculate it was a father and son business, both of them named Garrett. The town held so little interest to the world outside it that the Garretts didn’t even bother to lock up their place of business. One of three garage doors was left open, so Morley pulled in and turned off the engine. It was still very early in the morning, so they sat and waited. Devoted as Morley was to his cause, he was strangely relaxed in those oil-scented shadows, nonchalantly possessing an old paper map that he’d folded up and put under the seat. He held it open and read it like a newspaper.
“What are we waiting for?” Onsyquence asked as he rolled Geodin back and forth across the dashboard, restless like a caged hamster.
“One of the Garretts,” the ghost answered without looking up. “Changing a tire requires using more than one thing at a time, and I can only possess one. Once I get my hands on a Garrett I can use his hands to get the job done.”
“What did you drag us into this for then? Our ferriers can hold the stuff while you work.”
“I’m not stupid; I know you’ll make a run for it as soon as you’re outside. You stay inside, where the battery can get you if I see anybody bolting. I would’ve picked a person to be my copilot, but telling them about all this is against regulations. Bringing you in was genius.”
“The hunt is getting too far ahead,” Fleatopia said. “You’ll never catch up. There’s no point in keeping us prisoner.”
“O ye of little faith,” the taxi driver grunted. “They’re not even sure where they’re going yet. The prey hasn’t shown up. Soon as we’re fixed I’ll turn the radio on. They’ll be announcing it somewhere soon.”
“The radio is… announcing the prey?” Ladyspiller asked. “I haven’t been out of the human loop that long. I don’t think public radio is covering hauntings now.”
“Hehe, I wouldn’t be shocked,” Morley chuckled, “all the things that have changed now… But no, we ghosts know what the prey is. Felt it in us the same way we felt the hunt starting up. The same way we felt the rules. If we catch it and kill it we get to stay. Whoever deals the final blow gets to head the hunt, and that’s got to be me.” Lady asked what their target was. “That stupid Groadster thing.”
Lady didn’t need that explained. It immediately made sense to her. In a regular hunt the rarest animal with the fanciest fur or horns would be chosen as the quarry, so it only made sense that swapping the steeds out for cars meant they were after the strangest looking thing on the road outside of the popemobile.
The Groadster was the latest publicity stunt and insult to grace the headlines of the gig economy. It was owned by a food conglomerate, and called by some the king of food trucks. Its side panels were interchangeable, but always a garish mosaic of ingredients: images of either freshly washed heads of lettuce, sushi laid out on a conveyor belt, or bright swirling tubs of ice cream. Local media always covered its appearances, because as it visited different cities it was driven and headlined by different local chefs, all essentially trying out their personalities on the public to see if any interested party would invest in their restaurant ideas.
The conglomerate paid them mostly in media exposure, so they had to make as many winning smiles as they did tamales or kombucha, anything to convince those watching they weren’t actually desperate enough to run a truck at a personal loss and were absolutely having a blast while doing it.
“That’s how I knew I was meant for this,” Morley said after Lady had quietly explained the gig economy, with varying degrees of success, to the other fairies. “Soon as I knew what that thing was I wanted to run it off the road.” He glared at Snakewaist, right at the part he thought Ladyspiller occupied. “All you millennials lost your way, piling into things like that and riding’em right into the poorhouse.”
“Yeah it’s not the poorhouse any more dude,” Lady said, using Snakewaist’s mouth to snap at him. “That implies public assistance still exists. Every house is the poorhouse. We live in poor cities and walk our poor asses to the poor bus stop.”
“You little twits did it to yourselves. Driving us out of jobs with all that ride-sharing, car-servicing, and your app-craps. I don’t know who was in charge of you, never had kids myself, but if it was me you would’ve learned the power of collective bargaining instead of collective bitching.”
“Like I’d believe for a single fucked second that you like anything with the word collective in it!” Lady shouted. Chaxium had never actually seen her in any of her college lecture halls, so this was the first time she heard the voice Lady used to get a conservative fellow student back in his seat. The lifelong fairy found it stimulating, but she was still too groggy to get up and show any physical appreciation.
“And now you’re doing it all again, but worse!” Morley barked, ignoring Lady’s words entirely. “These self-driving abominations. You really don’t want a guy like me to get ahead do you? That’s why we always had to do it ourselves. Not this time. I’m getting ahead of the ahead. I’m gonna be the drive in these things!”
“Dude, why do you think I’m in charge of any of this!?” Chaxium rolled over while Lady raged, sticking her eye through the mesh of the hammock and staring at the floor. There were wisps of fog from the ice geode, centered around tiny shards like stars lost in mist. For a moment her spirit sank down among them; forcefully expelling the contents of her stomach really made the experiences of the past weeks catch up with her.
They’d gone straight from their last mission fighting dragons and the concept of greed itself to this. She felt turned inside out, adrift in something foul smelling, and there was nowhere to return to for a soothing bath. Snakewaist was sanctuary, but at the moment it felt like nothing but a tent tossed around by the wind.
She didn’t want to live the way their friend Twarly did, alone in the silent depths of the river. Onsyquence too was a warning: look what happens when you leave your family tree and spit on it. Yet they couldn’t go back even if they wanted. Nobody would be happy. Lady had already put her whole spirit into becoming a fairy, and Chaxium couldn’t ask the impossible of her again, as she’d never heard of a fairy successfully switching trees.
Gigafive crawled under the hammock and rolled onto his back like a cat, staring up at her. He didn’t say anything, but she noticed for the first time how soulful his eyes could be. She warned him, in a whisper so as to not interrupt Lady’s righteous ranting, that he was not in the safest position, given that she’d just invented fairy vomiting. Normally persnickety about cleanliness thanks to the fact that he wasn’t capable of getting dirty, he was strangely quiet in response. She finally recognized the wet wobble in his his eyes: fear.
“I have a terrible feeling about all this,” he admitted, rubbing his claws together.
“Me too,” Chaxium said, “aside from all the other terrible feelings I have right now. We can’t get out of this car… so we need to try another avenue of attack.”
“But Shedcoil is gone; that was the only thing that could’ve escaped unnoticed.”
“Not the only thing.” Gigafive blinked. Chaxium pressed her face further into the hammock, the mesh leaving marks on her skin, but he still didn’t get the message. “You Gigafive.”
“Me? What can I do? I can’t affect this car, not alone anyway. It’s purely human machinery.”
“I don’t want you to be alone. I want you to go back to Castle Bountybyte. Wake up all the other gigagoyles and tell them what’s happening. This has got to fall under their authority. Ghosts are a type of magic aren’t they? The Wild Hunt taking over a fleet of cars sounds like the kind of thing they’re supposed to prevent.”
“They’ll never listen,” the gargoyle said, shaking his head back and forth as if trying to get droplets of hope off his forehead. “We were made to handle fairy affairs.”
“Does it hurt you in any way to try?”
“Well, not in terms of pain, but-”
“Come on Five. You’ve been good to us and we’ve been good to you. You’re the only branch Lady and I have left. Just this once, trust us enough to be a little brave.” He whined and tied himself in a knot, but even balled up under himself one of his eyes opened and connected with Chaxium’s.
“Ohhh… alright. I don’t know how long I’ll be. I’ve heard the reentry process can be a hassle.” He stood up. “You’ll keep Snakewaist happy while I’m gone?” She nodded as much as the mesh would allow. “Good luck you two.” He looked at the tip of his tail and started following it in a circle, but it wasn’t play. The motion was smooth, so much so that it smoothed out his body until he was just a looping circle: a loading icon of milky marble. Then he vanished into the foggy stars. By the time Chaxium rolled over the argument had faded. Lady was busy cleaning up the debris from the spinning, but she had set Snakewaist’s head to stare at Morley and nod slightly.
He was under the impression the fairies were listening closely, so he settled into the only thing ghosts truly wanted to do: talk about why their world was the one to inhabit. His arms were crossed and he was leaning back far enough for his ears to disappear into the seat. His feet were up on the dash, right foot pushed further as if he had died going full speed.
It wasn’t clear if ghosts needed sleep, but he yawned. The habit jogged a memory, so he talked about catching up on his sleep during half hour breaks between shifts, in a parking spot that he sometimes dreamed had his name on it. Then he got into how people got their names on spots, and how he tried to catch up, how he squeezed his name in when there was no room to write it.
“I heard some young people talking the other day, right after I came back to the land of the living. They talked about something they’d read: a study saying their generation was the loneliest in the modern day despite everybody screaming their deepest and darkest on the internet all the time.
That wasn’t a surprise to me. Internet’s not how you meet people; it’s how you lose’em. You turn’em into little boxes and pictures, and then when they say one thing that upsets you you file’em away in a dark drawer and lock it up. None of you will make friends if you’re just going to wait for a clone of yourself to come along.
No, the right way is all the jobs being automated and restructured to death. You look up to give a guy a tip and you see he’s got braces on. You say something about that, about how you heard they hurt, and is it true? All of a sudden he tells you that they hurt a little, but that it’s worth it, because he’s putting himself together. Working the nacho stand to go to school. Fixing his teeth so he can smile nice at the girl who’s got to be his wife.
You’re handing him his future, and I’ve had moments like that where I could just cry… course then I’d have to give him a bigger tip so he’d keep that to himself. Sometimes I was on the other end of it. Some people were grateful for what I did for them, separate from money changing hands. They’d ask me why I did what I did and I’d tell’em it was because I was already together. I loved driving. Loved watching the hot air wiggle over the asphalt like a line of belly dancers. Loved guessing how many months or years a construction project would take before we could whiz through there again.
Even in my time it was never very frequent though. Most people wouldn’t give me the time of day. Occasionally, I’d make some for us, just to show’em what they were missing. I always used the same excuse: oops, out of gas. Made it sound like it wasn’t my fault of course. They wanted to go awfully far for a taxi ride, construction cost us time, had to detour…
One time I was working in the southwest and the woman in the back was one of the most gorgeous I’d ever seen. Big, brown, curly hair hanging like palm fronds. Tanner than my wallet. Long legs, but not uncoordinated, like she could unscrew a light bulb with her thighs without breaking it. But bored eyes. Eyes that would never look my way as long as the car was moving.
So I decided to run out of gas outside of town, in a pretty spot with rolling desert on one side and the rising moon on the other. Told her I’d called the company and that they’d have another car with a can head our way. Then we just talked. It was wonderful. Even though she thought I’d failed her, she was laughing in our conversation. She had joy, and she wouldn’t have had any of that if I hadn’t squeezed myself in where I wasn’t welcome. She would’ve just been efficiently lonely like those kids talking about that study.
I already knew it could be even better, so I got in the backseat with her. Nobody I’d rather be caught out in the desert with, I told her. She asked why and I told her because she was a tall drink of water. Now she forgot how happy she was again; misery is a tough habit to break. She was nervous because my charm was working on her. She was getting to know me, and that scared her. Somebody probably told her some nonsense about not needing a man in her life. The briefcase sitting next to her didn’t make her laugh once that whole ride, promise you that.
We kissed. She was a shy kisser, so I just handled all the parts that made her nervous. Then I drove her again, right down Ecstasy Lane. Zzzzeeuuuhhhh… pop! She went off just like a firecracker. Those big strong legs of hers were quivering like a chihuahua. It was a good thing my car was there, because she was in no shape to walk after that.
Then it was standard procedure. ‘Whoops, forgot I had another little can in the trunk; we can get moving after all.’ I took her the rest of the way and dropped her off. She wasn’t a tipper, but that was okay, because we had that time together. You need an empty tank to show’em how full of gas you really are.” He sighed. His head had leaned so far back that everything but his mouth was lost in the seat. He looked content, like he was sat in a folding chair in his backyard, hat over his face and sunbeams weaving through his arm hair to sink into his skin.
“Excuse me!” a young voice called. “Hey, this isn’t parking buddy.” What had to be the younger Garrett appeared by the window, but he didn’t have time to react to the transparent man or his mechanical woodland toys. Morley flew at him and disappeared into his chest, right under his name tag. The young man kept his voice, but the tone belonged to the ghost, as did the smug expression.
“Now we can get started.” He clapped the borrowed hands together, surprising himself with how loud it was. “Not quite as good looking as I used to be, but he’ll do,” he said with a glance in the side mirror. “You fairies stay put while I get the new tire on. After that you’ve got the wheel again.” He scurried around gathering tools, unaware that in Snakewaist’s head Chaxium and Ladyspiller were staring at each other in disgusted horror.
“I might be sick again,” Chaxium said, but her tone was more of a growl than a gurgle.
“Looks like our murderous ghost is also a rapist. Why is it always the ones that think they’re funny?”
“He doesn’t even think he did anything wrong. He thinks he helped her.”
“He’s too far gone… way more than a dead person.”
In the magidigital realm Gigafive was not bound to his form, but he kept it anyway. Gigagoyles were not imaginative creatures; in fact they had only two known states: dormant and nervous. It was a simple observation that the reappearance of the Wild Hunt had not disturbed any of the others, for as he approached the towering white walls of Castle Bountybyte they were utterly silent.
Fairnet was both an incredible spell and a complex program, manifested within magical computers as a forested mountain range, both a fortress and a barrier protecting itself from the adjacent brown sea, with its choppy waters and odd pink foam: the human internet. Bountybyte sat atop the tallest peak, overlooking it all, and it had no drawbridge, no gate, no door, and no windows of any kind. Its parapets were guarded by thousands of alabaster gigagoyles, frozen in sleep but with their eyes wide open, subconsciously scanning for threats.
Gigafive ran up the featureless wall, his claws the only thing that would adhere to it so well. He had almost forgotten how tall it was, since he’d only seen the exterior once before, when falling from his perch and landing in Snakewaist’s system. Only when he rolled over the top, squeezing past his stony brethren, did he realize that he’d never even seen the interior before.
It was hardly different from the rest, featureless white marble everywhere. The courtyard was empty except for three wet stinking piles of something unidentifiable, each as big as a hay bale. They were each made of the same material, but had their own character, be it a unique color, glisten, or something sharp sticking out of their muck. He wondered why any of them would choose to keep such unsightly things around.
“Is anyone awake on their own… by chance?” he called out. No answer. It really was up to him then. There wasn’t a procedure for this at all; it was supposed to happen naturally. The first thing he remembered was a sudden urge to stretch his limbs and yawn. Doing so was a mistake, because it made him fall. Halfway through the descent he’d known that falling made it his duty to investigate.
He slunk along under his kin on all fours, examining them. They weren’t identical, only nearly so. Each set of horns was different and sometimes the tail ended in an arrowhead or a small spiked club. Unfortunately none of them had tattoos with instructions. They all faced out, so the tails hung over on his side. Each was held in its own pose; he tried to judge temperament based on whether it hung limp, stiff, or curled.
One looked promising, the tapered end flicking up enthusiastically, but Gigafive couldn’t stop second-guessing. His hand never got close enough to touch it. Instead he shifted to the one on the left at the last moment, a very limp fat one, and gave it a good tug. He recoiled as if he’d lit a stick of dynamite, but the only sound was a pathetic whumth. He cracked one eye and looked through the arms shielding his face.
The new one got to its feet like a kitten taking its first steps, its expression both confused and empty, like a saltwater fish suddenly moved to fresh. Gigafive scurried to its side and braced it when it was about to fall over, careful not to get his little horns tangled with the other’s longer spirals.
“Who am I?” it asked, its soft voice allowing Gigafive to guess at gender.
“Well, I’m Gigafive… so that means you have to be Gigasix.”
“Are you sure?” she asked, sitting on her haunches and glancing at the empty spot where she’d been sitting. “I didn’t fall. I don’t think I have to be Gigasix if I don’t fall.”
“This is an unusual situation. It really doesn’t matter if you’re Gigasix or not. I just need to ask if something is our business and then I can get back to my work.”
“You can’t ask me,” she huffed, “because I’m not Gigasix. Don’t try to make me something just because you can’t handle whatever it is.” She started looking around at the other tails rather than him, scurrying along and forcing him to play catch-up.
“I’m not even supposed to handle it! It’s just something I came across, and it’s something of a gray area, and I just think maybe one of us should be on it.” He bumped into her, not expecting the sudden stop.
“This one; they seem like a Gigasix.” Before he could say anything she pulled a tail tipped with a heart shape and caught the gigagoyle as they landed. The newest one’s eyes opened frighteningly wide and it screamed as if staring into a furnace full of skulls.
“Oh! Who am I!?” it cried, claws dragging across its drawn cheeks.
“You’re Gigasix,” she told it, a statement that quelled its fear and had it on its feet in seconds.
“So you’re Gigafive?” it asked.
“No, absolutely not,” she insisted before pointing at the mortified figure that started it all. “He’s Gigafive.”
“Then who are you?”
“I’m nobody; pretend I’m not here.”
“What? That’s not fair. If you get to do that… then so do I!” It pulled away and ran down the line of tails, yanking them until three more had fallen. The first two were a mess, tangled up in each other, unsure where their own limbs began, but the third one was immediately cognizant of the whole affair. It had thicker horns than the rest and a tail tipped with a scorpion barb. It snatched the tail-puller back and prevented any more from waking.
“Who started this?” the apparently male gigagoyle demanded. Both of the ones that refused the name Gigasix pointed at Gigafive, and then the others followed suit despite not knowing up from down.
“I only tried to wake one of you,” Gigafive insisted, waddling forward on his hind limbs so his forelimbs could help him implore. “I have a question about our duties.”
“I am Gigaten,” the confident one said, climbing back up on the stone to preside over the others, “and I can answer your questions.”
“Finally!” one of the possible Gigasixes said. “Should’ve known he’d know what to do; he’s got two numbers.” She immediately posed the only question that concerned her, even though Gigafive was there first. “Who am I?”
“Gigasix,” Gigaten said without hesitation, causing her to curse and pound her fists on the floor. “The rest of you are Gigaseven, Gigeight, and Giganine.” They howled their disapproval, but there was no denying it now. One of them asked what they were supposed to do. “Wait here, quietly and patiently, until there’s something for you to do.”
The prematurely awakened huddled up against the wall, slouching, slack-jawed, waiting to hear what nonsense had stuck them with consciousness. Gigaten pointed at the spot below him, so Gigafive slunk over and bowed his head.
“I didn’t mean to cause all this trouble,” he said honestly. “There’s just something that needs to be reported.”
“It’s alright,” Gigaten assured, hushing the jeers of the others below him with a stern swipe of his claws. “As the tenth gigagoyle I am of a higher order; eventually something requiring my attention would have come along. What is your concern?”
“I’ve been monitoring a ferrier, Snakewaist, and it got dragged into a hostage situation by a malevolent human ghost. He is part of the Wild Hunt, which rides again, but not on horses this time. This time it’s cars.”
“Impossible. A car is too large to possess and doesn’t have a mind that can be influenced like a horse.”
“They do have minds now,” Gigafive corrected. “These cars are self-driving, powered by computers. The ghosts are possessing those. They’re after prey, and if they catch it, they get to stay in the world don’t they? Isn’t that something we should intervene in?” Gigaten closed his eyes and sniffed the air. The deep hum in his throat indicated he was lost in a library of complex thoughts. When he came out of it he looked all the more stern.
“A troubling development indeed… but not our jurisdiction.”
“Told you!” two of the other gigagoyles yipped, though they hadn’t technically done so.
“We handle only situations that compromise Fairnet, ferriers, or centralized family tree computer systems. If we attempted to stop a human ghost in a human system we might bring unrecognized corruption back to Bountybyte, which could lead to us all crumbling.”
“You should’ve known it was none of our business!” Gigasix remonstrated, sticking out her tongue.
“You can’t blame him for being concerned,” Gigaten defended. “The consequences of this could be far-reaching indeed.” The gigagoyles quieted again. “Dark looks the horizon of these self-driving cars. If they kill their prey… it will not be the only one to fall to their victory. The humans will again contend with the rule of fingerprints.”
“Gigaten… what is the rule of fingerprints?” Gigafive asked, already dreading the answer. He looked at his own claws, confirming he didn’t have any of the little swirls that might involve him in it.
“The rule of fingerprints is a phenomenon afflicting new technologies. It is the seeping of old biases and bigotry into something not yet affected by them.” Along with his second digit came the ability to mold the castle to his will, so Gigaten scooped a small piece of the parapet out as if it was made of soft ice cream. He slowly worked it in his hands, fashioning it into an orb.
“You mean the cars? How will they become bigoted?”
“It is like shaping a ball out of clay. The human that makes it sees only a ball, thinks themselves a rational detached creator. They don’t notice that their fingers left marks in it with every movement, that those little patterns are part of it no matter how invisible to them.”
“Does this happen every time? Is there really nothing we can do?”
“No. The human internet was perfect in its moment of creation, and look at it now: overrun with algorithms that favor cruelty, bias, and misinformation. When the Wild Hunt takes over these cars it will contaminate them. We will have a future where vehicles take the privileged to their destination faster, that respond to the crashes of the poor slower, and that don’t stop for the people who have never been favored. In its extreme moments there will be deaths, but everywhere else it will be ignored, because its makers see no finer detail than the overall shape.”
Gigaten squeezed. The ball cracked into powdery pieces that struck the floor with surprising volume. Gigafive was warned that the castle could do nothing, but that he was free to assist Snakewaist in any way he could. He just kept staring at the chips of the ball, almost unaware that Gigaten picked him up by the scruff and tossed him off the side of the tower. The gross sea of human data loomed, but he would never fall that far.
Back in the car, hunger had struck. In all the excitement Chaxium and Ladyspiller hadn’t noticed that the car’s driving had taken them far off their planned path, and the insects that delivered their groceries hadn’t caught up. The other fairies were similarly low on food, having been imprisoned for even longer.
It was Cirrumstance who suggested, by way of Promp’s magical ability, there was something they could do about that. He instructed the others to gather dust from parts of their ferriers that hadn’t seen cleaning in more than a season, ball it up, and take it outside to the seam of the passenger’s seat. Whatever the plan was, Ladyspiller was glad for it, as it provided an opportunity to clean out her side of the cockpit before it could generate much more filth than Chaxium’s. Somehow, despite sharing the same anatomy now, she still managed to make a bigger mess while performing the same activities.
Her ball of dust was already twice the size of Chaxium’s, and she had it tucked under her arm as she stepped out of the parietal eye dome, like a bulky mattress pad. Chaxium wasn’t far behind, but Gigafive reappeared on the control panel and called out to them. They both sat on the edge and let their feet dangle while he spoke. The gigagoyle explained that his home castle would be no help, but he also had to relay to them the rule of fingerprints, and the broader dangers of the Wild Hunt succeeding.
“Oh my god that actually makes so much sense,” Lady said as the little creature finished. “Back on the human internet we just sum that up as ‘this is why we can’t have nice things’. It’s because we get our dirty fingerprints all over it.” She played with the ball of gray dust, molding it in a fashion eerily similar to Gigaten and his piece of parapet. Instead of balling it up further she flattened it, using her finger to puncture two dots for eyes and drag open a neutral line of a mouth. She showed off her work.
“It’s a face,” Chaxium said. “I don’t get it.”
“No you get it. That’s all it should be. A face. Humans project all sorts of stuff onto it though. I read about this piece of software that identified faces; the police wanted to use it to scan crowds in public and look for wanted criminals.”
“And the people who made it thought it worked great… but then some other people, people actually looking for bias, tested it for themselves. They found that it was three times more likely to misidentify a black person as a criminal than a white person. It was supposed to have a completely rational idea of how faces worked, yet it somehow said the same thing a racist would just pointing into a crowd and hollering.” She dragged the dust mouth down at the sides into a frown.
“So if any of the ghosts take down the Groadster we’re screwed,” Chaxium summed up. “We can’t just stop Morley; we have to stop the whole hunt.”
“If we don’t it means mankind’s next step forward is another step in the mud,” Lady muttered. Her stomach joined her in doing so, which got them moving again. They thanked Gigafive for his efforts, closed the dome, and flew down to the seam where all the other fairies had already gathered. Promp was stood behind a folding table, bouncing up and down on the cushioned ground as the others piled dust high in front of her.
Even Onsyquence was there, apparently suppressing his distaste for socializing if it could guarantee a meal. He silently helped Cirrumstance pack the dust down as much as possible. It was Fleatopia who finally asked how it was all supposed to work. Promp took a deep breath to start her explanation, but the entire car shuddered and she face-planted right into the dust.
Ack! She spat and clawed at her new ashen beard while the others looked around. The shape of the stolen Garrett was moving around the car. The jack had likely just come out, meaning the new tire was in place and they didn’t have much time. Cirrumstance told his young charge that she better get on with it, and did the explaining while her hands and wings started going through the ritualistic motions needed to cast the spell.
“Promp’s always been gifted with magic. This is a spell that usually requires a decade more of training. She can turn dust and dirt, anything with sufficient organic content, into tolerable food.” Promp’s wings flapped loudly, like the toss of a stage curtain. The dust pile stood strangely still, but a stirring blue light pulsed through it.
“Looks like thunder,” Chaxium commented.
“It basically is,” Cirrumstance explained, gently pushing her and the others away from the table. “That’s why we have to do it outside the ferriers. There’s a big static discharge when the matter is converted.” Onsyquence dropped to the cushion, splaying his limbs and wings. “What are you doing?”
“I’m not getting struck by lightning! If anybody did it would be me!” As if to prove him right a bolt arced out of the dust with a crackle, terminating just above where he’d been standing. He yelped and scuttled backward, but it was already over.
“Tahdah!” Promp said, holding out her blackened palms. Aside from that and her hair standing on end she seemed alright. The dust was gone, having violently imploded into a pile of mixed fairy foods, some complete with dishes and proper utensils: cake rolls of strawberry skin dough, banana peel tortillas with refried green bean spread, curried marshmallow salad, fennel seed slaw, powdered sugar dumplings, and fermented fruit cups.
The fairies charged the table and dug in before Promp could warn them again that the food would merely be tolerable. Nothing replaced the affection of a good cook, and the magic didn’t even have the passion of an inventor who at some point worked on a candy-pumping conveyor belt.
Chaxium was halfway through a banana burrito when the sensation hit her bulging cheeks. The food certainly tasted like its ingredients, but as if those ingredients had mentally checked out of their deliciousness responsibilities before they were even off the vine. None of it had an aftertaste, which they all suddenly realized was about three quarters of taste overall. It was like eating small talk about the weather. The best they could do was mutter thanks as they kept at it.
“For future reference,” Onsyquence said as he swallowed some down, “this isn’t tahdah food. This is here’s yours food. Anything more excited than that is a lie.”
“Cirry said it was just fine,” Promp croaked, not having had any herself yet.
“Well then he should’ve said it was disappointing instead. That’s what everyone needs to say about everything. A lot less suffering if we all admit we’re expecting too much.”
“Then you must not want any more,” the chef said through suppressed tears. “Go back to hiding under your rock if you don’t want to help Snakewaist!” She slapped him with a wing to turn him around, but even as she shouted at him she couldn’t mean what she said; she also piled a little more food into his arms before sending him off. Chaxium and Lady were glad he left without a word over his shoulder, but they both felt the weight of what Promp had said. Help Snakewaist. That’s what she thought she was doing. That was why she risked her ferrier.
“We have news,” Lady said, brushing Promp’s arm to get her to stop hugging herself. The former human proceeded to describe the rule of fingerprints, all while shoveling food into her mouth so it looked like she enjoyed it.
“That’s not our responsibility,” Fleatopia said afterward. “Our goal is to get out of here with every fairy and ferrier intact. We can’t stop the whole hunt. It’s absurd.”
“We have to though!” Promp squeaked, wiping away her tears and using them to smooth down her hair. “Snakewaist makes the world a better place, and a better world is better for fairies! Chax and Lady can do it! You guys like just fought a giant dragon, didn’t you?”
“No, Fleatopia’s right,” Chaxium said, chin in her hand. Promp’s wings and expression sank. “We can’t stop every single one of these cars… but we could stop the Groadster.” Lady caught on first, rolling a chunk of fermented pear around on her tongue. The idea made it taste better. “If we’re the ones to take it down, that makes us the head of the Wild Hunt. As head, we can disband it.”
“And not a single rapist will get to wriggle his pervy-ass self into a self-driving car’s brain,” Lady added. Just then they heard an impact, turning to see Garret through the window as he collapsed against the side of some metal drawers. The ghost emerged from the slumping unconscious body like someone throwing a fur coat off their shoulders, letting himself in through the driver’s door and settling into his seat. Morley looked at the fairies, squinting to see their expressions.
“Looks like you’re finally coming around,” he said with a curled lip grin. “Who’s ready to hunt?”