Planet in Theory: Pluto Takes the Stage (finale)

(back to part one)

(reading time: 1 hour, 55 minutes)

An Excerpt from Masquerade Monthly, Issue #34

Available at Aleatory Books

As our regular readers will know by now, we’re committed to offering everyone on Pluto the most sound and fashionable advice when it comes to selecting and wearing emergency masks, whether likelihood is a concern or you’re just looking to spice up your Friday night look. Admittedly, we tend to get caught up in trends, what with the planet’s wealth of fine craftsmen at our disposal.

Today we reach into the back of the mask drawer, tackling queries sent by many a reader regarding nontraditional and improvised masks. Many of you have also expressed an interest in so called ‘minimal masks’, here meaning items worn upon the face that one would not expect to count as identity forming but have nonetheless been demonstrated to work as such.

We’ve arranged these items and examples as a list, with information regarding viability, known examples, and consequences. If interest in this subject persists, please do send us your thoughts, via 4s of kisses so we know the subject matter, so we can determine if this should become a regular feature of the magazine.

  • Sunglasses: Yes, these work, and do so quite well. Wearers will often find that the bands disappear but the tint of the lens remains over the sclera, iris, and pupil. Some darker glasses can make the eye appear permanently black after crash. With lightly tinted glasses the visual impact of the crash is minimized, but keep in mind you’ll have to coordinate around that color for the rest of your life and you’ll forever have a rose-tinted view, or whatever shade you selected.

  • Crowns, tiaras, and the like: These items fall into the same category as hats, and are thus situated too high on the head to have any effect at 8 or 9to1. As a general rule, masks need to affect either the eyes or anything below them, down to the chin.

  • Styled hair: Some clever folks have combined their love of masks and hairdressing, growing, cutting, and tying their bangs into a mask shape. While this does work, it confuses the process somewhat given that the new look is made from the material of the old. Rather than giving you naturally maintained hair when it integrates, you’re left with hair growing around your eyes that requires constant care and primping.

  • Winter’s breath: Believe it or not, the fog that emanates from your mouth in the extreme cold can serve this purpose, so be wary should you find yourself at crazy8 and thinking about a stroll in the snow. Occurrences of this can’t be planned, and we know of it from only 2 examples of men who helpfully sent in pictures and film of their faces. Our experts believe it only takes if the exhaled breath happens to resemble facial hair. One of the men found himself with a large mustache of constantly whipping fog, the other a goatee!

  • Facial replicas: Sometimes people are painfully clever, having custom masks made that closely resemble the area of the face they cover, perhaps even commissioning ones based on younger photographs. Take note that this does not work! There is no new element of identity introduced. A replica of someone else’s face will get the job done, but borrowing an existing identity tends to rub one’s temples the wrong way. Of note are a few cases where celebrity faces have been reproduced and integrated, sometimes rocketing careers on stage and cinema far past the original owner’s!

  • Animal masks: Long coveted the countenances of some creatures have been, and rumors of their viability have always swirled, with the inability to fully debunk them easy enough to explain. While masks mimicking the faces of, say, cats don’t work because they would introduce elements of a nonhuman mind into the identity, mask themes can actually incorporate non-face elements of an animal. I’ve personally met someone who crashed while wearing glasses resembling the eye spots on peacock tail feathers (they’re positively gorgeous now). Another notable example is mask designer Raspberry Liquor, who absorbed one of her own creations resembling a mass of nesting blue emperor butterflies. When she turns her head quickly they are disturbed as if alive, some even flying a few inches away before nestling back down.

  • Flowers: Flowers and petals of all sorts work when lightly adhered to the skin, as long as they are on or below the eye line. There are fewer masks made from real flowers than one might expect, due to fears they will wilt in less agreeable climates. Wilting is possible, but it reflects the emotional state of the wearer, not the weather. If this is a concern you can use artificial materials or even dried and pressed flowers.

  • Bandannas: When worn as a mask, yes. Lower face coverings are usually not preferred, given that they may forever interfere with speaking, eating, and drinking. You may recall issue #17, in which the notorious bank robber Wordy Slurd wrote to us about his bandanna. He claimed that his nerves and muscles had spread into it, that he could tell it to curl up away from his mouth without touching it. Footage was not included with the claim.

  • Helmets: Do not worry, and don’t you dare use those worries as an excuse to be unsafe when operating vehicles and heavy machinery! Any helmet that covers enough to work covers too much to work. In all our sleuthing around the mask world we’ve never once seen a person stuck with a diving helmet for a head, or race car helmet, or anything similar.

  • Heavy makeup: Many of you likely know this is the number one alternative to wearing a mask, as they can be painted on and be much less intrusive in your evening. The reasons it hasn’t surpassed the mask market is the time to apply, though press and lift sleeves are changing that, and the fact that perspiration and activity can make them smear and run. Any ‘wear’ on your look can be permanently integrated, and you probably don’t want to wind up with drooping eyes and colors blended into hideous mud.

  • Messy eaters: Some Plutonians with young children, their households in a rut of bad odds, have expressed fears that their toddlers smearing spaghetti sauce across their face might induce a reaction. Rest assured, there is no known risk. Curiously, we’re not sure why there’s never been a case like this; perhaps the planet itself finds such a fate too embarrassing to inflict.

  • Expressing Emotions: Actors are most vulnerable to accidentally turning their performances into their new selves, with many major theaters and studios requiring safety training on the matter so we don’t wind up with 100 Ahabs on street corners yelling at any white auto that passes by. A performance, on its own, carries no risk no matter how exaggerated, but artificial techniques used to make the cheeks rosy or the pallor sickly do pose one. There’s also an instance of an actor, bad enough that he requested his name not be published, who used an eye dropper to place artificial tears during his big scene. He says that he is now only capable of 2 emotional states: extreme sadness and extreme mirth. I imagine, in choosing mirth as many would, it would eventually create quite a strange personality, numb to pain, awash in the big joke, and ignorant of the worst consequences.

All in her Head

Tump. A tiny sound, barely the drool of a mouse, yet they both heard it on the roof of Aleatory Books. Long Odd Silver and Minty waited, staring up at the ceiling, for what they knew was coming. Tump. Tump tump tump. Tuh-tump-tuh-tuh-tuh-tump-tuh-tuh… The rain.

Nobody was sure if the rainy season or Antichthon would arrive first, but the one that did would be the bad omen of the other. Windows the world over darkened, people shying away from the glass as the droplets streaked across like claw marks. In the absence of a government there had to be something to oppress the people, and on Pluto it was the fact, the sinking-in drowning fact, that this rain was an entire season.

Saturnalia was over, called on account of rain, and those that tried to persist in their festivities, enduring the cold stings on their skin, quickly found themselves with worse and worse odds. Pluto’s rain was chaotic, ripping through possibilities drifting and forming in the atmosphere, forcing their debris to the ground below like shrapnel.

It didn’t take long for heavier things to start hitting the roof, though the cats’ nimble paws made less sound than the liquid. The dogs on the other hand made themselves known with endless howling. Minty saw the raining animals out one of the windows, chasing each other and lapping at growing puddles, but she couldn’t get the best view thanks to Drizzle.

The cat had been born during the rainy season, just like those falling now, and he seemed to long for their companionship. After the first drop he jumped into the windowsill and sat there, staring intently. He pressed his cheek against the harsh chill of the glass, and thanks to his semi-liquid nature his face started to flatten and spread. Within an hour he had covered the entire window as a black screen, eyes lost on the bottom side, tail dangling like the pull cord of incredibly effective blinds.

In the dim, Silver and Minty stood around the front desk with the brazen head set upon it. They wanted to listen to the radio to drown out the pounding miasma outside, but no matter which station they tuned to on any of their cards they only got static. The weather interfered with the signals so much that any request they made of the electroglass machines just returned an emergency broadcast screen.

Only a single night had passed since their caper, with Minty falling into bed and passing out as soon as they’d arrived back. The next morning she couldn’t even remember her kiss with Silver ending, just the sparkling enveloping fog it had somehow generated. She didn’t rise until the afternoon, sleeping for 11 straight hours, waking just an hour before the rain began. She didn’t know what to say to them, but they were the ones to break the ice, reporting on the situation with Peachy.

Apparently Silver had been invigorated by their adventure, like a power line struck with lightning, and they hadn’t slept a wink, instead immediately consulting the brazen head. With focused questioning they had discovered the name of the person responsible for monitoring Peachy’s debt, and then paid them a visit in the dead of night. Silver didn’t share the details of the visit, but they assured Minty that the matter was settled and Peachy was free of financial obligation to the Eudaemon organization.

Minty didn’t know how her friend had reacted to the news, as Silver had escorted her home while the librarian was still buried in her pillow. Peachy alone was a recipe for disaster, but she lived in an apartment building with plenty of neighbors that could be accessed without getting drenched outside.

So now, with no distractions left, cut off from the rest of Pluto, there was time to interrogate the brazen head, though there was no need to be aggressive, as it was exceedingly cooperative. Minty and Silver spun a card with an arrow on it; when it stopped the person in its path would have the privilege of going first. Minty.

Good afternoon,” she greeted it politely.

Yes, no.” Minty looked to Silver; for some reason they seemed more able to decipher the head’s binary responses.

I think it means that it’s a good afternoon in its fortunes, but not a good afternoon in terms of the weather,” they guessed.

Yes,” it confirmed with a slight rocking nod.

Right, of course,” Minty said, bring herself back on track. Why am I nervous? We’ve all the time in the world. Even if Roman knows I took it he’s not likely to come out in this squall. Perhaps it’s because… this is the end. If I actually ask all these questions I’ll know everything there is to know about Pluto and the swing. Literature is a search for unattainable answers, and I’ve attained them. My passion could die without the stoking curiosity.

Yes?” it encouraged.

Don’t rush me! Sorry, I’m nervous.” Minty flipped through her card catalog with one thumb, the fwipfwipfwip and the slight breeze from it helping her settle. “You know what? I think I’d just prefer if you go first Silver.”

Alright,” the swashbuckler said without hesitation, grabbing its cranium with the tips of their long fingers and turning it to face them. “Fantastical Face of Facts, please help me. I’m desperate. I think I have feelings for my local librarian. Tell me, does she have feelings for me too?”

Yes.”

Silver!” Minty blushed more intensely than any time pre-swing. I know we haven’t had a chance to discuss since the other night, but please!” They’re a book that reads me back, compelling me to offer them something, but I have no story of my own. They put a platinum card between my pages to hold their place, but there’s no thrilling conclusion. They’re the good book, not me, the one I can’t put down.

You’re right, I’m sorry,” Silver said with a massive smile that couldn’t be more proud of itself. They looked down at the head once more. There’s a metallic book stuck in the wall upstairs. Do you know who put me in it?”

…No,” the head said after a moment searching the corners of its eyes. It sounded surprised by its own answer.

So it doesn’t know everything?” Minty asked.

It depends on your definition of everything,” Silver guessed, though the tone in their voice suggested they were sure. “Knowledge is accurate information about reality, but there’s more than one of those. It knows everything about probable space, but it’s probably in the dark about Earth in its actual space.”

Yes, yes.” It seemed relieved somebody had an answer.

That means that any and all realities sandwiched between the probable and the actual are similarly beyond its sight. I suspect I came from one of those, and the attempt to fictionalize me was an attempt to get me out of my unknown foe’s world and into this one.” Silver paced back and forth in intense joyless thought, the first time Minty had seen them do such a thing. Silver wasn’t a pacer. They leaned on walls with arms and legs crossed, lifted people off their feet when hugging them, and closed doors soundlessly. They didn’t pace.

“√Fikdongzo al@$ zeebeedib?” Silver asked, this time in the crazy8 tongue of √Permillion. As the language of mathematical bubbles in a carbonated brain, Minty was 4 levels of reasonable certainty away from deciphering even a single word of it, suddenly finding herself overcome with curiosity.

Yes,” the head answered.

“√Zenbadoo aldoowop … Edong nadoobeehi* dud@anadoop dabop, zenbop ipu%in? Nskkidee enewop zaharradoo da. Ezoop na&godib, bai*na@ haladeladoop sentitbopzen dutdoo, eta#ez dagowop senti*menduwop egiaz*kori&skidoo. Nirezee amazop unib&ertsodoop zendwopdo, etaniski lur%rerazop erortz*ean jazebbe nintzopzoo. Ezzoop# zeki%en inoizoo sortwop zezakee ereep. Bar@katu, lagopun zahazoop, badabip baitazoo$ etaezet itsat&sita zaudeladoo. Pzada doop izal nazip pzada kontzop iz**an artoop?

Yes,” it said solemnly.

“√Ho*reep badapip luzebop?

Yes.”

Silver, what are you say-”

Please Minty. This isn’t for you to hear.” She’d never seen them so grave, like the subject discussed was the death toll of an interplanetary war. In a way it was, if every single entry in the total was the same person, the only difference on their headstones being the date, and most of those dates punctuated with question marks or asterisks. Minty would’ve at least thought that part fitting. If Long Odd Silver was anything, they were an asterisk.

“√Pertsodeep awop doo?

No.”

“√Esado$di ba*t?

No.”

“√Etor&reep harradoop, landoo% nibidop. Erantzuna azkoop pixidop bata&dum jarop errazag jateedoop dadum. Hitzoop nezeep?

Yes.”

“√Zeeboodim hit%zoop?

No… yes.” The 2nd word was loaded with cautious implications.

“√Dipbodwa? Sumboomba*dim? Bipidopdowow? Skidip&dedok? Zabaeiki?

Yes,” it answered quickly, to whatever the last suggestion was.

“√Freebooter ingelezoop hitzap? Nidap beza&doo zah% nai, etazoo nida bezing zah#zoop, berdinop gare*lako?

Yes.”

Well, that settles something,” Silver said as they switched back to English.

What does it settle?”

There’s plenty else for you to read Minty. Go on, take your turn. I’m in need of a few minutes. Maybe all of them. Steal them if I have to…” They wandered off into the stacks, long fingers of one hand rubbing their forehead. I am of course aware that I have previously translated the √Permillion, but in the interests of Long Odd Silver’s privacy I won’t be doing so in this instance. Frankly, it has nothing to do with this story. It regards a book you don’t want to stick your nose in.

I’ve been here since the beginning! Shouldn’t I get to know the ending? Unless they have no ending. By the stars… I know how interminable a lengthy unfinished novel feels. It dangles by a thread that can’t break, puts all the blood in your head and keeps it there. Even if it was caused by the author’s death it feels unfair.

Yes?” the head encouraged. Minty stepped aside, grabbing a stack of books she had already picked out. These were the most difficult, meaning that her searches of the public computer had returned no record of the individuals that wrote them, but there was still a quality in the writing that made her suspect the authors were out there in post-swing Pluto, actually living, earning their written revelations.

Alright, your task is simple,” she told the head as she pulled off the first volume: The Tenderized Heart by R.Y. Reynolds. It was a tawdry yet sticky romance, something of little consequence beyond the reader’s trousers, so she initially suspected it was actually written rather than generated. It contained nothing that Pluto would want to share to help its possible people settle in.

Confusion came with the author’s name. An inordinate number of her wares were written by pairs of initials, leading her to suspect it was a sign of a false person. It seemed almost lazy, like Pluto was skimming through this part of its construction and checking off boxes as quickly as it could.

All of these initials sounded like crazy8s, like they needed emergency masks to fill out the rest of their names. Some combinations of initials also stretched the limits of belief. Really, how many U. X. names existed? Y. Y.? When she read the name Q. K. K. Finktrot she actually laughed aloud.

Finding out whether or not Pluto had gone into a detail like supplying its people with thinly veiled pornography was, in Minty’s mind, an excellent starting place. I think drivel like this is why I’m also a bookseller, since I’ve no interest in keeping it around. Plus they’re my bestsellers, mostly because nobody asks if they can purchase anything else.

Alright Mr. Brazen Head,” she addressed, pointing at the thin volume’s title, “was this book written by a person who was or is still alive post-swing?”

Yes.”

Hah! I knew it. Silver? Silver it works!” There was no answer, but it seemed unlikely they’d gone out in the downpour, and not even they could open and close the monstrous metal door the prince had put up without making some noise. Yes there was plenty to explore in the collection, but Minty was accomplishing the same feat much faster, sifting reference from experience.

Yes in regard to Uncertainty in Engine Design and Repair by F.I. Guessterson. No when it came to The Pluto Pendulum by Erica Vedan. No on Memoirs of a Headstone Mason. Yes on Pliant and Prepared.

After that stack was finished Minty rushed around and constructed another without putting the first ones back. She was going to reorganize the whole collection anyway based on the head’s feedback. There would be 2 halves, and it would be as simple as picking left or right based on your desire for unequivocal truth or enriching human bias and error. 2 hours passed, stacks building up around the desk like weeds. The bookseller was moving so fast that the brazen head could barely keep up. It knew what she wanted by now, so all she had to do was hold each one up to its eyes.

Do you need a break? Some water?” she asked it when she noticed its answers were getting a bit mumbled.

No,” it answered, but she’d heard enough emotional variance in its responses to know that it had its pride, and likely wouldn’t answer yes unless it was literally one answer from being incapable of speaking for a while. Minty said she was taking 10 minutes for herself, so it might as well rest. The object immediately fell over onto its side, mouth hanging open in something like panting.

The librarian retired to a set of book towers she had incidentally arranged into a chair, deciding on a whim to skim through the last book to have its origin revealed. It was called Ice Dancing in the Dark by one Eris Terrace. The name was clearly made up, but it turned out to be a pen name of someone just as present in the fledgling world as her.

From random pages she discerned its subject matter was the author’s personal voyage into the black probable space beyond Pluto’s atmosphere. She hadn’t gone on an instrument of space travel, as the first of those to ever grace the planet would be arriving shortly. In Minty’s mind that left only travel as a 9to1 hardluck phantom, implying she had returned enough to touch typewriter keys with an emergency mask or remarkable force of will deserving of a whole series of books.

There was another way, she learned on page 36. Apparently intense meditation, with plenty of practice and the right conditions, could split a person’s probable state into 2 entities, though the meditating body would take a hit of at least one increment. According to Eris, while isolated at the peak of a snowy mountain she had gone from a 6to1 resting state to a 7to1 anchor and a 9to1 specter.

The latter was fully capable of space flight, so she underwent a journey, traveling as far as she could before the physical needs of the 7to1 body drew her back. The ice dancing of the title was an attempt to leave a mark of her journey, like scores skates might leave on a rink. She spoke with other phantoms, those no longer grounded, gathering their wisdom.

Some had even formed small communities in the void, circling nothing more solid than each other. Those that seemed doomed to vanish out there she urged to return, to no success. Though Eris had much to report about the quasi-life in the airless expanse, like how communication had to involve passing through each other since there was no gas to transmit the vibrations of sound, she ultimately failed to leave the scores she intended.

Her conclusion, the finale to her whole book, was hopeless. Even speaking √Permillion, the clacking language of the bored void throwing a pair of dice, one matter and one antimatter, she failed to get through to anyone or anything. Minty, having read far more than she initially intended, set the book upside down at her side.

Eris is still out there. She didn’t give up in the swing of things, even after seeing all her efforts evaporate and asphyxiate. Why? Pluto brought us out of the imaginative nothingness, but is that not what we’ll return to when we die? Her astral projection gave her a glimpse of the end, but even pushing herself to the limit that was all she got. A good look at nothing.

Minty looked around at all her books. If she did her job well they would outlive her, but for how long? People like the prince only needed a fraction of the motivation she needed to find enough reason to light her life’s work on fire. The agents of chaos were always winning because they were on the universe’s side, quickly undoing the one lucky roll that birthed them all.

I’m sure somebody has learned the opposite,” she told herself, grabbing another book at random: Shuffling Divas: My Time Scheduling Starlets for Electroglass Cinema by O. Q. Linsenlamp. This author never lived their own life, instead puppeted by the planet from cradle to grave just to fertilize the soil for the modern day. If they had anything to offer it would be insight on the solar system scale, even if they had to talk about it through the luminous proxies of melodramatic actors.

A few quotes caught her attention, but not the way she hoped. ‘One thing you learn about a script is that it doesn’t know what it wants from the eventual actors. Anybody can fill any role, because we all contain everyone else; you just have to film them from the right angle.’ ‘For a while she had her own gravity, pulling in everyone and everything around her, but collapse was inevitable.’ ‘I’d have a drink with her in the gutter, in a closet, at a funeral, but not at that table at that moment, not with her in that exact light. That night she was manufacturing her own bad luck, spewing it like factory smoke.’

By the stars… I think I’ve gone and accidentally sold all the happy ones,” Minty grumbled, unsettled by the growing pile of bad attitudes. She pulled another and read at random. Another. 3 more. They were all the same, no matter the subject matter. Each was another weight hooked to the sinking anchor of her spirit.

After crawling out of the pile she went to a random shelf looking for some cheer, but found more of the same. I don’t understand. The rain starts and all my books suddenly turn sour. That shouldn’t happen. They’re immutable. The swing of things set them in stone. They’re the fixed boulder set to hold down my leash, to keep me from breaking free and running off into the dangerous wild like a foolish terrier.

Unless… History is alive. It’s not on Earth, but it might just be here on tiny cold Pluto. We are all revised after all, scientifically edited. Downgraded from planet to potential. Everything can change because we never made it to real. The rain hasn’t gotten in. There are no leaks. It can’t be doing this, but that just leaves me.

Minty pulled out her card catalog, the platinum ace of wheels once again shining atop it even though she had shuffled it deep the last time she’d used the deck. It was all the card’s fault, showing her the personality equivalent of the back of her own head. She never would’ve known she had any power without it, and power was what changed things.

Then I have the power to change this too,” she fumed, ripping the lustrous card from the rest. She ran to fetch her heaviest coat. The rain was falling with drops at every likelihood, making all but the most expensive umbrellas worthless, but when she combined her closet with the lost and found she had a 5to1 coat, a 3to1 hat, and a 4to1 scarf. Theoretically it should’ve kept out enough of the deluge for her to do what she needed to do.

Once properly bundled she stormed her way to the storm, furious at how long it took to open the heavy metal door that shouldn’t have been there. The wind and chill was immediate, surging over her like a levee-smashing wave. She held up a sleeve to cover her face, also using it to push the soaked door shut.

Atrium City had turned gray, an autopsied organ left on the table to oxidize. Though looking up was a great effort, stray drops seeming to aim for her pupils, she could see structures atop the tallest buildings that she’d never before realized were gutters meant to redirect the rainy season. Waterfalls on every corner, some zigzagging back and forth down fire escapes.

Foolish businesses eager to capitalize on Saturnalia had put up cheap paper advertisements on the gutters, failing to realize just as she had, and they were quickly ripped away by the torrent, their shreds drifting down the streets to cake up the storm drains. She looked down to see a few of them already clinging to her shoes.

Dark cats, many the same brooding gray as the clouds overhead, ran daintily across her path, looking for places to shelter. They too liked the storm drains, a few slipping through the bars with liquid bodies. The ones that weren’t filled with gunky paper were dotted with amber eyes like dropped coins.

The dogs frolicked instead, splashing wherever they could, tongues lolling. They barked at anything and everything that moved, including the rain itself. A collie so drenched that the water had formed 2 layers in its fur, one slick and the other like drops of dew on a leaf, dropped down right in front of her and barked.

I’ve already got one of you and I’m not running an animal shelter,” she griped. It responded by sitting and howling at the sky, all the other dogs joining it as if they’d just been waiting for someone to finally say the obvious. Minty cut around it and kept on, their noise only adding to the agitated shredding in her head. The thunder plus the howling. Plus the rain ricocheting off all the metal Eudaemon entryways. Plus the raging torrent of the drainage funnel. At least that getting louder was part of the plan.

She stopped at the rope railing meant to keep her from falling in, only now feeling it was necessary as the water invaded her socks, sniffing around for a way to make her lose her balance. If she did she would be just another piece of Saturnalia refuse spiraling away to its doom in the sewers. Thousands of them bobbed in the surging downward froth: loose cards, empty wine bottles, party favors adorned with artificially colored feathers, shrimp tails and cherry stems, tablecloths, a piano lid, shoes tied together and tossed over power lines until pooling water pulled one side of the scales too low…

There’s no coming back from that,” Minty assured herself, platinum card gripped tightly in 2 fingers, one corner poking into her palm.

Saturnalia was all the birthdays and holidays that Pluto had helmed, compacted and gifted so there would be no hard feelings when everybody had to get to work. Any platinum cards were supposed to show up after that, that way they would fall safely into the hands of the ambitious, people who could actually direct their incredible strength in a way that was at least focused if not good. Instead one had slipped through the hole in the sack, made by the captured, struggling, feline claws of Long Odd Silver. Now it was burning a hole in Minty’s pocket, setting her works ablaze.

Feeding it the talent she never wanted, Minty raised her arm for a pitch, all too ready to see its luster vanish underneath the surface so it could go convince a sewer rat to usurp its king, or something along those lines.

That was a gift!” someone shouted over the rain and the baying of the dogs. With her arm raised the hardluck rain was now streaming down Minty’s sleeve and licking her side, but she didn’t move. She had to maintain the threat to let Long Odd Silver know she was serious, that if she had any power at all it was the power to discard power.

I’m sorry Silver, but the woman in this card just isn’t me,” she explained, lips contorting in the cold. “She’s changing my books. They’re supposed to be the truth, not a freak show of Minty Julip neuroses.”

If this place was just books I never would’ve shown up!” they reasoned. “I don’t know who pressed me flat, but I know I was struggling against it the whole time. My being in this book store, in the swing of things no less, was me reaching out. You took my hand Minty, and you did it without the ace. You made the decision to save me by changing me, and again without the ace. You can pretend small all you like, as long as you don’t actually believe it.”

Minty started crying. The rain sank into her skin, one side of her body feeling wet, cold, and heavy. The raised arm with the card now felt like 100 pounds, but she thought that was the way it was always supposed to feel. Nothing like the platinum deck should be thrown around carelessly.

When Silver didn’t say anything else she finally tore her eyes from the cluttered concrete maelstrom before her and looked at them. No coat. No hat. They took the rain stoically, their permanent tears lost in it. They were saying something after all, with unblinking focus and concern. They would stand there until they were 9½to1, riddled with rain shafts like needles through gelatin, if that was what it took for Minty to consider what they said and turn back.

You’ll catch your death out here!” Minty shouted.

You’ll throw your life,” Silver argued back, pointing at the platinum card. “The prince is still going to have his eyes on you, and you’ll want that to help, even if it’s just a bargaining chip.” The collie splashed its way over to Silver and sat next to them, panting. They pet it reflexively, eyes still on Minty.

Why do animals like you so much?” the librarian asked, lowering the card in defeat. The torrent beyond grew louder, aggrieved by the teasing morsel. It was actually the rising water that did it. Up past their ankles now, the edge of the drainage funnel was disappearing, only the rope there to mark its boundaries.

Animals and pirates share a common disregard for property and personal space,” they said, somehow smiling in the deluge of errant chilled possibilities. “What’s yours is theirs. You are theirs.”

Oh damn it Silver! Come on!” Minty sputtered, shoving the card in her pocket and grabbing the scoundrel’s wrist. She pulled them back to Aleatory Books, stomping and splashing all the way there, unconcerned with the water that poured in before the door was properly sealed. The librarian still felt the cold in her side, a frost on one lung, but there was a greater sensation of stuffy heat everywhere else.

As soon as they were enveloped in the toasty papery air of the shop she ripped off her coat and tossed it away; it landed with a wet smack atop a shelf and hung there. She reached up, hand so determined that when it glided around the curving back of Silver’s neck it split the raindrops from their skin and left it dry. She pulled their head down and their lips connected.

If you insist on the most powerful Minty you’re going to get her,” she swore breathlessly before diving back in. For once Silver had all of nothing to say but a few snaps as they ripped open the buttons down the center of their shirt. With one arm, like twirling buttery noodles around a fork, they spiraled Minty’s scarf off her neck and let it drop.

Their intense embrace stumbled, nearly hitting one of the shelves, but Slim slipped in just in time and caught them. Minty crawled up the ladder backward, the rungs ticking across her spine, Silver pressing her up further until they were both off the ground. The building rushed by in a blur as Slim escorted them to the back as quickly and smoothly as he could.

Let’s do it here,” Minty suggested when Silver started stepping down from the stilled ladder, pulling them back up by the collar. They smiled and panted, happier than any of the hounds leaping from the sky outside.

I don’t know how many lives I’ve lived, but I’m confident none of them have satisfactorily completed the act halfway up a ladder,” they reasoned, with the last drop of reason either of them had left.

Ugh fine,” Minty conceded, jumping into their long arms. “You’re dismissed,” she told the dutiful ladder. Silver carried her toward the open door of her bedroom. “Wait!” she urged as they passed the desk. When they stopped she stretched, reaching down to grab the top of the brazen head. She turned it around so its eyes would face the serenity of her collection rather than what was about to happen. Both of them missed the roll of its eyes.

Off came the clothing, pieces pushed and kicked to the floor in no particular order. Minty marveled at the perfection of Silver’s body. There was something brand new about it, but nothing inexperienced. Their flawless skin looked like the perfect canvas for a mural of tattoos, like the colors of them would never fade. When they were atop her she could see the glittering strap where the tear trails met under their chin. Each eye produced simultaneously, so when droplets met it was the perfect focal nexus for Minty’s attention: a pool of colliding and mingling sensations.

Silver too was lost in her as they switched places. The librarian’s round green glasses had come off at some point and somehow gotten into a sleeve, so her eyes struggled ravenously against the dim. Her wet hair clung to her ears in little licks and curls. Though much smaller than Silver the room was much fuller with her moans and nipping whimpers, like she was giving a speech, her podium just happening to be willing.

This is my first time. In the swing anyway. This is what it feels like to choose closeness, to not have Pluto shove you into a train car shoulder to shoulder with your lovers. It can’t be Silver’s. I doubt they made it one night without someone falling in love with them.

Minty couldn’t hold onto those thoughts for very long. Silver’s hands were on her back, moving down, on her thighs, somehow skipping stretches without ever lifting their fingers. Then they were somewhere else and Minty had a half thought, that she might never have a whole thought again.

It was just fragments as Silver worked their magic, digits even more dexterous than with their cardistry. Those fragments were from her books, descriptions of moments like this, where the authors no doubt stilled their quills halfway through the word to bite their lips and savor the reminiscence. Bubbles and lightning, bolting and popping. A wheel of flipping pages, each whipped by sternest thumb tip. Like being drunk, but not intoxicated, imbibed.

The thrum of ecstasy pushed against her skin, but something else too, something inside her. There was still the cold bite of the hardluck rain on her side. It stubbornly resisted the pleasure, jabbing at it until it backed off, but Minty’s body just wouldn’t stand for that, not with this much satisfaction resonating.

The conflicting forces butted heads repeatedly, Minty almost forced to verbally accost them, but the words didn’t quite form. Silver pressed on, and pressed deep too, reaching their own summit, unwittingly dragging Minty along. There had to be resolution, there had to be climax, the protagonist’s instinct demanded it, and so there was.

Bolting and popping met raining and pouring inside Minty’s chest, inside her all. Her hair drifted up as if she was sinking in a lagoon. She’d never felt anything so grand, but that was because she felt something great across 5 likelihoods at once. She didn’t even realize it when she fell into Silver. It was just another twist to the incredible sensation, a twist of lime in the cocktail poured over her steaming pleasure centers.

Silver noticed. There was no grabbing Minty and pulling her out, but the longer they mingled the worse it would get, so they sprung off the bed, naked splendor suddenly rippling with goosebumps.

Minty!?” Their partner couldn’t hear them, only reverberations off the cathedral ceiling of ribs and collarbone. She sank through the sheet. The pillow. Into the mattress. Silver sprang back to her and ripped the sheet away, but there was no sign other than lingering sighs. “Minty, come out of it!” they urged, dropping to their knees and looking under the bed.

There was a flutter of fingertips, a boulder of shoulder, flitting through the bottom. She drifted out and settled gently on the floor. Most floors were made with mixed materials to keep the unlikely from sinking to the planet’s core, but if she went too far nothing could stop it. Silver could see it in the flitting under her closed eyes. This wasn’t their lovemaking anymore; that had spurred an exodus of her spirit, down a burgeoning rainy river, to the places she secretly wanted most.

Somewhere set. Somewhere where I’m just a curator, no, an observer. I want to watch the world go by with big thick binoculars. I’m no author; I shouldn’t be handing out fates. The only set place is the void, the place where nothing is possible, not even probable, not even improbable.

Minty!?” Silver couldn’t touch her, but rather than scramble around looking for something to use as an emergency mask they just kept talking. “Come back to me Minty. You’re all the way on Pluto. You’re slipping off a wet roof, now you’re dangling on the gutter. Hang on. Pull yourself back up! Pull Minty!”

Their voice finally got through, a ray of light into the crumbling cathedral. Minty’s eyes popped open; she was shocked to find herself on a cold floor she could barely feel. Silver’s face peered from the edge, like they were looking into a storm drain and she was just a piece of Saturnalia costume jewelry that had washed there.

She was nearly transparent, but opacity returned when she started clawing her way out. Silver, out of kindness, refused to grab her arm and help her. Touching a former crazy8 at such a moment of flux was not advisable, as the flesh would cling to anything clearly offering aid. All they could do was watch as the librarian struggled to stand, and breathe, and remember she was a librarian.

A hunched Minty slowly raked her nails across her sides, just testing the texture. It was unmistakably different. Around the room everything looked a little out of focus, as if it all had shrunk by 3% but the silhouettes had remained in place. Silver pulled her glasses out of a sleeve on the floor and gently handed them over. She put them on… They didn’t latch.

What happened?” she asked, voice hitting several speed bumps.

It was the rain… and me probably,” Silver explained. “We should’ve dried you off immediately; I’m sorry.”

I was almost-”

Crazy8.”

I’m…” She tested her entire body: how high she could raise her legs, how much it hurt when she tugged on her hair, whether her breasts sprang the way they used to with each movement… “By Nemesis. I’m 5to1. I lost a likelihood.” She looked to Long Odd and saw the concern in their eyes, and the guilt. They looked diminished, like the cape of a castle lord when it was hung out to dry. She didn’t want such a creature chained by negative emotion. “It was worth it though,” she insisted. “Silver, that blew my mind.”

More like your chances.”

No, Silver, really. I’m fine. Most people are 5to1. That’s what the whole planet is.” She examined herself internally once more. Being 4to1 made me feel separate from this place. A reader. A cover-closer. Now I’m in it. It feels strange. The trembling is just the air pushing on all sides, and that’s just in this room, where absolutely nothing is happening. I feel I’m walking a sharp edge, but the foggy chasms on either side are more dangerous. This might be the rest of the Minty I saw in the card: the platinum Minty.

No!” they heard the brazen head shout. “No, no, no, no, no, no!”

I’ll check,” Silver said, scooping up their clothes with one long arm. Minty nodded as they left the room, hurrying to her dresser to find something dry to wear. First she ripped a sweater out and rubbed it all over her hair to sponge the last of the rain out of it. By the time she was dressed and back out by the desk Silver had as well, but they stood much closer to the front door, deck in hand, flicking cards into orbit around their torso.

What’s happening?” Minty asked the head, its eyes fixed on the Eudaemon door. “Is someone coming?”

Yes.” Minty pulled out her catalog, rapidly recutting the order of the cards to accommodate her new probability. The motions felt faster than ever, the cards less annoyed by her solidity. She calculated a good throw, right into a supple kneecap, as 7 bounces away from that far. 3 cards emerged from her knuckles, poised like cat claws, ready for the toss.

Whunk! went something against the door. The metal squealed as the hatched turned. Something huge slid across the drenched ground beyond, like a rolled up carpet big enough to sweep the city’s troubles under, slithering its coiled mouth right up to Minty’s world.

An Excerpt from The Freebooter’s Bindings

Lodged in the Wall of Aleatory Books

silversilhouette

Kingmaker

Long Odd Silver preferred to have 2 tricks in orbit for every opponent they faced at once, but there wasn’t enough room, not with 10 Eudaemons in simple red masks and raincoats following the library walls to surround them. They all had decks of their own. Silver backed up to rejoin Minty and the head.

Wait, where’s Drizzle?” the bookseller whispered when she noticed one of the intruders standing in front of the now empty window, rain still battering the glass. If Silver knew there wasn’t time to respond, as the queen of the Eudaemons, Tequila Sunrise, stepped forth from their ranks. The tiny young woman wore a designer coat of her own, its pastel colors far too cheery for the dreary weather. Her coiffed eyelashes batted at them playfully, only ceasing when she spotted the brazen head.

So that’s where it went!” she bubbled. “Minty the downer stole it, never would have expected.” She registered Silver’s presence. “Oh and you too. Roman had his eye on you at the match. Ooh lucky me. I get to bring him 3 things on his wish list.”

I stole the head,” Silver declared. “She had no part in this.”

That’s not true,” Minty blurted, vaulting over the desk. She looked at Silver, sending them a wave of confidence. She knew she was in the thick of it now, getting paper cuts on every page, seeing herself in the words. None of this was actually happening, but if it was it was happening to her. She was in the swing of things. “The answering machine belongs to me, and you’re trespassing.” She bounced a threatening card at Tequila, but the Eudaemon caught it effortlessly and tossed it over her shoulder.

If the door is ours the place is ours,” she claimed with a grin so wide it made her head tilt. “You’re outnumbered, and this won’t be like Sure Thing. There’s no Survivor Function here to distract us. All eyes are on you.” The Eudaemons reared their throwing arms back. It didn’t matter if Silver had enough in orbit to completely obscure them from sight; this was a deadly crossfire.

What do you want?” Minty demanded.

Easy there Jack.” The librarian raised an eyebrow. Those cards Tequila left behind. Roman the ace. Vermont the king. Tequila the queen. Minty the jack. “It’s time for you to come into the fold, just like Roman planned from the beginning. We’ve got marching orders.”

We’re not going anywhere with you.”

Don’t make this rough you old bag,” Tequila groaned, though Minty couldn’t have been more than a decade her senior. “I’m bringing you back to the prince, alive or dead. We’re on a schedule, so make up your mind in the next 10 seconds.” Minty was ready to toss a card in the next 3, hopefully cutting through that fence of absurd eyelashes, but Silver stepped forward, staying her hand. One by one they snatched their cards out of the air with their deck hand.

Silver, what are you-”

Come on Minty. I don’t think they want to kill us. Let’s see where it goes.” They took her hand, but very tentatively, just in case they sent her into shivering between likelihoods again. “Together.” Minty took a deep breath and nodded, storing her catalog in her pocket and tucking the brazen head under one arm. Tequila stared at it, but allowed her to be its escort as the Eudaemons funneled them back to the entrance.

With one step over the threshold the true purpose of the entryway installations became clear. Instead of leading out into the rain there was now a tunnel with walls of thick pleated fabric, not unlike those used to board high occupancy airplanes. At first there appeared to be no windows, but every 100 feet or so one of the Eudaemons would pull back a square of fabric, revealing a square glass port, and look outside. Minty caught a glimpse of a thickly gloved hand giving a thumbs-up through one of them.

They took several turns. This isn’t a jaunt. It’s a network. Every door he put up had one of these tunnels scrunched inside it, and now that the rainy season is here he has deployed them. A way around the city without ever risking exposure. A way to move while everyone else is huddled inside trying to wait it out.

Clever, isn’t it?” Tequila giggled when she noticed her captives taking it in. “I wish he’d painted them a different color.”

Nobody knew when the rains were coming,” Silver noted, running their hand along the pleats. “How did he know when it needed to be ready?”

He asked the head.”

It can’t predict the future.”

No, but it can tell you every other day in every other year where the season started,” Tequila explained. “Then you can make an educated guess. Since Pluto never bothered to record any of that, the prince was the only one who knew. Once he had an idea he never let anybody else play with it. Poor thing got lonely, didn’t you?”

Yes,” the head admitted sullenly from under Minty’s arm.

What’s his plan?” she asked, adjusting the head so its mouth wasn’t squished against her side. “You wouldn’t pull this thing out just to recruit me.”

He’ll tell you and the others himself,” Tequila said. Others? What others? They can’t be like us. There would be nothing more foolish than crowding 100 people who resent you into a confined space and telling them they have to work for you or else. It’ll be a riot. Wait a minute. My legs know where we’re going. I’ve walked this way plenty, with Peachy. Yes, she knew the exact series of turns they were taking. This was the way to the park.

She’d never spent much time in the city center, that was where Saturnalia had raged most intensely, drunken bodies piling up at the ends of conveyor belt sidewalks, but she assumed the several intersections of the tunnel network they passed through led there. A few times they had to halt to let another party of Eudaemons pass in front of them, on their way to a different target. The prince was doing a bombing run, hitting everything at once, only his forces were creeping like fungus instead of exploding, infiltrating everywhere.

The park had been all but inaccessible in the last week, too much celebration and debris to enjoy it. Minty guessed they had entered its borders when the ground underneath the tunnel became extremely uneven. The Eudaemons had dragged it straight over top of the layer of bottles, broken benches, and discarded shopping bags that itself covered the grass completely.

Their destination was a dome of the fabric, not unlike being under a giant umbrella. 10 of the tunnels converged there, the space mostly empty but for the people. Other parties were already present, and still more arrived in the ensuing minutes. Minty and Silver were made to sit on the bumpy ground with crossed legs. All the other Plutonians who weren’t on the payroll yet were made to do the same, arranged in rows, all facing the same direction: a captive audience.

Give it up,” Tequila ordered condescendingly, holding out her hands above Minty. The librarian held the brazen head in her lap, looked straight into its electric eyes. She felt its temples tense as it clenched its jaw.

Sorry,” she said weakly, running a finger across a dent that definitely hadn’t been there the first time she’d seen it flaunted on a public street. “Will you be okay?” It opened its mouth wide. Minty caught a glimpse of 2 eyes with slit pupils in the back of its throat.

Yes,” it assured her with a wink. Tequila snatched it and went to stand by one of the entrances, its other side guarded by none other than Vermont Red, looking his sharpest in a dark blue suit with a lush red shirt underneath. His tie was actually 10 electroglass cards held end to end with a charge.

Then they waited, muttering growing as loud as the rain as the minutes dragged. Long Odd was on Minty’s left, but to her right there was a man with dusty hair, wincing and hissing as he tried to blink painful tears out of his fresh black eye. He wore a shop apron and smelled like sawdust, so the Eudaemons must have interrupted his date with a table saw.

Brewski Hopps,” he said to introduce himself when his good eye noticed her glance.

Minty Julip. Any idea what this is about?”

This damn guy,” he cursed, “sends his goons around my shop all the time. At first they were nice, telling me about business opportunities and favor with the prince. I tell them I don’t care if he’s the prince of the central fire and they need to get out. Next thing I know they’re telling me they know I’m a cardist, that I can cut a board out of a sheet with just 10 tosses. I only did that once, in the backroom, when nobody was watching.”

It’s the brazen head,” the bookseller explained. She looked behind her. Everyone sitting was frightened or angry, perhaps 20 in total, all of them either in sleepwear or work clothes from a number of benign industries. “He’s been using it to find all of us. I work a library, but through an accident of fate I’m skilled at Cat Steps.”

So what is this?” Brewski wondered, looking at all the others himself. “An army? Why? He’s got plenty of his own people.”

I don’t know… We might be sacrificial. Loyal subjects will stay loyal if prisoners are the cannon fodder instead of them.”

Who are we supposed to fight?” His good eye widened, the other struggling to keep up. “Oh stars, don’t tell me it’s Antichthon. They could just fly over with their instruments, dragging an anchor, ripping through our shops and letting the rain in. My shop. If that wood gets soaked it’ll be 7to1 at least. Nobody wants 7-wood unless they’re making one of those crazy8 hot tubs where you can feel the heat but not the water.”

It’s not Antichthon,” Minty assured him, but the prince arrived before she could explain the enemy they were about to be thrown to. She expected full regalia given how much he dressed the part of a boxer during his match, but the man didn’t have so much as a cape, crown, or scepter. An attendant had his boxing dice around their neck, but the man himself wore a light coat of sweat most prominently, sleeves rolled up, shoes in need of a shine.

You found it!” he gushed with obvious relief when he spotted Tequila waving the brazen head in his direction. “Where was the bastard hiding?” He hurried over and took it, flicking it between the eyes as punishment.

Your bookworm jack had it,” she said, blinking to point at Minty with her eyelashes. “She’s a thief and she’s thick with that one.” She blinked at Long Odd, who winked back.

No kidding,” the prince said, grinding his teeth to an angry grin. Surely he won’t kill us, at least not yet. He wants us for this. All his efforts would’ve been for naught otherwise. “Oh well. At least it’s here now.” He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his forehead. “This might not have worked without it.” Vermont and Tequila glanced at each other, but didn’t say anything. Their prince moved to the end of the dome, facing his unwilling soldiers. He snapped his fingers. The attendant with the dice split one from the cord and tossed it to him.

Antichthon is set to arrive in under 3 hours,” he began, balancing the die on one finger and spinning it. It slowed as the whispers stoked and diminished. It stopped with one of its faces pointed toward them, playing footage just like a card might. They saw an entire orchestra of space travel instruments hurtling through the dark, plowing through planetary rings made of lazy drifting phantoms. The largest looked like clarinets, each one flanked by smaller flutes, a few horns in the back, their wide funnels actually meant to receive and transmit signals across unfathomable distances. They probably blared glorious arrival music to all frequencies at that very moment, but the rain’s interference had everyone’s cards crackling with static.

When they get here,” the prince continued, “they will see the residue of Saturnalia and be disgusted. They’ve been living with governments, with stable economies, with holidays no more than single days, for centuries. They think that stiffness is a work ethic, and we Plutonians offend that sensibility.”

Speak for yourself!” Brewski barked. “I’ve been working like a dog the whole time! They’ll see that!”

You’re here to ensure they do see it,” Roman explained. “All of you. They’re coming to bring order to chaos, and having a scapegoat sure does help with that. If we point the finger the people of Counter-Earth can scoop up the source of the Saturnalia discord and lock it away. A symbol that the good times are over and the fearful times have come.

But you’re the one running a gang!” a woman in her pajamas and curlers shouted from the back. “You should just give yourself up!”

I will be offering myself to them,” he replied, “as the one who was trying to keep order, trying to ready Atrium City for their authority. Assuming they believe me, I’ll be afforded a position of power in the new regime. I’m sure some of you have guessed that’s been my goal all along. It’s a goal I’m sharing with you, for as Eudaemons that act this day you’ll have my word and recommendation on your side moving forward.”

Show us the scapegoat,” Minty requested with sharpened eyes. The prince obliged, tapping the die so it turned to another face. It played film of a large manor, jumping to shaky footage of crimes barely recorded, glimpses of crazy8s and their various masks. Cards flying. Blood spilling. Minty recognized some of them from Sure Thing, in particular the small woman with the treasure chest mask that had pursued her so viciously.

This is the Survivor Function. To them, worth comes from being alive and scheming to stay that way. If they kill you then you were meant to die. If you can’t stop them it’s because you’re nothing. They’re after the same thing I’m after, so this is a mission to take them down, and to do it before the instruments rest.”

How are they any worse than you?” a cook asked, flourishing his deck of recipe cards from hand to hand angrily.

Easy, I actually see value in you,” Roman asserted. He paced back and forth in front of them, sure to look them all in the eyes at least once. He exchanged the boxing die for the brazen head. “My organization has offered predatory loans. We’ve run drugs. We’ve stolen and strong-armed and blackmailed. Our pockets have been full of fists and blades and broken glass, but I’m counting on you to know I’m a better option than the Function.” He tossed the head to Vermont, who stepped forward and interrogated it while Roman waited with his arms behind his back.

Has the Survivor Function killed more than 100 people in Atrium City since the swing of things?”

Yes,” it answered solemnly.

Were most of them ordinary people, simply in possession of something they wanted to control?”

Yes.”

Do they plan on continuing to function this way once Antichthon installs them in a middle position of power?”

Yes.”

Here’s where you need to listen closest,” Roman noted.

Has anybody died directly from Eudaemon activity?”

…Nooo,” the head said with a roll of its eyes, implying as many technicalities and asterisks as it could with tone alone.

Has the prince of Pluto ordered a single death aside from confirmed members of the Survivor Function?”

No.”

I guess Peachy’s baby doesn’t count because it was never born. The head tells only the truth, so who authored the rules of that particular interaction? When you bet on horses they give you the odds. I’m starting to think there are people neither real or probable doing the same to us. How much of whatever their money is rides on what’s happening right now?

And now the last thing you should need to hear,” the prince said, stepping forward to ask his own question of the head. “Do I, in all honesty, in the depths of my heart and mind, intend to reward everyone here today if we successfully neutralize the Function in time.”

Yes,” it answered tersely, mechanical mouth full of other words it couldn’t grind out. Its expression suggested its tongue was permanently coated in cheap scalding coffee. Roman waved Vermont and the head away, becoming the center of attention again.

It’s called a kingmaker strategy,” he explained. “In the theory of games, which is what this so-called planet is, a game, it’s when players who can no longer win themselves determine the ultimate victor. You are the kingmakers, and I am but a humble prince until you say so.”

Wait, I’m confused, why can we no longer win?” a man wearing entirely the wrong hat for the occasion asked.

Because you took yourselves out of the running when you found you were satisfied with your occupations,” he answered. “You haven’t even been trying to win despite the powers Pluto gifted you. Haven’t even rolled the dice-” He cut himself off as venom started to soak the words. “You decided you wanted to be butchers, woodworkers, personal shoppers, and librarians.” His eyes drifted over Minty. “As a result you neither gained anything nor lost anything to reckless celebration. Your conservative play kept you at odds with yourself.”

The rain intensified above them. Boots splashed outside as fully suited Eudaemons arranged, dragged, and connected some new sections of tunnel. To the ones inside it was some kind of cue. They pulled out their decks if they hadn’t already and started warming up with small tosses and flourishes.

I was the one that ran with my gifts,” he continued. “Pluto taught all of you how to fight, but it dropped the brazen head into my lap instead. I had to learn the rest. I had to earn it. So here we are. I’ m far ahead of the pack, you’re right where you want to be, and I’m telling you we can make it stay that way. The head told me you all have talents you don’t use. Use them this once, to make sure you don’t have to anymore.”

That’s all very convincing,” Brewski said, standing. The other captives joined him. “Logical. But I don’t care about logic. I just don’t like you, and I think I can fend for myself.” There were several barks and murmurs of agreement.

Your motivations only matter to a point,” Roman loudly told his newest recruits. “And we’ve reached it.” The Eudaemons around them closed in, ready to throw, on all sides, especially from behind. They poked and corralled until the kingmakers were tightly bunched. Out came cases full of decks, distributed to those that didn’t have cards on them. Minty flashed her catalog and waved away the prince-branded cards offered.

Tequila Sunrise addressed them, walking backward, as a flap door was lifted at the end of the dome and they were marched through the widest and tallest tunnel yet.

Up ahead is Nth Degree Hall: the base of operations for the Survivor Function. You’re going in first, with us behind, so don’t try to run.” Deviously clever. He has curated a collection of people willing to fight only when cornered and driven them into the corner of his choice, where a mouse hole hides an infestation. Not only that, he sends them in first so his own people feel valued and cared for.

You’re after the leadership,” Vermont added. There were doors at the end of the tunnel, tall and wooden, with uninviting chrome knockers that looked too heavy to lift. It hit Minty that they were just moments away from battle. She tried to recall her feelings from the night they stole the head, the exact panic that let her throw straight instead of tremble, but the only sensation that came back was kissing Silver. It had swallowed the other memories. She looked at them, expecting a face without an ounce of worry regarding their current predicament; she was not disappointed.

We’ll look out for each other,” Long Odd Silver assured her with a nod.

No you won’t,” Roman said, grabbing both of them by their arms and pulling them out of the blob of others as it continued to march. He was flanked by 2 guards, so Minty’s instinctive grab at her cards was just that. “You 2 took my head.”

You found it in a dumpster,” Silver argued. “Are we hanging Pluto’s fate on the admittedly longstanding philosophy of finders keepers?”

I’m not angry if that’s what you’re thinking,” the prince said. He made a point of putting on his boxing dice on and adjusting them, apparently planning on joining the fray once his shocked shock troops were pushed through. “I’m impressed really. I already know you’re not interested,” he nodded at Minty and then looked to Silver, “but you. I could see you wearing Eudaemon horns. I’m told your name is Long Odd Silver.”

If we do this, you’ll leave Minty and her shop alone?” they asked rather than respond.

Yes. I intend to give these people connections, tax breaks, anything I can afterward as well. No reason to make enemies any day other than today.”

Hey head, is he telling the truth?” Silver shouted over to the object.

Yes!” it yelled back from somewhere in the huddle.

That little bastard,” Roman growled. “It always pretends it can’t hear me from that far.” His attention turned back to them. “Get in and fight every crazy8 you can find. You can knock them out or kill them. Your high priority targets are the field lieutenants: Punch Hawaiian, Toddy Hot, and Olive Martini. Punch card mask, hot air balloon mask, and paper fan mask respectively.”

There was another one at Sure Thing,” Minty spoke up. “Treasure chest mask.” Roman looked at her, trying to discern her interest in such a person. She didn’t like his stare; it felt like a doctor roughly exploring her in search of hidden bumps under the skin.

Goldie Cider,” he said. “Card sniper. She might be in there, but you could probably talk her out of a fight. Word is she goes to the highest bidder. Tell her my payroll is bigger than the Function’s. What’s your quarrel with her?”

None,” Minty said truthfully. “I just got away from her at your casino, so she might be out for payback.”

Your play might’ve at least kept the head out of Function mitts,” he admitted, “and you saved my life. Why do that and steal from me?” Minty and Silver shared a glance.

We won’t be telling you that,” the bookseller said firmly.

Fine, but whatever the reason, you won’t be punished.”

So we can go have an ice cream instead of going in there?” Silver asked, flicking their head in the direction of Nth Degree Hall’s doors as a few Eudaemons with battering rams positioned for the initial breach. Roman’s laugh was little more than a grunt.

This mission isn’t punishment. You’ll be doing your civic duty. If you hadn’t neglected your natural talents it wouldn’t have blindsided you, but that’s hardly my fault. I mean that you won’t suffer any consequences after you survive today. Which you’ll be doing separately.” He gave one of his bodyguards the go-ahead to put his arms between Minty and Silver and split them.

What? Why?” Minty squeaked. “Silver taught me to fight; we’ll be more effective together!”

You gave my people the slip the other night,” the prince reminded, “and I don’t know which of you is the brains and which the muscle, but splitting those 2 things should keep your focus on what matters.”

Minty’s the brain and the muscle,” Silver said, winking at her. “I’m just a pretty face.”

Let’s hope your face stays that way.” Roman smacked his dice together, spinning them. They halted just as quickly on 2 different likelihoods. “You have your orders.” With cutting corners pressed between their shoulder blades, the pair was directed back toward the doors, with angled pressure pushing Minty to the left and Silver to the right.

You can do this Minty!” they shouted to her over the crowded heads of kingmakers.

I’m more worried about you!” the librarian yelled back. It’s true. I’m playing with platinum. They draw a crowd, the worst thing to do in an unfriendly place. What if they fall? They don’t know how much I love them. Of course they know how much love we can make, an awful lot as it turns out, but not what I would do for them. They are not a book to be left gathering dust. I swear if these survivors so much as rip one page out of them I’ll… well I’ll kill every last one of them and write the definitive record of it.

The first crack of the rams against the doors brought her out of her theoretical rage. Kthunk! This was it, she realized. The actual swinging of things, with destructive force. Kthunk! Life was really going to start now. Everything up until this point had been hitting her alarm clock as she awoke from slumber. Kthunk! The platinum card was just seeing the state of her hair in the mirror. Kthunk! Making and meeting and being with Silver was just looking back at her bed and remembering a one night stand with smug satisfaction. Kthunk! Now it was time for the hangover, or worse. Perhaps she had celebrated a little too ferociously, and what the platinum mirror held was naught but a ghost.

Wood splintered as the doors flew open. The kingmakers, under duress from the back, were pushed into the foyer where they faced an immediate assault of jeers and projectiles. Potted plants. Silverware. Cushions. Curtain rods thrown like javelins. Fruit tarts. All and more struck them, but much of it passed through harmlessly, breaking or splattering against the floor.

The chamber was filled to the gills with hardluck from 7 to 9, many unsure of how they got there or why. It wasn’t difficult to understand throwing things though, what with it being one of man’s earliest impulses. Surely all it took was for one higher functioning member of the Function to cast the first anything for all the others to officially join the Church of Belligerent Winging.

I’m 5to1 now. Any 7s throwing 6s can hit me. With that in mind Minty cut her deck with one hand and expertly extracted several cards that were already in the right order. 6To1 was as unlikely as she usually carried, and without 7s the 8s were out of range of any of her attacks. She’d never regretted anything less than tangling the sheets with Silver, but there was still a stab of regret that she didn’t have time to put in a request to the public computers that a select few of her cards be lowered to 7, a process that could be remotely achieved by a received signal and a few hours of waiting.

With an excellent target for their frustrations, several of the kingmakers exploded into previously hidden personas of battle. Brewski Hopps was already in front of her, using a 6to1 as a human shield since he lacked 7to1 cards as well. With his free hand he expertly flicked tricks into oncoming projectiles, knocking them off course.

A humble maid dispatched 3 phantoms with Cheater’s Welcome. A shoe shiner took off his own, pulled out 2 decks he’d been using as lifts, and explosively tossed all 104 cards at once in a Cat Steps move called the stampede. The herd of cards cartwheeled across the ground, embedding in any ankles solid enough to hold them.

Within minutes enough 8to1 blood had spilled to fill the air with drifting crimson blobs. They wounded like astronauts in orbit thanks to their bad odds, forcing Minty to fan the globs away to keep them out of her eyes. This was senseless. Most of these people were just lost and confused, used as cannon fodder like the kingmakers.

A woman Minty guessed to be 7to1 in a mask like an equation-cluttered blackboard charged her. At 7 she’ll be ½ the weight she was at 6. A quick rearrange put 2 6to1 cards atop the piles in her hands, which she used to push through her light opponent, knocking her to the ground. She didn’t want to cut them and watch even more blood float; the next tactic of the Eudaemons thankfully prevented her from having to do so.

They brought in floodlights on stands, setting them in the broken doorway. A flick of their switches bathed the kingmakers in intense pale light from behind, shining straight into the eyes of the hardluck. It was blinding, but to their thinned flesh harsh light was more like needles. Most of them dropped to the floor, clutching their head in their hands, wailing. A few 9s even descended through the floor entirely or rocketed through the ceiling.

The Eudaemons pushed forward, forcing the kingmakers to do the same. Minty held her cards up like blinders, looking for any sign of Silver, but the hall was huge and its occupants many. People behind her shoved. Cat Steps needs floor space to be nimble. If I’m going to fight anybody I have to get away from the rest. She held her breath as if diving into an ice-fishing hole and ran forward.

After 2 turns down long hallways she already felt lost, the sounds of the battle quieted more than they should have been. Everything around her was wood and cloth, but it muffled like concrete. There was a sound, she guessed it was a card slicing through a banister, but then she realized it was far more mundane, the crackle of a fireplace.

If the Survivor Function was an organization then it had employees, people to answer the phonecards or stoke the fires. If she found any of them hidden away she could just stay with them, wait the rest of this out, so she followed the popping sounds of heat in hopes of finding at least one of them.

She found the massive fireplace in an even bigger room, one that looked recently stripped of furniture. The Function had at least a few minutes warning of the invasion, given that their base had windows and the cloth tunnels couldn’t be missed, so perhaps they had rushed to hide their secrets from the invaders. That begged the question of where these things had gone, given that Eudaemons had surely surrounded the place and prevented escape.

There was nobody to hide amongst, to maintain the fire. Minty approached, unable to properly identify the objects that blazed at the center. They were long, tipped with broken sections of hoop. One scrap of netting had broken free and avoided incineration. She didn’t guess they were nets mechanically thrust out windows and chimneys to skim the hardluck out of the sky, but she sensed their aura of efficient yet indifferent cruelty as the fire ate its last wafting shreds.

Uncomfortable in their presence, she chose to move on, but had no idea where to go. Out came the platinum card, held in front of her to act as a compass needle. Her hope was that it would automatically bend toward the greatest opportunity for bloody change so that she could promptly turn and walk in the other direction.

Probing with it like a divining rod, she couldn’t feel any response, but she did succeed in leaving the room and choosing a path. It was her own mind, and not the card, that picked up on something first. Nth Degree Hall was not a normal building, even excusing its abnormally murderous occupants.

At first she couldn’t put her finger on it. Something was in flux. It felt like having your fist submerged in a sink full of icy water, but seeing the strong flow of a scalding faucet just inches away. Except the fist was her whole self, tensed, waiting for the numbing chill to finally give way to inevitable waves of heat. Every moment she was convinced she was feeling the start of it, the start of something, but the walls didn’t even creak.

That’s not right. These walls should be talking. Floors too. An old house is just a slow downpour, one drop falling at a time. A nail here, a shingle there. Where’s the decay? People were fresh in the swing of things, but not places. These halls present as aged and wise, but it’s a mask. They’re fresh… but how?

An unlocked door dumped her in a billiards room. There was an abandoned game on the felt, but all the balls were black 8. The 8 ball was long a totem of crazy8s. Some of the numbers were on their side, staring at her like eyes. I only grazed 8 today, so don’t you look at me like that. Why can’t I live a little? I wanted to live less, just watch Silver do the living, but you forced my hand. If I’m going to play what I’m dealt then I’m going to play it my way.

Then her eyes drifted up to the wide painting hanging over the table. The scalding water hit.

Playing out in black and green oils was the same exact game sitting underneath it. The painted table was identical, as was the number and composition of the balls, as was their relative position to each other.

The only difference was that 2 people were present in the painting, actually playing the game. One was bent over the table, lost in focus, cue poised to alter reality. The other stood off to the side, leaning on their cue. Their face was turned toward Minty, an expression of shocked disgust, as if they’d been hit with a mud and mustard pie.

Minty knew they weren’t repulsed at the sight of her, but of the probable world. This painting was 2 possibilities that nearly were, that had narrowly avoided that fate. The abandoned game, the whole billiards room, made it to Pluto, but its occupants didn’t. In coming so close the one with the sour face had seen their potential fate and cringed. They were likely bracing for the impact that was the transition from theoretical to likely, but had fallen short by inches.

An echo wasn’t the best comparison, she realized. That would’ve resulted in 2 people born into hardluck. What happened here was a process that stripped layers off an idea as it progressed, until only the core remained. The players were just one layer from being involved in this whole affair.

It was exactly what happened to Long Odd Silver. Though they were plucked from somewhere more than the void of infinite possibilities, the book that was their cell was just like this painting, a cage hanging from a cliff by a chain. A view to torment them, make them forever wonder whether life or death was the evil twin.

With Silver the process wasn’t quite complete, which was why it was hidden away in a space never meant to be found, a detail Pluto swept under the rug. Aleatory Books was a place where the possibilities still bubbled, still rearranged, many of which never quite broke the surface. Nth Degree Hall was one of those places too.

It was no wonder so many crazy8s had made their base there. The first one might have emerged from its shadows in the swing of things, already insane and devoted to their code. Was this person one of the ones the prince mentioned? No. I saw them at the casino. Crazy, sure, but regular crazy. There was nobody like that. No dark Long Odd Silver who clawed their own way out of their book. Let’s hope we don’t meet this Alpha Survivor.

Her greatest enemy was probably the building itself. While her shop expressed its uncertainty in malformed books, it appeared Nth Degree Hall did it with its very layout. That was why the Survivor Function had retreated instead of meeting the invaders head on; they wanted to take their chances in the shifting bowels of the place, being at least more familiar with its tendencies.

You haven’t seen anything.” Minty jumped at the voice and swiveled. Somehow she hadn’t noticed him enter the room, or him take up a cue, or him bend over and prepare for a shot. His colorful striped forehead was illuminated by the tiny jet of flame on the bridge of his nose. This was the one called Toddy Hot, on Roman’s most wanted list. As a kingmaker it was supposedly her duty to incapacitate or kill him.

I’ll fight if I have to,” Minty assured him. “We were told you’re all murderers.”

I don’t really consider anything to be murder,” he said, implying a shrug he wasn’t willing to perform, as it might mess up the calculations for his shot. He took it. Klak! Every black ball got involved, but none of them disappeared down a pocket. It was just chaos, which, judging by Toddy’s smirk, was exactly what he wanted to create. The painting must have been in tune with every expression of itself, for the moment the balls moved and it could no longer accurately depict them it fell to the floor and landed upside down.

What do you mean? What do you call killing someone then?”

Dice have lots of faces, and only one of them gets to face up at a time. Every death is a birth, lamented by one and celebrated by another. Dice are meant to be thrown because the universe gets tired of looking at its crap luck and its good luck.”

You’re welcome to kill yourself instead of me.”

I’m merely pointing out that the old me, the one who couldn’t stop from becoming 9to1, had to die so I could live. If someone dies then it was their time. The wind just isn’t with them anymore. I’m confident it’s still with me.” The miniature hot air balloon on his forehead inflated, pulling him an inch off the floor. He tossed his cue away with a clatter and pulled out 2 decks, one stock and one electroglass, as he hovered toward a cornered Minty. “Listen to me, getting all academic. I’m not this boring, I promise. It’s being in these deep rooms that does it. I really am just here to murder you.”

Minty didn’t know if the Function’s house was making the decisions, opening and closing passages to match up opponents, or if the survivors themselves were doing it, but there was no worse person for her to face. Cat Steps moves were mostly low to the ground, and Toddy stayed well away from it.

With no time to strategize she compensated by throwing cards more typically, mixing in the odd high bounce off the floor or across the table. She aimed for the head, hoping to puncture his gasbag and force him into her true range. He blocked with his glass deck, using it bluntly, not bothering to cut a single card from it.

His offensive was the stock deck, each card contained by a sharpened metal frame that had a few breaks for gripping. Before his first throw his face belched a fireball that engulfed the tip of the deck. While the stock slowly burned it heated the metal’s razor edge, and that was the end of the cards aimed at Minty.

Electroglass warped and melted under intense heat, so if she couldn’t dodge a flick she needed at least 3 cards in one hand to fan the flames away. Her back hit the wall, along with several of Toddy’s cards that stuck near her ears. She thought the fire might spread to the surface, but it showed no such inclination. She couldn’t perceive it, but the manor was constantly shedding its visible layers, like a snake wriggling out of its skin. Every second replaced the old wall with a new one, and with each iteration having to heat up all over again the wallpaper couldn’t catch.

Toddy descended on her once there was nowhere left to go. His toes touched down light as feathers, but she knew the swinging hatchet that was his hand full of face cards would strike much more harshly. She slid along the wall to dodge the slash, which only lingered for a moment before the building healed itself.

He stayed on her, bouncing as if walking on the Earth’s moon. Minty hit a corner and kept sliding. Her feet passed over the fallen painting. That’s it! She relied on whatever connection the painting had to the table going both ways. Reaching down and grabbing the frame, she tossed it up, making sure the painted side could be seen.

Her hunch was on the money. With the painted 8 balls airborne the ones on the table felt compelled to join them, flying off the felt and raining down everywhere. One caught Toddy on the head, cushioned somewhat by the gasbag but still enough of a blow to make him stumble away. Minty took her chance to flee.

She was sure she took the same door she’d entered through, but it led somewhere else now. She was in a kitchen, but if it had ever seen food there wasn’t a single stain or smell to prove it. Copper pots and pans were poised on the stove top, with no steam to show for it. Knives hung from racks mounted a little too high, looking like a threatening booby trap meant to plunge the blades into her crown.

The hope that the rooms would diverge again before Toddy followed her was short-lived. Another flaming card flew by her head and landed right in a hungry pot. Minty whirled around and grabbed one of its neighbors, using it to catch the man’s other throws. He paused only for a moment to look at where they were.

Huh, this sure isn’t our kitchen,” he noted.

Why would anyone choose to live here!?”

We’d be prisoners already if this was a normal place. It’s hard to be anything here for very long. If Olive was here she’d say something like ‘√Biziraupidoo egokitzadeep da@’.” The √Permillion translated to ‘survival is all about adaptation’. Not that Minty had to be told; she was shocked to find she understood him perfectly. Her brush with crazy8 was full contact after all.

Then adapt yourself into a Eudaemon,” Minty suggested. “Roman’s hiring, I guarantee.”

You understood me,” he said with a sly tilt of his head, voicing the only part of her statement he took into account. “You went all the way up and came back without a mask? What a wasted opportunity.” He flicked a few more flaming cards, added to the stew Minty had going in her shield pot. The item became too hot to handle, forcing her to cast it aside, but by then Toddy had burned through his stock deck. He cut his other weapon in half and charged.

The hanging knives ended up working in her favor, as Toddy deflated somewhat to keep his distance. They were both on even footing, squeaking across the kitchen tile, dueling so ferociously they put nicks and scratches in the cards with every clash.

The sting of the cold floor made Minty finally realize she was still barefoot from her tumble with Silver. Roman’s tunnels had been so soft on the feet that they never complained, until now, so she put them to work. A few cards flung at Toddy’s toes forced him back and stuck in the tile. Minty used them as a fence for holding her ground, but when she needed to refill she would pluck one out between her toes, kick back, and toss it over her head for her hands to catch.

The quadrupedal juggling technique put them in a stalemate that quickly frustrated the survivor. Rather than keep at it he holstered his deck, took 2 pans from their hooks over the counter, and swung them as hammers. Minty was so surprised she had to abandon 10 of her cards to back up. Damn it! There goes of my filing system. Not that it matters now that I know I affect the books. If I throw a tantrum they’ll rearrange out of fear. But if this place is the same-

Toddy already knew what she was just now stumbling toward. Nth Degree Hall was perpetually unsure of itself, and would gladly take cues from its residents regarding what it should be at any given moment. When he saw she was right by the kitchen’s swinging door he thought hard, so hard his balloon nearly burst, giving the manor an excellent suggestion.

A powerful kick to the chest stunned the librarian. She flew through the flapping door, which stopped suddenly, transformed into one with a more typical knob and lock. Even trying to get her air back stung, so she was stuck in a kneel, waiting for her body to respond.

Thank you Toddy! This is a treat!” Minty twirled around and fell over trying to look at the voice’s owner. In so doing she took in the room. Walls covered in a grid of small, labeled, metal drawers. A gigantic circular door at the end with a golden handle longer than her forearm. A safe room. Behind that slab might have been the entire liquid wealth of the Survivor Function, or, given the manor’s moodiness, a broom closet.

It’s full of money alright. I don’t know why else she’d be guarding it. Minty stood as her new opponent shuffled intent into her deck. Goldie Cider’s bountiful treasure mask was as unmistakable as it had been in their last encounter, but this time she wore much less subtle clothing, including a jacket with large lapels, the whole thing coated a shining gold. A necklace of rectangular jewel slabs of varying color reflected just some of her splendor. Her deck looked fresh as well, each one looking like a red simillion bill.

Look, I think we got off on the wrong foot,” Minty coughed, holding her stomach.

Was it this one?” Goldie tossed a card at lightning speed, right at Minty’s foot. She stumbled back and hit the door hard. The knob didn’t respond to her attempt to turn it. Nth Degree Hall had locked her in with a dragon and her hoard.

This isn’t what it looks like,” Minty attempted to explain.

It loos like the prince’s bodyguard came back to rub my failure to complete a contract in my face and then kill me.”

So… you recognize me.”

We’re survivors. We fought you. There’s no forgetting how a strong opponent stands, holds their cards, moves between ours.”

I was told money is your chief concern.”

It’s everybody’s, whether they admit it or not.”

Roman said he could pay you better than the Function has. We don’t need to fight. All you have to do is walk out of here and collect.”

You’re not familiar with the concept of investment are you?” Goldie asked mockingly. To Minty’s surprise the woman sat on the floor and crossed her legs, fanning her cards out in front of her in 2 layers. Her fingers danced across them; they lit up at her touch. Each one played a note. She spoke as the piano composition built up its melody. “I’m not a reckless spender. The prince is good for it, I’m sure, but that’s a one time payout. As soon as they settle up with Antichthon they’ll stop trying. They’ll get fat and happy in the middle, like greasy meat pouring out of a sandwich.

The Function is lean no matter how much its stuffs its coffers. The fat gets trimmed. The grease runs into the drain. Everybody here is constantly proving their value, or they wouldn’t be here at all. If we win here today we’ll go after Antichthon, drain them dry. It’s not just more money, it’s sweeter.”

At least the Eudaemons don’t kill when they don’t have to.”

Life is fleeting; it’s up to each person to prove otherwise.”

I don’t see how you could prove that here, now,” Minty argued. “He has this whole place surrounded. He coerced the best cardists in the city into being here.” She felt compelled to prove herself in the moment, so she flicked a card in an arc. It traveled about the safe room’s perimeter over and over, never touching the wall, never closing in on Goldie as she played her piece.

Even if everybody else falls, I won’t,” she insisted. Conviction mingled with pleasure as the composition built to a crescendo. “One survivor is enough for the Function to exist, is its inevitable result in fact. It benefits me for all the others to fail. That means they forfeit their stake in our efforts, and all the money in that vault back there belongs to me.”

The prince will claim that as tax.”

He’d have to find it first. This is Nth Degree Hall doll. It’s the opposite of Sure Thing. Just because something is up for grabs doesn’t mean you can take it.”

So I’ve noticed. The rooms have a mind of their own.”

It’s Pluto playing a shell game, and this vault is the prize. That’s why I’m here. Everybody else is off fighting for the whole building, the organization, their own life. Fools. The money is the heart. Roman can win. He can tear this place apart. He’ll never find this room, or me. I’ll wait years if I have to, sneaking food from kitchens that don’t quite have the guts to invite cooks. When my time is right I’ll emerge with my nest egg.”

Fine. I’ll leave you to your bean counting.” Minty attempted to leave again, but the knob still didn’t budge. Goldie’s playing got louder as she smashed the cards, arms pumping up and down like a puppeteer forcing marionettes to pile on top of each other.

And have you telling the prince what to look for? I don’t think so. Besides, I still owe you for the other night. It’s time,” she struck the final note, “for the payoff!” Goldie swept her foot out from under her, striking the piano cards and sending them flying across the floor in chaotic directions.

Minty danced around them, fully aware it was just the first phase of the assault. She had to keep her eyes on Goldie, or a card would slice through the bridge of her glasses and everything behind them. A 7 of lights was already on its way. Her card catalog was down to 35 while Goldie was playing with a full deck, so some creative accounting was required.

She deflected the incoming, failing to judge the power the small woman could instill. It left a score across the side of her stacked cards, enough to throw them off any lengthy looping trajectories. Her opponent didn’t let up, sending in a barrage of Express Mail throws with varying combinations of speed and power.

It was like standing in front of a vindictive pitching machine. Goldie was too strong. The catalog would be cut to shreds if all she did was block and deflect. She had to pounce. Minty cut her deck and ran forward, leaning as low as possible. With simultaneous flicks of each hand she sent her 4 and 3 of wheels to flank Goldie’s ankles. One was knocked away by a still-gliding piano card, but the other was on course.

The ambush failed when Goldie pulled a 2nd deck from her jacket, a single card flashing as it pinned Minty’s 4 to the floor. Still, the distance was closed, and they could duel now. Minty used a bandoleer flourish, spreading all her cards in an arc in front of her chest, each edge slashing at the survivor. She dodged backward, throwing cards up at Minty’s chin. A quick adjustment of the flourish had Goldie’s cards slotting themselves into the catalog as it flew by instead of Minty’s mandible.

She didn’t have time to consider keeping the prisoners of war, as Goldie was fed up with the lack of space. She bent a card near to breaking point between 2 fingers, throwing it short side down. Normally this was the worst way to throw, but Goldie had put power into it like Minty had never seen. It crashed into her repeating flourish like a pane of glass, sending her cards falling as the shards.

Goldie had a clear shot, a cocked arm, a 9 of kisses, and the intent to kill. It was a flawless formula, another crack at the Survivor Function equation to wring out a drop of further blood proof. Minty was a goner.

That is, she would’ve been if something clumsy wasn’t moving through the ceiling, smacking loudly into the metal sides of the air vents. Goldie redirected the throw straight into the ceiling. It stuck, startling whatever it was. Its speed doubled until it found the single grate in the corner. Goldie threw twice more, expertly arcing them so they cut the heads off the screws holding it in place.

Down the grate came, and with it the brazen head. It couldn’t offer yes or no as greeting, jammed open as its mouth was to make room for the 4 inky black legs propping it up like a hermit crab.

Drizzle!” Minty panted. The cat’s eyes were still lost somewhere in the head’s hard palate, but the animal reacted to her voice, spinning around and running toward her. Minty scooped the head up as the rest of the cat poured out and nuzzled her leg.

Yes!” the head offered. Its tone suggested it didn’t believe they would actually make it to her, and that giving the cat directions with cheek squeezes was the worst effective idea it ever had. It knows everything, including exactly where I was, but what good is it? It wouldn’t have come if it didn’t think it could help. I don’t even know what to ask… but maybe it’s about what Goldie would ask.

Oh great, that lousy thing,” the survivor grumbled. “I guess it’ll be a decent companion if I’m stuck here for a few years.” She threw again, prioritizing the fleshier of the librarian’s 2 heads. Minty leaned back to dodge, but her foe was right in her face when she came back up. With the brazen head under her left arm she only had one hand to duel with. The best compensatory tactic she had was flicking cards into vertical spins, letting them bounce off the floor in front of her, intermittently creating a barrier Goldie couldn’t strike through without taking lacerations to her arms.

We can work something out!” Minty offered. “You let me go and I’ll have it answer any question you have!”

I don’t have any.” She stabbed with one of her decks, ready to propel the top card after contact like opening a switchblade. Minty twisted, letting the head catch the deck in its mouth. It bit down and refused to let go, as did Goldie, turning it into a tug of war.

What do you mean you don’t have any? Everybody has questions!”

I already have the answer to them. Money! Give me the bills and I’ll solve any problem, big or small, fair or fixed. It makes Pluto go round.”

You can’t be this reductive, not even as a crazy8. Antichthon might install their own currency. What then? This vault of yours will be useless.”

They can’t stop the simillion,” the survivor argued through gritted teeth, spinning her back toward the treasure she guarded. With a quick switch of her hands she grabbed the middle of the deck, pulling it out so the brazen head clamped down only on the 3 top and bottom cards. She struck a new stance as if fearing the momentum of her next toss might be enough to throw her backward.

Why not? I’m a bookseller. Every time I crack them open I find something different, even though it’s all there in black and white. If my papers aren’t stable I doubt yours are.”

You don’t get it doll. Pluto’s notes aren’t like any other planet’s. It doesn’t change its tune. Vulcan, Antichthon, Phaeton… their money was made by their people. Uncertain, indecisive, wishy-washy 2-timing people. It could never be stable. But Pluto did all its banking before the swing of things. It made conflict for us, sure, but there was no need for discrepancies in the paperwork. The simillion’s value has been perfectly steady for all our fake history.”

No,” the brazen head said. A coin dropped out of Goldie’s mask like a tear, rolling into the wall and falling over.

What do you mean no?” she spat, emerald eyes spinning and sparkling in their sockets.

Keep it to yes or no questions,” Minty reminded, happy to have a few moments to rearrange her catalog with her free hand.

Stay out of this!” Goldie barked at her before addressing the head again. “The simillion’s value is one simillion. It is one unit of power, like a joule. It’s as steady as the physical laws of the whole damn universe!”

No,” the head repeated, like a snotty child insisting bedtime didn’t exist.

Yes!”

No.” Goldie flicked. There was no need for a head that could be mistaken. Minty barely spun in time to get its brow out of the way.

That’s not constructive!” the bookseller chastised. “Why don’t you settle down for a moment and let me figure out how to read this.” Goldie didn’t agree with words, but she did hop back, bow her head, and start playing with her cards, as if anyone believed she wasn’t listening with ears sharpened to ice picks. “Now, brazen head, do you mean to say that the simillion’s value has fluctuated, that it isn’t constant?”

Yes.”

You taught it to lie,” Goldie accused.

Then just split my skull before the 2 of us conspire further,” Minty snapped, calling the survivor’s bluff. She didn’t look up fro her billfold of a deck. “That’s what I thought. Head, is the simillion worth less now than just before the swing of things?”

Yes.” Goldie paced back and forth in front of the vault, swearing under her breath.

It makes sense,” Minty elaborated. “It was probably briefly unstable when money was being ‘invented’ at the dawn of our history. Since then it was stable, but we took over in the swing. Saturnalia destabilized it. I even saw people bartering just before the rainy season hit.”

No… lies,” Goldie said, unable to leave it at one word as that made her sound like the know-it-all noggin under Minty’s arm. “Without a government Pluto sets the value, and it has no motive to change it.” The head didn’t refute her, so she snorted in triumph.

Unless you consider the mechanics of the money. Even if Pluto made it stable, all it would take is someone interfering in the stabilizing structure. Head, is the simillion’s value backed by a specific physical good, like gold or meteorite iron?”

No.”

Does it rely solely on people’s perception of its value?”

No.”

Then that leaves one possibility… The public computer banks automatically kept it stable.”

Yes!” the head confirmed.

Did somebody interfere with the computers?” Minty asked pointedly.

Yes.”

Was it the Eudaemons?”

No.”

Accidental Saturnalian saboteurs?”

No.”

…the Survivor Function?”

Yes,” it said slyly, reveling in Goldie’s startled expression. Coins dropped out of her temples as if someone had busted open a slot machine.

Did you try to take over the public computers?” Minty asked her.

Not me,” her foe insisted with enough force to redirect an arrow away from her chest. “We did take them. We needed something to get an edge on the guy with the brazen head. It was Punch; he was in charge of that. What did that idiot do? I’ll kill him. I’ll slit his throat; I don’t care if nobody pays me for it.” She bit her lip, horrified at her own words, as if she’d just noticed a pile of foul-smelling refuse in the corner of her memories.

So everything in that vault… it’s value is up in the air, probably is just air,” Minty surmised.

Yes,” the head agreed.

And nothing is for certain in Nth Degree Hall,” she reminded Goldie. It seemed to be a reminder to the building as well. Unseen mechanisms clunked inside the great round door. Its golden handle shot straight down and stuck. The metal groaned like a carousel wincing, slowly opening.

Drizzle was no longer the only feline present, as the contents of the vault had become a cat most Schrödinger. With the currency so fluid there was only one way to set it straight: getting stared down by a pair of honest to goodness open, intelligent, observing eyes. When I clawed my way into Silver’s backroom all the books were half formed at best. I observed when it wasn’t ready to be, but it was forced to anyway. This place wants people deep in its unknowns, wants their mind’s eyes to hew something from all the uncertainty.

Just take a look inside and know for sure,” Minty dared Goldie. The emerald eyed woman dropped her deck and wrapped her claws around the door handle, shoving it closed with her shoulder and bracing against it. The vault groaned again, begging her to peek and settle the question of what it was worth once and for all.

Money makes the planet go round,” the survivor swore with closed eyes: a mantra. “Money makes the planet go round. Money makes the planet go round.”

Full or empty? Wealthy or worthless?” Minty mocked, rushing to the regular door and testing it again. Still locked. A furious Goldie tried to lash out, but the second she took her shoulder from the vault it tried to open again. Her weight had a harder time closing it, and this time she stayed glued to it so tightly that Minty felt safe to turn her back. “Can I unlock this with a card?” she asked the head.

Yes.” She tried folding one into a tube that could fit in the keyhole. “No.” She unfurled it and held another card to its edge, perpendicular, showing where she wanted to cut it down. “No.” A thinner slice. “No.” A slightly wider one. “Yes.” The jack sliced through the queen. She bent the tip. “Yes.” Minty inserted the strip of electroglass, the head providing helpful indications of hot and cold regarding the location of the tumblers until, a minute later, it clicked open.

You don’t know what’s on the other side of that one either!” Goldie snarled. “This place will eat you alive, just like it ate my-” The vault strained against her again. She screamed and pushed.

You should try books instead,” the librarian advised. “It’s actually good when they surprise you.” With Drizzle following closely behind she left Goldie to angrily incubate her nest egg. The survivor’s snarls and shouts followed her through the next room, but vanished completely after that. “What a piece of work,” Minty sighed.

Yes,” the head agreed.

Loony as she was, Goldie was correct about Nth Degree Hall trying to eat her alive, but her confidence was in such a place, so securely 5to1, that it could only gum her feebly. The rooms grew narrow, the walls thick with hung masks. They all looked empty to her, no voices leaking from the eye holes, tempting her to put them on and obliterate most of the woman that was Minty Julip.

The walls became uneven mounds, masks falling to the floor as she passed. She stepped on them with impunity. Waded through them casually. Once they were deep enough she could see them shifting as Drizzle flowed between them. The head couldn’t tell her which way was out, as the building hadn’t decided yet, but she wasn’t bothered. To her it was just like perusing an unfinished work. Making notes and suggestions would help her get through it faster.

You know I could use a mask, for emergencies, should one ever show up.” The hall obliged her in a room so full of masks that she could barely keep her head above them. The perfect one was tilted, staring at her.

Just half a mask at first glance, she reached out and took it. It fell open in her hands, a very oddly shaped book with eye holes for reading through it. She imagined herself bonded to it, a page turning across the bridge of her nose whenever her mood shifted, whenever a day passed. Whoever that person was, they weren’t needed. Better to have them wait in the wings, sit on a platinum bench, while Minty handled things.

When she pocketed the mask fearlessly the manor gave up. It was used to the paranoia of the Survivor Function. They assumed very little, letting the core of the place fester. The phantoms they fed it took just single bites out of its possibilities and left stuffed with new identity. The librarian would have been a nice person to keep, to have wander until she had provided the entire layout, but there were other intruders. They didn’t feel like Pluto. Better to purge everyone first and hope only natives came back.

She was dumped into the foyer unceremoniously, from an unmarked door that might as well have been wearing a broom closet name tag. Gently she closed it behind her, Drizzle squeezing through the bottom crack.

The place was alive with a new sort of activity. Though globules of hardluck blood still drifted near the ceiling like a pox on the sky, hardening, shrinking, darkening, the battle was over. Surely some had perished, but there was no chance for her to take stock. The bodies had been bagged and carted off, hardest of luck pulled along as they floated like balloons on string.

It wasn’t the Eudaemons that had swiftly cleaned the place out. All of the prince’s minions were corralled to one side, some of them handcuffed and held with their chests against the wall. They were being interrogated by Pluto’s new rulers, whose illusions of friendly aid had fallen away the moment they stepped off their instruments of space travel in olive green military uniforms. Several had dripping umbrellas, the closed ones used as batons to direct their captives.

The Antichthonians were mostly 4to1, looking heavy in multiple dimensions, the floor of Nth Degree Hall creaking under their boots. They had 5to1 gloves going all the way up to the elbow to facilitate interaction. They came straight here. Were they monitoring us as well as broadcasting? Something told them this was the place to be, where the heartbeat of Atrium City was happening. Pluto you sly dog. This is just another narrowing of the possibilities. You’re going to keep insisting you’re a planet until you’re kissing the central fire’s hand. Then you’ll dive in. You want to show Earth what a mistake they made.

Well if it isn’t the broad from the book bargain bin,” Tequila Sunrise addressed, breaking Minty’s concentration. Her not being handcuffed was the greatest surprise of the day. “I tried to let you in on the ground floor. You could’ve been a jack in the new headless Eudaemons.”

What?”

Did you kill any of the survivors? There are a few unaccounted for. The new guys want them all.”

I saw Toddy Hot, but I don’t know what happened to him. Goldie Cider is still back there. She might never come out.”

We’ve got Toddy.” Tequila pointed over her shoulder. Minty looked and saw several figures on their knees, hands bound behind their backs. She knew all but one from their masks: Olive Martini, Punch Hawaiian, and a deflated Toddy. At the end was their archenemy, the prince of Pluto himself, Roman Koch. He had no mask, but his face was contorted into one of pure rage, like the god of the underworld smelling the sulfur of his torment pits for the first time.

Your boss is in chains and you aren’t? Why?” Minty asked.

Because he isn’t our boss. I told you we’re headless. Me and Monty are running the show.” She looked at the brazen head tucked under Minty’s arm. “You can keep that. Nobody needs it in the swing of things. It’ll just spoil the fun.”

You betrayed him?”

That’s the way he sees it. All we did was talk to the Counter-Earth people, let them see that the Eudaemons meant well, even if their prince, who seemed to have legitimate claim to the throne in the public records mind you, was ordering such heinous violence. And property destruction. They really hate that for some reason, much more than the other thing.”

He was your ace.”

Aces aren’t always high,” Tequila pointed out. “The Function was his scapegoat, and he was ours. He’s exactly what he set out to be when he found that treasure in a dumpster. The king of jokers. The lord of misrule. Saturnalia’s over, and it’s time for him to go back to being nothing.”

What about us kingmakers?”

Oh… good job.” She patted Minty on the head like a dog that had successfully relieved itself somewhere other than the carpet. “You get the same prize, going back to nothing. The only difference is that you want it. Civilians are over there.” Tequila leaned to whisper in the bookseller’s ear. “I think they’re giving out hot chocolate to help you cope with your ordeal.” With that she sauntered off to join a circle of Antichthonian officials and her backstabbing partner Vermont Red.

One of the soldiers let Minty into the huddle of kingmakers without question. Changed as she felt, all it took was pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose for people to see her harmless side. The others were in small pockets, some exhilarated, some traumatized, some checking their cards for the time. Talented all around, but none invested in the outcome once the cage door was opened. Minty saw them as costumed extras in a playhouse, unsure which stage they were supposed to wander across in idle conversation.

Long Odd Silver stuck out of them like a manicured thumb on a coal shoveler hand. As soon as they spotted Minty they slipped through the shoulders of the others unobtrusively and hugged her. It was the first time she’d seen them significantly injured, and of course they carried it well. Their black eye was ringed in small cuts, like a bird nest with an outer layer of thorns. It was a work of art, and there was no telling what kind of injury produced it, and of course they didn’t want to talk about a minor inconvenience when there was already another plot afoot.

I had an encounter with a survivor calling himself Cover Charge. He used up all his cleverness on the name though, and was the dullest of fighters. He only got a blow in because I was yawning,” they offered as the only explanation of their time apart. “You look like you handled yourself… though I thought that was my job.”

Stop,” Minty gushed, lightly smacking them on the chest. The relief was flooding in now. She knew Pluto didn’t need these alien boots on its dirt, and that they would be nothing but trouble, but that was a planetary problem. All was right in the world of Aleatory Books. Its neighboring country of Peachy Schnapps was on the road to recovery, and relations with the pirate rebels had gotten downright intimate.

I am going to stop,” Silver told her in all seriousness. “Or rather go, but somewhere else.”

What?”

I’ve got to get off Pluto Minty. There are whole lives I’m missing. I owe it to my old self. The answers are more likely than this place, so I’ve got to swim upstream. These Antichthon suits are taking the survivors back to their world as prisoners. Symbols of conquest I suppose. I’m going with them.”

Silver, we just… I thought we’d have more time.” Her eyes flooded. “I think I love you.”

There is nothing like settling down with a good book,” they joked, practically forcing Minty to choke on her sadness and laugh. “You run a library though, so you have to let other people have them sometimes.” She couldn’t tell if Silver was crying, as they were always shedding the tears she gave them. That’s why they’re so okay. All their sadness runs right out of them, never absorbed into anything else in that brain of theirs. Their storm drains never overflow.

Do you really mean to turn yourself over as an agitator? You could just wait. We’ll have private space travel in no time at all. You don’t have to let them cage you.”

I’m eager to get started Minty. Pages couldn’t hold me, so I’ve no concern over bars.”

Take these.” Minty dug out the scant few cards remaining from her catalog. The platinum ace of wheels sat on top, even though it hadn’t shown itself in her duels with Toddy and Goldie. Because I didn’t need it. She separated it and told the brazen head to open wide. Its copper jaw closed around the card, keeping it safe. She handed the head over to Silver. “I won’t be needing them. I’ve got all the answers and there’s no more Minty hiding behind the mirror.”

Are you ready for another journey old friend?” they asked the head.

Yemph,” it mumbled around the platinum card. Silver bent down to pet Drizzle one last time, the cat shaking like a cup of water in a palsied hand as he purred. When the pirate came back up they met Minty’s lips in a kiss that couldn’t help but draw the attention of some of the surrounding kingmakers.

Do we all get a reward like that?” one of them joked, sipping on his cocoa.

I love you too Minty,” Silver said as they pulled away. “I could never forget you; you’re written all over me.” Minty squeaked something indecipherable, but gently turned Silver around and pushed them out of the kingmakers. From there they smugly glided over to one of the soldiers guarding the survivors and the prince, tapping her on the shoulder. She turned, foul expression worsening at the sight of the charismatic crying someone carrying a severed mechanical head.

What is it?” the soldier asked.

Yes hello, my name is Long Odd Silver and I’m an anti-Antichthon crusader and conspirator. I confess to being the prince of Pluto’s right hand, knuckles proudly festooned in bruise.” Roman’s eyes shot up and glared at them. They couldn’t wink at him without the soldier seeing, but the brazen head could. “You’re all odorous bastards, and I’d rather shout that from a cage than march to your beat. Pluto forever and always.” They lightly smacked the unimpressed soldier on the cheek.

Turn around,” she ordered. Silver obeyed and had their hands cuffed behind their back. The head was taken. “Your belongings will be stored and returned to you in the event of your release. You have the right to an attorney for your defense upon reaching Antichthon orbital space. Do you understand this right?”

Yes.” She pushed them down to their knees, next to Roman.

What do you think you’re doing?” he growled to them.

I should think you’d want someone of my caliber in your corner.”

Pluto is mine. I’ve earned it. It’s a full-fledged planet without anyone’s help and its gravity will never stop pulling me.”

Presumably it will pull you out of prison at some point in the near future, in which case our goals are aligned and we can help each other, especially since the head has swallowed a platinum card.” Roman ran out of words. He seemed to like the strategy much more after hearing that.

I did so much good work on the computers,” Punch Hawaiian lamented to his own ilk. A pair of sad eyes scrolled across his mask. “It’s a shame to leave it.” No sooner had he said that than a 9to1 head appeared from under the floor, just in front of the man’s lap. The ghostly person squinted for several seconds, trying to remember if this face was the face they were supposed to taunt.

Oi, you,” the transparent androgynous face began, “you’re Fruit Punch right?”

Yes,” he answered rather than argue the specifics.

I’ve got orders from… Goldie Cider. That was her name.”

That one you get right,” Punch said bitingly, his face scrolling too slowly to allow a sarcastic raise of the eyebrow.

She says you ruined the simillion, and that as soon as she finds her way out she’s going to flatten you until you fit in a coin slot.” The survivor took this into consideration, searching his memory for what Goldie referred to.

Oh, that. Hmm, right.” He turned to the soldiers guarding them. “When are we leaving? There’s no sense in delaying it.” He stood up and scurried toward the main doors, someone quickly claiming the loop of his arm, but he got what he wanted. All the other prisoners were pulled up and marched out into the Eudaemon tunnels, which the Antichthonians had already claimed for their own use.

Their captors didn’t bother to protect them from the rain when they were walked out into the cold open air. Long Odd Silver had to look up and see, no matter how much unlikely rain mingled with their shimmering tears. There, hovering several feet off the ground, slowly spinning as if spreading crepe batter thin across a griddle, was the flute that would take them off that tiny world and trill them all the way to one much larger and older.

Its silver plated sides made it feel like it was there just to escort the scoundrel from the back of the book. They stepped up to it eagerly, pushing through the other prisoners and guards. Its computers sensed their approach, lowering a seat like a ski lift without slowing the vehicle’s spin. They let themselves fall into it, relaxing with a breath deeper than Pluto’s history as they were mechanically swallowed into its streamlined gullet. Clarinets and horns flew by above Atrium City’s tallest buildings, playing their favorite tunes.

Hey, what about us? I’m late for something,” Brewski Hopps complained to one of the guards back in Nth Degree Hall.

All of you please return to your homes,” an official shouted in response, flipping through his deck, every card flashing tiny warning labels and reminders. “Updates regarding the interim government and upcoming local elections will be sent to you via electroglass and public bulletin.” The kingmakers nodded their approval to each other and shuffled the way the prisoners had gone. “When we can crack those damn computers,” the official muttered when the last unwilling fighter passed by.

I don’t even know what to feel. Silver better not catch their death of cold out there in space. They’d better not put a scratch on themselves. If they ever come back I’m going to hit them with a late fee for the ages! Whenever it is they’ll be long overdue. The librarian stroked her cat, simultaneously washing her hands of Nth Degree Hall’s grime as her fingers plunged between his shoulders. His thrumming purr was the engine of the train as they chugged along through the tunnels.

Without paying much attention at all she made it back to Aleatory Books, closed the door behind her, and then the proper door. Drizzle let himself down and squeezed under a shelf to chase dust bunnies. Slim was ready, waiting to escort her to her post. She stepped up to meet him and was whisked deeper. Row after row of books flew by, every spine welcoming its master home. Fiction, history, instructions, all at her fingertips, all just as affected by her.

She understood now that she was a part of all their lines, every current moment where she guided and guarded them a thing worth recording on paper in itself. She wrote without signing. Published without advertising. Protected without fighting. Her hair went limp as she hopped off her gallant faithful ladder.

Minty Julip was born. Minty Julip was standing behind a counter, wearing a green blouse, and wearing round spectacles with green-tinted lenses. It must have been her favorite color. Her memory informed her that she was a 32 year old woman, but with a young cherubic face. There was no reason to doubt this, but her state was something like shock, so her hands squeezed her full cheeks and pulled them back and forth to confirm. Pluto is definitely a planet. Perhaps I should decide once and for all if this is an archive or a shop.

Oh stars. Is this what I really want my first thoughts to be?”

Now, as your narrator, it’s my responsibility to call it

The End

right here. That responsibility is to my own well-being more so than yours, as a storyteller who stays up and works through the night will be fighting off yawns, the number one killer of a dramatized retelling. This ride may not have been a single night for you, but it has been for me, because I do not live as you do.

For those who want more, and would criticize me for wasting time early on babbling about cat tree designers and a planetoid’s self-esteem, I would argue those details were essential, in addition to being delightful. It was crucial you understand how much people cared for Pluto. Their outrage at its demotion wasn’t pettiness over a perceived alteration of history, but an instinctive defense of the near-people who populated it.

Pluto was a long shot from the beginning, the lowliest underdog in the decommissioned kennel. That’s why it’s so extraordinary that anybody made it out of there so early. I’ve served you your ending already, but rest assured, Long Odd Silver and the prince of Pluto will return. Here are some last words of dessert for you to savor. Until we turn pages again, keep your orbit steady and your neighborhoods clear.

Long Odd Silver and the prince of Pluto will return in

Planet in Theory

Funeral March to Gothic Rock

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