(reading time: 1 hour, 7 minutes)
Bill at the Door
It was still Halloween morning and he was already bored of darts. Bill knew his people were letting him win. Even the ones who wouldn’t normally were coddling him that day. Halloween was when the Billity family got scared, always expecting someone possessed by a ghostly mask to come to the door and seek bloody revenge.
Some of his relatives had even been offended when no such specters came calling, thinking they must not have sent the message properly if those wronged had still managed to find rest.
Usually Mixer and Jumbo sufficed for protection, but he’d brought in several others for the occasion and to keep him company while the rest of the town was out letting old blood run through their veins. After Bill threw his last dart and plopped down in the game room’s thickest chair one of the women working him that day stepped forward. She dropped 3 different wrapped candy bars into his lap.
“Which one do you want to give out to trick-or-treaters when they come?” she asked. Bill poked at them weakly, tilting his head this way and that to read the wrappers. Malted Muddy. Peanut Jubilant. Cookie Mine shaft – now studded with even more toffee inclusions!
“These are full size,” Bill noted, picking up the Peanut Jubilant. He tore it open like a banana, wafted the chocolate coating under his nostrils. It didn’t smell right, but that was probably just the Halloween air. He hardly ever ate anything on Halloween, swearing he could taste the ectoplasm coating everything, like a layer of Satan’s mucus all over the world, sneezed out when the expectoration blew open the shuttered windows of hell.
“Yeah?” the woman prompted. She hated playing babysitter; most of the time she was off working with the horses. They were all better behaved than the child-king William. Being stuck in his bunker, in his orbit, all day was worse than being haunted anywhere else on Antichthon.
“So why are we feeding kids full size candy bars? They make small ones just for this occasion. What do they call’em? Joy-size?”
“Fun-size,” Mixer corrected. He was equally bored, and had been tapping the sharp end of a dart against his temple as he leaned on the wall. It took him up to that moment to realize he’d accidentally punctured the rubber flesh of his tire-mask and gotten the dart stuck. He ripped it loose.
“Lots of the older kids have masks,” the horse manager explained, tapping her boot tip on the rug that wasn’t thick enough to keep the billiards table and the chairs from scratching up the hardwood. “They’re adults on the inside, and adults don’t like getting short-changed. You never went out?”
“Not a once.” He bit into the candy bar, rolled the lump around on his tongue. Chewing was off the table. Searching for a place to spit it out, Bill wandered back and forth, settling on an ashtray. Bad luck for whoever emptied them; he wasn’t sure. “Which one of these nasty things is the cheapest?”
“Cookie mine shaft,” Mixer answered, more confidently than he could most other questions. “They’re just tubes of cookie dough basically. Kids think it’s fun to look through them like little telescopes. The sugary bits stick out on the inside, so it’s like you’re looking at crystals and such. But being hollow means there’s not much candy there, so it’s the cheapest. Smart move.”
“And folks think they’re still getting the full size,” Bill muttered. He picked up the misleading bar and judged its weight, light indeed. He tossed it to his horse manager, who barely caught it. “Go buy a bunch of those to appease our lovely community.” She was happy to go. Bill felt her bristling as she walked by, like sandpaper on the wet and pink corners of his eyes. God damn Halloween, filling him with fear of retribution over crimes that were mostly not his own.
She closed the door a little harder than he felt appropriate. It didn’t quite slam, but it was loud enough to almost cover the 2nd nearly-simultaneous sound. Nobody in the room was sure they heard the 2nd one, but Bill saw their eyes darting around, checking to see if anybody else thought they heard it.
“Mixer, go find out what that was,” Bill ordered. The man nodded, index finger examining the ridges in his fresh dart hole. When he was gone that left just 3 other goons at his disposal. They weren’t his favorites. He wasn’t even sure he could recall all their last names, and found himself wishing he hadn’t put Jumbo in charge of the door. He was good company at least. Agreeable.
Bill wandered over to the wall and saw himself reflected in the polished brass of a large croquet trophy. His face was still boyish, just with more layers of chin and stubble slapped on haphazardly, like a kid trying to draw himself with a superhero’s chiseled jawline. His steel blue eyes were dulled by a general weathering state of anxiety.
Kunk! This time there was no doubting what they heard. The wooden thump came from somewhere below, off to one side. There were no windows to investigate, but Bill was pretty sure it was outside.
“If any brats are egging this house I’m gonna string’em up,” he snarled.
“That weren’t no egg,” an underling commented. She was drawing her deck, so Bill did the same. Every year it felt like an attack was coming, but it wasn’t supposed to reach fruition. If his parents had managed to keep it tamped down why couldn’t he?
Kunk! Kunk! Bill snapped his fingers, and his people obeyed, one covering the door while the other 2 positioned by his sides. The man up front pulled the door open and swung out just as they heard another door splinter and give way. Bill gave the order to move out, so as a unit they scuttled forward, aimed cards swiveling to watch all sides.
“They break in and then they ring the damn bell!?” Bill had to duck before he could complain again, as a foggy phantom with long gnarled hair flew through the banister and swirled over their heads. They flinched and cowered like a wasp was loose, tossing a few cards at her pointlessly, embedding them in the ceiling.
The creature was robbed of her voice, but as she backstroked upside down above him Bill saw her mouth something that looked an awful terrible lot like ‘little Billy boy’. His head shot down and he flipped through his deck frantically. He only had 2 cards at 5to1; the rest were 4 and 3. He couldn’t touch her.
A regular old 9to1 degenerate couldn’t do anything back either, just get in the way like steam on a shower door, but this was a ghost. The dead could haunt, leave things inside you when they passed through. He couldn’t stop himself from recalling, all at once like regurgitating a hairball, a Mountainblood story of a man who killed his wife. He eventually died of unknown causes, though strange sounds were heard from his homestead and a womanly figure was seen standing on the porch. When the coroner had opened him up they found a compacted ball of dead cicadas in his stomach, their eyes painted purple with his wife’s favorite shade of nail polish.
“Downstairs!” Bill babbled, as if the phantom was just a runaway hot air balloon that couldn’t stop rising. He’d tripped his way down 3 of them when he heard Mixer shouting at Jumbo, calling for help. He tried to peek over the banister, but he couldn’t see much of anything. “Godammit!”
His hands shook as he fumbled with his deck holster. Electroglass was no good in most of those parts, but that didn’t mean all of their high tech functionality was off the table. From a sleeve in the back of his holster he pulled out a singe extra card, this one dark and lustrous like obsidian, but with a chalky gray edge and a dark yellow bump on one corner.
With one firm press the chemical layers in the bump interacted; he had 10 seconds. Bill curled his fingers and wrist, leaned over the side, and threw the card parallel to the ceiling. It was spinning so fast he could hear it, and if he’d done the flick right it would come back to that exact spot in a few moments.
Kpof! That was the flash powder lining the card going off. His breath froze as he struggled to remember if he had thrown it with the black side facing down. Yes, of course. Why was he even thinking about such an amateur mistake? He felt small; that was why. His fingers felt like they could barely hold onto anything, like he had the hands of a toddler once more. When the card spun back from its trip down the hall he snatched it out of the air, trying to prove a point to his own muscles with crab-like precision and power.
The photo card wasn’t quite developed yet, so he shook it madly, mumbled curses as the image appeared. In one corner he saw a hand loaded with cards, probably belonging to Mixer. The rest of the frame was a horror movie poster: transparent wailing faces crashing in all directions. Eyes as empty as the rusted baptismal font stored in the basement.
This was really it. The rug was blasting off the floor, revealing everything that was swept under it in one rolling dust cloud. But… that was all they could be, and all they could do. Make a fuss. Tantrums weren’t allowed to flourish in the Billity house; Sister Accounta had seen to that with a ruler that could no longer measure anything but the volume of blood its increments were stained with.
“We need the holy water!” Bill barked at his people, shouldering his way to the front. “Come on.” Together they rushed down the stairs, taking them 2 at a time, joining up with Jumbo as he headed for the back as well. That was when the full contents of the cellar in the garden collided with them.
They tried to dodge the ghosts, but they were too numerous to avoid completely. Bill felt waves of cold pressure as the long gone gripped his shoulders, his palms, and wrapped their hands around his eyeballs in an attempt to squeeze and pop them. He flailed, which did absolutely nothing.
“Get the holy water!” he repeated.
“Mixer, the basement!” Jumbo shouted at the tire-faced man as he appeared, crawling out of a wall of womanly specters like they were a bog. “It’s in the basement!” They all converged near the door to the lowest level of the house, but they weren’t allowed to operate unhindered. Bill was just figuring out how to keep his eyes on his goal, away from the drawn vengeful faces of the dead, when something jabbed his side and stuck there.
He collapsed, and was immediately covered in grasping blue and gray arms, fingernails luminously pale like moonlight, many coming from under the floorboards. They weren’t real enough to touch him, but something was, so he had to focus and look through the attacking layers.
There was a spike of rock that had ripped through his shirt and punctured his flesh between two ribs. He grabbed and yanked it out. Aside from the dark gloss of his own blood it seemed like an ordinary stone, albeit brittle and oddly shaped, like an arrowhead squeezed into a corset. Odder still was the way it felt in his hand. It was being tugged in several different directions at once.
Bill had paid a fair enough amount of attention in his school days, including probable geology. All of Antichthon was classified as 3to1, but that didn’t mean every speck of rock, sand, and soil sat at those odds. The planet’s outer crust was actually only 73% 3to1, with less likely material taking up less of the remainder at each level: 15% 4to1, 6% 5to1, 4% 6to1, 1% 7to1…
With odds mingled in different materials, the hardluck, even when they could pass through people and walls, could often still walk upon the ground because of the diffusion of a tiny number of particles they could physically interact with. Where they really had to be careful was the mountains, where single slabs of uninterrupted rock were often firm at 3to1. One wrong step onto ground like that, assuming they were at 7 or 8 and incapable of flight, could mean they would fall all the way into the liquid hot mantle.
The jagged hateful shard in Bill’s hand was a sedimentary rock: several different minerals cemented together. Its odds were all over the place, explaining how everyone there, alive and dead, could touch it. Bill didn’t yet suspect that the cork had been popped on a mass grave, so he had no idea that his family’s victims had spent decades collecting unlikely dust and squeezing it into rocks just so they could have a few measly weapons if the door ever gave way.
There were nearly 20 of the flaking shivs floating around in their midst, and they were so small that they were easy to miss. His people were getting peppered by them, and his was the only one abandoned to the wound. Jumbo whirled around when a spurt of his blood shot out of a shoulder, but by the time he did the shiv had already been handed off a dozen times and made another stop in another employee’s bicep.
Bill stashed the stone in his holster to keep it away from them. Now that he knew what he was fighting he stood a better chance. He cut his deck, tossing a stack of 15 to his left hand to use for deflection while keeping the right chunk parallel to the ground, ready to flick Express Mail distances. He couldn’t hit them, not without the water, but he could hit their weapons.
The stingers were in the mass somewhere, dark concentrated dots; Bill scanned for them. There was no point in seeing the hurt or the fury in their eyes, if they even had eyes left in their sockets. Those were just distractions from the game of darts they played, with him as the board. A particularly good throw shot toward him.
Bill split one card from his left hand and held it up as a tiny shield. The earthen shiv tore through but stuck in the middle. The man had a particularly ambidextrous style, so while his left reached over his shoulder so an employee could pluck out the rock and hide it away the right was busy lining up his own attack. He let loose a jack of wheels that disappeared through several torsos, but he knew he found his tiny mark when it exploded in a cloud of dust.
Jumbo had the basement door open finally, and his people were streaming down the stairs. Bill tried to follow, but a line of 3 shivs struck the door frame and made him recoil.
“Get soaked and then come get me!” he shouted down into the shadows. “I’ll be in the safe room!” The safe room was the master bedroom, which usually belonged to the most senior married couple in the Billity family, but Bill was unmarried and without prospects. He’d never moved in there, and now it was a dusty relic that smelled of the soft caramels only septuagenarians bothered to unwrap.
That scent would be nothing but a relief at the moment, since all he could smell was his own blood and the deep oak aroma of death and bones wafting out of the grave. After turning tail he went straight back to the stairs, turning his deck mostly to the purpose of deflection. They were far from done trying to pepper him; shards came through the banister the whole way.
By the time he’d slipped into the bedroom and locked the door his deck was mostly shredded, looking like a bouquet of dust bunnies with a few rock daggers stuck fast, tangled in the bent metal frames of the cards. The walls in there were treated. Nothing dead could get through, and nothing worse off than 4to1.
“Whatever yer mad about I didn’t do it!” he shouted hoarsely as he caught his breath. “I work with horses goddammit! None of ya are on undead steeds, are ya!?” The query was met with wailing and a sound he had to assume was the unfiltered gnashing of souls. It sent him fleeing to the large dresser past the bed, which contained several drawers of deck and cardistry paraphernalia.
A lot of it was commemorative, intended more as gifts than as weapons: cards with gold and silver frames, jeweled card clips, scented handling chalk… Bill paid all that no mind, grabbing at them ravenously and stuffing them away in his pockets. The only things he left behind were the various totems: relics from previous heads of house reasonably confident they might come into play in case anyone came looking for revenge or recompense.
They mostly looked like trash to him. A cocktail napkin with 2 phone numbers written on it, perpendicular through a shared digit. A cracked magnifying glass. A knife that looked like it was forged from a can of beans. They all had stories, but he hadn’t heard a one of them. They were all the family business, private affairs. He was no more privy to the details than he was to the identity of the spirits that might come looking for them, or fear them like vampires faced with crucifixes.
Bill had a few such tales of his own, but nobody to wonder what exactly they were. How did the others always have that mystique about them? How did they get away with so much more? What they pulled off was oceans compared to his gray bathtub slosh of shameful deeds. His folks and their folks and all the aunts and uncles had an actual air of respectability. They got invited to fundraisers and galas and were asked to be judges in baking contests.
They had the common people fooled… but everybody knew the truth about Bill. They knew he was shadier than the sequoia stretch all along the east coast. It almost didn’t matter that he’d worked so hard to convert his dealings to the appearance of legitimate business. It often felt like the only thing keeping him out of jail was a sense of tradition. Billity was a Mountainblood fixture. Even if this decade’s model wasn’t so impressive there was always the next generation.
He slammed the drawer closed just as a knock came at the door. Barely keeping his voice out of a quiver he called out and asked if it was Jumbo and the others. It wasn’t, which meant the knock came from one of the repurposed shivs. The claw of the beast tapping at his door, the wolf asking the little pig to come out and play. Such creatures always tried to convince you they were friendly.
“Good morning Mr. Billity,” the phantom holding the claw said. A man’s voice. “You could say I’m here to negotiate with you.”
“Who the hell are ya? Who the hell are any of ya!?”
“My name’s Wordy Slurd. You don’t know me, not even in passing, which is what qualifies me for this diplomatic position. My wife and I are only here by chance.”
“It’s not chance. It’s Halloween. Lots of people drop in to torture the living today. There are no masks here, so wrangle your women and move along.”
“You misunderstand. I’m not talking about the occasion. I’m talking about… well it’s so large I feel I have to call it a demographic. The people you and your family buried out in your backyard. I tripped into the hole, a very long trip down from several thousand feet in the air, but I know it wasn’t you who got me stuck down there. So none of us is going to be any nicer to you than I’m being right now.”
“Were ya the one that stabbed me ya son of a bitch!?”
“No. Listen. We’ve only got all day, so we should get to negotiating.”
“To who!? I’ve got not damn idea what any of those banshees are doing in my house! Ya said they were buried out back? There’s no graves out there. Not a one. Even our damn dogs are buried on the other side of the creek so the new ones don’t dig the old ones up.”
“There’s no point in lying Bill. You’d have to be the biggest idiot this side of the central fire to not know about it.” Wordy realized the silence was a response. “You never noticed that every few months or so, especially when you were young, girls from the school just up and vanished?”
“Folks are allowed to change their minds!” he squawked. He wanted to expand on that, talk about all the little emotional reasons a relative might pull a girl out of that place, but they both knew it was hitting him as he said it. Folks were allowed to change their minds, but it was much rarer for them to change their hearts, and only dark hearts indeed left any young person under the tutelage of Catholicish education, let alone an institution run by Bill’s relatives. He changed course. “Whatever happened to all of ya has nothing to do with me!”
“We had plenty of time to watch. We saw every chance you had to catch wind. Some of us might not have died if you had acted. The girls you could have saved… they can’t even talk to you. They’re all rage. All they could do is scream in your face. Neither side of that conversation can reason with the other.”
“How on Aunty is this a negotiation!? What can I possibly get out of surrendering?”
“You could possibly keep your life,” Wordy offered. “We need the house. We need you to dissolve everything Billity… but you might get to live. That’s not a promise mind you. I can ask these girls not to drive an arrowhead through yours nicely, but one might go for it as soon as you step out.”
“I’ll just wait ya out then. Noe of ya are getting in here.”
“We might not be able to touch any of your matches, but sure as sunsets I bet we can figure out how to start a fire before it does.” Bill stepped back. This wasn’t a scare tactic, just the truth. They would burn him alive. Fire, at the tip of each flame, became less and less likely. It was one of the few forces that could inflict damage on all odds alike. Even if he was scared witless, all the way to hardluck himself, he could still catch.
“And just where did you people come from?” Wordy asked out of nowhere. Someone else spoke gruffly, prompting Bill to stick his ear up against the door. There were at least 2 new people speaking, and come to think of it he’d heard stomping. They were alive and solid enough to march up his stairs. Wordy told them what the girls had in store for him.
“The hell ya are!” he fired back.
“Billy boy?” a new one chuckled. “What are you doing in there? Did you sleep in?”
“L-Linus Hood? That ya?” He got a smug affirmative answer. “Yer trespassing.” As if things couldn’t get any worse. A Hood shows up. None of them had ever stepped foot on that property, until today. Even through the insulation he could hear some cicadas screeching; he should’ve figured.
Maybe this was an opportunity though. Come daybreak the spirits would be gone, and if there was a dead Hood lying on his floor it would make a mighty fine scapegoat. Well, you see sheriff, it turns out Linus Hood was a serial murderer, and his victims ran him aground on the Billity bluff and took their revenge.
Bill kept him talking, silently slipping a card out of a holster. He repositioned, his right arm lining up with the left seam of the door. It sounded like Linus was right behind it. It was an easy shot, much easier than the one he didn’t yet know he would take at Whisker Ocks, spinning horizontally through 2 compressed bags of fertilizer.
The man was crowing about the situation, bringing up that shit-loading brother of his, but all he was really doing was making it easier for Bill to pinpoint the base of his throat through the crack. Bill’s arm reared back.
A striking fear stopped him at the last second. He’d heard another man’s voice. Plus, all that stomping up his stairs, that certainly needed cleaning now, was at least 3 people unless 1 of them was 4-legged. A quadrupedal dog of a Hood wouldn’t have been the biggest surprise, but not worth the risk. If he slayed Linus the rest of the pack would use their decent odds to smash their way inside and take him down.
“The Catholicish school,” Wordy said, speaking for the women and girls who couldn’t compose their anguish enough to speak for themselves, “was just the lid of the trashcan. Any time somebody misbehaved they would lock them in a cellar out behind the garden. No food, no water, and no light. A lot of the time they didn’t come back out.”
Bill held his tongue again, but just barely. The ghost was feeding one of the loudest fools in town just the kind of slop he would eat right up, true or not. It wasn’t fair. Bill told everyone he wasn’t playing every time Halloween rolled around, but they were trying to throw him in the penalty box anyway.
“Listen Bill,” Linus said, “that holy water you ordered isn’t making it up here.” Bill was silent on the other side, but he listened. “Why don’t you tell me, in your own words, what exactly is happening here?”
“It’s not whatever they’re saying,” the man eventually offered. “They must’ve died nearby, gotten confused. I grew up here and I sure as hell never saw anything as downright macabre as them.”
“Thank you for your testimony Bill; now if you’ll give me a minute to deliberate.” Deliberate? Like they were some kind of governing body. Bill crumpled a card in his hands, thinking about how satisfying it would be to shove the sharp ball of metal and paper down Linus’s throat. He heard whispers, movement, but couldn’t follow the garbage they were calling deliberation. It did only take a minute though.
“You must be awful embarrassed Billy boy. I know you like to spend your Halloweens nice and quiet-like. No masked history lessons for you. Lights turned out so you don’t get many trick-or-treaters.”
“The richest man in town doesn’t need to take lessons from anybody,” he answered. “Ya Hoods never mask up either.”
“Oh we’ve been known to, but certainly not on a cicada year. We’ve got to be as close to our true selves as possible on nights such as this. Got to speak to what’s in our hearts. The night can make it happen if we speak loud enough, so I’m telling everybody I come across exactly what I want. And I want my brother back.”
“His debt to society ain’t my fault. A horse is a horse-”
“Of course, of course.”
“-and there are no exceptions when it comes to licensing. I didn’t write the law.”
“No it was just written on Billity paper with Billity ink while a few Billity boys stood by and witnessed the signing… Now if I can’t get Nathan back by tonight, I’ll just have to settle for making sure your life is about as rewarding as his.”
“Soon as I get out of this room I’m g-”
“-oing straight to jail for covering up a mass grave full of your family’s victims. Murder charges! Desecration charges! All across Reap they’re going to know your name: Bill the butcher.”
“Nobody’s going to believe a word out of yer mouth!”
“They don’t need to Billy boy! All I have to do is show them this human skull I found out back.” Bill tried to peer through the crack, but all he could see was shadows. “Alright Billy it’s been a blast catching up with you, but I’ve got an appointment under a Gothic Rock to keep. Don’t you worry; soon as that’s done I’m heading straight to the newspapers. This time tomorrow you won’t have to worry about being stuck in that fancy bed ever again.”
“Linus ya bastard, don’t leave! We’ll settle this here! Linus!”
“Alright Hoods, saddle up. We ride for the desert!”
“Linus! Linus ya son of a 100to1 goat! Don’t ya-” They were already gone. No, not gone. Bill’s influence didn’t stop at the porch; it stretched all across Mountainblood. If he pulled the right scabbed-over string he could even get all trains in and out of the county stopped. Maybe it was lucky that it was Halloween after all. The Hoods were distracted by their twice-a-generation stroke of luck and had other priorities.
He was going to Gothic Rock to break his brother out. How the idiot planned to get there without a car or a horse was anybody’s guess, but whatever junkyard wagon he’d scraped together, probably only staying in one piece thanks to gluing good luck, wouldn’t be able to outrun a stable full of Billity horses.
But how to get out the door? Bill paced back and forth, getting angrier and angrier, and not coincidentally no closer to a solution. His captors would’ve acquiesced in a few short minutes, as that was the plan cooked up with the Hoods, but Whisker Ocks beat that particular countdown. Bill stopped when he heard a commotion outside the room.
When he cracked the door he saw spirits rocketing away as orbs of compressed light, headed straight for the back. Unlikely cards fell from the ceiling, and in response several of the arrowheads clattered to the floor and tumbled down the stairs when their wielders were struck. Bill stomped on the stones on his way down, twisting his foot so they turned to powder, undoing years of meticulous work with each step.
Just as soon as he closed the front door there came a knock, and he blew his top. As it turns out he blew it all over 2 different mayors, but it was impossible to care. He only half-listened as the masked man followed him inside, instead paying more attention to the ashamed and embarrassed looks on his stooges’ faces as they collected themselves off the floor and from the basement doorway.
The mayor had known about that place out back. Figures. ½ the town’s upper crust had known. Figures. He was supposed to drop everything and do what the mayor said even though he was long dead. Figures.
Then he heard her name out of his mouth. Keepsake. As he learned her fate his rage had a resurgence. The blood gathered, bunched and bloated the veins in his wrists and neck like they were about to burst. Not figures, one figure. Hers. The only person who went missing that he really shouldn’t have ignored.
Everyone always expected him to do things. But Keepy needed him to do things. Bill tested himself to see if he could do what she needed… by throwing that card through those bags and effectively ending the lives of both the Ocks man that hurt her and the one that would’ve finished off what was left.
He knew he could do it, but his anger wasn’t going anywhere until he saw her. Linus said he had a skull. Was it hers? She hadn’t come to see him with all the other ghosts, or after. It was hers. The filthy Hood had her, and he was going to use her as a sledgehammer against the cellar door of his life.
Saint Shepard was a big black horse, faster than half the things in Mountainblood with an engine, so naturally Bill had claimed the beast as his own, not even letting him race. An employee brought the animal around as his Posse Billity gathered.
The fan saddle barely fit on him, but that was because it was more of a skirt than a saddle and it had a lot to cover. Pouches of gray leather wrapped all the way around the animal’s body, each one harboring a circular mechanical fan with stainless steel blades. They were supposed to be the best defense against cardistry while on horseback, but he’d never had a chance to try them out.
It was around noon, and there was no sunset and sundown tapering of the Hoods’ good luck geyser. It was potent from minute one to minute 1440, but there was only so much it could do. Likely thought he had covered all his bases with the most meticulous planning of his life, in fact the most meticulous planning of the last 2½ generations of Hoods, but his party was now face to face with his first mistake.
He’d practiced a good deal with the mechanical bulls, but always out in the open, usually in abandoned and emptied swimming pools. In weeks of training he had only a few skinned knees to his name, and was confident any Hood worth their salt could handle the journey across Drymouth Desert…
But not Collapse Trail. Likely had walked it twice in his planning phase, but incorrectly assumed it was meant for horses. In near-reality it was intended for experienced thrill-seeking bikers, and was in places too steeply downhill and winding for horses. One step off its barely maintained dirt clods put you in the middle of dense but thin trees, the kind with fragile branches that always broke into sharp splintered ends.
The mechanical bull was a creature that fed on injury, and in the open all it could do was buck its rider to the ground and hope for a concussing trajectory. In the woods there were far more mouthwatering hazards. The Hoods’ mounts became far harder to control, jerking backward and to the sides in attempts to strike a trunk or impale them on a previously broken bough.
“We’d be riding smoother on jackhammers!” Riri shouted at their host as she was forced to veer off the trail, through a thicket, and then back onto it. Roman, with his hands around her small waist, spat out a leaf. “How much further we have to go before we clear this- come on now you stubborn- place?”
“It’s- not far now!” Likely insisted, 3rd in the procession even though he was trying to lead. This is slowing us down fiercely… Bill might not even bring his horses through here. If he goes around… it should even out. We’ll lose at least an hour though. That’ll put us in the desert at about 1:30. We won’t see the Rock until 10 at the earliest. Neighbor, I hope you’ve arranged quite the welcoming party for when we get there.
He was further distracted by Silver’s hands. They were by far the odder of the 2 +1s that tagged along on the Halloween invitation. They were making all the right sounds for a person being wildly jostled all over the place, all the little grunts and oofs and such, but their hands were sure. They weren’t shaking; they weren’t worried about being overly familiar with Likely’s ribs.
A few drunken nights with them sounded fun, 1,000 questions until the sun came up, but there just wasn’t time for any of that. Playing it out in his head turned out the same every time. Silver was the sort who would carry you to your bed if you passed out and tuck you in. The sort to vanish in the night, but leave a note gently pressed into your sleeping hand vaguely explaining where they’d gone but describing their emotional state in such detail that it had to scrunch at the edge of the paper. They might even write it on your forearm, and you would never wake up.
As much as he immediately liked Silver, they weren’t on the same wavelength as the Hoods, that was for certain. Hoods were not calm or serene creatures; the only way they would relax on a beach was if they had washed up dead.
So why did the world choose to spit them out instead of a few extra kin-dling for that evening’s pyre? The only explanation he had was that something else was going on, and that it was bigger than his own concerns. Halloween was an Antichthon affair, itself respected over many other things, so that meant whatever Silver was involved in crossed the black pond, spanned multiple planets.
Maybe they had originally come from Phaeton; their energy wasn’t mercurial enough for Vulcan. What about Pluto? That pebble was brand-spanking new. It was making waves on Aunty, since his home planet knew they could beat Phaeton to it despite being further away. Phaetonians only took to their instruments when they had to, preferring to leave space in its natural state of silence. Their exploration was inward and downward, into the bottomless shrinking of computer technology.
If Silver was Plutonian then a relationship might not even be appropriate. They were so fresh, so young. It would be wrong to saddle them with the ingrown festering rage of Antichthon. Like an aged spirit, so high in alcohol that one gulp was like chewing porcupine quills, it was inappropriate to offer the under-aged a swig.
They probably still believed they were masters of their own destiny over on Pluto, whereas Antichthonians knew you could make a splash but never leave your tributary, not without transforming into the next phase of your life cycle. Boy. To anger. To man. To hoarding. To elder. To bargains. To ghost. To dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s with droplets of someone’s younger blood.
“Linus! After them!” He snapped out of it when he heard Riri, but only got what she meant when he heard Victim screaming overhead. They must’ve taken too sloped of a rock, as their bull was now in the canopy hopping branch to branch, frequently changing its mind about which end was the front and which was the back.
Keeping an eye on them was too difficult, so instead they followed the trail of falling leaves in front of them. Shit. We can’t lose the trail. The compass’ll get us there fine, but cutting straight through the trees’ll take too long. We’ve got to get them back down here.
“Push the nose down!” he hollered up at their presumed position. “It won’t crash because it won’t break itself!” Victim obeyed his instruction, and it worked for all of 3 seconds. Their bull plummeted into view, blasted a hole into the ground, and then disappeared into the autumn ceiling all over again. It only helped in marking their way back, as Collapse Trail was no longer visible behind them.
“We’ve got to do something!” Riri yipped, but Likely was fresh out of ideas. The hands around his waist retreated.
“Keep it as steady as you can,” Silver told him, and if he was to do so he couldn’t afford to twist and see what they were doing. “Prince, throw to the right of them! Clear the branches!” Ah! That could do it! With nothing to bounce off they’ll have to come back down.
Roman obeyed, whipping out his deck, feeding only one card to his right hand at a time so he could put all his focus into each toss. It would’ve been a lot easier if the bull wasn’t zigzagging worse than a loose bell. Paper cards couldn’t change their sharpness like electroglass, so any variations in their make was confined to a suit. He could feel that in that particular deck the wheels were the best combination of stocky and sharp, so he used those. There was no stopping, even after he heard one of his strike metal, for they had to eliminate everything in front of the runaways.
Having been dead up until that morning, their reflexes weren’t what they should’ve been. Only when a rogue card hit Ouzo’s ear and drew blood did he lean forward to keep his head down, and push his wife’s down as well. Despite his pressure on it Vicki kept her head, steered the bull into thinner patches to make the cardists’ work easier. She did it a little too well.
With a wicked snap came a cascading crash; the bull was dropping like an overripe peach. The slight angle of the debris fall allowed her to pull up, ride it like a flash flood, but the flow took them straight down a hill. Sticks hit rocks, which started tumbling themselves, and suddenly there was no fighting the current.
Likely and the others were forced to follow, zigzagging to control their speed. They almost lost control themselves when they spotted the dark worn edifice Vicki and Ouzo were careening toward. There was a small building, barely more than a shed, anchored in the middle of the woods like a lead weight.
There was no door on its entrance, big enough for 3 horses and riders to pass through, yet nothing could be seen inside. Its interior was completely dark, black to the point of implying endless depth. Vicki did her best to avoid it. Riri did her best. Likely his. Vicki’s bull worked harder than the rest of them combined.
It lurched onto its side and slid, practically mooing in terror as it kicked up dirt clods and dry root tangles in an effort to put up a mound between itself and the building’s gaping shadow. Ouzo reached out and grabbed one of the roots, his arm nearly wrenched from the socket when the remaining momentum tugged on him. His grip held.
A few hapless rolling rocks vanished into the building, making not a single sound once they were out of sight. Likely and the others came to a halt in the settling debris behind them; he jumped down and grabbed the back of their bull. Not a word was spoken until they were dragged a healthy distance away, and only once everyone had dismounted to recover.
Silver and Roman didn’t know what the building was, only not to approach it. The wood was black with age, split in places, but never enough to create a slit you could look through. The only way in or out, even for the senses of sight, sound, and smell, was the black portal at the front. There was one word above it, painted in red with the use of stencils: Goldilocks.
“Goldilocks?” Roman said, scratching his head with the corner of a dull card. “As in-”
“-and the 3 bears,” Victim finished. “You don’t remember your own name, but you remember all your bedtime stories?”
“I guess she was just more famous than me,” he spat, wincing, surprised at how much he’d just stung himself.
“It’s probably not 3 bears in this case,” Likely grumbled. He looked at the sun to track its progress across the sky, so many calculations going on in his brain that there wasn’t room for the one that determined how long he could do that without permanently damaging his eyes.
“What do you mean?” Silver asked.
“I guess you’ve never seen one before. That’s a bear trap.” Silver and Roman squinted, trying to puzzle out how the open and empty structure was supposed to trap anything. “They build them on spots where odds are unstable.”
Silver, missing a few continents on the globe of their memory, couldn’t recall that they had dealt with similar places back on Pluto, where they were much more common thanks to the lower probability of its bedrock. Those existing in the 1to1 feared the oblivion of death, but the people of probable space also had to contend with matters of relevancy. Getting cut off from others, turned around in a knotted stretch of long-odds, could be worse than ceasing to be. Vanishing in such a place left with you just enough structure to wonder whether or not you were gone.
“Bears can have a habit of wandering into homes around here,” Likely went on. “So a bear that’s so inclined will wander in there, get turned around in the darkness, and eventually be disposed of or dispersed by natural forces. They can still ‘fill up’ though. I imagine this one says Goldilocks because its capacity is 3.”
“Only they didn’t close it up,” Riri added. “So it’s not full yet. Could be none in there, or one, or 2.”
“Good thing we didn’t have to find out!” Vicki hooted. She wrestled with her bull, getting it back upright, only to lean against Ouzo and catch her breath after. “We might need a minute Linus.”
“We’ve only got so many left.”
“Call the next 5 an investment.” He was ready to hurry them along the entire time, but something was going on with Silver and Roman, and it caught his attention. The 2 of them stared into the trap with dead eyes. It was Silver who eventually moved, tossing a trick into it; the boomerang toss was meant to come back, but it didn’t.
“You’re wasting ammunition,” Likely scolded, but Roman replied as if they were in the middle of a different conversation.
“No, it’s the best idea we’ve got. It’s worth the risk to take a trip in there.”
“What in Nemesis name are you talking about?”
“I can hear myself, calling out,” Silver explained. Roman nodded along because he heard it too. There were familiar echoes in the trap’s darkness. The sounds pulled on them, moved internal pieces, like suddenly feeling the warm slosh of a soup in your stomach that you had eaten more than a month ago. “In there is just like in your family’s mausoleum, at least for us. I think… I think we can go pay ourselves a visit.”
“What would be the point of that?” Likely asked.
“Reconnaissance,” Ouzo muttered.
“That’s right,” his wife picked up. “If the rest of their pieces and parts are sitting under the rock they can give us a heads-up for anything we need to watch out for. I’m not moving until all my breath is back anyway. Let them give it a go.”
Their host for the evening didn’t want to, but he was completely outvoted. Again he lamented getting stuck with this pair rather than a full hand of recognizable face cards. Without blood drawing them together they would probably just wander off in the darkness and end up cutting his assault force in 2.
We already have an inside man. Neighbor has it covered. Think of everything I’ve done, and that was with all the distractions of the world going at me. He’s had nothing but this plan for years. They don’t need to go in there and risk ruining his efforts just to see him do a thumbs-up.
But he didn’t voice any of it. He quietly asserted his power by leaning against his hovering bull, having mastered it enough that it didn’t push the idling thing away. He pulled his hat down over his eyes and sipped from a canteen. It was Vicki who gave them permission to enter, but told them that they wouldn’t wait long. She reminded them that before getting to the prison they might run into some bears along the way.
Silver and Roman approached the threshold slowly, hands full of fanned cards. Large wild animals responded to card attacks in a different fashion from humans. They perceived the stab wounds as little more than debris, like getting into thorns. They tended to shake off throws, so it was best if they used their fanned hands like blades. A long slice was much more likely to dissuade them.
The first step made no real difference, but the 2nd put their entire bodies inside. All sounds from the outside world died. Darkness encapsulated them. With no idea what they would see if they looked over their shoulders, they decided it was best not to do so at all. Either the opening was still right behind them, or it was a mere pinprick of light in the distance, or it was gone.
They assumed they had at least one air hole poked in the void and shuffled forward, an action that became much noisier. The dirt floor was littered with items that had been rolled, blown, or tossed into the trap: bottles, cans, dry leaves, rocks, including flat ones that had probably been skipped in there to see if they still mad a sound, a rusty old bicycle, cards with initials drawn on them surrounded by the shape of a heart…
Their bodies seemed to be the only source of light, even though they didn’t appear to glow. They could see themselves, each other, and a small circle of the ground around them, but that was all.
“Can you hear where it’s coming from?” Roman asked.
“I thought I could, but that was before we got in here. Let’s focus on what we remember. If we can remember north we give the needle something to point to.”
“I don’t remember shit. Whoever I am, I don’t like this place.”
“Can’t be as bad as where the rest of us is, otherwise we wouldn’t have split,” Silver reasoned. “I know a thing or 2 about me or you. We’re not from around these parts. I’ve got a handle on these cards, but they’re not my cards. My… card? One in particular? Or is it a face? A face that always answers-”
“The brazen head!” Roman suddenly blurted. “We must be close. Keep going.” He picked up the pace.
“You keep going,” they encouraged him. “Keep talking. Get the memories flowing.”
“The head, the head, the head… It knows everything. That’s why I had it, but if I had it how did I wind up here? I would’ve seen it coming. No… because it doesn’t know everything. It knows what has happened and what is happening, but not what will. Just like me… because there was something I didn’t see coming. Am I the head?”
“No,” Silver said to correct his course. They shuffled in a slightly different direction, forcing him to follow. “No because I have held the head, like a baby. There were no shoulders, and you’re still on yours. You’re Prince.”
“The prince,” he corrected them, realizing what he had just said. “I’m a prince. I should be leading the way.” He tried to pull in a different direction, but Silver slid their feet in front of him. He turned. Silver slid. He felt his face flush with heat. What were they doing? Not looking for themselves, that was for sure. It was like they already knew, even if the details had escaped like an overturned ant farm. They were looking for him, as if they thought he needed help.
“Maybe you are leading, but we’re definitely dancing,” Silver said. Even though their feet kept sliding in a circle around him they never found the start of the line in the dirt. They couldn’t complete the shape. Whatever had happened between them, it wasn’t complete. Even before they were caged they kept starting over with each other, each encounter fresh and glistening.
“I just remembered that I don’t dance,” Roman quipped. He looked Silver in the eye, but saw something else over their tall shoulder. He grabbed them and pulled down to get a better look. “There! There we are!”
And there they were. 2 stalls in the darkness, just a few feet apart. They looked like dioramas, one wall missing to allow their less likely parts to see inside. The trap depicted them as close enough to hear each other’s voices, but they were posed like they hadn’t heard a friendly or hostile word in an eternity.
Long Odd Silver sat with their back to the wall, long neck letting their head tilt to the ceiling. One leg was raised and the other was flat against the cell floor. It was a glamorous pose perfect for a photo shoot, but the shred of Silver recognized it for what it was: as close as they could come to a meditative pose.
Even before they got closer Silver knew they wouldn’t be able to communicate with themselves. The 2 jailed bodies had fallen into in inactive state, focused almost entirely on staying grounded in better odds and maintaining a link to the parts they’d sent out adventuring. Roman’s better half was standing, arms crossed, eyes closed, a snarl on his lips that had been there for far too long. If there was ever a test case for every mother’s concern that a pulled funny face might ‘stay that way’, the prince of Pluto was it.
“Hey,” the man’s shred said, but there was no answer, not even a twitch of the head. “I can’t hear me… and there’s nothing else around. This was a waste of time.” He turned to leave, but Silver went closer, not to their own resting image, but to his. They held out a hand. “What are you doing?”
“Go nuts.” Silver caressed Roman’s snarling cheek, and the reaction was immediate. Structures faded in around them, specifically the internal structures of Gothic Rock penitentiary. They saw the other cells attached to the spinning mechanism. Above them were numerous walls of more traditional cells and spiraling walkways. Dark cacti were potted between the cells, ready to punish any hands that tried to reach through the bars and touch their neighbors’.
All of it was just lines and shadows though. There were no people, but they doubted they were the only 2 prisoners. A formidable pair to be sure, but their strength didn’t require such a massive and empty cage. This was only part of the picture. Silver encouraged Roman to go over to the other cell and touch them.
He did so wordlessly, but rather than caress the resting Silver’s cheek he poked them between the eyes. Unlike his own base, Silver’s likelier side grinned, but the eyes remained closed as the rest of the prison came into focus. All traces of the void inside the bear trap vanished. Color came to the walls, and people to the halls.
It also had the effect of returning their cells’ 4th walls, so they couldn’t see themselves anymore. Instead all the faces around them now were much more anxious. Prisoners smiled at guards as they walked by, but dropped them as soon as they were clear. The image of the warden, only partly remembered, flashed through their memories. She liked politeness, gratitude, and sunny dispositions. Those who couldn’t be sunny didn’t deserve the sun. They got the box. The shadows.
“I guess we should look for ways in and ou- woah! Woah now!” Roman took a step away from the mechanism, which had started to spin, and found himself drifting away from the floor, as if they were aboard an instrument of space travel and the base notes of artificial gravity had silenced. Spinning his arms did nothing to stabilize him.
“You have to use your mind,” Silver said to calm him. They lifted the balls of their feet off the floor and drifted gently upward. 9to1 hardluck were known to fly through space as if they were instruments themselves, freed by bad odds from requirements like breathing and eating, but Silver couldn’t remember ever having done so.
Still it came to them as instinct and they glided around the mechanism, matching its speed, with the grace of a tetra making its 10,000th trip around the tiny castle of its aquarium. They passed Roman several times, with him showing slightly more coordination each time, by the 5th fully capable of not doing an involuntary flip.
Silver took him by the forearm once he looked capable enough and guided him on a flight through the facility. None looked up at them, so they must have been as invisible as the 10to1. One of the first things they noticed was a lack of an exercise yard. There was nowhere for the prisoners to go where they’d be directly exposed to the sun, which was largely for their own safety in the middle of Drymouth.
There was an oval running track, but only or 2 inmates seemed to use it at a time. The tilt of the running surface toward the center created the sensation that one was spiraling down a toilet, a sensation that dissuaded most of them. Many opted to stand just outside their cells during free movement hours, throwing up their heels on the safety rails and doing stretches instead, which was permissible as long as they lifted the gates before any guards needed to come through.
The flying pair had difficulty getting a sense of the population, for they all wore the black and white uniforms with the flowing stripes, which they found profoundly disorienting to stare at for more than a second or 2. That must have been the real reason for the strange pattern. Anyone clinging to their last odds couldn’t seek out human contact without those jumpsuits sending them even further.
“We should’ve asked Likely if he had a picture of his brother,” Roman grumbled. “We can’t even look for a family resemblance if we can’t look at them for long.”
“Us getting out of here is contingent on the Hoods wanting to get in,” Silver reminded with a dash of cynicism they reserved for all but their closest companions. “It’s best to assume he’s in here somewhere and focus on the getting, both in and out.” He agreed with a nod and the 2 of them went back to it, the prince breaking away now that he was confident he deserved a pilot’s license for his own body.
They were not hurting for options. Though this doubled-projection they’d stumbled into didn’t allow them to pass beyond the outer walls and view the desert, they could see that there were several entrances and exits, 2 large enough for vehicles. There were gates that dropped like portcullises over them, but cards could be thrown through the bars.
Everything was built around the idea that the desert itself was the crucial security measure. Crossing it was still the biggest hurdle, and in only a few hours too. Even if they did, cards alone wouldn’t get them through metal bars and stone walls, so they would need whatever plan Likely was confident Neighbor was cooking up at that very moment. A makeshift explosive perhaps. The stealing of some keys.
On that note they sought out one of the guards, following just behind her as she walked the halls, lightly scolding inmates just to get them to step out of her path. They flew at belt height, cataloging what exactly the employees carried to defend themselves and perhaps restrain, say, a family of undead hooligans breaching the prison walls on the backs of hovering mechanical bulls.
Standard equipment seemed to be a long thick flashlight that clearly doubled as a baton, handcuffs, and a holstered deck of cards. Roman swiveled around in front of her, drifting backward, to get a better look at the cards and how they were set into the guard’s belt.
One card was out of the holster, its lower half held in place by a divot in the belt and a tiny green light. The card displayed a frequency, and it was playing music, some sort of South Reap dreck that had the prince missing the big band and jazz sounds that used to waft out of his casino, not that he could place the memories properly.
“These are electroglass,” he told Silver. It wasn’t just a matter of weaponry. For the glass to function it needed to receive both power and information transmitted wirelessly from a closed computer circuit. Such devices had a broadcasting range based on their size, so the prison must have had its own dedicated system in the bowels of the building somewhere.
The guard was using the separate card to receive radio stations, but the primary purposes of that system would be enabling both rapid information dispersal among the personnel and the combat versatility of electroglass, which made their cards capable of adjustable sharpness, electric shock, and alteration of their paths mid-flight.
“I’ll go find the banks,” Silver said, referring to the computers, and dove through several solid floors. Shutting their system down probably wouldn’t unlock any doors, but it would disable the electroglass. To do so in the middle of a battle would wipe them out; their cards would drop out of the air like paperweights. Superior as they were to cardstock, they could hardly be thrown when powered down, giving the Hoods the advantage.
Each floor Silver passed through held back another layer of sound, until both silence and darkness were achieved. They waited for their eyes and ears to adjust, ready to follow whichever one picked up a stimulus first.
A hum. The ears had it. They led the way, hopefully toward an active computer bank. Silver dwelt on the fact that their resistance from within was all theoretical. Even if the bank was discovered there was no way to interact with it in their current state. Since they were both capable of flight and completely invisible to the prisoners, their odds were probably somewhere around 10to1 while inside the bear trap.
Most people could count on the lesser half of one hand the number of times they’d met a person who had recovered from 10to1. 10 was barely more than a figment of the imagination. They didn’t even have enough of a form to don an emergency mask and crash back to 5, so they had to do it through willpower alone.
Silver touched the crystal tears on their cheek. They’d already crashed once, and they were not eager to alter the fabric of their personality again, even though they did sense their current form was an improvement over the old.
They passed through a corner and found it: a brown block of metal as big and tall as a filing cabinet, with a wheel of punch cards flipping through itself sticking out of the top. Silver smiled, but the entire penitentiary seemed to snarl in response. Bolts and screws rattled. Pipes shook. The computer bank quaked in its boots, retracting the punch card wheel inside and closing a panel over it.
Silver reached for their cards, but they were just part of their self-image at the moment. They could no sooner pull one out than extract their own eyeball. Whatever this was, it couldn’t hurt them… probably. If it was likely enough to damage the building it was well out of range of them.
The other spirits drifting about weren’t as convinced. A few phantoms, 10to1 themselves, appeared out of the floor and rocketed past Silver, up through the basement ceiling. Silver grabbed one of the ones that wasn’t screaming by the shoulders.
He was male, of indistinct age thanks to the fear contorting his face, and he wore one of the striped jumpsuits, though at these treacherous odds the stripes no longer moved. It was the first time he’d been touched by another person in many years, so even though his abject terror didn’t recede a certain amount of awe was mixed into it as he stared at Silver’s remarkably beautiful face.
“Got somewhere to be big guy?” they asked him.
“Anywhere other than here!” he hooted. “The screecher’s coming!”
“What exactly is the screecher?” Before he could answer a cicada buzzed between them, and his flailing intensified in response. “That wasn’t it, was it? All of you can’t be afraid of one little bug.” It must have taken offense, because the cicada spiraled in the air and came back for them, passing through Silver’s left hand.
They were forced to release the hardluck man, who warned Silver to fly away as he did so himself. Silver looked at their palm… or rather straight through it. There was a ragged hole, but no blood. Blood was barely a concept at their odds, so for the 10to1 anything not immediately visible, like organs and stomach contents, was presumed nonexistent.
Still there was pain, an odd sensation to feel when they couldn’t feel much of anything. It cut through the existential numbness viciously. Thinking quickly, Silver tucked the injured hand under the opposite arm and applied pressure. They whirled around in search of the cicada, but it was already expertly camouflaged in a swarm of close relatives.
They’d come out of nowhere, which always meant the cracks and holes and dirt in an improperly kept basement such as this. There was plenty of buzzing, but no screeching. Perhaps it was all confiscated, by the only one allowed to do so, the one that scared off all the old prisoners enjoying their dirt naps as Antichthon decomposed the last of their likelihood.
Mot of their wings were in the shape of a 3. They were 3to1 pests, which meant they should’ve passed through Silver harmlessly without ripping any holes. Something was different. They crawled up the computer bank in overlapping layers, but they couldn’t get in. In less than a minute it was covered in them, like a sheet of honeycomb freshly pulled from a beekeeper’s hive.
The swarm was halfway up the dingy concrete walls as well by the time Silver had a theory. Odds got a bit less consistent when it came to fluids or anything made of countless tiny separate pieces. A sandy beach could be 5to1, but as long as a tiny but uniform percentage of its grains were 6to1, then a 7to1 animal as big as a person could walk on it without any issue.
Perhaps this was something similar. If the swarm was big enough, concentrated enough, then the excretions of less likely cicadas were coating the more likely ones. Even if so, there had to be something else, something hostile, to really give them such an edge as to injure Long Odd Silver with their bumbling flight.
One whizzed by their ear, taking a tiny nick out of the lobe. They were officially out of hands to put pressure on wounds, so they needed to do as warned. Silver shot up, but stopped suddenly when they saw the patch of ceiling above them was completely covered. The prison rumbled again, sending the insects into a full on frenzy.
One went through Silver’s collarbone, another the little toe on their right foot. The shooting pain intensified each time. The swarm wasn’t passing through solid structures though, so Silver retreated back the way they came without even turning, passing through the last corner before they’d seen the computer bank. There were far fewer of the bugs on the other side, but the levels still rose. Silver went for the ceiling again before it was too late. Something emerged from the concrete at the last second, but it didn’t stop their momentum: Roman’s face.
They both tumbled back into the prison proper just in time for the 3rd quake. Silver saw that it wasn’t just the hardluck perceiving and reacting to the tremors. Most of the prisoners were holding onto the bars of their cells to keep stable. The central mechanism had stopped spinning, probably so it wouldn’t break loose and squash people as it rolled.
“What’s going on down there?” Roman demanded.
“I don’t have even a cold cut of an idea,” they answered honestly. “There are tons of cicadas beneath us. I don’t know how they could shake the whole building though!” He saw their hand tucked under their arm, and then the wispy hole through their collar.
“It’s nothing… at least not at these odds. We should leave; we have a useful report.”
“What report is that!?”
“That we absolutely shouldn’t break this place open! Come on.” Together they flew back to the mechanism and circled around, looking for the cells that contained their anchoring forms. They got out of the bear trap by touch, so hopefully that was the way back as well.
Silver miscalculated the position of theirs by one, and wound up inside a stranger’s. What they saw was not something that needs repeating, at least not in detail. They saw what was left of someone who hadn’t successfully breached Gothic Rock by hardluck projection. They saw the isolation punishment working as intended.
The person didn’t have much form remaining, but regained some thanks to the presence of an observer. Sex could not be determined, nor age, nor ethnicity, nor emotional state, nor whether they were still capable of emotional states. Like a blurry black and white photograph, a misprint in a 1920 obituary in a newspaper that shuttered the next day.
Even Silver’s cool head couldn’t handle it, and they recoiled so far they entered the appropriate cell, holding Roman’s body. The prison around them vanished, and all they could see was the interior of the 2 relevant cells and the missing 4th wall into the shadows beside Collapse Trail.
They waited for Roman to get into position, fearing that if they didn’t do it simultaneously they could get separated in the trap’s topless void. Together, with a nod, they touched each other’s cheeks. Then they continued to do so, but not in the cells, and not indirectly.
Gothic Rock was gone, as were the versions of them with closed eyes. Silver and Roman were standing in the dirt and debris of the trap, holding each other, illuminated only by their closeness. The emptiness left by the sudden disappearance of the shaking prison amplified the sounds of their breathing.
The 2 kissed to shut each other up. Immediately it became apparent they had done so before, and certainly not just once. No, they must’ve made a habit of it, or perhaps even a routine. Both knew exactly where to expect the other’s hands to show up next. It was also clear that the usual sequence of events, leading to an inevitable climax, or rather a pair of inevitable climaxes, was interrupted when Roman’s fingers lingered on Silver’s ear.
There was a pale scar, more of a seam, that hadn’t been there before. Silver had forgotten all about the injuries until he touched one of them. They looked at their hand with the hole in it, and saw a few intersecting lines in the palm, more raised than the ones that were supposed to be there. Similar marks had appeared on their collarbone and ankle.
It was lucky that returning to 5to1 had mostly healed them rather than exacerbating them. Such things often went the other way, especially if the bearer of the wounds had a sour attitude about the way they received them.
The scars didn’t hurt anymore, just ached, an ache that was firmly shoved to the back of the elevator by the burly bodyguards of mutual attraction and adrenaline-fueled arousal. Silver tightened their arms around the back of Roman’s neck, hanging off him even though they were the taller.
“Are you concerned for me?” they asked, only potentially sarcastically but definitely breathlessly. “Prince… could it be that you’re… my prince?”
“No,” he said, and he said it because he was sure, but neither of them was interested in letting it be a roadblock. Not a second after he’d said it they were kissing again. The ground of the bear trap, barren of everything except for litter and the sorts of pointy rocks you don’t want to sit on, did little to stop them as well. The back of Silver’s head kicked up dust as it hit. Their hands snaked under Roman’s shirt, all the way up.
He bore down on them, heavy with untoward intent, but something stopped him from going for the button on his pants. Silver didn’t sense whatever it was, so they reached out and popped it open for him, so seamlessly that it suggested their hands were fully capable of undoing a bra clasp through a shirt with nothing more than a pat on the back.
Still, he reacted to the sound like he’d heard a gunshot over a hill. He sat back up, straddling them, one hand on his deck, Silver’s desire just one letter away. They rubbed his thighs to get him back, but the prince couldn’t stop himself from seeing the bigger picture.
“We’ve got to get back. The Hoods said they wouldn’t wait for long. We don’t even know how long it’s been.”
“Too long,” Silver said, referring to something else entirely.
“This is serious. If we don’t get back to the rest of us I think we’re gone at the stroke of mid-” There was the roar of a starved furious maw opening. A brown snout appeared over Roman’s shoulder and bit down. He grabbed at it as the beast ripped him off Silver’s waist and dragged him backward, both growling, both enraged.
The bear trap wasn’t full, but it sure as hell wasn’t empty either. Silver scrambled to their feet, pulled their deck, fanned out the widest hand of cards they could. They were ready to chase after, but the darkness had claimed them as soon as they were 10 feet away, just like it had everything else.
“Where? Prince?” They couldn’t hear the struggle, but they had their own to contend with. Another muzzle, and its long bright teeth, flashed in their peripheral vision. Silver pivoted and tossed a card in that direction. It vanished, and it didn’t come back even though their wrist had ordered it to do so. “Don’t throw!” they warned Roman just in case he could hear. “You’ll lose them!”
The only response was a low rumbling growl, which had a 75% chance of being from something other than Roman. Over the Moon as a cardistry style was severely hobbled by the lack of electroglass, and in this situation hobbled again by the need to keep the cards close, so Silver turned to Cheater’s Welcome, which was full of surprise jabs from unexpected corners and cuts from cards that should’ve stayed out of reach.
They holstered the main body of their deck, rearranged the separate cards to 8 in each hand: 4 together as a forward thrusting blade, 2 tucked in the palm to reload, and 2 held between sleeve and wrist to shoot out when least expected, just as the bear’s paw did in the moment before Silver was fully prepared.
The claws took a corner from one of their cards. Silver spun it in the air and caught it by the other side to make sure they had 2 sharp edges at their disposal. Was it the same animal that took Roman? There was already a handful of ways that might’ve been true. It could’ve killed him and abandoned his body, its odds could have been split like their own into 2 entities, or fear of it could’ve counted as an observation, conjuring it back to Silver’s side in this terrible lonely void.
Or it was just a 2nd bear. Whichever bear it was, it appeared again, charging, giant paws smacking against dirt it had compacted countless times before. This time it aimed its bite at Silver’s thigh. They flicked a card downward, only with enough force to make its corner use their thigh as a springboard rather than cut into it. It would do plenty of cutting when it combined with the animal’s charging force and the soft roof of its mouth.
The tactic worked as the bear veered away to choke on a 10 of kisses. Silver still took a furry shoulder though, and it knocked them to the ground, which felt like a very different patch from the one where Roman had been atop them. So different in fact that it couldn’t have been near the spot where they’d just been standing. There was more trash.
It was closer to the door then. Moments where Silver was not touching the floor were moments where they were everywhere within the trap at once, and had a shot of landing somewhere, if they even did land, where the exit was in sight.
“Prince! If you can hear me, jump! Jump and look for the door!” The bear, or perhaps the first one, definitely heard. It was headed for Silver again, but from further away. They decided to test their theory, but it required them to wait until the creature’s eyes or slobber were in sight. Just when they were Silver leapt, and found themselves going much higher than they felt capable of. The confused bear passed by under their feet before it got out of range and disappeared.
They couldn’t see the dirt until they landed on it. Not a speck of trash. The back of the trap then, perhaps. Silver remembered it was no larger than a shack from the outside, so what felt like a mile of empty space in every direction was actually pure uncertainty, the same 20 feet repeating like a treadmill. Observations of the landmarks could disrupt it, so they started committing every piece of litter or unusual rock to memory.
With each jump they were either reaffirming a square in a grid or filling in a new one. Before long they’d spotted the exit as a pinprick in the distance. The map was shrinking. The patches of water labeled here be monsters were clearing up. Silver found a corner, then a 2nd, and a 3rd.
The trap gave up before its last secret was revealed. Long Odd Silver jumped a final time and collided with another animal, but this time it was Roman. They fell together, Silver landing on their back, Roman atop them once more.
“I told you we should’ve just left; pay up,” Likely gloated in an exasperated tone. Silver and Roman’s heads turned to see all 4 Hoods standing just outside the large trap door, not 8 feet away.
“I didn’t actually bring any money with me from beyond the grave,” Victim said, patting her empty pockets. “We’ll call it an I.O.U, and you’ll have to summon us again next time. Don’t bet on strangers I guess.”
“We were attacked by bears,” Roman explained.
“Sure,” Riri said with a snicker. “Your button’s undone.” She walked away with far too many gleams in her compound eyes as Roman hastily fastened his pants and helped Silver to their feet. He did also have as evidence the large bloody bite on his shoulder, but none of the Hoods seemed to believe that wasn’t an injury that could occur somewhere in the throes of passion.
They started mounting their bulls once more, with Riri jokingly asking if Roman would be riding Silver through the perilous desert instead. Neither of them bothered to respond, but the prince of Pluto couldn’t help but think that if the Hoods thought his wound was just from some cheap fun it was no wonder they were almost extinct.
Silver’s mind had already moved on, and come to the revelation that the bears would never escape the same way they did. What reason did a bear ever have to jump?