(reading time: 1 hour, 17 minutes)
Under the Hood
The Drymouth Desert was deceptively small. A person on foot would claim it an endless sea of inhospitable madness, where sand dunes atop red clay occasionally lurched forward to eat tumbletrees, which were the only available prey. It would be the last claim that person would make before their voice was baked out of them and they were heat-blasted into a strip of anxious and peeved leather.
The issue was the lack of perspective, much like Silver and Roman needing to seek higher ground in the bear trap to get the lay of the land. The dunes were too high for a person on foot to see over, so natural odds-confounding forces got them turned around, had them walking in circles until their final quarter circle.
The extra height from being on horseback was really all it took to see enough of the desert to know that it didn’t deserve its reputation. The whole thing could be crossed on an animal in 2 ½ days, and that was across the longest uninterrupted stretch. The Hoods didn’t even have that far to go.
Gothic Rock was built just far enough in that an escapee was more or less bound to die without a vehicle, and that distance worked out to about a 9 hour ride when guzzling the chaotic neutral fuel of an unfixed mechanical bull.
The sun was intense, but the October air kept the temperatures tolerable enough that it, in combination with full canteens, prevented any of them from passing out. It would’ve been a decent opportunity for anyone not behind the reins to sleep, but none of their vehicles moved that smoothly. Besides, all but Linus faced the reality that this Halloween, dawn to dusk, was perhaps an entire life for them. Sleep could be saved for eternity.
Still there wasn’t much to occupy their time as they rode. At the starting edge, after clearing the woods, Long Odd Silver and Roman had told the others what they had witnessed inside the rock. They did their best to communicate the way the entire building quivered, the fear that even the hardest of hardluck felt, but the tale just made Likely smile.
He was convinced, whatever it was, that Neighbor had a hand in it. The cicadas were a sign of that. Hood luck rose when they did, every 13 years, and Likely claimed that if he had the chance he’d get married in the eye of a swirling swarm of them just to receive their blessing. Their rowdy gathering was part of the plan; all they needed to do was get there.
The ghosts didn’t look so sure, but they had nothing to lose, and Silver and Roman didn’t really have the time or strategies to do anything else either. Gothic Rock held their best shots and most of their memories prisoner, so they needed to get there. Instead of arguing they watched the tumbletrees trying and often failing to make it over a dune with nothing but a breeze at their backs.
The whole way the only animal they saw was more of a former animal: the skull of a steer. Its horns had grown into 7 shapes. It was still subject to the confounding forces, even in death, perhaps because of Halloween. It spun like a confused compass, looking for the way out, leaving mesmerizing dancing swirls in the sand as it slowly migrated across the dunes.
It was headed the direction they’d come from, so Likely told Silver to have it deliver a breadcrumb. They got the message, flinging a 6 of kisses so that it stuck between the eye sockets of the retreating bone.
The Posse Billity hopefully only needed the trail the bulls occasionally blasted into the clay, but a taunting card couldn’t hurt their chances. If both failed at least Bill still knew their destination. Neighbor had held up his end, fomenting arthropod anarchy on the inside, so it was crucial they brought an equal opposing force for the clash. Only in total lawless discord could they pull it off, and finally extricate themselves from Mountainblood, even if it was the equivalent of performing spinal surgery to correct the scoliosis of their family tree.
The hours across the desert passed, and they wore on Likely’s nerves. Bill should have just about caught up by now, if he was full tilt, which he damn well should have been given the events of the day so far. The man hated Halloween for starters, so he was already primed. On top of that he was invaded by the ghosts of his family’s victims, and on top of that the greasy rat Linus Hood was going to tell every rag that would listen that he was the culprit.
There was also the matter of their exit. Most of the light would be lost by the time they reached the prison, and they would have 2 hours of Halloween left at the most after breaking Nathan out. That meant that less than halfway back across Drymouth one of the bulls would drop lifeless into the sand, their riders having refinanced the farm, so to speak.
The brothers would be down their bodyguards, careening through the darkness, praying that neither Gothic Rock nor William Billity had managed to track them in the pandemonium. That was the only big stroke of luck Linus thought he was counting on. Everything else is just the repurposed rotten stuff. That’s the coin flip. Either ½ these Hoods are headed to paradise or all of them are.
He looked at his wild cards: Roman and Silver. Could he count on them? Definitely… up until they found a way inside the prison that is. After that their priorities would change, and he could hardly blame them for that. They weren’t so sunk in the Mountainblood mire that it was difficult to see a way out.
If I could just impress upon them what a- The hyphen I’ve chosen here represents the punctuating pain that interrupted Linus’s thoughts. He instinctively reached across his chest and smacked at his shoulder to get rid of whatever stinging bug had done it. His hand came back with a 9 of wheels, one corner coated in his blood.
“It’s them!” Roman shouted to alert everybody who wasn’t hit. He smacked Riri on the shoulder to let her know he had her back covered, then swiveled so he was riding the bull backward. Silver did the same, already determined to fight hardest of all since that first card had overshot their shoulder without them noticing to get to Likely’s. Ouzo joined them in the backward front, and all 3 pulled their decks.
One person came over the dune behind them. Then 2. Then too many to count. There was a mix of men and women on horseback, none of whom looked like they wanted to be there. Bill was in the lead, flanked by his crazy8 lieutenants Jumbo Shrimptail and Mixer Ales, of rusty trawler and shredded tire mask respectively.
All of their animals wore some kind of heavy cloak. That must’ve slowed them down, explained why it took them this long to catch up. Silver had no idea what to make of the things, and they could only report them to Likely, who couldn’t take his eyes off the invisible path ahead.
“They’ve got what now!?” The what-nows, on Bill’s order, as delivered by one spin of his most irritated finger, came to life. Thin metal fans set in wire cage-discs and further set in the fabric of the horse cloaks spun up. On their own they were quiet, but the flock of them together made a sound like a truck full of active refrigerators.
The fans kicked up red dust around them, giving the Posse Billity an exaggerated cloud wake, as if each horse’s hoof struck with the force of a freight ship’s dropped anchor. Silver relayed all of this, with comparisons just as poetic, in fact identical because I chose to borrow them here. They were wholly unnecessary, as Likely already knew what they were dealing with; he just didn’t want to say it.
“Fan saddles! Shit!” he finally shouted. “They’ll blow your cards away!” There was no time to strategize. The posse all had decks of their own, and as soon as they thought they were in range they started tossing tricks. Hood cards were outnumbered 10to1, so they had to be careful in deciding what to throw away. For starters they made fans of their own, but with cards, flapping their arms to blast back any throws that were on target.
“They’re gaining on us!” Roman shouted.
“They’re supposed to!” Linus yelled back, “because we’re gaining on that!” They couldn’t look over their shoulders, but there was only one thing he could be referring to. Gothic Rock had appeared over the most recent hill, standing tall in the distance like an antique boot scraper embedded in the ground.
Even from that distance the Hoods could see that something was off. There were a few lit up specks hovering over the building. They had to be vehicles, but there was never any reason for more than one transport to be at the prison at a time. Could it be part of Nathan’s plan as well? Linus didn’t see how; he wasn’t even allowed communication with the outside world.
A 3 of drinks snuck by Silver, caught the front of the deck holster on Likely’s belt. The front of the pouch was cut away, and his cards started tumbling out. It was his trick deck though, so all of them were threaded together on a cord. He managed to clamp his elbow down on the last few still in the back of the holster without losing his grip on the bull, but most of his deck was now trailing them like a kite tail.
Silver took advantage of it, grabbing it as it went by their waist and whipping it to slice posse missiles out of the air. They did it too well, convincing several of the riders to redirect their fire to Ouzo and Roman. The 2 men started taking cuts, and there was little they could do about it. Not even probable space’s best cardist could stop the output of 10 or more mediocre ones.
Unless they had a little help that is, and it had to be a very particular sort of help, like the item tucked into Roman Koch’s waistband at that very moment. He was hoping not to use it at all; he didn’t even want to reveal its existence to Silver. The onslaught gave him no choice however, so he whipped it out and shuffled it into his cards.
He couldn’t remember much about himself, but no amnesiac anywhere around the central fire was allowed to forget the platinum deck. The identity of the one he had was branded on the side of his brain, still steaming from the recent addition of the knowledge: 8 of lights.
How recent you presumably ask? Only as far back as the existentialist bear trap. There were a few minutes where Silver and Roman were separated, after one of the beasts had made a snack of his shoulder blade and dragged him into the darkness.
Breaking free took dragging the side of a card across the top of the monster’s snout, but that didn’t dissuade it for long. Twice the bear charged him out of the darkness, bellowing. Each time he hurled cards in its face and they stuck, but as soon as the animal vanished the injuries, and the weapons that caused them, seemed to as well.
Its bad odds made its flesh forgetful, and each time it came at him it was back at full strength, and Roman’s was only dwindling as he threw away cards. They needed to stay in his hands as nothing more than knives, and he had to leave a deeper impression if he was going to convince the bear he wasn’t worth the effort.
Roman loaded the knuckles between index and middle finger with a 5 stack. That was generally considered to be the maximum thickness for effective slicing; any more and you might start losing cards to friction, especially when dragging across a canvas as wide as a bear’s flank. He waited for its next charge, and as soon as it did he rolled out of the way and scored its side with the stack.
It bucked in surprised agony, kicked him over, and by the time he righted himself it was gone, off to lick its wounds in the corner where the pain was least real. The tactic had worked so well that he had cut into the stomach cavity, and some of the contents had come tumbling out, leaving a trail he refused to follow.
With a hardluck bear, as with any animal in that state, its insides were always more of a suggestion than a fact, so no matter what it ate there usually wasn’t a guarantee of a stomach to be poisoned by it. The bear had turned itself into a trash bag while trapped, gorging on refuse and rocks, looking for a meal that could give it purpose again.
Roman never would have followed it, which one item in the trail, at least in a sense, clearly understood, because it sat right at the edge of his vision, shining assertively. Past a shredded shoulder bag, ½ of a pair of binoculars, a thermos cap, and the only part of a roadkill opossum to bear the tread marks, there was the platinum 8 of lights.
One does not turn their back on a platinum card. To do anything less than acknowledge it was likely to earn yourself a curse in most estimations. Of all the smart people in the universe, most would show it a gesture of respect and then keep as much distance as possible, but Roman happened to also be ambitious.
If you wanted to charge anything to an account in the afterlife, you would need a platinum card. If you wanted to have a silver asterisk next to your name in the history books you needed a platinum card. Platinum was your ticket to an exclusive club that could never have more than 52 members in all of near-reality.
Roman cautiously picked it up and examined it, which it allowed. He could’ve had a whole conversation with the reflection in it, which seemed to display slightly different emotions than the ones that were truly there, but there wasn’t time. He heard Silver shout something about jumping, and went about figuring it out himself after he stashed the card away.
It was a shame to need it so soon, but the Posse Billity was closing the gap faster than they were reaching Gothic Rock. He had nothing to lose, as his memories were already gone and he could never own the platinum card anyway. He understood that he was merely its steed. Roman disguised it in the middle of a 3 stack, put his trust and desperation into his wrist, dodged a card headed for his nose, and then threw.
The cards didn’t separate until after they passed between Mixer’s head and Bill’s. When they did the humdrum 3 of kisses and 7 of lights were blasted by the nearest fan saddle and fluttered uselessly to the clay.
The cargo they’d been escorting took a decidedly different path. While a platinum card didn’t move with a will of its own as if possessed, it did often find the only conceivable path that maximized the crossroads of beneficial and infuriating. Roman’s 8 of lights was affected by the nearest fan saddle, which sent it straight into the air… and then diving into the elbow joint of one of the riders.
The injury was minor, but with platinum in your arm you’re likely to react like a werewolf receiving a booster shot from a silver hypodermic. Rather than grab it with their bare hands the rider flicked it out of their flesh with the broad side of their own deck. It caught the updraft from that set of fans, arced above all the crosswinds again, came down, and planted itself in a man’s skull like a weather vane.
He passed out instantly, slumping in his saddle. A fellow henchman found the bravery to do something about it, whipping a trick at the platinum card to dislodge it. While he succeeded the slight pressure was enough to make the other man slip and fall into the sand. His horse veered off to the side, toppling 2 others and slowing 3 more.
The 8 of lights found just the right breeze, passing under several more horses and frightening them. A hoof tapped it in flight, kicking it up and sliding it right into the middle of Jumbo’s deck. Unawares, he pulled a few cards and chucked them all at Roman. The prince of Pluto spotted platinum on its return trip and snatched it out of the air after dodging the others.
“Where on Nemesis did you get that infernal thing!?” Riri shouted at him with a backward glance.
“Trick-or-treating,” he answered with a punctuating laugh.
“Well don’t take out too many of them!” Likely barked from his bull. “We need the posse to clash with the guards… and whoever on Aunty these folks are!” They were close enough to see that they were not the only ones who had business at Gothic Rock penitentiary. A crowd more than 3 times the size of the posse was gathered outside its walls, marching trenches into the sand back and forth, waving signs and chanting.
There were no horses anywhere, so they must have been disgorged by the instruments of space travel hovering above the prison. These were much smaller craft than the symphony class ships that had made up the military marching band sent out to Pluto, most likely privately owned by civilians.
5 in total, there were 2 castanets, a kazoo, a jawharp, and a harmonica. They all had composite material rope ladders hanging down and pooling in the sand. All the ropes were still, save for one, where a young girl was swinging back and forth, free fist pumping the air, leading the entire group in their chanting.
“Hiding them under rockth ith cruel! Let them thee the thun!” Popette shouted.
“Hiding them under rocks is cruel! Let them see the sun!” her loyal followers repeated. Some of them wore Halloween masks, so the spirits animating them must have been loyal to Suzette the first time around on life’s carousel.
Back at the Billity house Popette had found her Halloween purpose, and her name was Keepsake Ocks. She knew she was doing something powerful in helping her, for the girl’s spirit had accompanied them all the way there, miles and miles from her grave. The only way that would be allowed was if they had been heading toward something she was even more connected to: her mother Kicker.
A quick visit to the library and its public records section allowed Popette to ascertain the whereabouts of Whisker Ocks’s chronically misbehaved daughter. A life without her inner child had become a life of crime, and eventually an unwilling life inside Gothic Rock.
Kicker was there, locked up somewhere, and the only tool Popette had at her disposal was Suzette’s list of contacts. They had to spend all of Poppy’s allowance on a payphone, and use up a couple of the ghost’s precious hours on Antichthon, but she was able to put the band back together, so to speak.
Just about every dead face in the counterculture crowd would tell you so passionately that their rotten teeth would fall out: there was no protest like a Suzette Crepe protest. It was an honest shame the afterlife wasn’t a more conscious situation, or they’d be picketing with her against god at all hours of eternity.
So far they’d had absolutely no effect, despite the intimidating presence of the instruments. Even electroglass cards were worthless against their thick hulls, and all it would take was a nudge on the controls to send one crashing into the building. Popette wasn’t interested in violence like that however, which whoever controlled the prison seemed to sense.
They made the mistake of thinking unwillingness to harm would prevent her from destroying things, which was absolutely not the case. Her swinging on the jawharp’s rope ladder wasn’t just for show; she planned to fling herself over the upper wall. From there it was all guesswork: flipping switches, hitting buttons, snatching keys. She would try them all to get the cells open and reunite parent and child.
That plan was interrupted when 3 mechanical bulls, seeming to fly under the power of sheer absurdity, and a bevy of galloping horses came over the nearest dune and toward them with no sign of slowing.
“Y’all better get up out the way!” Victim screamed at them. It was unclear if they could hear her over their own chanting and the flock of mechanical fan blades, but the Hoods’ intent was extremely clear in her expression. The crowd started to bend to make way, but not fast enough.
“Hop off!” Likely ordered Silver.
“I’m sending this straight through the barred gate. It’s our way in. Now get off or go with it!” Silver’s grace belied their fear as they slipped off the back of the saddle, running and rolling backward in the sand to kill the momentum. By the time they stood and turned Likely was already dodging protesters.
Their clustered bodies confused the bull’s pathing; it attempted to escape his control. Linus cursed at it, fighting with hands made up more of 10 different aches than 10 digits by that point. Once they broke free of the crowd there were only 50 feet left to build up the speed needed. Linus leaned back, blasting a crater in the clay, launching the bull upward like a rocket. It arced back down quickly, none too eager to become the cow that jumped over the moon.
Linus Hood would’ve been satisfied with such a fate. Space debris was a lofty aspiration compared to the regular debris he’d always been: the rusty barbed wire in the weeds, the spike in the punch bowl, the blur in the corner of the photograph… He couldn’t settle for any of that today though. As much as he would’ve liked being zero gravity garbage smashing into government satellites and drawing the astro folks off their figurative porches, there was actual work to be done today.
He leaned forward. Iron bars, crossed in a grid. His gaze dove through one of the holes, filled up the roofless sand-floored prisoner intake area. He was just about there. Everybody was his neighbor on Halloween, inviting him inside, even when he was already wiping the muck off his boots on the entryway rug.
The bull was practically breaking the sound barrier when it was feet from the bars. The guards on the other side dove out of the way a split second before Likely did the same thing. Dusky Death expressed its restless red-eye rage all at once, obliterating most of the iron grid. Both items became shrapnel peppering the concrete of the back wall and generating a dust cloud.
The momentum carried Likely inside. He popped out of his roll whipping his corded deck back and forth to make space without even knowing if he needed to. Riri’s bull and Victim’s came in through the hole, dropped to the ground as their riders leapt off and made a circle with him. Silver strolled through last and joined.
Confusing, impressive, intimidating… but still not much of anything against the assembled guards of Gothic Rock. They quickly surrounded the Hoods and ripped full hands of electroglass from their deck holsters. The chaotic protesters couldn’t flood in and help them because the Posse Billity had cut through them like tissue and plugged the hole with idling horses. Bill, Mixer, and Jumbo lined up with the nearest guards, cards pointed at the other trespassers.
“He’s trying to break out his brother Nathan Hood!” Bill shouted at the guards, out of breath but refusing to slouch. A few of the guards looked at each other, wide-eyed, like they’d just remembered something they couldn’t believe they’d forgotten.
“Drop those hands!” one of the more composed employees ordered the Hoods. She flicked a card at them, which proceeded to orbit the hooligans perfectly, in a way their stock cards simply were not capable of. This was not a fight they could win, not as they were.
“Is there another step in this plan!?” Roman asked the Hoods.
“It’s Neighbor’s turn,” Linus said confidently despite the sweat running through the creases in his forehead. Several mile-long seconds of nothing occurred. Bill sneered.
“He’s finally gone nuts,” the Billity man claimed to the crowd, setting the groundwork for invalidating anything Linus might eventually babble about a mass grave or a collective of aggrieved ghostly women and girls. “Any chance I can do the honors of cuffing-”
The electroglass circling the Hoods wobbled and fell, sticking upright in the sandy dirt. The guard who had tossed it stared, dumbfounded. It was a good solid throw, and the card was programmed to use its charge to follow the path as long as possible. It should’ve done so for another 3 minutes.
Something had struck it in flight. A single transparent wing drifted above the card, eventually landing on its upright corner and slicing itself in half. The struck cicada it was cleaved from careened through the air, spiraling out of control and smashing into Bill’s nose. He reflexively spat and sputtered, wiping his face as he stumbled backward.
The guards began to lose focus, swatting at the fat bug-eyed things as they emerged from the ground and took to the air. Just a few at first. Then 2 fews. Followed by enough fews to blot out the rising Halloween moon.
Gothic Rock rumbled. The foundation cracked, forcing everyone to cringe defensively, like dogs about to bolt. A dome of sandy soil bubbled up under a guard’s foot and then exploded into a deafening geyser of screeching cicadas that carried him, screaming, into the air. Everyone started scrambling out of the way, so there wasn’t anyone to notice that he didn’t come back down.
Another geyser burst a short distance away, and then a 3rd. Likely had no idea how, but this was it. This was Neighbor’s plan. Now all he had to do was find the big lug and get him out of there. The Hoods didn’t so much as flinch as the hurricane of chitin swarmed around them, but Long Odd Silver and Roman didn’t have that level of confidence with the creatures; both shielded their heads with fanned hands. Likely tapped them on the shoulders.
“You 2! We’re handling my brother. You go and find yourselves. Meet us back here as soon as you can, because we’re leaving as soon as ready, you understand?” Roman and Silver glanced at each other, nodded at Likely, and backed out of the circle. A handful of racing heartbeats was all it took for someone to disappear in that particular cloud of buzzing chaos, but Likely was too hot a target to benefit.
Bill and his mercenaries were cutting a path toward him, and there was electroglass moving about unpredictably over their heads. There was no way to tell if the cards were meant to slice through the bugs or his own thorax until they were inches away. Hoods didn’t panic after the shit hit the fan however; they found ways to dodge every speck and then snidely comment about the smell of the place.
The Hoods who had nothing to lose, having already misplaced it all, were even less reserved. Victim and Ouzo were working together, and rather than simply suppressing the card barrage they also flung some of their own, to either side of an exposed guard who was already penned in behind a cicada geyser.
Once he was trapped against the back wall between their shots, bull shrapnel, and bugs, Riri moved in, popping up from under his line of sight like a whack-a-mole. A king of drinks, right at home in her tiny hand, glided up the man’s uniform artfully, like a chef perfectly separating salmon fat from fillet.
His buttons popped off. Belt flapped open. Sleeve slipped off. The Hood that could’ve been a surgeon, if not for impatience and a generally minor, though still quite general, state of inebriation, was searching him for a spare deck since the cards in his hands were all but spent. She found one in a shirt pocket, electroglass as well.
Riri never intended to keep it for herself, especially since the guard tapped one of the top screens and locked the pile at 3to1 probability, which she could not touch. Before he could disable it further she jammed the metal edge of a card up into his nose, slicing his septum far enough that it held the card in place.
“Don’t sneeze now,” she warned him, pushing his head back, “or you’ll make it so much worse.” He seemed almost relieved to have permission to stop moving. A trickle of blood ran down his face, but he didn’t even notice it when there were 20 cicadas doing just as much running all up and down his exposed arm.
Riri sandwiched the 2to1 deck between less likely cards and extracted it. She shouted to Linus and chucked the entire thing like a football, trusting the cards’ charge would hold them together.
He caught it, and didn’t even need to signal for Vicki and Ouzo’s protection; they were on him before he looked down to assemble his new weapon. There was never much occasion to use the functionality of the mechanism on his belt, but now was the perfect opportunity. Likely clipped the base of his trick deck’s cord into it and pressed a tiny rusty lever, which sucked the cord out and coiled it up inside with a whining sound.
Stowing the old cards away, he held the tip of the electroglass deck against the sharp tip of the cord and reversed the lever. It launched out, puncturing all 52 cards at once and locking in place. Now he had an electroglass whip, and he hoped it was enough to get him back to the front gate.
He kept calling Nathan’s neighborly name, but there was no answer, and no sign of him. Until he showed himself their greatest ally was chaos, and thus the greatest threat order. Their caper required more variables bouncing around, and the protesters were the only other one available. For now the horses blocked them from entering, so Linus set them as his target, but Bill and his underlings were between the 2.
In fact they were close enough to clash now. Bill threw up his left forearm, level enough for an architect to use in their drafting. He placed one card flat on top of it at a time, and then flicked them out, using himself as a runway for their takeoff.
Likely flung his whip out to force them back, figuring it would catch any approaching cards, but Bill’s undying snottiness had caused Likely to forget that the man was a genuinely skilled cardist of a style quite different from his own. His Express Mail training had focused on aim and maintaining card angles, which required much precision without electroglass balancing itself.
Bill’s 2nd shot sailed right into the arc of the whip, and straight through the seam between 2 of the cards. Linus was hit squarely in the chest. Had this been a battle of bullets like those in the 1to1 he would have been down for the count, but when it came to cards it took at least a full hand to kill somebody if you didn’t strike a vital location.
It hurt all the same, having sliced through his shirt and lodged a corner in one of his ribs. Likely flicked it off too flippantly trying to keep his mind in the fight, accidentally opening the wound wider. Blood ate up sections of his shirt as it dribbled down, which in turn drew cicadas. They clustered over the wet fabric tightly like they tried to dam it up.
Those bugs were doing more thinking about the wound than the man himself, whose mind was on using his electroglass advantage effectively. On whip’s return Likely unclipped the 3 cards that made up the tip, tapping each of their screens with a thumb hopping faster than a fleeing jackrabbit. Now they would cling to each other electrically, but not more powerfully than the force he could generate with a crack.
Bill was aiming for the neck all the while, and aiming true, but Ouzo’s own flings took them out on the way. When Likely was ready he gave the weapon another go, cracking it in the direction of Mixer’s charging rubber mask. The man jumped back and dodged, or he would have if Likely hadn’t altered the cards on the tip.
The last one leapt off with the force, spinning, slashing into the tire on the man’s face. He recoiled, hands bouncing off his own eyes as he tried to apply pressure. The card then responded to the electric call of its brethren, returning to its place on the tip.
The surprise of such a trick wouldn’t last long, so Likely made his mad dash for the entrance, swinging the whip out to the left and right in wide circles to act as shields. It got him past a few more of Bill’s goons, but not the Billity himself, who landed another card atop Likely’s swinging hand and forced the rotations to a stop.
He was halted as well, forced into a duel. Both men favored at least middle distance in a fight, so they were practically flailing face to face, growling gutturally like elephant seals bashing their flabby chests against one another. Likely blocked with loud flourishes while Bill sent cards spinning around his back, hoping that their emergence over a shoulder would catch the Hood off guard.
What really threw him was the arrival of Jumbo’s massive bulk. Even with Halloween luck there was no way he would be winning a prolonged 2to1, so it had to end before it started. Right as the lug was arriving Likely held out his compacted deck, and then let the cards drop. Their weight was enough to send the cascade through the top of Mr. Shrimptail’s boot and into his toes.
The man howled in surprise, but he couldn’t do that for long either, as Likely flicked the other half of the deck and sent it up, extending the whip into the base of his jaw, cutting deep. Then he vaulted over the man as he bent over defensively. There was the blasted-open gate; he bolted for it, not even bothering to brandish his weapon. A few of the posse were throwing at him, but it was Bill who put a stop to it, just as the Hood reached a critical position.
“If you blasted idiots cut one hair off those horse tails it’s your head!” Though the Hood was under no obligation to obey the order he still had no desire to hurt the animals. The beasts weren’t exactly returning the favor as he fell between their flanks however; the cicada swarm had them panicked.
Likely was buffeted on all sides, like he was one of 10 drunk men trying to squeeze into the single restroom at a sports stadium. Before he knew which one to scold for knocking him around he was on his back and it was raining hooves. 3 thumps near the side of his head was all the convincing he needed to get out from under them, so as soon as his sky was nothing but velvety belly he flicked out his whip, careful to keep the flat side toward himself so the corners didn’t slice into the animal’s flesh.
It looped up and around the horse’s back, with Likely catching it on the other side. With his legs contracted as close to his body as possible he smacked the horse, spurring it to run and drag him along underneath by his loop of cards. Once they were out of the panic ball the man detached. He was cracking his whip at flanks faster than he was on his feet, sending the animals fleeing in all directions, their paths leaving visible streaks in the cloud of cicadas.
It worked as intended. The gate was cleared and protesters poured in, their reason for being there now the furthest thing from their minds as they desperately picked bugs out of their hair and mouths. Likely let them sweep him back inside. Where are you Neighbor!? The candle light of the pumpkin is about spent brother.
The largest part of the swarm had actually emerged from under the scattering mechanism. It was busted, fallen on its side like a mushroom with a soggy stalk. The black and white stripes on its tent top were still moving, but much slower than intended. Some of the capsules had broken loose and rolled away, their hatches popped open, their contents already scattered or escaped.
Silver and Roman never could have remembered the long intentionally random numbers marking the cells that contained their better halves had they not seen them in the bear trap earlier that day. Both were still attached, and their hatches still closed and locked. The 2 partial escapees stared at the things blankly, unsure what they could do despite being close enough to shake their own hands.
“Oh,” Roman said. He grabbed his deck and pulled out a random card, knowing it wouldn’t let itself be random: the platinum 8 of lights. Stepping forward, he experimentally slid the card into the door’s seam and slowly dragged it down. Halfway there they heard the tumbling of mechanisms. The card had decided that, since they couldn’t see the lock’s interior, it was nothing more than a sliding bolt. The door creaked open.
The prince handed the card off to Silver as he climbed inside the calm blue of the cell. There he was. There was a whole life, most of it molded by Pluto, but at least some memories crowned it all as of his own making. “Your highness,” he said to himself. Just being that close was good enough for a reunion, so he didn’t get to finish reaching toward himself before he disappeared.
The one and only Roman Koch opened eyes that hadn’t opened in weeks, winced at even the low level of light within the prison. He coughed, just breathing badly. He stood, just failing to walk. After a few moments the disparate elements squeezed back inside like socks into a drawer already bulging with them, finally settled in place.
The first thing the restored prince of Pluto felt was insulted. This was how Antichthon treated a visiting foreign dignitary? He was probably the closest thing to the tiny planet’s head of state, unless-
He remembered another head. It had been confiscated, but if that lemonade peddling warden was still around she would know where it was. His boxing dice too. Everything that he still had to his name. Halfway through wondering if he still had Long Odd Silver, they stepped out of their cell as well.
They looked full of energy, like they could take a breezy lap around the whole planet. Silver’s long body contorted in a stretch that popped every part of their spine like someone testing the entire length of a xylophone. Other music, from the protester’s instruments, hummed overhead, and the cicadas on the wall joined in chorus.
“What a beautiful night,” they commented despite the scattered human screams. The first thing they did was plant a kiss on the prince’s cheek, but his gaze was already locked on a nearby staircase. If he remembered correctly, which he was more than capable of doing now thank you very much, that was the way to the warden’s garden balcony.
“Feel like putting our heads together?” was all he asked.
“Try and stop me.” Together they headed up, shrugging off the lingering sensations of having split their odds with a jack-o-lantern carving knife. Their bodies felt like they’d been stuck in a grave for weeks, but some features of their adventure outside had been incorporated back into their unified state.
Though they were back to wearing the flowing black and white bars of the prison jumpsuit, they managed to hold onto the decks Likely had given them. Silver still had the new scars from getting perforated by the cicadas, though they had faded even more. Roman’s bear bite was no longer fresh, but the marks of several teeth were clear on his shoulder, and it ached.
Still, everything from Halloween was fading, like the details of a dream, but one that refused to vanish. It was a new haze in the back of their minds, mists hanging over the waters of their spirits. They felt like it wasn’t leaving because they were supposed to learn a lesson, but the only one they could cobble together was this: to hell with Aunty Antichthon.
This was a planet of obligation, where the future existed to justify and venerate the past. Being born here was like gaining employment. It was an absolute dry farce compared to the slosh and bang of the first days of Pluto. They were born in the swing of things, with no trial period and no contract signed in the blood of their birth before they’d opened their eyes. Likely and the Hoods deserved some gratitude for taking them into their scheme, but it was time to ditch this glum globe and find somewhere more… happening.
Guards, 4 of a kind, stood outside the warden’s office door, still holding to their emergency posts despite the invasion of 3 separate parties, 4 including the swarm. Outclassed was one word for them, despite the numbers advantage. Another word would be doomed, which they started to comprehend once Long Odd Silver spun around 4 converging throws, blew their entire cardstock deck into their faces chaotically, and then slipped the electroglass from one of their hands.
Paper cards were still falling by the time Silver’s Over the Moon techniques were in full orbit. It was highly distracting, which made it exceedingly simple for Roman, who had already dropped his paper deck in favor of his bare hands, to grab guards by the shoulders and toss them over the nearby railing. On the way down 2 of them bounced off the tart atop the scattering mechanism, and the other 2 wished that they had. The Plutonians’ platinum card continued to open many doors, letting them into the warden’s balcony.
It was as if nothing had happened, or was in the middle of happening. The entire building had shaken and broken open, yet there wasn’t a plant out of place anywhere. They must have been adhered to the shelves somehow, and warden Caroliner Tea must have caught every falling leaf before it hit the floor.
She was in there, as nonchalant as the balcony itself, flitting about with a wood and brass watering can. There wasn’t an artificially blonde hair out of place anywhere on her head. A glance was all the intruders had earned.
“It’s polite to knock you know,” the old woman said. “You could’ve barged in on my calisthenics.”
“You have my apology,” Silver said, adapting to the bubble of atmosphere immediately. They helped themselves to a wicker chair, putting their feet up on the table. They also helped themselves to the pitcher of lemonade, which was full of blueberries and mint leaves this time.
“Not mine,” Roman grumbled, leaning up against the door.
“You keep that closed now,” the warden warned. “I don’t want any nasty bugs getting in here.” Her visitors looked out at the balcony’s edge. Where there had been open air before there were now two mesh screens overlapping. Cicadas crawled across them. One screen must have been a lower probability than the other, keeping out the lowest odd pests.
“You’re rather relaxed for someone overseeing a prison riot,” Silver commented.
“I oversee the staff,” she corrected, setting aside her watering can and taking a seat opposite them. “As long as they’re following my orders I don’t have to worry about anybody’s criticism.” Roman looked around with an arched eyebrow. The warden didn’t seem to understand that criticism wasn’t her biggest concern. “This strikes me as an act of something godish, and thus beyond my purview. Halloween does as the past demands.”
“You tried to wish us away,” the prince accused. “We could be here for revenge. Anybody you scattered could be waiting in line right outside.” The warden pulled out an electroglass deck and started laying out cards on the table in front of her, in neat rows. Each one’s screen displayed a barred cell door.
“Seed packets came to me that I did not order. They came with instructions. Plant these, and watch them never grow. Instead their forms will slowly forget they were ever above ground. A reverse plant still needs to be tended. If something goes wrong then I will pay the price of my lousy caretaking, but I don’t think either of you are here to hurt little old me.”
“We’ve got more urgent business,” Roman confirmed.
“We are interested in getting our belongings back,” Silver added. Warden Tea slid her hand across the table, knuckles striking every card. The displayed bars slid open as her hand passed over. They heard the slide and thunk of metal on stone below them. She’d just opened all the cells.
“They deserve as much a chance in this mess as anybody else,” she said in response to their puzzled expressions. “Besides, it’s not like they have anywhere to go. Regarding your belongings, I had a feeling Halloween might spit you 2 out. I had them pulled from storage.” She started to stand, pulling out a wire basket from underneath the table.
“Very kind of you,” Silver said.
“That’s my job.” The basket contained 2 decks of electroglass, one ornate and silver, a pair of six sided boxing dice, and a few other odds and ends. Silver reached across the table and took their deck, cutting it in half. There was their own platinum card, the ace of wheels. Warden Tea had known better than to mess with it, consistent with her clear model for life: nothing should be messed with if it isn’t making a fuss. But her visitors were looking for something that did occasionally make a fuss, even though it only had 2 words to rub together in the process.
“There was an artificial head as well,” Silver mentioned, but Roman had already spotted it on one of the shelves, camouflaged into the orchids thanks to one of them rising out of its open mouth. He didn’t wait for permission, grabbing it by the sides and placing it on the table. Silver examined it, finding that its eyes followed her and its eyebrows flexed excitedly.
“Mmf!” it said through a mouthful of potting soil.
“I know it isn’t mine,” Warden Tea said with a sigh, “but I will miss it. It always knew exactly how much water and sun its charge needed.” She grabbed a nearby rubber trowel and carefully worked its edge around the brazen head’s lips. Then she lifted out the orchid and all the accompanying soil and set it aside. “Was that everything?”
“Yes, thank you,” Silver said, standing and taking possession of the head.
“Yes,” it said with obvious relief, working its jaw back and forth as if it was sore.
“Let’s snag one of those instruments and blow this atmosphere,” the prince suggested.
“I’ll be making sure Likely gets his brother first,” Long Odd Silver stated plainly. “I do hope you’ll wait for me.” Their long fingers caressed the stubble under his chin as they walked by him and pushed their way out the door, sauntering off with the brazen head on their hip.
“Oh are you 2 an item?” the warden asked him, suddenly interested, having long lamented that her houseplants couldn’t form romantic relationships or at least have dramatic flings with each other. “You’re not going to let a catch like that walk away are you?”
“Last time we were in here you couldn’t get rid of us fast enough,” Roman snarled, but lingering would do him no good. He tried to make it clear he would be following Silver whether the warden had said anything or not, doing so by slamming the door.
“Trash,” Caroliner said primly, going back to the most urgent matter: which pot to use to rehome the orchid the brazen head couldn’t swallow.
It was a testament to his grudge-holding ability, like a barnacle on the hull of a ship, that William Billity managed to find Likely again in the absolute madness within the crumbling prison. The flood of protesters had forced both posse and guards out of the intake area and into the cafeteria, the exercise loop, and the hallways with most of the cells.
On top of that the cells had been opened, and all the prisoners were mixing in with everyone else, several of them crawling around on the concrete floors trying to scrape together decks of abandoned and damaged cards.
Bill paid no mind when he stepped on one of their hands on his way down some stairs. He followed the sound of the electroglass whip swinging, which he had already memorized. Likely was going cell to cell in search of Neighbor, occasionally lassoing a guard and locking them up to get them out of his way. Bill threw a card straight at his head as soon as he spotted him, but it slowed in midair, buoyed by cicadas under it until it drifted all the way to the ceiling.
“Bill, believe it or not, at this juncture there really are no hard feelings!” Linus shouted at the approaching man. “You’ve already made amends by serving your purpose.” He knew a statement like that wouldn’t exactly help, but even without hard feelings the itch to fight the entire Billity clan had been building for decades. So they clawed at each other like 2 wet cats forced into the same flimsy laundry basket.
Not far into the affair, which was too feral to be called a duel, Bill figured out none of his cards were sharp enough to cut the cord holding Likely’s deck together. He waited for the Hood to sweep it by their legs and then stomped the whip flat. By the time Likely had enough strength to pull it out from under him there were already 3 cards embedded in his back, thankfully nowhere near his spine.
He yanked, and Bill let it go. Likely flailed and stumbled backward several feet. There was a wall behind him, a detail he only remembered because there was a screen made up of 200 rounded electroglass cards hanging on it, playing an old cowboy movie. Witty dialogue delivery was the only clue he had to exactly how close it was.
Slamming into it with cards in his back might drive them much deeper, so he was forced to swing the whip over his own head and slice them off without taking any skin with them. The impact still hurt, but not in a way that suggested his blood loss had increased. The screen took the most damage, with cards raining down on him as Bill pressed the advantage.
There was no room for the whip, so the Hood was stuck deflecting with the entire deck awkwardly. Bill flicked a card with a snap of his wrist, and instead of going for Linus it arced over them both, spinning parallel to the wall, slicing more pieces of the screen away. They rained down on him; he covered his head with his arms defensively.
Seeing his foe was blinded, Bill spun and kicked him in the neck, sending Linus over a railing and down 2 floors. He would’ve broken his back if he didn’t land on, and then slide down, the ripped tenting stretched over the scattering mechanism. It dropped him unceremoniously on a pile of rubble and dirt that used to be the concrete floor.
Bill could still see him if he leaned over the railing and looked straight down. When he did there was a sneer on his face that Linus was too bleary-eyed to make out. Now it was almost too easy. Gravity could do all the work. A jack of wheels danced across his palm, back and forth, back and forth, until it was spinning fast as an electric saw. Then he pulled his hand out from under it and let it fall.
It was just an edge, nearly invisible to Likely’s blurred vision, and even halfway down he hadn’t spotted it. The maneuver just looked like Bill was waving at him, mocking him for showing up and thinking he could do anything at all. Just you wait Bill. Soon as I get back, make a complete recovery, buy myself a new deck, wait another 13 years, and make some new friends I’m goi-
The jack of wheels was about to bisect his big intestine when the rubble shifted underneath him. A fresh cicada geyser streamed around his body, leaving him feeling like he was sleeping on a cloud. Bill’s card was blasted off its path, and he made the mistake of watching where it went instead of following the geyser.
It didn’t go straight up and dissipate like the others; it moved like a giant cardist had thrown it, changing directing on a whim. It curled under the walkway Bill stood on and then wrapped around the edge and flooded over his boots.
“What the-” Before he could finish it lifted him off his feet and carried him into the air. He kept his head admirably, whipping a card into the mass, but it slowed, stalled, and dissolved as the cicadas shredded it into dust. It was easy to see how that could be his fate in the next 10 seconds, so he screamed for help.
Mixer had already taken a horse and fled, moaning about the flat tire on his face. Jumbo was hiding in a broom closet, shoving towels under the door every time an insect made it through the gap. There was nobody to help, and nobody who would when faced with the entity holding him aloft. It wasn’t just the bugs that had come up from under the mechanism. There was someone inside, buzzing with their own energy, but trying to pretend they were one of the swarm all the same.
There wasn’t a good explanation as to where the feet had come from, but they were definitely there, under the mass of bugs holding Bill aloft. They were bare, the toenails so choked with black soil from the deep that they had practically transformed into semiprecious stones.
The pant legs were the standard issue for an inmate, but the stripes hadn’t moved in a long time. The black was bleeding into the white, but not the other way around, like newsprint running in the rain. Both knees were ripped open, the pale skin covered in even paler scars like grains of rice, like this person had been kneeling before the altar of a subterranean god for a few years. Everything above that was obscured by the swarm.
Bill didn’t even see the feet until he was slammed against a cell and dropped. He heard them first, slapping against the dusty concrete, coming toward him, walk turning into a run. The left one delivered a swift kick to his gut. Bill clutched his stomach and tried to roll away. The feet pursued, jumping, kicking, and stomping, like this was a barroom brawl with an armless man.
Whatever this footed thing was, it had the strength to hoist him well into the air, yet it settled for the far less painful and much more personal tactic of dancing on his face. He dropped his deck, grabbed for the ankles, but they shook loose and kept using him as stairs. Kicking him when he was down was a privilege reserved for others of the Billity clan, so Bill mustered what remained in his muscles and launched himself into a roll to create some distance.
He was back on his feet, barely, but it didn’t matter. A 2nd swarm amassed behind him, and before he could turn it surged forward, grabbing him like a tidal wave and sending him back to the angry legs. They copied him, dealing out the exact same kick he had given to Likely moments ago, right to the neck.
The end result was also the same: Bill hit the tenting and slid roughly to the ground. The only difference was his scream, where Likely had quietly cursed himself instead. Both of them were still on their back when the feet arrived, the first to land upright.
“No!” Bill spat, a squished cicada coming out alongside the word. “Get away from me you Halloween demon!” Without cards he used his next best weapon, making a cross with 2 of his fingers and holding it up. “I’m a Christianish man protected from these devilish displays! Stay back! Faith rejects ya!”
“That won’t do shit!” Likely cackled despite not having the breath to get off his back yet. “He was never properly churched, were you Neighbor! Haha! Get him! Get that son of a bitch! Kick his teeth into tomorrow!” The legs charged forward in agreement, forcing Bill to scramble up and flee.
“Nathan!? That ain’t ya is it?” Bill shouted over his shoulder as he ran, but the thing following him just screeched with the bodies of 10,000 cicadas. “It was just one lousy horse! Ya didn’t need to go and do what ya did! Ya put way more than one horse worth of shit in my car! I had to let everybody know I couldn’t be disrespected! Ya hear me!?”
The one-sided conversation didn’t slow either of them down as they went deeper into the prison. The sun was gone now, so the shadows had grown out of control and turned every open cell into a monstrous mouth of darkness. Even so, Bill feared the thing behind him more. By doing so he failed to notice the one cell that was still occupied.
Its contents lunged out and wrapped around him, pulling him in. The bars rattled as they were pulled closed and locked back into place. Bill flailed, but he had already been released. His eyes struggled to adjust to the darkness, and then struggled some more even though they had succeeded, because they assumed one of the 3 other people in the cell wasn’t supposed to be transparent.
Bugs crawled on his ears; the swarm was right behind him. It reached through the bars, started to pull him back. Bill threw himself forward, scuttling on his bottom until he hit the back wall. There were the feet, standing just outside, toes curling aggressively like a mountain lion flexing its claws.
He couldn’t see the waist, but it had to be there, otherwise the 2 legs would have stepped away from each other and hopped right through the bars. As it stood they couldn’t fit, just kick the metal in an attempt to goad him out, but Bill couldn’t be pried out of there with a giant corkscrew.
The cicadas washed over the bars like a downpour flooding a storm drain, but they didn’t reach very far into the cell. They could, but something seemed to compel them to stay near the legs. After a minute had passed the legs gave up and walked away, clearly irritated, taking their countless sidekicks with them.
Bill realized he hadn’t been breathing. His next gasp was like 50 breaths in one, and he couldn’t believe anyone would feel safe approaching him in that state. He was like a scorpion about to sting itself in the brain out of fear, yet a small hand that was almost nothing touched his shoulder. He shouldn’t have been able to feel it, but he did. The sensation traveled all throughout him.
Until that moment he didn’t know you could feel things like sadness and relief in your extremities. Guilt in his tailbone. Washed-up memories on his skin formed tide pools in his pores. This was what a lonely death felt like, and he was feeling it for someone else.
For Keepsake Ocks. She was right there with him, hand on his shoulder. She was just like he remembered, not a day of aging tarnishing her, which meant all those women back on his estate hadn’t been lying. She had died right around the time he last saw her.
“Keepie?” he mewled. He might never fight back anything ever again after that infested monstrosity, so he wasn’t going to start with his tears. “Is that really ya?” She nodded. Bill wrapped his arms around her. Too much pressure could’ve made her burst into nothing but vapor, so he had to be careful. She was liquid, but if he cupped his hands just right she wouldn’t slip out.
“I never knew, I swear. I- I didn’t want to believe it. Keepy I would’ve stopped’em, but I had to see it. I had to see it, but I’m so damn good at closing my eyes. Can ya- Can ya ever forgive me?” She nodded again, this time with a smile. Bill gasped a 2nd time, hands shaking in front of his face, even closer to passing out than the minute where he’d been on a breathing hiatus.
“She’s not the real test. I am,” someone said off to the side, interrupting the most powerful joy of his life and forcing him to remember that it was a solid adult who grabbed him out of the hallway and dragged him into the cell. He looked at her, failing to recognize her at first. She wasn’t Keepsake; that was all he cared about. Except… was she?
As a child he’d never seen it, but now that he’d watched all the children he’d known turn into adults he could apply the same process to Keepsake’s face, and get something rather like the face staring at him now. It had to be filtered through a couple decades, and the roughening sandpaper of prison life, but he got there. He was looking at Kicker Ocks, and also at her daughter.
“Ya…” he said before he could cobble an actual sentence together. “Ya saved me from that thing.”
“Don’t thank me. It was all my little girl,” Kicker said brusquely. “She wanted to see you before the night was over. Night’s wearing real thin.” Bill’s mind needed one of their precious remaining minutes to put it all together, but naturally I’m able to expedite the process. Keepsake was a ghost. She was only material enough to interact with because of Halloween. As soon as the clock struck midnight she would be gone again, at least until next year, and she might find oblivion so pleasant as to not return. He’d only just gotten her back, and this was goodbye.
“What did ya mean- ya said ya were the real test?”
“Keepsake is a part of me. She always has been. I’ve been missing that part for so long, but she’s back now. We’re going to be together again. She’s going back to my heart, rather than eternity.” Kicker had her own tear running down her face. The girl would be mending both lives that night, which was perhaps why there wouldn’t be enough left of her to keep going. She was doomed to be spread thin over wounds as a phantom bandage, not that she seemed to mind.
Bill looked around for a way to keep her, but the cell was empty aside from the only other person he hadn’t acknowledged yet, another little girl, a bit older than Keepsake. There was an animated mask over her eyes covered in pencil rubbing. He could tell those eyes belonged to someone much older, merely enjoying the girl’s hospitality for a Halloween holiday.
“Who are ya?”
“That’th not important,” she insisted with a wave of her hand.
“She’s the one who got Keepsake out of that tomb of yours,” Kicker said. “Brought her here to me.”
“I wath jutht trying to rock the boat,” Popette explained. “But thothe people on the bullth went and capthized it! Put me to shame. Did anybody get their nameth?”
“Linus Hood,” Bill said numbly, surprised at his own tone. Where was the anger? It had never broken its leash before, let alone run off into the woods like that. He hoped it wasn’t like Keepsake, that it would stay lost to him and never catch the scent of his heart again. “Nathan Hood.” He decided to make up names for the other 3. “Nuisance Hood. Irritation Hood. Bother Hood.”
“There were 2 otherth.”
“Not Hoods. I could tell that by looking at’em. Not from around here, and by here I mean Aunty.”
“Keepsake, sweetie, it’s time. Are you ready?” Kicker asked her daughter. The little phantom nodded again, turned to her friend, her loyal Willy Billy.
“Goodbye Billy,” she said, shattering him again, but in the nicest way she could. Bill hugged her, swept her off her feet and spun her around, like he was the scattering mechanism and he was trying to force any lingering pain out of her with centrifugal force.
“No goodbyes Keepy. Ya go where ya need to, but no goodbyes. I’m holding onto ya always this time. Yer not a memory. Ya hear me? Yer a person. A person living in the corner of my eye.” He kissed her forehead and let her down, stepping back so as not to interfere in the real reunion.
The girl waved to him and Popette, then ran to her mother, her multifaceted point of origin. Kicker took her up even more enthusiastically than Bill had, and spun her in the same fashion. With each rotation she was less there. The 2 overlapped. Kicker’s heartbeat filled up with its old timbre. She breathed her first full breath since before Gothic Rock, one that let her feel her entire body. Her little girl was back home, so there wasn’t any reason to keep spinning like a fool. With her inner child slotted back into the family reunion jigsaw, her eyes settled on Bill.
“And?” he asked.
“I don’t want to kill you,” Kicker said. “Hooray for you. Now I’m getting out of this damn cell.” She pushed past him and pulled on the bars; they didn’t budge. “Never mind. I could kill somebody right now.”
“You still on our side!?” Likely asked a restored Roman and Long Odd Silver as the 2 reappeared beside the clustered members of the Hood clan. They were just in time to get arrested, as a phalanx of prison guards had formed to both keep out the bugs and slowly march toward them. All 6 of them were pinned down behind the wrecked scattering mechanism, and when the guards made it under the umbrella they had enough cover to open up and start tossing tricks.
“Does this answer your question?” Roman growled as he took point and punched cards out of the air with his boxing dice. He clacked them together with a sound that made most of the guards flinch, catching a card flat between 2 faces. With one spin of his body he released the 10 of wheels, sending it rocketing back into the hand that had thrown it.
Not to be outdone at his own last stand, Likely stepped in front of them and brandished his electric whip to take out the rest of the volley. His arms had grown so sore after the full day of riding that he couldn’t crack it properly anymore; he was losing cards off the tip like droplets of spittle from someone speaking in tongues.
Silver was there to pick them up though, or rather catch them in bodily orbit as soon as they left the whip. The Plutonian enigma had their entire deck in orbit, some in an X pattern across the chest, some around the waist as a belt, more as a halo, and yet more around each arm. They danced in place more than they fought, letting their cards slice up the incoming or redirect them.
Victim, Ouzo, and Riri fought their hardest too, but the grand deck was stacked against them. There were just too many, and the distance was closing. The Hoods were about to fold when the ace that crawled out of the hole reared its ugly ankles once again. All 10 toes crashed down on the tarp, the mere shadows of the filthy feet sending the guards to the ground beneath them.
Cicadas crawled over the lip like a pile of mating crabs washed up on shore. There wasn’t time to be disgusted before they exploded into the air and corralled the phalanx out from under the mechanism.
The monster from beneath Gothic Rock had found inspiration in Bill’s cowering inside one of the cells, so it went to work on getting all the guards and posse members in the same state. Clouds of squirming legs and glob eyes pressured them, directing them, splitting off chunks like wolves separating a bison from the herd.
As soon as a handful of them were in an empty cell the legs touched down right in front and kicked the sliding doors shut. The guards and henchpeople saw what was happening, but could do little to stop it. Even the ones who found the courage to lift their heads enough for proper aim had almost nothing to aim at. If they spotted the legs there was a decent chance it was several feet above their head, running along the wall, leaping off only to deliver a floating roundhouse kick to the jaw.
Clink. Clank. Clink. Clank. Clank. Clank!
With the last door locking Gothic Rock had been turned inside out. It now housed primarily law abiding citizens and those who could at least fake it. The cicadas began to thin and settle. Moonlight cut through them and bathed the faces of protesters, who emerged from their hiding corners.
“He did it!” Likely hollered, holstering his balding whip and stumbling toward the slow flow of the swarms. They had to be coalescing around Neighbor. Those from the Hood mausoleum followed behind, doing their best to give Linus the moment he’d planned for, stolen for, ridden for, and fought for.
It didn’t matter that it was all over silly things. Last names. Horses. A 4-seater overloaded with horse leavings. Grudges. That was the Mountainblood way, and to an extent the South Reap way, and to an even lesser one the Antichthon way. Everything was cumulative. While you were alive you were the one breathing atop the burial mound, but the dirt climbed your wrists and ankles every day until you’d have to take a deep one and hold it until Halloween.
Meanwhile the women and children ground up in greased wheels wound up voiceless, concentrated in malignant tumors in the backyard sheds of this, the 2nd world from the central fire in hostile probable space. They couldn’t have a legacy the way Likely could. All they had was the occasional eruption, like a blemish, helped along by lancing oddballs like Suzette, Wordy, and Café.
They didn’t get to win battles like Linus did, despite his lowly status, but all that was far from his mind as the cicadas that shepherded his family across the generations, forded rivers with them, weathered storms with them, led him back out the destroyed front gates. Neighbor was taking his first steps as a free man in 7 years.
Linus took off his boots, caught up, walked alongside his brother’s feet. He didn’t say anything at first, just shared the moment. The bugs all about him were dispersing, drifting off into the night air like paper lanterns.
“We did it brother.” He didn’t answer. They still covered him completely, but Linus could see the shape of his head and shoulders now. Nathan looked up at the moon, at the planet’s thin foggy ring. “It’s alright. You’re free. We’re back in busin-” He reached out to touch his brother’s shoulder and his hand went straight through.
The cicadas gave way, scattered. There was nothing there anymore. Nothing left but legs and an animating Halloween spirit. Neighbor’s feet kept walking, toes sliding deep into the sand with every step. A thin layer of insects remained at his waist, like a cap, hiding exactly what the boundary between Neighbor and the rest of the world looked like. Linus suspected it wasn’t innards, but gnaw marks. Other people had worn him down like an eraser, the nub scraping against the pencil’s metal tip.
The legs stopped. Dropped to their knees. Twisted and fell over. They scattered him. That wasn’t the sentence. He… They stuck him somewhere. Not in that thing, but somewhere dark and lonely. Nobody to talk to but the snoozing brooding bugs. No next days, only next years. Everything he had left put into today… and just to help my stupid self get back out of the jail I broke into.
Linus collapsed next to the ½ of a brother he had left, but there wasn’t even a twitch left in a toe. The living brother felt his heart slow, felt ghosts peeking between the beats, but none of them were his Neighbor.
“It might be kind of funny if you think about it,” he told the stars, “but I’m not going to think about it. I’m just going to be mad. Spitting mad. Pissing-into-the-wind mad.” he sat up. “Leave-Mountainblood-for-good mad. Nobody needs to be bringing back the dead for this. For a mutilated present. For a family of empty photo albums.”
“Hey, we’ll be alright moldering,” Riri called out to him. “Coming back is for you, not us.” Vicki and her husband nodded along, with the latter raising a finger, pointing out the corner of shining metal sticking out from Neighbor’s waistband. Since he didn’t have a care left in the world, Linus grabbed it and pulled it out without hesitation.
It was the platinum 8 of drinks. He’d never held a platinum card before, let alone seen one before that day, but it didn’t impress him. Sure, it frightened him, the same way hearing a skyscraper creak while you’re standing under it frightens you, but he was in no position to start caring about such things just then. It did explain something though. Neighbor finding such a thing was probably the reason his legs managed to hold on as long as they did. The cicadas didn’t dare approach what was in his pocket when they were taking him into the deep.
“We’ll take that off your hands if you want to unload it,” Silver said, stepping forward. Roman had his dice tied together, hung around his neck like a sweaty towel, so his hands were free to dig out the platinum 8 of lights and toss it to Silver. It caught in their orbit, joining its sibling, the pair settling into the Plutonian’s outstretched hand after one last go around the shoulders.
They approached and knelt next to Linus, showing him the numbers and suits of the cards. He gladly pressed it into Silver’s hand. He was already looking to get away from there, and keeping platinum on his person was like painting a target between his eyes. Riri sensed this, and had run off back into the prison to fetch something.
“Ace, 8, 8…” Likely muttered. “You’re close to the dead man’s hand.”
“Shit,” Roman said as he realized. He turned around, rubbing his chin, half-expecting a wrecking ball to come swinging in and hit him out of sheer rotten luck.
“I don’t know the story,” Silver admitted.
“It’s from the 1to1 genuine Earth,” Victim explained, “but how much of it is genuine by their standards is impossible to say. There was a gunfighter in the old west named Wild Bill Hickok. He was shot and killed in the middle of a poker game by a man who couldn’t gamble his way out of a bet with a toddler.
Supposedly, when old Bill fell 4 cards spilled out of his hand. From then on those 4 have been the dead man’s hand: a pair of aces and a pair of 8s. Certain hands meaning something for your fate is a superstition… unless you’re dealing out platinum.”
“We’ll take it in stride,” Silver assured them, lining up all 3 cards and tucking them into their deck. “Although the first stride we take should be off this planet. No offense.”
“Not a single ounce taken,” Likely said, standing and brushing the sand off his pants. He offered his hand to Silver. They shook. He shook Roman’s too before offering them advice. “If you want off this place you better get on one of those.” He pointed up at the personal instruments of space travel that had transported all of the protesters there.
The rising cicada swarms had knocked them into each other, but they could only drift so far when set to idle. Their rope ladders still hung just above the dirt or coiled in it, like the strings of gasping balloons as they bled helium. The Plutonians were contemplating whether or not they should steal one of them when Riri returned, walking one of the still-functioning mechanical bulls over to Likely.
“You better get riding,” she told him, handing off the rowdy beast.
“Thank you,” Likely told her, then all of them. “You’ll see Neighbor before me, but I’ll try not to be too long.”
“Stay out of the sticky kind of trouble,” Vicki told him, licking her thumb and wiping a prison break smudge from his cheek as if it was a stickball smudge. Ouzo offered a proud nod, but the man looked extremely tired. For him there was nothing worse than getting out of a warm bed that also had his wife in it, and that was how his spirit thought of their grave.
“Riiiiiiiii,” Riri screeched with a great big smile, mimicking the cicadas. “Riiiii-heee-hee-ha-ha-ha-ha!” Somewhere, in places where somebody actually cared about what the clock said, it struck midnight. The 3 undead Hoods faded away, leaving nothing but footprints in the sand. It gave the prince of Pluto a start.
“Cripes. That could’ve been us.”
“You really think the 2 of us could just fade away?” Silver somehow asked right in his ear even though they stood 3 sets of ghostly footprints away. They smiled, but Roman refused to do so until they were beyond the cigar-stench atmosphere of Antichthon.
“Best of luck to both of you,” Likely interrupted them, hopping onto his bull. It tried to buck him off, but the familiar feeling just stoked his soul. Like trying to shake off a tick. Like trying to shake off tape. Like trying to shake off rheumatism. I’d like to see history try and brush the Hood dandruff off its shoulders.
With that thought he was gone, over the nearest dune, screaming his determination into the night sky. Every ghost following him was invisible, but Silver and Roman could feel the traffic breaking around them as hairs raised on the neck.
“Which one are we taking?” Roman asked, his eyes already diverted to the vehicles overhead. There was no point in drawn out farewells, especially since the whole planet felt like one.
“We don’t need to take anything,” Long Odd Silver insisted. “It’s going to be a lovely gift, and we’ll be very thankful.” They flicked a platinum card out of their deck, saw the reflection of the prison in it. The front gate didn’t look destroyed from the card’s perspective, more like it had bent open from the sheer suction of southern hospitality. It practically begged them to come back inside, get out of that awful desert.
The guards weren’t talking, and the warden didn’t emerge from her private garden, so they had no way of knowing if reinforcements were en route from beyond Drymouth. Accordingly, most of the protesters acted as if they were about to hear sirens. They hurried things along so they could get back in their instruments and blow a different tune, a nonchalant whistle that suggested they didn’t even know yesterday had been Halloween.
In that spirit of expedition they led Roman and Silver to the locked cell containing their leader, or that had contained their leader until a few minutes ago and now only contained the little girl who had served as her generous host. They couldn’t go anywhere in good conscience until she was freed and taken care of.
They gasped and backed away as if seeing a vampire swing out of its coffin when Silver pulled platinum. One corner into the lock opened it, and the bars flew to the side as if motorized. Bill Billity, Kicker Ocks, and Poppy Club emerged. Bill, having no particular quarrel with anyone there any longer, snuck away, muttering about horses. Eventually, somewhere outside Gothic Rock, as he tried to rein in 3 of the animals by his lonesome, that muttering turned into talk of settling down, finding a wife, and adopting some children who already had fates worse than a Billity could offer.
Poppy was all smiles. She probably wanted to keep the mask that had fallen off her face, but the excitement had her wringing it wrinkly in her hands. Of how she got there she was only vaguely aware, but that didn’t stop her from gleefully pressing her little pink tongue into the gap between her front teeth.
“Can thomebody call my daddy? He probably doethn’t know I’m gone yet. I’m gonna make him breakfatht tho he’th not mad.” The protesters swarmed her with questions, asking about Suzette. They never had the pleasure of meeting her, but the girl couldn’t give them much more than shrugs.
Silver, overhearing the tales of this Suzette, thought she had to be quite the character, especially since her fan club drew all attention away from the Plutonians even with one being a prince, one being crazy8, 3 platinum cards between them, and a mechanical head with active eyes bouncing on their belt.
“You should help them!” Poppy shouted to get herself some space, pointing at Silver and Roman. “They let me out, tho Thuzy would definitely want you to help them! Yeah! Hey you guyth! What do you want?”
“One of the instruments,” Roman told the crowd. “The man locked us up in here. Part of your hostile takeover of Pluto.” Whispers moved through them. “That’s right, Pluto. They came and curtailed our every freedom, and you can bet peaceful protest was included.” Silver smirked; they knew he didn’t believe in peaceful protest as long as he could throw dice.
An old man came out of the crowd, wearing a colorful shirt from a bygone era of flower picking, of potting them in the barrels of rifles. His eyes sparkled behind yellow-tinted glasses. He claimed to have known Suzette personally, and implied the knowledge was intimate as well. Whether or not he was telling the truth wouldn’t matter once he completed his gesture. Nobody would dare call him a liar when he gave away his instrument, worth not just a pretty penny but the penny that won the beauty pageant, to perfect strangers in her honor.
He handed over the keys to his vessel, which turned out to be the smallest one: the harmonica. It could only comfortably hold a handful of people, so there wasn’t much protest from the group over their taking it.
Shortly after Poppy was freed the prison disgorged its visitors. Some of the prisoners managed to convince their way aboard one of the instruments, but most of them merely idled. There was nowhere to go on foot, and the police forces of Antichthon held grudges even better than cudgels. Most thought it smarter to remain and finish out their sentences than go on the run.
Kicker departed on the kazoo, bound for anywhere that wasn’t South Reap. When Keepsake was killed she was just a shell afterward, and so was able to fill herself up with all sorts of dangerous meditation techniques. In splitting her odds and projecting herself beyond her cell she had picked up some information about her family’s so-called destiny.
She didn’t know what I know with the benefit of hindsight, but she had a firm enough grip on it. In a few short years another planet would be theorized back in the 1to1, but not demonstrated. The theory, proposing 5 giant planets in the early solar system instead of 4, would see marbles such as Saturn and Jupiter joined by an icy peer named Mephitis.
In this model Mephitis and its gravity shenanigans would be responsible for stabilizing the inner planets, but would itself have been ejected from a meet-cute with Jupiter and all the way beyond the reach of the central fire. It would then become what is called a ‘rogue planet’, wandering the high seas of the stars until it collided with something else.
Men and women such as Whisker Ocks invested their bloodline in the idea. Where they got the tip-off I have no clue, that’s a little beyond my ken, but there are a few suspects: computer simulations transmitted from Phaeton or information gleaned from the 1to1 in the 2to1 air of Vulcan. Either way, the Ocks thought they deserved to be on that new planet whenever it showed its face. The dead in their line were too uppity, too itchy, refused to sit in their high chair calmly and eat their just desserts.
They wanted out of the oppressive dirt of Antichthon, and far away from it too. Most instruments of space travel were only capable within their star’s system. As far as any of them knew no ship in probable space had ever made it to another hot ball of gas down the lane. That made Mephitis, the pitcher’s snowball as some would call it, the only way out of Dodge.
It also made it necessary that the living Ocks members be near the spot where it was supposed to show up so they could hitch a ride. Otherwise the whole family of chained-up ghosts couldn’t make the jump. They really would turn that whole planet into a ship of fools, given that I know how little they actually know.
You see, that model over in the 1to1 says that Mephitis will eventually be ejected out onto its voyage… but it doesn’t say when. We’re talking planets here, so it could be eons. The Ocks line honestly thought they had the foundation to make it however many generations you can fit in a billion years or so. Sure, Mephitis could go overboard less than a century after its arrival, but I wouldn’t put money on it.
And that’s without taking into account all the zany Mephitis would bring with it upon its formation. You thought Pluto was a bag of crazy cats? The stories I could tell you about early Mephitis! They’re certainly good enough for a trilogy of their own. The rogue planet series: Mephitis got Real, Mephitis out of Luck, and Mephitis Hit the Fan!
Listen to me, getting away from all this before I’ve finished narrating. Silver, Roman, and the brazen head are literally going in the opposite direction. To Vulcan, towards certainty, knowability, and perhaps their purposes and origins.
Anyway, the point of my tangent was that Kicker didn’t know if she had successfully derailed her father’s and her father’s fathers plans, but it was starting to feel like it. She got on that instrument and never looked back, knowing that burning down her hindsight was the best path forward.
Which takes us back to our 2 ½ Plutonians. The harmonica had a cozy interior, with wood paneling and red carpet. There was a kitchenette right next to the cockpit with produce, jars, and cans hanging in rope nets just out of swinging range of the stove top. With one button press the rope ladder pulled itself back up and the ship sealed.
That one button press came after dozens of incorrect ones, as Silver and Roman had never piloted an instrument before. They only found the right one when they remembered they again had the brazen head, and most answers were just a polite question away. When they wanted to do something they simply held it over the control panel, sweeping its eyes back and forth, with it saying ‘yes’ whenever it passed over the correct knob or lever.
The process was slow, but it got them all the way up, through the clouds, out of the blue, and into the dark of probable space. Antichthon was a hub of interplanetary travel, and the traffic was intense. Their radio was alive with the discordant clashing of many instruments honking at each other, so they went where the voices were thinnest: the planet’s ring.
Soon it became apparent why that was the road less traveled. The ring was not a ring, at least not as far as the typical composition. It wasn’t ice, or rocks, or even space junk. The barren stretch of pale all around Antichthon was pure hardluck. Millions upon millions of unlikely people, 9t1 and all but gone, drifted with nothing in mind bu the momentum of the shoulders passing through theirs.
They passed by the portholes like a school of fish as the harmonica made its way through them with a low note so as not to disturb them. Their attire suggested they came from many different decades, aging slowed by thinness of being. Most of their mouths were agape, nearly as hollow as their eyes. The craft was shielded against the likes of them; if it hadn’t been they would’ve been so thickly layered that Silver wouldn’t have been able to see the controls in front of their face.
“Why don’t they just give up?” Roman asked, disgusted. “At least on Pluto they don’t make a show of it.”
“There’s a difference between giving up and going away.” Crystal tears rolled down Silver’s cheek, perhaps a little faster than usual. “They’re waiting for someone else to do their living for them.”
“Yeah? I’m living, and looking at them makes it harder. Hit the gas. Get us off dear old Aunty.”
“I will happily get us off anytime, my prince. Hold onto something.” Roman, fighting an instinct, came up behind them and wrapped his arms around Long Odd Silver’s shoulders. “Excellent choice.”
Together they knew a little number, and they played it on the harmonica, unaware if it was long enough to get them to Vulcan before silence kicked in.
Long Odd Silver and the prince of Pluto will return in
Planet in Theory
Riverboat without a Captain