43. Playing Cards

Jubal had once heard his father talk to him about the promises the voice made to him. One of the ones his father repeated endlessly had been the oath that his descendants would number as the stars. Jubal had laid back one night, and looked up at the sky, and counted until he fell asleep, and came to a total he understood of a few thousand. As far as he knew, there were maybe ten times that living in Ninevah, and there were tales told to Jubal of coins that came from as far away as the Indus, where numbers greater still lived. A family large enough to own a few suburbs in Uruk didn’t sound like a bad deal, though!

Thousands of years after Jubal was alive, and only a scant fewer than before Jubal was forgotten, the Hubble Deep Field telescope turned its infrared-tuned eye to the skies and cast about its mirrors to gather information on how many stars were in the sky. It spied pin-prick galaxies, each one comprised of billions of stars, to go with the two hundred observable billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, with some mathematical estimates as high as a trillion.

The actual number would mean nothing to Jubal. More people than were in Ninevah, more people than in Uruk, more people than in the place he did not know but was named Mohinjo Daro – Jubal’s father’s promise spoke of an impossibility.

So many stars hung in the sky, pinned to nothing, that if all the grains of sand in the world were themselves, whole worlds, with sand on them, there would still be more stars in the sky than sand on earth.

When the Prince of a Thousand Eyes moved, it was with a stilted, distorted motion. There was something human underneath it, something more than just that human ideal of can’t someone else fix it, something that still knew it needed to put one foot in front of the other. The defence systems that the crabs had set up could not stop him – he was, by far and away, the most dangerous and potent force this world had, as its rich and pampered, its undisciplined and its safe, were swept up and away, away from a world that had things like starvation and poverty and systemic cruelty. Each golem of shell and jade rose up and was crushed. While each one woke two more, he knew the throne room would hold the mechanisms necessary to use this device for what it was truly intended. The light of each star blazed through inky, vacuum-like skin, which cast pinpricks upon the walls as he shuffled onwards.

The eyes of the Prince were so many, but saw so little, small and faint as they were. When stars he thought he had lost opened up on his back, when they cast their light down the tunnel he’d left, across a void he’d flown over, and hit the far wall, arranged as leo. The stars flared, bright, and then, were gone.

Barbara stepped out of the wall, holding Holland’s hand. In the murk of the depths, with their eyes adjusting, Barbara tried to shake off what she’d seen, in that tiny instant. Stepping like that – pulling herself to the presence of the Prince, to step through the constellation she had, somehow, claimed as hers, meant drifting, for just a few sparse moments, in a place that wasn’t here, or there, or anywhere. It was a vacuum of spaces and darkness, where the only things around were stars – stars drifting through the void.

For the briefest of instances, Barbara had not been holding the hand of Holland. She had been holding the hand of a tiny prick of light, distant and impossibly faint; and the hand of a neverendingly-wide, world-feeding ball of collapsing plastmatic hydrogen and helium in a state of swirling, nigh-eternal nuclear fission. And yet, it had also been Holland’s hand. In that place, surrounded by nothing but stars, Holland had been a star.

“You okay?” Barbara asked, putting her hand on her friend’s shoulder, turning to look up and down the hall. She’d expected to be closer to the Prince, not… here. Up on a platform, jutting out over a pool of thick, sludgey water, out of which seemed to jut row upon row of small, bulbous domes. Clean and smooth, she wondered if this was some sort of jumping puzzle, with deceptively slick stepping stones.

“I’m-” Holland began, before the gunshots echoed around them.

Barbara whipped her head around, planting her feet, raising her hand and flaring her nostrils. The hand raised burst into moist, green flame, churning and foaming like something in a chemical vat, casting light around the pair. Her hand refused to be burnt, the flame danced in her grasp.

Holland hunkered by her side, almost as though trying to hide behind her without actually stepping back that far, to get too close to the platform’s edge. “What was that?” Holland hissed.

Barbara’s nostrils flared, but she refused to turn her head, to look away from the hallway, from the source of the noise. Holland’s words made no sense to her for a moment, until she blurted the thought, still holding that steely expression. “You’ve never heard a gun before, have you?”

Two more shots, then another. Then a painfully obvious pause, with the churning, foaming sound of the flame in Barbara’s hand filling the air. Her other hand swelled with the green flame, and slowly, the cheerleader stepped forwards, closing her hands into fists. She stepped forwards, slowly, feeling Holland move behind her. Step after step –

Then another pair of shots, and a truly unpleasant moist sound. A strange grunt that echoed off the walls, a sound that didn’t sound like any person had said it, and then a tearing and a clatter, like an enormous bowl being dropped on the floor. With her flames gripped tight, Barbara leant around the corner, tensed and ready.

It was something of an S bend in the corridor; as she peered around her corner, something else peered around the other. Something? Some one, someone with white hair and red eyes and a pair of very large guns pointed at her. The dismembered crab-like form, with its gooey strands of moisture and its twitching, fading runes between them, was barely a punctuation mark as Barbara swung around to press her back to the wall, calling out.

“Don’t know who you are,” she yelled, “But if you’re working for the Prince, I-”

flt.

Barbara’s dad had shown her, once, how he flicked Magic: The Gathering cards across the table. There was an art to the aerodynamics, something about folding and pinching, about keeping the mass tight. That had been, more or less, exactly the sound they’d made when they’d hit the bread-board propped up on the other end of the table. That ‘flt‘ sound – which rang from the wall where a small business card had hit, then drifted down onto the floor next to Barbara’s foot. Without bending to pick it up, she squinted down at the small card on the floor.

I’m mute.

“Oh.” Barbara called. “I’m really s-”

flt

Don’t apologise.

“Kay…” Barbara said, her brows furrowing. “… Do you have like a printer, there to print these cards? You, I mean, can you tell-”

flt

I came prepared.

“You came prepared to explain th-”

flt

I came very prepared.

“Okay.” Barbara drew a breath. “You say this is a dead end, but the Prince is this way.” She called, pressing herself against the wall. “And if I come out, are you going to point those guns at me?”

I point these guns at everything.

Oh come on, how prepared can a person be. Barbara cleared her throat. “I… I just want you to know, we’re here to stop the Prince. He’s killing the world.”

“Well, he’s killing a big part of the world. Well, he’s kidnappi-” Holland whispered to her, leaning against the wall, before Barbara gave a Shh look.

“So, like, if you want to fight us…? That’s going to suck for you. Because I’m not leaving here until the Prince is stopped.” She said, resolution in her tone. The words echoed off the stone, a subtle roar that filled Holland’s heart with courage. Even with the ‘likes’ and the twang that had, thus far, always been associated with silly news and airline advertisements.

No flt. No response.

Barbara slowly leant around the corner. She stepped past the not-quite-body, trying to ignore the way Holland shuddered at it. She rounded the corner, to where the woman with the cards had to be, and found, stuck to the wall with ichor, two more cards:

You have your objectives, and I have mine.

Do I make myself clear?

Barbara turned around, the flame fading out like blown candles, and put a hand to Holland’s shoulder. “Okay. So… we’ve like, got something else to deal with, as well.”

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