44. Firing Solution

There are always places where very little that matters to people seems to happen. The island straits near Enk and Innogen’s home, the deserts south of Barbara’s, the entirety of Wales, or the vast scope of red and brown sand that stood on the edges of Holland’s reality. Time can pass in those places with barely a few words – months passed.

When things happen, in places where people are, however, a few short moments can take so many words.

*

Grey London exploded around Angus when he’d done that. He hoped it hadn’t been nearly so messy for the girl inside the diner, with her polite smile and chubby cheeks. Considering how long it had taken him to work out turn around as an escape to a place that wanted to draw him in, it would be so much worse for him if the diner, with its rich bacon scent and its comfortable seats, was somehow disrupted, even if it was just an empty, inexplicable wasteland where people hid from curiosity.

Was it Thursday? He could never get the hang of Thursdays. At least, that’s what he said every time he was at the pub, and the day of the week came up. It was always comforting to give out that little signal, to say to people around him, there’s this thing I’ve heard of, that you may have heard of too – and feel that social contact.

Socialising was hard.

Angus couldn’t explain in hindsight why his thoughts roamed so, as he travelled from Grey London to Colourful Wherever. It just seemed preferable to looking down at his hands, and watching as the patterns of stars and constellations began to dance and swirl in them, to open his eyes and watch the children running away from him and hear his own, heavily distorted voice gurgle out “Get back here, you f-“

*

“Okay, so how do we…”

“I don’t know, I’ve never been here.”

“Very helpful.”

Barbara looked down at the water, the platform, and the gulf between her, Holland, and the dancing swarm of lights that indicated the Prince. “I mean, I think if we can get across there-“

“Can you jump that high?”

“Well, I could jump like, a few storeys,”

“I can’t.”

Barbara bit back her thought – Yes, but how much can you fight? – and looked down. “Maybe… it’s like, like a jumping puzzle? You hop on one and then on another?”

Holland pointed across the room. “Well, uh, even if I did, I’d still be like, six feet below that platform.”

“Feet?”

“Yeah, feet.”

“I dunno, I thought you used, like meters.”

“Sometimes we use feet. Because we keep buying your television.”

Barbara nodded at that. “Well, lemme see if there’s anythin’ over there,” she said, stepping forwards and up – casting herself into the air like a bullet.

Barbara arced through the air with balletic grace, remembering being thrown from pyramid top to pyramid top, marvelling at the freedom, at the feeling of being so free, while her hair whipped around her. When she landed, she skidded slightly, flat shoes moistened on the soft stone. A fistful of green flame lit her exploration as she looked around, checking the surfaces –

“Hey, Holland!” she called. “There’s a switch here – maybe for a bridge?”

“Flip it!” Holland called, proving that everyone can make poor decisions at times.

The switch flicked, the waters started to churn – and to Holland’s despair, lower. The forms in the water, the little jumping puzzle, started to rise. The water sank down, drained away from the forms, while they rose up, up, up – showing those strange, mechanised crabs, stacked three atop one another. When the column ejected fully, tall enough that Holland could jump across them to reach the other platform, they started to move. Eyes lit up, and the crablike forms all tumbled together onto the floor, wriggling and squirming.

Then, as one, they started to crawl up the wall – away from Barbara, and towards Holland.

“Holland!” Barbara yelled, running towards the platform, springing her legs to throw herself forwards and leap back to her friend. This time, though, there was nowhere to land – the platform already covered in crabs. She hit a rounded, wet carapace, bounced, and skidded off to land in a tumbling roll, thrown into a corner. Pulling herself up to standing, green fire filled both her hands, she rounded, and looked to Holland.

Holland stood ramrod straight, surrounded by crabs. That wasn’t all, though – when Holland’s head turned, so did their stalk-like eyes. When Holland raised a hand nervously to Barbara, the crabs genuflected, bowing low.

Whatever it was in the crabs that wanted to defend this place, the one person they weren’t defending against was Holland.

“I… I have no idea what’s going on,” Holland confessed.

“Neither do I, I-“ Barbara began, before a yell ripped through the chamber.

“Get back here, you f-“

*

A single white hair falling over her red eyes, Cards flared her nostrils defensively. The ceiling had had handholds enough for her to move across, the starlight-patterns on the Prince’s skin scattered reflections she could track.

When she was sent to a location like this, it was always with a simple one-line order, really a request. Fix this. The rest, they left up to her. Her last assignment was more of a personal project – the drug cartels and their people in the Latin American jungles were the right kind of monster for a woman like her to fight. Her armory of ridiculous, gaudy guns all sent a message when others came to clean the place – and her personal white imagery made her a perfect pseudoreligious figure. The people of Colombia that met her thought that she was some sort of angel, something sent by a mish-mash mythology to oppose the pseudogovernments represented by drug cartels. People feared the shadow of them, and they feared her.

Fix This, they’d told her.

Well, every piece of intel she’d gathered so far suggested that the cackling, teleporting, child-attacking maniac covered in stars might be a place to start. Twisting her legs around the alcove in the ceiling to give her more support, Cards drew up her two ridiculous firearms, knowing that under the patina of fake gold and fake diamonds lay a real gun with the force of a cannon. Narrowing red eyes, watching for her moment – she saw that moment when the Prince bowed sharply, head framed in profile, and

She

fired-

“Get back here, you f-“

*

Enk slid down the passage way, his feet gathering speed as he hit a flat surface. Innogen was only a moment behind him. She was faster, sure, but she kept stopping to fling back arcs of electricity, watching as they curled around the tunnel, kissing the water and filling the air with that strange scent of burnt water and ozone. When outrunning a dragon, she knew that she only had to run faster than Enk… so she was making sure he could run faster than her.

“What is that thing?!” Enk yelled.

“I don’t know!” Innogen called, running after him. “It’s like, like, a constellation book!” She responded, hammering steps down the pathway alongside Enk. The tunnels were usually linear – which made it hard to feel she wasn’t running into a trap. A corner came up, and then the flash of white light projected onto the wall before them – a sign that there was, between them and him, a straight line.

He moved very, very fast in straight lines.

The cackling black-and-white form sped through the hallway so swift as to not have any bones in his feet, or time in the intervening space. Zeno’s paradoxes squealed in protest as the form stepped forwards, tumbled onto one knee, and momentarily hesitated, his head low. A star like a drop of sweat appeared on the Prince’s forehead, slithering down the sharklike surface, as he raised his head and snarled.

“Get back here, you f-“

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