Dozing within the layers of his dream for a moment, listening to the Voice describe the umbilical rhythm of his breathing and the thrum of the tires on the potholed, sandy road. Drifting. Content.
Then there’s a particularly sharp jolt and he’s back to full sensory perception, to the sound of murmuring conversations around him and that peculiar smell native to buses everywhere: something to do with the cheap imitation leather of the seats, which are upholstered in a brown color that manages to look both utilitarian and bizarre in its obvious synthetic quality. He’s still trying to think of something, anything, he’s encountered in nature that matches that exact shade of brown, and still coming up blank, when his neighbor in the aisle seat clears her throat.
“Do you know how far it is to Radon Canyon?” The middle-aged woman pronounces “Radon” oddly, rhyming the second syllable with “fun.” He figures right away that chemistry probably isn’t her strong point.
Or, for that matter, the strong point of anyone else on the tour bus, because otherwise they wouldn’t be heading for a local landmark known to be bathed in poisonous radiation with their vehicle windows open and their fragile bodies protected by nothing more effective than sunscreen.
“That depends,” Carlos says cautiously. “I estimate we’re moving at about,” glancing out the window, then at his watch, “twenty-five miles per hour. If we pass a route marker, I could make a more exact calculation. Uh, where did we start from?”
“What d’you mean, ‘where did we start from’? Don’t you remember getting on the bus?”
“No, I really don’t. I... may not have done so at all. I don’t think I’m here, in a strictly physical sense, I mean.”
The middle-aged woman looks at him with suspicion, then pokes him sharply in the ribs, making him jump. “You feel real enough to me.”
“I never meant to give you the impression I wasn’t,” Carlos says, rubbing his side.
This might have satisfied one of his neighbors, but the middle-aged woman isn’t from Night Vale and doesn’t have any experience of astral projection (which he really needs to come up with a better, more scientific term for, considering how often he’s the one being projected, these days). She draws back, looking at him as if he’s just grown a second head. “What’s your deal? Are you off your medication, or something?”
Carlos opens his mouth to make an indignant reply, and then shuts it again. What can he say, exactly, to make a case for his sanity? “Sorry, ma’am, but this is the third time I’ve dreamed this, and I know how it ends”? “My fault, I forgot you’re not from around here”? “Listen, don’t worry about me, you need to get off this bus right now, or you’re going to die”?
The thing is, he’d tried that, the last time. Tried standing up and getting their attention. Tried telling the driver to stop, turn around, get out of the area, get out of range. They’d just looked at him as if they couldn’t understand what he was saying, until his forced calm was submerged by a rising tide of panic, and then it didn’t matter that the driver was finally stopping — if only to find out what the crazy man in the labcoat was shouting about — because the real madness had already descended.
Carlos has seen the bumper stickers that read IF IT’S CALLED TOURIST SEASON, WHY CAN’T WE SHOOT THEM? At the time, they had just made him shake his head over the wordplay, or suppress a shudder of private nausea at things best forgotten. Now the memory rates a shudder for different reasons. He can easily imagine a Night Vale native asking him the same question, in all sincerity.
Except he doesn’t have to, because someone has apparently bypassed the question entirely and come up with a truly psychotic answer.
In less than a minute, all of these people are going to be screaming and trying to gouge out their own eyes, and he’ll have to watch it happen, helpless to stop it, for the third time.
“Something like that,” he tells the middle-aged woman.
One implication of his answer is true, at least. The only prescription he has is for sleeping pills, and he hasn’t taken any for weeks. This is an involuntary projection, or vision, or whatever it ought to be called. They usually are. He’s just never had the same one three times in a row before.
The middle-aged woman shifts restlessly in her seat. “Well, you’re making me nervous,” she says, looking around as if she can find an empty seat to move to. (There isn’t one; Carlos knows that without looking. Unless, that is, he’s sitting in it.)
“Sorry,” he says, watching her hands, thinking now just as the fine tremors run through them, and then the scream is ripped out of her throat as if on an invisible hook, in unison with all the others, a simultaneous flayed choir-cry of mortal terror.
He keeps his eyes fixed on her pant-suited knees as her hands jerk up and out of his field of vision, again part of a weirdly choreographed shared motion. He doesn’t close his eyes or cover his ears, but he doesn’t look up when the unspeakable gristly sounds begin, either. It is possible to throw up in a dream, and even the Voice describing that particular action does nothing to dilute its unpleasantness.
He wishes, more than anything, that this dream were like the others. He’d sabotage the headquarters of the Night Vale Tourism Board himself — razor wire and man-eating cacti notwithstanding — if it would stop these people from dying. But he’s too late, and he knows it.
He isn’t dreaming the future this time.
He’s dreaming the past.
Another jolt, another layer of abstraction from physical reality peeling off of his mind like an onionskin.
He wishes there was a proper word in the English language — or any language, hell, Spanish or Latin would do just as well — for the unique feeling of waking up with a scream trapped behind your teeth. He’d start his private notes with that word every day.
“Hey. Carlos. Boss? Come on, get up.” Someone shaking his shoulder, gently, insistently. A very hard surface under him, and a brilliant light making even the insides of his eyelids blinding.
He cracks one eye open and sits up cautiously, ambushed by a yawn. Mistake. The early-morning air is seething with fine sand, a fair quantity of which swirls right into his mouth. He coughs most of it back out again, startled, and laughs. “Sorry. Hell of a way to brush your teeth in the morning.”
“Hell of a way to fall asleep, for that matter,” Marianne Smithson says.
Carlos opens his eyes all the way and groans. On top of Marianne’s rented car, the blue Astra with its one broken taillight, and Marianne herself clambering up beside him, her face quizzical. “I did it again, didn’t I?”
“Yep. You did it again. Why do you always climb on top of the nearest car whenever you’re stressed?”
“I don’t know.” Only partially a lie. He could know, but it’s buried in the part of his childhood that doesn’t bear up well under close scrutiny. Something about evenings in L.A., how the stars were never quite visible, how the run-down alleyways of his mother’s neighborhood gave way too quickly to neatly mown lawns, neighborhood watch signs and suspicion.
“My little brother used to climb trees,” Marianne says, shading her eyes against the brilliance of the sky. “A failed math test, a fight at school, my dad yelling at him for forgetting his chores again, and up he’d go.”
“That’s it. Mystery solved,” teasingly, and Carlos puts his head back down on the chilly metal roof of the car. “Must be some kind of lizard-brain imperative. I just couldn’t find any trees in this quadrant, had to settle for the next best thing.”
“You were having a nightmare again.”
This flat statement leaves Carlos with no conversational room to slip out from underneath, which is, of course, exactly what his plain-spoken colleague intended. He twists his lip at her, not sure whether to be amused or irritated. “ ‘Again’?”
“Don’t be disingenuous, damn it. You’ve had them since we got here, and I think before then, too. It just wasn’t so noticeable until you started wearing the miniature PF reader. Spikes of activity every time you hit REM stage.” She’s leaning over him, the sunrise touching her long red hair with fingers of fire, but as usual Marianne has no intention of trying to use feminine wiles on him, and not simply because she knows he’s immune. She just twists her own fingers into her hair, beginning to braid it back expertly out of her face. “You can tell me, if you want to,” she offers.
“No,” Carlos says, stomach lurching at a mental image which he hastily pushes away. “I really, really don’t. I, um, I would rather not irritate the lining of my throat just now.”
“That bad, huh?” Marianne frowns, slides down off the side of the car. “Well, I wish you’d confide in me, but not if it’s going to make you literally ill.”
Carlos sighs. “I don’t mean to be condescending when I say this,” hesitantly, “but, I honestly don’t think that it would help with the situation in general if I told you.”
“The situation in general?”
“I mean. Being here. In Night Vale.”
Marianne ponders this, and then grimaces. “Fair enough, but will you satisfy my curiosity on one point? Are they the same as all the other dreams?”
“I mean the ‘municipally mandated’ dreams, the ones everyone in town seems to share? Remember the theory we talked about, that they might be broadcasted somehow?”
“I don’t think so. Remind me what the last one was about?”
“That doesn’t sound particularly terrifying.”
“It’s not, until you realize they aren’t really rabbits.” She shudders. “Or maybe that they are, but that you’ve never had a proper understanding of what rabbits actually are, that all the studies and experiences people have had with them are fatally wrong.”
Carlos pushes himself up onto one elbow. “Interesting,” he says. “No, I haven’t had that dream. Maybe there’s some kind of genetic marker that makes you capable of — of receiving them, and I just don’t have it?”
“Maybe,” Marianne says. “Or maybe it’s because of your — ability. Maybe you block them out, without even knowing. Like a natural immunization.” She looks up at him, gives a little nod, eyes clear again. “That’s what I think, anyway. Ready to pack up?”
He glances at his watch — 8:56 — gathers his feet under him, and slides down to land beside Marianne, his already-battered red Converse sneakers leaving prints in the sand next to her carefully laced workboots. Two opposite, but equally defiant, fashion statements, he thinks, and smiles a little, crookedly. “Sure. Did I miss breakfast?”
They haul their camping equipment back into the Astra’s trunk, leaving the dune where they had pitched the tent more or less indistinguishable from any other dune in the Sand Wastes. By sight, at least. Carlos knows precisely where they are, because he’s been staring a hole in his survey map for the past twelve hours.
Minus, of course, whichever part of that time was lost to sleep and the third iteration of that nightmare.
His most long-term and difficult project so far — the mapping of Night Vale and its environs — has gotten more dangerous than he had ever anticipated. Archival research (including getting in and out of the Public Library without losing limbs or sanity, and he’s still the only one who can go by choice). Surveying. Putting down survey markers while avoiding hungry local anomalies. Going back to retrieve or replace survey markers that the local anomalies have consumed. Hours and hours of computer simulations and protractors and stolen maps and digging holes and cursing.
Five months since his research team arrived in Night Vale, and now Carlos knows the scrublands and the Sand Wastes like the back of his hand (if, that is, the back of his hand were constantly prowled by hooded figures, wild animals, miniature sandstorms, weird patches of instrument-destroying static, canyons and sinkholes with a tendency to spontaneously shift position, and frightening creatures beyond the limits of his biology to define).
Or so he would have said, until now.
Now, Telly the barber has been missing for about a month, and this is the second trip Carlos has made in search of him, guilty, scouring and scouring the survey map’s uneven quadrants, like a man on a pilgrimage.
Don’t ever get between someone and a promise they’ve broken. It’s dangerous.
He can’t recall if anyone ever gave him this piece of advice before he came to Night Vale, but by now he thinks it might be the most useful piece of advice he’s ever received.
Don’t get between the neighbor who forgot to pay her phone bill and the alarming bird-masked (or bird-headed?) man who apparently works for the local collections agency. Don’t get between your apartment manager and the equally alarming woman he’s apparently been cheating on, the one who smells like used motor oil and hothouse roses and the moment before a lightning strike. Don’t get between Eli Hirsch, intern and grad student in perpetuity, and the “experiment” he left in the back of the third fridge and apparently forgot to tell anyone about, until the point at which it grew an alarming number of very literal fangs.
Don’t get between Cecil Palmer, sardonic, self-possessed, survival-instinct-impaired local radio host, and the vengeful grasp of the Management of his station. Never mind how intertwined your life has somehow gotten with his. Never mind that his Voice is the Voice of your secret visions.
Never mind that you would, in a very real way, lose everything if he died.
Don’t ever get between someone and a promise they’ve broken. Good advice, life-saving advice, and that morning Carlos would have thrown it away instantly. Thrown himself through the door of the radio station, alone and armed only with whatever had happened to be in the trunk of his car when he woke up — if he hadn’t turned on the radio itself and found Cecil on the air early.
The static hadn’t started yet, back then. Every word was clear.
Cecil, apologizing to his listeners for the unusual hour, with only a trace of weariness in his tone to suggest that he might have been up all night. Cecil, his Voice deep and present and oddly intimate, assuring the town that Sacrificial Bingo Night at the rec center was still scheduled for the usual time, that he had a special press release from the Mayor to read after the break, and, almost as an afterthought, that he wasn’t dead.
Carlos could cheerfully have shaken the man until his bones rattled.
Instead, he had just crossed his arms on the steering wheel and put his head down and wept quietly, so fundamentally relieved that the feeling ebbed and swelled and pushed all the air from his lungs, repeating Cecil’s name until his voice broke on a whisper.
Every time he thinks he doesn’t need any more evidence that he’s in love with Cecil Palmer, that this is finally his doom spelled out in letters that can be read from the Space Shuttle, the simple facts of life in Night Vale — the dangerous, unpredictable, unfathomable facts themselves — seem to go out of their way to present him with more.
The static hurts, and he knows that’s why, but if more space between them will save Cecil himself from being hurt any further, he’ll deal with it. It’s just that more space also means less information, and he doesn’t like that.
Other people can get hurt, that way.
“What’s our bearing?” Marianne asks.
It’s 9:02. The Astra’s patchy tires make grumbling sounds against the everpresent scrub and gravel. The thrum of the engine is reassuring to Carlos, who still isn’t quite used to the comparative silence of the Prius.
“Uh, due north, by that rock shaped like an angry cobra.”
Marianne slumps back in the passenger seat and shakes back the few small curls that have come loose from her braid, huffing quietly with irritation. “Compass is off again.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
She narrows her eyes at the rock. “That doesn’t look like a cobra to me, more like some kind of mutated... Wait, are you sure it’s a rock?”
“Yeah, I’ve been over there. Flatlands. Bad energy.”
“What does that mean, ‘bad energy’? High PF rating?”
“Low to moderate. Mostly it just made my skin crawl.” Carlos eases the Astra slowly down an incline, toward a clump of cacti.
He senses her curious gaze without taking his eyes from the ground in front of the car. “Do you know that Dave hypothesizes you can pick up previous levels of paranormal energy?” she says. “Like, if something was there that caused a strong paranormal field, you’d know where it had been?”
Carlos tries to hide the trickle of unease that slips up his spine at the idea. Dave Halland is probably right — has been right, more often than not, about the unexpected extent of his abilities. He says, trying to sound neutral, “Interesting, but I don’t see how we could test that without a control of some sort.”
“It’d be tricky,” Marianne agrees, “but — wait, boss, stop!” suddenly. “I saw something!”
She’s pointing to the group (do you call it a grove? a clutch? a prickle? what is the proper collective noun for cacti?) of spiny succulents, all hunched inward like grim spectators at a traffic accident.
Carlos throws on the emergency brake and is out the door, shivering slightly in the desert wind. It’s November and he’s forgotten about winter clothing again. The chill spears harshly through the worn fabric of his old flannel shirt.
The shadows of the cacti make puzzle-patterns on the hardpacked sand, and he stares at them for a moment, as if he could follow their convolutions to his quarry.
Then one of the shadows moves.
Carlos manages not to pounce. He freezes into immobility, instead, hands out in a placatory gesture, because Telly the barber — a big, potbellied man with an old-fashioned apron and a thinning hairline — looks like a maddened dog, all fixed jowls and rolling sideways glances.
Four months ago, he’d looked harried, furtive. He’d been terrified of something, but not driven before it; he’d made nervous jokes about lowering his prices for a newcomer, about not being able to find all of his usual brushes and combs, about Carlos’s politely expressed dislike of hair gel. He’d been... civilized, even in his fear.
Now he’s gone feral. What’s left of his hair stands out in a matted halo. He’s sand-scoured and blistered, and the apron is ripped and spattered with substances Carlos would rather not think about. And his eyes are deep pits, with no sanity left in them.
“Boss?” Marianne’s voice is held down, careful. “Don’t get too close. He’s armed.”
Carlos glances down at the barber’s right hand, and there it is: the steel glint of a pair of long, sharp scissors. He swallows hard, tries to remember everything he’s ever learned about not getting stabbed. Slowly raises both hands to shoulder level.
“Telly?” cautiously. “Um, is that you?”
Telly’s eyes dart in their shadowed sockets. He backs several steps away from Carlos. In a raspy, unused voice, “I’m closed. It’s too early for work,” and he coughs into his sleeve.
“That’s okay,” Carlos says, letting go of the non sequitur and focusing on a calming tone, as if comforting a frightened child. “I just came to... find you.”
Another raling cough, full of tiny barbs — a sound that catches the back of Carlos’s throat in sympathy. What has he been drinking? Eating? Better not to ask.
“Listen, um, we’re concerned about you, out here alone. We have food and water... we could take you back into town...”
The barber doesn’t seem to even hear this. He’s looking around, at Marianne and the car, at the footprints Carlos has left in the sand, as if none of it makes sense to his eyes, as if he’s trying to read a script in a foreign language. He licks his lips. “I don’t go... there. Anymore. Cast out. Unmeasured.”
“I don’t understand,” still trying for a soft, conciliatory tone, despite his confusion. “Did someone hurt you? Are you in danger? Can I help?”
“You can’t help. No one can help. I... committed a crime,” whispers Telly. “I broke my contract. I couldn’t pay, but I kept cutting anyway. So the Council took... this.” He gestures to his own head, as if indicating a wound Carlos can’t see. “No time. No time anymore.”
Something about this last statement makes the chill wind, or Carlos’s perception of it, more invasive. He has a moment of pure superstition — is Telly’s madness contagious, can it infect him like some rogue virus? — and puts it firmly down.
“No... time? What do you mean... no time? No time for what?”
“It’s what happens,” and now there’s a familiar impatience in Telly’s voice, a Night Vale inhabitant explaining the obvious to an outsider. “Don’t you know that? I told you, I’m a criminal. You should know. You were there.”
Don’t ever get between someone and a promise they’ve broken.
Carlos stands still, appalled, and his hands drop; he can’t help it.
He’s been recognized after all, and it hasn’t done any good.
“Go away,” the barber says. He coughs again, straightens, and holds up the scissors, brandishing them as if for inspection. His clothing is filthy and his shoes look nearly worn through, but those scissors are spotless, gleaming, not even a speck of rust.
They stand for another moment, gazes locked, and then Telly hunches a shoulder, repeating his growl. “Go away. It’s too early to cut.”
Carlos turns away, obediently.
Long silence in the car, on the way back, and then, “God damn it,” he says, turning south onto Route 800. Concrete catching under the tires, finally, and he spins the wheel hard, pushes the accelerator slowly and viciously down as if it’s done him an injury.
“I’m so sorry,” says Marianne. He glances at her and finds her wiping away tears, one freckled wrist over her eyes. “I... at least he’s alive.”
“Yeah. Alive and raving.” Carlos catches himself pushing seventy-five and slows fractionally. Getting pulled over by the Sheriff’s Secret Police would not improve his mood. “I just... I don’t understand what they did to him. If it was reeducation, he should have just gone back to work. Or not survived at all.”
“How much do we actually know about reeducation, though?” Marianne’s voice is somber. “Maybe something went wrong with the process. They must make mistakes.”
“No, I think I believe him,” Carlos says. “I think it was a punishment. I think it was the City Council. I just... don’t know how it was done.”
The skyline of Night Vale is already visible ahead of them. Even as furious as he is right now, that familiar silhouette — City Hall, the water tower, the low huddle of buildings, the radio tower with its comforting pulse of red light — pulls at him, says home with its simple, aching geometric equation.
“People say he was driven out.” Marianne turns away to say it. “I mean. Rumors. That it was a mob of some kind, after Cecil...”
“Who told you that?” His voice comes out too sharp, making her flinch, and he tries to modulate it. “Whoever it was, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Marianne sighs. “I know that, boss. I don’t think something like that could’ve happened so close to the house without us hearing it. And Eli thinks the rumor was planted.”
“He does?” Carlos frowns. On most subjects Eli is an unreliable source of information, to say the least, but when it comes to conspiracy theories, he’s worryingly astute. “What for?”
She shrugs as they turn onto the curve of Exit 9.
“He didn’t say.”
Outside the rambling, quaint Old Town building where the members of his research team share a large and drafty house, with Eli apparently content to gravitate between their overstuffed living room couch and the threadbare sofa in Carlos’s apartment, satisfying his paranoia by avoiding the dangers of a fixed address, and causing sporadic arguments by borrowing everyone’s toothpaste and hairbrushes without asking.
10:19. Slow shadows overhead, too small to be helicopters. Birds of prey, circling, and a feeling of persistent unease.
Carlos pulls the car around to the back, into the alleyway, where they’ve all taken to parking since Phil Kirk’s Honda Accord was stolen by carjackers (carjackers who may or may not have been unusually intelligent feral dogs; he’s never going to get used to this town).
His own Prius is here, next to Dave’s old pickup truck — and someone’s leaning against it, someone he doesn’t know.
A girl, a young teenager. Carlos has never seen her before. She has long hair, bangs cut on a stylish diagonal, and her clothing is of a style he instantly recognizes from student lectures: meant to look vintage, but actually new.
“A scientist who drives a Prius? Seriously?” is her greeting, delivered in a tone dripping with teenage boredom. Something familiar about that tone, but he can’t place it. “Like anyone’s supposed to believe you give a fuck about the environment? How much do you actually make after taxes?”
Marianne puts her hands on her hips indignantly, but Carlos shakes his head at her: I’ll handle this. To the girl, mildly, “I’m no Marcus Vansten. I just do experiments. Are you part of an environmental protest group?”
She snorts a laugh. “No, I came here ’cause I’m doing you a favor. I don’t mind skipping first period today, but I’ve got a math test second, so listen up. Ask your girlfriend if she’ll go inside for a minute, leave us alone.”
“I’m not his girlfriend,” Marianne says. “I work with him. And I’m not going anywhere. For all I know, you’ve got a machine gun in the backpack.”
The girl rolls her eyes. “Of course I’ve got a machine gun in the backpack, I go to Night Vale High. Duh. Like I’d start a fight with a couple of scientists anyway. But I’m sorry I assumed, that was really sexist of me. You’re not wearing a lab coat or anything.” Her eyes flick from Marianne’s face to Carlos’s, and then she sighs in exasperation. “You really don’t remember me, do you?” she says. “Okay — you said if this happened, I should tell you to turn on the black box. Whatever that means.”
Marianne and Carlos both freeze, shoot each other a concerned glance.
“Boss,” incredulously, “you didn’t —”
“No, Mare, of course I didn’t,” Carlos says, revolted. “I could be her father, for fuck’s sake.”
“Only if you knocked someone up when you were, like, seventeen,” the girl points out, “and that’s kind of a gross mental image, to be honest. Besides, my dad would totally kill me if I went out with an older guy. I knew this would be a pain in the ass. Look, can you just trust me for five minutes? I already went and checked to see if anyone was listening. No helicopters, no patrols, no little cameras. And your friend in there snores like he’s being slowly choked to death, so I figure it’s safe. I can give you the password, if you still don’t believe me.”
“The password you gave me,” in exasperation. “You said, ‘Tell me to turn on the black box first, and then give me the password.’ I’m following your instructions here, I swear.”
Marianne hesitates, then puts up her hands in a gesture of surrender. “Fine. I’ll go inside, but if you think you can be all mysterious later about whatever this is, I’m going to kick your ass.” She whisks herself neatly through the unlocked back door, pauses to give him an admonitory glare through the screen, and then vanishes inside.
Carlos sighs. Slides his fingers into the left pocket of his jeans and clicks the tiny switch to turn on the black box, the anti-surveillance device that no one, outside of the members of his research team, is supposed to know exists.
“All right,” he says, “go ahead,” and waits.
The girl regards him for a moment, and then nods.
“Mirage,” she says.
Although he’s been expecting it, Carlos is bereft of words.
The last person who had given him that password — the password used by his financial backers, whoever they are — had turned out not to be a person at all, but something that wore a body in the same way that its body wore a business suit. So far, the girl’s doing a better job of appearing human than the Director ever has, even over the phone, but he wants to be sure.
Well, reasonably sure. There’s no test to tell him for certain whether or not someone is human.
Maybe if there was, he could use it on himself.
He looks at her eyes, keenly, trying to gauge her for signs of unnatural influence. She stares insolently back at him. Still something familiar about that insolence, although the last time he saw that —
“Oh,” he says, “now I think I know you. Your dad is Steve Carlsberg, isn’t he?”
She grins, claps slowly and mockingly. “Brilliant fucking deduction, Sherlock Holmes.”
Carlos sighs with relief. “Okay, uh, what’s your name? Wait, he told me, once. Melissa?”
“Michaela,” she corrects him, crossing her arms and leaning back against the car again. Her resemblance to her father is unmistakable, now that he’s spotted it: the same shade of brown hair, the same nose, the same incautious compound of emotion, equal parts sullenness and arrogance, in her manner.
“And you’re — how old?”
He raises an eyebrow.
“Okay, fine, fourteen,” she says, with a wince. “Holy stare of disapproval, Batman. I bet you used to be a teacher, didn’t you?”
“Lecturer, at a college, yes. Sometimes.”
“Well, at least you aren’t that old. Dad says he thinks you’re gay.”
“His years as a school bully obviously stand him in good stead.”
“He’s not proud of that stuff.” Michaela’s chin comes up, but her tone is defensive, loving. “People are always blaming him for the crap he used to do, they can’t ever see he’s changed. Anyway, I didn’t mean it like that. Are you gay, then?”
He sighs, giving up. “Yeah. You?”
“Nah. Straight. Seeing someone, actually, kind of,” she admits. “But I don’t know yet if it’s serious... he never talks to me unless we’re alone. It’s like he doesn’t want his friends to know he’s dating a freshman.”
“Dump him. Don’t put up with that, you don’t deserve it.”
Michaela smiles. It’s a startling expression, transforming her small, scowling face into something vibrant and arresting. “Now you sound more like I remember you.”
“But I don’t remember you." Carlos rubs his forehead with the heel of his hand, perplexed.
“That’s okay,” says Michaela. “You told me you’d say that.”
“Yeah, you did. Maybe you knew you were going to be reeducated, or something.”
Carlos is swept by a sudden fear for her. “Did I say I was going to be reeducated?” He steps closer, turns so that anyone watching hidden from the street can’t see his face. “Did you see any specific evidence to that effect?”
She frowns thoughtfully. “No. You just said if I told you too much, you wouldn’t believe your own message. And don’t worry, the City Council really couldn’t give less of a fuck about me.”
“How do you know?”
“Well, among other reasons... because they’ve had months to come after me,” she says.
He gapes. “Months? How many — what day did I give you this message?”
“August first. The attack of the ptero-whatsits. Ginormous smelly dinosaurs. You know, from the PTA meeting? Don’t you ever listen to the radio?”
“The — I — yes, but I don’t — I was in the lab all day, and there’s been a problem with our receiver —”
“You told me you’d say that, too.” Michaela looks amused. “Here I thought you’d be going around all smug about saving our lives, and you’ve forgotten all about it. But you saved us, whether you remember it or not. This makes us even, you and me, all right?” suddenly fierce. “You did promise.”
Carlos just nods, unable to frame a response.
“Okay, good.” She picks up her school backpack — it has a pink Hello Kitty zipper pull, surreal candy-colored decoration for a bag hiding a deadly weapon — and stands on tiptoes to whisper to him. “This is what you told me to say. The phones will stop working today. Once they do, take the other scientists to the radio station. The answer is in the radio station.” She draws back, eyes widened solemnly, studying his reaction. “And do one more thing for me, all right?”
“If I can...”
“Don’t die,” says Michaela Carlsberg, settling the strap of her backpack into a more comfortable spot along her shoulder. “Oh yeah, and don’t eat anything with wheat in it.”
“Wheat?” He’s baffled, but she’s already walking away, flipping him a lazy little salute over her shoulder.
Before he can collect himself, the screen door squeaks open next to him and Eli is leaning out, Spider-Man pajama bottoms incongruous with his hastily-assumed labcoat, a bitten apple in one hand. Somewhat indistinctly, “So did she give you her phone number?”
“She’s fourteen, Eli,” growls Carlos. “I don’t want her phone number.”
“Yikes!” Both of the intern’s bushy eyebrows shoot up, and he hastily swallows the morsel of fruit. “I thought you were better at fending off crushes than that, boss.”
“She’s not a crush, she’s Steve Carlsberg’s daughter. And we might have a breach in the security system. Your security system, so scramble.”
“Jesus H., boss, did you wake up on the wrong side of the car this morning?”
“Yeah,” Carlos says, thinking of the desert wind, thinking of Telly’s eyes like cunning voids, thinking of the City Council, whose members he has still never actually seen. Thinking of the static. “Yeah, maybe I did.”
Carlos summarily derails the research team’s customary argument about what to have for lunch by offering to buy them something that isn’t pizza.
By mutual inertia, they find themselves heading for the Moonlite All-Nite Diner, which is close enough to Old Town to make driving unnecessary, but far enough away to make the walk more than just a stroll.
They pick up the pace slightly as they pass the daytime-empty parking lot of the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex, sharing a significant look among themselves. The owner of the Desert Flower, one Teddy Williams, has become more and more intent on seizing customers (or, if none are available, hapless passersby) to lecture them about “the invaders from the vast city below Lane Five.” Lately, the hard-eyed men and women who call themselves his Militia — the capital letter audible in their pronunciation — have been intervening in these discussions, usually to prevent people from escaping halfway through Williams’s fervid diatribes. Cecil has given them several interviews, one of which Carlos heard half of before it was swallowed by the static. Even quoted in the reporter’s smooth tones, they don’t sound any less deranged than their leader. If it weren’t for his otherwise normal habits, Williams would easily outrank Telly the barber on Carlos’s private threat-level scale. After being subjected to this rigmarole several times, the scientists have started keeping a sharp eye out whenever they pass this part of Main.
Carlos looks around once more as he opens the door of the diner, then steps back, with automatic courtesy, to hold it open for the person immediately inside.
Stops dead, as he recognizes that person.
A tall, burly man, bare-chested, wearing a headdress of white plastic feathers. Tattoos, which look less like tribal symbols than they do like scribbles made by a toddler, stand out on his skin. His imitation leather pants look just enough like deerskin to give Carlos a nasty five-second pulse of panic — flash-bright sense memory of a rifle against his shoulder, a woodland smell completely foreign to his current desert surroundings, the tip of a knife at his throat. He shudders, nearly loses his grip on the door, then grabs the handle again and deliberately stands aside.
He knows it’s all right there on his face, where this stranger in his offensive theme-park idea of Native American clothing can see it, and he sets his jaw, willing himself not to care.
The Apache Tracker — this is, according to Cecil’s radio show, what he calls himself — steps out into the doorway, but he doesn’t walk past. He stops and looks down at Carlos.
He’s changed. Transformed.
His skin is darker and his features have been altered. When Carlos saw him first, he’d guessed him to be from a Slavic family. Now he looks Native American. He could be taken for a member of one of the tribes local to the Night Vale area — by someone who hadn’t met him five months ago, when he was most definitely white.
The first thought that occurs to Carlos is plastic surgery, but who would be mad enough, or rich enough, to afford a reconstruction like that? How could he have changed the color of his skin so drastically? Or is it a different man, after all? Can there be two such oddities in such a small town? Is it a practical joke of some kind? He wants to back away, but a simple stubbornness, a refusal to be intimidated, fixes him in place.
The Tracker puts out a hand, as if to touch Carlos’s shoulder, and then thinks better of it at the last minute. Then, “Скорее же!” he says, in a startling, guttural voice. “Я уже ждал тебя слишком долго, и мухи собираются,” and he brushes past and out the door abruptly, heading for the entrance to the Desert Flower, the wind fluttering his ridiculous plastic feathers like dirty ribbons. Carlos sees him glance at his watch. Had he been wearing a watch, a minute ago?
“Holy shit, I thought that guy was dead,” Eli says. “Didn’t Cecil say he was dead? Was that Russian? What did he say, boss?”
“I don’t know. I don’t speak Russian,” and Carlos has to smile at the intern’s crestfallen expression. “I never even memorized any useful guidebook phrases, like ‘hello,’ or ‘where do I find the bathroom,’ or ‘help, my research team has invented a teleportation device and now I’m stuck on the wrong continent.’ No idea what he just said.”
“He’s some racist nutjob,” Marianne says, with an unfriendly cut of her eyes toward the diminishing figure of the Tracker. “I don’t know what’s happened to him, how he... how he did that to himself, but I’ve heard people talk about him. And he’s been hanging around the bowling alley, too. I don’t think we should pay any attention to him at all.”
“I’m curious,” Eli grumbles, but he follows the others into the diner.
“Okay, so let me get this straight,” Phil says, fidgeting with his tie in its usual neat half-Windsor. “You’re asking us to believe that you sent a secret message to yourself?”
“No,” Carlos says, “I’m not asking you to believe it. I’m just telling you... what Michaela told me.”
“I dunno, seems legit to me.” Eli, who has long since used all the ties he owns to tie up cardboard boxes or brace collapsing furniture, fidgets with the little metal canister of sugar packets on the table instead. “I mean, that’s who you’d send, right? Someone who just happened to be there, who doesn’t have any connection to us at all. Unless you think the Director —?”
“The Director’s messages are usually a lot less potentially explainable than this,” Carlos points out. “And they’re always delivered through texts, or the Skype setup on the iPad, like the first time. He’s never sent a person before.”
“So maybe he’s trying something new?” Marianne frowns. “Is ‘he’ really correct? The pronoun, I mean?”
“I vote we keep using it, on the grounds that ‘it’ or ‘them’ would be way the fuck creepier. Anyway, I agree with the boss. This is too subtle for the Director. He wants to be really sure we get his messages,” and Eli rolls his eyes. “Like the time the iPad followed us out to the squatter shacks, you know, all the way at the end of Old Musk Road?”
“As far as I see it —” Dave begins, and then halts politely as the waitress leans over the table with an empty serving platter.
They’ve been here often enough that they recognize her, but they still don’t know her name. The nametag she wears on her frilly, mint-colored 1930s-style uniform is completely blank. Brightly, “Good afternoon, Carlos. Everyone. The usual?”
“No,” Phil says immediately. “I don’t want any more invisible pie, I keep telling you that.”
“No invisible pie, got it.” She presses down onto her order pad with her long, silvery nails, punching neat holes through the paper in a shorthand alphabet intelligible only to the cook, or possibly to herself. “What about strawberry, instead? It’s in season, you know.”
“In — but it’s November.”
“Yes. We also have pumpkin, of course. And bone gourd.”
Carlos interposes hastily, “I think we’d better stick to the lunch menu. Those sandwiches we had last time were quite good.”
“The usual, then,” smiles the waitress, and sways off cheerfully in the direction of the diner’s metal counter before Phil can bring up invisible pie again, already mouthing the lyrics of a song to herself under her breath. The radio is on, but it’s not playing music. It’s playing static.
Carlos suppresses a slight pang of loss — Cecil’s probably starting his show by now, and he would love to know what today’s opening line is, the misplaced piece of poetry that’s always different, the anti-catchphrase. He tries to make one up for himself: Human beings have invented more ways to communicate than there are stars in the universe, and at least one of them involves false fingernails. Welcome to Night Vale.
It’s not the same, but it does make him smile.
The phonecall interrupts them before the sandwiches have arrived, while they’re still nursing condensation-slick glasses of icewater and arguing about the message.
It bothers him that he does, cautiously, believe that Michaela was telling the truth. If it’s some elaborate plot by the Sheriff’s Secret Police, why would they involve someone he had never even met? Besides, elaborate is entirely the wrong word to describe anything done by the Secret Police. No. He’s convinced, as much as he can be on such slim evidence. He sent himself the message. Maybe he did even save Michaela’s life, or at least help her somehow. And then he forgot it had ever happened.
Reeducation doesn’t fit. It’s messy and dangerous and it leaves memory gaps, sequelae that can be mapped, symptoms. He’s put enough of the data together, and it doesn’t paint a picture of sterile conditions and controlled hypnosis — the Council’s brainwashing techniques are crude, maybe even medieval.
If he’s been reeducated, he should be encountering a defense mechanism now, a sort of mental repression like a meniscus, a refusal to think about the events of the first day of August.
He doesn’t feel anything like that; in fact, he remembers the first of August perfectly. It had been the closest thing to a boring day that they’d had so far in Night Vale. They’d spent eight hours running checks on samples of the town water supply, only to find it ominously normal. The static had been particularly bad that night. Something about a crisis at the rec center; the only part he caught with any clarity was a renewed demand at the end that citizens devoutly turn their minds from contemplation of the dog park. He had heard Cecil mention dinosaurs, though, in between the waves of fuzz. He’d thought maybe it had to do with another Children’s Fun Fact Science Corner (a segment of the show that always slightly terrifies him, partially because of the depths of inaccuracy it contains, and partially because, well, he’d be damned entertained by it anyway, if he were still in grade school).
Would he remember something like that, something from months ago, if he’d been brainwashed?
Maybe, he thinks as he watches Marianne gather the sugar packets scattered by Eli’s impromptu replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, he should ask the others to try the reeducation checklist on him anyway. That, or hypnotize him. He could coach them through it. They still don’t have a license for that, and fuck knows he isn’t happy about the idea of letting anyone else into his head right now, but it might be worth it to know for certain he hasn’t been a guest at City Hall. His unwanted abilities might provide insulation from the strange, paranormal dream broadcasts, but he doesn’t think they’d do anything to stop the effects of old-fashioned, completely physical torture.
Not to mention, an unpleasant voice adds in his head, something like the Dark Box. Whatever it actually is.
When the cell phone rings, it goes off like a muffled, buzzing siren, and Carlos has to practically stab the touchscreen with his finger to get it to register that he’s picking up the call. Time to replace the damn thing. At least, unlike the iPad, it’s showing no signs of becoming self-aware.
Too much more of this and he’ll be getting nostalgic for rotary phones.
“Yes?” Tamping down his irritation.
“Carlos?” The voice on the other end is familiar, but twisted with fear. “Where are you right now?”
“Rico?” Carlos frowns. “Only over at the diner — has something happened at the lab?”
“No, but I got bad news for you,” Big Rico says, heavily. “Stupid advertising campaigns gone all wrong again. I need to call in that favor —”
Carlos slides out of the booth, stands, his other hand already closing around the folding knife in his pocket. “Yes,” quickly, cutting the older man off. Normally Big Rico wouldn’t even have mentioned the favor, not over the phone, but the restaurant owner sounds as though he might be in shock. “What do you need... help with?”
“Just get here.” Other voices, audible now, underneath the plea, and a rising sound like slithering. “And Carlos,” whispering, “don’t use the front entrance.”
“No. No, I won’t. But Rico, what —”
The phones will stop working today.
He stiffens, a chill playing down his vertebral column like cold fingers. Steps over to where the diner’s old-fashioned handset phone sits on the wall and snatches up the receiver.
“Is it still functioning?” Phil asks, voice taut.
“Dial tone,” Carlos says. “But I think we’re under a deadline now.”
Eli, standing up, steps over Marianne’s lap and jumps neatly to the floor. “Hey, Carlos, double round. Three guesses!” His eyes widen pleadingly at the look on Carlos’s face. “Aw, come on, we’ve got the walk back. We can think of three guesses each by the time we get to Big Rico’s, can’t we? Don’t say you’re not gonna play, now that we’ve got another mystery, finally?”
“I’ll play if you run,” says Carlos, flatly.
The intern grins. “Deal! Into the jaws of death!” and he’s off, banging the door open hastily in his wake. Dave, Phil and Marianne, extricating themselves from the booth, get halfway through their obligatory shrugs of amusement. Then they’re just staring as Carlos runs, too.
It takes them a moment to catch up.
The strap on Carlos’s cheap digital watch is fraying, and he’s pretty sure that if he loses it, he’ll lose what little calm remains to him shortly afterward.
The sight of five people in labcoats, running up Main Street as if pursued by hooded figures, turns a few heads, but Carlos is no longer in a mood to care. He just speeds up, running his shortcuts like connecting up a circuitboard: Main to the half-circle of Alameda to Flint Drive to Third and onto their home block, Big Rico’s restaurant and his own apartment building on either side of the lab.
Eli, flashing a triumphant smile over one shoulder, is about to make for the front door of Big Rico’s, but Carlos flips an imperative hand at him, pants, “Tradesman’s entrance,” and they change course again, single file into the alleyway and past the industrial-sized trash bins, chained firmly shut.
The pizzeria is a two-story building, taller and older than the small converted warehouse that houses their laboratory. At first glance, it looks run-down: the neon sign is over ten years old and half-burnt-out, the red-and-white striped canopy sags and the paint is peeling.
First glances are to be trusted no farther in Night Vale than anywhere else.
Anywhere else, the tradesman’s entrance would be an ordinary door leading into an ordinary service area: a kitchen, storage space, maybe a tiny employee break room. Here, it’s an old-fashioned cellar door, set into the hilly ground behind the building on a canted diagonal, giving every impression of having been abandoned for years, and leading somewhere very different.
Carlos stops and sinks down on one knee in front of it, trying to calm his racing heartbeat, and the others collect loosely around him, catching their breath. Phil wipes his forehead. “You could’ve said it was an emergency before you took off like a bat out of hell,” in a tone too robbed of breath to be properly disapproving.
“Boss,” Marianne puts in, leaning over to stretch her leg muscles, “I’ve never been down there. Is there some kind of code —?”
Carlos shakes his head. “You just knock.”
“What, knock and hope they don’t shoot you?” Eli raises an eyebrow, still breathing hard.
“There’s a bouncer. Usually. He’ll have been told to let us in, if he’s there.”
“And if he’s not, what? We hope whoever is there isn’t too twitchy to recognize you before he pulls the trigger?”
“This isn’t New York, they’re not as bad as all that,” Dave says.
“If their boss is scared enough to get our boss here running, then they’re terrified,” Eli argues. “You guys ever see Big Rico even a little unsettled? I mean, he probably looked out the window at the Glow Cloud raining down all those corpses of horses and lions and shit and thought ‘hey, free meat!’ ”
Carlos can’t help a soft chuckle. “Well then, we’d better hope that whatever he’s scared of now doesn’t have hands to knock on a door with.”
“Why is that not particularly reassuring?” inquires Phil, of the air.
“Wait,” says Dave, as Carlos leans over the door. “I’m refereeing the game, remember? Who wants to go first?”
“You’re all mad, and so am I, for coming here,” Phil mutters.
“I claim second. I challenged,” Eli says.
“I outrank you,” retorts Carlos. “You’re first, and make it quick.”
“Okay, fine. Someone in Big Rico’s organization is leaking information to the Sheriff’s Secret Police. That one hooded figure with the oversized hook for a hand has returned from the Sand Wastes to reenact a slasher film. Uh... damn... one more, one more... the strippers have all turned into zombies?”
“ ‘The strippers have all turned into zombies’?” Dave repeats, in a tone of disbelief. “Kid, you’re losing your touch; they don’t even have strippers down in there.”
“They have strippers somewhere, they’re the freaking Mafia, okay? Anyway, you won’t let me change it now,” Eli pouts. “It’s the boss’s turn. Let’s see if he can do better than strippers.”
“I’ll certainly have bigger problems if I can’t,” and he relaxes when they laugh, smiling crookedly. “All right. They got some kind of a bad shipment, like that time with the eggs at the grocery store, and Rico figures we must be good at biocontainment. Or his customers are all growing unnatural features, and he wants us to check it out and make sure it isn’t because of the food. Or,” hesitating, “it’s some sort of... mass hysteria.”
“Mass hysteria?” Marianne, skeptically. “What makes you think that?”
“There were a lot of voices over the phone. Maybe more than the people he’d have on staff, even at noon. Just...” Carlos shakes his head. “I don’t know. Intuition?”
His colleagues exchange glances, but no one, it seems, is willing to bring up the subject of his previous intuitions. Eli, for once missing the implication entirely, only protests, “Hey, no fair, boss! That’s more data than I had.”
“And you probably still would have guessed zombie strippers, thus, objection overruled,” Dave says. “All right, let’s do it.” He takes a casual step forward, meeting Phil’s eyes, and then both of them kneel down too, flanking Carlos protectively.
“Come on,” Marianne says, shifting on her feet, “come on, you’re making me nervous.”
“Sorry,” and Carlos reaches out, thinks now just as his knock sends trembles through the rickety cellar door, and —
— he can’t breathe. Can’t move. Feels his eyes roll back in his head, his eyelids falling shut like black curtains.
There’s no air, he’s suffocating silently, in the sheer crushing depth of vacuum, adrift in the void. In a moment he’ll be dead of hypoxia. A heartbeat somewhere in the background, bumping and juddering like tires on an uncertain road. He puts out his hand blindly to find the sound, weak clawing motion, and another hand clasps his.
Long fingers, a familiar, cool grip, dragging him swiftly into atmosphere again, there and then gone — but he knows that touch, would know it anywhere, mad or sane. He takes a breath and chokes on it, another and manages Cecil’s name —
— and then there’s a particularly sharp jolt and he’s back to full sensory perception, Phil and Dave hauling him upright with startled hands and the maw of the wooden door open in front of him to reveal a basement staircase, Big Rico himself peering up at them with machine gun held aloft. Carlos tries to convey that he’s all right and only succeeds in muffling a fit of coughing against the crook of his arm.
“My God,” Big Rico says, “have you been bitten? Is it too late?”
“No — just — just out of breath —”
“Bitten?” Eli, who had hunkered close with concern, immediately shoots to his feet, warily eyeing the nearby scrub brush. “Bitten by what?”
“The snakes! What else?” impatiently. “Get down here, the lot of you.”
At the word snakes, the other scientists shed their reluctance to obey, but Phil and Dave keep firm hold of Carlos’s shoulders, clearly unsure of his capability to descend a flight of stairs under his own power.
He doesn’t blame them.
The basement of Big Rico’s always reminds Carlos of a speakeasy in a gangster movie; something classic starring James Cagney. He wonders, every time, if it didn’t start out that way, without the Hollywood glamor. The posters on the walls, in varying degrees of yellowing age, advertise wares he isn’t familiar with, some of them in a runic alphabet he can’t read. What sort of drink might be illegal in Night Vale? What sort of gambling?
As usual, it’s better not to ask.
At the moment, its air of cultivated disrepute is somewhat marred by the stigmata of an unexpected fight: tables overturned, a gaudy spray of playing cards on the floor, the rising sour breath of intermingled liquors from broken bottles on the floor... and blood, still tacky and wet.
When he was last here, he’d seen plates of pizza on every table — despite the threatening quality of his radio ads, Big Rico’s restaurant is legendary for a reason. Today there are too many people down here — customers as well as staff, he guesses — but no food. For some reason, that’s more unsettling than the blood.
“Problems in the kitchen?” he asks, steadying himself in the doorway. When Dave and Phil hesitate at letting go of him, he jerks his head impatiently. “I’m all right. Start checking yourselves over for bites.”
“You’d’ve noticed,” Big Rico says. The scientists are already obeying, Marianne pulling a hand mirror from her pocket before she sheds her labcoat. Several of the men at the bar watch her, but then they catch Carlos’s eye and hastily look away again.
“So, these snakes are fairly large, then? How large?” Dave asks.
Big Rico raises an eyebrow at him, but Carlos says, “It’s closer to his field than mine. I mean, none of us are zoologists, but he’s the expert on local fauna. Go ahead, tell him.”
“ ’Bout three feet long, bright green, poisonous, possibly from the bowels of Hell itself,” the restaurant owner says, then switches his gaze back to Carlos. “I thought all of you were scientists.”
“ ‘Scientist’ is a very wide category,” Carlos explains gently, for the nth time. “My team are here because their specialties are different from mine... among other reasons.”
“So what’s your specialty, then?” Big Rico scratches his chin with the hand not holding the gun.
“In a way, the same as yours,” Carlos replies. “I take everything and put it together. Or try to. You could call me a statistician, but that’s only approximately correct, really. Night Vale is unique. It takes a rather unorthodox mindset to deal with... all of this, everything that happens here. If you like, I’ll explain the details later.”
Big Rico shakes his head. “No, I think I got it. They don’t call you ‘boss’ for nothing, do they, your people?”
“No,” Eli says, “no, we don’t,” and the unexpected note of pride in the intern’s voice makes something in Carlos’s chest tip over, a quiet warmth spreading out from the spot. He touches Eli’s shoulder briefly, and the younger man smiles up at him, confidently.
“I, um — it isn’t as formal as all that,” he says. “We do all work together. I’m just — someone has to be in charge.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” and Big Rico snorts a laugh. Some of the tension has drained away from his expression. “Well, if you’re the scientist version of me, then maybe I made the right call.”
Carlos shrugs out of his labcoat to let Phil check him for bites. “Let’s hope so. Tell me what happened. You said something on the phone about an advertisement? I didn’t understand that part at all.”
“Oh, right, this.” Big Rico slings the gun over his shoulder and picks up a flyer from the end of the bar, holding it out.
WHEAT & WHEAT BY-PRODUCTS!!
CONSUME REGULARLY AND WITHOUT HESITATION!
SUPPORT THE LOCAL NIGHT VALE FARMER; SUPPORT THE LOCAL NIGHT VALE COMMODITIES CONGLOMERATES; SUPPORT YOUR HEALTH!
BY AMERICANS, FOR AMERICANS, IN AMERICANS, WATCHING AMERICANS.
(PAID FOR BY THE NIGHT VALE COUNCIL FOR COMMERCE)
“No bites, you’re good,” says Phil, looking up to join the others in their examination of the flyer. It’s printed on bright, stiff goldenrod paper, and aside from the stilted, foreboding language endemic to anything printed by a Night Vale municipal office, it doesn’t seem at all unusual.
“Sorry,” Dave says, tilting his head at it, “but I just don’t see what this has to do with snakes.”
“Neither did anyone else, until a few minutes ago,” Big Rico says grimly. “A few minutes ago when everything with wheat in it turned into snakes. Beer in the bottles, too; they just smashed. The storefront’s full of corpses. One of my guys, he got down here with the rest of us and then...” A handwave. “Keeled over. Not even time to take a breath. That’s why we figure they’re poisonous.”
Carlos frowns, settling his labcoat back over his shoulders. “Well, we’ve got antivenom, but it’s specific to the species of snake. It may not even be useful.”
“Could you make antivenom if you cut one open? We’ve got some live ones...”
“Wait a second,” Marianne interrupts. “Did anyone talk to the Secret Police about this? Not that we won’t help you, if we can, but why call Carlos instead of Officer Ben and his flunkies?”
“Well, it’s got to do with favors; you know how it is,” Big Rico says. “You scientists, you owe me. The balaclavas, well, I owe them. At the moment. And I try not to get too far into debt. I can make sure they’re recompensed suitably, but not if I’m out of business. I need to get these things dealt with. Traced. I can replace my stock, but if the stockroom’s swarming with poisonous snakes... you see my problem, right?”
“Yeah,” Marianne says, “I do. But someone needs to call. What if this is going to happen in other places? Or is already happening?”
“Good thing we never got to eat those sandwiches,” and Eli looks slightly ill at the idea.
“Marianne, go ahead and call,” Carlos says. “You and Phil go next door to the lab and get the other things we’ll need, and do it from there. We can at least make observations of the snakes while you’re gone. Assuming you’ve trapped them somehow?” turning back to Big Rico.
The restaurant owner smiles, sharklike and mirthless.
“What was that back there?” Eli hisses in Carlos’s ear.
He shakes his head. Doesn’t look up from the new line he’s begun in his notebook: 1:28 p.m. — apparently spontaneous transmogrification of wheat goods into large, venomous snakes of indeterminate species. “Later.”
“You always say that, and then you never tell me,” grumps the intern, leaning against the wall.
“Please be quiet, kid,” Dave says. “I’m trying to concentrate. Sorry, boss, I can’t pin down the species. Not native, that’s all I’m positive of.”
They’re standing in a small room at the end of a hallway Big Rico showed them into, almost ceremoniously. They had glanced curiously at the other open doors (a bathroom, thoroughly and jarringly modern, and a cellar, full of dusty wine bottles) before recoiling at the contents of this room.
There’s a foldout cot on the south wall, occupied by a stiffening corpse: the man who died of snakebite. To Carlos’s relief, it’s a stranger, one of Big Rico’s nighttime enforcers. He’s not looking forward to finding out which of the restaurant employees are dead now; he knows — knew — most of them by name.
In the opposite corner, there’s a cell. Iron bars, another cot inside, and on the floor around it, a perfect half-circle carved into the concrete and black sigils burned along its rim, some unknown script.
The four snakes inside, slithering and coiling in restless circles around their confinement, frighten him. He’s actually trembling slightly with an atavistic revulsion, something panic-deep and alien. It bothers him.
He likes snakes. Handles pet snakes with kindness as well as scientific curiosity, stops to watch if he catches sight of a wild one. Once, back in L.A., he’d had a friend who had let him hold a boa constrictor, much larger than these specimens. He’d spent half an hour sitting in a deck chair with the reptile wrapped drowsily around his shoulders, stroking its scaled curves with one finger and feeling oddly peaceful.
Certainly, the knowledge that the snakes in the cell are venomous — that they have strong evidence of that not three feet away — might be what’s affecting him, but he doesn’t think so. There’s something unnatural about them. They repel his gaze.
And they don’t show up at all on the paranormal energy field reader.
What the hell?
“They’re... they’re not really there,” he says.
“What?” Dave turns from his half-kneeling position on the floor to look up at him, but he’s already set the reader back to standby and is scrabbling in his pockets for a camera. Comes up with his cell phone, instead, and taps it impatiently to set it to record. On the little screen, the snakes are ghostly half-things, flickering in and out of visibility. Dave and Eli stare.
“They’re not really there,” Carlos repeats. “Or they’re there because we thought they would be there... Rico?” he calls.
“Yeah?” Big Rico calls back from the hallway.
“How many snakes did you trap?”
“Three. Can’t you see them? Have they gone invisible? That’d be all I need —”
“We saw four,” Carlos says, “and now we see none.”
“I still see four —” begins Dave, frowning at the cell, but Eli yelps with sudden delight.
“I got it! Boss, you’re back on your game! Mass hysteria, intuition, all that, right? And we’d never have known without your mojo. Jesus, this is so cool! So, if we know they’re not really there, can they still hurt us?”
“I’m damned well not going to stick my hand in there to find out,” Carlos says grimly, as Big Rico comes back into the room, once again hefting his gun.
“But why are they snakes?” Eli runs both hands through the curly mop of his hair. “So, what, did everyone in the restaurant upstairs suddenly think ‘snakes’ all at the same time? Why would they do that?”
“Because they’ve been trained. Subliminally trained,” and Carlos is picking up his equipment and putting it back in his pockets, making sure to hide the notebook and pen securely. “Shared dreams. Mare and I were just talking about that this morning. There’s a broadcast rig somewhere that affects sleep patterns somehow, that was our latest theory, right? Well, what if that broadcast ‘snakes’?”
Dave bites his lower lip thoughtfully. “Wait... does that mean the wheat wasn’t really wheat, either?”
“I don’t know. Too bad we don’t have a sample.”
Big Rico opens his mouth, but before he can say anything, there’s a clatter in the hallway and Marianne bursts in, followed by Phil, who startles at the sight of the corpse.
“Boss,” urgently, catching his arm. “The phones have stopped working.”
“What, all of them?” Dave asks. “You’re sure it isn’t just our landline?”
“I’m sure,” Marianne says. “Phil’s cell phone is on a different service provider than mine. We tried both, and then I went out and chanted to the pay phone on the corner. No luck. And it’s getting really crazy out there. What do we do?”
“We shouldn’t assume the broadcast, if there was one, was targeted,” Eli says. “It’d certainly be possible for them to do something like that, but, you know, more expensive. And if it was going to be an experiment, you know, ‘whoopee, let’s see if we can make everyone go nuts,’ why spend the extra money just to limit your pool of results?”
“He’s right.” Dave, glumly.
“What are you talking about? What broadcast?” Phil’s brow furrows. “Do you mean the radio station?”
This is what you told me to say.
“We might,” Dave says, “that’s just it,” and he looks away from Carlos’s expression, embarrassment on his own face, as if something there made him feel like a trespasser, and how does Carlos know, how does he really know, that Cecil isn’t implicated in this?
The phones will stop working today.
Where is his intuition going to take him? Where is it going to take the others, who depend on him? What’s happened to his hard-won objectivity?
When they do, take the other scientists to the radio station.
But. Never mind his need for control conditions right now. People could be dying, all over town. If he takes the validity of Michaela’s message as an assumption — and he has to, by now, she even warned him about the damned wheat — then he should follow it. Follow his own advice.
The answer is in the radio station.
It had fucking well better be.
He sets his jaw, takes in a slow, hopefully calming breath, and looks up at Big Rico.
“I think I can fix your problem,” he says.
They’re breathless again with the run back to the house in Old Town, with the weight of their makeshift weapons.
It’s on their way to the radio station — almost directly — but Night Vale is already chaos, people running and screaming, gunfire in the distance, more of the snakes manifesting. He’s frightened but it hasn’t hit his brain yet. High on adrenaline, tiny tremors in his hands, that familiar hard white point of heat under his ribs. Anticipation.
In the somewhat cramped sanctuary of the car, he leaves his colleagues’ attempts at conversation dangling, just kicks off his battered sneakers and pulls on his workboots instead. Slides his fingers past the dashboard clock (which, maddeningly, has started registering the time in Unmodified Sumerian), to hit the on button for the CD player.
Riding on the highway... going to a show...
Beginning of the track and Eli recognizes the lyrics first, pumps his fist in the air and whoops, as they roll out of the alley and Carlos snaps the wheel into a sharp smooth turn, driving like the car’s stolen and he’s about to outrun the Secret Police as stylishly as possible.
Gettin’ had, gettin’ took, I tell you folks, it’s harder than it looks...
Phil grabs the handle on the car door, alarmed. Marianne and Dave look at each other, then give in to startled, almost charmed, grins. Carlos smiles back in the rearview mirror. Knocks the volume up a notch.
He’s breaking all his own rules today, so why not this one, too?
It’s a long way to the top, if you wanna rock and roll...
The radio station has a deserted air.
The parking lot’s empty except for two cars, parked side by side. The green sports car is unfamiliar, but the lovingly maintained white 1960s Rambler might as well have Cecil’s name on the license plate. Dave whistles softly at the sight of it. “Whew. Nice.”
With the skirl of bagpipes and electric guitars silenced at the touch of another button, Carlos twists around in his seat to examine the foliage near the building’s entrance narrowly. No sign of any snakes, but the quiet as he opens the door is brooding and electric, as if presaging a storm.
“Does anyone else suddenly feel like an extra in a horror movie, or is it just me?”
“Eli, will you shut up for once?” Marianne condenses scorn into her voice, but Carlos sees her reach into her labcoat pocket to touch the taser she’s carried since the day of the Director’s visit.
“Yeesh, Mare, no need to bitch. You’re the most likely candidate for survival — as long as you don’t take off any of your clothing.”
“Better stay behind me,” Carlos tells them all.
“Oops, odds going up on the boss,” Eli says, but his grin slips a bit when Carlos looks at him. “Uh, I meant to ask, since you’re the one ordering us to go in there, you’re not gonna fire us afterwards, right?”
“Of course I’m not going to fire you,” says Carlos, with wry reassurance. “I’d miss the soothing Greek chorus of your voices.”
Phil snorts, but it’s half-laughter, for once. “Right.”
“Okay,” and Carlos crosses the loading zone and steps onto the shallow front patio, putting his hand next to the door in unconscious imitation of his first visit, when — something — inside had made contact with his mind, made him lose his balance. He doesn’t want them to see him stagger, if it happens again.
As before, the door is open in spite of the keycard reader next to it, perhaps pushed ajar by the wind. Carlos listens, for voices or static or footsteps or typing, anything that might tell him if the room beyond is occupied.
He hears a Voice, but only one.
Distant, and muffled by the soundproofing of the recording booth, but there, and he relaxes insensibly at the sound of it.
Pushes the door further ajar, before he can lose his nerve entirely, and then he’s standing in the plain little reception room, gray carpet and tile and a miniature cactus on the desk beside the antique typewriter Cecil’s interns use for office memos and temporary passes. The room is empty and unchanged, except for one of the bright orange WHEAT & WHEAT BY-PRODUCTS!! flyers on the floor. Phil bends over to pick it up.
“This isn’t so bad,” Eli says.
“No one here,” Dave observes. “I guess they must all be in the studio? Do you remember where it is, boss?”
As if he could forget.
“...source says that they can’t pinpoint the supplier, but, as everyone knows, it’s easy to tell the difference between a licensed bloodstone and a knock-off. You don’t simply...” Cecil hesitates, minutely, half a heartbeat’s length of silence as he glances up to see them, the still-out-of-breath, still-awed group of them, tumble into the studio. Then he continues the sentence, so smoothly that Carlos has to wonder how often this happens to him: “...pick up bloodstones at the Ralph’s like ordinary groceries. You allow them to choose you. Like stray animals that come to your door begging to be fed, stray animals which inevitably become part of your family. Like the tiny pebble that sticks to your shoe one day, that you later keep in a drawer for no apparent reason. Like dreams. Dreams that mean nothing... until the day they change, and mean something. An unlicensed bloodstone will continue to mean nothing, Night Vale, until you realize that nothing ever has.” He’s turning something between his fingers, a slow wink of the room’s red-tinted light glancing off it as his hands move, graceful, in the dimness. “So make sure, once again, listeners, that you only buy from the City Council. Now... uh, excuse me for a moment...” He tilts his head at the flyer Phil’s still holding.
Phil exchanges a somewhat frantic look with Carlos and then holds up the flyer so that Cecil can see it more clearly, waving the clipboard in his other hand. “Damn it, Palmer, you’ve got to warn them!”
“He can’t hear you,” Marianne hisses, exasperated, gesturing at the ON AIR sign. “God, why is there no one else here?” She, Phil and Dave all wave, trying to convey their urgency. Eli has completely dropped everything he’s carrying and pounced on a laptop that someone has left open on the desk, typing furiously.
But Cecil can apparently read their faces. He pushes his glasses up on his nose with a finger, leans closer, then: “An update on our previous message about wheat and wheat by-products. You... should not eat wheat and wheat by-products,” as Marianne hastily seizes the flyer and scribbles the words DO NOT in front of the word CONSUME (with a Sharpie marker that had apparently been in her pocket, and Carlos abruptly wonders if all of his team members are carrying illegal writing implements), “say several frantic scientists, waving clipboards in our studio.”
“There goes our good press, if we ever had any,” and Dave sounds amused.
Cecil glances at him. Another infinitesimal pause, then, turning his attention to his own screen, “It turns out all wheat and wheat by-products, for unknown reasons, have turned into venomous snakes, which are crawling all over our small city, causing even more chaos than is normal...”
“How are you doing that?” Phil asks Eli.
“It shows up on his display in there. He’s got an integrated feed,” still typing, “and I should probably have started hacking it before we even got in here.”
Carlos is barely listening.
“These snakes have been described as ‘terrifying,’ ‘loathsome,’ and ‘probably from the bowels of Hell itself’. Also, ‘green’ and ‘three feet long.’ If you have any wheat or wheat by-products in your home, you are almost certainly... already dead.” Cecil hesitates again, another heartbeat, conflicting emotion twisting across his face. Then, tone light over a leaden realization, “Sorry about that,” and he flips a switch, puts a hand over his face, the lines of his body suddenly eloquent with tension.
The music that spills softly out over the speakers is like a sweet and foreboding wind: faint piano chords, a sensation of falling in them. Some variation on the theme of the show. To Carlos it’s abruptly and immeasurably comforting, and he’s meeting Cecil’s gaze directly, with gratitude, before he can stop himself.
The reporter’s eyes widen in astonishment behind his fingers, and then narrow, as he stands up, slips off his headset, and pushes the door of the booth open. “Hello again,” looking at Carlos, but speaking to all of them. “I... apologize, I was overcome for a moment. Do me a favor and turn off the light, will you?”
“Where do you —?” Phil begins, but Dave says, “Here,” and extinguishes the sign.
“I thought you weren’t supposed to come out of there during — I mean —” Marianne fumbles, and then blushes, brightly, when Cecil smiles at her.
“No,” he says, “but I am allowed some latitude in when I take my breaks, as long as I don’t stay off the air too long.” He gives the object he’s holding an absent little twirl — it’s a gleaming black pen — and offers her his free hand. “I don’t think we’ve met?”
“But we know you, Cecil — I mean —” shyly.
“You listen to the show?” He smiles again, shaking with her. “I’m honored. You’re all so busy with your science, usually.”
“You don’t know our names by now?” Phil crosses his arms, forgetting that the Sharpie-anointed flyer is still in his hand. “I would’ve expected you to figure that out the first day we got here.”
Cecil returns his look, inscrutably. Carlos breaks in hastily, “Uh, Cecil, this is Phil Kirk, my senior researcher. My colleagues, Marianne Smithson, Dave Halland” — Dave smiles at Cecil, as if to cancel out Phil’s grumpiness — “and our intern —”
“Eli, and I need the password that disables the countdown.”
“Oh. Right. I forgot about that. ‘Orogenesis.’ You spell it —”
Rather fiercely, “I can spell, Cecil Palmer. I’m not like your interns, I’m a graduate student, okay?”
Cecil puts both hands up in mock surrender, the pen still between his fingers. “Sorry.” He looks around at the rest of the group, eyes lingering a little too long on Carlos’s face. “Will you stay for a few minutes? I can’t buy you a drink during work hours, obviously, but I can offer you coffee.”
Carlos’s own voice tastes odd in his mouth as he replies. “Won’t your Management —?”
“Object? I doubt it.” Cecil shakes his head. “It’s their rest day — they’re somnolent, so as long as you don’t conduct any particularly explosive experiments, they’re unlikely to notice you’re here.”
“You mean they sleep on the job?” Dave raises an eyebrow.
“Only once a month. I could think of worse attributes for an employer. Come on, we can talk in the break room.” With decision, Cecil leads them toward a door Carlos hadn’t noticed before — designed, perhaps to be unnoticeable — pausing only once to make sure they’re following.
They are, with intense curiosity on their faces.
This might be worse than Carlos had imagined.
The employee break room is a surprise, in more than one sense.
It’s well-lit and homey, the walls painted earth-brown and the countertops cluttered with mismatched decorations and coffee mugs. There’s a large table that looks as though it was transplanted from someone’s kitchen — a mellow wood surface and matching chairs with straw backs — and a fountain-style jukebox against one wall that immediately attracts the attention of Eli and Dave.
Phil is still frowning at the door, presumably trying to figure out why he hadn’t noticed it either until they all walked through, so it’s Marianne who sees the gravestones first. Her hand clamps down on Carlos’s arm, hard.
“What the fuck —”
“It’s all right,” Carlos says.
“But, boss, I see — oh God, how many —?”
“Three thousand, two hundred and eleven,” says Cecil, without turning away from the open fridge door, the Voice dark and musing. Marianne’s fingers tighten further. “No, I’m sorry, that’s incorrect. Three thousand, two hundred and twelve. I... still forget sometimes that Leland’s gone now.”
“How can that be possible? The building isn’t big enough,” and Phil strides over to the little alcove, pushes back the half-obscuring curtain and stares.
“That’s not advisable, you know,” Cecil remonstrates gently. “It will make your head hurt. In fact, you should stay out of there altogether, without eye protection. Come back in, have some coffee. And there’s fruit in here, if you’re hungry.”
“Actually, I am,” Phil says, as if surprised at himself, but he doesn’t move, and Dave has to reach over and steer him back to the table.
“Carlos,” Marianne says, finally letting go, “you’re going to eat something, too, right?”
“Trade you if you’ve got a cigarette left.”
Marianne raises an eyebrow, but before she can speak, Cecil offers lazily, “You can have one of mine, if you want. I was just going to step outside.”
“I, uh —” Carlos starts, but any excuse to refuse goes out of his head as his gaze intersects Cecil’s again; he can almost feel the sparks. “Yeah. Thanks.”
“Not at all.”
Now all four of his colleagues have their eyebrows raised, almost-identical Oh really? expressions on their faces, and he frowns them down behind Cecil’s back, draws a finger picturesquely across his throat.
Predictably, it doesn’t do any good.
Eli even winks at him.
The fenced-in yard behind the station. The scrublands and the Sand Wastes unrolling beyond the fragile chainlink, beautiful and remote, a thirsty man’s nightmare. The shadow cast by the radio tower, striping the ground around them, as if they stand in a giant’s cell.
Carlos looks everywhere except at his companion.
He’s unsurprised to find that the cigarette has a bite to it, something dark and smoldering that catches the back of his throat. The smoke he breathes out, as usual, turns red, but a deeper, more velvety shade than he’s seen before. Does Cecil just favor an exceptionally strong blend, or has he been smoking the Night Vale equivalent of lights this whole time?
“Do you... believe me?” he asks. It sounds stupid — but the rest of the explanation, poured out ignominiously at his feet like spilled blood, sounded even more stupid. As unbalanced as one of Teddy Williams’s rants about Lane Five.
“Believe you?” Cecil laughs quietly, a low, deep chuckle that thrums in the air between them. “Of course I believe you, Carlos.”
“Why do you always believe me?” Fiercely. He takes another drag, holding it, willing himself to be calm.
“Why would you lie?”
Carlos risks a glance at Cecil. The reporter hasn’t even stirred from his position, leaning easily against the side of the building, one of his neat oxford shoes crossed over the other. On the last word, he tilts his head back, letting smoke curl up from his nostrils. “Besides, I have...” He sighs. “Corroborating evidence. But I’m afraid I have to ask you to trust me.”
“Cecil, you —” Carlos flounders. “You can’t tell me you had something to do with this? I don’t believe it.”
Cecil’s eyes narrow, the dark slash of one eyebrow rising expressively. He looks hurt, for a moment. Uncharacteristically vulnerable. “Not... directly. No. But I feel it may be my fault that —”
“Wait.” Carlos cuts him off abruptly, casting away the remainder of his cigarette. Pulls the black box out of his pocket. “Just... wait a minute.”
When he switches it on, Cecil shudders visibly, catching himself with one hand against the wall. Very softly, “Agh. Fuck,” and then, fixing his eyes intently on the tiny device, “How — how are you doing that?”
“To be frank, I don’t think I could duplicate the effect without Eli’s help,” Carlos says. “He invented it. But it’s only to keep people from overhearing —”
“I know,” Cecil interrupts, two fingers to his forehead as if deep in thought — or in pain. Harshly, “That’s... I can’t count how many different kinds of illegal that is. Please, hide it, quickly. Someone might see it.”
Carlos, unexpectedly hurt in turn, stumbles over something that wants to be an apology. “I — but I — I just —”
“You just... wanted to keep me from getting in trouble,” Cecil says, and the corner of his mouth suddenly curves in a wicked smile. “Thoughtful Carlos.”
“Yes, well,” and Carlos shoves the black box back into his pocket, finger still on the switch. He can feel the heat on his face; that tone of Voice is utterly unfair, just as unfair as the way Cecil’s got both sleeves of his shirt pushed up, the half-lidded look Cecil’s currently giving him. “If you’ve got something to say, say it now, while the veil’s still up.”
“So you do trust me?” Drawling, dangerous.
Carlos takes a shaking breath. “If we’re going to work together, help each other — professionally speaking, I mean — then yes, I do trust you. You couldn’t have meant anyone to die... I know you couldn’t.”
“No.” Cecil looks away. It’s a relief for a moment, but now the line of his shoulders is set against something that Carlos realizes is grief.
His own grief over this must be microscopic, next to Cecil’s. The people who died in Big Rico’s storefront, the people who have died everywhere in Night Vale, if he’s right... he’s known them for months, at the most. Cecil has probably known them for years. Gone to school with them, passed them on the street, asked after their children or their hobbies, told their stories on the radio. He wouldn’t be surprised if Cecil knew the name of every Night Vale citizen, living or otherwise.
And he — Carlos the outsider, Carlos the new arrival, Carlos who’s spent all his time making maps of the place instead of getting to know the people — is helpless to lessen Cecil Palmer’s grief.
Except, maybe, by keeping anyone else from dying.
“So tell me.” Nervously, hopefully, balancing between desire and fear, he puts a hand on Cecil’s shoulder. “Tell me what happened. Tell me what I can do to help you.”
Cecil looks around with an expression Carlos has never seen on his face before: somewhere between touched and astonished, all trace of mischief gone. Slowly, his hand comes up to cover Carlos’s fingers. “Yes,” he says, “of course,” and then, wonderingly, “Carlos.” Just the name, as if he can’t believe Carlos is real.
I never meant to give you the impression I wasn’t, he thinks wryly, and smiles, hoping that it comes out reassuring.
“Yeah,” he says, “I’m here.”
It fits together so seamlessly that Carlos wonders if he’s dreaming again for the brief, brief time it takes for Cecil to tell his story.
Except that he’s not.
“Can you hear me?” he asks softly, adjusting the headset of the radio transceiver.
“Yeah, boss. Crystal. That awful static’s gone.”
“Good.” Carlos turns around in the middle of the suspiciously empty street, slowly, listening for helicopters. Paradoxically, it reassures him when he hears one.
“I,” says Eli, importantly, “am going to be keeping everyone updated. Phil is on lookout duty, and Dave is monitoring the PF reader. What? ...Oh. I’ll tell him, sure. Carlos, Phil says if you don’t keep checking in promptly, he’s countermanding our orders and sending us out after you. Can he do that?”
“Not unless I’m dead. In which case a rescue mission would be a little ridiculous.”
“This whole thing is more than a little ridiculous, boss, in case you hadn’t noticed. I went to the restroom while you were outside, and there’s — there’s this —”
“I know about the floating cat, Eli.”
“It’s got these weird, uh, tendrils, did you know that?”
Carlos blinks. “No, but it isn’t a priority right now. Focus, okay?”
“Right. Uh, our host wants to tell you something. Hang on, I’m gonna hit speaker for a second.”
“Carlos.” Cecil’s voice is calm, but Carlos can tell he’s bearing down on something — standing with his hand clamped on the back of his chair, or leaning one elbow on the desk with those oddly graceful fingers wrapped tightly around his illegal pen. “If I can be of further assistance with your experiment —”
“You’ve already given us invaluable information.”
“I wish, well, I wish it were not necessary for you to take such a... hands-on approach. It’s not what I expected.” Don’t go, Cecil’s tone pleads with him.
“I’ll be all right,” he says, firmly, with absolutely no idea if he’s lying or not, just wanting Cecil to stop sounding so heartbroken.
“Light’s coming up, Palmer.” The intern’s voice is both polite and hostile — two things that almost never describe Eli. “Get ready.”
And Marianne, resigned: “Really, Cecil, he does this all the time. It’s getting to be a habit.”
A sigh, so soft that maybe Carlos is the only one who hears it, and then Cecil replies, Voice once again like a serene midnight pool, “All right, intern Eli. Ready when you are,” and somewhere behind Carlos, in the shadowed studio, the ON AIR sign ignites like a silent neon explosion, and they’re separated again.
He can do this.
Only instead of planting survey markers or investigating Night Vale’s water table, he’s testing his own bizarre telepathic ability — under conditions that he hopes will never be duplicated.
And, like the other tentative experiments they’ve done involving what Eli calls his “mojo,” he’s breaking a promise by not sending this data in along with his other reports.
If the Director finds out about this, he had better make certain the punishment falls squarely on his own shoulders. Not on his team’s. Especially not on Cecil’s.
Don’t ever get between someone and a promise they’ve broken.
He can do this.
The Sheriff’s Secret Police, thanks to luck (or the dubious favor of some foreboding god, and he’s not certain which he would prefer, at this point), are paying no attention whatsoever to Carlos. They appear, as far as he can tell from the flight patterns of the blue helicopters overhead, to be entirely focused on the chaos being caused by the snakes. He sees one team go rappelling down the side of the water tower, headed for Old Town and the epicenter of the crisis.
Who or what else might be watching, he doesn’t have time to find out.
He’s gambling, fairly heavily, on the idea that the culprit has left the path to his bolt-hole unaffected by apparitions, but just because he doesn’t see anything out of the ordinary now doesn’t mean he won’t be assailed by something straight out of his nightmares if he’s detected before he gets too close. It all depends on whether or not his quarry knows he’s coming.
“What’s my rating, Eli?” Still softly, into the headset.
“Uh. 1.2. Yeah, nothing yet. Baseline.”
“Wait, you’re telling me my PF baseline’s gone up from negatives?”
“That’s what Dave says. Especially with the data from the little unit you’ve been wearing everywhere. But it might be a side effect of, you know, just living here. Mine’s gone up from -0.27 to -0.25.”
“That falls under standard fluctuation, doesn’t it?”
Eli sighs noisily into the mic, prompting Carlos to fiddle hastily with the volume. “Well, a guy can dream, right?”
“Don’t,” and Carlos is still too cautious to raise his voice, but some of his urgency spills over anyway. “Don’t. It’s not the way you think it is.”
“Yeah, yeah, great power, great responsibility, blah blah blah. Look, I’d use it to help people. And I’d never try to betray you with it, not like this Brad character.” A snort of derision. “Working at the station seems to drive people fruit loops, all right.”
“I hope you catch him soon, before I lose the remainder of my marbles. I didn’t spend all this time studying cryptology to end up managing Cecil Palmer’s fucking voicemail, although you could make an argument that it’s a job prerequisite.”
“Eli.” Firmly. “I need you to be quiet, now. I’m almost there,” and he slips the headphones down to listen.
Birdsong. Helicopters. Distant screaming.
Almost there is the last suburban street of the Cactus Bloom neighborhood, a dogleg just off Twelfth — five houses, their paint peeling, in fading pastel colors. It’s quiet. Deserted. There’s a street sign, but the surface of it has been eaten away, as if by acid, and Carlos knows better than to get too close; that could have been caused by any number of perilous things, including actual acid.
“Last house on the right,” Cecil had told him. “The numbers are missing. He put a different address on his job application, but it’s not real. The address, I mean. At the time, I assumed he had his reasons. I mean, I lied about my blood type, when I wanted to join the football team in school... Anyway, they don’t have a guard dog or any particularly hungry plants, so I think you might be able to just walk up.”
Which is what Carlos is going to do, because he’d feel supremely ridiculous trying to stealth his way up an open street, in broad daylight and with nothing to hide behind.
Speed is really the key variable here anyway.
So he walks up the porch steps as if he owns the place. Carefully tries the handle of the door, half-braced for some kind of trap. A hole could open up under his feet; something heavy could drop on his head; the barrel of a gun could press insistently up against his neck. Or he could experience any one of those things, even if they don’t actually happen. He tries to clear his mind entirely of possibility, just fall back into a state of expecting nothing.
The door opens easily, noiselessly. Unlocked.
Carlos steps inside.
The home of Night Vale’s telepathic killer is — like the water in the town reservoirs — so normal that it tips right over into sinister.
It actually seems familiar, like something from a dream. Like something from an ordinary dream, the kind he never has anymore.
The same cheap carpet Carlos remembers from five or six different houses in his mother’s old neighborhood in L.A. Dust caught on cobwebs at the tips of the fanblades overhead, so that it looks like it’s in the first stages of being colonized by a gray fungus. Even the changing backwash of the TV set from the next room, the way Julio always used to leave it on even when nobody was watching —
Carlos knows what he’ll see, even before he steps through the archway into the living room, and it still hits him like a punch pulled at the very last second.
“I’ve been wondering how long it’d take you to turn up,” the man sprawled on the couch says, lazily. He turns his thin, handsome face in Carlos’s direction and smiles, holding up an empty beer can. “Ran dry ten minutes ago. Well, get moving, hijo,” the sudden command like a whipcrack, and then laughter, as Carlos draws back sharply from an impulse to obey.
“I don’t know how much context you’re getting from the memories you just stole from me,” he replies, dryly, “but I can tell you don’t actually speak Spanish.”
“You don’t sound like you speak Spanish, either,” replies the projection, the shell, the eerie fetch of the man Carlos had once refused to call his stepfather. (No marriage, no adoption, had ever taken place to make it official, and even if it had, he would still have refused.) “Why is that? Do you do it on purpose, so people don’t talk down to you? Did you practice it before school every morning?”
The undeserved taunts hook him in for a moment, hand clenching convulsively, and then he stills. Sets his jaw. “What do you practice before school every morning, Brad? How to smile, how to seem normal, when you know you’re a monster? Or do you just figure you don’t need to practice anything, you’re perfect as you are?” He laughs, deliberately, with scorn. “Well, that’s a good thing for Night Vale, isn’t it? For those of us who don’t like being puppets in your fatally flawed game?”
Julio — Brad — tosses his head dismissively, but his expression has gone sullen, suspicious. “I wouldn’t call my game flawed,” he says. “Only one out of — what’s our population again? — a whole hell of a lot of people, anyway, with partial immunity? You should’ve seen what happened in the diner after you left, by the way. Total murder.”
“Exactly — and what are you going to do now?” Carlos inquires. “You didn’t really plan on my arrival, did you? You thought I’d assume it was the Council, especially after what Telly said this morning. Maybe you even figured I’d try to storm City Hall, get myself conveniently canceled out of the equation? You planted it, all of it. People here are conditioned, susceptible to suggestion... and you can turn suggestion into brute force, can’t you? But I’m not from here, and brute force isn’t going to work on me. You put on your Halloween mask as a last resort, and I was supposed to — what? — to curl up in a corner and start questioning reality? After five months of studying this town? Yeah, ‘flawed’ is exactly what I’d call that game.”
“You try your misguided little heroic routine on me, Carlos, and you’ll die,” hisses Brad through Julio’s clenched teeth.
Carlos bares his own teeth. “Maybe. But so will you. Do you really think Cecil doesn’t know what you are? Where you are? Did you really believe Cecil wouldn’t recognize the signs? Or that he would protect you, even once he realized you were going to fucking frame him for this? You even waited until that ad campaign was introduced. You must have thought it was so clever, right? An exquisitely planned stab in the back? He knew the entire time, Brad. He saw right through you.”
“And I’m supposed to believe he sent you? Like he’d ever endanger the life of his perfect, wonderful schoolgirl crush?”
They’re eye-to-eye now, gazes wired in as if by hard current, and Carlos feels a crazy relief — the fight’s an inevitable fact now, rushing at them, as if they’re on a tour bus hurtling toward the yawning mouth of Radon Canyon. He’s done what he came here to do.
And if Brad were an ordinary teenage psychopath, he’d even be pretty certain of winning; despite current appearances, he’s got fifteen years’ more experience — and what sometimes seems like a lifetime of turning serious beatings into survivable ones — on his side. But Cecil’s rogue intern is anything but ordinary.
Yes, he might be about to die.
So, “Yeah,” simply, “he sent me.”
“You’re bluffing!” and the edges of the illusion are beginning to wear through, like old paper; Carlos can see Brad’s borrowed height and menace flickering. Now he looks less like Julio than he does like Julio’s ghost. “Cecil’s been dead for hours! When would you have even had time to talk to him?”
Carlos laughs outright this time. Pulls the radio transceiver out of his pocket and just hits the first of the preprogrammed switches, the one he’d set to pick up NVCR months ago.
“— enough energy to power the Earth for billions of years! The city of Night Vale plans to use the pulsar to light the high school football stadium... which still uses whale-oil lamps. John Peters — you know, the farmer — is particularly upset, not only about the pulsar development, but also about the higher taxes...”
“Hear that?” Carlos turns down the volume, but the Voice still thrums in the air around them. “That isn’t pre-recorded, you murdering asshole. But you know that, because you would have done the recording.” He can feel himself smiling. “Kill me, and you’ll still die. Cecil’s alive. I don’t know how, but he’s alive.”
Brad freezes, and the last of his stolen form melts away. For a slow, spinning moment, he looks exactly like he did in the ID photo Carlos saw at the station. He looks as ordinary as he isn’t.
Then his arms stretch forward, too fast, in dislocation, impossibly elastic fingers wrapping around Carlos’s throat. Another illusion. Hissing, “Well, we’ll have to do something about that,” and then the sense of an abyssal pressure, some indescribable membrane breaking, and in his pocket, somewhere miles away, Eli’s tiny PF reader is probably about to burn out from overload.
Unconscious, but aware.
It’s a state of being that’s beginning to feel uncomfortably familiar.
Carlos is aware of his physical body, lying on the floor of the house, but what he sees is Night Vale, all of it, as if through a million different cameras. So much of it once again bloodstained, and he would tremble with anger if he were capable of moving.
His vision is being directed by Brad’s, now: he sees the paranormal fields like bright water or mercury, acted on by forces he can’t begin to imagine, and how they turn dark when Brad touches them, how they slip into mouths or eyes, invisibly, invasively.
He speculates distantly that people must have a level of susceptibility to this kind of telepathic control, because some resist without even appearing to be aware. He catches glimpses of them. Big Rico, standing guard at the cellar entrance. A married couple he doesn’t know, holding hands in the parking lot of the Desert Flower. Two junior-high-age boys in Scout uniforms, ditching school, who are hiding in Mission Grove Park. Leann Hart, editor of the town newspaper, sitting on the edge of her desk and contemplating the sharpened edge of a hatchet. Abby Chang, owner of the tiny coffee shop, Brewed Awakenings, eyeing her empty baked-goods case with extreme suspicion. Each one, each victory, makes him smile, but the warm feeling quickly fades when he realizes how many people have been turned into puppets.
How many people are slowly advancing on Old Town and the radio station.
Some of them, already nearby, are pounding on the doors, to no apparent avail. Phil must have locked up. Good.
When the perspective dives suddenly inside the station, fear floods into Carlos’s mind like a numbing weight.
All four of his colleagues are once again in the studio, in the midst of an energetic debate centered over the surveillance images from outside, which are pulled up on the laptop. But Brad is moving slowly, almost delicately, as he tries to manipulate the paranormal energy in here, and Carlos thanks whatever deities might happen to be favorably disposed toward him that Station Management is sleeping.
Trip, Carlos thinks at his captor, lose your concentration, but he doesn’t think Brad can hear him. He can’t hold his breath, or cross his fingers, so he does something that feels like the mental equivalent of both. He thinks maybe he was able to get his fingers to twitch, there on the floor of Brad’s house, get an increment of control over his body back again, but that's unimportant now.
Dave, standing with his arms crossed and a wary expression, seems to notice the insubstantial touch of the dark tendril trying to gain entry to his left eye, and rubs his face with the palm of his hand, shrugging it off.
Eli, looking up from the laptop screen, coughs it away as it reaches for him and turns questioningly to the others.
Phil, exasperatedly trying to communicate something to Cecil using only gestures and a series of hastily drawn graphs, almost makes Brad lose the conduit entirely. He, unlike the others, doesn’t seem to have noticed anything, but Marianne actually backs away from the spot, as if it’s cold.
All but cheering, Carlos is too relieved to feel any more fear for himself. His team are all right. They’re all right. He hasn’t gotten them killed (not yet, anyway) and he can sense Brad’s frustration.
And Brad doesn’t dare reach for Cecil — Cecil, speaking confidingly to his microphone; Cecil, trying not to show his amusement at the scientists’ ongoing argument; Cecil, who can almost be said to have an aura of paranormal energy, a humming black glow the frequency of an angel’s skin, leaking like smoke or radiation from the lines of his arcane tattoos.
What kind of power had Brad built up, to try to kill Cecil from a distance?
Had it been the same strange event which he, Carlos, had felt in the lot behind Big Rico’s?
How weak is Brad now, in reaction? How strong had he been before?
This, this mass overtaking, really is Brad’s last resort, and if Carlos can’t stop him —
Halfway through this thought, the world is seized.
Carlos screams, soundlessly, terror overriding the knowledge that he can’t activate his vocal cords.
Night Vale spins into a mad whirl of color and motion, between the claws of something ancient and furious, a thousand points in space tumbling upward in the void, like Tarot cards lost to a savage wind, and he falls from Brad’s grip, a mouse from the claws of a hawk taken brutally by some larger predator.
Loses consciousness again.
Somewhere in that blackness, a steady heartbeat. His own, he thinks, this time.
His phone rouses him, ringing and ringing. He stumbles to his feet, swaying, waves of dizziness swamping him for a moment, before receding.
“Boss?” Phil. “Are you all right? The phones just came back, and — and you haven’t checked in since it got all Day of the Dead out there — we thought —”
“I’m all right.”
Carlos looks around, at the dingy reality of his surroundings. How much of it had been submerged in the illusion surprises him; there isn’t even a TV in this room.
He glances at the body, and then wishes, promptly and thoroughly, that he hadn’t. Threads of steam are still rising from it.
“Yes,” he says, “really. But I think this whole experiment’s going to be a bust. You’re still at the radio station?”
“Uh, speaking of that, Mr. Palmer wants to talk to you.”
Of course he does. “Sure, put him on.”
There’s a moment of shuffling on the other end of the line. Carlos scoops up the headset and the transceiver, which somehow got turned off again when they hit the floor, and makes determinedly for the front door. He feels as though he’s just tried to run a marathon in his sleep.
Then the Voice wraps around him and he has to lean against the wall. “Carlos?” Hope, guilt, tenderness, all at once and all unshadowed; it makes him want to slide down and curl up around the phone and start crying with relief.
“Yeah,” he says, for the second time, “I’m here,” and he wonders if that’s as eloquent as he’s ever going to get, talking to Cecil.
“Your senior associate says that you’re... doing all right. I’m so glad to hear that.”
“Thanks,” the single syllable ridiculously inadequate, and now he wants to laugh, instead. Very smooth, idiot.
“I’ll only take a minute of your time, since the City Council’s sent me an important announcement,” Cecil says. “I wondered if you had... discovered anything further about the tectonic activity in town.”
“The —? H-how is that relevant?” Oh, brilliant, stammering now.
“Well, it just seems unusual, you know, that such earth-shaking things can happen right here in Night Vale, with no one... able to feel them.” Carlos hears Cecil swallow, the shift of fabric as he turns. “After today, I find myself very curious about... how much research you’ve done, in this area. Among other things.”
“I — well, uh — I don’t — I mean — it’s not —” It occurs to Carlos that his ability to talk in veiled terms over the phone, especially to Cecil, is like Eli’s baseline PF rating: charted accurately only in negative numbers. He sighs, shakes his head.
Cecil’s suggesting that they should work together, share information. That they should be conspirators, beyond what they’ve already covered up for each other. And he should say no. He should really, really say no. He’s standing in a dead man’s house right now, for fuck’s sake.
He opens his mouth, to be firm, and what comes out instead is a low-pitched, nervous question. “Like — like what other things?”
Cecil laughs, that deep, soft, wicked sound, and Carlos is suddenly certain that he’s taken the phone right out of hearing range of any of the others. “Oh, like... for example... where you got that shirt you’re wearing. It... fits you so well.”
God damn it, he’s actually flirting with me, there goes my higher brain function, Carlos thinks. Scrabbles wildly after the last shreds of his dignity. “Uh. Cecil, I —”
“Yes?” Calmly, but with a smirk still lurking in his tone.
“I...” Carlos sighs again. “I’ll check my notes, and the computer models, and, uh — see if I can find out what’s going on.”
“Oh, good,” and Cecil sighs too, as if letting out a held breath. “That’s what I thought you’d say.”
“Man,” Eli says, “if this isn’t the most useless —”
“Shut up,” Marianne and Phil hiss at him in unison. Marianne offers a bright smile to the Secret Policeman, still in full armor with his visor down, approaching them along the line of people waiting to be admitted into the shelter under the Public Library.
“But — no more French toast for breakfast? Not ever?” mourns Eli. “All wheat and wheat by-products banned forever? This is cruel and unusual treatment of a subjugated population.”
“Cruel, maybe, but hardly unusual,” Carlos points out, and puts a hand on his shoulder. “Go easy, all right? The City Council saved our lives today.”
“I know who saved our lives,” Eli mutters, loyally, but he relaxes.
Then you know more than I do, Carlos thinks. Even if I’ve got my suspicions.
The Secret Policeman’s search for contraband items hidden among the five of them comes up completely clean.
KNEW YOU COULD DO IT, Big Rico’s text message reads, in cheery capitals. CONSIDER YOUR CREDIT EXTENDED. NEW WHEAT-GLUTEN-FREE SPECIALS COMING SOON — FIRST SLICE ON ME.
The last embers of a very late sunset.
Their release from the shelter — which Carlos suspects is actually a hastily repurposed municipal basement of some sort — was much less regulated than their entry had been, and when they got back to the lab, the note was waiting for them on the table.
Ten o’clock in Mission Grove Park. Closed memorial service, I hardly need say. Come if you wish. Handwriting unmistakable.
To Carlos’s surprise, Eli agreed to accompany him, but when they catch up with Cecil — a somber figure, against the crackling bloom of the Eternal Animal Pyre — he hangs back a few steps, up the slope, a look on his face at once shy and sullen.
Cecil turns from contemplation of the flames to smile briefly at both of them. “I waited for you.”
“Yeah, sorry we’re late...”
“It’s not a problem,” Cecil says. “I’m not expecting anyone else. It’s just... if I didn’t do this, I’d feel I’ve left it undone, you know?”
Carlos just nods. Watches, as Cecil turns back to his vigil. The desert wind, softened by the trees at the edge of the clearing, tugs at the edges of Cecil’s neat white shirt, combs restless fingers through his short hair, where the blond dye is growing out. Even if it were a safe thing, could ever be an entirely safe thing, to touch Cecil, he wouldn’t, right now. This is still Cecil the Voice as well as Cecil the person, and he stands as though in front of a crowd. When he speaks, it’s unrehearsed and gentle.
“To the family of Brad the intern,” he says, “wherever and whoever you might have been: I regret that I cannot give you the news in person of your son’s death. You may be unable to hear my words now, but I am still bound to speak them. I wish I could give you a better account of his commitment to his noble duty. Unfortunately, all I can do is be grateful he is no longer suffering, or able to cause suffering to others. He may have forfeited the honor of being buried alongside his fellow interns, but I will not forget him. I believe that everyone, no matter how great their crimes, deserves at least one person to remember them kindly. On behalf of the staff of Night Vale Community Radio — in their ignorance — and on my own behalf,” bowing his head, “I am sorry for your loss.”
Silence then, and distant birdsong in it.
When Cecil finally steps back, he opens his hand to let the wind take a small white flower, which he’s apparently been holding in his sleeve. It drifts lazily up over the pyre, borne up by air currents, before settling into the flames, edges curling.
“What kind of flower is that?” Eli, breaking the respectful quiet.
Cecil turns to him; with the difference of the slope in Eli’s favor, they almost look the same height. “Saguaro. Night-blooming. They’re in season now, you know.”
“But it’s November.”
Eli blinks. “Look,” hastily, thrusting out a hand, “um, can we — can we please start over? I was rude, earlier, and — and I’m sorry.”
Cecil looks taken aback. Then he smiles, warmly. “Of course,” and he shakes Eli’s hand. “Cecil Gershwin Palmer, reporter. I’m pleased to meet you.”
“Elijah Hirsch, intern,” says Eli, not without pride. “I’m pleased to meet you, too.”
Carlos looks from one to the other and sighs — whether in relief or concern, he isn’t sure himself.
The static never comes back.