[A continuation from “On Covert Operations” and “On Desperation”, chapters three and four of The Explanation of Eliot, and “On Astrolabes”, chapter one of The Creation of Quentin.]
Penny tries not to blame himself. He’d felt the pull towards the astrolabe too, but he’d never thought it would get this bad. It was a hunk of metal, after all, as El kept calling it. Saturated in magic over hundreds of years, yes, but fundamentally just an inanimate object, unless acted upon by those with malintent.
But now they’re here, inside the large, fashionable apartment they’d rented for the job, all five of them crowded around in one of the bedrooms, and malintent has arrived uninvited.
On the floor, Q and Jules are both staring, spellbound (literally), at the damn astrolabe. They haven’t responded to anything anyone’s said in the last half hour, except for when Margaret, seeing the issue, had tried to grab the astrolabe and pull it out from between them. They’d both snapped their eyes over to her, and grabbed it back, ferocity and greed and fury on their faces, such an extreme response that Margaret actually let it happen, stumbling a step back and standing next to Penny, looking up at him with consternation in her eyes.
“Q,” El says, for what must be the fiftieth time. “Stop this. Stop.”
He’s crouched on the floor too, next to Q. He’s not touching him, and Penny knows why: he’d tried, at first, to grab him, to shake him, to kiss him square on the mouth, but Q’s body remained limp. Clearly conscious, but completely unresponsive to the touch of his lover. Penny had watched the fact of this carve a deep, internal wound through the center of El’s being. It reminds them all, too much, of Q when he’s in the midst of a melancholic fugue state, curled in on himself and unresponsive to all efforts to rouse him. This is… different, more extreme even than what Q’s brain can do to him all on its own, but the similarities add an additional layer of horror to the atmosphere.
Margaret had tried slapping Jules across the face. No effect. She’d reached across to try Q as well, but El had snarled at her and blocked her passage, and no more had been said about it.
“Q, I need you to speak to me. Please.”
“Stop,” Margo says, snapping at El even as her eyes flicker between Jules and Q, mounting horror breaking apart her usual authoritative attitude. “Stop talking to him, it’s useless.”
“Do you have another suggestion?” Penny snaps back at her, a fission of defensiveness on El’s behalf lighting up his chest. Just looking at El hurts, more than looking at the frozen, hypnotized faces of his friends. “He’s doing the best he can.”
It lasts that way for three hours. The good news, at first, is that Q and Jules don’t appear to be doing anything with the astrolabe. It clearly has them under its thrall, but they’ve made no motion to cast magic or lift it up, take it elsewhere, use it for its intended purpose or for magic still more terrible. In the wrong hands, say, the hands of expert magicians older than the dangerous object they hold between them, this instrument could suck every bit of magic out of the very air of the city, leaving a husk in its place.
Penny shifts slightly, moving so he’s equidistant from El and Margaret. If something starts to happen, he could grab the two of them and Travel away… but he abandons the thought even as he has it. They’d never forgive him. They’d dismember him for a betrayal of that magnitude. They’d curse his name, rend him to literal pieces, and then they’d fight through the rubble of the city to return to Q and Jules, they’d join them in their corrupted quest or allow themselves to be ripped apart in the aftermath.
Penny will have no choice but to let this happen. Penny will have to stay and join them, because what else does he have? Where else could he go?
He drops to his knees on Q’s other side. “Tell us what you want to do,” he says, keeping his voice gentle like he does whenever Q is lost deep in the fog of his own mind. “Just tell us, and we’ll help you.”
“Pen,” Margaret says, sharp, but she doesn’t say more than that, still standing like an indecisive statue near Jules’ shoulder. It doesn’t matter, anyway. Q doesn’t respond to Penny any more than he’d responded to El. Eventually Penny stands back up, his hands cold where they’d touched Q and Q hadn’t softened at the feel of a familiar hand, hadn’t turned to him with a smile or a playful glare. It hurts so much. He wants to share the pain with El, but El can’t seem to look at anything other than Q’s frozen face.
How much longer can they all stand to be here, in stasis, when no spell, no interference they’ve been able to discover, can break their trance? Attempting to move the astrolabe provokes violence. Attempting to move Q and Jules provokes nothing at all; they merely push back at anyone attempting to drag them away, using magic to hold their would-be helpers at bay.
“We could kill them,” Margaret suggests, because she has to suggest it. But none of them can really stomach the thought of such a thing, especially when so far, creepy, unending staring notwithstanding, they haven’t exactly done any harm as of yet.
But finally, as the London smog fades to night outside the window, something happens. Q shifts, twitches, and then Jules does as well. The other three all flinch in concert, El crowding in closer beside Q, calling his name again, while Margaret and Penny both take an instinctive, prudent step backwards.
Jules lifts a hand towards the astrolabe, brushing her fingers along the rounded edge. Q mirrors her, and then they lift it between them, heads tilting in eerie unison. Their other hands raise like they’re about to cast something.
Penny moves, knocking the astrolabe out of their hands in an instant, before anyone else can move, before he can question the insanity of the action. He steps between them as they both dive for the astrolabe, ignoring his presence entirely, but he speaks anyway, because he doesn’t know what else to do.
“This thing calls magic into it,” he says. “All magic. All of it. That means us. Listen, we don’t know how we work, why we’re all still here. If you do this, you could kill all of us.”
At first they don’t listen, but then Penny steps between Q and the astrolabe, where he’d been reaching for it again, and he gets down on his knees, grabbing Q by the shoulders even as El reaches, pitifully, for one of his hands. “Q, if you do this, you’ll kill me. You’ll kill El. Do you want to do that? Do you want us to die?”
Q blinks at him, and for a moment Penny thinks it’s not going to work. And why would it? They’ve all been begging them for any sort of response for hours now. Why would…
“It will make us stronger,” Q says, and it sounds so much like his ordinary voice that Penny almost flinches, hearing it from the stone-faced, unfeeling man in front of him.
El lets out a ragged sob. “Q, please look at me?” he says.
Q does. “It’s okay,” he tells El, still blank-faced. “It will make us stronger.”
“I don’t want to be stronger,” El tells him, earnest. “You don’t want that either.”
“It will teach us so much,” Jules adds. “We need to know.”
“But what if you’re wrong?” Margaret adds in, sinking to her knees finally, too, so that all five of them are crawling around the floor together, begging one another to listen. “What if it makes you stronger, and kills the three of us?”
Q… frowns. A flicker of something, of distaste, before his expression goes blank again. He turns to Penny. “Perhaps, to be cautious, you should leave before we begin.”
“Not going to happen,” Penny responds immediately, although his heart is pounding very hard in his chest. “If you’re doing this, you’ll have to deal with the consequences.”
It’s working now, Penny can see that. Not the plan to convince Q and Jules to stop, but the plan, constructed in the barest flicker of glances between himself and Margaret: to distract them, make them doubt, long enough for Margaret to do what she does next. Still looking at Jules, imploring, she snatches the astrolabe up with a quick hand and tosses it across the room to Penny, who Travels out of the room, out of the city, out of the country. Away. He doesn’t even have a chance to look at them all one last time, in case they burn each other to the ground in a frenzy of possessed fury before he can return. All he can do is his best, and then he’ll go home to a family that is hopefully whole once more.
Destroying the thing is laughably easy once it’s out of the grasp of those who wanted to keep it around. Later, he’ll learn the rest of the story, the way Q and Jules had both blazed to furious life, had lashed out at El and Margaret and screamed and begged, and then…
Stopped. Once the astrolabe was gone, destroyed, they’d both fallen in heaps on the ground, caught in the arms of their partners. They’d woken up out of whatever trance it had put them in, disoriented and missing memories, unable to fully grasp what had happened.
In the aftermath, it turns out that a couple of tense hours waiting for something to happen is just about the scariest thing that’s ever happened to Penny Adiyodi. He realizes that he’s become used to the idea that he and his dearest family members are all immune to lasting harm, that nothing that hurts them will ever be permanent. But there are things worse than death, and as he crawls into a magically enlarged bed with El, Q, M and J, all of them needing the closeness, he vows to never forget that again.