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Through the Gates of the Silver Mic

Chapter Text

Through the Gates of the Silver Mic

 By DJ Clawson

 

Chapter 1

1998

"No.”

It was offered firmly but also a bit impassively, as if Cecil should have expected this somehow, or at least should be very accepting of the answer without being offended.

But Cecil was, of course. “Why?” He looked at the résumé on the desk between them, the one that Algonquin hadn’t even looked at. He didn’t need to; he knew everything Cecil had ever done. He knew that Cecil was vastly overqualified for this job. He had a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism with a minor in Communications. He’d worked an uncertain amount of time at the Night Vale Daily Journal, though that information just said that and the words ‘REDACTED BY ORDERS OF THE SHERRIF’S SECRET POLICE’ in red ink under it. Whatever he’d done, none of which Ceil remembered, it must have been important enough to earn a thorough reeducation and a lifetime ban on working there again. He was secretly proud that he had made some investigations so thoroughly that they came to the attention of the police. And Cecil had been to Europe, broadening his horizons beyond the average Night Vale citizen. People rarely left, except maybe to attend another college, and they often didn’t come back. Cecil blamed at least half of Steve Carlsberg’s dickishness on him going to UC-Berkeley.

Algonquin, the Voice of Night Vale, looked at him sympathetically, but leaned back in very large and very well-build chair with an air of resignation. “Cecil, I have seven interns. That’s four more than Station Management wants me to have. And yes, I know that you would probably do a better job because of your experience even if we don’t remember it, but to be honest, mostly they get me coffee and try not to die. It’s beneath you.”

“And picking invisible corn for John Peters isn’t?” Night Vale didn’t exactly have a booking job market for a young journalist in a town with precisely two media outlets. “Al, you know I’ll do whatever the job requires. I’ll clean the toilets. I’ll be the one who shouts at Station Management’s door – “

Al’s eyes widened and he said, “That would be a very bad idea. But you should already know that.”

There was not a lot about the station that Cecil didn’t know. He could not remember his first visit, as he was very young. Al had a playpen in the recording booth where Cecil played as a child when his current foster parent was busy or temporarily deceased. He was allowed to use an empty office for a study room in high school when his house got to noisy.

Cecil could even remember when Al had been human, or just more human-looking. He was even taller now, muscular and just big, his body so covered with bright pink fur that he no longer had to wear clothes, and just wore a vest with the station logo on it. He resembled a gorilla with fangs and could stand up straight. And had horns. He resembled a stuffed animal, which wasn’t a good thing to think about when you were looking in his eyes, because Al seemed to be at least a little telepathic and he would look back at you and know you were thinking it.

“Seriously. Give me a good reason,” Cecil demanded. Because they both knew this was the only thing in the world he wanted to do with his life.

Al looked out the window, as if an answer was sitting just outside it, but it was only scrubland. “I’ll talk with Management. But it will take some time to get back to you, so don’t let your hopes ride on it. You need time, Cecil. You just got back from Europe.”

“Three months ago! And I did my month of reeducation right away.” As if he had any choice in the matter. It was important for returning citizens to be updated on new laws and realities, and old realities that had to be forgotten immediately. “Just tell me you’ll call.”

“Of course I’ll call.” Al smiled at him, showing two conical fangs sticking up from his lower jaw. “Just keep a clean collared shirt ready. We have a dress code.” Unconsciously he scratched his bare stomach. “Sometimes.”

            ****************************************

“Maybe he just doesn’t want you to die,” Pam said, sucking up the last of her soda in a way that made the ice at the bottom of the cup shake.

Cecil leaned against the wall of their booth at Arby’s. He was famished when he arrived after work, and had torn through his sandwich and fries long ago. “I think he still thinks I’m a little kid. I’m not! I’m almost thirty-ish!”

“So he doesn’t have an opening. We’re all waiting for opening when the summer interns clear out. If you get it before me I will murder you,” she said. “Cecil, I like you, but I will murder you and I know how to avoid that incompetent vigilante group that would go after me. I put my résumé in months ago.”

“Why do you want to work at the station?” he asked. Pamela was not a student gunning for the full tuition free ride at Community College if she survived the internship. She did not want the position of Voice of Night Vale so far as he knew. He was pretty old to be an intern, and she had a few years on him.

“I basically need it to run for city government these days. You can’t get your name on the ballot for alderman without a letter of recommendation from Community Radio in this town.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Know what?”

“That you wanted to be a politician. I mean, you haven’t ... what have you been doing?” He was a little out of touch because of his long trip abroad, something he occasionally had to remind people.

“I’ve been picking up whatever’s in the classifieds,” she said, which was a code for contract work with a secret-yet-menacing government agency. So if she was qualified for leadership, she couldn’t prove it. The job was actually fairly respectable, but you couldn’t openly say it.

He wasn’t surprised. Pamela Winchell had always been a tough, no-nonsense kind of person. She had been three years ahead of him in school, but he remembered her running the school board as if it was her personal army until machete-wielding rebels forced her out of office after a ten-hour standoff in the teacher’s lounge that involved grenades and claymores.

“What are you two moping about?”

It was Earl Harlan, wearing his scout leader uniform, of course. It was hard to catch him wearing anything else. He joined them without invitation, sliding his tray next to Cecil’s, but it wasn’t as if they rejected his presence.

“Complaining about our stalled careers,” Pam said. “Some of us have to worry about that.”

“Al rejected my application again,” Cecil explained.

“You? You don’t have an in with Algonquin?” Earl opened various condiment packets to prepare his meal. “The man who let you bring the jar of intern ashes to show-and-tell? Who let you sleep on his couch when your landlady kicked you out for – what did she kick you out for?”

“I don’t remember,” he said, but he was lying. He wanted that wolf immunity, so he set what was supposed to be a very small, contained fire on his porch, but the winds picked up at the wrong time. “Al says he can’t make any more openings, and there’s no other work for me since banned from the paper. On the other hand John does give me all the free imaginary corn I can carry home, if either of you want some of that. He thinks that makes a good bonus.”

“Oh, so you’re above working with your hands now?” Earl said with that shit-eating grin of his. “How were those European resorts? They must have really pampered you.”

Cecil glared at Pam because he knew she was holding back laughter. “They were hostels. On the edge of cliffs.”

“Right.” Earl smiled in a way that indicated he was content to let Cecil mope, which was really what Cecil wanted to do. “Since you have so much spare time, you could always come by and help with the troop! He could always used an uninjured supervisor!”

Cecil glared at him, but his heart wasn’t in it.

            ****************************************

Cecil’s heart wasn’t in much of anything for the next few months. He harvested invisible corn, he ate invisible corn, and he listened to the radio. Sometimes he would scribble and doodle in his diary, but it was getting so hard to get pen shipments in. He attended mandatory municipal events and didn’t die at any of them, so that was something. And he tried very, very hard not to think of anything too investigative, because he was not allowed to freelance investigate or report. No one was – they at least needed a contract job and preferably approved steady employment.

Cecil was starting to look and feel like a piece of invisible corn when the call finally came in. It was a pre-cordered message. “You’ve been chosen for a Night Vale Community Radio internship beginning on – “

He screamed so loud he didn’t hear the date and had to wait for the message to repeat.

He shaved for the first time in weeks, put on his remaining unstained clothing, and reported for duty to find a crowd of people in the station break room. Flowers were still out for the memorial service for all the previous interns, who had been killed when the water pressure was turned up too high in the sprinkler system. When there were more than twenty people, the break room had to be abandoned for downstairs storage just to fit everyone, and that was when Algonquin appeared, looking particularly serious, and maybe not just because he’d lost all of his interns in one swoop.

“As some of you may know, my contract both permits and requires me to retire as the Voice of Night Vale when the stars are right,” Al said, which brought an even greater silence to the room around him. “Not a moment before and hopefully not a moment after. I can’t say when that is going to be, and I would rather not date myself in front of you youngsters, but there’s a reason no one is old enough to remember my predecessor.” He managed a pleasant grin for that, possibly at the memory. “Now I know some of you are just here because you want to complete an internship to pay for college or qualify for government and that’s great. But there will be an extra form for all of you to fill out today.”

He turned to the woman holding the folder full of sheets next to him and held one up. “On this form you will indicate if you’re planning on taking a normal course of internship or submitting yourself as a candidate for the Voice of Night Vale. If you do the latter, additional things will be required. You have twenty-four hours to produce blood, bile, urine, spit, fingernail, hair, and spinal fluid samples. You will also have additional duties and responsibilities, but the biggest difference is that Station Management will be watching you. If you don’t understand why this is serious business you probably should reconsider your candidacy.”

There was a stifled chuckle from a few people in the group.

“Candidates will have six months to withdraw their candidacy before there are penalties. They will also not be paid for the first six months. And you should know the internship period will probably last a good deal longer than that, so you’d better make some other financial arrangements. I recommend ramen noodles.” He put the sheet back in the pile. “Once you application for either position is submitted, we will sort you into a shift. Good luck to all of you.”

Without hesitating, he turned and left them to wonder.

            ****************************************

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

Cecil was still just standing in line with his paperwork and samples, actually, waiting to put his application, when he heard it for the first time. “Um, yeah. I am a journalist.”

Leanne Hart promptly cut in line to be next to him. “Cecil Baldwin.”

“That is my name.”

“As the Voice of Night Vale?”

“I wouldn’t have gotten a needle in my spine if I didn’t – “

“The guy who spent seven years in speech therapy for stuttering?”

He blushed with a bit of anger. “It was five years. And I didn’t start out that way. I just got the worm and I couldn’t shake it.” He had a tapeworm living in his belly from ages seven to nine. They didn’t find it until it had been there long enough to claim squatter’s rights and it took them two years of legal battles to evict it. The tapeworm had a stutter and Cecil caught it, and even after his sublet-ter was gone the habit stuck. “I’m a journalist. A real journalist, Leanne.”

Her degree was in English, with a minor in creative writing. He didn’t know what happened to her great American novel, but apparently she turned thirty before finishing it because it certainly wasn’t in stores. “You don’t have to be a real journalist for this job. You have to read the municipal news on the air. With a clear and smooth voice.”

“Al is a journalist.”

Before she could contradict him – if she was even going to – he heard someone else shout, “Is that you, Stuttering Cecil?”

He looked at his shoes. “Come on. We’re not in elementary school anymore.” Or junior high. Or high school. Or some of college.

“But you are kidding, right?” Jared, a former classmate, had a wide smile. “About the application?”

“Do you think I just pull out hair samples for fun?” he growled. The sheet said they needed the roots, because that was where the DNA was. And boy, did they need a lot of roots. “Yes, okay. I want to be the Voice of Night Vale.”

It was the first time he’d said it out loud, and it felt strange, like he was revealing something too private for a small town where people hoarded secrets when they knew too much about each other. Because he’d always wanted to be in radio because Al was in radio and that was that. Never even given it a lot of thought, really. Aside from the obvious influence he wasn’t even sure where the drive came from. He wasn’t a particularly talkative child before the stutter and it only got worse with that. He just knew that if there was any other radio job in Night Vale, he would have claimed it by now, no matter what he had to do or who he had to legally murder.

“Good luck, I guess,” his former classmate said with a slap on the back. The implication was, You’re going to need it.

            ****************************************

For the next three months, Cecil didn’t have to worry about his old stutter returning (which it did sometimes, when he was nervous) or being nervous in front of Al, or even seeing much of Al, because he didn’t have time to worry about anything except his job.

There was no instruction for candidates. There were just shift schedules and job demands, and they were anything from “coffee, three sugars” to “spend the next twelve hours checking the random numbers broadcast from the spire against the transcript and note any mistakes.” The shift seemed to belong in another dimension where there was both more and less time, and cancelled Wednesdays were still Wednesdays and you had to show up to work even if it was illegal to do Wednesday work. Then there were three day spans of nothing, his name nowhere on a list, and Cecil was back hauling surprisingly heavy stalks of imaginary corn to the thresher.

He really needed the extra food. The candidate interns did take Al’s advice, and went in on a bulk shipment of ramen, which became their diet. Cecil lost so much weight he had to poke a new hole in his belt, which he now needed to keep up his pants. When the second batch arrived tainted, the plumbing was constantly being fixed after being plugged with intern vomit, along with other available containers. The third batch was better, but the interns remained weak and somewhat shiftless, a sorry bunch.

Cecil was heading into the women’s bathroom with his emergency plumbing supplies again when he saw Al standing in the door of his booth, silently shaking his head. The next day, with what literally had to be magic because no one saw it arrive, a refrigerator appeared in the break room labeled “unpaid interns only.” It contained a variety of fresh fruit, vegetables, and various cheeses. Al did not explain; he didn’t even talk to them very much, as he was always either in his office preparing for the broadcast or doing the broadcasting, but they got him a number of thank you cards.

There were reporting jobs. Several of them irregularly staffed the pres corps when mayor or City Council spoke. A couple snuck into PTA meetings, which was unnecessary because Al was always there in person as part of his responsibilities to the town. Two enterprising interns tried to investigate the lights in Radon Canyon in their spare time, but the report was inconclusive and there was no visible reward for their effort. Also they were dead by Friday morning, and it was difficult to tell if the events were related.

Cecil was patient in his own way. He knew others were trying to get ahead by doing various things to impress Al, who seemed totally oblivious to them even though there was no way he possibly could be, but Cecil also knew the value of conserving energy. If he was given something important to do, he would do the heck out of it. He knew two things that were definitely needed for the job: reliability and the ability to avoid an untimely death. So he fixed the plumbing if he technically didn’t know how. He made transcripts of live shows. He ritually burned the transcripts at the stroke of midnight on the station’s bloodstone altar. And he showed up every day – famished, sick, or temporarily missing a leg that seemed to be stuck in the portal in his apartment that had swallowed up the people he was letting sleep there to help pay the rent. After being emotionally crippled by an interview with a baseball player, he pondered his meaningless existence while polishing floors and cried his way through installing new audio equipment after chasing the anteaters away from the wiring. Days blurs into nights when he worked in the basement, where it was always cool and stuffy at the same time and smelled of freshly-buried bodies even when there weren’t any. He didn’t know why the station needed to do an inventory of headphones every week – possibly just busywork to sort out the twenty different candidates still alive until someone made an impression – but he counted cans and filled out acquisition forms before drowning them in a pot of boiling acid.

Which was all fine, in the service of Night Vale Community Radio, until he got an assignment to request material from the Night Vale Daily Journal. Maybe because he was sick with hard cheese poisoning, or maybe because he hadn’t slept in four straight days, but he didn’t give a thought to their restraining order against him until he was at the office, putting in the request. They gave the material over suspiciously quickly, and he returned to the studio and mechanically went through the rest of his day, which contained no details that he remembered after collapsing in his bed and sleeping through until dangerously close to the start of his new work day.

Cursing himself, he doused his last collared shirt in air freshener and ran downstairs. He was wheeling his bike out to street when the Sheriff’s Secret Police emerged from the bushes. It must have been bad, because there were three of them.

“Cecil Baldwin,” the officer said after clearing his throat, “you have been found to be in violation of the Night Vale Daily’s restraining order against you, having failed to maintain a 200-foot distance from the building as of yesterday at 2:43 pm. We’ll have to take you in for questioning – “

With no emotion whatsoever in his voice, he answered hoarsely, “I have to go to work. My shift starts in five minutes.”

“Maybe I wasn’t clear enough. Mr. Baldwin, you’re under arrest for – “

“I have to go to work.” He was halfway on his bike now, and that was all he needed to get going. The officers were on foot, perhaps not expecting a chase (because it was something you didn’t do), and he didn’t live far from the station. He could make it. He could go to work, tell them he was being arrested, hope that would count as a sick day –

He felt something sharp in his back. He couldn’t slow down enough to take his concentration off the road and pull it out, but he guessed it was a dark, hopefully just a tranquilizer. Well, good. Those took a few minutes to kick in. It might just be like riding a bike drunk, something he had a lot of experience doing.

The second one hit right around the moment a patrol car pulled around the Pizza Barn restaurant. He avoided hitting it by inches. Swerving around things (mostly potholes, wormholes, portals, and temporary unmentionable statuary) was a basic requirement for kids to master in order to keep their bike license. He was quickly aware that while the first dark had gone into his shoulder blade, the second was buried in the back of his arm, and it was already starting to go numb. Hopefully that would be it and it wouldn’t try to strangle him.

As he lost motor function on his left side he put his right hand firmly in the center to try to steer the bike down an alleyway behind the Payless Shore Store that he knew was too narrow for cars and helicopters. There were two blue ones in the sky now – or he assumed they were blue, because it would be stupid to look up right now – but they could only land on rooftops and weren’t much danger to him.

When he turned the corner, he saw the barricades two officers were erecting. He knew how flimsy those barricades were. Too high to jump, but they really were meant to intimidate people, not stop them. He pumped as hard as he could, probably taking the officers genuinely by surprise when he rammed it on the left side, knocking it away but also tossing him off his bike.

It hurt his hip more than his face, which he didn’t fall on, thankfully, and he said, “I have to get to work,” though his voice was heavily slurred because the left side of his face didn’t seem to be working. He was a thin guy, often mistaken for a weakling, but he knew that so he knew the officer closer to him wasn’t expecting to be pile-driven out of the way so Cecil could take off down sidewalk.

The radio station was in sight. Or he hoped it was the station, with the giant tour, because his vision was a little blurry. He was so concentrated on running because it now required 100% of his focus that he ran right into Pam, who was also reporting for work, knocking her down two as his hand reached the door, which opened at the commotion.

“Sorry,” he told her, but it came out more like “shorrrreeyy” before he could spit out the dirt in his mouth, take a deep breath, and look at Al’s memorable visage. “Ayy’m here fer werkkkk...”

He reached for Al – reached for anyone – when an unknown number of officers tackled him like a football in the closing seconds of a championship game. Of course he never found out how many because they were dressed in black and the sky was black and soon everything was black. But he dreamed Al was smiling.

            ****************************************

Whatever happened over the next three days was a mystery to Cecil. Trying to remember it after waking in his bathtub, covered in bruises and bandages, caused a seizure. Or that was what his nice neighbor the ghost told him later, after a lot of thrashing that just made him hurt more. None of it damaged the tracking device cuffed to his ankle in a manner that they must have known would be uncomfortably tight.

It took him an unperceivable amount of time for him to climb out and notice the paperwork on the counter. He had signed away a number of things during his new probationary period, including his right to operate a vehicle of any kind or eat cheese. How did they know it was the only protein in his diet? But there was his signature in blood at the bottom, acknowledging that he had one week to pay a significant fine for resisting arrest. The number didn’t matter – it might as well have been monopoly money to him because he didn’t have that kind of money and he didn’t know where he could get it. And he didn’t care at all because he only cared about one thing: that he was fired. He had to be fired. He’d failed to show up for work and properly request permission for a sick day and he was pretty sure he didn’t get sick days anyway.

He cried for a stupid amount of time about it. Just plain stupid. He didn’t move from his fetal position on the bathroom phone until he phone rang several times in a row. On the caller’s fourth try, he decided to answer it. “Hello?”

“Christ, I finally got you.” It was Pam. “You’ve got an hour.”

His watch had been broken. He didn’t know if it was during the chase or the three days of incarceration. “An hour until what? The paper says I have a week.”

“An hour to be at work, dummy,” she said. “And hurry it up because the toilet’s clogged again. All of them. I think there’s too much roughage in our diets.”

He stammered for a bit, but ultimately said nothing.

“And you think you can be in radio,” she said and hung up.

On his walk to work, he was crying for a whole different reason.

            ****************************************

With a song in his heart and a limp in his step, Cecil found himself confronted by Jared. “Algonquin would like to see you in his office.” Cecil mentally shrugged and moved in that direction, and he heard Jared say, “And thanks for ruining it for the rest of us.”

Cecil spun around, which was quite painful. “What did you say?”

“It’s more about what Al said,” Jared seethed. “I guess you were already unconscious. They were dragging you away and we were all staring like idiots and Al said, "‘Of course, I would expect the same from all of you.’”

Cecil laughed, much to Jared’s irritation, and knocked on the office door.

“Come in.” Al was at this desk, scribbling notes on the printed script with an ostrich-feather pen that he had to re-sharpen with a knife. Al loved pens, and a giant cup of all kinds, from cheap Bic ballpoints to felt tip to those gold and silver pens that required a ton of shaking before you use them, as well as some so obscure Cecil wasn’t sure how they worked. Writing implements were frowned upon in polite society, a rule Al completely ignored whether he was somewhere as a journalist or not. When Cecil shut the door, Al put his pen down and directed all of attention to his guest, which was rare so close to show time. “How are you feeling?”

“Okay.” Which was a very obvious lie.

“How did they treat you? Without thinking too hard about it.”

“Um.” It was not an easy request. “They have really good ice cream.”

“Good. I know it might have seemed like too much of a sacrifice in the end, but I think you showed excellent work ethic. I hope they weren’t unduly harsh.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Are you still facing charges?”

Cecil gestured to the ankle bracelet. “I’m on probation. I can’t go back to the paper’s offices again. And, um, I owe them some money. Fined for resisting arrest.”

“How much money?”

“A lot.”

“Be a little more specific.”

Cecil frowned as he tried to remember. Everything was still fuzzy around the edges. “Something like four hundred and fifty – “ He looked down, and Al had opened the metal safe box and was counting crisp twenties. “You don’t have to do that.”

Al ignored him completely until he had double-checked his math and practically shoved the cash in Cecil’s good hand. “The station has a very large discretionary fund. And if you still feel badly about it when we start paying you, you can pay me back. Now please get to work. And when you’re done with your current task, got to the grocery store and get all the Metamucil you can find, then put it on top of the of the intern fridge.”

Cecil grinned. “Yes, sir.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

Cecil didn’t remember much about the next three months. He was busy all the time, most of it mind-numbingly boring work sorting papers, making dangerous trips to the library for archival entries, buying yet more super bear mace for his next trip, and a lot of running for toward something he needed to see or running for his life. There was a mayoral election that he gave very little of his attention to following the mob lynching of the old mayor, except to find out from the radio show who the correct candidate to vote for was. He only really saw Al when he was delivering coffee or a message to the booth, which was rare but happening because all of the non-candidate interns were dead or had finished their course of internship and were on to nice life finishing an internship could almost guarantee. The candidate group had started with twenty, and by the end of their unpaid period it was down to ten, the last person having died a monstrous death after illegally investigating the Cat Habitant.

They now could all fit in the break room, even if some of them were standing when Al called the meeting. He emerged from his office, his expression unreadable, but it was pretty unreadable anyway because you couldn’t see any of his bare skin.

“As you know, tomorrow is the last day to withdraw your candidacy without penalty. I’m very proud of you all for making it this far, but I won’t be disappointed in you if you decide not to stay. You will get an excellent recommendation from me.”

A recommendation from the Voice of Night Vale himself would be something they would have given their lives for if they weren’t all gunning for something much bigger.

“After tomorrow, there will be some changes, as well as new interns to handle the coffee and the mail. For one, you’ll all be paid. I know that comes as a relief, but it is my professional request that you spend your money on decent food and some new clothes. You will be expected to look presentable for at least the first hour of your shifts, which will be longer and more frequent.”

They were all down to their last collared shirts, so this wasn’t a surprise.

“You will be given new responsibilities and assignments which will require creativity, investigation, and a demonstration of considerable writing ability. You should also know that you will not be given sick days except under extreme circumstances, like being temporarily dead. And try to keep that short.” He looked over the room again. “I will be putting your names in with Station Management. This means you will now be subject to HR retraining in the Dark Box.” If he noticed their shivers, he ignored them. “If you receive a red envelope, report to me immediately. If you receive an envelope with someone else’s name on it, give it to them immediately. You should know that Management’s decisions can seem arbitrary and harsh, but you do not have permission to question them. And if you want to stay alive, I don’t recommend it.

“You will be shadowing me during some of my duties outside of the station. Anything I tell you about how the station runs or anything you hear in those meetings will be strictly confidential. If you withdraw your candidacy beyond tomorrow, which you may do, you will be subject to re-education with the Sheriff’s Secret Police so it remains confidential. In the event that you both survive this period and are not chosen as the Voice of Night Vale, you will receive a medal from the Station and a recommendation signed by two Voices of Night Vale. I know that will be a bit of an incentive to carry on for some of you. Any questions? Because now is definitely the time.”

The youngest of them, a boy of twenty-two named Waldo, raised his hand. “Are we going to get a chance to practice on the radio? Because none of us have – “

No.” He didn’t say it meanly. He just unusually firm, even for Al. “You may be asked to work with the recording equipment, but you may not under any circumstances attempt to touch or use the microphone. Violations will result in immediate termination.”

Pam raised her hand. “Of our lives or our jobs?”

“It won’t matter much to you at that point,” Al replied. “I’m not being possessive. I am trying to protect you, and if you’re here long enough you might see why I am the only person who can use that microphone.” Everyone was busy digesting that so there were no more questions. “All right. Good luck. You’re going to need it.”

            ****************************************

Cecil was looking forward to it. He was looking forward to the time, the personal attention, the chance to actually do something at the station that wasn’t busy work. And he did his best to look professional, with new clothes and his hair as neat as he could get it without looking in the mirror (he was good at working with the reflection in the window).

It wasn’t hands-on instruction from the first day. Al was still busy with the show and there were errands to run. The first significant change aside from the fact that they all looked well-fed and smelled better was that they were giving writing assignments. Mostly writing ad copy or altering preexisting material. Al never ran the same ad twice. He didn’t use their material, but he read it, never giving away what he thought about it to everyone’s frustration.

He met with a lot of people. It hadn’t seemed that way before because the meetings weren’t during the business hours where he sitting at his desk with the script. They were early in the morning, late at night, whatever. Some of them were just friendly chats and information gathering, and some were without meaning entirely, but he took an intern or two with him anyway. Cecil and Pam went out with him into the desert, where he circumambulated around the lead door to Radon Canyon seven times, occasionally stopping to scribble notes on his pad. But mostly, it was people he needed to see. He sat with the City Council once a week in a particularly eerie ceremony-like gathering. The passed notes to him, never speaking. He would read the notes, nod or frown, and they would ask another question through the same method.

One day he did not tell Cecil where they were going, but the abandoned mine shaft was pretty easy to recognize. Cecil was not allowed to listen to the conversation, and read a magazine from twenty years before in the lobby. When Al emerged, he did not look as concerned as the officers around him. In fact, he looked positively bored.

He explained nothing.

            ****************************************

“He’s got immunities,” Pam said the next day. They were in the basement untangling the cords of old wiring. “Lots of them.”

“I always figured, but I was never sure.”

“He has a list of them on his desk. It says ‘Current Immunities as of July 12 1997’ or something like that. I couldn’t see the whole thing because I was just there to dust the windows and it was just sticking out of the pile. There were at least twenty things on the list.”

“And you really didn’t peak?”

“I would have if I could,” she said with a huff. “But I just got this chill up my spine, like he’d know. He’d smell my perfume on his desk.

I only saw the whole of one of them – he’s allowed to time travel.” She shook her head. “Not even the mayor is allowed to do that.”

Cecil refocused on a particularly difficult knot of different black cords. “Maybe that’s how he always knows everything.”

“Or just when he sleeps because we never see him do it.”

Cecil chuckled. “Yeah.”

“To be the Voice of Night Vale – you’re maybe the most powerful person in town,” Pam said. “I want this job so badly. Don’t take it personally, but I may have to kill you for it.”

“You keep saying that.”

“Not just you. I mean you and anyone else. If I kill every other intern I feel like I’ve got a good shot. Plus I’ll be showing initiative.”

“I’m just saying,” Cecil replied, “you haven’t killed me yet.”

            ****************************************

Of course Cecil was curious. Not overly so, perhaps, as he was more interested in the station’s other secrets, but his breath did quicken when Al handed him the master set of keys and told him to retrieve a notebook left on the office desk. The office was locked, and most of the containers in it were locked, and a safe in the corner inscribed with forbidding runes. The notebook was a little harder to find because Al had dozens of them lying about, but there was no sign of the list. Was Pamela just messing with him? He wouldn’t put psychological warfare past her, but that also meant she thought he had a chance at the job, which she didn’t. Since he needed to go unlocking drawers to complete his task, he figured he could do a little harmless snooping without getting his fingerprints everywhere.

This is hardly the worst thing I’ve ever done in here, he reminded himself. Al had put up with a lot of shit from him, particularly when he was in high school and college and out of the mandatory adoption system. He’d once vomited straight on the desk in front of Al. He didn’t remember why now – he’d been in college, not the most respectable time in a man’s life.

Cecil was interrupted from his fond reminiscing when he finally unlocked the top drawer, and was looking down at a white beehive-like set of white circles. It took him a moment to realize was staring at the childproof safety caps of prescription drug bottles. There were so many of them that they filled the entire drawer meant for paper, envelopes, and pencils.

He plucked one at random and pulled it loose. He did not recognize the name, but it had the logo of Night Vale General’s pharmacy. All of them did.

His initial task and secret mission forgotten, he went through the bottles, looking for a familiar name. Nothing was recognizable, but then again he didn’t know a whole lot about drugs for anything other than headaches and seasonal allergies that were advertised on television.  Some of them had descriptions like, ‘for chronic pain’ or ‘for nausea’ but most of them didn’t say what they were.

Movement outside the door brought him back to reality, and he slammed the drawer shut and grabbed the notebook that he finally realized was on the chair, not the desk, and scampered out of the room and up the stairs to Al’s booth. Al was, to his relief, in the middle of a segment. Cecil couldn’t hear him from the hallway but he could tell when the show switched a pre-recorded segment because Al stopped talking and made a sign for Cecil to enter even though the ON-AIR sign was still lit.

“H-here you go,” he said. He hated stuttering in front of Al, and he cursed himself inside as he handed over the notebook and keys.

Al smiled and swiveled his chair back to the switchboard, and Cecil was dismissed. His heart stopped racing twenty minutes later. He clocked it.

            ****************************************

Cecil’s heart started up again, thumping so hard it hurt his chest as he woke from a deep sleep, at three in the morning, when he realized he hadn’t locked the drawer on his way out.

            ****************************************

Cecil wasn’t avoiding Al so much as he was kind of not ... being ... near him. And he was succeeding until another intern told him Al wanted to see him in the office.

Al didn’t look particularly mad. When he was mad, everyone in the building knew it. He was his usual, casual self, hiding behind a mask of fur and horns.

Cecil wondered what to do with his hands in the silence that followed.

Al’s tone was almost ... curious. “Is there something you’d like to ask me?”

Ask him? Why was he on that side of the conversation? Maybe he shouldn’t rush to confess and say he hadn’t seen anything but he had opened the drawer by accident. Maybe this conversation was unrelated. But probably not. “Um ... I don’t know.”

“Because you can ask,” Al said. “I would rather have it not just turn into intern speculation.”

“I, um, I-I was looking for the notebook. I didn’t mean – “ He stopped himself. This was stupid. “I didn’t say anything to anyone. And I wouldn’t. Not about t-this.” Fuck, he was stuttering again! Now was not the time. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“You’re not even a little concerned about me? Cecil ...” Al shook his head.

“I didn’t mean to pry. I wouldn’t pry. You have your personal life and I’m just an intern.”

Al stood. “Two problems with that answer: clearly I have no personal life, and you are not just an intern to me.” He even had to stoop over to be eye-level with Cecil. “This isn’t a test or a trick. Just ask what you want to ask.”

Cecil took a deep breath. He wanted to stop stuttering. He wanted to stop trying to impress Al and just ask like a human being, because that was clearly not what Al wanted right now. “When?”

“Three years ago. The doctor have me three months, maybe a year if I went through chemo and radiation. But it’s bone cancer, and I have big bones.” He smiled sadly. “But I had to do the show. I always have to do the show. I have to be in that seat on time every night and I have to be sharp as a tack. So I said no. I couldn’t take anything to slow me down. Just treat the symptoms. The Voice of Night Vale does not slow down. He works and works until he stops.”

“But ...” The next question was obvious.

“The stars weren’t right. They still aren’t right. I’m still needed at my post. I signed that contract and there’s no getting out of it.”

Cecil still had a functioning brain, and could put two and two together, “If the radio ... or Station Management ... is keeping you alive, what happens when you retire?”

Al’s voice got very low and very quiet, but just as insistent as ever, and his eyes, which had purple irises, bored into Cecil. “The Voice of Night Vale doesn’t retire, Cecil. He dies.”

Somehow he’d always known. Cecil had known because it was too obvious not to know, but he’d made himself forget. Willful ignorance on his part. It fell to the pit of his stomach and wrapped itself up so tight that now it exploded and his stomach was on fire.

Al said nothing. He knew when to talk and when not to say anything. It was part of his charm. It was something Night Vale would lose. He wordlessly embraced Cecil when the younger man rushed into his arms. For Cecil, all the stress of his life and work and making mistakes was gone, though it had been replaced by aching sadness.

“I’m not dead yet,” Al said, and his soothing voice worked wonders at this particular moment, because it reassured Cecil that Al was still somehow in control of himself, and seemingly the universe. “The stars will be right, and I’ll leave this place, and go somewhere else. Probably meet up with Randy.” He glanced at the photo of his predecessor on the wall. “He was unstuck in time before he came to Night Vale so maybe I’ll even meet the younger him that’s still alive. And life will go on. Night Vale will go on.”

And Al would go on to someplace else.

            ****************************************

Cecil didn’t have to worry about carrying the secret for long. Al told the others in a group meeting after the ordinary interns had gone home. Their group was more or less expected to be at the station during waking hours, and possibly sleeping hours. Al was vague about the date and how it would happen, but he was absolutely certain that everything would go well, and that their training was more important than ever.

There was little time to fret over it. Three days later, the first red envelope slipped out from Management’s door. It was for Robin, who’d incorrectly relayed a message from the Sheriff’s Secret Police to Al when he was on air.

The mechanics of the Dark Box were basic. The room was locked (Management operated it remotely by an electronic lock) and the light above the handle was off. When in use, the light was red. When someone had either completed their re-training or expired, the light turned green, indicating that the door was open. If the person didn’t emerge of their own power, the others were responsible for going in to collect the unconscious person or dead body.

Robin was assigned a standard night-long session. It was nine hours before the light went green, and the two interns present – Jared and Leanne – saw it from their post and ventured in. The room was black and featureless and Robin was slumped over in the middle. It was hard to estimate the time of death, but the coroner later determined the cause to be a brain aneurysm. Al looked sad but not surprised. They set fire to her body in the parking lot and buried the ashes in the break room. Then they had to go back to work.

The next day, Leanne withdrew her candidacy. “Radio’s dead anyway,” she said. “The internet’s taking over entertainment. I’m moving into print media. It’s safer.”

Al gave her a very nice recommendation and she immediately landed a job as editorial assistant at the Night Vale Daily Journal, which she began as soon as the re-education was done. The other interns were advised not to talk to her about anything that occurred in the past few weeks, as it would only confuse her.

They had no time to talk at all. They had a lunch break, but they usually worked through that. If they weren’t working until midnight they went straight to a bar and drank pitchers of cheap beer and tried not to talk about work. There were only eight of them now, and it seemed like everyone more or less knew of them, even if they didn’t know everything about them. The shift in hosts was already making the town nervous. No one could remember a time without Algonquin’s voice lulling them to sleep, even people who were technically old enough to remember Randolph’s tenure. They didn’t want change. They didn’t want a new Voice. They weren’t violently opposed to it but they were afraid of it.

All the interns were asked to accompany Algonquin to the underground blood sport known as PTA meetings, where they tried, unsuccessfully, to blend in with the concerned parents and other childless adults that were there. Al took notes that had to be exactly like the notes his nine assistants were now taking because he was the Voice of Night Vale and the Voice of Night Vale took notes. Cecil was surprised at how much actual work got done before the first fight broke out, though most of that work was arguing about whether to buy Astroturf for the soccer field so the players could experience a grass-like substance for once in their lives before it enviably melted in the noonday sun.

“Cecil fucking Baldwin.”

It was during the break, though the donuts were sale so most people hadn’t gotten up from their seats. Cecil groaned, and looked to his far right, where Steve Carlsberg was sitting.

Steve,” he said, trying to remain professional. Technically he was at work. “How’s that PhD in agriculture working out for you?”

“Just fine, if this inept city would let me implement my perfectly reasonable ideas.” Steve always got a little worked up at the mention of his expensive, now worthless degrees earned in exotic places like Berkley or Arizona. “Who do you think you’re fooling, Stuttering Cecil?”

“Come on. You were the one who could come up with fresher names for me.” Which was true.

“Maybe Algonquin thinks he’s being nice, taking you for a ride like this,” Steve said. “But he’s just wasting valuable time and money from my tax dollars on stupid, foul-mouthed stuttering wannabees – “

“You shut your fucking mouth!” Cecil was angry about the insult to Al, not him, but he was always ready to fight Steve Carlsberg. “When I’m Voice of Night Vale – “

“If you’re Voice of Night Vale,” Steve yelled back, “then this worthless shit town will have finally spent its last – “

Whatever Steve was going to say, it didn’t make it into public record because movement in his jaw was behind hampered by the metal folding chair in his face. Cecil could have beaten into a stain on the waxed floor until he was told that it was a waxed floor, newly polished, and that Steve was allowed to get one hit in for every three Cecil gave, to make the fights longer, bloodier, and a little more fair. The PTA president managed to convey this despite all the blood rushing to Cecil’s ears, and he stopped only because Steve couldn’t it back, much as he actually wanted him to.

Al gave his usual nonchalant grin at the whole matter, and Pam just said, “At least you’ve proved you have plenty of civic pride. Why didn’t I think of that?”

            ****************************************

Cecil was still the dark horse candidate, if people even considered him a candidate or just thought plain old nepotism was keeping him at his post but wouldn’t allow him to go further, when the red envelope appeared. Jared found it in the hallway and delivered it to him in the break room.

“I-I don’t know what I’ve done,” Cecil stammered. They gave him consoling looks, probably because bodies were a hassle to burn (it took forever), and he went straight up to the booth, turned the speaker on so he could hear the audio, and waited patiently for Al to switch to a commercial segment.

“Well.” That was all the Voice of Night Vale said to that. Not that he was being uncaring – maybe there was just nothing to say. He put a giant hand on Cecil’s shoulder, making him feel even smaller, and led him to a small supply closet near the hallway that led to the Dark Box room. The closet wasn’t locked but Cecil had never seen it before. All it contained was a cardboard box, which Al handed to him.

“Use everything inside,” he said.

Cecil looked down and found mostly skateboarding equipment. There was a helmet with lots of padding – and two holes, presumably for Al’s horns – knee pads, and elbow guards. All were blood-stained but otherwise relatively clean. The only fresh item was an adult diaper.

“Cecil,” Al said, drawing Cecil’s eyes to his, in his special voice that did that. “I want you to picture an object. Nothing complicated. Something small and ordinary. Maybe something you own – as long as it’s easy to picture and means something to you.”

Cecil closed his eyes and chose. He could imagine it perfectly.

“When you go in there, I want you to keep your mind focused on it. It’s naturally going to drift away – just let it drift back. Don’t get nervous or punish yourself for letting it get away. There’s going to be times when you can’t reach it at all or you forget about it entirely. But always circle back as much as you can as if it is the only thing in the entire world.”

“And I’ll be all right?”

“No one’s really ‘all right’ after these sessions,” Al replied in a soothing tone. “But they’re survivable. They get easier with practice.”

“What did I do?”

“If they want you to know, they’ll tell you. Trust me on that.” He gave him a pat on the shoulder. “Come on. You don’t want to be late.”

            ****************************************

The room was dark. The floor, the ceiling, and the wall were painted black. The far wall seemed to be a screen, if not precisely a television screen but something more carbon-based and possibly-living. After changing into rags set aside for this purpose, Cecil did what he was told and sat cross-legged in the middle of the room. The sound of the door locking was the last thing he heard from the outside world. It was as if the room was soundproofed, and all of the noises from room, past and present, had caramelized into a faint, irritating hum.

Since there was no other sound, or indication from Management that he was even in the room, he closed his eyes and did as all said and focused on his chosen object, so sleek and polished and perfect, and he had a perfect image that shattered instantly when a sound came from his left. The sound came at him like a sharp stick to his head, dangerously and impossibly precise, and he jumped a little when nothing actually hit him and banged his head on something that would have hurt a lot more if not for the helmet. His hands went out and he just found more and more of this new roof, and when he brought his arms to his side there was barely room to do so.

It was called the Dark Box – not the Dark Room – because it was a box. The room itself had closed in on him so tightly that he couldn’t sit all the way up, and had to crane his neck forward ever so slightly as his knee pads touched the walls. He did not know if a wall was in front of him, or just the screen, because he couldn’t see and it felt the same and when the second sound hit him, it struck from behind and his head smashed forward into it, the helmet again sparing him further damage. And it was so cold. How could a tiny room filled with only his own warm breathing be so cold? He was already shivering when the front of the box – the screen, the window, whatever – reached out to him, carrying noises and images his brain couldn’t process, and he forced himself as tightly against the back of the box as he could manage to get away from it.

There was no away, of course. The sounds made dents in his organs. He could feel them moving things around. It felt like the time the carnival was in town, and he rode that boat that rocked back and forth and made him feel like his stomach was unpleasantly shifting up further in his ribcage during the freefall, only a thousand times worse and his mouth was not full of cotton candy but of blood. Why was his mouth bleeding?

Cecil was being told something, a very angry something, but things in his body other than his brain were processing it. He could shut his eyes but it made no difference if they were open or closed; he saw the same thing either way and his hands were busy looking for dents, looking for openings of any kind to escape ...

“I don’t even know I did!” Was he talking out loud, or in his head? He could have been screaming but there was certainly no way he could hear it. Either the noise was unbearable or there was complete silence, like when a director cut out the soundtrack of a movie to increase tension. The shifts back and forth made his ears hurt, made his head hurt, made everything hurt and he wanted it to stop hurting. Please please please tell me what I did wrong I’ll never do it again I promise I’ll be perfect from now on I don’t want to be here ah it hurts it hurts I can’t see I don’t want to see -

The noise was gone again, even his own internal monologue and the sound of his dangerously hurried breathing he remembered that there was something he was supposed to focus on, something that existed beyond this room, sleek and shiny and perfect –

And then Management spoke to him.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

Pamela Winchell felt bad for Cecil. She tried not to make a habit of it because too many people already did that. She didn’t remember him that well in school since she didn’t pay attention to the underclassmen, but she saw him on her way to the speech therapy room when she was in junior high (she had a slight problem with her S’s). And he played Pippin in the school production of “South Pacific” and remembered most of his lines even after his leg was caught in a bear trap, but otherwise he hadn’t made any real impression on her. But as an adult ... well, she doing other things for years and she knew he went to some place they called Europe, but he seemed to have more trouble as an adult than a child. Night Vale was a place where people found niches and were defined by them, like John Peters whom she knew to be a farmer, et cetera, or they faded into the masses of over-medicated consumers who shopped and drove places and probably had jobs and cars and photo albums.

Cecil was neither of those. He was full of intensity and drive and nowhere to direct it. He was a journalist but he didn’t want to be a reporter the way people were reporters at daily news conferences, and he was banned from print media for unknown and unknowable reasons, so that left him with nothing. And he was too much of a person to just be nobody and not have a title or nickname or attachment to his given name. People like him usually tried to leave Night Vale and some even managed to do so, though most came back. Steve Carlsberg did college and graduate work elsewhere and would have talked endlessly about the wonders of the world outside if the Sheriff’s Secret Police let him, but he both loved Night Vale too much to leave permanently and was too smart to run too afoul of the police or City Council. So that was his thing, being cranky.

Cecil Baldwin didn’t have a thing and it was driving him mad. That was pretty obvious. He’d reached the stage in his life – otherwise known as your early thirties – where just drinking and smoking a lot couldn’t make that existential pain go away anymore, and you needed something real to make you whole. It was the same reason that Pam left her well-paying, comfortable, sometimes exciting but mostly confusing job at the vague-yet-menacing government agency (though the truth was there were several of them, not always working in concert, and the next real financial step would have been for her to become an industry spy). She didn’t want to be behind the scenes now that she knew what backstage looked like. She was too hungry at the end of the day, the week, the year, each passing year of her twenties that seemed not wasted but something she needed to get through to go somewhere else.

Also, she was pretty sure if Cecil didn’t find his place he would go on a destructive rampage and kill others and himself. Or just kill himself. He had angst and he really knew how to write about it, if the samples he came with for show filler and submitted at work were any indication. It was easy to see why Al hovered over him so protectively, even if he didn’t give him any breaks at work like the others thought he might be doing. Somebody had to be responsible for that mess.

But Pam wasn’t stupid, and therefore was less dismissive of Cecil’s presence than the other interns. Sure, Jared had a good speaking voice off the radio and some professional presence, and Robin had been showing promise as a clever investigator before Station Management broke her brain, but Cecil was turning in good shit. His writing assignments were the baffling existentialism that cynical, depressed citizens would eat up at bedtime. He had a good instinct for stories, ignoring bad ones so hard he wouldn’t do basic follow-up questions in interviews so he could run off to investigate something that turned into a hot lead. He wasn’t afraid of the police, or at least he had the right level of fear that he could say things that wouldn’t get him into too much trouble. He seemed to know everything there was to know about everybody, and if he didn’t he remedied it pretty quickly. Sure, he was kind of nervous and quiet when in the best of moods, but so was Al when he was off the air, minus the nervous part that was shed with age. And fuck if he didn’t care about community radio.

When Cecil went into the Dark Box, she tried to avoid the fatalism of the others and concentrate on work. She knew Cecil was made of sterner stuff than he appeared to be. Part of the reason, which she would never admit, was that she’d been on assignment in Desert Bluffs right before Cecil went to Europe, and by the time she returned to Night Vale six months had passed since the explosion in Radon Canyon and no one put her through re-education about the incident in particular. She just did the normal stuff, and signed some forms, and read them closely enough to see the line saying that Dean Curwin no longer existed, and had never existed, and saying his name would result in a swift arrest and possibly permanent detention. Pam hadn’t known him well, but she knew Cecil knew him, and that they were close last she saw them, and re-programming the whole town to wipe someone out of existence was so drastic and expensive a measure that the City Council didn’t order it unless someone had a very good reason. She thought back to the explosions in Night Vale that were reported all the way in Desert Bluffs by Dakota on the radio, even if she didn’t specifically say they were close to Night Vale, and Pam had known just from the description but at the time it wasn’t her job to wonder or investigate. And now she couldn’t find out because nobody knew except the Sheriff himself and probably Al. No, definitely Al.

She had a lot of work to catch up on at the station – she preferred speaking off the cuff over writing, which didn’t come as easily to her, so she was running late on those assignments – so she stayed through the night and was there when the others showed up for work, followed by Al. He was in his office when the light to the Dark Box went green. Pam gave it five minutes, as was polite to someone crawling their way out, and dragged Quentin along with her because she didn’t have a lot of upper body strength to retrieve Cecil.

He was lying still in the center of the large room, his body slumped over from a sitting position, but he was alive and breathing. This caused enough commotion that all the interns crowded the hallway, something that actually hampered their abilities to drag him out by his shoulders. His nose was swollen and probably broken and his face and chest stained with blood. Aside from that and the torn flesh around his knuckles and fingertips there didn’t seem to be any permanent damage, but he didn’t wake when they splashed water on his face.

They stared. They only stopped because they heard Al’s massive footsteps in the hallway, and then they stared at him.

“What are you waiting for?” He was clearly annoyed. “Call an ambulance. No – drive him. It’ll be faster.” He offered his keys and Pam took them. “Call me with a report.”

They loaded him into Al’s car – which was a convertible because of his size despite them being banned– and Pam drove him, mostly because she wanted to drive that car. In the emergency room they gave him some kind of injection that made him fly into an incoherent daze, screaming at the top of his lungs until they sedated him again and pumped him full of anti-psychotics.

“He has a mild concussion and a broken nose,” she explained over the phone.

“No internal bleeding?”

“They did X-Rays?”

“Yes. Everything.”

“Is he awake? Do they want to keep him overnight for observation?”

“No. And yeah, he’s awake, but he’s kind of a drone right now.”

“Bring him back to work. He can rest on the station cot.”

She was a little surprised by this, but she did as she was told. Cecil could walk by himself, but not much else. He barely passed the neurological test before they agreed to release him, and said nothing on the ride back.

At the station, Al was waiting in the break room. Everyone was. “Cecil,” Al said carefully, spending a lot of time on his name as he practically held him up by his arm. “Can you understand me?”

It took Cecil a moment to answer. His expression indicated he was trying hard but his voice was flat as a board. “Yes.”

“You can lie down for an hour, and then you have to get back to work.”

“Okay.” He certainly wasn’t in the position to question anything. Al escorted him to the cot in the walk-in closet, which had no other purpose because people didn’t wear coats in the desert, then returned to the break room.

“Give him busy work.” He looked at the different colors of copy paper piled in their bins. “Mix a bunch of these up and have him sort by color. He won’t be capable of anything else but he has to work. I’ll be in the booth when his shift ends, so tell him he can have tomorrow off and drive him home. Leave a note in his apartment so he doesn’t get confused tomorrow and show up for work. And make sure he eats before you leave him.”

He went back into his office before they could question anything and shut the door behind him.

            ****************************************

Cecil woke the next morning in his own bed, having no idea how he got there exactly until he saw the note from Pam telling him to stay home and rest. He was concerned for a moment that it was a trick – everyone was getting a little competitive – but further movement of any kind reminded him that he was stiff and sore and his head hurt and even thinking about why it hurt made his head hurt more. He popped all the recommended pills from the brand new prescription bottles on his kitchen table and after that he couldn’t do much, not even change the bandages on his nose and hands. Time just passed while he slumped in the ratty old armchair and he found the blank wall directly across from him fascinating. If he hurt, he didn’t care too much about it. He did think about work from time to time, but only in a very abstract sense.

He realized he was hungry when Jared stopped over with lunch. “I was told to check on you.” Cecil vaguely remembered Jared not liking him too much, like he was taking up space meant for better candidates, but now he couldn’t fathom the look on Jared’s face, and then it was Oh yeah, the Dark Box, I was in the Dark Box, holy shit I was in the Dark Box and I’m pretty sure I’m not dead because I’m eating this turkey sandwich right now. It’s in my mouth. Dead people don’t eat, right? Maybe they eat worms? “How do you feel? Because you look stoned.”

“I guess I’m stoned then.” Wow, his voice sounded really odd. Really low. And slow.

“I suppose you can’t tell me what it was like.”

“Um.” And Cecil stopped with that, wondering if he could put it into words. There had to be words he could use. If he wanted to talk on the radio he had to know how to use words. He had to be descriptive. It just wasn’t coming naturally to him right now. “It was real bad.” Okay, the pills were definitely making him stupid. He wasn’t going to take any more of them. At least not while he had company.

Jared looked at the open bottle of pills, and the label seemed to answer some of his questions. “Did they at least tell you what you did?”

“Who?”

“Station Management.”

He winced at the name, which brought on a wholly new sense of dread on top of the old ones. “I don’t know.”

“Well, you look pretty fucked up. You better sleep before tomorrow, because you’ve got an early shift.” Jared bagged the leftovers of his own lunch, which he’d gotten through much quicker than Cecil. “Feel better.”

“Hm.” As Cecil couldn’t feel at all, he couldn’t grasp the concept until later that afternoon, when emotions returned, and he swallowed the rest of his prescription to get through the night.

            ****************************************

Al didn’t have to call a meeting. They were frequent enough that it was not a big deal, and it seemed like everyone was always around now, so it wasn’t hard to figure out that they should all get in the break room at a certain time, as if they were in rhythm with him.

“I suppose you’re wondering why I made Cecil come back to work when he wasn’t up to doing anything helpful,” he said. Cecil looked around at their expressions, and it was clearly true. He didn’t remember all that much about the work, just that he was there and doing it before he could go home. He had no other feelings about it whatsoever. “If the doctor had kept him for observation he would have stayed there, but he didn’t. This is something you all have to understand – the Voice of Night Vale has to work. He has to be at work every broadcast day, six days a week, sometimes seven. It doesn’t matter what he went through yesterday or the day before or that morning. He has to be up there in that booth, reading the inane announcements about feuding bake sales like he’s coming off a fresh night of peaceful sleep and he didn’t just emerge from the Dark Box instead and is going back in there when the broadcast is over because his re-training isn’t finished. This is what the job requires. If you can’t do it as an intern, you’re not going to be able to do it as a host. Whether you screw up or you don’t, sooner or later Management will test every single one of you,” and he looked around the room for emphasis, “to see if you have the endurance. It does get easier with practice, but it never gets easy. Am I understood?”

Silent nods indicated that he was very understood.

“Cecil, I’d like to see you in my office. The rest of you, your assignments are on the board.”

Cecil ignored their quick looks and followed him into the office. When he shut the door, Al grabbed him – actually grabbed him, and held him up in the air in his strong arms like he was a little kid. “I knew you could do it.”

“Then why didn’t you tell me that?” Cecil said, smiling for the first time in days.

Al pulled him into a hug. “I couldn’t let you get overconfident.”

“But you were sure?”

“One hundred percent.” Al was beaming, and he very rarely beamed. It made Cecil forget that he still had a nagging headache and his noise was throbbing against the fresh bandage. “But don’t think it gets much easier from here. A little bit each time, but not much. And they will test you again, Cecil, even if you are the shining example of a perfect intern from here on out. They’ll find a reason or they’ll just do it for the sake of it.”

Cecil nodded. It wasn’t good news, but when Al felt good, he felt good. Al changed the mood of the room and the whole building if he tried. Cecil wondered if it was part of being the Voice of Night Vale or this was just all Al.

Al patted him on the head, messing up his hair. “Now get back to work. Oh, and one more thing – you don’t have to tell me, but what did you pick for your focus image?”

Cecil stopped in front of the door and looked back with a grin. “The station microphone.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

As if to remind them that they shouldn’t get too cocky, Marla got an envelope the following week. She made it three hours before the light went green. The EMT said it was probably a heart attack. That or blood loss, because she had lost a lot of blood by repeatedly biting her own arms as if she was trying to chew them off, but it was probably a heart attack, he said. Over the phone, her parents didn’t exactly sound surprised. The interns were more surprised to learn that she had living parents who actually wanted her buried in their garden, and after working hours they had to take the body over there and, as Al insisted, dig the grave themselves. Turned out it was faster but a lot more labor-intensive than amateur cremation, especially because her mother wanted her body near the garden without ruining the calendula.

Brent, once a front-runner, spilled printer ink on the carpet in the hallway and withdrew his candidacy before he could get a red letter.

That made six.

Al told them it wasn’t a last-man-standing race so there was no reason to get competitive, but they got competitive as fuck, hiding leads from each other and putting roofies in each others drinks so they couldn’t get work done. When Al posted their writing samples they tore them down as fast as they could. They did separate lunch orders. Jared got into a three-way fistfight with Quentin and Cecil over delivering a letter from the City Council, and while they fought Pam picked the letter from Jared’s pocket and brought it to the booth herself.

Needless to say, this behavior didn’t exactly impress Al but hey, nobody was perfect.

One morning they arrived to find a stack of library books on the break room table. Al explained that it was study material, and they had better get through it all. If they had been ordinary books, this would have been more comforting. Most of them were not from the Night Vale library. Their tags mentioned places and times far away from them. None of the had anything to do with the radio. They were all instead remarkably ... esoteric.

Al had a lot of dictionaries for all kinds of forbidden languages and he said they could use them, but not remove them or any of the notes on them from the station. Cecil’s Modified Sumerian didn’t help him as much he thought it might, since the first book he chose seemed to be in Akkadian. It wan innocuous enough text, boring even. Something about legal codes involving property taxes in Mesopatamia. Sure, there was a mystifying drawing or two, and some occult symbols long out of use, but nothing too bad.

His second book was “The Witch-cult in Modern Europe” – which was complete nonsense, but in English. The depiction of witches was very unrealistic. After that the titles started meshing together, as most of them were unpronounceable, and he tried to make a chart of which symbols he’d seen around the station or on the back of the door to the office. It was actually quite difficult to hide work from each other, so they didn’t bother as they were so wrapped up in the confounding texts that it wasn’t worth worrying about.

The others started looking a little leaner to Cecil, a little hallow, after days and days of this. Quentin’s hair was coming out in chunks. They were all very tired, so much so that they didn’t go out after work together in their own directions. They just went to sleep. Al was hovering over them a bit more, but so far he hadn’t said anything. It was a very feel-as-you-go internship.

And then the nightmares started.

            ****************************************

Cecil woke in a panic, drawing in so much air and yet never getting enough of it and it made his lungs hurt and he didn’t no why. He was so scared, like he’d been as a child over a ghost story on a camping trip. It was a real, primal terror he hadn’t felt in years and he grabbed his blanket because he was shivering but had to flee – somewhere, anywhere. He ended up in his bathtub, which was made out of sturdy materials, hiding behind the curtains and under a pile of white towels, trying not to breathe or do anything else to make a sound until the sun came up.

It was not a definable terror. It was not about anything at all, actually. His dreams were ... blank. Like there was a big hole in his mind where they should have been, and they weren’t. He wasn’t experiencing and forgetting them, he was pretty sure. He just was experiencing all of the associated terror and anxiety but not the dreams, like he was facing a blank wall. Thinking about it gave him a headache. Thinking about it too much made him try to throw up, but it was all just dry heaves in the men’s bathroom until he collapsed and curled himself up in the corner, his knees pushing against his chest, his brain trying not to think.

“I’m so scared,” he said to Al, who was standing in the doorway. “I’m so scared and I don’t know why.”

Al opened his mouth to say something, then shut it. Cecil had never seen him do that before. He sighed with great force, which was what happened any time he moved his shoulders. “Take tomorrow off.”

No!” If there was anything that could still get Cecil to his feet it was work ethic. “No. Please, I can do the work. I promise.”

Al frowned. “I know. I know, Cecil. But it might be good to take a break. This isn’t a race.”

Cecil was about to say, I thought it was but he stopped himself too.

“What are you dreaming about?”

How did Al know? How did Al know anything? “Um, I don’t know. It’s just ... It’s not like a forget it in the morning. I just have it but I don’t have it and I need to hide and never come out. I haven’t been outside my apartment – except for work! So please let me come.”

Al pulled him out into the hallway, which for the moment was deserted, though he did look around to make sure. “This isn’t about your work ethic. This is about something I’m not supposed to talk about. With you.”

Cecil nodded but it took him a moment to understand. The blank hole before Europe. It couldn’t have been very long, he was in Europe for like, a decade? But he must have worked a few years between college and that, because he had his degree, and he could remember getting his degree, and submitting some spec articles for the paper, and now that he thought about it the dates didn’t make sense. But time wasn’t a big deal in Night Vale, so he put it out of his mind. “Is there, um, something you can say?”

The Sheriff’s Secret Police were not allowed to monitor the station, or they said they weren’t allowed to, but the only room Cecil was really sure was safe was Al’s office. He was suddenly very conscious of this.

“It was a very bad time in your life,” Al said, sounding like he was choosing his sentence word by word. “Even if I could undo what the police did ... I wouldn’t. You were doing some research you shouldn’t have done. I didn’t give you anything like that. I made sure of that. But your fear response is ... valid. Your body needs time. Your brain has to line up with your senses. So take tomorrow off. And if you’re not better after that, you’ll take another day off. I know it doesn’t seem this way, but this internship is not designed to break people.”

Al believed it, but Cecil wasn’t sure.

            ****************************************

Cecil did stop on his way home to pick up food and more importantly, alcohol. Lots of it. More than he could possibly drink, and the cashier gave him a look to indicate that she knew it, but he ignored her. If he was going to be miserable, he was going to enjoy it the only way he knew how.

He probably passed out sometime before midnight, waking on his living room carpet with one foot up on the couch. He had dreamed but the hangover was so much worse and he hid not from unknown terrors but from the sun before enjoying a leisurely breakfast of a bottle of vodka on the apartment complex’s front steps. There were so many things he was trying not to think about, could anyone really blame him? Several police officers passed him by without incident despite his intoxicated state.

Still in a stupor no amount of liquor could diminish, he bought a sandwich at 7-11 because it was as far as he was willing to walk in the hot sun and he returned to the exact same place, his new stoop.

“Cecil.”

How long had Earl been standing there? And without his scoutmaster uniform. “Were you fired too?”

“You were fired?”

“No.” He indicated that Earl could sit if he wanted to, and was a little gladdened that he did. “I was just told to take a day off. We’re not supposed to get days off. What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

“A lot of people didn’t think you’d make it this far.”

He offered Earl a drink, which Earl refused with a polite wave of his hand. “What about you?”

“What about me?”

“Do you think I could have been the Voice of Night Vale?”

Earl frowned because of the sun glare. “I think you still could.”

Earl had always been very nice to him. He felt a little guilty about it, because he never really paid that back. It wasn’t that Earl was in love with him, but their brief romance in high school had been made all the more awkward by their changing positions. Earl wanted someone; Cecil wanted to be in love with someone, and he was not and never was going to be in love with Earl. This was a conversation circled around like sharks to chum over the years. Cecil was too romantic, Earl was too dejected. Most of what happened between them had been a result of them both being too unpopular for anyone else, another depressing thing for Cecil to think about. But he still liked him.

“Where are the scouts?”

“Missing. Not on my watch – they went missing in school. All the kids did. You didn’t hear the show?”

Cecil shook his head, which made him a little dizzy, and this time when he offered the bottle Earl took a swig. “I never have time to listen anymore.”

“I was going to take them camping in the scrub lands – you know the field where we used to camp?”

“They’re all fields, Earl,” he said. “But yes. It had a lot of dead trees.”

“We got our Unquestioning Citizens badge by not asking questions about all those dead pine trees. And we got to use them for firewood so it was a win-win.”

Cecil smiled. He didn’t have a distinct memory of any one trip, just a lot of assorted memories of warring scorpion tribes and learning how to do different emergency animal sacrifices with leftover scraps from the stew. “I got my Memory badge for memorizing a secret list and then forgetting it entirely on command.”

“I think a lot of people cheated their way to that badge,” Earl said with a chuckle. But they’d both done it for real. That was what made them Eagle Scouts. That and summoning eagles.

They fell into a companionable silence, Cecil mostly drunk and Earl just looking more and more thirsty in the afternoon sun.

“I was sent home from work because of something I can’t remember,” Cecil announced, probably too loudly. “I don’t think that’s fair. Do you think that’s fair?”

“If I ever had an opinion about it, I don’t remember it right now.”

They giggled in a very undignified manner, and Cecil held the bottle to his chest. “There was something ... before I went to Europe. I remember talking to you, now that I think about it...” He trailed off, and Earl didn’t finish his sentence. “Can I ask you something?”

“You already did.”

Cecil swatted him. “Don’t be a dick. And if makes you uncomfortable, you don’t have to answer.”

“Sure.”

Cecil swallowed and looked into Earl’s eyes. “Did we ... have a thing  before I left for Europe?”

Earl’s smile was the widest he’d ever seen on him. “So you remember that. I guess that’s okay, then.”

“So we did.”

Earl looked away, his face red, though most of that was sunburn. “It wasn’t serious. It was just ... you were sick for a long time, like not sick enough to be in the hospital but sick enough that someone had to take care of you, and Al was doing it. One day he called me up and said he knew we took the Blood Oath together in scouts and that meant I had to help you, so I would stop by while he was at work and check your temperature and that sort of thing.” He was still smiling. “I would have anyway. And as you got better, I guess ... we were spending a lot of time together. More than we had in years.” He scrambled to add, “B-But it wasn’t serious. We agreed that since you were going abroad, you know, things would move on by themselves.”

“You wouldn’t wait for me.”

“It wasn’t like that!” It took Earl some time to figure out Cecil was messing with him. “You were just going to be changed by it. Everyone is changed when they leave Night Vale, no matter how quickly they come back. So we just agreed to go our separate ways. You can’t predict the future.”

“I’m sorry. I just don’t remember it that well.” There was a bit in that fog of memory, but it was hard to make out. He could picture Earl in the interior of Al’s house, because Al had a real house and not an apartment. “But it wasn’t serious?”

“No.”

Somehow, deep inside his confused brain, he felt the only logical response was to kiss Earl – gently but with intent, and on the mouth. And in the mouth. The kiss lasted a long time, and was wordlessly followed by another, and the straying of hands, until they heard the police officer clear his throat in the fake bush in the alley.

“Do you want – “

“Fuck yes.”

It didn’t matter who said what or made what noises or how they got into Cecil’s apartment, shedding clothing as soon as the door was kicked shut. They were both hot and sweaty and drunk and there was nothing romantic about it. It was just need that shoved them onto Cecil’s bed. They each had their own needs, for an assortment of reasons, and they were available to each other and nothing was going to get in the way of that, so nothing did. Cecil forgot about being a and intern and Earl forgot about being a bad scoutmaster and those moments just became about the two of them and their long-neglected bodies. It was not like high school, because they weren’t nervous or cautious or possibly terrified. It was just something to do and lay there afterward, still panting, and not regret doing.

“You’re a mess,” Earl said to him, as if Cecil needed to be told that. “You’re always too busy to take care of yourself.”

“Not always. Just ... sometimes. And trust me, no one at the station looks any better.”

“Just be careful, okay?”

“Okay.” Cecil kissed him. “Thank you.”

Earl didn’t stay the night. He didn’t even stay for dinner. But he was there long enough to make a difference.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

Cecil showed up to work not particularly well, or rested, or even completely sober, but he showed up on time like everyone else and did his work. Except for Rakeesh, who was “taking a sick day.” It made Cecil feel a little better, as no one commented on his absence.

Al told them to work together but didn’t say what he wanted. He just left them with their esoteric and definitely-not-municipally-approved books and notes and sketches of elder signs that were never supposed to be made and they had to come up with something. It was hard to discuss it because many of the issues were themselves things that should remain unspoken or just plain unpronounceable. But they were all pretty sure it had to do with Station Management, something they were willing to say only out on the loading dock, where they smoked heavily during breaks.

“The structure of the radio tower ... it’s not right,” Adina said. “It shouldn’t work.”

“The equipment?” Cecil was familiar enough with radio equipment, and there seemed to be plenty around. New stuff for the most part – except the microphone, which dated to the 1920’s, worked perfectly, and never needed servicing. It also wasn’t plunged into anything, but they all knew that.

“No – the building. It’s not the right size to fit what it fits. On paper, it’s more like a ziggurat.”

They devised a test similar to one they found in a book about Solomon’s Temple. They put a three-foot-long box in a 6-foot room, and measured from the box to the south wall, and then from the box to the north wall, and got six feet. But the box was three feet, so it should have made nine, which should have been impossible. Technically, the box stopped existing when they measured it.

Pam and Jared braced the archives at the Night Vale Daily Journal. They weren’t secret but they were locked and information older than five years was forbidden, so they had to break in. Cecil was look-out from a very long distance because of his ankle bracelet. Unfortunately, the journal didn’t go back beyond 1934, when it was founded, which was twelve-years after the radio station. Nor had the radio station ever had a major renovation as far as they could tell. They did make it out (with the help of Rakeesh firing tranquilizer darts at the guard wolves) with a couple issues and a yellowed front-page picture of the then-mayor in a soft meat crown in front of the station, which had a different entrance and no loading bay, just a dirt road with no other buildings in sight.

Next to him was the former Voice of Night Vale, dressed in a weirdly-tailored suit that was obviously hiding a non-human body. His face was the same as it was in his portrait in the office – a human mask. You could see the cords on either side.

Beside him was a Native American woman, in European-style clothing like the others but wearing traditional jewelry. She held on to a dark-haired boy in front of her who could not have been totally Native American in genetics but was clearly her son. The picture dated to 1938, and the picture was taken because the mayor wanted to be seen with the town dignitary. It was a photo op.

Whatever they were supposed to do, this was a step in the right direction. Al’s face lit up when they brought it to him. “That’s – I don’t remember his name. We’ve had too many mayors. And that’s Randolph, of course. He didn’t look that way all the time. When he left Night Vale, he did so in a new human body. He was so happy about it.” He gently tapped the claw against the paper near the boy. “And that’s me and my mother. She was Cherokee.”

“I thought she would be, um,” Quinton blanched, “you know. Algonquin.”

“They’re mostly in Canada now,” he explained with some amusement. “No, I’m named after the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. It was where she met my father. She was better-traveled than most people I’ve met.” His focus drifted off dreamily.

“And your dad?” Cecil asked before he could stop himself.

“Night Vale wasn’t for him,” he said simply, without any real emotion.

“You told us the Voice of Night Vale died when he gave up his position,” Jared said.

“Hmm. Yes, I did say that. Well, Randy was – how do I put this?” He scratched his jaw. “He arrived in Night Vale reborn in his second body, though I’m still not entirely clear what happened to the first one after he transcended it. The first one was human, the second one was a lizard person, which he was very self-conscious about and didn’t care for at all. But when he left us – and his body did die, definitely – he was human again, and he was beyond being alive or dead, so the terminology doesn’t really apply.” He down at the photograph. “Randolph Carter was an old-fashioned explorer. He would go to a place because it was new to him. He came to Night Vale after many other long journeys, not all of them on earth. He stayed because his appearance was accepted, as it hadn’t been with his relatives. He founded the station because he knew it was a place of power. Night Vale is on a seam of what keeps time and space as we perceive it intact, and the station itself was built right in the middle, at the largest opening. The only reason it conforms to the town’s grid structure is because the grid was build after it. Before then it just looked like a random spot.”

“Why?”

Al looked up. “Why what?”

“Why did he build the station?” Pam was brave enough to ask when others weren’t. “What did he really want it to do?”

“If you’re ever going to find out, it will have to be by yourselves. It’s not for me to say. Or, frankly, truly understand.” It was hard to tell if he was testing them again. “Good work, but it’s time to get ready for the show.”

He sent them off on various tasks, but he left the books, and Cecil knew that there was something he was missing. On his own he had reached what was the end of his understanding. His mind couldn’t handle any more information without getting sick. They were all pretty sick, worn out physically and mentally but especially spiritually, and Al definitely wanted them to go further. Cecil was sure of it. He didn’t need to convince himself of that, but he spent a good deal of the night doing so while staring at his ceiling. He wasn’t use to academic challenges like this. He hadn’t done well in every subject in school, but when he had applied himself he’d done well, even excelled. It was only on the SATs that he –

Of course. It was a little unconventional, but everything about this internship was becoming unconventional. The last time he was stuck and needed to learn more than his brain could handle, he drilled a hole in his skull, or more accurately had a friend do it because optional trepannings weren’t covered by his insurance, but he really wanted that high score in math (his verbal was just fine). Other than the life-threatening infection that followed, he considered it a success. Al visited him in the hospital every day. Al said –

Al had a hole in his head. A very important one. He’d told Cecil when he was young, and had the procedure for severe headache relief. Even though he was anesthetized, the prospect was terrifying and his foster mother comforted him and Al told him he’d had a hole, too.

Cecil confronted him in the office the next day. He didn’t even give him time to set his pen aside from whatever Al was working, probably today’s script. Cecil slammed the door behind him. “I want to get my third eye opened.”

Al’s response wasn’t so immediately. “Are you asking for another sick day?”

“I called this morning. No doctor in town will do it and I’m not doing it to myself again.”

“It’s a very dangerous form of surgery,” Al replied. “Results vary.”

“But you know someone. Who can do it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous Cecil I – “

But Cecil had already jumped up on the desk and was smoothing out the fur over what would be Al’s forehead, looking for an indentation. The very fact that he wasn’t immediately stopped confirmed it before he found the suspicious scar where fur didn’t grow an inch above and between his eyebrows.

Al sighed and waited for Cecil to climb down into a chair. “It’s dangerous. Even if it works and doesn’t make you an invalid, it’s spiritually dangerous. Someone once told me, when trying achieve Enlightenment, you can work very hard for years and years as you would climb a high mountain, or you can discover secret teachings passed down from generation to generation that can take you to Enlightenment like a rocket to the moon. But then he said, ‘A lot of bad things can happen in space.’”

“You have it, so I need it.”

“It’s not a job requirement.”

Cecil wasn’t sure he was lying but he wasn’t willing to give on this one. “I want it.”

“And who’s going to take care you when I’m gone and you can’t tie your own shoes?”

“Earl Harlan will probably be up for it.”

Al rolled his eyes. “Are you going to ever let this rest?”

“Nope.”

Al looked back down at his script, picking up the quill. “There’s a three-day weekend coming up. If we do it – if – it would have to be at dawn on Saturday. That’ll give you the most recovery time.”

“Thank you thank you thank you – “

“And you’ll have to get your head shaved.”

“That’s fine. I don’t own any mirrors!” And he practically skipped out of the office, ignoring his coworker’s looks for once in his life.

            ****************************************

Cecil tried to prepare. He tried to read up on it, but he couldn’t find anything in the public library, though he was getting good at avoiding librarians even if they were clearly developing a tolerance to his mace. There was some assorted errata about Hinduism but it was all contradictory and not very specific. So when Al showed up at his door at two in the morning on Saturday, he decided to be prepared for anything.

Al was always a little more carefree on his off days, rare as they were. He was serious about it but didn’t seem nervous. He had to drive with the top down, and the wind felt strange on Cecil’s newly-shaven head. The ghost next door helped him and lent him a hand mirror for the job, which was hardly perfect but would have to do.

As they drove away from town the early morning screams died in the distance and the road opened up to wasteland and barren fields, all carefully raked as if something was planted.

“This is your last chance,” Al said as they pulled up to John Peter’s farm house. “I suppose you’re not going to take it.”

“Did Randolph Carter do it?”

“He didn’t need to,” Al replied, and no sooner had they climbed out of the car than the infamous farmer greeted them. Instead of his usual stained overalls and undershirt he was wearing saffron robes over his left shoulders, exposing his right arm. His boots were replaced with sandals, though he was still chewing on a stalk of wild grass.

“We doin’ this?” was all he said.

“Yes,” Al answered.

“Good. Gonna go git my vajra crown. Gotta be somewhere – couldn’t find it yesterday. Too drunk.” His way of inviting them in was just leaving the door open behind them.

Cecil worked for John on and off for a long time, but only now did he realize he’d never been in his house. In every respect the front rooms were an ordinary farm house with all of the rural compliments one would expect, but in the backroom that he had wandered into were all kinds of wooden trunks and shelves with odd items from different cultures – mysterious dolls, butter lamps, documents rolled up in scroll form and the like. He had Cecil help him carry a box of equipment into the kitchen while Al was easily able to lug a heavy trunk in over his shoulders, even if he had to duck around the light fixtures to do it.

“Let’s see, let’s see.” He directed Cecil to a wooden chair with thick arms and a long, sturdy back. The tools John was removing were both religious articles and tools, though he didn’t see a proper drill. “We’re going to open your Ajna chakra and release your Kundalini energy. That is if I do it right. I don’t always do it right.” He took out a tiny idol Cecil recognized as Vishnu and lit a small lamp in front of it, waving the copper bowl of water around in the air in front of it. “Damn thing’s hard to find. Al, put the kettle on. I get thirsty when I can’t drink.”

“Is there something you want me to – “ but it was obvious there wasn’t, because John interrupted him by holding onto his bare head with one hand and touching a finger with red paint to touch a spot on his head. It dried quickly, and three white dashes went over it. With John looking so closely at him, Cecil could now see that his skin, shriveled and baked by years in the sun, had a scar in the same spot as Al’s.

“You have it.”

“How do you expect me to see my imaginary corn?” John laughed, touching the crown of Cecil’s head with dots of holy water. “You didn’t think I was jist a crazy old man, didja?”

Cecil sensed this wasn’t the time to lie. “Um, maybe when I was younger. But the corn is always delicious.”

John gave him a final tonsure in that spot on top of his head, snipping away whenever was left of his hair while muttering in what sounded like an Asian language. Cecil felt horribly uncultured by the whole process. John held a golden scepter in one hand and the water with a candle floating in it in the other and waved it in front of Cecil before lighting incense under his nose. “Feel purified?”

“I guess so.”

“It’s not an exact science. More that we get the hole right. Al?”

Al was ready with the rope, and they tied all of his limbs to the chair, and a leather band across his head to make sure it would stay in place. “Can you move your head?”

Cecil tried to shake his head, which of course didn’t work.

“Cecil,” Al said, commanding his attention. It was the Radio Voice. “You can back out of this.”

“I have to do this, don’t I?”

“No. I promise you, you don’t have to.”

This time Al was more clearly lying. Or just avoiding the whole truth. Cecil had to take a step forward and this was the only step he knew.

“If it works – if it works – try not to go far. Try to stay on the earth.”

“Okay.”

“And try not to freak out. It will get less intense. It just takes time. Don’t worry about work – well, you won’t really be worrying about work. Just let things you don’t understand pass over you. And remember to breathe. Your body will be doing it but you won’t feel it. Try to make sure your mind knows you’re breathing.”

Actually, Cecil was more worried that he would remember any of this. These instructions sounded awfully specific. “Okay.”

“I’ll try to help you, but there’s only so much I can do. You’re on your own for this.” Al tried to smile, and kissed him on the head, something he hadn’t done since Cecil was too little to be embarrassed. “But I will be here for you when you get back.”

Cecil swallowed. “Thank you.”

“Sun’s coming up,” John said, and Al moved out of Cecil’s line of sight. He tensed up at what he saw John was brandishing – not a drill like he had expected. He had a simple mallet in one hand what looked like a glass ice pick in the other. No, it sparkled wrong. It was diamond. It was diamond shard, smoothed out perfectly, and John was going to chisel open Cecil’s head. “And stay still Goddamnit. If you don’t, it’s not on me.”

He tried not to scream but the first strike really hurt. He could feel it going past flesh and muscle and into bone, and it felt like he was splitting his skull in half,. Why had he trusted himself to this loon? Why hadn’t he taken Al’s advice?

“Stop screamin’ or I’ll lose my concentration,” John demanded, though he did not sound alarmed. Something was shoved into Cecil’s mouth – a leather strap for him to bite down on. And then came the next swing. This was the stupidest thing he had ever done, Cecil was sure, and he’d done some fucking stupid things in his life and he could feel warm blood running down his nose and cheeks and his mouth was already full of blood like he’d bitten through something important, and why why why did he –

The crack of the third strike started loud and was suddenly muted. Cecil couldn’t hear John or Al, or the normal noises of animals waking for the day. He could hear a hissing sound, like air being released but he wasn’t that much of an airhead, was he? But it wasn’t air. It was thicker than air.

He opened his eyes and he saw past the blood and he saw everything. Briefly, there was John, move a collection of colors than anything else, ever moving and changing as parts of his body lived and died. Cells replicated and dead skin fell off while his fingernails grew. He was a living, moving thing and it was all happening with the intensity of the engine of a coal-powered train. And Al – he could see the little human Al, not particularly taller than him, beaming with pride. He could see the cancer in Al that was eating him slowly, sometimes halted, sometimes active, so much so that he was hollow, but the inherent goodness in him, that was the real him and that could not be destroyed by anything, not cancer or mutation or death.

He stood up, and his body floated above them. It wasn’t actually his body – he was naked, attached by a white umbilical cord to his real body still in the chair, and he saw the farm and all the living things around it. There were so many things – the few cows and sheep, but thousands and thousands of smaller items like mice and groundhogs and rats finally insects, endless amount of insects, eating and breathing and they were all part of the scene and that made life life and he was as connected to them as he was connected to his own body, and to John’s, and to Al’s. Their colors were the same colors and they were magnificent and so were their emotions. Al’s love was blinding; John’s deep pockets of wisdom were unfathomable. Did they always see the world this way? They weren’t flying up there with him. They were in states of rest. He could pass them by and they wouldn’t see him but they couldn’t be totally unaware. Why would they possibly want to stay in their meat bodies when there was so much to explore?

Cecil, come back to us.” It was Al’s voice but it was so layered. It was the Voice of Night Vale – he was using that voice and Cecil saw it for what it was, how it could shake people up or calm them down, like a gentle hand guiding them, but he could also hear the voice of Algonquin, his friend, who’d babysit him and let him run around in the studio around all of the expensive equipment and been there for his Eagle Scout ceremony and his graduation from high school and his graduation from college and who loved him and was scared for him, scared that Cecil wouldn’t come back to his meat body or that he couldn’t. Cecil saw every part of Al’s voice and he was flooded with love and forced himself back into his body, like stuffing himself into a suit that was ten sizes too small, and opened his real eyes, though he supposed they had never been closed.

They gave him something to drink and he drank. Their voices were distorted when he was back in that fleshy shell and weren’t nearly as beautiful and wondrous but they seemed to worship it anyway because they cleaned and bandaged his head and told him things. Walking was like manipulating a marionette that was all around him. He was so insubstantial in this form that he had briefly shed, and Al had to help him to the car and he saw the sun and he saw the void and how endless it was and it was exciting and terrifying and he knew he had to go there.

Cecil.” Al could say his name and he could listen. It was just a part of him, an attachment to briefly identify him from the mass reality that connected all beings, and it was as good as any name, he supposed.

“Cecil” He said his own name, letting it hiss between his teeth, his voice lower than he remembered. “Cecil.” It was a sound that was smooth in the center with fuzzy edges, and he could make it soft, like a golden note. It came out of his mouth like a long breath of smoke. “Cecil.”

Al was laughing. He didn’t know why but he was happy Al was laughing. He knew Al knew something; Al knew so much. He understood so many things. It made Cecil’s bone head hurt to think about it how deep that understand must be and could still go. Death would only increase it; Cecil now understood perfectly what Al said when he talked about death as a journey he was intending to take, and the journey beyond it, when he was not anchored to a body and time.

Somewhere along the line Al spoke to him, several times in fact, if he could remember, but Cecil couldn’t take it all in while he was in this form. His head did hurt, even if he was truly beyond it, and it was like split versions of himself were overlapping. They stopped at the Moonlight All Night diner, which smelled of breakfast and possibilities and everything that they new would bring but also despair from the people behind the counter who knew what a new day would actually bring except for the cashier, who was crippled by the monotony and no longer had a sense of one thing or another as being good or bad. She just was and he saw that she was very sad – the real kind of sad, inside and out, because he was seeing her insides on the outside, and he began to feel very bad because it was her nature, and it was something he could not change easily. Perhaps it could never be changed.

“No, it’s very hard to change one’s nature,” Al said to a question that might have been out loud and might just have easily not have been. Cecil was filterless, and the sadness terrified him more than the cynicism and it dampened everything in the room and he did not taste what he ate because it was as flavorless as his server, and he wanted to cry. He went outside – at some point, later in the meal, he went outside, without Al, looking for those bright spots in the sky.

“Cecil? Is that you?” It was Pam and he saw her. She was alight with ambition and greed but also fierce determination, not good or bad at the moment, and it was intense and he cringed. “What the hell happened to you? Did you hit your head last night?” And she was hurt, too, because life wasn’t living up to her expectations, because she’d work so hard to expect nothing less than the best when she performed the best, and she always performed at her best, and they let her down, all those people let her down and now Cecil was letting her down and he couldn’t look at her anymore without his whole body freezing with guilt.

He turned away from her, but he still saw. He couldn’t close his eyes. He couldn’t close his third eye. His body was starting to feel sick. He felt sick inside because his body felt sick and cold and confused.

Cecil,” Al called him back yet again and Cecil grabbed him, because he needed even more. More than Al could give him. “It will pass. Cecil it will get better – “

But that was a lie. He understood that now. He was seeing people and that wouldn’t go away; he would always know and he didn’t want to know.

“Is everything all right?”

That voice – that voice dripped with pleasant evil, and when Cecil had enough courage to look up from where he was practically hanging off of Al’s trunk of an arm he saw the Sheriff, or the main known as the Sheriff, with his gold star and black miter. All of him was black. He was black inside, outside, all sides.

Cecil’s body was rebelling just looking at him, and being in his presence. He wanted to expel himself from his body and tried by his mouth, but he just coughed up air and a little bile. His whole body hurt in a way it had never hurt before. This wasn’t pain from pain receptors telling him that things were damaged. His body wanted to come apart. If it tore itself up into small enough bits it would cease existing, and that was what he wanted.

“He’s a little sick. I’m taking him to my place,” Al might have said to the Sheriff, or might have imagined it. “Cecil. Let’s go.”

Cecil could hardly stand but he went with him. They went back to the car and drove and each person Cecil saw was like a spike of pain to his forehead or a soothing reminder of the good in the world, or somewhere in between, and he knew he was seeing these people too much. He was seeing too much of them.

They did drive to Al’s place, but Cecil didn’t get out. He was curled up in a fetal position on the backseat of the car, and Al threw a blanket over him to shield him from the ever-rising sun and drove. It seemed like a long time when every moment was agony and he felt his body refusing to split open and it was like pushing against a web he was trapped in.

It was very hot when they arrived deep in the scrublands. There were some mesquite trees but the real shade was from the abandoned shipping truck that was spray-painted and a popular hangout for kids. Al began unloading things from his trunk – gallons of bottled water, non-perishable food, blankets – and set Cecil under a hastily-constructed tent mostly made of tarp flaps within the darkness of the metal room exposed to the sands. Cecil couldn’t stand. He could barely breathe. He was holding back so much.

Cecil,” Al said, calling him back once more, “it’s going to be okay. You’re safe now. Don’t hold back.”

So he didn’t. He could have hugged and kissed Al if he could move, but he couldn’t, and soon he was free of his flesh and the earth beneath it and all that came with it and he was traveling again, over Al’s head and he thought for a moment he saw Al looking up at him. Which was kind of embarrassing, when you were naked and tied to your own body via umbilical cord. But Al was smiling at him, and Al knew. Al had always known.

Cecil soared high and he saw everything.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

“What is that, Randy? That white ship in the distance?”

“It sails to where the sea meets the sky,” his traveling companion said. “The journey is endless but it has a definite point. Do you understand?”

He did.

            ****************************************

“Cecil? Cecil Baldwin?”

Cecil opened his eyes, just barely, but immediately shut them again. The light was too much, even if it was filtered by the nylon tent ceiling above him. His body was dead weight.

He would have gone back to sleep if cold water (actually, it was reasonably warm in the hot sun) wasn’t dumped on his face, and that him to a choking sentience, and he sat up on his elbows but only with help.

“Yeah, Al said you might look like shit.” It was Larry Leroy. They must have been out on the edge of town. It was the first sense Cecil got that he was back in Night Vale even though he had almost certainly never left. “I’m paraphrasing a little. C’mon. Let’s get you up.”

It turned out Cecil did need a lot of help. He couldn’t stand or walk around until he’d consumed water and several energy drinks, and some salty crackers that hit his mouth particularly hard with their sharp edges. His clothing – what he’d been wearing when he went to John’s – was reduced to sandy rags, considerably more weathered than they should have been for a man in a tent. Larry helped him pack up the tent and the leftover supplies in the burned out truck and got everything into the car.

“What day is it?” was the first thing Cecil thought to ask, ten minutes into their drive.

“Wednesday.”

Cecil squinted at the sun, not particularly high in the sky. “I have to get to work.”

“Al says you have to go home and clean up first. He gave me instructions,” Larry said. “So he’s retiring.”

Cecil nodded.

“Is it true he has to die so someone can take his place?”

Cecil also nodded.

“Christ.” He didn’t speak again until he pulled up at the entrance to Cecil’s apartment complex. “I suppose he’s pretty old. He must be. I don’t remember another voice on the radio.”

Cecil got out of the car, still dazed. “Thank you.”

“Tell Al he owes me one and he’d better hit me back on that soon, if he’s gonna kick it. See ya!”

He watched Larry speed off. He wasn’t moving that quickly anyway. The apartment stairs seemed particularly steep and despite his talk of going to work, he collapsed in his armchair and looked up at the ceiling.

His skin was hot and red. It was burned, but not too badly compared to his scouting days. It hurt in the shower, something he eventually decided to take, and while he was scrubbing he noticed that he needed to shave. No, he needed to cut. He had a beard – not a five o’clock shadow but a real beard, like several week’s of growth. All his hair was back, to. The very old bandage on his forehead was barely hanging on and when he removed it, the scar beneath it was still red and healing, but it was closed up and probably had assumed the shape it was always be in it.

Shit. How long had he been out there?

There was no time to worry about it. If he still had a job – and he suspected he did – he had to report to work before it was too late. He found some reasonably clean clothes in the hamper and put on whatever smelled best, combed his hair, and cycled to the station in near-record speed. He was huffing when he got there, his body still aching from the experience it had been through.

“The prodigal son has returned,” Adina said in the break room as he struggled to make a new pot of coffee. “Pam’s in the Dark Box. Should be getting out soon. Hopefully.” She glanced at him and went back to her notes. “I didn’t know you were part werewolf.”

“I’m not. I just – um, I don’t know how it got like this, actually.” He scratched his beard. He’d never had a beard before. They were too hot to keep in the desert. He desperately wanted to ask if the calendar was correct, because it indicated he’d somehow only missed a day and a half of work, but it probably was, and therefore not worth thinking about.

He turned and was blinded by the entrance of Jared. Jared, who had stopped in place and was starring at him and he didn’t care, he just saw Jared and all he saw was a black ooze and Cecil shut his eyes even though they were not the eyes he wanted to shut.

“You motherfucker,” Jared said, and his voice sounded particularly harsh. Cecil did not want to be hearing Jared’s voice or learning all he was learning about him. He wanted to be a good, non-judgmental person.

“What?” Cecil said weakly, because he really was having trouble concentrating. And standing up.

“You know exactly what I mean, you fucking shit,” Jared shouted. “You had illegal surgery and you thought – “

“It wasn’t illegal.” It just wasn’t, you know, legal. Medically speaking.

Normally, Cecil would have had a bit more to go with if someone cold-cocked him in the face. It wasn’t as if it had never happened to him before. But for the moment he crashed into the file cabinet and fell right over because he didn’t have the energy to dodge a punch, much less fight. And he liked being on the ground, where it was cooler and darker and he didn’t have to be looking in Jared’s direction even if the guy was kicking him in the stomach.

“Cut it out,” Adina said, but probably not particularly hard because she didn’t want to get involved. This was hardly the first break room fight. “It’s assault if he can’t fight back.”

“He can fight if he wants to. He’s just not trying.”

“Fuck you, Jared.” It was Rakeesh’s voice. “You’re not going to be Voice of Night Vale by killing the rest of us.”

“Stay out of this.”

“Hey, why Jared beating a homeless guy? Oh my G-d is that – “

And that was when the general fight broke out – the kind with chairs flying and tables knocked over and Adina smashed a coffee pot of Jared’s head and Quinton thought that went to far so he held her off with the knife attached to the bathroom key, and it all would continued for some time if Rakeesh hadn’t said, “Hey, guys, the light. Pam’s done.”

Cecil managed to get up and cough up some blood in the sink before joining them in the hallway, where the light for the Dark Box was green. Pam’s re-training session was over. Since Al had gotten mad at their previous attempts to institute the use of a shepherd’s staff to drag the body out, Cecil and Rakeesh went in. “She’s breathing!”

There was a sigh of relief, perhaps not so much for Pam as for the rest of them, because if two people could survive than maybe they could. Of course ‘survive’ was a relative term considering she was unconscious and her mangled hand was bleeding profusely.

They took Rakeesh’s car, though it was Cecil who insisted on staying with her. There was some neck trauma and the doctors did insist on keeping her overnight. He called Al, who told him to monitor the situation. Which was good. It was nice to be in the chilly hospital room after so much sun and heat. He probably wasn’t up to doing all that much anyway.

Pam woke up screaming, but she couldn’t injure herself if she tried. The doctors were used to interns as patients by now and she was wearing a neck brace. They put her on a powerful tranquilizer and it was a long time until she was awake and mentally available enough to say anything.

“Holy shit. How long have I been asleep?”

“Um, like five hours?” Cecil did not initially realize she was stunned by his beard. “Sorry. This just grew over the weekend. I haven’t gone to the barber’s yet.”

She didn’t try to nod. Good for her. “Am I good to work?”

“Your hand is broken and they won’t release you until tomorrow morning. So no, I guess not.”

“But you missed yesterday.”

“Yeah. I was in the scrublands.”

Pam squinted in the soft fluorescents. “You’ve got something on your forehead.”

Since the hospital bathroom did have a mirror, Cecil decided to look at it. It was still in that phase of being red, something that would probably fade over what might be a very long time. Also he really did look like a crazy person, particularly when his hair and beard were white. “Yeah, I know.”

She did not question its significance. “Fuck. But I guess you thought of it first.”

“I also got a hole in high school. To improve test scores.”

“Did Al help you?”

“He didn’t like the idea,” was all he said.

“My parents don’t believe in trepanning. Say it’s junk science.”

He shrugged. “And you turned out just fine.”

“Jared’s going to kill you when he sees it.”

“He already tried.” He pulled up his shirt to reveal a belly and chest full of bruises.

Pam laughed.

            ****************************************

The next day Pam had to work and was driven straight from the hospital to do so. She was more or less a vegetable when it came to deep thinking, but Al didn’t expect much from her. He was happy she survived; they were all happy about it.

It was also Cecil’s first chance to talk to Al alone in his office. He spent a good amount of time waiting for Al to finish some paragraph. Cecil stared at the portrait of the first Voice of Night Vale.

“Randy,” he said.

“Hmm?”

“My traveling companion in Europe. The one I can barely remember. His name was Randy. Was it ... did I go to Europe with Randolph Carter?”

Al swiveled in his chair to look at the same picture. “I asked him for a favor.”

“So you can still ...?”

“It’s not reliable. And you’ve seen now how far you sometimes have to remove yourself from your body to reach him. When he left me at the microphone, I was on my own. I didn’t see him for years. I was too focused on doing the show, which required all of my concentration and all of my energy. It was more about controlling my eye than using it. The first years are like that.”

“I saw ...” Cecil trailed off, trying to find words. “I saw things I’m not sure I should have seen. In the desert, but not in the desert.”

“If you saw something out of sequence, and by that I mean something from your future or someone else’s, leave that memory alone. Keep that door shut. You don’t have time traveling permission for a reason.” Al looked at him, concerned. “Part of being the Voice of Night Vale is understanding that all things have their time and place, but particularly their time. Things need to be said and other things need to wait. You have to know when to say and do things because it’s exactly the right time. You can’t just spit out whatever’s in your brain into the microphone. But it’s something that’s hard for people to understand, particularly other people when they’re affected by it. They can’t see the picture you’re seeing. They have incomplete information. And you ... well, you keep your mouth shut.”

Al spoke so little when he was working but not in the booth. He was their guiding hand but it seemed like he did so little guiding.

“You’ve always known who was going to be the Voice of Night Vale.” It was a statement, not a question.

“For much longer than you can imagine,” Al replied. “Now get back to work. I can’t have you slacking off all day just because you’ve seen the ultimate reality from which our eyes are guarded. That’s no excuse for not fixing the copier.”

            ****************************************

They had all been trough the Dark Box once (except for Quinton who had died in it) when it seemed like Al might actually do something to train them. They were told to look presentable and write scripts with imaginary news stories, not using actual news, and thought here was no announcement for it on the radio people seemed to do know to go to the high school auditorium after the show one night to hear them read their notes aloud. They didn’t actually do that, of course. At the last minute Al slipped them his own sheets.

Rakeesh was first. “Sir, this is just a set of numbers.”

Al nodded in that inscrutable way of his and gave no more instruction. To them in particular it also said, ‘Yeah, I’m a real motherfucker.’

Considering he had to go first, Rakeesh did okay. A little stammering at first but then he found his rhythm. Adina also did well but not great. Pam had a commanding voice, which was tough but thorough. It was hard to imagine it lulling people to sleep at night, but the Voice of Night Vale had to do a lot of different things. Jared was amazing. They knew this would happen in advance. He was the only one with announcing experience, if one could call it that, because he’d been a DJ at the college station for the few years it ran.

Cecil, well – he was proud of that first line that he made it through because his mouth seemed to collapse in on him with the teeth just going up and down, up and down, like he was shivering and he couldn’t get a damn word out. The rest of it was, he assumed later, as painful to listen to as it was to say. He did not look up from his sheet to see their actual reactions. He barely looked up when the meeting was over, burying his blushing red face in his shaking hands. He hadn’t stuttered like that in years. A decade maybe. Yeah, he was scared but – he was so fucked. He tried to avoid talking to the others or to Al, who when he did see him was his usual stone-faced self and was caught in a crowd of people who had a lot to say to him.

They didn’t see the Voice of Night vale until an hour before the next broadcast, which Cecil was happy about, though the day was made a good deal longer by ribbing from his co-workers. Even Pam couldn’t manage to do her fake reassurance thing. By the time the boss showed up it was yesterday’s news, and he said nothing of it. He retreated to his office to work on the script and reemerged only to head up to the booth.

This made it worse as far as Cecil was concerned. Even though their shifts were over, Cecil stayed into the night, listening to the evening broadcast. As usual it was outside of time, sometimes taking Al six hours or nine hours or half an hour to cover the same material as Night Vale needed it, but tonight it started late and ran particularly late, though the only way to tell was the darkening sky and the subtle shifts in the void. Cecil was sitting right there, at the break room table, doodling around his notes when Al came down.

“Sir, can we – “

“No, we can’t talk,” Al said. “Not now, Cecil. I’m tired.”

But he didn’t tell him to go home, so Cecil didn’t. He nodded off in his chair, only to woken when his head fell far enough forward that it hit the table and he sat up with a painful start. The lights were all out except some emergency hallway lights that were always on when it was dark. The door to Al’s office was locked.

And yet he knew Al was there. Not by any supernatural means, but because he felt the weight in the building, making creaks in the ceiling above him. But Al was never in the booth at off hours so he was ... where? There was nothing up there but Station Management.

Is he okay? Was Cecil’s second thought, after the mandatory shiver of terror that came with dealing with management. Or maybe Al was just in the booth for some reason. Either way, it wouldn’t hurt for him to check, not if he didn’t let himself get close.

Cecil climbed the stairs as silently as possible and peered over the stop steps. The booth was closed and dark. There was only the door at the end of the hallway, which was also closed, but certainly not dark. All kinds of colors were emerging from the glass window of that door, and the only thing blocking the view was Al, who was looking directly at the door.

“ – waste of time was what it was,” Al was saying. “This town – “

The sound made in response was hideous. Cecil could barely listen. It made his head fuzzy.

“I know you don’t care, but it’s something I have to deal with, and we’re in this together.”

There was an awful slurping sound coming from Management’s door, and the clear noise of a paper envelope being chucked through a slot.

No.” Al must have seen it, must have looked down at the envelope. “It doesn’t need to be this way. You are making this transition overly complicated.”

Shuck. Shuck. Shuck. More envelopes.

“I’ve already chosen and you’re not going to change it.”

Shuck. One more envelope. Al bent over.

“And I’m not going to this.” He was probably holding an envelope. Cecil barely had the wherewithal to get back down the stairs at the sound of Al approaching. He managed to make it back to the break room but his ears were still ringing. He tried to look like he’d been doing something, and he couldn’t remember why he was pretending and why he wasn’t just at home already.

Al just stared at him. The eye contact conferred something Cecil couldn’t understand and Al tossed him his car keys – which Cecil caught, his only graceful act of the night.

Al spent most of the drive looking up at the stars. He did not want to get out when they reached his house. Cecil realized that Al was having trouble getting out. Simple movement was painful to him.

“How long has it been like this?”

“All I know is the only time I feel good is when I’m on the radio,” Al replied, “and that’s no way to live.”

Cecil helped him up the porch steps and to the front door. Al’s weight nearly crushed him but he said nothing. Al slumped into a chair in the kitchen, breathing heavily. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not a – “

“There so much I should tell you, but I can’t. Not now. Not for a long time.” Al was talking about something else. Something entirely personal. “Everything at the right time and that’s ... that’s so far away.” He was trying to smile but he couldn’t. “Go home, Cecil.”

He said it because Cecil might not have left at all if he wasn’t told to. He hugged Al before leaving the house.

He did not sleep at all that night.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

Pamela Winchell would look back and try to point to where things started going wrong, and it was pretty easy, actually.

Cecil had only been in the Dark Box for twenty minutes before the light turned green. It was disheartening because he was the best at it, the toughest survivor, and it could only mean he was dead. Pam decided to deal with grief sooner rather than later and rushed to the door, barely beating out Rakeesh and Jared.

Only Cecil wasn’t dead. He was still breathing, and they took his pulse, but it was very slow. None of them had time to react before they heard the tromp-tromp of Al’s big feet coming down the stairs during the broadcast to find them in the hallway. “Out of the way! Pam, there’s bandages in the first aid kit. Rakeesh, start my car.”

He scooped Cecil up and carried him out of the room, more concerned with time than with being gentle. He merged from the windowless room dripping with blood – Cecil was covered in it – and they spent wasted time trying to locate Cecil’s wounds.

There were six slashes, two sets of three on each wrist, but most of the blood was coming from a gash in his neck near or in the artery. Pam new first aid and only stopped winding bandages around him when she thought she might choke him.

“That’s enough.” Al carried him out to the car. “Rakeesh, drive. If you don’t have stop sign immunity, now’s not the time to worry about it.”

Al could technically leave during a broadcast, and would for major news events, but this was not a major news event. He probably had three minutes worth of pre-recording, but Al always managed around that for stories that took hours to investigate, time being what it was and all.

Pam opted to ride with them because the building had become a very unpleasant place very quickly over the last five minutes. The rooms were darker and she was fairly sure she heard management thrashing around upstairs. Now was a time to get clear like there was an impending explosion.

Traffic had never moved so quickly in Night Vale and probably never would.

There was not a lot of mystery at the hospital. Cecil had lost most of his blood. Al volunteered them all for giving blood, which they did, even if they were the wrong type, because Al said so and he did not seem in the mood to be contradicted. Then he told them to leave the car and get back to work, because it was a work day, even if it was a broadcast and he was not broadcasting, but he said it under his breath more than anything else.

So they went back to the office and waited. And waited. Somehow, the pre-recorded children’s science fun corner played for the full four hours that Al was gone, switching over to open air only moments after he returned to his booth, still covered in Cecil’s blood. He wrapped up the show in ten minutes and they all didn’t move or breathe, just put the speakers on and listened to it. He did not mention Cecil; he sounded completely normal, if a little agitated.

He didn’t come straight down. They were all done with their shifts now, and probably someone should go check up on Cecil, but they sat around their table without being asked to, as if Al had telepathically called a meeting so quietly that only their subconscious heard it.

He did come down, looking bigger than he had ever been and madder than he had ever been. “So.” He looked at each one of them. “I suppose you think Cecil tried to kill himself in the Dark Box. Wouldn’t exactly be the first time someone’s did themselves in in there.”

No one said anything. Al slammed a metal object down on the table. It was a blood-stained box-cutter.

“Now if I was Cecil,” he seethed, “maybe I wouldn’t know that the process can’t be interfered with, and no other objects are allowed inside. Or maybe I wouldn’t know that Station Management isn’t particularly interested in anyone dying in there of anything but what they have to say to people.”

There was a long pause. They could hear the tension in his breath.

“Or maybe if I was Cecil, and I was so-clear headed and intending to kill myself that I brought the instrument in with me, I would know that suicide is much easier if you cut the arm correctly. Jared, help me show the others.”

It was not a request. He grabbed Jared, hauling him to his feet, and held up his wrist, only to slash it with the same boxcutter. Jared cried out.

“Now as you can see, I’ve slashed the vein horizontally. Not very effective. You’ll bleed a lot more if you cut vertically to expose more vein like so – “ He took another slice, like he was chopping onions.

“Ow! You motherfucking motherfucker!”

Al completely ignored him but tossed him on the table, then dragged him by his shoulders so he his head was at the edge. No one did anything but back slightly away, as much as they could while still staying in their seats.

“And after you’ve done that, cutting yourself in the neck would actually be pretty hard if the correct tendons are severed. And there isn’t a lot of room to work in the Dark Box unless the room has to accommodate someone else in there, as if someone had tripped the lock, jumped you, and done it himself.” He looked down at Jared. “I have decided to murder you.”

He slashed Jared’ neck with such a thrust the head nearly came off. Blood spurted up like a fountain, some of it hit hitting them and some of it hitting Al, who meandered to the window and opened it. “Police!”

The Secret Police were fast responders. They found three dumbstruck interns nearly scared into a corner, a dead one still bleeding on the table and floor, and Al standing there with the knife.

“I murdered Jared. I had intention,” Al said very carefully and pointed to them. “I have witnesses to that fact.”

“All right.” The officer was already pulling out a notepad. “There’s some paperwork. Standard procedure to make sure it’s not manslaughter.”

Al nodded. “I’ll be in my office.”

Other officers arrived to dispose of the body and collect statements from all of them and they were released from work for the day, at the very least to change clothes. They didn’t go home, though – they went straight to the bar that was now used to their presence and knew their drink orders, and they sat around the table with their beers in front of them for a while until one of them said the obvious.

“He stutters.”

No one had any answer to that. Pam drank her beer; Adina downed the entire glass. “This is bullshit! Al should just come out and say it. He shouldn’t put us through this.”

Rakeesh shook his head. “He stutters. The Voice of Night Vale can’t stutter. What did Jared know that we don’t?”

“I’m in this for the medal,” Pam said. “Also, Jared was a snide fucker and he got what was coming to him.”

“This is nepotism.”

“Al and Cecil aren’t related,” Pam defended, though she didn’t know why she was defending Cecil. Because he was in the hospital? Not a reason for alarm. “Cecil doesn’t have any family so there is no nepotism. Al likes him and I think Station Management likes him and I’m going to stay because whatever’s going to happen next, it’s going to be interesting. It’s going to be unlike anything we’ve ever seen in Night Vale and we won’t get that chance again.” She finished her beer. “That said, if I get called up for the Dark Box again, I’ll tell them where they can stick it.”

“Cheers,” Adina said, and they all clinked glasses to that.

            ****************************************

Al was at home when the sheriff came by. Mostly because it was the sheriff, and he didn’t like anyone to think the wasn’t constantly looking over them in his hover-cloud, so he did not make public appearances and certainly not house calls. Al briefly scanned his brain for something he might have actually done wrong, couldn’t find anything, and resumed resting in his E-Z-chair.

“I’m sorry,” he said to his guest, who had slipped in the back window, of course. “I’m having a little trouble getting up these days. There’s iced tea in the fridge.”

The sheriff removed his baklava and sat down across from him. He did not look comfortable doing this. He did not look comfortable in such an informal setting, but Al was uncomfortable in general and didn’t have a lot of sympathy for him. And he’d taken a lot of pain medication, so that made hard edges go away.

“I hear Cecil Baldwin is going to be the Voice of Night Vale.”

It wasn’t worth asking who told him. “It’s not official.”

“But it is something you’ve decided.”

Al shook his head. “That decision was made a long time ago, and not by me.”

“You know Mr. Baldwin better than anyone,” the sheriff said, “so surely you can understand why it’s not in Night Vale’s best interests to have that happen.”

“Night Vale gets what it wants,” Al replied, “and what it wants is Cecil. Your interests are not something I’m concerned with. I serve Night Vale only. So you can see, my hands are sort of tied.” He would have made a flourish but he didn’t feel like lifting either of his hands. “So what kind of deal are you trying to cut here?”

The sheriff looked anxious, which amused Al more than anything else. “I want restrictions.”

“Can’t do it.”

“Only the first ten years. At least give me ten years.”

Al scratched his chin. “I’m listening.”

“He gets no library privileges and some movement restrictions. I don’t even want him in the same neighborhood as the Curwen house.”

“Which is only standing because you can’t seem to make it fall down and stay down.”

The sheriff visibly worked on ignoring the jibe. “I get to say when he can report on scene and when he has to stay in his booth. And additional restrictions on using the Voice. Never on the radio without my permission – and the City Council’s.”

“Go on.”

“We retain the right to detain him as we please. He has no time travel allowances and he has to request a leave permit for city limits. And we don’t have to let him know when his rights are restored.”

Al closed his eyes. It was very hard to concentrate. “And in return, what is your enticing offer?”

“A smooth transition. We can throw up all kinds of barriers for him without Station Management knowing it. Maybe we can’t turn the radio off but we can certainly black out his reporting abilities. He won’t have much to say up there if he has no interns and no way of leaving his booth.”

“And we’re not telling him any of this?”

“Of course not. He doesn’t get to know what he has. Not at first.”

“That hardly seems fair.”

“You know what I think is unfair?” he sheriff said, a little louder. “I think when you fire an nuclear missile at someone and light up the whole canyon by doing it, destroying a valuable piece of land forever, he should die. That seems fair. Especially when I’ve already lost have my officers and a third of the town to him. If he walks away with no punishment whatsoever, that seems like a real raw deal for my men.”

“He wasn’t himself.”

“He was himself and that was the problem, wasn’t it?”

Al debated bringing up how poorly the police had dealt with the issue at first, when nothing was being destroyed, and how they sat on their hands until it was much too late. But this was a wound that did not need to ever be reopened. “I have an additional condition.”

“Fine.”

“I leave all this information with a third party for the duration of the term. And then some, if he doesn’t need any help. But he might. There’s more going on at the radio station than I can tell you about.”

“Who?”

“It wouldn’t be a third party if I could tell you,” he said with a toothy grin.

The sheriff frowned, but he took the deal.

            ****************************************

Al was before the door the next day, with another deal. Well, not a deal so much as an argument.

“Cecil Baldwin.”

Management hissed.

“My decision is final.”

Management argued.

“It’s not nepotism if you don’t give him the job because of it!” Al insisted, tired of this game. “And you are so barely related to him.”

Management grumbled. They did it for a long time, longer than he really wanted to stand there, before something flew out from beneath their door. It was not a tiny red envelope. Instead, it was a large package.

            ****************************************

Cecil woke in the hospital confused and somewhat embarrassed. He assumed, quite reasonably, that he’d barely survived another trip to the Dark Box – just when he thought he was getting better at them – and was now going to doused in tranquilizers and sent back to work. Instead he was allowed to be quite lucid, given only narcotics for the pain in his arms and throat. At first he sincerely hoped that no one would show up for a while because he was too weak to get out of bed but didn’t want to admit it, but he was relieved when Al did show. Al, who smelled because he was freshly showered and wet fur could be a little disgusting, told him everything.

“You saw it, too?” Cecil was still a little uncomfortable. Most people who tried to murder him weren’t nearly as successful. “He was all black. His true self.”

“Yes. People can very rarely change who they really are. Usually an outside force does it for them. It corrupts them or cleanses them,” Al explained. “I knew Jared was bad, but a lot of people are bad. This is not information I can use.”

Cecil was told to stay and rest up. “The next few weeks are going to be a little crazy,” Al said, and Al was not to be taken lightly. Cecil was released the next day, but was not allowed to return to work. He left his house only to shop and did so with the longest sleeves he owned because of the bandages around his wrists implied another existential crisis for him, not what actually happened.

“Storm a’comin,’” Old Woman Josie said when he held the door to Ralph’s open for her. He looked at the sky, but it was a normal color of deep mauve. The next day, when it was time to go to work, the sky did seem darker than normal, but that was just the void blocking out the sun and making it seem like a perpetual twilight. It did that sometimes. Just not very often, now that he thought about it.

He arrived in the building at the regular time, but he was the only one there. The break room table was cleared of everything but a manila envelope nearly an inch thick. It quietly vibrated against his fingertips as he ran across the name Cecil Baldwin written in perfect cursive.

His mouth went very dry. He might have stood there for quite a while before Al appeared in the hallway. “Cecil, listen to me.” He took him by both shoulders. “I want you to read that contract very carefully. Go line-by-line with a ruler. Ask me about sections you don’t understand. Look for notes hidden in the margins. And understand that you’re signing your life away.”

Now was the time for honesty, if there was ever going to be a time. “Do you ever regret it?”

Al let his arms fall down and sighed. “I don’t know anymore. Not usually but – I’m very tired these days. I’m having trouble thinking straight. I don’t want anything to go wrong just because of that. So take your time. You have all the time in the world.”

Cecil wondered if he did, really. Al gestured. “You are not allowed to show anyone else what’s in the contract. Use my office.”

“Al ...” But he had nothing to say after that. Nothing profound. No way to express his emotions other than, “Thank you.”

“I had less to do with it than you know,” Al relied, grinning weakly, “but you’ll know that all soon.”

Al was right, of course. It was a very long, complex contract that needed a working knowledge of modified Sumerian and several additional dictionaries. The paper was an unfamiliar type of skin, vaguely purple even after all the drying and bleeding. The words were written entirely in blood except for a few passages with drawing in gold or silver ink. Some of the sections were straightforward: “The Voice is allowed three (3) vacation days a year, cumulative with following years but never more than seven (7) days in a row” and “The Voice is required to complete every broadcast no matter how many hours the script requires” and “The Voice must repeat messages from the Sheriff’s Secret Police and the City Council verbatim.” Other lines were not: “The Voice is restricted to accessing or attaining no more than four (4) dimensions while broadcasting or while standing on station property,” and “The Voice cannot provide telepathic mental projections to accompany the broadcast without prior consent from management.”

And there were ones that were unexpected, bizarre, or unsettling: “The Voice is exempt from mandatory adoption day unless he/she/it has a secondary guardian for the child. The Voice cannot be a single parent. If the Voice divorces their significant other, all custody rights go to the other guardian,” and “The Voice may not partake in Free Crime Day or report on any incidents caused by citizens performing actions on their own Free Crime Day,” and “The Voice may note for any candidate the Voice prefers without repercussions. The Voice’s vote will not be counted, and the Voice cannot discuss his/her/it’s own voting preferences or freedoms.”

Finally, there were things he couldn’t make heads or tails of: “The Voice cannot own more than six (6) lobsters at a time,” and “The Voice can only transcend reality when not broadcasting, and “The Voice may only make the Yellow Sign if absolutely necessary to insure continuation of the broadcast day and/or the existence of the radio station.”

It was amazing that anyone signed this thing, just out of fear that they wouldn’t keep all the rules straight. There were extensive sacrifices to be made on a regular basis and ten pages on acquiring and dealing with interns. Even if the actual show only was half an hour that day, the minimum it could be, it didn’t seem like he would have much of a life.

The first thing he wanted to know from Al was, “What happens if I break these rules?”

“There will be re-training, of course,” Al said. “But probably not death, unless they think they can replace you. They do get that crazy idea in their heads every once in a while. You have to be careful in the beginning. For the first five or ten years. They’ll never like you, precisely, but you can learn to deal with them.”

Cecil stayed up all night reading the contract again and again. It was in scroll form, so he only could guess at how many pages it actually was.

“So, this is it?”

He slammed it down and put an envelope over the contents at the sound of Pam’s voice. “Um. Hey.”

“He told us,” she explained. “Rakeesh and Adina took their bonuses and left. They’re off to re-education with the police for a few days at least.”

As she wasn’t scrambling to grab the contract, he relaxed a little. “You’re still here.”

“I want that medal. And I’m not stupid. Al says I won’t be eligible for the Dark Box anymore, and if I want to get anywhere in politics in this city – well, it could help to have the Voice of Night Vale owe me a few favors.”

He blushed. “I haven’t signed.”

“But you’re going to sign. Cecil, this was preordained like, years ago. Maybe before we were born. I don’t know why they put us through this. To make it seem fair? To test our mettle? To weed people like Jared out of the system?” She shrugged. She was very realistic about it, he thought. “Al doesn’t seem to know either. He said his head it getting a little fuzzy.”

“He’s trying not to show it but it would probably be better if we offer to drive him around. You know, subtlety.” He did not want to think about Al’s death. More specifically, he did not want to imagine a world without Algonquin. So far it had been easy when he was pushed to his limits and had so much on his mind. Even now, he was almost literally wrapped in legal paperwork that it was important to memorize. “I wish I could do more for him.”

“You’re going to do a lot by letting him go,” she said. “And don’t get too big of a head right away. We’re all signed to a confidentiality agreement until the transfer actually happens.”

He was relieved by this news. He only left the station when he was ordered to, to get some sleep. He was no longer subject official shifts – he was just there when Al needed him. Al didn’t rush him on the contract. The very opposite, actually, even after they spent hours discussing the finer points of legal language.

“If you sign it, management will give you an envelope with instructions for the transfer. You must do everything on the lest. Everything. You swear to that when you sign. It must be done exactly as directed. Do you understand?”

Cecil wondered if Al thought he wasn’t speaking English anymore or something. “Yeah.” It seemed like Al was trying to talk him out of it at times, which made no sense until Cecil remembered that Al had been through this process, and he knew what was on the other side, even if he couldn’t or wouldn’t say. But he saw Al constantly sitting in chairs much too small for him because the Voice of Night Vale was unable to remain standing for long periods of time. He looked unsure of what to do in his own body. He never went through chemotherapy so his body was probably ridden with tumors and he only sounded okay during the broadcasts.

It gave Cecil all the reason he needed. He signed his name in blood at the bottom line, then used the extra space to stamp both his hands and feet into the paper with red ink.

“It’s done!” he said to Station Management, approaching their door for the first time. He could hear a faint buzzing. “You can let Al go.” Were they ignoring him? It didn’t matter, he supposed, as he slid the envelope containing the rolled-up scroll back under the doorway. It only made it halfway in before it stopped, caught on the woodwork, and there was a fantastic hissing sound as it was slowly pulled fully into the room by some unseen force behind the door. Seconds later, it spat out another envelope, this one just addressed to ‘Mr. Baldwin’ in ink of an unknown color.

He decided to wait until he got home, away from prying eyes, to open it. That turned out to be a very good idea. Screaming in his apartment complex wasn’t exactly a strange thing.

            ****************************************

Bleary-eyed and a little drunk, he finally made it to Al’s house on his bicycle. Al was only coming in for the broadcasts now, and Pam was providing transportation. But the Voice of Night Vale was still capable of getting up and answering his door.

Cecil dropped to his knees. “Please don’t make me do it. I can’t. I can’t do this to you.”

“You promised. You swore on it.”

“I didn’t know! I didn’t know ...” He hugged Al’s legs burying his face in thick fur as he sobbed. “I can’t.”

“You have to,” Al said, a little sterner. “This has to happen exactly as it has been ordained.” Seeing that Cecil wasn’t stopping, he cupped Cecil’s cheeks to bring their eyes together. “Do you think I went into it so willingly? To do that to my mentor, my friend? But I did it and I don’t regret it. It was want Randolph wanted and it was what I want now.”

“But – “

“And I wouldn’t have trusted it to anyone else. I’m so, so happy Night Vale chose you. I don’t want to hurt you, but I don’t want anyone else to do it. I trust you to make this happen, Cecil. I trust you to do the right thing.”

“Al – “

“I’m going to die, Cecil. And this is how I want to die – with you at my side, with you taking care of Night Vale when I’m gone.” He tugged at Cecil’s locks. “You have to promise me to do it faithfully, at the right time, when it has to be done because no one else can do it for you.”

“Al.”

“Promise me. It’s the last thing I’m going to ask of you. I promise.”

Cecil saw how labored his breathing was, just standing there for so long. He felt the tension in Al’s own bones. Al’s hands – more like paws now – were shaking. He wanted this. He needed this. “Okay.”

“You promise?”

“I promise. I’ll do everything – if that’s what you want.”

Al looked so relieved he looked lighter than he had seconds previously. He kissed Cecil on the head. “Then you’d better go. You have a lot of work to do.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

Old Woman Josie was right.

No one had seen the sun in three days. The sky was still the right forecast color, but there were clouds blocking everything except the void, which they never succeeded in blocking. They weren’t rain clouds – Cecil was told those were grey – but late at night, when he was up studying manuals and making careful ritual calculations or practicing chants, he thought he could hear thunder, or see the occasional flash of lightening.

Tension was in the air even without the infrequent rumbling. People complained that their radios weren’t working and wouldn’t turn all the way up, as if the station broadcast signal had grown weaker. There was a weird circle of clouds, white with purple streaks, that seemed to hover above the station, moving as clouds tended to move but always finding their way back to the same place. Everyone listened to the news as if they were under attack even though it was all fairly uneventful stuff – bake sales and fundraisers and a new sewing club that only required the smallest blood sacrifice as an entrance fee. Al’s voice still came in clearly even if the signal didn’t. He needed Cecil and Pam’s assistance to get to and from the station, but he still wrote his own notes, received his own messengers, and took calls on the station line. The fundamental work for him did not stop and they knew enough to not try to stop him.

Change was coming. The air was thick with the uncertainty of it. Cecil went out to the scrublands, as far from the station as he could get, to practice the elements of rituals he would be needing. He chalked pentagrams, killed a lot of animals (mostly chickens, though the grocer was giving him weird looks), and cut himself in a lot of strange places to get blood flowing, because it really mattered if it came from your palm or your earlobe or your tongue. He had the ritual robe of the station, black with a hood and a purple NVCR badge over the chest.

When he returned, he found all of the hooded figures frozen in place. As if they could do nothing but wait. Even the ones in the Cat Habitat were standing still, their cloaks waving in the angry winds that always seemed to be blowing now, kicking up red sand that came from nowhere.

He looked up and could not see stars, but he knew they were aligning. He did not have much time. He biked back to his apartment to gather supplies, and returned to the station just in time to see it blink out of existence.

            ****************************************

Algonquin’s broadcast had not stopped.

It was hard to tell if it was pre-recorded or the news was just that mundane. He wasn’t reporting on the shifting colors in the sky, or the winds that battered at even the sturdiest trailers, or that there was an empty lot where the radio station had been. The people of Night Vale hid in their homes, their radios turned up high and circled around.

Pam was waiting for him there. Cecil didn’t know why exactly; she wasn’t needed for this part. It would be impossible for her to continue. But she had chalk, and together they drew the glyphs in a picture of a doorway. They cut their hands and bleed into the circle together and they chanted together.

And then she hugged him, something he’d never expected her to do. He knew she felt the same way. She adjusted his soft meat crown – nothing official, as it was technically illegal to own one, so it was just sausages and very rare hamburger bits that were already drying up in the hot desert winds of twilight.

“If you tell anyone I did that, I’ll kill you.”

“You do keep saying that.”

They shook hands because this was a goodbye. Cecil would not be returning the way he had come. He turned to the glyphs, focusing his chanting with raised hands, palms having the sky. He knew the right gestures and words and how to pronounce them in succession. The world around him swirled so he no longer saw Pam, or the empty lot in front of him, or the house behind him because they were going too fast, so fast that they appeared like a solid object all around him and he could only see the lights of the glowing glyphs. He called them up, and they rose to reform in front of him as a door – the door – which was cool to the touch and shimmered as he pushed it open.

He entered the station made of hewn stone, with inward-turning walls of the ziggurat-shaped building. Ancient bas reliefs pictured the journey of Management’s ancestors, beginning with the painted sphere of Yuggoth and spreading out in all directions.

Above him, Al was still broadcasting. There was no booth, just the chair, table, and microphone, and there was no ceiling between them, as if Al was in a room of perfectly polished glass so clear it was invisible.

The only item on Cecil’s level was the station’s bloodstone circle, with all of the stones a heaving, breathing red, sucking in air and then releasing color around the altar of the same stone of the ground. To the side of altar there were instruments – a silver water jug, a jar of freshly-ground paint, and an obsidian dagger.

Cecil washed his hands and feet with the water from the silver jug which never depleted however much he poured. He left the dagger alone and dipped his finger into the paint, a mix of crushed red stone and glue made from human and otherworldly skin. On the altar he drew the elder signs, calling on powers greater than his own, and the ground shifted. He could not tell if he was rising or if Al was sinking, but they came together on the same plane and the same phase of existence above the circle of runes long carved into the stone floor.

Al was facing nothing, speaking into that gleaming microphone connected to no object, which shimmered slightly when he spoke. It was made of silver from a key Randolph Carter melted down when he created the station.

“And now, if I may, I’d like to get personal for a minute,” Al continued. “Loyal listeners, I’ve thought quite a lot about what I would say at this moment. At first a lot of sentimental ideas came to me, but I dismissed them. The truth is I’ve been speaking to you for a long time. I have been talking and you have been listening and I have come to a point where I have no more words left in me. I am not without ideas and interests. I do look forward to some things that have not yet happened and can reflect on things that have. But for our conversation, the intimate one between me and you that I think until this moment I have never fully appreciated, the hour has grown late and we are both tired. If you don’t mind, I would like from now on to be silent. But first ... the weather.”

It was not weather like Cecil had ever heard. It was more motion than sound. He smelled it and tasted it before he heard it. Its hands were all over him, hugging him and holding him like a parent trying to comfort a small child.

Al swiveled around in his chair and when he stood, it disappeared, as did his headphones and the desk. There was just the microphone, temporarily muted in existence, and them.

The dagger was in Cecil’s hands, but he hesitated.

“Cecil.” Al was not speaking in the Voice. Nothing was propping him up anymore. He looked and sounded ragged. “You swore.”

Cecil’s knuckles tightened so hard around the harsh handle that it hurt and still he hesitated. “I can’t.”

“Cecil, I love you. If you think you need forgiveness, then I will grant it. But you don’t. You can do this.” At Cecil’s further hesitation he smiled and said, “We’ll do it together.”

They turned to the altar. The humming of the bloodstones was incessant and seemed to be in time with Al’s heavy breathing. He took Cecil’s free hand and they recited together, Al strong at first and Cecil weak before he caught up and Al faded, so the strong became the weak became the strong:

“O friend and companion of night,

Thou who rejoicest in the baying of dogs

And spilt blood,

Who wanderest in the midst of shades among the tombs,

Who longest for blood and bringest terror to mortals,

Gorgo!

Mormo!

Thousand-faced moon,

Look favorably on our sacrifice!”

Over the course of the chant, words Cecil had never spoken quite so loudly, his blood rushed to his face and his ears were pounding, and he barely felt his hands. It was only a puny earth god they were calling to, an avatar of greater things, but something surged within him and he turned, flailing, and drove the dagger deep into Algonquin’s flesh. It sliced like butter that was growing warmer, each frenzied stroke easier than the last because of Cecil’s increased strength, and he was so hungry.

Al was big but his heart was a human heart as his body was once a human body, so it was smaller than Cecil expected and its beat was like a repetitive shutter as Cecil pulled it free of bone and vein and flesh and held it above the altar. It had a slight twitch remaining when he cut away the arteries and brought the muscle between his teeth. It was chewy and strong, and he could taste the life in it that was now entirely gone from Al’s body. There were tremors in his mouth and it was not precisely a good feeling, but he chewed and swallowed and almost choked but it went down, all of it, into his stomach.

“Iä! Shub-Niggurath!” he screamed, and it was a real scream, a primal cry as the blood stones began to dim, exhausted. “Ia! Ia! Cthulhu Fhtagn!”

He almost had time to wonder if things had gone wrong, and his sacrifice had not been accepted, but he was thinking with not one mind but two, then three, then four, and his brain grew as he grew, his body unfurling in the growing hole in the ceiling. When his head cleared the radio tower entirely his arms were long enough to reach down and touch the earth outside the station, and the bits of sand were so small and so soft to him, almost as if they had a silky consistency. He petted the streets, the buildings, and Night Vale itself, which he saw clearly with all three eyes open. It was breathing every so slightly, causing the buildings to shake and it would stretch its legs and the earth would rumble like a quake. The soul was neither good nor bad. It gave and it took away, a loyal servant to its original designer, the creator of the real Night Vale, the avatar of the original voice to whom he was now connected, Randolph Carter. Cecil was no longer Cecil – he was Randolph, and he always had been. He was not peeling back a false identity, only the layers of unreality that led him to believe there was any difference between other sentient beings, their souls eternal and unchanging. He petted Night Vale and it cooed. The only angry hiss came from Station Management. He could see the bugs in their cage, the fungal-like Mi-Go, children of Yuggoth and exiles here in the dusty desert planes, and he could see this all because he was beyond them now. He could see the deal Randolph Carter made with them because he made it as well.

He stretched and the city became smaller until it was just an indistinguishable speck in the dotted landscape and Cecil was free of all barriers. He rose past the tiered heavens and their angels to the First Gate, where he spoke the words of power and passed through fundamentally changed but still focused. His sense of self drifted away like an especially soft and thin cocoon that could not withstand the speed of his mental climb. He was beyond using his eyes and he saw in all directions beyond the cardinal four and their associated colors.

It was soothingly quiet in space. The planet’s presence did make a dim sound to remind him of its presence, and from space the oceans were bluer and colors of the land were brighter and throbbing, full of creatures he was not distinct from now that the veil between him and them was rent. He would have stayed there for some time – possibly eternity – and been satisfied in the glory of what he had called his home planet when he had been small and flesh-based, but he traveled on to rectangular structures that resembled stone and hovered above space, until he was at last before the Ultimate Gate. It was some distance away still, and he could not make his way alone, but he was not alone. Algonquin – the real Algonquin, one he had never comprehended before – was beside him, as was Randolph even though Cecil was both of them and the distance between them illusory.

They met 'Umr at-Tawil, who wore a yellow veil over his hideous face and demanded tributes and treasures beyond giving until Cecil saw him as the extension of who he truly was and called him by his name. “Father.”

Even when there was no separation between planes of being, and Cecil’s edges grew soft and fell away and he stood before a mass of every creature to have lived and living and would live, and he realized how time was as illusory as anything else, and there was no past, present, or future above the cosmos, a tiny thread of him was still there, and it reached out and touched a tiny thread of that mass that guarded the Ultimate Gate and said, “Father” and this relationship, which he had never known before but fully understood now, able to see the moment of his conception to his form now his forms later, and the mass acknowledged him and 'Umr at-Tawil taught him the signs he needed and the symbols to return because he could not stay. He split himself into two – one not-Cecil would travel through the Ultimate Gate and rest on his throne with the other guardians and travelers who had earned it, all knowledge having been explored and known, and one not-Cecil would return to earth, incomplete enough to grasp the concept of earth without seeing through it. One became a wise elder and the other remained a child, and this one his father did not speak to, because if he did this Cecil would fly out of existence in a thousand directions of four-dimension space. This Cecil Algonquin and Randolph nodded to, and imparted wisdom that would stay inside him like a hidden elixir until he needed it, because otherwise he could not make himself small and earthy. This Cecil, who had become Cecil in a tangible way again while the other non-Cecil was beyond matter and distinction of purpose from other parts of the universe, and could not be separated from the mass that they all came from, who stood at the Ultimate Gate because he was the Gate – this Cecil was instructed and shrunk and the information bottled up inside so he could return to earth and fit back into his man suit.

He saw the world again as it presented itself and how it really was, but the latter only in a flash containing information he could not now absorb. It blinded him and he grabbed his eyes, to protect them or tear them out. He kept them shut, listening to the sound of his own breathing which he recognized as his own breathing in his body, which was so impossibly finite now even if it always edged into the fourth dimension and he felt a tug when it did. Remembering fear, he heard the sounds of Management tossing body parts against their corporeal door to express their alarm.

It was too quiet. That was the problem. Cecil looked at the clock, which had no numbers or hands but told him that despite the “on air” light being lit, there had been no sounds in this room for four minutes and thirty-five seconds. It was an unacceptable amount of time.

Cecil stepped over Al’s body after covering the face with his bloodied robe, and took his seat before the wireless microphone. His hands rested on the desk. They were not shaking. No part of him was shaking, or nervous, or twitching. Everything was perfectly still, as it should be.

            ****************************************

Everywhere in Night Vale, people were gathered around their sets, turning them all the way up and holding their breaths. Over the last minute they’d been murmuring, but no one had done anything, not even the Secret Police. There was the weather and then dead air.

And then there was sound. “Welcome back, dear listeners. We at Night Vale Community Radio would like to apologize for the delay in the program. We experienced some ... technical difficulties here at the station. The building briefly ceased to exist, but I can assure you that it has returned to its normal state and will continue to bring you news and entertainment for you to wile away your remaining hours – or perhaps, maybe mere seconds – until death.

“It is my deepest regret to inform you that Algonquin, the Voice of Night Vale, has left us. After forty-three years of service on public radio, he has departed for a well-deserved rest. He is on a journey, and I cannot say when or if he will ever be back. For those of you who would weep, I would encourage you to look to the stars and follow their paths. If you wonder deeply enough and travel far enough, your paths may cross his.

“In accordance with Cherokee burial customs, the body of Algonquin will be interred tomorrow. The ceremony will begin at noon in the parking lot out back the Ralph’s. A summary of the events will be reported with the evening broadcast. The broadcast will go on. We will all go on. We will all pretend that we understand our forward-moving reality and what to expect from it, and we will be surprised to learn we are wrong. But at the very least, we will do it together.”

“Stay tuned for alternating sounds of cheetahs and leopards screaming.”

“Good night, Night Vale. Good night.”

            ****************************************

The Cecil who waited patiently for the “on-air” light to click off was not tired in mind. He was renewed, his mind contemplative but active. His body was settled and comfortable, but it was also exhausted. There was no reason to push himself now after so long a fight, so he was still sitting there when the police arrived to take Algonquin’s body away and congratulate him on his new position.

“The City Council would like to speak with you after the funeral,” the officer said, but Cecil knew it before he’d said it, and only nodded in response.

There were some people gathered around the station, but he was not famous yet – he hadn’t said his name on air – so he avoided them. He had so much to think about. And he had to get ready for tomorrow’s show.

A shaman showed up for the funeral, which was conducted in Al’s backyard, where he’d somehow made a garden grow. Cecil hadn’t called the shaman but he appeared in what Cecil assumed was the appropriate dress. Cecil had spent the morning acquiring a black suit and tie. The service was actually rather lovely in how quiet it was. Many, many people came up to Cecil and offered their condolences. He shook their hands and nodded politely because this wasn’t really a time for him to speak. They wanted to talk to him. People who did know him gave him looks that said they would ask later, if they would ask at all, how the transition went. But now was the time for whispers and hushed tones. The shaman assumed Cecil was a relative and therefore a mourner, and informed him of several mourning customs, including washing himself seven times after leaving the plot to purify his body and soul.

To be honest, Cecil had never felt purer in his life.

He walked over to City Hall afterwards (he still didn’t own a car). The council did their best to look politely intimidating, and the mayor and deputy sheriff were also present. There was only one seat for him to take, the one at the table with some paperwork on it so that they circled around and towered over him on their podiums, but he wasn’t cowed.

“Mr. Baldwin,” the mayor explained, “the City Council would like you to understand that we had certain arrangements with your predecessor, and we would prefer these arrangements continue for the sake of the town.”

Cecil nodded and carefully read the paperwork. There were all kinds of restrictions on his movement, what he could and could not report on, and how and when he could use the Voice. Most of it was redundant from his Station Management contract, the one that was far more enforceable. For an instant he blinked and he saw their illusions of power melt away. They had not been beyond the First Gate; they did not see the radio station for what it was or understand its purpose. But it probably wasn’t a good idea to tell them that. So he smiled and signed above the line that said “VOICE OF NIGHT VALE.” Several people were gathered outside – mostly members of the press corp that followed the mayor around – but he answered very few questions. He couldn’t tarry.

He had a show to do.

The End