"Time will say nothing but I told you so." —Troll Georg Cantor
"What the fuck was that," says Strider. Already walking away, the Condesce extends one hand and Z-snaps. Half of his katana breaks off, spins, and takes him through the chest.
Everything Rose Lalonde writes today makes as much sense as a Markov chain and scans so badly no mortal could read it aloud, so she gives up, knots a purple sash, and drives through the rain down to the city.
She's already ensconced in the back room at Jimmy's with a gin and tonic and a tealight to read by when the sad realization comes to her that it is jazz night. Oh, cruel jazz night! Now an upright bass will senselessly drub the air with sounds too low-pitched to be in tune. Rose has listened to her own off-key phrases for long enough today. She closes her book, picks up her glass, and is mentally thanking the G&T for its death when a violin case swings past, borne toward the stage by a tall black figure in a rain-spotted fedora. Rose sets her glass back down.
She's never seen a Chessman in person before. The enigmatic dance collective doesn't advertise its performances. Its tiny, fanatical Internet cult hunts for video clips and drives pushpins into world maps, but no one can predict when and where the Chessmen will next appear. Rose keeps tabs, but she's never heard of a solo performance. Most Chessmen dances use a dozen or more pieces; in endgame choreography, fewer, but never just one. Now, a solitary black piece, unusually tall, dressed in a black three-piece suit, is opening a violin case under the one yellow spot on the bar's low stage.
Torch songs arranged for solo electric violin, and the self-sacrifices of several more gins and tonic, elicit the latent siren from the corner bookworm. By the time the violin's electroluminescent infinity symbol has disappeared back into the case and its player has approached the bar, Rose is already there. The unexpected appearance of a cigarette holder throws off Rose's timing, but she recovers and proffers her tealight with a flourish.
The violinist smiles wearily and accepts the light. The flame's reflection shines in the slick planes of the cheeks and glints from the hard-edged lips and the flat nose. The eyes' muted white glow follows Rose's hand. Cosplay tech is good enough now to create these effects, but this Chessman stands and plays with a total self-disregard Rose has never seen in a cosplayer.
"Hey, firefly. Thanks for the light," the Chessman says.
"Rose, I'm Rose, Lalonde," says Rose, adding insightfully, "Rose."
The Chessman lets the smoke escape to the side while a quick flick of the white eyes scans Rose like a barcode. "I'm the black queen," she tells her, "but you can call me Snowman."
A previous Rose has arranged that two drinks should appear before them at this juncture. Rose has much to thank her former self for. She takes a glass and raises it. "To your majesty's health."
"Confusion to the enemy," Snowman retorts, and drinks.
Rose has rarely met another person who knows there is an enemy. Everyone else seems to have just outgroups and friends they secretly hate. She drinks to the enemy's confusion, watching Snowman's face over the rim of her glass. "The enemy won't confuse herself," she says experimentally. "That's up to us."
"Herself?" The stiff black face is almost expressionless, but somehow the eyes look perplexed. "Oh, you're that Lalonde. Yeah, you're a little confused yourself. She isn't really the enemy."
"That's not what I heard," Rose hears herself say, "from the Outer Gods." What the fuck! "There's no point in assassinating me," she says quickly. "I have dead man's switches."
Snowman eyes Rose, clicking her fingertips against the side of her glass. "The Outer Gods, huh? Me and them used to be neighbors. How's old Cthulhu lately—does he still snore?"
Rose narrows her eyes. "Nice try! Cthulhu's more of an Earthling than you are, if you came from the Furthest Ring. Who's your enemy?"
The bartender drifts over and glances at their glasses. "A couple more of the same," Snowman says, "in a booth."
The horrorterrors have been telling Rose about her enemy for a very long time.
The dreams, though regular, are obscure. As soon as she could write, Rose began developing elaborate systems of alarms and journals to try to capture what comes to her when she sleeps. She lies down in bed like a fisherman spreading his net on the water, but she sinks into sleep like live bait. Every time, the long slow dive gives way to the faint caress of a tentacle, then to incomprehensible utterances, so vast and acute that the speech itself seems to exist more concretely than the speakers and whatever they have to say. Rose brings back worthless shreds of meaning that carry along with them just a breath of that voice. She never comes any closer than that. But the scraps of data pile up. They tangle with each other playfully. They construct a theory.
By the time Rose notices that the cognitive detritus of her expeditions has organized itself as a mental palace, she's been living there already for years. She knows the difference between communally perceptible truths and those available to her alone, and takes care to use the latter only in plausibly deniable ways. Her books win her an army of fans, but she writes for just one reader. The Condesce looms in her mind, transplanted by the horrorterrors with enormous care and inexplicable tenderness. She radiates menace. Rose hates the idea of her. But sometimes, without knowing why, she feels an echo of the endless disappointed affection felt in the Furthest Ring for Earth's terrible adversary.
The violin has often seemed to clarify the dreams. On nights when she plays before bed, the horrorterrors' voice seems nearer, almost intelligible. She's tried sleeping to loud recordings of great violinists, but it's not the same. The horrorterrors like it when she plays. They whistle for col legno and boo the mute. Not even live concerts please them so much as a private recital. Alone in the practice room off her bedroom, Rose plays to an attentive silence as deep as absence, then loosens her bow, lies down in bed, and receives her ovation.
Rose reads the better-written anti-Crocker blogs. She lurks on forums and IRC channels where foolhardier souls openly profess career-destroyingly unorthodox opinions. But Rose is less interested in Earth's political future than in the reality underlying the horrorterrors' obscure message. She gets very little help. None of the pseudonymous media guerrillas she befriends over HTTPS has heard of the Furthest Ring, let alone from it. That makes their dissent pitiably ignorant and touchingly brave.
So Rose lives alone in the horrorterrors' many-winged mansion, wandering its halls, hunting for the truth to kill it.
The conversation with the Chessman at Jimmy's leaves Rose worse off than ever. Her curiosity itches and burns.
On the evidence of the horrorterrors' dreams, Rose hadn't even known for sure that the Condesce was a matter-based life form. Now, the black queen of the Chessmen claims she's just an unwilling servant of something much worse; and she's promised to introduce her.
Rose Lalonde would give every cent she's made from her Complacency just for the chance to make an appointment with the Condesce and then stand her up. But she didn't write the thing just for a fuck-you. Curiosity is slowly torturing her to death. A fuck-you's not worth not knowing the rest.
Rose waits for them among the empty desks in the defunct newsroom she uses for an office. Dust motes glint in the rich late-afternoon sunlight that pours in the tall windows. When she hears the jangle of the bell mounted on the hallway door, she just turns her head slightly, to hear better.
"Miss Lalonde," Snowman says. "This is the Empress of Alternia. Your Condescension, Rose Lalonde."
Rose has resolved to show Earthly dignity before the invader. She turns slowly to face the aliens, her head held high. Then she blinks several times and peers in confusion.
Standing next to Snowman is the notorious rapper Meenah Peixes. Her label, Psychopathic Records, is wholly owned by Crocker Media. Even Rose has seen enough garish ads on the sides of buses to recognize the goggles, the horns, and the two-by-threedent. Nor have Rose's ears evaded the barbed hooks of Peixes's noxious, wildly popular musical secretions.
Peixes says, "You the little dirtbeast hack. I ain't need to read your stupid books to know: You one a the first up against the seawall when I take over this bitch."
At the sound of Peixes's voice, a hot stone appears in Rose's solar plexus, and her vision darkens. Superimposed on the slightly ridiculous imperial fish rapper, Rose sees a black-skinned eight-foot creature with yard-long horns and a mile of hair. She bites her tongue hard and sees the monster vanish, and in the place where it stood, merely the archetype and icon of a debased human culture.
Rose snatches the needles out of her sash and charges.
Time slows down. She sees the gold fork rising as she hurtles toward the hateful grin. The light dims. She feels a blow on her shins, her legs fly out behind her, and the floor comes rushing up. She rolls over and springs into a crouch, whirls, and finds Snowman's watch chain at eye level. Rose looks around sharply for the Condesce, who is lying supine on Snowman's far side, her toes pointing skyward, her goggles askew.
"Have a seat, Lalonde," Snowman says quietly around a lit cigarette, twirling the empty holder balefully between the fingers of one hand. Rose would have liked to see Snowman floor two fighters at once without taking her cigarette out of her mouth, but damn the luck, she was among the floored. Rose stows both needles in one hand and seats herself with the haughty grace of a humiliated cat. "Your majesty."
Snowman prods the Condesce's ribs with the polished toe of one wingtip. "I can't even explain to you how pointless it would be if you killed each other. Would you please just take my word for it."
The Empress of Alternia finally regains her powers of speech. "Snoooooo weeeeeeee, oh my fuck," she burbles. "You absofluke dreamboat, you just conchiliated the glub out a us."
Rose's tenancy of the chair becomes a technicality. She keeps her eyes on Snowman, but she's as still as a coiled spring.
"No, I didn't. I knocked you the hell down," Snowman says out of that side of her mouth.
"Aw yeah. You never shoaled me you swim that way, Snowplow!"
"Clam it, Meenah!" Snowman's voice cracks like a whip. "Listen up now, Lalonde. If your squid friends can help us with a little project, then a lot more about our business plan could get negotiable. For instance, Fishface here'd be free to use a much lighter touch when she conquers Earth eventually—if she even feels like it anymore. And we'd owe you a big one. Think about it and let me know. On your feet, Your Condescension; we're leaving."
Rose is up before the Condesce has finished undulating vertical. Snowman is gripping her cigarette holder like she means business, so Rose leaves the needles on the desk. The Condesce takes Snowman's arm, pointing her incandescent grin at Rose like a ranged weapon. "Fuck your shit up later, sweet fin." The tall horns, glowing in the sunlight, flicker black. Rose's chest twinges. But, by the time she's seized her thorns, even their silhouette has faded away.
A few days later, Rose agrees to meet Snowman at Jimmy's, conditional on the Condesce's guaranteed absence. They take a booth in the back room. After checking over each of her shoulders, Snowman gets into her briefcase for a manila envelope which contains a sparkly purple folder bearing a still-tacky fuchsia lip print and several holograms of fat dancing clowns. Ignoring Rose's look of disgust, Snowman slides the purple folder across the table, using the very tips of her fingers. "Take a look."
"Must I?" But Rose's curiosity has burned through much worse than fresh lipstick and excess glitter. She picks up the top leaf on one fingernail and flips the folder open. While she reads, Snowman leans back and smokes slowly, watching the pale eyebrows rise.
When she's closed the folder and slid it delicately away, Rose nods at Snowman's cigarette case. "May I?" Snowman lights one at her own lips and hands it over. Rose measures fresh air carefully into the first drag. Snowman waits in silence, watching the nicotine sharpen Lalonde's gaze. Finally, Rose gives a small laugh. "How could she lose a three-mile-long sea monster? Who is also her mother?"
Snowman sighs. "This has never happened before. Herself can't get a signal, like, mentally. At all. Not since 1973. Before that, they were together for more than a hundred years."
"Well, although my tentacular contacts bear a certain resemblance, they've never mentioned any maternal sea monster. Why would they know anything about it?"
"Could you ask them?"
Rose snorts. "Believe me, if finding particular truths were as simple as asking, I wouldn't need to give you the time of day." Vaguely regretting this, she moves on. "I assume you've looked for her."
Snowman keeps looking around, as if Gl'bgolyb might be somewhere in the room. "Herself's better able than anyone else on Earth to search the oceans, but she's only one troll. Without psychic contact, if the lusus doesn't want to be found, she won't be. But why wouldn't she? She's always been completely faithful," looking away, "to the throne."
This is not lost on Rose. "Maybe she found a lost heiress. An imperial wiggler raised as a lowblood, living in obscurity, mistreated by her three cruel sisters."
Snowman's black lip curls. "Alternia's heiress got herself killed by her own moirail. All the rest are dead or gone. She's the last one, and she knows it. So does the lusus."
"Gl'bgolyb. How does she feel about your boss?"
"She's not in favor. But, on that, she doesn't get a say."
Rose taps off the ash. "Is she a conscientious objector?"
Snowman checks the periphery for eavesdroppers. "Wouldn't say that she isn't. But don't overestimate a lusus's ethics. They're really just animals."
"Like you and me."
"Yeah, if we were mothers."
Rose crushes out the cigarette. "I'm going to need a thicker folder than that."
Your name is Snowman.
Your imperial colleague won't release the Battleship Condescension's archives into Lalonde's physical control, so you have to find neutral ground where she can do her research under the Condesce's observation.
You were hoping to avoid this. You don't know what'll happen if they're cooped up together. You know if you lose either one you've doomed the timeline. So you set up the summit on your own purple battleship, anchored in the strategically pirate-infested South China Sea. You've long ago rigged the place with enough live traps to subdue a whole pack of seers and empresses. Neither one can time-travel, so you ought to be covered.
You still feel nervous. "Don't kill her," you admonish Lalonde. After the tenth time, this warning started to sound a little like begging. "Just don't. If it helps, I can't let her kill you, either."
She smiles microscopically. "You are a bit of a dreamboat, your majesty."
You facepalm with a clatter like a stack of plates. "Sure, Lalonde. Listen, let me zap you there. It's a long way, and there are pirates. I'll bring you back any time you want."
"I don't believe for one moment that you're not the queen of all those pirates. But I was wondering. This 'zap' of yours. How does it work, exactly?"
"Hold out your hand," you say. She pivots neatly into a perpendicular stance and extends her hand, palm up, like she's inviting you to dance. You're glad your hemolymph doesn't suffuse your cuticle. You reach out, not too fast, and lay your hand in hers. Then you fade efficiently through to a location offset one yard from your origin. She comes with you, no fuss. You take back your hand. "That's how."
"You don't actually go anywhere? Other than your destination, I mean."
"Where would I go? It's not a fenestrated wall."
"Okay. Again, please." God damn it. "Now, let me watch you do it. Slower. Is that the slowest you can go?"
You're getting a headache. "Quit jerking me around, I got places to be. Are you coming?"
Rose smiles and offers you her hand again, palm down, fingers drooping. You can't believe this shit. You make a sarcastic leg, take the hand, and time your fade so her hand when you kiss it is as black as your own.
They fade in to a high-vaulted purple room with a throne at the other end, in which the Condesce lounges aslant with one leg thrown over the arm. "Ow ow," she hoots, leering, as Snowman straightens up and drops Rose's hand. "S'chool, Snowglobe. After I ensrayve her trivial species, you can have her."
Rose had thought she was ready to endure anything for the sake of those archives. Maybe she was wrong. She can't stop staring at the Condesce's hideous bodysuit and the atrocious juxtaposition of fuchsia with gold. This is intolerable. She'd better tell Snowman to distance her instanter. Without taking her eyes off the repugnant spectacle, she reaches out, but Snowman is no longer at her side.
"Get down off my throne," Snowman snaps as she strides up the aisle. A coiled whip has appeared in her hand. The Condesce stretches lazily, preparing to perform the most insolent abdication. But, even before she has both feet on the dais, the whip snakes out, wraps around the double trident, and tears it from her hand. Rose sees her enemy disarmed. Without conscious thought, she draws her thorns, just as the Condesce shrieks in umbrage and vaults out of the throne.
The Condesce lands halfway down the aisle. Her eyes fix on the needles; she starts a menacing slow walk toward Rose, watching for panic to dawn. A shiver runs down Rose's arms, but not of panic. She takes a relaxed guard stance, one needle pointing up and the other down, and waits for the Condesce to arrive.
Your name is Snowman.
You don't take the time to walk over there. You fade straight across, precisely centered between them, just as the Condesce comes within reach.
You thrust your left hand into Meenah's copious hair and your right past Rose's upheld needle. You seize them by the napes of their necks and shake them so hard their teeth rattle. Then you crack their foreheads together and fling them down in a heap. While they thrash free of each other, you stand with your feet planted wide and glare down at them.
Meenah beams up at you, tickled pink. Clutching her head, Rose tries to sit up. You squat down and prod her hard in the chest; she tips over and lies still. You reach out with your other hand and rest the tips of your fingers on Meenah's chest. The two death-dealing aliens gaze up at you, pinned like butterflies, meek as lambs.
Rose spends twelve hours every day for three weeks at a bright red Crockertech husktop that projects onto the purple wall stilted machine translations of Alternian texts in mythology, history, astronomy, and biology. The husktop won't run any decent text editor, so Rose takes notes in BC Word, the professional version with the little animated eyeball that looks at the ads for you. She takes no notice of Snowman and the Condesce while she's working, then she closes the husktop, devours whatever Hamburger Helper or Old El Paso Snowman has fixed for her, and retires to her stateroom.
After the first day, Rose and the Condesce ignore each other passionately, like rival cats. Snowman spends the extra time reorganizing Crockercorp's R&D division. The Condesce spends it redesigning the jacket for her next album.
When she's done, Rose surrenders the red husktop and asks to be taken back to New York. Snowman transports her straight to the house on Rainbow Falls and stands in the kitchen with her while she makes a pot of coffee. Neither of them really wants to talk. "I'll let you know," Rose says, pours a cup, and leaves the room without waiting to see Snowman go.
The husktop's desktop wallpaper has been set to the Skaianet logo. The Condesce drops it over the side.
It's another three weeks before Rose pings Snowman's Serious Business to say she's back in the city. This time, they go for coffee. Rose's eyes are violet-circled and a callus on her fingering hand has torn. The horrorterrors have been talkative but opaque.
"I've never had such good questions for them. The Condescension even had a little glossary ostensibly in their language, unless it was just liturgical Old Alternian. And they have plenty to say. But I come back with nothing, or with irrelevant nonsense. It's like they're not even talking to me."
"Give it a rest, then. You ever play fairy chess?"
"With all the made-up pieces? Not really."
"There's a piece called the empress."
"Let me guess: a queen dipped in sparkly nail polish. Am I right?"
"No, a horse with battlements for legs. She can move like a rook or leap like a knight."
"Can she swim like a fish?"
"And she's strictly weaker than a queen."
"That's lucky for the queen."
Snowman looks away. Rose doesn't. After a while, she takes pity. "Since, for the moment, our questions go unanswered, a change of tactics is probably called for. Rather than cultivating an interest in obscure chess problems, I thought I'd attempt to extend the lines of research I began developing from the Condescension's archives."
"You want another look at her books?"
"No. My trivial species also has, as you say, 'books.' If you want me, I'll be in the library."
Rose disappears into the Earth human library. Snowman expects to wait three weeks before she hears back, but a month passes and Rose's businesshandle stays grayed out. One morning, Meenah shows up, lean and chilly, at Crockercorp's New York offices. She's swum around Cape Horn.
"You moron, I'd have brought you," Snowman tells her, scowling at the salt stains she's leaving on the good office furniture.
"Think about it, Snowcrab," Meenah says smugly, flaring her ear-fins. "You figure any other motherglubber's ever swum halfway around the planet to kick that spooky bitch's ass? Sick times ahead, Snowy, my frond. What you land-dwellers ain't realize is a water bitch burns to a clean dry ash. Now, go in that human book place and winkle her out."
Your name is Snowman.
You use the finest carapacian political science to engineer the series of hate dates that establishes your auspisticism.
The Alternian archive included comprehensive information on troll quadrants, but Rose handles so fluently the deep and sincere hostilities necessary for ashen romance that you don't believe she picked up the inclination so recently. The human species's emotional range may be wider than that depicted in its popular media.
You could sell tickets to an evening of creatively destructive verbal strife between the pun-happy rapper and the sesquipedalian novelist, but the curtain never falls on this performance, and intermissions occur only after conciliatory violence.
Today, you took them to human Ikea. Meenah's scorn was a bottomless, poisoned well. Rose was not much happier. Now, you've retired to Rose's office, supposedly to get some work done.
"Snowball," Meenah hisses. "Make her stop lookin at me."
You glance up from your paperwork and see that there's about to be bloodshed. Rose is trying to look like she don't give a flying God damn, but an angry flush is climbing her throat, which is kicking Meenah right in her porphyrophobia gland. Their eyes look a little glassy and they're breathing wrong, too.
You shove your chair back, stand up, and make your voice into a whip. "Ladies." Their heads turn at once and they stare at you, half guilty, half resentful. You extend your hands, palms up, and wait stonily.
Meenah sighs loudly, prances over, picks up your hand, and slaps it on the back of her own neck. Rose watches this, a faint vertical line appearing between her eyebrows. She consults your face, which you hold still. You can see her deciding whether to tell you both to go to hell. You can see her deciding not to. She comes over, hangs her head meekly, takes your hand, and fits the nape of her neck into it.
They both stand still while you dig the sharp tips of your fingers into their skin. You guide them closer and gently set their foreheads together. Their breathing slows, but it picks up an adrenaline quiver. You bear down on their necks a little more, to give them something to think about. Rose makes a faint sound in her throat, and you worry for a second that you've miscalibrated your grip on her tender human flesh, but Meenah makes an identical sound a moment later, so you figure everything's fine.
You give them some time to get used to the idea. You'd like to see them open their eyes, but it's probably still too dangerous. The shape of Meenah's pupils provokes a pretty severe fight-or-flight in Earth mammals, and the color of Rose's irides reliably drives imperial blood murdercidal. Another time.
You let up on their necks slowly until your hands are just cautionary parentheses around their violent little brainstems. This makes them relax and start breathing through their mouths, which creates a warm, humid pocket of Meenah-and-Rose-tasting air between their faces. They seem inflamed and infuriated in roughly equal measure. Excellent.
You tip the scales slightly by running your thumbs down their spines. This produces a perfectly simultaneous double guh noise and a sort of whipping motion as they narrowly resist a clinch. You are extremely pleased with everyone present. You would love to go on, but for an early conciliation this is more than enough. While they're still swaying, you take them by the necks again, break their foreheads apart, and pull them into two tight one-armed hugs. They breathe hard into your neck.
After a while, you walk them over to the chaise longue and sit them down on either side of you. They have not yet regained interest in running their mouths. You enjoy in silence the glow of this trollish, human, and carapacian emotion called no one killed each other today.
It occurs to Rose, always too late, to wonder why she keeps letting herself be provoked into obvious, easily foiled murder attempts. Any serious enemy of the Alternian state would already have found a way to assassinate its empress, if she kept coming around for shit talk and hate cuddles.
Strider would tell her to think only of cutting the enemy. But Rose finds it hard not to think of breaking the enemy's jaw, tearing off the enemy's ear-fins, clawing the enemy's gills, et cetera. The hot ache of hatred glowing in her chest overwhelms every pure intention and elegant plan.
Also, Snowman insists that killing her won't do any good. Rose can't help absurdly trusting Snowman, who conciliates with such a delicate and intense impartiality. So she finds herself, over and over, up close and unable to strike, thwarted as much by Snowman's authority as by her grip.
Besides, the Condesce's death won't answer a single one of Rose's questions. So what would be the point?
The Internet has a hard time believing its eyes when Meenah Peixes shows up at Burning Wizard in insultingly half-assed wizard cosplay. Tumblr in particular is driven wild by the pungently meta spectacle of wizard cosplay layered over the elaborate alien fish royalty getup without which Peixes is never seen in public.
Peixes has taken advantage of Burning Wizard's rarely-invoked free uninvited entry for anyone who arrives by dragon. The dragon or dragonoid air machine refuses to land for inspection—instead hovering for three thundering wingbeats while Peixes dismounts in a majestic leap and floats to the forest floor, apparently suspended from the parachute of her hair—but it certainly passes for a dragon. Nobody asks for Peixes's invitation.
In the middle of the Adirondack forest, among the vaguely Narnian pavilions and luxuriously flowing robes, a visibly pasted-on fuchsia beard is not quite enough to make Peixes blend in. Burning Wizard participants react as if a Blingee demon has crashed their thesis defense.
Rose Lalonde, holding court at one of the vertices of the ceremonial dodecagon encompassing the focal Zazzerpan effigy, is not fazed. She addresses the oncoming poetaster in a tranquil but carrying voice. "An admirable effort, Learned Peixes. To hew so closely to the bylaws' letter concerning attire, while brazenly flouting their spirit. You'd have to have read them."
"Gurl! You got me all wrong! Ain't no bylaw define the Peixes threads. We rollin today in hagfishical style cuz wizards be so glubbin cool."
"And you had the good sense to leave the circus paraphernalia back at the label. Otherwise, alas, I couldn't have vouched for the safety of your person."
"Listen, wanna ask you somefin, scribblebitch."
"Congratulations! You've found the form of address that makes me feel the most cooperative and forthcoming. Ask and you shall receive."
Onlookers are able to report this part of their conversation verbatim before the pair retires to Lalonde's pavilion, as well as Peixes's jab on departing: "Wizards rule the school, fool. Shit's all yours," as she pitches her beard at Lalonde's feet.
Lalonde's smile is as small and cold as a hydrogen atom at absolute zero. Peixes keeps up such a foul and unmerciful torrent of raps at the wardens who escort her to the border that they return weeping and tearing their beards. Two days later, Crockercorp announces the indefinite postponement of rebranding, and next year's release by Crocker Studios of CotL: The Movie.
Your name is Snowman.
When Rose goes to L.A. for a moive release, you come along perforce, because Meenah's out there recording. You go out to Koreatown and suborn a few traffic lights so your comrades can dance Blackburn's Sphynx in the middle of an intersection. You tip Rose off ahead of time; she sees the whole thing from a prime vantage, then stays awake all night writing it up for her weird Internet friends. The tiny smile lingers for days.
Meenah crashes the red carpet, as you foresaw, and makes a terrific scene. The three of you go out, make additional scenes, imbibe human soporifics, meet interesting and dangerous humans, and get thrown out of a human beach community. Now, you are cooling it at Meenah's place by the ocean.
Meenah and Rose stand in each other's arms. You sit a few feet away, low in your chair, ankle on knee, your hands folded over your vest buttons. You set them up with a quick neck squeeze and a forehead bump, and now you're supervising hands-free.
You usually conciliate from closer up, too close to see them whole. The Prospitian light of Earth California makes them glow. Meenah's horns seem to leap skyward from her bent head; Rose's hair shines against Meenah's rich black skin. Foreheads pressed together, eyes closed, they sway a little, trading microaggressions. They could almost be slow-dancing, like human spouses. Rose whispers something in Meenah's ear, smiling so sweetly that it's probably a graphic threat. Meenah's claws prick Rose's waist, but Rose is caressing the ear-fins with her thumbs, ready to twist. Today, you'll have to put them out of business for concupiscence, not for fighting, but they're still well in hand. You have a while.
Watching their embrace, you let yourself consider the future. You have no idea when the game will be played. It could be centuries. You pity this pellet of muck she's meant to rule. Why shouldn't it flourish? The Condesce annexed and governed a galaxy. You kept a whole nation on a war footing from a tiny exoplanet with no resources. Rose sees clearer than either of you, and she has a line to the Outer Gods. The three of you together could do wonders with Earth: if you can keep a steady hand.
After Burning Wizard and California, Rose stays away from the library. She's extended her lines of research until they loop back around. The incomprehensible dreams keep leaving behind new corridors and rooms in the horrorterrors' palace of knowledge, but the construction is semantically anchored at only a couple of points, and no aquatic tentacle monsters roam its halls.
Apart from the abstract edifice, Rose experiences various concrete side-effects of horrorterror contact. These have always been present, but they only get stronger with time and experience. By the murmurs she overhears, she can reckon the state of mind prevailing in the Furthest Ring. Very often this is tranquil, but sometimes there are gurgling hisses that sound like a plumber's snake in pain. Other times, doleful keening. There's no story or coherent sequence to the cries, but they imply a Ring of gods who suffer.
Other side-effects are less theologically informative. Rose's thorns are not entirely ordinary knitting needles. A crystal ball will occasionally show Rose glimpses of synchronous events elsewhere on Earth. Years ago, Rose had compared hours spent gazing to number of informative visions, and concluded that the crystal ball was nearly a waste of time. But the ratio of hours to visions has fallen. On rare occasions, fine cool tongues of black flame flicker around her, framing her briefly in eldritch fire against the mundane world; then they gutter out.
This last occurs one hot night on the rooftop of her office building. Meenah has been practicing her psionic levitation; Snowman is star-bathing. Rose is a black silhouette against the lights across the river. Then the dark flames leap from her shoulders, effacing constellations. "What in the fuck," Meenah says.
"Haughauuhthr'l," Rose answers. The black flames roar faintly, like a faraway bonfire. Snowman says nothing, but the light in her eyes sharpens to a hard white glare, and stays fixed on Rose until the fire goes out.
Your name is Snowman.
Rose has enthroned her laptop upon a leviathan tome. She works the keyboard one-handed; in the other hand she holds her crystal ball, which she occasionally consults, like a second monitor. "We're in the news again, Peixes."
Meenah cracks a loathsome Fuchsiapop and gestures dismissively with it. "They glub what they want, I do what I want. How come they never pick up on Snowy?"
Rose looks over at you with a small smile. "I figured that out. Just as I am impervious to paparazzic photography, our worthy auspistor declines to appear in text. Relevant newsprint simply fades away."
You try not to look smug.
Glub glub glub goes the clown beverage. "Pain in the fuckin cloaca if I ever put you on payroll, Snowjob."
"Never had to be on a payroll to get paid," you reply, but the gleam of your cufflinks' numeral gives you the lie. You can see the seal of your servitude stamped everywhere on you: woven into your tie, monogrammed on your shirt, in the lining of your hat. And not only. Your own sharp mind and serviceable body are made to take a stamp.
Once, vain and proud, you rejected a hateful prototype. You didn't have to live long before you lived to regret it. The stamp you bear now can't be canceled just by taking off a ring. The compass inside you is captured forever, pointing to a timeless fiend.
You could change your clothes. You could grind the etchings off your chitin. But your slavery is written in you much deeper, in a place you'll never reach.
One jazz night, Rose and Snowman play a set together at Jimmy's. Meenah shows up halfway through, heckles hardly at all, and gets drunk with them afterward. They close the bar and wander into the street. Snowman is fine to teleport and ready to whisk them all to the South China Sea.
"No, I wanna ride in a human taxi," Meenah whines.
"Public human transportation is one of the only pleasures of your wretched and irredeemable life," Rose slurs magnanimously, and nearly gets run over trying to hail a cab. Meenah attempts to mind-control a driver to make him stop for them. She causes only a small pileup of passed-out motorists before Snowman tells her to cut it out.
Finally, they catch one. Meenah dives in headfirst; Snowman hops in after her, in order to control the central square; and Rose clambers in last, bonking her head on the doorsill. By the third stoplight, she's asleep on Snowman's shoulder and Meenah is trying to wake her up by plucking hairs from her head one by one. Snowman's patience having come to an end, she grips them both and fades away.
Their driver has been discreetly appreciating in the rearview the striking threesome he has the honor to convey uptown. He glances away to check his blind spot. When he looks back, his cab is empty. He pulls over to check the back seat, but there's nothing there: just a hundred-dollar bill and an odor of gin, tobacco, and the sea.
In the morning, Rose lies awake for an hour without opening her eyes, but the deep purple of the royal bedchamber turns out to be surprisingly analgesic. She crawls out of bed, detouring across Snowman to knee Meenah in the face. She drags herself to the galley, makes coffee, and begins the routine morning search through her mind for new horrorterror artifacts. Slowly, the limpid insight of severe hangover dawns on her. She had seen something in the taxi. No, not in the taxi. After the taxi.
Snowman finds her staring into space, holding a cup of room-temperature coffee, and says cautiously, "Good morning."
Rose starts, winces, and aims an abstract glare. "Your teleportation thing. Can you do that continuously?"
Snowman tilts her head. "Not for very long. Gives me a headache."
"Will you try it now, and take me with you? I want to see something."
"Put down your cup." Snowman takes Rose's hand and they begin to flicker back and forth across the room. After a minute and a half, Snowman has to stop. She drops Rose's hand, takes a step away, and gets busy lighting a cigarette.
Rose stands there, blinking. "That was… interesting. It was like looking at a flipbook… where every page is black. And every fiftieth page… has a tentacle."
Snowman inhales hard, then lets the smoke escape from the apertures under her jaw. "See anything interesting?"
"No. I did last night, though."
"What did you see last night?"
Watching carefully, Rose answers, "A green skull and crossbones."
Snowman nods. "That's the boss." It's hard to be sure, but Rose thinks she looks relieved.
"We have to try this while I'm asleep. Are you sure you can't keep going any longer? I fall asleep pretty fast. Or—"
"You seatards," Meenah interrupts from the doorway. "I can knock you out any time I want, Laprawned, and keep you under as long as I please. Your human snooze gland is my oyster. Grab you a piece, Snowmobile, I'm a put this bitch to bed." Meenah giggles like a drain unclogging and ruins her own line. "Seabed. Glub yes."
To Rose this proposal is unbearably obnoxious, yet horribly tempting. She clenches her teeth and glares, not quite able to tell Meenah to fuck off. Snowman drags thoughtfully on her cigarette while Meenah adds, "Whatever floats your boat! Slow-wave, REM—bet you ain't ever slept with half your brain, you nasty landbeast."
"Wait, what?" Rose blurts. "You can induce unihemispheric sleep?"
"The fuck yeah I can."
And that's how Rose Lalonde becomes the first primate to dream with one half of her brain while the other half is awake.
It doesn't help, though. By inducing REM sleep separately in each half of Rose's brain, they figure out that the voice she hears originates in the parts of the right hemisphere that correspond to the left-hemisphere speech centers. But the gods' speech is just not directly comprehensible by Rose's brain, not even when half of it is awake. The paradoxical wonder that Rose still can't explain is how, without a common language, the horrorterrors could convey any information at all.
With their experiments, a new side-effect appears. One morning on the battleship, Rose puts down a forkful of Bisquick and tilts her head, gazing at nothing with the expression of a birdwatching cat. She opens her mouth and stutters the same way the cat vocalizes as it stares. Then she gives a quick full-body shiver and focuses her eyes on Meenah. "I can hear her," she says, amazed. "She's singing."
"Seality check," Meenah says around a mouthful of raw lanternfish. "Make shore you a wake." Snowman pulls out her watch; Rose leans over and checks the time.
"What makes you think it's her?" Snowman wants to know.
"I don't know that it is. But it's not the gods. They sound like ten thousand voices all talking at once; and I've never heard anything as complex as music from them while I'm awake. This is just one voice. Smaller. Singing."
Rose trails off; they watch as she listens. Minutes pass, but not many. Then Rose shakes herself again and looks at Snowman. "Certain texts say singing from the unknowable void carries a message," she says, clearly about to condense several days' research into the most dramatic possible three-line summary.
"The message," Snowman interrupts, "is that I wouldn't think too hard about it, if I were you."
Rose blinks at her slowly, picks up her fork, and finishes her pancakes in silence.
Your name is Snowman.
You're sick with worry that Rose will find out about the game. She's already prone to fits of grimdark. You don't know what'll happen if she learns that nothing she can do makes a lick of difference to any ultimate outcome. She might prefer to doom the timeline than to go on collaborating with the villain's servants. Why should she care whether Earth thrives for a millennium before the meteors come? The result is the same: desolation, and a cherub's egg.
There's not much you can do about it. The singing has been getting clearer. Rose is sure it's the lusus. She's always played solo for the gods, but now she wants to accompany the new voice only she can hear. Maybe a duet will coax Gl'bgolyb in.
"You think she'll hear you?" you ask, looking out over the ocean.
"I don't play the underwater pipe organ. Let's hope the sound carries."
"You want to borrow mine?"
You weight the leads from your fiddle's piezoelectric pickup, run them across the deck, and drop them over the side. Rose stands poised on the deck's clean purple boards, rubbing the edge of her jaw thoughtfully over the heel of your instrument.
"Why is there an infinity symbol on your violin?" she asks suddenly.
This question briefly confuses you. Then it confuses you worse. Your bewilderment deepens, then drops off into a black trench of shock. Your head rings with the silence that follows a prolonged loud noise. The needle of your compass, rock-steady all these centuries, skews and starts to spin. You barely keep yourself from staggering.
The needle slams home again so hard it bounces. Only it's pointing in a new direction now. It's pointing toward the infinity symbol glowing on your instrument, toward the sharp chin and the violet eyes beside it. You don't know anymore what number comes after seven. You can't remember your old gang's name, or your own.
Rose, getting no answer, inclines her head and plays.
Rose has played a wicked duet with Gl'bgolyb on vocals. Meenah's underwater, hoping she'll show up to take her bows.
Rose glances uneasily at Snowman, who hasn't spoken since Gl'bgolyb sang. Her usual expressionless face looks somehow taut and unhappy. All day, Rose has been fighting an impulse to embrace her. It would be the worst impropriety, a terrible affront to Rose's fragile armistice with Meenah and a deadly insult to Snowman herself. The bubble of impatience inflating under Rose's diaphragm feels like it's going to suffocate her. She scans the dusky sea, helplessly wishing Meenah would come back. They could break this freighted stasis by provoking Snowman into taking charge. Rose's skin prickles, her shoulders ache, she can't catch her breath, she feels like crying for no reason. She imagines the conciliatory blows she'll earn from Snowman later, the calm face beyond the sharp hand, the sweetness of broken enmity with Meenah, the exhausted peace afterward, when you abide in the pain of your hatred because you don't have the strength left to do harm.
Meenah's horns break the surface.
Your name is.
You feel ill and you're not sure you can walk a straight line. When Rose broke loose your compass, it pointed her out; but, as soon as Meenah vaults the rail, her presence confounds it. She comes from a universe whose every atom bore his stamp. That universe's life still hangs from yours. Your compass has no memory, but it's part of you, and you remember.
Your name is. Now the needle keeps up a sickening, arrhythmic oscillation, perturbed by every motion of your body and mind. You feel like a homing pigeon in a turbulent magnetic field. You hate this feeling, but you're scared of what'll happen when it ends.
Your name is. Your name. Gl'bgolyb didn't come. Rose and Meenah are moping. You're out of time. You square your shoulders and summon your most grim and disciplinary voice. "Lalonde: my office," you snap, and turn on your heel.
Your name. You close your office door behind her and turn to meet her mild, expectant gaze. "You prototyped me," you tell her. "I'm a free agent. But I can't stay that way. If I take any more exposure to her, I'll wind up back in my old chain of command. Humans have fealty rituals. We have to do one right now, and hope it finishes the job."
Your name. You skim the hat off your head, toss it aside, and start frisking yourself for weapons. Rose watches you get rid of your cigarette holder and the Black Inches. You unholster your gun. She moves closer, grasps your wrist, and takes the weapon gently away from you. You must have looked like you were going to throw it across the room.
Your name. Your. Just the sight of her hand on your wrist makes your metabolism speed up. You look at her eyes, feeling the confused magnet inside you twanging like a loose string, inflicting a sharp twinge every time it swings past Rose's face. You can't help narrowing your eyes against the pangs. "What do you say," you ask harshly.
Your. Rose sets your gun down on the desk behind her and reaches for your other hand. She joins your palms and crosses your thumbs, then clasps your hands between hers. You gasp for breath. "You really should kneel," she says softly.
Your. You drop one knee to the floor and bow your head. Your compass needle is vibrating now so fast it's almost still. The pain is continuous. You have no idea what to say. You can see, but not feel, Rose's fingers stroking your wrists. You close your eyes. "I'm yours," you say, and the needle stills. Now she'll answer, Yes, you are, and capture you. You'll be hers, and you'll be free.
Instead, you hear a clatter and feel her sinking down, then her breath on your knuckles. You open your eyes in surprise. She's taken off her headband and dropped her thorns. She loosens your hands and slides her own between them. "I'm yours," she says clearly, and the compass inside you silently explodes.
Having failed to lure Gl'bgolyb to the South China Sea, they go back to New York and start designing experiments in teleported dreaming. Rose wants to try every idea as fast as possible until they find something that works, but Snowman refuses to run even one trial until they know exactly what they're doing.
Meenah walks in on them early one afternoon when they had thought she was out to sea. The bell on the hallway door jangles. Pinned to the chaise longue, Snowman yanks her hands out from under Rose's shirt, although there is nowhere else to put them. Rose looks around wildly for her needles, but then she hears Meenah start to laugh, a low frothy chortle that makes Rose want to hawk and spit.
"Y'all lucky I ain't finterested in your weird alien bulges!" Snowman lets her head fall back against the chaise longue's arm. "We used to cull a motherglubber just for havin prawn of this shit y'all doin. Whatebber! You gills be careful. You've probubbly never seen what happens to a meowbeastpillar after a ripperwasp lays her eggs in it, Lalonde."
Rose glowers, then deliberately leans down and kisses Snowman, letting Meenah see a flash of pink tongue. "I would like nothing better than to incubate your ravenous larvae," she says in her sultriest voice, making Snowman arch and twist underneath her, "after I have murdered this interruption."
Snowman draws up one knee, plants her foot on Rose's chest, and shoves her off. By the time Rose has picked herself up off the floor and straightened her clothing, Snowman has made Meenah kneel and wrenched her head way back with a fist in her hair. "Get over here, Lalonde," she says between heavy breaths. "You're both going to see stars."
Later, Meenah and Rose clutch ice packs to their heads while Snowman checks them for injuries. "Pupils," she says to Rose, aiming a penlight. Rose snuffles and opens one eye, then the other.
"It's cute you thought I didn't notice," Meenah says into Snowman's hip. Nobody answers. "I ain't worried. Nasty cullbait trolls fuck up they clubs with conchufishent shenanigans. But that ain't us, so we cool to do whatev." Rose turns over stiffly, props her chin on Snowman's thigh, and peers across Snowman's lap at the top of Meenah's head. "Fuck off, Roach," Meenah mutters. "This ain't mean we cool you and me." Rose turns her head and bites one horn lightly, then presses her face to Snowman's iliac plate and folds up her knees. She and Meenah curl around Snowman like quotation marks. Snowman runs her fingers lightly over everything she can reach, searching for damage.
Rose lies on the chaise longue. Standing behind the arm, Snowman looks down at the white face between her black hands. Rose's closed eyes flicker in blind saccades. Nearby, Meenah gazes off into space and spits desultory rhymes under her breath while the blue sign of Scorpio glows on her forehead. Snowman closes her eyes. They fade to black.
Rose finds herself in a dark movie house, gazing up at nothing. She can feel a deep whickering and a sense of inertia, as if somewhere a huge projector is spinning. With a crisp snapping sound like the wind shaking out a sheet, a surface appears before her eyes, black on black.
A title card reads: [S] Caliborn: Enter.
Colors start to shine on the void's empty screen. Like projectionists wielding light in a darkened theater, the horrorterrors show her what they wanted her to see.
Ninety-four seconds is the longest Snowman can teleport continuously. She's slow to let go of Rose after every run. Then she paces the newsroom floor, chain-smoking and glaring at nothing, while the headache recedes. Only the passage of time restores her.
Meenah and Rose look for ways to kill time without killing each other. One interlude, Snowman's lighting a fifth cigarette off the stub of the fourth when she notices that Rose is still asleep. "You can wake her up; I'm done," she rasps. The headache never goes away anymore, it just falls back to regroup.
"Let the poor gill rest," Meenah coos maliciously, stroking sparkly fuchsia polish onto Rose's toenails. She keeps Rose sleeping until three coats have dried.
When she wakes up, Rose goes silently out for a bottle of acetone and a tiny angled brush. She spends a full hour meticulously cleaning every superfluous trace of polish from her cuticles, until her toenails glow like pink sapphires. Then she goes barefoot for the rest of the day.
In ninety-four-second segments, Rose sees everything, from the little green skull monster's silly bow tie to the lurid sarcophagus's progress through the void. She sees the severed tentacles trailing purple blood, and finally knows what the horrorterrors want. She wakes up laughing in disbelief. "They're being massacred," she says hoarsely, glances at Meenah, and bites back the rest.
Other title cards follow. Rose pushes them hard, desperate to find out what happens next, anxious not to overlook a single detail. As quickly as Snowman can recover, she plunges back into the void. After midnight, they stack three deep on the chaise longue, Snowman's head tipped back on Meenah's shoulder, Rose curled up in Snowman's lap. They fade unevenly back and forth across a fraction of an inch.
Rose finally wakes up with nothing to say, and Snowman calls it a night. They're almost too exhausted to bicker, but the sting of irritation pierces all fatigue. For disturbing Snowman's peace she slaps them around a little, too tired for finesse, until they collapse in an uncomfortable pile, disgusted with themselves and hopeless of improvement. Once this too has passed and they're half asleep, Snowman translates them to bed.
Snowman wakes before dawn. Beside her, Rose stares up at empty darkness. Snowman quietly turns her head and watches Rose's face. Rose shapes an exhalation into almost silent words. "I know about the game."
Snowman listens for Meenah's breath, continuing slow and even.
Rose whispers, "The horrorterrors played to make her universe; then the trolls made this one."
"I know," Snowman confesses.
"Later, humans play."
"Not me. I'm not a player." The whites of Rose's eyes gleam in the starlight. She turns her face toward Snowman.
"Me neither," Snowman murmurs wryly.
After a moment, Rose laughs softly. She turns over and kisses Snowman's mouth, then reaches out for Meenah's wrist and drags her arm across them.
The arc is closing. Rose doesn't know what comes after the end of the horrorterrors' screening, but she wants to be in Innsmouth when it happens.
She's always wanted to go back. She was taken there once as a small child, too young to know she trod the holy ground of tentacular mythology. She remembers the dark, dilapidated buildings and the chilly beach. She had run out to stand in the water, despite the cold. As the waves tugged at her ankles and the sand slowly buried her feet, she looked out at the vast sea and felt as if she were meeting someone who would be with her for a very long time.
Now, they drive from New York in Rose's car and rent a ramshackle off-season beach house. Rose and Snowman play a few pieces on the sagging porch while Meenah cavorts in the falling tide. In the purple dusk, they go down to the beach and huddle in the damp sand. Rose leans on Snowman's breast; Meenah wraps her long arms around them from behind. They have done this so many times they don't need to talk. Scorpio glows on Meenah's forehead; Snowman takes Rose's weight. They fade and flicker like a ghost on the shore.
Night falls. All the lamps in the beach house blaze. Rose and Snowman lie on the floorboards a yard apart, hand in hand. Their outline comes and goes. Meenah stands over them, her forehead glowing, her fixed snarl white.
The horrorterrors have shown Rose all they meant to show her. Credits have rolled. The lights have come up; the unreal projector's muffled rattling has ceased. There is no post-screening Q&A. Somewhere behind her, Rose thinks she hears someone sweeping the floor.
She wakes up to a sucker punch from her own stomach muscles. A gout of watery gray ichor, stinking like rotten asphalt, leaps up her throat and out. A high groan follows. It goes on until the old air in her lungs is gone. She pants a couple of times and opens her eyes. Past the tears on her eyelashes, she glimpses the ruddy glint of a horn reflected in Snowman's glossy black cheek. The sight is impossibly pure and bright, and swiftly lost in tears. Polished fingers close on her neck an instant before Meenah's hair envelops her.
Later, Rose lies awake. Atonal, muddled solfege exercises gurgle from a submerged larynx. She focuses as hard as she can on the sharp rim of a thorax plate digging into her ribs, on the spines of a fin where they prick her cheek. She elongates herself between these clean, minor pains, imagining the four taut strings joining the bridge to the pins. Suspended there, anticipating the horsehair's touch, she feels the silence deepen and drown Gl'bgolyb's voice. Finally she sleeps.
In the morning, Rose leaves without saying where she's going.
She comes back after a few hours, but Meenah's gone for a swim. Rose won't tell Snowman anything, just sits around with a strange expression on her face. Snowman tries to get some work done. It's hours before she thinks to ping Meenah's Serious Business. Meenah washes up another hour later and stands in the kitchen, dripping on the floor. "What the fuck, yo," she demands matter-of-factly.
"Once more," Rose says. Snowman sees that her knees are trembling. Rose folds herself up on the floor by Snowman's chair and rests her head on Snowman's knees. "Meenah, pl—"
The movie-theater backdrop is gone. Rose stands on the endless flickering black plane of the void, tips back her head and shouts into the depths of the abstract sky, "What did you put in me."
The sky writhes silently. Rose's thorns appear in her hands. She rests one sharp point in the hollow of her throat and the other in the pit of her stomach. "When I wake up, I'll kill us both," she threatens. "Tell me now. Show me."
The void quakes. The infinite black floor wavers under Rose's feet. Colors ignite on every side, burn through the curtains of void, and take shape. Projecting, impossibly, on the entire inner surface of a hollow sphere enclosing her, the horrorterrors show her what Gl'bgolyb saw.
She ventures out hunting, white tentacles rippling all around. She descends through darker and colder waters to the gloom of the aphotic zone, out of reach of the sun, lit only by the glimmering lures of a variety of benthic delicacies. Suspended in the center of nothing, Rose strains her eyes for floaters and garbage on the optic nerve. Suddenly, a blinding red light engulfs her. Coming from nowhere, it shines on every side, strengthening and deepening until it sinks down into the infrared. It leaves behind a new, larger darkness.
Short on time, the horrorterrors zoom out. Gl'bgolyb drifts on the currents, diminished to the size of a paramecium, her voice too small to reach her ward. Distant voices guide her to a tiny pink mammal on a chilly beach. She lives in its hot bloodstream until she's regrown big enough to settle down by the vagus nerve and stretch out tendrils slim as axons along the nervous system of her gracious host.
Rose is almost shaking with the ecstasy of finding out at last. "Why," she roars, incandescent with righteous curiosity.
Tentacles wring themselves. A dazzling kaleidoscope of images erupts with incoherent simultaneity around her. The chaos contracts and crystallizes into the image of a structure whose exterior Rose has never seen, although she's lived there almost her whole life. The horrorterrors' mental palace presents an indescribable confusion of Escherian angles, of ink-black and fin-gray surfaces, of tangled towers and sucker-lined crenellations.
On the pillared porch stands a girl-child in a black dress and purple sash. Her face is Rose's own, but Rose has never seen in a mirror such soft eyes. The girl drops a curtsy, turns, and goes inside.
Then the floor tears itself out from under Rose's feet and she opens her eyes.
"I went to get an MRI," Rose says wearily. "Everyone at the clinic was sure I have an exotic cancer. Fortunately, they had no Manual for Diagnosing the Oncologically Dubious. And I know a tentacle monster when I see one. She's up between my heart and my stomach. About the size of a cue ball." Snowman and Meenah simultaneously wince.
Then Meenah's grin takes on the proportions of an anglerfish's. "Glub fuckin yes," she breathes. "We just cut her out of you, simple as fuck."
Snowman moves with the speed of reflex. She takes Meenah's legs out from under her with the same efficient sweep kick she's used a dozen times in conciliation. She flings one hand out at Rose and through the predestined accident of habit gets her by the neck. But Rose wrenches free, springs away, and crouches down by Meenah's head with one hand on her horn. "What the hell do you think you're doing!" she shouts at Snowman.
"She'll kill you! There's nothing she wants worse than her lusus. You know this from human Freud! All she has to do is bleed you out and anatomize you."
"Don't be ridiculous! She'd probably bisect Gl'bgolyb by mistake."
"Yeah, Snowpants, mother of glub. How dumb you think I am? Human Freud my ass. Splode ma clubs for no cod damn reason. Ain't like she goin nowhere." Meenah picks herself up and shakes out her hair; Rose makes a face and steps away.
"Okay. God damn it. Sorry," Snowman says, clacking her mouthparts in chagrin. "How—"
"Infinitesimalizer trap on the abyssal plain."
Meenah shakes her head in admiration. "That science bitch don't quit. I forked her five years back and she still cloggin my pipes."
Rose flinches and looks askance. Snowman transits swiftly to interpose herself.
"What now," she says briskly. "Surgery's risky. We could get her out cleanly with an appearifier, but that's experimental Crockertech; we haven't tested it on humans yet. And then we'd need a working monstrositifier! I thought that was still just math. Maybe that deep-sea trap-setting dame filched a prototype from the Corp. Or your darknet friends, Rose?"
Rose clears her throat. "I have the impression that Jade English invented the monstrositifier. Stop cringing whenever you hear that name. English. English. Oh, my God. Look, let me ask my darknet friends if they know a Skaianet lab with an ocean view."
Mathers answers Strider's phone. He calls her "bitch" affectionately and gives her a set of coordinates northeast of Australia.
"Aight, suckafishes," Meenah says breezily, "sea you there. Take me three weeks, give or hake. Ping y'all's bidness when I'm close."
"Excuse me?" Rose has already taken Snowman's hand. "Meenah, we could be there in literally two seconds."
"Aw yeah, real classy. Every fuckin thing the easy way with you chumps. Glub that. I'm takin the Arctic route." She's already lashing her fork to her back. Rose and Snowman look at each other. "Y'all take a little vacraytion. Go on a human road trip. Fill some pails."
Rose blanches. "You do realize your lusus—"
"She's into it! Stop cringing!"
Down at the beach, Snowman fits their faces together, nose by cheekbone, orbits flush. The arch of Meenah's ribcage presses into Rose's solar plexus.
"How'm I gonna be shore you ain't forget me while I'm keelhaulin a thousand miles of pack ice," Meenah mumbles into Rose's cheek. "Snowy, lemme break her arm."
"I have a better idea," Rose says, "if you'll condescend to indulge me."
Far from impeding a conciliatory grip, the twin nape piercings give their owners so much pain the lightest touch subdues them. Meenah delays her departure a day and a night, then takes a running start and dives into the waves. Rose and Snowman put the top down and drive west.
Three weeks later, Rose and Snowman appear on the margin of a nameless Pacific island. Meenah rises out of the waves and stalks up onto the strand. "Yo."
Snowman has no trouble cracking the lab's security system, but they aren't expecting robot guard dogs attacking in a six-pack, barking, "Bad troll! Worst enemy!" Snowman plugs two, and Meenah torches the rest with a Gemini blast, but they're wary and twitchy as they move further into the lab. "I knew I should have drowned that bitch as a guppy," Meenah mutters.
They find the machine room. Snowman moves edgily around the perimeter, watching the corners for more Halleybots, careful not to touch anything. She progresses down the aisle by the far wall, her flickering eyes touching everything. Rose holds as still as she can on a medical time-and-space locationer cot, trying to get the readout to settle so they can configure the appearifier.
Meenah happens to look up from the locationer controls and sees Snowman as she passes behind a tall transparent screen. "Snowy? Hold still a second." Snowman freezes. Something about the tone of Meenah's voice makes Rose raise her head. The screen is a real-time X-ray display. It shows Snowman's vestigial skeleton, the steep catenary of her watch chain, her cufflinks. Meenah is staring. "Snowy, where's your compass?" she asks in a small voice.
Snowman looks down at her own front. "What compass?"
Rose is glad she's lying down. She pokes Meenah viciously in the gills. "Focus, Peixes," she snaps, putting as much venom in her voice as she can. Meenah flinches and snarls at Rose. She frobs the locationer knobs peevishly, rubbing her side, looking once over her shoulder at Snowman, who is continuing her patrol with nine tenths of her attention fixed on Meenah and Rose. "Glub this," Meenah finally says, and puts her fingers to her temple. Rose's head falls sideways and her breathing goes slow and deep.
The locationer finally gives up a solid coordinate map. Scorpio still burning, Meenah walks over to the room-sized appearifier and begins to dial in the numbers. Over by the window, Snowman has gotten out her plain and serviceable hand-held computing device and is tapping quietly at it, glancing over every couple of seconds. "Oh my glub, Snowy, stow that thing," Meenah says, flipping the number pad's lid closed. "Important shit is going down in reel life here." She stabs the big spirograph button and the appearifier starts to whir.
"Aight, Mom," Meenah says, peering through the Plexiglas into the empty appearification bay. Her hair writhes in agitation. "I have a problem, Mom, you gotta shellp me out here." The whirring intensifies, then with a loud bang a little glistening white clump of tentacles appears in the center of the bay. "Mom!" Meenah squeals, drops her grip on Rose's brain and starts yanking levers. Rose groans and curls up fetally around the raw void in her guts.
Snowman starts toward her, but Meenah whips around and roars with bared fangs, "You stay put! Why ain't you told me you got free a his net!" Behind her, the machinery casts a green light on the little monster. "Why ain't you told me how? You knew I wanted out as bad as you did!"
Snowman flickers in place. "It ain't that easy, Meenah. Look, we'll figure it out. We got your lusus back; we got all the time in the world. Rose'll help. The gods will help. See, she's bigger already."
Meenah can't help checking over her shoulder. Gl'bgolyb is the size of a horse and growing faster, bathed in green light. "We ain't got all the time!" she wails. "Mom, help me! I ain't wanna kill nomoby! We was gonna rule this bitch as a badass triumvirate and surpass the glubbin Alternian Empire in glory! Why I gotta find out this crabshit! Now I gotta kill her dumb ass cuz she ain't loyal to the boss no more! I fuckin hate that guy! I can't reign over this shit all by myshellf, Mom! I lose Snowy, I'm a just fuck this whole planet up the royal blowhole! Rarrrgh! Mom! Why!"
Meenah's eyes blaze red and blue, and she's yelling so hard it looks like her jaw's about to dislocate. Snowman edges toward Rose. Meenah keeps screaming, "Why! Why! Why!" as Gl'bgolyb burgeons. The wall of the appearification bay cracks, buckles outward, and bursts.
White tentacles wriggle from the gap and extend, mapping the floors and walls, caressing instruments and control panels, tasting the air. A skein of tentacles stretches out with questing tips toward Rose, who is trying to sit up, clutching her solar plexus. Snowman fades to black so fast a photographic negative lingers in the space she vacates, resembling a white queen. But an expanding mass of tentacles knocks her flying backward just as she fades in at Rose's side.
"WHY," Meenah bellows. "WHY. WHY." She's weeping profusely, the fuchsia tears overflowing the goggles and streaming down her face in rivers. Snowman rolls and stands, her gun in her hand. The blue and red light in Meenah's eyes strobes faster and faster and fuses into a towering sheet of white fire. Engulfed, Snowman fades away.
Tentacles hold Rose up and keep her safe while Gl'bgolyb's growth obliterates the seaward part of the lab. Meenah has vanished, howling, among the submerged limbs of her lusus. In a couple of hours, a small fleet of pirates shows up. They've seen stranger things than a green light three miles wide shining on a sea monster larger than the island it's half-beached on. They inquire after Snowman, who had pinged their Serious Business with an SOS. Rose shakes her head. They take off their tricorns and look at their boots, then give her a lift to Singapore.
In the centuries that follow, Gl'bgolyb never lets a single wiggler outlive its first sweep. But, that year, out of the corpses of the deer near Rainbow Falls, a thousand little black chess pieces scuttle, rooks and bishops, knights and pawns.
Decades later, on the rooftop of her former office building, Rose faces east with her thorns in her hands. She has lived a long, eventful life, and it hurts to get up in the morning. She can still put up a decent fight, but soon enough she's pinned to the gritty tarpaper. The Condesce's hair blots out the sky behind her grinning head. It hurts Rose to breathe. She lies there, trying to gather up the strength for a valedictory taunt, while the victor angles her fork for the death blow.
There is a slight delay. The Condesce bows down and rests her heavy head on Rose's brow. Grief and anger flare up harsh and hot in Rose's throat, worse than the pain of exhaustion and her wounds. She looks up into the terrifying eyes and sees the fuchsia welling up. Rose can't feel her fingers. She struggles to drag her hand up from her side, to reach up and clasp Meenah's neck. She makes herself smile. Tears spot the goggles above the white grin. One hand holds the back of Rose's neck while the other drives in the tines.