405 - Attack On the Multiverse!

Charlotte is pleased as punch that Half & Half is now officially open. It has taken months, but she’s successfully built a magical cafe, one that will serve both living and spectral customers. A vampire and a werewolf are working behind the counter. When she’s not working on rescue operations, Summer Newman drops by to lend her expertise as barista.

The cafe gives out loyalty cards, which serve as magic talismans. When you clutch the card and wish for the entrance to appear near you, it will coincidentally be there. When you wish to leave, it will drop you somewhere safe. Trusted regulars may give loyalty cards to their friends, forming a web of initiation and referral.

Every so often, the cafe will admit someone who belongs there, part of the magic of the Twilight Grove that enables the magic of the place. Charlotte has grown used to such visitors. She no longer sees them as intrusions in her carefully-laid plans, but rather opportunities to expand her vision for what the cafe might do.

She is still rather surprised to see Charles Palmer and Leah Snow come through the door.

Charles was a male version of Charlotte herself. Leah was likewise a female version of Leo Snow. They hailed from the universe the team referred to as the “Pidgeverse”, after a character from a cartoon called “Voltron” who despite being a girl passed as a boy for a time. Members of the Menagerie in that world, and several significant people connected with them, had similarly inverted genders from the team Charlotte knew.

She’d asked Leo to explain the effect once. He’d shrugged and smiled. “It’s just a quirk of the cosmos. They’re ‘close’ to us, dimensionally speaking, because so little else is different.”

She had seen them during a sleepover, organized to stabilize a global magical phenomenon. Menagerie members across four parallel realities had participated. Their paths had crossed a few times since, though dimensional travel was by no means a casual thing.

Despite the fun atmosphere of a sleepover, they had been somewhat serious because of the underlying ritual going on. Now, Charlotte can see them looking gravely concerned.

“Welcome to Half & Half,” she announces with a smile. “How may we serve you?”

“It is vitally necessary that we speak,” Charles says without any polite preamble - a sign that things were indeed dire.

“Worlds are dying,” is Leah’s warning. “Distant parallel realities are suffering attacks. And they’re getting closer - sorry for the vague terminology, but ‘closer’ is the best I can do.”

“What kinds of attacks?” Charlotte asks.

“We don’t know. We have only witnessed the aftermath.” Charles sighs. “By the time we become aware of it from dimensions away, however, it is too late to ascertain the source.”

Leah nods. “We’re warning all the parallels we know of. And we’re recruiting, in case there’s some kinda meaningful action we can take, or insights we can glean.”

Charlotte blinks. “As parallels of each other, I’d have imagined our collective insights would not range broadly enough. I hope you are recruiting more broadly than simply Menagerie analogues.”

Charles smiles, and reaches into his jacket’s breast pocket. He presents what he pulls out to Charlotte. She inspects it, and finds it’s a library card, with her picture already on it.

“You opted for coffee. I chose books. Our differences, subtle though they may be, might surprise us. The distinctions we cannot predict may be exactly what we need.”

That answers that.

“Then may I examine one of the worlds that’s suffered an attack?” Charlotte inquires.

“I hoped you’d say that,” Leah says with relief. “God damnest thing I ever saw, and if it doesn’t light a fire under you to back us up, nothing will. But I’ll warn you, it’s a fuckin’ horror show.”

“I shall steel myself appropriately,” Charlotte says after a moment of thought.

Charlotte was not ready for this.

Leah’s flying wing, Garuda, floats in empty space, half the distance to the Moon. From the back seat, Charlotte is looking at the remnants of another Earth.

There are gaping wounds in the planet, visible even from this distance. Holes that enter one side and exit on the other, leaving tunnels that must be thousands of miles wide. The magnification on the cockpit screens shows sea water pouring into some of these punctures, descending with doomed magnificence into the interior of the planet. Elsewhere, geological upheaval has produced new mountain ranges, or driven entire sections of the surface world into the depths. At this scale, the largest cities are tiny patterns of light and dark, hidden under black smoke plumes or obscured by red clouds being torn apart by hurricane-force winds.

Worst, the whole planet still crackles with some kind of bright yellow electrical energy. It arcs and sparks, jumping from points on the surface to thousands of miles above, splitting and recombining in the blink of an eye. Whether it is the instrument of destruction or merely a side effect, Charlotte has no way to know.

“What could have wrought such destruction?” she breathes at last.

“Nothing I want near my home,” Leah declares. “The bright side, if there is one, is that this is the worst of it. But here, I’ll show you the commonality…”

She maneuvers Garuda through space, not close enough to be endangered by the yellow discharges, but close enough for Charlotte to see more detail.

Stretching across a chunk of the North American continent is a peculiar pattern. Charlotte has seen such things before in science demonstrations. The name for them, as she recalls, is “Lichtenberg figures”, or more prosaically, lightning scars. This one happens to look something like a dragon - a coiling serpentine trunk, two outstretched wings, and something that might resemble a head.

“I call them ‘eigendrakes’,” Leah explains. “In quantum mechanics, an eigenstate is a measurement of an uncertain element, but isn’t really the true thing itself. They look like dragons, or drakes. So, eigendrakes. They’re the common element in the attacks. Usually not that big. Sometimes as big as a city block. Sometimes bigger.”

“I can’t even imagine what it would take to stop something like this,” Charlotte confesses. “I’ll begin research, of course…”

“That’s all we can ask,” Leah says softly. “What you can do now, at least, is help spread the word. There will be parallels that are easier for you to reach than for us. Get to them, tell people to maybe start prepping emergency measures or evacuation plans of some kind. I dunno. Even if there’s no way to stop it, I mean, it’s nicer to look your doom in the eye, right?”

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Charlotte has crossed four dimensions and borrowed five books today. Charles Palmer assures her that she can hold onto the books from his collection as long as she needs, and promises to stay in touch.

Now she is absorbed in reading, an untouched mug of coffee next to her.

“You went somewhere bad,” says a voice.

Looking up, she catches sight of Daph Palin, also known as Equity.

She isn’t sure she can find words to explain her experience. She isn’t sure she wants to delve into those dark depths to try. But it would be impolite to ignore the question.

“Yes,” she says finally. “I witnessed destruction on an unimaginable scale.”

“It’s hanging off you like B.O. after a lacrosse game,” the girl says. “Wanna talk about it, or wanna hold onto it?”

Charlotte pushes the book away. “I don’t know what I could say, honestly,” she admits. In spite of her normal composure, nothing follows that, not even an attempt. She simply clasps her hands together and looks at them, silent and lost.

Daph lets the quiet have its time, then gently pushes the melancholy away with a question. “Hey, when was the last time you painted your fingernails?”

Charlotte looks up, surprised by the non sequitur. “What?”

“Your fingernails. Painted. When was the last time you did it?” Daph asks again, smiling.

“I… I don’t really do that much,” Charlotte admits. “In my time, we’d use oils to improve the shine, but not color them like today…”

“Come on then. Useless girly shit is a great way to not think about things,” grins Daph.

It turns out Daph doesn’t actually own any nail polish herself, and doesn’t have any great ideas for what to try. So she calls up Duskshine, the Ponies’ resident makeup expert.

“What are good colors for a ghost?”

“Are we talking spooky goth ghost? Because black is a classic.”

Daph hmms. “How about a more mystical, mysterious kind of ghost?”

Duskshine gives this some thought. “Right. Purple is underrated, but also risky. You have to use it properly. There’s different shades…”

By the time the two are actually at a store and ready to shop, Duskshine has given Daph a comprehensive rundown of the options, and the consensus is that hyacinth is the right shade for Charlotte. The Greeks associated it with a love and devotion that transcended death, which Charlotte concedes is at least thematically appropriate for her.

The shopping trip comes away with a basic selection of makeup options, plus an assortment of affordable hair decorations. Charlotte refuses to try on anything in public, and Daph doesn’t care enough to press the point.

They’re met at the entrance of Half & Half by Maury Jones, who seems to have other ideas. In her wheelchair, camera nestled in her lap, the vlogger is grinning like a maniac.

“This isn’t an accidental meeting, is it,” Daph says. “Lemme guess. Duskshine…”

“…called me and said Charlotte was being dolled up for something, so I’m here to hear the good news,” enthuses Maury. “Plus, if you’re really dressing up, a photo shoot needs a professional…”

She trails off as she finally catches Charlotte’s expression, still melancholy in spite of the distractions of the shopping trip. “Another time would be better, huh?”

The dam in Charlotte’s soul gives way. “I really could use a couple of friends right now,” she confesses.

Inside the coffee shop, she relates the whole story. While she talks, Daph applies paint to the nails of each hand, inspecting her work as she goes.

In spite of that, Charlotte knows that Daph is paying close attention to what she says. She can see the other girl’s face scrunch up in sympathetic horror. She can see the squeeze of her eyes as she struggles to cope with the magnitude of the situation.

Maury, meanwhile, is taking copious notes. She, too, is clearly affected by what is being said. But like any good journalist, she’s able to box her feelings up just enough to rationally process the details of the story.

Bodark and Vermillion alternate bringing drinks to the trio. They can clearly hear parts of the story too. How they feel is unclear, as neither man says anything, and their faces are hard to read.

Daph’s question at the end of the recitation is said softly, with a gentle empathy for the possibility that there is no answer, now or ever. But it’s a question she has to ask.

“How can we help you do something about all this?”

Charlotte blinks. “That assumes there is something to do, doesn’t it,” she says quietly.

“It does,” affirms Daph with a nod.

“And it assumes that whatever I do won’t have been done by my more prepared cognates in other worlds,” she adds.

To that, Maury responds with verse. " Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-- / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference."

She smiles at Charlotte. “If these cognates of yours are noticeably different from you, they’ll do different things, right? Like a prism, if you shine the same light at it, you get a rainbow out. Otherwise, why would they come to you and ask for help?”

At last, Charlotte feels pulled back from her funk, at least enough to make meaningful choices. “You’re both right. To answer the question, I think we ought to establish witnesses to the act.”

“On that world you said there were no survivors, right?” Daph begins, only to have Maury rap her forearm with a hand excitedly.

“No survivors doesn’t mean no witnesses. We’re talking to a ghost,” the journalist says excitedly.

Charlotte beams. “Quite so. And although the memory of an individual ghost can be exceedingly unreliable, a world of them ought to be able to furnish meaningful testimony. Especially if I have the aid of a journalist?”

Maury grins and gives a thumb’s up.

The trio see Bodark approaching, with Vermillion behind him. “We will help,” the stocky Russian says.

“Why would you do that?” Charlotte inquires.

“Because you will not trust us to be alone here,” the werewolf answers with a heavy sigh.

He has a point, concedes Charlotte, but only to herself.

“Who’s gonna run the shop if you’re all out?” Daph asks.

“I’m sure Miss Summer Newman will be happy to help and be left out of an exciting adventure,” lies Vermillion.

“More seriously, she will be busy helping Aria and Leo with their new family,” Charlotte declares. “No, for this we’ll just have to close up for the moment. I hate to do it, especially after just opening, but I feel that the issue at hand is pressing enough to warrant it.”

“So how do we get on the scene of the crime?” Maury asks.

“We’ll visit a library,” Charlotte smiles. “But first, I need to pick up one more member of our expedition.”

It’s a short teleport to the cemetery.

The city has an ossuary here, with bones predating the Revolutionary War. Even now, some of them are haunted by the ghosts of their owners. One such calls himself Manny, who claims to have been a pirate and to have sailed with one “Captain Quill” on a voyage of discovery and treasure-seeking. Whatever the truth of his stories (and Charlotte privately doubts most of them), right now she needs Manny for something else. He will serve as a convenient medium for the dead of a whole world - if he is willing.

“Manny?” she calls.

“Aye, lass, you know I never sleep,” the skull answers, from the gloom of the ossuary.

Charlotte smiles. “Splendid. I’m afraid I have need of you, Manny, so we’re going on a journey.”

Any hint of travel is exciting. “Ye needn’t ask twice, lass!” the skull enthuses. “I be packed an’ ready to set sail immediately!”

“You may not like what you’ll be asked to do once we get there,” Charlotte warns.

“Oh, I never was,” Manny snorts. “But Cap’n Quill knew to give us a ration o’ rum for our troubles, and we were handsomely paid besides. What’s life at sea without hardships, after all?”


Charlotte produces the cat carrier she’s kept around for transporting the skull, and she loads and packs Manny carefully into the container. “I’ve no rum for you, but I hope pleasant conversation will be compensation enough.”

“It never is,” Manny says cheerfully. “But if it’s all ye have, I cannot argue.”

Back at Half & Half, Daph has a question.

“How exactly do we get to a parallel universe?” she asks.

Charlotte smiles, and flourishes the library card that Charles Palmer gifted to her. “We take a short trip through the back door, and visit a library.”

“Ahh,” says Bodark. “We cannot enter the woods. You remember what happened.” He glances at Vermillion, who nods darkly.

Charlotte smiles at the pair of them. “Is the Twilight Glade rejecting you because of your natures, or because of your mutual aggression?” she asks.

Vermillion winces. “Is it so necessary to test that question?” he asks at last.

“It is if you wish to accompany me,” Charlotte replies. She starts walking, with Maury wheeling behind her, and Daph bringing up the rear.

She already knows the truth. Now she wants to test another truth: whether the pair will brave the Glade with her, or stay here alone, and risk squabbling with each other without a peacekeeper.

They want to get along, she thinks to herself, watching them over her shoulder. But something makes them need to fight each other.

After a long hesitation, the pair jog after her, out the back door of the cafe and into an endless mystical forest.

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The vampire and the werewolf don’t immediately catch fire. Everything about their body language screamed that they expected it. But Charlotte smiles, and beckons them to follow her.

She walks, holding Manny the Skull in his cat carrier. Daph follows her. Maury wheels herself. Bodark and Vermillion bring up the rear.

They come to a wall with a door in it. Charlotte opens, holding it politely for her party, and together the group enter a dimly lit, elegantly appointed library.

Charles Palmer looks up as the ring of a bell announces his guests. As polite as Charlotte herself, being essentially a male equivalent, he’s ready with tea and sweets.

He’s not alone. Leah Snow is present, as the person most easily able to transport people between dimensions at the moment. Other people are here, from the look of them Menagerie members of other realities.

“Introductions,” says Charles, as host. He names and indicates Charlotte and her friends, and Leah and himself as a matter of course.

“Harold the Fleet, Son of Mercury.” This is clearly another Harry, but decked out in what Charlotte thinks of as Renaissance Italy’s finery.

“Charlotte Paumer, of the Louisianan Duchy.” Another Charlotte, this one translucent, shot through with blue-black highlights, clearly much more spectral than Charlotte herself.

“Jason Quill.” This Jason looks all of twelve years old. Charlotte has met him before, the first time being the sleepover she coordinated. Some kind of botched experiment in the Sepiaverse reverted everyone present to a pre-teen physical form, and their minds have subconsciously adapted.

Charles smiles. “Owing to the difficulty of identifying which universe is which, and owing to the way divergence points are strictly relative, we’ve taken to drawing Bingo numbers to identify parallels.”

Leah passes out name tags for Charlotte and her party. “You are from Multi-12, what we call the Pidgeverse.”

Charlotte smiles. “That is our name for you as well.”

Leah nods. “See? That’s the problem. We’re Multi-37 in this new scheme. Problem solved.”

She gestures to Harold the Fleet and Charlotte Paumer. “Multi-65. A world where magic, rather than science, predominates.”

The two outlanders bow politely. Charlotte finds it odd to see someone who looks like Harry showing any sign of formal decorum, but responds in kind.

“And finally our junior representative is Multi-41.” She hands the name tag to young Jason, who puts it on and frowns.

“Just because I look little, don’t treat me like a kid, okay?” he scowls, and Charlotte smiles again.

Charles resumes his explanations. “Each of you is an expert in one of two things. Dimensional vibrations, and ghostly communications. I think all of you independently realized your next course of action, and we may see folks from other universes trickle in shortly. Therefore we will be waiting a time, to welcome those folks, and in due course we’ll embark on our expedition.”

Leah steps in again, her voice foreboding. “The world you all saw devastated is now known as Multi-99. We’re working to understand the relationships between worlds, because that may give us an important clue about the path this thing is taking. Like storm-chasing a tornado. If you know where the mountains are and how the wind blows, you know where the storm goes. Can I give you all an example?”

The group as a whole assents, and Leah proceeds.

“So here we have a bunch of people from parallel realities. Charles and I are the odd ones out in this group - each of you is gender-flipped with respect to us, but not to each other. What does that mean? Who knows. But is there, say, a Medea Quill - our version of your ‘Jason’ - who went to the Sepiaverse and got de-aged? Probably. But we haven’t met them yet. Why not? That’s the kinds of questions that multiversal cartography will help answer.”

A few more groups pile in. Usually they’re core members of the Menagerie. Here’s Alycia Chin and Charlotte Palmer from Multi-25. A female Concord, who calls herself Astra Amari, from Multi-79. And someone who Charlotte herself must vouch for. He is a hero named Resister, hailing from Multi-50, claiming to be a member of the Menagerie in that world.

“We’re reaching the limits of Garuda’s capacity,” Leah says at last. “We should probably roll. Charles will hang out here to intercept stragglers.”

She eyes Charlotte’s extended group. “The rest of us brought only Menagerie members. I ain’t saying no, but can I ask what gives?”

“They wanted to come along,” Charlotte explains. “And I saw value in their company.”

Leah glances at the other Charlotte equivalents gathered here, raises an eyebrow, and shrugs it off. “Cool cool. The more the merrier. Okay, ladies, gents, and folks of other bents, Garuda’s parked outside. Load up and strap in.”

Unlike Leo’s Phoenix, the Garuda unit seems built for transporting groups. Otto served as the “passenger compartment” of the Phoenix, but Leah built twin motorcycle AIs, not a single car robot. Charlotte finds herself thinking about the ways little divergences build to big differences, like a mountain spring giving rise to a stream that becomes a mighty river.

Garuda is making its way through a sequence of circular artificial portals, which Leah calls “Hula Hoops”. The cramped quarters and relatively boring circumstances invite conversation, and it’s Maury who speaks up first.

“With the understanding that anyone can decline to answer, or tell me I’ve asked something hurtful or insensitive, I’d love to find out more about you folks.” Sure enough, she’s got a notepad and pen out, ready to record details.

“Multi-50, Resister, you first. You’re not in the Menagerie anywhere else, as I understand it. How’d it happen?”

The magitech hero shifts uncomfortably. “I er, intervened when Alycia Chin attacked Harry Gale while he was delivering Iconoclast to prison. Her lightning gauntlets disrupted the spell-circuit in my suit which kept my identity a secret. At that point, I joined up with the team to try and stop the Hidden Family.”

Multi-25’s Alycia shifts uncomfortably in her seat. “Sorry,” she mumbles.

Maury presses on, addressing herself to Multi-25’s Alycia and Charlotte. “How about y’all? I don’t usually see my version of you two hanging out.”

The two look at each other, and Charlotte-25 shakes her head. “I prefer not to talk about it,” she says at last.

“I apologize and withdraw the question.” Maury takes this entirely in stride. “How about you, Astra? Most of us know an Adam Amari. Are you another gender-flipped version?”

Astra blinks in confusion. “Gender-flipped? Goodness no. I am Adam Amari’s daughter.”

The hubbub from that revelation lasts until Leah cuts in. “Hey, I’m pilotin’ up here! Settle down.”

Multi-99 is still the broken shell of a planet Charlotte remembers. Maury, Daph, and the others pale as they see the reality of what Charlotte had only described to them.

It’s the first time visiting this place for some of the others. Charlotte can see it on their faces. Those who have been here before show only a grim determination.

“Where can we set down that’s safe?” Daph asks.

“There is no safety here,” Leah mutters. “The wind is blowing with hurricane force. Those discharges are the size of Rhode Island. They may not even be lightning. Fuck if I’ve ever seen yellow lightning. So pay your money and you take your chances.”

“How about caves?” young Jason asks. “It’s gravity against air pressure down there, an’ if my calc’lations are right, of course–”

This earns him an eyeroll from Alycia-25.

“–Hang Son Doong, in Vietnam, should be a cave big enough an’ deep enough to hold Garuda an’ have a stable atmosphere.”

Leah looks over her shoulder at young Jason. “We don’t have GPS any more. Satellites are gone. Can ya get us there from memory?”

The kid smirks. “Of course.”

Maneuvering Garuda through hurricane-force winds demands Leah’s total concentration. Everyone is strapped in, and in spite of that the craft is rocked violently enough to leave bruises. But Jason’s directions are good, and the flying wing descends into what was once a beautiful underground space.

Leah activates the external lights. With scanning LIDAR, she’s able to navigate the interior of the cave, which extends for almost nine kilometers. The trip takes almost 30 minutes. By the end of it, external atmosphere readings are good, and there’s plenty of room to set the craft down and still have a working space.

The Charlottes of multiverses 12, 25, and 65 confer on the ghost summoning details. Leah and Resister talk tech. Astra-79 begins invoking her mysterious powers, to equally mysterious purpose. Bodark, Vermillion, Daph, Harold-65, and Alycia-25 all volunteer to defend the site in case of attack, and Harold will be mindful of other dangers that other people can’t react to in time.

Charlotte has Manny, and uncrates him now. The chatty skull is clearly ready to be the center of attention, and she explains the plan.

“We’ll conjure the spirits of this world, and have them speak through you. We wish to understand how this world met its fate. It may take much time, and much exertion.”

“Aye, lass, I’m ready!” Manny declares with confidence.

Curious, Charlotte glances over at the representatives of Multi-25, Alycia and another Charlotte.

Alycia withdraws a strange crystal, the size of a golf ball, from her jacket pocket. Charlotte recites an incantation over it, and to everyone’s surprise, what emerges is nothing less than a spectral Jason Quill.

“Thanks to my father, Jason didn’t survive the Sepiaverse,” Alycia-25 explains softly, to answer the questioning stares. “Charlotte made him a vessel for the aggrieved dead of that world. He will be our medium for this experiment.”

The spectral Jason doesn’t speak, but looks to his former comrades with hollow eyes. Charlotte can see young Jason shudder in empathetic connection to his cognate’s dark fate.

Charlotte is strangely grateful to see Charlotte-65 withdraw her own equivalent to Manny. Somehow a talking skull is easier to cope with than a departed friend.

“Energy readings here seem to be stable,” Resister announces from the huddle of scientists and techs. “We see no indication that this cavern will be the target of discharges from the Eigendrakes’ lightning. You should be safe to proceed.”

“I’ll have a shield up, just in case,” Astra reports.

“I shall be a shield unto you as well,” Harold declares.

Charlotte nods. “Right. My fellow mystics, I suggest we begin our work.”

There are ghosts, but nowhere near as many as the expedition’s members would have expected from a dead world. As they enter the cavern, called by the aetherial currents conjured by the Charlottes, they speak their truths to Jason or either of the Mannys, and these mediums in turn relate their story.

They speak of some empire of the dead at the center of the world. They speak of being drawn into the Stygian depths of the planet itself, and resisting that urge. They speak of the end of all things, though none can say with certainty how it happened. It is as though an eye blinked, and the Earth ended.

“There is no fear in them,” Bodark reports. “Only confusion.”

Charlotte understands a little about the werewolf, enough to not question his insight. He is not a man who transforms into a wolf, so much as a man possessed by the essence of fear, which to mortal man is experienced as a wolf - the nocturnal predator whose presence is a component of humanity’s collective subconscious.

“They didn’t have time to be afraid,” Alycia theorizes.

“If there’s a civilization of ghosts, they are our only recourse,” Charlotte says at last. “But the center of the world…”

“…is technically accessible,” Leah points out. “The planet had a hole drilled through it by whatever the hell did this. We can technically fly to the core.”

The others look at each other, shrug, and nod. Sure, why the hell not?

Back aboard the Garuda, Leah launches into space. She need only hold the bucking craft steady against the awful winds.

This time she looks back at Maury. “Hey, Jones. I need a distraction. Start asking your questions.”

Maury obliges. “Our Leo Snow had a traumatic experience in Atlantis. He chose to get tattooed to deal with the emotional trauma. Do you have any kind of similar experience with Atlantis? Is that a thing that happened to you?”

Leah smiles softly, and holds up one of her arms for inspection. Only now can the team see that a cable extends from the Garuda’s dashboard into a socket within the arm. “I’m 65% cybernetic by body mass. The squids weren’t kind.”

The question itself was risky, and Maury recognizes this now. She tries for something more light-hearted. “Astra. You said you’re Adam’s daughter. Who’s your mother?”

The girl grins impishly at that. “That’s a secret I can’t reveal. But I can tell you a little, if you want.”

She looks around. “Everyone, tell me what the date and time is for you. Down to the second.”

The members of the mystic universe, Harold the Fleet and Charlotte Paumer, have no time-keeping apparatus, and shrug the question away. The others have watches, phones, and similar technological means of answering it. And curiously, everyone has a different answer. Sometimes the discrepancy is a matter of seconds. Others, it’s a matter of days.

Astra explains. “The Charlottes talk about the ‘moons’ being in alignment. I’d like one of them to explain, but first, I’ll just say that each of the parallel universes I’ve encountered has a slightly different ‘current time’. The current time of my reality is far ahead of any of the dates you’ve given - at least ten years. So in a sense, answering personal questions would be like giving you future knowledge.”

Charlotte-65 nods. “Oui. The moons, they are an occult shorthand for a sign which we may witness in the supernal world. They are not the silver orb which hangs in the night sky, but a thing of magic which is of similar distance and significance. Puissant power may flow from world to world when their moons align. The accursed witch Hecate has cognates who were born under twenty eight of these moons, and she is in communion with her sister-selves.”

Charlotte herself adds to her cognate’s explanation with what she’s understood about the phenomenon. “One of my researches was the possibility that our ‘Eigendrakes’ struck at worlds through this bridge. I found no evidence of such a thing, but that does not rule it out.”

Alycia-25 speaks up. “If these parallel realities don’t occupy the same _local_time, and they were hit at different local times, is it still possible the attack hit multiple worlds from some point of larger simultaneity? On Earth, we have time zones. 6am Pacific is 9am Eastern, but if something happens at that moment, it’s still simultaneous.”

“It’s possible,” Leah says. “Charles has the data on the attacks. We can try to figure that out once we get back.”

Garuda is by now in low Earth orbit. The craft’s rockets engage, pushing everyone back against their seats.

Slowly, the planet spins beneath them. The continent-sized hole in the planet comes to the center of their perspective. It’s larger, by orders of magnitude, than the cave they so recently occupied, and is still more forbidding than the scale suggests.

Leah grins grimly. “Game faces on. We’re going on a journey to the center of the Earth.”

Garuda rockets forward - downward - into the greatest wound in the whole world.

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The deeper into the devastated planet they go, the lighter they feel. Similarly, Garuda’s rockets reduce in intensity and eventually flicker out, letting the craft drift.

Streams of water from Earth’s oceans fall past them. Once in awhile, the crew of the flying wing can make out ships - microscopic specks upon the mightiest waterfalls in existence. But like the craft itself, they and the water now seem to fall only due to inertia.

“What’s happening?” Maury asks.

Several scientists speak up at once. Alycia-25 wins out by having the voice that cuts through babble most sharply. “The center of gravity - the place we’d be pulled by Earth’s combined mass - hasn’t changed. It’s still at the core. But there’s no nickel-iron core any longer. Instead, we’re in what amounts to a very thick donut with a hole at the center. The actual mass doing the pulling isn’t below us, it’s around us.”

The interior of the Earth is truly black. The only light they have comes from Garuda’s exterior lamps, and from the stars behind them, shining through the gap. Everything else is occulted.

That’s why it’s so surprising to see shadowy projections emerging out of the gloom. They don’t produce their own light, and don’t reflect much of Garuda’s floodlamps, but their tenebrous solidity somehow contrasts with the lack of light elsewhere. The impression Charlotte gets is that of a cave, in which a narrow beam of sunlight is only seen through its reflection off the dust particles in the air.

The flying wing descends past the first of the projections, and into an increasingly complex maze of more.

“It looks like some kinda superstructure,” says Leah, after a few minutes of inspection. “Pretty sure this is not a normal geological feature.”

“It’s not,” Charlotte says softly. “We have crossed over into a spiritual reality.”

“The city of the dead at the Earth’s core?” Daph asks. “The one the ghosts talked about.”

“The first and last city,” whispers Charlotte-65, of the mystical parallel.

Maury doesn’t ask questions. She’s got a camera out and is intently filming.

Leah reorients Garuda with a nudge on the maneuvering jets. The craft rotates, and what looked like projections forward are now understood as extremely tall towers. And upon some of them are symbols.

Vermillion reaches into his coat pocket. He produces the card on which was the symbol thought to be associated with the Timeless Tower, and wordlessly presents it to Bodark and Charlotte for inspection. The symbol he has matches some of the symbols on the towers. They, in turn, look at each other in mute curiosity.

“There’s an open space below us,” Leah reports. “I’m setting down. No idea if this stuff is solid or not.”

Garuda rocks ever so gently upon touchdown, and Leah shrugs.

“Shall we go out?” Charlotte asks.

“Must we?” Harold the Fleet inquires wryly.

“I’s fine, I been to all kinda strange places,” announces young Jason proudly. “Leave this ta’ me.”

He marches for the hatch, which opens, and the others reluctantly disengage their safety straps, rise, and follow suit.

The city of the dead is lit, but it’s impossible to know how or from where. Every hallway is devoid of lamps, torches, or other forms of illumination. Every light comes from around corners, or shines through cracks, or is seen through lazily curling mists. The hues range from blood red to sickly yellow to corrosive green.

The expedition stalks through corridor after corridor. Leah has a high-tech inertial navigation system she’s holding tightly onto, while young Jason’s eyes unerringly catch sight of unique features of the architecture, or landmarks the group passes. The theme is consistent, at least. Despite the local flourishes, the individual details, and the idiosyncratic arrangements of things, the group is walking through a necropolis - a memorial for the departed. There are urns, small buildings, headstones, and more. There are flower pots made of some jet-black metal, but no flowers.

The group stops short at the sound of footfalls. Charlotte-65 and Charlotte-25 begin weaving spells of unmaking in readiness, while Alycia-25 readies her guns. Astra draws forth a starry barrier of protection. Resister, of Multi-50, is suddenly nowhere to be seen, and Charlotte realizes that it is only with great effort that she can remember him at all - but this is normal and expected.

The footfalls come at a languid, hypnotic pace. In a moment, their source becomes visible. A group of red-robed figures, faces concealed under horned masks of bone and brass, come into the strangely ambient light.

“The Lady will see you, strangers,” one croaks out, in a hoarse voice.

“Which Lady?” Charlotte inquires carefully.

“Queen Charlotte Palmer, the Lady of the Labyrinth, Mistress of Pandemonium.”

The Charlottes in the party all glance at each other in extreme wariness.

“It is not a request,” the robed leader emphasizes.

“It would be impolite to refuse, regardless,” Charlotte says with a forced smile. “Lead on.”

The Lady is dressed in the grandest of raiment, but the impression Charlotte receives is that she is wearing her very throne room. When she turns and walks, the features of the room - the texture of the floor, the position of the marble columns, the skull-like decorations that separate the arched ceiling from the walls - all shift and follow, as though merely printed on the fabric of her funerary finery.

Like her acolytes and priests, she wears an elaborate mask which covers the top half of her face, and features horns which twist and curl around it. It is adorned with jewels that would sparkle, if exhibited in authentic light rather than this hollow mockery.

“I am she who held the souls of this world against oblivion,” the Lady announces, in a voice that throbs with power. “I command the legacy of this grave-world. Speak, travelers, and I shall consider your request.”

Charlotte glances at the others, who silently nod assent for her to speak for them.

“We come hoping to learn what befell this world,” she says. “What happened. And how to fight it.”

The Lady raises a pale finger. For a moment, it looks much too long to be a human digit, and the fingernail looks much too talon-like for Charlotte’s comfort. In response, her priests or acolytes retire from the chamber, and return in moments with three goblets. Each brims with a red, viscous fluid.

“Drink, and know,” she commands.

“What is this?” Maury asks, tepidly.

“Drink!” the Lady says, and the room trembles. Charlotte can see wrinkles and seams forming in what otherwise looks like marble flooring, and again thinks of the room as a dress worn by the Lady.

“A mystic, a scientist, and an analyst,” she proposes. “One of us Charlottes. Leah or Resister - if he’s around. Jason or Alycia.”

“I am here. I will drink.” Resister’s sudden presence doesn’t alarm her too much, not after her experience with his counterpart on her own world, but the others startle.

“I’ll do it,” Alycia volunteers.

“I will as well,” Charlotte-65 says.

Astra speaks up too. “I’ll network your minds with the group. Nobody should miss out on whatever this experience is.”

After a moment’s consideration, the trio of volunteers down their goblets. As the taste of human blood fills their mouths, memories fill their minds.

The only way to see the death of this world is through the eyes of a speedster.

Harry Gale, and his parents, are moving at peak speeds. Their perception is cranked to the maximum possible - their brains fully process every new sheet of photons that enter their eyes, as fast as they come. Light itself moves at a comparative crawl. There is nothing to hear - sound waves are moving glacially slow at this rate.

Even then, the speedsters cannot move quickly enough to do anything. Through their memories of this moment, the Garuda expedition can see the yellow lightning descending from space, striking the ground, throwing up rocks as it tunnels into the core of the earth, all as fast as a real lightning bolt might seem to an ordinary human being.

The bolts come, again and again, magnifying and compounding the effect. A pit - a hole - a tunnel - a crater - a gap - the Earth itself is thrust aside by the unmatched power of the mysterious attack. But the bolts don’t come after each other. Somehow, it’s like one is replacing the previous one, performing a cosmic retcon of the last bolt and replacing it with something bigger.

A strange distortion hangs over the most distant parts of the bolt, far up in the sky. Through the connection provided by Astra, the others can feel the three chosen minds - mystic, scientific, analytic - considering the ramifications of this.

The vision ends, leaving the group pale and sweating with the exertion of experiencing so much, in such short a time.

“You have found your answer?” the Lady inquires calmly.

The group begins conferring immediately. Leah and Resister talk about gravitational lensing. The Charlottes consider what the distorted vision might suggest. Jason and Alycia think about motive, direction, and other properties of the attack.

“We’re looking at something that doesn’t move through our time dimension,” Leah says, after the discussions wind down and conclusions begin to gel. “It’s like… a fracture in a tea cup. The break happens here, at some point around the edge of the cup. Maybe you’ve drank all the tea down to that line, so none leaks out. Maybe there’s tea above the line, and you lose some. But the tea goes down, like regular time, while the break goes across. That’s… actually a weird analogy, sorry.”

“You are saying that from our perspective, its passage occupies a single quantum of our time,” Alycia prompts. “The effect may experience its own causal chain through its own time dimension, but to us it’s not here, then here for the shortest possible amount of time there can be, then gone again.”

“Yeah, exactly.”

“It is not lightning, either,” Charlotte-25, Alycia’s teammate, explains. “It more closely resembles what Summer called the ‘rhizome’, or the roots of our branching world-lines. We may be looking at, essentially, loose strands of reality itself.”

“How do we stop it?” Daph says at last.

“It already happened,” shrugs Jason-41. “How do ya change the past?”

“So it’s not going to happen again, ever? Can you guarantee that?” Daph asks, more sharply.

Young Jason has no answer to that, other than to kick the ground in frustrated annoyance.

The Lady speaks now, and the group turns to listen.

“You have received the answer to your question. Now you must decide. Half of you will stay, and become residents. The other half may leave.”

Leah bristles immediately, and Daph isn’t far behind her. “What? Hey, we like our Charlottes, sure, but we got places to be and lives to lead. Why do we have to stay?”

“It is my pleasure that you shall remain,” the Lady says calmly.

“Yeah, no, not happening.” Daph turns about and starts walking.

She is confronted by a sudden influx of the red-robed and horn-adorned priests.

“It is not a request,” the Lady says sweetly.

Bodark, who until now has been quiet and stayed out of the way, holds up a thick, hairy hand to get the group’s attention. “You all will go. I will straighten this out. I will return to your airplane soon. Wait for me until then.”

Vermillion lays a hand gently on the werewolf’s arm, and leans in, looking worriedly at him. Bodark shrugs it off and starts walking toward the Lady, who awaits his approach with a curious sneer on her ink-black lips.

With that, Vermillion turns and flashes a charming smile. “Perhaps it would be best for us all to leave,” he says.

“If there’s a fight–” Leah begins.

“Perhaps Bodark does not wish you all to grow to fear him,” Vermillion counsels. “You may, if you remain. Perhaps we can respect his wishes.”

Astra frowns in sympathetic concern and looks to the stocky Russian man, who is fishing a cigarette out of his pocket and looking up at the Lady through narrowed eyes. Charlotte wonders what the girl thinks, or sees, but now is not the time for such questions.

The priests part at a gesture from the Lady, and the group hustles.

Alycia scowls. “We’ve fought Pandemonium before. Not when it was powered up with the souls of the planet. That guy isn’t coming back.”

“Have faith,” Charlotte finds herself saying. “He, like Vermillion, have surprises in them.”

“How long do we have faith for, before those red-robed weirdos charge Garuda?” Leah asks, scowling. “If I see a gang of them with fuckin’ wavy daggers or something, I’m launching.”

But none of the priests come. The group waits in apprehensive silence. Only Astra, for a moment, seems pained by some distant sensation, and Charlotte isn’t quite sure whether it would be better to ask out of empathy, or say nothing out of consideration. She opts for the latter.

To most of the group’s considerable surprise, Bodark comes out of the shadows, hands in pockets and still smoking his cigarette. He throws it away with a flick of his fingers before boarding Garuda.

“What could you possibly have said to her that would influence her?” Alycia demands.

The werewolf only shrugs. “Все боятся волка у своей двери,” he says to her.

Garuda flies, out from the darkness, toward the distant disc of stars.

It’s Daph who breaks the silence.

“We can’t let this ride. What are we gonna do about this?”

“What are our options?” Leah asks softly. “Fuckin’ go back in time and divert a huge chunk of spacetime away from a planet?”

“Yeah,” Daph says, matter-of-factly. “We got a ship full of mystics and geniuses. Gonna tell me it can’t be done?”

Nobody is quite courageous enough to either volunteer to do the impossible, or to tell Daphne Palin she’s wrong to want justice done.

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Back at Charles Palmer’s library, the mood is subdued.

Harold the Fleet is taking it the hardest. As the Harry of the magical parallel Multi-65, he just watched the analogues of himself and his parents witness the end of a world, and be helpless to do anything about it. Now he sips tea despondently, while his Charlotte watches worriedly over him.

Charlotte watches them too, neglecting her own tea. And from a cushion atop one of the library’s tables, Manny the Skull watches her.

“Lass, ye brood too heavily,” the perished pirate remarks. “It be not like you.”

Charlotte folds her fingers together and stares into the empty eye-sockets. “I’ve seen what can become of my world. I’ve seen what can become of me. Again and again. The ascension to uncaring divinity. The fall into nihilism and madness. It’s… difficult, Manny.”

Manny, unusually for him, says nothing.

The silence finally draws Charlotte’s mouth back into a half-smile. “I’m not the healthy, well-adjusted ghost that you are.”

“Oh, ye are well adjusted. Ye just be lonely. And it is not you alone that is like this, if I may say.”

Charlotte arches an eyebrow. “You may say, Manny. Please elaborate.”

The skull can’t exactly direct anyone’s attention with a flick of his eyes. But somehow he gives that impression regardless, toward the Menagerie of other universes.

“Ye see that lad, Jason Quill. And the girl, Astra. And that forgettable fellow, Resister - I mean no offense to him. Each of them came alone from their worlds, and seem comfortable enough.”

Charlotte nods along. “Yes, and…?”

“None of yer crew-mates on the Good Ship Charlotte came alone, did they,” Manny says.

She looks again with fresh eyes. There’s Charles Palmer, consulting with his teammate Leah. There’s Charlotte-65, comforting the distraught Harold. There’s Charlotte-25, talking to her friend Alycia. And there is Charlotte herself, who brought a veritable retinue with her.

“You’re saying I’m destined to be a lonely person?” she asks Manny, in a more subdued voice. “I have to surround myself with people?”

“That be the way the wind blows, lass,” the skull says. “Ye opened yourself a coffee shop. Or a library. Or all manner of diverse and sundry establishments I can only guess at. Ye seek to draw in people, yet ye are reluctant to engage with the ones ye know.”

The Lady…

“Pardon me, Manny. I must ask Bodark about something.”

Charlotte rises, leaving the skull and her tea behind.

She finds Bodark in the library’s stacks, perusing the spines of the books. Vermillion is beside him, leaning down to read the titles to him in English and Russian.

English practice.

She smiles.

“Bodark. May I speak with you?” she asks.

The vampire is the first to look up, and makes finger-pointing gestures, first at himself, then at the open reading area. He’s asking if he should go, without asking.

Charlotte thinks, just for a moment. But they’re cooperating right now. Best to encourage that, she resolves.

Besides, what she wants to ask is personal, but perhaps more so to the werewolf. Let him decide.

“The Lady had considerable power,” she says without preamble. “She controlled the ghosts of a whole planet. Yet you confronted her, and came away unscathed. I must know how you managed that.”

Again, the vampire makes the gestures, but this time directing the question at his companion rather than Charlotte. The werewolf only shakes his head. “ты уже понимаешь,” he says wearily.

He switches back to English, and looks at Charlotte.

“You see, everyone fears the wolf at their door…”

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” – H.P. Lovecraft

Bodark stands in the presence of the Lady. Behind him, his comrades are retreating back through the city of the dead.

He places the cigarette to his lips and lights it with an ancient and battered lighter. The smoke curls and arcs and bifurcates, as the non-gravity of Earth’s empty core and the spectral nature of the city compete to shape consensus reality.

“What makes you think I will allow any of you to leave, after such defiance?” the Lady asks coolly.

Bodark feels the Wolf inside of him.

He gives it his voice.

“You are afraid.”

The Lady throws back her head and laughs. It’s a cold, merciless noise, like the biting wind of a Russian blizzard given a human throat to occupy. “What have I to be afraid of?” she demands.

The Wolf hungers. Bodark gives it his eyes.

“That is the question whose answer you deny yourself. Let us find it together,” he says. And he looks, with the glowing yellow eyes of a predator.

The Lady senses the intrusion. She summons her power. But the eyes of the Wolf cannot be blinded.

“You fear to be alone,” he says.

The penumbral might of the Lady’s magics rally to her defense. They seek out her enemy. But what is that?

Her enemy is her fear.

Her fear is inside her.

The power cannot strike down that which it must defend. It roils and twists in confusion, like the cigarette smoke.

The Wolf hungers. Bodark gives it his hands, and they become clawed instruments of obliteration. They tear through the directionless power, shredding the curtain of night the Lady has drawn to protect herself.

“You did not destroy your world. But you capitalized on its destruction,” the Wolf says.

“I protected them!” the Lady shouts in defiance. With her power in tatters, self-justification is the closest weapon at hand, and she wields it readily.

The Wolf will not be bloodied by such feeble weapons as this. “Protected from what, pray tell?”

“From being lost. For all time.” Her answer is incomplete, and the Wolf pounces.

“Who would be lost? How would this be?” The human soul is the Wolf’s hunting ground. Well does it know the paths that spirits walk when their mortal remnants fall away.

She feels the Wolf growing near. She can sense its hot breath on her neck. She hears the pads of its paws on the ground beside her, as it stalks about her in the darkness.

“They would be lost to me!” the Lady wails.

“Why?” the Wolf asks.

The Lady lacks a true heartbeat, but the memory of it is upon her now, and she hears the Wolf’s question through the sensation of a pounding pulse.

Fear wrings the truth from her. “I am cursed never to cross over,” the Lady admits softly, into the gloom she has surrounded herself with. “There is no afterlife waiting for me. The Magus doomed me to stand forever at the threshold. I can go no further. All my friends - all my family - when they are gone, they are gone forever.”

The Lady kneels, and weeps, and in time finds a handkerchief pressed into her palm. It belongs to a stocky Russian man, a half-smoked cigarette hanging loosely between his lips.

“The Devil gave us power. We can protect people. We pay his price. That we cannot live with them. We, the Devil’s chosen, we must live with each other instead. It is not the same. It must be enough.”

“That is why I wanted you to stay,” the Lady says softly.

“But we must go,” Bodark says. “This horror must not hurt more people.”

“I understand,” says Lady Charlotte Palmer. “Go. Do what you must.”

Bodark smiles a crooked smile. “Well. She and I have conversation. She say some Magus has cursed her to stand in doorway. She will hold onto ghosts so she has company. She is afraid to be alone. I say, I understand. I give her handkerchief. Then she let me go. She does not return handkerchief.”

Charlotte squints at the Russian. “That’s all she said?” she asks flatly.

Bodark gives the slightest hint of a shrug. “It was not very long conversation.”

Exasperated, Charlotte turns. “Thank you,” she says, with the meager fragment of politeness she has in her at the moment.

“я рад помочь,” the werewolf says after her, cheerfully. “I am happy to help.”

Leah clears her throat. “I have good news and I have bad news.”

“The bad news is that the tea is cold,” quips Vermillion from the back.

“Yeah, and I bet you don’t like our pretzels either, Snackula,” quips Leah without hesitation. “Anyway, good news is that we’ve worked out a way to deal with the effect. We’re gonna do some applied multiversal cartography. And it’s gonna take Harold being real fuckin’ fast.”

The speedster stands and bows. His poise has returned somewhat. “To avenge my family, though they be of another world, I dedicate myself unto your cause,” he announces with determination.

Leah grins. “That’s the spirit. So basically we’re gonna open a portal using the Hula Hoop. Only we’re not aiming it along the regular space-time metric. We’re gonna do it at an angle. That angle is gonna aim partially backwards in time, intersecting–”

She looks around from face to face. “Okay, I hear y’all thinking, ‘English bitch’. I get it, I get it. Simple version.”

“We’re creating a big pit in space-time. Harold is gonna fall down it. At a very precise moment in time, he’s gonna cross paths with the Eigendrakes as they strike. He’s gonna note down that precise moment by clicking a button on a gadget I’m gonna send with him.”

Leah’s face grows stern and sad. “The bad news is, my dude, you gotta be at hyper-speed the whole way through. For us, it’s gonna be like 68 seconds. That’s the highest resolution I can get. For you, it’s gonna be more like…” She pauses. “You know, I dunno how fast you can really push yourself. Here, let’s check.”

Leah hands over a stopwatch. “Between here and here is one second. Click the stopwatch, click it again after a second, and between them tell me how long it felt like.”

Harold does so. A mere second passes, and he shakes his head as though waking up from something. “I am returned,” he reports. It takes him a few seconds to recall the question he’s been invited to answer. “To me it was but the tolling of a bell.”

“I dunno how long that is,” Leah confesses.

“There are twenty four bells in the day,” the speedster offers.

Leah whistles softly. “Holy shit. Okay. So you’re gonna have to stay conscious and alert for like… three days, my dude. Think you can handle it?”

Harold’s composure falters, but only for a moment. “If I must, then I can. That is my vow as a champion, my lady.”

The conversation from earlier strikes Charlotte again. If she is prone to loneliness, how long might she last in similar circumstances? Three days without people - three years - three centuries? How long is too long?

She has no interest in finding out.

The expedition move from the library to Leah’s underwater laboratory. From the control room, they watch Harold disappear into a glowing portal. And they watch him re-appear, just over a minute later.

Leah is first on the deck of the Launch System with a bowl of chips. She receives the device from a dazed Harold, checks it, and exults briefly. “You did great, dude. Here, chips as reward.”

Harold blinks owlishly. He’s been in solitude for three days, but it’s not just that. “What are ‘chips’?”

Leah looks baffled for just a moment. Then a warm glow of excitement radiates across her features. “Oh my god, dude. You have never had chips? You? Merry fucking Christmas!”

An hour later, as Harold is declaring for the fourth time that chips are the divine gift of God to mankind, Leah announces more bad news. “So, we gotta do this like, another 5 times to really get a solid reading. I’m not gonna put him through that immediately.”

Charlotte checks with her companions. Bodark and Vermillion can go anywhere, and have no obligations. Neither Daph nor Maury mind sticking around and seeing where this goes. Manny, of course, is excited to go on any kind of adventure. With that, Charlotte asks Leah for accommodations in the underwater city, and receives them.

In the evening, she receives a visitor. It’s Astra, the self-identified daughter of Adam Amari.

Charlotte greets her guest with her accustomed politeness and invites her into the temporary room she occupies. While she hunts for refreshments to offer, Astra surprises her with a revelation.

“Your friends, Vermillion and Bodark. I want to tell you something about them.”

Charlotte turns, surprised. “I wasn’t aware you were acquainted.”

“I’m not,” Astra confesses. “But what I know is something obvious to me, and yet it may not be apparent to anyone else. Not even them.”

Charlotte finds nothing but bottled water in a mini-fridge, and is grateful that Astra waves off the offer with a smile. “Very well. What can you tell me? And, perhaps, will you tell me whether you have told them, and if not, why not?”

Astra nods. “First. What they have isn’t a Concordance shard, exactly. Not like Sol-Gamma-2 or Tau or Enoch-7. It’s more like… the stuff that they’d make a shard out of. The primal emotional potential, some kind of motivation, but no sentience or intelligence of its own. Maybe the barest glimmer of a distinct identity. But they have more power than maybe you, and maybe they, realize. Be mindful.”

Charlotte nods. “And to my second question?”

“You know Adam better than they do,” smiles Astra. “Perhaps you’ll be able to explain their natures to them better, based on that experience. I don’t have the rapport with them that you do. It seemed best for someone who knows them to help them.”

“I see,” Charlotte says. “Do you think they will need my guidance in the future?”

Astra shrugs and smiles. “Who knows? What I do know is that they will sense their abilities instinctively, like Bodark did when he confronted the Lady. I know that despite your feelings about their bickering, they’re growing on you.”

The girl heads to the door. Before stepping out, she finishes her thought. “I know when it comes time for them to act again, you’ll worry. You won’t want to lose them. All I can say is, the future’s not certain, but have faith in your friends, Charlotte Palmer. Believe in them. They’ll come back to you.”

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Leah has proposed her next course of action.

“Because these Eigendrakes are basically disjunctions in reality, they’re not uh, events as we understand them. They’re damaging the causal chain of events in realities they enter, but they don’t integrate with them. To put it another way, if you uh, let’s say you weave a weird foreign thread into a sweater or somethin’, right? It’s part of the fabric now. But if you take scissors to it, you’re just doing some kind of awful damage. The sweater has been changed in both cases, but uh–”

“Get on with it,” deadpans Alycia.

“Right.” Leah balls up a fist, and smacks it into an open palm. “Because it’s not changing history if we disrupt the Eigendrakes in return, we’re gonna fight 'em.”

“How ya gonna do that?” asks the young Jason Quill.

“We’re going to align the Hula Hoop along their temporal dimension. In short, we’ll be traveling sideways to time, the way the Eigendrakes do. One more analogy, then I’ll get to it. Imagine crossing the street and getting hit by a car. It’s instantaneous - here, gone, bam. But imagine you’re driving another car, chasing behind that guy. We’re going from being the helpless pedestrians to the fucking chase car.”

The expedition is getting tooled up in Leah’s version of the Launch System. The Charlottes have conferred amongst themselves about how best to support the effort. Vermillion is performing a series of card shuffling tricks to amuse himself, while Bodark is chain-smoking. Daphne Palin is in quiet conversation with the spectral Jason.

Maury Palin has access to her high-tech chair-cycle, and is working on programming the camera drones it comes equipped with. She’s also volunteered to run monitoring for Leah, and has somehow got access to some pricey high-speed cameras. “Just in case we need to record and analyze this for later,” she explains. “I made my career doing breakdowns of superhero fights. I think I can get some good info out of this one.”

The moment is here. “All mortals need to clear out of the Launch System,” announces Leah’s partner Flamma over the intercom. “We don’t know what sort of conditions we’ll find inside the space-time tube. Robots, undead, and anything else able to survive extreme environmental conditions may remain at their discretion.”

Charlotte, along with her peers, opts to stay. Bodark clears out, but Vermillion remains as well. Manny, now perched like a parrot atop Charlotte’s shoulder thanks to some clever rigging, is eager to see what happens next.

Plasma pressure in the chamber rises to 150%. This is Leah’s preferred safety margin. Her other non-negotiable safety requirement is a time limit. Three minutes, in and out, whatever happens.

There’s an eruption of power, and a sudden yawning vacuum in the chamber, as the Hula Hoop engages. Like a portable bridge extending across a river, it thrusts a synthetic stretch of spacetime outward.

“Seeking alignment with the Eigendrakes’ trajectory now,” Leah announces from the control room. Charlotte, and the others in the chamber with her, can only hear it through their personal communication devices - there’s not enough air now in the chamber to even transmit sound waves.

“99.5%… 99.8%… 99.995%…” Suddenly the room is filled with a yellow glow, the same as the unearthly lightning Charlotte witnessed over the remnants of the Lady’s obliterated world.

Maury’s high-speed cameras begin recording the scene immediately. What they see, and what Charlotte and the others perceive, are drifting shapes that occupy the space beyond.

“Watch out,” comes Daph’s urgent voice. “I’ve never felt anything with a stronger need for vengeance. No - not vengeance. Justice? There’s something that needs putting right, as strong as anything in the world.”

The shadows are big. Charlotte thinks of the scene like looking at an aquarium, except it contains only whales and sea monsters. She remembers Leah’s coining of the term “Eigendrake”, and remembers what sailors would write on their maps, indicating the unknown beyond the bounds of exploration or imagination - “here there be dragons”.

Rather than swimming in their frozen lightning bolt, the shapes are now turning, in recognition that some foreign reality has intruded on theirs.

“Don’t let them in here,” warns Leah. “I’m powering down the Hula Hoop, but it’s gonna take a minute…”

The first Eigendrake lunges at the portal. Charles Palmer is ready. A powerful discharge of mystic energy lances out from a gem he wears on a signet ring, and it drives the creature back into its abyss.

“You can’t hurt them!” shouts Equity from the control room.

Charlotte isn’t sure what she means, until Daph herself clarifies. “You mustn’t hurt them.”

“Why not?” Leah demands.

Another is coming. The others, uncertain of what to do that isn’t fighting and shooting, hesitate for a critical moment. But Vermillion is prepared.

He leaps into the air, a tiny speck against the monster’s bulk. A red-black shadow flares out from him, like a splash of blood as a knife cuts through flesh. The creature recoils from it, though it is not struck, and like its fellow returns to the extradimensional conduit.

Intimidation? Fear? Charlotte isn’t sure.

She’s too busy trying to figure out what these things are.

Daph doesn’t have any more knowledge of these things than anyone else. Yet she shouted with authority that they sought some sort of recompense, and that it was somehow wrong to hurt them.

In the fight against Devon Crowninshield, Charlotte meshed with hundreds of souls.

If these things are made of similar stuff, could she handle the load?

She sees another Charlotte - Charlotte-65, the one that came here with Harold the Fleet - reach the same conclusion. They nod at each other, then leap into the gulf.

The experience is utterly disorienting. Flashes of experiences, of places, things, people, feelings. She feels pain and sorrow and love and anger and eagerness. She is hungry and horny and disgusted. She is men, women, monsters. She kicks a pebble into a stream, and lands on the Moon.

Charlotte feels herself yanked out the cataclysmic maelstrom by another Charlotte - Charlotte-25. “I had the same idea,” this one explains. “But I knew that you two did. I felt one of us should remain behind as a safety.”

“Wise,” Charlotte says between gasps.

The Hula Hoop snaps shut with a final outpouring of energy.

Air is pumped back into the chamber. As it is, Charlotte takes time to reflect on what she’s been told, and what she’s seen, and what she’s done.

As the multiversal defense squad gathers, she smiles, and explains what she’s concluded.

“The Eigendrakes are memories without a home.”

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“The Eigendrakes are loose memories,” Charlotte reiterates. “They’ve gathered around some sort of focal point. Some strong spiritual nexus. They have nowhere else to go, unfortunately.”

She gestures at Leah. “My world’s version of you explained that the universe’s function is to transform real events into memories.”

The other girl nods. “Yeah. Coupling physical phenomena to the psychic field helps the universe reach a ground state.”

Charlotte, though she doesn’t really understand the 21st century science behind the concept, gets the idea. It’s gratifying, as she looks at the faces of her friends, to see she’s not alone in her confusion. She goes on.

“And souls are the lifeboats of memory. Those souls instinctively seek out a destination, like the Orphean Market. Or the afterlives they collectively create.”

Daph adds her insight here. “The gods are caretakers of those afterlives, but they’re also like, the terrain. Imagine staying at a hotel where the manager is also the hotel, if that makes any sense. And gods are a type of spiritual nexus, like Charlotte’s saying. So it’s possible that some of the Eigendrakes are, like, gods in the making.”

“Why are they attacking worlds, though?” asks Alycia-25. “Is it intentional, instinctive, or something else?”

“Perhaps they are like vampires,” ventures Vermillion. “To feed, we seek the trappings of life. Blood. Breath. It is not the plasma or the iron or any of the physicality. It is something else. Perhaps you could call it the authenticity of life.”

Charlotte nods. “They’re doing what memories always do. They’re trying to arrange themselves in the universal scheme. Wherever they were will no longer serve, so they want to move on to a new home. The most natural thing in the cosmos, literally.”

She nods in Daph’s direction. “I believe that’s why you felt so strongly they shouldn’t be attacked.”

“Well I feel strongly that we shouldn’t be attacked,” Alycia-25 says firmly. “If we can’t just destroy them, certainly there’s something else to be done.”

“There is,” Maury says. She fetches a laser rangefinder from her photography kit, and a compact with mirror from her makeup kit. Using the mirror, she reflects the laser pointer almost 90 degrees.

“Leah, I’m no scientist, but I am pretty good at listening. You’re saying these things are crossing our normal time dimension at right angles or something. Your Hula Hoop can be rotated to match that dimension, we just saw that. Going back to your car analogy, can you rig your system to, y’know, swing things at a right angle, put the car and the pedestrian going in the same direction?”

“What do you see as the value in that maneuver?” asks Alycia.

Leah picks up on the idea quickly. “No, no, that’s a fantastic idea,” she announces. “They’re destructive because they’re crossing the time-stream. Fix that and we’re halfway there. For the other half… Charlotte, if these memories want to go somewhere, does it matter where? Like, if they drift into a different world’s uh, afterlife or whatever, is that a problem?”

“Not to my knowledge,” admits Charlotte. “Less a problem than the destruction of that world, I daresay.”

Daph hmms. “So once we do this right-angle move, what’s next? Will they find their own way?”

“Unfortunately, probably not,” Charlotte says. “We will still need to engage the Eigendrakes. We must shatter the spiritual nexus which binds the memories. Break the link, and the memories separate, and seep into the underworld.”

Leah grins fiercely, flexing a bicep. “Yeah. Fighting’s still on the table.”

Charlotte shakes her head. “This is essentially a spiritual conflict. Those of us who can muster attacks on spirits may participate. Everyone else ought to stay busy keeping the battlefields clear.”

Alycia-25 and Charlotte-25 nod at each other. Astra, Resister, and Charlotte-65 and Charles-37 seem ready.

Charlotte herself glances down at Manny the Skull. “I may require your services in this battle too, my friend,” she says with a smile.

“I’ll make 'em fear the dread pirates of old,” the skull boasts. “Just ye watch, lass.”

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The team already has the Hula Hoop set up for Leah and Charles’ universe, which they’ve dubbed Multi-37 and which Charlotte’s Menagerie calls “the Pidgeverse”. Here, the Menagerie is made up of gender-flipped heroes. Medea Quill, Alistair Chin, Leah Snow, Charles Palmer, Harriet Gale, Amelia Amari, and their assorted friends and family are all here to support the effort.

“We’re not sure what to expect, so just be ready for anything,” Leah announces to her team, and to the members of the multiversal expedition. “We’re splitting into two teams. The cowpokes will be wrangling Eigendrakes, keeping them in the tunnel however they can. The wizards are gonna neutralize the soul cores, hopefully splitting the Drakes up into their component memories. If all goes well and our theory holds true, those memories will discorporate and head into the Great Beyond or whatever the fuck.”

“What if it doesn’t?” Alistair asks, all business.

“Then the cowpokes wrangle whatever’s left back into the tunnel and we go back to the drawing board.” Leah shrugs. “Listen. There’s a space-time angle here. If this works, we’ll be effectively changing the past for some damaged or even destroyed worlds. We have a shot at saving a whole planet here. So don’t fuck up.”

She gestures at the assembly. “Okay. Sort yourselves out. If you can fuck with souls and magic and shit, you’re a wizard. If not, you’re a cowpoke. Each group, get a team lead appointed and tell me who that is. I’ll be operating the hardware and I will take instructions from either lead.”

For safety, the actual portal will open in the Sahara desert. This is the most isolated spot anyone can think of, barring the Antarctic, and that would pose serious challenges to survival for much of the team. The group rendezvouses there. Organizational arrangements then commence. Charles Palmer becomes team lead of the wizards, and Medea Quill is in charge of the cowpokes.

Over the radio, the two team leads announce their readiness to Leah.

“Roger. Plasma pressure rising… we’re targeting 200%, just in case. I have my finger on the button to kill this thing,” she reports back.

The signal is given, and the portal blossoms open.

If anyone was expecting the Eigendrakes to be peacefully milling about in the tube like before, they are now very, very mistaken.

A torrential cloud of darkness and yellow lighting bolts vomit forth from the portal. Everything happens all at once, too fast for almost anyone to handle. Harriet Gale and Harold the Fleet, keyed up for danger, move with their super-speed to push people out of the way of the bolts. Amelia and Astra are ready too, and simultaneously snap together a defensive barrier around the group.

“Shut it down!” screams Alistair into the radio. “Shut it down right now!”

Though he is not the leader, Medea echoes his words immediately, seeing their sense. “Leah, terminate portal. Leah! …Leah?”

There’s silence. Whether that means something’s happened back at the Launch System, or whether something is jamming the radio, nobody knows.

If that’s how it is, there’s nothing for it. Medea begins barking orders at the cowpokes. “Concordance Crew, enclose as many Eigendrakes as you can in a bubble - shift from protection to isolation, even if we’re in it too.”

She and Alistair raise some experimental energy weapons dredged up from the depths of the Quill Compound’s warehouse, and begin raising their own kind of hell.

Amelia and Astra fly to opposite sides of the portal and pour their hearts and wills into creating barriers. But to their horror, they see the Eigendrakes doing something unexpected. They are not only passing through the emotional energy being generated - they are consuming it.

“Wizards, begin your assault! Follow my target!” Charles too is barking out orders. “If the cowpokes are in trouble, go defensive - pull them out of danger if you must. Proceed!”

Charles bends his potent mystical powers to the task of finding the soul core of the nearest Eigendrake - a writhing, formless abomination of shadow and spirit. His power pushes the component memories out of the way, creating a path for others’ attacks to follow.

But in the time this takes, four more of the ghastly ghosts descend on Medea and Alistair. Harriet and Harold are already busy trying to corral their own targets.

It is the spectral Jason Quill of Multi-25 that springs to the defense of his cognate and her partner. The green, shimmering image of Jason thrusts out his hands, and through him the massed power of a dead world’s haunted hellions flare outward. The Eigendrake is pushed away, but only for a moment.

The Charlottes focus on holding open the path to the soul core of Charles’ chosen Eigendrake. Equity is ready for the opportunity they create. She summons a sparkling spiritual javelin and hurls it with deadly precision into the gap. The soul core is struck, and shatters.

The memories, like clouds of ink floating in ocean turbulence, do not dissipate after all. They are drawn to the cores of the other Eigendrakes nearby.

“This is really bad,” mutters Alycia-25.

More Eigendrakes are rising into the sky. Others sink into the sand of the Sahara.

“Cowpokes, corral who you can,” Medea announces, already sensing defeat. “We’ve failed at containment, now we’re doing mitigation.”

A few can be pushed back. Astra and Amelia don’t use their barriers as walls now, knowing the entities can simply devour them. They push, applying bursts of intense force, and a few Eigendrakes are indeed corralled into the tunnel. But it isn’t enough.

Harriet and Harold are busy full time, just dragging people out of the path of the lightning bolts. By now it’s very apparent that these aren’t just random discharges, but some kind of sustained attack. But from where, and how they are guided, is a mystery.

Bodark is able to corral a single Eigendrake at a time, by drawing on the fear of the Wolf, but even he cannot master a whole field of these beings. Vermillion, similarly, has limited luck in manipulating one of the shadowy time-dragons.

Harold is a tad too slow, just once, and is struck by a yellow bolt. Moments later, Medea is as well. Both disappear, instantly and completely.

Three minutes feels like an eternity. But Leah’s time factor applies, and the automatic cutoff closes the portal.

The remaining Eigendrakes cease their attacks, and flee immediately. With nowhere to corral them into, the team can do little but protect themselves and each other as they do.

The mystery of what happened at the Launch System is answered when Ai and Yu, Leah Snow’s twin robot creations, come onto the communicator. “Leah was struck by some kind of lightning bolt and disappeared,” they report. “What happened? Is she there?”

“Negative,” Alistair answers in muted anger and frustration. “The same thing has taken Harold-65 and… and Medea.”

“Are they…?” Alycia-25 asks fearfully. She has already lost one Jason.

Astra shakes her head. “There’s a space-time thread. The lightning didn’t kill them - it transported them,” she declares.

“Where?” Alistair demands.

The Launch System is very definitely offline. The team put out calls for pickup, and Ai and Yu dispatch Big Belle, the flying Boeing jet liner.

Cities are going off the air. Cairo is the nearest, and the team decides to overfly it.

What they see is nothing less than a shadowy draconic figure, curled up around the entire city.

“How big is that place?” breathes Daph.

“Four hundred and fifty square kilometers,” Alycia says softly.

“We gotta know what’s going on down there,” Maury says.

Charles Palmer shakes his head. “I would not send anything sentient into that place.”

Maury smiles wryly. “I’m the queen of remote camera drones. I got this.”

With the equipment aboard Big Belle, she’s able to construct a trio of long-range drones. They’ll make the flight, take some footage, and fly back. Mindful of the Eigendrakes’ disruptive effects on electronics, Alycia, Alistair, and young Jason all contribute some anti-EMP shielding.

The rear hatch of Big Belle opens, and the drones fly out into the sudden whistling of wind, and the stinging of sand.

An hour passes before the drones are due to emerge from the shadowy space. For a few minutes after that, the team worries that they’ve wasted their time. But finally they do emerge.

Back aboard Big Belle, flying high, the team analyzes the footage.

The people of Cairo are alive and mobile. The drones show them moving about. But the way they move is disturbing.

“What are they doing?” Charlotte-65 inquires.

“It seems like street theater,” Alycia says.

“They’re playing at some kind of role. Miming actions,” clarifies Alistair.

Sure enough, there’s a citizen who’s busily mixing up some kind of stew in a kettle or cauldron. But there’s no cauldron, and no stew, and no ladle. Elsewhere, two women are both tenderly rocking imaginary children, clutched in real arms.

It’s Astra who gives an explanation. Rather than watching the footage, she is reading emotional imprints from the drones, which passed through the Eigendrakes’ zone of control. “The Drakes’ component memories are re-enacting themselves. They’ve taken control of the citizens of Cairo and are using them as puppets. And meanwhile, the Eigendrakes are feeding on their real memories. They’re growing stronger, just like they did by eating our barriers.”

Young Jason is taking stock of world events via a computer terminal, and he reports back. “London. Halcyon. Los Angeles. An’ other places, east an’ west. The Drakes are settlin’ in.”

“We did this,” Charlotte says softly.

“We will find a way to undo it,” vows Resister, next to her.

“We will not find it here,” Alistair says firmly. “Leah spoke of saving planets. Now the planet to be saved is this one. Go back to your homes, consult with your teams, return with a plan. This world’s Menagerie will do the same.”

There isn’t much else to do, Charlotte admits to herself. And it will not be easy. The Drakes will drain the world of its memories to sustain and enlarge themselves, like vampires. They’ll fight any attempt to send their memories on their way. They’ll take control of living human beings, regardless of how it hurts them.

When you’re lonely, human connection is everything. There’s nothing you won’t do for it.

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So the Pidgeverse has been taken over by a horde of Eigendrakes, three members of the group have disappeared, and nobody has any idea how to proceed. Fantastic! What do we think?

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Well fuck.

There is a hell of a lot going on here, with the key point being that the Eigendrakes aren’t just some dangerous force of nature but a thinking opposition. (At least I’m pretty sure of that, given that they seemed to be waiting for the last attack and performed a tactical strike by taking out Leah first.)

Seems like a big damn problem that (effectively) two full teams of the Menagerie from across the multiverse couldn’t take out. Interested to see how this is dealt with.

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See The Adventures of Jason Quill, 1x08 “The Phantom Pirate”

Ships are being lost in the Bermuda Triangle, with reports of ghostly pirate ship being responsible. Jason’s skeptical, until he’s captured by the pirate captain, who introduces himself as the ghost of Nathaniel Quill, Scourge of the Seven Seas and Jason’s own ancestor! Of course, it turns out to be a fake, a plot by the fiendish Achilles Chin to steal a United States space shuttle, but Jason’s gets another final shock at the end when he does some research into his family tree …

((I have no idea if there is established backstory for Cap’n Quill, but since I don’t remember one, I’ll just riff off “The Mystery of the Lizard Men” and “Doctor No”.))

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