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.