Notice: The full length version of this tale, which is far more palatable, is available right here.
The magical computer pool glowed. We stood around it like gods.
"Place your palms upon the unimetriscope," said the man in the top hat. "Validate your identities to Her Majesty, the Queen of the Multiverse."
It all seemed a bit hoity-toity to me, but there's a lot to be said for peer pressure when some extra-dimensional fancypants tells you your "peers" are a lady with wings, a James Bond looking guy, a giant robot, and a little girl and her psychic-bondmate, a white pony.
The guy in the top hat called himself Jeremy Flavius Beedle, and he twirled his mustache when he spoke.
He'd found me in San Francisco. I wasn't even working. I was sitting outside the ferry building munching down on a pastry from the shop there when he approached me.
Top hat and cane, fancy suit, and a giant glowing gun that looked like something out of War of the frickin' Worlds. He said, "I am Sir JEREMY FLAVIUS BEEDLE. YOU, Sir Alec Cutter, of the San Frrrrancisco Police Department," (he rolled his r's like he was proclamin' something) "Are hereby summoned to the Grand Council of the Multiverse to Enforce and Eventually Repairify the Disastrous Maws Caused in the Multiverse by the Villain BANIUS CROW and his FICKLE MATRON, the LADY BLACK!"
By this time most of my pastry had dribbled onto the concrete and more than a handful of slack-jawed tourists were gawking at the incredible proclaiming yahoo and the douchebag who was dumb enough to stand there and listen to him. That energy thing on the top hat guy was looking mighty intimidating. It had to be a weapon of some kind. And I didn't want to be made a fool of by a steampunking cosplayer, so I busted out my fully charged taser and sent the wackjob flubbering like a fish out of water onto the concrete. And I must say, I really enjoyed it.
But the bastard was bigger than I thought and soaked up that electricity like a sponge. He rolled over, zapped me with his magic gun. I hit the dirt in a flash of green and woke up here.
"Here" being the Multiverse Meeting Carcinogen Lair or whatever it was he said. I won't underplay it, the room was incredible. It was a rotunda in Roman Bath style, big white steps and ivory pillars. On the dome's ceiling you could see the worlds. Like we see stars in our skies, the multiverse was spread out on the dome, each sparkling snowflake of a universe connected in a series of overlapping pages. It was very colorful. My jaw must have wobbled from its hinges because I realized everyone was staring at me. I walked to the central pool computer looking thing and joined my "peers," the winged lady, the kid, the pony, the robot and the spy.
Sir Beedle gave a very convincing speech. My multiversal counterparts were equally frazzled and he sated us all eventually. The Q&A took a while, so I'll summarize.
Good-hearted folks from the worlds were gathered to make a series of SWAT teams, transdimensional enforcers. Apparently some asshole thought it was going to be fun to run a few pan-universal cons, and it had gotten pretty bad. The criminal in question, Banius Crow, had assembled forces of nasties from across the worlds to do crime things. Made the organized crime problem in SF look like cee-lo. So, the Queen thought the only way to fight fire was with more fire.
Us. And me, a flame? Who'd'a thunk it?
Maybe I had hit my head, or was really drunk, or something. Maybe I'd finally snapped and stormed 3-B, robbing old lady Kane of her medical pot. If I'd smoked the whole bag right then and there, then Kane's pot was the best damn shit I'd ever seen. But the reality of things, also known as the detective sense, was harshly overriding the "there's no place like home, Toto" sense. This wasn't no trippy haze from the college days.
I placed my hand on the Universal Hot Tub thing and it scanned it. My face appeared on the shimmering pool, glowing pearlescent and bright. I looked happy, then realized, "Dear sweet Jesus they got a picture of me winning a bet at Golden Gate Fields." Oh, guilty pleasures. But none of the multiversal beings seemed suspicious, so I was off the hook. Gambler Detective with a clinically rocky sense of morality on their Super Team. Ookay.
The kid and her pony signed in, so did James Bond and Iron Man. The Angel lady fluttered her wings nervously, and stuck her palm on the thing. She had a cold case of the jitters, and even though she looked fairly smokin' hot in her leather tunic (it brought out the golden hues in her hair and wings), I got a weird feeling about her. She clocked in as Adriel Mu. For the moment, it was the only name I remembered of the lot.
After some nervous introductions, we were shipped out of the Multiverse Bathroom and to our dorms. My room wasn't near Adriel's, which was kind of a drag. I slept wedged between Iron Man and Bond. I guess the kid's pony was a girl too, and they wanted to segregate the boys and girls. Damn, was this band camp?
As if the Multiversal Regency anticipated us having trouble sleeping, we were provided with some mild sleep aids. I took them and was out like a light, slept like a frickin' baby. There were no "drugs within drug hazes," so I figured as I nodded off that this was for real.
Humans (etc) are adaptable creatures. Or maybe it was just us lot, having all worked in positions of authority in our respective worlds. The next week we trained together, and fell into the rhythm of our new station in life with ease. I learned the girl and her Pony were connected by the brain, which was interesting. The girl, Cass, kept the name of her pony a secret. I guess in her world, telling 'em your brain's name was like getting a nut exam. So I didn't press it.
Iron Man's name was Krathax, and he was, like Iron Man, a dude in a suit. Only the dude in the suit had actually perished some years before, and the suit, sad for his master's death, had carried on in Krathax's name and purpose. Of course, the corpse was still inside Krathax. That was kind of kinky, in a ghost-in-the-machine necrophilia way.
James Bond was a space-traveler by the name of Jack Spartacus. He was a curt sort of guy, someone who'd, in SF, probably run an illegal gambling ring with all the pluck and etiquette of an old-world saloon. Jack was a hell of a shot, even though he was missing a couple fingers. By his scars, I guess the man had seen battle. I suppose out of the lot, I had the most in common with him, but talking to him made me feel like a kid again. Guy was nerve-wracking to be around. There's only so much intensity a guy can take, you know?
And then of course, Adriel Mu. Her name was creamy as a mini-moo, one of those creamers you stick in your coffee. She wasn't an angel, but just a winged lady. It was neat. Apparently in her world, touching wings was really taboo. I wanted to jump all over them when
she told me that. Hope she can't read minds. Or maybe she can: this one's for you, baby!
Our initial training consisted of us learning one another's world's weapons. The thing Sir Beedle had shot me with wasn't a weapon. It was a Transdimensional Portalizificator, a one-way ticket to the Multiversal Bathroom Training Facility. We'd be going back home via that green thing one day, if we succeeded. I got the feeling that despite all the pleasantries, goggles and top hats of our hosts, that we were being held hostage. Do this job, get your home back. A safe home, too, safe from this Crow guy and his band of ruffians.
Despite the haunting terms of our 'employment,' the transdimensional weapons display was funner than hell.
First of all, the others guys on the team were blown away by my nine mil. None of them but Jack's world had ballistics. Using explosive powder to launch lead at your foes seemed as wacky to them as their weapons did to me. Jack and I clutched our guns like kids at a campfire as we watched the display.
Cass rode her Pony, which had been outfitted with an internal gas and steam airhorn. Cass ordered and Pony would utter this magnanimous sonic shout, reducing anything in its way to splinters. Would have made my partner's kid daughter proud, a battle My Little Rampony.
Iron Man shot lasers. That was nifty. I wish I hadn't dropped my taser when Sir Puffington had blasted me to Fuckland, it would have made a fun comparison (Jack didn't have tasers in his world).
And then Adriel, she was cool. She had this staff with a curved top. Lit up like a Jacob's Ladder, it shot pure pearly energy. Stun, and kill, like the things in Stargate, but with a bit of Catholic relic aesthetic thrown into the mix. I wondered if it was also taboo to grab a wing lady's magical staff. I hoped one day to find out. But, Adriel had brought spares, so I got to use a loaner magic staff. That was cool.
I hate to admit it, but the weapons thing brought us together. The cold ice was cut away, and soon, with more training and cajoling at meal times, we were becoming friends. A team. Even Jack Spartacus cracked a smile or two at my dirty jokes. Adriel would cover Cass's ears, but the Pony's jaw would drop and we would all dissolve into giggles. Go Team.
Sooner than I'd anticipated, we were sent on missions.
I really didn't want to get blown up by Sir Puffington's Astronomically Annoying Green BlastoMatic again. Luckily, there were portals created by Her Majesty's Regency, ones we could use to easily step into other worlds.
I was deathly afraid that the worlds would be so foreign and the shit we'd be doing would be so weird that I'd be vaporized by a ten-lipped urchin goddess on the first day. The worlds were strange enough, yes. The land of the winged people was really hard to navigate, pearly pedestals everywhere that only flyers could get to. Another world was all treehouses above an impenetrable blue miasma. Some were all tech, like Krathax's world. Others, everyone had a critter following them around, like Cass and Pony's.
But to my simultaneous relief and dismay, I found that crimes were all the same.
White collar shit, theft, forgery. Gang shit like turf warring, hits, payback. The only difference was the setting it was on. It was like my job had been sped up, the paperwork removed, and the world reskinned. Bust by bust we took down Banius Crow's interdimensional thugs. After that, we'd break down the portals that Crow had made, and install Royal Regency sanctioned ones instead.
I don't know how much time passed. The Auto-Docs back at base, bronze and gear choppy-chop fellows with monocles, kept me trimmed and shaved way better than I would have done at home. But they couldn't bring me a beer or pizza, or garlic fries from the Giants park. I missed home, but couldn't lose face in front of Cass and Pony, Jack, or Iron Man. So I told Adriel.
A little at first.
At night after missions, down in the Multiversal Bathroom Bar place, I'd just tell her something I'd miss, and she'd share too. She missed the updraft surfing, the cloud harvests. She missed pickin' on the land dwellers, folks like me without wings, and braiding skywolf hair with her sisters, of which she had nine. But she got to visit her world on missions. The pain wasn't there as fervently as it was for me.
So I just spilled my guts to this winged stranger who used to give me the creeps.
Told her how I grew up in Marin, 'till my father lost his job. Moved to the Tenderloin, got a little rough in things. Was two steps from Juvie when I decided to be on the other side. 18 rolled around and I joined up with SFPD because being a BART cop was way too dangerous and a little ignoble, and I wanted to taze somebody someday. Set off two liters of Diet Coke and a handful of Mentos in the department the day I made detective. Wondered why I was the funny guy. Adriel laughed at some of my stories. I glossed the seriousness of my life, my bad habits, and lost loves and deep pains with humor. She laughed because she was kind. But
she nodded because she understood. Through the hitherto impenetrable fabric of the universe, Adriel understood.
I admitted it was easier to be funny. Easy to get accepted by others. I swallowed the truth and it burned in my throat. Adriel pressed herself into my arms. I touched the down of her wings.
We were getting closer to the villain Crow. Months, maybe years, gone past and we and the other Super Teams had knocked his forces back onto a single world.
It was only supposed to be recon. Observe and report, all that. See if Crow's top guys, a couple of birds named Raven and Sparrow, had set up shop. Get in, get out.
So we loaded up our magic staves and handguns and headed to the Portal-o-Matic. Sir Beedle, who always saw us off like our personal Charlie, saluted and twirled his mustache. I winked at him and he flinched (taser burns take a long time to heal. Cross 'taze a guy' off the bucket list, Cutter! Heh heh).
We were spilled out into a world that looked a damn lot like mine. My heart ached for home, for those garlic fries and for a real beer. It ached simultaneously for Adriel's body as well, alien to this place. I wondered if I could ever mesh the two.
Whatever interdimensional crimes and shenanigans had gone down in the Multiverse, this world had seen it. The portal opened and us lot came through, and people were shocked, yes, but they didn't have the panic that a virgin world had. Experience doing this job had taught me that, the look in the eyes of the citizens will tell you volumes about the world's experiences. The shouts and cell phone pictures confirmed it. Super Teams had been here before.
I narrowed my eyes and chewed on my gum, taking stock of the world as per usual. Jack did the same, us two sentinels as Adriel, Cass and Pony and Krathax did some talking to folks, damage control. Kids loved Krathax and Cass, dudes and most ladies adored Adriel. So us badasses did the work while the others pacified the citizens. I busied myself being mean looking.
So it was really embarrassing when I jumped out of my fucking pants when I heard a ring from within my jacket pocket.
The disposable cell phone I'd picked up the day Sir Beedle Super-Tazed me was still working. And it was ringing.
My first thought was "Wow, this world has incredible 4G." Then I realized. This was my world. This was my world. This was home. I was home.
I didn't answer the phone. Caller didn't matter, the phone was new and no one had the number. Something in my heart, something that had been welded shut by the job we'd been kidnapped to do and by Adriel's love, broke open. I could smell the smog of the Bay, the dirty water and delicious coffee. I took off my shades and looked at home, if a bit blurry from tears that had welled up.
"Adriel," I said. "This is it, this is
Oh how I wanted to share it with her. The magic of my own world for my own personal angel, the first lady I'd ever rightly and truly adored.
The magic staff in my hand began to burn, and with a shock I realized that in my fugue, it was hot. Very hot! I dropped it with a start, and my teammates did the same.
I looked up at Adriel, who had her magic staff, its crescent, pointed right at me. Not at Krathax or Jack Spartacus, or even the kid and her little horse. Me.
The others on my team snapped their weapons at the ready, all facing Adriel. I didn't draw. Maybe I didn't get it, didn't believe it. Cass and Pony, Krathax and Jack, they were all itchy, easy to distrust. They didn't know her like I did.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"Cutter," she said. "Remember when we first placed our palms in the unimetriscope?"
Adriel smiled kindly. "The Multiverse Bathroom Pond Palm Reader Thing," she said, quoting me.
"Yes. That doo-dad."
Adriel said with sad admission, "It was a lie. I'm sorry."
She held up her palm and her wrist shimmered. Some magical otherworldly makeup faded away, and I saw a thick nasty scar running around the circumference of her wrist. The hand's color was different than her arm. It had been a neat trick, keeping up the illusion for that long. I motioned my hand for my pistol and then remembered the feeling of her down. I paused.
"That's a bad theft," I said.
"I know. I tricked the unimetriscope with false identification. I needed to get close to Her Majesty's Transdimensional Regency."
"And using me?" I asked. My fingers were itchy for my piece. I put my hand on it, checking the safety off, but not deigning to draw it just yet. "Trick the smart alec? Get him out of the way?"
"Nice pun on your name."
"Thanks. Don't think my mom intended it that way."
"Probably not. No, Alec
didn't expect it to be like that. Honestly. I didn't think anyone from your world would have touched my wings."
"Transdimensional slut," I spat my gum out.
"It hurts. It really does. But the Super Teams as you call them are breaking. Crow's spies, me included, are doing their work. Cutter, would you like to finally meet Crow? To meet your nemesis?"
"Not mine, ours," I pressed. "All these guys. Yours too," I insisted with a hiss.
Cass and Pony looked at Adriel with tears in their eyes. Krathax made a groaning sad sound like an old metal ship settling. Even Jack nodded curtly. Adriel was one of us. We wouldn't take her down like one of Crow's crims, no way.
"Meet my husband," Adriel said. My heart broke into a thousand pieces and I drew my pistol at first sight of the man they called Crow. Dear lord, she was telling the truth. Crow was one of her people. A tall guy with black hair, wings to match. They wrapped their arms around each other. "Banius Crow, and his wife," she said referring to herself, "The Lady Black."
My memory rotated around to when I'd first tazed Sir Beedle. He'd mentioned Lady Black, but I hadn't given it two thoughts. All my brain power was focused on individual missions, not the overarching whole. Damn it all! If I'd only taken a step back, taking the wings out of my God-damned eyes and looked at what my life had become. I might have seen it. Adriel had rubbed me the wrong way at first, and now I knew why.
"I loved you, Cutter. Loved you all; and that's why you get to live. My meliel staff can stun, as well as kill. I will only put you out for a while. But you will never see this world again, none of you."
"Wait, wait, aren't you going to tell me why?" My heart was breaking. Adriel looked like a different person under Crow's arm. Their wings touched and my gut turned with jealousy.
Crow spoke. His voice was gentle as it was sinister. "My men encouraged heavy recruitment from your world, Cutter. Did you think you were exceptional? Entitled to the magical job? No. You were special, but not that awesome. We just had to get rid of the heroes on your world to make way for us. Easy to set foundation on a world without good men."
I tightened my jaw. "I'll show you how not good
I am, you giant chicken."
"I doubt it. Good bye, Cutter," said Crow. Adriel, under his arm, was silent.
Crow and Lady Black's men, other birds with wings and meliel staves, surrounded us. And like a bunch of rats lined up against the wall, we were shot down. The meliel staves popped with familiar energy, and pain rocked up my spine. The world went starry and I crumpled to the pavement of my beloved San Francisco. The Golden Gate wafted through my vision, only to be blurred by the green glow of a portal rifle.
It went off with a bang.
When I awoke, I was not in the Transdimensional Regency's lair.
It was cold, and the air was dry. I opened my eyes to see a vast expanse of cracked, dry ground. A waterskin was on my chest. I groaned and rolled to sitting. The water rolled off my ribs and onto the stark dirt.
A piece of paper fluttered by and I caught it with two fingers. On one side was a note.
And on the other, a map. My eyes widened. Maybe Adriel slipped this note on me with the water, so that I'd have a chance to live and find her. I couldn't accept she'd turned on me.
By god, I'd never felt like the hero sort before. I lived my life betting on steeds and kicking junkies in the nuts on the dark streets of the city by the bay. Spent my life loving that moral line I could walk so finely. Hell, some of it I spent as a transdimensional cop, and that was all right too. But even whilst kicking transdimensional junkies in the nuts, I hadn't thought of myself as a hero.
But if Adriel was being held captive by Crow and his flunkies, and I was the only one who'd touched her dark angel heart with my idiotic broken soul, then it was my God-damned right to send Crow to hell. I'd rescue the girl and buy her a ballpark ticket and some fuckin' garlic fries.
I looked at the map, at the horizon, and at the map again. It was night, probably better the travel when the sun(s) weren't out.
I was on a mission.