The delicate crimson filigree that covered the left side of the surgeon’s face had been etched into her skin with techno-organic bacteria and edged with liquefied rubies. It was a physician’s glyph, a highly specialized magical construct, and it blazed like halogen, illuminating the eight-inch gash in my forearm that its owner was busy stitching. I was grateful for that. The thousands upon thousands of fireflies that hovered around the emergency room were soothing, but they weren’t especially bright.
The doc herself was small, slender and incredibly cute, with fire-engine-red hair in pigtails and lips to match. She kept looking up at me and then looking away with a shy smile. I smiled politely back and put my jacket on my lap with my off hand. Biology leads to poor decision making when it comes to a certain kind of girl.
“So Mister Vitre—”
“Milo. ‘Mr. Vitre’ is my dad.”
She pulled the suture tight. “Milo. Okay, Milo.” She looked up from her work. Her irises were crimson. She gestured to a tray covered with blood and blue grit. “How’d you get three ounces of lapis lazuli packed into your forearm? Did your Friday night plans involve robbing an art supply store?”
“Not quite,” I said. “How’d you know that’s what it was?”
She pulled up one lip of the wound and pushed the needle in one side and out the other with a pair of forceps. “I majored in art history as an undergrad,” she said. “Vermeer used lapis in just about everything he painted.” She snipped the suture and tied it off. “You gonna tell me how all this—“ she gestured at my arm and my black eye, “—happened?”
“Make you a deal: I’ll tell you the whole story if you let me buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks when you’re done putting me back together.”
“We’re in the middle of the Badlands. There isn’t a coffee shop for a thousand miles.” Her eyes rolled back in her head and her glyph glowed briefly in the shape of a red cross. The glow faded and she blinked rapidly for a minute before clipping the thread and tying it off. I noted her recovery time with interest. Firing up a psionic tracking inscription hopscotches your consciousness in and out of every sentient creature within a quarter-mile radius until it lands on whoever or whatever it is you need to locate. The more people you have to check, the worse the psychic hangover. You have to have a lot of training to use one, and even with practice you’re guaranteed to develop a splitting headache the moment it activates—they’re only used for dire emergencies.
“How about this?” she said brightly. “The cafeteria’s open all night. Can I buy you a cup of coffee? The next train out of here isn’t until tomorrow, and my glyph says everyone in the hospital is asleep or pretty okay or both.”
I nodded. “Can we get something to eat?”
“Sure.” She tied off the last stitch, cut it, and stood up. “Come on. It’s this way.” She stood up and immediately tripped over Fairfax, who had been asleep with her chin on my foot. She righted herself. “Is that a little dog or a fucking sandbag? What does she weigh?”
“About two hundred pounds. She’s dense.” I stood up and took stock. Against my protestations, the triage android had cut the sleeve off my brand new Sugar Cane work shirt with an air knife, and the cherub tattooed around my left shoulder had floated down to have a peek at whatever was disturbing its nap. It blinked its thousand eyes at me woozily, fluttered its multitude of wings, and disappeared. It was a fussy little priss, obsessed with decorum, and I knew from bitter experience that it wouldn’t come back until it was sure there was a clean button-up between it and the rest of the world. I groaned. Without the cherub, the dog and I couldn’t teleport out of the Badlands. It could be worse, I told myself. At least I’d have time to catch a nap on a bench at the train station after I’d finished up here.
The doctor squatted down to say hello to Fairfax, who curled a lip. She stood up quickly and stepped back. “Girl dogs get possessive of boy owners, don’t they? What’s her name?”
“Fairfax. What’s yours?”
“Epiphany.” She stood up. “Epiphany Platinum.” She held out a fist.
I tapped her fist with my own. “Milo Vitre. But you know that.”
Fairfax walked past her, bumping into her accidentally on purpose. Epiphany stumbled. I nudged the dog with the toe of my shoe, but didn’t otherwise correct her.
The doc looked impressed. “Where do you find a dog like that? What breed is she?”
“Atomic Schnauzer. I won her in a poker game against a high priest of Tesla on this alternate Earth where Thomas Edison died of a brain hemorrhage when he was ten. Honestly, I think the guy was glad to be rid of her. He couldn’t get her to quit chasing cars, and there was always unpleasantness when she caught one and ate it.”
She nodded. “I had a boyfriend in high school whose father had a golden retriever he got from some planet with really high gravity. He—my boyfriend’s dad—hunted, and he thought it’d be cool to have a dog that could jump up and retrieve the ducks before they hit the ground.”
“How’d that work out?”
“Not the way he expected. The dog had a forty-foot vertical, and it didn’t see why it had to wait for him to shoot the ducks before it could snatch them out of midair.”
“Nice. What happened to it?”
“The family gave it to a monastery on Wisconsin Theta that takes in extraplanar animals. They train them to perform in cruelty-free circuses at vegan destination resorts.” She tugged at my sleeve. “Come on, the cafeteria’s this way.”
The cafeteria’s coffee was hands-down the best I’d ever had. The cafeteria itself was breathtaking. It was open to the night sky, with walkways made of warm black tile that intersected a moon garden of muted grays and purples. The firefly lighting made sense there, and the chairs were comfortable. Epiphany took her pigtails out and shook out her hair. I tried not to stare.
“So how’d you get your arm packed full of gravel?” she said.
I took a sip of coffee. “I volunteer at the Miskatonic University Museum of Strange and Terrible Manifestations a couple of weekends a month—”
“You went to Miskatonic?”
“Long time ago.”
“It is. I’ve been helping catalog their collection of Sinister Musical Apparatuses.”
“Thaumaturgy and Conjuration major. Music minor.”
“How do you pay the bills?”
“A little of this, a little of that. I do a lot of contract work for Miskatonic.”
“How’s that working out for you?”
“Well enough that I can play interdimensional tourist whenever I feel like it. Chat up pretty girls with doctors’ glyphs.”
“You’re not so bad yourself. Finish your story.”
“Sure.” I took a sip of coffee. “As I was saying, it’s almost always a bad idea to fiddle around with anything Miskatonic has in its collection unless you know exactly what you’re doing, and even then it’s a good idea to be inside a circle of salt. It’s the only Ivy League school with more tenure-track positions than applicants.”
“That is unusual. How do they manage it?”
“There’s a lot of turnover. Once professors get tenured, nine times out of ten they get intoxicated with the easy access to Tomes of Forbidden Knowledge—”
“I like how you can speak in capital letters.”
“They teach you that freshman year. The professors get intoxicated with easy access to Tomes of Forbidden Knowledge and summon up Beings From Beyond, which eat them, enslave their minds, or impart Terrible Wisdom that leaves them gibbering lunatics.”
“And you work in their museum.”
“I do odd jobs for the university from time to time. The museum is just for fun.”
“You aren’t worried that bad things will happen to you?”
“No. I have something going for me that no one else has.”
I reached down and scratched Fairfax’s belly. She snorted and clicked her teeth together. “A miniature schnauzer that can run through reinforced concrete at three times the speed of sound and chew through tungsten carbide. She has a neutron star instead of a stomach. Eats anything.”
Epiphany made a face. “She must be a protective little girl if she’s all you bring with you to deal with Ancient Ones Who Lie Beneath.”
I raised my eyebrows at her use of Spoken Capital Letters, but didn’t comment. “Inordinately. Anyway, I was tuning The Damned Harpsichord of Shumu-Narlyep and I played the wrong chord. The Harpsichord is made of a hundred thousand liquefied gems, like your glyph. Can you guess where this is going?”
She nodded. “I think so. Did you accidentally wake up some kind of lapis lazuli monster?”
“Pretty much. The harpsichord was an Ecthros. They’re extraplanar creatures—nasty ones. People used to worship them as gods—like you said, Ancient Ones Who Lie Beneath—before we figured out magic and interdimensional travel ourselves. Anyway, it turned into a gigantic shape-shifting mosaic and tossed me across the room. It stabbed me in the arm with a tentacle before Fairfax could get to it, which is how I ended up with semi-precious gravel under my skin.” I stroked my forearm absently. Epiphany had done a good job stitching it up. “She nailed it, though. Crashed into the fucker from a dozen different directions at three thousand feet per second. Smashed it to bits.”
“Pretty cool. Why come here, though? There have to be more convenient hospitals than this one.”
“Fairfax picked this one.”
“What, she barked ‘go to the Badlands to get your arm checked out?’”
“No. She sniffed out the dimensional rift you escaped through.”
Epiphany sprouted a new complement of teeth. Sharp ones, glittering like gems, in all the colors of the rainbow. “How’d you guess?”
“Blasting off with that tracking inscription at full strength in a hospital full of live people would have made you puke if you were baseline human. I assume everyone here is dead already?”
Shumu-Narlyep’s smile got wider. The crimson glow of “Epiphany’s” hair, lips and eyes spilled out of the counterfeit glyph, coating its stolen body like scarlet honey. “I was hungry.”
“And you’re wearing that cute little doctor’s skin like clothing. Did you take her memories along with it? Is that how you were able to stitch me up so neatly?”
“Yes.” The creature was a patchwork of colors now, the ruby red flecked with topaz and emerald. “She’s soft, and supple. And screaming inside. Now I’m going to wear your skin, magician. I’ll go back to the prison you and yours have made for me and mine in your Museum, walking like you and smiling like you and speaking with your voice, and no one will know the difference until it’s too late. I’ll wake up the rest of my family and we’ll rape and torture and terrorize every human soul on this and every other plane until you beg to worship us, just to make the pain stop.”
I inclined my head toward Fairfax. “She’s not going to let you do that.”
Shumu-Narlyep had stopped oozing. It was solid now, big and shiny and multitentacular. “Destroy me, then. So long as the tiniest fraction of me gets away, my essence will remain. Sooner or later, I will reform.”
I shook my head. “She won’t let you get away this time.” I tapped the little dog gently on the nose. “Underneath that grumpy exterior, she loves people.” I took my hand away from her muzzle. She wagged her stump of a tail excitedly and snarled at the Ecthros. Anti-light erupted from her eyes and mouth.
Atomic Schnauzers are highly moral creatures. Perhaps more surprisingly, so are neutron stars. It is not in the nature of either to allow innocents to come to harm. There was a sound like carved-wood wind chimes on a warm summer’s night and the star’s distortion field gently encircled me, rippling like a flag in a breeze. Light bent around it, turning the world photonegative and shielding me from the terrible energies crackling around us as the gravity well inside the little dog switched itself on.
Shumu-Narlyep sunk a brace of tentacles into the bedrock and spat knives at me. They hit the distortion field and shattered. It screamed like the worlds largest fingernail scraping the world’s largest chalkboard, then extruded a neck and craned it, vainly looking around for a way out.
Fairfax didn’t give it one. Even through the distortion field, she was becoming harder and harder to look at. Her outline was dog shaped, but everything else about her shifted in directions that would be impossible to explain without first spending a lifetime studying string theory. There was a series of hollow popping noises as the monster lost traction, a thin, keening wail and then silence.
The gravity well slowed, then shut down. The distortion field went brittle, then crumbled and blew away. Fairfax shook herself and came over to sniff me. I patted her on the head and sat back down at the table to finish my coffee. I wondered whether the real Epiphany Platinum and I would have liked each other.
There were too many bodies in the hospital for me to bury. Instead, I set fire to the building with thirty gallons of gasoline I siphoned from an ambulance I found under an awning in front of the oncology ward and a consecrated Zippo I’d shoplifted from the Vatican gift shop the last time I’d gone drinking with Leonardo da Vinci. The dog and I watched the building burn for a while before walking to the Amtrak station to wait for the next train home.
Alexander Karelis is co-founder of Writers Room DC, a boutique co-working space for professional writers of fiction and creative non-fiction and the unofficial literary nexus of Washington D.C.