“Why can’t she leave Mars Prime?”
“She can’t leave her apartment, is closer to the truth. We all—every troubleshooter who was working at the time—gave up some of our karma to build the place.”
Epiphany sipped her coffee. “You’re down a fluid ounce of blood, according to my glyph. Is that permanent?”
Milo winced. “I wish you wouldn’t do that.”
“Sorry,” she said. There wasn’t a trace of remorse in her voice. “It’s intuitive. I can’t switch it off.”
Milo sighed. “Dr. Platinum, are you angry with me for bringing you back?”
“Yes. I don’t remember what it was like, being dead, but it wasn’t the absence of life. I know there was something else, and I believe I was enjoying it. I’m not enjoying this very much. Who’s this ‘person in authority’ who said I wasn’t through here?”
Milo cut the last bite of his chicken-fried steak into two pieces and held one under the table for Fairfax, who took it gently from his fingers and wolfed it down. He looked around. The diner was archetypal—loud and crowded, all brushed steel and red leatherette, booths and stools, hold the tables and chairs. Tom Waits crackled through the in-booth speaker. For some reason he couldn’t quite define, the noise and bustle were making him uncomfortable.
“The Spider. It’s in charge of the collective unconscious—it likes humans pretty okay. That ring you’re wearing—”
Epiphany noticed the platinum ring on her forefinger for the first time. “My soul’s in here,” she said flatly.
“Not anymore. We put it back in you.”
A slow smile found its way to her face. She yanked the ring off of her finger and hurled it across the room. It bounced off the flank of the giraffe running the grill and landed in the deep-fryer. “Maybe you aren’t a total waste of time,” she said.
Milo shook his head. “I hope not.” He gestured to the waitroid, who was deep in conversation with a pair of two-foot-long cockroaches. Each had a band around its thorax that read “Licensed Exterminator.” A small flamethrower sat on the counter beside each of them. The waitroid flicked a button on its stainless-steel neck. A series of LEDs on its featureless face winked “BE RIGHT WITH YOU.” It made its apologies to the roaches and rolled over on its treadless monowheel.
“How—klik—how can I help you, honey?” it asked Milo.
“Blueberry pancakes, coffee, hash browns well done, three eggs over hard,” interrupted Epiphany.
“Hungry, honey?” the waitroid chuckled in a metallic contralto.
“You know it. What are you having, Tracer?”
Milo glared at Epiphany. “Chicken-fried steak and eggs, eggs scrambled with cheese, whole wheat toast, orange juice.”
“No—klik—no problem. I’ll be back with your—klik—your drinks in a minute.” It rolled off toward the kitchen.
“Pound of raw sirloin for the dog!” Milo called after her. The waitroid waved over its shoulder to indicate that it had heard, and disappeared behind the counter.
Fairfax hopped up on the seat and squeezed in next to Milo.
“Gonna break the arm off that bench,” remarked Epiphany. “What is she, two hundred pounds?”
“Two-oh-five. And the benches are reinforced. Look, the golem sitting on the one right behind you has his boot up on the arm, no problem.” Epiphany turned to look. The golem bared its blocky clay teeth at her.
The waitroid rolled over with their food. “Chicken-fried—klik—steak for you, pancakes for—klik—you. Who had the—klik—coffee?”
“I did. Why am I here, Tracer?”
“Why am I here, Milo?”
“I told you. The Spider told me the collective unconscious wasn’t through with you and Tia told me you can get me into Miskatonic University. I assume there’s a deeper reason, but honestly, I just put one foot in front of the other and do the job.”
“Yeah, that doesn’t surprise me. Look. I’m grateful, but I’m going to need a reason not to boogie on out of here before the check arrives or I’m gone. I have people who are going to want to know I’m okay. I have a life to get back to.”
Milo shrugged. “Good luck. Mars Prime is broken. Central Terminal was destroyed—all of the interplanetary Amtrak trains have stopped running. Some of the branch lines are still in service, but they’re all interplanar—none of them do interplanetary runs. Without a functioning rail system or a teleportation device like a cherub you’re stuck here.”
Epiphany’s eyes narrowed. “Where is ‘here,’ exactly?”
“The Badlands. I thought you might appreciate familiar surroundings. Look. I heard Lobsang sing the story of your life, Epiphany. You need adventure, and adventure is over unless Central Terminal comes back on line. I can’t fix it without you.”
“Why? Why me? Why am I important?”
“Central Terminal was controlled from the Engineering Office at Miskatonic University, which went missing two years ago. Tia says you can get me back in.”
“How does a fucking university go missing?”
“We don’t know. One day it was there, the next day every cherub that tried to teleport in missed the mark and ended up here.”
“Familiar surroundings, huh?”
“Both things can be true.”
The waitroid arrived at their table. “I’ve—klik—I’ve brought some—klik—waters for you two. Do you know what you—klik—what you want yet, or are you still—klik—looking?”
Milo took one of the waters. “Chicken-fried steak and eggs—”
Epihany’s glyph glittered. “Wait a second,” she said, cutting him off. She stood up experimentally and tapped the waitroid on the shoulder. Its LED display lit up with a “???”
“Bathroom’s behind you,” said Milo. “Do you want me to order for you?”
“I’ve already eaten,” she said, glancing from side to side, a worried look creeping across her face. “At least twice. My glyph says you have, too.”
Fairfax hopped down and nuzzled her leg. Epiphany’s eyes locked onto her. “Do you have a leash for her?” she said.
“No. What’s going on?”
“Hush.” Epiphany undid the sash of her silk robe and knelt down beside the little dog. “Can you lead me somewhere, Fairfax?” she said quietly.
“Thank you.” Epiphany knotted the sash around Fairfax’s neck and wrapped it around her hand. Milo stood close to her, his tattoos stirring restlessly.
“Where’s the danger?” he whispered.
“All around us,” she whispered back. “I don’t think this is a diner. Not exactly.”
“What do you think it is?”
“I don’t know. Memories of a diner, maybe. It’s hard for me to put it any other way. And not good ones. I recognize some of these people from the hospital—they were my patients. If what happened to them is anything like what happened to me, they should be dead, but they’re not.”
Milo looked around. Everyone seemed…off. The patrons looked restless, and their movements were jerky, unnatural. A Rakshasa in a malevolent green tuxedo met his eye and growled. A superpoodle on a stool by the door rattled its utility belt and bared its anodized unobtainium fangs.
“I remember now, she said quietly. “When that monster killed me, I felt like I was burning from the inside. The pain was indescribable. These people…they should have been allowed to give up the ghost.” She held out her hand.
Milo took it. “Lead the way.”
Fairfax took an experimental step forward, her mustache bristling. She snuffled around the diner, occasionally retracing her steps, dodging waitroids and customers, crisscrossing the room and finally stalking into the kitchen, Milo and Epiphany close on her heels. Every head turned to follow her, but no one stopped eating or paused their conversation. The exterminators hissed at them as they passed by.
The little Atomic Schnauzer snuffled around the oddly empty kitchen and finally came to a halt at the walk-in freezer. She scratched at the door until Epiphany darted forward and opened it.
The interior of the freezer was the size of a warehouse. The dragon on Milo’s neck took on a darker green, and he took a deep breath in, but the cavernous, dimly-lit space was empty except for a cardboard refrigerator box labeled “Maine Lobster.” Milo relaxed. The glow around the dragon faded. Epiphany frowned. “Fairfax?” she said. The little dog whined and trotted across the freezer’s rubber floor toward the box, her footsteps making no sound.
Milo pulled the flaps open. Lucien Murdock was sitting inside. “End of the line, Milo,” he said, and pointed his flat black pistol at Fairfax.
Milo muttered the word “Darts,” in a certain tone of voice. The hornet’s nest tattooed behind his left ear glowed briefly. A swarm of stubby, black-and-yellow-striped hypodermic needles flowed out of it like water from a garden hose, buzzing angrily. Faster than the eye could follow, they thudded into the surprised Murdock.
“Fuck you, Lucien,” he said. “Where’s Miskatonic University?”
Murdock fell to his knees, convulsing, but the sardonic grin didn’t leave his face. “This is a recording, old buddy,” he said. “I wish I could be here to spit in your eye myself, but I’m busy with my master stroke and this is the next best thing. Everyone in this diner is hard as nails and out for your blood, and a few of them are so tough they’d probably survive a nuclear explosion. My partner and I have provided them with some real incentive to kill you, too: they can’t close their eyes and move on until they’ve stuck your head on a spike outside. The dog will probably survive, more’s the pity, but you can’t have everything.” He dropped to his knees, fumbling for a skull-shaped glass charm on a bracelet knotted around his right wrist. He yanked it off the bracelet and threw it to the ground, where it burst as though it had been hit with a hammer. “Come…kill him…dead men,” he croaked. With that, he fell to the floor and lay still.
There was a subtle change in temperature. The hair on the back of Milo’s neck stood on end. “Something’s wrong with my cherub,” he said. “It thinks it’s opening a gate out of here, but there’s something about this place that’s bending space in every conceivable direction. I can’t get it to lock onto one location for more than a few seconds.”
“I could use my glyph to call for help.”
“Yeah, but who’d answer?” He looked at the back wall of the freezer critically. “I think I can crack a hole in this,” he said. He got down on one knee, examined the floor with his hand, and opened his mouth to mutter a word of command when the door of the freezer blew off its hinges and barely missed taking his head off before crashing into the wall behind him, leaving a deep dent in the osmium plate.
Humanoids, insectoids, and others pushed and shoved mindlessly, their advance hampered only by the size of the doorway.
Milo heard the hiss of scorched air and hit the deck. There was a stench of burning meat and melting chitin as Epiphany’s glyph brought its automated defense systems online, discharging the contents of its stellar collector in short bursts that momentarily lit up the freezer with refracted starlight. The surgical laser punched precise, nigh-invisible holes through the skulls and hearts of the diner patrons fighting to get at her, but to no visible effect.
“Fairfax!” he shouted desperately. “That laser can hurt you! Don’t get in the way!” The dog growled in response, pacing back and forth nervously behind the besieged doctor.
The Rakshasa broke free of the scrum. It bounded forward on all fours, its tail lashing, and lunged for Milo, whispering terrifying threats in a language no longer spoken by the living. Epiphany’s laser burned its eyes out, but it didn’t seem to notice.
Milo’s dragon glowed. He inhaled deeply and blew out a ball of bright white light that floated weightlessly across the room, detonated at head height, and left nothing of the man-tiger but a pile of impure charcoal and a vanishing smell of cloves.
“Do something, Milo!” shouted Epiphany frantically. “They’re dead already! My glyph’s just burning holes in their corpses!”
Milo dropped into a crouch in front of her and beckoned to the dog. “Snowman” he said under his breath.
The temperature dropped thirty degrees. A great shaggy biped arose from nothingness with ice in its beard and a chill in its eyes. It grew twenty, then thirty feet in height, crushing the smaller humanoids under its huge feet as it stalked to the door of the freezer, hoarfrost forming in its footsteps. A combat gibbon waved its lance threateningly. The frost elemental reached out and took the lance between a finger and thumb and savagely speared the gibbon like an olive. It tossed the ape aside, stooped down, put its huge hands into the crowd of wild-eyed corpses and picked them up, one after the other, stacking them to the ceiling like suddenly flash-frozen sandbags. It waved its hand and bellowed mournfully. In response, the air hardened into wall of clear of ice, sealing the door and leaving Milo, Fairfax, and Epiphany alone in the freezer. Its task complete, it faded away, leaving behind it a vanishing smell of snow.
“We don’t have much time,” said Milo. “That golem that was sitting behind us will smash right through that wall in a minute, and if it doesn’t, the exterminators sitting at the bar had flamethrowers.”
“Let me see that box,” said Epiphany. She set the box down on the floor of the freezer. She looked it for a minute, then walked a careful circuit around it. She turned to the dog. “Can you get inside, Fairfax?”
“Wuff.” The little dog bunched its legs and leapt lightly into the box.
“Now you,” said Epiphany to Milo.
Milo looked at her questioningly for a moment, then silently climbed in beside his partner.
There were shouts from outside. The ice wall began to crack and melt. Then Epiphany stepped inside, and suddenly they were somewhere else.
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.