I was in the parlour of 427 Cheyne Walk, listening to the occult detective relate his story. I had knowledge of the events of the White Studio—the letter from the artist’s son about his father’s death, the reports of a mysterious pearl-white glow from the studio, and, of course, what happened after—but I wished to hear the full tale from the detective for reasons specific to myself, and thus had adopted the guise of one of the artist’s nephews, eager to hear every detail, naively gasping at every dramatic turn.
I brought a hand up to my mouth in feigned surprise that the village louts, in fact, had nothing to do with the flashes of white light, and the sudden motion made my suit pull uncomfortably against my limbs. I had specifically chosen this suit in order to appear a man of society, but feeling it itch against my skin made me begin, sorely, to regret this farce.
The detective cleared his throat and continued:
“I was determined to cleanse the White Studio of its unwelcome presence that very night. After removing the boards from its windows, I promptly set to work with my hyssop-broom, sweeping a space clear before chalking out a wide circle. Careful to stay within the boundaries of the circle lest I broach my ‘Defense’, I smudged the circle’s exterior with a head of garlic, drew the relevant signs of the Saaamaaa Ritual within it, and fit my Electric Pentacle right around it all.”
“A curious—yet innovative—device,” I said, interrupting before he could describe the Pentacle’s interminable battery-operated vacuum tubes yet again. “Your brilliance must know no bounds, detective.”
He scoffed. “I object to the term ‘brilliance’—I have no pretensions of being a man of intellect, and indeed a man of intellect would not have decided on this particular vocation. Perhaps in another life I might have become an engineer, or somesuch… but I realise you did not travel all the way from Blackburn for such personal digressions. In any case, after that, I settled down to wait for the abominable presence haunting your uncle’s studio. It might have been at three in the morning that I heard the first sound—an uncouth titter that made my back tingle in alarm. I glanced around for the source, and it was at that very instant that a silvery-white figure manifested in the room.
“Most manifestations that I encounter have no fixed features or form, and instead swell and contract as they shift from shape to shape, but it seemed almost as if your uncle’s lifelong obsession with beauty and light had had a palpable effect on the creature. While its lower half stretched and shrank as if it were a piece of silver fabric, its top portion took the form of a pearl-white human face, lips curved into a malevolent grin. The pallid monstrosity slowly drifted back and forth in the room, swaying as it went, a slew of faint giggles accompanying its every movement. It almost appeared as if it was searching for something, if you can understand.
“Despite knowing that I was within the wide barrier of the Pentacle, I felt myself quivering with sheer funk as the manifestation drew closer and closer. Contrary to my initial presumptions, the vacuum tubes had not served to ward the being off, but instead, had become a source of fascination for it. The manifestation coiled its lower half around the very tubes of the Electric Pentacle, and it was then that I understood the full extent of my peril.”
I leaned my form forward slightly. The firelight illuminated the fine hairs on the detective’s cheeks, making them seem almost transparent. His teeth pressed against his lower lip before he continued.
“I had relied on the Pentacle’s spiritual insulation against the Immaterial on many an occasion, particularly after Aster’s fate in the business of the Black Veil. But how was I to deal with a creature that thrived in vacuum, and loved not darkness but the light? And when the rays of dawn came streaming through the window, what would the pale creature do then?”
“My goodness,” I exclaimed, feigning ignorance of the answer. Sanity could be such a fragile thing, after all.
“In any case, the pale creature was momentarily contained by its fascination with the Pentacle, and began shifting its form so it could explore further. Worms and tendrils of atrocious effulgence flared from the vacuum tubes, flashing white as the creature giggled in glee. The Pentacle’s tubes were beginning to crack, and I knew it would not be long before it completely gave way. It had lost all purpose of protection long ago, but if I were to move outside its confines—well. There was no telling where the creature’s attention would turn.
“Deciding to risk it all, I dashed for the back of the studio, frantically scrabbling for the box of charcoals I knew was there. Clutching a stick in hand, I drew a dark black circle around myself, and around the edges I scrawled a combination of Saaamaaa banishment symbols that the Sigsand manuscript had strongly advised against. The charcoal broke and crumbled as I wrote, and I bit my own fingers for blood to deepen the shade. I knew the blood would call out to the Sphere Beyond, but I was in such peril that I had to run that risk.”
He swallowed. I resisted the urge to hurry him along, and instead observed the slight quiver of his throat, the way his hands tightened against the arms of his chair.
“The tubes shattered with a deadly flash, and the light-creature surged outwards from it, its perfect face twisted in incandescent laughter. Despite all my instincts I kept my eyes shut, terrified that the glimmer of their whites might lead the creature straight to me. I stood frozen in the narrow circle, every inch of my body queer and numbish, with no room to move lest I broke the barrier. The air shook with cruel giggling, and behind my closed eyelids I could sense a light getting closer, rivalling the sun in its brightness, making its way to where I stood. I could only pray that I was obliterated in an instant once the creature struck.
“It was then that I felt a quiet air fill the circle I was in, brushing faintly against my goosebumped skin like a soft cloak. The infernal high-pitched laughter heightened into a shriek, the light dimmed, and from beneath me, a dark, deep voice uttered the Unknown Last Line of the Saaamaaa Ritual quite matter-of-factly, as if it had been the obvious thing to say all along. The air shook with silent thunder. When I finally gathered up the nerve to open my eyes again, the creature of light had vanished, and then…”
“And then?” I asked, trying not to betray my impatience. The choreography of the situation demanded it. There were limited permutations of the basic possibilities, and all of them ended with a man gibbering in the parlour of his own house once his mind pieced everything together, the very telling of his tale leading him to confront the iniquities of the events that occurred after I had banished the Outer Creature, and how he, insensible and trembling with fear, had offered himself body and soul to an ab-natural being of the Sphere Beyond. There were no surprises in the human realm, only inevitabilities, and I could almost already taste it—the jagged edges of his horror, the sharp flare of panic, all subsumed by the juddering realisation that I had been the one to visit such dread terrors upon his body—and I waited, straining against the bounds of linear time and human skin, for the moment his eyes widened in true fear, for the moment his feeble mortal mind finally cracked—
“The rest of the tale is rather sordid,” he said, neatly tapping out his pipe. “But you were there, were you not? Perhaps you could relate the parts that occurred when I was insensate with pleasure.”
My human mouth was dry. I ran the relevant tongue along my lips. The detective’s clear brown eyes gazed fearlessly at me, through me, almost as if he was seeing beneath my skin to what lay seething beneath its surface, waiting for its moment to invade him again.
“Pleasure?” I managed to force out. “You believed… that was pleasurable?”
“I do not offer myself freely to just anyone, even if they did save my life from an Outer Creature,” he said. “And—this might, perhaps, sound foolish—but your very form made me quake with desire from the moment we met.”
My tentacles were leaking out of the suit, squeezing through the seams, and it was only a matter of time before my current form would fail to contain my entirety. I could taste the cloud of lust hanging above him, and his eyes were all pupil as he eyed the tendrils of black seeping through my skin, reaching for him, and perhaps, despite my intentions, this had been the inevitability, all along.
“Shall we adjourn to the bedroom?” he asked. “I’d dearly love to know you better.”
I was accustomed to confronting ab-natural creatures in the course of my vocation, and much less accustomed to taking my leisure with them. Yet I found myself unable to forget our first meeting in the darkness of the studio, my back pressed against the chalk-and-charcoal-dusted floor as they enveloped the room with total and almost palpable blackness, tantalising me with a sinuous flood of serpent darkness that convulsed into my bowels as I writhed in a mix of ecstasy and agony. It maddened me when I dreamt of it, that glimpse of perversions that had me spending myself into my clenched fist when I woke, praying that I would meet them again under the dark mists of some forbidden star.
They had adopted a mostly-male form this time, and my body thrilled to them, their human hands holding me in place like a magnet, their thin black tendrils sweeping across me like the petals of a spider lily in full flower. My clothing lay scattered across the floor, roughly slashed off my body by a clawed, rugose tentacle, and I writhed against them, yearning to be sucked again within that black writhing cloud, to have my vision teem with shapes of joyous delirium that no man on earth had ever seen.
“Could you,” I gasped. “Our first meeting… could you? Again?”
“Yes,” they hissed, their voice clinging to my skin like static. “Yes, I could.”
I spread my legs wide in response, and their hands wavered and dissolved as I was engulfed with tendrils of dark mist, chains of stark pleasure holding me inert as my entire body became a conduit to a black inner world. The convolutions submerged me, pushing me beyond human endurance and bringing me to unknown and incalculable heights, an endless ascent—and I sobbed and gasped, pleading with them to let me find my fulfillment, to let those unnatural lengths further inside me, to maul and twist and shape me into something beyond human recognition.
My toes clenched against the amorphous mist, my lungs filled with black air, and all the while, the creature’s eldritch voice murmured yes yes yes, echoing what ran through my mind. In the heights of timeless pleasure, I opened my eyes fully, eager to gaze into the shifting void, to understand every part of the creature that had such a hold on me, and between the wisps of mist I glimpsed the curved walls of rising obsidian stonework, a river of pitch running through a dead nightmare city, and—
A tendril passed over my eyelids, forcibly lowering them. I did as told and clenched them shut.
The undulations grew greater, passing into and through and beyond me, tearing my pleasure out of me, and I spent myself as they coalesced around me, their human mouth around my spurting prick, dripping with white seed and black ichor as they reached up for a kiss. I parted my lips and obliged them, swallowing down the viscous mix of my fluid and theirs, feeling it slither down my throat. A drop lingered on the corner of their mouth. I licked it away, relishing the taste.
“What should I do,” I said, “to understand what lies within you? To know all of your mysteries?”
“That is an impossibility,” they replied. “The most perceptive of humans would take a lifetime to comprehend a single fraction of a part of me. It would be a foolish thing to even attempt.”
I placed my hand on their shoulder, feeling the way their muscles reacted to my touch, the slow pulse of pitch beneath their skin. “You already know how very foolish I am.”
“Then live as long as you possibly can, detective,” they said, and underneath their deep dark voice I could have sworn I heard an echo of mirth. “And perhaps I will see you in the next life.”
I knew a private eye didn’t need a secretary—a small-time gumshoe like me barely had enough cases to cover the rent. If I’d wanted someone watching my every move like a crotchety schoolmarm, I’d have stayed at the Continental Agency. But when she stepped into my office, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d met her somewhere before. She was a lanky woman dressed in sombre colours, with a bob of black wavy hair, and moved in fits and jerks, like her body was a new car that she hadn’t quite figured out how to steer.
“Blackburn” was obviously a phony name. She was tight-lipped about what had made her look for secretarial work when she could barely even change a typewriter ribbon, but I could guess well enough. I ran the numbers in my head. Paying her was going to be a squeeze, especially after leaving the Continental, but I wasn’t opposed to helping a woman get back on her feet.
I managed to spend a week without asking, but eventually my curiosity—or stupidity—got the better of me.
“So,” I asked. “Who threw you over?”
Her typing paused. “I beg your pardon?”
“One of your enemies touch your place off? Your siblings decide you’re in the way of the inheritance? Your man turn out to be the unfaithful sort?”
“Ah.” She glanced at me. “I suppose there would be no point in changing the subject at this juncture.”
“You could try. I’m as hardheaded as they come.”
“I have no doubt about that. To answer, my… I suppose you could call him ‘my man’, if you were so inclined, perished in an unfortunate incident some time ago. A foolish miscalculation on his part—and mine. Tell me, detective, have you ever seen someone seared in a furnace of white light, slowly burning away to pale ash, and known that it was too late to help them? And known, all the while, that if you had trusted your intuition, they might have survived?” Her deep black eyes were emotionless. She sounded like she was discussing a book she’d read a long time ago. Her fingertips, perched on the typewriter’s keys, quaked a little.
I would have put on my most apologetic face, lied and said that I wouldn’t have asked if I’d known it was going to be such a painful story, but I could tell she didn’t want that from me. She didn’t even want to acknowledge she was feeling anything at all.
The office remained silent, only broken by her slow pecking at the keyboard and the occasional ringing of its margin bell. After a while of that, she gestured to the typewriter. I got up and helped her change its ribbon.
I made a detour before coming into the office the next day, and entered clutching a bouquet. Nothing romantic—I’d picked the darkest-tinted flowers they had in the bargain bin. The florist had reluctantly wrapped it up after trying to convince me that ladies preferred roses, but seeing the whole bundle with all its long red-black petals spidering all over each other reminded me of her somehow.
I placed it on her table, next to the typewriter. Her face remained motionless.
“Not one for flowers?”
“Those flowers will only last a few days before wilting. If it soothes your need to feel like you are appeasing me, anything more practical than this would have sufficed.”
“How about an electric typewriter, then?”
“You are already paying me a significant portion of your meagre earnings,” she said bluntly. “You could not afford such a thing, and I am not fond of electrical appliances.”
“Well, I am. Love the stuff.”
“I suppose someone like you would,” she said with vehement disdain, as if I’d admitted to being fond of bathing in raw sewage. But the corners of her lips lifted a tiny bit, and even if I couldn’t tell what about that conversation had pleased her, I knew we were square for now.
I got up, filled an empty gin bottle with water, and put the cut flowers in it, arranging their spidery petals so they spread out just right. They were going to die no matter what I did. Maybe they were already dead. But it wasn’t like I could go back and tell the florist to un-cut them now—might as well make them last as long as possible.
Blackburn was at the electric typewriter as I walked in. The sound of the keys rattled through the room like a wagon determined to conquer rough terrain. She normally wore grey in addition to her usual black, but today she was dressed like a charcoal sketch on the way to a funeral. A murky shawl clung to her shoulders like mud. My pot of spider lilies sat on the bookshelf next to her, the only point of colour in that corner of the room.
“Who died?” I asked.
“That will depend on the events of today.” She paused to change the typewriter ribbon. “Just to confirm—what is the case you are working?”
“Just a stakeout,” I said. “Warehouse owner’s been complaining of weird noises and flashes of light on his property, wants me to take a look. He thinks it’s crazy cult types, I think it’s amateur photographers. Maybe we’ll split the difference halfway.”
“Be careful, detective.”
“You know me.”
“Hence my concern,” she said, and wrapped her shawl around her shoulders disapprovingly.
Later that night, trapped in a warehouse at gunpoint, I reluctantly admitted that both my secretary and the warehouse owner had been on the right track. I’d counted ten people so far, and the ones who didn’t have .38s trained on me were bustling around and speaking in a language with too many aaaa sounds. They were all in silvery-white silk robes, the filmy kind, something a starlet would wear in their boudoir. I couldn’t tell one apart from the other. Looking at their faces was no good either. All their smiling faces glowed in soft focus like someone had smeared the air with Vaseline, and the flawless features beneath the glow were identical and marble-perfect.
I didn’t know what they were waiting for, and no one seemed particularly inclined on letting me know. Most of them were preoccupied with drawing symbols on the floor in white chalk, sharp-angled glyphs with hooked tails that all seemed to point straight at me. As they continued their playground doodles, the air around them began to burn cold white, as bright as a floodlight. Having nowhere in particular to go, I sat there wondering how they’d managed the glow without batteries, and whether Blackburn would take care of my spider lilies after I turned up dead.
Then everything fell silent. The light dimmed. I looked around—everyone’s lips were moving, and their perfect eyes were wide with panic. They hadn’t stopped talking. The sound in the room had simply vanished like a magician’s coin.
Blackburn was in a corner of the warehouse. She hadn’t materialised in a puff of smoke or anything as flashy as that. It felt like she’d always already been there, and the rest of the world had just taken some time to catch on.
Her voice broke the silence. “You damned idiot. I knew this would happen.”
The cultists wheeled away from me and fired. The shots tore through the air, hitting her chest. She should have been hammered back immediately by the impact, but her heels remained planted firmly on the ground.
She pushed her shawl off her shoulders. Shells cascaded from its folds, plinking on the warehouse floor like heavy rain, and the shawl writhed around her like a monstrous shadow.
“Do not move from where you are, detective,” she said. “And close your eyes.”
I stayed still, but I kept my eyes peeled anyway. I should have been scared. I wasn’t. I’d been scared before she showed up, but everything about this was familiar. It felt like it was a repeat of a case I’d solved before, and things were just smoothly flowing along, sliding into the shape they were always meant to be.
She stretched, and her skin sloughed from her. Her black hair merged with her black clothes to form a solid mass of darkness. Her maw opened to reveal a long slavering tongue, and the rest of her face became a dark tunnel to another world, punctuated with clusters of black drooling fangs. She looked almost as annoyed as the time I’d brought the electric typewriter back to our office.
The warehouse was filled with black air. The soft-focus glow around the cultists had waned, and they bared their flawless teeth at her. At least five guns were pointed her way. It looked like no one on their side dared to make a move.
She struck first. The first two were dead in a splatter of blood, and with that, the slaughter began. The remaining cultists met with long thick tentacles to their legs, coupled with dainty bites that tore away half their perfect faces. Chow-mein strands of black whipped out of her body, deflecting the screaming cultists’ bullets as she dragged them all into the broad expanse of herself, laughing a deep gleeful laugh all the while. I felt a little ache inside my chest, seeing her that happy.
The guns clattered to the floor one by one. As the last one of the cultists vanished into her maw, she jerked convulsively, her form twisting as all of the shadows flowed back into her and her skin shrank to contain it.
I got up, rolled a cigarette, and lit it for her. She took a long grateful puff, and little tendrils of black shook loose from her bob, swaying in the air like vines. I barely resisted the urge to reach my finger out and let them coil around it. The sight of her sated form, glowing darkly with pleasure, only deepened the ache in me. It felt like I was a match slowly edging towards touchpaper, and we were both waiting for the moment where everything caught fire, the moment I asked the question I should have asked long ago.
“So,” I said. “Have we met before?”
A thin wisp of smoke rose from her cigarette. “In another life. You could say we were… intimate then.”
“And what about now?”
She looked at me, her cigarette dangling from her fingers. “What about it?”
Every ounce of my common sense told me to play it off, say something like I don’t see any harm in keeping a good thing going in my deepest voice, grab her and kiss her roughly like a hero straight out of the pictures.
My common sense could go hang.
“I’m saying I like you now. Every single inch of you.”
She arched an eyebrow. I was turning red from cheek to chest, and I felt like bolting from the warehouse and not stopping till I hit coast, but I kept my feet planted and rattled on like a machine gun—how grateful I was that she’d saved me from getting shot, how I felt like we’d known each other for decades, and some nonsense about how swell she was, how I’d liked her from the moment we met, how I even liked the way she glared at my spider lilies and shook my desk with her violent typing, and topped it off with a vehement proclamation about how she could take me on the warehouse floor right now and I’d gladly welcome it.
The tips of my ears felt like they were on fire. I didn’t think I’d been that sincere since Valentine’s in grade school. I didn’t know what I’d do if she said no.
She snorted a little.
“I suppose some desires—and idiocies—are immutable within this sphere,” she said. “I will warn you: you may experience great spiritual and physical pain. Particularly if you wish to make your last suggestion a reality.”
“Nothing new to me,” I said, shucking my coat. I was half-hard already—danger tended to do that to me. “Just don’t make any new holes.”
“I will inform you, should I have the urge to,” she said, and flowed on me like poisoned water, unbuttoning my shirt and pushing my pants down, rocking herself against me as she poured herself into my mouth. I could feel one of her tentacles working slickly into me from behind, filling my hole like a bullet snug in its chamber. I spread my legs so she could get in further, and she enveloped me within herself, touching something deep inside me that made me shudder as my toes curled.
I wanted to close my eyes and surrender to the black mist that clung to me, to drift on the waves of ecstasy, but I knew I couldn’t. I was a detective, and before that, I was a sap—call me sentimental, but I wanted to understand everything about the one who had such a hold on me.
Within the black smoke I saw snatches and glimpses of a sleeping city, one I thought I’d left long ago—the rising spires of Michigan Avenue skyscrapers redone in black, a river as polluted as the South Branch flowing through it all, and at the river’s bend was some kind of mass of teeming shadows, wandering around a—
“Close your eyes, you fool,” she snapped, and a tentacle whipped out to coil itself around my face, sealing my eyelids shut.
Before I could voice any coherent objections, she rewarded me for it, curling those vine-like tentacles around my cock, moving up and down its shaft in an uncanny rhythm that almost seemed to thud through me with every beat of blood, and with a gasp, I found my release.
As I lay on the floor, floating in the afterglow, I could hear her fumbling around with something, and the sound of fabric rustling. She handed me a clumsily-rolled cigarette. Some of its tobacco was falling out, but I appreciated the effort anyway.
She lit it. I took a puff. “What was that city I saw?”
“Part of what lies at the heart of me,” she said. “It does not permit itself to be understood. A mystery founded upon mysteries.”
“Hell.” I blew smoke at the warehouse ceiling. “I’m a detective. Give me time, I’ll have it licked.”
“I sincerely doubt you will,” she said, lazily waving the smoke around with one of her tendrils. “But, nonetheless, I look forward to seeing you try.”
I’d been chasing down those Cult of Light fucks for ages, and the latest informant had agreed to meet me at Orion’s Sword, a way-too-loud club that was way too obsessed with fog generators. They were slow to show, so I busied myself with my personal side project. I was more used to breaking into virtualities than making them, especially since going aug, but it didn’t hurt to know how the other side thought. I pulled up the low-poly preview of darkcity_10_v2_finalFINAL on my inbuilt rig so I could fiddle with the edges and placements. A pitch-tar river slowly coursed through a city of towering onyx skyscrapers, and as I studied it I had the sinking feeling that I needed to add something else at the river’s bend, something moving, I just couldn’t figure out what—
A lanky figure sat down next to me. Their suit looked solid black from a distance. On closer inspection, screaming mouths and drooling fangs formed out of the darkness and sunk back into the fabric, replaced by dripping vines and pulsating organs, before the whole cycle repeated itself with new ero-guro images. The superblack fever dream of a neural net.
They peered at me. “The girl detective, I presume?”
I waved a mechanical hand at them. “Bounty hunter. Ex-detective. And you are?”
“█████████,” they said. My audio sensors crackled black static. “My apologies—it might not render well on some drivers. Would B████████ be better?”
I was about to tell B████████—Blackmore? Blackburn?—to just get on with it, but something about them triggered a feeling I couldn’t quite shake. The question slipped out before I could stop myself. “Have we met before? You seem… familiar. Were you on one of my cases?”
They took a small bag out of their pocket, tipped some sort of powder onto rolling paper, and began to roll a cigarette with practiced motions. “Yes, but I doubt you can remember which. It was quite a while ago.” They sealed their cigarette with a lick of their long tongue, and stuck it behind their ear, where it vanished into their wavy black bob.
I resigned myself to not knowing. I wasn’t about to list every case I’d been on just to find out—they didn’t seem keen to answer that particular question, anyway. “Most people vape nowadays, you know. Or use the .TBG patch.”
“I was never one to keep up with passing trends,” they said, which was rich from someone in that suit. Black fractal cats twined and untwined their tails on the suit’s fabric before vanishing into the darkness. “In any case—there have been reports of students going missing at the nearby university. Mostly hushed up, so perhaps an experienced investigator could help with matters. Try starting with… hmm. Student ID CI-77891 is as good as any.”
“That’s it? Seriously? All you’ve got for me is a number?”
“My sincere apologies,” they said insincerely. “I was under the impression that you were a detective.”
I resisted my urge to throttle them, and broke into the university’s private server just to check if they were feeding me bullshit. Student profile, other students with significant absences reported, classes or extracurriculars in common, social media, activities before vanishing… oh. Huh. Interesting.
“I can’t pay you for this unless you give me more details,” I said, as I probed further into the student clubs that had booked the White Studio for their activities. “The contract I put out was for actionable information only.”
“Oh, that will be quite all right. You have already paid me enough, detective.” They slipped off their stool and sauntered off, twinkling their fingers behind them as they went. Their suit’s pattern coiled itself into tentacles, then fractals, then resolved back into solid black as they headed towards the door.
“I haven’t paid you anything,” I shouted after them, hoping they could hear me over the noise. “And it’s ex-detective!”
I wanted to say that meeting them had ruined my mood for the night, but something about that conversation, all five infuriating minutes of it, had jarred something loose in my brain. I ordered another drink—a Sambuca-coffee shot, this time—and pulled up the preview of the virtuality again. I gave it a once-over, then began adding one black cat after another, configuring their AI’s range so they didn’t stray too far from the river’s bend, twining their tails so close together that they’d seem like a big undulating clump of fur from a distance.
I added an open-air square for them to roam around, a few obsidian benches to top everything off, and then checked the low-poly preview again. It still felt incomplete—it always felt incomplete, no matter how much I worked on it or how much I added—but I saved it to my cloud backup, shunting it out of local storage. I knew I wouldn’t be able to work on it for a while, and I needed to keep the space free, anyway.
I had a case to crack.
I’d focused on mobility rather than firepower when picking my aug loadout, but as I dodged the slew of bullets and returned fire, I regretted not springing for the percussion cannon with those sweet autofire mods. This hideout was crawling with too many cultists for something insignificant, so whatever they were hiding, it had to be good.
The last body crumpled to the floor, their too-perfect holo mask fizzling out in sparks of white light. Scans indicated no incoming thermal signatures, and whatever the cultists had been protecting was behind that door. I brute-forced its lock and bodyslammed it open.
In the centre of the room, lying on a dais, was Blackburn. Their cocoon of black clothing had been stripped away, revealing mottled skin, and their eyelids flickered like they were deep within a nightmare. Their limbs were bound in silver-white translucent fabric that stretched and shrank with their every breath, almost seeming to clip through them. They were enveloped in a blanket of white mist.
Acting on instinct, I switched my ammo and shot a flare straight into the room. The noise and light made the mist coalesce, resolving itself into a ghastly pearlescent face, and the fabric retracted from Blackburn’s limbs, slurping back into itself as the pale creature scrambled for the lit flare.
I tried to haul Blackburn off the dais, but my hands kept sinking into their rippling body, and they were exuding a black ooze from all over, which really didn’t look healthy. The air around them looked to be giving way, and beyond that I could see glimpses of a city, its skyscrapers shining ivory, its streets teeming with cheerful people laughing.
My hand was up to the elbow, and covered in black ooze besides. There was no way I could drag them anywhere without resolving the situation.
Oh, hell, I thought, and plunged in.
It was an architect’s render of a city, all gleaming white marble. It felt like every corporate virtuality I’d ever encountered. Perfect-featured stock-footage people laughed at private jokes as they milled around a city square. The sky was cerulean blue, clear and piercing, with white fluffy clouds floating in the sky, and sitting on a bench in the middle of the square was a single dull spot of black.
I walked over.
“Hello,” they said. “Can you get me out of here? I’d really appreciate it.”
“Sure thing.” I motioned to them. “Come on. Let’s ditch these yuppies.”
They started walking towards me, but their eyes were flat matte black, washed out under the light, and something about them—the way they talked, the way they moved—just seemed… wrong.
“I hope it was okay,” I said. “Me coming here to rescue you, I mean. Some might call it a dumb thing to do.”
“Of course it wasn’t, you’re amazing,” they said guilelessly, and I instinctively put five bullets straight into their skull.
They shrieked in rage, bleeding silver-white light from every pore, and the bystanders ceased milling around the city square and swivelled towards me, their eyes burning cold white. Their shiny shoes clicked menacingly against the cobblestones with every advancing step.
The city’s skin might have changed, but the foundations hadn’t. I knew it was the city I’d dreamt about, the one I’d spent a lifetime—lifetimes—longing to be in, and even if I didn’t know every inch of it I understood its underlying logic enough to run. I turned around to shoot as I ran, as I dashed through the veins and arteries of the city, through crumbling spires and towering skyscrapers and barely-complete arcologies as my pursuers crumpled to the ground in piles of white fabric, until I found a place the light hadn’t reached far enough to warp yet, a damp spot of black earth far beyond the city limits.
My feet hurt. My lungs strained. I was bleeding from a cheek wound. I knew what I had to do.
“Hey,” I panted. “Sorry about this, okay? I’ll put it back after if we both get through this.”
I swiped my thumb onto my cheek, coating it with blood, and began to draw a pattern in the dark dirt. I knew it by heart, even if I hadn’t drawn it in this lifetime. The circle around me, thick and dark, then the glyphs around its edges—curves and whorls and be sure to get the last Saaamaaa symbol right, that one can be tricky for the inexperienced—and then, finally, the wish. The name. The call to something far beyond, the mystery that I might not ever be able to understand, in all my lifetimes.
“Hey, you,” I whispered, my palms pressed to the ground, my blood dripping into the black dirt. “Come on home.”
The dirt cracked open, heaving itself up in chunks, and a mottled hand reached out from it, their torso and head following soon after. They looked like they’d woken up from a very bad dream. I hesitated for a moment, then reached out to brush the dirt off their hair. A tendril coiled itself around my finger like the tail of a friendly cat, then retracted itself.
They held a hand out to me. I took it.
I hurtled into a void of black, and saw everything—we were in the centre of the city, no, we were the centre of the city, the wind shrieking around us, stripping the gleaming pearl-white coating from the buildings to reveal an obsidian layer beneath, the river surrounding it all gurgling pitch, like ink mixed with tar mixed with mud. The gale shredded the pearlescent intruders like paper, the pitch river rising from its banks to swallow them whole, and black cats hissed and spat in unison until the last glints of sparkling white faded from the city’s horizons.
I could feel their every breath, their every pulse, the life flowing within the city’s veins from its absolute origin. They let out a long deep sigh, and I could feel everything exhale with them. The tips of the skyscrapers trembled in the wind, the black river burbled and swelled before receding, and the cats twining around our legs stretched and let out deep yawns. Everything smelled like dust and tobacco and felt like sleepy warmth, and reminded me of somewhere I’d once stayed in, long ago—its ventilation didn’t quite work and it always smelled like cooking, but to me, it was the place I always pictured when I thought of home.
“We should not stay too long here,” they murmured, and in the very next instant, we were back in the room. No time seemed to have passed. The pale creature had almost finished with the flare, and turned a leering face towards both of us, stretching its mouth into a rictus grin.
“My apologies for inconveniencing you,” Blackburn said, placing a tentacle on my shoulder. “Please wait a moment. And do not move from your position if you are enjoying your current lifespan.” They stumbled off the dais, and in a low, deep voice, uttered a single sentence—the last line of the Saaamaaa ritual, I thought to myself.
The unnatural white light of the creature snuffed itself out immediately, and the rest of the electric lights followed. Darkness enveloped the facility. I did a quick scan of our surroundings. “Six approaching, right corridor. Four needleguns in front, and two at the back packing plasma. Should I—”
“Do not worry,” they said, tentacles mantling behind them. “I will make it quick.”
They flowed out of the door, and I soon heard the shrill sound of screaming, accompanied by deep gleeful laughter and vague meaty slurps. Not being that much of an idiot, I stayed in the room and waited for the sounds to fade.
“Is it over?” I asked when they returned to the room.
“Mostly, yes,” they replied, sagging back onto the floor with a thump. “We may leave now.”
I ended up escorting them to my apartment after calling the bounties in. They’d been stumbling about like they’d been on a week-long bender and couldn’t remember how human bodies worked, and I didn’t want to leave them somewhere else. They sat on my bed, their tentacles phasing in and out of my violet comforter.
“Would it be all right,” they said, “if I spent the night here? I am finding it rather difficult to move at this particular moment.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” I replied. “Stay as long as you’d like.”
I was in the bedroom of 472 Chenyuan Terrace, listening to my detective hum tunelessly as she tended to her plants, holographic and otherwise. My form was gradually wearing out, as was hers—her cybernetic augmentations could only extend a single life so far, and every time I explored the non-augmented parts of her body, I could feel the bones becoming more prominent, the creases on her skin deepening. I estimated she had less than two decades left—perhaps much less, if she continued with her feckless method of investigation.
I did not know where or when I would meet my detective again, after this incarnation. Perhaps on the blank plateaus of a newly-formed planet, perhaps amidst the carcasses of dead solar systems… or perhaps simply in the human realm, whenever I felt them beckoning to me yet again.
“Hey, lazy,” she said, pecking me on the cheek as she climbed back into bed. “You’re so hot even when you’re just lying there. Would you mind… you know? You don’t even have to get the tentacles out.”
“My human body is at your disposal,” I said, lying back and letting her do what she wanted to, which was mainly kissing me all over, slowly and lazily.
The movement of her lips reverberated through my core, their gentle vibration travelling through the city within me.
As she ventured to my fingertips, I let out an involuntary moan. She picked up the pace, sucking them into her mouth, and I moved my thumb across her cheek, feeling the creases of her wrinkles. Every motion of hers resonated within me like an earthquake, and I could feel something move within me, far beyond the edges of the dead city.
As she continued, I could feel a stirring both within and without, as if something deeply buried was trying to force its way upwards. As the detective’s tongue made its way to my thighs, I began to lose my grasp on coherence, vocalising my human moans and cries. I was tempted to simply close my eyes, to retreat to my other self, my inner city—
“Look at me,” she said, and I lost sight of everything else as I fixed my eyes on her, taking in the gentle swells of her breasts, the soft folds of her wrinkled skin, the way the deep furrows on her face accentuated her oak-brown eyes, and I surrendered myself to the expanse of her. Her tongue delved into me, my back arched in response to her every action, and I could feel my fists clenching in the blanket as I quaked around her, as I finally found my release.
The river of pitch within me thrummed and sluiced, almost overflowing its banks. The sea of black cats purred in ecstasy, twining their tails around each other, cavorting around the town square in wild abandonment. The peaks and spires of obsidian buildings swayed with each aftershock that ran through my human body, and their gentle vibrations in response to my gasps created a low joyful hum.
And in an empty field within me, far beyond the edges of the dead city, a sea of midnight flowers poked their fragile heads out of the black dirt.
Somewhere in the aftermath, she propped herself up on one mechanical elbow, and asked: “How do the spider lilies look to you? They’re those ones over there. Could you just check the future—not too far—and tell me how they’re doing then?”
She fixed her deep brown eyes on me with a look of concern. As I studied her plants, the field of black flowers shuddered within me, gently loosening their tightly closed buds, unfurling themselves slowly, petal by petal by petal.
“They’re doing well,” I said. “I think they might bloom soon.”
(Editors’ Note: “Black Flowers Blossom” is read by Joy Piedmont and Vina Jie-Min Prasad is interviewed by Lynne M. Thomas on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 31B.)
© 2019 Vina Jie-Min Prasad