Doc Sinister was sloppy drunk, scared, and monologuing. The first and third weren’t unusual for one A.M. at the Cape and Cane on a—do you call it Tuesday night or Wednesday morning?—but the second worried me.
“They don’t get it.” He pounded his glass on the table for punctuation, and a fountain of expelled bourbon wet the stained sleeve of his black topcoat. Doc had come in costume, straight from work. Another bad sign. “Majestic. Cypher. Whole damn Super–League with their muscles and blue eyes and jawlines, they’re just…” Green flames trailed the tip of his crooked finger as it wove uncertain circles in the air. “You know. Ring of firelight. Horrors too terrible. Dutch boy with his finger.” He knocked back the rest of the bourbon and magicked himself another from the bar. That made five, which is a lot for a guy as slim as Doc.
I kept quiet. I tend to, when someone’s on a roll. Skeleton Gwynne moved her chair closer to Doc and wrapped her hand around his arm. She’d put on a face for the night, a light dust of translucent crystal over the skin that’s still there, along with organs and viscera and other working parts, even if it’s all invisible but the bone. Normally she doesn’t bother, but she knew Doc would be here tonight. I don’t know what she sees in him, but then I don’t descend from jogging apes or have genitalia as such, so maybe something’s there I miss. “Doc, it’s fine. Leave it at the office.”
He gulped more bourbon, and you shouldn’t gulp bourbon. “Victory lay within my grasp!” One hand raised, curling into a fist, eldritch energies crackling, etc. Color me impressed, or not. “The Soul Engine firing on all cylinders, Unreal Knives flaying the skin of the world to usher in the Age of Supremacy, complete liberation, incomprehensible power. Ms. Zhang was bound to the Engine. Majestic had to choose between stopping the device and saving her.”
“And she managed both.” Gwynne knows how the story ends. We all do.
“But why should she?” Doc’s eyes burned with real fire. Or magic fire, which is as near the real stuff as matters. “Why shouldn’t we win once in a while? Why not exact our toll in blood and doom?”
Gwynne’s hand tightened on his arm. Her lips puckered, her shoulders twitched, and at last the laugh pealed free. She clapped a hand over her mouth, but giggles slipped through her fingers’ cage.
Doc tore away from her and stood, imperious, wreathed in sorcery and bourbon sweat. “Some of you—” his dilated eyes swept the table, and settled at last on Gwynne “—may have grown comfortable with failure. I am not so limited a being.”
The powder didn’t touch Gwynne’s eyes, but I still saw the betrayal there.
“Losers. All of you. What a bunch of losers.” Doc stormed away from the table, or tried. He stumbled into Cynthia Chill, knocked her beer out of her hand and her self into the Warden, who didn’t notice on account of his being ten feet tall and made of stone. Cynthia swore, but Doc waved her off with a gloved middle finger and lurched toward the bathroom.
Gwynne wasn’t quite crying. “What the hell did I do?”
I set down my cup. “Nothing. He’s drunk, and a jerk.”
“Stella.” And she looked at me with that killer stare you humans have, that screams “Help me” in the language of a billion galaxies. The look that makes you so dangerous.
“I’ll talk to him,” I said, and stood.
Cynthia was flaking frozen beer off her dress. “You best check that son of a—”
“I know, I know.”
“As if I don’t spend enough on dry cleaning?”
The Warden chuckled, a sound like grinding rocks.
I don’t mean to give you the wrong impression of the Cape and Cane. We’re usually a convivial, peacenik sort of crowd. We check our superweapons at the door. That’s one of the two options given our clientele, and the other option leads to high insurance premiums and frequent reconstruction. Kitchen fires don’t have a patch on what happens when we go at each other.
On the stage, Octagon finished tuning his guitar and laid into a version of “Nobody’s Business But My Own.” The Dealer, Castaway, and Doctor Javier (MD, a rarity among our circle—Doc himself is a D.Phil.) had set a board over the pool table, upended Javier’s top hat in the center, and were trying to flick playing cards into the hat. Castaway kept embedding the cards edge–on in the board. Didn’t look like this would end well for Javier’s hat, but everyone seemed to be having a good time—even the Dealer, though he wasn’t smiling. He only smiles when he knows he’s about to win. (And I mean knows—minor precog, among miscellaneous other gifts.)
Doc was in the men’s room, kneeling in front of a porcelain god even he tried to have as little to do with as possible. Kyberios snorted lines of fairy dust by the sink.
“Barry, give us a minute?”
He nodded all three of his metal dog’s heads and walked through the room’s corner, howling down the borders of creation. That left me and Doc alone.
I crouched down behind him, considered and rejected the obvious joke. “How’s it going?”
He was suddenly, violently sick into the toilet.
I magicked a glass of water from the bar and grabbed a wad of paper towels from the dispenser by the sink. When he was done I handed him the towels first, then the glass. He rinsed his mouth, spit hard into the bowl, drew back and flushed. He crawled away from the old evil god, but couldn’t stand quite yet. He sat propped against the stall door, staring down into the tiles as if they moved in mystic patterns. Maybe to him they did. His bald spot glistened. There were holes in his jacket, and some of the black was carbon, not dye.
“Good. You were a jerk to Gwynne.”
“We all have bad days. She’ll understand. She’s too good for us that way. But you need to apologize.”
“Didn’t mean to insult her. Just everyone.”
“Yeah, well, she’s part of everyone. And for some reason she cares what you think, unlike the rest of us.” I put a hand on his shoulder. Beneath the jacket’s padding, he was all bone. “God knows why.”
“Losers,” he said.
The door opened behind us. I didn’t recognize the big guy with the horned hat and tusks. Always someone new around. “Occupied.”
“I said, occupied.”
“I need to go.”
“Use the ladies’ down the hall.”
“There’s a line.”
I put something extra into my voice at the end there, and he did. When I turned back to Doc, he was laughing, and not the good kind of laughter.
I shook him. “Stay with me.”
He stopped, but the crazed look lingered in his eye—and I mean crazed like cracking.
“Doc, we all have days like this. That’s the trouble with being player one. Spend months, years setting up the game, then player two stumbles in and wins. Sucks, but that’s the way. We all fall. If you take it out on the people who are there for you when you land, the fall’s just harder.”
“You don’t get it, Stella. This time, I didn’t lose.”
I did not like where this was going.
“There we were, the heart of the Soul Engine. The redoubtable Ms. Claudia Zhang wired so any attempt to foil the Engine would kill her, the Engine wired so any attempt to rescue her would set it off. I knew Majestic could get them both—but I didn’t tell her about the second trap: a fate circuit drawing power from Majestic’s choice. There wasn’t enough juice to tear free the spirits of mankind, but it did the job for one.” He fished inside his jacket pocket, produced the Dagger of Leng and a collapsible pentacle woven from a dead god’s marrow and a half–dozen other implements of trade, until at last he found a little disc of ice–blue crystal. It hovered between us, perfect enough to grab a soul and flawed enough to keep it. Inside, turning and turning, all gyred up as a poet might say—
If you’ve never seen a naked soul, it’s no more like a soul embodied than a flower you planted as a seed and watered and watched sprout, grow, bloom, and wither is like a badly–lit photo of the same. In that stone I saw birth, sex, heartbreak, pain, and that time Claudia Zhang got high with her friends and tried to synch Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz but no one could quite time the VCR right. Ms. Zhang, ace reporter, was inside that stone, timeless and trapped. She couldn’t see us, but her eyes had that same damn human expression. Unfair.
I did not keep my voice level. Or down. Shadows clogged the room, which was my fault—I lose control when I’m angry. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
“I won.” His smile was way too wide to convince me. I know what fear looks like. “Player one always loses. Hell with that. So I set a trap and beat her.”
“That’s not the way this works, Doc. You can’t call the game and win it.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Because then it stops being a game. And when our thing turns real, it turns ugly.” His eyes had no fire in them now. “You know that. You caught her and you came here, because you’re scared of what happens next.”
“I wanted to win,” he said. “I wanted to show Gwynne I could. And now I’ve messed it all up. Like always.”
“We can fix this,” I said. “Come with me.”
“We need to get you back in the game. Majestic will come looking for you, and if she finds you here she’ll wreck this place, and I don’t want to spend the next few hundred years hunting another watering hole.”
“Of Majestic? Hopped up alien shapeshifter with delusions of grandeur? Please. But I’m not the only one here. They don’t even have powers where Doctor J comes from. The Octagon might be immortal but his guitar isn’t. And neither’s Gwynne.”
He’s a pale guy but he went paler.
“I didn’t think.”
“I know the feeling.” I stood, with a sigh. “You have two choices, way I see it. You want to walk this road, play for final stakes, then you go out the front door and never come back. Gwynne might be sad, and the rest of us might miss you, because you’re a fun guy when you’re not pulling shit like this. But we’ll live. Or.” Indicating, with open palm, the poor, trapped, corporeally–challenged Claudia Zhang. “You make two apologies tonight.”
I held out my hand and dragged him to his feet.
Back in the bar, Castaway threw a card that would have gone straight into Javier’s hat if the Dealer hadn’t winked the hat out of existence first. This prompted some argument about the rules of their game. Gwynne waited at the table, mostly recovered. Kyberios sat with her, not talking, just being there. She looked up to me first, and then to Doc.
“I’m sorry,” Doc said, and would have said more before I tugged him past.
“Hold that thought, Gwynne. Need to take care of some trouble first. Our friend’s been dumb.”
Her brow furrowed like she could read minds. “I’m coming with you.”
“That is not a good idea.”
“You can’t stop me.”
“I could,” but why argue?
She followed Doc and me to the door, which I dialed for Doc’s home realm and opened onto an almost–empty parking lot flanked by scrub pines. Stars overhead, pretty patterns, the galaxy washed out by streetlights but still there. Far away and past the trees a city’s lights burned. Here, the Cape and Cane was the corner of a strip mall occupied by a karate club and a Wash–n–Fold. There are lots of realms; can’t afford downtown real estate in every one.
We stepped out, me and the Doc and Gwynne. It takes a second to get your bearings in a new world. Thank momentum and reference frames for that.
“Hey,” I said. No need to speak louder than a whisper, at least on this seaboard. “Majestic. Doc has something to say.”
There were crickets among the pines around us, and wind in the branches, and cars on the road in the distance.
Sound travels three hundred forty meters a second in air, give or take. The city was forty clicks away. My voice reached it in a little under two minutes. Majestic made the return trip faster.
She wasn’t there, and then she was, hovering with arms crossed above the blacktop. Her hair was long and black and unbound, blown straight by the wind of her flight. The world bent with her anger. She wore striped pajamas. She could break the sound barrier without a sweat and had been in too much of a hurry to put on clothes.
We were probably screwed.
Majestic’s eyes were red. She had not been sleeping. She turned her gaze on Doc, with a mixture of scorn and anger I knew too well: The righteous angel’s expression. “Doctor. What you’ve done—”
Doc stepped forward. For a guy drunk as he was, he made an admirable show of sobriety. “It was an accident,” he said.
I’ll say this for Doc, not everyone controls their bladder when a woman who can punch holes in the moon calls bullshit.
“You’re right. I made a mistake. I wanted.” He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter what I wanted, does it?”
“I’m sorry. There’s no excuse for what I did. Here.” He offered her the crystal. “Place it over her heart. She’ll wake, unharmed.”
“You’re a mad dog, Doctor. I should put you down.”
Gwynne stepped between them. “I’ll stop you if you try.”
I kept a straight face. What could Gwynne do against her? But Majestic didn’t know Gwynne and wasn’t psychic any more.
“He wants back in the game, Mags,” I said. “It’s a good deal.”
She turned to me. “Stella. You think you’re above all this. I should get the League, burst through that door, scatter you and your sick friends to the ends of time.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But if you came after us, you’d be player one. And you know how things end for player one.” I smiled, and showed sharp teeth and the faintest trace of my ruined wings. “The folks in there have a lot of practice losing. And me, I have more practice than anyone. How’d you like to find out how it feels?”
Majestic, to her credit, considered the option.
But she looked at the stone then, and saw Claudia staring back at her.
She took the stone, and her love, and left.
None of us spoke for a while. Doc worked up the nerve first. “Gwynne. You couldn’t have beat her.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Well. Who cares about winning anyway? I’d rather lose with style.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I was scared.”
“And a jerk.”
“Yeah,” he said, with a self–deprecating laugh out of character for a master of the mystic arts.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go.”
I held the door open for them. Above, the stars and galaxies whirled, and seemed to smile.
I didn’t smile back. I went inside to see how Doctor J’s hat would fare. Us losers have to stick together, after all.
© 2014 Max Gladstone