Avalanche – Snippet 16

It wasn’t enough for the universe to throw me one curve ball out of left field.  It had to throw me two.

Interlude: Who Can It Be Now?

Mercedes Lackey

For some reason, gods only know why, I kept my Twitter account active and open on a little tiny terminal to the side.  Nostalgia maybe.  Thinking about that time before we set up Overwatch and the only way outside of using ECHO comms to talk to Red was by Twitter, of all damn things.  I sure as hell didn’t want to use it to Tweet the cheery crap Spin used to ask me to.  Not that we were in any position to Tweet anything cheery at this point.  Except maybe, “Guess what!  No one died today!”

So I was kind of startled when the speakers did that raspberry I’d substituted for the chirpy little sound Twitter used to give me the alert for a private message.  The hell, Red? I thought, and swiveled a little to peer at the monitor.

Who is @rancbeast42?  And how did he get past my “friends only PMs” block?

The avatar was simple enough–a stark, black depiction of the two heads of Janus against a white background.  Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, and endings, of portals and transitions.  The message though, it was ambiguous.  It screamed Red.

@rancbeast42: Time is not on our side.

I Tweeted back. 

@victoriavictrix: Red, this is no time to get playful.  I know I’m late for practice.     

@victoriavictrix: I’m juggling a couple knives and a chainsaw right now.

It had to be Red.  And he knew I could mute him on Overwatch2, so he figured he’d get my attention this way.

@rancbeast42: Not Red.  Just someone reaching out, someone with intel.

I began dropping mental f-bombs.  Then I relaxed.  This was on Twitter.  This was meaningless.  Some hacker had figured out how to send me PMs, so what?  He might have something useful.  It wouldn’t hurt to play along.

@victoriavictrix: I’m listening.  So talk.

And whoever it was…did.

My twitter feed came alive with links, each loaded with precious data.  A little I couldn’t use, a lot that I could.  Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with suggestions for safe ports, embassies, entire districts and trustworthy research labs for my population of Metisian scientists, each complete with protocols and contacts for acquiring safe haven.  Something I had been putting a lot of skull sweat into at that very moment.  There were detailed maps, revealing hot spots for Thulian strike teams, calculated patterns predicting times and places they would likely strike next.  There were even charted movements of their ambush avenues, maneuvers and escape formations.  And finally, a detailed list of companies and their recent activities, investitures, breakdowns… and one clear foreword… “Shell companies of Dominic Verdigris III”.

@rancbeast42: That get your attention?

It was a good thing all those PMs had taken a while to produce, because at least I had time to check some of them out, get my jaw up off the floor, and stop panting and actually reply.

@victoriavictrix:  Indeed, Daniel Jackson.  Thankew.  Thankew verra much.

@rancbeast42:  This is what I do.  These are things I find and figure out.  Way more than I can deal with right now.

@victoriavictrix: What’s the catch?

Because I couldn’t let him/her/it know just yet that I was practically whooping the more links I opened and the more info I grabbed.  And no one is ever this helpful unless they want something.

@rancbeast42:  No catch.  It’s information that should be used, by people I trust.  Still not convinced?  Try this.

I received one final link, a link to a short page of text that detailed a rather repugnant fairy tale of one fifteenth century Italian girl decimating her entire family in her thirst for fiendish power.  It sounded strangely familiar, but the tone was odd, the style rather simple.  Whoever the writer was, they weren’t very good.

@victoriavictrix:  If you’re pitching a story, this one’s been done.  And you need some practice with your prose.

@rancbeast42:  Sorry, not all of us are pros.  What if I told you this was something I gleaned from a mutual enemy of ours?

@victoriavictrix:  Gleaned?  You mean, this is an actual memory of someone’s?

@rancbeast42:  Of a fair-haired she-devil we both know and loathe.

Of course.  It all came together and just like that, because of what my family has done since the Etruscans, I knew what Harmony was.  Or, at least, I had a pretty good set of clues, and I knew just how to verify it.

@rancbeast42:  Not sure what to make of it myself, but I figure you might know what it means.  Helpful?

@victoriavictrix:  Oh yes.  Very.  Thank you again.

@rancbeast42:  More will come, as I get it.  And you’re welcome.

The feed went quiet then.  I uplinked the Metis stuff to Bell, the Thulian stuff to Bull and Pride, and the Verd stuff to Ramona, who had the best head for that sort of thing.  And then I went out to get my ass handed to me by Red and Mel.  But not because I couldn’t keep up. 

Because my head was still buzzing.  Who was this guy?  And why me?

Interlude: Bent Penny

Mercedes Lackey

The Dark Man had taken her again.

She knew better than to struggle when he came for her.  All the kids did, of course, though that didn’t stop some of them from struggling anyway.  The Good Ghost couldn’t do anything about it, either, although the Dark Man always acted a little oddly when the Good Ghost was around, glancing over his shoulder uneasily, as if he could feel the Good Ghost’s glare.

It was always the same when the Dark Man took her.  He would take her to a strange, bare room, not like the room the Devil used at all.  It was a bare, concrete box.  There were symbols and diagrams meticulously drawn in white paint all over the walls, the floor, and the ceiling.  There was a chair in the middle of the room, like a dentist chair, but with straps.  He would strap her into it, then make it lie down.

Then he’d mumble over her, and wave things over her, and do other things that just didn’t make any sense at all.  Sometimes he’d burn smelly things.  Sometimes he’d make her drink nasty stuff that put her to sleep.  He had never actually hurt her yet, that she knew of, but somehow what he was doing made her more scared than if he had.  It just felt wrong, what he was doing; wrong in a way that made her feel sick.

He’d just strapped her into the chair and tilted it back, when the Devil came in.

Today the Devil had no face at all, just slits for eyes, a slit for the nose, and a slit for the mouth.  Somehow that was the most horrible of his faces.  Penny turned her head and closed her eyes, but the Devil and the Dark Man were paying no attention to her.

“What is your fascination with this one?” the Devil asked, in his odd, high voice.  She shivered.  Someone that terrible should not have a nice voice.  That was just wrong.

“There is something about her that I have not yet been able to identify,” the Dark Man replied, his horrible tobacco-breath making her want to gag.  “It’s close enough to magic that I can certainly…use her…but if I can truly understand what it is, she might be more useful to me in another way.”  There was a pause.  “And speaking of that, when will you be done with these children?  I’ve already missed two opportunities to complete my project; it would be exceedingly irritating to miss another.”

“I think…I am very close to a conclusion, one way or another,” the Devil said, sounding…odd.  His voice trembled ever so little.  “Either way, you’ll get your wish.  This entire facility and everything it contains will be yours.  And so will that woman you want.  Just as I promised.”  The voice caressed, like a beautiful hand that left trails of slime behind it.  “When have I ever disappointed you, darling?”

The Dark Man snorted.  “With your damned stubbornness, every hour in the beginning.”

“And that was decades ago.  You and I have shared too much now, we have too much history between us.  We owe each other too much.  You made me what I am, after all.”  The Devil laughed and Penny convulsed in shudders.  The sound was…whatever the opposite of joy was, that was what was in that laugh.

The Dark Man’s voice took on tones of gloating.  “Excellent.  I was hoping you would not renege on our bargain, after I have given you everything you asked for.”  Then his tone turned darker.  “That…would not be wise.  And you are right, we owe each other too much to muddy our history with a betrayal over something as trivial as a few children and a woman.  Regardless, you should heed my words and not dally in your tasks.  Things are changing, I can smell it in the air.  There may come a time, and soon, when your Masters will tighten their grip and you will no longer be permitted your own… amusements.”

The Devil just snorted.  A moment later, the door opened and closed.  When Penny turned her head to peek, he was gone.  But the Dark Man was still there.

He bent over her and smiled with horrible, stained teeth.  “Now my little mystery,” he said.  “Let me see if I can unravel you this time….”