The Salem that had nothing to do with witch hunts [or lots] clearly wasn’t the police station or Portland or the home of the wispy foe Reshmi was allegedly chasing – possibly in her own mind – but it was where we ended up
in yet another template hostel
stretched out curved on the mattress
separate yet twinned
watching Beyond The Rabbit Hole on GENTE+.
Reshmi had paid for two rooms plus pool access [two hours max, each minute after that charged extra] then vanished, the latter part according to Juana, who’d waited all of half a minute next door before slinking dolorously into our room and sandwiching herself between us on the double bed [mercifully no heart cushions this time].
‘Gone to dredge up more corpses no doubt,’ Lexi said, more to the TV pinned to the wall opposite than anything sentient.
‘Some of her skin was green…when she left.’
‘On her face?’
‘Hands, wrists…some on the neck.’
‘It was quite noticeable.’
‘…could be skin irritation, allergies. Or paint. Or soul erosion. Skin literally flaking off right in front of us.’
‘Probably not paint,’ I said, tucking one arm in to create more space. Not that it mattered. The bed was territory, and territory was fluid, swore Derrida, another philosopher I’d never quite got around to at unii.
Clearly a fan of this theory, Juana shifted her legs into a narrow triangle shape, forcing me out further to the edge of the bed. Mumbling shameless fucking crone in Japanese, I looked right at the bedside table and the chair tucked under it.
Moon Prison was there, face down.
Should I just move and read that? Get stuck on the same bit again, Sunita’s long journey through Uranus Immigration while high on Kan-E.
Or stay on the bed and push back?
Juana’s leg sensed my doubt and nudged my calf closer towards the edge.
I let it happen, waiting till she almost had me off then lifting my whole leg up and draping it full weight over her thigh.
If it were just the two of us, it may have been interpreted as a mimic-owl screech for frenzied sex, but as Lexi was there too, the Yaqui’s leg just gave up and played dead.
‘Muy cómoda…’ she muttered, picking at the face of the t-shirt spider demon.
On screen, Sato Mark 7 picked up the spanner and told the food replicator that this had been a long time coming.
The machine beeped in response, its three square eyes phasing dark blue.
Dark blue became lake blue became a glitching mass of yellow.
A specific patch of it, with a mop of bleached hair rising up through the ripples.
‘You really think the lake guy was…’ I started to say, then stopped, attempting to map out the rest of my line. Killed by Sadia. Related to Sadia. Committed suicide after being rejected by Sadia. Tripped on a rock while fleeing from a flickering bear, fell in the lake, gave up.
None of them seemed great.
‘I’m leaving at 6am,’ said Juana abruptly, her voice so quiet that it was almost lost among the noise of the filmn’s food replicator being beaten wildly by the Ondōa-phobe.
Lexi pulled herself up onto one elbow, adjusted the sleeve of the Kollontai Shoe t-shirt. ‘Leaving?’
‘There is a bus round the corner, it goes close to Williams Avenue.’
‘Yeah, but you’re in the same room as Reshmi. How are you gonna…’
‘I’m sleeping here.’
‘…get out without-…here? We’re right next door. It’s the first place she’ll look.’
‘Don’t think it’s a good idea to leave,’ I cut in, lifting my leg off the Yaqui’s thigh. ‘She might get mad.’
‘And drop you in the lake.’
‘Better to give her a day or two, see if she can find this foe she’s looking for.’
Juana returned her leg to the middle of the bed and fiddled briefly with the pillow stuck half under her head. Then stared forward at the TV screen. Couldn’t blame her, it was a good scene. The Ondōan diplomat giving a presentation on the merits of the other side of the wormhole, specifically the Ondōan star system…and slowly realizing that they were, in fact, talking to an array of Tier-3 holograms.
And the chaos after that, the diplomat storming out, telling the real humans observing from the adjacent room that there would be no more niceties, and certainly no invitations to the galaxy-famous Ondōan sex domes. Then shooting at one of the filter bots, mistaking its hissing sound for a weapon discharge. Then shooting their own hand as apology. Then ordering the other bots to-…
I felt movement from Juana’s leg. Kuso. It was pushing me out to the fringes again. This time I held firm, giving up not a single grain of territory.
‘Don’t care about consequences,’ Juana said, wiping the yellow that had re-emerged in patches around her mouth. ‘I need to see Sadia.’
Lexi patted the Spider demon face on her ex-boss’ t-shirt, looking over it towards me. I had a feeling she was gonna say maybe we should detach too, the same thing I’d thought after the waitress possession. For a brief second. Until the drift sensation filtered back in, and a vague circling of Portland suddenly became the most rational thing to do.
‘Still not a good idea,’ I said, turning back to the screen.
‘I need to.’
‘… … … … … …’
I slithered out a yeah, giving the remainder of my brain back to Tsukubashi’s Rabbit Hole. Not even a notable scene either. Just background character stuff. Sato Mark 7 flicking through a catalogue of Ondōan ships, telling his commanding officer that they were all impractical.
‘The Ondōans don’t think so.’
‘Poorly designed, awkward…’
‘Got them through the wormhole.’
‘Which is more than we’ve ever done.’
Sato’s resulting curse was muffled by the sound of the door opening and Reshmi’s voice drawling out, ‘Fucking fuckhead Woodburn.’
I stood up and instinctively reached for Moon Prison, no idea why, then sat back down on the edge of the bed when I saw a beaming smile on Reshmi’s face.
‘Fucking in a good way, comrades…the best of ways. Best of all possible ways. That’s right, I’ve located that tricky little fuck…wispy, runaway coward. Hiding in an Outlet Centre of all places.’
‘The foe?’ I asked, noting the robot-plateau expressions on my fellow hostages.
‘Now all I need to do is get some rest, drive over there early and strike like a fucking Kontolian. Before they get their-…nah, scratch that, they wouldn’t…not in an Outlet Centre. Far too quotidian.’
‘You have found the foe?’ I tried again, the others still comatose [or doing a pretty deep impression of it].
‘Wah, finally, after seventeen thousand axe-points. Yeah, found and pinned, Edgar Allen Foe face. About as Persian as Holo-witch’s ass crack. Kuso, three whole days. Very sloppy. Or acting it. Hmm, you guys better stay in the car, in case of rogue effects. Or you can come in if you like? It probably is safe, and you deserve to see the actual retribution part…the violence. I mean, they did do all those things to you too.’
‘Violence? Who are you-…’
‘Not that you remember any of it. Or maybe a curated version, the green streaky bits. Just like Lexi’s hair. Who? That fucking djinn…cunt in the red tie…museum racist guy. Jesus, I know I’ve been closed-off, but there were enough clues…’
‘The Museum of Negativity guy?’ asked Lexi, rebooting.
‘…scattered about that you could’ve guessed. Yeah, that one. Negativity guy. Fucker played with all of us during that junky Jupiter shit. Got the jump on me…for about a minute…to a miniscule degree. But that was just a fluke, an anomaly and now…Woodburn, comrades. That scummy djinn…is not gonna know what’s hit him. Fucking give the wretch a real Jupiter kismet, old Neptune logistical, seven flared…’
I waited for Reshmi’s last [bizarro] words to die out, half-distracted by the Ondōan slope dance playing out on the screen, then asked the inevitable. ‘What exactly did he do? To us, I mean.’
‘They, not he.’
‘Yeah, I know I said he, but now it’s they again. And the torture stuff…better if you don’t know about that kind of thing. Retribution is the blue key. Glorious void-scape revenge.’ Reshmi clapped her hands together, slowing at the last second to muffle the sound. ‘Wah, Juana, you look like an actual brick wall. You’re not still angry about the lake thing? Granted, I probably shouldn’t have been that petty, but…you pushed me at a low moment and I told you not to do that. Remember? At the dog park? Portland, Portland, Portland, every five seconds…’
‘I’m sleeping here tonight,’ the Mexican replied, not taking her eyes off the screen.
‘In this room. Not with you.’
Reshmi threaded fingers together, then unthreaded, possibly a self-debate mechanism. ‘Ah, I get it. Psycho-regress. No problem, comrade. Give me four of your Urf minutes.’
Before any of us could produce the inevitable four minutes to do what? she’d already passed through the door and gone, reducing the room to TV sound only.
‘Do you believe any of that?’ asked Lexi, getting off the bed and checking the lock on the door.
‘The djinn part?’
‘All the stuff about the museum, playing with our heads…’
‘It’s most likely true,’ said Juana, moving her legs into the space Lexi had vacated. ‘I know people who have fallen under the spell of a djinn.’
‘But…it can’t be. I remember leaving.’
‘Exactly. That’s how they can function without getting caught. The victim rarely remembers.’
‘Unless they’re an alien,’ I said, jumping back a bit as the door swung open again and Reshmi marched in, left hand gripped to the denim jacket of a Mexican-looking guy.
‘Who’s this?’ Lexi asked, stepping out of the way as the newcomer was pushed forward and prodded in.
‘An apology gift to my eternal Yaqui comrade, Juana. For making you see that pale sleaze Sadia poisoned and dumped in Lake Trillium, which was partially done in self defence, to be fair…which is quite hard for me as her poetry really is terrible. And also for delaying our Portland trip until tomorrow afternoon. At the latest. Depending on levels of djinn subterfuge.’
‘Apology gift…’I muttered, running through the usual series of confusion tics even though the Id level of my brain knew what was happening, as did the Fresno file in my short-term memory cortex, cos why else would the guy have slightly purple irises and no apparent control of his own limbs?
As usual the Id was right.
Reshmi led the Mexican guy on an invisible leash to the edge of the bed, then tapped him on the back of the skull. Either a genuine mechanism or the simulation of one, it prompted the poor wretch to drop onto the carpet and kind of let his head bob on the invisible air molecules close to Juana’s mouth. Fortunately, perhaps due to the audience…and Lexi…the Yaqui ex-cannibal stuck to the EX part, tightening her lips, moving her claws away.
‘Come on, comrade. Don’t be coy.’
‘It’s a gift.’
Juana shifted over to my side of the bed, refusing to even look at the guy with his skull lowered as a novelty sacrifice cup.
‘Maybe a little background will help…’
‘This guy…this pervert…rapes disabled teenage girls. Habitually. Goes out of his way to target them, specifically that group.’
‘Jesus…’ muttered Lexi, folding arms across her t-shirt.
‘Takes pictures of the poor confused things during the act….then films himself masturbating on those pictures…makes them lick off the cum. Then rapes them again. From behind. With the picture of the first rape dangling in front of their faces.’
‘Fuck, can you just…get him out of here?’
‘Yeah, get him out,’ I agreed, moving round the side of the bed, inserting myself between Lexi and the back of the possessed Mexican guy.
‘No, no…this one’s perfect. Truly undeserving of continuance.’
‘Kill him…you,’ came Juana’s voice, her back still turned.
‘What…and let his brain go bad?’
Lexi swerved around the side of me, putting a hand on Reshmi’s arm. ‘We’re supposed to be stopping her from doing this…not forcing it.’
‘Ah, all over the place Lexi. I didn’t know your voice could be that soft.’
‘Look at her face. She doesn’t want to do it.’
‘Of course, she does. That’s why she can’t look over.’ Reshmi looked down, running her fingers through the Mexican’s curly hair. ‘But perhaps you’re right, I am being a little pushy. A little too give to the needy mode.’
A moaning sound came from below, the Mexican guy’s hands shakily coming together to form a begging pose.
‘Ah, this is too much. To be honest, the poor guy’s not even a rapist. Almost feel sorry for him myself. Kuso. Feels weird now. Maybe I’ll just put him back.’
Lexi backed off a bit as Reshmi lifted up the Mexican
wretch angel by the arm and dragged him out of the room, shouting back from the corridor that, ‘he did have sex with a pretty dumb nineteen year old once.’
Beating Lexi to the door, I closed and chained it, then rushed to the window to see if the alien and her zombified pet would walk past outside.
‘Great, she’s happy and erratic now,’ Lexi said, coming close to the curtain.
There was no sign of them in the car park so we returned to the bed and arranged ourselves around Juana, who had made the silent decision to stay on my side. I thought about asking if she was okay, but the eyes were closed and her tongue was peeking out, trying to slide round to the yellow marks…then pulling back in reflex when they got too close.
‘Hopefully, she doesn’t come back for a…’
The door opened again, somehow, and Reshmi strolled in, Mexican-less.
‘Four comrades, one room. On the eve of a great battle. Sorry…massacre. What are we watching?’
‘Don’t you need to get some rest?’ asked Lexi, one hand on Juana’s head, acting out vague massage.
‘Later. After I’ve cooled down a bit.’
Reshmi dropped down on the side next to me, putting a firm hand flat on my thigh, and focused on Sato Mark 7 fucking the Ondōan in the weapon’s locker.
‘What is this, erotic sci-fi?’
‘Beyond the Rabbit Hole.’
‘Ah…Tsukubashi…that old walnut. How far in are we?’
‘Middle somewhere,’ I said back, then turned off my brain and let the screen take me, the lights getting dimmer and dimmer as
the Ondōans finally got their way, returning through the wormhole with seven hundred human scouts, including reformed xenophobe Sato Mark 7, and
the sequel was tempting but unauthorized
not Tsukubashi and
‘it’s almost twelve,’ said Reshmi, clicking off the screen with
green tendrils of wispiness
creating doors out of etch-o-sketch waiting
for devil dad to pop out
three different Sadias in odd-fitting Tenebrae t-shirts, visible nipples
threatening the tank
begging me to build a shed for her in Neo-Portland
as I tied postal string around the base of my dick
news on the screen, weather report
and by then we were up
blonde wig, blue dot dress, green hair, glasses
being ushered into the car outside
Reshmi psyched, assertive, whimsical and
past a woman walking a dog, a man walking two dogs, a couple walking four dogs, a dog walking solo, pensive, a broken down church, another church with a STILL OPEN, DONATE sign, grassland by the freeway, Mid-Valley Clays and Shooting School [Closed], Sketch Burger, Hill Valley Pizza, Your Place, Great Bear Coffee and
the Outlet Centre was just off the freeway, not in a remote, uninhabited area but near a bait shopp that wasn’t open for business yet, and a few other detached housses showing zero signs of early morning activity.
Reshmi parked about fifty metres down and turned off the engine, telling us that the moment of retribution wasn’t theoretical anymore, it was brazenly upon us, or upon her alone as, due to innate psycho-kinetic limitations, we all had to stay in the car.
‘How long will this…retribution…take?’ asked Lexi, twisting round two strands of green hair.
‘Just soak up the moment, appreciate it,’ answered Reshmi, right hand clutching her left wrist. ‘Picture our L’Avenir.’
It was both incongruous and French enough to put Lexi off asking anything else [my interpretation], and Juana was clearly looking at dream Portland through the windscreen, so it was left to me to also sit there and not ask any questions.
Didn’t matter. Reshmi wouldn’t have heard them anyway.
Lunatic alien was too busy putting down roots in the driver’s seat, scrutinizing the windscreen, clutching her wrist, twisting it, injecting little whisps of lilac vapour into her alien version of veins, muttering things in a language not English or Japanese.
The Outlet Centre was right there.
She had psycho-kinetic, reality-altering abilities.
The djinn allegedly had no clue she was coming.
It was ten past ten already.
‘What exactly is it that you’re gonna do?’ I asked finally, stretching out my question into its politest form.
‘Yes,’ Reshmi replied, pushing out a sharp breath, kicking open the door and stepping out.
‘You sure they’re in there?’
The door slammed shut, almost clipping my hand.
‘No more questions, I guess.’
Leaning back into the seat, I watched through the window as the alien revenger rubbed the palm of her left hand, frantic, as if she were attempting to scrub off a permanent stain…maybe some of that green stuff Juana had mentioned that had either vanished or been covered up at some point during the night…then stopping abruptly and punching her forearm instead.
‘She seems nervous,’ Lexi said, leaning across me to get a better look.
More like murderously excited, I thought. Which…in theory…could also be an expression of nervousness for an alien. Or something else entirely.
‘You think she knows what she’s doing?’
‘Sì, claro,’ said Juana from the front, her finger writing out something on the windscreen, probably a word beginning with P and ending in ortland.
‘Based on what?’
‘Brechas de conocimiento.’
Juana started humming, switching full focus to her finger tracing.
The driver’s door was still open, so I got out my own side and closed it. The fresh air felt quite pleasant, as did the slight breeze coming in from the side. No idea which direction. North maybe. Good sign for the attacker? Or carrier of their scent? I leaned against the car and watched Reshmi stop at the Outlet Centre entrance, press both palms to her temple, swirl a bit of purple mist then continue in.
Lexi wound down the window and poked her head out.
Neither of us said anything.
We just watched and waited, jumping at the occasional car that drove past.
I had the vague sense that someone was going to crash through one of the Outlet Centre windows so that’s where I put my focus. It was a drawn-out observation, windows not doing much most of the time.
But then they did do something…a kind of flickering, glitch effect.
A VR construct?
On this scale?
I glanced back, to the sides, up at the sky, half-expecting a Varo bear hybrid to drop down and absorb me into its madness.
No bears, no Varo.
My eyes went back to the Outlet Centre, running along each floor starting from the roof, scanning for signs of secondary glitch.
Ah, there it was again…fourth floor…third floor…second.
Not only the windows, but the entire building seemed to be one quarter of a shade off…phased out of this dimension…buffering with dark green patches…fading into a kind of ghost-like transparency, with trees visible behind, and then back to solid again until
about fifteen yards in front of us
both Reshmi and another figure jolted into existence
a Tsukubashi-esque jump cut
the figure with the face and torso of a middle eastern guy
limbs chaotic, narrow green swirl
the two of them locked in combat or struggle or
meshed together accidentally
it was impossible to tell and
then astronomically impossible to tell as the mass of Ernst surrealism that was Reshmi and her coward foe vanished
replaced by green mist streaks running short trips from one patch of air to another patch of air, no real markers, just frenetic green chaos while
in the background
a strip of wall plus window, from roof to ground, peeled itself off the Outlet Centre, held itself together in preternatural stasis for a few seconds…then slumped forward in a folding fashion onto the poorly-kept lawn.
I shifted back to Lexi, suddenly realizing that I was at least five steps from the car door. Her face looked unmoored, eyes compelling me back to the Outlet Centre.
‘Where did they go?’ I asked, not seeing any sign of Reshmi or the djinn.
Were they both dead?
Should we do something?
Pick up the strip of wall?
I didn’t have the guts to get in the driver’s seat and start the engine, even though the keys were still in the ignition.
Lexi probably didn’t either, not since the djinn assault.
That I still couldn’t remember.
Did it even happen?
Even pulling the memory back now, it felt pretty clear that we’d watched a cheap VR shot of floating into the atmosphere of Jupiter, then got up and walked out to our car, driving out of Bend to the lava caves.
Was all this just a trick then?
Nick turning into Reshmi, pretending to chase down a dangerous foe who was actually a friend of his. Or himself. Rigging the wall of an Outlet Centre to peel itself off. Stabbing restaurrant managers who charged high prices for water.
‘Wah…’ gasped Lexi, bringing me back.
She was pointing at the battle site and, when I turned to look, it was difficult to understand what she was saying wah about, but then I pulled back a bit, framed the complex as a whole and
Alien fucking sorcery
the left side wall, the strip that had peeled off…was back again.
As if it had never happened.
There was a mewling sound nearby, something like a dog but not quite. I took a step right and looked over the bonnet. A forty-ish woman was walking past, with a fox on a leash, shouting out basic sentences in…Russian? That’s what it sounded like.
She crossed the panel of the Outlet Centre still life, completely uninterested in looking left, and continued on down the street.
With her pet fox.
Letting out an unhealthy amount of stored-up breath, I pivoted and walked back to the car window.
‘Is it over?’ asked Lexi, receding back inside.
I put one hand on the roof, the other on my neck. ‘She hasn’t come out…’
It was better than don’t know, but not by much.
Opening the door, I slid back in and resumed surveillance of the Outlet Centre, coaching myself makeshift tactics.
Wait an hour then go.
Wait an hour then check inside.
Wait two hours.
How long would Reshmi expect us to wait?
Was Lexi running through the same options?
The sound of an engine broke in…our engine. Juana was in the driver’s seat, stretching out her right wrist in small circles.
‘We’re leaving?’ I asked, glancing at Lexi, who was already plugging in her seatbelt.
‘… … … … …’ came back in bullet Yaqui.
‘What about Reshmi?’
‘Yeah, but shouldn’t we…’
The car pulled out into the street, accelerating past the Outlet Centre and the Russian-speaking woman with the pet fox.
‘No more stops till Portland,’ said Juana, faint yellow eyes cropped within the windscreen mirrror. ‘Agreed?’
No one answered.
Not me, not Lexi…definitely not Reshmi…who may not have even been on the same plane of reality anymore. Not the steering wheel. Not faint alien haze. Not the spider demon on the new driver’s t-shirt. Not the Outlet Centre. Not the possible alien grave.
Nothing. No one.