psul's sandbox
rating: 0+x

The shadows in the alley were ink. Tomàs felt like he was drowning.

The young woman's comatose weight dragged his arms downwards. He shouldn't leave her, but he couldn't afford to be found like this. She was wanted for questioning in the murder of Tomàs' friend, and Tomàs was a key witness. Then there was the fact that he had helped the Foundation to kidnap her, so that Craggs could wire her brain for remote control. Not to mention that she had been caught up in what seemed like an occult drug ring, who had tried to kill her.

Tomàs' thoughts spun faster and faster, immobilising him.

"You know, I think this means you're not getting lucky tonight after all."

The woman's voice cut like a knife through his mental bonds. Speaking English, an American accent. Tomàs couldn't see her. He turned to search, letting the nameless woman slide to the ground.

"I sincerely hope that's not how you treat all the women in your life, or we're not going to get along, Tomàs."

There - rising from the step in front of a darkened doorway. She was tall, maybe taller than him. Lank brown hair with a streak of cheap-looking pink through it, framing dark eyes that shone with feverish light.

"How did you - you were listening to me," said Tomàs, realising. How much had she heard?

The woman walked out towards him, gangling in ripped jeans and a t-shirt that read "Nomeansno". Something about her looked almost familiar.

"We don't have time for fucking around, Tomàs," she said. "My name is Veronica. You're going to help me."

"What do you mean?" asked Tomàs. Then, "Wait, you're in that band, right? I saw you in the paper."

Veronica waved him away. "I told you, we don't have time. I saw your little 'performance' on La Rambla, and I've seen enough to know that razor-shadow you torched was no special effect. Whoever you and she work for, whatever you're doing, you're in the same shit as me. So you're going to help me."

Frowning, Tomàs considered his options, none of them good. "Help you with what?" he said finally.

"To hunt the fuckers who took my girlfriend." Veronica's jaw clenched, sharpening the words to hard edge.

She was already turning to the deeper darkness of the alley. A witness - Tomàs had to keep tabs on her until he could get amnestics. He looked back at the woman's body slumped on the ground.

Veronica saw the look as she turned. "You're an agent, she said. Can you call this in?"

Tomàs shook his head.

"Then don't use your phone. I'll call the ambulance on our way."

Things were moving too fast. "On our way where?"

"To the last place I saw Ashy. The place those assholes put a green patch on her arm. To Apagada."


The club was packed. Bodies pulsed in flashes of blinding white. Waves of abyssal bass deepened the darkness. Tomàs felt them both: palpable noise and writhing limbs.

Veronica was leading him further into the maelstrom. Her story, told in jagged shards, made little sense, but he understood enough. She was seeking the same men as he was. Pursuing, in fact. If he was driven, she was a fanatic. She pushed through the crowd's gyrations like a juggernaut.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a familiar face. Joan. He had been here with Tomàs and the others, the night Raf was murdered. He stood to the side of the club, near the bar.

Tomàs grabbed Veronica's arm, and she spun as if to strike him. The strobes amplified the intensity in her eyes. Tomàs held up a hand, then pointed towards Joan and pulled her along.

They emerged from the press in front of Joan, who was rocking drunkenly with the music's pulse. Veronica looked at his rough-shaven face and glanced skeptically at Tomàs. It was impossible to explain to her - everything was too loud. He tried to yell an introduction, but he could barely hear himself. Joan gave a snaggle-toothed grin, then leaned forward, putting a hand on Veronica's shoulder as he shouted something into her ear. To Tomàs' surprise, Veronica laughed. Joan chuckled, his paunch quivering under a too-tight shirt. Then he turned, beckoning, and they followed him through a staff door.

In the hallway beyond, the bass throb was lessened. Joan kept moving, leading them through a storeroom and down concrete stairs bleached by buzzing fluorescent bulbs. Tomàs hadn't realised that he worked at the club, but he supposed his sister must have mentioned it. She was better at keeping up with family.

At the bottom of the third flight was a bare room with several doors. Joan was about to open one, when Tomàs reached out to stop him. Joan's arm was warm, from the swarming club, or perhaps the alcohol.

"Joan, we can talk here," said Tomàs. "You work at the club, right? We need to ask you some questions."

Veronica was pacing like a caged tiger. "I want to talk about the gear trade here. Do you know the dealers? What do they sell? How big is the crew?"

Joan cocked his head to one side, the movement exaggerating the wide set of his eyes. "Aim of brine woe forget ache, yeoman dust glimmering broken air."

"Sure, but how do you know where they've taken Ashy?" asked Veronica.

"Young boxed bled boy worms ago, callow begged. Ashes walk boon yes - all why welling." The lights flickered, buzzing. Cousin Joan looked at Tomàs expectantly.

"How many of them are there?" Tomàs pressed. "Do we need Xavi?"

"Skin bout wax able adopt. Zones wily arm ax broad ass been addle winter." Joan gave a rough guffaw, and again Veronica laughed along.

"Come on then, asshole," she said. Her grin had steel behind it. "Let's get those fuckers."


The further they walked, the tighter the passage became. Tomàs hadn't noticed the shift from hallway to tunnel, but now the walls were rough, the air clammy. They crept forward single file, blindly. The last of Tomàs' phone battery was reserved for more important things than torchlight; how Joan could navigate he had no idea. Yet his cousin pressed onward, ignoring turnings, following the slope downwards. For the past twenty minutes, no one had spoken. Save for their footsteps, the only noise was an occasional muted fluttering, like unseen wings

Joan gave a grunt from the blackness, and Veronica echoed a muttered warning. Tomàs felt the walls ahead constrict further. He turned sideways, shuffling with his back pressed against the rock, feeling it scrape at his arms. The opposite surface was hidden in the dark, but he felt its closeness in the wash of his own hot breath reflected from stone.

Progress was slow, and the narrow crack stretched endlessly. Tomàs felt his muscles tense with the need for space. He thought he could hear Veronica ahead of him, or was that just his own movement echoing back? Was he alone? Tomàs reached ahead for her hand, but found nothing. Only the same implacable hardness. He could feel the weight of it, on all sides, above him. Something dripped onto the nape of his neck, and wetness slid down his back. Tomàs tried to slow his breathing.

A sharp cry from ahead. Veronica. Tomàs rushed, knees and elbows rasping on the harsh surface. Then his lead arm swung in empty space, and he cried out too. After the passage, the openness felt like falling, and he collapsed to his knees on the cavern floor. Veronica was there too: a sudden glow from her phone showed her breathless but recovering. Beyond, Joan stood unmoving, watching them intently. Then the phone's light went out, and Tomàs saw only blackness and a phosphorescent afterimage in the shape of a man.

Tomàs reached out, offering Veronica a hand up. Starting forward, he felt Joan's broad hand flat on his chest. Tomàs stopped. For a second, he didn't understand. Then he heard it.

Something else was in the lightless chamber with them. A scrabbling of claws on rock. Throaty panting, on the verge of a growl. Tomàs and Veronica, trying to pinpoint its source, inched unconsciously closer to Joan.

A second noise spun them around. This was a wet flapping, inarguably separate from the first. And then a third: a drawn-out hiss, like a kettle just below boiling point.

From closer to them came a deep rattling. In confusion, Tomàs imagined Joan with a football clacker, trying to scare off whatever had them surrounded. The creatures were unperturbed. Tomàs could hear them circling.

"Weave bull babe atop aught womb." Joan's voice was terse.

Tomàs backed closer to the others. "How, when we can't see them?"

"Apt as works, which, why bun yet yours bus brine." Joan gave a sudden stamp, and something near his feet skittered away. Tomàs listened to it wheel back in, closer.

"Fuck that," said Veronica. Her phone's dim screen light up her face, determination leavening her fear. "Let's see what we're dealing with."

She flicked on the torch at the moment of the attack. The monstrosity darting at them screeched, a dozen eyes squinting as it swung out of the beam and into the dark. Tomàs had the impression of a hooked beak, a scaly tail and heavy paws - a madman's chimera.

A squeal echoed from behind them, and Joan answered with another clattering bellow. The torchlight swung crazily as Veronica bent over, dropping the phone. Then the second creature sprang at Tomàs' throat.

Sightless, his hands came up instinctively. The weight of the beast threw Tomàs to the floor of the cave. He pushed desperately against a feathered neck as slavering jaws snapped at his face. A forked tongue lapped at his closed eyes. Claws tore his clothes as the atrocity writhed and rolled. All Tomàs' strength was required to keep the teeth from him. There was a clacking noise, as dozens of scorpion claws along the thing's jawline nipped at his hands, trying to dislodge his grip.

Something wet and muscular coiled around Tomàs' neck. His hand pulled at a suckered tentacle, wrapped tight and constricting like a python. With only one arm to fend it off, the creature's weight crushed down. He gulped for air, gaining none. The maw lunged for him, and he wrenched his head desperately aside. Bright spots swam behind his eyelids. The tentacle cinched harder.

A heavy impact flung the chimera off him. Tomàs heaved as air filled his lungs. His neck felt raw where the suckers had been ripped away. He realised that the torchlight was steady again, Cousin Joan looming over him in silhouette. Joan stepped over Tomàs, to where the creature had hit the rock wall. It made a high mewling noise. Joan kicked it again, hard, and there was silence.

Tomàs struggled to stand. Veronica limped to him, holding the torch, and pulled him up. She must have seen the question in his face. Her only answer was to shine the light across the cave.

Another of the predator mongrels, lion-maned and bat-winged, lay in the centre of the cavern. Veronica bent over it, pulling a slim knife from its chest and sliding it into her boot. She met Tomàs' gaze with a shake of her head, and raised her phone high. On the far side of the chamber was what remained of the third animal. A mess of crab claws and snake heads, it had been torn almost in half.

Tomàs saw Veronica stare at Joan for a second. "There was another one, but it ran," was all she said.

"All asps bonding ever wits. Win assay bees."

"Shit on that," said Tomàs. "How is splitting up ever a good idea?"

"Boy and bathing, womb." Joan strode towards a tunnel entrance, leaving the circle of torchlight.

Veronica called after the retreating shadow. "You know, Johnny, I meant it - you are an asshole!"

There was no reply. They stood in a cave full of dead things.

After a moment, Tomàs gathered his thoughts. "Wait a second. Why did you call him Johnny?"

"Because he's my asshole cousin," said Veronica. "I've always called him that."

Stomach churning, Tomàs replied slowly. "No, his name is Joan. It's Catalan for John, because he's my cousin. What made you think -"

"No, he's here for the -" Veronica tailed off at the same time.

"I don't think we should wait for him," said Tomàs, with a shiver.

"That's the first smart thing you've said all night." Veronica was already heading for an opening on the opposite wall.


The tunnels kept sloping gently downwards, but these were wider than before, with a hint of movement in the air. Tomàs risked a little more of his phone battery. Without reception, he had no access to the full Foundation database, but the version held on the device itself was more than enough. 'Cousin Johnny' turned up a hit, and Tomàs read the summary in disbelief. Keter-class, mind-affecting, infiltrating religious occasions.

"Perhaps that's the reason for violence at all those funerals," he said aloud.

Veronica turned around. "Cousin - you mean the Johnny-thing? Is it fay?"

Tomàs was too exhausted to try to maintain the Veil now. "Fay? You mean like faeries?"

"They can draw power from ceremonies, from rituals," said Veronica. "I don't know what you're reading, but I told you, I have some … experience in this area."

Scanning through the rest of the page, Tomàs exhaled slowly. "No, this seems to be something else. Different, ancient maybe. It seems centered on Catholic liturgies. Jesus, perhaps it's here for Raf's funeral! Although, there was some sort of fight at your concert too, right?"

"No, that was … that was a more specific thing."

"Hey!" said Tomàs, shutting down his phone. "Perhaps you'd like to be a little more honest with me. If we're going to get out of here -"

"That's rich, from the man who won't tell me who he's working for," Veronica interrupted. She stopped dead, squaring up to him. "If you want honesty, you could try being less of a hyp -"

"Ssh!" Tomàs put a hand on Veronica's arm. With the phone off, his eyes had adjusted. Behind her, in the distance, a light flickered.

They stayed frozen for an age, but the light did not move. There was no sound from either direction. Without speaking, they stretched stiffening limbs and stepped cautiously towards the light.

It was an old oil lantern, on the floor of another rough-cut chamber. Pressed into the shadows of the tunnel, Tomàs risked a glance inside. He leaned close to Veronica's ear, speaking as quietly as he could, her hair tickling his nose.

"A cell. Bars, dark, can't see inside. One guard. No exits."

Veronica pulled away, eyes hard as she gestured back the way they had come.

"No," Tomàs continued. "Guard must know something. We need information. Follow me."

Without looking back, he strode towards the light, then sprinted across the small room. Before the guard could do more than stand, Tomàs barreled into the his midsection, throwing him backwards. The guard's head clanged off the bars of the unlit cell, and Tomàs shot a hand over the guard's mouth as he slumped to the ground, dazed. Landing his weight on the guard's right side, Tomàs was relieved when Veronica arrived to grab the man's other arm. Her hand held the knife before the guard's eyes to make sure he saw it, then pressed the blade to his neck.

"Call for help and you're dead, understand?" said Tomàs, kneeling in front of the man as he ceased struggling.

The guard looked at him and blinked in acknowledgement.

"Okay, I'm going to remove my hand, and you're going to - quietly - answer my questions."

"Oh, I cannot think that this imbecile has anything of interest to share."

A gloved hand shot from between the bars of the cell, grasping the guard's neck. Veronica pulled the knife away with a yelp as the man collapsed. She and Tomàs looked up to see a black-robed figure towering above them. The cultured voice had come from a long-beaked mask the colour of bone.

"Certainly my conversational attempts with him had been thoroughly tedious," the figure continued, "and the local bastardisation of French and Spanish is cumbersome to pronounce. I hope very much that you two understand English." It stood still, sharp eyes watching them closely from behind the mask.

Tomàs was the first to recover from the shock. Only now he saw that the chamber was hung with sprigs of lavender. He rose slowly. "Who - what - are you?"

"My profession, sir? Medicine. At which, I flatter myself, I have no small skill." The mask was fixed, but the voice was warm.

"Then you are responsible for all those squirrels, and those women who were drugged. For the pills I found, for the patches."

"Pills?" the doctor exclaimed, drawing himself to full height. "You do me dishonour. I am no mere purveyor of powders and ointments! You seek an apothecary, sir. I am a surgeon!"

"A plague doctor," said Veronica in wonderment. Realisation dawned, and she stepped back suddenly from the body on the floor. "What did you do to him?"

"An unfortunate necessity, dear madam," said the doctor, seeming to recover his equanimity. "But be assured that he can do you no harm. Now he can be cured of the Pestilence."

If he had not seen the guard die only seconds ago, Tomàs would have assumed the black-cloaked man was mad. In the circumstances however, he could only repeat, "The Pestilence?"

"Yes, sir. It is my life's work to cure it, and I have made great strides. That man's associates had offered to assist me with human subjects for my research, but I'm afraid their previous hospitality has rather ceased. And this despite all of my progress with animals."

"Animals?" asked Veronica, and Tomàs knew what she was thinking. "What kind of animals?"

"Why, every kind," replied the doctor. "While not subject to the Pestilence to the same degree as Man, animals are extremely useful for analysis and refinement of technique. I believe my erstwhile patrons wished me to impart to them a method for the partial severance of the human soul from the body, but after I had finished with the squirrels, I was keen to show them that I am not solely a vivisectionist. No, my friends, the true art of the surgeon is in reattachment. And I have supplied them with excellent examples of the art."

Tomàs thought of the shape behind the door, and of the creatures that had attacked them in the caves. He shivered.

The doctor seemed oblivious to their slow

Notes:

  • Cicadas have prominent eyes set wide apart, short antennae, and membranous front wings.
  • The mouthparts form a long sharp rostrum that they insert into the plant to feed.
  • In males, the abdomen is largely hollow and used as a resonating chamber.
  • It has been found that bacteria landing on the wing surface are not repelled, rather their membranes are torn apart by the nanoscale-sized spikes, making the wing surface the first-known biomaterial that can kill bacteria.
  • The "singing" of male cicadas is produced principally and in the majority of species using a special structure called a tymbal, a pair of which lie below each side of the anterior abdominal region.
  • Cicadas are eaten in various countries, including China, where the nymphs are served deep-fried in Shandong cuisine.
  • Cicadas are commonly eaten by birds and sometimes by squirrels.

The call of decim periodical cicadas is said to resemble someone calling "weeeee-whoa" or "Pharaoh".


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