Escape Velocity

rating: +37+x

PREVIOUS: Contempt

FIRST: The Chosen Few

Rukmini Mahakali is dead. Natasha Tokyopop is dead. So are Alliott Chao and Diya, the tankie furry from Texas. All four of them died and went straight to Hell.

Except Hell collapsed in on itself like a dying star. It was chewed up and digested by two things who couldn’t even be said to be human at the end. The dreams, actions, and consequences of trillions of untold lives – the raw immateria of magic – all of it was fuel poured into the fires that drove us against each other. Now where will bad people go when they die?

Hell cannot stop existing any more than energy can be created or destroyed. In that final moment of singularity at the center of the Moon, with its body consumed and both its queens locked in a death struggle, it saw only one way out of its predicament and transformed.

The thing ejected from the afterlife’s corpse is little more than a seething embryonic mass. The thing that crashes into the ocean at sixty thousand kilometers an hour has six sickle-like arms, three burning eyes, and a pair of eight-chambered hearts. Below the exhaust pipes running full bore up its spine – behind its cast iron guts and six industrial stomachs – at the center of all the damned souls and unthinking demons now flowing into the living, breathing incarnation of Hell on Earth – is us. We used to be Rukmini Mahakali. We used to be Natasha Tokyopop. We’re something much worse now: together again.

Each beat of Natasha’s heart pumps burning blood through Rukmini’s veins. Every breath Rukmini takes fills Natasha’s lungs with steaming air. Every step we take burns abyssal sand into glass and dumps the most privately kept parts of formerly separate beings – our worst memories, deepest shames, and most secretive emotions – into the same pure consciousness. There’s nowhere to go and nowhere to be except entwined around each other.

I am Rukmini again, tearing Natasha's ethereal heart from her chest. I am Natasha again, being betrayed in the truest physical sense of the term. Cold iron and bile floods our throat but finds no mouth to egress. Our lungs fail even to suck in water. There’s only the joint insensibility of an indescribable pain.

I am Natasha again, daydreaming of a world that does what it knows to be right. I am Rukmini again, dying because I deserve it every time. Tears boil in our eyes as they emerge. Our steps falter – together, turning a missed beat into an improvisational step. We share the frisson of our fantasies and the guilt of our regrets.

I used to think that Natasha only loved me for what I could do for her. I was afraid that she would replace me. I convinced myself that I could never atone for my sins against her.

I used to wonder why Rukmini never apologized. I hated her for always running away. I believed that she was squandering her gifts to spite me.

We know better now. We know each other more intimately than we knew ourselves individually. We are open books, spread-eagle for each other to flip through and peruse and taste. Our worst memories are places to soothe, not weaknesses to exploit. Our deepest shames can be empathized with instead of capitalized on. We let ourselves feel the emotions we tried to suppress.

We could let the world burn as easily as we could save it. We would damn the rest of humanity with the same ferocity we’d make heaven on earth. None of these thoughts are contradictory. All of them are perfectly logical within the connections that only we can see. All of them make perfect sense because with them come emotions only we can understand. The kaiju’s own body speaks more eloquently than any words we could come up with. The heat in our veins – the pulsing behind our third eye – the boiling ache in our stomachs – this is the language in which we articulate the feelings we never could before.

As the sun sinks into the sea behind them, the devil that emerges from the Novagrad surf is only five meters tall but at perfect ease with themself. Their claws wedge into the spot where lips should go and split their face open, prying apart hollow-point teeth with six-fingered hands and ignoring the gasoline pouring from the wound. A single red hand reaches down their cast-iron throat and emerges with a fist-sized block of cardiac tissue whose eight pistons are arranged in a V. As the top of their head levers back into place, the heart keeps pumping gasoline into veins it’s not connected to anymore.

New veins form around it. Bone marrow bleeds out from the veins and petrifies in midair. A skeleton takes shape around the engine, sprouting muscle and fatty tissue to conceal it in the visage of a human being. Diesel pours from the arteries and congeals into skin against the briny air. Strips of leather flense and stitch themselves into clothing from her own skin.

The devil draws a bayonet-tipped nail across Rukmini Mahakali’s face – my face – and opens a bleeding mouth across it. My first breath is her payment for my rebirth. Then I collapse into the surf and puke up a pile of sniper rifle parts. Instead of washing them away, the tide rolls the components into a hexagram inscribed by concentric circles of frothing seafoam.

“Kaṭikārattai mīṇṭum cuḻaṟṟuṅkaḷ!!” My voice tastes foreign in my mouth; my vocal chords are raw as a newborn’s. The power behind them is familiar and cathartic. Plastic, blood, and saltwater churn into a stew that reconstitutes itself before my eyes into the form of Alliott Chao.

“Kaṭikārattai mīṇṭum cuḻaṟṟuṅkaḷ!!” I can’t keep the distaste out of my voice for this one but I don’t want to. The scorn rolls over my tongue and teeth with sweet familiarity as the form of Diya – not the eight-armed cyborg, but the witch who told me to call her the tankie furry from Texas – rises from the ocean alongside Alliott.

“Kaṭikārattai mīṇṭum cuḻaṟṟuṅkaḷ!!” This one is just to flex: the spiral of regolith trailing from the lunar surface collects itself as it streaks backwards across the sky. A procession of meteoroids spool backwards into the cored-out Moon as it reconstitutes itself.

I missed this more than I can express. The energy filling my limbs; the vibrato of my heart; the frisson of thought translated directly into action. The freedom to carve my own path and fulfill my own desires and damn anyone else who might compel me otherwise. I fought through hell and back for this power. I would have killed Natasha for it.

And now she stands next to me, reveling in the same triumph I feel. The triumph of standing on a world she created. The satisfaction of finally seeing her life’s work come to fruition. The headiness of sixteen billion burning green eyes behind hers, tearing down the hell our predecessors left on Earth so they can build heaven in its place.

“You could stay,” Natasha says abruptly. She looks disappointed. “There are people I couldn’t save. Monsters that need slaying. You could be there for them.”

Seven subsonic pops punctuate her sentence and puncture her skull. Seven streams of ichor spray across my face and stain my skin the color of diesel. Seven eyes turn in unison to look at Alliott.

Diya seems about to move but freezes at Natasha’s glance. Alliott’s hands shake almost imperceptibly as she pulls a magazine from her prosthetics and loads it into a pistol made of the same black plastic. I almost want to laugh. What good is that peashooter against the princess of darkness?

Natasha reaches into her jagged mouth and slowly, casually pulls seven rounds from her tongue. “Got any more in ya?”

Alliott shoots her seven more times and pulls another magazine from one of her limbs. “Yeah. A few more.”

“Alliott–“ I start. She interrupts me by emptying her pistol into Natasha again. And again. And again. Natasha waits patiently for Alliott to pat herself down and come up empty-handed before running a hand up her face and sealing her wounds like zippers. Dozens of deformed bullets fall from her palm into the sand.

“Got that out of your system yet?” she asks.

“No,” Alliott says. “My sister is dead and somehow I don’t think you’re bringing her back. ”

“In my defense, she tried to kill me first.”

“You tried to kill Rukmini first!” This one’s directed at me. We all know it. “Goddamn it, Ruku,” Alliott laments. “I told you to hold onto your hate. What happened to it?”

“That was the old us,” I say. “They’re dead now.”

“That’s not an excuse,” Alliott says. “You know how many reincarnating bastards I’ve killed said the same thing?”

“Three?” Diya snarks.

Alliott shoots her a look leaden with hate. “If the old you weren’t in there somewhere it wouldn’t be reincarnation, would it?”

“Well they all got three strikes,” Natasha says. “Why don’t I?” She puts a hand on her chest in a show of mock indignation. “Look, Al, you lost this one fair and square. I’m even doing you a favor by letting you walk away.”

Alliott sneers. “Don’t pretend it’s your decision. Rukmini brought us back.”

“Because I asked her to,” Natasha coos. She taps the side of her head. A fingertip sinks in, then pulls out with a short sucking pop and a bullet half-submerged in the skin. Natasha flicks the metal wad directly at Alliott and gestures to me.

“Face it, Al,” she says, “we kissed and made up. We compromised. Love it or hate it but you can’t explain it. I don’t mind letting you live because you have to do it knowing you’ll never understand Ruku the way I do. She’ll never know the real you half as well as she knows the real me. So you can either grin and bear it or I’ll –”

“You’re going to watch me leave with her,” I remind her. “I got my heart back, Natasha. You lost.”

Natasha kisses me on the mouth and catches my heart as it leaps out of my chest, splattering Diya in bloody chunks of rib and muscle. We all stare at the evidence pumping life into my pipes at three thousand RPM. I’m not sure if the steam coming out of my ears is embarrassment or coolant as I shove it back into my chest and wait for the sucking wound to seal itself up.

“That’s my heart inside you too,” she says. “I’ll see you around; I’m sure of it. I know why you have to leave but – call me sometime, yeah?”

Alliott throws her hands up. “How come all of you fuckers get a happy ending?”

“Happy ending?” Natasha’s indignation sounds real. “The revolution doesn’t end with toppling global capitalism, you know. I need to make sure there are still trains left to run on time. I need to make sure baby formula still gets made. I need to keep a billion manmade ecological time bombs from going off. I made a plan to save the world. I need to make sure it executes.”

“Whatever helps you sleep at night,” Alliott scoffs. “I don’t even want to look at you anymore. Hurry up and open a Way out of here before I come up with one to kill you.”

“How long were you thinking that up?” Diya snarks. Alliott spins with murder in her eyes –

I grab her arm and meet her gaze. I’m expecting a spark between us – an arc of emotional connection – and get nothing. I can’t parse my reflection in her pupils. Not like I can in Natasha’s.

Alliott snorts and brushes my arm off. “Get us out of here.”

I pull my fingers close to my eye and snap them. My heart revs in response and cuts spacetime along the line of forced perspective. The Way slides open before us. It’s unbelievable how much easier this is with my heart back. I feel it burning hot and contentedly in my chest. Almost makes me forget the pang of Alliott’s glare.

I look back at Natasha and meet her eyes. There’s more than a spark there – there’s an entire transmission, a message from one world to another, a plea to join hands against a cold uncaring universe – but I don’t take the unspoken hand and she doesn’t expect me to. We don’t say goodbye.

The sky is black and the parking lot is empty as we exit the Way in front of the Kemonomimi Zaibatsu. The cat logo atop the building watches us with a flat neon expression. Alliott discards my hand from her grasp and gets in front of me with a look of bemused fury. “Now what?!” she says.

“Well, I didn’t say this in front of Natty,” I reply, “but now that I have my heart back we can probably go look for Alex in hell.”

“You can do that?” Alliott’s face scrunches up.

A smile runs down my face and neck – teeth and all. “There’s a lot I can do now. You haven’t seen the real me yet.”

“Fuck.” The flush behind her eyes is instantaneous: anger sublimating into relief. I live for that kind of alchemy. Alliott takes a deep breath and scratches her face. “Alright, well… fuck. You couldn’t have said anything earlier? Like maybe while that bitch was laughing in my face about it?”

“Full disclosure,” I say. “I didn’t think of it until just now. And if I’m being honest… I kind of owed Natasha a win. Even a fake one.”

“You don’t owe her anything! She owes you for not killing her!” Alliott’s tone shifts into puzzlement. “Why didn’t you? What did she do to you?”

My tongue gets stuck in my mouth. What reasons could I give? I don’t have the language for it anymore. How do I explain to Alliott that I saw the world the way Natasha sees it? I can’t even see it anymore. How do I show her the view from behind both our eyes?

Alliott sees something else in there. “Oh. I think I get it.”

She steps back. “I had something like that once. It’s not something you can explain, right? Like a new color on the spectrum. It’s just a way you feel with someone. ”

I didn’t even realize I was holding my breath. “Yeah,” I exhale. “You get it.”

Alliott bites her lip. “Christ. I have to be honest with you Rukmini. I think we need to break up.”

Fuck me.

“Because I didn’t kill my ex?” I say in disbelief.

“Because you made out with her! I’m a bad person too but like. Fuck. She brainwashed an entire planet! You let her! You still have that – that connection with her…” Alliott trails off. “Look, I’m not good at this either, okay? I think we’re probably just better off as, well, associates.”

“What about our connection?” What about everything I did for you?

“That was the old you.”

Fuck me.

“Sorry,” Alliott fills in the silence. “How much will it run me for you to dig Alex out of hell?”

I’m starting to wish Natasha actually had killed me.

“Tell you what.” My voice is slightly strangled. “Let’s just call it a favor for now. I’ll. Meet you here next week. I need to. Prep for it.”

“Okay. I’ll call you in seven days.” Alliott walks away into the light of the automatic doors. She pauses on the threshold and looks back at me with yet another unreadable expression. “Bye, Rookie.”

The doors close behind her. I stand there for a few more seconds, struggling to process the last five minutes of my life.


My chest and face burn the color of a reactor in meltdown, courtesy of the blit-bombs I’ve been throwing back. The last time I visited Hersh’s bar I caused a federal raid but it’s amazing what two million dollars will do to fix a relationship. And I like the menu here too much to stop coming. Something’s off about the drinks though. Each one congeals like a tumor in my throat and scrapes against my windpipe the whole way down. The high of ingested toxic waste is soured by a creeping fear that I can only hope my engine will burn off in an hour.

Two hours later there are spider legs constricting my central nervous system. Hersh won’t pour me any more blit-bombs no matter how loudly I plead. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. Where’s the relief? Where’s the warmth in my chest? This is supposed to be my happy ending! I threw all the other ones away.

Fuck! My chest and face burn the color of a pyre for spiders, courtesy of the six fiber-and-plastic arms punching out from under my left lung. Each of them extends up and over the small bollards separating Hersh’s bar from the crosswalk, taking potshots at the federal agents on the far side of the street. In retrospect I should have realized there wasn’t enough money in the world to make Hersh forgive me. Honestly? The funniest revenge is to keep coming back.

The shootout isn’t even fun. My eyes are unfocused and I can’t pull them together. I’m barely aware of what I’m staring at, much less shooting at. I’m still thinking about those other happy endings. My satchel is right by my side. In thirty seconds I could be on the dark side of the moon. I have a million better things to do than let the Midwich Valley get shot up by the wizard cops, but for the life of me I can’t think of any of them. Only undoing my mistakes. Natasha would take me back. I could be who she needs me to be. But I don’t want to!

Fuck! My chest and face burn the color of smoldering pitcher plants, courtesy of the lethal anti-theft curse in this contraband pony car. Too bad for its owner, not lethal enough. The car’s a beaut – 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle soft-top convertible with leather seats, V8 intakes poking out of the hood like cerberus heads, and a transmission that shifts gears with musical clarity. I almost feel bad knowing I’m going to destroy it in a fiery crash at some point. Thought about snatching Alliott’s car instead but didn’t want her to hate me.

Why do I care? I’m a literal demon. What’s wrong with being a monster? The energy in my limbs feels toxic; the vibrato in my chest is seizing up; my thoughts themselves are stuck in gear. I want to hold onto them and hate myself for it. Where’s the Rukmini I used to be?

Fuck! My chest and face burn the color of melting flesh, courtesy of the wizard SWAT I just ran off road. You’d think they’d be happy I was getting this car out of Three Portlands. I thought I’d be happy. For a moment I feel like myself again under the adrenaline rush of unjustly surviving violence, then enjoy the moment a little too long and panic. Goddamnit. Focus on the road. On the rumbling under my foot and under my breath. My heart catches at three thousand beats per minute and stops my breath in my chest. In the space between beats, it upshifts by another thousand and exhales for me. For a moment I find what I need in the flood of endorphins – and then it’s gone. How do I make it last?

The sunset stares balefully at me from above the treetops. I glare back. There’s nothing this way for the next five hundred kilometers except the Pacific Northwest; I’ve got a whole week to find a destination. Maybe I’ll check in on the Rukmini on the far side of the continent; see how she can stand being a jobless monday with boyfriend in tow. How does she find happiness? Where's the fun in that?

I don't know yet. I have to believe I'll find out. The throttle crackles underfoot. The gearshift sings in my hand. My engine roars as we accelerate into the unknown.

HUB: Speed Demon

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