Like the Moon's Drifting Carcass

rating: +16+x

Flea hung limp as she was pulled further back. The Drinkhole's automatic door slid shut again, blocking a bout of authoritative shouts and harsh floodlights. It would have blocked gunshots just as well, and had done so countless times in the past. Grenades, rockets, and even industrial lasers would have been useless. Corporate security couldn't be trusted not to lug along bunker busters though, thermonuclear or otherwise.

"Let go," she said flatly. Her boots dragged along the welcome mat, then smooth linoleum. "Let go, or bad things are gonna happen. Real bad things."

"I'll endure," said Abigail. Her grip was firmer than that of Flea's former collaborator. Weaker, but far more unyielding. Her wellspring of strength likely bubbled from a different spring than the usual cocktails of steroids quaffed in the criminal underworld, and her knuckles felt unusually warm.

"Don't you know who I am?"

"Wouldn't have expected to hear that kind of thing from someone like you."

"I wasn't actually going to actually say who."

"Keep it to yourself and start walking then."

Flea consented to be dragged on in silence instead. The bar's other patrons were all panicking, scrambling for the secret exits tucked into every dark corner of the establishment. They pulled up floor panels, kicked down plywood walls, and generally scurried out like the rats they were. No surprises there. Each and every one of them had surely offended corporate security enough to feel responsible for the heavily-armed ire outside. Flea's feathered followers hopped along tables and chairs as she passed, adding their nonsensical chatter to the cacophony of shouting voices, toppling furniture, and heavy banging against the front door.

Abigail relinquished her hold at the top of the stairs leading down to the manager's office. The stairwell was steep, dark, and narrow, all befitting a descent into that nightmarish place. Spending any time in a cramped room full of old football trophies and molding takeout would give anyone rashes, all befitting the human irritant lurking within.

"You don't wanna go down there." Flea straightened her coat, sending a few stray bugs to flight and even more flailing down to the floor. They skittered away even faster than her fellow criminals. "Follow a regular out one of the side exits. It's not like being here's illegal, or at least not super illegal. Flash some cash and you'll be fine."

"Don't worry about me. I've dragged employees off from worse places than this, and in worse states than yours. Downstairs."

"I don't work for you."

"You will, if you know what's good for you."

"You don't know what's good for me either."

"Keeping out of prison is a good start. Cell blocks aren't exactly beachfront resorts."

"'bout as humid. How many does your company rent?"

"Enough to know. Now move."

One big hand pressed firmly against Flea's upper back as the hammering at the door grew louder. It took on a swift rhythm, each blow a sharp clash of metal against metal. She glanced over one shoulder at the security shutters and got a faceful of algae-colored feathers instead.

You should take her offer, counseled one of the birds.

She can always be disposed of later, agreed the other. Swallow your pride for now.

So long as you don't choke on it, at least. Your family always laid far too generous a feast by far.

Will you ever stop?

Will you repair what you've ruined?

"Just shut up already," muttered Flea. Being cursed with these visions was bad enough without them squabbling. If she wanted to be burdened with otherworldly manifestations and constant bickering, staying at home would have been an easier option by far. They continued their squawking though, Abigail's hand pressed ever more insistently, and there really wasn't anything to do but follow her lead at that point. Flea would just have to trust that things would work out in the end.

Each step was sticky under her boots. Each tug reminded that her mantra had already failed three times in the past day. She could just stay, the squelches said. She could find her own way out instead. There was no need to dive into every coursing current, buoyed only by faith that the waves would favor her. But, no, those weren't real options at all. Abigail had her dead to rights on breaking and entering a corporate facility, which was easily worth twenty years in prison. Whoever had arrived outside just as assuredly knew she was in the Drinkhole, and their arrival seemed far too coincidental to be aimed at anyone else. No, the world's intangible tension had fully settled upon her chest, and escape wouldn't come easily. To be favored by fate, she would first have to persist.

A flickering orange light illuminated the landing halfway down the stairs. Abigail stopped, peered down toward the owner's office below, then eased open a narrow door set into the bare steel wall. It whined, but relented under her heavy hand. Much as Flea herself had, one of her mothers would surely chide in one of their tired tones. The pair passed through, following a heard of crawling beetles down a narrow corridor lit by the same ancient bulbs, and emerged in a small cradle hanger.

Three hovercars hung from their docking apparatuses above a sloped shaft that led out into the gaping ventilation shaft outside. Two of the vehicles were jagged, angular things with tinted windows and aggressively clashing paint jobs. A third was dull, black, heavily scuffed, and utterly unremarkable. Flea was hardly surprised that the boring one stirred at Abigail's approach. She hardly seemed like the sort of person to drive anything exciting.

"Get in," barked the towering executive, who seemed even larger when not surrounded by equally massive slabs of chemically enhanced muscle. Huge, even after she pulled off the parka and threw it behind the driver's seat.

"Where are we going?"

"Just get in already." The flu mask hid her frown, but it was clear from her eyes regardless. Both were surely the same, sharp and dangerous. Sharp, dangerous, and disinterested in any more conversation. Flea looked behind at the door behind them, then down into the ventilation shaft. She climbed into the cramped vehicle too.

All hovercraft were inevitably cramped for one reason or another. Buses were always overstuffed with passengers. Transports were overloaded with cargo. Cars, for their part, were shrunk to fit a variety of byzantine codes and regulations. Flea felt like her namesake when nestled into the vehicle's warm interior. It was cramped for someone her size, and hilariously small for someone of Abigail's. Flea giggled at the sight, then laughed. She would have done more, until the magnetic locks disengaged and dropped them into open air before the car had even started.

Her laughter was jammed to the back of her throat, as were her screams. Again, as before, she plummeted. Not from high above the street, not looking down on vibrant lights and life, but into pure darkness. It wasn't the sort of thing anyone could possibly become numb to, but her forcible employer seemed entirely unconcerned all the same. She glanced up at the corporate drones' shrinking lights, adjusted her flu mask, and tapped her fingertips together.

"What are you doing!?" Flea howled against the phantom wind she felt whistling around her body again.

Calm down, said one bird, which was diving one the other side of the window. Panic is very unbecoming.

"I'm not panicking!" she yelled back at it.

"You sure sound like it," said Abigail, still looking up out the window. The lights dwindled, darkened, and finally vanished. Only then did a small box set atop the dashboard beep loudly. She pushed the lift clutch forward, moving with agonizing sloth. Their fall slowed in the same manner as a content hum sounded beneath Flea's seat.

One strangled gasp clawed its way out from her lungs, then a second, and a third. They slowed to a full stop deep within the city's underbelly, probably not even a few levels above the reactor-powered fans that pulled down atmosphere for use in the Great Lakes Megagrid's searing heart. Even then, their own hum was more than audible under the car's, and it sounded far less content.

"What are you doing?" said Flea again. She punched Abigail's upper arm, and only got a new ache for it. That collection was swelling far too quickly.

"Helping you escape, what does it look like?"

"Looks more like helping me commit suicide!"

"You're still alive, aren't you?"

"Sure, just short a few years of my life."

"Don't worry so much, you've got plenty of those left. Now shut up and let me drive. The navgrid doesn't go this far down."

Normally, shutting up was the last thing Flea would have done at the command, but those particular words had more weight than normal. Maybe she really was some sort of executive. At least one of them had to have earned the position through more than nepotism, right? Why not this one, who so clearly towered over the rest in so many ways?

Now must be a good time, said the bird whose voice sounded like a bubbling culture vat. It sat on the back seat, atop a mound of beige bags, cases of energy drinks, and discarded jackets.

We've come to a consensus, said the other from its perch on Abigail's tall shoulder.

"Great," subvocalized Flea. "What about? Decided to go start a nest and lay some eggs?"

Hysteria is also unbecoming from a member of our family.

As per the terms of our agreement, you will be helping us right a great wrong in exchange for having saved your life.

"Kinda feel like I did a lot of the saving there, and don't talk about my family. I'm not related to any birds."

Please, don't play stupid with us. It won't get you anywhere.

We helped you realize your potential, and you will help us realize our vision. What part of it we agree upon, at least. It will be a mutually beneficial arrangement. There is much we can teach you.

You'll be more than capable of supplanting the family head by then.

Flea rolled her eyes and turned to the window. Even with the lights dimmed inside the car, the void outside was nigh-impenetrable. Only the occasional flashing of service signals in the sprawling distance broke the oceanic darkness, and only in the same manner of the strange fish lurking in its depths. They drifted with the motion of the hovercraft, small and fleeting, only occasionally overwhelmed by bigger and brighter wisps.

It shouldn't take more than a few days of your time.

A minor thing, in truth.

And please don't spur enforcement of our contract. I really wouldn't wish it on my great-grandniece.

"Fine," she murmured, tracking a particularly bright light across the underlevel's uncertain horizon. "Whatever, fine. What are we doing? What do ghosts even want?"

It's very simple.

We're going to decapitate the Foundation.

"What," said Abigail flatly.

"What?" said Flea, nearly simultaneously and far more energetically. After that, how could she help but turn and look at her escort directly? "What?"

"Don't worry about it," she said.


"It's just really convenient, is all."

"… why?"

"We're going to steal some stuff from them too."

Flea sat in silence for some indeterminate number of near-silent minutes. The car hummed, the great machinery surrounding them hummed, and she softly hummed too. She softly hummed, and imagined the great currents of fate sweeping her out into the ocean instead of safely back to shore. Of course, everyone had told her so. Countless times, they had warned about stepping foot into the world. At measureless length, they had gone on about how the Foundation's sheer mass distorted the swirling tides of fate, drawing everything else in.

"I need to scream," she said quietly.

"Well, do it out the window at least. Driving's hard enough as it is."

Slowly, cautiously, she rolled down the window and allowed the whistling wind inside. It whipped her hair into a frenzy as easily as her plummet from the skyscraper had. Flea howled into it, and it howled back. Her fury was dwarfed by vast magnitudes.

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