Threat of Joy

The light returned to Three Portlands the way it returns to a movie theatre once the credits stop rolling: sheepishly, as if embarrassed by the popcorn-strewn wasteland it had become over the course of the film.

rating: +35+x

« Intermission ||

When the apocalypse comes, there tend to be three types of people.

First, there are those who have been preparing for this their entire lives. They look out across the desolate, destroyed landscape, whisper something self-congratulatory, and then retreat into meticulously engineered bunkers filled with all the canned beans one could eat.

Second, there are those who have been preparing for this their entire lives. They look out across the desolate, destroyed landscape, jump for joy, and then don their bondage gear and ride out on their diesel motorcycles to raise some hell.

Finally, there are people like Casey, sitting in pitch-blackness with a dead flashlight.

"Um," he whispered. "It's gone out again."

"Yeah, I can see that." Someone snapped their fingers, and then those fingers caught fire. The faint light illuminated the face of Adam Rowe. "Is it the batteries?"

"I'm guessing it's the batteries, yeah." Casey knelt on the sidewalk. His makeshift kneepad crunched a piece of glass against the concrete, and he cringed. He fiddled with the battery casing until it popped off, then examined it in the fingerlight. The batteries were arranged correctly. Of course, if they weren't the flashlight wouldn't have worked in the first place, so Casey wasn't sure what exactly he was hoping to accomplish by performing this autopsy.

A hand clapped down on his shoulder. Vera Garcia was behind him, peering down at the flashlight. "See anything interesting?" she chirped.

Casey shook his head. "Nope. Just bad batteries. Why doesn't Eustace have one of those hand-crank flashlights, anyway?"

Adam crouched in front of Casey, making it an official huddle. "Does my dad seem like the kind of guy who owns a hand-crank flashlight?"

Casey raised an eyebrow. "Is that a distinct category?"

"I pegged him for it," Vera pitched in. "In my experience, there are three types of-"

Beep, beep, beep. Monotone blares interrupted Vera's budding nugget of wisdom. Adam fumbled for his belt radio with his injured arm, then held it aloft in non-flaming fingers.

The tinny speaker produced a voice. "Attention, all residents of Three Portlands. This is an emergency broadcast, from Special Agent Robin Thorne, of the FBI's Unusual Incidents Unit, Three Portlands Office."

Adam rolled his eyes. The radio continued undeterred. "All those with the capability to do so should relocate to the city centre. An area of refuge has been established in Three Portlands Plaza. We have food, shelter, water, and the armaments to protect you from looters and wildlife. The outskirts of the city are not safe."

Casey was acutely reminded of his place in the world. Not just metaphorically, but also literally: kneeling on the ground in a pitch-black street, completely unaware of anything that might be lurking outside of the modest fingerlight radius, and armoured only by scavenged rollerblading safety equipment. He shivered.

Thorne neglected to comment on that, either. "Additionally, as we have been receiving reports of temporal disturbances, I am noting the current time: 10:30 AM Three Portlands Time, August 30th, 2024. Thorne out."

Adam nodded as the radio faded to static. "I'm glad they specified that this was Three Portlands. I was starting to fear we were in Cleveland. Now that would have been worth a broadcast."

Casey twisted his mouth. "Are the updates really that bad?"

Adam threw up his hands as best he could with one in a sling and the other on fire. "They're not updates! They're all the same! In three weeks they've barely changed the words!"

"Well, they do also state the time now."

"Great! That'll save all the people who lost their watches when the city imploded."

"I don't mean to interject," Vera interjected, "but the sky seems to be coming back."

Adam blew out his fingerflame, but stayed visible. The darkness was lifting at last.

The light returned to Three Portlands the way it returns to a movie theatre once the credits stop rolling: sheepishly, as if embarrassed by the popcorn-strewn wasteland it had become over the course of the film.

Almost the entirety of Three Portlands' bowl-like curvature was visible. The formerly neat concentric streets that marked the city's rings were warped; great mismatches in the roads covered the city like scar tissue. Entire neighbourhoods were obscured by strawberry smog, punctuated by the sparks of raging fires. The visible districts fared no better, their paths lined by toppled buildings and uprooted bedrock. The swirling sky flashed angrily with reds and purples. A condo floating high above their heads was caught in an eddy and spun idly.

Adam shook his head. "I swear, it gets worse every time I see it."

"Likely because it's getting worse," Vera explained.

Casey glanced at his surroundings. The bombed-out art galleries that flanked them seemed abandoned, for now. "Can we get our bearings, please? Before it gets dark again."

"Good idea." Vera reached into the bag slung round her shoulder. From it, she produced a folded pamphlet that fanned out into a roughly octagonal map. She held it in front of her face for a moment, then peered over to look at the cityscape spread before them.

"That," she said, pointing into the distance, "is the Docks District, correct?"

The district was diametrically opposed to the group but still visible. The dry canals that defined the area were filled with glowing white fog, and were even wider than the last time they'd glimpsed the landmark. More cracks were springing from the ruts, countless hairline fractures in the city's foundation.

Vera traced her finger on the map, down from the Docks District to Three Portlands Plaza. The plaza was barely visible beneath a cloud of smoke that still lingered from the fire that had nearly consumed it almost three weeks ago. If one squinted, they could just make out the clusters of tents that had popped up around it. At least some people were heeding the warning of the FBI-in-exile. Some people.

Bearings firmly attained, Vera extrapolated to their intended destination. "Then, we should only need to go two blocks corewards and about 30 degrees clockwise, give or take, to reach the building. Assuming it hasn't moved since we last saw it."

Casey peered over her shoulder. "How far away are we, then?"

She shrugged. "If the roads ahead are as bad as the roads behind us, it could take a few hours."

Casey sighed and slotted his broken flashlight back into his belt. "We've been moving for two days. We can handle a few more hours."

The trio set off down the hill.

Two days and several miles earlier, they were gathered in the kitchen of Eustace Rowe.

A dragging growl filled the cluttered, dimly-lit room. It rose in pitch until it became a frustrated yell.

Eustace cast his helmet across the room. The steel dome careened toward the table, halting in midair at the last inch. It levitated to its place atop the kitchen counter, resting on the tubes that connected it to the organic supercomputer lurking in the corner like an abandoned vending machine.

A grimace pulled the man's wrinkled face taut. "God damn it," he grumbled. "It's not working."

There was a pause. From where he sat across table Casey spoke up. "The creepy brain computer isn't working?"

Eustace shook his head. "Hevel should be working fine. I have been feeding him nothing but the best meats. He should be able to open a Way with his ventricles closed." He paced around the room in a square.

Casey raised his hand. "Can we not anthropomorphize the organ computer?"

Vera looked up from the knife she was casually sharpening against the counter. "I have to agree with Casey on this one."

Eustace sneered. "Oh, I bet that was hard for you."

The room was quiet for a moment. Vera squinted at him, and he sighed. "Sorry, sorry. Not productive. It's just so frustrating." He sat down at the table and buried his head in his hands.

Vera raised her eyebrow at Casey, who shrugged. Eustace rose again from the seat. "The Mayor is dead. It's barely been three weeks, and half the city is already rubble. And the greatest wizard in Three Portlands-" he punctuated each word by smacking the table with his fists "-can't even open a Way to escape."

Casey glanced about the kitchen, searching for a solution buried beneath a pile of dishes. "Well, where are you having trouble?"

"The Mayor kept Three Portlands anchored to the Ancestor Portlands on Earth," Eustace lectured. "Without the connections, we're adrift. Any conventional Way has to bridge the ever-widening gap, which I've been doing easily. But once the tunnel gets to Earth, it's not finding purchase. Something's blocking me. Preventing anyone from escaping Three Portlands."

Adam frowned. "Whoever's behind this wants to make sure there are no survivors, and they've got the tech to guarantee we all go down with the ship."

Eustace went on. "I just need something capable of penetrating the barrier. Like a-" he paused and lifted his head, eyes bright with a new clarity. "Like a drill. I might have an idea." He stood up and raised his arms straight out in front of him. Blue and purple sparks flew from his fingertips, coalescing into the image of a spoked wheel — a scale model of Three Portlands.

"I've been monitoring this city since the Mayor died. Keeping an eye out for magical activity associated with Ways, teleportation, and the like. Normally there's too much going on to get a clear picture. Now that everyone's dying, the data is much easier to parse." Staggered flashes of light lit up parts of the map. "Most of the activity is in discrete bursts. Probably wizards defending themselves or robbing liquor stores. You get it."

"Those are the two wizard activities," Vera pitched in.

Eustace sneered at her before continuing. "This pattern has been fairly constant, with one exception. There is one location in the city that has been emitting constant, low-level readings, the kind that might represent a Way that runs internet cables to Earth. But unlike every other cable system in Three Portlands, it's still going." A single pillar of light shot up, close to the centre of the wheel and about ninety degrees counterclockwise from Eustace's home.

He pointed to the glowing pillar. "That is the Three Portlands headquarters of Oneiroi Incorporated. I don't know what the hell is going on in there, but they're still online, and if they can keep a pinhole out of Portlands going… well, if we take their tech, graft it onto Hevel, and put it under the control of a powerful wizard, we might have a shot at opening a portal out of here."

Casey nodded, slowly. "How are we supposed to bring their tech back, though?"

"You don't need to," Eustace grinned. "If Vera's way-opener still works, all you need to do is find it and pull the trigger. I can portal all of you back here and take care of the rest. Easily."

Adam twisted his mouth. "That's a long trip to take on foot, especially now. Once we get there, how do we even get into the building? If their interdimensional cable is still up, security systems might be up too."

Eustace shrugged. "Maybe you'll run into a helpful employee. Or someone you know will be there."

Adam squinted at him. "Dad, does this plan rely on the essential goodness of random strangers to save all of our lives?"

The old man threw his hands up. "I don't know, okay? I can't tell you. We're too far off the tracks now." He frowned and looked down at his wrinkled hands, knotted together on the table. "I know that you were right back then. About the Mayor being in danger, and all that. And I know that maybe, if I had listened, if we had acted sooner, the Mayor might have been saved. And we wouldn't be in this mess. But I didn't, and we are. So I'm doing the best I can. I guess that'll have to be enough."

"Yeah," Casey said, squeezing the lining of his jacket until his knuckles turned white. "I guess so."

"Wait, dad still doesn't know?"

Adam sat atop a dislodged trolley door, now half-embedded in the partially melted asphalt of the intersection. In his good hand, he had a cheese sandwich. They had originally brought along some canned fruit as a morale booster, but after two days on the road the cans had abruptly corroded, leaving nothing but a slurry of fruit and rust that had deeply stained Vera's duffel bag. Thankfully, she had insisted on bringing backup sandwiches.

Casey chewed on his own lunch numbly, leaning against the undercarriage of the wrecked streetcar that blocked off half the street. "There wasn't really a good time to tell him. I couldn't just walk up and say, 'Hey, turns out the conspiracy wanted us to try and warn the Mayor, and turns out we actually let the assassin in. So it's actually all our fault. Whoops.'"

Adam shook his head, speaking around a mouthful of wonderbread. "Not all our fault." He swallowed. "We can't beat ourselves up for not predicting the future. We can't keep things from each other, either."

Casey spat a mouthful onto the mushy pavement. "I don't know what he'd do if he found out. Right now, for the first time ever, he's actually being nice to me — or at least, he's trying. I've never seen him try before."

Adam frowned. "Because he thinks it's his fault. We can't play guilt roulette."

There was a metallic thud. Vera plopped herself down on the edge of the streetcar's side, gripping a pair of binoculars in her lap. Her legs dangled next to Casey's head. "Working for Directorate K, I've seen many secrets. The longer one keeps them, the more dangerous they are when they get out. Maintaining the lie is only a good idea if you reveal it when the target is at their most vulnerable, distracting them with your betrayal while you drive the knife between their ribs." She made a stabbing motion in the air, then froze and slowly lowered her hands. "But that probably doesn't apply in this instance."

Casey nodded. "Hopefully." He tucked the remains of his sandwich away.

Adam grabbed Casey's hand and squeezed. "I know you've been through a lot. We all have. If I could just pretend that I had no part in what went down, I would. But sometimes driving things into the light is the only way to-"

A loud revving broke the silence. It reverberated across the buildings, echoed across the street behind them. Adam groaned. "Ugh, I was going somewhere with that."

Casey let go of his hand. "Are those engines?"

Vera held her binoculars to her face, peering straight down the perpendicular street. "Looks like bikes."

Adam grimaced. "Not a good sign. We should hide." He clambered to the front end of the wrecked streetcar, slipped under the railings, and crouched inside, where the roof had warped enough to reveal an eyeline. He whispered: "Vera?"

There was a series of soft thuds above them. Vera swung down through an inverted window and knelt across from the two. She patted the duffel bag slung around her back.

Adam nodded. "Let's stay put." He turned around and peered through the jagged crack in the metal.

There were bikes, alright. Two riders sped straight down the road. From what Adam could tell, it was a man and a woman, each equipped with an ugly pastel jacket that shielded them from compliments more than dirt or injury. Their motorbikes were decorated with bags and attachments, crude modifications for vehicles that were decidedly homebrew.

They skidded to a stop, flanking the streetcar on their jury-rigged bikes. The woman yelled, "Where's the signal coming from, Davis?"

The gangly man grabbed a small, shiny device off his belt. "Should be here. Unless this thing's acting up, which I ain't gonna rule out just yet." Davis' bike punctuated his statement with a sputtering cough and a stream of green exhaust. "Ach, shit." He hopped off, and the bike clattered onto its side.

The heavy-set woman crossed her arms, unamused. "Stop screwing around and search the area. If there's no loot here, it's your ass."

Davis clipped the device back onto his belt, then retrieved a small pistol from his pocket. "Sure, sure. I'm betting there's at least two stragglers here, maybe more." He gradually raised his voice. "And if you can hear me, know that this'll be much easier if you just come out! For all of us. Mostly me, though." He left his bike behind and bounded toward the intersection, gun held aloft. He was out of Adam's sight now.

A moment later, he started cackling. "Got something! Backpack. Got some goodies, too." He crossed back into the field of view and passed it to the woman, who began rifling through.

Adam's blood went cold. He had left his backpack on the ground. The way-opener was inside. And now they had it.

Strands of possibilities raced through Adam's mind. Two people, at least one armed. He'd have the element of surprise, but it wouldn't be an easy victory. Especially with that gaping wound on his arm slowing him down. No, better to go with something else. A distracting illusion. Something subtle.

That was just fine. His father had once told Adam he excelled at subtle magic. In context it had been cruel sarcasm, but now was not the time to worry about such technicalities.

He shed mundane concerns from his mind and blinked away the fire and smoke covering Three Portlands. The physical world was lost, but the spiritual world came alive. The brightness of the realm stung Adam's eyes, and he flinched. The air was positively teeming with spirits, sparkling with a sheer density of death greater than Adam had ever observed. They were fresh. Recent additions. They trembled with the traumatic history of the crumbling city's past few weeks. Like the living, they were trapped in Three Portlands, unable to reach their final peace outside the orphaned pocket dimension.

Their power seeped into Adam, and he shuddered. He hadn't expected such a raw outpouring of energy. Such outpourings are rarely subtle, and one inopportune gasp could give away the trio's location. The wound on his arm glowed red hot and the surrounding skin was seared. It was too much to use, too much to even grasp.

Adam gritted his teeth. The countless dead were trying to force their way into him, soak his mind and use his voice as their own. He clenched his eyes shut but it did nothing to stem the blinding onslaught. He was roasting alive, mere moments from setting his surroundings aflame.

He felt hands firmly clasp his shoulders. He forced his eyes open, and there was Casey, staring silently at Adam, imploring him to come down. Giving him something to focus on. Adam took a deep breath. The energy left his body like hot steam, leaving him shivering but quiet. The bikers outside were none the wiser to his aborted plan.

Beep, beep, beep. Adam's eyes went wide. Special Agent Thorne's voice blared from his belt radio. "Attention, all residents of Three Portlands—"

He snatched it from its clip and tossed it against the wall, where it smashed into silent shards.

"Hrh?" Davis turned his attention from the half-collapsed buildings to the streetcar. He cocked his gun pointedly.

The woman smiled. "Let's make this easy. Come on out and this can be real amicable."

Before Davis could take another step, a siren rang out, and he covered his ears. A distorted, booming voice followed.


The looters froze. "Oh no," the man muttered. "Must have tripped an automated security system. C'mon, help me-"

The woman had already spun her bike around and sped off. Davis shouted, "Oh, come on!" He started to run, but his foot caught on the overturned motorbike, and he tumbled down, sending his gun skittering across the pavement. He paid it no mind as he scrambled back to his feet and sprinted after his fleeing partner.

Adam, Vera, and Casey stared at each other in silence.

Then another, softer voice called out. "Okay, you can come out now."

Casey poked his head out of their hiding spot. A woman in dirty slacks stood in the middle of the street, holding a megaphone in one hand and a bag in the other. Her left eye was covered by a large, black eyepatch. "Pretty convincing, right?"

Casey furrowed his brow. He stood, clasping Adam's hand to bring the shaking man to his feet beside him. As Vera slipped past them, the glint of metal caught her eye. Davis' dropped pistol was just lying there on the road.

Might as well. She knelt, looked both ways, flipped the safety on, then slipped the gun into her duffel bag.

The one-eyed woman dropped the megaphone into her own bag, then gave the trio a mock salute. "My name's Darcy. Darcy Dale. You can call me deus ex machina." She paused. "That was a joke. Please don't call me that."

"I'm Casey Malik."

"Adam Rowe."

"I am Vera K. Garcia, and it is a pleasure to meet you."

Darcy bowed to each in turn. "What does the K stand for?"

Vera tilted her head. "What an odd question."

"Oh, of course," Darcy said. "I'll ask when we're inside. Follow me." She had already made strides away from the intersection.

"Wait, wait," Casey called. "Inside where?"

She glanced over her shoulder. "Oneiroi Incorporated. I work there."

Adam rubbed his temples. "God damn it."

Across the tram tracks and past a rusted rickshaw was a grid of dark steel and blue glass, an angular building that stuck out like a sore thumb around the decrepit but rustic offerings of the neighbourhood. Within the building was the hub of memory alteration, psychic surgery, and dream therapy that was Oneiroi Incorporated's Three Portlands HQ. Despite everything that had transpired, it looked no worse for the wear. The giant, floating sign out front still gleamed:


"So that's it." Adam sighed. "We're finally here."

"Yup," Darcy replied. "Let me show you inside." The front doors slid open as she approached, and shut tightly behind them. The first thing they noticed was the air: cool and dry, starkly contrasting the muggy exterior. It was as if nothing had ever gone wrong. The dimly-lit lobby was modern and refined, with waiting benches in front of cold electric fireplaces — and a long front desk with counters of iridescent marble wrapped around the back wall. There wasn't another living being in sight.

Darcy didn't slow down. She unlocked a subtle inset door behind the desk. "Stay close." They obliged. The door revealed a long maintenance corridor. Metallic pipes snaked back and forth on the ceiling. The hallway occasionally branched, but Darcy knew where she was going.

Adam tugged Casey's sleeve. "Casey," he whispered, "They took the way-opener. It was in my bag. What are we going to do?"

Casey gulped and nodded. "Let's just keep going. Play it cool. We'll figure things out."

"But what happens once we get to the equipment and can't open a portal?"

Casey frowned. "I don't know. But right now the alternative is that we sulk for a while instead of doing anything productive, and personally I've done enough of that." He looked over his boyfriend's weary, sore body and frowned. "Don't worry about it, please. You're overextended. Let me take care of things for a while."

Adam grimaced. "Okay," he acquiesced.

Up ahead, Vera attempted small talk. "What do you do here, Darcy?"

"I'm a technician," she replied, not looking back. "Mostly, they pay me to make sure the pipes are intact, and that everything gets where it needs to go."

"What's in the pipes?" Vera craned her neck to get a better look at the crisscrossing tubes.

"Oh, we're not allowed to know that. Probably something freaky." Darcy half-turned to face her, walking backwards now. "Oneiroi has always been a tad eccentric, you know?"

"Tubes of unknown fluids do sound like a hallmark of eccentricity."

She smiled warmly. "You get it. Most of the facility runs itself, totally off the grid, so we had a figurative skeleton crew for a few weeks before the apocalypse. Now it's just me and my friends here. Those looters have been scrounging around these parts for days, but they can't get in here."

Casey matched her stride, a worried look crossing his face. "Why hide here, though? Why not go to the camp in town centre?"

"Oh, I wouldn't go there. First off, the police want me for totally bogus reasons. Second, it's a beehive down there."

Questions abounded in Casey's head. "A beehive of what? Bees? And did you say you're wanted by the police?"

She smiled sadly. "It's a long story, but I feel like you know it already." Before Casey could launch another salvo, the steel door behind her slid open.

It led into a cramped control room lined by glimmering panels, with a plastic table set up in the middle. Around it sat two people, a man and a woman. The first was tall and blond-haired, and the second wore a dirty blouse and black-rimmed glasses.

The Chaos Insurgency's Agent Troy and Redzone Security's Samantha Romain looked up at Adam and Casey, frozen in the doorway.

"Shit." All four spoke in unison.

Six tired and dirty people sat around a table. Scattered pages covered the surface, detailing concepts, places, and people of interest.

Samantha clapped her hands together. "First thing's first. I think we would all agree that we should let bygones be bygones. No good will come of bickering about whatever little things happened in the past."

Adam murmured, "You did try to have me killed over a business dispute."

"Sounds like someone's building a dam to stop the water from going under the bridge," she said.

"You can't just do that to metaphors."

Troy spoke up. "I won't make any fuss. Hell, I don't even remember what Casey and I got so mad about. Because afterwards, he emptied a can of amnestics in my face."

"How do you know it was me if you can't remember?"

"Because you left your phone behind, genius. Nice taste in ringtones, by the way."

"Oh," In all the commotion, it had never even occurred to Casey that he had misplaced it.

Samantha pounded the table. "The hatchet is buried, people. It is buried so deep that you will never find it. Let's move on."

Mumbled affirmations filled the room.

"Now, time to take stock. Agent Troy, care to clue them in?"

He sighed and walked to the mess of screens and displays. He tapped one until it came online and flashed with an overhead map of Three Portlands. A glowing red dot appeared at the position of Oneiroi Inc, and a large mass of red pulsed inside the city centre. The rest of the map was empty. "This is what I've been working on since our little run-in. Without memory of the past day and most of my data lost, I resumed my plan. The next morning, I succeeded in intercepting another mind-controlled murderer at the scene of the crime."

Darcy raised her hand sheepishly. Casey stared, slack-jawed. He had more questions than could fill the air, so he asked just one. "What happened?"

She looked at her feet. "You know how it is. One second you're enjoying an afternoon stroll, and the next thing you know, you're stabbing a police officer with a knife you didn't even know you had. I hid in a dumpster for two hours before Troy came to fish me out."

Troy nodded. "Miss Dale had access to Oneiroi Inc, and by extension some of the best predictive tech in the industry. The byzantine hallways and thin staff made it a perfect hiding place. Using Miss Dale's brain scans and some ingenuity, I hooked this up: a radar for all the memes in Three Portlands with a construction similar to the worm's. A map of potential time-bombs all across the city."

Casey stared at the map again. "Why is there so much red in the city centre?"

"That would be the beehive," Troy explained. "It's beyond what any of my models could have predicted. There must be two hundred infected people clustered in that refugee camp among the other survivors, and I doubt any of them even realize it."

"But why?"

"I don't know," Troy admitted, "And I don't want to find out. If they're all waiting for their trigger, then that's practically an army just sitting there, to be activated at any moment. That's why we're here and not there. Well, that and the equipment. It has been very useful."

Darcy perked up. "That's how we met Samantha!"

Samantha gave a forced smile. "Business was going poorly, and my bodyguard tried to murder me. Needless to say, they are not my bodyguard anymore."

Adam sneered at her. "The big one with no eyes? Now you know how it feels."

She sighed. "Yes, yes, I feel a great kinship to you. I'm glad we could bond."

"Where did they come from, anyway? How'd they get infected? I'm guessing they weren't your average Redzone employee."

"We had a few outside contractors. They offered manpower, no questions asked, in exchange for our involvement in some projects of particular interest to them. I don't know what exactly. I'm not one of the higher-ups, I'm just very good at my job."

Adam raised an eyebrow. "Special projects like the pocket dimension you made me investigate last year?"

She scoffed. "Don't be so full of yourself. Not everything revolves around your wacky misadventures."

Troy looked up from his screen. "You received an anonymous employee, and then they tried to kill you with the same memetic worm these two had? That contractor must have been a normalcy org, Sam. This is all connected."

She rolled her eyes. "Well, you point me to a normalcy org that deals solely in people without eyes."

An uncomfortable silence covered the room.

Samantha spoke again. "The point is, these two helped me escape. And now I'm here with you lovely people." Her eyes passed over the trio, then lingered on Vera. "Wait, you look familiar."

Casey glanced at Vera. "You get around a lot for someone who's never been to Three Portlands before."

Vera shrugged. "Got one of those faces."

"You were in Oregon, by the Chipotle," Samantha continued. "Did she ever tell you she was traipsing around Portland covered in bronze paint, spying on people?"

Casey shrugged. "I never really had cause to ask what she was or wasn't covered in."

Adam squinted at Vera. "Is that true?"

"Well, I wasn't spying on people," Vera explained. "I was just spying in general. It was untargeted espionage, a victimless crime."

"We're getting off track," Troy interjected from across the room, annoyed that no-one was looking at his gadgets. "We were doing data analysis. The signals were everywhere, there were dozens, if not hundreds of them. We concluded that the conspiracy had to go all the way to the top. We were going to contact the Mayor, but the city went to shit before we had the chance."

Casey furrowed his brow. "We met the Mayor. It was a trap. The conspirators used the opening to stage an assassination." In his head, something started to click together.

Agent Troy groaned. "Of course. God knows how many people were preparing to stumble into that trap. Failsafes upon failsafes. It was inevitable. And now we're stuck here, with no exit in sight."

"Well," Adam cut in. "Here's the thing about that."

The group scurried down the hallway. Darcy pushed a squeaky-wheeled dolly through the corridor; Troy clutched a bundle of papers to his chest. The walls of the corridor ahead were covered in bizarre metal plates and clustered wiring. Past that, a large vault door loomed.

Darcy stopped short of the weird walls, and the others followed suit. "If any system in this building is going to withstand an apocalypse, it's this one. No-one goes in here, not least because the security protocol annihilates any soul that tries it."

Samantha smirked. "Redzone Security always kept a close eye on other data-heavy corps, especially the mysterious ones. None are more mysterious than Oneiroi Incorporated. A running theory for the source of Oneiroi's secret sauce is that it's some manner of dimensional tech — drilling into conceptual unspace to better access people's minds, suck out bad memories, or implant better ones. I'd bet that if there's some heavy duty dimensional equipment in this building, it's inside that vault."

Troy glanced at Adam. "You said you found a Way coming from around here, right?"

He shook his head. "Not me, exactly. Eustace Rowe found it. It might need some modification, but if we can get it to him, he seems confident."

"Eustace Rowe," Troy repeated, slowly. "The recluse?" He flipped through his papers.

"The very same. And unfortunately, my father," said Adam. "Everyone step back." They did. Casey stood behind him, looking on with intense worry.

Adam freed his injured arm from the sling, which he dropped to the ground. The angry red slash down his forearm looked as if it had been made mere days ago, not weeks. He flexed his arm, and it crackled with painful energy.

The dead of Three Portlands were everywhere if one knew how to look. Adam couldn't stop himself from looking, seeing every one of them. He knew them, and they knew him. He grit his teeth and raised his arms to the ceiling. A ribbon of sparks emerged from his wound, drawing from his blood to conduct the souls that surrounded him.

The dozens of sulfurous spectres formed moving sheets of translucent ectoplasm, directed down the hall. They sparked as they entered the security field, resisting the annihilation with a barrier of concentrated soul matter. The last transmitter was occluded as yet more ghosts slid between the gears of the vault door, snapping fragile metal mechanisms in two with a colossal crack.

The vault swung open. Adam barked, "Go, go!" He broke into a sprint. The door crashed into the wall and shook the building, knocking the spirit shields off-balance. Threads of shaped intelligence unwove themselves behind the six as they scurried past.

Adam reached the vault first and gripped the first handhold for support. He felt like an ice sculpture on a warm summer day. He teetered off balance, tilting into Casey's arms.

Casey blinked. The vault was dim, lit only by small recessed lights and the dim glow of numerous pure pink video screens. It was near-circular, and every inch of wall space up to the roof was occupied by panels, vibrant digital displays, and immense grids of unlabeled switches. In the centre there was a pylon, as tall as he was and about as wide. Hovering over its tapered peak was a pinprick of violet light that ever-so-slightly distorted the space around it.

"Darcy," he whispered, "what is this place?"

She had wheeled in the dolly as far as she could. "Not sure, to be quite honest. All the net traffic in the building goes through here. I assumed it was a database, maybe a supercomputer. This isn't that."

Adam straightened himself, shaking as he left Casey's grasp. He rasped, "Just need a minute. That the machine?" He jabbed a thumb at the central pylon as he leaned against the gaping doorway.

Troy brought his face close to the floating pinprick. "It's something. Darcy, Vera, check out the controls."

They nodded. Vera set her bag on the floor and circled the room as she scanned the console for anything that might have been designed for a human operator rather than whatever super-dimensional entity this setup would accommodate. Her gaze settled on six adjacent displays in one side of the pylon, each showing a complex number. Darcy leaned in. "Co-ordinates. If that pinprick is the Way, this is where it's going. But that's just… nowhere."

"Not nowhere," Casey said. "It's going to the Outside, isn't it?"

A snap came from across the room. Samantha was lighting a cigarette. "I suppose they aren't getting cable television from the infinite space between universes." She paused to take a drag. "Sorry, can't exactly step out for this."

Darcy leaned, running her fingers over a set of buttons beneath the screens. "I'm going to try adjusting them. Keep an eye on it."

There was a deflating beep, and the pinprick flickered. The screens changed shade, from pink to maroon. Casey blinked. "It's a live feed. We're staring out of the Way. Why do they have a camera pointed into the Outside?" He stared at the pinhole, and for a moment had the acute sense that something was staring back at him. "Perhaps it's best not to ask."

Troy paid no mind. "Can you point it at Earth, Darcy?"

She mumbled affirmatively. A few more button presses, and the maroon faded to static, then coalesced into an image. It was the inside of a large, white, empty tent, seen through a fisheye lens. The smoke in the vault was drawn toward the Way and a faint spherical whirlpool formed around the pinhole. Concerned murmurs emanated from it, too distorted to decipher.

Troy gasped. "That's it."

Darcy kept fiddling with the buttons, and frowned. "The picture's not changing, even if I move the co-ords."

Troy nodded quickly. "It's snared. They caught our Way, they're redirecting it." He turned to the others. "This is it. The people running the conspiracy. That's their tent." He stared blankly at the display, then down at his hands.

Darcy smiled. "And what a tent it is. What now, folks?"

Casey rubbed his hands together and knelt next to Darcy. "Okay, uh, does it detach? Can we put the pylon on the cart?"

Troy buried his head in his hands. "No, no, no. What is this? What are we doing?"

Casey glanced up at him. "If this device can project a wormhole to Earth, we can build on that. It could mean a way out. We just need to get it to Eustace."

Troy's breathing got heavier. "And then what? Thousands of people just fit through a pinprick? Even if we could, we'd just be walking straight into the conspiracy's claws. They're expecting us now."

Adam gripped the frame of the vault door and hoisted himself to a standing position. "My dad knows he can widen it enough. Maybe he can get around the snare. We can make it work."

Troy was fuming now. "So we transport this massive piece of machinery across post-apocalyptic Portlands and hand it over to Eustace Rowe? We're really going to trust the man who hasn't gone outside in a decade to share his escape route with everyone else?"

"I trust him. He's the best shot we have."

"Don't you get it?" Troy shouted, "This is the end. This entire time, they've been one step ahead of us. This is one of the normalcy orgs, it has to be. The men in black must've decided that an anomalous city was too much, that Three Portlands had to die. And now we just die with it."

"Well," Samantha spoke up. She dropped her cigarette to the ground and crushed it beneath her heel. "Not necessarily."

The room fell silent. She continued. "If we have a pinhole to Earth, perhaps they can hear us. Perhaps we don't need to go down with the ship. Perhaps we could make a deal with them."

Troy squinted at her. "A deal? For what?"

"Well, what do we have to offer? Some pocket change, some skilled labour." Her voice went cold. "Two dormant assets and the only piece of equipment capable of screwing up their plans."

"No," Adam rasped, eyes wide. "You wouldn't."

Samantha narrowed her gaze. "We both know I would."

"No," Adam shouted. He raised his arm, and his wound began to glow once more-

Troy wound up a kick and released. His foot slammed into the mage's sternum. Adam flew backwards, out the open doorway.

Into the reactivated security field.

A loud sizzle filled the air as he landed on his back. His skin steamed as the annihilation field wicked life force away from his body. He tried to curl up, but it was coming from every direction.

Casey froze for an instant, then shouted, "ADAM!"

He lunged and threw his fist at Troy's head, but the man leaned aside and the blow caught only air.

Troy followed it with his own full-bodied punch. His fist connected with Casey's left eye, sending his head back into the wall with a sick thud. He crumpled to the floor.

Troy turned his attention to Vera. She was mid-lunge, but he caught her in the throat, grabbing firmly by the neck and pushing her back. She dropped her bag and clawed at Troy's arm. He didn't flinch.

Across the crowded room, Samantha had snapped up Troy's files and started to read them off into the pinhole. She chattered through lines of sensitive addresses and names. Darcy dove for her, but she leapt out of the way. On the display screen, the tent had started to fill with blurry people. Whoever was out there had clearly taken notice of the commotion.

Casey clutched his rapidly swelling eye socket. He glanced out the door, where Adam lay in the annihilation field. Swirling steam surrounded him, shedding layers of energy, but he was still kicking. Still fighting.

Troy slammed Vera against the wall. She went limp. He looked down at Casey. "So damn typical of you. One real hit and you're done. You know, you're nothing without your tricks, without your words, without someone to hide behind. You wouldn't last one second on your own."

Casey coughed. From the corner of his eye, he could have sworn he saw Vera looking at him. "Isn't that the problem, though?"

Troy scowled at him. "What?"

"I'm not on my own."

Vera hooked her foot around the strap of the duffel bag on the floor and swung it across the room. Casey caught it with one hand, and with the other, he reached inside.

Casey withdrew the looter's pistol, held it up, and squeezed the trigger.

An earsplitting bang shook the room. Troy's grip loosened, and Vera caught herself.

Plaster dust sprinkled down from the bullet embedded in the ceiling. Casey levelled the gun at Troy's chest. "Hands up, against the wall. Both of you. Now."

Troy and Samantha glanced at each other, frozen. Wordlessly, they stepped back, hands held in the air.

Casey nodded at Vera, then kicked her duffel bag back to her. "The rope. Tie them to the console." She nodded and rifled through the bag. "Darcy, try to get the pylon onto the cart." She muttered an affirmative, and knelt down next to the machine to inspect the base.

Troy spoke up, stuttering. "Okay, okay, I'm finished, but please, please, can anyone other than Casey hold the gun?"

Casey sneered. "No. Shut up."

Darcy spat at the two. "For shame, you guys. Is this really how you treat our guests, and also me?" They didn't respond.

Behind them, the sizzling and cracking from the annihilation field began to dissipate. From the fog and smoke, a standing figure emerged. Adam Rowe, clad in a protective layer of sublimating spirits, his eyes crackling with rage.

He opened his mouth as if to speak, then collapsed into a heap on the floor.

Casey slid toward him on the ground, keeping the gun pointed at the duo against the wall. He gripped Adam's good wrist and found the pulse. He was unconscious, taking some well-earned rest.

The room went red. "What's that?" Casey asked.

Darcy glanced all around. "Emergency lights. The magic must have shorted out the security system. The building's going into lockdown mode." She pressed a button on the base of the pylon, and it toppled over onto the cart with a shuddering crash. She hopped onto it and started to tie up the cart's straps. "We should maybe hurry. A lot."

Troy looked up at them with disbelief. He wriggled his wrists in the freshly-tied bindings. "What? You can't just leave us here."

Casey tossed the gun to Vera, who slid it into her bag. "Actually, I think we can. Let's find out."

Samantha gawked. "No, come on. Untie us."

Casey slid his arms beneath Adam's body and lifted him up as he stood. "I hope you're rooting for us. If we fail, no-one's gonna know where you are." He nodded to Darcy and Vera. "Let's go."

He ran, Adam in his arms and adrenaline flooding his body. Behind him, Darcy and Vera wheeled the pylon on the cart. They ran past the fizzled security grid and down the hall. Behind them, Samantha continued to call out. "That's not funny. It's not funny!"

Her cries grew fainter as they raced down the glowing red corridors. Blood pounded in Casey's ringing ears. He could barely feel the strain in his arms, or the pain of his black eye, or the fear of what would happen next. All that mattered was running.

They burst into the lobby and out the front door. The glass panels slammed shut behind them, locked.

Once more they breathed in the stale, putrid air of the dying city.

"What now?" Darcy asked.

Vera glanced up and down the streets. "Not many good options."

"The streetcar tracks," Casey called hoarsely. He pointed to the inlaid rails on the street. "We can set the cart on the rails and ride it downhill, to the refugee camp. We can get medical attention there. Maybe the feds can help us get back to Eustace."

Vera frowned. "It could be more dangerous in the camp than it is here. We don't know if Samantha's signal was understood, or what the conspiracy could be planning now that they know we're up to something."

Casey set Adam down on the cart, next to the pylon, and strapped his body in. He removed his jacket and tucked it beneath his head. "Please," he turned to Vera. "You have to let me get help."

Vera twisted her mouth, then nodded. "Then downtown we shall go."

Darcy pushed the cart onto the tracks. It easily slipped into place. She clung to the back. Casey and Vera hopped onto either side. They gave the ground a firm kick, and slowly, the cart began to move.

The cart careened down the hill, accelerating ceaselessly toward the beehive at the heart of Three Portlands.

Above them, the sky was twisted into a thundering cyclone of debris. The path ahead was littered with wreckage and refuse. The hot wind was at their backs.

"Don't worry," Darcy said, before the howling wind could overtake their hearing. "It's all downhill from here."

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