Visions of Bodies Being Burned
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Previously: The Slow Bullet




Now:

From 1981 to 1992, the CORVID-Class APV (aka the Party Van) used to be the Foundation’s signature fleet vehicle. Through a complicated mix of cronyism, stinginesss and concerns over urban camouflage, the finest minds in solid-state physics and combat ontology turned the humble Chevy Astro into an eigenweapon on wheels. The final product was capable of running over an Abrams and a reality bender back-to-back without blinking; all it cost was the suspension, the seats, and three million dollars apiece.

Chessaline Broad’s ass sorely misses the first two things right now. She’s praying for a swift death on the floor of the van, quote-unquoted seated opposite her best friend, colleague, and part-time flash-fire Bharath “Barry” Redacted [sic.] Every time they hit a pothole the recoil throws her about a foot into the air—she’s never envied her gun more, tucked away in its ballistic briefcase on her lap.

She kicks the divider a couple times and shouts, “E-T-A?”

Through the window, she can just about see Adam Saxon flashing three fingers—three minutes more, she hopes. For a new guy with no head, he’s doing a remarkable job of piloting this abomination. It probably helps that they’ve plowed through every red light and roundabout in their path.

“What’d he say?” Barry asks. He’s not tall enough to see Adam from where he’s sitting. One of the few downsides of not being six foot seven.

Chess grunts. “Said ‘three.’”

“Minutes or miles?”

“Do you care? Your suit’s padded.”

Barry screws up his face in half-serious offense. “The lining’s asbestos, not foam.”

The suit in question is yet another piece of skunkworks brilliance. It’s a sleek, retro thing that resembles an old sci-fi cover illustration in function as well as form: the exterior is rated to handle the temperature a few miles away from the Sun’s surface, while its interior uses a liquid breathing system to pump oxygen straight into the lungs without the risk of sparks. It’s also padded with enough asbestos to give the entirety of South Dakota lung cancer, let alone its first and only production testers, MTF Epsilon-9.

He has seven suits in his wardrobe, color coded by day. Chess knows this green one is Thursday’s, not Friday’s, but he’s wearing it for the lucky sticker on the back of the helmet. It’s a cute little cartoon kitten hanging from a branch, captioned ‘HANG IN THERE!’ in bright pink font.

“Isn’t asbestos fluffy?” she asks. Her fingers rattle on her gun’s case: one part road surfacing, one part adrenaline, one part DMT tremens.

“This one’s kind of… sandy, now. I think the lining needs to be replaced, I had to pick some out of—”

Their imminent conversation about Barry’s personal hygiene is cut off by the van coming to a halt. Superconductive braking makes it a 100-to-0 experience: Chess slams into the divider, adding a couple more bruises on her side to the umpteen on her ass, while Barry lightly skips off it like a deflated football.

“I thought you said three miles!” Chess yells at the driver’s cabin.

“Miles?” comes the muffled reply. “I meant three klicks.”

Chess and Barry exchange a look.

“Kilometers? Hello? We use metric in- ah, forget it.” There’s a muffled clank as Adam dismounts. A moment later, the doors to the back slide open. “Come on. Clock’s ticking.”




Ten hours ago:

It’s been a real bad morning for Barry. He knows it’s a bad morning, because he spent most of it in a screaming, burning pile on the floor, wishing the same fate on his coworkers in every language he knows—and he knows eighty of them fluently, a hundred more casually.

First, he overslept his alarm, which made him late for his three minutes of mindfulness. Then, instead of practicing his mindfulness after snoozing the alarm, the parasite lodged in the back of his skull suggested he should take his frustration out on everything in a ninety mile radius.

The first Barry did that by turning every molecule of air in his family’s house and lungs to plasma. The 92nd Barry was still so tired from yesterday, he’d barely managed to melt his skin off by the time Chess turned on the sprinklers in his cell.

Once upon a time the whole system was automatic, big red alarm and buckets of foam every time he so much as sparked up. Then Olympia—his boss, living legend, and five-time cover image for Real Tales of the Supernatural—told him if he went six months without a major incident, she’d change it over to manual operation.

So he did. He considers it his career’s high point.

This morning marks the end of his longest streak so far, fourteen months. It’s progress, real progress, the kind that makes his therapist hi-five the camera during their sessions. But he knows how easy it would’ve been to do better, so he keeps burning—really, belching smoke now—til the intercom creaks to life, and he hears Chess shouting, “Barry! We got a new guy.”

Archival issues employee IDs in numerical order. Olympia, of course, is #1. He’s #12. Chess is #13. The Site they’re in gets one visitor every other month, and it’s the truck driver who drops off their food. A new employee is unthinkable, and therefore an impossibly important occasion. One that he’s just made Chess very, very late for.

That extinguishes him for real this time.

“One sec!” Barry rasps out through still-exposed vocal cords. Once there’s enough muscle on his legs to move them again, he starts hauling his carcass towards his wardrobe.

Getting dressed is one more failsafe to center his mind and soothe his soul. During one of their first meetings, his therapist recommended using his suits for art therapy, and Barry’s been taking the advice to heart. He’s done up most of them with stickers himself, and last week Chess joined in and drew this amazing dragon on the back of his Saturday blue. He’d wear it, but the ink might smudge.

The parasite’s constant whispering rises to a frustrated chattering as he slots his charred hands into their gloves. He is not a-thing-of-burning-screaming-charring-boiling, he shouts to himself as he fills the liquid breathing system. He’s Barry Redacted—translator, wannabe spaceman, record-holding speed paperwork filer—and today he’s going to impress the pants off the new guy. And then set him on fire. Just as his hands close around the airlock wheel he remembers the most important part of his routine.

Bharath's most prized possession is a mint condition issue 255 of Real Tales of the Supernatural (CGOC rated 9.0), with both Olympia's first appearance and her signature on the cover, that he's too afraid of ruining to read. He would defend it with his life.

His second most prized possession is a small sandalwood box under his cot that he gingerly pulls out with his gloves. Inside rests a garland of one hundred and eight beads, each tough and wrinkled like petrified walnuts. Barry draws it out and stands up to scrutinize it. As each bead passes between his index and pointer fingers, he recites a set of twenty-four syllables under his breath.

oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ
tat savitur vareṇyaṃ
bhargo devasya dhīmahi
dhiyo yo naḥ prachodayāt

For seven minutes he invokes the energy of the Sun to guide him in enlightenment. The Foundation doesn't consider Hinduism their business, but practicing it was the family business. Before they were incinerated by a pyrophoric pluripotent parasite and survived by Bharath "Barry" Redacted. He needs those hundred and eight beads to prove it isn't the other way around.

By the time Barry finally emerges on the right side of the airlock he's half an hour late to work. Just in time to see Olympia walking down the corridor, the stranger in tow. He fumbles for an excuse then sees the boss smile—at him! Maybe this won’t be such a bad morning after all. “Barry. Chess. Say hi to your new co-worker.”

“Adam Saxon. Pleasure to meet you.” Adam extends his hand to Barry. He looks like the star of one of those old-timey detective films Chess keeps making him watch, dressed in a grey suit and scarf ensemble sharp enough to cut.

He also has a mannequin’s head attached to his neck. It’s stolen from Macy’s, if the label still stuck to the chin is any indicator.

Barry’s frozen for a moment in shock. Then, he remembers what his therapist told him about getting upset: step into the other person’s shoes. To Adam, he probably looks like a pickled astronaut, something ten times more scary (and sour) than a store dummy. He’s got nothing to be afraid of, so he steps forward and shakes firmly. Without making the man a candle.

“We’ll have time for the full meet-and-greet later,” Olympia says. “Someone’s just crawled out of the Marianas, and RAISA wants answers. You’ve got a job to do, Archival.”




Now:

They’ve come to a stop in a grassy field ringed with a giant, meticulously-groomed hedge that’s taller than even she is. Oddly there isn’t so much as a twig out of place in the Party Van’s wake; they might as well have teleported in, which would explain the bumpy ride. Interdimensional travel is hell on the treads.

Chess takes a couple strides to catch up with Adam and Barry as they start heading to their destination, the gigantic marble ziggurat that stands at the center of the clearing. Barry won’t stop goggling at it. “I can’t believe I get to see it in person! The Shadow British Museum, Her Royal Majesty’s Reliquary for Artifacts Obscene and Profane as described in issues #273, 298 and 341 of—”

Real Tales of the Supernatural,” Chess completes. “Can’t believe it. The one time that porno mag’s right—”

“—only pages four to six are pinups—”

“—I’ve got money that it’s not. Ugh. I’ll pay you when we get back to base.”

She fishes her bandanna out of her pockets and ties it round her head, rockabilly-style. Standby mode. Turning to Adam, she asks, “We expecting heat?”

Adam shrugs. “Better safe than sorry. I called ahead to check in and they said they were ‘handling a miscreant.’ Don’t know how it turned out for them.”

“Point taken.”

Something about the way the gold flecks in the marble ripple and move gives her a headache as they ascend the stairs. Even the double doors of the entrance are unearthly, tar-black slabs of oak that look like they were grown in their frame. Adam shoves them open without hesitation; Chess brushes one with her shoulder, and even that brief contact sends a cold shiver crawling up her skin.

Thankfully, the lobby is more mundane. It’s just also repulsively… wealthy: chandeliers in every direction, Penrose tiled floor, and of course—a building that’s bigger on the inside, the ultimate sign of having more money than taste.

At its center is a group of perfectly-uniformed, seemingly identical attendants flanking a muddy, carbuncled diving suit hog-tied to a cargo trolley. One of them is barely managing to roll it towards the door, looking obviously strained as he does; glancing up at the newcomers, he offers them a wave. “Saxon. This your man?”

Adam waves back, hesitant. Chess notes the way his back stiffens as he does, concurs with the signs his body language sends. It’s too easy to be true. “Seems like.”

“Caught him trying to sneak through the old back door, if you can believe it.” A wave of polite tittering rolls through the attendants. “Christsake, it’s been warded out the arse since Windscale- anyway. He’s all yours.”

Another attendant produces a clipboard and pen from the inside of his coat and offers them to Adam. In the interim, Chess takes a step forward towards the diver. “May I?” she asks.

“Go ahead,” says an attendant. “He’s quite safe.”

Chess shuffles forward til she’s almost touching the diver. Looking in the grille of the helmet reveals nothing except a frond of seaweed brushing the inside of the glass. That this is their nemesis is… almost fitting. A washed-up relic to fight the other relics.

Then it reaches out and brushes her wrist with its fingers.

ONE OF TRAITOR ALBION’S PRODIGAL CHILDREN,” the diver intones, so quiet it’s almost inaudible. “WHEN MY WRATH IS BOUGHT DOWN UPON THIS WRETCHED HOUSE, TRUST YOU WILL BE SPARED.

Chess’ eyes widen. All too easy—

She turns to shout a word of warning, and then the world explodes.




Seven hours ago:

[BEGIN EXCERPT]

BROAD: —use it, pause it.

(REDACTED shuts off the film projector.)

BROAD: This ‘Captain Nemo’- he’s the man behind the Veil for the Indian independence movement. He gets done turning three of England’s most powerful cycl- psions into oak trees. And instead of finishing the job he goes to space?

SAXON: Maybe he was biding his time. Now they’re waiting to see where he strikes next, now they’re easier to take off guard.

BROAD: If I wanted to destroy Britain, I wouldn’t fly to space. I’d fly straight into Buckingham Palace. Job done.

SAXON: You’d kill your movement’s hearts and minds campaign, as well as everyone on the same tectonic plate.

BROAD: It’s straightforward. It’s simple. Sure as hell effective.

REDACTED: Let’s just—

SAXON: These aren’t the acts of a violent man, Agent. He could’ve easily taken up Dhingra’s mantle and slaughtered his way through the entire Council of the Mind. But he opted for arborification instead of assassination, he only hit three of them, and he hit them all reversibly. That’s mercy.

BROAD: Fine. Sure. But- why the Moon? Seventy years in space. And that’s where he decides to come back?

SAXON: Good question. Clearly he wasn’t interested in staying anonymous; he’s a firebrand, a freedom fighter, an adventurer. Stealth would never be in his nature.

BROAD: Doesn’t add up. Should’ve at least radioed home or something—

REDACTED: He was never on the Moon.

BROAD, SAXON: What?

REDACTED: 35 minutes, 2 seconds ago, the radio said he’d built the spaceship himself. 49 minutes, 18 seconds ago, an eyewitness account, clockwork soldiers with his insignia on them. Don’t you get it? He built a robot body double, just like Helena Blavatsky did in True Tales issue 293!

SAXON: A compelling theory, and a clever contingency, though for what…

BROAD: Dead man’s switch.

REDACTED: But he was in space. Who’d kill him?

BROAD: His crew. Could've been a mole on board. Long window, easy mark; no body, no martyr.

SAXON: Revolutionaries often have to take the friends they can get. I could see an in there: pretend to be a student who’d spent his education abroad, return with newfound fervor for the cause… remind me. When did India achieve independence?

REDACTED: That’s an easy one, 1947.

SAXON: And when did he launch?

REDACTED: Oh. Oh, no, no, no, no—

SAXON: Shit. I’ll get in touch with MI666, tell them to prepare for incoming.

BROAD: He’s our problem. We need to be there too.

REDACTED: So- so is this a mission? Like a real, actual- it’s actually happening, I can’t beli—

[END EXCERPT]




Next: Zatoichi

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