I sat at the front desk, a tall tumbler of scotch in hand. I stared down at the dispatch through a haze of amber. We were getting quite a few calls from frightened people. I took down their information, told them what I could to try to help ease their fears and advise them, and then went on to the next call. I threw a paperweight at a large, glossy black rat in the middle of a call. It hissed at me defiantly, and skittered away into a hole in the wall, followed by half a dozen others. I was tempted to get my gun, but I’d been drinking. That would probably not look good at review time. I sighed, and instead threw back the scotch, feeling the burn as it went down.
The department was running a skeleton crew. The deputy inspector hadn’t shown up. I was the ranking officer, and there were less than a dozen men in the building. Hector was down in the shooting range, where he’d spent most of his time lately. Marco had dropped by the station. He was still on medical leave, but offering to help out with the paperwork. And John was lying in the hospital, still unresponsive. They suggested it was a coma of some kind, but his brain activity was still high. Abnormally so. I set the tumbler back on the desk, and ice clinked within as I stared out of the door. The familiar heady spin began to take over, and I felt a little more relaxed. The door opened, and the Horace walked in. “Miss Larson! You’re here. I want your help to stop a god.”
I stared at him for a few seconds, trying to will him out of existence. I’d never hallucinated while drinking before, but maybe this was the first time, and I could make him go away. After several seconds, I sighed. “You’re fucking me.” I looked up, and noticed the flush running across his face. “Fucking with me. Shit. What did I say?” It was getting difficult to make words line up properly. “Why are you trying to stop a god? I thought you were all buddy-buddy with the gods. Wasn’t your catgirl a god? She certainly acts like she thinks she is.” I peered down at the drink. I hadn’t eaten for the last day. I decided that was why there appeared to be two glasses on the desk in front of me. I swirled the ice around a bit, and threw back the remaining liquor, swallowing hard. I went to grab the bottle to pour myself another shot, and found my hand restrained.
“Dane, I hope you’ll forgive me for this.” He murmured a few words, and pressed a hand to my forehead. Sobriety arrived like a personal apocalypse, bringing with it the four horsemen of dry-mouth, headache, light-sensitivity, and nausea. I fell out of my chair, my hands wrapping tightly around my head. The modest light of the late evening managed, somehow, to be completely eye-searing, and my temples felt like ground zero of an artillery range. “Sorry. It’s a spell I learned, makes someone sober up quickly.” He frowned down at me as I lay on the ground, my hands clamped to the side of my head. “The hangover should be finished in about ten minutes.”
Twenty minutes later, swearing lividly, I was on my feet again, drinking glass after glass of water. “Where the fuck did you learn magic?!” I did not ask him to pardon my French. I felt my French was well-deserved.
“My apartment was apparently raised by a serial killer, and picked a few things up. Most of it related to helping dinner guests, keeping apartments clean, and that kind of thing.” He frowned. “It was kind of a let-down, honestly. But I’m not in much of a position to be choosy.” I tossed back two aspirin, and the headache went from crippling to merely rage-inducing. I eyed him angrily. “Sorry. But this is important.”
I listened with increasing disquiet as he explained. “So, a deity is about to wake up in Manhattan, and give everyone in the world a big, happy, plague-filled hug.” I rubbed my temples. “And what is my motivation for wanting other people to live right now?” He looked very hurt. “Look, you just pulled me out of a nice, happy drunk stupor to deliver a warning of impending doom. What do you want me to do, give you a fucking medal?”
“Look. I know you’re angry, but we have… Well, not a plan. That’s why we need you.” I stared at him. “You’re good at planning. You’ve got a good tactical mind, or you wouldn’t have been able to kill that thing. I’ve got a goddess, a demon, a demon hunter, and a crazy house-spirit. If you can work together with us, then we can do this. Please.”
I was silent, staring at him. The pain was dulling, although whether it was because the aspirin were taking effect, or because I was too shocked by the kid’s bravado to tell him to go to hell, I wasn’t sure. “Fine,” I announced, finally. “I’ll do it. But I have two conditions for this. First, if you have access to all of that, I need you to fix my men. Marco, and John.”
Horace nodded. “I thought you’d ask for that. I have an idea how to do both. Marco is going to be a little bit easier, but, do you have a soundproofed room?”
“We have the rifle range. I’ll meet you down there with Marco in a moment.”
The four of us, me, Hector, Marco, and Horace, stood together in the rifle range. Nobody else was there, and the doors were closed. Marco watched uncertainly as Horace ran his fingers across his cast-covered right hand. “I don’t know, man. I’ve never been the kind of guy who believed in faith healing.”
“That’s fine. This isn’t really faith healing,” Horace muttered, studying the hand. “Healing magic seems fairly easy to me, in spite of what I’ve read. Ultimately, humans and other living things are defined by very complicated, very effective procedures for fixing themselves. Your body is full of literally billions of blueprints of how you should be. Sure, some of them have tiny little flaws in them, but by and large, your body knows what shape it’s supposed to be. This would be less effective on someone older, but the trick is in accelerating the healing. Most wounds, the body could conceivably recover from. Sometimes, it lacks stem cells to repair them properly. Magic bypasses that, and I couldn’t tell you why, exactly, because people much smarter than me have been trying to figure that out for a very long time, and none of them have even come close to organizing the details. Maybe it’s just because they don’t know that it’s impossible. There’s one thing you can’t avoid, however.”
“Am I going to, like, lose a few years off of my life?”
Hector frowned. “Are you going to have your finger get broken instead to make things even?”
I tilted my head to the side. “Is that house-spirit you told me about going to force you to perform sexual favors in repayment for using her power?” Marco cracked up.
“I wish. No, see, the thing is, having a broken finger hurts. It hurts constantly, all those little grindings and twinges, for six weeks. All of that stuff is sort of a debt that your body is paying. The spell can heal you, but I take on the debt. So… This is going to hurt like an absolute bastard.” He whispered a few words, and there was a faint smell of ozone. Then he fell to the ground, and started screaming curses.
In my entire career, I would like to consider that I have heard every variation and possibility in the English language for expressing anger, pain, and general displeasure. I have heard racial slurs, denigration of mothers, and every manner of harsh syllable and foul language. And yet, standing there, before Horace, I felt like an old guitar player who had spent his life playing the same three tunes in a cheap bar, who had just watched Jimi Hendrix performing Voodoo Child (Slight Return). I was awed, deeply envious, a little bit disgusted, and by the end of it, my ears were ringing.
“You kiss your mother with that mouth?” Marco asked, staring down at the man who was curled up on the ground. Hector reached over, and cracked open the cast. Marco shook his hand, and grinned. “Damn! Hey, look, I’ve got a cousin who broke his arm-” Horace looked up, tears streaming down his eyes, an expression of wordless anger on his face. “Okay, yeah, I dig, only in case of emergencies. So, how are we helping John out? He’s been out for weeks.”
Horace sat up slowly, taking deep, steadying breaths. I rolled my eyes. “Come on. It’s just a broken finger.”
“Six weeks of broken finger pains, concentrated into a single burst,” he hissed, standing up, and grabbing the bottle of aspirin I had brought with me. He tossed a couple back, and then two more, swallowing them without water. “Okay. The next part isn’t quite as physically painful, but it’s a bit more dangerous, and a lot weirder.” He looked around the three of us. “None of you technically have to come along. But If we’re going to do this, we need to get John out of the hospital, and we need to get a boat.”
Marco and I looked at Hector. He frowned. “Is the boat going to get broken?”
“… Hopefully not.”
Getting John was simple. The hospital was full. They were downright grateful to be able to hand the comatose man over to a group of thoughtful friends so they could clear out a bed for one of the sick. As we drove down to the Chelsea Piers marina, however, Hector was doubtful. “All I’m saying is, quarantine is serious business. The airports are closed. They’re talking about closing down the bridges. We might run into some trouble with getting the boat out.”
“We’ll deal with that particular problem when we come to it. So, what exactly is the procedure, here, Horace? Why do we need a boat?”
Horace sat in the front seat of the car with a far-off expression. “We’re going to the place where that black oil thing came. It was… well, from what I’m told, it was sort of like a renegade. The literal translation was something like ‘prodigal son’. It’s locked into John right now, and his body’s trying to expel it, which is why he’s unconscious. He’s not going to succeed, though, and if we don’t get it out of him, he’s just going to die in his sleep eventually. If there were more Ateroleum in New York, we could bring him near it so it got drawn out. But they’re all dead. So, we take it back to its home, and it gets welcomed back into the fold by its ‘mother’. And then…”
The car went quiet. I broke the silence as I pulled into the large parking lot. “And then?”
“We hope that the thing lets us go.”
“What are the chances that it will?” Marco asked, frowning.
“Fairly good. It isn’t interested in humans, really. Not to keep in its realm. It’s got plenty of us already. It’s more interested in supernatural creatures, from what I’ve read.” He shrugged. “It’s… Look, the person I know who knows the most about it described it as a ‘stillborn sea’. It’s not a very well-documented thing. Not a lot of people come back from studying it.”
“Marco, Hector, I don’t expect the two of you to go.” I stated, firmly. “This is something I’m responsible for. I’m willing to go it alone, and Horace has volunteered because he knows how to get us there and back.”
“Hell, Dane. I was the one who shot that thing with magnesium and got John hurt. It’s my fault. The very least I can do is try to save John,” Marco said, his face looking a bit weary as he leaned against the back of my chair.
“And it’s my boat. I’m sure as hell not letting you guys run off with it and get it crashed in some kind of horrific nightmare dimension. My insurance plan is basic as hell.” Hector smiled weakly.
The boat dock was, indeed, protected by a pair of security guards. “Shit,” muttered Marco.
“I’ll take care of it.” I stepped out of the car, slipping my hand into my pocket. The two men turned towards me, hands moving towards their guns. I approached, smiling pleasantly. It was hot. It had been getting hotter, in fact. The end of September was just around the corner, but it felt like we were still deep in August. Combined with the massive amount of trash, the city was developing an aroma that could only be described as ‘sinus-sizzling’. I took a deep breath, and savored it. You could start to appreciate anything after spending enough time in this city.
“Sorry, ma’am, but I can’t let you through here. Marina’s been shut down, by order of the Mayor’s offi-”
At that moment, the man was cut off by a sudden attack of money, as he gaped. I only had a sergeant’s salary, but it was enough to bribe a pair of security guards. The other man moved to argue, and was felled by a ruthless attack on his retirement prospects. “Get yourselves a cup of coffee on me, gentlemen. Don’t worry. We’ll be back before dawn. Just going fishing.”
The four of us walked onto the docks, Hector rolling John along. We made our way onto the small fishing boat. It wasn’t luxurious, and more than a little cramped with five people, but we set out onto the water. The river rippled and splashed, black as pitch as we set out. The lights of Manhattan and Jersey City spun around us as the motor droned, driving us down into the bay, and out to sea. The bright lights of the city faded to a distant shimmer, then a glow over the horizon, and finally, a dull suggestion. The ship’s hull creaked and rolled. Clouds were pouring out of the west, covering over the moon and the stars. Within a few minutes, all that was left was the soft green glow of the fishing boat lights, and the pair of beacons on top of the boat. “Alright, we’re out here. So, what do we do now?”
Horace sat down, crossing his legs. “It’s almost comically easy, really. Like, you look through this book, and it’s pretty easy to travel between worlds.”
“Isn’t that a good thing?”
“Sure. Except that all that it takes to travel to another world that is literally made of fire- No fuel, no source, just an endless plane of fire that could melt tungsten- is to sit by a fireplace or some other ‘hearth’ and say the right word.”
“What’s the right word?”
“I don’t know. That’s the frightening part.”
Hector frowned. “I could’ve gone my whole life without knowing that.”
“That’s my point, you see. The thing about a lot of the knowledge in these books is that it’s incomplete. It teaches you just enough to be frightened of what’s happening, without giving you enough information to be able to avoid it. It’s like being told you’re walking in a minefield, without having a map of the mines.” He pointed out to sea. “All you have to do to be taken to this stillborn sea is pilot a nautical vessel onto the ocean- It doesn’t work on fresh water, for whatever reason- under a lightless sky, and be surrounded by darkness. And then, you just have to speak a single Jewish word.”
We were quiet for a while. Hector sighed. “What are the chances that my ship’s going to come back safe from this?”
“The oil isn’t very corrosive. I’d say better than even.”
“And how do we get back?”
“That should be relatively simple, too. We don’t belong in that world, so… Well, think of this word as like a hook. It pulls us into the other world, and holds us there. Then, once we’re there, we speak the word again, and we’re thrown violently back into this world.”
“… How violently?” I asked, frowning. Horace shrugged.
“They didn’t specify. They lived to write the thing, so I can’t imagine it was that violently.”
“So. What’s the word?” Horace stepped over to the console, and Hector helped him to turn off the boat’s running lights. It was as though I’d gone blind. There was no sensation save for the faint slapping of water against wood, and the pitching of the boat.
There wasn’t any discomfort. There wasn’t any sudden shock. There was no tunnel of light, or wild flashing colors. One moment we were in darkness, and the next, we were in light. But the water was the exact same color.
A bright, blazing white sun flared in the sky. The air was almost as hot as it had been back home in the city, but it was a dry heat, like a desert, despite the water all around us. It slapped thickly against the hull, the color of tar, rolling in incredibly slow waves. A pervasive smell of burnt oil surrounded us. I looked up, and smiled. “There are some mountains off in that direction.”
“Those don’t look like mountains, boss.” Marco murmured. I narrowed my eyes and squinted.
They were huge. There was haze from the heat which turned the white flanks of the mountains turn slightly blue. Then I saw what he was saying. Jutting out of the water, miles away, they seemed to stretch into the sky like a series of peaks, tapering off in one direction and ending with a smaller, broader mountain on the other side. Then, I adjusted my perception. It was a ribcage and skull of some colossal sea-dwelling creature, stretched out across the black oil. Whatever had passed for hide had been bleached by the sun, leaving patches between each of the ribs that had fooled my brain into seeing a mountain range. My mind rebelled as I tried to get a sense of scale of the thing.
“There’s no land on this world, apparently. Whatever this sea is, it eroded away every geographical irregularity, running across it until the whole world was uniformly flat. That’s what the book claims, anyway. If you’re wondering what kind of creature is living here, that’s probably a good example.” Horace looked down at the water, frowning. “It’s odd, my uncle suggested that just getting him here would be enough, but-”
That wasn’t really the right word, because a scream is something you might hear a young girl doing while engaged in a game of tag. It’s a rather pedestrian sound. Shriek didn’t fit either, as it has a somewhat timorous, cut-off sound. I flirted with ‘ululated’ briefly, but I was pretty sure that white people couldn’t ululate properly, though he was making a brave attempt at it. I decided the best word was a wail. Then I clapped my hands over my ears like the others, and watched as a thick black mist rose from John’s mouth and eyes, dribbling out of him. The boat rocked, and a dark figure climbed aboard.
It was vaguely feminine in its shape. I was put in the mind of a fertility idol I had once seen at the house of a spinster aunt with very strange ideas about how to entertain a teenage girl. Its face was nondescript, a mere oval, without hair. Massive, pendulous breasts lay across the top of a heavy, round belly, with hips that seemed to ripple with every movement. It was composed of the black oil, and everything about it seemed to sag heavily.
The words hissed around the boat, sibilant. They hadn’t emerged from the creature standing there, staring at the black mist. It had risen out of the dark water all around us.
Tried to escape me again, got punished again, did we? It’s alright, child. It’s alright. Come back and be a part of mother.
The creature opened its arms wide. The mist howled as it pulled free of John. The older man stopped wailing, and slumped down, but the wail continued as the mist was pulled into the body of the black thing. The sound cut off abruptly as it was consumed in the body of the strange black thing. The creature turned its head slowly, to study us each in turn, with its featureless face.
You brought my little wayward child back to my fold. Damaged, but… Enough of him. Thank you. Are you gods?
“No.” Horace stated firmly, before the rest of us could speak. “We are simply humans. Very dull. Very plain. Very normal.”
A pity. A kind god would be an interesting thing to collect. I see… The memories of my child. Your world is suffering, is it? Threatened.
The creature chuckled, a wet, burbling noise that sent trickles of ice down my spine.
If you should ever need a mother’s loving hand, you know how to find me, don’t you? I couldn’t allow such kindness to go unrewarded.
The creature lifted its head, and there was a gurgling, sucking noise.
Aaaah, yes. I have your scent. If ever you should need a favor, and I can offer it… Don’t hesitate to come visit.
“Why would you offer to help us?” I asked, frowning.
Oh, I can smell your pretty world. All those delicious clean waters. But I can’t enter a place without being invited, by someone. I would need your help to enter your sweet oceans. In exchange for a favor, of course. I can give such wondrous favors.
I looked around the world, my eyes narrowing. “I don’t think that we’d ever want the kind of favors that you have to offer.”
Little human hurts my feelings so! I am a preserver! I keep things safe. All of the children who come to this world are clutched to my bosom. And I protect them with my life. Perhaps the life they have is not what they remembered, perhaps they are somewhat constrained, but a mother’s love is not to be refused easily.
The creature laughed again.
And there are worse things out there that could happen. You know how to find me. I look forward to seeing you again. Would you like some cookies before you go?
The four of us stared mutely.
I’ll just leave these here in case you want them.
The creature reached into its own belly, and withdrew a large baking sheet, with eight rather tarry looking discs sitting on it. “Thanks.” I stated, taking the sheet, and tossing it into the oil. “But no thanks. Get off of our ship, now.”
Ooooh, so fiery, so feisty. You’d make a marvelous daughter, you know that?
“Please get off the damn ship.”
Oh, fine, fine, I’m going. Horace, sweet young boy. Please give my regards to Bastet, would you? Tell her that I would love to see her again very soon, and to thank her for dealing with my silly, capricious little children.
With a wet slurping noise, the thing fell backwards into the thick oil, disappearing. I took a deep breath, and said “Yam Hamawet.”
The ship rocked. There was a hissing noise, as the lights came back on, and we sat in the darkness of the Atlantic ocean again. The utter emptiness of the horizon somehow felt like the most comforting thing I could imagine. I managed a very half-hearted “Pardon my Jewish.”
The black oil disintegrated quickly in the seawater around us. “From what I’ve read, they’re not good with seawater, or running water of any kind. That might be part of why the ritual only works on salt-water, because it keeps the Ateroleum from being able to transfer over.”
“Did we just get weirdly hit on and offered a favor by a crazy monster ocean?” Hector asked, frowning.
“Yeah. This is what my life has become.” Horace muttered softly. He stood at the edge of the boat, arms resting on the side, staring down into the water. His shoulders were hunched.
“What are we going to do about that thing?” I asked, as the boat started running. “It sent- Or allowed, or whatever- parts of itself into this world, and they killed people. It’s talking about coming over here. Do you have some plan to deal with it?”
“Not really, no. At the moment, I’m trying to get together enough people with some basic level of competence to plan an assault on a different God. I’m going to have to balance at least half a dozen unstable and extremely difficult personalities while they try to figure out how to kill something that is not even close to as powerful as what we just saw. We’re playing this thing by ear because the only sheet music available ends with everyone on earth dying horribly.” He rubbed his forehead. “And I guess I get stuck making cookies for everyone in the kitchen.”
John groaned softly, and cursed. It wasn’t very inventive, but it was pretty emotive. “You alright down there, John?” I asked, smiling as I crouched down, rubbing his head.
“God, I had the worst dreams. Why am I on a boat? Who’s that scrawny guy? What the hell am I doing in a wheel chair?” He stood up, shaking his head. I was rather surprised by the strength he showed. He’d been out for what felt like half a month, seeing him on his feet already was a bit unexpected. The old man was tough as teak, sometimes.
“We’ll explain it to you on the ride back, how about?” I offered, smiling. “First things first… Alright. Who else is in on this, Horace?”
“My cat, my apartment, my uncle, his snake, and you four.”
I nodded. “Alright. I think that I can work with that.” I sighed, watching the horizon. “Any advice for dealing with them?”
“Uh… Let’s see. Bring salmon, don’t scuff your shoes or put out cigarettes on any furniture, don’t take it personally when he insults you, and don’t challenge the snake-girl to any arm-wrestling competitions.” Horace peered at the horizon. We were approaching the island of Manhattan again, and its lights were deeply comforting. But there were fewer of them than usual in the towers and skyscrapers.
“I’ll see you all tomorrow.” Horace smiled, as he walked into the subway, leaving the four of us standing around. We’d managed to find a pair of shoes in the fishing boat for John, who was otherwise standing in his hospital gown.
“So. Drink?” John asked.
“Yeah, we never did get to the bar after the last mission, did we?”
The four of us made our way to a bar. The bartender seemed downright grateful to see us walk in, as we were the only ones in the place. He very graciously didn’t mention John’s lack of pants. “So,” John stated, as four beers were set down in front of us. “The city’s falling apart with plague, and I’ve been unconscious for two weeks.” He sipped his beer. “Did I get any hazard pay?”
“Happened in your downtime, so no, sorry.”
We all nodded, and knocked back our drinks. “So, do we get hazard pay for fighting a god?” asked Hector.
“I’ll talk it over with the union.” I looked down at my drink. “Do you guys ever regret the decisions you’ve made in life?”
All three of them turned towards me. “You getting cold feet, Dane?” asked Hector, an eyebrow raised.
“Just… I got into policing because it was the only thing that I could really hope to make a living at, you know? This is just supposed to be a job. A way to stay alive. What the hell am I doing, going to crazy-ass worlds covered in black oil? I took the SWAT training for the extra pay.” I stared down into my drink. “What the hell qualifications do I have when you’re talking about demon hunters and gods and insane things like that?”
“I don’t know. You can plan worth a damn?” Hector suggested, grinning. The three men laughed.
“True enough.” I muttered softly. “Here’s to planning.” I raised my glass. “Hey, speaking of which. Hector. Want to fuck tonight?”
Marco coughed into his beer. Hector shrugged. “Sorry, boss, I’m gay.”
“What?! Since when?”
“I don’t know. College, probably.” I sighed.
“Nah, I just got brought back from a coma, I don’t really feel man enough at the moment, if you catch my drift.”
I turned towards Marco. “How desperate do you think I am to go for it after you’ve asked two other guys right next to me?” he asked, frowning.
“Pretty desperate.” I admitted.
“Sorry, Dane. Hector’s my type.”
“Really?” Hector asked, looking interested.
“Yeah. You didn’t know?”
“Well, great, everyone gets laid except me.” I muttered. The bartender raised a finger, looking hopeful. “No, no, forget it, the moment’s past.” The four of us laughed at the disappointed young man’s face. I snickered, feeling the pleasant haze of drunkenness wipe away the anxiety and the concern as the four of us drank. “Well, at least booze’ll keep me warm and snuggly at night, right guys?” I smiled down at my drink. The end of the world was just around the corner, we’d signed on to fight a god, and tomorrow I was going to have to deal with a hangover while I tried to figure out a battle plan. But through the haze of alcohol, it didn’t seem so bad. “You know, I always wanted to die heroically.”
“Really?” Hector asked, interested. “I wanted to live heroically. Y’know? I mean, what’s the point of being a hero if you’re not alive to take advantage of the free drinks?”
Marco shrugged. “Yeah, but then you’ve got to live up to your own legend, y’know? Better to go out on a high note, that way everyone wonders what kind of awesome things you would’ve done afterward. Like Hendrix. If he’d kept playing for the next fifty years, he’d have gotten old, fat, sold out, and everyone would miss his early stuff when he still had all that potential. I’m with Dane, go out on a high note while you’re still pretty. Saving a toddler from a fire or something, you know?”
“Yeah.” I nodded. “And I’ve gotta admit… Dying fighting a god? That’s pretty cool.” I grinned. “Who knows? Police union might even get us statues.”