Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #237

My nanobots poured into the space between universes. As they left me, I could feel their shared computing power diminish.

Soon, my reserves were so depleted that my earlier abilities felt a dream. The kind where you wake, positive that you’ve discovered the secret of happiness, only to find it slipping through your fingers like smoke. Coming down from sponge used to feel like that. The drug delivered insight, but more than that, it delivered certainty. It is the “Eureka” moment in chewable form. Then, when the moment passes, you’re not even sure if you want salt on your eggs.

When Alurian first handed over control of his nanobots, I’d been able to feel the entire city all at once, as though it were my own body. I could sense the moisture content of the air around the tallest towers, and I could see the molecular structure of a broken statue lying on the ground three miles away.

As I poured the little bastards into the space between dimensions, my horizons shriveled up like an old helium balloon. I felt as though I were sinking into dark water, watching the light of the surface grow dimmer and dimmer.

Actually, that’s not quite true. It felt that way at first, but then it started to remind me of a show I’d seen once. It hadn’t started yet; the house lights were up, people were still finding their seats and chatting amongst themselves. A young woman came out and stood in the center of the stage, but she didn’t say anything. She just peered up at something in the ceiling as though she were checking the stage-lights. The audience continued talking.

Slowly, the lights began to dim. People didn’t even notice at first, but as more of them figured it out, the audience gradually found their seats, gradually grew quiet. The lights continued to dim, all but one: a single spotlight, shining center-stage. In one long transition, the rest of the world faded away, until the entire universe consisted of this one girl.

That’s what giving up the nanobots felt like. I may have been losing the rest of the city, but that just allowed me to focus on the things I could see with my own eyes.

I saw a police detective and his informant. I saw a feathered alien. I saw a grouchy mad scientist piloting a robot suit, and a seven-foot bruiser that looked like he should be a nightclub bouncer. Coming out of the little hospital room I’d built with the nanobots, I saw a pair of elves, brother and sister, holding hands.

The last nanobots to leave my body came out as a single tear, which I know sounds cheesy, but consider the alternatives. Henricks scanned me, and pronounced me clean.

I thought that meant they would be opening up our portal home, but instead, they picked up a small box and handed it to me.

“What’s this?” I asked, then at their urging, I opened it.

It was a new portal generator. It didn’t look exactly like my old one, but it was pretty close.

“Should be a little more stable than your last one,” Henricks said, winking. “And it’s a clip-on. So you can put it down sometimes.”

I strapped it to my left forearm, and it fit. I glanced around to the group. “Should I do the honors?”

At a chorus of nods, I opened a portal, and we all walked through it together.

When I started this story, I told you that, when you’re at the end of your rope, slack just lets you sink lower. I meant it when I said it and it’s still true, but it’s not the whole story. When you’re hanging off the edge of a cliff like that, what you need isn’t slack.

It’s someone to pull you back up.

 

The End

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #236

Henricks opened the interdimensional trash-chute and I got busy sending those microscopic monsters into oblivion. It was a good thing that I’d seen first-hand how dangerous they could be, because as I sent them down the cosmic storm-drain, all I thought about was cool stuff I could do if I kept them.

Rebuild the damaged parts of my city? Heal the sick? Give everybody in the world their own personal food replicator? Hell, why stop at world-singular? I could take these things on the road!

And the only downside was the not-insignificant risk that I would lose control of them and end all life as we know it.

Yeah.

Just like when Faux-lurian had pulled all of the nanobots out of my home city, ridding this slice of them was a time-consuming process. But as I sifted through the ruins, the nanobots served up one last surprise.

Even when I’d had trillions of electronic eyes all over the city, I’d avoided looking too close at the ruins of my old high-rise. The last time I’d been there, the building had still been standing.

And a friend had been in it.

So I steeled myself with the idea that I would give him a proper resting place, but then I couldn’t find a body, or remains of any kind.

I queried the nanobots, verifying that they had not just consumed him. They had not, and they could not find a trace of him anywhere in the city. I was just about to ask Henricks and Fox for help when I found something.

Or rather, I found nothing.

There was a spot in the rubble where the nanobots couldn’t sense anything. I don’t mean that they sensed a space, I mean that they sensed nothing. It was a bit like discovering a secret room by realizing that another room was smaller than it should be.

I had the nanobots clear everything else away from the spot, revealing a black sphere, about eight-feet in diameter. Then, as soon as it was free from obstructions, it popped, revealing a seven-foot man with a three-day growth of beard and a deep scowl.

“Avo!” I cried.

As he told it later, Eddie had given him some kind of slow-time bubble, for use in emergencies. It had protected him from the collapsing building, and had kept him alive in the weeks since.

From his perspective, however, he’d had a trying couple of days to say the least; trapped in a bubble, not sure if he would ever get out.

I told him about everything that had happened since he pushed me through that portal. Somehow, under his withering glare, it felt like a series of weak excuses.

He took in the entire story without changing expression.

No, I take that back. When I demonstrated my near god-like control of the nanobots, he raised one eyebrow a little.

“Anyway,” I finished, “I’m glad you’re alive?” I offered an awkward shrug and grimace.

He nodded. “Fine,” he said. “I would like to eat something and get a change of clothes now.”

“Of course!” I managed a nervous chuckle. “Um… Do you want me to… Make them with the nanobots?”

After a significant pause, during which his eyes noticeably widened, he shook his head. “I’ll wait,” he said.

“Sure,” I agreed. “Just need to finish this and we’ll get you back to Eddie, and then you’ll never have to see me again.”

He shook his head. “Eddie didn’t come for me. You did.”

I felt my cheeks flush. “Yeah, well,” I mumbled. “That doesn’t mean I own you or anything.”

“No,” he said. “But it means something.”

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #235

The first order of business was to establish a few boundaries while Henricks set up their scanner. They asked that I keep my nanobots out of their circle while they closed the portal, and that I should refrain from any sophisticated manipulations while they assembled the equipment. Meanwhile, the others would stay on guard, watching me with their electromagnetic weaponry in hand.

I didn’t begrudge the time or the conditions. From their perspective, the idea that I might have been compromised by Alurian was a very real concern. To be frank, I would have thought less of them if they didn’t take precautions.

Besides, it gave us time to catch up.

I explained what had happened with Alurian and Ms. Moon, accepting as a given that my credibility was pending verification. Then Henricks apologized for leaving without explaining their plan.

“I can only assume that you thought I had abandoned you,” they said. “And I will not pretend that the possibility did not occur to me. If I were to leave and not return, the nanobot threat that Alurian represented would be isolated, perhaps forever. Any new portal to this dimension would risk that stability.”

“Makes a lot of sense,” I said. “So then why did you come back?”

“You took the same risk when you came here to try and save Alurian. I suppose that I was inspired by your example. And so were we all.” They gestured to Fox, Eduin and Pensky.

Pensky nodded. “You would have done it for us. You did, in fact.”

“That’s right,” said Eduin. “We owed you one.”

“Well,” I said, “I’m looking forward to when we can all hug it out without ray guns between us.” I glanced over to Fox. “How about you? I don’t think you really owed me anything.”

“Heck no,” he said, grinning. “You owed me! And hell if I was going to let you slink away into some corner of the multiverse without returning the favor.”

“Oh come on, Fox,” I said, returning the grin. “You know I’m good for it!”

“We’ll see about that,” he said. “I think I’ll stick close just the same.”

Even once the scanner was up and running, proving that I wasn’t compromised turned into a bit of a negotiation on its own. After all, my body was crawling with the little critters, and I could not separate them from my brain entirely without risking a loss of control.

They walked me through a series of scans, where I would remove all the nanobots from the left hemisphere of my brain, and then from the right. In each state, he asked me various questions about our experiences together. All the while, the scanner verified that I was complying and monitored my biorhythms.

To be honest, it was all a bit beyond me, but Henricks was apparently satisfied.

“Good,” I said. “Where’d you come up with all this stuff anyway?”

Henricks heaved a resigned sigh. “I returned to the Taskforce workshop and made some promises.”

I raised my eyebrows. “I thought you didn’t trust them.”

“Yes, well,” they said. “Do you remember scolding me? After we were nearly robbed by Graham’s mercenaries? You said that I had to trust the team, because going off on my own only made it harder for you to protect me. I don’t know if this Taskforce or its General are entirely trustworthy, but… I’m tired of being on my own.”

I nodded. “Yeah,” I said. “I can understand that.”

“So…” Fox leaned in, awkward. “I guess we won? Sort of? What now?”

“Now,” I said, “We’re going to dump the rest of these nanobots through a hole in the universe, and then, I don’t know, maybe lunch?”

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #234

Sometimes I wonder if it’s possible for our reach to not exceed our grasp.

I’m mostly familiar with humans, but I imagine that this would be true of any sentient species.

We look at our problems, and we imagine solutions. If only we could grow more food, we wouldn’t be hungry. If only we could cure this disease, we wouldn’t be sick. If only we could find a way to understand one another, we wouldn’t fight.

So we strive for better; sometimes we make progress. And yet it is not in our nature to be satisfied. When someone scales a mountain, they may take a moment to appreciate what they have accomplished, and then they will look for an even greater peak to climb.

We are not satisfied with achievement, because each record broken is just an invitation to do better.

Each new advance just raises our expectations. Our gaze is permanently fixed on the horizon, and so no wonder that we never reach it. You run and run and run until you cannot run anymore, and no matter how far you’ve come, you fall just short of the finish line you were imagining.

Maybe out there somewhere, there’s a slice where they’ve discovered how to encode digitized memories back into reconstructed brain tissue. But I did not know how.

What I know is that, when Alurian opened his eyes again and looked at his sister, he did not recognize her.

He could speak, and sit and walk. He believed her, when she told him that they were siblings, but he did not remember their childhood together. He said that his own name sounded “familiar”, but beyond that, the old Alurian was gone.

I had feared that there would be losses, but the wipe of his memory was so total and so unexpected that I wondered if Alurian had exerted one last moment of control, and done it to himself. Did he choose a blank slate over living with troubled memories?

I don’t think I would have, in his situation, but perhaps he wanted to leave the pain behind. Perhaps, he wanted a chance to be a better brother, less of a burden to his sister.

Or maybe all of that is just my own wishful thinking, an attempt to absolve myself for not saving him.

Whatever it was, I had been successful in one thing at least: for the first time since I had known him, Alurian Lunara was free from the nanobots.

I decided to give Ms. Moon some time alone with her brother. If I’d chosen, I could have listened in with the nanobots remaining in the room, but I ignored them. I chose instead to take a walk through the remnants of Alurian’s architectural playground-slash-graveyard.

There had been pressing matters to attend to, before, but with those resolved, it was time to face some more hard truths. Ms. Moon, Alurian, and I were the last living sentient beings on this planet, in this slice. We were stranded here, alone.

Despite all my experience wielding a portal generator, I did not know how to build one. The nanobots could replicate anything that they had deconstructed, and they possessed enormous computing power, but they could not invent. In time, it was possible that I’d be able to work something out; reverse-engineer a design from how I’d seen them work before.

It would take time though.

I surveyed the ruins that surrounded us, and felt the electrifying tingle of trillions of nanobots at my command.

Well, I thought, if this is our new home, we’ll have to make the best of it. Let’s see if I can’t make it a bit more comfortable…

I took a deep breath, and raised my hands to begin.

Then I heard the sound of a portal behind me.

I turned and saw something that looked like a metal baseball sail through the opening. It landed, flashed, and every nanobot within a twenty-yard radius went dead.

Into the breach, Henricks emerged wearing a new robot suit. They were followed by Fox, Eduin and Pensky, each wearing containment suits and armed with guns that looked like fancier versions of our prototype bug zapper.

Henricks spotted me and shouted, their voice amplified by the robot’s speakers. “Phyllis! I’ve brought help!”

“Oh thank god,” I said.

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #233

When Alurian relinquished control of his nanobots, I got my first real taste of power.

The nanobots derived their processing abilities from their numbers. Individually, they weren’t any smarter than a calculator. But trillions of them, working together, could rival the greatest supercomputers ever built.

Everything I had done up to that point, manipulating bits of material, building a lighthouse, even re-growing my hand… They were party tricks. Now that I had been granted command of one-hundred square miles of them, the sense of possibility was incredible.

If before, I’d had control of a factory, now I had control of a global superpower. I had no doubt that, given enough time, the nanobots could have done anything I imagined.

Well, almost.

I realized that Alurian, had he been so inclined, could have wiped us out without a second thought. There would have been no fight at all, just obliteration. The fact that it didn’t come to that was due to his own conflicted feelings. On some level, he had not wanted to fight. He had wanted a reason not to fight.

Even with all of that power, he had no way to get what he wanted, which was for things to go back to the way they had been before.

Now that I had his power, I was just as powerless.

In all honesty, it was probably a good thing.

Not that I wouldn’t have wanted to help him if I could, but the nanobots were so intoxicating with their promises of omnipotence. Without an object lesson, putting the lie to that promise, it would have been all too easy for anyone to believe themselves a god. Myself included.

So I couldn’t do everything, but I did the best I could.

To begin, I transformed our surroundings. With merely a thought and a feeling to guide them, the nanobots tore down the alien bubble of masonry and constructed an intimate hospital room.

Alurian was supported up from the ground by nanobots which build a treatment bed molecule by molecule. A clean tile floor swept across the room, forming and smoothing the surface beneath our feet. Walls grew out of the ground already covered with a cheery pastel yellow paint.

Outside the window, you could still see the patchwork ruin that surrounded us, but the window was bordered by flowing, white curtains, and the room was filled with soft light.

The nanobots I had brought with me from the Sorceress’s slice had more experience manipulating flesh and biological matter, so as a blanket of glittering silver covered Alurian’s body, the cybernetic limbs were dissolved away, replaced, a millimeter at a time, with new living flesh grown from his own genetic code.

The experience was surreal. The nanobots did not require me to know anatomical structure, or how to re-knit muscle tissue, or even to consciously remember the details of his face. I simply willed them to heal him, and they did. It was like being a military officer. I gave the orders, and my soldiers carried them out.

I focused first on restoring Alurian’s body, leaving the changes to his brain for last. Soon, he looked from the outside as though nothing had ever happened. His slender elven body lay in the bed, wearing a thin hospital gown. His blond hair was neatly combed, framing the points of his ears.

Ms. Moon stood to one side, watching the transformation in wonder. She took his hand, now restored.

“Almost everything has been healed,” I told them. “Except his mind, which is still being supported by the network. As I said before, I’m not completely sure what will happen after, so…” I nodded down at him.

“You might want to take a moment, just in case.”

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #232

Alurian watched his sister’s sad smile, the only remnant of the spontaneous laughter. He sat next to her on the broken bit of sidewalk, his robotic legs whirring with the motion. They sat shoulder to shoulder, each looking downward.

I tried to stay out of their way, but I couldn’t go far in the strange bubble of nanobot-manipulated masonry. It took me a moment to realize that, since Henricks had left with the portal generator, it was completely dark inside the sphere. My own nanobots had filled in the gaps with other wavelengths, and they had done it so seamlessly that I hadn’t even noticed. That last detail had me wondering what else they might be doing without my awareness.

“Oh, Dol,” said Alurian, quiet and fragile. “I really thought you’d left me. That I’d be stuck here by myself forever.”

“Never,” said Ms. Moon. “I would never leave you. But I didn’t know how to help you. My every waking moment has been spent looking for a way to set things right.”

He turned his hands over, looking at his robotic palms. “I don’t know if they can be set right… How did we let things get this crazy?”

She sighed and leaned her head on his shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she said.

He placed his arm around her. “I’m sorry I wouldn’t listen to you. You were right about trying to take down Thorbek. That was crazy. I was just so unhappy there, following orders all the time. We should have just moved on. You tried to tell me that too, didn’t you? Just like you tried to tell me the nanobots were a bad idea. You were always the smart one.”

“Alurian,” she said, her voice tight. “What are we going to do?”

He stared at his free hand, watching the glittering dance of millions of nanobots crawling across his metal fingers.

Then he looked at me. “You’ve got them too,” he said. “Do you know how to get rid of them?”

Now that he wasn’t fighting me, I reached out through the network again, feeling out their reports of Alurian’s condition. My heart sank. The two of them sat there, staring up at me, each desperate for a happy ending. I wish I could have given them one.

“Yes,” I said, “But there’s a problem.”

Alurian nodded, turning his eyes downcast again. “There’s not enough of me left, is there?”

Ms. Moon shook her head, brow furrowed. “But I’ve seen them rebuild bodies!” she insisted, pointing at my arm. “They rebuilt your hand!”

“It’s true,” I agreed. “I could have the nanobots rebuild your body, and it would look like you did before, but… They can’t rebuild your thoughts. Too much of your brain has been damaged. The nanobots picked up the slack for you, but…” I took a breath. Better to just spit it out. “If I just take them out, you’ll die. I could have them rebuild your brain tissue, but I honestly don’t know what will be left of your mind when it’s done.”

Ms. Moon squeezed her eyes shut, dislodging tears, and she pressed her face against his shoulder.

For his part, Alurian stared at his hands for a long moment, and then met my gaze. “Do it,” he said.

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #231

I don’t think that Ms. Moon had been prepared for Alurian’s cool response. She just shook her head, as though she didn’t understand the question.

Alurian’s cybernetic body stood eerily still, like looking at a photograph. The only movement was the blinking of his one biological eye. “What did you mean…” he repeated. “When you said this was all your fault?”

From behind me, I heard the sound of a portal opening. I turned just in time to see Henricks drop through a manhole-sized opening, dragging the briefcase device with them. As soon as they were through, the portal snapped closed with an audible pop.

I stared at the pavement where Henricks had been standing.

Well, I thought, at least they didn’t let Alurian get out.

In hindsight, the alignment of big-picture priorities with Henricks’s own self-preservation instinct kind of made me wonder why they had agreed to come along at all. Still, there was a part of me that was relieved. Whatever else happened here, at least the fates of worlds were no longer at stake.

Just an elf-woman, her brother, and the private-eye who couldn’t stop sticking her nose where it didn’t belong.

“What did you mean,” said Alurian, as though nothing had happened, “When you said that it was all your fault?”

Ms. Moon watched him with tear-filled eyes. When she spoke, her usual breathy melody was tight and wavering. “It was… It was just supposed to be a couple of bruises. Just enough to send a message.”

Alurian blinked again. “Message?” He shook his head. “What message?”

“You weren’t listening to me!” she cried, her voice hitching. “I was trying to tell you that your plan wouldn’t work! Gemdohr would have found us out!”

His one biological eyebrow lifted as his eye widened. “You… You told Thorbek I was betraying him?”

“It was to protect you!” she insisted. “He would have killed you! Killed both of us if you’d gone through with it! I pleaded with him to go easy on you, and he promised!” She sank to her knees. “I would have warned you to run away, but he promised that it would just be bruises. I didn’t know any of this was going to happen!”

Alurian had no reply. His cybernetic body took a step backward, and he looked everywhere but at his sister, as though somehow he would discover it was a trick.

Ms. Moon sat on the broken sidewalk, her head down, her shoulders wracked with sobs.

“Dol,” he said at last, his voice weak and far away. “How could you do it? We were going to run that place together.”

“No!” she cried, pounding one hand on the ground. “No! It wasn’t going to work! You weren’t listening to me!” She looked up at him, and the tears of regret had given way to something angrier. “Even if we’d pulled it off, you had no plan! You’ve never had the head for numbers! No experience! I saw first-hand what it took to run that place, and we could not have done it! I tried to tell you then, and you wouldn’t listen to me! We would have been miserable!”

He stepped forward and went down to his own knees, shouting at her face-to-face. “But we would have been miserable together!

Startled, she pulled back, eyes wide and frightened. Then a flicker of thought crossed her face and her panicked gasp became a laugh of surprise.  It was followed by another and she covered her mouth with both hands, shaking. When she could draw a breath, she said: “Looks like we managed it after all.”

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #230

Alurian’s giant nanobot construct roared again, that same combination of earthquake, giant cat and alarm klaxon. Then he slammed both fists against the nearby tower, shattering the façade. Under the onslaught of repeated blows, the building toppled, though thankfully it fell in the other direction.

“I get the feeling that your brother’s not in a talking mood,” I said.

Ms. Moon stared up at the rampaging giant. “Can he hear me?”

I nodded. “Technically, that thing isn’t him any more than that patch of sidewalk,” I said, pointing. “The nanobots are everywhere, and he can hear from all of them.”

“Alurian!” she cupped both hands to her mouth and shouted up at the giant. “Alurian, please! You’ve got to stop this!”

The thing’s speed was incredible for its size. Rather than stoop down, the whole lower half flowed like water, bringing the head and arms down to street-level faster than falling. It pounded both forearms on the ground to either side of us with an impact that shook us off our feet.

It was just as well. If we had tried to run, I have no doubt that Alurian would have smashed us flat.

The giant arms melted into a wall, then extended over our heads, encircling us in a shrinking bubble. It was all I could do to keep the nanobot flesh from smothering us. Once it had us surrounded, we were trapped, the darkness broken only by the glow of the briefcase portal generator’s display.

“We came back for you!” cried Ms. Moon. “Alurian, let us help you!”

The sphere around us snarled, and pressed in tighter, despite my best efforts.

“It’s not working!” called Henricks. “I’m opening a return portal.”

“Wait,” I grunted. “I don’t know if I can keep him from coming through with us. Let me try to push him back.”

I detected a flicker of motion, but before I could respond, a spike extruded from the side of the sphere, as thick as a baseball bat. It impaled my stomach and pinned me to the ground.

“Oof,” I said. “Ow.”

My own nanobots set to work repairing the damage, but I couldn’t keep this up much longer. It was now obvious that Alurian had spent the last couple of weeks perfecting his control.

“I’m opening the portal!” said Henricks.

“No!” I shouted. “We can’t let him out!”

“We’ll just have to take the risk!”

“Alurian!” shouted Ms. Moon. “I’m sorry! I never wanted this to happen! This is all my fault! Please, let them go, and I’ll stay!”

All at once, the pressure I had been fighting against relaxed all at once, and I gasped with relief. We were still surrounded in a pocket of air, but the walls were no longer closing in on us. They kept their distance, illuminated only by the sickly green glow from the portal controls.

From one side of the sphere, the wall bulged, and then separated, revealing Alurian’s real body. From almost every angle, he might as well have been one of Henricks’s robot suits. Half his face was gone. The only clues to his biological origins were one blue eye, a bit of pale skin, and a tuft of blonde hair.

“Dol,” he croaked, his voice emerging from a speaker. A tear trailed down his one fleshy cheek. “I’m sorry too.”

Ms. Moon dropped to her knees, with tears in her own eyes. “Alurian. I can’t do this anymore. Please let me try to fix this. Try to make things right. I love you, and it’s killing me to see you this way.”

His one eye blinked, and there were no more tears. “Fix… this?” he asked, and his voice was cold. “Dolerense, my dear sister… What did you mean when you said that this was all your fault?”

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #229

The gargantuan figure loomed over us. We fell within its mile-long shadow, so it seemed to blot out the morning sun, a silhouette that defied comprehension. My brain kept telling me that it was a trick of the light, but the tremors in the ground at its every footstep told the truth of it.

It was hard to avoid seeing the hulking monstrosity as a referendum on Alurian’s mental state.

I reached out through the electromagnetic code, a gentle probe to test his control. I wound my awareness through the cloud, making my way to the core of the enormous figure. In the center, I found what remained of Alurian’s physical body, curled into a fetal position where the monster’s heart would be.

I tried to slip closer without attracting his attention, looking for his connection to the rest of the network, hoping to sever his control.

Then I felt a tingle at the back of my neck, and then a prickling all over my body. At first, I was confused by the sensation, wondering what it indicated. I sought out diagnostic reports from my own nanobots. After puzzling over the results, I realized to my horror that the feelings were coming from my own physical nerves.

I pulled my awareness out of the cloud, moving fast enough that my physiological reflexes attempted to compensate. I dropped back into my body just as my body dropped to the sidewalk. Thousands of Alurian’s nanobots had penetrated my flesh and begun worming their way to my brain. I ejected them with my own microscopic army, but the experience left me shaking.

Looking up at the towering golem, I could see a representation of Alurian’s face, and through the network, I could feel his contempt and his rage. He had detected my intrusion from the beginning and had lured me in.

The need for stealth removed, I reached out to the nanobots in the ground around me. They responded to my command until Alurian attempted to wrest control away from me. It was as though we held dueling remote controls, each struggling to change the channel of a shared television.

This complicated things. No doubt, it was down to the presence of his physical body, and with it, the Sorceress’s original protection charm. After all, that was what had mutated the nanobots in the first place.

I pulled back, focusing only on keeping Alurian’s control out of my body and a ten foot radius around myself, Henricks and Ms. Moon.

“We have a problem,” I said.

“Should I open a return portal?” asked Henricks.

“Not yet,” I said. “But maybe keep it on speed-dial.” I turned to Ms. Moon. “If I try to force this, it will be a fight.”

She nodded, chewing on her lower lip.

“If that happens,” I said, “either he’s going to kill me, maybe all of us, or he’s going to make me kill him. That’s not what we came here for. So as I see it, we’ve got two options: We can leave him here, like this.”

Her face broke into dismay. “No, please,” she said. “We can’t! Look at this place! He’s gone mad here!”

I nodded. “Okay. Then I’m going to need your help for the alternative.”

“Anything,” she said.

“Option two…” I gestured up to the monster that had swallowed her brother. “We try to talk him down.”

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #228

I gave Henricks the coordinates for my not-so-safe-anymore safe house. Thankfully, it was one of the handful of locations that I had memorized, rather than trusting to my portal generator’s database. The whole point of a safe-house, after all, is being able to get to it when you’re in trouble.

I was ahead of myself, imagining what we might find on the other side, to the point that I almost forgot to have Henricks adjust the spatial coordinates to open the portal a little closer to the ground. My penthouse apartment had been demoted when Alurian pulled all the metal out of the building’s superstructure.

When the portal opened, a wave of digital information broke over me, flooding my awareness with data. Even before my biological eyes could absorb the view through the portal, I knew everything I needed to know about what lay on the other side.

Alurian had indeed survived his fall from the window. He survived the building’s collapse too. As Ms. Moon had predicted, the nanobots had kept him alive, even as his few remaining biological parts were subjected to injury after injury. They just kept fixing him up, but he lost a little more of his original body each time.

The bigger shock though, was being stranded alone on a dead world.

His nanobots provided me with records of his rage, his fear, his despair, and his madness. In the weeks since we had last seen him, he had infiltrated the entire city with his tiny machines, and in a horrifying spiral of creation and destruction, he had used them to build and then destroy the city, dozens of times over.

Even without my access to the nanobot software, you could see his handiwork in the city skyline. The view from my penthouse had once featured modern skyscrapers, now decaying, with a rubble-filled grid of city streets below.

Now, it was a nightmare ruin of spires, battlements, monoliths, domes and even strange abstract swirls like something out of an architect’s hallucinogenic drug trip. Some of them stood intact, but most had been beaten into crumbling shambles, as though struck by dozens of small meteorites.

I knew that the damage had not come from meteorites.

“Come on,” I said, leading Henricks and Ms. Moon through to see for themselves.

The portal zipped closed behind us as we eased our way down the sloped side of a ruined sidewalk. It had been pushed up from beneath by a twenty-foot tall metal sculpture of a bird.

Ms. Moon gasped at the sight of it. “It’s… It’s just like a wooden carving he made for me when we were children.”

I nodded. “He’s still here,” I confirmed. “But I would warn you not to read too much into that bird. From what I can tell, he—“

I was interrupted by what sounded like dinosaur’s roar of triumph crossed with an old air raid siren. The ground beneath our feet began to tremble at regular intervals.

The top of a nearby tower exploded into rubble, sending chunks of concrete and steel flying in all directions. I had the nanobots create a temporary wall around us, to shield us from the debris.

From behind the tower, a monstrous figure raised its fists. It was ill-defined, a child’s clay model of a man, but standing thirty stories tall.

Alurian had found us.

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