Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #227

Ms. Moon just stared at me, her wide elfin eyes open with surprise and her mouth held in a tight line.

“What?” I asked. “Did you think I forgot?”

She took a quick shallow breath, and her brows turned downward. “So much has happened. I didn’t…” Her melodic voice tightened, and she trailed off.

“You hired me to find your brother,” I said. “Then we did, but you just got separated again. That thing we just fought wasn’t him. The original Alurian went out the window of my apartment safe-house. You said you thought the nanobots could have kept him alive. Well, I say we go and find out, one way or the other. And maybe, if he is still there…” I watched the glitter of nanobots crawling across the skin of my hand. “Maybe I can help him.”

I saw tears glistening at the corners of her eyes. She released a held breath and then offered a sad smile. “You know, technically I fired you.”

“Well,” I said, “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I actually don’t have that many clients. Can’t afford to let one go just because of a silly thing like getting fired.”

She glanced over my shoulder to address Henricks, who had some wide eyes of their own.

“What about you? I know that you and Alurian didn’t exactly get along.”

Henricks opened their mouth to speak and then closed it without saying anything. Then they frowned, looking at their feet while they considered. “Well,” they said at last, looking up to me, “It would have been nice to get an advance warning or some kind of discussion about this plan, rather than having it sprung on me by surprise.”

I shrugged. “We’re discussing it now, aren’t we? We’ll need the portal device.” I pointed at the orange briefcase. “But you don’t need to come if you don’t want to.”

They frowned. “I did not say that I would not accompany you. I just required a moment to… process my emotional response to the query.”

“Oh,” I said. “And how’s that going?”

“It is still in progress,” they snapped, “but I do have an answer.” They turned to Ms. Moon. “You know that Alurian and I did not enjoy one another’s company. However, that does not indicate that I wish for him to be stranded in an empty slice for all eternity.” They paused, and looked down at their tiny hands. “I have never had close familial relationships,” they said. “So it is difficult for me to understand what you must feel for your brother, given all that has transpired. However, it is evident that you feel a powerful emotional connection to him, even now, which I can respect.” They looked up, and there was as much emotion in their eyes as I had ever seen. “So in that spirit, I too would choose to help you find him, and to help him if it is possible.”

“All right then,” I said. “We’re a team. Should we… I don’t know… Do like a go-team or a special handshake or something?” I held out my hand.

Henricks and Ms. Moon both stared at me, aghast.

I lowered my hand. “Okay, never mind. That’s fine. Let’s just go then, shall we?”

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #226

Fox and I settled on a time, place and dimension to meet. A little coffee shop in a slice not too far removed from the ones we’d lived in. It was a mixed neighborhood, kind of like Little Narnia, so a feathered grey alien shouldn’t attract too much attention. If everything went according to plan, we’d meet up there in a couple of weeks.

As far as I was concerned, this concluded my business with Taskforce, and I closed the portal before I could think of more reasons to miss the slice I was leaving behind.

I’m sure that the General wasn’t happy about my cutting off communication so abruptly, but she could open her own portal back here if she wanted. I planned to be gone by then.

Of course, for all my cheery positivity, Fox wasn’t wrong that there would be difficulties. Either of us might be held up by circumstances beyond our control. The Taskforce might try to pull something. The city health board might close down the coffee shop for unsanitary conditions. You never knew what might happen, and it wasn’t like I’d be able to just text him if we missed one another.

And of course, all of those things were contingent on me still being me in a couple of weeks.

As far as I could tell, I was maintaining my sense of self, even with the constant chatter of the nanobots in my head. It was tempting to believe that I would not be corrupted by them. After all, according to everything I’d discovered so far, Alurian hadn’t been the nicest guy even before they took him over. Surely, I could handle the power without them changing me. At least, that’s what I wanted to believe.

Was that why “the goddess” had chosen to help me? She had healed me, and granted me immunity to the nanobot control, only to revoke it at the critical moment and use me as a Trojan Horse to get through his electronic defenses. Had she just manipulated me into this position?

“Events have been set into motion,” she had said. “You have become ensnared in the workings of fate,” she had said.

But who had initiated those events? Who had set the snare? Was I just a chess piece in some larger game?

In my more paranoid moments, I wondered how far back the machinations began. For all I knew, it had been the goddess that tricked Alurian and Ms. Moon into betraying their “Caltheah” in the first place, leading to a string of events, all of which were in the service of a humiliating but ultimately harmless prank on the Sorceress.

To be sure, the goddess hadn’t shown up to explain herself. Perhaps I was nothing but an Act 2 bit player in her story, showing up to deliver a message and then shuffling off the stage, forgotten.

But you can’t live your life dwelling on questions like that. It’s possible to miss the forest for the trees, but it’s the trees that you actually have to work with.

So there I was, in control of my own mind for the moment, with a bunch of nanobots burning a hole in my pocket. I had one more thing I needed to do with them.

“Okay, Ms. Moon,” I said. “Now how about we go and get your real brother.”

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #225

Fox shuffled into view, the headline act for my farewell tour.

His species doesn’t show emotion like humans do. Their big black eyes don’t tear up. They don’t sniffle. Their voices don’t catch in their throat. But spend enough time around them, and you can learn to read sadness in their posture, in the rasping of their breath, and of course, sometimes they’ll just tell you.

“This hurts, Phyllis,” he said. “I mean, I get it. I’m not trying to talk you out of your decision or anything, but when we left my slice… I started up my ship again, alerted my people that I was still around, got shot down… And I know we were doing it to stop the nanobots, but in a lot of ways, the reason I wasn’t more afraid was because I wasn’t doing it alone.” He gave a half-hearted wave at the rest of the lab. “I don’t know any of these people. You dragged me into all this.”

“I know,” I said. “And I’m sorry. I didn’t know how big it would get.”

“No no no,” he said. “It’s not about that. You didn’t force me into anything. I could have turned you away if I wanted to. I like helping you out. Even when it’s dangerous, and I know it was important, but… I’ll admit that, when we left my slice behind, I kinda figured we could keep working together. And now…” He trailed off.

“Could you…” I hesitated. “Would you want to come with me?”

“Uhhh…” he hesitated, turning to look past the border of the portal, at someone on the other side. “I don’t think that would fly.”

I frowned. “Are they holding you against your will?”

“Oh!” he said, eyes widening. “No! Well… kinda? But…” He paused, trying to organize his thoughts. “I’m not a prisoner or anything. But they are already super unhappy about you and Henricks both staying over there. I don’t want to jeopardize your deal. And they are offering me a sort of ‘expert consultant’ thing here? Doesn’t seem so bad. It’s just that, it sounds like you’re promising to not come back… Like, ever.”

“We could meet up in some other slice?” I offered.

He gave a resigned shrug. “Where? When? Pick a card, any card? Then we miss each other for any of a million reasons and have no way to ever contact each other again.”

“Screw that,” I said. “Don’t be such a pessimist. We’ll make it happen. Remember,” I said, with a grin, “finding people in other dimensions is my job!”

Fox’s sadness did not entirely disappear, but it softened a bit, and he stood up straight. “Last time, you needed help from a computer guy.”

I laughed. “Um, I’m kind of half-computer myself right now,” I said. I condensed a few of the nanobots into a baseball sized glob in my hand for emphasis. “But what I’ll always need is a friend. I don’t have enough of them to let one slip away just because they’re hard to get ahold of.”

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private Eye #224

Have you ever had to say “goodbye forever” to someone who wasn’t dying?

It’s weird.

Usually, when you’re leaving or they’re leaving, you can fall back on promises of reunion: “Oh, be sure to write!” or “Give me a call sometime!” or even “Look me up on the Internet!” Whether you mean it or not, whether you do it or not, those are the things you say when you part.

“The odds are infinitesimally small that you and I will ever again have any form of communication” doesn’t have the reassuring platitude quality that lubricates an awkward farewell.

Timing and circumstances prevented other forms of social lubrication as well. It was now or never.

They brought Eduin out first. He was wearing ugly blue scrubs that I can’t imagine he was happy in. The utilitarian fit just emphasized his scrawniness, but he’d had a shower, and looked healthy enough.

“You really did it?” he asked, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. “Beat Alurian, I mean?”

I nodded. “I didn’t do it alone, but yeah. His program’s been deleted.”

“Good,” he said, but his eyes were haunted. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t do anything but get taken hostage. Thanks for…” He trailed off as his voice tightened. He looked at the floor, and I could see tears against his cheeks. “Thanks for coming back for us.”

“Hey,” I said. Then I said it again, louder, demanding eye contact. “Hey! Who made that me that wild-boar sling, and the stretcher, and kept us all fed when we got stranded in the forest? You dug in and carried your weight when the rest of us were ready to fall apart. We never would have made it without you.”

Eduin didn’t reply. Anger flickered across his face, but then it softened, and he chuckled.

I frowned. “What?”

“Ugh,” he said, flashing a sad smile. “You just sound so freaking cheesy right now.”

“Oh yeah?” I asked, matching his smile. “Well how about this? Find something better to do with your life than middle management for a seedy little criminal enterprise.”

He smirked. “It wasn’t seedy.”

“Yes it was,” I said. “If you’re going to stay in the city, you’re probably going to need a lawyer to help you with whatever comes next. Look up Benjamin Madison. He’s helped me out when I was in a spot.”

Eduin shrugged. “I don’t know if I’m staying or not. I think I’ve got to try and figure out who I am before I decide what I want to do.”

“That’s as much of a plan as I ever make,” I said.

Next up would have been Eddie Truth, but apparently she decided to pass. The guard relayed a message that she wasn’t done with me yet, and she would turn up when I least expected it. I believed her.

Pensky was dressed in the same ugly scrubs as Eduin, but he looked more at home in them. He marched to his spot in front of the portal like he was back in the police station interrogation room. I think he wished for a steel table that he could lean on to glower down at me.

“I don’t like the way you operate, Esposito,” he said, scowling. “You’re too loosey-goosey and you don’t trust your team.”

I recoiled. “Yeah, well you’ve got an ugly haircut,” I snapped.

“That said,” he continued. “You obviously are willing to put your life on the line to save other people, and you get results even when it’s only because you beat the door down with your forehead. I can respect that.” He took a deep breath. “Also, you got me back to my slice. And you stopped the city from getting nuked.”

Another long breath, while he dug in the pocket of his scrubs. Then he held up a picture of himself, along with a thirty-something heavy-set woman and a little girl. “This is my family,” he said. “And they live here.” He pushed the picture back into his pocket. “Still do, thanks to you.”

“I’m glad to hear it, Pensky,” I said.

He gave me a brisk nod. “Don’t think I won’t arrest you though, if you put me in that position.”

“Well gosh,” I said. “You’d have to catch me first.”

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private Eye #223

Once Henricks and I were satisfied that we had collected all remaining nanobots from this slice, we figured we should check in with the others.

Henricks used the briefcase device to open a portal back to the taskforce headquarters. Through it, we had a clear view into the engineering laboratory, but I was even more certain that I saw distortion around the borders of the opening.

The guards on duty fetched the General for us, and then we reported our progress.

“Excellent,” said the General, with the hint of a smile on her otherwise stoic features. “Come on through and we’ll do the full debrief.”

I sighed. “Yeah… No. I’m not gonna do that.”

Her mouth twitched, but I don’t think she was surprised. “Mind if I ask you why not?”

I glanced down at the border of the portal, then back up to the General. “I think we both understand why not.”

She didn’t say anything at first, but after a moment of consideration, she offered a terse: “It doesn’t have to be like that.”

I shrugged. “I’m not holding it against you, General. I’d do the same, in your position.”

She glanced past me, to Ms. Moon and Henricks. “Are you speaking for everybody there?”

“Nope,” I said. “Neither figuratively, nor literally. Each of them is free to make their own decision. Ms. Moon? You want to go through?”

She folded her arms, clutching her elbows with each hand, and gave a quick, sad shake of her head.

I turned to Henricks. “How about you? I bet they’d set you up with a really nice workshop. Let you continue your research in safety?”

“Believe it or not, I am tempted.” Henricks cocked their head, as though giving the matter some thought. “But no. Not at this time, at least. After recent events, I am feeling inclined to… take some time off.”

Now the General was scowling. “None of you are coming? Then what are you proposing as an alternative?”

“That we let this thing be over without any more unpleasantness,” I said. “We won’t ever bring the nanobots back to your slice. You let us say goodbye to our friends.”

Without another word, the General walked out of view of the portal. A few seconds later, one of the guards appeared.

“The General asks you to please keep the portal open while she consults with the Chiefs of Staff,” he said.

“Is that how she phrased it?” I asked.

The guard shook his head.

“We’ll wait,” I said.

After several minutes, the General came back into view. It was hard to tell under that stern military authority, but I thought she looked relieved.

“The President approves,” she said. “We’ll bring your friends in a moment. They will remain on this side of the portal, and you will make no attempt to cross.”

I nodded. “I understand.”

“If I may speak freely,” she continued. “I am sorry that this has required such extraordinary sacrifice from the two of you. I cannot speak with the authority of my government when I say this, but I want you to know that I appreciate your service. Without your efforts, the nuclear sterilization initiative would have been carried out, and our world would have lost hundreds of thousands of people.”

“It’ll probably be easier to paint us as scapegoats for all the damage to the city,” I said. “Less scary than telling everyone how close they were to getting nuked.” I smiled. “Still… Thanks.”

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #222

The briefcase portal generator was not programmed to destruct after a single use. Instead, it was programmed to do anything we told it to for intra-slice portals. If we tried to use it to leave the slice in an unauthorized way, however, it would spoof the destination and dump us back in the containment cell.

Not a bad trick, but it turns out that it is hard to keep technical secrets from a nanomancer and a genius portal engineer.

I drilled a microscopic tunnel into the briefcase interior and then used an array of nanobots to display the contents, just like sports fans in a stadium. With Henricks’ direction, we had the security features of the portal generator unlocked in no time.

Once we had unsupervised control, we did exactly what we had promised to do in the first place. After all, we weren’t looking to screw anybody over, we just didn’t want to give up the ability to set our own terms.

I won’t bore you with the blow-by-blow, but Henricks and I used the portal to leapfrog across the landscape, retracing our steps and recovering all of the little “seeds” that Faux-lurian had spread on our first journey to see the Sorceress.

It wasn’t even as hard as we had expected. Henricks had worried that Faux-lurian had acted as a mobile cloud of spores, constantly spreading nanobots to the winds. In retrospect, the idea that he had been literal minded shouldn’t have been such a surprise. Over the course of our journey, he had been leaving small pods of dormant nanobots; “seeds”, awaiting his command to sprout.

Instead, I commanded them to dig themselves out and clump together for collection. At first, I absorbed them, but after a couple dozen bundles, I started to be concerned about gaining mass. After that, I had them form into a backpack, gradually filling with more of their brethren.

In that way, we hopped across the countryside, un-planting seeds, like Johnny Appleseed in reverse.

Henricks and I were active participants in this little scavenger hunt, but Ms. Moon just tagged along.

She’d been keeping to herself since the Sorceress left. Not catatonic or anything; just quiet.

I understood. We didn’t exactly have a lot for her to do. She wasn’t able to help Henricks and I build a portal generator. She didn’t know any of the people back at the Taskforce headquarters, and she couldn’t help to search for the rogue nanobots either. We could have dropped her off somewhere, but she didn’t ask and I didn’t offer. Where would she go?

My impression was that she was trying to decide, and having a rough go of it. I asked a couple of times if she was okay and got single-word replies. Maybe she didn’t want to talk where the Sorceress could listen, or maybe she just didn’t have anything to say to me. In any event, I had important stuff to do, and figured she would speak up if she needed anything.

I didn’t really want to think about where she would go next, because then I might have to ask myself the same question.

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #221

The General was not enthusiastic about my plan.

Maybe I was just being paranoid about using their portal, but it was true that I had made a bargain. I would collect any and all rogue nanobots from the slice before I left it. Eddie vouched for the details, but played coy about what “The Sorceress” might do if I hopped over to the Taskforce headquarters, even for a minute.

I doubted that any breach of terms would be ignored, so my position was non-negotiable: I needed certain things to help me round up my lost sheep before I would be going anywhere. They could help me do that, or they could wait.

Henricks provided them with an itemized list of the components and equipment that we required. The amount of time that the General took to “talk it over” with her logistics team had me thinking my paranoia was not unreasonable after all.

I didn’t hold it against them. For all they knew, I had been compromised. The instant I jumped back to their slice, I might just pick up where Faux-lurian left off. They wanted that jump to be on their terms, and to keep me in a controlled environment until they were satisfied that I was not a threat.

Only problem was, I suspected that they would be pretty damn hard to satisfy.

Henricks had asked them for the materials that we would need to make a new portal generator. After all, our first trip to this place from where we jumped in had taken a week at sea and several more of traveling by land. If they didn’t want our survey to take just as long, the Taskforce would have to give us something. Short of sliding a passenger jet through their portal, it made more sense to just give us what we asked for.

Counter-point: If they gave me the ability to make a portal generator, who knows where I might turn up? I could just start sowing my nano-oats all over the multi-verse. I would never be able to convince them not to worry about it, and they would never be able to convince me that they were not worried about it.

That was why I was more than a little suspicious when they came back with everything we asked for.

The portal generator they sent was housed in something like a bulky orange briefcase. The exterior was sturdy plastic, with plenty of reinforcement around the corners. I suspected you could run it over with a tank and it would still work. Then you opened it up and all the fiddly electronic bits were inside.

They also sent us a picnic lunch, complete with not-terrible sandwiches. Henricks and Ms. Moon devoured theirs with gratitude. After all, it had been a long time since we’d eaten. I found that I wasn’t hungry; my body was presently sustained by the nanobots. I did, however, absorb a ham-and-cheese through the skin of my hands, just for the novelty.

I had assumed that they would continue to monitor us after pushing the equipment through, but then they announced that they would have to close the portal. Maintaining it was costing them too much energy, they said, but they would keep tabs on us indirectly, through the Sorceress and Eddie.

Once it closed, I turned to Henricks. “Why aren’t they using one of your stable portals? You built a generator for them, didn’t you?”

“Yes, I did,” said Henricks, without looking up from the briefcase device. “And I designed them to self-destruct after a single use. How much would you like to wager that they have returned the favor?”

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #220

I spent the next few hours acting as Henricks’s very own nanobot-powered 3D Printer. The nanobots could construct anything I could imagine, but as it happens, we were limited by my imagination.

Fancy lamppost? Sure, where do you want it? Carved marble statue of you as a circus ringleader? Sure, do you want classic top-hat and red coat or something French and avant-garde?

Build a sophisticated device designed to detect a one-square millimeter sized hole in space-time from a range of several miles away? I didn’t know how to tell the nanobots to do that.

We started by crafting a few simple tools and a workspace, using each new tool to help construct the next. The nanobots could replicate anything that they had already consumed or from blueprints, but it was still a lengthy process of gradual upgrades and design. Being able to reproduce an accountant’s laptop, complete with hard drive contents, was both exhilarating and unnerving, but I couldn’t make any modifications unless I knew all the relevant details.

By the time the sun was rising, we had only managed to irritate each other with our lack of progress.

Then a familiar voice called out from behind us. “Are you ready to accept some assistance or would you prefer to remain stubborn for a few more hours?”

I turned, expecting to see the Sorceress, here to gloat.  Instead, I saw a portal to the Taskforce Headquarters. Through it, Fox, General Greensleeves and Eddie Truth watched us impatiently.

Eddie stepped forward, arms folded and eyebrow raised. “I know you made it a big point of pride that you could do all this without help, but waiting for you is getting tiresome.”

“Eddie?” I asked. “How did you know…” Then it clicked, and I rolled my eyes. “Oh, right. All-seer.” I gestured at the rudimentary dimensional energy detector that Henricks and I constructed so far. “We could have done it, you know! I’m not making any bargain for this.”

“No need, my dear,” she said, unimpressed. “Bought and paid for by the Department for Interdimensional Affairs.”

The General nodded. “Ms. Truth has filled us in on the events that transpired over there. Your government owes you a debt of gratitude. Why don’t you come on through, we’ll get you debriefed, and get the book closed on all of this.”

I’d already taken a step toward the portal, but then the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I looked at Fox, Eddie and the General, and then looked at the borders of the portal.

I remembered their trick when I tried to portal back to the base last time; showing the destination I expected but dropping me into the containment cell instead. Did I see a subtle distortion around the edges of this new portal?

“That sounds great,” I said. Then I looked at Henricks and Ms. Moon. “We just have to finish up some things here first. As Eddie knows, I promised to make sure there were no nanobots left in this slice before I left it. I need to make sure we get them all, and some of them might have been left on the other side of the ocean. You think you guys could send us some gear to help out with that?”

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #219

Henricks crawled onto their knees and then made an effort to stand. I reached out to help them up, but Henricks shook their head.

I withdrew my hand. “It’s okay. I get it. This is pretty weird for me too.”

Henricks accepted Ms. Moon’s support, and leaning against her, they managed to stand.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

“Better now. Are they…” They trailed off, eyes haunted.

My microscopic minions had reported that no units remained inside of Henricks’s body. They gave me reports of all sorts of biological parameters that made sense in the moment and then fell out of my head immediately afterward. Physically, Henricks was unharmed, but could probably do with a good meal and a night’s sleep.

“Yes,” I said. “They’re out. And you don’t have to touch me if you don’t want to, but technically the floor here is crawling with them. Just saying. I’ve got control and I’m keeping them out.”

Both Henricks and Ms. Moon glanced uncertainly at their feet.

I shrugged. “Would you guys feel better standing on the real ground?” I gestured to the edge of the castle floor, the last remnant of Alurian’s fortress. “No nanobots past there,” I said. “Freshly vacuumed.”

Henricks straightened up in alarm. “The Tispets!”

“Um…” Confused, I looked to Ms. Moon, who shrugged. “The what?”

“Tear In Space Traps,” said Henricks. “Tispets. Obviously.”

“You mean the vortex things? Bravo on those, by the way. I knew you’d think of something.”

Henricks turned and stared into the darkness. There was nothing to see but bare earth for miles in every direction, but I could understand the impulse. “They are each only one-millimeter square,” they said, “when they do not detect any nanobots. You saw what happens when they do.”

“Yeah,” I said. “We did. How’d you manage it?”

Calmed for the moment, Henricks turned back to face me. “It was a group effort. Fox and I, with the resources of the General’s taskforce, built them, but they also required a magical charge that none of us could provide. But when Alurian opened the portal, Eddie Truth was supposed to draw upon this slice’s magic to activate them. It looks like she did.”

My heart skipped a beat. “Did she ask for anything?”

Henricks shook their head. “No. She contributed to the project without complaint or bargaining. She was still trying to save her counterpart.”

“Oh… Good,” I said. I suppose I was still feeling a bit jumpy.

“The Tispets were supposed to be a failsafe,” said Henricks. “A backup, just in case the deal with Alurian did not go as planned. But even we did not anticipate that he would just grab the entire cell! In any event, they were placed in a dispersal device with a fail-open circuit. As long as they received the signal, they would stay inside. But on command from headquarters, or if I were to pass through a portal, they would be launched in a variety of directions. Anywhere they came into contact with nanobots, they would activate.”

Ms. Moon nodded. “I would say that they worked.”

“Well, almost,” I said. “Alurian’s little floating island trick saved us from going into the void with them.”

“Yes,” said Henricks. “And since we are no longer floating, I would suggest that we locate and deactivate them before you step on one and send us all into oblivion.”

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #218

As promised, the Sorceress used her magic to lower the tiny floating island to the ground. The sun had set now, and the vast uncivilized wasteland had grown very dark. If I had been limited to my biological eyes, that might have been a problem. As it was, I had access to a variety of alternate electromagnetic wavelengths.

As a courtesy to the others, I had the nanobots extrude a lamppost out of the stone floor. In a bit of whimsy, I added some old-school wrought-iron decoration to signify our strange adventures and great changes of fortune. Soon, the center of our little ruined castle was illuminated with a soft yellow glow.

As we neared the ground, I had the nanobots at the bottom of the island reach out to meet the rocky soil below, accepting the weight of the island from the Sorceress’s magic and settling us down as smooth as an elevator.

“Don’t worry,” I said to the Sorceress, and I couldn’t keep the smirk from my face. “We’ll sweep up after.”

She narrowed her eyes, and for a moment, I could see through them into infinity. My bravado popped like a soap bubble. Then the corner of her mouth twitched upward. “You’ve done well today, Phyllis. Don’t go developing a big head about it.”

If there was one thing I’d learned during my time working for Eddie Truth, it was that you don’t push your luck after a compliment.

“Okay then,” I said.

“You wouldn’t mind if I say good-bye to your companions?” She asked, with one arched eyebrow. “I promise not to… try anything.

“All right,” I said.

We walked together over to where Ms. Moon knelt next to Henricks. Henricks was sitting up; awake but pale. Ms. Moon climbed to her feet and brushed the dust off her knees.

I could feel her, as the dust. It was weird and borderline inappropriate, but I didn’t know how to turn it off.

As she straightened up, Ms. Moon set her jaw and met the Sorceress’s gaze, anxious but proud. “Caltheah,” she said, with a slight nod.

The Sorceress peered down her nose at her former student. “You got lucky,” she snapped. “From here on out, make better choices.

“Yes, Caltheah,” said Ms. Moon, quick and monotone. Then she blinked and shook off the reflexive courtesy. “I will not take your orders, Caltheah,” she said. “But as advice? I find it hard to argue with your suggestion.”

With a clipped “Mm-hmm,” the Sorceress turned her attention to Henricks, crouching down to speak face-to-face. “You know how to find me, should you find yourself in the market.”

Henricks furrowed their brow, their eyes wide and wary. “In the market for what?”

“Anything,” she said, then stood.

“And so I take my leave,” she said, addressing all of us. “Always a pleasure. And Phyllis?”

I nodded and stepped forward. “Yes?”

“If I discover you have left behind even a single one of those horrid little things, there is nowhere in the multiverse that you will be able to hide from me.”

I swallowed, and nodded.

Then I blinked and she was gone.

“What?” asked Henricks. “Where did she go?”

Ms. Moon and I exchanged shrugs. “Wherever she is,” I said. “Safer to assume that she can still see us and hear every word we say.”

“Ah yes,” said Henricks. “I concur. Lest we forget the lesson of the Moosicorn.”

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