Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #217

The Sorceress shook her head, brow furrowed in confusion. “But how? Your body has been penetrated by… Wait…” Her eyes narrowed as she peered closer. Then recognition dawned and her mouth became a thin line. “Oh. I see,” she said. “You do know that this so-called ‘goddess’ is just using you for her own ends, don’t you?”

“Maybe,” I admitted. “But it seems like her ends and mine are in alignment for the moment.”

Ms. Moon stepped forward, uncertain. “Phyllis? You have them now? The nanobots? But what about…” she trailed off as her voice tightened.

“Yes,” I said. “And you were right. That wasn’t your brother. It was just a computer program that thought it was. It had been compressed down to fit in just a handful of microscopic robots. I didn’t ever really know your brother, but that wasn’t him.”

She nodded, and a tear streaked down her face.

“Do me a favor? Henricks will be waking up. Can you make sure they’re okay? Tell them what’s going on?”

“Very well,” she said, and then made her way over to where Henricks lay.

The Sorceress honored me with a sarcastic bow. “My goodness, someone has grown a cybernetic backbone. Look at you, taking control of the situation. I’m impressed, really. Are you sure you don’t want to come work for me after all?”

I met her eye and did not smile. “You did a lot of talking while you let me lay there, maimed and dying. My friends’ lives in danger. Trying to take advantage of my desperation in order to gain a trio of slaves and the means to rule multiple dimensions.”

She shrugged. “You got me. I presume that you have a counter-offer, now that your circumstances have changed?”

“I’d be a fool to pretend that I’m a match for you,” I said. “Even with the nanobots. The Alurian program only got you the first time with a sneak attack. I doubt you could be taken by surprise again.”

“Not a chance,” she said.

“So I can’t beat you, but you can’t beat me. Not all the way. Even if you kill me now, you’ll never be able to destroy every last individual nanobot. If you could sense them magically, Fauxlurian would have never gotten the drop on you.”

“You don’t know that’s true,” she said. “But I’ll concede that the effort sounds tiresome.”

“Fine then. I don’t want to fight anyway. But I’m not going to work for you again, and you are not getting Ms. Moon or Henricks either.”

She rolled her eyes. “Darling, you made that abundantly clear with all of your theatrics.”

“I was dying,” I said. “I think I earned a little melodrama.”

“So if you are that determined to be rid of me,” she said, “then what is it that you do want?”

I grinned. “A little harder to read my thoughts now, is it?”

She folded her arms, scowling. “More difficult is not impossible my dear. Just spit it out, won’t you?”

“I want you to set us down safely on a nice little patch of ground, and then leave us alone. In return, I will ensure that we take every last nanobot with us when we leave this dimension.”

“Won’t you need an assist with the jump?” She gestured at my bare forearm. “Now that you’ve lost your little toy?”

“No. Henricks and I will build one with the nanobots. You stay away and avoid interfering, and I will make sure that your domain is once again nanobot-free.”

“How do I know that you won’t leave a few behind?” she asked.

“How do I know that you won’t interfere?” I replied. “That’s the bargain. Do you agree or not?”

She pondered it, taking a deep breath and raising one eyebrow. “I could just drop you all in that vortex, for daring to defy me.”

“You could,” I said. “But you’d have to do it in the next thirty seconds. Because it’s disappearing all by itself.”

“What’s to stop me?” she asked.

“You don’t like to close doors,” I said. “Leaving them open is in your interest.”

She stared at me and I stared back, and neither of us spoke until thirty seconds had passed. Below the floating island, the hole in space-time shrank to a singularity, and then collapsed. In its wake, an ocean’s worth of bare earth lay where it had been, carved into an enormous crater.

“So then,” I said, “do we have a deal?” I offered her my hand.

“We do,” she said. “But I don’t want to touch you while you’re like this. You understand.”

I smiled and looked at my palm. My human eyes saw only a normal hand, but my other senses told me that it was crawling with hundreds of microscopic machines.

“Fair enough,” I said.

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #216

First, I made sure that the nanobots in the stone surrounding my body were supplying me with a fresh supply of oxygen from the air. I was honestly not certain what would happen to me if I allowed my biological body to suffocate. Better not to risk it, I decided.

Next, I took a look around.

Through the nanobots on the bottom of the floating island, I could see that the enormous vortex beneath us was shrinking. I didn’t understand why until I realized that I could not sense any nanobots remaining on the ground. I couldn’t begin to understand quite how Henricks had managed it, but somehow they had created holes in space that got bigger in the presence of nanobots.

Now, having consumed the entire silver sea, the vortex was closing. I wondered how long it would take, and then the answer popped into my head: at the current rate, the vortex would disappear in three-point-six minutes. I tell you, having a computer back up your brain is quite a feeling. The way I felt now, I could only imagine having the computational power of a whole ocean of these things.

Then again, these things made Alurian crazy. Not like he was ever an upstanding citizen, but I doubted that he spent his time ranting about multiversal conquest before the nanobots got their tiny claws on him.

The sooner these things were eradicated, the better. Still, while I had them, I might as well take them for a test drive.

Through my extended body, I could sense Henricks beginning to wake up. Ms. Moon was fretting, and the Sorceress was annoyed.

To my surprise, only two-point-three seconds had passed since Alurian tried to take me over.

With nothing but a thought, the stone flowed around me like water. It lifted me to my feet and set me down, as graceful as a dancer, on rock as solid as fresh-carved granite. “Hey guys,” I said, “Miss me?”

Ms. Moon turned frightened, tear-filled eyes in my direction. As far as she knew, Alurian had taken my body, exactly as the Sorceress predicted.

The Sorceress however, stared at me, eyes wide with disbelief. “Phyllis?”

“What? Don’t you recognize me?” I looked down at myself. My clothes looked like I’d been through an explosion in a glitter factory. My exposed flesh looked like salt flats, and my left arm ended with a stump at the elbow.

And as you can probably imagine, my hair was a mess!

“Hang on,” I said. “I’m going to try something.”

The nanobots did all the work. All I had to do was direct their efforts.

Under their ministrations, my skin healed. The deep cracks and gouges smoothed over and the dried flakes softened until I was as soft and smooth as a woman of thirty-cough who moisturizes regularly. I watched in fascination as they built me a new hand, one tiny layer at a time, then noticed with some interest that my left forearm lacked a portal generator for the first time in decades. I guess they didn’t know how to build that.

My body healed, it was time for my clothes to get the upgrade treatment as well. The nanobots worked their magic, scavenging their atoms from all over and building me a new outfit, molecule by molecule.

I don’t remember any of the detail now, but if you had asked me then, I could have told you the chemical formula for the grey cotton slacks. I knew the elasticity value of my suspenders and the length of my trenchcoat, down to the micrometer.

And last but not least, I had them whip me up a nice reproduction fedora. It wasn’t strictly necessary, but I adjusted the fit manually, tipping it at Ms. Moon and the Sorceress with a mischievous smile.

“There,” I said. “Now let’s talk business.”

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #215

There are certain things that you just can’t be mentally prepared for. Life and death stuff, mostly. For sure though, one of them is having a nanobot intelligence penetrate your brain.

First, I was just aware of the nanobot slurry disguised as stone. The floor had liquefied beneath me, then enveloped me. As soon as I’d been entombed, it solidified again. I was trapped in a life-size person mold, and Alurian was going to make a nanobot cast of me.

We’d moved past the need for torture. After all, this was going to be Alurian’s body soon. Why damage it further? Just the same, the stone was so tight around my chest that I couldn’t inhale to take a breath. There was no air to breathe in any case.

So there was no more burning skin, just a single spike through my brain-stem. It delivered a fresh batch of nanobots straight into my nervous system. Seconds later, my body was no longer my own. Not that I could have moved much within my stone womb, but I couldn’t even wiggle my tongue inside my mouth.

I could still feel everything.

The next part is harder to describe, because it did not occur within any of my normal senses. Have you ever shared an extended silence with someone who is angry with you? You don’t have to look at them, you don’t have to hear them, but somehow, it’s like you can feel them behind you, seething.

That was how I first sensed Alurian in my brain.

I know I’d played it cool with the Sorceress, but that was just dying. This was something else, and I’ll admit that I was afraid.

The presence behind me could tell, and he liked it.

He had trapped me in a corner of my own brain; cramped and dark and alone.

And then my awareness exploded into terror.

Imagine a frog going into hibernation in their own little pond, and then waking up under the harsh fluorescent lights of a crowded vivisection lab.

I could sense everything around me, but control nothing. Every stone in the floating castle, the mortar between them, every stick of furniture and every stitch in the rugs. They all contained billions of nanobots and every one of them bombarded me with information. I felt my mind being held aloft, displayed for the class, and then flayed open for study.

Alurian pored over my entire life with bemused contempt. I relived countless painful memories in fast-forward, like being forced to watch your embarrassing home movies in front of the class bully.

It may have only taken seconds in the real world, but I had lost all sense of time, confused by the rapid-fire onslaught of my life’s history.

He made his way through my childhood, my time with the military, and then my subsequent exile. By the time he reached my first meeting with Ms. Moon, I could feel myself getting fainter.

I began my investigation. I fought my way out of the reality-collapse of the Crossover nightclub. I killed my assistant with a lightning bolt. I made a deal with Eddie to find Alurian and his sister. Avo pushed me through the portal, staying behind in the collapsing building. I could almost feel Alurian cackling with delight, anticipating his own re-entry into the story.

Then the examination lurched to a halt, as though someone had pulled the emergency brake on a supersonic train.

I was within my miracle remedy-induced vision, and the goddess hovered before me, speaking prophecy.

“There are many world-lines caught up in this wave, and when the time comes, they will be dashed to bits on rocky shores. That is, unless you find a way to stop them. However, it will be no easy thing to hold back the tide. Cleverness and sacrifice will be required. You will find the magic you seek, but the decisions to follow will be difficult and fraught with peril.”

Alurian’s presence with me recoiled in horror and confusion.

The goddess continued in my memories. “Your past must be your future, and a burden must change hands. What was lost cannot be regained, but it may be replaced. And again, before you say it, I know that the riddle is irritating, but believe me, every time I am more specific, you mortals just try to take a short-cut and it spoils everything.”

Alurian thrashed around, angry and frustrated, but accomplishing nothing.

I frowned in confusion, and then realized I could feel my face.

I could feel my tongue in my mouth. I could feel my fingers wiggling.

But there was more. I could feel my body from the inside and the outside. I could feel the air above the floor. I could feel the soles of Ms. Moon’s feet. I could feel the forces holding the floating island together. I could see the lingering dusk of the horizon! I could hear the swirling vortex below, and the quiet breathing of Henrick’s unconscious form.

I could sense the nanobots in their body. At my direction, they disengaged and began their journey out of Henricks, repairing the biological damage done along the way.

I could still feel the simulated Alurian’s presence, small now, raging at me. Nothing but a program.

With a smile, I deleted it.

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #214

In the time since I dove through Henricks’s portal, leaping into an empty sky above a silver sea, the oranges and yellows of the sunset had deepened. Now, the sun was slipping below the horizon, and a handful of stars shone in the darkening sky.

It was nice.

The Sorceress kept trying to distract me.

“My affection for you will not soften my resolve,” she said. “Not when it comes to business, and that affection is diminishing by the moment with your stubbornness. I have offered you a fair bargain for your lives, and you deny me? If you think that you can hold out for a better price, I warn you—“

“You can see my thoughts,” I rasped, looking at the stars. “You know what I’m thinking.”

I was thinking of that long ago battle when I had fled instead of fighting.

That enemy had used nanobots too, though in the service of an emotionless artificial intelligence, programmed only to eliminate all organic life. They had come at us on the wind; enormous black sandstorms that scoured through concrete, stone, steel… and flesh… within seconds.

Entire cities had already fallen to these things, razed to the ground, leaving nothing but bare earth. Even the soil had been stripped of all microorganisms, leaving it as dead as the moon.

We weren’t powerless. Those of us in the military tech units had our portal generators and we had developed electromagnetic shields that could keep the things out. But the shields drew a lot of power, and we couldn’t afford to put them everywhere. The top brass made the call, and the tech units set up the shield pylons.

Usually we would have had them up long before the clouds approached, but an unusual wind pattern had eaten up all of our buffer. A storm of death raced toward us, closing in even as we scrambled to complete the grid.

We were too late. We wouldn’t get it up in time. I don’t know if I just saw it first, or if the others knew and just kept trying anyway. Who knows? Maybe if I had kept pushing, maybe if I’d kept helping, it would have made a difference.

In my clearer moments, I know better, but late at night, as sleep approaches, my subconscious asks me again anyway. What if you had stayed?

But I didn’t.

I opened a portal and jumped away before the clouds could reach me.

I opened a portal and left everyone I had ever met to be disintegrated by microscopic machines.

I survived, when I might have died.

In a time when billions of lives were at stake, I hadn’t given it my all to save them.

“Yes,” said the Sorceress. “I can see your thoughts.”

“I got a lot of borrowed time,” I said. “Now I’ve got to give it my all.”

She narrowed her eyes and heaved a frustrated sigh. “Very well. If you are so determined to be consumed, then perhaps I can arrange a better offer from the nanobot Alurian.”

Then she snapped her fingers and the stone floor swallowed me whole.

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #213

“Phyllis!” cried Ms. Moon. “You have to—“

With a snap of the Sorceress’s fingers, a bubble of darkness surrounded Ms. Moon, silencing whatever she had been about to say. I could see her inside, like through a dark pair of sunglasses, beating her fists against the walls.

“She doesn’t get a vote,” said the Sorceress. “This offer is for you, and you alone. So what will it be, my dear? Accept my help and save your friend’s lives? Or turn me away, and condemn them to death?”

“If I agree, I condemn them to slavery.”

She rolled her eyes. “You do have a taste for the melodramatic, don’t you? They will work for me.”

“Whether they want to or not.”

“They will be alive.

“Will they want to be?”

“You worked for my counterpart, once upon a time,” she said. “Did you wish for death?”

“I wished for freedom.”

“And then you attained it. Because you were alive to work off your debt.”

“Why are you making this offer just to me? Why not each of us individually?”

“At our last meeting, you specifically requested to be allowed to bargain for the whole group. You assumed all of their debts for the privilege. Now you don’t want it?”

“I think you’re asking me because you know that they would both say no.”

“What they want is irrelevant.”

“Not to me,” I said. “I can’t just make this decision for someone else. I don’t have the right.”

“Nonsense,” she replied. “You not only can, but you must. For that is the position in which you now find yourself. You are now the only person granted the power to make this decision. It is not just your right, but your responsibility to do so.”

Responsibility.

The word finally snapped my out of my moral hyperventilation.

The Sorceress kept trying to make this about me, Henricks, and Ms. Moon, but there was more to it than that. There were also the stable portals, and allowing them to fall into the Sorceress’s hands. I had already seen how they allowed Alurian to extend magic and influence from one slice into another. They promised incredible power to whoever wielded them.

I thought of Henrick’s repeated lectures about the high stakes we faced.

I remembered Ms. Moon’s haunted eyes, as she dwelled on the time she spent in the Sorceress’s employ.

In my strange vision, the goddess had said that many world-lines would be dashed upon the rocky shores, unless I found a way to stop it from happening.

I don’t think that anyone in the multiverse would have thought it was fair to have me make this decision. There would be so many people better equipped for it: tactical geniuses, expert negotiators, scholars of ethics. But none of that mattered, because they weren’t here, and I was.

It was possible that the Sorceress would just find some other way to get her hands on Henricks’s portals, but I’d be damned if I let it happen with my stamp of approval.

I didn’t even have to say no. The Sorceress could read it in my mind and on my face.

She glared down at me. “You will regret this,” she said.

“Yeah, well…” I managed a subtle shrug. “Probably not for very long.”

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #212

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “No, don’t do this.”

The Sorceress clucked her tongue. “Oh, Phyllis, my dear. I know that you’ve put yourself in this situation with careless disregard for your own life. Doing what needs to be done and all of that, and believe me, I am thankful for your efforts. But those efforts have been bought and paid for already, haven’t they? I’ve forgiven quite a bit of debt owed to me as a result.”

She waved her hand toward Ms. Moon. “More than you can imagine from that one. Our bargain was struck, then concluded. Now we discuss a new arrangement altogether.”

She knelt down to where I lay and took my right hand. Where she touched me, the nanobots slid away to reveal healthy, undamaged skin, and the pain receded. “Just because you were prepared to give your own life does not mean that you should just throw it away. Or, for that matter, the lives of your… friends… here?”

“Caltheah,” said Ms. Moon. “Stop it. Leave her alone. Just… save us from this, and I’ll give you whatever you want.”

The Sorceress blinked at her, face full of patient disapproval. “Your debt has already been paid, my former student, and given that our previous arrangement ended with your betrayal, theft of my property, and ultimately, this entire mess?” She gestured at the desolation all around us. “You’ll forgive me, I’m sure, if I do not consider you a good risk.

“Whereas Phyllis has reliably shown determination, loyalty and leadership. Traits that I value within my organization. Those, and of course…” She grinned at me. “She makes me laugh.”

I pulled my hand out of the Sorceress’s grasp, then hissed through my teeth as my healed skin returned to the nano-crusted ruin it had been before.

“What do you want?” I said.

“As we speak,” she said, “The abomination of magic and technology calling itself Alurian is attempting to reassert itself, this time by taking over your body, which appears to have lost whatever immunity you were previously granted. Even if every nanobot were to suddenly deactivate, your injuries would kill you. Your unconscious scientist friend over there faces the same, though their injuries are less… visible.”

“Meanwhile,” she continued, “an enormous tear in the fabric of space-time has consumed an ocean of the beastly things, but it is hungry for more. You, my inconstant former student, and your little scientist friend all stand upon an island made of the stuff. That island was held aloft by magic, and that magic is no longer under the control of the nanobot intelligence. All of you are falling toward oblivion.”

“And last but not least, your little portal generator seems to have preceded you into the vortex below. All of you are doomed several times over without my intervention. I have suspended the threats to you temporarily, so that we may negotiate, but if you wish a longer-term solution, you must agree to my terms.”

“You… talk too much,” I said.

The Sorceress stood, a twinkle in her eye. “I will save all of your lives, in exchange for an indefinite term of service for each of you, the length of which shall be contingent on the level of value that you provide.”

“Wait,” said Ms. Moon. “I thought you said that you wouldn’t bargain with me.”

“I will not,” snapped the Sorceress. “I am bargaining for you. There is a distinct difference. One form of service requires your consent…” She flashed a cruel smile. “The other, as it turns out, does not.”

The Sorceress folded her arms and peered down at me. “So what will it be, Phyllis? It is a high price, I know, but that is because your lives are of great value to me. If you feel my price is too high, say the word, and I will leave you all to meet your deaths as free individuals.”

Then she leaned in with a conspiratorial whisper. “Though between you and me, I would feel just terrible about it.”

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #211

The Sorceress closed her eyes, straightened her posture, and inhaled through her nose. She held the breath for a moment, then gave an odd little cough. All of the dirt and grime fell away from her, like she had just slipped off a jacket. It drifted to the ground in a little circle around her, and she was clean; elegant, styled and poised, as though she had just arrived at a fancy party.

She opened her eyes again and smiled at us. “Now that’s better.”

Ms. Moon inclined her head, just a fraction of an inch, about the shallowest bow possible. “Caltheah,” she said.

The Sorceress gave her a disdainful glare, walking past her to look down at me. “Phyllis, my dear. You look terrible.”

“Heh…” It was more a gasp than a laugh. With Alurian dissipated for the moment, the nanobots had stopped their advance again, but that didn’t bring back my left hand or chewed skin. I managed a clenched-jaw grin. “You should see the other guy.”

The Sorceress chuckled. “Sarcastic to the last. Oh, I do enjoy your company, Phyllis.” She folded her arms and did a good impression of benevolent gratitude. “I suppose that I must thank you for disrupting that disgusting little pile of microchips long enough for me to escape his control.”

A spike of pain traveled up from my missing hand, lodging in my bicep with a molten heat that left me wincing. As the phantom cramp subsided, I met the Sorceress’s gaze again. “You can thank me… By honoring our bargain.”

“Bargain?” asked Ms. Moon, her voice scratching with sudden alarm. “What bargain?

“Of course she didn’t tell you,” sniped the Sorceress, with an arched eyebrow. “It would have just led to a martyrdom competition.” Then she grinned, her eyes a little too wide, her teeth a little too prominent. “Phyllis here assumed all of your debt, and then leveraged it for a promise to aid me in my escape.”

Ms. Moon paled, and her jaw hung open. “No,” she said, then turned to me. “What? Why? Why would you do that?”

The Sorceress made a dismissive wave. “Oh there’s no point asking her why she does anything,” she said. “Her mind is a labyrinth of baggage and dysfunction, and she is the minotaur at the center.”

“The bargain!” I rasped, with all the power I could muster. “I came back to help you… You clear our debts. That was the deal!”

She rolled her eyes. “Yes, yes, of course. All of your past debts are washed away. Would you like a receipt?”

Relief washed over me like a cold compress on my forehead.

“Of course,” she continued, one finger pressed to her cheek. “I do have to say, you seem to be feeling a bit poorly at the moment.” Then she gestured to both Ms. Moon and I. “And the two of you seem to be in a spot of bother. Stuck on a falling island made of murderous nanobots bent on revenge and all… Oh, forgive me… There are three of you, aren’t there? Including your little friend Henricks. It strikes me that I might be in a position to lend you my aid.” She gave us the toothy grin again. “Under the circumstances,” she said, “I think you’ll find my price very reasonable.”

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #210

Nothing happened.

To be more precise, the gun made a buzzing sound and nothing happened to Alurian.

After looking down and inspecting himself, his startled expression gave way to anger. “Dolerense? What do you think you are doing?”

Eyes wide, Ms. Moon looked to me. “What’s wrong with it?”

“I don’t know!” I shouted. “It’s experimental! Try the other functions!”

She started randomly mashing the dozen or so buttons, eliciting a variety of beeps, chirps and humming sounds. The emitter at the end of the barrel flashed a few times, to no apparent effect.

Alurian’s expression turned to impatience. “Really, Dol,” he snapped. “Are you still angry?”

She didn’t answer, and whacked the side of the gun with the palm of her free hand instead. It chimed like the bell you’d find on a hotel reception desk, then began to beep in a regular rhythm.

“Enough of this,” spat Alurian. “We can discuss this later!”

Ms. Moon pressed more buttons, but they no longer had any effect. The regular beeping continued, like a hospital heart monitor. Dismayed, she looked to me again. “It’s not working!”

“Dolerense!” said Alurian. “I’m speaking to you, and you… will… listen!” He extended a hand, and the weapon flew out of Ms. Moon’s hand, sailing through the air into Alurian’s waiting palm. He shook it at her. “This hurts me, my sister,” he said. “You and I have always been able to handle everything that life threw at us, together! I know that things have changed and you are frightened, but you will get used to it!” He smiled. “If you like, I can help you adjust. I can make you more like me!”

“Never.” She stood firm, fists clenched at her sides.

His eyes narrowed. “Why?”

She stared him down. “Because you are not my brother. You never were, and you never will be.”

He straightened up, turning cold. “A true sister would accept me, but since you will not, then that means you are not my sister. And that means…”

The gun’s pulsing beeps became a continuous drone.

Flatline, I thought.

Alurian expressed confusion, holding the weapon up for inspection. “What–“

Then it exploded.

The flash turned the world white and the shockwave rattled my teeth. I felt the floor sinking away from under me, slow and goopy, like quicksand. In my weakened state, I could do nothing to stop myself from sinking with it.

Then hands beneath my shoulders, grabbing at my jacket and hauling me backward, onto steadier ground.

I coughed and blinked my eyes, trying to clear my vision. The after-image of the blast still dominated the landscape, but I started to pick up more details around the edges. My ears were ringing, but beneath the sound I could hear a voice.

“Phyllis! Phyllis! Are you okay?”

It was Ms. Moon. She propped me against a bit of crumbled wall and I peered up at her, then down at myself. “I’m really really not,” I croaked.

“I am sorry,” she said, and I may have still been half-delirious with pain and shock, but I think she meant it. “We are not safe yet,” she continued. “There are still nanobots all over this island. He will reform.”

“Reform?” I repeated, then looked over to where Alurian had been standing. Everything within an eight-foot radius had melted, dripping away like hot candle wax. I turned back to Ms. Moon’s worried face. “Check… Henricks,” I muttered. “If Alurian’s… out… Henricks might have… mind back.”

“It gets worse,” she said. “Though I suppose that worse is subjective. The whole castle is sinking, and the between-space is still down there. Your guess is as good as mine which will kill us first.”

Before I could respond, the ground lurched. This was no gradual crumbling or tremors, like before. It felt like a monster, battering at the floor from beneath. Ms. Moon held me with one arm and gripped the wall for support with the other. We held our breath through three more impacts, and then the floor cracked, and a human hand emerged.

Still covered with grit and grime, the Sorceress crawled out of the hole. She brushed her palms against her filthy dress and snorted in disgust. “Well,” she said. “That was just awful.”

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #209

Alurian saw me trying to answer him and pulled me back over the ledge. The pressure around my neck released and I dropped to the stones at his feet. The outermost stones fell away, leaving my head extended over the side.

“How?” he shouted. “How did you hide this from me?”

I coughed until my airway was clear. “Didn’t hide it…” I rasped. “Didn’t know it… Just have… better friends than you.”

I pointed across what remained of the castle island to Henricks, who lay where Alurian had tossed them. After another spasm of coughing, I said: “I expect that they had a little help from my slice’s version of the sorceress. Guess you didn’t check them too carefully when you did your little smash-and-grab, huh?”

As I looked, I could see that the few castle walls that remained were crumbling, along with the eroding perimeter of the floating structure. With his enormous computational base being sucked into the vortex below, Alurian was losing control. Even his face looked puffy, swollen, as though he were losing definition.

He glared down at me, and his rage cooled into disgust. He pointed a single finger, and pain exploded into my brain. The nanobots started to consume me again. Somehow, it was even worse this time, as the tiny machines clawed deeper into my flesh.

I screamed.

Alurian leaned down to sneer in my face. “Do you really think that thing down there is going to stop me? What a naïve fool you are! I still have plenty of my nanobots up here, away from that thing. I still have Henricks under my sway! I still have my sister! I still have my magic. One thing that nanobots are terribly good at is making new nanobots.” He grinned. “But since you’ve rendered this place so unpleasant, perhaps I just need a new place to put them. You wouldn’t, by any chance, have some way to hop between worlds, would you?”

Then he curled his finger, like he was calling a puppy. My left hand and forearm lifted against my will, displaying my still-unchewed portal generator. “Oh look,” he said. “You’ve got one. Mind if I borrow it?”

The intensity of the burning in my left hand turned from boiling water to molten lava. I could not even draw breath to scream as my left hand crumbled away into nothing. My portal generator, stripped clean, dropped to the floor. The stump of my left arm did not even bleed. The wound had been cauterized and sealed by the crust of silver.

The world seemed to retreat down a tunnel as I struggled to remain conscious.

Alurian bent to pick up my portal generator with his own hand. Then tossed it in the air and caught it, like a set of car-keys. “Thank you kindly,” he said. “This will come in quite… handy, I’m sure.”

The ground lurched beneath us, and it sent a ripple up through Alurian’s nano-constructed body, as though he were made of jello. His expression flickered back to anger.

“You pathetic creature. You presume to lecture me! As though you have the slightest understanding of who I am, or what I have become? I am a God! I have the power of creation at my fingertips! I have transcended life itself! Your best efforts have done nothing but delay the inevitable! Soon, I will extend my reach to your slice, and the next slice, and the entire multiverse will be crushed beneath my heel, grist for the mill! Priceless works of art, historic landmarks, even the people will just become my raw materials! I will—“

“Alurian!”

We both turned to see Ms. Moon, freed from her restraints and aiming Fox’s experimental weapon.

“Do shut up,” she said. Then she pulled the trigger.

Phyllis Esposito: Interdimensional Private-Eye #208

Alurian gawked over the edge, looking down and waving his arms. From his grunts of frustration and repeated flailing, I gathered that it wasn’t going well. Then the stone floor dropped out from under me, leaving me in freefall for a split second before slamming me upward again, like turbulence on an airplane.

I blinked away the stars and realized that my pain had eased a bit. The damage already done remained, and I still felt as though I had been deep-fried, but the nanobots had ceased their advance and were no longer chewing at my skin. Moaning in appreciation at even this minor reprieve, I rolled onto my side and curled into the fetal position.

And I felt something hard in my pocket.

Fox’s experimental weapon. I had forgotten all about it.

Eyes wide, I glanced again at Alurian, who looked to be steadying his control of the floating island. He was distracted.

My hands were crusted with silver, like I had dipped them in glitter-glue. I was glad that I couldn’t see what lay beneath the surface. I attempted to wiggle my fingers, and the pain flared, but the digits obeyed. Gritting my teeth and trying to control my breathing, I reached my right hand into my pocket and grabbed the gun.

It caught, tangled in the material. I pulled harder, grimacing in pain. It felt as though all of the skin on my hand would come off in my pocket. Pausing my efforts, I wasted a moment to ask myself why I should bother. After all, whatever Henricks had done would probably win the day without my help and take us all down with it besides. And even if the weapon worked on the Alurian I saw, he could just conjure a new body from more nanobots. Was it really worth filling my last moments with more pain?

I decided it was, and continued to pull.

But the instant that the gun came free, I found myself lurching into the air, held aloft by an invisible hand around my throat. In my surprise, I could not manage to hold onto the gun. It clattered to the floor behind me as Alurian pulled me to him.

He held me aloft, extended over the edge of the floating castle, my legs dangling, nothing between me and the ground but a whole bunch of sky.

“You think to take me unawares?” he demanded, his face twisted with anger. “I can see inside your mind! And yet I did not see this! Why?” He shouted. “What is it?

I look down and down and down and an enormous swirling vortex has opened like a whirlpool in the ocean of nanobots. I could see it growing, the edges spreading across the surface like fire across a pool of gasoline, consuming everything. The silvery sea that was Alurian’s enormous nanobot colony poured into an insatiable hole in space-time, lost to a void of broken physics and chaos.

I clawed at the pressure around my neck, but there was no arm for me to grab, so I just hung there, barely able to breathe.

It made it difficult to talk, but what I wanted to say was: “Oh that? It’s nothing.”

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