Chapter One: Île de Homard

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The man in the lobster costume is displeased.

The girl with the blonde curls is pissed off.

He’s probably five-foot-six on a good day, wearing a tuxedo, and a felt thing on his head (with more on his hands) to make it look like he has a lobster head and claws. The eyestalks give him another foot.

The man - he calls himself Le Roi du Homard, by the way - is displeased because the girl in the leather jacket refuses to put her hands up, despite his guards (La Garde du Homard) all having very nice, strong machine guns pointed at her.

She - her name is Jaq - just stands there, hands in her pockets, shoulders drooped. She’s standing in the bay of her cargo plane.

Le Roi, using his best grumpy face, begins to speak. He opens his mouth to shout at her, but Jaq holds up a hand, signalling to wait. She points at her ear, then back at her plane. The propellers are still too loud to talk over.

La Garde keep their guns leveled at the girl. They wear the latest in mercenary gear, plus papier-mâché eyestalks glued to the tops of their helmets.

After a painfully awkward minute, the propellers calm enough to talk. The helicopters that forced Jaq to make a landing are still hovering overhead, but she doesn’t care about them.

“WHAT?” This is a shout of rage, not a shout of volume.

“You have been found guilty of trespassing in sovereign territory!” If you imagine a drunk Scotsman doing a mildly offensive attempt at a French accent, you will have a rough approximation of Le Roi’s voice.

Jaq - whose French accent is genuine - storms down the ramp toward the lobster, but stops a few feet into the sand, aware of the firearms aimed at her weak points. (All of them. All of the points are her weak points. She’s not wearing any more armor than a baseball cap, t-shirt, jeans, and a leather jacket with a chickadee on the shoulder.)

“You aren’t a sovereign power, Chester! The government lets you live here because you did them a favor, not because you’re--”

“How dare you!” Le Roi says. “The use of the birth name of Le Roi du Homard is strictly forbidden!”

“Oh shut up, shell-for-brains. I’ve known you since you were nothing more than a useless little snot who snuck away from a cruise ship. Only difference now is you’ve got a tailor and enough money to con idiots into wearing construction paper on their heads.”

“This insolence will not be tolerated!”

“In the name of all that is holy, Chester, what do you want from me?”

“Surrender whatever cargo you may be carrying!”

“What? No!”

“You must, or you will die!”

“You’ll never do it, Chester.”

“And why not?”

“Because you don’t want Boss Bahama coming down on your tail.”

Le Roi casts a glance back to the felt-and-paper lobster tail hanging from his tuxedo jacket.

“Not your literal tail, idiot. I’m saying if you kill me, or you harm that cargo in any way, or take even one crate worth of it, Boss Bahama is going to blow this place into pieces so small that not even a baby gecko could choke on them.”

“Take the girl into custody! I want to see what this all-important cargo is!”

Two of the La Garde lower their guns and move in. Jaq considers beating the ever-loving life out of them, but with four more assault rifles trained on her, she figures...well, maybe not strictly the best idea anybody ever had. In a moment, she’s handcuffed and being escorted to Le Roi’s fortress.

Okay, well, “fortress” isn’t a great word. It’s a collection of shipping containers welded together and cut apart to make a network of man-made tunnels that are blisteringly hot during the day and blistering hot at night. Jaq is standing at the only window in her cell. It’s maybe six inches wide, and the breeze coming through is vague, but it’s better than standing anywhere else in the metal box.

She’s dropped her coat on the only chair at her disposal, to let her arms sweat freely, pale blue tee stained with sweat. Back home - or alone aboard her plane - she’d strip down for the heat, but at any time the door could be opened by a lobster-crazed Scotsman with an unhealthy lust for anything French.

Jaq sighs, and observes.

She has a narrow view on the “harbor” where her plane has been moved. The plane, Strange Night 2, is a heavily modified Short Sunderland - a flying boat that lived through World War II, and later got modified for transport. La Garde are moving crates out of the plane. It sickens her to have these under-paid mercenaries violating her home. It isn’t the first time the old girl has been boarded, but that doesn’t make it better.

The crates are stamped with Boss Bahama’s smiling face and the logo of his restaurant, a low-class chain of eateries. Boss Bahama is one of the wealthiest men in the Capitano islands, and that comes with all the eccentricities and perversions you expect of a rich white man who makes his living appropriating cultures.

But Jaq does, actually, admire one thing about Boss Bahama: the man does what he says he will. He pays his contracts.

The other side of that is that if Jaq doesn’t get those crates to the man as-soon-as-quick, she’s going to have a bad time. The only consolation there will be that Chester, ‘Le Roi’, will have a much worse time.

Small consolation.

Jaq goes to the chair, and searches her jacket pockets. She pulls out a cigar the size of a big cigar, lights it, and goes back to the window, blowing smoke out.

Jaq is proud of herself. It would be very easy to panic right now, but she keeps herself calm, remembers that she has a plan for exactly this. She’ll have to get the cargo back on the plane, but that’s a problem for future-Jaq. Present-Jaq just has to worry about getting out of this cell.

She exhales, loosing a cloud of gray smoke.

The cargo container is divvied up into five cells, divided by panels of other cargo containers, welded into this one. Each has a window like hers, and each is accessed by a door in the long side of the container. Not a big fancy metal door, just a wooden door.

La Garde are not big into security.

The only fancy thing about these doors is that they lock on both sides, instead of one. You have to use the key to pass, regardless of direction.

Jaq reaches the third-way point of the cigar, and puts it out by rubbing it against the wall. She then starts to tear into it, peeling away the leaf, and scattering the tobacco on the floor, where it makes only a little noise.

Inside, a metal key. It doesn’t have usual key teeth, but instead has been cut up using a fine saw, so that the profile resembles a series of Vs cut into the nickel-silver.

She brushes the remaining brown leaves away, and wipes the bump key on her jeans.

Did she need to smoke the cigar? Nah. Just wanted to.

She pulls her jacket on and goes to the door, where she slides the bump key into the lock. Now, she has to provide sudden force. She would break the key if she kicked it - “sudden” force does not mean “big” force. She could use her hand, but that would probably hurt like hell, and Jaq isn’t into that.

She searches her pockets and finds a lint roller.

WHen she tells the story later, she’ll make it something more cool, but for now the lint roller will do.

She gets down on one knee, for the sake of delivering the force as directly as possible. She smacks the bump key with the lint roller, turns the handle, but it sticks.

For the curious, the way a bump key works is this: You put it in a lock, strike it hard, and all the little pins in the lock fall into place. If you’re good at it, you can undo a simple lock in less time that it takes to open an unlocked door.

Jaq’s not good at it, so it takes three tries, adjusting the strength of the impact each time. On the third try, she pops the door, pulls the key, and steps out into the sunlight.

She breathes the cool(er) air and looks around. No guard in sight. They probably assume she’s not likely to get out. This section of the artificial island is in open air, rather than deep in the maze of halls and rooms. At least she get get a breath of air.

Jaq knows where her plane is, but the island is a maze of metal. There are no handy signs to get you where you’re going. And when she gets there, there’s no promise she’ll be able to get to the plane without getting shot to death. So she has to figure a way to get the guards away. She’s just starting to walk south - where the plane should be - when the metal ground below her shakes with a powerful concussion.

To the left - east, roughly - a burst of light and fire. Soon, the rising of smoke. Alarms begin sounding through the complex, and off-brand klaxons calling the lobsters to arms. Then, a second explosion, near the first. Gunfire, too.

The lobsters will be running from the forecourt to the explosions. She wills herself in that direction, but a nagging sound at the back of her mind makes her turn around. Curiosity has never been a thing Jaq could control. She jogs toward the chaos.

The containers making up most of the east side of the island have been cast away, like the water below decided it wanted a bit of sun. Human bodies are scattered about, some dead, some wounded. The new area of open water is about the size you would need to dock a couple of tugboats.

Jaq doesn’t think too hard about the blood stains under a shipping container that sits at an angle from the others.

The gunfire has stopped.

Her view is from high up - looking down on twisted metal. She had to climb up a few levels to get here, and now she’s at the top of the island. The only thing higher is a control tower at the center, with an anti-aircraft gun mounted on top.

Oil is spilled in the water, burning. From the oil rises up a tower of black smoke, straining to block the sun.

Drawn forward by her need to know, Jaq takes a ladder down a level, then farther, and keeps going, heading for the steel floor at water level. On the way, she picks up a gun and clips of ammunition from a man groaning and grabbing his stomach (no, she doesn’t check if he’s okay, because he’s obviously not, and also she doesn’t care). The lobsters are all carrying AK-47s.

Or is that AKs-47?, she wonders. Where does the plural go?

She shakes the question out of mind.

They’re Kalashnikovs - the black market’s favorite gun. After the Cold War, Russian firearms flooded the world market, so everybody who’s nobody knows how to fire one of these fellas. Jaq checks the gun, then keeps going for the water.

She jumps down from a pile of wooden crates stacked against a wall. She hits the floor with both feet at once, sounding a metallic ring.

Maybe an engine exploded? Mechanical failure would explain the oil and fire. But not the gunfire - the number of dead bodies with guns in their hands explains that gunfire. The question, then, is where they were pointed when they were firing. Based on the position of the bodies, whatever the target was, it was in the makeshift harbor that was made when the containers were thrown aside.

She ignores the sound of buzzing that rises overhead. Le Roi du Homard’s helicopters have arrived to take aerial stock of the scene. One circles for a better look, the other hovers directly over Jaq. The smoke tower reluctantly shifts from the helicopter’s draft.

And then a bunch of clicks and shouts behind her.

“Son of a cow-sucking manticore,” she says while she turns around, pointing her stolen machine gun at the sky. Twenty of La Garde are pointing guns at her, and Le Roi is approaching her.

“I should have known this would be you!” he shouts. “Troublemaker! Look at what you’ve done! How many of my men have you just murdered?!”

Jaq isn’t sure if the red in Chester’s face is makeup or rage. Either way, he’s screaming like he’s just been born, and clearly doesn’t care if Jaq comes out of today alive. He also doesn’t care what she has to say, but she tries it anyway.

“This wasn’t me, Chester. I broke out of my cell, yes, because I’m smarter than a fifth grader, but I was headed for my plane when I heard this happen.”

“I don’t care! Shut up! Put down the gun!”

She doesn’t.

“Fine! Have it your way, Mc-Dead-ald!”

Jaq is disgusted by that horrific attempt at a pun.

“Dude, even ‘Burger Dead’ would have been better. Or you could’ve gone weird, like, I dunno, ‘Starbuckshot.’ Come on, if you’re gonna kill me, at least let me die hearing a real pun.”

“Shut! Up!”

“No!”

But she does, when water starts splashing over the edge, soaking the exposed flooring. La Garde have all lowered their weapons and aren’t looking at Jaq anymore - they’re looking past her. Even Le Roi has stopped shouting, his eyes carrying more shock than anger.

Jaq turns to see a form in the smoke tower. She can’t make it out, but it isn’t human. Humans, almost as a rule, aren’t twenty feet tall or dome-shaped. She raises the gun, but half-heartedly. Very briefly, she considers opening fire. Then, the tentacles happen.

Thin ropes of slick flesh, rippling with muscle, shoot out from the water and smoke, latching onto the steel environment. They’re not attacking - they’re anchoring, going for structures, not people.

The lobsters keep staring, but Jaq bolts. She climbs the pile of crates, then a series of ladders, as dozens more of the sucker-tipped tentacles shoot out from the...well, from the whatever nightmare is inside that cloud. The sound of the things hitting metal is a mix of wet meat on counter, and hollow metal echo.

She reaches the top of a shipping container, and runs south. A heavy impact slams against her shoulder, and she falls to the ground. A tentacle slaps against the container she’s laying on, and Jaq hears a tiny whirring, like a dental drill.

The thing is drilling into the metal.

She stands and faces it.

Below, Chester shouts “Kill it!”

Machine guns begin firing into the smoke, but Jaq can already tell that the Whatever is not going to respond well - or possibly at all - to that.

The tentacles begin to flex, and the whole island groans with the strain.

The Whatever pulls itself out of the water.

The twenty-foot dome becomes a forty-foot sphere of flesh, mottled gray and pink. The tentacles pull some of the containers toward the Whatever, but for the most part, the island’s superstructure is sound. The anchoring works, and the Whatever hauls itself up onto the containers, bellowing out sound that reminds Jaq of a foghorn.

The front(?) of the Whatever is dominated by a chitinous beak, itself double Jaq’s height. It bites wildly at the air. Jaq looks at the thing just long enough to realize it isn’t the only beak though - the brain-like surface of the Whatever is covered with them. They’re various sizes, from pennies to polo balls. All of which are too large for Jaq to like.

Without more thought, Jaq returns to what seems like a very good verb right now: run. She turns and runs, jumping across a two-foot gap between containers without thinking about the consequences of missing the landing.

As she moves, tentacles appear at her sides. First a few, then more. The Whatever is chasing her - or following her.

This thought distracts her just long enough that she misses her timing - she hits the end of one container without planning for it, and falls right over the edge, slamming hard into the next box down, in a hollow between two of the structures. A hollow clang drowns out the sound of the crack she feels. She’s not in screaming amounts of pain yet, so whatever just broke was probably ribs.

No matter.

She forces herself up and keeps going. She shifts to her right, and rounds the corner.

This stretch is fairly open - a long straight run. She glances back, expecting the Whatever to come falling over the edge of the container, but it’s turned off.

A high metal draws her eye.

At the center of the island, the tower is being pulled down - but not by the Whatever that was following her. A second Whatever has appeared, and is climbing the tower. The gun on top is rotating, trying to get a firing solution. When it does, the deep concussion of heavy arms fire strikes in the air. The Whatever reaches up with two tentacles that are larger and more muscular than the thin ropes helping it walk. The arms grab the entire gun placement, ripping it off of the tower. The Whatever hurls the gun into the sea.

“Stop. Touristing.” Jaq scolds herself and then keeps going.

Jaq climbs down a ladder to the forecourt, where all the helicopters are gone, and there’s nobody left but her and Strange Night 2. Ignoring the sounds of crunching metal behind her, she rushes for her old friend, when a gunshot screams through the air.

Chester is standing there. Bloodied, broken, and pointing a Luger in the air. He lowers the gun, aims it at Jaq’s chest.

“You bitch!” he shouts.

“Chester, you are literally the second worst person I have ever known.”

Jaq shoots the King of the Lobsters in the shoulder and keeps going.

Most of Jaq’s cargo is still on the plane, a mercy for which she thanks anybody who happens to be listening. Only four crates are missing, and they’re sitting on a pallet near the plane. She ignores them, and goes for the cockpit

Jaq hits her seat hard, and starts throwing switches.

Strange Night 2 takes to the water, moving fast and faster, building up speed as fast as the old girl can go.

Just as Jaq starts to lift off, a brain-thing appears in the water and grabs at the plane. It misses, but a tentacle slaps hard against the body of the plane. The sudden yaw and pitch makes Jaq curse, but she focuses herself on flying away from Île de Homard.