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The second bird that flies overhead isn’t as pretty as the first. It’s mostly gray, and the colors that are there are lacking. The first was a rainbow.
Oh, and a cloud is moving in. That’s quite nice. A white puff of cotton on a wide blue sky.
Smilin’ Jaq is laying on hard steel, her head ringing with pain. She isn’t bleeding - she already checked. The warmth under her neck is just the heat of sun-baked steel, not blood.
Curson the demon is sitting down cross-legged, examining a brain the size of an overinflated kickball. The brain’s beak is opening and closing slowly. Perhaps it’s trying to speak, or perhaps it’s remembering some really good jerky.
Septimus Jones is just now sitting up, groaning. He rubs at his scarred head. This is the second time he’s encountered the kickball-sized brain, and this was only slightly more pleasant than the first time.
“What happened?” he asks. His accent is Hollywood American - a rarity in this part of the seas. He clears his throat, spits a hunk of something off into the water.
“Well,” says Curson, staring at the brain in his hands. “We managed to connect your minds with mine, and with this Whatever, but this critter’s defense mechanisms are somewhat stronger than I had anticipated.”
Curson’s voice is a slow, smooth London dialect, though the demon’s never been anywhere near the United Kingdom.
Jaq waits for Curson to keep talking. The demon reveals information at his own pace, and neither God nor Satan could move him along any faster than he wants to go.
Septimus doesn’t know that, though.
“Did you get what you wanted? Do you know where they are? Or what? Or what they want? Or literally anything about them?”
Curson is silent, still considering the brain. The flesh of the thing is a faded pink. Two long, rope-like tentacles droop from it, and dozens of small arms ring the bottom of it.
Curson turns the eldritch crown over in his hands, looking at the underside. This side of the thing is shaped to take a human head, and is lined with many small teeth.
“The teeth,” Curson says, “work like drills. They screw into your skull and stay there. Jaq was only able to remove this from you because it was unconscious.”
“How did you pull it off, then?” Septimus asks.
Curson ignores him.
“Because he doesn’t have a skull,” Jaq says, her French accent hidden under a vague grumble of pain. “Curson, being a demon, does not have a physical form as we know it. He doesn’t have bones, or organs, or a fashion sense.”
“What is he, then?”
“Technically, I am a miasma.”
“What does that mean?”
Jaq sits up slowly, groaning as she does. The fall she took slammed her spine against the steel cargo container they’re all sitting on. It still hurts after half an hour.
“As far as I’ve been able to figure,” she says, “the best description is that Curson is made of a remarkably dense smoke.”
“Near enough,” Curson says.
“Shoot him,” Jaq says.
“I don’t wanna shoot him.”
Jaq pulls her pistol, and fires it at Curson. However, she also misses wildly.
“Crap. Hang on. Eyes are screwy from the fall.”
She focuses and levels the gun at Curson’s head.
“Bang,” she says, and fires. Curson’s head swirls like the last smoke trailing from a blown-out wick. After a moment, the dark face with six o’clock shadow reappears, gradually returning to a solid form. While the smoke coalesces, Curson speaks.
“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. And just because it doesn’t kill me doesn’t mean it’s pleasant. That hurts like hell.”
“You would know,” Jaq says, and laughs at her own joke.
Septimus climbs to his feet, joints popping as he rises. He arcs his back and stretches his shoulders, arms, wrists. “Did you find anything?”
Curson is silent for a few seconds, then speaks, still turning over the pink-gray mass in his hands.
“The brains - the Whatevers - appear to have a form of hive mind.”
“Can you communicate?”
“This, more rudimentary, version can only receive orders, not respond to them. But I caught glimpses. I still don’t know where they came from, but I have determined what happened to all the soldiers that were stationed on this island.”
“Is that where we’re headed next?”
“Alright, just give me a bearing and we can get the next part over with.”
“Sadly, you will not be able to do the navigating.”
“I do not know the precise location of the island.”
“Oh I’m not going to like this, am I?”
Jaq does not like this.
She’s not trying to stop it, but that doesn’t mean she likes it.
It’s just...well, a lot of words come to mind. Disgusting, offensive, upsetting. The word she keeps coming back to, though, is Wrong.
“I can’t watch this.”
“So don’t,” Curson says.
Curson has used a drill from Jaq’s supplies to cut a hole into the steering column of Strange Night 2, Jaq’s plane. Not just plane, but home, and livelihood.
“Oh baby,” she whispers, watching Curson shove both of the brain-helmet’s tentacles into the hole he’s made. The plane’s whole length groans. “I promise I’ll make it better.”
Curson sits in the co-pilot’s seat. He isn’t a kind being in general, but he doesn’t take over Jaq’s seat. That, he thinks, would be a step too far.
Septimus is standing in the door to the cockpit, rapt with attention, fascinated by what’s going on. His eyes widen when Curson lifts the brain, and places it over his own head. Jaq watches, too, but with disgust.
“Get us in the air,” Curson says. “Once we are at a reasonable altitude, give control over.”
Jaq sighs, and starts flipping switches. Outside, four engines wake.
“Curson,” Septimus asks, “why do you have to be wearing the brain? Won’t it be doing the navigating?”
“It will, but it requires some amount of energy to live. When not affixed to someone’s head, the brain enters a dormant state, using only enough power to notice interaction.”
“Like a remote control.”
“Yes. Without a source of proper energy, the brain would not be able to navigate. And as my life force draws from the infinite power of Ishiogo, I am a better candidate than either of you.”
“We have a lot of blood to lose,” Jaq says, then addresses Septimus. “Go buckle in, Sport. Or get smeared against the back wall.”
Septimus leaves, in search of a jump seat.
When they hit altitude, the brain’s muscles begin to contort. The tentacles ripple with strength, manipulating the inner workings of the plane. The beak snaps shut, and the scarring around the brain’s bullet wound pulls down, as if the thing is trying to grimace.
Gradually, the plane is cast in darkness. Looking through the window, Jaq can’t tell what it is - if the air’s gone dark, or if it’s a cloud, or a dust. The sun still permeates it, but the light is reduced to an orange blur behind a black screen.
“Curson, what is happening?”
Without looking, she grabs the microphone for the plane’s loudspeaker, and speaks into it: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are now at a cruising altitude and you can now wander the plane. Also the sky got real weird.”
A moment of quiet passes before Septimus appears in the doorway, the engines still groaning outside. “Something weird is happening,” he starts, but stops on seeing the darkness outside. He takes in the whole view afforded by the cockpit’s dome window, but nothing he can see is pleasant. “Back...there.”
“What are you seeing back there?” Jaq asks.
“Sort of. Um. Well, take a look.”
The Short Sunderland was a military plane in the second World War, but Jaq’s has been heavily modified since then. Formerly used for patrol bombing, this one got converted post-war to be used for transport, so most of the flying boat is open space straps and mounts on the walls. To an aviation fan, the interior would be just about unrecognizable, thanks to decades of improvements and modifications. The plane’s military history is kept by two gun turrets - one at the rear of the plane, one in a glass bubble at the nose.
Jaq steps into the largely-empty cargo hold, running her eyes over the room. The lighting here is dim, just enough to see your way - you really don’t need to be manipulating cargo while you’re in-flight. In this light, at first glance, nothing’s amiss.
Then a bright streak of powder-blue light, like a silent crackle of electricity, arcs along the wall to her right. She shields her eyes from the sudden light, but the thing is gone as quickly as it formed.
After a moment, a second one appears, immediately to Jaq’s left. This one was flying free in the air, not anchored on any piece of the aircraft.
When a third flash ripples through the room, Jaq returns to the cockpit.
“Alright, yeah, that’s weird.”
“Told you,” Septimus says, from Jaq’s seat.
“Outta my chair, sport.”
“I’m fast, not strong. Get up or I’ll put a bullet through your toe.”
“Jeez,” Septimus says, climbing out of the cramped cockpit.
Jaq starts to respond, sitting in her chair, but Curson’s voice cuts through their discussion.
“We appear to be utilizing infernal magic to fold the veil.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Septimus says.
Curson doesn’t answer, so Jaq takes it upon herself. “Imagine you’re a tiny dot on a piece of paper, but you need to get to the same spot on the other side of the paper. Gotta go all the way around, right?”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Well, we’re skipping the step where we go around, by just punching a hole in the paper. The veil is the paper. I’m sure there’s some kind of astro-mechanics or whatever crap behind it, but whatever. You get it.”
Septimus doesn’t say anything, trying to process the illustration.
Outside, streaks of blue light, like the ones in the cockpit, appear in the air.
“Granted, I’ve only done it once before,” Jaq says, watching the streaks. “We could explode at any minute. Or turn into a bowl of flowers. Curson, do you have any idea where we’ll come out?” Jaq folds her legs in her chair, dropping her hands to her lap, watching the nothing outside.
“Wait,” Septimus says, looking at Curson. “Say something. Anything. Jaq, watch.”
“What do you want me to say?”
Jaq turns to look, and sees what Septimus sees: the beak on the brain-helmet is miming Curson’s speech. No sound comes out, but the thing is trying to speak at the same time Curson does.
“Curson, buddy, how’s the brain feeling?”
“It is difficult to describe. It is like modifying music without knowing anything about sound. Change the pitch, and tones, and even manipulate the notes and instruments used to produce them. You still don’t know the words, but you are slowly learning how the thing works, regardless.”
“Lot of metaphors happening today,” Septimus says.
“However,” Curson says, “I appear to be gaining some dexterity in manipulating the thing. Perhaps we are reaching a symbiosis.”
“Exactly what we need. Wait, Curson. How did you say we’re doing this? Piercing the veil?”
“It seems we are utilizing infernal energy.”
“Infernal, like, Hell?”
“Yes. Whoever is behind the energy of these brains has at least some connection to the kingdoms of Hell.”
“So the likelihood of me and Sep here getting out of all this alive is?”
“To be determined.”
“In that case, Sep, come with me. I’m going to show you where the guns are.”
Jaq leads Septimus on a brief tour of the ship. Tail gun, nose gun, cargo, galley, bunk, and so on.
In the galley, Septimus stops her. The metal walls seem to rattle here, but he pushes that out of his mind—worrying about breaking up in midair will help nothing.
“Look, no offense, Curls, but I don’t expect to care much after this is done. I’m only here because you don’t say ‘no’ to Curson. I don’t care about you or your plane.”
Jaq sighs, breaks eye contact. Like all the rooms aboard the plane, the galley is small. Most of it is taken up by an L-shaped counter. On one end, Jaq has removed the old stovetop and replaced it with more compact hot plates. Beneath the counters is a cooler, and a couple of cabinets. A percolator is bolted to one wall, and a rack holds a small assortment of dinnerware.
“Coffee or water?”
Jaq opens the cooler and throws a bottle of water to Septimus, who cracks it open and drinks. Jaq pulls a diner mug labeled
Get thee to a beanery!
The last two digits of the founding year are faded by age. She draws coffee from the percolator, which started brewing before they took off.
“I had to get out of the cockpit.”
“I’m sure you think I’m overreacting, but the sight of that Whatever’s tentacles violating my ship is wrong. Like, disgusting.”
“It’s not doing any harm. Curson knows what he’s doing.”
“That’s just it, he doesn’t. He’s supposed to know everything. But he doesn’t know where we’re going, he doesn’t know where the Whatevers are coming from. And besides, that’s...no, nevermind. Doesn’t matter. Like you said, you’re not gonna hang around once this is done, no need getting all friendly.”
Septimus leans on the wall, watching Jaq. She’s looking down at her feet, avoiding his gaze. This is the first time Septimus has seen the girl as anything other than ready-to-murder.
“I did say that, didn’t I.” He crosses his arms, and looks around the room, at anything other than Jaq, forming a thought. Eventually, he continues.
“I’ll tell you what. I’m not sticking around, that means I don’t give a fig about how you feel, right? So you can vent all you need. So, vent.”
Jaq chuckles softly. “Alright. Fine. This plane is my home.” She pauses. “My home and my life. Everything I have in this world or any other. She’s my confidant, my partner. Steady and sure. Having other people here is bad enough, but Curson has taken this perfectly tuned machine and violated it.”
“No, you don’t need to say anything. I’m not looking for comfort here. You asked, I told you. Like you said, venting. I just needed to get out of there. There’s nothing to be done until it’s over.”
Septimus holds up both hands, a gesture of peace.
“I get it,” he says. “LIke I said, I’m here because I have to be. If I had a choice, I’d be back on Mary Shadow, doing whatever the hell I want. Until then, we do what it takes to get through.”
Jaq nods, then her eyes widen.
“What is it?”
“So after that, you’re going to make fun of me for getting attacked by a brain? Classy.”
“No. Hang on.”
She goes to a small cabinet and searches through it. The sound of metal smacking against metal is overpowered by the nearby engines. When Jaq stands again, she’s holding a shining metal bowl. She holds it out to Septimus, who looks at his reflection in the flat bottom.
“Jesus,” he says.
“I’m not getting the impression that the man has much to do with today.”
Septimus runs his fingers along his scars, which are glowing with the same blue light that occasionally flashes in the air, both inside and outside of Strange Night 2.
Overhead, a speaker screwed to the ceiling over the door crackles with Curson’s voice: “It appears that our destination is manifesting, if the two of you would like to return to the cockpit.”
In the cockpit, Jaq returns to her seat, and Septimus braces himself in the doorway. Outside, the flashes are increasing in frequency and duration. They begin to form a cone around the front of the plane.
“It would seem,” Curson says, “We have neared our destination. When we exit the veil, our next step should be fairly clear.”
Jaq gets ready, settles herself in.
The shreds of light are no longer simply flashing. They’re weaving together, creating a net of blue light surrounding the ship. Then, in an instant, they’re gone, and the plane is plunged into a raging storm.
The Sunderland begins to dive. Jaq takes control, fighting to bring the plane level. Rain and hail bang against the doors of the plane, drowning out the engines.
Septimus nearly falls, but manages to brace himself on the plane’s metal framing.
Lightning flashes to the left, then far ahead.
“Can’t see a thing. Curson, give me data! Where in the name of Napoleon’s Bicorns am I going?”
“I am unsure, though I get the impression that the Whatever did not intend for us to emerge wherever we are.”
“I’m taking us lower and praying we don’t hit water.”
Strange Night 2 groans as a blast of wind slams into her, shoving the tail off-course.
“Fuck!” Jaq shouts. Curson steadies himself on his wheel, Septimus throws himself into the navigator seat.
The plane yaws hard, metal creaking.
Jaq screams in her throat but clenches her teeth, fighting to keep level, but her whole body slams sideways when the tail hits something sturdy.
A sound of metal being shorn off of itself freezes Septimus’ bones. The plane spins out of control. Jaq watches a piece of tail swing by her view, stuck on a rock outcropping.
A piece of wing breaks off and flies away.
Fire and smoke.