“Alice,” Xavier asked, looking out over the chaos in the streets beneath him. “How long before WHO has all of the city quarantined?”
“Information restricted by Wonderland protocol.” Alice replied, her voice filling the air of Xavier’s study.
“Good girl. Now, how many barricades have the Q.C.B. managed to put in place?”
“37, before communications became compromised.”
“Interesting.” Xavier said to himself, walking to retrieve a tablet from his desk.
Xavier had gotten hold of the Q.C.B. plans a few hours before shit hit the fan. After speaking with his man from Rathford, Xavier did everything he could to send out word and get his people tucked away safely. Hopefully the members of the congregation had found shelter for the night and had missed the worst of the panic and confusion. It would’ve been possible for some of them to leave the city, to search for safety outside Delphi’s walls, but Xavier would stay, Apostle’s orders. So, he’d done what he could for tonight. He had no idea what he was going to do tomorrow.
Flicking the screen of his tablet, Xavier took a few steps from the window to his soft leather swivel chair, reclining back and throwing his feet up. “Richard Pythagoras Black, Alice, you know him?”
“Richard Black is a Vergeron Marketing Analyst, significant in this context because he was the first to profitably employ the Alice system toward marketing projections.”
“True...” Xavier spoke making a note on his pad. “And what about the Night of Madness?”
“Information restricted by Wonderland protocol.”
“So, Mr. Black wasn’t present during the Night of Madness?”
“Information restricted by Wonderland protocol.”
“Come on Alice, try harder. Eliminate the federal database from your search.”
“Delphi Police Department records indicate a ‘Mr. Black’ assisted the D.P.D. during the Night of Madness.”
“See, that wasn’t so hard. We may have Wonderland wrapped a little tight.” Xavier remarked, continuing to make notes in his log.
I’ll have to get the devs to loosen things up. If Alice misses easy questions like this, they’ll catch us for sure.
“What about you, Alice? Were you present during the Night of Madness?”
Xavier wrapped his fingers on his desk. Xavier had gambled a lot on Wonderland, had called in favors, risked exposure. It would be a devastating setback if his hunch had been wrong.
“Was anyone named Alice present during the Night of Madness?”
“Voice parsing seems to indicate an Alice was involved.”
“But you don’t think that Alice was you?”
Xavier could feel the annoyance building. He knew so far as Vergeron’s top brass were concerned there was no distinction between this Alice and the one operating on the Night of Madness. Cain Westbrook had admitted as much at their first meeting.
“How did you help Mr. Black apprehend the Alleyman?”
“I did not.”
“I see… So we’re still keeping secrets.” Xavier continued to scroll through the information on his screen, the Wonderland design documents as well as information gathered on the Alice project and its staff. “I suspect the good Doctor hasn’t been exhaustive in his reporting. We’ll have to dig deeper.”
Xavier’s thoughts were interrupted by a knocking on the door. “Who’s that I wonder?” Xavier spoke to himself.
“It is the Archdeacon.” Alice replied, as if Xavier had been speaking to her.
“How could you possibly know that?” Xavier muttered as he opened the door to let the Archdeacon in. “You’re early.”
“I’m sorry Bishop,” The Archdeacon huffed as he shuffled over the threshold. “But we need to leave now. The Q.C.B. barricades have apparently muddled something up and the Apostle says your audience with his master must be now.”
“Very well.” Xavier sighed, “Do you need anything before we go? A quick drink?”
“...why not,” The Archdeacon spoke shuffling toward the bar, obviously anxious.
Xavier swooped around the Archdeacon, recovering a decanter and discovering with some relief that there was still a little scotch in it.
“You seem nervous.” Xavier spoke as he distributed the golden liquid between two short glasses.
“Xavier, this is unprecedented. Unprecedented!” The Archdeacon stammered with some distress, extending his hand to take the offered glass.
“What? The streets running with rivers of the dead?” Xavier replied sarcastically. “Or were you thinking of something else?”
“Well, yes, that. But I can’t find any record of anyone ever having appealed to the Prophet in person. I suspected it might have been unusual, but I can’t find any record that it’s ever been done. Xavier, are you sure this is wise?”
Xavier shrugged and took a swig of scotch. “I have to try something. If you haven't noticed things are getting bad out there.”
“But what if there’s a reason? What if he’s displeased? As far as we know his grace is the only thing keeping us safe. What if we’re making everything worse?”
“Stop it, you superstitious idiot.” Xavier said, taking another pull from his glass and letting the smooth burn calm his own nerves. “Make your crosses and signs and let’s get out of here. Besides, I really doubt anything could be much worse.”
“I suppose your right. As the Bishop of Delphi I could argue you’re within your rights to at least try.” The Archdeacon raised his glass in salute and tipped the scotch down his throat in one large gulp. He sputtered and coughed, apparently not much of a drinker, but managed a tepid smile up at Xavier once he stopped hacking.
“That’s the spirit. Now what else do you have for me? Think hard, there must be something.”
Xavier moved over to place a hand on the Archdeacon’s shoulder, before directing the man toward the door.
“Not much, as I said. I found a few more fragments of original gospel. I spoke to a colleague about it briefly. He seemed to indicate that several sections of the gospel had been omitted from the canon because the College of Scholars can no longer translate them. He was very upset by the whole conversation. He said if I mentioned it to anyone he would deny everything. There are a handful of writings by more contemporary authors attempting to fill in missing bits of scripture, but since they were unauthorized they’ve been seized and locked away. I asked to see them, but my friend said they wouldn’t help. That they were raving, impossible to understand.” The Archdeacon shook his head. “I find it odd to say the least that these texts are supposedly both raving and untranslatable.”
“Marvelous.” Xavier groaned. “What the hell is really going on here?”
Xavier’s brow furrowed, watching the last swallow of scotch swirl around his glass, giving the Archdeacon a final chance to do something useful, but the man just stood there, wobbling nervously.
“Alright.” Xavier spoke gruffly, slamming his glass down. If he had any chance of getting answers tonight, there was only one place he could go. “After you.”
Xavier hadn’t been sure what he expected, but a subterranean expedition through Dephi’s undercarriage had not been on his radar.
The Apostle hadn’t said much, merely gliding ahead as some sort of spectral guide, weaving through tangled corridors of access hatches, piping, and cable nests that constituted much of the journey.
They were somewhere near the divide, Xavier knew that much, where Old Town and Uptown embraced. They would occasionally transition into areas pristine in their construction, with placards and access panels denoting purpose, function, with a keen eye to aesthetics, even in the underground. They had spiralled, their progress warped and meandering enough that Xavier had lost all sense of direction when their path suddenly opened into a hollow cavity, a grotto that at one time might have been a cafe, or perhaps a bookshop. It was a comfortable space for being buried beneath the city. The centuries old concrete and brickwork had been carved out, the i-beams of the ceiling open and vaulted some twenty or so feet above his head and Xavier could see that the ingress though which they had made their entrance was one of many, the walls, and indeed the roof, were punctuated with gaps and holes of varying size.
The open pocket was well manicured, tidy in a way that suggested having been lived in, with a few plates and cups scattered about, even a battery powered kettle, and as Xavier glanced around his eyes met oddly familiar set pieces. There was a small shrine in one corner of the room, with kneeling cushion, candles, and a vacant, blood stained altar, arranged such that Xavier couldn’t help but feel the nudge of memory, an echo from a past that saw his family with their own, similar mode of worship. The idol above the altar, fixed to the wall, was something else entirely.
Xavier had seen numerous interpretations of the holy iconography through the years. It was almost a right of passage for cult youngsters to mold and shape their own approximations of the sacred images for personal prayer and reverence, but Xavier couldn’t guess at the inspiration for this particular totem. It was a sculpture, of a kind. A collection of molded pieces of varying materials: wood, steel, wire, and what looked like meat in the dim lights that were scattered about the space. The sculpture was a collection of appendages, eight in total, connecting into a central distended mask, painted black with symmetrical yellow markings on both sides of the face.
“We will wait here.” The Apostle said, wafting as he did to float along one wall. “The Prophet will be here shortly.”
Xavier looked back over his shoulder to the Archdeacon, who had only just emerged into the room, breathing heavily. The walk wasn’t one Xavier had considered strenuous, but the Archdeacon wasn’t in the best of shape.
Xavier thought they might sit, the chamber having a few dusty looking chairs along the opposite wall when he heard the Archdeacon give a strangled yelp and fall to the ground. Xavier turned to find the Archdeacon staring upward, eyes wide and panicked. Xavier followed that gaze and felt his stomach drop to the floor.
Suspended from the ceiling, its outline obscured in a darkness that devoured the surrounding light, was a monster, a demon straight out of a fairytale, insectoid legs spread across the ceiling, each extremity smooth and jointed to flow into the next, coming to impossibly sharp points at the tips. In the darkness a face glowed, huge and iridescent, a pulsing skull of yellow that began, Xavier realized, to fall.
Xavier didn’t have time to react. The thing, big as a car, hurtled toward the ground and at the last moment stopped to pirouette in midair, its limbs coming to rest gently on the ground as it seemed to twist, straighten, and unfurl, its body shifting, legs to arms, thorax to torso, its color graduating, first to gray, then to a white that seemed to have its own internal glow. The yellowed skull was gone, obscured Xavier realized because the hideous outlines were facing away on the creature’s back. Now, a new face presented itself. Several eyes arranged upon an oblong head, like rows of glittering jewels, the deep impression of a handsome, angular face shimmered smooth and chitinous and seemed to regard Xavier with perfect, regal indifference, looming some six feet above Xavier’s own head.
“You have asked to see me, Bishop?” Its mouth did not move. There was simply a resonance occupying the space around Xavier’s ears that rung in clean tonal notes, like a finger being swirled around the rim of some impossibly large crystal glass.
“Ye… yes...” Xavier stammered, despite his best efforts. He took a calming breath and began again. “Yes, Prophet.” Xavier inclined his head automatically. “I wish to entreat you for guidance during these unsure times.”
“If you’re looking for confirmation of of your excellence, you have now received it.” The creature’s hands opened, for it did have hands, it’s digits long, even elegant, the fingers equal and jointed far more than a human finger. It seemed to be making a gesture approval…or maybe placation? Xavier didn’t know. He couldn’t parse the intention. What he did know was the beast’s response in no way helped his situation.
“But what should I…how do I protect my people?”
“You have done it Bishop, and you continue to do it now. There is no life without death. The contrary is our greatest sin. You have known these tenets since youth, you work masterfully, yet speak as if ignorant. Curious… remember the words, I have nothing left to teach you.”
“What words? The words are lost.” Xavier was shocked to find, despite his fear and confusion, he was getting angry.
The vibrations of the voice had shifted, becoming higher, sharper, filling the room and knocking dust from the exposed rafters. “Blasphemy! “The scholars have failed! The scholars will pay!” Without pause the tones adjusted once more to their original cadence. “No matter. The truth has
manifested. The work has borne fruit. The destiny cannot be concealed.”
Xavier couldn’t help but grimace. “I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but none of this tells me what to do…”
“It is said, Bishop that great men are defined by great adversity. You have been given the greatest of foes, except god’s offering and become the hero of men. Now go, we both are drawn to what demands us.”
The creature became black once more, folding in and down, pharaoh to spider, it skittered up and through one of the openings with a bestial swiftness and was gone in an instant, the only sound in the room was the Archdeacon’s rapid, frighted breathing.
Xavier turned and met the Archdeacon’s eyes, saw the naked terror in the man’s face, the helpless confusion of subverted expectations. Xavier imagined his own face couldn’t look much better, but in that shared gaze was an understanding, a mutual revelation that transcended words.
Help isn't’ coming… We’re on our own…
The layout was a kindness. Exquisite ovoidal passageways. Junction nodes a sprawl of quadrivials, meeting and parting and meeting again in precise symmetry.
...pulse, the path set once more. The byway open. Inviting! The background radiation of the universe playing its unremitting harmony.
A simple series of choices. Ever onward. Left, and right, and forward!
Delphi’s innards thrummed. Energy sizzled with guided purpose, electrons traversing distances of miles in microseconds.
Where did it go? Where will it dry up? What will it kill?
Get far enough away and it would look perfect. Macro-analysis would yield amazement at the regularity of the convergences, the substructure of fiber optics more precise, more succinct than any street could hope to be for ascribing location.
...again to pulse. Anchor the message. Simple recursion…
Skitter! Up and around. Down and through. Never seen. Never heard. Just to glide.
...up to nestle, up to wait…
A city on its knees. Is it enough? Look at the little things move and then move together. The little things were helpful in their way, and there was always more than enough.
A drone floated around a building’s corner, pivoted ninety degrees from center, rose three hundred centimeters and rotated again, the camera on the external housing flashed as the aperture of the lens expanded, trying to see into the darkness…
There you are… But where…? It did not dry up, not all of it entirely…
And now to the next thing.
...oh to be seen…
...to be heard.