Authors: Ferrett Steinmetz
Yet “intent” cannot be our standard. A drunk driver does not intend to harm people, yet by their own blinkered judgement they kill children. And every 'mancer's judgement is impaired by a psychosis so encompassing that it weakens the fundamental principles of the universe. They are simply not competent to make decisions about safety â particularly when Europe has already been lost to 'mancers' mistakes.
This administration's stance is, and has always been, that 'mancers are not human â they are smiling weapons, waiting to go off.
Valentine checked off an imaginary square on a bingo card.
Yet because they look like us â even used to be us
, the President continued,
we have been lenient in allowing ordinary citizens to campaign for anti-'mancer laws. Yet Paul Tsabo â a fugitive criminal â has acknowledged his organization trains 'mancers, runs 'mancer safehouses, hides 'mancers from SMASH's helpful rehabilitation
Valentine wrapped her hand around an imaginary cock and jerked it off. “That's not rehabilitation, it's brainwashingâ¦”
In the past, some people have been sympathetic to these goals â but in the wake of the Morehead broach, America is united. With Congress's full approval, I have just declared Project Mayhem a terrorist organization. Anyone aiding or abetting Project Mayhem from this moment on â whether a 'mancer or an ordinary citizen â will have their assets seized, and face jail time
“What?” Imani catapulted from her seat.
“They can,” Paul whispered.
However, we offer amnesty. Any former Project Mayhem members who wish to provide us with information
avoid prosecution can do so toll-free by calling 1-800-SMASHEMâ¦
Paul grabbed for his cell phone before realizing it was broken. “I need to make a statement. Pull over, Imani, we'll find a phone â the Unimancers have never sealed a broach in their lives, only patched them over! Maybe we can broker an agreement to let me back in before the broach rips open furtherâ”
“Stop, Paul. Just stop.”
â in addition to additional emergency funding for SMASH, I have called for our best magical expert from Europe, General Saagar Anil Kanakia, to help stabilize the Morehead broach â
“No, Imani!” Paul shook with anger. “They haven't heard our side!”
She punched his arm.
“That. Does. Not.
!” Imani hated to see that puppydog terror he always got when she yelled at him â but she had to get through to him
. “They're telling America that we almost disappeared down the same interdimensional sinkhole that ate Europe â and they're not wrong, Paul. You didn't seal it up like last time.”
Paul objected. Imani rolled right over him.
“And it doesn't matter anymore, Paul, because they won't give you the chance. They're going to rain hell down on us. People will barrage Capitol Hill with angry letters until the politicians parade you around America as a nicely tamed Unimancer. I know you want to tell them how this never would have happened if Morehead hadn't panicked. You want to tell them you could fix it. Maybe that's even
. Butâ¦ what we did today is exactly what they've been telling people
“We just lost the argument, Paul. Now the hammer will fall.”
Paul's face went pale. He gulped, looking back towards Valentine, who nodded in acknowledgment. Aliyah did her best to sink into the back seat; Valentine reached over, pulled her into a tight embrace, as though she feared this might be the last time.
“I just wanted friends,” Aliyah whispered. “This isn't fair.”
The President had moved onto promising that America would be safe, their Unimancers would guard this broach to keep it from swelling furtherâ
Paul shut off the radio.
“OK,” Paul murmured, his chin sagging to his chest. “OK. I guess our next step isâ¦ we have to get to the safehouse.”
She pressed down on the accelerator, wondering whether the Appalachian safehouse was still there â wondering how long it would shelter them before SMASH's forces rained down on them.
he final road
to the safehouse was a muddy ditch threaded around a mountain. Paul tried not to pay attention to their surroundings as Imani wrestled the wheel; to their left was a crumbling rock face, to the right a steep wooded slope. One slip and their car would tumble into a hundred-foot drop.
“How much longer is it?” Aliyah asked.
“I didn't memorize distances, sweetie, only directions.” Imani's voice was remarkably even. “It's at the end of this road, wherever that is.”
Aliyah pushed her way across Valentine to peer out the passenger side window, shaking her head. “The seclusion is good, but what's our exit strategy? If SMASH corners us on this mountaintop, we've got no retreat capacity.”
Paul frowned. A thirteen year-old girl shouldn't have to worry about such things.
“Hey,” Valentine chided. “Uncle Robert set this safehouse up. I'm sure it's got a few tricks.”
But was Robert still in charge there? As the road twisted in towards a thick forest canopy, Paul tried not to consider the possibility that someone working for the camp had betrayed them to SMASH, and now instead of a haven they'd find armed men with Magiquell dartsâ¦
They rounded a curve to find the road blocked by a huge golem of teetering rock.
Imani slammed on the brakes â but as they slid to a halt, Paul took in the monster straddling the road. It stood higher than the trees, thousands of moss-covered rocks stacked roughly into a man shape, its clumsy hands reaching out to grab two tree limbs as it bent over the road protectively. The sunlight glimmered through the chinks in a torso formed of fist-sized crystalline rock and shale slates.
Yet what stood out most was the grizzled old man standing on a ladder next to this faceless rock brute, reaching up to tend to his creation with deft care. His bushy eyebrows lifted high in surprise at their approach.
He tapped the beast's side, as if to get its attention.
The great rock beast made an angry clattering nose as it dove for their car, breaking apart into an avalanche, banging on the windshield as the rocks flowed over their SUV, rolling beneath the wheels, trapping them.
Valentine tried to open the door; it was stuck fast. Then she leaned forward to tap the windshield, which was miraculously uncracked, though covered with rocks with a jigsaw puzzle's precision â allowing them absolutely no view outside.
“Well,” she said, “I think we have our answer as to whether 'mancers still live at the safehouse.”
” they heard from outside â muffled, but at great volume. “That's Paul! Dammit, Yoder, I told you to stop anyone
Whoever responded spoke in a low, slow, subsonic drawl, like an earthquake that chose to speak. The words were lost through the layers of rock and an impenetrable accent, but the gist was clear:
Hold on, now, how was I to know these were your friends
“Look, Yoder, when SMASH comes, they're gonna be arriving in tanks, not a soccer mom specialâ¦ oh, never mind. How long will it take to dig them out?”
“But a touch,” the rumbly voice said, trudging closer. His steps were well-paced, as if no fuss could make him move faster. “All I must do is pop this rock out, andâ”
There was a sharp
as he yanked one stone free â and the rocks cascaded away from the car like water, rolling off obligingly to reveal Robert Paulson striding towards the car door.
Paul had never gotten used to the new Robert, though he understood the new look was a side effect of his security chief giving up his
-inspired 'mancy. When Paul had first met Robert, Robert had called himself Tyler Durden, and his magic had shaped his bruised body into a carbon copy of Brad Pitt. But after he'd met Valentine, his need to be Tyler Durden had dwindled â and he'd slowly mutated into a beefy six-foot-five man who looked like an aging nightclub bouncer, complete with a lurking air of ominous violence, a battered leather jacket, and a sagging paunch.
Yet anyone who knew Robert thought of him as a teddy bear. And he looked like a teddy bear, crouching down with his arms open, grinning like a polecat as he shouted, “
Valentine burst out of the car to leap into his arms, wrapping her legs around his waist, grabbing his face by both cheeks.
“You should have
what I did, baby!” Her face was flushed with excitement. “
I made it
, and what I rained was
see it!” He held up his smartphone, matching her giddiness. “Somebody posted it on YouTube!”
She twirled around to curl up in his arms, and they watched Valentine's magical battle with the cooing fondness that other couples might use to watch baby pictures. Robert squeezed her tight every time an explosion went off â he still had a
-mancer's appreciation of his girlfriend's devastation.
When it was over, they had the faint flush of a couple who'd watched a particularly satisfying porno. “Whew,” Robert said. “When was the last time you teed off on anything like that?”
Valentine stepped gracefully out of his arms, like a woman regretfully bowing out from a dance. “It's been a while.”
Paul knew Valentine's inactivity had been a source of tension. She stayed by Robert's side, which was handy because Robert generally stayed by Paul's side â but between Robert's brute competence and Paul's extensive planning, there hadn't been much need for violence. Even the rallies had grown efficient enough that Valentine's magic was used mostly for crowd control. And since Valentine's videogame magic couldn't create anything lasting, she'd sat by the sidelines as Robert had built safehouses or delegated Project Mayhem duties or just took Krav Maga classes.
He shrugged apologetically. “Sorry, love. Your 'mancy remains a glorious supernova to behold. It's just, you knowâ¦ things have been going
She waved him off. He took her hand, holding it tight and long â a little too tight and a little
long, Paul judged. And if Paul noticed Valentine's discomfort then it must be blatantly apparent to everyone else.
Then Robert glanced over Paul's shoulder.
“How's she doing?”
Paul realized Aliyah had yet to get out of the car.
Valentine shook her head:
. Robert hunched down, stuck his head in through the window.
“We're safe, kid,” he assured her. “I've set up tons of safehouses and I assure you â this will be the last to fall.” He gestured back towards a distant set of rustic cabins, where a small militia tended to gardens, unpacked crates, toted water buckets. “I handpicked every man and woman for loyalty. And the feds are distinctly not welcome here in the Smokeys. More importantly, we've got some real unique 'mancers in our stockpile. Wanna see 'em?”
It was a good gambit: Aliyah loved naming new 'mancies â and given 'mancy could spring from any obsession, the endless varieties of magics that flourished in their safehouses were a delight. Seriously, how often did you get to be embraced by a stone golem? Put that lumbering statue in a museum and art critics would have praised its rough-hewn beauty. This 'mancer had taken a thousand rocks no one would have looked at twice, seen a secret magnificence within them, and labored until he joined simple stone into a geologic clockwork.
Aliyah stared at the heaps of stone as if all she saw was an avalanche.
She reluctantly allowed Robert to lift her from the vehicle. She looked back towards Paul.
“You're coming along, right, Dad?”
Paul was so filled with gratitude that he leaned down to enfold Aliyah in a hug before his broken ribs made him recoil in pain. Like most teenagers, Aliyah ran hot and cold â she couldn't have abandoned him fast enough back at the Morehead Wendy's.
But going to visit the new 'mancers? That was their ritual.
“Come on, kid,” Robert said. “You've been marinating in your own misery for hours now, get out and walk it off. It'll do ya good.”
“â¦except for that blazing ball of death overhead scarring my fine pale skinâ¦” Valentine muttered darkly.
“Got you covered. Literally.” He tossed her a travel-sized sunscreen bottle. She snatched it out of the air before slathering it on her skin with exaggerated “yuck” noises, and for a moment Paul marveled at how the two of them functioned like a single organism.
“Who'll drive the car back? Will he do it?” Aliyah asked, pointing at Yoder, who had ignored the conversation to pick up rocks. This was, sadly, something Paul had come to expect; most 'mancers were so obsessed with their craft, their social skills had atrophied into indifference.
“Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop,
, clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop,” Robert said rhythmically.
“â¦what?” Aliyah squinted, suspicious. Valentine stifled a laugh with her hand.
“Yoder doesn't drive,” Robert explained. “He's Amish. All he knows are horse-drawn buggies.”
“So what was that noise?”
“An Amish drive-by,” Valentine explained, and both Robert and Valentine dissolved into childish giggles while Aliyah stood stiffly, not getting the joke.
Paul wondered how the Amish treated 'mancers in their reclusive communities, then decided a selfish devotion to a hobby didn't go over well with a community that shunned computers because they felt possessions detracted from brotherly love.
“Does his 'mancy have a name?” Aliyah asked.
Some 'mancers were so into their passion they'd forgotten their names, let alone the names of their magic â but Aliyah needed to catalogue things, a trait she'd inherited from Paul.
Her room is messy but her mind is tidy
, he thought.
Robert shrugged. “He's aâ¦ rockâ¦ balancerâ¦ -'mancer. We spend enough time sweeping up rocks that we haven't had time for better nomenclature.”
“So what do they call his hobby? I mean, in scientific circles?”
“They call it ârock balancing.' It'sâ¦ a pretty weird hobby, even by hobby standards. And the guys who do it tend not to
get out much.”
“You mean they don't get
much,” Valentine interjected.
He shot her twin fingerguns as payment for her zinger.
Aliyah brightened â enough for Paul to feel they could get through this. “So
get to name it?”
“Yoder, you care?”
Yoder weighed two different rocks in his hands, having already rebuilt a stack of schist up to waist height. He chewed a piece of straw as he eased one of the two rocks onto the teetering pile, serene as a meditating monk.
“â¦Yoder doesn't care. It's yours.”
They headed towards the camp, leaving Yoder and his pile behind. Aliyah bounced along at Paul's side, trying out various names and discarding them. Up ahead, there was the distant sound of men chopping lumber, an old woman rocking on a chair. The wind rustled through the trees, a rich chlorophyll scent â out here, he could pretend America wasn't mobilizing to capture them.
“So,” Paul said. “You told Aliyah this would be the last safehouse to fall.”
“Yup.” Robert was sober, but confident.
“Which implies others
. Five of our safehouses have gone dark in the last four hours.”
Imani arched an eyebrow. “Out of how manyâ¦?”
Robert chuckled. Though he'd discarded Tyler Durden's swagger, he'd never quite lost the
black humor. “Now, Ms Dawson. You know you're not allowed to know that. Not when you sleep in the same bed as Number One.”
The Unimancers had forced them to adopt distributed tactics: once you were inducted into the Unimancy squadrons, everything you knew got absorbed into their collective hivemind. That was why the government had been so desperate to capture Paul; they thought if they got him, they'd have total access to Project Mayhem.
But Paul had ensured no one person's defection could bring down Project Mayhem. There were overlapping areas of expertise, so the removal of one person wouldn't erase vital institutional memory â Paul had constructed a complex chain of responsibilities to ensure everyone had exactly what they needed to know to accomplish their mission, and no more.
Yet Imani had always chafed at being left out. She was too used to being the CEO's right hand.
“I think,” she said politely, “that given how many of our safehouses are going dark, it might be time to reevaluate who knows what.”
“We've planned for contingencies like this, Ms Dawson. Suffice it to say that it's a significant percentage of our sheltering operations.”
?” Paul asked.
Robert smacked his lips. “Yeah.”
“SMASH can't have gotten that efficient in the last four hoursâ¦ Can they?”
Robert made a
comme ci, comme Ã§a
gesture. “Can't say for sure, Paul. They're
. But if I had to guessâ¦ no, SMASH isn't more efficient. It's everything else that's changed.”
Valentine nudged him in the ribs. “Hey, not everyone needs to hear this.” Aliyah sucked air between her teeth.
“I'm not a
, Valentine,” she hissed. “I've fought just as hard to protect us as
what happens if you try to cut me out of the loop, so don't start
“âlanguageâ” Imani chided absently. They remembered when Paul had tried to shield her from his operations â frustrated, she'd used her 'mancy to warp into his operations, with disastrous results.