Tales of the Starbuck Avenger!!! (69)
My knuckles whitened around my javelin. So he's on our staircase, I thought. The one we sent Mebby down. That meant --
"RAPID ASCENT OF THE VIRGINIA CREEPER!" shouted Mebby from below, and I could hear her begin to trundle up the parish hall steps with inhuman vegetable speed.
Our staircase. That meant I should call the stupid cat back to us. "Hercules!" I shouted. "Get your skinny kitty ass back h--"
"He's here! The monster is here!" bellowed the Mighty Hercules. And from the other end of the hallway came the noise of a scuffle.
"Fuck me with a cheese," I said, not having proper time to think up a good quip again. "Fall back to the door, people!" I called out.
"WHAT IS THE MATTER" (said Absolvatron.)
"There's two of him now!" I said. "I'm so fucking stupid! Earlier tonight he squooshed himself out of the holes in a meteor! That means bits of himself can operate independently! Bastard just cut himself in half or something!"
"INTERESTING" (replied the Padre, ignoring my swears.) "I WONDER IF I SHOULD HOLD CONFESSION FOR EACH HALF SEPARATELY I THINK YES"
"Crap on a toad, could I just one time overestimate the bad guy?" I said, feeling a cold prickle of sweat on my neck. I could hear Mebby closing in, and way down at the end of the hallway, I saw motion that was decidedly not air movements. "Okay, new rule! From now on, every bad guy can destroy the universe just by thinking about it! Anything else is a pleasant surprise!"
Mebby rounded the last flight of stairs. "Starbuck," she said, breathlessly.
"Right," I said, gripping my javelin even harder. "There's two of them."
"N-- no," said Mebby. "There's--"
And a flood of black squiggles rounded the steps behind her.
"OH" (said Absolvatron) "THIS WILL BE A BUSY EVENING"
Down at the other end of the hall, the green light of Channel Cat's alien collar appeared, booking fast down the hallway toward us, a similar flood of black squiggles on his heels. "What manner of devilment is this?" exclaimed Channel Cat in a meow-y approximation of ancient Greek outrage. "The creature has no body to crush! Why, even the Hydra of Lerna was not so maddening!" The black flood closed in on us from both directions.
I glanced backwards, my heart thudding. "DON'T LET IT GET THROUGH THE D--"
…and it got through the door. Or rather, under the door. Around it. Any place there was even a centimeter of space between door and frame was a viable point of egress for the snatcher. I hardly had time to claw futilely at the mass before the black flood vanished completely beyond the upper door, leaving nothing but a sickly odor behind.
"Hercules!" I shouted. "Door! Again!"
The cat obliged, and with a mighty kick all out of proportion to his size, he sent the metal door flying into the space beyond. I felt momentary relief at not feeling the cold night air -- we weren't at the roof yet. It was some sort of attic to the parish hall, filled with the clutter of a long-operating church: old student projects, Christmas pageant props, a spare decommissioned altar. A remarkably quick survey of my environment -- thanks Inner Greatness -- revealed another door at the end of the attic. And that one was very credibly an exterior weather door. In the center of the attic sat the black flood, slowly congealing itself into the form of the Snatcher.
"What is it doing?" said Hercules.
I gave the fuck up and passed the microphone to my Inner Greatness. "It's an agglomerate intelligence," said I.G., rapidly. "Its entire body is its thinking organ. The more of it there is in one piece, the more connections it has to itself, and the smarter it gets. It can break itself up and give itself a simple imperative -- a second ago, it was 'up the stairs' -- but now it's in a new space and it needs complex senses and reasoning to understand its surroundings."
"W-- when it hell of reforms," said Mebby, pointing at the door that I.G. noticed earlier, "it will quickly suss out its next move."
"Then we must not let it re-form," said Hercules, grimly, cantering over to the puddle.
"Channel Cat!" I said. "W--"
C.C. never got much of a chance. With lightning-fast reflexes that it probably sucked from the Acrobat a couple days ago, the largest complete puddle of the Snatcher formed itself into a powerful carbon tentacle, wrapped itself around C.C.'s little kitty leg, and chucked him hard into a wall. There was a green flash of light and C.C. lay still.
As Mebby rushed to secure the exterior door and Absolvatron trod heavily toward the mass of the Snatcher, intent on some form of forcible salvation, I rushed to the cat's side. "Cat!" I said, yelling in the cat's face. "Stupid cat!"
C.C. did not respond. "Hercules!" I tried.
C.C. roused and shook his head. "Who?" said C.C.
"Great," I said, suspiciously. "Who are you now?"
"Hi, Norm Abram," said C.C., in a pleasant Back East accent. "Host of the New Yankee Workshop. Pleased to meet you. What is this place?"
"Norm Abram, you are useless to me!" I cried. "Otherwise, glad you're alive. Mebby, what's the sitch on the door to the roof?"
"It is fundamentally openable and c-- closeable. It is closed and now b-- basically I am lining the edges with wet curtains and altar cloths," said Mebby.
"Great!" I said. "Where are you getting the water?"
"Mebby, I love you and you are very strange. The cat's fine, he's just master carpenter Norm Abram temporarily. How's the alien creature, Father?"
"CURIOUS" (said Absolvatron, prodding gently at the mass with his foot....)
…and I never got a chance to figure out what exactly Absolvatron thought was curious. Maybe… the whole situation? Maybe, in that moment, he realized that the people on his side were a spear-throwing barista, a goth girl busily peeing on curtains at the other end of the room, and a cat who thought he was a home improvement show host. Never found out, because at that moment the creature, now mostly reformed and becoming person-shaped, lashed out at his foot, grabbed it, and held on tight.
I shouted out a warning and charged, javelin held low. The Snatcher whipped its head around at a wholly inhuman angle and looked at me just for a second with one of its newly-recreated optic sensors, before I connected solidly with my charge, levering the alien up into the air and then stabbing it clean through and into a supporting beam. My javelin bit hard into wood.
Aaand now it disintegrates again, I thought to myself. It just flows right off the spear with which you have pinned it to the wall. If you're lucky, it drips onto the floor. If you're not lucky, it slucks up the shaft of the spear and hits you next. Even in the absolute best-case scenario, you have bought yourself about five seconds.
But… it didn't. As I sat there, snarling, forcing the javelin further and further into the wall with the futile effort of anger, the alien's face solidified, cleared, and looked straight at me.
I don't claim to be a great interplanetary face-reader. But there, at that last moment, it just looked at me with an expression that I felt couldn't be anything other than...
My snarl faded. I blinked, once.
Oh, god, dude, I wanted to say. I can't possibly explain this to you. It's not really your fault. It's just… the way you are, the way you're made. What seems like normal behavior to you is really horrible and aggressive and destructive on this planet. You probably didn't ask for your meteor to crash here. I don't have any personal vendetta against you. It's just… the way you are destroys our world. That's just how it is.
I tried to force all that into my expression, as I stood there, ramming him through with the javelin. I thought that maybe, just maybe, he might understand me the same way I understood him.
Absolvatron chose that moment to grab him.
"CONFESSION" (Absolvatron roared.)
The Snatcher hissed, and in a flash, he formed a carbon pseudopod into a perfect replica of one of Garuda's giant improbably sharp Hoberman blades and sunk it deep into the preacher's torso.
Absolvatron's eyes rolled up, showing again the fire that was always inside him, coursing through his artificial body and maintaining the fusion reactions that kept him operational. Only this time, it wasn't confined to being inside him. The robotic pastor's internal shielding was undoubtedly pretty hefty, but whatever funky carbon extrusion the Snatcher had stabbed him with, well, it carved through his containment field like a hot knife through an overused metaphor. A gout of superheated orange plasma spilled from Absolvatron's wound, covering the floor, the hanging cloth around us, and the Snatcher himself. He screamed, a horrible ratcheting sound that came from nothing on earth. I was close enough to be spattered, so I knew what he was screaming about. It hurt like a motherfuck.
With a noise like some sort of physical blow, fire bloomed all around us, the conventional stuff now, the stuff that comes when you expose hanging cloth and timber to superhot robot plasma. I wrenched my javelin out of the wall and performed a pretty impressive backwards roll, away from the two combatants and away from the fire, which was now spreading faster than I felt anything had a right to. Fuck, I thought. Fuck fuck fuck we are burning the fucking church now fuck fuck fuck. I deliberately invoked my Inner Greatness to find some water or dirt or a fire extinguisher or something, but my Inner Greatness saw nothing in particular handy and instructed me to head to the staircase leading down out of the parish hall attic.
I sprinted toward the steps. There came a screech from the melee nearby, and with a heavy crashing thud, the half-broken form of the Absolvatron tumbled directly into my path, spraying fire as he went, his synthetic flesh ablaze. My Inner Greatness told me quite sternly to keep moving but I couldn't help it. I stood there aghast, staring down at the fallen robot, as the flames began to flick at my face.
"Father," I managed, finally.
Absolvatron rumbled, and there was a bad, harsh quality to the rumble. I recalled the first car I had ever owned, a beat-up piece-of-shit Celica that Mom and Dad gave me as a learner, a vehicle that never ever quite sounded right but ran just fine until that one morning that I turned the ignition and it made just exactly that sound and without knowing jack nor squat about cars, I felt my stomach fall. And while Dad thought we should take it in to the mechanic shop and I agreed because he's my Dad, I knew in that one moment what the mechanic later charged us several hundred dollars to confirm: the machine was broken, and it was not coming back. That was the sound that the Absolvatron made.
With a stuttering jerkiness that was heartbreakingly foreign to his normal bearing, the Absolvatron reached up to his face and, with one quick wrench, removed his stone jaw, the jaw containing the relic of Saint Martin, the thing that powered his teleportation and whatever else mystical shit that wasn't covered by his badly leaking fusion core. He pressed it into my hands.
"No," I said, my hair beginning to singe now as the flames closed in. "You're not --"
I gritted my teeth and chucked the stone jaw onto the ground in a petulant snit. "DAMNIT, FATHER," I said, "I AM NOT LOSING ANYONE TONI--"
The Snatcher rocketed out of the dark and fire, striking the fallen Absolvatron where he huddled. The alien was actively on fire now too, proving again that burning is a very real weakness of being carbon-based, no matter what planet you come from. I set my feet and prepared another spear-thrust, not even really sure what I was hoping to accomplish, when Mebby charged into the scene from the smoke cloud behind me and grabbed me by the belt.
"S-- Starbuck!" she said, pulling at me. "W-- we have t--"
I glanced back at her, and thus did not see the Snatcher move. I only heard the whiz of his elastic hand daggers from a point behind me, caught the briefest glimpse of the gleaming blades darting out and back, saw Mebby react to the impact.
Mebby touched the front of her cloak and then raised her hand to inspect it. Dark blood glistened on her stubby fingers, illuminated by the now-uncontrollable fire around us.
"Huh," said Mebby, and then collapsed.
I howled her name and turned all the way around, which was another mistake; there was another whiz and the daggers got me in the back, taking a fairly decent chunk out of my side. I fell to one knee, then rolled, facing the melee between the Snatcher and the Absolvatron once more. Absolvatron now had the Snatcher pinned, a fistful of razor-tipped carbon tangles gripped tightly in his hand, the ones that had just been deployed against me. He pulled, hard, and the Snatcher's arm structure came clean off at his shoulder and began burning readily in the ambient flames. For a collective entity, it wasn't the decisive blow it would have been for most of us, but it did set the Snatcher back. As the alien squirmed beneath the bulk of the mechanical priest, feebly attempting to re-grow his severed arm, he pummeled the robot with his remaining good one, each blow landing with a sickeningly powerful thud.
"s-- starbuck," mumbled my fallen hero mentor, behind me.
I stood, hunched from the pain in my side but rooted to the spot, looking back and forth. Five seconds passed in a space of a year.
"GO!" said the Absolvatron, a voice that was, at the last, almost indistinguishable from human, and then the fire rose around them, blocking them from my sight.
"FUCK!" I said, and then, "FUCK!" again. I grabbed the Jawbone of Saint Martin in one hand, and Mebby in my other, and then glanced at the door leading back to the parish hall. The way down was completely obscured by smoke and flame.
"FUCK!" I cried out, again, as I am a bad, bad, potty-mouthed person. I stumbled through the smoke, dragging Mebby, toward the one door remaining to me, the one leading to the roof. I kicked away her wet-cloth preparations and threw it open; hot air from the burning parish hall behind me rushed out of the opening I created and struck me in the back. I was propelled face-first into the frozen gravel that coated the roof of the parish hall. I was hurt. Between this and the substantial bleeding wound on my back, I was experiencing a level of pain that would have been nigh-completely incapacitating about a week ago, but while I was feeling everything, on quite another level, I wasn't feeling anything at all. I turned back to the inferno and hauled my bleeding hero partner out onto the snowy roof.
Channel Cat darted out of the blaze as soon as I had Mebby clear of the door. "Miss," said Channel Cat, "my extensive knowledge of wood and wooden structures tells me that this place is on fire, and I'm not sure for how much longer it's going to remain structurally sound."
"No shit, Norm Abram!" I said, looking frantically around for a fire escape, a second staircase, some way off the roof. Nothing, of course. Mebby moaned, behind me.
I hobbled to the edge of the roof and looked down at the frozen-hard ground, many stories below. Just like the Parthenon, I mused, in a moment of not-quite-accurate clarity. Just like the drop I took off a fake plaster temple on the top of a gyro restaurant however many days ago, the drop that started this whole train a'rolling. I had survived that without any injury to speak of. I had survived that by flying. It wasn't a good flight -- the vast majority of it was down, and any fool can fly down. As I've said before, you call that sort of thing "falling". But there had been a horizontal component. However briefly, and no matter what anyone else might say, I had flown that night. All I needed to do was kick it up a notch.
I was pretty sure I would survive, no matter what happened. I didn't have all the ins and outs of this super-healing thing down, but if I had survived a severed spine, I could survive this fall. It was Mebby I wasn't sure of. But I had no choice that I could see.
"C'mon, Mr. Abram," I said, scooping up the cat and at the Jawbone, and then turning to reach for Mebby. I got her in sort of a clutch hold, surprised and dismayed at how light she felt. Then I stepped to the edge of the roof, the flames beginning to spread out behind me.
"Damnit," I muttered, "I hope to God I know what I'm doing."
I stepped out into empty air.