So I wrote a multichapter thing with plot and stuff! I've been wanting to tell the story of "Strexcorp take over Night Vale, and the community fights back" for absolutely ages - the outline for this was written back in November! - and writing this, with the plot and the multiple characters and multiple arcs and ideas and everything, has been a pretty big learning curve. I'm so pleased to finally be able to share it. As always, many thanks for reading! <3
Summary from AO3:
The day the yellow helicopters come starts out ordinary.
Well, ordinary as can be for Night Vale, in any case. Carlos is awakened by Cecil's phone letting out the ear-splitting screeches that mean an intern is trying to get in touch about an emergency. Cecil snores on - Carlos wonders just how many of his mornings dawn with that awful noise, how long it must have taken him to get used to it - and Carlos grabs the phone, turning it over and over, wincing at the sound and looking for an off command.
Cecil's hand appears from under a mound of pillows and hits a button to silence it, then retreats, holding the phone. Carlos hears a sigh emanate from the pile as Cecil scrolls through the texts.
“Howling portal appeared overnight in the car lot at the Ralph's. Feelings delivery service had another leak, it's spilling a mixture of soul-crushing ennui and thirst for bloody revenge all around the corner of 2nd and Main. Oh - and the break room coffee machine's just dispensing blue Gatorade again. No wonder they said it was urgent…"
Cecil stretches his hand out again to throw the phone towards the clothes piled at the foot of the bed: it misses, rattles against the floorboards and lets out a disapproving chittering sound. "Sorry", Cecil calls out to it, and then the pile of blankets is shifting aside and his tousled, sleep-sticky face is blinking out at Carlos. "Good morning, beautiful Carlos", he says, fighting off a face-splitting yawn and cuddling up close. "Lovely - er, mmm, you're warm", and he drops off again.
Carlos wonders how urgent it is, and how many assistants he'll need to investigate the new portal at the Ralph’s. Maybe this time it’ll spit out pterodactyls. Or something else cool. (He'll send Lena over to look at the spillage: she'd like that.) Truth be told, he'd love to stay here all morning, wrapped up warm and soft with Cecil, but his curiosity's now piqued: there's work to do. There are all kinds of bizarre, incomprehensible new phenomena to investigate, so he shifts a little and pokes Cecil gently. "Shouldn't you - you know - go and get that?"
"S'fine", Cecil mumbles, "jusaminufff." He rearranges himself in Carlos' armpit, and stretches a little. "The interns are always extra keen when they're new, of course, they don't want to miss anything. Five more minutes. Then I'll ring them, let them know the machine just needs a small blood sacrifice first thing in the morning, same as the doors - that should keep them happy."
Carlos has wondered, before, whether it's useful for Cecil to be quite so, well, honest. On air, he means. It's just that - his tone sometimes, it seems to be almost encouraging people to go and, er, poke at the latest danger. He remembers, from a few months back, that several more people had been lost to the Whispering Forest just after Cecil had broadcast detailed information about it, complete with directions towards the place. Now, he can't help but think that Cecil talking about the feelings spillage, warning people off it, might lead to more people going to have a look and then embarking on revenge-oriented rampages around town. He makes a mental note to text the team and warn them to wear extra padding today, just in case.
He mentions this to Cecil while they shuffle around each other in the tiny bathroom, as he’s holding the cloth over the mirror aside with one hand and shaving with the other. As always, Cecil's kind, and patient, but Carlos still ends up feeling as though he's missed something rather obvious, something that the locals would naturally know. Of course Cecil has to report the news, he explains: people need to be warned, and they can make their own decisions as to whether to stay away once they're fully informed. Carlos would rather just cordon off the whole area and direct people around it, but he can appreciate Cecil's need to be honest. He guesses it’s not too different from needing to tell the whole story when writing up science reports.
They cook breakfast together, and Carlos notices how easy it's become, navigating around each other in the tiny kitchen and the crowded bathroom. He's tickling a cupboard door to retrieve two bowls when Cecil makes a surprised sound at another text: "Looks like the Pine Cliff Lizard Monitors are coming back in this season. I'd heard they'd pulled out at least till next year - did you know all their defenders contracted throat spiders? The Coach'll want to know, I think he had plans for the boys assuming they'd just be up against…" he tails off, already typing.
"Do you know anything about Pine Cliff? Just, by the way - I mean, I haven't heard it talked about much in town, and it wasn't on any of the maps…"
"Not much", Cecil shrugs. "Little place, bit further away and towards the left of- " - his voice drops to a growl - " -Desert Bluffs. Far as I know, they're just like us: you know, ordinary and reasonable. Not like those awful people in- "- and now the exact same register, as though he's already warming up for the show later - " -Desert Bluffs. Ugh. Anyway!" - he's bright and cheery again in an instant - “-did you have plans at all today?"
"Some", Carlos says, thoughtful. "The new portal: someone should try and cordon that off, till we know whether it’s dangerous. And the feelings delivery service, too, I thought I'd send Lena over there to have a look, it'll be relevant to Rin's thesis plans. Oh, no, hang on - I just realised: I should stay in and try to get more funding applications written up - the team wanted to check out Radon Canyon again, and there's loads more specialist equipment we'd need for it, much more than they sent us out with…"
"Mmhm." Cecil is listening, chin resting on his hands, apparently rapt. "And… any plans this evening?" He's hopeful, and a little flirtatious, and Carlos' heart sinks to say, "sorry, love, I don't think I can. I don't know how long things will take today, or how much the rest of the team will need. Sorry."
"Of course - I know it's important. You're very welcome to come over tomorrow as well, naturally - "
"Can I let you know? I'll text later, once I've more of an idea of - well."
Carlos walks to work, skirting around the neighbours' bushes just before they can start to growl and snap at his ankles, and neatly stepping out of the way of a glowing blue spore fired at him from a nearby tree. (The tree makes what he could swear is a "dammit!" gesture with two branches, and readies another projectile, but he's already out of range.) It's routine, now, but he's aware he's trying not to look too closely at the way his initial panic has been replaced, slowly and inexorably, with practical, detached calmness. Nor is he going to consider the consequences were he to let his guard down for even a moment.
He knows Cecil is angling for more time together, and goodness knows, Cecil's apartment is brighter and cosier than the soulless beige room he's been using behind the lab - and it contains Cecil, who is wonderful, of course - but it's the longer-term implications that have him stop in his tracks. Isn't Night Vale the most terrifying and dangerous place in the US, as well as being the most scientifically interesting? The residents have always seemed to take it in their stride, and these days, he's ridiculously grateful to his team for providing a much-needed reality check as to what's normal. Maybe he can take Cecil back to Boston, if the funding isn't renewed - but no, he'd never be willing to leave the town, this community is everything to him. Could Carlos really imagine watching his back every day for -
Deep in thought, Carlos almost runs in to Lena, who is already loading up the station wagon with boxes of equipment. She's a tall woman around his age, and she'd spearheaded getting the project out here, having worked in paranormal studies for years. Regular visits to her partner back at home have kept Lena the most calm and grounded of the team, and Carlos trusts her absolutely. Today, she's wearing a bulletproof vest under a flak jacket, and grinning.
Her student, Rin, is holding more boxes just behind her: she's bubbly and excitable, even this early in the morning. Carlos suspects that the giddy joy of scoring work in the field for her first post-grad assignment, rather than in a lab, hasn't yet worn off for her: Lena had mentioned that Rin said she’d spent a childhood fascinated by ghost stories and all things horror, and she adores the work. In fact, the giant worms at the community college had recently sent the scientists a letter inviting them to contribute some course material: it’s a big time commitment, but Carlos wonders if Rin might be the best suited for the job. They’d love her presenting style. He makes a note to talk with her about it later.
"Hey!”, Lena says, passing Carlos a crate to hold as she wrestles with the side door. “Rin and I were just thinking we'd check out that feelings leakage before the whole town heard about it and went to look, thought we'd set up a before-and-after kinda thing? You want to come with?"
Carlos smiles at their enthusiasm, and promises to add something about remote psychological manipulation to the letters back to Boston. He texts Cecil from his desk: maybe at least ask people to be careful? I've got colleagues checking it out now, I'd like them back in one piece!
That's when he hears the rattle of rapidly approaching helicopters.
You hear the helicopters coming long before you're able to see their colour, or the strange, bright logo painted on their sides. You had been about to drive to work, but something makes you stop, and watch them draw closer.
Old Woman Josie's house seems to have disappeared: all of this morning, since the sun came up, your eyes have just slid away from the spot where the house usually is. It's as though there is a gap in the universe there, or an absence in the light. You hope she’ll be back soon: she has always been friendly towards you.
You stand, fascinated, as helicopters circle the sky above the houses. They're just concentrated in this area, it seems, and you wonder who they're looking for. You're just about to walk to the car and drive out to work - they'll be wondering where you are already, you know this well - when one of the helicopters lands in the scrublands just beyond your trailer, and two individuals wearing smart suits and bright, beaming smiles step out. You're not sure who they are and whether you should stay or run, but you think you may be able to trust them: after all, they have such friendly and beautiful faces.
They walk towards you, and you see that they are holding handfuls of leaflets. They hand you a business card embossed with a bright orange sun, and tell you that they have a job offer for you.
These visitors look ridiculously out of place in her shop, Laquisha thinks, as she deliberately takes her time straightening a stack of Buddy Holly records. The staff at Dark Owl Records dress as they like, and a tendency to share clothes and fashion tips has led to most of them favouring artfully torn band t-shirts, dark nail polish, and bright undercuts. The identically besuited women aren't browsing: they're waiting with Riese by the desk to speak with her. Both have manicured nails, long glossy hair, and artificially whitened teeth, and the shorter woman is already tapping a high heel in impatience.
Laquisha moves a Greatest Hits album to the front of the stack, and goes to rescue Riese. "How can I help?"
The pitch they give is a whole lot of jargon: Laquisha suspects it was designed to go over her head and confuse her, and she worries a little that other people on the strip might be more intimidated by these goons. It's a co-management proposal, something about maximising shares and profit opportunities: Laquisha listens, and says nothing, and the women leave behind a pile of orange leaflets when they go.
She's a little relieved to hear Riese let out a derisive snort as soon as they've left: "what, think they want to tell us how to run a business? See how much time they spend straightening that hair every morning, then we'll talk." Riese runs a hand over their own neat cornrows, frowning, and Laquisha quite suddenly feels a rush of gratitude. That bullshit got into your head, sometimes, even working in a place like this.
"You okay with the shop for an hour, Riese? Thought I'd check in on Lucy and Hannah."
"Course, boss", Riese answers, already reaching over to replace the ambient music with a mixtape of their own. "Bring us back some of that saguaro agave sorbet if they've got it, yeah?"
Hannah Gutierrez is incandescent with rage, too much so to speak with customers, so Lucy sends her and Laquisha to sit in a far corner of the shop, loaded up with tall glasses of mango paprika and aloe lime ice cream.
She rants to Laquisha in a furious undertone - "came in talking all this talk 'bout where our shares are and protecting our investments, as though we don't know a thing 'bout managing this place ourselves, can you believe it? Lucy and I bought this place with all we had, don't need no jerks in suits telling us how to keep it going, how dare they - "
Laquisha glances over to Lucy by the tills, who has pulled one of the orange leaflets out of the trash bin and is reading it with a frown. "Same for us too, babe. Glad Riese was there else I'd have thrown them out right away, you know? It's just disrespectful, don't know who they think they are. Do you think anything'll come of it?"
Hannah shrugs, digs in her spoon, chews darkly on a mango slice. "Haven't seen it before, and we've been 'round a long time. Don't think so: not if they know what's good for them."
Lucy loads up three to-go boxes of sorbet for her and the team, and Laquisha kisses her on the cheek in thanks, claps Hannah on the shoulder, and walks back to the store in the blazing afternoon sunshine.
Weaponry classes have been a staple at the school since first grade: monsters roam the school corridors, paler versions of those at the library, and a thorough grounding in self-defence is vital for anyone hoping to continue their education - or, often, their life. Tamika Flynn has noticed that some of the kids have become more confident in self-defence classes since the Summer Reading Program: before, many would be too cautious during instruction, careful to swing gently and not make too much noise. Since the summer, when she and her friends had urged everyone, in whispers, to stay quiet only until the attack and then to go for it in full force - in other words, since the necessity of facing the mortal danger of prowling librarians had given her peers permission to make loud, messy noise - she’s noticed the weaponry classes are noisier, too. They’re less afraid of making mistakes, now; more willing to experiment, and a small glow of pride lights up inside her chest to see even the shyest, youngest kids run screaming at each other across the mats.
Today, Tamika is concentrating on getting her Weird Spanish homework finished before the end of lunch break, so she misses the helicopters’ arrival. It’s only when Ruth Carlsberg finds her, bent over books in the empty classroom, that Tamika finds out: classes have been cancelled, and they’re to report to the main hall instead.
The newcomers address the whole school, and promise new books for the library. Tamika’s so pleased with the prospect that she doesn’t notice there are already a couple of teachers missing from the hall.
At the radio station, intern Nadia is reading at reception when two dudes in suits walk briskly past her, heading for the studios. Remembering her training, she calls out a friendly, "Hey, can I help?" to their backs, and when that’s ignored, along with a slightly louder follow-up of, “Hi there, welcome to NVCR, can I help at all?”, she grabs a crowbar from under the desk and follows at a jog.
Nadia plants herself in the corridor when they pause, hefts the crowbar, and raises her voice at their backs. “Excuse me, please! I'm going to have to ask you to - " then cuts off in horror as one of them opens the door to Cecil's studio, flagrantly ignoring the illuminated "On Air" sign above.
Cecil's voice is being piped to speakers in the hallway, and she notices that he barely wavers in his delivery as they enter. Nadia runs to the studio, and just as she's about to storm in, Cecil catches her eyes through the window and shakes his head, just slightly. One of the men is holding out a sheet of paper to him, and the other is holding something behind his chair that she can't see.
Nadia watches Cecil take the paper and read it out loud, alternating between checking the words and looking directly at her, as though to reassure her. She's far too angry to be afraid: she has never seen such disrespect for community radio, and it's taking all her professionalism to stop her wading in to the studio and bodily dragging out the interlopers.
She sees Cecil is shaking a little: whether it's in fear or his own outrage at the blatant lies he's being told to read, Nadia is not sure, but he holds his hands spread flat on the desk and breathes slowly and, apart from a slow start, the words mostly come out smooth and calm. Nadia hears them, crisp and clear, even through her own furious tears and the roar increasing in her ears. “We are all completely safe.”
Listeners will know that Strexcorp Synernists Inc. have recently taken over administration for most of the local businesses down on Main Street, and today, we've received an email from none other than Steve Carlsberg, giving his opinion on the recent changes. Now, Steve says that he's… concerned about what he calls this “sweeping and overwhelming” takeover, and feels that Strexcorp's generous support will only lead to our charming little town becoming some kind of cookie-cutter Stepfordesque
community, a soulless shell of its former self.
He goes on to say that any small business owners who feel pressured into selling up to our benevolent sponsors should seek legal advice via himself, or the citizens’ advice department at the Night Vale City Hall, open every day from 11 till 5 on the second floor - now, see here, Steve! I'm going to have to cut you off right there, and assure all our listeners that in no way are our kind and charming colleagues - who, I'll remind everyone, now even manage the radio station from which I'm currently giving this broadcast, under the watchful and caring eyes of my new Strexcorp-approved supervisor, Daniel - in no way are Strexcorp out to turn our community into some kind of homogenised, hyper-branded nightmare! That… would be ridiculous. Strexcorp care about local businesses, and have the financial interests of small business owners completely at heart. Remember that, listeners: remember it well, as we go to traffic.
Carlos is setting up telescopes in the sand wastes when he hears Cecil's car approaching.
Cecil wraps his arms around him from behind, and slides a hand into his lab coat pocket. "Hey, babe", he says, a little too loudly, and Carlos frowns at the unusual pet name. "I brought out blankets and coffee, what say we… take in the scenery a little?"
He's pulled out Carlos' phone, and now he wraps it up, along with his own, in several layers of furry blankets. Leaving the resulting bundle in the passenger seat of the car, Cecil puts a finger to his lips and motions for Carlos to follow him out into the scrublands.
"They bought up the secret police yesterday, and a bunch of new officers just came in from out of town", Cecil says, low and serious into Carlos' ear once they're some distance from the cars. "I've been talking to Tamika and the Glow Cloud's daughter, as well: they said they've confiscated weaponry from the students, and cancelled a bunch of the classes. It's only the Scouts learning self-defence at all, now. I'm worried about them, and I'm worried about Josie, too, haven't heard a word from her in weeks - look, love. I think… I think it's time I started up the old bowling team again. Like Josie said on the phone, remember? I need to know: you and the scientists, are you up for joining the team?"
Carlos leans back a little to study Cecil's face. There's just the moonlight for illumination now: he looks calm and composed, almost calculating. It's a new look on him; difficult to read. "You're not talking about going bowling. Are you?"
"It's happened before, I think", Cecil says, coming in close again to speak quietly. "Josie said something, ages ago - she didn't give any details, and oh, I never thought to ask, foolish Cecil" - his voice cracks a little, and Carlos squeezes both his upper arms fiercely, a wave of compassion distracting him from the issue at hand - "but she said some of them had gotten together to make a bowling team, and that helped. Look, we have to do something. There's kids getting hurt at the school, people at the mall are having their jobs replaced - and by what, I don't even know. There's rumours about the bloodstone factory - they won't let the news come through properly, the interns are having to run everything by them and by the time it's approved it's too old to air. They're filling up the time with more ads - I think they're buying up more businesses, too."
Carlos nods, and considers. Of course he's concerned about the town, and he'd been outright scared to hear the shaking in Cecil's voice on the day Strexcorp had arrived. It's just that… he hasn't noticed too many changes in town since. Slightly tidier streets, perhaps, and - oh, Rin had said something about spotting a group of people moving out to the barista district. Carlos is preoccupied, and busy: he still hasn't heard back from Boston, and had had to hold Lena back from investigating a sudden sinkhole earlier that week because they just didn't have the resources.
There's something else. Earlier that afternoon, a Strexcorp representative had stopped by the lab, asking to meet with him. Over coffee at Big Rico's, the man had laid out graphs and proposals onto the table: they wanted to collaborate. There was research Strexcorp needed done, certain interests they wanted to pursue. They offered funding. Carlos was assured that the team would receive all-new equipment, and still have plenty of time to continue with their own work. A business card is now burning a hole in Carlos' back pocket: he'd said he would think about it.
Cecil's voice brings him back to himself - "Carlos. So?" - he steps back a little and frowns, thoughtful.
"Look - love, I don't know. I know it's been… strange, around the town, things have been different, but look, we've a lot on at the lab right now. Rin and Lena think they're about to make a breakthrough, so they're there all hours, and I'm spending so much time with funding applications that I can't even - look. Just, it wouldn't be fair to ask them both to, er, join a bowling team, you know? And me - well, I. I'm sorry."
Cecil doesn't argue, and he doesn't look disappointed, or even surprised. Just evaluating, as before, as though he now knows another puzzle piece and is ready to click it into place, look again at the wider picture.
He just says, "Okay", and "thanks for thinking about it", and that's that.
More news this morning, listeners: the missing child, Tamika Flynn, has been spotted breaking windows and gluing locks around the Strexcorp head offices on Earl and 2nd, rendering them unusable for the day and resulting in several hours of lost productivity. Reports suggest that data contained inside the offices, detailing the hours owed by workers who have recently taken sick leave, as well as resulting from increased work quotas across town, has also been lost. It's chaos down at the offices as Strexcorp try to repair the damage, and citizens are urged to remain vigilant and to report any sightings of this child, or her associates, immediately.
Three individuals wearing suits and yellow ties sweep past the NVCR front desk. Intern Nadia is by now used to their comings and goings, but their fast, terse pace and closed faces give her pause. She glances up at the speakers playing the show into the reception area: Cecil's reading traffic, something about numbers, detailing pints of blood and billions of atoms and steps taken out into the sand wastes. Earlier on, he'd repeated the speech that Tamika Flynn had relayed to intern Felipe earlier that week. He'd read it in full to the town three or four times just today, she thinks. Nadia frowns, and just as the weather starts up, she makes to go after them. She's barely reached the hallway door when her phone buzzes, signalling a text from Cecil.
don't forget Kh.'s feed is in the big bag under the sink in the breakroom, new feed every morning, ok? some of the kittens might need hand-feeding, but their owners are usually around for that
Another one. & he likes company! if you could spend half an hour talking to him, I do that, he's got this lovely purr, make sure he's not lonely, ok?
Another. blue ktn's venom sacs just coming in, still non-lethal, she's so friendly but make sure to warn her owner
Nadia's phone buzzes again, but she's already running for the studio.
After the weather, the radio goes straight to the next scheduled program: four hours of static, with occasional shuffling sounds. In the lab, Carlos raises an eyebrow. Dialling Cecil’s number just takes him to answerphone - the first time, the second, the sixth, and with his panic increasing, he runs for the car.
He arrives at NVCR to see the doors locked and yellow helicopters circling overhead, the inscrutable sunglasses-covered faces of their pilots already trained on him. Still no answer from Cecil’s phone. There's nothing to find out here, Carlos realises. Back at the lab, he throws the windows wide and addresses the tree outside. He doesn't spend time on pleasantries. "Geoffrey, what's going on?"
A balaclava-covered head emerges from between two thick branches. One hand is held up to his ear, where he seems to be listening to incoming news. He nods, then looks at Carlos and relays the message. "Line is, he's gone for retraining, and pending - uh, pending satisfactory performance, he's eligible for departmental reassignment." Geoffrey cups one hand tightly over the microphone at his chin. "We don't know. I'm so sorry."
All Carlos' organs turn to stone, and then abruptly, to helium. He's dizzy, he wants to wail and scream, grab Geoffrey's microphone and ask them, what on earth, they don't know - how in hell can't they know? - but someone else is listening in even now, someone who is not the police force to which he is accustomed. He doesn't wail or scream: he holds tightly to the bench, digs his nails into the wood, and counts to ten slowly, then thanks Geoffrey politely and closes the window.
Carlos leaves his phone on the lab bench and drives out to the sand wastes, drives until he can no longer hold back his panic, can no longer see the road for the blur. Pulling over, he takes in shaky, sobbing breaths, thumps at the wheel, then walks circles out in the rough desert. Walks and walks, nothing around but the sound of his boots, and tries to focus on the huge dark sky. The void does not care. Nothing matters, in the end. None of them and nothing he does will ever be lasting - he repeats this to himself, silent and then out loud, but without Cecil beside him, intoning dark soliloquies on existence and impermanence, absolutely none of this knowledge is comforting.
Well, it's another beautiful, bright and sunny day here in lovely Night Vale, and all of us at NVCR are just so very excited to let you all know about the plans for that big old factory building out of the edge of town! Such a shame to have all that valuable space going to waste, don't you think, Night Vale? Well: we're very pleased to announce that our generous sponsors, Strexcorp - of course - will be introducing a new internship program in association with the community college! Students will be able to learn practical skills and enjoy the benefits of hard work, all while helping out our local economy: now, isn't that wonderful? More details on the renovation, as well as the mandatory signing-up procedure for all NVCC students, will be coming up soon: right after this word from our sponsors!
Martha runs. Down, down, to the lowest floor of the bloodstone factory, where she breaks the ancient seals holding the innermost chambers closed. She has to work fast: she can already hear Strexcorp’s people banging on the doors up at ground level, and several helicopters overhead. She knows the others won't be able to buy her much time.
She pulls open filing cabinet drawers and old wooden chests, and loads up her pockets, her shoes, tied-off sections of her sleeves and trouser legs: all with dark, shining bloodstones. Dozens of them: shimmering faintly in the half-light and letting off a feeling of mild outrage at being so roughly handled. They pile heavy into Martha's pockets, but when she is finished, and begins to take careful steps, she finds them - and herself - feeling, somehow, lighter. She feels as though she could easily run miles, holding the stones safe and close.
There's a crumbling passageway leading out into the earth, and Martha sprints out along it, pulling levers embedded in the walls to collapse sections behind her. Hours of alternating walking and running later, she comes out panting into a narrow canyon hidden deep in the sand wastes, where she rests.
Martha stays out in the desert for four days, tapping cacti for water and trapping occasional lizards: she hadn't been a Scout for nothing, after all. Every evening, she carefully sacrifices one of the larger desert snakes to the heaped-up circle of bloodstones in the canyon, where they hum contentedly.
On the fifth day, she walks back: first along the old canyon floor, and then through another, intact tunnel. She comes up in the basement at Big Rico's, knowing the pizzeria staff will be well-placed to discreetly distribute the stones amongst the townsfolk from there.
The wheat and wheat-by-product speakeasy is thankfully still thriving, and once Martha has eaten her fill of spaghetti and meatballs, it is Big Rico's sister, Concetta, who fills her in on what's happened around town.
She's a warm and pragmatic middle-aged woman with an easy smile, and she holds Martha's hands tightly between her own as she explains. "I am sorry, my dear: the factory is gone. They took away most of the people for, eh… retraining, they said. Something about taking on supervising positions in the new internship program? They came back… they look the same, but they are not the same. It is the appearance, they look… more flawless now, I think? and sometimes they spark? Rico is sure he saw engine oil leaking from behind someone’s ear, I do not like to think about it…"
When Martha buries her face in her hands, Concetta strokes her hair and calls her good girl and brave girl, you did all you could, you did so well, and Martha is at least her age but in that moment, she's grateful. Concetta insists Martha eats a second helping while she makes up a bed for her, and when Concetta promises she can stay as long as she needs, Martha hugs her tightly and says she'll help out with the pizzeria however she can.
Great news for local football team, the Night Vale Spiderwolves! They've just welcomed a new owner: Strexcorp Synernists Inc. Look around you: Strex. Look inside you: Strex. Go to sleep: Strex. Believe in a smiling God. Strexcorp: it is… everything.
Lucy and Hannah Gutierrez are gone, along with most of the White Sand Ice Cream Shop, and the land upon which it stood. Laquisha has acquiesced to Strexcorp's insistence on buying a majority share in Dark Owl Records, and is now locked in her office for the second day running. Riese occasionally hears muffled sobs under the door, interspersed with the sound of boots hitting furniture.
For their part, Riese is focused on the practicalities. The record shop is still open, daily inspections from gratingly cheerful Strexcorp representatives notwithstanding. More people are coming in: with most of the town's businesses now owned by Strexcorp, Riese suspects people feel more comfortable shopping with them again now that they're not so obviously resisting takeover.
Business being up again could not have come a moment too soon. All Strexcorp employees are being paid in scrip, which can only be spent at Strex-owned retailers. Those retailers have also been instructed to only accept scrip, and so, for the first time in several weeks, Riese is able to shop for fresh groceries at the Ralph's and to bring in Jerry's Tacos for lunch. They leave a vegetarian quesadilla out in the kitchen for Laquisha, and slip a note under the office door.
At the last meeting of the bowling team, Riese had heard some dude in a fedora loudly decrying anyone who allowed themselves to be taken over by Strex. They’d caught the eyes of Big Rico’s sister, still serving up penne al’arrabiata and big, soft chunks of
focaccia at the speakeasy bar, and both of them had rolled their eyes at his speech. Sure, the new regime was terrible - Riese’s own hidden cache of bloodstones vibrated in anger at their ban, and the humiliation of having to go underground - but survival was key. Things were easier now that they were dealing with daily inspections rather than incessant business proposals - and, they had fresh food again. Apparently neutralised, the shop staff had a little more breathing space with which to do resistance work that was actually useful.
Hiding the family of Martha, the woman who had escaped the bloodstone factory before Strexcorp had taken all her colleagues for re-training, for one. Riese leaves extra candles and several boxed burritos from Jerry's beside the trapdoor hidden under the counter, and straightens up to smile as the bell rings, signalling a new customer.
Don't forget, there's nothing under your bed and nothing in your closet! We are all perfectly safe, and there is nothing at all that is unknown. Believe in a smiling God, and they will make sure of it! And remember, a few extra work hours have been added to everyone's schedules this week, so mark that up in your calendar and be sure you make up your time!
In the lab, Rin throws a balled-up teatowel towards the radio. They're unable to turn it off or cut the wires, but Lena's wrapped it up in lab coats and insulating material and shoved it behind the counter, where the majority of the sound is at least muffled.
She's only back briefly, to load up fresh coffee into the thermoses and collect a few muffins from the fridge. The black hole that had opened up on Main yesterday evening had already claimed three dozen citizens before Rin and Lena had even heard about it. It had taken them half the night to work out that the thing needed constant offerings of loud dubstep and fresh coffee to be sated. They've now cordoned off the area and moved in, with folding chairs, thermoses, and spare batteries for the portable MP3 player. Also, earmuffs for Lena. Keeping the thing satisfied is the best they can hope for while they work out what to do.
She paces up and down as the kettle boils, hoping Lena is still all right. She had insisted on staying with Rin all that afternoon, despite Rin's protests that she could handle things herself. They're now mostly alternating, one giving the black hole full attention while the other jots down notes, or naps.
Rin hasn't seen Carlos in several days. Last she'd heard, Lena had said that he'd popped by yesterday afternoon, looking red-eyed and exhausted and muttering something about needing to see Steve Carlsberg. Rin and Lena have had their own projects shelved for some time now, what with the grey portal last week that spat out angry and very large cats onto Somerset, and now this.
Too slow, and Rin grunts in frustration: if last night's radio show had only told people, at least some of this evening's crowd could have been spared. They might have even worked out how to deal with the situation earlier. There - done, finally - Rin pours out three large flasks of coffee, and grabs extra cream for herself and Lena. Backpack in hand, she runs out of the lab and back to the car.
Welcome back, everyone, to another sunny day here in gorgeous Night Vale! Some eagle-eyed listeners have phoned in to report a strange kind of dark window that recently appeared on Main Street, but citizens can rest assured that everything's been taken care of. Good news for staff at the Ralph's and the Midnite All-Nite Diner, who can expect to pick up a few extra shifts this week, which have suddenly become available! And, to everyone: just another quick reminder to check your work schedules, because all our quotas have been adjusted. I'm so pleased to be spending a little more time in the radio station, myself - remember, our little community will only grow its economy if we all pitch in, and I'm so very excited that we can all help out! We're all in this together: and with that in mind, let's go to sports.
Tamika Flynn sits on a rock and surveys the desert camp spread out below her. To her right sits Ruth Carlsberg, making notes and marking out diagrams on several sheets of paper.
Two more interns from NVCR had come out earlier that week, asking for a place to stay. They'd walked with a dozen more kids, bringing with them rucksacks stuffed with Gatorade and snacks, and, even more valuable, one of them carried a rolled-up map that someone from the old bloodstone factory had drawn up.
"Big Rico's sister said it's not safe yet for Martha to come up out of the basement, they've got cameras all over", intern Nadia had said. "But she drew this: look, it's all the underground passages she could remember, she said it's how she got out to hide in the sand wastes and then got back. Maybe it'll be useful?"
Ruth had taken the map and studied it all week. She and Tamika had been discussing the possibilities of going up through the tunnels to spraypaint some security cameras, or barricading the doors of the bloodstone factory to delay the start of the new internship program - both sound ideas, but they're worried.
"It all feels so small", Ruth had said, quietly, the previous evening. "It's like we're just chipping away small bits off the top. I want to get in underneath, stuff in explosives everywhere and blow up the whole thing."
"Small's important too", Tamika had countered. "The small stuff can still mean the whole world to someone. We'll do what we can, now, and we'll do the big stuff when we can too. Get some sleep."
Today, there's a big group off to the west, practising their slingshot aim against a cliff-face. Some of the Fear Scouts are leading a foraging party towards the south. The smaller ones are helping the Glow Cloud's daughter set up extra shelters for that day's newcomers. Most of the camp is taking downtime: there are excited shrieks from a group playing tag, and a few kids are laid out around a campfire, reading stolen books.
Strange, Tamika thinks, that a few months back, the scariest thing she could imagine was dealing with the librarians over a late book. What they'd faced during the Summer Reading Program had been terrifying monsters, but they were their monsters, Night Vale's own. These newcomers were a strange new kind of monster: turned out that made all the difference in the world.
She's a little worried about the scientist. Intern Nadia had said that they'd taken away the man on the radio, and one of their night watchers had reported seeing a hybrid coupe drive close by and someone in a lab coat walking in frantic, frightened circles shortly after. She is worried about everyone, of course, but there have to be limits: they do as much as they can. For now, she and Ruth scramble down from the overlook and go to join the group by the campfire.
It's something to do with Desert Bluffs, Steve Carlsberg explains. Some friends of his there had said something about a mysterious new corporation buying up businesses, and after that they'd all gone a bit... weird. It had sounded similar - he thinks the same thing is going on here.
Carlos wants to ask more questions, but Steve is still talking. "Cecil's probably fine, by the way", he adds off-handedly. "He's valuable to Strex - we know that because they kept him doing the show. He's persuasive, and his voice has power and charisma: people listen to him. Best guess, they're likely moving him out into doing advertising work for them at the main office or something."
He doesn't sound too concerned, and Carlos wants suddenly to punch a wall - what do you mean, probably fine? Useful conduit for Cecil's getting out subversive messages he may well be, but Steve Carlsberg is a jerk.
Reminding himself to stay calm and rational (he is a scientist, after all), Carlos says, "Well. We have to go to Desert Bluffs, then. We've got to get him back."
"Just what I was thinking", Steve says, walking over to the bookcase by the door. It's stacked high with municipally-approved, pulpy novels, and he pulls on a third edition biography of Helen Hunt, sending another electromagnetic pulse through the house's bugs. They're overlaying the surveillance with a conversation they’d recorded earlier: a long and involved run-through of different recipes for cooking cacti and other local plants, with assorted gluten-free accompaniments. Hopefully, the secret police aren't listening too closely.
Steve brings a thick file out from behind the bookcase. "Ruth and I, we've been doing a bit of research. She's gotten really good at navigating the library since the Summer Reading Program, loads better than I'll ever be" - he's beaming with pride, and Carlos immediately forgives his earlier insensitivity. It's easy to be tactless about other peoples' loved ones when you're preoccupied with worry over your own. He should know.
"We had a look at the history, and talked with Old Woman Josie as well. Look: we think it's happened before", Steve says, flipping to a page of old Daily Journal headlines. There's something about new job opportunities out at the edge of town; something else about a new office building; a photo of the then-Mayor opening a factory while blank-faced dudes in suits look on in the background. "Some company came in looking to make a bunch of new jobs and bring local shops under one big umbrella. I'm not sure what happened, but it's around the same time that Josie started up the old bowling league, and a few weeks after that they withdrew their investments. I think they might have been scared off a bit by the town, too - it's tough to keep profits reliably high when time doesn't work and random days get cancelled. But these guys, they're different: they don't seem quite so worried about the weird stuff. If anything, they're more than happy to let citizens fall prey to it while they get on with their work and pretend everything's fine."
Carlos knows Rin and Lena have been up all night, taking shifts to mollify the black hole on Main. Their experiments have been ruined for want of attention in the lab. The goons from Strex had phoned him again today (how had they gotten his personal number?), pushing for a close on the research funding deal. They've been emailing over new proposals all week: they want research into work hours and happiness levels, effective subliminal marketing strategies, and, worryingly, something on repairing significantly damaged organs. He's not sure he can keep stalling them for long, and there's no way he's willing to expose the team to the consequences that could come from an outright no.
He's ashamed, now, to have even considered the possibility of selling out his staff to fulfil some corporate agenda. Back in Boston, barely a week had gone by during his undergrad years without some drug company or another coming in to give glossy presentations to the top students over free wine and snacks. A few of his classmates had gone for it: headed straight for shiny, well-stocked labs and large, reliable incomes upon graduating, and Carlos couldn't blame them for it. He'd been tempted, back then: especially on the cold weekend mornings, rising early to get in the twenty hours a week of work he did just to stay on top of his tuition fees.
In the end, idealism had won out: he wanted to discover new things, make real breakthroughs. Idealism had taken him to years of work crunching data in dingy labs, using malfunctioning equipment; to fighting universities for every scrap of funding and usually ending up with a research plan that fulfilled their interests more than his own; and, eventually, to Night Vale.
His inner idealist still shouts strong, and is now kicking him: I thought your priority was scientific integrity! Might as well sell out to Big Pharma now, right?, and he carries around the shame of having misjudged these newcomers. It sits heavy alongside the persistent, nauseating fear for Cecil: it informs every decision he makes, now.
Carlos straightens his back. "We have to go to Desert Bluffs."
"Well, obviously", Steve says. "Ruth's already been talking about it and making plans with Tamika for weeks."
"Can we go soon? Tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow? I can ask, but are you sure? It's not as though you even went through the Night Vale school system-"
"I know. I know - of course, I'm sorry, I wouldn't want to endanger any of you. But, please. I have to find Cecil. If anything's happened..."
Steve looks at him for a long moment, then pulls the EMP lever again and takes out his phone.
"Look who decided to tag along", Tamika says, sitting backwards in the passenger seat of the car and fixing Carlos with an appraising glare. "You're not going to slow us down or anything, right?"
She has an axe tied to her back, and a couple of laboratories' worth of computer equipment in a satchel at her side. Ruth Carlsberg, strapped in beside Carlos, is carrying two smaller axes, several canisters of pepper spray, and some energy bars. The headlights are off, but Steve seems comfortable enough driving just by moonlight, trusting the car to stay on the road.
"Thank you again for bringing me along", Carlos says, more than a little intimidated. "I know it's big stuff you're doing here - I'll try not to get in the way. I'm just hoping to find Cecil."
"Chill out, Mr. Scientist", Tamika says breezily, sprawling back down in her seat. "We'll find your boyfriend: ain't going all this way to leave him behind. Might be that guy's got no sense of self-preservation sometimes - don't think he knows the first thing 'bout taking out librarians, even - but he's ours. Strex got no right taking folks away: we'll get him back, don't you worry."
"So. The plan", Ruth says, readjusting her satchel. "This is for your benefit, Mr. Scientist, so listen up. Dad already showed you the EMP, right? He's staying with the car, and taking out the building. You, me and Tamika are going in: we're just gonna see how much we can mess up. Get in the systems, smash up the hardware, whatever. You see anything looks interesting, grab it and we'll look later. See anything might tell us where Mr Cecil or Miss Josie are, yell and we'll go check it out. Don't get lost. Don't fall behind. You got it?"
That's the plan? Well, Carlos is hardly one to criticise. He takes a deep breath, and nods. "Yes. Got it."
Ruth gives him a searching look. "You'll be fine. Here, take these." She hands him one of her pepper spray canisters, and pulls a baseball bat from under the seat: it's decorated with sparkly pink ribbons.
"Ruth got her Level 3 Advanced Subversive Hacking badge just a couple of weeks before the helicopters first came", Steve tells Carlos proudly, catching his eyes in the rear-view mirror. "I was worried about the Scouts at first: some of those other kids can go a bit strange, you know? But it's been really great, she knows so much about computing, now, I'm aways getting her to fix up our systems - "
"Okay, almost there!", Ruth interrupts, blushing. They've just rounded a corner, and Desert Bluffs lies out glittering before them.
That's a lot of skyscrapers for a small desert town, is Carlos' first thought. One might make sense, two little ones at a pinch, but there are five shining office towers in the centre of town, and building work on what looks like at least three more.
"We're going for that central one, over westwards", Ruth explains. "Dad's had a couple penpals here ever since we moved, must be... five years now. Few months back, they wrote something 'bout a new business arriving in town: after that, one of 'em stopped writing, and the other, her letters were... different. Said all this stuff 'bout new growth in town, being excited to work at the new business. Filled her letters with all these weird phrases - even graphs, one time - said she was based now at headquarters, out west."
The main street certainly has a lot of similar-looking shops and cafes, Carlos thinks. Everywhere, there are the same logos he'd seen on the helicopters and later emblazoned all over the town: one is an S in an orange triangle, and the other is a bright yellow sun. There are grocery stores, coffee shops, places for clothes - quite a few specialising in work uniforms - all with the same logos, and cheery slogans encouraging hard work and dedication. And individualism, Carlos thinks, realising that's not a focus he's seen in some time. Back home, it's now always about individuals making up their hours, and competing for shifts.
It's the largest, shiniest skyscraper they're aiming for: sooner than Carlos is ready for, they're pulling up by the side of the building, right, time for one last check of his stuff -
"Okay, let's go!" Tamika shouts, and then they're out and the car is gone. Ruth is already at the door, working on the electronic lock, and - there, it's gone - and they're through.
Steve's EMP must have worked, because there's already emergency lighting on inside the building. Two night-time security guards, hanging around looking confused in the hallway, are quickly dispatched by tranquilliser darts from Tamika. She doesn't hesitate, or even glance towards them, as she strides to the guards' station.
"Right. Map", Tamika says, plugging something in and typing. "Look: recording studios. Betcha they're holding Cecil there, and he'd know what they've done with Miss Josie. How's about you take the scientist and check it out?", she says to Ruth, "while I see what this one can do", hefts the axe, grinning, "over there." She's pointing at the 'research labs' section of the map, and for a split second a part of Carlos is desperately envious, wants so much to go and see what he can rescue and use, oh, the resources they must have - later. Priorities.
"I'll catch up with you by the studios, yeah? Don't do anything I wouldn't", Tamika tosses over her shoulder, already heading for the stairs.
"Well? You heard, come on!", Ruth says, tugging on Carlos' sleeve.
Cecil's in a recording booth, still working at 3am, looking tired but lucid. There's a mug of what looks to be honey and lemon at his elbow, and a tall stack of scripts on his desk. He's recording, but looks up as Carlos and Ruth come to the window, and his face lights up.
He's locked in, of course - Ruth fiddles with the keypad for a moment, then curses and produces a blowtorch. As she works it around the lock, Carlos comes right up to the glass, where Cecil already has both hands splayed on it, reaching for him as much as possible, beaming. Carlos gazes at him, matches up their hands, and lets himself feel, just for a moment, a rush of relief and joy at finding Cecil. He's okay. They're not out of the building yet, not even close, and they're alone and helpless in a merciless universe and life is imperfect and life isn't fair, or kind, not ever, and he's okay.
The lock falls out with a clunk and Cecil rushes in to Carlos' waiting arms. Carlos is already full of apologies: for ever hesitating, for ever prioritising anything else over his partner - he buries his face in Cecil's hair, and doesn't say it just yet, but of course he'll be staying in Night Vale. How he could ever live anywhere else without this ridiculous and amazing man beside him - the relief bubbles up inside his chest, and makes shapes for a moment, forming a table, a door, a rug...
He's saved from embarrassing Ruth further by the hurried arrival of Tamika. She and her axe are covered in blood and a strange green sludge, and she's breathing heavily. Striding behind her is Josie, machete in hand, looking murderous.
Tamika leans over, panting. "They had - librarians - in there. This - big room, all these - cells, bunch of them loose - 'round the floor - too. Didn't look like the - ones in the library, either - they were all, kinda cleaner? All - looked the same, and all sleeker, or - something..."
Carlos frowns. Genetic engineering? Josie looks at him. "That's what young Ms Flynn thought, too. They're experimenting with them, trying to make some kind of weapon. It's despicable: these people haven't the first clue about what kinds of monsters they're dealing with here. I'd wager they're not even considering minding the consequences, either: they're just looking for power."
Tamika leans against the wall, dangling the axe down by her feet, and adds, "They had Miss Josie there too, in this room with wires and screens, we think they were trying to measure something to do with the angels that don't exist. Took six swings with this thing to get the window broken - really had her in there good and tight."
“Sure, thought they could do something with Erika: not that their cables and shocks would do much good”, Josie says, unconcerned. "But what they're doing in town, it's terrible. I heard one of them say they were trying to isolate an active element from the Mighty Glow Cloud, can you imagine?"
Cecil visibly shudders. "All hail, all supplicate for mercy and understanding", he says, quickly, under his breath.
"What do we smash?", Carlos asks, shaken now. His heart's thudding a chorus of bad science, bad science, very bad science, and he's clutching the baseball bat tightly in one hand, Cecil still held close against him with the other arm.
(Carlos swears that if he ever gets out of this, he'll immediately enrol in whatever programs Night Vale has for new citizens to get some basics in survival and weapons training. He'll have to ask Steve what's available.)
"We go up", Tamika says. "Up to the top floor. That's where the map said the central office was, and Miss Josie said they were talking about the top floor before, too, where all the important folks come from."
"Then, we go", Josie says, hefting her machete.
Two floors up, and Cecil's already looking beaten down, and swaying slightly. Carlos holds on tightly to his elbow - how long had they kept him in there without a break? - "love, are you going to be okay?"
Cecil nods shortly - it's not as though they've anywhere else to go - squares his shoulders, and keeps going. It's when they're on the landing three floors later, the whole lot of them panting and slowing down, that the emergency lighting winks off and a deafening klaxon starts up.
"We've triggered some kind of alarm!", Ruth shouts, and a second later there's light, throwing sharp shadows across the walls: she's pulled out some kind of powerful, portable lamp, and thrown it up to the next landing. Carlos blinks, and realises in horror that in the few disoriented seconds they were in darkness, walls all around the stairwell have slid back to reveal... more guards.
Kind of. Well. Scientifically speaking, functionally, they'd be, er, guards, but these are dead-still and metallic humanoid figures of some kind and oh god the robots are moving there's millions of them and -
One of the androids moves towards him: Carlos shrieks, standing frozen to the spot, ohgoditsrightthere - and then Tamika's slamming into it at the knees. It falls, and she jumps lightning-fast onto its chest to take off its head in an eruption of sparks and motor oil. "Look sharp!", she calls to Carlos. "Time enough to admire their design later-" and then she's going after another.
Ruth has thrown a crowbar to Cecil, and is now fighting back-to-back with Old Woman Josie. Cecil hasn't hesitated: he methodically smashes in the faces of three androids heading towards Carlos, and plants his foot into one of their chests, pushing it down to the next flight. Getting the idea, Carlos barrels in to another with his shoulder, clearing a path. Below them, another wall has slid aside and more of them are clambering up over the twisted metal of their colleagues. There's only so many can come up the narrow staircase, and Cecil and Carlos stand side-by-side to take them.
"But the guards downstairs weren't robots!", Carlos shouts, swinging the baseball bat into the side of one of their heads.
"Humans are cheap", Cecil calls back, short and bitter. "Duck!" The crowbar slams into a Strex android that had been behind Carlos, and it falls down, breaking through the line of its fellows below and scattering them like so many bowling pins.
"Cover me!", Carlos hears Tamika yell above them, and Ruth redoubles her smashing. "I found something else in the labs, where they were researching efficient travel - I don't know what it does, though - "
"Do it!", Carlos yells. He swings the baseball bat into the head of an android while kicking its ankles the other way - it sails out into the stairwell, flipping gracefully over before crumpling far below. "Ha! Eat the law of the lever, you metal bastards!" Flying on adrenaline, he headbutts a robot that's about to reach Cecil, and Cecil kicks out a moment later to take it down. They are awesome together, they could do this all day -
Tamika's thrown a small metallic object down to the stairs right below them, and it suddenly springs open into - no, it's projecting it from itself - it's white, almost pink, it's like a window? Carlos is distracted, trying to work it out, until Cecil yells, "that looks just like the portal in that awful studio! The one I got lost in the day of the sandstorm-" he clocks an android without looking, and it falls through the portal and vanishes - "get them into there! It's something - "
Josie steps neatly out of the way of an android barrelling towards her, then grabs another by the wrist and flips it down the stairs. Carlos runs up to help her, and two more disappear after their fellows. That's nearly the lot of them: the walls stand empty, Tamika's picking up a head by the dangling wires and drop-kicking it down the stairs, Ruth has produced a thin, weighted chain from nowhere and is tangling up the legs of the last one, and Carlos gives it a final, triumphant shove as it falls past...
... Carlos' shove pushes the android off-balance, and one outstretched, flailing hand suddenly tightens on the sleeve of Cecil's tunic...
... Cecil reaches for Carlos, but he's already being pulled downwards, their fingertips brush and then he's falling...
... he disappears, and just like that, the portal winks into non-existence.
He is gone.
Carlos' heart stops.
The silence is devastating. Carlos is speechless, motionless, and then all at once he's running down to grab at the little metallic device lying quietly on the stairs. It's a dark grey disc - he can see the inbuilt projector, and some buttons, it looks like a prototype, why won't the buttons do anything -
He shouts at the thing, beats it against the wall - it still won't do anything - then whirls to face the others, panic overwhelming him. "Any more bright ideas?!", he yells at Tamika. "Any more unknown technology you found down there and thought we could use?"
"Hey!", Tamika steps forward and starts up a retort, but she's cut off when a sudden white-pink light fills Carlos' field of vision - he can't hear, and he's falling downwards - it's coming from the device, it's only around him, it's working! - and he lands, a split second later, on a thick carpet.
No Cecil, no androids: he's alone and disoriented, his head hurts - nothing's coming to kill him, so he takes a moment to groan, try and orient himself...
He's not alone. There's a man, sat at a desk, holding a remote and watching him. He is wearing a lab coat with a yellow sun emblazoned on the pocket. He's laughing at Carlos with Carlos' voice, looking at him with Carlos' eyes, that are not his eyes - and Carlos knows that the grey streaks at his temples have been dyed over with black.
"Carlos the Scientist. We have a job offer for you."
“We have a job offer for you", says Carlos' double.
His hair is a uniform, glossy black, and he is holding a remote. Behind him are several screens, showing views of the building - on one of them, Carlos can see his friends rushing down a corridor. His lab coat is pristine, and the ID badge pinned to his chest says "Luis, R&D", with the surname obscured by a yellow Strex sun plastered on top. A large gold watch glints from under his sleeve, and a far-off part of Carlos snorts. Some scientist. No-one on our team could afford that.
In a way, Carlos had been prepared for this. Listening to the radio on the day of the sandstorm, he and Rin had speculated as to whether doubles of them would also appear, and what they'd be like. Much later, he had lain awake, worrying about the strange voice on the radio he'd heard taking them to the weather. This... could be more shocking. This, he can focus on.
Cecil is still gone: a glance across the screens behind this man confirms this, and - oh, if there were one thing he'd thought unshakeable, one thing he'd never expected, why he had told Tamika to open up that portal, why he had been so cocky, when they were so nearly out of danger - he tamps down on the sick grief rising up in his chest and bites back his tears. This won't help.
Seeing him looking, his double sighs and shuts down the screens, then walks around to lean easily against the desk, facing him. "There's a great deal of interesting work we're doing here. Based on evaluations of your performance in Night Vale, we feel you would be an asset to our team. You've seen the sort of technology we have available for use here, and what we've been developing. We've an opening for you to head up our Night-Vale-specific research and development branch here at headquarters: we've noted there are all kinds of fascinating phenomena with the potential to become very... interesting."
Carlos stands, agape. Is this guy for real? With his gold watch and shiny office and research labs full of... oh, full of beautifully advanced machinery and a way to harness those random portals and the backing of decent funding and oh, suddenly, he's tempted. It's not as though he has much to return to, back home. It would be an easy life: he wouldn't have to bow and scrape to the university, or spend months waiting for the approval of ethics committees... wait, what was he thinking? These goons were taking peoples' livelihoods, probably killing them, they'd taken Cecil...
They'd taken Cecil, and Cecil is gone. Did it matter whether Carlos worked in Night Vale any more? This was obviously a large company, maybe he could find a branch that was just research, without the... banning bloodstones, and stealing people, and all that. A non-evil branch.
Luis interrupts Carlos' train of thought, eyes still fixed on him. "I see. This is about the radio host. Well, his loss is... regretful. That said, if you stay: we've something currently in development. We can help you forget all about him and focus on work more effectively. It'll be as though he was never lost. If you'd prefer."
And for a moment, Carlos considers that, as well. Without this aching grief, he could focus on work. He could help people, and do it better. He could function, like - like a person, like a human whose insides hadn't all just melted away and left nothing but pain and regret -
A moment later, and he thinks his heart might shatter at the idea. To forget Cecil - to throw away all those memories, all he'd learned about innocence and unpredictability and imperfection, all the cat videos and texted emojis and last-minute dinner arrangements - he chokes back a sob, and then finally finds his voice.
"You think... that's preferable? You don't understand a thing: you think the way to heal grief is to erase it? Like that puppet of a radio host your people brought in, spouting all these lies about everything being fine and happy while you took apart our town? That's the thing - these lovely, pretty lies, they mean absolutely nothing. Cecil would have never gone for the easy option, he would always tell the truth, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable it was, because that's how life works, and you think... "
"Does it matter? He's gone. Even we can't bring him back: the guards will have seen to that. There's nothing left for you there, now: you may as well cut your losses."
Carlos sways a little: he's right. Cecil is gone, why stay in Night Vale at all? Although... he thinks back to Old Woman Josie bringing corn muffins and advice to the lab in the team's first week, and Lucy Gutierrez buying the whole team a round of ice cream their first time in the shop. He thinks of Tamika in the desert, solid and unshakeable: she would never consider giving up on her army, however weak and fractured they might be. He remembers Rin's unadulterated glee at every new discovery, and Lena's wary hopefulness that today, they might just have a breakthrough. Night Vale... it is terrifying, and unpredictable, that's for sure, but in many ways, it feels like the safest and most honest place he's ever known.
"No", he says. "No, of course not. I love my town. And I'm staying. And you know what else? You... all of you. You're going to lose. You come in, with your shiny cars and helicopters, you fill our town with new office buildings, you think that intimidates the people there? You think any of that matters? Our people, they know - more than anyone - how short life is, how insignificant we all are, in the end. Do you think all your posturing and talk of profit looks anything but ridiculous to the people there? You, and your company, and your unbelievable radio host - you've got totally the wrong priorities. You can't take this with you. In a few years, it'll be dust and no-one will know your names."
"Oh? Then what would you propose is more important, Carlos the Scientist?"
Carlos thinks about it. Scientific integrity - yeah, maybe. Progress, and kindness - yeah, sure, okay. "Other people. Making other peoples' lives better, and that's it. We're so very, very small, but with something like doing science, or helping build a home or a community together, we can be just a little bit more. Each of us, and all of us - we're alone in a vast and meaningless universe: the only thing we can do is try and live well with the other tiny specks that are here too." He's a little light-headed with the realisation, and not at all afraid any more. "That's why you're going to lose. You can mine our town for labour or resources, you can make evil robots and goodness-knows-what-else, and it'll still mean absolutely nothing."
Carlos thinks that he's hit a nerve. Luis is tight with anger, his hands clutching the edge of the desk. He slams the remote down onto the table and strides right up into Carlos space: "now, look here - "
That's exactly when Tamika materialises by the desk and throws a metal disc at Luis' feet. He's gone before he's even noticed their arrival, and as Carlos blinks at the sudden flash and immediate disappearance of bright white, he sees that standing by Tamika are Ruth, Josie - and behind them, looking worn out and battered but still grinning blearily, is Cecil.
Carlos stares, but Cecil is already burying himself into Carlos' arms.
"What? ... How?"
Tamika picks up the remote Luis had left on the desk. "Went back to the research labs: they were looking at portals, and had cameras." She shrugs. "Kept an eye out, zapped him as soon as he dropped this thing." She pulls the batteries out of the remote, and leaves them side by side on the desk.
Carlos feels like he should supply some kind of quip, or summary, to mark an ending. While kicking Luis' lifeless body, preferably, but he contents himself with a scathing look around at the gleaming office. "He was a very bad scientist. Uh... where did he go?"
"Same place we found Cecil: think it's the place where the pterodactyls came through last year, we could hear screeching in the distance. Could be he has a great time there, what with the dinosaurs and his droids", Ruth says. She's fiddling with the computer. "Hey, look: I can get in. What shall we do with it?"
Tamika comes around, and taps at the keyboard. "Look: there's these ongoing status reports on the town, sections for all their assets. What's it say about the White Sand... oh. Eww."
"Can we edit that?", Carlos asks. "What if we... sent them somewhere else? Like... Pine Cliff?" He claps a hand over his mouth immediately: send these monsters to another unsuspecting town? But… they're not his town.
Cecil makes an impressed sound low in his throat. "Huh. You're starting to think like a local."
"No - I didn't mean - no, that'd be awful - oh, but what else could we do?"
"It is awful. It's like the town motto says - ", and Cecil intones, "We are unholy, awful people. Look down, Night Vale; look down, and forget what you've done. Sounds like a wonderful plan to me.”
"... Okay", Carlos says. "Let's do that. I mean, if you think it's a good idea, Ruth and Tamika. And soon, we'll drink to forget, right?"
"Dad said something about a bowling team", Ruth says, directing the question to Josie as Tamika types. "Does this happen a lot?"
"Oh, yes", Josie supplies. "Always someone looking to make a quick buck, think taking over some little town's the way to do it. Every few years, someone has a go. Never lasts long: enough community-minded folks around to push back, usually. Is it done?"
Tamika hits a couple more keys. "There. Surveys of Night Vale came up predicting an overall loss. All units ordered to report back and begin a survey of Pine Cliff."
"Then, shall we?", Josie says. "Wouldn't want to keep your father waiting."
"Yeah", Carlos says, squeezing Cecil's hand. "Let's go home."
On the way downstairs, Carlos asks Cecil, "where you were - did Tamika say something about pterodactyls?"
"Oh, yes", Cecil says, lightly. Carlos is searingly curious: he'd always regretted missing the PTA meeting. "Did you see anything?"
"No, not this time. Though, to get away from those guards - ugh, what a pain - I climbed up a tree and saw a nest. And it did look a little... crowded. When the others turned up, we thought you might like... well."
He opens up a bag on his shoulder to show inside, all wrapped up snug and safe in Ruth's coat, three perfect, mottled-brown pterodactyl eggs.