by Chris Eng
[A brief note before we dive into this. It’s been a long time since I wrote any fanfic. Like, decades. But I just finished the jumbo-sized collection of Brandon Graham’s King City and it pretty much demanded it of me. King City is a crazy story about a crazy place and the people that live in it trying to get by. There’s a love story in there and a war story and a Lovecraftian conspiracy story and a lot of awfully hilarious puns. Ultimately, I enjoyed my visit to King City so much I didn’t want to leave it right away, so I wrote this. Enjoy (and if you do enjoy this and you haven’t already read King City I hope you’ll consider giving it a shot).]
How many enemies can a nine-year-old girl have?
You think it’s a trick question, but there’s actually an answer: 256. I know, because I spent two days counting them last week. During the time I was counting, I stopped three attempted assassinations (poisoned corn puffs, stiletto chain gun, and toaster in the bath tub), five attempted character assassinations, and 15 attempted credit card frauds… one of which eventually made it through and I had to cancel my Diver’s Club card. Six major criminal networks including the Multiple Warhats and the Riders of Lohan called to claim responsibility for the attacks. There was some overlap, and I got the feeling a couple of them were lazy and wanted to make it seem like they’d attacked me when they hadn’t, but even still, that’s a fair amount of underworld firepower aimed at taking me out or driving my credit rating into the ground.
But I mean, it’s not like I set out to make that many enemies on purpose. And if you want to get technical, most of them couldn’t even really be considered to be my enemies. Most of them just hate me because of my cat, Agrajag. Agrajag is a Scottish Fold who helps me do things, get places, acquire things that people don’t want me to acquire. He’s a cat with an attitude problem, and he’s learned to direct that attitude into pissing people off. People I’m already stealing stuff from. It’s kind of an insult to injury situation. Like, in case it’s not bad enough I’m taking your Lemurian ruby skull, Agrajag’s going to spray your record collection on his way out. That’s probably why King Chung, the leader of the Warhats, declared kanly on me: there’s only so many test pressings of Bitches Brew out there. The blood feud isn’t that big a deal, though. Retaliatory attacks from his henchmen roll off me like soda off a duck’s back (which is to say “mostly, but it’s a fairly unpleasant experience nonetheless”).
The one enemy that does bug me, though, is Big White Lie. Word of the contract he put on my head (and Agrajag’s) made its way to me a few months back through the net of crippled urchins and brainseer toddlers I keep on my payroll to scour the literal and psychic landscapes for any activity that might disrupt my me-time.
Because they always attack during my me-time, when I’m sitting there with a triple-scoop bowl of strawberry Sriracha ice cream trying to watch A Million of Quests on the vidcube. And it’s always when QuestForce has just about completed their expedition that the skinjas come through my window or I get a call from HasturCard telling me someone’s trying to charge something to my account on one of the Offworld Colonies. They always time it perfectly to get under my skin. The extra-irritating part is that it works.
But that style of base irritation isn’t Big White Lie’s game. He keeps his cool. He knows it messes with my head way more if I don’t know when he’s coming, because he’s the snake daddy of the underworld, the main mojo man, the Fuhrer of felonry. So he just leaks word that we have a problem and it gets back to me from a one-armed pickpocket and a floating baby with two mouths who both report in just as QuestForce is distracting the guardian of the Seventh Sanctified PuzzleCube. Dammit.
Big White Lie is trying to bait me and make me come to him because I don’t know if he’ll attack with his HAARPsichord or his Buma-box or if he’ll just unleash a horde of tyrannosauruses on the city. It probably wouldn’t be any of those. Big White Lie seldom attacks the same way twice. Entire pawn shops have sprung up and operate solely on the business of buying his second hand weapons.
So I fall for his trap, partly because I can’t bear to spend another day waiting, but mostly because I live with the hope that one day I’ll be able to finish my ice cream and a single episode of my favourite show without having to beat up a raiding party of lizardmen. I pack my green and blue QuestForce knapsack full of supplies and hop on my rocket-powered bicycle with its white-walled monster truck training wheels.
Agrajag sits in the front basket and stares down everyone who looks our way. People look away quickly from the air of menace surrounding him. It envelopes him like a righteous electric green cloud and stems from the martial arts that he knows. Agrajag is on his fifth life and spent the previous four perfecting his knowledge of Jeet Kun Meow and Kittenjutsu. He even carries around a little cane so he can work on his Bartitsu now and then. Agrajag may be many things, but he prides himself on being a gentlemen.
My bike vaults over the hill on Necropolis Boulevard and I use my Sasquatch Gang stopwatch to see if I beat my personal best time of 5.12 seconds of air.
4.78. Well, that’s still pretty good.
I’m down at King City’s harbor within five minutes. I look at the water. Big White Lie is out there… somewhere amongst the eyes.
See, when you first check out the harbor, all you see are the junks that cluster up next to the shore. But then you give it a second glance and you start to figure out why all the boats are so close: Harbor Eye Land. A few hundred meters from shore you’ll find yourself surrounded by giant eyes at least 50 feet across. Just the tops of them, all of them staring up into the sky. No one really knows exactly what they’re attached to, but everyone knows it’s no good. Tentacles reach up every once in a while and pull a ship down to Davy Jones’ locker. The junk owners just accept it as the price of business. Whenever it happens to one of their friends, they just asterisk themselves and think, “Well, at least I’m not crab fishing.”
In one of the eyes out there is the entrance to Big White Lie’s secret base.
I park my bike next to a stunted wharf made out of green logs and Agrajag gracefully leaps up onto my shoulder. We tromp down to the junks together and I find a boatsman half passed out with his legs dangling in the brackish water.
“Wake up,” I say to him. “You have a job.”
“No job,” he says, his eyes closed and his head tilted back as if he’s sunbathing except it’s completely overcast. “No work today.”
“Yes, work today. I need to go out to one of the eyes.”
His eyes open slowly and he looks at me and barks a laugh. “Little girl wants to go to eye. No. No, thank you. Little girl can’t replace boat if ghost kraken eats it. Little girl can’t pay enough.”
I pull out my FireBears wallet and extract a platinum Latverian Express card. “Little girl can pay for lots of things,” I say.
His eyes widen and he snatches it from my hand. He pulls out a pocket card reader and swipes it. A green light flickers on top of it and he hands the card back. He nods. “Okay, we go.”
He stands and steps down onto a junk that looks like it’s been built on top of a racing scull that has half a dozen outboard motors attached to the back of it. I follow and he starts to pull the ripcords one after another. The boat strains at the rope keeping it attached to the wharf and when the last motor is started the boatsman tugs gingerly at a knot and the rope falls away. We leap forward out of the water and the next five seconds are the boatsman trying to ensure we don’t plow into any of the other ships in the harbour. We grind fiberglass on fiberglass for one tense moment and get sworn at in some prehistoric Mesoamerican tongue then we’re free.
Well, we’re free of the boats, anyway, but we’re bearing down on several dozen eyes.
“Which one?” he asks.
“Which one?” I ask Agrajag.
Agrajag jumps onto my laps and pulls himself into the lotus position. The green tendrils of menace surrounding him become calm, little threads reaching out and making exploratory motions. One after another, the threads all start to drift to the left, pointing toward a slightly larger eye a few hundred feet away. Agrajag looks up at me and I pet him and he slips out of the lotus position and curls up in my lap, purring. I point it out to the boatsman.
We get about halfway there when the first tentacle bursts out of the water.
“GHOST KRAKEN,” the pilot yells, veering wildly to the side.
“Just keep us on course,” I tell him sternly. “It’s not a ghost. Ghosts can’t bleed.”
I lay my pack at my feet and Agrajag hops beside it as I unzip its front and survey the contents. Inside, I have:
two issues of Chubby Chester, my favourite comic
a juice box full of Guava Guarana Gusher
my GameGirl (with Pocket Monster Omega cartridge)
a VCDVD of the best of A Million of Quests
a KariKelli utility belt
a change of clothes (just in case)
Agrajag’s syringe pack
I take the syringe pack and open it, extracting one of them. I flick the side of it and depress the plunger slightly to get the air out. Agrajag looks back at me expectantly.
“Cheetah style,” I say to him. “No, no. Snow leopard.”
Agrajag arches his back to make it easier for me and I slip the syringe into the fold of skin at the back of his neck and push down the plunger all the way. The cloud of menace becomes almost blindingly bright and Agrajag crouches and then launches himself impossibly skyward. He seems to land on the tip of the tentacle (or if not, it’s close—it’s hard to tell from down here) and then there’s a commotion. The tentacle starts to thrash around and then bits and pieces of something start to rain down around the boat. Calamari. A literal ton of it.
I can tell Agrajag is getting closer to us because the glow is getting brighter and as he approaches it becomes obvious he’s whittling the tentacle down from the top. Another tentacle bursts from the water next to him and another, each one trying to swat the tiny assailant, neither one having any effect.
When he’s taken the first tentacle down to more than half its original length, he leaps onto the next one and does the same again. The boatsman desperately tries to avoid getting hit or swamped by any of the tentacles. I take out my juice box, poke the bendy-straw through the foil-covered hole and watch the show.
The water is thick with vaguely luminescent squid chunks now and the motors make a terrible grinding sound as we chop though them. The eye is looming up ahead and Agrajag is working on the third tentacle. With one last violent thrash, all three of them withdraw into the water and Agrajag jumps wide and arcs gracefully back into the boat before walking over to me and rubbing up against my legs. The turbulence from the departing tentacles is tipping us at a 45 degree angle, first in one direction, then another and the boatsman is screaming something about all of us dying. Eventually the boat stops rocking and I stare at him until he shuts up and pilots us the rest of the way in silence.
We pull up next to the eye and I strap the utility belt on, pulling out the grappling hook and rope and tossing it until lands about thirty feet up and catches on the gelatinous surface. There’s a groan and rumble from somewhere below the surface of the water.
I look back at the boatsman. “Don’t bother sticking around,” I say. “If we make it out, we’ll find our own way back. If we don’t, we’re not coming back. And by the way, I’d charge my card with haste—it expires when I do.” Agrajag rubs up against the boatsman’s legs. “He’s telling you not to overcharge us,” I add, and the boatsman makes an approximation of a sickly smile.
I tug on the rope to make sure it’s secure and start climbing up the side of the eye. Agrajag jumps up and keeps pace with me as I ascend. Behind us, the boatsman takes off with all speed. I hear an eruption from the water. It sounds like a single tentacle. I wonder how good a pilot he is. Hm.
The eye is just squishy enough to be extra grody. With every step I’m not sure whether I’m going to fall down or throw up. I try not to step on the red veins that speckle the surface of the orb. I’m not worried about them tripping an alarm system or anything, because Big White Lie almost certainly knows we’re here; they’re just gross.
I pull myself along with the rope to where it’s stuck in the white slimy surface and pull it free, winding it up again. From here on, the slope is slight enough that I should be able to make it without help. I stumble a couple of times on the slimy surface, but within minutes we’ve made it to the top and are looking down at the iris. The pupil is shut almost all the way. It’s doubtful even Agrajag could fit through it at his most sneaky. Damn. That’s where we get in.
He meows at me. I rub his head.
“I know. But I’ve got a plan.”
I pull out another syringe and inject the back of Agrajag’s neck.
“Jaguar style,” I whisper. He strikes a meditative pose, supported solely on one of his hind legs and the tendrils of menace flicker from green to black. Within seconds, they’re shooting out from all around him and I’m fumbling with my utility belt, trying to locate my NiteSite Goggles. By the time I find them and get them on, the surrounding area is cloaked in a inky, impenetrable blackness. I flick the button on the side of my goggles and everything lights up indigo. I look down at the eye and watch the pupil dilate in the darkness.
“You have four more lives than I do,” I tell Agrajag. “You go first.”
He meows and leaps down into the darkness. I unwrap the grappling hook and wedge it into a crack in the iris, letting the rope dangle below. I grab hold of it and start lowering myself down.
I’ve gotten about twenty feet in before the light in the goggles gets substantially brighter and I realize what’s happening. See, the blackness is expelled from Agrajag like a cloud, but he’s always at the centre of it and if he drops more than fifty feet, the blackness goes with him. I smack the button on the goggles and for a split second I can see normally again. Looking up, I can make out the dull grey sky of King City visible through the pupil. The ebon fog has followed Agrajag (wherever he is) and that means that the pupil will readjust itself to the light.
Sure enough, the pupil scissors closed as I watch and snips my rope in two. As I plummet, I yell out, “AAAAAAAGRAJAAAAAAAAAAG!” and a furry torpedo rams itself into my back and slams me into the side of the shaft. We hang there together and I realize I can see.
There are strips of lights running down the walls of what looks to be a giant, metal-lined cylinder. Behind me, Agrajag has stretched himself out into a large-scale parody of a flying squirrel and I’m sitting on him like a beanbag chair. The claws on all four of his legs are planted firmly into the metal. I crane backward, and he licks my face and makes a gurgling purr.
“I’m happy to see you too,” I say, “but we should figure out a way down from before your injection wears off. Do you know how far it goes?”
“Well, that’s not too bad. Can we glide?”
Agrajag lets go of the wall and I hold onto his front legs as he drifts down in a tight spiral. We hit bottom about sixty feet later and I pull myself to my feet as Agrajag shrinks back to normal size.
We’re standing in a circular chamber about a hundred feet across and thirty feet high. It’s lit with red emergency lights and is completely empty aside from a few dozen Little Black Lies, the Big White Lie’s shock troops. They are all wrapped in black, floor-length robes and wear masks that look like black bird skulls. They shuffle forward simultaneously.
I don’t know whether Agrajag’s got it in him to handle this fight without another injection. He should be able to, but he’s been through a lot in the past ten minutes. If he doesn’t, though, I don’t have time to fix him up. He’s on his own for now.
I pull three gas pellets out of my utility belt, hold my breath and throw them. I think they’re sleeping gas and not nerve gas, but I don’t have time to double-check. I guess we’ll find out.
The pellets crack as they hit the floor and a noxious brown gas seeps out. Nope. Nerve gas. Crap. I scramble for the pocket rebreather on my belt and slam it into my mouth just as I run out of breath. Little Black Lies are dropping like flies around me and I look over to see how Agrajag’s doing.
My kitty’s turned himself into a thirty foot long cat-headed python and is choking the life out of eight LBLs. He’s holding his breath too. He’s talented like that.
An air supply filtration system kicks in around us and the gas is sucked into a dozen wall ducts, but not before two-thirds of the LBLs are lying dead on the floor. The rest are just staring in horror. At least, that’s what I imagine they’re doing as they clutch their throats and choke behind their bird skull masks.
A door slides open in the wall and I pull two retractable My Little Ninja brand tonfa from my belt. They click out to their full length as Big White Lie steps into the room.
What, the boss fight already? Man, I was just getting warmed up.
Big White Lie’s about ten feet tall and wearing his trademark cloak of dire polar bear skins. He killed the bears themselves. Then he killed the needlehawks to get their needles so he could sew it together. He stitched it together with catgut made from cats’ guts. He killed them too. Agrajag growls.
On his head, Big White Lie wears a mask made from the face of a snow naga. He killed that too. He’s got kind of a reputation as a messed-up badass.
He cracks his knuckles through his grey gloves and surveys the carnage.
“You killed them?” he asks me. “You KILLED THEM?!”
I spit the rebreather onto the floor next to me. “I only meant to knock them out, but they were trying to kill me. You’re not going to make me feel guilty about ganking them.”
Big White Lie points at one of the corpses. “That was Diamond Dave! He had three kids at home to feed. He and his wife just celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary!”
I stare at the body, still covered in its robes and mask. “How can you tell? They all look the same.”
“RACIST!” Big White Lie yells, rushing at me, hands out.
This is Big White Lie’s signature move. He kills you with his bare hands. Well, with his gloved hands, anyway. He doesn’t need weapons. He kills you and then incorporates some part of you into his outfit. Gross. I don’t want to think what part of me he’ll use after I’m gone. Maybe he’ll just wear my knapsack. That would be cute.
We collide like two molten planets at the birth of a solar system. Neither of us stops but we’re both thrown back from the force of the impact. I hit the wall thirty feet behind me and careen off it. One of my tonfa is broken. Big White Lie inspects his arm guards, and he tears one free and throws it aside. Score one point for everyone. I drop the broken tonfa as Big White Lie and I begin to circle each other.
I can’t see Agrajag. He’s probably hidden himself using a mystical cat sutra. If he did that’s going to be the end of his powers until I can get him another injection. Oh well, stay safe, little buddy. I can handle Big Stupid Joke. (Yeah, I know that’s not a great insult, but I’m kind of busy fighting right now.)
“Why are you doing this?!” he shouts as he lashes out with his right hand and misses taking my head off by about an inch.
“Why am I doing this?! You started it! You put the contract out on me!” I duck down, punch him in the gut with the butt of the tonfa and scamper through his legs.
“I only said I put a contract out on you to make you think I did, so you’d leave me alone!”
By the time he’d straightens up, I’m on the other side of the room. I don’t know what I can use against him to even the odds. I could try for another gas pellet, but I don’t know if he’s outfitted the naga face with a gas mask. He probably has and I besides, I only had the one rebreather. I could use my Girly-Girl brand Sparkl-a-Rang explosive boomerangs (I hate them so much and would stop using them in a heartbeat if they didn’t blow up so good), but they generally work better at a larger distance. At close range, I’d almost definitely get hit by the blowback. I could roll my comics up really tight, I guess, but that’s about the same as a tonfa. Naw, I’ll stick stick with what I’ve got and hope for the best. Anyway, I’ve got fructose and guarana pumping through my veins; there’s no way he’s going to be able to compete with that.
I strike a crouched position, the tonfa extended behind me.
“You thought that was a good plan?!” I yell. “To antagonize the Cat Master?!”
“I didn’t want to have to deal with cat piss all over my stuff,” he shouts, rushing at me. He’s predictable, if nothing else. “You have a reputation, you know!”
I do have a reputation, I guess. I’ve stolen stuff from pretty much every gang, crime boss and politician in King City except Big White Lie, and I’d only held off this long with him because of his reputation. And, yeah, Agrajag has kind of a reputation for spraying things before he leaves.
Agrajag drops from his hiding spot on the ceiling onto Big White Lie’s head and latches onto the mask. Big White Lie screams and pirouettes around the room, scrambling at the regular-sized cat. Just because Agrajag is out of juju doesn’t mean he’s forgotten exactly how to get under your skin.
While Big White Lie is trying to remove Agrajag from his face, I run up and smack the tonfa across his ankle and he drops face-down like a load of bricks. Agrajag wanders off, self-satisfied, and I’m on Big White Lie’s back, sliding the tonfa across his neck and choking him with it in half a second.
“So, you don’t want me dead?” I ask him.
“No!” he gurgles. “Well… I mean… kind of now… yeah… grrrrrggggghhhhhh…”
“You just don’t want me to steal your stuff.”
The gears in my head whir. “And nobody else in King City is ballsy enough to break into your base, are they?”
“You’re basically left here alone.”
“You know I could kill you right now, right?”
“Cool. I’m going to let you go and then we’re going to have a truce. ‘Kay? … OKAY?” I look down at him. He’s passed out. I stand up and he slumps to the floor. “Close enough,” I say.
Big White Lie doesn’t fully come to for a good fifteen minutes and by that time he’s securely tied to an office chair I found in a service cupboard.
“What are you doing?” he asks, looking around.
“I am trying,” I explain patiently from the velvet couch I’m sitting on in his viewing chamber, “to watch A Million of Quests without having the ending spoiled.” The VCDVD is playing on the wall-sized monitor facing us and Agrajag is sitting in my lap. I found a pint of ice cream in his kitchen; it wasn’t strawberry Sriracha, but it would do. “So, here’s your options: you can either sit there quietly and watch the show with me and we can see how QuestForce retrieves the Golden Falcon from the Xymec temple in the Andes or I can inject Agrajag with some catjuice and we can find out how many layers you’ve got going on underneath that mask. It’s probably only your face, but Agrajag likes to be thorough. Do we understand each other?”
“You’re going to be quiet?”
I sigh and finger a syringe. “What?”
“Can I have some ice cream?”
“Will it fit through the mouth hole in your mask?”
And that’s how I discovered the Xymec temple transformed into a stone warrior whose only weakness was a reverse-polarized laser fired directly into its crystal heart. Ka-boom.