There was no moment of lost consciousness, and not even an eyeblink or a flash of darkness, between Artie's handclap and the transformation of the space around Marla. Such an interval of oblivion might have let her believe she'd been somehow drugged and transported, but the change was instantaneous. One moment, she was sitting on a couch in Artie's living room.
The next, the couch vanished from beneath her and she fell on her ass. She landed on the hard cobblestone street of a foggy city at night, beneath an old-fashioned streetlamp with a curiously flickering light -- was that actual flame inside the lantern atop the iron pole?
Artie made the transition more gracefully, sitting on the curb beside her, a glass of amber liquid in his hand. "So that was pretty cool, huh? Poof! And shit." Jenny and Daniel were nowhere to be seen. Maybe they hadn't been invited along on this proof-of-concept mission.
Marla stood up with as much dignity as she could muster and looked around. Shuttered shops lined the street, and with the fog she couldn't see much past the end of the block with the fog. Cold, too, and her with no coat. "Where is this? Part of the old city?" Felport had a few cobblestone sections, north of the river in the oldest part of the city, where the streets and shops were all equally ancient and narrow.
"You're not in Felport anymore, Dorothy," Artie said. "This is London, England. Hip, hip, cheerio."
Marla frowned. "Streets in London still have cobblestones, and what..." She kicked the lamppost. "Gaslights?" Wasn't there an old movie, about a guy trying to drive a woman crazy, called Gaslight? Was Artie trying to gaslight her? Maybe, but that instantaneous transition from here to there, wherever here was... that was pretty convincing.
"Parts of it, sure, there are gaslights in central London and some of the parks. What, you don't believe we're in England? Why don't you find a local, see if they speak English or not." He grinned. "Actually, this isn't modern London, anyway. It's Victorian-era London."
Marla shook her head. "You almost had me with the teleporting. But you want me to believe you can travel back in time too?"
"Kid, you don't know what you should believe.You've got no context, no way to know what's bullshit and what's plausible. You'll learn, if you decide to stick around. Anyway, I gotta go. I'll see you in a few hours."
She had a lot of practice at playing it cool, but the scramble of panic in her chest was big enough to make her say, "Wait, what? You're leaving me... wherever, whenever, we are? Here? In the past?"
"Sure. You gotta walk around, kick the tires, convince yourself I didn't just drug you and drag you to a soundstage someplace -- though why in the hell you think anybody'd expend that much effort to mess with your head is beyond me. I mean, if I really did drop you in Victorian England, that would prove something, wouldn't it?"
"Is it safe here?" Marla said.
"Not even remotely. Still got your knife?" He didn't wait for her to answer, just walked off down the sidewalk, taking a theatrically deep breath. "I love the Victorian era. They were so sexually repressed, it twisted them in really interesting ways."
Marla pulled her knife, rushed toward Artie, and gently placed the point in his lower back, about where she thought his kidney was. The knife just dimpled the fabric of his hideous shirt. "You aren't leaving me here. Take me home."
Artie surprised her by simply sprinting forward, moving faster than she believed possible for a man of his size and apparent lack of fitness, and he was well out of strike range before she even thought of actually stabbing him. Artie looked back, stuck out his tongue at her, waved, and laughed as he disappeared into the fog. The fat fuck was having fun.
Oh well. What would sticking a knife in him have accomplished, anyway? She'd just be stuck wherever she was with a dead guy at her feet. Might as well do what he suggested. Wander around this place and try to find the seams, the edges, the painted backdrops, the wooden scenery, the smoke machine making this fog. Or, maybe, accept that she was somewhere uncanny.
Marla set off, taking turnings at random down quiet streets, peering into windows at cobbler's shops and bakeries and butcher's and candlestick maker's. No one else stirred, and there was no sign of Artie. She'd almost come to believe she really was in the past, in a real city from over a hundred years before, when she encountered something clanking, hissing, and menacing that changed her mind.
"Fuck." She was pretty sure there hadn't been ten-foot-tall robots with iron faces wielding double-headed axes in Victorian England, but now one was advancing toward her from out of the fog, slicing through streetlamps with his axe as it came.
The axe alone was as big as her, and sharp enough to shear through the metal lampposts cleanly. The arms and legs were piston-driven black metal, face a barred metal grate with a single glowing red eye. It was kind of ridiculous looking, really. Also big.
Her knife, on the other hand, suddenly seemed entirely too small. Which meant running away was the proper course of action, though it rankled her.
"Marla, this way!" Jenny Click shouted from somewhere behind her, and Marla spun and ran for the voice. The fact that Jenny was hovering about three feet above the ground, surrounded by a nimbus of flickering orange-yellow flame that lit the fog around her into a fuzzily luminous aura, didn't make Marla pause. Apparently she had a threshold for being taken aback by the impossible, and she'd crossed it in the past few moments. "Duck down that alley," Jenny said, pointing one flame-dripping hand. "I'll take care of this thing."
Marla did as directed, hurrying for a crack of darkness between two leaning brick buildings, though she stopped in the mouth of the alley to see what Jenny would do. She drifted forward like an avenging angel and extended her hands toward the implacable clanking figure. The metal man raised his axe, but the head sagged as the shaft bent, suddenly soft as melting caramel. The metal man dropped the melting weapon and raised hands as big as snow shovels, but its dull black metal body began to glow red, then white, and bolts popped forth from it with a sound like a can of beans exploding in a campfire. A flying bolt pinged off the wall near Marla, knocking loose chips of brick and making her step deeper into the alley, but the projectiles that flew toward Jenny Click wisped away into metal vapor when they reached the aura of her heat.
The metal man's left arm dropped off, and its breastplate clattered steaming to the street, and its red eye cracked and went black. Jenny was still ten feet away from the thing, and it had been reduced to steaming scrap metal.
"Okay," Marla said loudly. "Okay, okay, shit, okay. I believe in magic." She hoped that declaration would be enough, that she would be transported back to Artie's living room, but nothing happened.
Jenny Click descended, feet touching the ground, and the flames haloing her vanished. "Come on," she said, turning toward Marla and, improbably, smiling. "He'll send more soon, let's get out of his territory."
"That thing came from Artie?" Marla stepped out of the alley and walked over to Jenny. The pile of scrap metal popped and pinged as it cooled.
Jenny shook her head. "No, Daniel. It's his specialty -- he animates things, gives objects life."
"Why is Daniel trying to kill me with a robot?" Marla wanted to kick the metal remains, but she didn't want to turn her foot into charcoal, so she refrained.
"Just for practice. Come on, let's get into one of the underground stations, that's more my territory." She set off down the street purposefully, still in her mud-spattered heels and evening gown, and Marla had to hurry to keep up.
"Wait, what? There aren't subway stations in Victorian England, Jenny."
"This isn't really London. I'm not supposed to tell you that, probably, but it's not like you wouldn't have figured it out for yourself if you had a moment to think. It's not the past, either. Artie says nobody's ever figured out how to travel back in time, as far as he knows"
"So what is this place, then?"
Jenny shrugged. "Artie made it, with some help from Ernesto. He calls it a pocket universe, a little piece of pinched-off space, furnished with Artie's magic. It's sort of London, but it's a London like you might see in fantasy novels or comic books. Jekyll and Hyde are -- is -- running around out there somewhere, and Jack the Ripper has a magic talking knife that tells him what to do, and Queen Victoria is a vampire, and there are steam-powered android violinists, and ghost-hunters with monocles, and master criminals who lurk in the sewers with armies of rat men, and monster-worshipping cultists living in the Tower of London, and S&M clubs with women in whalebone corsets wielding whips, and intelligent gorillas who fly zeppelins, and all kinds of crazy stuff. You never know what you're going to get here in Artie's London."
"Okay." Marla was, on the whole, glad she'd only encountered a metal man with an axe, as some of the alternatives sounded worse. "But what's the point of this place?"
Jenny laughed. "You're always so pragmatic." She pointed to a set of stairs descending into the sidewalk. "We're going down there. The point is, Artie thinks it's fun, for one thing. For another, this is a place where we can practice our magic without drawing too much attention. Where Daniel can make a giant Frankenstein's monster by stitching together a dozen corpses from the catacombs -- yeah, there are catacombs here -- without freaking out the ordinaries. Where I can set stuff on fire, seriously on fire, without destroying anything real in the process." They descended the stairs into a well-lit space of white tiles and pillars, far more modern-looking than the city above, and Jenny took a seat on one of the benches.
Marla joined her. "So it's like a training ground."
"Yep. Artie's real proud of it. Daniel and I play sort of war games. He sends his poppets, or golems, or whatever you want to call them, against me, and I fight back with fire, mostly. Fire's my specialty. Artie wants us both to learn more, too, but he says getting our natural talents under control is a good first step. The stuff I can do... when I started out, when Artie first trained me, I could maybe light a candle, and half the time I'd accidentally melt the candlestick. Now..." She held out her hand, and a flame appeared dancing in the palm of her hand, cycling colors through orange and yellow and red and blue. She closed her fist, and it vanished. "Now I decide what burns."
"But you can only do that stuff here," Marla said slowly, trying to get her head wrapped all the way around it. "It's not really real."
Jenny shook her head. "No. You're wrong. The physical, natural laws here conform to those outside. The magic we learn to work here we can also work in the world. It's just, for some of the bigger effects, we don't dare. Artie says there are occasions when you have to use big magic, even at the risk of freaking out the ordinary citizens, because the costs of discretion are too great, but for the most part, keeping a low profile is better. So we do little stuff out there... and learn to do big stuff in here, in case we ever need it. And because knowledge justifies itself."
Something had been bothering Marla, and she tried to think of a way to say it without giving offense, then decided it didn't really matter. "Jenny, don't take this the wrong way, but you seem a lot... smarter now than you used to."
Jenny didn't look mad, or hurt. She just nodded. "I used to have a lot of noise inside my head, Marla. Not so much voices, not usually saying words, but noise -- sirens, screeches, klaxons, screaming. Artie says I'm a schizophrenic pyromaniac. But one of the first things he did when he took me on as an apprentice was bring in a healer to quiet down the noise in my head. It's still there, but now I have to listen hard to hear it, and my own thoughts can drown it out." She tapped her temple with her forefinger. "I think a lot better now. Learning to control fire helped, too. Knowing I can have a flame whenever I want, that I can look at it without destroying anything, that's a big relief. I don't need to see fire so much, now that I can get it on demand." She took Marla's hand. "I hope you'll join us. I hope you'll let Artie teach you."
"Daniel has his poppets. You've got your flames. What's my special talent supposed to be?"
"Maybe you don't have one," said a voice over the PA system, making Marla flinch.
Jenny rolled her eyes. "Artie, come out! I think she's convinced now."
Artie did his strolling-in-from-nowhere trick, appearing near the subway tracks and walking over. "Hey, kid. You having fun yet?"
Marla was not so easily distracted. "What do you mean, maybe I don't have one?"
Artie sat on the edge of the bench and bumped Marla with his hip, making her move over to give his significantly wider ass some space. "I mean what I said. Daniel and Jenny were both obvious. I mean, Daniel was making rat bones get up and dance around when I found him, using his own life force to animate things, and Jenny was practically crackling -- some people can turn their own internal energy into an exothermic reaction and make fire, and if she hadn't come to me, Jenny would've probably been just another weird case of spontaneous human combustion in a few months. But you... you're like me, I think. No twist in your physiology, no natural weirdness, no telepathy or telekinesis or mutant powers or radioactive spiders. Just hard-headedness and determination and will."
He took a cigar out of his shirt pocket and waggled it at Jenny. She snapped her fingers and a flame popped to life on the end. Artie took a deep mouthful of smoke and blew it out happily. "We don't tap into the flow of energies in the world naturally like Jenny and Daniel do. We gotta learn other ways to use energy, to shape the world. There are lots of techniques. You can do rituals to focus the will, you can learn meditation techniques, you can spend long hours slaving over a hot cauldron, you can learn to bargain with the dark and light and morally neutral forces at large in the world... whatever works for you."
Marla was a little disappointed to hear she lacked natural talent. Just her luck -- Jenny and Daniel start with supernatural powers out of the box, and she has to scramble to catch up. But then, nothing in her life had ever come easily, and the thought of working hard didn't daunt her in the slightest. "How do you do it?" Marla said. "What's your technique?"
"Sex magic," Artie said.
"Goddamn it, I knew this was too good to be true." Marla crossed her arms over her breasts. "I knew you just wanted to use me. Shit, Jenny, you let him fuck you? Does he fuck Daniel too?"
Jenny giggled, and Marla wanted to hit her. She thought this was funny? Maybe she was learning to set shit on fire with her mind, sure, but was that worth being a whore for this fat bastard?
"You got the wrong idea," Artie said. "Look, let me show you something." He stood up, turned to face Marla -- his crotch rather disconcertingly right in front of her face -- and started to unbutton his pants.
Marla got her knife out. "You better be careful what you show me, Artie. I might just have to cut it off."
"That ship has kinda sailed, kid." Artie dropped his pants. He didn't have on any underwear.
He didn't have a penis, either. Or anything else. His crotch was as smooth and featureless as a doll's.
(Visit next week for explanations of sexlessness and an apprenticeship training montage, among other things.)
Click here to see trivia and authorial blather about chapter 4.