It’s around midnight when Sky comes out of his office, stretching his back, unused to bending over a too-low desk and dealing with paperwork for hours.
The desks of the Popula office are mostly unoccupied, but he sees Cpl. Kaur reading over some document, chin on her fist, elbow propped on the desk, sighing. He approaches her.
“Corporal,” he says. “No no no...don’t stand up...look, you don’t have to come to attention and salute and all that every time I say something to you.” He sits in the chair next to her desk, the one arrestees and witnesses would use if she were interviewing any. “Let’s just...save that for when Sgt. Machado is around, please.”
She grins tiredly. “Sure thing, Inspector. So...is this your watch then?”
“Which shift is this? Is it still night watch? Yes, I guess it is mine. But I explained to Sgt. Machado that we often have different sleep needs from humans...even from each other. Some of us don’t need to sleep at all. I can be here pretty much as needed. But yes, I prefer the night watch.”
“Me too,” she says. “I have an excuse to sleep in in the morning, and then I have all day free as long as we don’t get called in on an emergency.”
“Does that happen often here?”
“Oh yeah! This is a dangerous neighborhood. Drug gangs, kidnappers, extortionists, plus your run-of-the-mill drunks and pervos. Even now that we’re expanded, we only have four Guardia on each watch--well, four Guardia Popula. Now we have you gods...but the Sarge says you’re not supposed to be helping us with mortal, non-magical crimes.”
“Corporal, there’s a simple spell on my door. I’ve told Sgt. Machado this, and I want you to let everyone know about it, all right? Knock on my door and say my name, and I will hear you from wherever I am on the Mountain. And if you say it’s an emergency, I will come as swiftly as I can. I know the regulations about what kind of crimes we’re supposed to get involved in. But if you really think you need me for backup, call for me. I’ll take responsibility for any fallout. I’ll talk to my fellow Dei about that, too.”
“Gosh, thanks sir.” She smiles, then yawns hugely, bursting into embarrassed laughter as she sees Sky looking at her with a smile. “Sorry!”
“Corporal...haven’t you been here since early this morning?”
“Yeah...I got caught up in helping out Sgt. Alma with the Bunnies. And before that, I went shopping with Sgt. Gwydion.” She chuckles again. “He’s a funny guy.”
“Oh,” Sky says, feeling a stab of guilt for not having gone back into the store-room when he was free to do so. Every time he’d thought of going in there, he remembered those penetrating eyes looking into his, and he’d found something else to do. “Are they all right, then? The Bunnies?”
“Oh yeah, they’re sweethearts. It’ll be nice having them helping out... So, Inspector, you got in even before I arrived this morning. Do you have a place around here? I mean, a home?”
“Yes...I rented a flat off Chowringhee Road, past the market. I thought it would be nice to walk through the market every day.”
“Inspector, that area is dangerous! It’s a rat maze, and some of the rats walk on two legs and carry knives!”
Sky laughs. “Well, all the more reason for a cop to live there, eh? Maybe I can convince the bad elements to move out.”
Aliyah shakes her head. “I guess no mortal there is gonna be stupid enough to bother you more than once...but there’s even a couple of bad-natured gods there.”
“I’ll be sure to call on them. But to tell the truth, I haven’t even seen the place yet, and I had some furniture delivered today. I should go find the place, and check to make sure everything arrived safely.”
“And make sure it’s still there!”
He smiles. “Good night, Corporal. See you tomorrow.”
“See ya, sir.”
Sky heads out into the dark streets. The gas-fed lamps do little more than create more shadows, especially with half the lamps out of order. He would have to get on City Services about fixing them--better lighting alone could have an effect on crime. Crossing a bridge over the series of waterfalls that passes for a river in these parts, he notes the columns that make up the balustrade, carvings of gods he recognizes from a pantheon he would call Hindu, though they themselves did not call it that here. At the far end of the bridge is a rare sight in the City: a statue of the Kristos crucified, brow bleeding from the thorns. It makes him feel almost like he’s back on Earth. He stands looking for a moment, then walks on.
Even at this hour, some of the market stalls are open, mostly acting as open-air bars and eateries. He sees a fascinating variety of food for sale, on sticks and on cheap plates, from more cultures than he can recognize. Some of the bars look as if they might double as brothels, judging from the dress of the women lounging in front of them or within, color and style combinations sending subtle messages about price and techniques. He slips through the crowd, and is gratified that most do not make him for a god. Still, some do. One man raises his hands, palms together, eyes down, as Sky passes. Sky can barely feel the man’s prayer to him, adding to his store of power, bringing with it a longing for good fortune. With hardly a thought, the god brushes his fingers along the man’s hands as he passes, returning the tiny jolt of power, transformed, lending the man an infinitesimal fragment of strength, and with it a hint of a desire to break free and transform this poverty-stricken neighborhood. At this blessing, Sky’s hair is ruffled by an ocean breeze, the smell of the sea filling the air around him.
As he looks around, he sees a shopkeeper in a hijab staring at him. She must have sensed the manifestation of his magic as he blessed the man. She looks at him, haughty, letting him know she would never pray to a false god like him, and then turns away.
Sky smiles, admiring her bravery, her steadfast faith in the One God she has never seen, and continues on.
As he leaves the market, he mentally reviews the directions the estate agent had given him, and turns into a warren of twisting streets. Young, tough-looking men, mostly human, loiter with no apparent purpose on corners, eyeing him. He can sense chains binding them: chains of poverty, addiction, brutal fealty. He allows his divine power to shine through slightly more than usual, just enough to warn them that he is something they should not challenge.
The streets are an insane tangle, utterly illogical, and randomly paved in completely different ways. He soon realizes that Three Rats is the result of parts of at least two cities merging, occupying the same place at the same time as they broke away from their original world--perhaps the very same Earth he had lived on, he guesses--overlapping and becoming one. It must have been catastrophic, as buildings merged and, their structural integrity destroyed, collapsed. He stops before one twisted building that is both three and four stories high, still standing but uninhabitable with floors split in half and rooms closed off from each other by misplaced hallways. Graffiti on one wall is in Spanish...no, Portuguese. On another wall, it is in a script he recognizes as Devanagari, from India, but though he recognizes the writing system, he does not know the words.
He is just starting to wonder if his memory has let him down when he finds his building. He climbs rickety stairs, noting carefully which ones creak so that he can take them more quietly in the future, then takes out his key and opens the door to his third-floor apartment. Inside is darkness and a smell of mildew, a single living room/kitchen/bedroom, plus a tiny water closet. He opens the windows and spends a little time shoving his delivered furniture into place: a couple of chairs, a sofa, a small table, a rolled-up futon.
Then he pulls out a notebook in which is written an incantation given to him by another god. He tears out the sheet and presses it against the wall, remembering when everyone was using scrolls. He reads the incantation aloud, the words disappearing as he pronounces them. An area of the wall in the shape of a door flares yellow, then opens into another world.
It is a very small world, but bigger than the apartment. There is a comfortable living/dining area, a well-appointed kitchen, a study area with a desk, all contained within a cozy, cave-like oval. A curved sofa rests along one wall, and full bookshelves alternate with koa-framed paintings and photographs hung over tappa wallpaper. A door leads into a bath area.
Sky goes to a shelf and pulls out colorful sleeve containing a vinyl record. Handling it carefully, he lays it on the turntable of a hand-cranked, electricity-free, carbon-fiber-flywheel-powered stereo system, presses a button, sets the needle, and the room fills with the relaxing strains of Hawaiian slack-key guitar. He spins the crank a few times, careful not to make the record skip, until he is sure it has enough stored power to play the whole record.
Sky pours himself a single-malt whisky, imported like the record from the world he called home for over a century, and relaxes on the sofa, letting go of the day as best he can. He has lived in this place for decades, built for him by a god who specializes in such things, merely moving the entry portal when he has needed to move, usually maintaining a cheap, fake home as a front. Many gods use such pocket-dimensional homes, but Sky likes to pretend he is too poor to afford one. But his tastes are simple, and he rarely uses his divine power for other things, so he has plenty to keep this magical place in existence.
Finishing his drink, he rises and enters the bath, stripping off, then showering before sliding into the magically pre-heated water of the Japanese-style ofuro, where he has a nice, long soak. He finds his mind occupied with his sergeants. Machado is a touchy one, but he seems like a good cop, and Cpl. Kaur certainly seems to admire the man. Gwydion is hiding some embarrassment that seems to carry with it danger; Sky will have to keep an eye out for that. And Alma...how many times had Sky misstepped with her today? Is she a slave, or a slave owner? Both or neither? Those Bunnies...from the wording of the orders, and a subtle marginal note penciled in by the Commander, he knows that no matter what his recommendation the Council could very well have already made a decision, and he might be ordered to put the creatures down. There would be no working with Alma after that, he is sure. It wouldn’t matter to her that he was following orders. She would become his implacable enemy.
Is there a purpose behind that? Does Alma have enemies already? Sky lets the wheels of paranoia turn in his mind, dispassionately observing the results, waking his divine power to perceive the connections between and behind events, the chains connecting secrets and conspiracies. To break chains, one must first perceive them, and the chains of the slave are forged by chains of backroom collusion. There is something there, some reason the Bunnies are being released now...some reason he and these other two gods are here, together. But the connections are too obscure for now...he needs to learn more.
Once again, his mind is filled by the image of the Bunny who had approached him, who had been so fascinated by his badge, who had looked into his eyes and seemed to see him for what he was. He clinically observes his body’s reaction: shortness of breath, a drying of the mouth, a slight shakiness in his hands. Arousal. Why does she affect me so? he thinks. She’s not a real person...is she? And am I a coward for avoiding her? As he rises from the bath, he resolves to find out tomorrow.