The end is nigh! This is the penultimate part of the epic Cephalopocalypse! The earlier parts are available via INDIGO ON DEMAND using the links below:
Prologue: Early Whispers Of Christmas
Part One: Definitely Inside The Lines
Part Two: The Wisdom Of Invertebrates
Part Three: Ready To Tell The Tale
Part Four: Before I've Found My Slippers
Part Five: Under Endless Blue Skies
Part Six: Filling A Leaky Bucket
Part Seven: Finding Wisdom In Flames
This part is dedicated to Schwa Michaels, who provided the title. Thanks, Man.
We've been running so fast and for so long, we've really not had time to stop and smell the roses.
The beautiful, burning roses.
Below us, the midnight city of Cambridge is burning. Well, bits of it are, anyway.
From our vantage point on one of the University spires, we can see the full extent of the blaze. We can't see the individual licks of flames; even from this distance, like Blake's Tyger, the fire is burning bright. It consumes the lamp-posts and the houses, submerging the urban forests of the night beneath roiling, infernal waves. Smoke claws skywards in two vast columns, and high clouds reflects the orange glow of this senseless destruction.
The cuttlefish did this.
Fear, Loathing and Despair are all present, and Rage is jogging into view to make up the apocalyptic quartet. But Surprise and his kid brother Confusion are also here, and they're muddling our reactions. Max Tunguska tilts his head and offers his thoughts.
Well, that's peculiar.
Five minutes ago, we teleport into Cambridge, and a world of heat, noise, smoke and light greets us. Around us, to our horror, houses are burning, and the tarmac is smouldering under smoke-choked amber clouds. I cough almost immediately; I'm not overly bothered by fire, but when I'm surrounded by it, I can see the advantage of being elsewhere.
The cuttlefish did this! rages my inner voice.
I feel Max's hand grasp my shoulder. And I curse the inevitable nausea as - in a non-smoking panic and a flurry of vertigo and light - he teleports us to higher ground.
Back in the now, the heat reflecting from the stonework of the spire is warming my back. I ache for a bath, a warm, supportive balm for muscles that ache beyond reason. We gaze silently, confused and weary. Thankfully, despite their intensity, neither fire seems to be spreading.
Yes, that's bloody peculiar, repeats Max.
Yeah, it's better than I expected.
My friend nods, but frowns nonetheless. That's not what I meant, he says quietly, pointing north. Did you realise that that's your neighbourhood? He points to the east, And that that one's mine? He scratches his head, adding absently, Thankfully, I can't see any people. Hmmm.
Momentary panic jostles me, but fades quickly. My neighbour Abbey is elsewhere, and the badgers can run very deep beneath the garden when they need to. And, as Max says, where are the people?
Still, this is my Reality.
The cuttlefish did this.
Wait. This makes no sense, I say, puzzled. The cuttlefish network, also known as CephNet, is based at Max's house. Why would they try to burn their own base down? And evacuate the area before they did it?
Silence and anticipation gather, waiting for us to think it through. And then we say it at the same time:
Because the cuttlefish didn’t do this.
And now, questions. Lots of questions.
Who exactly has been chasing us? We saw several flying squid, but we only have circumstantial "guilty-by-virtue-of-being-similar-species" evidence. We can't be sure the cuttlefish sent them.
And why were they chasing us? Anyone being chased instinctively tries to avoid capture, but was capture the goal? A vision of sheep passes through my head, with a shepherd and his cunning sheepdog directing the traffic. Were we being herded?
Why was Cambridge attacked in so many different Realities? We met and rallied many different versions of ourselves against the CephNet, but was that worth destroying city after city for?
Why were the attacks so incompetent as to keep missing us? Somehow, I don't feel that anyone who can organise trans-dimensional attacks would be burdened with inaccuracy; the instigators wouldn't make a mistake unless it was intended.
And if the cuttlefish didn’t do this, then who did?
All of these questions are ones we didn’t stop long enough to consider while we were running; adrenaline is like that. There's a dawning sense of answers, and that someone is messing with us.
And I think the penny drops for us at the same time. We share a glance and nod; yes, we know who we're up against.
We've never met them, but we've had dealings, especially Max.
Gentlemen, says a familiar pachyderm voice behind us, back along the roof. I imagine right now you're wondering who's done this.
The hulking agent stands, silhouetted by gold, red and orange clouds. Other figures are with him - I assume one is my neighbour Abbey - but I can't make them out; they're so much more generic, more human than Elliot Nesh, the Special Elephant Agent for the Unity Agency.
You may even be reaching conclusions.
This lad has Timing and Style, I can't deny it.
He shifts, pushing his hat down squarely. He absently enjoys the scent of a dark rose buttonhole in his lapel before thrusting his hands deep into his trenchcoat pockets.
So. Let's go finish this.
My heart soars.
Yes, sir. Timing and Style.
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