LENGTH: 8,000 words ish
SUMMARY: Fantastic Four/Chrestomanci crossover. Perplexing Portals, Chatty Enchanters, and Cosmic Superhumans, oh my!
WARNING: Brought to you by the Ministry of Batshit Crossovers. Contains TECHNOBABBLE and More DODGY SCIENCE Than You Can Shake A Stick At (TM). Don't say I didn't warn you, now.
NOTES: 1) Set after 'Charmed Life' (more or less ignoring 'Stealer of Souls') and somewhere toward the end of Waid/Weiringo's FF run. 2) In a moment of insanity I thought it'd be a vastly amusing idea to put Chrestomanci in the same room as Reed Richards because OMG the talking. For some reason, it never crossed my mind until a few thousand words in what an absolute hell that this would be to write. 3) There's probably an unwritten rule that you shouldn't cross American comics with British children's fiction, and if there isn't then there probably should be. I apologise profusely to both parties. ;)
Science & Sorcerer
It was with some caution that Chrestomanci lowered the arm he'd thrown up to protect his eyes against the blaze of the expanding rift. He was quite surprised to be able to do so. He'd seen the rift peel back reality like the skin of an apple, and had rather accepted the embarrassment of having his last words be "Don't worry, it can't reach - "
That idiot Quentalas with his half-cocked experiments. He never would listen to...
Chrestomanci's train of thought derailed as his brain caught up to what his returning eyesight was showing him. "Interesting," he said, and blinked, momentarily at a loss for further comment.
"Keep the forcefield in place, Sue!" rapped a commanding, if rather dryly so, voice. "Even if they aren't hostile, we have no way of knowing if their state of matter is compatible with that of our universe - or, for that matter, if they can breathe the air."
"I hope you have a better plan than this, Reed! I can't plug this gap forever, and whatever air is in the forcefield with them isn't going to last long," Sue, whoever she was, responded in a voice filled with effort.
"I'll come up with something. Let me see..."
The being that leaned out over them was quite the oddest Chrestomanci had ever seen; a twisting, elongated body and limbs wove with speed and ease if not exactly grace through the air around and above them. It took a long moment to register, amid the rest, that it was a human face and eyes that peered down. Chrestomanci exchanged that furrowed concentration with his own bald curiosity.
"Ouch," said a voice that was distinctly Cat, behind him.
Oh dear... Distracted, Chrestomanci turned. In the back of his mind he'd rather thought - wishful thinking, he supposed - that the others had been standing far enough behind him to avoid this little adventure. But no, it seemed this was a group outing.
"I bumped my head." Cat was glaring very intently at the air a few inches in front of his face. He thumped it, with some gusto. It made a soft 'bong' noise as his fist rebounded. "We're trapped." The boy's rising anger was palpable. "We're trapped by aliens and they're going to keep us as pets or eat us or - "
"It is rather like a goldfish bowl." Millie set her hand on Chrestomanci's arm. "Darling, remind me to stand further back the next time you tell me we're completely safe."
"Well, I'm not being anybody's ruddy pet," said Tacroy. "I've seen Quentalas looking at his white rats just like that." He glared at the elongated chap with a fury that the fellow looked, frankly, entirely oblivious to, though the woman standing a way behind him returned it narrow eyed.
The rift crackled energy at their back, looking raw and unstable. In its current state, he doubted it would transport them home in one piece - or at least if it did, it wouldn't do so without rearranging a number of crucial parts. The unfamiliar elements within its structure that Chrestomanci had detected just before their impromptu translocation appeared to have almost taken over now - there was little left in its make-up that he recognised. In the light of recent events, it struck him that achieving some distance from it would not go amiss.
"Hm." He rapped the air with his knuckles and listened to the hard, low sound. "It's some kind of solid energy shield. Perhaps a wise precaution, but I believe our friends out there are as human as we are. Well, we shall see - " He stepped through the shield, and turned to help his wife negotiate her footing over the remains of Quentalas' kitchen, which were strewn across the ground and seemed to have made quite a mess of what otherwise would have been a pleasant public park. The occasional recognisable artefact, like half a stove, rose up out of the pulped debris. "Come along."
"Sis! Why you - !" The enraged shout came from above, and Chrestomanci barely looked up quickly enough to see the bolt of fire blaze down toward him before Millie did something to dispel it even as he felt his nose hair singe. He drew out a handkerchief and shakily wiped his brow, while the bright figure in the sky above looped in foiled agitation.
"He's on fire," Cat said, with an enthusiasm entirely inappropriate to the situation. "And he's flying."
"Johnny!" The blond woman was picking herself up from the ground. Evidently, dispelling her shield had caused a degree of feedback - and oh dear, that probably wasn't going to provide the politest of impressions. Tutting at himself, Chrestomanci moved to offer her his help. "My dear young lady, I do ap - "
"Hold it right there." Something both sinewy and elastic curled about him, pinning his arms to his sides. With rather intrigued discovery, he realised it was the very body of their rather-hastily-dubbed 'aliens'' elastic leader, whose arms held immobilised Millie and Tacroy in similar manner and terminated with a stretched-out hand that had Cat by the scruff of the neck.
"I say, that's really quite remarkable. Does it hurt? Forgive my presumption, but it doesn't look altogether comfortable... Tell me, you are human, correct?"
"Are we human!" the fiery flying chap exclaimed with disgust.
"Americans," Tacroy said, in a tone suggesting that indicated otherwise.
A spark of flame landing inches from his feet made him jump. "You've got a heck of a drubbing coming your way, bozo!"
"I'd like to see you try." Under his breath, Tacroy started muttering the preliminary incantations for summoning rainstorms.
"You're familiar with the United States of America?" the elastic fellow asked, apparently oblivious to his combustible friend's ire. Chrestomanci wondered how he spoke when his lungs, wherever they were, must be stretched into more contortions than a balloon giraffe. " - Wait. Why do you sound English?"
"Oh, the usual reasons," he began airily.
"Get off." Cat, squirming, managed at that moment to tug left-handedly at the spider-like fingers curled in his collar. "You're all twisted up out of shape. It looks horrid. You should be person-shaped."
With a sort of 'cough' sound, the man's body contracted, releasing Chrestomanci, Millie, Tacroy and Cat, and resolved into the more mundane figure of a fiftyish, tall and rake-thin gent. His tight-fitting blue uniform matched that of the blond woman who dashed to his side to help him catch his balance. "Reed!"
A dozen needle-pointed distortions twisted in the air around her as she turned an angry glare on Cat.
"Darling, I don't think those are something I can - " Millie began warningly.
"Yes, quite." Chrestomanci's deep concern alleviated slightly when the blond woman faltered, clearly unwilling to attack a child. "Tacroy, Cat - restrain yourselves, please. I assure you, madam, while we may not know quite where we are, we are at least reasonably certain that we come in peace. There is absolutely no need for violence."
"Sorcery," the elongating fellow said, a conclusive diagnosis, and Chrestomanci didn't miss the fact that he looked quite cross as he said it. But the grim twist of his mouth ended in a brusque sigh. "Perhaps we have all been a little hasty initiating this encounter. Sue, Johnny, stand down - Ben!"
His cry came in conjunction with a yelp from Tacroy. Chrestomanci spun around - and stared at the huge creature with a hide formed of what looked like orange rock. The creature that was currently holding Tacroy above its head with ease, not to mention a certain flexibility in its arm that suggested it was about to bowl him for six.
"Aww, what?" the thing said grumpily. "Better late than never, right?"
" - and this is my baby brother, Johnny Storm," Sue finished, as they picked their way across the rubble to where the army were pitching a tent as an operations HQ. Reed, returning from collecting various equipment from the fantasticar, rejoined the group just in time to catch the round of cautious introductions and Tacroy's disbelieving "You really actually called yourselves that?"
He said, "The transdimensional-slippage inhibitor I set up should prove an adequate enough stopgap, for a while at least. By my calculations, we have at least two-point-six hours before it breaks out of the field and starts spreading again."
"Excellent," announced Chrestomanci. "Plenty of time to come up with a solution - and sit down for a nice cup of tea. I believe it's been quite a lengthy journey..."
"Isn't it a bit inconvenient, being on fire?" the boy who'd been introduced as Cat piped up to Johnny. He spoke with that special malicious breed of naive curiosity that young children uniquely possessed - Reed recognised it instantly. The grin of the dark, short-tempered Tacroy who had his hand on the boy's shoulder not only encouraged it but seemed to take some delight in doing so. "Do you have to wear fireproof-spelled underwear?"
"It switches off, Doctor Strange Junior," Johnny responded, hands on hips.
"Unlike f'r some of us," Ben muttered, and Reed frowned and avoided meeting his eye. "As to the underwear..."
"See," Johnny rode over him with intent, twisting in mid-air before flaming off as he set down. "No flame, no flying, just normal me... and yes I am human, thankyouverymuch, Mister - we all are. We're just your regular brilliant, incredibly brave superhero types going about our business of saving the Earth and clobbering freaky mumbo-jumbo invaders from other dimensions like - oh, wait."
"The boy's just interested, Johnny," Sue said.
"Saving the Earth? How very remarkable a coincidence!" Chrestomanci exclaimed, tugging at the lapels of his elaborate old-fashioned suit. He appeared to note for the first time his dishevelled state, and frowned severely at the dust and creases until they fled, leaving him to brush at his now-impeccable attire with a brief 'tut'.
Reed narrowed his eyes.
"At least, in a manner of speaking," Chrestomanci qualified, "Bearing in mind that due to the nature of my post it's more often other worlds that I'm required to save."
Sue frowned at her brother. "Johnny just can't resist an opportunity to show off," she said, and even managed to say it with sufficient polite finesse that the implicit 'like some other people...' directed toward their flamboyant visitor was barely detectable. "We're explorers really - Reed's a scientist, an inventor - though it's true that we step up to the odd - "
"Very odd," Ben put in. "You want odd, then we're your happy explorin', clobberin' family."
"Yes... well, we help out when we're needed." She smiled warily at Chrestomanci, who'd noticeably perked up when she said 'scientist'.
"So, hm, you're one of those chaps who play at turning lead into gold and the like," Chrestomanci asserted, jabbing a finger through the air toward Reed. Sue's face fell, and for a moment there might (or might not, that being the problem with invisibility) have been a forcefield in the air between them. "I've always thought all that sort of thing looked terribly int - "
"That's not science," Reed said, turning aside to dump an ordinary armful of equipment on top of an army issue folding table. "That's alchemy."
"In Christopher's... in our world, I'm afraid I suspect those are much the same thing," said Millie, the plain, no-nonsense lady who was almost certainly Chrestomanci's wife.
The canopy of the tent afforded some privacy and shelter amid the debris behind police lines. As they assembled inside, army personnel tip-toed around them with a caution and timidity not generally associated with army personnel. A nervous aide offered their transdimensional strays coffee in paper cups and elicited some dismay at the absence of Earl Grey. Johnny prodded him in the shoulder; "Can we get some donuts here?"
Reed's mood was improving as he could finally feel whatever the boy had done to his elasticity beginning to wear off and he no longer felt quite so uncomfortably stiff. Of course, given that they were once again dealing with sorcery, he doubted his mood was going to improve by very much. Damn it, Doom had got his number too perfectly calculated last time; he did not like to be out of his depth.
Still, unlike Doom, now that Ben had stopped trying to score a touchdown with their persons, not only were these visitors apparently essentially non-hostile, but they seemed to be proving a deal more civilised than, say, the X-men; certainly if your definition of 'civilised' included the ability to not start any fights or destroy anything for a minimum two minutes. Even that large-eyed, thin-framed, deceptively innocent looking child was sitting sipping coffee with perfect decorum, if the occasional grimace.
"You'll have to forgive my husband's grumpiness," Sue said in a deliberate tone that despite her words was directed at nobody so much as Reed himself. "Reed has a little problem with M-A-G-I-C."
"But not, however, spelling," Reed noted. He shook the Sub-Reality-Incursion-Sensorscope in his hand and glared at the readings.
"Yeah," Ben guffawed. "'S the one thing Big-brain there can't take apart, label, and put back together again better'n it was. Y' can bet that sticks in his craw."
"But what could be more simple or natural than magic?" Chrestomanci exclaimed.
"Hey!" Ben returned, abruptly defensive. "You ever try to understand that stuff on a molecular level? Guess ya gotta have the kind of brain that'd rather believe than know, if ya get my meanin' - an' that kinda brain couldn't make the leaps and bounds in scientific discovery that Stretcho has, so you cut him some slack, pal."
"Thank you, Ben," Reed said dryly. Chrestomanci himself looked more perplexed than apologetic in the face of Ben's response. Reed snaked his hand outside the tent to get a closer, uninterrupted reading with the SRISScope.
Tacroy snorted and raised an eyebrow archly at Christopher. "You would say that. You didn't have to work at it half as hard as the rest of us did - just gave the world a snotty look and watched it fall into line."
"My dear fellow, are you saying I'm over-privileged?" Chrestomanci said with a clearly false severity. "Remind me why I ever called you back into my employ."
"Decoration." Tacroy gave Sue a brilliant smile that was, thankfully, met with deep suspicion.
Millie murmured something about maids that presumably only Johnny, standing next to her, heard in full - and he turned bright red, and the top of his head flamed briefly.
"Really, old friend, you should be learning some responsibility in your advanced age," Chrestomanci said, his tone disapproving but only half interested. Reed discovered why an instant later as a hand landed firmly on his shoulder. "Are you getting anywhere with that thingamajig?"
He scowled at the new readings, jotted down a fragment of an equation on the edge of the table, then scrubbed over the numbers he'd just written. "These figures don't make sense..." He looked up at Chrestomanci. "I've studied something like this before, but here, when I try to pin it down - well, there are elements within the matrix I don't recognise. And I'm beginning to get a bad feeling that's because they simply don't belong in this universe or my frame of reference... Does any of this make any sense to - ?"
"My dear fellow, I never saw such a plethora of numbers! As for what they mean..."
Reed grimaced. "Hunh. It appears then that we have a problem of translation." He fingered his chin, then popped his head around the corner of the tent to find the army aide who'd been so helpful with the coffee. "I don't suppose Steven Strange is on this plane of existence at the moment?"
"We've been belling Doctor Strange since we got here," was his unsatisfying answer.
Evidently the exchange had been overheard, because when he contracted his neck, returning his head to the top of his shoulders, Ben was grumping, "There's faith 'n loyalty for yer. Are we ever gonna hear the last of that Latveria crap?"
"Celebrity is fickle." Reed refused to get drawn into any more guilt or argument on that score. "Never mind. While Steven has sufficient background in science to at least attempt to establish some congruence between our two frames of reference. I suspect in any case this sorcery would prove to be in itself alien to him. We shall just have to improvise. Although the fact that our two universes clearly operate by such different rules, and yet we are both standing here talking to one another... well..."
"It can't be good news for either of them," Chrestomanci observed. At least they were on the same page in something. The enchanter drained the last coffee from his paper cup and disappeared it with a flick of his hand. "If you'll excuse me, I should like a closer look again at the rift."
Millie rolled her eyes as Chrestomanci strolled off with his coat-tails flapping jauntily behind him, and called after, "Do be careful this time, dear." He flapped a hand over his shoulder in a half-hearted wave. The army personnel scrambled instinctively from his Tall and Dignified path.
"Johnny," Reed began. He stopped short as a solider entered, thrust a large bag of donuts into Johnny's hands, then absented herself with speed, possibly aware of how Johnny's gaze lingered on her retreating rump.
"Haven't we had words before about how we don't send the army out for fast food?" Reed remarked darkly.
"What?" Johnny extended the bag. "I'll share!"
He swatted the bag aside. "Be serious, if you please. I have a job for you. There are a few things I require from my lab, and since equipment of my design is currently all that's containing an extradimensional incursion that could, at best, rewrite the rules of reality as we know it, I probably shouldn't leave the site myself."
"Hey - me too," said Ben, casting an eye over their visitors and stealing a large, rocky pawful of donuts from the open bag over Johnny's shoulder. "You guys wanna tag along f'r the trip, too - 'less you'd rather stay here while Mr Fantastic here and Mr Pompous over there yak each other's ears off."
"Thank you, Ben…"
On his travels, Chrestomanci had encountered more than a few worlds where, instead of relying on ordinary magic for everyday and extraordinary tasks alike, the inhabitants constructed elaborately complicated machines. Bafflingly, a number of those worlds had possessed the potential for magic to work there, carelessly lying around largely unused.
From what he could determine, it seemed almost all the people of this world were possessed of the delusion that such non-magical embellishments were necessary every bit as much as his current 'companion in arms', so to speak.
Indeed, very long arms, as Richards prodded at his machine with thin, tapering malleable fingers. "I hope it's nothing serious keeping Ben and Johnny. This should buy us a little longer, if the recalibrations hold true, but the effects of this device appear to be eroding far quicker than I'd anticipated... and I still don't like the fluctuating state of the dynamic energy in the epidimensional vortex..."
"Yes, absolutely." Chrestomanci nodded with conviction enough that the distracted fellow turned to look upon him with deep suspicion. "Richards... my dear fellow, I fear there is perhaps as little I recognise among the forces at work in this reprehensively troublesome rift as among the words leaving your lips."
"The metal box should keep this world safe for a while longer now," Richards provided dryly.
"That much, I did gather, thank you..." He massaged his temples in a futile attempt to relieve their mounting ache.
Richards, it seemed, possessed the... fantastic he supposed would be one way of putting it... ability to talk more than any other being he'd ever encountered, with remarkably little mind for the involvement or distraction of his audience. Chrestomanci had the unsettling feeling that he was being upstaged somehow. He also had the unsettling feeling that Richards was oblivious to the fact.
He was also somewhat concerned that Millie and Mrs Richards had seen fit to send Cat and Tacroy off with the remaining two of their eccentric new acquaintances. While at least it meant they were out of the immediate danger posed by the portal, their joint demonstrated potential for grand chaos was possibly not something this universe was ready for. Tacroy might be his oldest friend, but he had to wonder if asking him back to Chrestomanci Castle's staff to tutor the boy had been his best idea ever.
He'd attempted to warn Mrs Richards, but bafflingly she had smiled and told him not to worry, and he had the distinct feeling she knew something he didn't.
He left his headache alone as a bad job and turned to Richards. "Whether we happen to share a language that could reasonably be called English or not, I believe this may be information pertinent to the situation... In our own world before we were transported here, I came to observe a small amount of unfamiliar energy not dissimilar to what forms, here, by far the greater part of the rift. A little less, I believe, than the constituent elements that I do recognise here... but enough to correlate, allowing for some expansion in the time it took for your machine to be set in place."
"So the incursion is proportionally weighted on either side of the transdimensional bubble... That makes sense..." Richards lit up with excitement for a moment, before his brows descended darkly in aggressive concentration. "Let me see..."
"Good lord," Chrestomanci muttered faintly, as the upper part of Richards' body curved about the boundary of the rift until he came full circle, quite leaving his legs behind. "I hardly think that's a strictly responsible approach to the welfare of one's body parts, I must declare!"
As a head and shoulders all but floating in mid-air with the central section of his body a curled ribbon stretching behind him, the scientist proceeded to continue their conversation unperturbed, gesturing toward the rift with overlong fingers. "I'm afraid the conclusion seems unavoidable. The essential structure of the breach appears to be a hybrid of the rules operating in each of our separate, very different universes. On this side, parts of the incursion are determined by laws completely unrelated to anything I can comprehend. Likewise, whereas it's possible no science I would recognise even operates in your world under normal circumstances, the unknown elements manifesting within the breach on your side led to the miscalculation that brought you here."
"Quentalas..." Chrestomanci huffed aggrievedly. Damn the man, what had he been playing with this time?
"It's possible your friend made a breakthrough in hard science that quite literally shook the foundations of your world," Richards said. He looked almost approving. "And in the bargain, punched a hole straight through to ours; perhaps seeking a world that recognised its self-same rules." He grimaced, and that trace of approval evaporated as his face grew serious and drawn. Somehow, while they had been talking, Richards legs had perambulated around the rift and rejoined the rest of him, and he stood now much an ordinary figure of a man again. A very worried one. "Chrestomanci... I can at least attempt to unravel any kind of science, given time. Magic is... a blind spot," he finished with palpable frustration.
"Well, we all have those," Chrestomanci remarked. "I'd hazard my wife would claim that leaving well alone things I didn't understand would easily halve our day-to-day catastrophes"
"Hmm. Mine might claim that a cessation of attempting to understand anything that I didn't would reduce ours similarly, but you'd do well to question her sincerity - I suspect she secretly embraces this life far more completely than the rest of us."
Chrestomanci thought of Millie so wholeheartedly attempting to embrace the mundane that she, with nary a crack ever showing, determinedly pretended their own life was perfectly ordinary. He wondered what the two women were finding to talk about back in the tent. Quite possibly, he decided, that was one of the world's mysteries best left unknown.
His loquacious companion had resumed focus upon his machines, and it was clear at a glance that their brief foray into a resemblance of ordinary human conversation was gone beyond recovery. "If I'm calculating correctly, our major problem here lies in the fact that both our universes are being contaminated by the other. Logic dictates that the inhibitor should have halted the pull on your side of the breach simply by halting it on this side - although, of course, the very fact of that temporary solution's purely scientific/mechanical nature may well have unforeseen degenerative effects.
"Now the question is, how we reset the balance to rights," he continued grimly. "Any single-pronged attack will, at best, surely fail to address the whole. At worst, the destabilizing presence of the unfamiliar elements could prove catastrophic. But our combined forces might only mix things up still further. A joint assault would have to be carefully calculated... yet we lack any method to communicate fine degrees of calculation between us..."
His attention was on the rift, and it was plain he'd either forgotten or dismissed the fact there was anybody else present at all.
Chrestomanci shook his head and cleared his throat. A blind spot, indeed. "Hrm-hrm. I do see what you're saying... inasmuch as it's physically possible to see what you're saying. But I believe you're ruling out our options unnecessarily. Perhaps your own methods find themselves ineffective against magic, but in my experience that's hardly necessarily the case the other way around. While I've admittedly been exercising more caution here since I unwittingly harmed your charming wife, my own post involves a good deal of hopping to other worlds. Why, I've been in worlds where no magic existed at all; where it operated under wildly different systems involving singing or clicking of tongues or inordinately vulgar limericks - even worlds where the people walked upside-down! - yet throughout, my own powers operated in a manner no different to their usual."
Richards visibly had to take a moment to quench his irritation before he reluctantly nodded. "You're right - I've seen sorcery affect technology before."
"Now I'd posit that if you'll allow me to just - " But Chrestomanci broke off, startled, as a curious swelling overtook the shifting energies visible in the rift in front of them. The red-blue trace of familiar, magical energy shot through its core seemed to expand, bulging outward.
"No!" yelled Richards, and he arched billowing like a sailcloth over the near side of the rift, as though his stretched-thin form could protect the soldiers and civilians in the vicinity if the rift's energies broke loose their mechanical tether. "Sue - we need your forcefield!"
Richards' slender wife emerged from the tent at a run, her hand flying to her temple as her eyes narrowed in concentration. Millie followed behind her, a look on her face that told of powers similarly gathering.
"I have it," Chrestomanci announced gallantly, already reaching out with his own magic. But the rift seemed to swell still further, pulsing angrily.
Stretched-thin fingers curled a steely grip around his jaw and claimed his attention. "Whatever you're doing - " Richards, though shouting, was still barely audible over the roar of the rift and, somewhere, a punctuating explosion " - stop doing it!"
"I - " But something very clearly was wrong. He reined in his magic, and though his protective energy no longer attempted to contain it, the rift actually did seem to quieten... "That should have worked. I don't under - oh, no..."
"Yes," Richards said angrily, looping an arm around his wife and gathering her to him, although her pained concentration was quite clearly focused elsewhere. Her invisible shield kept the rift at bay in place of the machine that now lay in smouldering pieces. "You're as bad as Johnny! After everything we've just been discussing, you just off-the-cuff try to - "
Chrestomanci frowned at him. "I believe you mistake me. I didn't use my magic on the rift until it was already in dire need of containing. Whatever caused that breakout, it was not my actions - although it does appear my actions didn't help."
Richards' expression froze. He tapped the blue and white '4' emblazoned in its circle upon his chest, and it sounded a small electronic 'burp'. "Ben, are our visitors using magic over there?"
For several seconds, there was only a curious rushing sound. Then, other curious noises emerged; something that sounded like a heavy object falling... several times. And something else that sounded like explosions. "Ben," Richards repeated impatiently.
"Bad time... Uh, you wanna gimme a call back, Reed...?" said the gruff voice of the large, if personable, creature who'd been introduced as Ben Grimm.
"No," Richards said sternly. "Whatever's happening, this is vitally important. You must tell your charges that they cannot use their magic! I don't care what's happening over there, whether the Mad Thinker's current scheme has coincided with a major Skrull invasion using the back door from N-Space; the stability of our entire universe could be dependent on this!"
"Man, wotta guess... gnnnnhhhh..." There was another noise, which sounded distinctly like something organic being flattened by something else with the approximate consistency of rock. "Right. Sorry 'bout that, Stretch. I'll sort 'em out and bring back the stuff. Gimme ten minutes here. I reckon the Thinker might've just got his second wind."
Looking exceedingly annoyed, Richards thumped the communication device again, silencing it.
"What's happening?" Millie asked. "That sounded to me quite a lot like trouble. If Cat and Tacroy can't use their magic..."
"They'll be fine. Ben and Johnny will sort it out." He looked between the two of them, and opened his mouth.
"You're about to state that even when it isn't directed at the rift itself, any use of our magic is increasing the instability," Chrestomanci said. "Except, quite possible, with longer words and more of them."
Millie gave him an arch look that he couldn't quite fathom and chose not to try.
Any comment unrelated to their current problem seemed to wash off Richards entirely without impact, however. "The surges seem to coincide with instances of magical application. I think exercising your powers draws energy from your own universe rather than anything in ours, thus weakening the breach still further. And I fear that the degree of power required to mend the breach would accelerate the process beyond recovery before ever the substance of its intent could take effect."
"Thank goodness we didn't try!" Chrestomanci exclaimed. "Whoever this Bad Thinker and his Shrills are, it's entirely possible they saved both our universes!"
"Must remember to tell them... the next time we cross paths..." Mrs Richards said, with clear strain. "Reed... I don't know how long I can hold this forcefield in place."
The consequence for him, personally, of their unsavoury conclusions chose that instant to pounce upon Chrestomanci, surprising him from behind. "No magic... Oh, confound it!" he exclaimed with dismay. It wasn't often over the years that he'd been rendered effectively powerless. As Tacroy had put it, perhaps he had indeed grown quite accustomed to 'giving the world a snotty look and watching it fall into line'.
Millie took his arm. "You always did have a talent for understatement, dear." She looked at Richards. "But in that case, we're useless here in this world. Is there nothing we can do?"
Richards, initially distracted by the wife he encircled in his overlong arms, spun around as her words caught up, and his expression cleared abruptly. "Genius!" He caught her shoulder in a brief congratulatory squeeze that certainly nobody else present understood in the least.
He tapped his communication device again. "Johnny, there are a few more things I need from my lab."
"Sure - ow! - I'll just take a note right now, Doctor Richards sah-aaaargh!" Johnny broke off with a yell.
Unfazed, Richards loudly reeled off a list of assorted vowels and consonants in interesting and acrobatic combinations, while grunts and sizzling noises continued to emanate from his chest.
"Right! Right!" Johnny yelped, and Richards cut the communication and glanced around the group, speaking over-quickly; "I have to fix the inhibitor, else come up with some other way to take the pressure off Sue. We need to hold the breach secure by whatever means necessary until Ben and Johnny return." He peeled his wife from his arms and handed her off onto Millie for support, then slithered off with great animation, still shouting behind him. "It's not what I originally intended, but I should be able to adapt the circuitry to perform in the necessary fashion - "
The gallant, unfortunate Mrs Richards, foisted off on near-strangers in her husband's tearaway inspiration, sighed with about equal parts long-suffering patience and fond relief.
Reed was gathering large armfuls of equipment from the back of the fantasticar even as Ben brought it in to land. "Y'r welcome, Stretcho," he heard Ben grumble in his wake as he retracted his body, bringing the machinery down to ground level with him, and immediately began to make the readjustments he'd calculated.
The fantasticar's engines quieted and then silenced altogether as they set down. Conversations washed in and out of his concentration as he worked.
"Tacroy, what on Earth happened to you?" Millie exclaimed. "Your poor hair."
"Just a bit singed around the edges." His surly mutter, barely audible already, was obscured all the more by Johnny's laugh.
"I did save your ungrateful heinie!" the Human Torch said with barely-restrained glee.
" - And whatever part of me that might be, it wouldn't have needed saving if you hadn't got in the way in the first place!" Tacroy retorted. "I was holding my own."
"It was great!" announced a smaller voice, filled to bursting with unexpected enthusiasm. Reed glanced up momentarily and was surprised to see that solemn little boy perched piggy-back atop Ben's rocky shoulders as they disembarked from the fantasticar; a little dusty and scuffed, but apparently unbowed. "Why don't we have a flying car, sir?" Cat directed towards Chrestomanci. "I know we could..."
"I'll think about it," Chrestomanci said dryly, frowning.
"Kid's fine," Ben said. "Real little trooper. C'n we trade him, Suzie? Hey, Mr High-Falutin' Enchanter, you wanna human match-butt on your team?"
"How about a big, dumb bag of rocks?" Johnny countered.
"Enough!" Sue said. "Johnny, at least have the sense to let Ben put the boy down if you're going to start throwing things at each other...!"
"Somehow, I think we'll keep Cat," Chrestomanci said, drolly. Startled by the unexpected proximity of the voice, Reed found the enchanter looming at his shoulder. "I can see saving the Earth is quite the serious business on this side of the pond, as it were..."
"If they let off steam with each other, at least it's only usually the furniture that suffers. Johnny writes up covering the occasional property damage into the yearly budget." He finished the final adjustments to the machine and stood up. "I think we're ready."
"Will that fix the breach?" Johnny asked.
"I can't 'fix' it," Reed said. "At least, certainly not from here, and our visitors might not thank us for making permanent residents of them in any case. But I think I can stabilize it, temporarily. With the alterations I've made, this device should do just that."
"Why?" Chrestomanci asked, a thoughtful look in his eye.
"Because we're going in." Reaching down, he caught up the gauntlets he used for working in dimensions with properties and laws physically diverse from their own, and pulled them on. "If we can't work from either side of the rift without destabilizing either or both universes, we'll just have to work from inside the rift." He handed the spare pair of gauntlets to Chrestomanci. "You may be able to use these to aid in establishing a direct interface with your noncorporeal - at least in our sense - surroundings, and if so they might come in useful. Sue - we'll need your forcefield. The three of you, too, this may be your only ticket home. Ben and Johnny don't really need to come - "
"Didn't hear that quite right, Stretcho," Ben cut in.
"All right, then. Let's do this." Reed looked around them assessingly one last time. Then he curled one arm behind him in a long, thin arc that encircled each of the group like a rope, wrapped up the gadgetry they were likely to require in the other. "We don't want to get separated."
"My forcefield's in place, too," Sue said, her expression all concentration, then flashed him a faintly wicked smile as she patted his hand where it had come to rest on her rump. "Thank you, Sweetheart."
He activated the device, elongated his body to snake forward through the stilled centre of the breach, and reeled them inside in his wake.
The terrain inside the breach was a fascinating hybrid of magic and technology, endlessly frustrating in its taunt that it, like few other things in the world, was ultimately fated to remain beyond his understanding. The mystical elements eluded him, spitting out a series of readouts on the SRISScope that seemed no more than random, meaningless numbers no matter how he turned them about in his mind.
In the heart of the anomaly, sorcery and science meshed, a blend of equal parts. Chrestomanci let out an exclamation and reached out toward the restless energies. They smoothed and quieted, the effect spreading out from his hand, dissipating the roiling chaos around them. Only two cores of disturbance remained untamed, ugly gashes in the unknown substance of their surroundings.
Sue loosed a soft sigh as her face relaxed. "Thank you." Her forcefield was still in place, but a mere thin boundary to stabilize and protect their fragile human bodies within the energies around them, no longer actively assaulted by those energies. "Reed, you do realise I have us all securely contained, I think you can probably let go now..."
"It's incredible," Millie said. "Really quite beautiful... in a terrifying, strange sort of way." Abruptly, she drew a sharp breath. Reed turned to see why, but could detect no threat. Only the backdrop of multicoloured static, like he'd closed his eyes in bright sunlight. The matrix between one physical universe and another.
"Oh, my word - " Chrestomanci began, sounding rattled.
"There are faces," Cat said. "Faces - things... there are monsters in the colours." The boy shivered and backed off, distress in his face, then confusion. "I didn't even feel it - it went right through me!"
"Now, that's not polite. What have I told you - just because they're not human doesn't mean they aren't people," Chrestomanci scolded, keeping his voice low-key.
"Unhhhgh." Johnny's strangled expression and bodily contortions mirrored Cat's.
"I don't see anything," Reed rapped, glaring around intently. "I'm not reading anything either."
Sue reached over and splayed her hand across the readout screen, obscuring it from view. "Don't examine... don't try to see the details. Just let your mind's focus drift and see."
"I..." He let the device sag in his hand, and stared ahead helplessly. At first he thought he was imagining the motion and shapes in the corner of his eye, but they swam into a more complete visibility in gradual stages the longer his attention was upon them, until he was astonished he had missed them.
There were beings in the static. Large faces and bodies constructed from patches of colour, outlines drawn of shifting movement in the chaos. They did not interact with material objects; neither Sue's forcefield nor any of their physical bodies limited their movement. Maybe they had no conception that their dimension - or transitional dimension, technically, though it was unlikely they made that distinction - had intruders present at all. But they did seem to steer clear of the jagged tears the breach had caused in the fabric of their reality.
"Fascinating..." Chrestomanci murmured as another of the beings drifted through his upper body, turning to watch its progress. Almost absently, he reached after it with his gloved hand -
- Made contact even as Reed broke off from his contemplations to call out a warning that such might happen.
"Oh, I do apologise," Chrestomanci said as the creature started. It must have entered a level of perception it hadn't been utilizing before; they were obviously visible to it now. "Please excuse - "
But it was already gone, moving too quickly to follow amid the confusing backdrop, and it was evident the alarm was raised. For a moment the energy creatures became a jumbled mass of confused motion that hurt the eye - Reed blinked hard and put his hands to his head to ward off the stab of pain, and when he cranked his eyes open again they were gone.
"Well, we certainly seem to be making friends here," Tacroy said sourly.
"Dang, we forgot to cover Ben's face up, no wonder they high-tailed it," Johnny said. "Quick, anyone bring a paper bag?"
"Why, you - "
"Shh." Susan had seen, presumably, the same thing Reed had. The inhabitants were returning, only this time they moved with purpose and awareness and - at the risk of making assumptions about the body language of non-bipedal energy-derived alien species - possibly a hint of formality and threat.
"Good afternoon," Chrestomanci said politely. "How do you do?"
Reed was aware of a tiny noise like fingernails rubbing on glass, just on the edge of hearing, almost more an itch in the brain than a noise at all. He frowned down at the scanner in his hand and the new pattern it reeled out in mildly radioactive spikes. He narrowed his eyes at it... of course! It shouldn't take too long to decode a rudimentary understanding of the language and rig up a device that could emulate...
"Really?" Chrestomanci asked, looking startled. "Well, it's not our dimensional incursion. At least, not as such. We're terribly sorry th - "
Reed jerked his head up from the readings and pinned the enchanter with a glare. "Would you mind patching the rest of us into this conversation?"
"Ah? Oh, I see. Of course - most remiss of me." He waved a hand in a flourish. "I think that should improve matters. Now, Mnzip, you were saying?"
"The structure that hungers threatens untranslatable name or concept. Responsibility query addressee? Necessity of removal with haste. Polite tag indicating subtle threat," said the inhabitants' spokesperson. Reed was aware of shrill scratches transforming to nuggets of meaning somewhere between his ears and his brain.
Ben chuckled, though he kept the noise muted. "Can't get much plainer than that. Hey, Stretcho, Enchanter Supreme - better get down to this plan of yours, whatever it is."
"Hm. We'd like to do our best to remove the, ah, hungry thing forthwith," Chrestomanci said. "I hope it didn't eat anything important."
The inhabitants seemed agitated. Their spokesperson said, "Attempts made to close the structure that hungers found wandering elements not belonging. Instability too great to achieve success."
Reed spoke carefully, uncertain of how his words would translate: "I believe we have returned your wandering elements to a neutral point. Are you able now to close the structure and return all the diverse material elements to where they belong?"
There was a pause as the inhabitants conferred, their scratchy vocalisations too quiet and quick among themselves for the translation spell to take effect. One of the beings launched into a lengthy, excitable monologue, during which the others might or might not have fidgeted, depending on whether he was reading their body language correctly.
Either way, Johnny cracked a grin and murmured, "Guess there's one in every universe."
Finally, their spokesman said, "Xexexex believes this to be correct. Please separate-categorise-assemble to facilitate the process."
"Ah." Reed frowned at the line of the forcefield surrounding them all, visible as a shimmer - the elements of the energy around them obviously having some sort of interesting reaction as they sparked off it. "Chrestomanci, can you duplicate the protection of Sue's forcefield by magical means for the four of you? I suspect it's likely to confuse the issue."
"I can do it," Millie said, before her husband could reply. "Cat, Tacroy, Christopher dear - " She gathered them in to her side, so they stood as two distinct groups.
Sue said. "I suppose this is goodbye, then. At least, unless there are any other catastrophes threatening both our worlds, I imagine it's unlikely we'll meet again."
"In that case," Chrestomanci said with a devilish grin. "It's probably best to hope we don't meet again. Which isn't to say I don't value the acquaintance." He stripped off his gloves and handed them over to Reed - using the opportunity to seize his hand and pump his arm enthusiastically.
"Give Quentalas my regards," Reed said.
"If the poor chap hasn't been disintegrated, I certainly shall."
"Sure you don't wanna take up that offer on a cut-price Human Hothead...? Ah, heck with it. See ya, kid." Ben reached across and ruffled Cat's hair.
"Goodbye, Mr Grimm!" the boy said, his serious eyes keen despite the formality.
"Good luck," said Johnny, then spoiled it by adding, this time plainly directed at Tacroy, "I know I'd have my work cut out finding a stylist that could fix - "
"Oh, blow it out your ear," Tacroy said crossly.
"And with that..." Chrestomanci announced dryly. And with that, indeed, Sue dropped her forcefield from around their four visitors, leaving them to the care of Millie's magic. The enchanter nodded to the energy beings with an excess of respectful dignity.
"Hope we can trust these TV-static alien bugs to put us all back in the right place," Johnny said, shielding his eyes as the colours around them brightened almost intolerably, filled with flickering movement of the inhabitants' activity and the energy generated by it. Reed watched through splayed fingers as Chrestomanci, Millie, Tacroy and Cat receded away from them, and hoped his equipment was recording all of this in at least a remotely coherent form.
"Funny how we c'n trust the guy on fire to rain on any parade goin'," Ben grumbled back.
"I shouldn't expect any problems - at least, not of a deliberate nature..." Alarmed, Reed focused through the glare upon the SRISScope in his hand, switched it to calculation mode and squinted his way through a fast series of figures as the universe shifted and warped around them. "It's possible a scientific mind constructed of pure energy won't realise there might theoretically be more than one level of material universe accessible via the transdimensional veil at its immediate boundaries..."
"Reed." Sue's hand enfolded his, commandeering his attention. "Look up, Sweetheart - it's too late to cash in the ticket now. Wherever we're headed... we'll deal with it."
She turned briefly toward where Chrestomanci and his friends had been, and weren't any more, and smiled wryly. "Something tells me we're not the only ones who will."