It was the dead of night in Three Portlands, right at that awkward hour when it was too late to hurl insults and loose change at anartists and too early to go out and get a coffee that required the logging of an alternate Earth to brew. The majority of the city was occupied with sleeping, watching Ukrainian modempunk mashup videos or otherwise slacking off, which meant it was more or less silent out on the street.
The uncomfortable quiet that had settled around the marble facade of the local St. Trinian's Sewing Center was broken only by the sound of soft footsteps. Glancing from side to side, the man took a brief moment to survey his surrounds, before carrying on with his walk.
He was one of the six or seven people/cyborgs taking a walk around the city at this time of night: unlike the majority of the others, he wasn't taking photos and unlike every other person currently on the street, he carried a small cream card in his pocket.
It read "LEONARD GALBRAITH: ANDERSON ROBOTICS SALES REPRESENTATIVE" in a thick, professional font, and it was one of the few things that basically guaranteed your safety regardless of where you went in the anomalous world. It was a palm-sized, embossed, 150g/m2 rectangle of don't-fuck-with-me that had carried the rather hefty metaphorical weight of multiple killer autonomous drones, and it was to the great benefit of Leonard that it was washable.
As he walked, he noticed a tiny blue light blink on in a nearby house. The tiny Amur drone perched on top of the fence he'd been walking by seemed to give him a tiny nod, before sinking back on its haunches.
His shoulders relaxed unconsciously, and he continued his walk.
A small, barely noticeable wind blew past him and he wrapped his coat a little tighter around him. It had started raining again, irritatingly enough. Leonard's hair had just been gelled and it would take an age to get the coiff in just the way he did this (last? was it past midnight?) morning–
Something had just tapped him on the shoulder and a freezing sensation crawled up his body agonisingly slowly. Turning around bit by bit, he put his hands up and intoned, "I'm a salesman for Mr. Vincent Anderson-"
There was a loud clang as the shovel took off his head.
As it hit the ground with a muted thud, his eyes rolled around to see the woman standing behind him, dressed in all-black and coughing up smoke. Well, that wasn't technically true, because your eye sockets couldn't cough and hers most certainly had.
"Ssh, ssh, ssh," she whispered, with all the sincerity of a discount dentist, as she cradled his newly detached head in the crook of her elbow. "Just gimme a few seconds to close your eyes and this is gonna feel like a nice warm blanket…"
Drawing a hasty sigil in the air, she placed her hands over his eyes and gently closed them. The last thing he saw before everything was green haze was the silvery glimmer of the mechanical structure wrapped around her wrist and arm; a few moments later, he smelt minty smoke and something oddly reminiscent of hotdogs.
He later realised it was the smell of his body being incinerated.
It was like being filleted alive while being deep-fried simultaneously at the same time you were being dipped in the freshly-extracted tears of hundreds of your clones undergoing the same process. The recursive sous-vide was also accompanied by the slow insanity of being briefly segmented into myriad individual consciousnesses for each particle of ash floating through the air, before their final ties to the bulk of his mindspace were cut by the process of incineration.
It hurt. A lot.
His screams of pain would've been more audible, a) had his voicebox been properly attached to the rest of his lungs and b) if the glamour around them hadn't existed.
Alliott Chao cracked her neck, satisfied at the clean tang the shovel had made as it went through his vertebrae. The fact that her arms had (temporarily) been augmented with Anderson technology was not lost on her, but there was an appealing flair to it – also partially the reason why she'd used a shovel instead of an axe1.
A quick check of her wrists confirmed that the golden bangle was still firmly affixed, the sacred Chao (still glimmering with power, thank K-n for that) hanging from its underside. With that formality out of the way, she slowly began walking away from the cloud of ash where his body had vaporised, before breaking out into a full-on sprint back to her apartment.
The apartment in question was a complete and utter mess, which was just how she and her Goddess liked it. While her bedroom was somewhat decent, the only real signs of mess being the fact that the five books on her bedside table were out of their neatly-piled formation, her impromptu "practical theology lab" looked as if a bomb had gone off in the Library. Pages from the Principia and Star Signals were littered around the workbench, which itself held several small cubes of bone, connected to a thick slab of metal which looked like it was this close to cracking the table.
Now, it was also host to an honest-to-god head in a jar, which completed the interior decor ensemble quite nicely. The "jar" was really just a euphemism for a mechanical orgy of wires, adaptors and what looked like a sheep's liver – Alliott had helpfully labelled the last component with "pineal gland, do not touch", and it was a hell of a thing to wake up to in the morning.
Leonard was at least afforded the small privilege of being able to turn his head around by a couple of degrees in either direction. "Hello?" he called experimentally. He wasn't sure if anyone was even still in the apartment, mainly because his view was mostly obscured by aforementioned pineal gland.
"Yeah, I'm here." Alliott sounded vaguely exhausted as she brushed aside the electronic folderol littering the jar. "Sorry, had to crash for a bit. You're not too… y'know, banged up?"
Something was digging into his neck, though he would later discover that was the connection to the amplifier mounted on top of the collection of circuitry. "I think so? Bit difficult to tell, given my current, ah, situation." Leonard wriggled a little and only succeeded in grinding his neck stump against the bottom of the jar. "Could you get me a mirror or something…"
"Right. Yeah. Can't have our prophet too banged up…" As Alliott traipsed off, Leonard glanced around the room a little more before suddenly realising the last thing she'd said.
She came back with a small chunk of glass that looked like she'd just thrown a rock through a window and picked up the leftovers. Holding it up to the jar, she continued, "Yeah, all there in the title."
Leonard gave his fractional self a glanceover in the impromptu mirror. His skull didn't look to be banged up too much, although the wires connected to his neck were arranged in a horrifically cringe-worthy bundle of knots. "If you don't mind me asking, er…"
"Yes. If you don't mind me asking, Alliott, could you explain… er… why you decapitated me this evening?"
Alliott slumped back on the impromptu couch in the corner, which looked like it had once been a deck chair of some kind before it started developing malignant cushions. "Mmph." Reaching for a stack of Planasthai editions, she rifled through them and discarded each one in turn before finally settling on the one she wanted.
"Well," she began conversationally, "You're a salesman yourself, aren't you?"
"I… yes, I used to be a salesman, but I don't see how this rel-"
"Now let me ask you, have you ever been… ripped off by a client?"
"I haven't myself, but it's happened before, and- again, I don't see how this rela-"
"Well then. Let me show you this." Finally finding the page she wanted, she splayed the magazine open and plastered it awkwardly against the glass of the jar. It was a two-page splash of what appeared to be either a Burning Man gone horrifically wrong, or a woman who'd taken a bath in a mulch pit. The vaguely humanoid mass of worms was standing in the middle of an impromptu clearing and surrounded by the burnt and smoking wrecks of what had (probably) once been tanks. Some goof had titled the image: "Worminiscences: A Retrospective On The Fuji Incident."
"I-" Leonard squinted at it for a few moments. "Okay, how does this relate to you decapita-"
"That-" Her finger, grossly blown up by perspective, poked into the image and pointed at a small discoloured smudge that was honestly really a footnote compared to the main events occuring in the picture. "-is what I was meant to be selling. And this-" The finger shifted to point at the Worming Man. "-was a representative of my client. You can work out the rest of yourself."
Tossing the magazine away, she slumped back on the mushroom-couch. "The K-ndamn Livery strikes again. Fucking morons, the lot of them."
Leonard sighed deeply, which made a popping sound as more oxygen-replacement leaked out of what was probably his jugular. "So… you decapitated me, so you could have a non-existent shoulder to cry on."
"Keep sassing me and K-n help me I'm going to Take the Words out of your mouth," Alliott growled. "No, I needed you because I need a prophet, like I said. Simply put, if they're going to try and fuck me over another time, I'd like to be able to foresee the crash before it comes, y'know?"
"Right, right." Leonard blinked. "You know, I'm recording all this."
Alliott shrugged. "Prophesy always tends to work a certain way, y'know? Even if you don't want to be a prophet, you always get told what you're gonna do, who you're going to be prophesying on behalf of. The oracular ritual can't be done without some connecting symbolism, otherwise it'll just fizzle out. K'boom, EVE all over the place."
"Fascinating." The head sighed. "Alright, if you're going to say that you need to tell me about all this… preliminary stuff, can we get the oracle orientation over and done with?"
"Alright then." So she oriented him, verbal compass and all, and he didn't particularly like it.
When Landen Eckhart dragged himself to work, running on a mere one-and-a-half cups of coffee, he wasn't expecting his first visitor to be a towering android in a suit-and-tie ensemble, with its muscles exposed and glistening like it was a freshly-flayed cadaver that'd been shrink-wrapped in his ubiquitous aramid coating.
The android had introduced itself as Vincent Anderson, and Landen had nearly shut down right then and there.
The man looked like he had actual skin in promotional photos, for Christ's sake.
He was half-expecting the entire branch to spontaneously combust when Anderson had politely handed him a card, and respectfully pointed out that the investigative team assigned to the recent disappearance had missed this potentially decisive piece of evidence.
"I can, uh, definitely see why you were concerned about your employee, Mr. Anderson." Landen awkwardly shifted back and forth, trying hard not to stare too hard at the re-skinned imitation of a man that was currently looming over him. "Spencer found Mr. Galbraith's… remains this morning. For what it's worth, we don't think he's, erm…" Deconstructed, deactivated, turned off- "…deceased, as of yet, but we're bringing in specialists to deal with the magi- thaumic elements of the case. I'm aware that you're concerned about your employees and everything but-"
Anderson nodded and Landen couldn't help but wince at how his muscles distended beneath his collar. It was only made worse when his clammy hand reached out and gripped him firmly by the shoulder. "Oh, I understand completely, Mr. Eckhart. See that you, uh, get to it. Please do, er, call if you get anywhere on the case. Like you said yourself, I'm, well, fairly concerned about Leonard, but one can't expect results immediately. Again, thank you very much for the, er, assistance." He nodded again and began trotting off, parting the agents milling around the room like replicant Moses through the bureaucratic sea.
As soon as he was out of earshot Landen exhaled visibly, before brushing his hands on his pants to get rid of any leftover residue on his palms.
"Heya." Before Landen could jump away from yet another hand on his shoulder, he spun around to face his partner. Ari Perkowitz smiled back at him with all the oblivious sunniness of a methadone clinic run by Scientologists. "That was smooth," he added, with a grin.
"Mmm. Thanks for the backup there." Landen grimaced visibly. "Is the peanut gallery done, because I'm feeling a little anaphylactic shock coming on-"
Ari shushed him, before beckoning him to follow him down a corridor. "As much as I'd love to keep taking the piss out of you, we have a relevant lead, actually! You remember the whole Two Hoovers agreement, right?"
Landen stopped mid-stride. "I'm sorry, are we redeclaring war on Portlands again, or…"
He was silenced by a medium-heat glare. "Ass. The surveillance amendment."
"Excuse me if I fail to see how eavesdropping on Yog-Sothoth is going to help us on this particular case."
Ari murmured something that sounded like he was gargling a bucket of nails. "The Black Queen, ████ ██ █ ████."
"Agh!" Landen stopped thinking of a witty comeback to wipe off a fleck of blood and earwax dripping down the side of his face. "Alright, alright. Did we pick up something on Line Six?"
"Yup." Stopping nearby a printer, Ari took out a thin printout and handed it to Landen. "Now, who wants to go bust an illegal oracle racket?"