Pink fire shoots from Quencher's mouth as he thumps his blood-black bass, and the flames belch outward, singeing the hair off at least half the kids in the first three rows. At the rear of the stage, Granite pounds an unholy tattoo on the drums and howls, the howl being a signal that all that noise still ain't enough. The solution? He sprouts a third arm, swipes an extra stick from a custom-made quiver slung over his muscled back, and the mayhem, unbelievably, gets louder. Out front, Sonata chords her guitar like there's no tomorrow - for the guitar, there surely isn't - while Billy Morgan, on synths and vocals, does his damnedest to keep the whole balls-out mess on track, on course, on key.
The crowd goes wild. They always do. Somehow even the smokestack stench of burnt hair catapults them further into the maw of rock 'n' roll ecstasy.
Billy, with studious determination, keeps his cool. With his Norman Rockwell build and his habitual St. Louis Cardinals cap all but glued to his straight strawberry hair, Billy's bound to be sensible. He's the anchor, the pivot-point in the stage show to end all stage shows. First there was Frank Sinatra, girls screaming and tearing their hair, and then came the Pelvis, same thing all over again. The Beatles raised the amperage and the decibels, the Who destroyed their instruments, Midnight Oil and the Clash vied for the underground legend of Best Live Act Ever, but none of them, not on their best day, can compare to Billy Morgan's Full Throttle Thunderpussy. They are, as a few half-deaf members of the press have opined, out of this world.
Not that the fourth estate has ever really comprehended that Billy Morgan, age twenty-two going on death warmed over, is the only human in the band. But what the hell, somebody had to teach these guys to play.
The tune (or whatever) ends, and Billy leans in to the mike, adjusting it with one slender hand.
"Hey," he says.
"Thanks," he says.
More applause, deafening. Fanatical.
"We'd like to change gears now," he says. "This is 'I Know You're Out There Somewhere.'"
Some booing at this. The band's hardcore fans prefer more jagged edges, distortion with bite. Truth to tell, Billy doesn't like the song, either--it's late-model Moody Blues, the musical equivalent of synthetic puff pastry--but every time Thunderpussy plays, he sends this tune up like a flare, desperate, pleading, and a thousand times more driven than the original. She is out there, somewhere, Billy just knows it. You can't dream up a mind like hers.
Granite flicks the tom, and they're off: Long live rock.
Show's over. The band's hotel suite is soaked floor to ceiling with beer and a fair amount of blood. Things can get messy when Granite gets laid. Not lethal, just...gross. Meanwhile, Quencher has unwound the fire hose and is drinking from its pulsating length in desperate, noisy gasps; jets of steaming drool and cold water spray in all directions. Billy's taking a stab at CNN, trying to see what's happening in the world beyond the hermetic clamor of his chosen but sometimes annoying rock-band lifestyle, while Sonata, in a corner, has just stepped out of her skin, flooding the room with hazy emerald light. Billy shields his eyes, squints at the TV, and fends a nuzzling groupie away from his lap. It's not that he's offended - morality and ethics tend to take a long holiday when an act like Thunderpussy hits the road - it's just that her presence between his legs is so very been there, done that.
Fact: For most Homo sapiens, television has the disconcerting habit of switching the neocortex and midbrain into standby, limp and passive. For Billy, TV provides respite and refuge. It holds his focus, directs his thought just like an ascending scale - D, B minor, whatever, whichever. It's not that he's a poster child for attention deficit, no. The truth is so much worse, and so much more beautiful.
With the possible exception of Sonata, whose mental state is as impossible to pin as her exact location, everyone in the suite is sufficiently occupied that no one notices the sudden arrival of a well-credentialed, highly qualified and very official Recall Team, six no-nonsense quadrupeds decked out in energy-absorbent police uniforms, all with weapons trained and safeties well past off.
"How about a little quiet?" the leader demands. For a moment, nobody listens. Quite possibly, no one can hear. In any case, the language spoken isn't English, so most of the suite's occupants hear his words as clotted roaring.
"Hey!" the leader hollers, much louder now. "Cut the screaming, stop the sex-play, and turn off the freakin' TV!"
The room quiets. Granite half-rises from the king-size bed, its purple sheets littered with the naked and suddenly shy, and for a moment it's clear he's considering leaping into attack mode, but with four of the Recall Team facing him and not looking at all frightened, he thinks better of it and tries instead to play it suave by reclining back against the pillows, arms behind his head, Joe Cool caught with his multiple hands in multiple cookie jars.
"Hiya," he growls. "What's the trouble, cop?"
Billy and the various groupies hear this as a sort of rumble inflected with the staccato flashes of a bug zapper. Earthbound English has served as a pretty good lingua franca in the band, and up until now, Billy's extra-terrestrial band-mates have never met up with another of their own. Even so, Billy thinks he has the basics of this exchange down: The intruders are either bounty hunters or police, maybe both. Quencher told him it could happen any day. Probably wouldn't, but the possibility existed. "If it does," Granite said, "the band will cease to be."
The Recall Team leader lets out a series of groans and whines, most sufficiently canine that if its hide didn't resemble a flexible layer of sidewalk cement, Billy would assume he was facing a team of giant dogs. The groans continue, but then, after an equally unintelligible reply from Quencher, the various aliens visibly relax and the tension in the room evaporates.
Billy seizes a lungful of air. He hadn't realized he'd been holding his breath, suffocating from the collective nerves fraying around him. Given his status as an unbridled empath, it's a common response to others' stress.
Five minutes later, the entire Recall Team has vanished, leaving much the same way as they entered - fast. As the groupies and assorted hangers-on grab their clothes and run, Sonata glides over to Billy, her glow pulsing jade, her radiance both calm and amused.
"They're letting us off," she tells him, with what would be a smile if she were wearing her face. "For a price."
"It's blackmail," Granite moans from the bed, as one mighty hand grows claws and rends the mattress.
"It could be much worse," Sonata continues. "They'll leave us alone, provided we agree to do some of their recovery work for them."
Billy blinks. Recovery work?
Sonata anticipates his questions. "We're not the only illegals stowing away on earth," she says. "It's out of the way, pleasantly diverse climate-wise. Basically, an ideal hideout for any given galactic criminal that might want to lay low for a while. But look on the bright side, Billy. The band continues! We're in luck on that score. We just have to earn our keep by busting a few bad guys."
"Glorified dog-catchin'," sniffs Granite. "Frankly, it's beneath my dignity."
Years before the unlikely formation of Full Throttle Thunderpussy, Billy was just another ordinary eleven-year-old boy, living out a middle-class scuff-your-shoes existence in a slumping house with two dutiful parents and an older sister who thought "curfew" was spelled "o-v-e-r-m-y-d-e-a-d-b-o-d-y." One thing had always singled Billy out: His carnivorous musical ability. He played piano without thinking about it, adding notes, altering chords; he shifted texture, tone, and mood at will. By age ten, he could manage at least fifteen other unrelated instruments with reasonable facility, including banjo, trombone, and the antique glass glockenspiel normally kept under lock and key at the local university. Even so, in houses that slump like Billy's, no one has the time or energy to take prodigies very seriously, and besides, Billy had no context in which to frame his remarkable skills, until Al Fulbrook, a kindly middle school band instructor, sat him down in front of his personal laptop and called up Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid. As the opening strains of the ballet sang out from the MacBook's tiny speakers, Mr. Fulbrook whispered, "Listen to the strings. They're not just playing notes. They're speaking, calling Billy's name. Listen. There. 'Bi-lly. Bi-lly!'"
And Billy Morgan sat transfixed, realizing for the first time that music could do anything. From that day forward, he dove headfirst into his talent, mining measures, clefs, and tri-tones for all they were worth.
Then Billy started blanking out- "dropping out," said his teachers - and shortly thereafter, a pediatric neurologist in nearby St. Louis diagnosed him with "uncontrolled, intractable, petit mal absence seizures."
A barrage of medications to treat the epilepsy followed, but none of them helped - although some made him sick to his stomach and one, Topamax, completely erased his desire for music. It took Billy over a year to figure out the neurologist's diagnosis was dead wrong. He didn't have epilepsy at all. What he had was empathy, at levels beyond most people's imagining. Uncontrolled seizures? No. Billy Morgan, instrumentalist extraordinaire, was an Uncontrolled Long-Distance Empath.
Luckily music, along with television, sleep, and just about anything that arrived at the brain as both monotonous and repetitive, provided respite. To play music meant temporary relief from constantly putting up barriers, to stay within himself, to not wander absently and uninvited into the emotional storms of hapless strangers. In the early days he volleyed in and out of other people's feelings and the stronger the emotion in play, the more likely he was to be sucked toward it. The ferocity of other people's lives often left Billy whimpering on the floor, curled into a fetal ball.
By the time he entered high school, Billy had mostly gotten his life under control, and, secretly, he'd stopped taking his medications. Out of school, life was fairly easy. When sleeping or watching TV or concentrating hard on homework or a video game he could trust his mind to keep to itself. The hormonal hubbub of his schoolmates during class was another kettle of fish. The sexual desire of others was too tempting not to explore, but the force of it all literally knocked him out of his seat more than once.
His worst encounters were with his scatterbrained European History teacher, who was in the midst of a bitter custody battle. When her meandering lectures slipped Billy into daydreams, he'd slam directly into the frightened, furious turmoil of a mother losing her kids. The third of these trips into her psyche was so charged, so brutal - razor-wire! she's put razor-wire in my brain! - he careened around the classroom, screaming at the top of his lungs.
Billy's first musical outfit consisted of friends from marching band, and they played Dixieland well enough to enjoy themselves. Billy gravitated to their enthusiasm like a fly to flypaper, and, playing lead trumpet, accidentally discovered that he could drop his defenses, dip into the heart of another, and keep right on playing. Best of all, the playing was informed directly by what he encountered and felt. It was a technique that had little use in the measured world of classical or marching band, but in a jazz combo - or later, with rock - it opened the door to a world of possibility.
"Brilliant," said those who heard Billy's legendary solos.
Or, awestruck, they said nothing at all.
"That's the one," said Sonata, from seven miles beyond earth's atmosphere. Down below, in the gymnasium, Billy's band had just launched into "Johnny B. Goode," the encore for the high school's senior dance.
"What are we waiting for?" Granite said. "Let's get down there and introduce ourselves."
That very night, the three fugitive down-on-their-luck pirates kidnapped Billy and rocketed off to the dark side of Neptune for a conference.
"What do we want?" said Granite, echoing Billy's question with perfect, computer-coached English. "Kid, that's easy. We want to make noises like you make."
"Yeah," said Quencher. "What's this rock 'n' roll thing all about, anyway?"
Sonata put it more gently. "We intercepted Voyager II," she said, "on the far side of a wormhole. Your music, the quality, it's very...involving."
Anyone else would have been frightened out of his or her socks, but Billy had experienced enough of other people's fears that his own had been reduced to minor rubble. Deep space loomed out of the viewing port to his left, and the three aliens before him were indeed freakish, but Billy had already allowed himself to drift into each of their emotions, and therein he'd found a wealth of active curiosity and a genuine corporate feeling. Pirates they might be, but these were pirates with love, respect, and even a modicum of honor. This, he decided, might be the break he was looking for.
It takes some doing, but Billy and Company wheedle and gnaw at Skeeter Dodd, the band's manager, a wily teen runaway, until she agrees to book three dates in and around Athens, Greece.
"It'll be great," Billy says. "Greece is, like, old."
"Name your standard," Sonata says, who has grown a proper skin and looks a lot like Serena Williams. "I'm old."
"Who cares?" Granite cries. "Are there groupies?"
Quencher says nothing. He has already studied enough maps to know that one thing Greece has in plenty is water. As he's explained to Billy, when you have a constant fusion reaction going on in about the same spot a real human would store a kidney, it takes a lot of coolant to keep things under control.
They take a private jet. Commercial airliners have had enough and Thunderpussy has been unofficially banned on American, Southwest, Northwest, and most especially Virgin Atlantic. Besides, using either the pirate ship or the skimmer is out of the question. The pirate ship can't enter earth's atmosphere and even though the skimmer is small and sleek and well worth joy-riding in, it attracts way too much attention.
They play the outdoor Odeon in Athens and rock the Acropolis from top to limestone bottom. Feeling giddy and brave, Billy allows himself five barriers-down solos, one of which sends him into a thirty-minute rendition of Schubert's Notturno (D. 897) but ends in Offenbach's uproarious Can-Can. Then it's on to a beach festival in Korinthos that draws far too large a crowd, and the band, following Billy's pyrotechnic mish-mash of all things Donna Summer, has to make a hasty backdoor exit while irate Greek police bludgeon ecstatic fans into dispersing. Finally, it's on to Nafplio, the destination that matters, and the quiet, dreamy waters of the adjacent Gulf of Argos. It's June, the temperature rockets to ninety-eight by day, and the sun shines down with equatorial brilliance. Palm trees sway, bougainvillea clambers up the Italianate alleys and balconied shops, and tourists take a siesta and wait for the perfection of evening.
Billy and the band stroll down to the picturesque harbor. Heads don't turn. Quencher is humanoid to start with, Sonata wears one of her alternate skins and so is unrecognizable, and Granite, being a shapeshifter, can look normal when he chooses. All four walk to the end of the stone pier and gaze across the rippling expanse of flat water at the Bourtzi fortress, a squat little thing that huddles on an island just a few hundred yards from shore. It reminds Billy of a wrecked aquatic tank.
"That it?" Granite asks. "We can take that thing easy."
"No," said Billy, his gaze roving out to sea. "That's not it."
The farther he's moved from shore, the more uncomfortable he's become. The feeling reminds him of being in Colorado near the huge and interconnected aspen groves, or worse, in Oregon, surrounded by honey mushrooms and knowing that beneath him, expanding outward in all directions and almost entirely subterranean, was a living being, the microbial success story dubbed Armillaria ostoyae. These entities' emotions were stunted, a sort of psychic murk, neither hostile nor welcoming. But here, in a town more idyllic than any Billy has ever seen, he is confronted by a shove of congealed malice. It's as if the very atoms of the gentle waves beneath his feet are suffused with hate.
"We shouldn't be out here without a plan," Billy says, pulling his Cardinals cap as low as it can go. "We need a plan."
Quencher stoops to drink and Sonata slips her arm into Billy's. "Did you sense her?"
"Oh, yeah. She's close. Maybe a mile out."
"Whaddya know," grunts Granite. "Those Recall dudes were on the money."
None of them need refer to the creature by name. To Billy's classmates back when they were hauled through The Odyssey in tenth grade English, the presence beneath the waves was Charybdis, the whirlpooling sea monster.
"She's not a naiad, she's not a sea-nymph, and she never stole any of Heracles' sheep," the Recall Team leader said in a printed message sent several weeks before to the band's skimmer. "Forget all that Greek Myth stuff. Maybe she partnered with Scylla for a while, I don't know. But Scylla's long dead and bad girl Charybdis is still on earth. The little minx is wanted for genocide in six planetary systems, and her name's finally come up on my dance card. Dead or alive, I don't care, just get rid of her. Oh, and Billy, our sensors suggest she's asleep at present. My advice? Whatever you're going to do to her, do it before she wakes up."
Other aliens appeared on the recall list, in descending order of importance. For Billy's benefit, the names came up in English and included Baba Yaga, Nessie, Kalypso, Kokopelli, La Llorona, and the Wollondilly Bunyip. Also meerkats. All of them.
The band heads back to town, eyeing the shining waters with new distaste. They dine at an outdoor cafe on mussels and clams, quaff hefty quantities of sangria, and take an evening hike up to the town's medieval sprawl of a castle, the Palamidi. Nine hundred tawny stone steps later, they stand at the top, gifted with a commanding view of the Gulf. Dry mountains loom at every horizon, and Quencher, especially, becomes desperately thirsty.
"Gotta find a well," he says. "I'm dying."
Only Sonata seems unconcerned. A fluke of sentient bioluminescence, she never actually eats or drinks, although she's become very good at faking both. To unsuspecting waiters and journalists who realize she's not even nibbling, she says, "I have to watch my figure," and unleashes a smile so devastating they forget their question.
For Quencher's sake, they locate the fortress' old cistern, half of it buried beneath a slowly collapsing square tower, and hold a final council of war. First, whatever they do will have to be under cover of darkness. Second, only Quencher and Sonata can breathe underwater for any length of time.
"We're talking about beating up a giant mouth," Granite says, while Quencher slurps and gasps from the fetid pool. Above him, the evening sunlight, golden and focused, peeks in from a single upper unglassed window. "I say, get the bitch up to the surface and I'll grow enough spines to slice her into next year. Mouths, in my experience, are soft, y'know?"
"The only way to get her to come up," muses Sonata, "is with bait."
"And I would be the bait," says Billy. "Problem is, bait doesn't work on something that's asleep."
Granite thinks for a moment, an activity that requires his entire being. "But we were told don't wake her up. Waking her up would be bad."
"Okay, then. So we don't want to do that."
"But you," says Billy to Granite, "can't hold your breath long enough to fight her and win."
Granite thinks again. "Just how big a mouth are we talking about?"
Big enough, thinks Billy. Odysseus' boat was by no means enormous, but Charybdis was sufficiently large, even then, long ago, to create vast whirlpools simply by sucking in water from the safety of the ocean floor. The size of a body capable of such feats - he doesn't even want to think about it.
"Hell's bells," Granite grumps, and he crushes a fallen brick beneath his suddenly overlarge fingers. "I joined up to bang on a drum, not play super-cop."
Billy, about to reply, suddenly keels sideways, hands over his ears as if by blocking sound he could force out the siren call in his head.
"Billy!" Sonata's already down with him, reaching out. "Billy, what is it?"
He hears her, but the force of the mentality now invading his skull holds him mute and drives him to his knees. And then, just as quickly as it arrived, it's gone, like a spotlight sweeping past and moving on, always in search, never settling.
"Billy! What's going on?"
"I'm okay," he says, rising. "That was...I don't know her name. The one I've told you about, the one I can sense sometimes."
"The other empath," Quencher says, finishing the thought for him.
"His girlfriend," Granite cries, hands clutched over one of his hearts.
Billy nods. "Yeah. But she was just a lot more, I don't know, forceful this time."
The frown on Sonata's face is massive, judgmental. "That was Charybdis, a warning. It has to be."
Billy disagrees, but isn't interested in convincing anyone. "Let's get down this mountain," he says. "We need some supplies, and then we need to rent a boat."
"What kind of boat?"
"The biggest we can get."
Two hours later, with the sun on the wane, they chug out of the harbor in a wooden fishing trawler minus the two-man crew whom they've forcefully and illegally left behind. In any event, there isn't room for more people with all the additional supplies the band has lugged on board and lashed with stout ropes to the deck.
The trawler, like the Greek flag it flies, is white and sky blue, and it chops through the miniature waves with cheerful, lazy ease. "More starboard," Billy says, directing Quencher, who can pilot anything from a sled to a space vessel.
"Aye-aye, cap'n," drawls Quencher. He speaks rarely, but delights in both accents and schtick; tongues of flame jet from his nostrils as he laughs at his own joke.
One hour out from port, they cut the motor and drift. The last of the remaining sunset is yellowish, slow, funereal. When blue-black night finally settles, they shut down all lights and effectively disappear.
"Is she under us?" breathes Sonata.
Billy just nods. Oh, yes.
Another nod. Quencher revives the motor, cranks the wheel as hard as he can to port, and the trawler, running faster than it's ever been allowed in its long, steady-on putt-putt life, begins charting a tight circle in the water, around and around and around again, tracing with its keel the top lines of a massive, mouthing whirlpool.
Empathy is not telepathy, but Billy opens himself anyway, and Charybdis comes flooding in like a liquid stench. Even with Granite supporting him, he stumbles, then throws up violently; to feel so unclean, so utterly vile, is inconceivable. With what little consciousness he has left, he wonders if this isn't such a good plan after all.
But then he feels another's presence, not Charybdis this time, although she still dominates. The other is almost impossibly distant, but he can sense her like an outline, then as a pinprick of mental light, a beacon on a starless moor. Whereas Charybdis is all malignancy and restlessness, this other is tapped into Billy, she feels his confusion with him, yet still finds room to urge him on. It isn't the twin empath he's sensed before, the one he's spent half his lifetime trying to locate; no, it's too active, too directed. But it is, in its way, a comfort. He's pretty well certain it's the same creature that almost knocked him out at the Palamidi, but she's gentler this time, helpful. In this moment of crazed discord and chaos, she also barely matters. Billy clutches the rails and wills Charybdis to the surface.
The trawler really is in a whirlpool now, fat and mean and with the bottom dropping out below it into a terror of watery night-time darkness: Davy Jones' Locker or worse, straight down and sucking, sucking, egging the ship lower, lower, deeper. The boat begins to slide down the incline, hugging the sides and spinning faster as it goes. Centrifugal force pins the crew, Billy especially, to the deck, even as the deck tips vertically, becomes more wall than floor.
Up, Billy thinks, wondering if it matters. Mind-reading isn't what he does, nor has he ever once managed to implant a message in another's thoughts. But then, he's never tried it with a being quite like Charybdis. Sonata said it would probably, maybe, just possibly, work, and Billy trusts Sonata. Up! He hurls thought at the thing below. Up, up, come up!
And Charybdis does.
"Sonata!" yells Granite. "Light this hole, I can't see!"
Jets of light streak from every orifice of Sonata's suddenly brittle form, then the shards burst to brilliant smithereens, glowing and winking. The infinite darkness in Charybdis' waiting gullet is suffused with Sonata's emerald light, peaceful and cool but wholly insufficient to quell or calm the swirling horror of the dark funnel of ocean, the slime and bulk of the swelling creature beneath.
Walls of seawater rise up on all sides as the little trawler spins helplessly downward. Quencher grips the wheel but it serves no purpose other than to keep his own balance, and below, the fleshy pinkness of Charybdis rises higher and higher, her rimrock edges gobbling waterfalls of ocean as fast as the sea can cataract in.
"Are we close enough?" yells Quencher.
"Ready!" hollers Granite. He sprouts wings, great triple-tiered wings such as the world has never known, and as Sonata streaks upward, a green gash of light, Granite's single, newly-grown talon plucks Billy from the deck. With massive, heavy flaps, he starts to pull skyward, then remembers Quencher, who has just lurched, flailing, onto the deck. Granite groans with the effort and shoots forth a rope-like tentacle that snares Quencher just as he topples into empty space, toward Charydbis.
One of a thousand sub-tongues coating the sea monster's mouth reaches up. It nearly snags Quencher's dangling ankles, then withdraws as he's pulled out of reach by a heroic effort from Granite. In the same instant, the whirlpool collapses inward on itself, and the dwarfed boat tumbles into Charybdis' waiting center like a pebble kicked off a cliff.
Billy closes and locks his mind as he's never locked it before. "Quencher!" he yells. "Hit it!"
Airborne, tucked underneath Granite like a papoose in reverse, Quencher opens his mouth and unleashes a firehose of nuclear flame. The stream of heat races downward as if shot from a cannon and hits its target dead on: The boat and its strapped-down cargo of TNT, fertilizer, and rusty junk-metal shrapnel. The old trawler detonates just as it passes down Charybdis' colossal throat. Charybdis shrieks, an unholy sound far beyond anything even Thunderpussy could ever have imagined, and disappears beneath a smoking, steaming crevasse of water, ash, and rising soot-stained bubbles.
For an instant, on the Gulf's surface, it appears that nothing has survived except some sort of large greenish buoy, resilient green, glowing like a pulse, but then Granite, newly flippered, claws himself to the surface, and with him, sputtering, come Quencher and Billy Morgan. Quencher looks spent; Billy, hatless, looks dead.
"Wowza," Granite says as he shapes himself into a semblance of a rowboat, complete with oars. "Rock and bloody roll!"
Massive charnel chunks of Charybdis wash ashore for days, the meat stinking and useless, the source an intoxicating mystery for every marine biologist in Greece. Whales, say most, or squid. No one believes a word of these clean and clinical explanations.
Billy and the band linger in Nafplio, gawking with the rest, speculating privately as to just how much Charybdis must have weighed, what shape she must have been, what exactly she did on (and to) other planets before arriving on earth. Nafplio proves an ideal spot to laze and recuperate, and they take the unusual step of calling Skeeter Dodd and canceling their next two gigs.
"Sore throat," says Sonata, who has never experienced any such thing. "Crippling exhaustion," Granite says with a semblance of accuracy; his efforts in escaping Charybdis really did take a toll. Quencher's tired, too. "The fire," he says, "has gone out. For now."
When it's Billy's turn to grab the phone, he tells Skeeter, "Hey, don't freak out or anything, but we owe some Greek guy a new boat."
Skeeter asks, with resigned, rock-band-manager unflappability, "How big a boat?"
In the end, it's Billy who needs a rest most of all. Allowing a presence as furious and hostile as Charybdis to slam up against his soul leaves him so disoriented the others have to help him eat, dress, tie his shoes. It takes a week for him to shove his way back to material reality. When he does, he takes a solo walk back along Nafplio's wharf, out to the same spit of a breakwater where they first plotted how they would blow the local sea monster to Kingdom Come.
He reaches the far end of the pier, closes his eyes, and opens his emotional vaults. Nothing. He takes a deep breath and tries again, attempting to tune himself, radio-like, to whatever frequency he'd found just before reaching Charybdis, to that other presence he'd felt, the holy opposite of the sea-beast's bile.
Like a phone with the signal cut, he hears, feels, and receives...nothing.
"I know you're out there," he murmurs. "Somewhere."
Two weeks later, backstage at Bumberfest, Seattle, the band is busy giving simultaneous interviews to a half-dozen eager journalists. Most are huddled around Granite, known to be gregarious, outrageous, good for at least three headline-making over-the-top quotes per session. He doesn't disappoint.
"Yo!" Granite cries, bouncing up and down on a table. "Don't you get it? I'm one of the four most envied critters on the planet and I don't have a thought in my head. We're action, motion, we're like totally kinetic. I mean, we aren't even rock stars, not anymore. We're like international rock 'n' roll super heroes! Want to know who's next on our list of bad guys? Fenris. That's right, Fenris as in Ragnarok and all that Nordic stuff. The wolf to end all wolves. And yours truly - me and the band - we're in charge of taking him down."
Billy sidles away, his new St. Louis Cardinals cap pulled low. Feeling dispirited and not at all kinetic, he escapes into a side hall, tiled, white, full of morgue-like echoes, and comes face to face with a tall willow of a woman who makes no move to let him pass.
"Hello," she says. "Billy."
Her voice strikes Billy like a clapper hits a bell; the impact of that simple 'Hello' resounds throughout his entire being. She has been out there, somewhere. And now, she's here.
"Hi," he says, throat dusty-dry and closing.
"Open yourself," she says. "It's safe."
But Billy hesitates. Despite the woman's sleek, frank beauty, something about her seems off, dangerous in a way that goes a country mile beyond the happy prospect of unexpected sex. He swallows, finds his voice. "What's your name?"
The woman adjusts a strand of decorative seaweed, damp and shiny, that she's woven into her long, tumble-down hair. She smiles, an expression that tells of warm winds and cool water, of long sweet nights and endless sun-kissed days, of expanses of sand-slow time so vast they defeat all attempts at memory or prediction.
"My name?" she sighs. "Kalypso. I have an island, very lovely, very private. If you like, we could go there. Now."
The moment unwinds, spools out, holds its breath. Is this really who he's felt, Billy wonders? Or is this that second presence he latched on to at the Gulf of Argos? Clearly, there's more than one empath hiding in the world, out there, somewhere, and however many there are in total, one, at least, is a dangerous, near-immortal extra-terrestrial.
Kalypso, after all, is on The List.
"Come," she says, beckoning with long, sensuous fingers that sway like kelp in billowing water. "I always let my men go. Eventually."
Billy finds his voice. "Guys!" he screams. "Granite! Quencher!"
Kalypso's hands ball into fists. Hard summer lightning crackles in her eyes. "Bad choice," she murmurs, as the door behind Billy flies open and the rest of Full Throttle Thunderpussy bounds into the narrow hallway.
Billy, very much uncertain as to whether he'll still be alive thirty seconds down the pike, shrugs. "Look," he says, "I'm a rock star. What have you got to top that?"
The question hangs in the air like a thrown brick. Can Kalypso possibly compete?
Rock music and superheroes, the best of both worlds combined, entwined at last. True love huddles in the wings, grist for the unseen future.
In the meantime - "Get her, guys!" Billy says, and the battle is on.