Thursday, November 02, 2006

1932: 3. The Sanctum of Sleeping Gods

“Loop-de-loop!” Ruby Gale called back from the cockpit, and suddenly Tom Morrow was free-falling through the cabin toward the pile of strapped-down crates before him.

A well-muscled arm reached out from the ceiling to grab him, straining against G-forces that would dislocate the shoulders of lesser men, as the plane made its dizzying climb, and in the brief moments when the ceiling became the floor, Tom was able to grab hold of the cargo netting and make eye contact with its current occupant.

“Thanks for the save, Hark.”

His Lordship, a.k.a. Hark, was tall and sharp-featured, hair tightly pulled back across his scalp, with a long scar running from the corner of his left eye halfway down his cheek. He wore a thick, fur-lined coat -- it was close to freezing in the cabin, and even Tom’s self-designed Ever-Warm Jacket, with its synthetic fibers of the future, was reaching its limits -- and dangled with disconcerting ease from the cargo netting, his arms and legs casually looped in its gaps. He smiled with neat white teeth.

“Now you see why I prefer the netting, Tom,” he said.

And then Tom was floating, weightless, as Ruby began her dive, his feet rising of their own accord to bump against the backs of the jump seats.

“This is such a fascinating phenomenon!” he told Hark over the roar of the engines. “I keep meaning to investigate it when I have a spare moment!” Hark merely rolled his eyes.

“So, sometime in the next century, perhaps,” he said.

“Air travel makes you cranky,” Tom sighed, dropping into a crouch on the floor of the cabin as the plane leveled out.

“I prefer good solid Earth beneath my feet,” Hark replied, swinging himself down effortlessly to land next to Tom.

Tom nodded toward the largest among the pile of crates. “Time to warm it up,” he said. “Ruby’s good, but there’s a lot of angry monkeys out there.”

“Apes,” Hark replied. “Monkeys have tails. Gorillas are apes. Maybe that’s why they’re so angry.”

“Barrel roll!” Ruby shouted from the cockpit -- Tom could now make out the chatter of machine gun fire from the Cyclone’s wing guns as well -- and Tom and Hark found themselves cartwheeling against the round walls of the cabin, end over end, until the plane righted itself.

“Hell of a way to get one’s morning exercise,” Hark said. “So, I presume the gizmo comes with instructions?”

“It’s not a gizmo!” Tom began. “It’s a--”

“It is now, and shall forever be, a gizmo, Tom,” Hark told him, grinning, as he popped open two heavy latches on the largest case. It was scuffed and battered from travel on a thousand continents, and stamped in bold letters: PROPERTY OF U.S. ARMY, SPECIAL SCIENCE DIVISION. “Save the future talk for those who care to hear it.”

“One of these days I’ll drag you out of prehistory,” Tom laughed, squeezing past the stack of crates on his way toward the rear gun turret. “The wonders I’ve seen from the World Yet to Be...”

“ Unless the World Yet to Be has trees,” Hark said, effortlessly hauling a sleek, wire-strung device the size of a large dog from the musty innards of the case, “I’m quite content in the World That Is Right Now.”

The sound outside the Cyclone changed -- closer, louder, different acoustics -- and for a few moments, the light was suddenly a stark and brilliant blue. Ice tunnel, thought Tom. They were getting close.

The man strapped into the rear gun turret was all angles and edges, scarecrowlike, bundled up in a thick black wool overcoat that smelled vaguely of soot. Tom heard him grunt with satisfaction just before every burst from the Brownings whose triggers he clutched.

“Gaunt!” Tom hollered over another ear-splitting firework rattle of automatic fire. Outside the bullet-starred glass of the rear turret, he watched the tracers arc away, shearing through the ever-scrambling ranks of the pursuing black fighters.

The man called Gaunt turned to look at Tom for the briefest of instants, narrowed blue eyes peering out from a slim opening in the strips of shimmering indigo cloth that wrapped the entirety of his head. “I’m busy, Morrow,” he rasped. He had an eerie trick to his voice -- somehow, it always sounded a mile off, and just behind your shoulder, all at once. One day, Tom was going to figure out how he did it.

“Gum?” Tom asked, holding up a fresh pack plucked from behind one strap of his olive drab suspenders. “It’s spearmint.”

“Very busy,” Gaunt said, and let off another burst. The tracers seemed to cleave one of the Winged Monkeys’ fighters neatly in half, unfolding it origamilike into gouts of flame and smoke. Gaunt cackled, and under his breath, he said something that sounded to Tom like “Thus always to the wicked.”

“Look, Gaunt, I know you’re having fun--” at this the dark man gave a derisive snort -- “but Hark’s warming up the-- the, uh, the gizmo--”

“The magnetic pulse projector?” Gaunt asked dryly.

“Yes, finally!” Tom said, bending at the knees as Ruby swung the Cyclone into a turn and the force of gravity politely asked him to kneel. “Anyway, I haven’t finished testing it, and even if we dangle it out the back hatch, you’re gonna be in the line of fire.”

“I am unafraid,” Gaunt said. Tom watched his gloved fingers squeeze the triggers, as if Gaunt were grasping a lover’s hands.

“I’m serious,” Tom said. “I don’t know what this-- nine o’clock, nine o’clock!”

“I see it,” Gaunt said, and let off another burst.

“I don’t know what this thing does to people up close, but I did the math, and, uh, if you ever wanted to have children--”

Gaunt turned and fixed Tom with an icy gaze, and beneath the wrappings, Tom saw one of his brows rise in slow, disbelieving annoyance.

“Okay, bad reason,” Tom admitted. “But Gaunt, I know what you carry around in your pockets, and like I said -- magnetic. I can’t speak for Hark, but I don’t want any of that stuff flying at me the first time we fire it up.”

Gaunt said nothing for several long moments, then sighed, a funerary sound, and unstrapped himself from the gunner’s seat. As he rose and turned, Tom caught a flash of white beneath Gaunt’s coat, a tuxedo shirt, like the momentary gleam of a shark’s teeth.

As they headed forward to join Hark, deftly adjusting wires and flipping switches on the magnetic pulse projector, Tom popped a fresh stick of gum in his mouth and offered the pack again to Gaunt, who hesitated, and then snatched a stick of his own almost more quickly than Tom could see. Gaunt fanned the fingers holding the gum, an old reflex, and it vanished. Nothing up my sleeve, thought Tom.

“Is she good to go, Hark?” Tom hollered as the engines momentarily roared.

“Insofar as I’ve plugged in everything that looked as if it wished to be so, yes!” Hark said.

Tom dashed back to the cockpit and stuck his head through the door. “How we doing, Ruby?”

“One engine out, but she’s holding together,” Ruby replied through gritted teeth. Cliff walls blurred past on either side, shafts of sunlight falling along the canyon floor ahead of them. “Only thing I hate about this job, Tom? Those damn monkeys. I can’t even go to the Zoo anymore -- I see ‘em and I just want to throw things.”

“Don’t tell Hark,” Tom laughed. “He might take it personally. Give me ten seconds, then pop the rear hatch. Keep her level if you can, until I can get off a shot.”

“How’m I gonna know when you have?”

“Oh, trust me, you’ll know.”

“You’re having too much fun, Tom!” Ruby groaned.

“What, aren’t you?” Tom asked, and ducked back into the cargo hold. The magnetic pulse projector was sleek and silver, a series of projecting cones emerging from a symmetrical nest of looping wire. Tom knelt before the control panel, above the thick cables running into a socket to the Cyclone’s backup power supply, and adjusted a few final dials. Then he gripped the activation lever with one hand and the body of the machine with the other.

“Hark, Gaunt, grab an elbow,” Tom said, “and hang on tight!”

The hydraulics groaned, the rear hatch opened in a blast of white light and frigid air, and gravity dragged Tom Morrow and his latest invention forward down the ramp, toward two thousand feet of nothing, and rock beneath.

At the last moment, he felt hands grab each of his outhrust elbows -- Hark’s thick fingers, Gaunt’s bony, gloved grip -- and hold him steady. His companions clung for their lives to straps on either side of the cabin, muscles shaking from the strain, but they did not let him fall.

Dangling above the swiftly passing snows of the Himalayas, bullets from the Winged Monkeys’ cannons pinging and sparking off the fuselage around him, Tom waited until the black, pursuing fighters bunched together, flitting through a narrow pass -- and switched on the machine.

The world turned momentarily blue-white, and a sound almost beyond hearing popped like a bubble from the center of Tom’s brain outward. In the cockpit, Ruby saw every dial on her panel go dead for one sickening second, then spring back to life.

For an instant, Tom thought he was falling, but then his vision cleared, and he saw the fighter darts weaving drunkenly, trailing plumes of sudden smoke, smashing into the walls and the ground and one another until none were left in the air.

He took a moment, as Gaunt and Hark hauled him back in, to feel sorry for the poor apes. Then again, at least they’d gotten to fly.

The hatch hissed shut, and Tom left Hark and Gaunt to secure the machine, and slung himself back into the co-pilot’s seat in the cockpit. Ruby risked a glance and sputtered out a poorly contained laugh.

“Your hair’s all standing up,” she said.

“It is?” Tom asked, and hastily flattened it back down. “That was... I think I have to destroy the plans for that one. Bad enough using it on the monkeys.”

But Ruby wasn’t listening. Tom saw the mouth of a cave ahead, half-buried in the snow, looming ever larger. “Here we go,” she said, and nosed the plane into a dizzying plunge.

They flew for a few heart-pounding seconds in absolute darkness, and then the rock passage spat them out into a bottomless cavern of radiant blue ice. Flashing by below, Tom could see broken fragments of the ice bridge, built by some ancient and unknown hand, that had once spanned the chasm. At intervals on either side, along the walls, great statues towered, tall as skyscrapers, kings and gods from tongues and faiths and cultures long lost to living men. They carried swords and shields and stranger weapons yet, and only some of them had what anyone would call a face.

“Tal Xan Sherat,” Tom whispered.

“The Sanctum of Sleeping Gods,” Ruby said, blue ice-filtered light making a ghost of her features. “Somehow, I thought I’d be less impressed this time around.”

And then, up ahead, the statues began to move.

Throwing off sparks of twinkling frost, steam shovel-sized arms groaned away from the cave walls, weilding flails and maces and swords of solid ice, and began to swing in the terrible slowness of a dream toward the hurtling shape of the Cyclone.

“This is new,” Tom said, unconsciously checking his harness.

“This is very, very new,” Ruby spat, and banked the plane hard left as an ice blade as wide as a house sheared the air mere feet above them.

Across a deadly mile of depthless ice, the frozen statues of long-dead myths attacked. Ruby dived vertically, the Cyclone spinning and twisting, to evade the moonlike mass of an oncoming mace from a statue with a wooly mammoth’s head.

“I see it!” Tom shouted, spying the smooth, gleaming stretch of flat ice up ahead, and the distant archways beyond. Then the whole plane twisted, shuddered, filled with the shriek of metal tearing, and Ruby wailed like a mother bereft as the controls fought to tear themselves out of her hands.

The G-forces pushed them back in their seats, but Tom fought back, swimming his arms through leaden air to lend his strength to Ruby’s, keep the stick level, keep the wounded plane coasting toward the welcoming ice ahead.

The Cyclone’s landing gear snapped off on impact. The plane bounced once, twice, underbelly screaming as it spun along the ice, then ground and shuddered itself to a halt in a foot-deep furrow of frost.

In the cockpit, lit by sporadic sparks from the dying instrument panel, Tom lifted his head and exhaled slowly. He saw Ruby reaching up to touch the metal ceiling of the cabin.

“Oh, baby,” she mourned. “Oh, I’m so sorry.”

“Chin up,” Tom offered. “Now we get to build you a better one.”

By the time they clambered outside, Hark had already climbed the fuselage, scaling it to the upraised tip of the tail fin, long fringes of his fur coat trailing against the frosted metal. He clung to the tail like a sailor in a crow’s nest, shifting his weight from side to side, alternating hands, fingers flexing.

Gaunt stood alone, unmoving, a black void in the blue light, staring up at the statues as they slowly shifted themselves back into slumber.

“He made improvements, I take it,” Gaunt said to Tom over his shoulder. Tom just nodded, somber.

Ruby made the walkaround alone, touching bits of the battered plane here and there, stopping for a full minute to brush her fingers agains the ragged edges of the sheared-off right wing. She didn’t say anything, and Tom and the others said nothing to her, busy collecting their personal gear from the jumble of boxes in the back of the plane. At last, Ruby appeared, framed on the ice at the bottom of the ramp of the rear hatch, her face set and stoic.

“We don’t have all day,” she said, and the men nodded as one.

Tom tossed her a fresh box of cartridges as he emerged from the belly of the Cyclone, and Ruby drew her revolver from inside her leather jacket to snap each round into the cylinder. Hark finished tucking his usual accompaniments into the harnesses inside each side of his coat, and Gaunt, as ever, merely rattled faintly and menacingly as he walked. Tom hefted the patented Morrow Personal Immobilizer, a bubous tube of fluted silver with a rifle grip, and slung its ammunition back onto his back.

“Let’s hope I don’t have to use this, huh?” he said to Ruby, hoping to coax a smile from her.

“Let’s hope you do,” she said, and stuck the revolver back in her jacket.

The archway loomed, thirty feet high, carved with ancient runes, and they passed beneath it in silence, into a long chamber with deep recesses in each of the walls. Ornate steel braziers swung from the ceiling far above on thick chains, throwing off eerie firelight.

“Something’s not right,” Ruby said. In the recesses, reddish-black frozen stains were stuck suspended to the ice. Tom knelt in one of them, listening to the dark air that whistled in from the thick steel grating far at the back of the recess, and hearing nothing. He picked up a scorched tuft of something brittle and white.

“What’s that scent?” Hark asked, wrinkling his sensitive nose in disgust. “It’s-- it’s almost like--”

“Burnt hair,” Gaunt said, to no one in particular, and a silence fell across the group.

“Like I thought,” Tom said, returning to his companions. “He’s killed all the Yeti Guard.”

They walked onward, across slicks of frozen, stinking blood, and furious claw marks gouged deep into the ice, and heavy cracks from the tread of large, inhuman feet.

“I don’t remember a door,” Tom asked Ruby, as they approached one, high as the chamber walls. The surface was polished steel, so slick you could see your reflection in it.

“There wasn’t a door,” Ruby said, and laid a hand against it. She turned back, wonder and concern on her face. “It’s warm,” she said.

And Tom noticed the steam wisping out from underneath. He grasped the thick steel rings on either door, and hauled.

Eden. The ice underfoot gave way to sudden grass, to trees, to small tufted hills. The sun shone dazzlingly down through a canopy of broad leaves on thick tangles of wild flowers and creeper vines. The air was thick and humid, steam seeping up through tiny fissures in the layers of dead vegetation on the ground.

“Geothermal greenhouse,” Tom said quietly. “I don’t know how he got all this in here.”

Hark laid a hand on the bark of a tree that stretched dizzyingly high overhead. “I know these trees,” he told Tom softly. “A taste of home, perhaps.”

Ahead, in the soft green shadows, something stirred. Tom and his companions froze, Hark crouching, fingers to the ground, listening.

“Animal?” Tom said. Gaunt’s gloved hands began to crawl toward some secret and doubtlessly deadly pocket.

“No,” Hark said. “I haven’t heard a single one. Not a bird, not even an insect.”

“Then what?”

The leaves on the ground stirred, once, again. Awakening.

“The thing that ate them,” Hark replied.

Tom looked over at Ruby and started. Green vines, thick as a child’s arm, were rising through the undergrowth to twine around her calf. He was about to shout to her, when he felt it, too -- the firm, meaty pressure of the vines, snaring his own ankle.

“Fiddlesticks,” Tom swore, and then the world went sideways, and he had leaves dragging against the back of his head, and the trees became inverted.

The vines rose triumphantly from their camouflage of dead leaves, dangling Tom and Ruby high above the ground as Hark and Gaunt watched horrorstruck from below, and at their source, something obscene and verdant unfolded itself from behind a curtain of fat, broad leaves, and opened a wet, sinkhole-sized maw, dripping with acid nectar and fine prickly spines.

“Vercigorax Carnivora,” Gaunt growled. “The Predator Vine.”

“I thought we killed the last known specimen back in New York, when we battled the Weed of Crime,” Hark said, unfastening the snaps all the way down his coat.

“Evidently not,” Gaunt replied. “Would you like assistance?”

“Absolutely,” Hark replied, shrugging off his coat. As it slipped to the ground, he plucked the two wide, flat blades of gleaming dark obsidian from their slings within. He could have been cast in bronze, his musculature as knotted and solid as some ageless tree from the primeval forest. Dried lines of brilliant red and yellow war paint dove and swooped across his chest to his sturdy leather loincloth. Hark flexed his toes against the dead leaves and twigs, and breathed in, and smiled with his neat white teeth.

And then, raising the black blades high, he charged forward with an ear-splitting roar to battle.

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