Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Peril in the Skies

“The rifle!” Nora shouted up to the balcony, her voice echoing off the curving roof of the hangar. Outside, the sound of rumbling motors grew louder; perhaps mere moments remained before the entire building would be overrun with heavily armed cops.

Rafe scrambled to his feet, still gaping at the television. “The what?” he shouted, his eyes not leaving the screen.

“The silver rifle, in my bag!” Nora shouted, making her way around the seamless-looking silver fuselage of the unveiled Whirlwind, looking for some way, any way, inside. “I need it, quick!”

Rafe dug through the satchel bag lying on one of the cabinets until he came up with a strange, metallic rifle, unlike anything he’d seen outside of bad science fiction.

“Hurry!” Nora hollered, finding herself at the aft of the plane. No use. There was no way in the damned thing -- but it was her plane, supposedly, somehow, so there had to be. She rested a hand on the cool metal skin of the fuselage and tried to think.

Something hummed beneath her palm, and with a hydraulic hiss, a hatch unsealed and lowered, granting entrance to the plane.

“Here,” Rafe said from over her shoulder, slightly out of breath. He had the stone knives tucked hastily in his belt, and he handed the rifle over to a startled Nora.

“Let’s hope this thing’s still got... uh... whatever it’s got in it,” Nora muttered. She hefted the rifle and took aim at the rear door to the hangar. With a few quick shots, Nora covered the door in quick-hardening goo, then aimed upward to do likewise to the high windows around the periphery of the hangar’s ceiling.

“That’s...” Rafe began, wrinkling his nose. “I can’t decide whether that’s fantastic or disgusting.”

“Little of both,” Nora sighed as the trigger began to click. “Empty, I guess. Or maybe it needs to recharge. Look, I think I can get us out of here, but I’m gonna need some time to figure this-- this--”

“Er... fantastical space plane?” Rafe ventured, getting his first good look at the Whirlwind. “It looks a bit Thunderbirds, really.”

“Right, whatever,” Nora nodded. “Look, that goo, whatever it is, ain’t gonna hold off the cops forever.”

“About the cops -- on the telly, I saw--” Rafe began, but Nora cut him off with a quick wave of her hand.

“Listen, dammit!” she snapped. “I need you to buy me some time while I get the plane up and running. Keep the cops busy.”

“Excuse me?” Rafe said, taking a quick step back. “Whoa, hang on, what makes you think I’d last two seconds against those people? I’ve seen your police movies! They’re like a bunch of steroid-addled pit bulls in body armor!”

“Well, for one thing,” Nora said matter-of-factly, “I just saw you jump straight over that railing, ten feet down, like you were stepping off a curb.”

Rafe looked back quickly, then at Nora, then back up at the balcony. Come to think of it, he didn’t remember taking the stairs.

“Oh,” Rafe said. “Well, okay then.”

“Good luck. I’ll let you know when to open the doors,” Nora said, nodding at the large hangar doors toward which the plane faced. “Just... uh... don’t die or anything, all right?” She paused for an awkward moment, clapped Rafe on the shoulder, and then ducked into the Whirlwind.

“Right,” Rafe said to no one in particular. “Very comforting, that.” He took a deep breath, then another, hearing the sound of a battering ram being applied to the nearby hangar door with considerable enthusiasm. Rafe drew the stone knives from his belt and tested their heft in his hands, letting his arms hang loose and limber by his sides. They felt somehow good -- like familiar extensions of himself. Like he’d been born to hold them.

Rafe took one last deep breath as the hammering at the door grew more fervent, then exhaled. He shut his eyes. Opened them. Smiled.

“Either I’ve just gone insane,” he said quietly to himself, “or this might possibly be fun.”

As the hatch sealed up behind her, Nora found herself in a darkened cargo compartment, jump seats lining the walls, that led to the cockpit at the front of the plane. There was just one seat up front, swiveled around to face her, and reluctantly, gingerly, she sat down.

She yelped in surprise as the seat rotated around to face the front windscreen. Lights sprang on all across the instrument panels as a variety of screens, dials and readouts blinked to life. A control stick rose forward, placing itself exactly in her outstretched hands.

“Hey, sweet thing,” the Whirlwind said in a deep, musical voice. “Long time, no see.”

“Excuse me?” Nora blurted, looking around.

“Did I stutter?” the plane replied. “Girl, you look a bit different. Do something with your hair?”

“Uh... it’s a long story,” Nora said. “I’m talking to the plane, aren’t I?”

“No,” the voice replied with dry sarcasm. “You’re talkin’ to a magical genie livin’ in the engine compartment. What do you think?”

“Okay, okay,” Nora said, stifling a nervous laugh. “Just... uh... had to make sure.” Her eyes swept over the dizzying array of instruments -- and for some reason, they seemed as familiar and comforting as the dashboard on her car. There was the altimeter, the artificial horizon, the throttle controls. Wherever her eyes fell, there exactly was the very gauge or screen she’d been looking for. She shifted in her seat slightly, and even there noticed the familiarity. It was like the whole plane was molded to her preferences.

“Fuel,” Nora said. “How’s our fuel?”

“Baby, we are gassed up and ready to go,” the plane purred. “I’d ask if you want to file a flight plan, but damn if I can’t get a read on the FAA wireless network.”

“Uh... that’s fine,” Nora said. “Just for the record -- who am I?”

“Don’t you make me run no medical scan on you,” the plane scolded. “Unless you’re trying to test me? You’re Nora Swift, CEO of Gale Aeronautics, and pilot of this superfine Cyclone Mark III-class customized piece of utterly badass machinery. If I do say so myself. Now can we quit the twenty questions and get to the preflight checkup already?”

There was a sudden, violent jolt, and the sound of chunks of something large and heavy bouncing off the rear fuselage.

“Ow!” the plane winced. “Damn, girl, are you throwin’ a party or something? I’m readin’ all kinds of heat and motion out there. You want it up on the cameras?”

“Uh... sure,” Nora said, and the video screen in front of her blinked to life, showing live feeds from angles all around the plane. The back wall of the hangar was simply gone, a jagged hole blown in it by some sort of explosive, and men in black SWAT gear with automatic rifles were pouring in through the smoke that roiled across the gap.

As Nora watched, someone seemed to leap down from the roof of the plane, ricochet off one SWAT trooper, and smash open another’s helmet with a blow from the stone knife held in his hands.

“Damn,” Nora said. “Look at the white boy go.”

It was odd, Rafe thought (as he ducked under a burst of machine-gun fire from a black-suited SWAT trooper, and neatly sliced the gun in two with one of his blades) how naturally this all came to him. Well, yes, there had been the krav maga (punch that one in the stomach, let his weight fall on your shoulders, give a heave, and there! You’ve topped that other one who was about to set off the tear gas grenade) and the Le Parkour training, and the bit of muay thai, and of course the tae kwon do. There were always better things to do than study in Rafe’s life, and learning to hit people -- or better yet, avoid having them hit you -- was most definitely one of them.

But it occurred to him (sprinting halfway up the staircase, balanced on the railing, and then turning a somersault to drag two pursuing SWAT cops backwards down the stairs into a heap of helmets, padding, and confusion) that he’d always felt slightly awkward in those pursuits, always conscious of his own motions, always running checks in his head (so, apparently, those whizzing sounds going by his ears were bullets -- fascinating!) to make sure he was going through each precise motion correctly.

This? This was as natural as breathing. Although sometimes, when he’d connect with a particularly satisfying blow, behind his eyes Rafe would see a split-second flash of the young man from his dream, and that tidy smile of his.

Rafe blinked, and looked about. The concrete floor was strewn with groaning, semiconscious SWAT troopers; through the gap in the wall, he could see the remaining forces falling back. He seemed to have run out of oppnents.

Or not. There was a familiar dark shape striding toward the hangar from the sunlight outside -- a very tall, very determined-looking dark shape. He seemed to be sorting out a crick in his vertebrae, cocking his head rhythmically to one side, and even at this distance, Rafe could hear the joints popping.

Maximillian stepped calmly through the hole the SWAT troops had created, gave one arm a little shake, as if he were still trying to get the bones back into place, and fixed his strange gray gaze directly on Rafe. The tall man’s eyes narrowed.

Then Nora, in the cockpit, flicked the Whirlwind’s ignition switch. Powerful turbines on each of the wings began to spin, first at a slow whine, then faster and faster. A gale force wind filled the tiny hangar, stray papers and bits of rubble blowing everywhere, and the full brunt of the thrust sent Maximillian skidding bodily backward to slam against the far wall.

Rafe didn’t need an invitation. Stowing his knives and snatching up a helmet from an unconscious guard, he dashed across the hangar, took three quick steps straight up the front wall (that was a good trick, wasn’t it?) and grabbed hold of the dangling chain that opened the hangar doors. Braced against the wall amid the howling tumult of the turbines, the helmet resting on his knees, Rafe pulled the chain hand over hand, and the doors, slowly, began to open.

“Come on, come on,” Nora breathed in the cockpit, watching the doors inch upward. She strapped herself into the seat with sweat-slicked hands and checked the rear cameras. Her stomach knotted itself all over again.

Maximillian, under the full blast of the turbines’ backwash, had stood up. And he was walking, one hard-fought step at a time, slowly toward the back of the Whirlwind.

With a last heave, Rafe got the doors all the way up, and felt the chain lock in place. He pushed backward off the wall, turning a somersault in midar, and landed with a thump in the nose of the plane. Nora, startled, waved.

“Now, just who is that crazy-ass white boy sitting on my nosecone?” the Whirlwind demanded, with vague indignance.

“Let him in!” Nora barked. “You got any kind of roof doors or something?”

“Baby,” the plane reassured her, “you know I got everything you need.” Seamless doors in the roof of the plane retracted smoothly, filling the calm air of the cockpit with the roar and buffett of the turbine winds outside.

Rafe scrambled up the front of the plane and paused at the edge of the roof doors, hefting the helmet, testing its weight. He looked along the length of the plane to the tail, where the dark form of Maximillian staggered forward, the whole of his coat rippling in the wind from the turbines. The tall man stretched out one hand, fingertips mere centimeters from the back of the plane.

Rafe cupped both hands to his mouth. “Oi!” he shouted. “You there!”

Maximillian’s head snapped up, and Rafe hurled the helmet with all his might.

Accelerated by the turbines’ jetstream, the helmet smacked into Maximillian’s face so hard that it split in two. The tall man tumbled backward to the cement floor, clutching his face, and Rafe dropped inside the cockpit, landing in a crouch.

“Get yourself a jump seat,” Nora shouted back to him as the doors slid shut above. “You like flying?”

“It depends,” Rafe said, breathing heavily, flushed with adrenalin. “Is there beverage service on this flight?”

“Don’t think so,” Nora replied. She eased the throttle forward, and the plane taxied through the hangar doors and began to bump across the weedy, open field behind the structure. Far ahead of them, the blue-green waters of Lake Michigan filled the horizon.

“Ah,” Rafe said, hastily strapping himself into a seat folded-down from the wall. “Failing that, do you perhaps know how to fly this plane? Any plane?”

“I flew the UFO,” Nora told him.

“Yes, and we all know how well that ended,” Rafe sighed.

“Baby,” the plane said, “I got some bad news for you. Field’s too short. No way we can take off.”

“No,” Nora insisted. “My dad said he used this field all the time.”

“Well, it may be good enough for your dad’s single-engine piece-a-crap kit plane,” the Whirlwind huffed, “but I happen to be one finely tuned piece of precision avionics, and I’m tellin’ you, the field’s too short.”

“Um, excuse me,” Rafe chimed in. “Is that the plane talking?”

“Yes!” Nora and the Whirlwind shouted simultaneously. Rafe nodded quickly, relieved that this was not, at least, the next progression in his apparent nervous breakdown.

Something outside struck the fuselage with great force, sending a reverberating ping through the entire cabin. Then another, and another, until it sounded like a sudden hailstorm had erupted.

“Dammit!” the plane thundered. “Those melonfarmers are shootin’ at me!”

“Melonfarmers?” Nora asked. Rafe snickered.

“Hey, you were the one installed Profanity Limiter 2.3 on me,” the Whirlwind sulked. “Ow! The hell kinda ammo are they usin’?”

Ruby checked the video screens. Police cars and SWAT vans had flanked the plane as it slowly bumped forward along the grass; behind them, officers fired pistols, shotguns, and machine guns in a steady barrage at the skin of the plane.

“Are you hurt?” Nora asked the plane. “I mean, is there damage?”

“Naw,” the Whirlwind said. “You know I got that Morrowlite cladding. But it’s gonna be hell on my finish.”

“Shame you didn’t build a helicopter,” Rafe sighed, and Nora’s eyes snapped wide.

“VTOL!” she shouted to the plane. “You got any kind of vertical takeoff capability?”

“For damn sure!” the plane replied, and from either wing, Nora heard hydraulics humming, and a change in the sound of the whining turbines.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Nora asked, seeing stats for the plane’s vertical thrust slide into view on the video screen.

“You didn’t ask,” the Whirlwind replied. “Hang on to your butts, people. Here comes the fun part.”

The roar of the turbines intensified, clouds of dirt and debris beginning to roil around the plane, and with a sudden lurch, it shot upward off the ground, momentarily leaving Rafe and Nora’s stomachs behind. The ground below shrank with dizzying speed, and then with another, gentler, buoyant sensation, the plane leveled off.

“Altitude, 2,000 feet, and damn if it ain’t a lovely day,” the plane said. “So, baby, where you want to go?”

“Nowhere, for just a second,” Nora said, her eyes squeezed tight, willing the wave of nausea from the plane’s sudden ascent to recede. “Then 919 North Michigan.”

“Headin’ over to Morrow’s? What gives?” the Whirlwind said. “Is my calendar off, ‘cause it sure as hell don’t seem like Saturday.”

“Give me my calendar for the week,” Nora said as the plane’s wings rotated back to the horizontal, and the Whirlwind began to coast in a slow looping arc away from the expanse of the lake and back toward the Chicago skyline. A list of dates and places flashed up on the video screen before her.

“Board meeting,” Rafe read over her shoulder, having unstrapped himself from the jump seat. “Lunch with the Commerce Secretary! You do get around.”

“Look at this,” Nora said, tapping one particular date on the screen. “Saturday. ‘SSD meeting, 919 North Michigan.’ What do you suppose that’s about?”

“Society for Sleep Deprivation?” Rafe guessed. “Sloppy Seconds -- no, can’t think of a good ‘D’ word for that one.”

“You wanna know something, jungle boy?” Nora sighed, swiveling the chair around to face him. “You’re really not as funny as you think you are.”

“And yet I keep trying,” Rafe grinned back. “You do realize you’re flying a plane right now, yes?”

“The plane’s helping,” Nora said uneasily, to a wordless affirming mmm-hmm from the Whirlwind. Rafe looked unconvinced.

“Where’s the altimeter?” he said. “Go on, quick.”

Nora swiveled around and pointed, without hestiation. The she stopped, blinking. “That was an easy one,” she wavered. Rafe put a hand on the back of her chair and leaned forward, gazing across the bank of the controls.

“Afterburner,” he said. Nora pointed. “Air brakes. Stabilizers. Auxiliary electrics,” Rafe rattled off, and she found her fingers landing effortlessly on each dial.

“Eyes shut, now,” Rafe said. “Secondary fuel shunt. Distress beacon. Hydraulics levels.” And without even thinking, Nora let her hands move blindly, instinctively to spots across the console. She opened her eyes and let out a breath.

“And you,” she said, “with the kung fu and the climbing up walls. How much of that was training?”
“More than you’d think,” Rafe said, narrowly avoiding banging his head on a bank of switches as he stood up. “Less than I’d like.”

A snowball of doubt coalesced in the pit of Nora’s stomach, and she ran her hands slowly back through her hair. “How much of this do you think is me,” she said. “Who I am, who I’ve always been? And how much of this is... whatever we’re becoming?”

Rafe opened his mouth to answer the question, and fell over.

The blast had come from nowhere, making the whole plane shudder, jolting Nora hard against the straps of her harness. “What the hell was that?” she and the plane shouted simultaneously, as Rafe scrambled his way to the nearest jump seat.

“Hell if I know!” the plane shouted, an edge of panic in its synthesized voice. “I got nothin’ on radar.”

Nora swallowed hard and wrapped her hands around the stick. “Give me external video,” she said. The skies around them were clear -- nothing on any pane of the video footage that scrolled across the video screen. But another jolt rocked the plane, and alarms began to whoop.

“Whatever that was, it was closer!” the plane said.

“You mean those weren’t hits?” Nora said, her eyes widening.

“Indirect only,” the Whirlwind replied. “I’m readin’ incredible localized bursts of heat and concussion.”

Nora took another look at the video screen, and then looked closer. There was some error in the video feed -- glitches in the pixels. A cloud of slight distoritions in the video algorithm, like bad compression, off the Whirlwind’s right wing.

“Give me manual,” she said, feeling the stick loosen in her grip, the plane’s systems shift themselves over to her. “Rafe, you strapped in?”

“Couldn’t be more so,” Rafe said quickly from the back. “Not that I’d mind if I were.”

Nora rolled the stick hard to the left and kicked up the throttle, sending the plane into a hard bank. The turbines roared, and the plane shook again from another near-miss.

A black helicopter unlike any Nora had ever seen, all sharp edges and angles, wheeled into view through the Whirlwind’s cockpit glass. A single silver needle was painted on its side, on the aft fuselage. The side of the copter was open to the air, and a tall, black-coated man in a harness dangled out the side, something long and silver glinting in his hand. Nora recognized the calm, almost mechanical body language. Maximillian.

Even from this distance, she could swear she saw him smile.

“Oh, hell,” Nora said quietly. “Hang on!” She shot the throttle forward and plunged the stick down, and the plane dove, skimming under the landing skids of the black copter as a brilliant flash of blue light erupted from Maximillian’s side of the copter.

“How do they keep finding us?” Rafe shouted as the plane levelled off low above the surface of the lake, a cresting V of frothing water rising in its wave. A sudden memory flashed in Nora’s brain, and she reached in her pocket for the small rectangle of paper she’d put there the morning before. Mrs. Stitch’s card.

“Son of a--!” Nora shouted. “I’ve been leading them right to us! We’ve gotta ditch this thing. Rafe?”

“I’m comfortable where I am, thanks!” Rafe called nervously, and Nora risked a look back to fix him with the sort of Death Stare Rafe had seen a thousand times on the faces of girlfriends and, most often, his own mother. With sinking hopes, he unstrapped himself and darted forward to snatch the card from her hand. “I’m not going to want the details of whatever you’re planning, am I?”

“You’ll get the particulars,” Nora said. “Get to the back of the plane.”

“I don’t like this already!” Rafe said, weaving his way handhold-by-overhead-handhold toward the back of the plane. Hydraulics hummed under his feet, and a seam of white light appeared and steadily yawned wider before him, admitting a fierce blast of cold air and fine misty spray. “Correction,” Rafe muttered, so low that even he couldn’t hear it over the engines’ roar. “I loathe this.”

Then the black helicopter dropped into view through the open hatch, making Rafe cling to the overhead handhold for even dearer life. His grip didn’t loosen any when a second, identical copter appeared behind it, in equally hot pursuit.

“I despise this plan,” Rafe said. “I would kick this plan in the teeth!” He balled the black business card in one fist and flung it forward; the jetstream roaring around the plane sucked it up and away and gone. The tall one from the hangar, the one against whose face Rafe had smashed a perfectly good reinforced SWAT helmet at considerable taxpayer expense, leaned out of the side of the lead copter and took careful aim with his needle thing.

“Climb!” Rafe shouted! “Climb climb climb!”

The plane shot upward, yanking Rafe off his feet to dangle from the handhold over a great deal of nothing and the lake far below. He saw blue light erupt from the lead copter and boil a semisphere of lakewater into a sudden puff of steam.

“Doors!” Rafe shouted. “For the love of God, close the doors!”

The hydraulics groaned and hummed, and the plane began to seal shut beneath him. Rafe clung to the handhold with all his might, the fat hand of gravity squeezing him back, feeling his fingers slowly slip. Then the doors sealed, shutting out the last out the harsh outside light, and the plane leveled off slightly. Rafe lunged forward, swinging himself up the cabin, and finally latched himself back into a jump seat, panting with exertion.

“I’m not speaking to you!” he called out to the back of Nora’s head, and concentrated very hard on keeping down his breakfast.

Nora, at present, had bigger problems. Steel, stone, and glass problems, twenty stories high, and fast approaching: the Chicago skyline.

“They’re still on us!” she shouted to the plane as another nearby burst from outside rattled the fuselage. “We got any kind of weapons?”

“Yeah, ‘cause the FAA just loves you carrying that stuff around civilian population centers,” the plane shot back. “They made you take off the guns after that thing in Milwaukee, remember?”

“Uh... sure,” Nora lied. “Fine. What’ve we got for defense?”

“Active camouflage,” the Whirlwind said. “Turn that on, ain’t nobody gonna find you. Still charging, though. The solar cells are at 70 percent right now.”

“How much time until they’re full?” Nora asked, watching the skyscrapers loom ever closer. There was the Tribune Tower, and the Wrigley Building...

“Two minutes, thirty-three seconds and counting, unless it turns cloudy.”

“What do I do till then?” Nora said, watching two cloudy hazes of glitchy pixels swing into view on the video feed from the rear cameras.

“Stay in the air!” the plane suggested. Then the plane shot through the narrow channel of the Chicago River, and into the city proper.

A burst of brilliant blue light flared off to the left of the cockpit, buffetting the whole plane, and Nora yelped in alarm. Hands slick with sweat on the stick, she rolled the plane hard to the left, rocketing over the El tracks down State Street. On the screens, a single roiling mass of bad pixels tailed her doggedly.

“I’ve lost one!” she shouted. “Where’d he go?”

“Beats the hell out of me!” the Whirlwind shouted. “Collision! Collision!”

Nora yanked back on the stick, G-forces slamming her back into the seat, as the Whirlwind narrowly missed one of the federal courthouses. The world went black around the edges of her eyes, and she fought to keep her view from graying out until the plane leveled off.

“Enough of this,” Nora said, wheeling the plane around. One of the two black copters swung around into view. “The fuselage is reinforced, right? Morrow-something cladding?”

“Morrowlite. Tougher than a defensive lineman and twice as light,” the plane affirmed.

“Could it take a direct impact with a helicopter?” Nora asked.

“Oh, no,” the plane. “Oh, hell no. Even if it weren’t in my programming, I’d be telling you no way, no how.”

“Could it take a direct hit?” The copter was looming closer outside Nora’s cockpit.

“Maybe,” the plane said. “The odds ain’t good.”

“I’m going to pretend I can’t hear anything you’re saying!” Rafe called from the back. “Unless you enjoy uncontrollable, vaguely girlish screaming.”

“OK,” Nora said, gritting her teeth as the black copter ahead of her swung away and began to flee. “One more question. Do you think they know this thing can’t ram them?”

“Probably not,” the Whirlwind said, with greater confidence.

“Good,” Nora said, and punched the throttle all the way forward.

The Whirlwind screamed ahead, coming at the copter from slightly above, forcing it to dive. It wheeled through the maze of skyscrapers, desperately fleeing, as Nora doggedly pursued it.

“Come on,” Nora snarled under her breath to the other craft, with a frustration truly known only to office workers with terrible and lengthy commutes. “Come and get it, you jackasses.”

Again and again the copter tried to rise; again and again Nora brough the belly of the Whirlwind down inches above its whirling blades, forcing it to lose altitude or ram the other plane.

“Any sign of the other copter?” Nora asked, as the two vessels raced up Michigan Avenue, the South Loop blurring past to their left.

“Like I can even spot that thing to tell you,” the Whirlwind griped.

“Okay, fine,” Nora said. “Is there any spot around us where you see nothing? I mean, absolutely nothing?”

“Checking...” the plane said. “On top of us! Dammit, they’re right on top of us!”

Above, coming out of the sun, the second copter steadily dropped lower, the silvery length of the Whirlwind a fat and easy target as it skimmed above the honking, baffled choke of daily traffic. Maximillian leaned out the side of the copter, one hand holding his hat on, the other aiming his Needle at the fleeing craft. A smile played at the corners of his mouth.

“Active camo status!” Nora called out in the cockpit.

“Fully charged in three... two... one...” the plane said.

“Hit it!” Nora shouted, jamming back on the throttle and hitting the air brakes. The entire plane lurched, and a crackling him raced along the skin of the plane all around them...

A burst of energy lanced down from the upper copter, passed directly through where the Whirlwind should have been, and enveloped the second copter. There was a brilliant, searing blue-white flash, and then the rear half of the copter was simply gone, rotors and tail neatly sliced into invisibility.

The lower copter wheeled wildly, bounced off the face of a building, smashed into an empty intersection and burst into flames. Something unseen formed a fleeting hole in the plume of fire and smoke, and then it was gone.

In the copter above, Maximillian clenched one gloved fist tightly around his Needle, and narrowed his eyes in wordless rage.

The cabin had gone eerily quiet, and the world outside seemed a strange silvery-green through Nora’s windscreen as she slowly guided the plane higher. It was coasting now, at its lowest speed, the posh shops of North Michigan Avenue falling away beneath it. Nora slumped back in her chair, legs shaking, and let out a breath she felt like she’d been holding for hours.

“You,” she said, patting the overhead console fondly, “are one hell of a plane.”

“I’m just fine,” Rafe said from the back. “Not praying for death or anything. Thanks for asking.”

“You’re welcome,” Nora sighed. “Whirlwind, gimme VTOL mode, and get us as close as you can to the top floor of 919 North Mich.”

“Will do, baby,” the plane said. The Whirlwind, invisible to the eyes and ears of the world outside, drifted through the air and made a gentle, skidding turn. Its rear hatch unsealed, extending a ramp onto the top-floor balcony of the skyscraper, now dwarfed by the nearby John Hancock Building and its 95 dizzying stories.

“All right,” Nora told the plane. “Seal up, stay in camo, and wait for us here. You got any way I can contact you when I need you?”

“You know how to whistle, don’t you?” the Whirlwind said.

“Best plane ever,” Nora grinned, and unstrapped herself. Rafe was sitting very still and very pale in his jump seat, and she paused in front of him.

“You coming, jungle boy?” she said.

“To solid ground?” Rafe replied. “Oh, absolutely.” He unstrapped and followed Nora through the cabin and down the ramp, blinking in the sunlight. Behind them, there was only a yawning black hole into the plane in the midst of empty sky -- no sound, no glimmer of the plane, not even the slightest gust from the turbines. Then the hatch sealed, the black hole in the sky shrinking, and the air was empty once more.

Rafe and Nora stood on a broad balcony ringed with metal railings, overlooking the sunlit streets of Chicago. Above them, the still-proud beacon of 919 North Michigan rose into the blue, and ahead of them, glass doors led into still and dusty darkness.

Rafe tried the doors -- unlocked. “That’s welcome,” he said. “Guess they didn’t expect anyone coming in this way.” He opened the door wide and beckoned for Nora to enter. She shook her head sternly.

“Guy with the big-ass knives goes first,” she insisted, and Rafe rolled his eyes.

“How come you’re giving the orders now?” Rafe sighed.

“’Cause I’m the one with the plane,” Nora shot back. “After you.”

Rafe drew the stone knives from his belt and entered the shadowy gloom of the penthouse, Nora following. The door swung shut behind them, and they were enveloped in dust and silence.

The room was entirely empty. No furniture, no trash, nothing. Just a layer of dust on the floor, thick enough to raise small puffs as they walked, and a large, circular metal door on the opposite side of the main chamber.

“Look,” Nora said, her voice low. “Some more rooms over there. You think we should--?” Rafe held up a hand, the black blade of the stone knife he held catching the light. From beyond the metal door, they heard the creak of elevator cables, and the opening of rattling doors. And faint voices.

They were alone and exposed, trapped in an empty room at the top of a skyscraper. Rafe looked at the door, and then back at Nora. His mouth moved soundlessly, forming words: What do we do now?

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