Saturday, November 25, 2006

Reap the Whirlwind!

It was hot where he was, the air thick and steaming and alive, and all around him, he could hear and feel and sense the motion of a thousand living things, circulating. There was no light save silvery slivers of moon shifting through the trees like falling feathers, but Rafe treaded confindently through the vast and ancient trees, bare feet moving across whispering carpets of fallen leaves.

His eyes caught a gleam of orange firelight far ahead in the depths of jungle night, and he walked toward it, brushing dangling vines aside as he passed and clambering over tree roots as gnarled and knotted as an old prizefighter’s hands. There was a clearing, he saw, and in the clearing a ring of torches planted in the earth, and in the center of the clearing a table neatly draped in white linen, set with a china tea service. A young man about Rafe’s age sat at one of two chairs on opposite sides of the table, in evening finery, strange lines and whorls of color encrusted in paint upon his face. The man looked up at Rafe and grinned with neat white teeth.

“You’re just in time for tea,” he said.

Rafe sat. “Have you any scones?” he asked. “I’m famished.”

“I’d imagine you are,” the young man said, sliding a dish across the table to Rafe. “Proper currant scones, with jam besides.”

“Just like mum used to make,” Rafe smiled. The tableware was made of black stone, and he picked up a short, blunt knife and sliced open a scone, relishing the steam that rose from within it.

“Just like great-grandmum used to make,” the young man corrected him. “In your case, that is.”

“Do I know you?” Rafe asked, before taking a bite. It was an absurdly good scone. The young man grinned again. “Yes. And no. We’ve never met.”

It occurred to Rafe that he was dreaming; for one thing, no scone could possibly be this delicious. They were usually much drier, and the currants had hard bits in them that got stuck in your teeth. So it comforted him somewhat to remind himself of that when he reached for the jam and saw it softly pulsating, in a steady, even beat, in a glass jar shaped like a human heart.

“It’s in the blood, you see,” the young man said. “Eat up. You’ll need it.”

Rafe saw no harm in a bit of somnolent cannibalism, and slathered the red jam, steaming and vaguely sticky onto his scone. It smelled like American pennies. He bit into it.

“It doesn’t taste like anything,” Rafe said, puzzled. The young man laughed.

“It’s already in you,” he said. “Always has been. It’s one and the same between us.” Rafe suddenly felt something on the skin of his face, and put up a finger to trace lines of dried paint that ran across his forehead and down his nose and cheeks. As dreams went, this was a lot more exciting than his usual variety, which usually involved something on the order of shopping for socks on the set of Countdown.

Something moved in the shadows, and then a panther poured itself into the firelight of the clearing. There was a monkey on its back, and a great plumed bird of paradise. The monkey scrambled off and climbed up onto the table, greedily nibbling at a scone; the bird alighted on the lid of the teapot and cocked its head at Rafe; and the panther seated itself to Rafe’s left and the young man’s right, its tail curling back and forth, and watched Rafe with narrow, patient, iridescent eyes.

“I didn’t know we were having guests,” Rafe said. “Who did the seating chart?”

“We’re still waiting for the last arrival,” the young man said. “Before he gets here, look under your teacup.” Rafe turned over his teacup and saw a gold medallion on a chain curled underneath.

“St. Christopher,” Rafe said, examining it in the firelight. “My grandfather had one of -- ohhh.” He looked up at the young man, who looked terribly amused. “You’re him, aren’t you.”

“I wish you were a bit less of a rascal, I must say,” the young man said, smiling indulgently. “But then, I suppose, you’d hardly be a Windham.”

Rafe was about to issue an indignant rejoinder when the trees behind him creaked and shifted, and something vast displaced the air and entered the clearing. Rafe felt each of its footsteps shudder themselves up through his chair from the ground. Whatever it was, it stopped just behind Rafe, and lowered its immense head, and blew blasts of hot, stinking breath on the back of his neck. The animals, and the young man at the opposite end of the table, all looked past Rafe at whatever it was in friendly greeting, but somehow, Rafe felt it was entirely in his best interest not to look round.

He’s a bit skinny, said a voice that could rival any desperately overcompensating young man’s car stereo for sheer bass. Rafe could feel it in his spine and sternum. I could down him in a bite. Two at the most.

“You old piker,” the young man laughed at whatever was over Rafe’s shoulder. Then he looked at Rafe, and in the firelight, his eyes seemed to glow like the panther’s. “It’s time,” he said.

“Time for what?” Rafe asked, quietly beginning to hope that the reply included the words “wake up.”

“Time to pay fealty, Your Lordship,” the young man said.

Rafe woke up, and promptly fell out of bed.

The floor was cold and hard and not terribly clean, but nonetheless, Rafe was content to lie there for a moment and get his bearings, breathing in the short, agitated gasps common among racehorses and the freshly, violently awakened. He heard footsteps thumping closer, and then they stopped, and a woman’s voice said “Oh.”

With a great, wide-eyed heave, Rafe flopped himself into his back and lifted his head. There was a young, frizzy-haired black woman standing over him with a baseball bat, looking relieved, which made this only the fourth most colorful situation to which Rafe had awakened in his life.

“Where am I? Who are you?” Rafe looked down. “Where are my -- oh, there they are. Sorry! Sorry. I’m accustomed to lacking pants in these scenarios.”

The young woman’s face screwed itself up into something halfway between disbelief and disgust. “You’re welcome,” she said.

“What am I welcome for?” Rafe asked, giving his head a brief, cobweb-clearing shake and propping himself up on his elbows. It was a small, cozy little room, walls done in the absolute worst of 1970s wood paneling, and there were dust-covered bookshelves all about, bearing cobwebbed model airplanes and a lot of very stern-looking volumes with military-sounding titles. Also, he realized, he hadn’t fallen out of bed -- he’d fallen out of couch, and a very lumpy and well-traveled one at that.

“For carrying your heavy ass down three flights of stairs over my shoulders, for starters,” the young woman said, reaching up to rub the back of her neck in the manner of someone needing a proper introduction to ibuprofen. Rafe recognized the red t-shirt she wore, and the blue jeans, and things clicked into place.

“Ah,” he said. “You’re Dora -- Nora! Nora. Yes. The young woman who destroyed my flat with a UFO.” Some small part of Rafe’s brain realized that he’d had far too few opportunities in life to utter that sort of sentence, which was not necessarily a bad thing.

“Hey, your flat destroyed my UFO, too,” Nora said. “’Sides, it looked like you’d had a head start on wrecking the place.” She held out a hand, grudgingly. “Up. Come on. I’ve got coffee.”

“Coffee?” Rafe said. “I should very much like to marry you.” Nora raised the baseball bat warningly. “I didn’t mean right away,” he clarified. She just rolled her eyes and left the room through the single doorway. Rafe breathed out and smoothed out his shirtfront -- his clothes looked and felt decidedly slept-in, and he wondered how long he’d been out. He no longer felt like dying was a particularly lovely option, so it must have been a while. He followed Nora through the door.

It led to a little balcony with a makeshift kitchen -- sink, coffeemaker, electric burner, cabinets, mini-fridge -- that overlooked a much larger space. It was some kind of garage -- no, hangar, if the large sheet-draped object sitting ghostly in the middle of the bare concrete floor below was any indication. The whole room smelled of dust and petrol, and Rafe could see drums of fuel and a workbench with tools and dray parts against the far wall. A large set of roll-up doors, now shut, made up one wall of the room below, and a metal staircase led down from the balcony.

There was a rickety, much-abused wooden table in the open space on the balcony, next to the paint-peeling steel railing, and Nora was setting it with bowls, spoons, and mugs from one of the cabinets. Rafe saw a sleeping bag spread on the floor against the cabinets at the far wall -- well, that was nice of her, giving him the couch -- and on the counter above it, a small black-and-white TV playing the local news at low volume through a faint snowstorm of static.

The coffeemaker had percolated, and Nora poured the coffee dark and steaming into two mugs, handing Rafe one that read 30th Annual Chicagoland Aviation Conference. “No sugar, sorry,” she said, “but there’s milk if you want it.”

“Black’s good with me,” Rafe said, and then added, “the coffee, I mean. I like my coffee black.” Nora looked at him wearily, and his brain finally had the good sense to shut up. She opened another set of cabinets and took out two brightly colored boxes.

“Cheerios or Lucky Charms?” she asked, and Rafe took the red box.

“Always been partial to leprechauns, really,” he told her, and she smiled in spite of herself. Rafe was generally in favor of making young women smile, especially if they had baseball bats, except of course if it was the thought of hitting you with said bats that was making them smile in the first place. They sat down at opposite sides of the table, the telly playing over Nora’s shoulder, and ate in silence, sharing a small plastic bottle of milk from the mini-fridge.

“So,” Rafe said after swallowing a spoonful of wheat bits and purple horseshoe marshmallows. “This is a very nice, um, hangar. Yours?”

“My family estate,” Nora said, looking around without a great deal of fondness. “Used to belong to my dad, and his mom, and her dad before that. I haven’t been out here since Dad moved to Florida.” She nodded down at the shrouded thing on the floor below. “He keeps saying he’s gonna come up here one spring and get that old beast off the ground, but somehow, his golf game always takes priority.”

“Could be worse,” Rafe said, taking another gulp of now-lukewarm coffee. “Could be polo.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Nora said as she dropped her spoon into her emptied bowl. Rafe shook his head emphatically.

“Oh, God, he’s mad for it,” Rafe sighed. “Even the horses think he’s a bit off.”

They sat there, drinking coffee, in silence for a little while. Rafe studied the scratches in the wood of the table.

“This is nice,” Nora sighed at length. “Just talking, like two normal people. I can almost pretend that crazy people in black coats didn’t try to kill me in some silver science fiction airplane yesterday.”

“You had the people in black coats, too?” Rafe said, perking up.

“Yeah,” Nora told him, running her hands back through her springy mass of hair. “Yours say anything to you?”

“No,” Rafe said. “They just... they killed somebody, for no reason, in a very cruel way. And then you, well, squashed them.”

“Never flown before,” Nora said, her mouth tightening into a bitter, remorseful line. “Never killed anyone before, either. I had my eyes shut the whole time.”

“Did you mean to actually crash into my flat?” Rafe asked her. Nora shook her head.

“I was trying to land on the roof or something. Thing’s got a hell of a literal definition for ‘take me to such and such an address.’”

“Wait, wait, one second,” Rafe said, getting up for a refill of coffee. “How did you know my address? Come to think of it, how do you know me?”

“I don’t,” Nora replied. “At least, I’m not sure. I think -- okay, let’s try this. I’m gonna tell you some stuff about yourself, and you tell me if any of it’s true, or if it just sounds crazy.”

“That’s going to be a decidedly relative judgment after the last -- has it been a day?” Rafe asked her. “Did I sleep that long?” Nora nodded.

“Okay,” she said. “Your name’s Reginald Windham, but you go by Rafe.”

“Correct so far,” he nodded, then winced, because he’d burned his tongue on the new coffee.

Nora knotted her fingers together and shut her eyes, reciting from memory. “You’re in line to be the nineteenth Lord Havoc, after your father. You live in New York City, in some crazy English mansion your grandpop had bricked all the way over from England, on like four square blocks of prime real estate turned into your own private park. You’re big in industry -- the number two man at the family multinational. Your granddad was some major-league adventure guy, national hero type, who was born on some crazy-ass island off the coast of--”

Rafe nearly spit coffee. He’d been holding in the laugh too long, and it sort of leaked out, along with the coffee, around the corners of his mouth in a fine mist. Then he started coughing, and when he could breathe property, he indulged himself in a chortle or two.

“I’m sorry,” he said when he was able to. “I’m sorry. That’s just so terribly, terribly wrong. Windham Hall is still in dear old England; my Dad’s a high muckety-muck with the home office, and wants me nowhere near any line of work with which the family name’s connected. And he’d rather dress like a chicken and go running up and down the high street than see me inherit his precious family title, which, well, I can’t blame him, and it’d almost be worth it for the chicken suit.”

Rafe sat down at the table again and looked at Nora, grinning bemusedly. “And my grandfather, far as I know, was born at the hospital in London. I mean, he was a bit of the safari type -- had adventure in his blood, I suppose, always tramping off to strange corners of the globe in the name of science. He died when my dad was just a boy -- drowned somewhere up the Amazon on another of his expeditions. We didn’t speak of him much in the household, and my gran never quite forgave him either. So I have to ask, because you’re the second person in the past day -- sorry, two days -- to tell me a lot of extremely wrong things about my life -- where are you getting this?”

Nora reached down under the table and hoisted up a satchel bag, from which she removed a what looked like half a notebook computer. It was pebble-sleek, all glossy screen, and when Nora tapped it with a finger, the screen sprang to sudden blue life.

“I popped it out of the, uh, the UFO,” Nora said. “Two days running now, and the thing doesn’t need a battery charge. It says I fill it up with alcohol in a little slot on the back.”

“And the UFO came from...?” Rafe asked, staring half-hypnotized at the weird glow from the screen.

“The big silver space plane that crashed down in Lake Michigan yesterday morning,” Nora said. She told Rafe about her job, and Murray, and Mrs. Stitch and Maximillian and the strange plane, and in turn, he told her about the painted warrior who’d turned up in his living room.

“That reminds me,” Nora said, and fished his stone knives out of the satchel bag, passing them gingerly across the table to Rafe. “Damn things nearly cut a hole in my bag. They looked important, though. I didn’t have room for the box.”

“Quite all right,” Rafe said, resting a hand on them. For a moment, he had a flash of his very odd dream -- a dream that seemed to be hanging back whole and patient in his subconscious, where most others would’ve had the courtesy to dissolve into fragments by this point. “You were going to show me something?”

“Hey,” Nora said to the glowing screen. “Biographical data. Rafe Windham.”

“One moment,” the computer said in a cheerful, tinny voice. Text spilled gracefully onto the screen, along with a photograph, and Nora handed the screen to Rafe.

He was looking at himself -- a bit better-fed, perhaps, with fewer signs of wear and tear, and possessed of some undefinable vitality -- in an impossibly good suit. It was a candid shot, taken at some society function; he was toasting with a glass of champagne, and there was a young woman whose arm encircled his at the elbow. Rafe recognized her instantly, and with a pang of guilt and longing.

Windham Industries COO Rafe Windham, with fiancee Julia Smythe, at the 2005 New Atlantis New Year’s Eve Ball, the caption read. And there, in crisp text, was the entire unreal history of his life that Nora had laid out for him.

“Now try mine,” Nora said, when he’d finished reading and his face had gone at least a shade paler. “Nora Swift.” The computer seemed to hear her and obliged, and new text fell onto the screen like a hail of cherry blossoms.

“Um,” said Rafe, reading in bafflement. “Apparently I just had breakfast with an accomplished pilot, designer of vast, ocean-spanning airliners, and third-generation CEO of the nation’s largest aerospace contractor.”

“Not even close,” Nora said. “I’m CEO of nothing -- heck, my cat doesn’t even listen to me. I investigate plane crashes for the government, which is my pride-preserving way of saying that I read a lot of reports filed by people who actually do investigate plane crashes, and sometimes I get to look at pictures of dead people. And if you think that’s freaky, look at this.”

She put the in-flight magazine and the newspaper down on the table with a thump, and after Rafe had gaped sufficiently, she unfolded the paper to a two-page spread inside, paying lavish tribute to some old man Rafe had never heard of, but was clearly expected to. Nora thumped a finger on one of the photos, which showed a younger version of the man in question, a tall chap in a cowboy hat, a young boy with glasses cradling a floppy-eared mutt, and a smiling black woman -- who, come to think of it, looked a bit like Nora.

“Tom Morrow, the late Lassiter Odes and Ruby Gale, and the unfortunate Jef Franklin, as seen before their 1931 expedition to Tibet to explore the temple of Tal Xan Sherat,” Rafe read slowly. “That woman--”

“My grandma Ruby,” Nora said. “Except she wasn’t a pilot, not by then. She did a little flying when she was in school, but she quit when she married Grandpa Thad. I mean, she talked about -- what is it?”

Rafe turned the paper around wordlessly, and pointed at another photo, which showed this Tom Morrow person shaking hands and grinning with the young man who’d sat across from Rafe in his dream. “That’s my grandfather,” Rafe said. “At least, I think. Can’t be too many Harker Windhams in the world, right?”

Nora scanned the text in the article. “Says here Tom Morrow had a headquarters downtown -- 919 North Michigan.”

“The one with the big light on top?” Rafe asked absentmindedly, and Nora nodded.

“Look, whoever the folks with the needles are, they’re after the both of us,” she said. “There’s some kind of connection, and I think this Morrow guy’s the key. We go to 919 North Mich, maybe we’ll find that headquarters of his and get some answers.”

“Um, not to raise a ridiculous question,” Rafe interjected, as Nora glanced over at the sheet-draped form in the middle of the hangar floor and furrowed her brow in curious thought, “but what if there’s nothing there? I mean, this paper talks about--” he flpped back to the front pages of the A section -- “the Caliphate of Greater Islam where I’m fairly certain a whole load of scrapping, oil-greedy countries are, and last I checked, no one’d redone the maps.”

“Yeah, but there was sure as hell a whole flying wing floating in the middle of Lake Michigan yesterday morning,” Nora said, still peering distractedly at the thing under the tarps below. “And I haven’t seen anything about it in the papers, on the news, nothing.” She set her dishes hastily in the small sink and then thumped down the stairs to the hangar floor.

“Don’t mind me,” Rafe said. “I’ll just, uh, sit up here.”

“Okay,” Nora said. “I won’t. Just something weird about this I can’t put my finger on.”

“New tarps?” Rafe offered. Below, Nora shook her head, hair flopping about.

“I think...” Nora began. “I think it’s the wrong shape.”

The sad thing, Rafe thought, as he turned back to read more fake news about a Caliphate that didn’t exist, is that Nora’s statement was beginning to sound downright normal. He was poring over an infographic about the success of CO2 reduction protocols in restoring the ozone layer when a snatch of conversation from the running telly brought his head snapping up.

There was a pretty blonde newsreader -- well, she looked blonde, but it was hard to tell with the black-and-white and the static -- and some kind of graphic plastered up over her shoulder, with CONDO CRASH in garish letters.

“Breaking developments now in yesterday’s shocking crash of a small aircraft into a Wrigleyville condominium,” the newsreader was saying. “We told you yesterday that Homeland Security had declared it a terrorist act, and now we’ve got word that the FBI is about to launch a raid on a South Side airfield. We’re going live to Brett Hardwick at the scene. Brett?”

The picture changed, and there was a sensible-looking man in a proper overcoat with a microphone to his mouth and his other hand to his ear, standing in front of a bustling hive of activity. There were men in SWAT gear running about behind him, and other men in dark windbreakers with FBI on the back.

“Thanks, Amy,” Brett said on the telly. “The FBI has asked us to stay back, but it appears that they’re about to raid a disused aviation hangar that sits on this rare patch of open field off the South Side lakeshore, near the Bronzeville neighborhood. No word yet on whether there are suspects inside, or who they might be. We’re hearing that the FBI believes yesterday’s crash, which killed at least one unidentified man, was a deliberate act of terrorism, possibly carried out by a cell operating here in Chicago...”

Rafe slowly got up and walked toward the set, hunching down to squint through the static at the background of the picture. There were people standing next to one of the FBI men... familiar people...

Down on the hangar floor, Nora slowly lifted one corner of the tarps covering her dad’s old wreck of a repair job, the old Curtiss P-38 he’d sworn to get restored and flying again one of these days. The Curtiss had a bad paint job he’d never gotten around to fixing, black and peeling and spotted with rust underneath. But the metal revealed as she lifted up the tarp was bright silver, polished so finely that Nora could nearly see her reflection in it.

She began gathering tarps in great handfuls, fast as she could.

Up on the balcony, Rafe squinted harder. Then one of the people behind the reporter, the people in long black coats and wide black hats, lifted his head, and Rafe scrambled backward from the TV and landed on his bum.

On the hangar floor, Nora flung off the last tarp in a cloud of dust and gaped. It was a vision, all curving lines and fins and wings. She’d pored over the schematics for every plane in the air in the United States, and never seen anything like it. Not even on the covers of the endless back issues of Popular Mechanics Murray kept in his cube.

Painted in looping letters on the side of the nose: THE WHIRLWIND. And underneath it, in block print: “NORA’S BABY.”

Staring out of the TV at Rafe, in a whirl of phosphor dots, was a woman of indiscriminate age in a black coat and hat. And next to her, the very tall man Rafe had seen barging into his flat the day before. The man who’d broken the painted warrior’s neck as if he’d been cracking a whip. The one Nora’s UFO, he’d thought, had smashed to a fine red stain on the carpet.

“And it looks like --” the reporter said. “Yes, they’re giving the go signal, and we’re being asked to move back. The raid has begun.”

There was a roar of heavy engines outside, growing louder, and shouts, and the thudding of boots across asphalt.

“Oh my God,” said Nora, and Rafe, all but simultaneously.

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