Monday, November 27, 2006

Operators From Beyond

The secret panel swung shut, closing on the drawn and frightened face of Dr. Xiang, and Trip and Sully were alone in the tiny shaft, enveloped in complete darkness. Behind the door, Trip could fainly hear the sounds of metal groaning, as the men in dark coats attempted to batter down the Doctor’s steel door.

The dark reminded Sully too much of the cabinet of her childhood. She clenched her hands hard around the metal rungs protruding from the concrete wall and swallowed a wave of sudden panic trying to scrabble up her esophagus. Then, feeling her way down to the next rung, she began to descend the ladder.

Trip followed, and they reached the bottom not far below. There was a rustling of fabric in the darkness, and then a light snapped on. It was a surprisingly bright keychain LED, and Trip shone it around the dim space, Sully wincing as the beam lashed across her eyes, and finally found the catch to the secret door the Doctor had mentioned.

Above them, they heard a crash, and a single, high scream. Trip fumbled with the catch on the cold concrete panel, and it swung open, bringing winter with it.

Trip and Sully emerged from the secret ladder to find themselves in a darkened meat locker, frost-dusted slabs of pork and beef dangling from hooks, casting strange and sinister shadows in the light of Trip’s LED. Sully hastily shut the door behind them, and they both unconsciously pulled their jackets tighter around them -- Sully’s black leather, Trip’s olive drab army coat -- amid the unnatural chill of the room.

“Wait, don’t people get locked into these things all the time?” Sully asked in tiny puffs of steaming breath. Trip smiled and shook his head, moving gingerly through the frozen meat to the opposite side of the room.

“Only in bad sitcoms,” he said, and found the latch, and opened the freezer door.

It led to a somewhat warmer stock room, cardboard boxes piled in high, narrow shelves, and Sully went first through the double doors that led to the store proper.

The offices of Dr. Xiang occupied the second floor of her family’s building on Wentworth Avenue; a Chinese grocery store filled the ground floor, there to disguise the true nature of Dr. Xiang’s livelihood from tourists and snooping neighbors. At present, the store was closed and dark, the only light admitted through the broad windows at the front of the store. Squinting over the aisles of brightly colored packaging covered in Chinese characters, Trip could see that it was a busy morning outside; some kind of street fair had drawn hundreds of people, filling the streets as they browsed at various booths set up along Wentworth.

They had just passed from the dried mushrooms into the bottles of wine when Trip and Sully froze. A pair of shadows loomed at the front doors of the shop, and like a gunshot, Trip heard the bolts locking the front doors shoot open. The door swung wide, admitting a brief burst of mingled conversation and syrupy Chinese pop music, and two of the men in black coats glided inside the shop.

Sully grabbed Trip by the collar of his jacket and yanked him down into a crouch. They glanced at one another, and in that moment, Trip found himself pausing the consider the absurdity of this situation -- running for his life with no idea why, his only companion a total stranger.

The soles of the two dark-coated men’s shoes squeaked softly on the tile floor. They were passing down the next aisle over from Trip and Sully, still between them and the front door.

The floor above exploded with a drumroll of footsteps, and the sounds of falling furniture. Fighting. The two intruders paused, as did Trip and Sully, to stare at the ceiling, where the tumult on the second floor shook gentle falls of white dust from the acoustic tiles. The noise stopped, with terrible abruptness, and there was a single, final, thud. Sully heard a self-satisfied snort of amuseument from one of the intruders, and her stomach turned.

Then Trip’s mouth was just brushing her hear, and he was whispering. “Don’t move,” he said. “Don’t run. Just trust me. And whatever you do, don’t touch me.” He unslung his backpack from his shoulders and set it down next to her.

Before Sully could stop him, Trip had stood up and smashed a whole row of wine bottles off the shelves. They shattered on the floor, spilling wine in a wide pool that crossed the aisle, and Sully’s heart caught in her throat as the figures of the two men in black coats appeared at the end of the aisle. Trip raised his arms in surrender as they began to walk toward him.

“You’ve got me,” Trip said, as the men -- one broad and stocky, the other with a scar running down his left cheek -- sized him up with strange, identically gray eyes. “There’s no point in running. We surrender.”

Sully, used to looking for these things, saw Trip’s right thumb and forefinger move almost imperceptibly against the cuff of his jacket. The two men in black coats stepped into the puddle of wine.

Trip made a quick motion with his upraised hands, and both men shot out to grab him around the forearms. There was a sharp cracking sound, a sudden flare of sparks and smoke around the two men’s feet in the puddle of wine, and both men dropped, convulsing, their shoes smoking.

“It’s the jacket,” Trip said, reaching out a hand to Sully, who ignored it and stood up, straightening out her jacket. Trip grabbed up his pack instead. “Just an experiment -- kind of a personal security thing. Once you arm it, it hits anyone who tries to grab you with a blast of a few thousand volts.”

“Yeah, I read about that,” Sully nodded, grudgingly impressed. She paused to give one of the men a kick in the ribs as they stepped over the intruder’s prone, twitching bodies. “The Israelis invented it, right?”

“The Israelis invented it, but I improved it,” Trip said, looking slightly hurt. “Built this one myself. It recharges based on the wearer’s own motion.”

“Trip Morrow, Trip Morrow,” Sully said, turning the name over in her brain. “I know I’ve heard that name bef-- wait. Do you... build special-effects rigs? Animatronics, that sort of thing?”

“Sometimes,” Trip shrugged, pausing to examine one of the men’s sleeves. He drew out a silver needle like the one Sully had seem Eyepatch use, and held it triumphantly up to Sully. “Right where you said it was. Yeah, I build lots of stuff, why?”

Sully quickly moved his hand and the needle away from her face. “Careful with that thing, champ. I saw it make an instant pothole. Did you -- uh, did you build anything for Double Deuce Industries?”

“Can’t talk about it,” Trip smiled. “I’m still under NDA.”

“Yeah,” I know, Sully sighed, crouched by the front windows, scanning the crowd. No sign of guys in black coats. “I wrote the NDA. You do good work.”

“That was you?” Trip said. “I wish I’d had another month. I could have gotten more of the fine muscles around the eyes working.”

“You did great,” Sully told him. “Only way it could have been more realistic is if it demanded a bag apiece of sensemilla and M&Ms a day.”

“Oh,” Trip said, cocking his head, looking vaguely shocked. “He looks so healthy.”

“Illusion,” Sully smirked. Behind them, she heard one of the men in black coats groan, softly, and the full danger of their situation flooded back to her. “Come on,” she said, grabbing Trip by the wrist and yanking him out the front doors into the sun-flooded street.

The crowd buffered and battered them immediately, busy shoppers and gawkers nearly dragging Sully and Trip apart. Sully kept scanning the crowds for black hats and coats. Nothing so far.

“This is your city,” she said to Trip, as they managed to work themselves into the flow of circulating pedestrians. “Where can we hide?”

“I haven’t been down here much, but if we can get outside this fair, we can probably grab a cab. I have a workshop in Pilsen--”

“If they found us here, they can find us where you live,” Sully said. “Other options? I’d suggest a hotel, but I don’t have that kind of cash, and if they were monitoring my phone, I’m betting they’ve got some kind of trace on my cards, too.”

“I had one other idea,” Trip said. “Something in the magazine -- it said my grandpa had a --”

A high keen cut through the air, and from behind them, the air glared flashbulb-bright. Trip and Sully whirled, alone among throngs of oblivious passersby, and stared at the building they’d just left.

It had suddenly become a McDonald’s. A very bright, very modern McDonalds. One that had clearly been occupying that space for quite some time.

“What the hell?” Sully blurted. “Did you see--?”

“Yeah,” Trip said, his face pale. “But why didn’t anyone else? Look. Nobody turned. Nobody’s staring.” All around them, shoppers laughed and joked and talked on cell phones. No one seemed to care that a fast-food franchise had suddenly materialized in a burst of radiance.

Sully dragged them both out of the flow of pedestrian traffic, to the far side of the street, and the two stood on tiptoes and craned to see through the front windows. “Oh God,” Sully said, spotting it first. “The guy with the mop.”

It was Hu, in a restaurant uniform, pushing a mop sullenly across the restaurant’s floor with the thousand-yard stare of minimum wage. Behind him, at the front counter, Trip thought he saw Anna Mei Xiang in a headset, staring ahead in boredom, taking a customer’s order.

Sully and Trip looked at one another, horrorstruck. And then Trip’s eyes went wide, and Sully followed his gaze to the roof of the building.

A tall man in a gray suit and a dark coat stood at the edge of the facade. He tipped his hat down to them, and as the brim of his hat lifted, Sully could see the eypatch on his face.

“Oh, no,” she said softly. “No, no, no. I hit him with a freaking car.”

“No time,” Trip said urgently, and when she looked down, she saw more men and women in long black coats, their silver eyes locked on the two of them, making their way calmly and casually through the crowds.

They ran, Sully following Trip as they barrelled through the weaving forests of people choking the streets. They slammed into pedestrians, sending people sprawling, raising angry shouts behind them. Trip tossed back an occasional “excuse me,” or “sorry;” Sully, hardened by years of freeway driving, had no time for such pleasantries.

Behind them, the black-coated men and women strolled on with no particular urgency, as if they were savoring the thinning yellow sunlight and the crisp autumn air. The crowds, without making any particular effort to do so, seemed to consistently part before them and close behind them, and with their progress so unimpeded, the black-coated legions steadily closed the gap between themselves and their quarry.

Sully and Trip ran up Wentworth and across Archer, the crowds thinning as they emerged from the street fair. Most of the crowds had been drawn away from Chinatown Square Mall, and the Square itself was nearly empty as they dashed under the Knowledge Gate; just a couple of men seated on a far bench, tossing crumbs to pigeons. Lungs burning, they crossed the square, headed for an alleyway on the far side between two shops. Sully risked a look over her shoulder, and saw two of the men in black coats crossing Archer. Then they flickered, like a film skipping frames, and suddenly a whorl of pigeons erupted from the square as the same two men appeared in the center of the square, mere steps behind them.

“No fair,” Sully gasped, stumbling forward into the alley -- only to run smack into Trip. The two fell into a heap on the ground and lay there, gasping for breath. A line of men in black coats filled the mouth of the alley ahead of them, and the two pursuing them were now joined, as if out of nowhere, by two more. Trip and Sully were boxed in. Trapped.

They lifted their heads to the sound of the slow clapping of gloved hands. Eyepatch emerged through the line of men and women closing off the mouth of the alley ahead of them, applauding sardonically.

“Oh, you’ve had us on quite the merry chase,” he said, smiling without mirth. “Young miss, I’ll have you know you left some terrible scratches on my fender.”

“It’s not my fault,” Sully spat, regaining her breath in gulps, “if you didn’t lie down the first time.”

“Lie down,” Eyepatch nodded. “That’s exactly what you both should have done from the beginning. Look what all this running around’s gotten you. A few extra hours, tops? Can’t be worth it at all.”

“It’s gotten us this,” Trip said, getting to one knee, and pulled out the needle he’d taken. He thrust it out at Eyepatch and squeezed his eyes shut, concentrating with all his might.

Then he opened one eye, and looked at Sully. “Is it doing anything?” Trip said, and Nora, looking more mortified than anything else, slowly shook her head.

“Well, well, sport,” Eyepatch chuckled. “Just full of surprises, aren’t you? Too bad for you that each Needle’s keyed to its owner. Can’t have them falling into the wrong hands, can we?”

He reached into his sleeve and pulled his own Needle out. “You want a demonstration? Here.”

At the far end of the alley, behind Trip and Sully, someone cleared his throat.

“If you’ll excuse me,” said a tall, immaculately dressed man in a wool overcoat and a pinstriped suit, striding through the crowd of baffled men in black coats, “I’m going to have to ask you not to do that.” His hair was slicked back, thin and sickly along his oddly skewed scalp, and the round, gold-rimmed spectacles he wore seemed to curiously distort his pale blue eyes.

He was followed by a shorter, much stranger man. This one sported a tweed overcoat, a day or so’s worth of stubble, black pants from an entirely different suit, and a lime green t-shirt reading MONTCLAIRE FAMILY REUNION 1996. He wore a red sneaker, untied, on his left foot, and a waterproof hunter’s boot on his right. Tufts of brown hair stuck out at intervals beneath the fur-lined cap he wore, earflaps down, and neither of his eyes seemed to point in the same direction of the other.

“And by that,” the shorter man said, “he means that thing where the air goes in and out of your breathbags.”

“Lungs,” the taller man corrected quietly, as if mindly embarrassed.

“I like my word better,” the short man sulked. Eyepatch rolled his eyes and debonairly waved his Needle at them.

“You’re not here,” Eyepatch said. But to his visible surprise, the two men remained exactly where they were.

“An intriguing philosophical dilemma,” the taller man nodded, smiling. His teeth seemed somehow too even, too perfect. “Where, exactly, is ‘here,’ in a metaphysical sense? Are any of us truly in any single place at a given time?”

Eyepatch nodded to the men and women at the far end of the alley, annoyed. “Take care of them.”

“I must confess,” the taller man said, “to some hope that you might issue a command of that nature.”

“Yeah,” added the shorter man. “I’m hungry.”

They both smiled -- wider, and wider still, Trip and Sully watching in disbelief as their skin seemed to contort beyond the limits of human anatomy. And then purple-pink light climbed out of their distended mouths, painful to behold, uncurling in smoking, crackling tendrils. It hurt to look at, seeming to cut right through Trip’s brain and transfix him, and in his head, he heard the singing of many distant voices...

One of the two tendrils from each man’s mouth lashed hungrily around each of the four black-coated men and women at the far end of the alley, and in a startling instant, dragged them screaming back toward the two men’s mouths. There were horrible cries, and the crack and slurp of folding bone and tissue, and the four black-coated guards were devoured entirely.

Sully tore her eyes away from the strange, painful light and looked back at Eyepatch. In the reflected purplish radiance, she saw real fear written across his face, just before he and the remaining men frantically lifted their Needles and stutter-stepped themselves away into nothingness.

The tendrils curled back into the two men’s mouths, and the singing stopped, and suddenly Trip and Sully were alone in the alley with just the taller and shorter men. The taller one withdrew a pink lace handkerchief from one jacket pocket and dabbed daintily at the corners of his mouth; the shorter one let out a thunderous belch and whacked himself on the chest.

“I’m terribly sorry you had to see that,” the taller man said to a baffled, terrified Trip and Sully.

“Yeah,” the shorter one said. “Especially with those eyes of yours. So limiting. Tasty, though.”

Trip muffed his first few tries at speech, intended syllables coming through as blurted puffs of air. He managed “Who are you?” on his third attempt.

“I am Operator Vore,” the taller man said, bowing crisply, “and my associate is Operator Grin. We have been sent by-- ah-- a certain interested party to ensure your safety in this most crucial of times. The body we represent has a vested interest in your survival and success.”

“Success?” Sully said, getting shakily to her feet. “Success in what?”

“What is the statement of the moment?” Operator Vore pondered, cocking his head as if trying to recall. “Ah, yes. If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

Operator Grin did exactly that. “We’re gonna eat you,” he said, in a slow singsong.

That was enough for Trip. He grabbed Sully by the arm, and they ran, fast as their feet could carry them, out of the alley and away from the two men.

Operator Vore sighed, pushing his spectacles up his pinched nose. “I can’t take you anywhere.”

Operator Grin let out another belch. “What? It’s true.”

Sully and Trip stopped running five blocks later, when Trip collapsed against a side of a building, waving breathlessly for Sully to hold up.

“Oh, Jesus,” Sully said, simultaneously cursing herself for not quitting smoking, and desperately wanting a cigarette. She leaned forward, resting her hands on the torn knees of her stockings. “Oh, Christ. What the hell were those things?”

“Worse question,” Trip gasped. “Why did they want to help us?”

“I don’t--” Sully said, breath shuddering in and out of her lungs. “Oh, God, I don’t want to think about that. I just want this all to be over, dammit. My schedule for the past two days is just completely shot.”

“I dunno,” Trip said. “I didn’t have anything to do this weekend.”

They looked at each other for a moment, and then Sully sputtered and burst out laughing.

“Oh, God,” she said between laughs. “I can’t tell if this is genuine laughter-- or, you know-- hysteria. Hoo.”

“Probably a little of both,” Trip said. “We need to -- phew -- we need to get back downtown.”

“What’s downtown?” Sully asked, and Trip dug the cigar box out of his bag and carefully opened the magazine curled up inside, leafing through the yellowed, autumnal pages until he’d found the right spot. “I saw this on the plane, when I gave it a quick flip-through,” Trip said, and began to read: “Tom Morrow kept his headquarters on the top floor of 919 North Michigan Avenue...”

“That’s a real building?” Sully asked, scanning the street for any sign of a passing cab.

“Um... yeah,” Trip said, slightly disbelieving. “Yeah, built in the late ‘20s. Used to be one of the biggest in town. I never heard of anything being on the top floor except, you know, offices, but I figured--”

“You figured,” Sully said, her black hair slicing above her shoulders as she turned to face him, “that if we just saw a Chinese grocery become a McDonald’s, stranger things have happened.”

“Exactly,” Trip nodded. Behind him, a yellow cab turned the corner and began to rumble toward them. Sully put thumb and forefinger in her mouth and let out an earsplitting whistle as it rolled past. But the cab had its OFF DUTY light on, and it simply kept driving.

“Bastard!” Sully shouted after it, kicking at the pavement in frustration -- then stopped when she saw the cab’s taillights flare red. It screeched to a halt, lurched as the driver threw the cab into reverse, and roared backward toward them. Sully glanced over and saw Trip holding up his right hand, displaying the silver-and-amber signet ring he wore.

“Playing a hunch,” Trip shrugged at her, as the cab screeched to a halt right next to them. “Dr. Xiang said something about the ring...”

The window rolled down, and an expansive woman with graying dreadlocked hair and a West Indian accent glowered out at them.

“You flash a ring like dat, boy, it better be genuine. You lemme see,” she commanded.

Trip held out his hand and the woman leaned over and grasped it in one broad, calloused hand. Her nails were about an inch long, Sully noted, bright pink, and aggressively fake.

The cabbie pursed her lips and let out a low whistle of amazement. “By de Great Dispatcher! How you get dis ring, boy?”

“Uh... my grandfather left it to me, miss,” Trip said, feeling slightly awkward with his hand still in the driver’s grip.

“Family inheritance... I tink dat’s acceptable under de bylaws. And dis is a time of urgent need, yes? You not just tryin’ to get to some concert or sometin’?”

“I can’t even explain how urgent,” Trip said, and the driver looked into his drawn and weary face and nodded in understanding.

“You get in, and your pretty friend too. I’m gonna forget what it was you call me, miss wit de fresh mouth.”

“Uh... thanks,” Sully said awkwardly, as she and Trip clambered inside the back of the cab. “Sorry.” It smelled of pineapple air freshener, and the seats were patched with broad strips of silver duct tape.

“Where to?” the driver said as the cab lurched away from the curb.

“919 North Michigan,” Trip said. He shot Sully a look: I can’t believe this worked.

“Haven’t heard of nobody getting an Order fare in ‘least twenty year,” the driver said. “Oh, wait, wait,” she laughed, and reached out a hand to hit some unseen switch on the bottom of the meter. The digital fare readout vanished, each of the numbers somehow replaced by a stylized circular emblem that looked to Sully like some sort of wheel.

“We’re, uh, we’re happy to pay you, Miss,” Trip said, and the cab driver whirled to transfix him with a blazing stare of indignation.

“You do nothing of the kind!” she said in a huff. She unclipped a walkie-talkie phone from the dash and thumbed the talk button.

“Dispatch,” she said, all business, “Agent 492, requestin’ an OSF override.”

“Granted,” a voice crackled back over the radio in a heavy Chicago accent. “Swift travels, Agent 492.”

“Safe roads,” she responded, then turned around to her befuddled passengers and smiled widely.

“You travelin’ wit de Order of St. Fiacre now,” she said. “De ride’s on me.”

1 comment:

Bigmouth said...

Hi Nathan! Just dropped by. I'm going to have do some catching up, cause I'm way behind the storyline.