Saturday, November 18, 2006

A Stitch in Time

Author's note: With this chapter, I've beaten NaNoWriMo's 50,000 word goal. Now I've just got to finish the darn thing...

“There are more people coming,” Nora Swift said, backing slowly away, as the tall, black-coated woman advanced on her, holding the long silver needle casually in one hand.

“Oh no, my dear,” Mrs. Stitch laughed, shaking her head cheerily. Her grey eyes seemed to stare through Nora. “There’s no one else coming. They’re having a lovely quiet morning at the office.” The one she’d called Maximillian had bent his tall frame over to pluck the silver needles from the back of Murray’s neck. He glanced up at Nora, coolly, lizardlike, with the same strange gray eyes.

“Copters,” Nora said, feeling the plastic walls of the corridor bump up against her back. “There are news copters -- gotta be.”

“Whatever would they be here for?” Mrs. Stich said gently, almost scoldingly.

That’s when Nora’s body finally caught up with her mind, and she hit the woman in the face, hard as she could with her flashlight. Mrs. Stich sagged against one wall, and Nora turned and ran.

For a moment, she thought she could escape out the hatch, maybe jump in the black boat tied to the railing -- but as she reached the doorway, she saw another black boat rapidly approaching, still and silent men in black coats and hats standing at its helm. She heard the thud of heavy footsteps behind her, and kept running.

Into the passenger cabin now, and when she risked a look back, there was Maximillian, the top of his hat nearly brushing the ceiling, his wide shoulders filling the aisle, pursuing her with long, swift, deliberate strides. Nora began to slap the release buttons on all the overhead bins, dragging carryon bags out to tumble into the aisle and block the route behind her.

Maximillian stepped over the first pile gently, had some difficulty with the second, and calmly began to cut through the row of seats to the next aisle over.

Nora ran, stumbling as the plane rocked gently on the water, back into the flight attendants’ kitchen. She flattened herself against the wall behind the privacy curtain and stared at the strange, bulbous microwave oven, the cabinets, the pot of coffee still percolating in a niche against the wall. She tried to think.

A thick arm in a black sleeve reached through the curtain from the opposite side of the kitchen and grabbed her hair. She hollered and dug her nails into Maximiliian’s exposed wrist as he pushed calmly through the curtain to hold her fast, but he didn’t so much as flinch.

She reached out, grabbed the full pot of coffee, and smashed it full against his face.

He didn’t howl, didn’t cry out, but he staggered back, steam rising from his face, and Nora’s hair slipped from his grasp. Her own hand was scalded where the coffee had splashed, but she scarcely had time to think of that. She half-ran, half fell out the opposite side of the kitchen and saw the two men from the second book gliding down the aisle in her direction.

She passed the stairwell, momentarily wondering if she should climb it -- until she remembered there was nowhere for her to hide in the wide, empty ballroom. Nowhere that she wouldn’t be found. Nora wondered when, exactly, she would wake up. Hopefully soon.

Nora ran into the semidarkness of the corridor ahead, the one she hadn’t explored earlier. She saw the panel marked EMERGENCY on the wall, the silver latch gleaming dully in the dim half-light from the emergency lamps in sconces along the ceiling. “It’s an emergency for damn sure,” she said under her breath, and yanked the panel open.

It was some kind of rifle, silver and sleek as the plane itself, mounted on prongs inside the wall cannister, bearing no identifying marks besides a stylized M embossed onto the stock. She saw a trigger, saw a narrow end, and guessed which side she was supposed to point toward the bad people, and that was good enough for her.

As she removed it from the wall, feeling the rifle cool and resolutely solid in her hands, she saw the clear, pictographic instructions written on the wall behind it. IN EVENT OF SKY PIRATE INCURSION, they were labeled, and the pictograms included tiny figures rapelling from a blimp into the upper surface of a drawing of the plane itself.

At the opposite end of the hallway, someone cleared his throat.

Nora turned and saw Maximillian filling the doorway, the two newly arrived men in black coats just visible behind him. He was slowly wiping the traces of coffee from the bright red skin of his face with a gray handkerchief.

“You stay the hell back,” Nora said, her teeth chattering with adrenalin, hefting the rifle in his direction. Maximillian clucked his tongue disapprovingly and wagged a single finger back and forth at her.

Nora squeezed the trigger.

The rifle kicked, and wet pellets burst from its muzzle, ballooning and spinning as they zipped through the air. They hit with splattering bursts against Maximillian and the men behind him as the three surged forward, expanding into a web of strands that criscrossed the corridor. As Nora watched in amazement, the goo hardened, trapping her pursuers.

“That’s about the most disgusting damn thing I ever saw,” she said to herself, looking down at the rifle with renewed curiosity.

Maximillian stared at her with calm, certain eyes, held fast by the immobilizing resin, and slowly used two fingers to withdraw a long silver needle from the sleeve of one trapped, upraised arm. He touched the tip of the needle to the nearest strand of resin, and to Nora’s horror, the bonds holding him fast began to slowly crumble away into dust.

“Oh, come on!” she shouted, and turned to dash deeper into the corridor. It was narrowing, and as she rounded a corner, she saw the dead end ahead, and felt her heart sink. There were round alcoves along one wall, each secured with a latch, and branded with the same EMERGENCY lettering. Nora briefly glanced at the rifle in her hands, sighed, and figured why the hell not.

The latch hissed open, and a circular door lifted up and out into the hallway. Beyond was a tiny cockpit of sorts, a single-seater with basic controls. Nora heard pursuing footsteps and ducked inside, sealing the hatch shut behind her. She caught just a glimpse of black trouser cuffs and shiny black shoes before the hatch closed, and she hastily turned the wheel on its inner surface to seal it tightly.

“Okay,” she breathed, seating herself and reflexively fastening the straps that dangled from the chair around her chest. “Come on...” A glass bubble wrapped around the front of the tiny cockpit, but all she could see beyond were the seams and rivets of steel plating. Looking down at the cockpit, she saw a blank flatscreen display, a twin-handled control stick, what seemed like a throttle, and -- aha -- a big red button, right within easy reach.

She smacked the red button full with her palm.

Nothing happened. From the hatch behind her, she heard steady hammering on the metal. The men in black wanted in. And then Mrs. Stich’s voice, melodic and crisp, filled the cockpit from a speakers somewhere in the tiny chamber’s roof.

“Very clever, dear,” she said, “but I’m afraid we’ve got the entire craft locked down. There’s no escape for you.” Another wave lurched the ship, and Nora’s stomach with it, and she suddenly felt very trapped and very alone.

“You can stay inside if you like,” Mrs. Stitch’s voice continued, “but Maximillian is a very patient and resourceful boy, and I assure you, he’ll be through the door soon enough. I assure you, dear, that we have no wish to hurt you. Kill you, yes, but I promise it’s thoroughly painless. Like drifting into the soundest, deepest Sunday-morning sleep. We’re not monsters.”

Nora gave a small whimper of frustration and fear. This was insane! Any other morning she’d be filling out paperwork, listening to the horrible, syrupy drive-time hits from Myra’s radio in the next cube over. “Our time, amusingly enough, is short,” Mrs. Stich continued over the intercom, “and I’d rather hoped to be on to Windham by now. So do be a help and open the latch, would you? Maximillian gets so cross when he doesn’t get his way.”

Nora remembered the pursuing man’s creepy gray eyes, his slow patience, and made up her mind.

“Oh, hell no!” she shouted, smacking the button again. “Wake up, dammit! Get me out of here!”

Lights switched on. The flatscreen blinked to life, displaying a soothing blue field and a menu of helpful options Nora had no time to process, much less read.

“Gale family voice override confirmed,” a calm, tinny synthesized voice chimed. “Welcome, Nora Swift. Please state your preference.”

Nora had no time to understand any of this. She only heard the thumping on the door behind her grow louder, each blow now accompanied by the groan of bending metal.

“Go!” Nora shouted. “Launch! Evacuate! Whatever!”

“Command processed,” the computer voice soothed. “Please prepare for launch.”

“Such a clever girl,” Mrs. Stitch sighed over the intercom. “I should have expected no less. We’ll be seeing one another soon, I assure--” Her voice died in a hiss of static, and the entire compartment lurched. Nora felt her stomach curdle, sweat breaking out on the back of her neck. Adrenalin raced through her limbs.

“Oh, fffff---” she began. Then the steel ahead of her knifed away to the pale blue of a morning sky, and something roared underneath her, and the hand of God smashed her back into the seat, cheeks flattening themselves against her teeth, as the capsule shot straight up into the sky.

The punishing acceleration lasted a good ten teeth-rattling seconds, and then there was a sudden, terrifying feeling of weightlessness as the jets cut out. The cockpit bubble slowly rotated, the skyline of the city rising into view, and for a second Nora thought she would plunge straight back into the dark waters of the lake. But there was a hum of hydraulics on either side of her, the clack-clack-clacking of wings unfolding in segments, and a low, vibrating howl as some sort of turbine kicked in, and with another nauseous burst of acceleration, the pod shot forward under its own power.

Nora clenched the stick with sweating hands, breathing in sharp, ragged gasps, and allowed herself a moment of absolute terror. Her hands unconsciously pulled the stick left, and the craft dipped and swooned sharply. Nora yelped and swung the stick back level, and this time, she felt a certain ease, a satisfaction, in how crisply it responded.

“I’m flying,” she said softly. And then a grin of relief and amazement spread across her face. “I’m flying.”

“Current altitude 1,247 feet,” the computer voice offered helpfully. Nora checked the screen and saw colorful gauges for fuel, GPS coordinates for her position, and a steadily dimishing “distance to empty” counter. It currently topped 200 miles.

As the pod drifted onward toward the skyline, Nora’s breathing eased, and she tried to think. She had no idea what was happening to her, what she was even doing in this craft. But she remembered Murray with the needles in his neck as Maximillian -- what? Rewrote his dreams? His memories? And she remembered how the police boats had simply been gone, what Mrs. Stitch had said about the news copters.

She had a terrible feeling that she couldn’t go home, and with a pang, she wondered if she could even call her mother. Did they have her phone tapped? Could they do that?

And then, at last, she remembered the other name Mrs. Stitch had mentioned.

“Hey, you!” she said to the craft. “Computer! Whatever.” It worked on Star Trek, she figured.

“What is your request?” the computer said melodically.

“Do you have any kind of, I dunno, historical information?” Nora asked, feeling strangely stupid. She was used to yelling at computers, but she never expected them to respond.

“The Gale Aeronautics X-9 escape craft has a variety of educational and entertainment options to ease travel,” the computer said.

“What can you tell me about Windham?” Nora said, then thought of something else. “Windham and Gale.”

“Processing,” the computer said. “While I’m thinking, would you like any other information?”

“Yeah,” Nora said, seeing the skyscrapers loom ahead, and once again feeling sweat slick her palms. “I think I’m gonna need to know how to land.”

Far behind her, on the lake, the great gleaming aircraft slowly began to sink, the dark water rising around it, until it was completely swallowed up. For a while, it was a shimmering silver shadow beneath the suface, and then a vague shape, and then, nothing at all.

Two black boats trailed white Vs of wake away from where the great, impossible aircraft had been, headed inexorably back to shore.

1 comment:

Jason said...