Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Gathering Storm

Valencia Stitch had a headache. An old, familiar throb just behind her left eye. It brought back decades-old memories, and a slow, curdling dread in the pit of her stomach. The headache, she had learned, meant her employer was displeased.

“Pull yourself together, Sharp,” she said. “Are you certain they were Operators?”

“They ate Jenkins,” the man with the eyepatch said quietly. He wasn’t looking at her, or her finely appointed wooden desk. By now, he would have ceased to find it even remotely remarkable that this room, like the many that surrounded it, had no windows. He seemed to be tracing the loops and whorls of Mrs. Stitch’s entirely tasteful wallpaper with his remaining eye. The cup of tea he had drunk nearly down to its dregs rattled gently on its saucer, owing to the shaking of his hand. “They ate Hollowell. And McMartin. And... I can’t remember her name, the new girl. Ate them.”

This was decidedly not good. Not the sudden deficit of manpower; Mrs. Stitch was nothing if not thorough in her staffing, and blessed with abundant Needlemen to replace those fallen. But the presence of actual, confirmed Operators -- for the first time since the Burning Night of Cardefax in 1919 -- was the last thing Mrs. Stitch needed to hear. For one thing, it meant that the dimensional gaps were widening -- that, despite the best efforts of her dedicated agents to keep things sewn up, time itself was continuing to unravel. And letting things in through the gaps that most assuredly should not be there.

For another, it meant that with all likelihood, Mrs. Stitch’s manpower deficits would likely accelerate, and soon.

“Do you think they’re in concert with the Morrow or Gaunt Heirs?” Mrs. Stitch asked Sharp, snapping her fingers to divert his attention from her wallpaper. He was terribly distracted, but then, he’d been smashed by his own automobile only a few days back, and perhaps he hadn’t been entirely put back together properly.

Sharp shook his head slowly. “They seemed as surprised as we were.”

“Then perhaps,” Mrs. Stitch offered, allowing herself a brief and luxuriant morsel of hope, “they’ve solved our problem for us? They do have... appetites, these Operators.”

“I don’t think so,” Sharp said quietly. “I think they’re here to speed things along.”

These were the times, Mrs. Stitch thought as the pain behind her left eye momentarily spiked, that liquor on the premises might, in fact, be entirely desirable.

The door to Mrs. Stitch’s office opened, accompanied by a heavy aroma of jet fuel and burnt rubber. Maximillian strode in; from the wisps of smoke still trailing from the edges of his long black coat, Mrs. Stitch judged that he had been on fire in the not-too-distant past.

“Give me good news,” she said.

Maximillian merely narrowed his cold gray eyes.

Mrs. Stitch sighed. Preventing the end of all life on Earth was an even more thankless task than she had imagined.

Thunder struck the anvil of the lake, and rolled across in reverberating booms toward the skyscrapers. The wind picked up, urgent, accelerating, and the sky began to shade itself to gray. Above the water, the thick line of clouds slowly congealed from gray to nearly black, illuminated from within by sporadic flashes of burgeoning lightning.

And inside the roiling mass of growing storm clouds, the fabric of reality hummed, then sizzled. A blinding blue-white line wrote itself sideways across the turbulent air. And something came through.

Time had weathered the Jolly Roger emblems painted on the towering sides of the Zeppelin, and frayed the nest of cables connecting its gondola-slung underbelly. No light or movement could be seen within the great airship’s compartments. But the bristling thickets of electromagnetic harpoons and crackling Tesla guns showed no sign of disrepair.

The Faithless broke through the storm clouds just head of the first heavy barrages of machine-gun rain, accompanied by another echoing growl of thunder, and made for the buildings ahead.

And deep within the heart of the terrible craft, in a room cobwebbed with cables and hoses and tubes through which strange fluids pulsed, a dry chuckle of satisfaction could be heard above the rising thrum of engines. Electric lights along the skin of the blimp flared to life, and the great ship’s hangar bay doors, sprinkling showers of rust, slowly ground open.

In response, the apes began to screech their song of war.

“I really can’t apologize enough,” Rafe said, nervously toying with the stone knives in his hands -- and then noticing, and ceasing, rather pointedly.

Trip fingered the thin stinging line on the skin of his neck and shrugged. “It’s okay. Understandable.”

“No, no, really,” Rafe insisted. “I feel terrible.”

“Is he always like this?” Sully asked Nora. The two of them had camped out by one wall of the empty room on the top floor of 919 North Michigan. Nora just sighed.

Sully wanted a cigarette. Desperately. She flicked the cap of her lighter off, and on, and off again, to quiet her fingers.

“What were you going to be doing today?” Sully asked Nora, staring out through the wide windows at the storm clouds rolling in toward the city. Thunder had begun to peal distantly.

“What day is it again?” Nora asked. Sully opened her mouth, realized she didn’t know herself, and laughed dryly.

“Guess I’d be doing laundry,” Nora sighed. “Got quarters and everything.”

“I’d be, I dunno, making money,” Sully said. “You see the papers or anything? OMG’s vanishing skyscraper stunt. What’s the reaction on that?”

“Do I look like I’ve had time to read the papers?” Nora smirked. “Hell. I’ve barely had time to eat.”

“Shit,” Sully said. “I bet we killed. I bet we absolutely killed. Probably got agents on the phone right now, leaving messages, and Sally’s gonna try to answer them, and Sally’s a sweet girl, but she couldn’t negotiate free cheese from the government.”

“Not to interrupt,” Trip called from across the room, where he’d been knocking randomly against the walls, “but does anyone else want to go exploring?” There were several frosted-glass doors leading off the main chamber the four now occupied, and a narrow, dim hallway.

“All in favor of sitting down for fifteen minutes in celebration of the fact that no one’s trying to kill us for reasons we barely understand, raise your hand,” Sully called out.

Nora immediately put her hand up. Rafe, somewhat sheepishly, followed suit.

Sully raised one hand with a flick of her wrist. “Democracy sucks, chief.” Trip rolled his eyes at her and started trying each of the doors.

They were locked, and peering through the rippling surface of the frosted glass yielded only frustratingly tantalizing outlines of forms within. Trip tried the hallway, switching on his keychain light as the gloom deepened.

There was another door here, different from the rest -- solid steel, cold and thick as the circular vault door that had led into the main chamber. It had no latch, no knob, no lock -- just a finger-sized indentation at roughly eye level. Trip stuck his finger in it, warily, but nothing happened. He shrugged and continued around the corner, particles of dust dancing in the beam of his light.

The hallway widened into a room -- some kind of workshop. Unlike the main chamber, this room was not empty; coils of wire and strange, half-assembled gadgets, coated in a thick layer of dust and cobwebs, sat on the various workbenches, casting strange, dancing shadows under Trip’s light. There was an old-fashioned phone mounted on the wall -- Trip tried it, and heard only a great gulf of silence in the receiver -- and row after row of tiny bins mounted high up on the walls, accessible by a sliding ladder on rails.

And, in the corner, something about the size and shape of a door, covered in a while sheet.

Trip unveiled it with a single tug, sneezing amid the fog of dust that arose. It was a rectangle of upright metal, tall and wide enough for a person to pass through, its frame coiled and strung with great tangled nests of wires. Protruding from one side of the frame, there was a sort of shelf, with a semispherical cradle -- waiting, it seemed, for some control device or key.

At first, Trip thought it was the ringing in his ears amid the thick, enclosing silence. But no -- when he leaned his head closer to the device, slowly, he heard it. A low, steady, electrical buzz. He reached out cautiously, expecting a shock, and touched the device. It hummed beneath his fingertips. Trip played the beam of his light across the floor at the base of the device, and saw electrical cables, python-thick, uncoiling from the base of the device into large circular sockets in the wall.

Within his backpack, something rattled and shook.

Trip took a moment to very deliberately not jump out of his skin. Then, once he had convinced his heart that it did not, in fact, want to claw itself free from his rib cage, he unslung the pack, gingerly set it down, and opened it.

Something was moving and clattering inside the cigar box.

Trip set the box down on the floor and opened the lid. The gyroscope he’d seen earlier wobbled, lurched itself upright, and began to spin.

Trip picked it up carefully, the arrested spin of the scope stinging his fingers, and felt the gyroscope humming in his hand. The closer he brought it to the metal archway, the more strongly it began to resonate. He looked again at the cradle extending from the device. It was just the right size and shape.

He placed the gyroscope in the cradle, and it began to spin, slowly at first, then faster, until it was only a blur. Sparks erupted in cascades from the coils on the side of the device, and Trip stepped back as blue veins of electricity began to dance around it.

“Guys?” Trip shouted. “Sully?”

The electricity turned inward, congregating at a central point within the empty metal frame, and began to stitch itself into a web. The web widened, and shimmered. And then the edges of space itself seemed to peel back, like a blossoming flower, and the metal frame was completely filled with a coruscating wall of remarkable blue-white light.

“I think you need to see this!” Trip called out.

He stepped forward, slowly, stretching one hand toward the wall of light. He felt neither heat nor cold, nor the prickling of electrical current. One finger brushed the surface of the undulating light, and Trip reflexively jerked his hand back. But it hadn’t hurt; it had felt like water.

Trip put his hand forward again, up to the light, and then through it. He could feel the odd, liquid sensation shimmering around his wrist and hand, but the tips of his fingers felt normal -- touching nothing but air.

“Holy shit,” he heard Sully say, and turned to find her, Nora, and Rafe in the doorway, gaping at the light from the portal.

“I know,” Trip said, turning to her, grinning with the thrill of discovery. “Isn’t it amazing?”

And then something on the other side of the portal seized his hand tightly, and yanked, and before he could say another word, Trip was pulled bodily into the web of light.

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