Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Tempest and the Terrible Tendrils

The rain continued into the night, lashing in dense and chilly sheets against the windows, seeming to cling tenaciously to every outside surface of the penthouse at 919 North Michigan. It was unseasonable for November, a month that generally presaged snow with an almost clockwork regularity; but if any of the quartet encamped there in the close, comforting gloom bothered to ponder this, they most likely dismissed it as the least unusual of the past few days’ events.

Nora, through diligent foraging, had turned up a cobweb-coated brace of thick white wax candles in the depths of an abandoned cabinet, and with help from Sully’s lighter, they soon had warm, flickering orange puddles of light dotting the ever-thickening blue-black of Chicago night. Outside, the twinkling brilliance of the city was dimmed and swaddled in fog, and a dull orange glow radiated down over all, reflected from the clouds.

With light provided for, and a ready supply of decades-old wonderfood in shiny new tins, the foursome turned to their next most urgent priority. Sully and Nora waited outside the narrow door in a far corner of the penthouse, listening intently.

“Flip you for it,” Nora said.

“Heads,” Sully replied. Nora fished out a quarter from her jeans, flicked it deftly into the air, and caught it in one palm, turning it over onto the back of her other hand.

“Tails,” Nora grinned. Sully made a low, gravelly sound in the back of her throat, and narrowed her eyes in unconscious imitation of her great-grandfather.

From behind the door came a thunderous torrent of sudden water, a hiss of pipes, a smaller splashing, and a final squeak of valves. The door opened and Rafe emerged, patting his hands dry on the side of his slacks.

“Ladies,” he exulted, “we have indoor plumbing. Hot water. Soap, even.”

Nora all but shoved him aside and slammed the door behind her. Rafe shrugged and padded off in the direction of dinner.

“Go fast!” Sully hollered through the door, and continued to wait, fidgeting only slightly.

The canned Morrowmeals proved vastly more exciting than expected in preparation; a yank of the pin from the chamber at the bottom of each can, and the binary chemicals inside combined, reacting to produce intense and instant heat. As the contents in the upper chamber warmed, the non-toxic, organic sealant securing the lid weakened; by the time the vacuum-sealed food was thoroughly heated and ready for eating, the top simply popped off, unleashing the savory aroma of its waiting meal.

“This,” Rafe said with his mouth half-full, “is easily the best -- “ he paused to check the label -- “peach cobbler I have ever had.”

Nora regarded him suspiciously over her tin of chicken noodle soup. “You ever had peach cobbler?” she cross-examined.

“Many times,” Rafe egregiously lied, and continued eating. “Are you going to finish that?”

Sully left them bickering genially, and with her can of rice and beans in one hand and a container marked BEEF STEW in the other, she followed the trail of candles and their dancing shadows back down the corridor to the lab.

“Hey. Eat something,” she said to the figure hunched over the work table, elbow deep in a pile of strange rotors and coils and components scavenged from the surrounding shelves.”

“Be there in a minute,” Trip said, not looking up from his work. He had the pages of his grandfather’s journal pinned open with one hand, while the other traced a pattern of wiring on some gizmo under assembly on the table beside him.

“You said that an hour ago,” Sully sighed. “Eat. Come on, it cooks itself. Bachelor like you, that’s gotta be a plus.”

This got Trip to look up, if only briefly. “I cook,” he insisted, candlelight glinting off the lenses of his glasses.

“The hell you do,” Sully smirked, setting down both cans with a clank on the work table, displacing something covered in bolts and coils and wires. “I don’t even cook.”

“I work,” Trip said, stripping plastic coating from the end of a spool of wire, “with my hands, every day. I like to solve puzzles. Assemble components. Figure out how things work in balance with each other. Any of that makes you think I don’t cook?”

“I had you pegged as the absent-minded professor type,” Sully grinned. She pulled the tab on the bottom of the beef stew can and heard the heating chemicals hiss and gurgle satisfyingly within. “All living off ramen in some studio apartment crammed ceiling-high with half-built gadgets.”

Trip threaded the bare end of the wire into one end of a crude circuit board, checked the diagrams in Tom Morrow’s journal, and nodded to himself. “I’ve got a loft, actually,” he said. “And I try to keep everything but the workship clean. Try.”

Sully thought of her one-bedroom condo in a twenty-story high-rise in downtown L.A. — the place she went, on occasion, for those few hours of each day when she tired of the office. She tried to remember whether she actually had any food in her fridge, then mentally subtracted any leftover origami boxes of lo mein and orange chicken that might gradually be achieving sentience therein.

“You might want to back up a little,” Trip told her, hoisting a soldering iron. “This thing tends to throw off sparks.”

Sully studied his face, the dead-earnest sincerity that spilled out of it, and couldn’t help but smile, even if she didn’t know quite why. “You say that like sparks are a bad thing,” she found herself saying, and immediately wished she hadn’t.

“Suit yourself,” Trip shrugged. He switched on the soldering iron, and, as he’d done more times than he’d ever admit to anyone, promptly burned himself.

“Ow! Dammit,” he winced, hissing in air through involuntarily clenched teeth. He fluttered the burned finger back and forth, feeling the air congeal around his hand from the constant motion.

“Here,” Sully said, moving around the table. “Let me see. Come on, let me see.” OMG burned his fingers often, too — his precious, actually insured for real money fingers — albeit under different circumstances, generally involving butane lighters and sophisticated bongs. And since OMG’s girlfriend, sweetheart that she was, assumed First Aid was some sort of benefit concert, Sully had gained more experience than she would have liked at tending to minor injuries.

“It’s nothing,” Trip said, as she grabbed him firmly by the hand and yanked the injured finger into view.

“Let’s get it under some water,” Sully sighed.

They found an industrial sink in the back of the lab, and after some knocking deep in the pipes, and a few alarming barks of rust-red muck, clear, cold water poured forth. Trip held his finger under the faucet, and quietly felt like an idiot.

“Geez, look at your hands,” Sully said, and whistled softly. They were crisscrossed with thin whitish lines of scar tissue, some more faded than others.

“Hazards of the tinkerer’s life,” Trip shrugged. “That big one’s from the engine block of a tank, and there — that’s from when I cut myself on the armature for Death House 2. And that, that, and, uh, I think that’s just from working on my bike.”

“Your bike?” Sully smirked, with the instinctual resident smugness bred from living in a town where bicycles were largely considered target practice.

“I like it a lot,” Trip protested, “but I don’t think the feeling’s mutual."

“So what is this?” Sully asked, nodding at the pile of components on the workbench, as Trip shut off the faucet and dried his soothed fingertip on the hem of his shirt.

“Actually?” Trip said. “I’m, uh, I’m not entirely sure yet. Grandp — uh, Tom’s sketches are a little vague on that. But I think it’s a weapon. Multipurpose, and strictly nonlethal, which I kinda like, truth be told.”

“You’re building a weapon, and you don’t even know what it is?” Sully said. “I mean, you spent more time with the guy than I did, but do you really think it’s a good idea to just blindly build exactly what he’s sketching out for you from a couple generations in the past?”

“One, yes I do,” Trip said, cautiously picking up the soldering iron again. “And two, I’m not blindly building anything. I mean, the design — he’s clearly a genius, but I’ve picked up a few shortcuts of my own over the years. See this, right here? I think if I can wire it in parallel with another capacitor, I can geometrically increase the output, and — you’ve just gone crosseyed, haven’t you?”

“I was with you right up until ‘wire,’” Sully shrugged. She popped the top off the can of beef stew, now perfectly heated and steaming, and pushed it over to Trip. “Come on, eat something. We’ve both been going since this morning. You’re gonna drop if you don’t get some food in you.”

“Was it really just this morning?” Trip sighed. He reached a hand up to probe the still-fresh mark of the Black Lotus on the side of his neck; huge, cold, impossible thoughts of his own death swam suddenly up from the dark of his mind, and he pushed them down again quickly.

“Mmm-hmm,” Sully nodded, equally weary, handing him one of the spoons Rafe had liberated from a dusty drawer. “And these boots? Really not built for this kind of use. Can a girl get a seat around here?”

Trip pulled a stool creaking over from one of the workbenches, and the two of them sat around the table, elbows bumping strange components, and ate for a while in mutual silence. The intensity of his own hunger surprised Trip the moment he swallowed the first spoonful of rich, warm stew, and before long, he found himself scraping at the last dregs at the bottom of the can.

Sully exhaled with post-prandial satisfaction, setting her empty Morrowmeal tin to one side, and instinctively dug in the pockets of her jacket. Her fingers emerged clutching the slender box of cigarettes Mister Gaunt had given her, and she hesitated.

“Tell me I should quit,” she said, without looking at Trip.

“I figure you’re smart enough to figure that out for yourself,” Trip said, carefully, taking a fresh look at his grandfather’s schematic.

“Nobody says no to me anymore,” Sully told him, turning the box of cigarettes over in her hands. “I’ve been realizing that. I set myself up as the boss, and at some point, I think I just made everyone too terrified to say anything but yes to me.”

“Doesn’t sound so bad to me,” Trip said, but there was something measured, probing, in his tone.

“You’d think,” Sully smirked. “I just… it’d be nice to know someone cared enough about me to risk pissing me off now and then.”

Trip soldered one last set of wires, then looked up at her, all seriousness. “You should quit,” he said.

Sully laughed and rolled her eyes at him. “Oh, please,” she said. “You don’t even know me.”

“Do I have to know you?” Trip said. “To care, I mean? All the crazy things that happened to us today — I don’t know if I could have made it if I’d had to do it all alone. That’s gotta count for something, right?”

Sully felt an unfamiliar warmth in her cheeks, and it took her a few seconds to recall what blushing felt like. “God,” she said, “are you always this cornball?”

“I think it’s genetic,” Trip laughed. “So — you pick up anything useful from this superbadass great-grandfather of yours? Rafe’s been showing off with those knives of his, and I didn’t want to ask her about it, but I think Nora’s packing heat now.”

Sully grinned, slyly. “Oh, you want a demonstration, huh? Okay.” She rolled up the sleeves of her leather jacket and brandished her bare forearms. “Nothing up my sleeves.”

“Of course,” Trip said, making a few quick solders.

Sully tapped the cigarette box once on the table and deftly withdrew one long, slender smoke from the half-dozen remaining inside. She walked it back and forth across the knuckles of her right hand, snatched it into the palm of her left, brought her hands together quickly, and opened them. Empty. She showed both hands, front and back; no cigarette

“Do I clap now, or should I wait?” Trip grinned, and Sully stuck her tongue out at him.

“Hold your horses,” she said. “You’ve got something behind your ear.”

“Let me guess,” Trip told her, holding still as she leaned over and reached in back of his right ear. “The cigarette?”

“Nope,” Sully said, and brought forth her silver lighter, flame flickering. “That’s your other ear.” And sure enough, from behind his left, there was her cigarette. Without thinking, she brought the tip of it up to the flame to light it — and stopped, catching Trip’s steady, trusting gaze.

“I meant it,” Trip said. “You should quit.”

Sully let a smile break, slow as dawn, across her face. “All right,” she said. “You hold onto it.”

She snapped the lighter shut and put the cigarette back behind his left ear, though Trip felt nothing there; and on its return trip, her empty hand paused, her knuckles just resting on the light sandpaper stubble on Trip’s cheek.

“You need a shave,” she said softly.

“Why?” Trip asked, equally still. “Any special reason?” He could feel the beat of his heart reverberating seismically through his entire body.

“Maybe…” she began, and swallowed. “Maybe somebody might want to—”

Down the hallway, from the main chamber of the Lookout, glass broke, sudden and loud, and Trip and Sully nearly fell off their chairs.

“Get the hell in here!” Nora shouted, and before they even knew they were moving, Trip and Sully were in the corridor, at a run.

Broken glass glittered like fallen starlight across the empty expanse of floor in the Lookout’s main chamber, scattered from the jagged remains of the glass doors that led out to the patio. The few panes left intact looked punched and scarred, hail-pocked. Outside, the world seemed strangely dark, the rain seeming to writhe in the faint reaches of the candlelight within the Lookout, only admitting brief glimpses of the city lights beyond. Rafe and Nora stood next to the work table, Rafe’s inky knives gleaming in his clenched fists, and Nora propping up a heavy-looking revolver pistol in shaking hands.

“What happened to the rain?” Trip asked, edging closer. The air held a terrible stillness. “Why can’t we see outside?”

“Listen,” Sully said, her voice dropping to a whisper. Around them hung a strange silence, and Trip realized that until just a few minutes before, the Lookout had hummed with the steady drum of rainfall on the roof above. Now there was nothing.

“I don’t think that’s the rain,” Nora said, cocking back the hammer on the pistol, breathing deep.

And then the dark outside surged in, serpentine, a thousand thousand storm-dripping metal tendrils, seemingly alive with malign purpose. They boiled together in a giant, probing arm, and then split into dozens of seeking branches, slithering through the air and across the floor toward the Lookout’s four terrified occupants.

Rafe slashed out with his knives as a writhing coil of black reached him, and it fell away twitching blue sparks, shuddering as if it were some wounded beast. “Mechanical!” Rafe shouted, as Nora squeezed two rounds into the black heart of the thing, and Trip and Sully hefted chairs. “The thing’s mechan— oh, bollocks!” A vine of black ensnared his arm, and he hacked at it with his free hand, desperately trying to break free.

The black tendrils, humming and whirring, grabbed and bit at Sully’s chair, and she could see tiny metal teeth at the end of every strand. She fought with the thing, trying to yank the chair back, but it was pulled from her grasp. The tendrils diverged, each ensnaring a different corner of the chair, and in one neat jerk rent it to bits and splinters.

“We’ve gotta get out of here!” Sully cried as Trip leapt forward to swing at the dark, wriggling mass with his own chair. “The door!”

“I’ll cover you!” Nora said, gritting her teeth, fighting back the cold terror clenching at her stomach. She fired once more at the core of the thing, and it seemed to shrink back for a moment, giving Rafe purchase enough to finally cut himself free. He bled in ribbons where the tendrils had gripped his forearm, but hardly seemed to notice, his eyes alive with a strange, savage energy.

Timing her shots — three more, now two — Nora backed slowly toward the rest of the group as Trip gripped the latch to the unbreakable door and, with Sully’s help, swung it open. He pushed Sully through, then made way for Rafe, as Nora backed away from the searching tendrils.

“Nora!” Trip cried, one foot in the antechamber where Sully and Rafe waited. “Come on!”

She put her last bullet sparking and roaring into the thick of the invader and turned, reaching for Trip’s outstretched hand. He grabbed tight and pulled her through, into the white stillness of the anteroom.

“Close it!” Nora shouted. Rafe and Sully sprang forth, helping Trip tug at the door—

The tendrils surged forward, boiling through the gap in the door, wrenching it out of their hands. Before any of them could move, the darkness grabbed Nora, cables encircling her arms and legs, and yanked her shrieking back into the room. She clawed desperately at the floor, fingers scrabbling for purchase and finding none, as the dark dragged her steadily through the field of glittering glass, toward the broken windows.

Sully was the first to find her legs, darting back through the door, crossing the floor of the Lookout in a few swift strides, and grabbing Nora’s outstretched arm in both of hers. She dug in her heels, but it wasn’t enough — the two of them were still being hauled inexorably toward the dark without.

“Little help?” Sully shouted through clenched teeth, though Trip and Rafe were already racing toward her.

“Don’t let go!” Nora pleaded, fighting as the tendrils cruelly squeezed her limbs.

“Hey,” Sully grunted, “we girls gotta stick together, right?” Trip seized her around the waist, and Rafe locked his arms up under Trip’s, and for a moment, it seemed they were winning.

Then the writhing thing gave another hard jerk, yanking Nora out into the dark, lifting her bodily into the air. Sully could only keep one hand gripped to Nora’s, and another vicious tug nearly wrenched her from Trip’s grasp. He shout out his hand and caught hers; behind him, still gripping him under the arms, Rafe wedged his heels at the corners of the doorframe and strained in the opposite direction with all his might.

Trip felt Sully slipping from his grasp, inch by inch, finger by finger. He looked up at her, desperate, helpless, and saw the fear in her own eyes. He watched her fight it, and win, and give him one last confident smirk. And then her fingers seemed to fly from his, and Nora and Sully vanished upward, drawn into the dark. Trip caught a glimpse of something black and massive overhead, retreating up into the fog, and then the rain returned, pounding down, and he could see nothing more.

Trip and Rafe staggered back inside, aching, defeated, and collapsed side by side in the floor, breath burning in their lungs.

“Have we come at a bad time?” came a voice, crisp and English, from the doorway to the anteroom.

“Oh no,” Rafe groaned, before he even looked. “Oh, no, no.”

The anteroom seemed suddenly filled with Needlemen, fringes of their dark coats brushing the floor, each pointing a silver Needle at the two prone men. They were led by a compact, grey-haired, steely-eyed woman who stepped neatly through the doorway, into the Lookout. “Oh yes, Mr. Windham. And hello to you as well, Mr. Morrow.”

“You must be Mrs. Stitch,” Rafe spat, and wished he had the presence of mind, or the breath, to say something suitably cutting.

“Where did you—” Trip said, and coughed, and started again. “Where did you take them? Sully and Nora?”

Something strangely like sympathy flitted across Mrs. Stitch’s face. “I sincerely wish I knew,” she said at last, “although I suspect it’s no place any of you would want to be. However, your friends are presently the least of your concerns, I fear. Maximillian!”

The hulking man, silent as ever, stepped forward through the parting crowd of black-coated minions, crading a large metal suitcase in his outthrust arms. He caught Rafe’s glare, and nodded, and narrowed his eyes in a decidedly unfriendly manner.

“You’ve caused us quite a bit of trouble,” Mrs. Stitch sighed, as Trip and Rafe dragged themselves to their feet. “And in light of our current situation, I feel it’s high time we had a good, long talk about that.” She nodded to Maximillian, who undid the snaps on the suitcase and slowly opened the lid.

A pizza box sat inside, the aroma of cheese and tomato sauce suddenly filling the room.

“We brought Gino’s East,” Mrs. Stitch said primly. “I hope that’s all right.”

Trip and Rafe looked at each other, baffled.

“We just ate,” they said in near-unison.

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