Monday, April 16, 2007

Darkness Above, City Below (Part 2)

OK, finished at last. The end of the chapter begins here.

Rafe lay for a while with his cheek pressed against the cool stone floor of the train, waiting for his ribs to stop burning with every thunderous beat of his heart. He dimly registered that Trip was saying something, but didn’t much care what.

At length, he flopped over on his back (ouch) and then slowly hauled himself into a sitting position (ouch ouch ouch). Trip sat across the aisle from him, his back resting against the edge of the row of stone seats, knees drawn up, rubbing the back of his neck.

“I’m sorry,” Rafe said, testing his arms and legs to make sure nothing was broken. “Did you say something?”

“Nice aim,” Trip replied, and nodded to his left, where Maximillian lay like a felled tree. His hat lolled beside him, upended, a shabby half-planet in a crooked orbit.

“Is he breathing?” Rafe wondered, and Trip shrugged.

“Can’t tell with the coat,” he said. “And I’m not exactly keen on getting close enough to check.”

“I shouldn’t have been able to do that,” Rafe said, still sucking in air in short, sharp breaths. “Any of that. You should have fallen on the tracks, assuming I could even have picked you up at all.”

“Adrenalin?” Trip suggested, but Rafe could see from his face that even he didn’t believe it.

“Whatever’s happening,” Rafe murmured, a slightly sick, unsteady feeling twisting in his stomach, “It’s not just changing the world around us. I think it’s changing us. I can smell things, hear things—”

Trip reached up to the seat and pulled down the Multipurpose Rifle, laying it across his lap. “I know,” he said quietly. “This thing uses principles I never studied — principles I’m not even sure are supposed to exist. But I know it like I was the one who designed it to begin with. And I’m starting to remember things — I think I read them somewhere in my grandfather’s journal, but when I go back, I can’t find the pages that have them.”

Rafe sucked in a deep breath and let his head lean back against the rough edge of the stone seat. “I don’t want this. I’m not sure I know what I’ve ever wanted. The opposite of whatever anyone else wanted me to do, I suppose. But not this.”

Trip smiled ruefully. “Some men are born great,” he recited, “some achieve greatness—”

“Thank you, yes,” Rafe cut him off, shutting his eyes in annoyance. “I might have some passing knowledge of Shakespeare myself.”

“You’re telling me you never thought the world wasn’t exciting enough?” Trip asked him, flipping open a hatch on the side of the rifle. He peered inside, grimaced, and began fiddling with the innards. “You never looked at the world and thought, is this it? Is this everything?”

“Maybe about my life, specifically,” Rafe sighed. “But the world in general was more than exciting for me already, thank you. No blind dinosaur things needed.”

Maximillian’s entire body twitched, once, again, and then the big man folded himself upward at the waist. He rubbed the back of his head tenderly, and glowered first and Trip, then at Rafe.

“Serves you right,” Rafe smirked. Maximillian huffed and quickly snatched up his hat, cramming it back on his head.

Beneath them, the hum of the train deepened in pitch, and the solid black tunnel walls outside the windows gave way to open space. Rafe hauled himself up and stared out the window, filled with sudden, undeniable awe.

An entire city, outlined in pinpricks of soft crystal-glow, spread itself out away from the train on either side. Rafe glimpsed broad stone streets, and the husks of squat buildings, some squarish, others vaguely pyramid-shaped. Canals snaked through the city in gentle curves, rivers of ink across the web of jeweled light.

The train coasted to a halt on a steep platform in the city center, wheezed its doors open, and flickered at last into silence and darkness. Rafe stuck his head out cautiously, but found only an empty plaza of stone, lit at intervals by raised towers of radiant crystal. Behind the train, tracks stretched across a brief swatch of city to a tunnel in a wall of sheer rock; ahead of it, the track and three others converged in a central, circular hub.

Trip, still poking around in the guts of his rifle, followed Rafe out of the train and along the platform, trailed by a still-sulking Maximillian. As he approached the hub, following weird lines of time-worn carvings in the stone underfoot, Rafe could see one of the three other tracks stretching empty off into the gloom. The stone pillars supporting another had crumbled away several thousand yards distant, leaving a yawning gap in the tracks. On the last, a zig-zag train of derailed stone cars sprawled on their side, perilously close to falling, like a dead snake. At the hub of the tracks, a circular staircase of stone descended into the city below.

“The Winter City,” Trip said, setting aside his rifle for a moment to rifle through his grandfather’s journal, plucked from his hip pocket. “My grandfather said it started as a place for storage, waste treatment, the Kroatoan’s prisons—”

“They needed an entire city for prisons?” Rafe asked quietly, horrified.

“He’s… kind of vague on that subject,” Trip wavered. “I’m, uh, I’m thinking again of the Aztecs…”

“Right, yes, sorry,” Rafe interrupted. “The next time I ask a question I probably don’t want to know the answer to, could you just, I don’t know, favor me with a mysterious silence or some such?”

“Gotcha,” Trip sighed apologetically. “Anyway, they ended up building it out — don’t ask me how, or with what — into a whole other city down here, for when the one up top got too unseasonal.”

“A whole other city just for winter?” Rafe asked. “Seems a bit — I don’t know, wasteful?”

Trip just studied him quizzically. “You haven’t lived through the winter here, have you?”

From the city below, far distant, a series of heavy thuds echoed. Rafe peered over the edge of the stone platform and saw the dim outlines of something moving in the streets below. Something large.

“What was that?” Rafe asked, glancing back at Trip. “Did you see that?”

Trip glanced down at the journal, looked back up at Rafe, and set his mouth in a tight, deliberate line.

“You’re being mysteriously silent, aren’t you?” Rafe asked quietly. Trip nodded. “How mysteriously silent?”

“Very,” Trip said, closing the journal quickly, and Rafe’s stomach knotted itself anew.

“Right, fine,” Rafe sighed. “This Misery Engine, whatever you call it — where are we to find it?”

Trip pointed across the expanse of half-lit city to a distant ring of unusually bright lights, casting visible beams up into the gloom. The path from the platform to the ring, Rafe noted with no delight whatsoever, would take them right across the track of whatever had been out there moving in the shadows.

“Lovely. Excellent. Bloody marvelous,” Rafe groaned.

Maximillian gave a heavy snort of impatience, and they turned to find him with arms folded, fixing them both with a look that suggested a severe temptation to hurl them both off the platform. He jerked his head in the direction of the spiral staircase, and turned and strode off without waiting for their reply.

The stairs wound down to empty, spreading boulevards. From the ground, Rafe could see that the stone structures were nowhere near as sturdy as they had first appeared. More of the green vines wound parasitically into and among the chinks in the stone, sprouting like frayed stitching from gaps in the upper stories of the buildings and twining in thick, leafy cables from one building to the next.

Some of the buildings, Rafe noted, had yellowed human skulls for the capstones of their front doorways. A few of the larger, more elaborate-looking structures had them framing all the doors, with long bones Rafe recognized as femurs. It reminded him too much of the catacombs of Paris — entire walls of underground chambers blistered with row upon row of plastered-together skulls. He suppressed a shudder and kept one hand on the clacking hilts of the stone knives in his belt.

The dead eyes of empty windows stared down on the three explorers as they walked in near silence through the deserted streets, stumbling over snarls of twisted vine sprouting up from gaps in the paving stones. At intervals and intersections, towers of glowing crystal wore soft-edged blue-white holes in the city’s shroud of perpetual night.

They emerged into a wide, spreading plaza, ringed with crystal lights growing up from the ground. There was some sort of dry fountain or basin in the middle; from its center, a blocky stone figure rose, one thick, squarish arm upraised, preparing to plunge a knife down into another figure kneeling prostrate at its feet. Even in the dimness, Rafe could see dark stains permanently blotched into the stone around the inside of the fountain, which more than killed any desire he had for a closer look.

They had nearly reached the center of the plaza before Rafe heard it. A soft, compound scrabbling — the shuffling of many small feet.

“Does anyone hear that?” he began to ask, and trailed off. In the shadows of an avenue mouth to their right, a cloud of bobbling, jostling eyes reflected the lights from the crystals.

They all froze, Rafe slowly moving to draw his blades, Trip slowly raising the barrel of his rifle. Maximillian unleashed another long, exasperated sigh.

“That building across the square,” Trip said quietly to Rafe, risking a quick glance at a tall, narrow building draped with stone steps and fronted by thick stone pillars. “It might provide some cover—”

And then the creatures stepped out into the light.

Well, shuffled, really. Ambled, even. There were several dozen of them, each perhaps the size of a mastiff, bristling with furry, milk-white pelts. Above their snubby, rodentlike snouts, pale pink eyes surveyed the intruders with level disinterest.

“Groundhogs?” Rafe snorted. “Albino bloody groundhogs?”

“Capybaras, I think,” Trip corrected, as the herd trundled its way with quiet snufflings diagonally across the plaza. “Giant, semiacquatic rodents. Down in South America, they use ‘em as food, I’ve heard.”

“Honestly,” Rafe asked, a trace of his former annoyance flaring anew. “Did you eat an encyclopedia as a child?”

“I read,” Trip shrugged. “What’s your excuse?”

Then the capybaras shrieked, and claws clacked and clattered and echoed through the plaza, and chaos erupted.

Across the empty expanse of stone, the creatures squealed and smashed into one another, trying desperately to flee from the eyeless raptor-beast that had appeared in their midst. More of the creatures poured forth from the vine-snarled windows of a nearby structure, rear claws gutting the squealing rodents in a single swipe, vicious jaws snapping shut around the capybara’s necks.

“Oh, crap,” Trip said quietly. “I should have figured. Predators that large, they’re going to need a steady source of food. Protein. They—”

Maximillian shot him a look of pure murder, and Rafe tried to silence Trip with an emphatic hiss, but it was too late. The blind lizards’ long snouts snapped up, in birdlike unison, to fix on their position. In a few quick jerks of their necks, they choked down flayed chunks of still-wriggling capybara, and began to issue a steady series of clicks. The beasts began to move, click-click-clicking, tottering forward across the blood-slick stone, toward Trip, Rafe, and Maximillian.

“Please tell me you’ve got that thing working right,” Rafe whispered, as Trip raised the rifle once more.

“I guess we’ll find out,” Trip replied, a nervous chuckle in his voice.

The ground shook, a steady drumbeat of approaching thunder. The blind beasts froze. Their heads swiveled back and forth, first to the direction of the oncoming thuds, then to the tantalizing prey mere feet away from them. Tiny brains calculated complicated risk-reward scenarios.

They waited too long.

Seven and a half tons of death charged into the light of the plaza, steam-shovel jaws open wide, and snatched up one of the blind beasts. It reared up, sixteen feet high, to slam its unwilling meal against the wall of a nearby building, again and again, until the stone cracked and crumbled and the beast in its jaws dangled limp and horrible.

It was, Rafe’s brain dimly registered, a genuine Tyrannosaurus rex, and long milennia of supposed extinction had apparently done nothing to diminish its appetite.

Its hide was a pale, ghostly white, with the grotesquely moving forms of its formidable muscles and organs barely showing through from beneath. It had only one tiny, grasping foreclaw jutting from its chest; a mass of pulpy, long-healed scar tissue supplanted the other. And when it turned on tree-trunk haunches to crunch and tear at its fresh prey, Rafe saw that it, too, had no eyes — just a smooth progression of eerie white skin over the thick bone of its skull.

The rest of the blind raptors turned to flee — and another Rex, this one with an x-shaped pair of gashes painted in scars across the fleshy bridge of its snout, loomed from the dark to snatch up another raptor and crunch it to bits. The rest vanished shrieking into the darkened city.

This sequence of events, perhaps understandably, was entirely too much for Rafe.

“Oh, COME BLOODY ON!” he roared, more at the world in general than anything in particular.

The Rexes paused, intrigued by this sudden noise, and snuffed the air quizzically.

Trip tried to grab Rafe’s arm, haul him toward the shelter of the temple, but Rafe shook him off angrily and stood his ground as the thunder lizards began to trudge toward him.

“No,” Rafe insisted, striding forward, clenching his blades in his hands. “I’ve put up with UFOs and mystery assassins and time travel,” he shouted at the beasts. “I can handle stone trains and lost kingdoms. I can even spot the universe a few reasonably proportioned dinosaurs. It’s a stretch, yes, but I’m forgiving. But I deny you!”

“Rafe, stop!” he heard Trip shouting from across the plaza. He was past caring.

“I refuse,” Rafe thundered, “to believe that you exist! I refuse to believe that my life could have become so hellaciously buggered as to have incorporated a pair of bloody great monstrosities like you. I refuse!”

One-Arm lowered its massive steamer trunk of a snout to sniff at this strange, noisy gobbet of hot meat. Rafe, annoyed beyond reason, promptly hauled back and punched it in the nose.

It took a good second for the nerve impulses to travel to the Rex’s brain, register, and prompt a response. One-Arm opened its jaws and roared deafeningly. In that sudden blast of rotting breath, and formidable display of teeth, Rafe’s sense of self-preservation came rushing back from its momentary tea break.

“Oh,” Rafe said quietly, as the Rex tensed to bite him in two, and wondered how it would feel to be digested.

Hot, sizzling energy splashed across the side of One-Arm’s face. It roared again and reared back, tiny foreclaw flailing pathetically at the sudden pain radiating from its sizzling, smoking flesh.

“Run, dammit!” Trip shouted from the steps of the temple, sending another blistering blast across the haunch of the Rex with the X-shaped scars on its face. This time, Rafe needed no further encouragement. He turned and sprinted across the plaza, feeling the earth thunder behind him, seeing paving stones leap and jostle themselves from the ground at every step from the pursuing beasts. He dashed up the steps and dove inside, inches ahead of the Rexes’ snapping jaws.

It took Rafe’s eyes a moment — but not nearly as long as he’d expected — to resolve objects from the gloom within. There was Trip, backing away from the pillars as the Rexes thundered against them, shaking the building with their blows. And there was Maximillian, sneering down at him with utter disgust.

“Oh,” Rafe replied weakly. “And I suppose you’ve never done anything stupid?”

The temple was nearly empty inside, save for another statue on a raised platform — some sort of strange god, feet planted, arms outstretched. In place of a head, it had dozens of stone serpents zigzagging down its body from the empty stump of its neck.

The Rexes charged the pillars again, blasting hot stinking breath against the temple’s occupants, and Rafe heard stone crack, and felt dust powder him from the ceiling far above.

“I had to cut the power on the ray,” Trip said quietly, almost apologetically, “to keep the whole thing from burning out. Or, you know, exploding. It’s hot enough to distract them, make ‘em mad, but that’s about it.”

Rafe stumbled to his feet and backed deeper into the temple as the Rexes slammed against the pillars once more. Rafe saw the stone blocks begin to shift and buckle, and knew he wouldn’t last long in here.

High on the back wall, Rafe saw a tiny crevice. Too high for Trip to possibly reach, and too small to accomodate Maximillian. But he…

Yes, all right, it was a horrible thing to do, Rafe thought, his eyes fixed on the gap, moving slowly closer to the wall. Perhaps not to Maximillian, but Trip — well, Trip had saved his life at least twice. He was decent enough. He deserved better.

But Trip was some sort of genius, yes? He had Maximillian’s muscle, and his Dan Dare laser ray. He’d be fine on his own — have this Misery Engine thing licked in a trice. Rafe probably wouldn’t even be missed.

He could just crawl out through that gap, steal his way back to the train, find the stairway out. Surely the Needlemen wouldn’t bother with him again — bigger fish to fry, and all that. He could collect some funds and run away, far and fast. Rafe had considerable experience at that.

Rafe reached one hand out and touched the wall. The gap was not twelve feet above; with the uneven stone, and his own agility, he could climb it easily.

He just didn’t want to die, was all. He shut his eyes.

And saw Julia again. That last, tear-stained look before she’d shut the door on him for good. It wasn’t disappointment in her face. Disappointment would have been bad enough.

No, she looked as if she’d entirely been expecting it of him.

Up until this very moment, he’d assumed he could live with that.

“I think I can reconfigure the rifle,” Trip was saying, oblivious to Maximillian’s annoyed boredom. “Get it to send out an acoustic pulse to rattle their brains, disorient them, maybe knock them down for a little bit. All I need is fifteen — no, ten minutes. Just ten minutes.”

“You won’t get it,” Rafe said quietly, striding out of the shadows at the back of the temple. “Those things are either going to make snacks of us by then, or bring this entire building down upon us. Unless somebody distracts them.”

Realization dawned on Trip’s face. “No, Rafe,” he said softly. “No, you can’t—”

“Who else is going to do it?” Rafe said. “Maximillian?” The big man snorted in amusement and quickly shook his head.

“You need to stay here and… do inventor things with that gadget of yours,” Rafe went on, waving his hands to indicate the technical vagaries involved. “I’m fast, I’m strong, and I’m practically marinated in the blood of their very favorite meal. I’ll buy you enough time to fix that thing up.” He paused, then made a hasty addendum. “Just try to keep up with me, all right? Don’t mistake this for any noble gesture of self-sacrifice. If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not be eaten today. I have plans later.”

Trip nodded, and Rafe put out of a hand to grip his shoulder. “And remember this with that encyclopedic brain of yours, because it’s important. Julia Smythe. She’s an architect at a little firm in Ipswich. If anything happens to me, find her. Promise me. Find her and tell her that I died as I lived: Being absolutely bloody stupid.”

“I promise,” Trip nodded. He put out a long, spindly hand, and Rafe grasped it, and they shook hands, like the people in action movies do.

“Ten minutes,” Trip said. “Give or take.”

“You really didn’t need to add the last part,” Rafe sighed. He turned to Maximillian, who stared at him dubiously. “And as for you—”

Rafe smashed him in the face with a roundhouse punch. It hurt his knuckles like holy hell, but the big man went down on his bum, shocked and indignant.

“Good,” Rafe grinned. “Now I can die happy, at least.”

The Rexes roared and smashed against the pillars again. Stone cracked like gunshots. Rafe took a few steps back, aligned himself with a gap in the pillars, and waited. The one with the X lifted its head, exposing its belly—

Rafe dashed forward, arms pumping, and sprang through the gap in the columns. He hit the steps at a tumble, jouncing and bruising his way down through the Rex’s massive legs. As the world whirred from stone to pale lizard-belly flesh and back again, Rafe slashed out with one stone blade and cut deep into its underbelly — not deep enough to puncture the skin, unfortunately, but enough to hurt.

Rafe rolled to a halt on the stone of the plaza, making one last dive to avoid the swipe of X’s massive tail. He shook himself quickly, banishing dizziness, sprang to his feet, and flung his arms wide as the beasts slowly turned to face him.

“Come on, you stupid, ugly lizards!” Rafe bellowed. “I’m right here, and I’m bloody delicious! Come and get me!”

He turned and ran, and twin engines of prehistoric slaughter rumbled after him.

Time slows. The world becomes all paths and edges and options, and his breathing, and the beat of his heart.

He can feel them behind him — the air they displace with every motion, the force of their reptile breath, the raw animal hunger for prey. He doesn’t even have to look to tell which is which; the missing limb gives One-Arm a slightly different way of shifting its weight.

He seems to fly across the plaza, and then he is through an empty door and swallowed in shadow and running up vine-slung stone steps.

People died in here, a long time ago. He can smell it — old copper, dry dusty bone, spoiled meat. He is dimly aware that the bannisters on the stairs are human bone.

He reaches a landing and the whole front of the house explodes behind him in dust and vines and fist-sized teeth. He hears a chunk of stone whistling toward the back of his skull, jukes left so it spatters against the far wall, and skips the second zigzag flight of stairs. He jumps straight up, using the knives in chinks of the stone like claws, clambers up the wall and over the balcony and into the rooms beyond.

The beasts are tearing through the house to get to him. Good.

It was someone’s room, his senses say “woman,” but there’s no time. The back wall is gone, long claimed by time and age and vines, and the back window of someone else’s house stares back at him. He leaps out through the gap, compressing his body in midair to squeeze through the far window, hits the ground rolling.

The house behind him releases any pretense of stability, falling to dust and stone, rotted and eaten by the vines centuries before, and the blind monsters keep coming.

There’s a hole in the roof and he leaps, grabs fistfuls of dry dead vine around the handles of his blades and hauls himself up and back into the subterranean night. Rooftops stretch out before him, and he runs. Houses crush and crumble behind him; these are hungry beasts, and he’s hurt them, and they’re drunk on the smell of the blood that soaks his clothes.

He leaps, roof to roof, and on to the next. A cloud of powdered stone dust and hot carrion exhalation rolls after him, begins to overtake him. He can hear them snapping their jaws.

The stone beneath his feet gives way, and he jumps a split-second before he wanted to. He jumps wrong. There’s air beneath his feet and he lunges out with the blades. They scrape and shriek across stone and hold. The building he just left disintegrates as he scrabbles his way back up, X and One-Arm jostling in the ruin, painted even paler by the dust.

They get to this building as he’s still on the roof. He feels solid ground roll like vertigo and begin to tilt, buckle, send him sliding backward to gnashing teeth and quick digestion. Fifteen tons of thunder lizard slam into the crumbled masonry and it just won’t hold.

Vines. They’re thick here, spidering between the buildings, asserting their primacy. He takes the last two steps of roof left and throws himself sideways into the air. A vine finds his hand and he twists wildly, slicing it behind him, and he begins to fall.

Not fall. Swing. Leaving the pit of his stomach above and behind him, he parabolas down, lavished by the fluttering air. His knees draw up tight to his chest, and he lets go, tucks and rolls. He comes up on the street and doesn’t stop, doesn’t even look.

The street he’s on opens to another plaza, broad and huge, a squat, massive, open-topped ziggurat seated at its center like a stone toad. Some distance behind it he seems the ring of lights painting the sky, the place Trip had told him about. He’s close.

As he runs toward the thing he realizes why it feels familiar. It’s like going to the stadium with his dad, when he was six years old and his dad was still the best man in the world. This is some sort of arena.

There are statues on the face of it. A warrior on one side, sword and spear in his hands. And zigzaggy block beasts that he recognizes as something like his pursuers, square chains yoking their necks, on the other. A lot of things about his current situation begin to at least sort of make sense to him, but only because he doesn’t have time to think them through properly.

In the few seconds’ luxury of thought, of analysis, they’ve found him, flanked him. Jumbo bird bones working like pistons under leather armor skin, sick blind heads lolling greedily at him, X on his left, one-arm on his right, their tails blocking any hope of doubling back. He has to keep running, keep them off-balance, and maybe when they lean in to bite him in halves —

The ground drops from under him.

He’s someplace wet and dark, more deathsmell, and a pale white dust-caked snout is lunging futilely at him from the gap above. He crab-walks back against a wall, pauses to breathe, laughs. They can’t get him down here.

He thinks maybe he should light a match, but there’s some odd shift occurring in his eyes and then the dull outlines all become clear. Night vision, augmented by smell and taste and the faint vibrations of the air on his skin. This is some holding pen.

He remembers the Colisseum in Rome, the waiting areas under the floor of the great arena, where the slaves and the beasts and the armaments would be kept. Clearly, Rome didn’t have an exclusive on the idea.

He’s moving through the not-dark, dodging stone columns, stepping around rusted-out chains holding empty iron collars, and there’s a smell, a wrong smell, something he knows should be a warning.

Click-click-click, goes the darkness, and before he even thinks the blades are up before him.

Eyeless heads bob birdlike over the tops of stalls. Of course. This is where they were bred. This is where they were kept. Ancestral memory tells the blind raptor-beasts that this is home.

And he’s just blundered into it.

Crocodiles have amazing immune systems. They have amazing immune systems because their mouths are filled with incredibly nasty bacteria, on account of all the rotting things they kill and eat. He is remembering this now because some part of his brain is screaming at him that it is highly imperative to let none of them bite him, not even a little.

And he says yes, thank you, as the beasts circle him and close in, and lets the blades move him.

It takes less than sixty seconds, and then he’s freshly marinated and he can smell the offal steaming off the blades. But the last one took a few seconds too long dying, giving off shrieks that still echo through countless corridors, and there’s an answering chorus of so many clicks that it all sounds like one continuous noise. He has to find a way out.

He stumbles on through the dark, listening for clicks and claws and harsh animal breathing. They’re getting closer. He finds the center of the maze; there’s a platform, a heavy chain reaching upward into the ceiling, and up there, the thick mass of a counterweight. The chain is old, rusted. He begins to hack at it with the blades, praying they’re strong enough.

Sparks flare in the dark as he batters the chain again and again with his stone knives, and in the sparks, he can see pale, hungry forms gathering in each of the six tunnels leading to this central spot. They close in slowly, saliva pooling around the rims of their jaws.

A link gives way, and one of the beasts gets greedy and rushes in. He ducks the swipe of its claws and peels its head off its neck almost to the bone with one of the blades, and before it even thuds to the platform behind him, he turns and smashes the butt of his other blade into the last stubborn link of the chain.

It breaks. The counterweight plunges. The beasts charge, and the ceiling opens, and the floor bears him up into the grand arena.

He stops, breathes, trying to take all that space and majesty into his lungs. The square stadium is pocked with blooms of light-crystals, illuminating the four thousand square meters of dusty arena floor. On three sides, stone benches rise in steps, dizzyingly high; behind him, a massive gate, wooden planks as big around as he is, sits firmly barred. He tries to remember that this was all built by hand.

One of the beasts got its head into the gap between platform and ceiling before it fully rose. Now it twitches and squirms and snaps comically. He looks at it and shakes his head sadly.

Puffs of dust rise from the arena floor, six, in a circle all around him. Doors flop open. Oh, damn it all to hell. Of course they know the secret, hidden ways to get up here, the white eyeless horrors and their sickle-curved claws. They were once the entertainment here, too, and that racial memory must die hard.

The beasts don’t play coy this time, don’t wait. They charge sprinting.

God coughs and the wooden gates behind him fly open, timbers pinwheeling like matchsticks. One of them hits an unsuspecting beast and pulps him to jelly, and Rafe just squeezes himself between two more as they fall and tumble and skid through the dust. For just one sweet moment, there is joy in his heart to see X and One-Arm stomp into the arena, roaring their hate. Then he remembers who they’re roaring at.

The situation gets, if such a thing is possible, even more Darwinian, even more quickly. There are five smaller raptor-beasts and one of him on the arena floor as the Rexes draw close, and whatever is slowest, or not moving, is virtually guaranteed to be a meal.

He runs toward the far side of the arena, and everything with teeth gives chase.

Fortunately, everything with teeth is pretty stupid, and also hungry. One of the raptors gets close, and gets a knife into its brain, and goes down twitching, an instant appetizer. Two more aren’t fast enough; they’re pinned by thick Rex claws and picked apart squealing and scratching in a matter of moments.

There are two left and him as he approaches the far wall. He finds himself taking off his blood-soaked shirt, twisting it into a solid cable, and then it occurs to him why. Shouldering aside a lifelong antipathy for equestrian sports, he takes a deep breath and jumps on the back of the nearest eyeless raptor.

His shirt slides neatly between its jaws, and he yanks it back hard enough to hear a stunned little gack from the depths of its throat. Nothing like this has ever happened to the beast before, so it just keeps running. Its last remaining comrade stops and cocks its head, thoroughly baffled, and gets a swift introduction to One-Arm’s jaws.

In about five seconds, the beast he’s riding — Whitey, as he has suddenly and affectionately begun to think of it — is going to realize what’s going on, and most likely kill the hell out of him. That’s okay, though. The wall is four seconds away.

Still gripping his makeshift bridle, he plants one foot on Whitey’s back, then the other, and surfs toward the wlal on the beast’s spine. Behind him, X and One-Arm loom. Closer… closer…

He lets the ends of his shirt slip out of his hands, and he jumps from Whitey’s back up and over the wall, and into the stands. The poor beast smacks hard into the stone wall, and is then promptly pulped under X’s right front claw.

Up and up and up he runs, legs screaming for rest, lungs on fire. X and One-Arm, awkwardly but with great enthusiasm, flail and scrabble and finally lunge up over the stone barrier into the stands, and follow.

They’re gaining on him swiftly, big Rex strides swallowing distance, and he’s running out of up. The rim of the stadium bearded in vines, and as he gets to the edge, he reaches down and scoops one up and dives. One-Arm’s jaws close an inch from his trailing foot.

He tumbles through the air. The vine catches, draws taut, and he swings back around and smacks into the leafy, tendril-covered wall. Above him, the Rexes roar their fury, jaws smeared in raptor guts, and he whoops and, best he can around the blade in his hand, shoots them the V.

Mid-taunt, his vine snaps.

He falls end-over-end through nothingness. His hands strike out, the blades snarl in the tendril of leafy vines, and he’s slowed, controlled, but still falling, and the ground’s coming up way too fast—

At the last minute he pushes off from the wall, hits, rolls, end over end over end, and finally stops.

And in the pain and the stillness that follows, time speeds back to normal.

Rafe Windham was done. No more, said his arms. No more, said the legs. Rather nice here, mind if we settle in?, said the dozen or so bruises forming in the general vicinity of his everything.

“Okay,” he replied, and lay on the stone, gasping. He was beyond the stadium, and if he craned his head backward against the stone-cobbled ground, he could see some sort of entrance, some sculpture-molded circular wall, and the ring of lights stretching up — well, down, from his point of view — into the darkness.

He glanced back up at the Rexes atop the stadium wall.

There were no Rexes there.

The ground spat him two inches up, and jarringly down again, as the massive beasts crashed down on either side of him. No room to move. No time to get up and run.

“Good exercise, though, wasn’t it?” he said weakly, to their eyeless heads. And then their jaws drew near, and opened, and Rafe stared down their steaming, stinking throats at the very short rest of his life.

1 comment:

Jason said...

You write some of the best action sequences, bro.

Another small typo:
"Still gripping his makeshift bridle, he plants one foot on Whitey’s back, then the other, and surfs toward the wlal on the beast’s spine. Behind him, X and One-Arm loom. Closer… closer…"