Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Darkness Above, City Below (Part 1)

Basically everything was built atop something else.

Rafe Windham, being from England, a country that not only kept in touch with its history, but had it round for tea and biscuits and a nice long chat at regular intervals, knew this particularly well. So it hadn’t surprised him to learn, in some book he’d read years ago when he ought to have been studying something else entirely, that the entire city of Chicago had, at one point, literally raised itself whole on wooden stilts.

The problem with building a city on a swamp, as Chicago had, lay in that whole troublesome “swamp” aspect. Early Chicago’s mud-choked streets, helped not at all by the city’s typically murderous climate, had proven as unsanitary as they were impassable. Yet the ground offered no purchase for a proper underground sewer system. So engineers and jacks and crews were called in, and over a period of roughly two decades, the entire city was elevated between four and fourteen feet off the ground. New, wooden streets were built, life continued blissfully above the mud, and everything beneath was left first to the criminals — giving rise to the notion of the “Chicago underworld” — and then, eventually, to a more literal sort of effluent.

As most things do, this strategy included unintended consequences. For one thing, the new, upraised city was constructed largely of flammable wood. Within a few years, a cow, or carelessness at a card game, depending on whom you consulted and how much they’d been drinking, would provide ample evidence of the flaws in that particular method, and the city would have to rebuild itself all over again with more sensibly non-combustible material.

For another, raising the entire city up over its old foundations tended only to encourage people to forget entirely that, even when it was a ground-level morass, it might yet have been constructed atop something older still.

Which, in fact, it was. An ancient empire, all but obliterated from the scope of human knowledge, slumbering in frank defiance of all established geological principles in lightless caverns beneath centuries of urban hustle and bustle.

Until today, Rafe could claim no firsthand experience with ancient underground empires, but he had seen several quite entertaining films on the subject. As such, he was party to certain key insights: Underground empires were dangerous places that did not welcome visitors, filled with various sharp and pointy objects, and possibly hungry things with extremely large teeth.

Now, as he huddled in the ruins of a headless god’s temple, with a man he barely knew to one side of him, and an almost certain enemy on his other, listening intently for sounds from the dark without, he knew that those films had been entirely correct.

“Scientists are wont to speak of time as a fabric,” Mrs. Stitch had said hours before, dabbing genteelly with a paper napkin at a smudge of tomato sauce at one corner of her mouth. “Fabric, by its very nature, unravels. Frays. Tears.”

“And you’re the ones who sew it back up,” Trip said.

Rafe, for his part, stood as far away as possible from everyone else in the room, with his back to the wall, knives at the ready. He did not want pizza. He did not want to chat. He had not forgotten that, until they had showed up quite literally at the door to this secluded penthouse, the dozen or so people in black coats now polishing off bits of a deep-dish special with everything had seemed hellbent on killing him. He was apparently the only one who remembered this.

Trip sat on one side of the worktable in the main room of the Lookout, the venerable Mrs. Stitch on the other. A spent pizza box, spotted with grease and moisture, yawned between them. The alarmingly tall chap, Maximillian, remained stock-still behind Mrs. Stitch, studying Rafe with a cool, grey, clinical stare. Unlike his comrades, Maximillian hadn’t touched the pizza, except to open the box. Perhaps he’d already eaten, Rafe thought. A rasher of kittens to start, followed by a chainsaw, well-done, and maybe an orphan or two as a chaser.

“Quite so,” Mrs. Stich said, to Trip’s speculation. “As you may know, certain … alterations have been made to the world we all accept as reality — entirely for its own good, I assure you. My agency works to nurture and protect these alterations, lest we all face annihilation in their undoing.”

“Which means you’ve been busy in the past few days,” Trip said levelly. “Aside from trying to kill us, I mean.”

“Business, young man,” Mrs. Stitch sighed. “Merely business. Not the worst thing I’ve ever done, nor the most regrettable. Our projections indicate that you and your three new friends, owing to your, shall we say, family ties, would be most likely to thwart our efforts. A permanent solution to that problem seemed the most effective approach.”

“I don’t suppose you’ve heard of self-fulfilling prophecies?” Trip asked.

“Welcome, Mr. Morrow, to the perils of working with time,” Mrs. Stitch replied with a thin, weary smile.

“But now, I suppose,” Rafe chimed in, “that’s all water under the bridge. You’ve popped round to say, no hard feelings, sorry we tried to kill you and all, have a lovely life.”

“Oh, no,” Mrs. Stitch said, with no trace of mirth in her proud features. “Killing you both remains very much an option, and a popular one.” Maximillian shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and his mouth tightened. “But you’ve given us considerable trouble thus far,” Mrs. Stich continued, “and it seems the damage is accelerating, even as our time — so to speak — grows increasingly short. I’ve made an executive decision in your cases. When you’re bleeding to death, you don’t waste time swatting at flies.”

“Charming little simile,” Rafe muttered.

“Metaphor,” Trip corrected. Rafe, despite being English, had never particularly been good at studying it. He knew this, but it didn’t stop the bespectacled Yank and his maddeningly calm, autistic-savant demeanor from wearing on Rafe’s already frayed nerves.

“My agents — those apparently uneaten — tell me you made friends with a most unusual pair of … I hestiate to call them ‘people,’” Mrs. Stitch said.

“The Operators,” Trip said, and Rafe could see the beginnings of a shudder twitch its way against Trip’s shoulder blades, and stifle itself. “They said their names were Vore and Grin.”

Mrs. Stitch’s eyes widened slightly, her eyebrows elevated in a sudden gust of surprise. “Naming themselves,” she said quietly, almost to herself. “There’s a curious turn.”

“So if they were trying to help us,” Trip said — and here Rafe noted the shadow of contemptuous disbelief that passed across Mrs. Stitch’s features — “they must have been trying to encourage whatever you’re trying to stop.”

“Which is what, exactly?” Rafe asked, shifting his grip on the knives until he could no longer feel his pulse fluttering in the palms of his hands.

“There are dimensions beyond our own,” Mrs. Stitch said, “infinitely many. Some of them, to the best of our knowledge, are inhabited. And some of those inhabitants are very, very hungry.”

Rafe stepped forward from the wall and crossed the room, slowly. He turned the empty chair next to Trip around and draped himself across it. And then he very swiftly and very deliberately sank one of his stone knives halfway into the surface of the table. He had the immense satisfaction of seeing Trip jump, and a small muscle in Maximillian’s jaw twitch; regrettably, Mrs. Stitch looked no less unimpressed.

“So tell me,” Rafe said quietly, removing the blade from the table with slightly more effort than he would have preferred. “What is it makes us more valuable to you alive than dead?”

“The Operators trust you,” Stitch said. “Or at the very least, consider you harmless, which would appear to be the same mistake we made. That makes you the most likely to get close enough to harm them.”

“Harm them how?” Trip sputtered. “I saw purple coils of energy coming from their mouths…”

“Really, now, Mr. Morrow,” Mrs. Stitch sighed with no small amusement, and perhaps a touch of venom. “I was told you were inventive.”

“And what if we don’t jump through your hoops?” Rafe said, summoning his very best poker face. “Our friends just got snatched up by some black thing in the clouds. We don’t even know if they’re alive. What’s to stop us from telling you all to piss off and going off to find them instead?”

Mrs. Stitch didn’t issue a command, didn’t even move a muscle. But suddenly every Needleman in the room had the silver points in their hands levelled toward Trip and Rafe. In the silence that followed, Rafe heard the leather of Maximillian’s gloves squeak as the big man’s fists slowly tightened.

“Well,” Mrs. Stitch sighed, “there’s that.”

“We’ll do it,” said Trip levelly.

“Are you mad?” Rafe blurted, although he had in fact been thinking the exact same thing.

“I see which of you is the genius,” Mrs. Stitch said, a schoolmistress’s smile bowing briefly on her lips. Rafe subjected her to the sort of withering glare he’d been reserving for a special occasion, then prepared to favor Trip with it as well. But something in his involuntary comrade’s eyes, owlish behind his round spectacles, gave Rafe pause. Trust me, the eyes said, and Rafe found it surprisingly difficult to argue with them.

“You’ve got men,” Trip said. “Vast resources. Superior technology. What exactly do you need us for?”

Mrs. Stitch leaned forward, resting her arms on the table. “What, if anything, do you know of the Misery Engine of Kroatoan?”

They had driven for some minutes through rain-slick streets, shimmering with impressionist colors from the city lights, in a caravan of long black cars. Trip and Rafe shared the back of the lead car; Maximillian drove, with Mrs. Stitch in the passenger’s seat, keeping one steady eye on them in the rear-view mirror.

Trip had stuffed his backpack with supplies; he sat now with his grandfather’s stamp-speckled diary in one hand and the strange ray gun device he’d been building in his lap, making final adjustments and connections to its wire-strewn innards. Having gone about shoeless for the better part of two days, Rafe wiggled his toes in the new boots he’d requested, and gotten, from a comparably sized Needleman. It cheered him somewhat to think of a sinister agent of some secret organization going about his business in stocking feet, and though Rafe hated to admit it, the boots were sort of obscenely comfortable.

Trip lifted his head and sniffed the air quickly. “What is that smell?” Rafe, whose own nose had long before detected that particular pong, with what seemed to be an escalating keenness, sighed.

“I believe that’s us,” Rafe said. “I don’t know about you, but I’m going on —” he did a quick mental count — “three days without a proper bath? Four? Something like that.”

“Oh,” Trip said matter of factly. “Well, can’t be helped.” He went back to his wiring, and Rafe found himself wondering how the boy genius would react if you spilled a box of toothpicks before him.

The cars slid smoothly through the nighttime streets. Periodically, Rafe would catch glimpses of other cars on other streets running parallel, but no matter how many turns the Needlemen’s cars took, their streets always seemed free of all other traffic, and all their traffic lights were green. They headed south, into the Loop.

It was an underground station, cordoned with yellow police tape, and as they emerged from the car, Rafe saw Trip cock his head with quizzical familiarity at the sight of it. Mrs. Stitch ushered them to the top of the stairwell leading down into semidarkness; a sign said CLOSED BY ORDER OF CHICAGO TRANSIT AUTHORITY, with a list of stopgap bus routes.

Rafe stretched, working kinks out of the muscles in his legs and back. Trip shouldered his backpack and cradled the silver space ray he’d made unfamiliarly in the crook of one arm.

“Well, thanks for the ride and all,” Rafe said. “And the boots, I suppose. This is where we part company, then.”

At which point Maximillian shouldered past him, with no particular gentleness, and snapped through the police tape on his way down the stairs.

“Really, Mr. Windham,” Mrs. Stitch sighed. “I’m not so naive as to leave you both unsupervised.”

“Just him?” Trip asked, nodding at the phalanx of black-coated Needlemen milling attentively around their respective sedans. “We might need the backup.”

“Two’s company,” Mrs. Stitch said. “Three’s a crowd. Four or more are cannon fodder. I’d wish you good luck, but really, I’d call this a win-win for me either way.”

“I hope you die slowly,” Rafe replied, before even thinking about it. To his considerable surprise, he saw it register with a flash of genuine hurt on Mrs. Stitch’s face.

“I’ve tried that,” she said, regaining her composure — not without effort. “And yes, I imagine you would.” Rafe tried to feel proud. He couldn’t.

The three of them descended the dark stairs in silence. Maximillian held his Needle aloft, its point glowing magnesium-white, outlining the tile walls and metal gates in stark, crisp radiance. The big man jumped the turnstiles effortlessly, and Trip and Rafe followed, slightly less so.

The platform was empty, emergency lights only burning. There were signs of an investigation; a stray toolbox here, a folding-legged table and a few clipboards at the opposite end of the platform. Maximillian paused at the edge of one platform and glanced probingly at Trip, who nodded.

“So this is the underground stop where—” Rafe began. Trip nodded quickly, and held a finger to his lips.

Rafe could hear tiny things on tiny feet scattering into their respective holes as the three men walked into the darkness of the tunnel ahead. Bits of twisted metal, nuts and bolts began to crunch and ping beneath Rafe’s boots, and soon they reached a point where the rails twisted and buckled, as if crushed by some great weight. Chunks of gray rock were scattered across the tracks, and in the circle of illumination from Maximillian’s Needle, Rafe could see black scorch marks along a section of the third rail.

“Huh,” Trip mused. “Wonder where they’ve taken it?” Maximillian heard this and smirked.

“Oh, I assume you’ve swept this under the rug, too, have you?” Rafe sighed. The hulking man favored him with a look that suggested this observation was not exactly genius-level. Then he swung the arm holding his Needle, with the heavy swiftness of a ship’s mast, toward the wall of the tunnel, where a hole punched in the concrete yawned into inky nothingness.

Maximillian gestured with mock courtesy. After you.

Trip made some adjustments to the space-laser-whatever-it-was he was holding — Rafe had heard him dub it a Patented Morrow something or other — and a bright beam of light sprang forth from above the barrel, revealing a low, dripping stone tunnel leading down into the earth. He looked at Trip, nervously, then reshouldered the weight of the rifle and stooped into the hole.

The passage was steep, twisting and slippery, but there were stairs — neat, carved in stone, only slightly weathered by untold years of steadily dripping water. The obsidian blades, tucked in Rafe’s belt, clanked and slapped against him with each step, strangely warm amid the clammy atmosphere. Here and there, Rafe’s hands brushed against what felt like a carving, but with Tom forging ahead in front of him, and the menacing bulk of Maximillian fast behind, he had little time to explore.

The air smelled of cold, ancient stone, and stagnant water. Rafe decided that it wasn’t his imagination; since this morning, since the dream of his grandfather, the world perceived by his nose had slowly taken on greater color and detail, like the slow, ghostly development of a Polaroid. He could smell faint traces of beef stew on Trip’s shirtfront, and the leather of his own new boots, and the thick, laundered wool of Maximillian’s coat, laced with a faint tang of aviation fuel.

Maximillian. There was something odd about him, something just at the edge of Rafe’s burgeoning senses that felt subtly wrong. It nagged at him like a loose tooth, but as he turned the matter over in his brain — the better not to think about, oh, everything else currently happening to him at the moment — a rush of sweeter, more verdant air suddenly rushed at him from below.

“Oh,” said Trip, several steps down from him. “Oh, my.”

They waded into a shallow, muddy basin, shin deep with silty water and choked with leafy green vines. Above and behind them, the rock face from which Rafe had just emerged climbed into distant shadows far above. And shimmering before them, reflected in the water, were softly glowing spires of blue-white crystal, so radiant that they illuminated every vein and vesicle of the vines that entwined them.

“We saw these plants in the sewers,” Trip said, in a velvet-couched tone Rafe had generally heard reserved for cathedrals. “Sully and I. I think they’re pulling impurities out of the water.”

“We’re walking through an ancient waste treatment plant?” Rafe shuddered. “So glad these aren’t my boots. What of the crystals?”

“My grandfather wrote some about them in his diary,” Trip said, patting the inside pocket of his jacket. “I think they were the city’s power source — but he could never chip off a sample to study ‘em further. Even with a diamond-tipped drill.”

“So how much further to this — what was it called?” Rafe asked, eyes scanning the darkness. The crystal spires cast just enough enough light to let his eyes play tricks on him, it seemed. Or was there something out there, moving in the distant peripheries of shadow?

“The Arrow of Night,” Trip offered. “I’d have to check the map in the diary, but it shouldn’t be—”

Behind them, the sound of Maximillian’s steady, splashing footsteps abruptly halted. They both turned to see the big man standing stock still, head tilted to one side, listening.

Then Rafe heard it, too. Distant, but approaching. The soft, deliberate tread of feet through the water.

Many, many feet.

Rafe drew his blades and waited. Trip fiddled about with something on the side of the laser device, and Rafe saw red lights begin to strobe softly along its length. Well, lovely, he thought, at least we can blink whatever-it-is to death.

Then he caught his first glimpse of the source of the noises, emerging from the gloom beyond into the hazy light of the crystal spires, and realized he was wrong about that.

They had no eyes. Teeth, oh, they had teeth in abundance, and nasty little foreclaws, and thick muscular haunches ending in curved sickle-claws, and gently swaying tails. But the man-sized reptiles that bird-walked their way out of the darkness around the three explorers, snapping and tasting at the air, sounding steady pulses of guttural clicks from the depths of their elongated skulls, had no eyes — just leathery skin, long evolved to cover whatever vestigial structures remained.

“They’ve been down here in the dark so long,” Trip breathed — but not so quietly that a few of the beasts’ heads didn’t swing in his direction. “Hear that? Those clicks? I bet that’s echolocation.” Rafe was apalled to see wonder, even delight, on Trip’s face — not the sort of reactions one expects in the face of imminent, messy consumption.

“Thank you David bloody Attenborough,” Rafe hissed. “But I think we have a much larger concern at present. Are they hungry?”

And then there was a splashing to his left, and the sound of something large and heavy moving through the air, and Rafe had his answer.

He moved, and then a great, hot stinking torrent of something gushed all over his shirt and trousers. It took a moment for Rafe to realize it was blood. Another moment to realize that it wasn’t his, but that of the beast now wheezing out its last at his feet, two deep gashes along its throat and breastbone. Perhaps it was the faint half-light from the crystals, but Rafe almost thought he saw the vines in the water move, curling toward the dying animal.

It was as if the blades had moved themselves, and merely pulled Rafe along. He looked at them, strange blood slick and steaming against the black stone, and thought: Now, if you can just repeat that several dozen more times…

The beasts smelled the blood of their own, and screeched, blind heads lolling. They had formed a circle around Trip, Rafe, and Maximillian, and slowly, that circle began to shrink.

Maximillian narrowed his eyes, and pointed the tip of his Needle at the nearest grouping of beasts. The magnesium microstar at its tip flared—

— and fluttered, and sputtered, and died away. As it did, the light from the neighboring crystals seemed to flicker in synch. Maximillian shook the Needle again, and again, with increasing vehemence, and still nothing more than a pathetic dandelion-burst of dim sparks.

Two of the beasts leaped, claws poised to rend him in two.

Blinding light seared through the air, engulfing the beasts, shrieking, in its radiance, and when Maximillian batted them away, they fell apart in neat, cauterized lengthwise halves.

“Holy smokes,” Trip said at last, staring down at the rifle in his hands, the barrel still glowing faintly. “So that’s an electroplasmic ray.”

Then the beasts charged, as one, and all was chaos.

Rafe stopped thinking, and the blades took over. The world became as much about sound and smell as sight — the leathery hide of the beasts, their rumbling clicks and guttural rasps, became points on some 3-D geometry unfolding in his head.

He glimpsed Maximillian, teeth clenched in fury, holding two of the beasts aloft, a thick hand clamped about each of their necks. He was using their limp bodies to bludgeon their comrades. Rafe had a sudden, horrible image of what he’d done to the man who gave Rafe the blades.

Like strokes of lightning, blasts from Trip’s rifle turned the half-light bright as noon, and it took Rafe a few seconds to realize that the curiously savory smell rising in the air was the beasts’ own electroplasmically cooked flesh.

Rafe found himself back to — well, somewhat larger back with Maximillian, as the big man split a beast’s head open with a single vicious yank of its jaws. Maxmillian smirked, and shook the gore from his fingers in Rafe’s general direction. Rafe glowered at him, then turned just in time to narrowly avoid disembowelment, and stab one of the things up through the bottom of its jaw, into the brain.

The electroplasmic ray flared again, and a great swath of water erupted into vapor with a vicious hiss. Rafe turned to see Trip playing the beam in an arc along the surface of the water, igniting the leafy plants and creating a screen of searing steam between them and the remaining beasts.

“The Arrow of Night!” Trip shouted. “Now, while they’re held back — let’s go!”

They ran, spattered in muck, painted in reptile blood, through the swamp toward the faint outlines of looming structures ahead. Behind them, the shrieks of seared creatures died away, and hungry shadows cut through the lingering cloud of mist in keen pursuit.

The swamp fell away from their ankles, the last of the curling vines peeling away, and Rafe felt solid stone underfoot. Across a wide plaza that sloped gently up from the surrounding water, Rafe saw stairs, carved from vast smooth slabs of rock, rising up to an elevated platform whose support posts trailed away into deeper shadow. Crystals embedded at intervals in the stone gave off just enough light to see by, and similar glowing dots shone down from the platform above. It almost looked like…

No time for speculation. Trip charged up the stairs, Rafe just behind him, and Maximillian bringing up the rear. Again, Rafe’s brain noted something odd about him, but what, exactly, it declined to specify. (It was a troublesome brain, Rafe decided, in need of replacement, perhaps. Inspection, at the very least, and maybe a good tune-up to be thorough, at some point when blind dinosaurs weren’t immediately intent on eating him.)

The stairs led up, and up, and heart-poundingly, lung-squeezingly up to a flat platform, and there it was: The Arrow of Night.

“It’s—” Rafe said, and paused to gulp air, “it’s a train. A stone train.”

The windows and doors were clear quartz crystal, and exterior assembled from stone blocks embossed with strange, writhing carvings. There were discrete cars, each linked to the other by stone passageways, and in the dim light of the crystals lining the platform and glowing within the cars, Rafe could even see low benches lining the walls.

“Mind the gap, indeed,” Rafe marveled.

The stairs echoed with the tap-tap-tap of sharp reptillian claws, and the distinctive echo-clicks of the pursuing beasts, and the time for amazement was over.

“You,” Trip said, suddenly standing straighter, shoulders squared, to a bemused Maximillian. “Can you get those doors open?”

Maximillian shrugged diffidently, but his eyes widened when Trip calmly turned the rifle toward him.

“The way I see it,” Trip said in a low, even tone, “your Needle doesn’t work down here — something about those crystals, I’m betting. And I can see you weren’t expecting that. That makes you outnumbered, and lacking your great equalizer. Open the doors, or pick a leg to lose, and see how those things like the taste of you.”

The big man’s face registered a brief moment of shock — and then an amused, even somewhat impressed, half-smirk. He ran down the length of the train toward the front car, Trip and Rafe pursuing, until he found one set of crystal doors opened just a crack. Then he turned in one swift motion and dug thick fingers into the gap between the doors, and wrenched.

The doors scraped smoothly apart, and Maximillian wasted no time ducking inside.

“Go!” Trip shouted to Rafe, as the first of the beasts came hissing up the stairs and got a faceful of electroplasmic ray for its trouble. “I don’t trust him alone in there!”

Rafe leapt into the musty semidark of the car, and Trip followed, blasts sizzling from his rifle as more and more of the creatures clambered up to the platform.

“Shut the doors!” Trip said, without looking back. Rafe glanced at Maximillian, who was lounging on one of the stone benches; the big man just grinned nastily at him, as if to say, your turn.

“Soon, please!” Trip said as he squeezed off another burst of radiant energy. “This thing’s getting really hot, really fast!” Rafe cast his eyes about wildly, and finally saw a handle jutting from one side of the door. He grabbed it, hauling a block of stone out from the wall of the car, agonizingly slowly. Just as his shoulder felt like it might wrench from its socket, Rafe heard the blessed click of some hidden counterweight, and the crystal doors slid shut.

Trip hastily unslung the rifle and dropped it on one of the seats, shaking his hands and wincing. Rafe could see steam hissing from the metal surface of the .

“Insulation,” Trip said to himself. “Next design, I’ve gotta add insulation. And cooling.”

The blind faces of the beasts thudded obscenely, frantically, against the crystal windows. Their claws scraped and scrabbled, and their tongues lolled wetly, but the cars held. Rafe let out of a breath he didn’t even realize he’d been holding.

“Right,” he gasped, heart still hammering in his chest. “I’m enjoying my jaunt to Disneyland Hell. Anyone else?”

“We’ve gotta get this thing moving,” Trip said ominously, “before those things figure out how to get in. Rafe, I think I’m gonna need your help on this.” Maximillian settled back in his seat, shifting his weight as if to get comfortable, and stared coolly at the beasts scrabbling just outside.

There was no driver’s seat at the very front of the first car, and no controls — just a stone basin, arrayed above a brace of softly glowing crystals. Trip sighed and began rummaging in his backpack, until he pulled out a small first aid kit. He opened the lid and set out a roll of bandages, a cotton swab, and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.

“You’re going to make it run with first aid?” Rafe asked, baffled.

“Nope,” Trip said, sucking in a deep, reluctant breath. “I’m gonna need one of your knives for a second.” Curious, Rafe handed one of the blades over. Trip wiped it clean as he could on one of his shirttails, splashed it with peroxide, and clenched his teeth.

Before Rafe could move, Trip had drawn the blade in a swift, neat, shallow line across his own left palm.

“Gah! Ow!” Trip winced, quickly handing the blade back to Rafe. “Ow, ow, ow. Dammit.” Already, blood sprang forth in a red line from his palm. Trip turned his hand sideways and made a fist, squeezing blood from the cut down into the stone basin.

For the first few drops, nothing happened. Then the crystals glowed brighter as more and more blood dribbled in. Lights sprang on in the cars along the length of the train, and beneath his feet, Rafe felt a distinct hum of weird energies. Then the train scraped, lurched a few times, and began to rumble forward, gaining speed, into the darkness.

“That’s… that’s positively barbaric,” Rafe said, as Trip poured more peroxide on his palm and winced anew. “A vampire train.”

“It was just a hunch,” Trip sighed, wrapping gauze tightly around the cut on his palm, and pressing down with his other hand to stop the bleeding. “My grandpa wrote some about Kroatoan in his diary, but he didn’t go into specifics. Which I think was probably a good thing.”

“Oh,” Rafe said, dread fluttering in his stomach. “Lovely.”

They emerged into the regular car, Trip packing the first aid kit back into his pack. Maximillian was in the same spot, his hat brim pulled down over his eyes, as if catching a nap.

“Come on,” Trip told Rafe. “We’ve got some time before we get where we’re going. Want to explore the train? It’ll give the Morrow Multipurpose Rifle — what? That’s what the plans were labeled — time to cool off. And take my mind off what I just did to my hand.”

Rafe briefly pondered being left alone in the car with Maximillian. None of the outcomes he envisioned were pleasant.

“Fine by me,” Rafe shrugged. “Provided there’s no more bleeding involved.”

They squeezed through the narrow tunnels connecting the cars, making their way through one empty stone chamber after another. Strange designs swirled in the stone floor beneath their feet, and darkness rushed past through the quartz windows.

“Would you really have done it?” Rafe asked at last. “Shot him?”

Trip smiled with an odd sheepishness. “Nah. I don’t think so. But you spend enough years yelling at cadets in ROTC, and some of the motivational tricks kinda stick with you.”

“I’m not sure I would have objected, mind you,” Rafe muttered. “He’s— oh my sweet merciful God.”

“What?” Trip asked, as Rafe craned his neck upward, turning in a slow circle, eyes riveted to the ceiling of the car.

“The tiling,” Rafe said softly, and swallowed hard. “Look at the tiling.”

The entire ceiling of the car was covered in tiny, squarish white tiles — uniform at first glance, but each distinct upon further notice.

“Teeth,” Trip breathed. “Human teeth.”

“Exactly what sort of empire was this, again?” Rafe asked.

“You know the Aztecs?” Trip asked. “Hearts cut out, human sacrifice, all that?”

“With obsidian knives,” Rafe confirmed, suddenly feeling deeply disturbed by the blades tucked in his belt.

“Well, apparently these guys were worse,” Trip said.

“I’m going to file that under, ‘Things I should have known before agreeing to this,’” Rafe said, and shuddered, and kept moving.

They reached the next-to-last car and stopped; the final car beyond was strangely dark and still, and emitting a noxious stink.

“We really don’t need to investigate that, do we?” Rafe asked. “Let’s just turn around. Really. Just — oh, dammit.” Trip was already moving forward, fishing his keychain light from his pocket.

They squeezed into the entryway between the two cars and stopped as another reeking wave of air rolled back at them.

“Smells like… compost,” Trip said. “Fertilizer.”

“Why’s it so hot in here?” Rafe murmured, holding the collar of his shirt against his face to ward off the stink. “The other cars are cool, but this—”

“Uh oh,” Trip said quietly. “I, uh, I think you were right?”

“Why?” Rafe asked, immediately reaching for his blades. The passageway was tight, cramped. He had no room to swing…

Trip shone his light across heaps of rotting plants piled upon the stone floor of the final car, up a particularly dense pile of the muck, to a clutch of football-sized whitish-yellow oblongs. Eggs.

Then the darkness had teeth.

“Run.” Trip said.

There were three of them, hissing and eyeless, walnut-sized brains surging with thousands of years’ worth of concentrated maternal instinct. And, luckily for Rafe and Trip, they all tried to get through the passageway between the cars at once.

They ran, stumbling through the cars, the angry creatures claw-clacking in long, avian strides too close behind.

Rafe, his brain summoning tactical knowledge he was not aware he’d had, chose a choke point, and resolved to do something incredibly stupid. He sprinted through a passageway between cars and turned, even as Trip kept running ahead.

“Rafe, come on!” Trip shouted, paused at the far end of the car.

“Be with you in a minute,” Rafe said, around the cloud of raw terror filling his brain. The beasts boiled up toward him through the car beyond. The lead one, barking angry echo-clicks, took two leaping steps and went airborne, claws poised to shred Rafe.

He waited until the last possible moment, stepped to one side, and drove one blade into the back of its skull as it passed through his side of the connector. It shuddered once with its entire body, nose to tail, and dropped, two hundred pounds of meat and gristle, its body wedged between the cars. Its companions snarled and craned their necks through the gap, but they were blocked. For now.

Rafe turned and ran once more, and behind him, the beasts began to tug and feast at their dead broodmate, slowly pulling it free of the gap…

Lungs burning anew, new fatigue piling on old, Rafe followed Trip up through the cars, nearly losing his balance as the train suddenly rounded a sharp curve.

“What do we do when we get to the front?” Rafe asked, glancing behind him. No sign of anything hungry. Yet.

“Uh… we might not have to worry about that,” Trip replied, and when Rafe cast his eyes forward, through the next two cars, he saw Maximillian crouched on his side of the passageway to the lead car, meticulously removing one long stone block from the floor of the car. As he pulled it free, the entire train shook and swayed, and the humming beneath Rafe’s feet diminished by half.

Maximillian was decoupling the lead car. He looked up, caught their gaze, and gave them a curt, nasty little grin.

“Oh, you absolute—” Rafe began, and then thought better of it, and saved his breath for running.

Behind them, the renewed shrieks and roars of the pursuing beasts. Ahead, too far ahead, the calm, methodical work of the man attempting to strand them. It sounded like — yes, Rafe was sure of it now. The bastard was whistling.

They just managed to enter the second car before the whole train lurched and jolted beneath them. Ahead, Maximillian waved jauntily and began to diminish, surrounded by increasing shadow.

Trip and Rafe hurled themselves toward the last passageway — and nearly tumbled to their death on the tracks as the lead car pulled farther away. Rafe could feel it beneath his feet; the hum of the train diminishing. The light in the cars began to flicker, and in the strobing glow, he looked back to see the two beasts, muzzles red and gory, charging toward them two cars.

“I can do this,” Trip was saying, eyes shut. “I can think of something, come on, come on…” The gap between the lead car and the rest of the train steadily grew. Maximillian lingered in the opposite doorway, amused, watching.

It was not an idea that formed in Rafe’s mind, so much as a powerful resolve. He tucked his knives back into his belt and flexed his knuckles.

“I’d just like to say,” he told Trip, “if this doesn’t work, I’m quite terribly sorry.”

Then he picked up Trip and threw him, with all his might, through the air toward the front car.

Maximillian’s eyes had a split-second to grow wide before Trip crashed into him, sending them both tumbling back into the front car. And the gap grew wider still…

Rafe backed up a few paces, not daring to look back, hearing the animal snorts and screeches behind him grow, louder, louder.

He moved, arms pumping, dashing forward in long, determined strides. Hot reptile breath frothed at his back. He dove through the passageway and leapt into emptiness.

Time seemed to slow. Rafe tumbled through the air, the front car approaching — but not far enough, not fast enough. A guttural snort behind him — he turned to see one of the beasts just behind him in the air, having leapt out to follow him. Excellent.

As Rafe reached the peak of his leap, he braced a foot on the snout of the beast behind him and pushed off.

The extra momentum got him to the car ahead, just barely. He slammed against the stone platform with his whole upper body, legs kicking and dangling. Behind him, there was a sudden screech, and then a series of snaps and wet, ugly sounds as the rest of the train, still slowing, nonetheless rolled onward.

Rafe clawed, sliding slowly backwards, warring with gravity and losing. If he could spare a hand to reach the knives on his belt, he could dig in…

Trip’s hand reached out, grabbed his, and hauled Rafe aboard.

1 comment:

Jason said...

(Going through and catching up on my backlog of reading...huzzah!)

Quick typo found above:
"Trip hastily unslung the rifle and dropped it on one of the seats, shaking his hands and wincing. Rafe could see steam hissing from the metal surface of the ."

I was going to suggest PDF annotation as a way to edit this, but blog comments just might work...