Sunday, May 13, 2007

In the Crimson Jungle of the Clouds

She dreamed of drowning, tangled in the rigging of some sunken galleon. And when Sully Wells at last awoke, sodden and shaking and faintly blue, she looked up and saw the ground.

It took her a few seconds to realize that yes, that was the Sears Tower pointing back at her, so far below. Then it vanished behind a curl of cloud, and all was gray mist once more.

She had gone so far past cold that she nearly felt warm again, soaked to the bone by the previous night’s storm and the pervasive, clinging mist of the cloud that surrounded her. She tried to move, and something caught at her, snagged her. Sully craned her neck and looked back and up and saw the tendrils, and nearly screamed.

They were still now, inert, and she had somehow gotten twined within them. She didn’t remember how; just a long, rushing flight up toward darkness, Nora clinging to her hand. And then…

She tried to move again, and the cables started to loosen their hold — and she began to fall. Panic stabbed at her gut, fear shot a torrent of heat through her limbs, and she grabbed the black cables to steady herself. She lifted her neck to look ahead. The cables stretched over her, taut, to some sort of gondola a good distance ahead, hanging suspended in the air by a great black patchwork balloon.

It took her some terrifying minutes, working numb hands and stiff limbs, to push herself up carefully through the tangle of black cables, slip from where they’d looped and knotted around her limbs, and lie with her weight carefully distributed across the slithering net of tendrils as they bounced and swayed in the air. Her teeth chattered like a wind-up toy, until she thought her jaw would rattle itself off her face.

When she could finally tear her eyes away from the dizzying depths below her, she slowly turned her head to the left. There was a walkway, dull rusted iron, stretching across the cables, extending to the gondola. Only after she had crawled, inch by shaking inch, and sprawled full on its freezing, rain-spotted plates, did she bother to wonder where it originated.

She looked back over her shoulder and saw it — armored hull battleship-huge, bristling with pikes and harpoons and colonized in fractals of rust and wear. Bulging steel cables, thick as a clenched fist, stretched up from the top of the massive gondola to a mammoth, sun-blotting oblong of thick, black-painted fabric. The weathered outlines of a skull and crossbones leered out from the side of the balloon, big as a house.

There was a door in the side of the massive gondola, connected to the walkway, and Sully rose on muffled, unsteady limbs and lurched her way toward it — only to find no outward latch. She banged on it with icy white fists, kicked it and shouted, and heard nothing.

At last, her legs gave out. She dropped to her knees, muscles jumping like bugs beneath her skin, trying to shake out the cold.

There, on the plates of the catwalk, she looked down through the tangle of black cables sprouting through ports on the side of the gondola, and saw an open porthole below.

She nearly fell sliding herself off the catwalk, and again lowering herself through the cables to kick her feet at the circular open window. Slowly, numb hands gripping the slippery black tendrils for dear life, she managed to work one leg, and then the other, into the hole — and with one last, sickening lurch, and a number of bruises she barely felt, she slipped and bumped and fell into the gondola.

It was warmer here, even with the chill coming in through the open window. Warm air rose through gaps in the deck plates, and Sully spread herself flat on the floor and passed out for several minutes, exhausted and shivering.

Distant footfalls, vibrating all through the metal of the ship, woke her. Slowly, aching, she pushed herself up from the floor. The heat only served to make her realize how cold she really was, under layers of freezing, moisture-sodden clothes.

She was in some kind of crew quarters; rows of spacious, comfortable-looking bunks and heavy metal lockers lined the walls on either side. At the far end, she saw a door, pressure-sealed with a circular valve from the inside. Dents from outside bulged in the metal of the door, and a pile of chairs and a metal table had been haphazardly stacked against it.

Behind her, the porthole yawned open, cold air whistling in. She stood gingerly, stumbled forward, and shut it, hearing it latch tight. Then she looked down at the low ledge beneath the window, where the massive outer plates of the hull had been welded together, and something gleamed back at her.

Earrings. They were a pair of gold and pearl earrings, simple but lovely. They had been placed neatly and precisely, one beside the other, on the metal. On the floor beneath them, a pair of worn black silk slippers, set down with the same solemn care.

Sully thought about this, and about the open window. She looked back at the makeshift barricade barring the door, and when she shivered, it was not entirely from the cold.

The air grew steadily warmer in the narrow room, now that the window was shut. Sully rummaged the bunks and found blankets, dust-choked and moth-worn but still thick and warm. Clumsily, she stripped out of her soaking clothes, the leather jacket, the thick boots and fishnet stockings, and huddled in a mound of blankets at the center of the floor until her shaking subsided and she felt fully alive again.

The lockers had no locks, and inside them, Sully found more of the neat black slippers, and black silken pants, tunics, and cloaks — the Stevie Nicks ninja brigade, Sully wondered? Jean-Paul Gaultier designing for the Nazi Women’s Auxiliary? But at the moment, staying warm — and not running around a strange and possibly dangerous death ship in mismatched, several-days-old underwear — trumped the possibility of looking stupid.

After a few tries, she found a set of clothes that fit — a loose long-sleeved shirt, baggy harem-like pants with a sash for a belt, and a hooded cloak that draped across her shoulders. The dark fabric was lightweight, comfortably warm, and nearly soundless when she moved. She didn’t want to think about how much a getup like this would have run her back in L.A.

She rummaged through her thoroughly ruined jacket and found, at last, her silver Zippo and Mister Gaunt’s box of cigarettes — a bit damp around the edges, but miraculously undamaged. None of the slippers she could find fit, and something made her leery of touching the pair by the porthole. So she sighed, gritted her teeth, and squished her feet back into her boots.

Wherever she was, the tendrils had taken her. Which meant Nora was here. Sully didn’t really know her — they’d talked some at the Lookout — but in all likelihood, Trip and the British guy were somewhere far, far below. Which made Nora the closest thing Sully had to a friend, literally.

And wherever the tendrils had taken her was probably nowhere that anyone wanted to be.

She moved the furniture away from the door, slowly, carefully. From the dust piled in the corners of the room, and the mothholes in the blankets, whatever had happened here happened long ago. That didn’t make Sully feel any more comfortable.

A turn of the wheel, a few sturdy tugs on the hatch, and the door screeched open, terrifyingly loud. Sully froze, listening to the shriek of rusty metal echo through distant corridors. Then the smell hit her.

A butcher shop. Hell, an entire meat department. In the middle of a monkey house — scratch that, ten monkey houses — in the dead of summer. Sully stumbled back, the sheer stink of it hitting her like a shove to the chest. One hand pinching her nose shut, she rummaged through the lockers again until she found a spare sash, which she wrapped around her nose and mouth until the sheer stench was cut to tolerable limits. She caught a glimpse of herself in a cracked, spotted-over patch of mirror inside one of the locker doors; a strange-eyed bandit stared back at her, and for a moment, she felt her lips twist into a grin beneath the sash, and wasn’t sure why.

The smell didn’t get any better outside. The hallway was empty, lit an eerie, eye-burning red by emergency bulbs sprouting from the bulkheads. Dried black piles of something Sully didn’t even want to contemplate soiled the edges of the corridor, and as she crept along the corridor toward what she vaguely remembered as the front of the gondola, she saw entire lunar fields of tiny craters and dents pocking the thick steel walls. Bullet marks.

Something howled, indeterminately far away, the sound ramming itself madly off the corridor walls, sending a flock of centipedes clamoring down Sully’s spine. Okay, guns, she thought. Guns had just become a priority.

She passed many doors; most were locked, while some yawned open into kitchens or bunk rooms preserved in some hurricane state of disarray. Sully kept moving.

At last, she found a ladder, which she climbed to a closed hatch, white light leaking in around its edges. Sully waited, listening. No voices. No sound at all. She pushed, arms still aching from that manhole cover yesterday, and the hatch creaked open into light and cold air. Sully had found the bridge.

Cold, wet wind blew in through the smashed-open windows that ringed the fore of the room, bits of jagged glass clinging like barnacles at their edges. Steering, throttle, communications — the stations sat empty and unmanned. A captain’s chair, all smooth curving metal and rotting leather, bloomed roselike in the center of the room.

No one was piloting the ship.

Sully fought down an initial wave of panic and shut the hatch behind her. Something had to be controlling this ship; it had grabbed her and Nora, hadn’t it? And she saw lights glowing softly on the control panels — those not smashed, melted and blackened by fire, or chewed up by what looked like gunfire.

She had a sudden urge to sit down, legs tired and aching. She was still getting warm from her time tangled outside. She moved toward the captain’s chair and stopped. Even empty, it had some sinister presence about it — a sense of being occupied, even when it wasn’t. Sully thought better and retreated to one of the stations around the rear periphery of the oblong chamber.

She sat for a while, watching clouds and the occasional bird pass outside the gaping front windows, her brain trying to catch up with the rest of her. Something fluttered at the periphery of her vision, and she turned to look at the console before her, where a slim curl of tattered yellow paper peeked out from one of several slender, vertical drawers mounted into the wall. She pulled out the nearest drawer, and found a map — topography of some strange island, with runways and flight vectors marked by hand in red pencil. The other drawers held more maps, and blueprints — science-fiction aircraft like Sully had never seen, sprouting strange multitudes of wings and engines. Here, too, careful handwritten annotations had been made — circles and x’s noting what appeared to be weak spots and points of entry.

The last map was different. Sully recognized the shape of it — the very gondola she occupied. She found the bridge, traced the corridor back to the room from which she’d entered. The diagram was rougher than the others, sketched by a shaky but trained hand. In sharp, slashing letters at one corner, it had been labeled: FAITHLESS.

She pulled the diagram as far as it would go from the wall, and stood, fingers pressed to the yellow, gummy celluloid that sheathed it, searching. Looking for points of interest. The ARMORY, there, on the opposite end of the ship. ENGINE ROOM, not far away. And right at the heart of the ship, a vast empty space, pointedly unlabeled…

The gentle slithering sound crept slowly around the edges of Sully’s consciousness, and at first, when something brushed lightly against her shoulder, she nearly reached up and swatted it away. Then she saw movement in the corners of her eyes.

The black tendrils were spooling from ports in the ceiling, twisting and twining and searching their way across the bridge.
Sully froze, her heart jackrabbiting against her rib cage. She started to move, and five or six individual cables stopped with a jerk, and turned their pincer ends in her direction. The cables began to diverge, slowly, winding themselves into a cord thick as a man’s arm, oozing like oil across the open air of the room toward Sully’s face.

She shifted her weight to one side, ready to dive, and in a blink, the tendril had closed its distance, sharp metal pincers on the ends of the dozens of cables jawing in predatory leisure.

And then it split, and slid around her head, and neatly shut all the map drawers she’d left open.

Across the bridge, Sully saw the cables flipping switches. Strands wound around the rudder controls, making careful adjustments to the ship’s course. Even at the broken, burnt-out consoles, the tendrils continued to adjust switches that no longer worked, and grope for dials and levers smashed and blackened beyond recognition.

After a minute or two, the tendrils retreated, reeling back up into the ceiling. The bridge was empty. Sully was alone.

She looked down and saw her own knuckles white against the edge of the console.

Sully pulled the map drawer back open and yanked the blueprint of the Faithless out of its frame. She clenched it in her fist until she felt the shaking go from her hands.

A quick scouring of the bridge turned up nothing else — no weapons, just a frustratingly empty cabinet that looked like it might once have held rifles. Sully found a second hatch, on the opposite side of the gondola from where she’d entered. Fastest way to the armory, the map said. She opened it carefully, listening again for any sound or motion below. And when she heard nothing, she climbed down carefully.

She got one final glimpse of the strange, unsettling captain’s chair before the hatch swung shut above her.

The corridors on this side smelled no better, nor were they any less strewn with debris and the marks of battle. Sully followed the blueprints as best she could, but it wasn’t easy; the corridors all looked the same, save for their various desecrations, and the eerie red light made the diagrams hard to read.

She had paused at an intersection to check her progress when she heard it. Shuffling, scraping sounds. Grunting. She turned to check the corridor behind her. Strange shapes flitted and bulged on distant walls.

The inhuman howl rose again, reverberating off the surrounding metal. Closer. Too much closer.

Sully turned and ran, stuffing the map back into the sash around her waist. Every footfall of her boots on the deck plates seemed to ring out like a hammer blow. Behind her, the grunts grew louder, more aggressive. She didn’t dare look back.

She started testing doors, looking for any shelter she could find. Locked. Locked. Locked again. The latch on one seemed to give, only to snap off in her hand.

Shadows, cast from behind her, began to flicker and dance along the walls. She heard shuffling, the tread of heavy bare feet on the metal. Ragged, aggressive machete-blows of breath. And the stink in the air, choking, thickening.

Her hands fumbled. A latch gave, a door swung wide, and she tumbled inside and slammed it shut behind her.
It wouldn’t lock. She looked at the door and saw that something, long ago, had smashed and twisted the handle. Sully turned and saw a lab table, large, heavy, and pushed it shrieking across the metal floor to block the door. No sooner had she slammed it home across the hatchway than the door boomed with a sudden, heavy blow from outside. Another. The table rattled, and the door shook. Dents began to appear in the metal. It’d hold, but only so long.

Immediate danger faded, Sully drank in her surroundings. The stink was somehow even worse in here. Some kind of lab, it looked like. Rusted metal cages lined the walls, big ones, stacked atop each other four high to the ceiling. The doors of most had been torn off, bent, dangling limply from their hinges.

Beyond where the table had been, Sully found the floor painted in red-brown dried blood. Bits of thick white fabric, liberally stained, were scattered about. Surgical tools, scalpels and chisels and saws, lay scattered and rusting on the metal plating, where they’d fallen from an overturned cart.

On shelves on the walls, past the cages, row after row of elongated simian skulls stared out at her. The skulls had been cut open, and mechanical components, of differing design, placed inside. Sully shuddered.

A thunderous blow shook the door, and the heavy table screeched inward a half-inch. The hatch cracked open, and Sully heard angry hoots and shrieks from without. There was another door at the far end of the room, and Sully opened it hastily, finding herself in an office blanketed in cobwebs.

There were a desk and chair here, and more shelves, with jars; strange, blind things floated preserved in formaldehyde. Some had more than the usual number of limbs. Or heads. Sully didn’t care to look too closely.

Another boom from the chamber without; another screech of the table. Whatever was outside, it was quickly getting in. Sully looked up and saw a ventilation grate in the wall, up near the ceiling. Rusted and treacherous, but big enough for her to fit.
She pushed the desk over to the wall, shedding papers snowdrifted on top of it. A framed picture on the desk toppled and fell, and Sully, curious, picked it up and shook the glass free. It was a young woman, hair tightly pinned back, neat lab coat perfectly fitted, strange piercing eyes boring through the camera. She stood behind a table, on which a young chimpanzee sat, staring ahead at the photographer. It took Sully a moment to realize that the top of the chimp’s skull was missing, its brain showing beneath. She dropped the picture back on the desk as if it had suddenly squirmed in her hand.

There was another loud crash from the door outside, and the sound of the lab table clattering on its side. She had no time. Sully grabbed the grating and tugged, flinging it to one corner of the room. She planted her hands inside the duct and hauled, wriggling up and into the narrow tunnel.

The duct seemed to contract around her, squeezing the breath from her lungs in a single gasp. She was back in the attic, locked in the box, blind and helpless and terrified.

Sully squeezed her eyes shut and concentrated. Remember the diagram. The false panel. The hidden latch, just underneath the back of the lock…

A thick, powerful hand seized her by the ankle and yanked her backward.

The skin of her palms squealed and stung against the metal of the duct as she slid, clawing frantically for traction. She looked back — a shadow blocked the light at the entrance of the grate, one thick, impossibly long arm winding its way inside, clamped around her boot. Waves of stench rolled off the thing, and Sully heard grunting, and saw a flash of teeth.

She kicked out hard with her free foot. Her heel smashed against skin and bone, and she heard something cracked. A howl erupted into the duct, rattling her eardrums, and the hand let go of her ankles. She crawled forward into the dark, desperate, awkward, fast as she could. The light blotted out behind her, and she heard the dark shape swatting and pawing around, just out of reach of her feet. Sully looked back at saw the thing smashing itself again and again at the entrance to the vent, trying to get in. Too large to fit.

The thing roared at her, and Sully, triumphant, blew a raspberry back at it. Then she turned and wriggled onward into the dark. At a safe distance, she fished out the blueprints and flicked on her lighter, tracing ventilation ducts. This might work.
Some minutes later, she battered open one last grating, reached out to grip a particularly sturdy-looking pipe bolted to the ceiling, and dragged herself out to dangle and drop into the heart of the ship’s armory.

It was a long, narrow room, one wall all panels of glass, the others rows and rows of lockers, interrupted at one end by a thick, securely fastened door. A steady, constant thrumming, louder here than elsewhere in the ship, filled her ears. That was the first thing Sully noted.

The second: She wasn’t alone.

The body, dessicated by the passing of unknown decades, wore robes like the ones she sported. It slumped against the wall of windows, legs splayed out across the floor, undignified. In the bony claw of its right hand, it held a revolver loosely. It was largely missing one side of its head.

Sully’s gorge rose, and she fought it down. It wasn’t a person, she lied to herself. Never had been. Just some elaborate prop. She could deal with props.

She busied herself checking the lockers. OMG had done tricks with guns — impossible shots, death-defying exploits — and she’d had to learn them herself, to make sure the tricks were safe. She never liked the way the guns felt in her hands. Largely because she liked them too much. The concentrated power of God, a fingertip away. All you had to do was point, exhale, and squeeze. If she held a gun for long enough, and stayed quiet and listened, she could begin to hear her brain making quiet, awful suggestions, in honeyed tones.

But she knew enough to find the most reliable models among the racks of weaponry that awaited her behind the locker doors; to check that the automatics were clean, to know where to find the safeties, to find the right caliber of extra bullets. She found all sorts of useful things.

And only when she was fully stocked, and nearly adjusted to moving around with a bit of extra weight, did she bother looking through the wall of windows into the dim, red-lit gloom beyond. Vast turbines hummed and crackled, and person-sized pistons turned at dizzying speeds. The engine room.

Almost without her knowledge, Sully found her fingers digging out the box of cigarettes, her hands moving to flick open the lighter. She stopped, and turned, and looked at the heavy wooden crate she’d very carefully pulled out from one of the farthest lockers. Better safe than sorry, she thought, and gingerly closed the lighter.

Then her eyes fixed on the cigarettes in one hand, and the lighter in the other, and then back on the wooden crate, sitting there in ominous innocence on the steel floor.

She had an idea.

Sully pushed at one of the windows, scrabbled her fingers around its edges until she found a latch. It clicked, and the window swung open, and Sully stepped out to a platform behind, and a narrow, steep staircase leading down into the pit.
Beneath the sash, she smiled.

The noise in the engine room was nearly deafening; as she climbing the ladder up from the pit to the catwalks high above, quickly but deliberately, Sully could feel the inside of her skull reverberate. Reaching the top, she risked a quick look back down, but it was more instinct than anything else. It was too far, and too dark, to see anyway. She headed onward along the catwalk, feeling more than hearing the clang of her footsteps against the metal, tracing the pathways of the blueprints in her mind.

The vast, unmarked chamber she’d seen on those plans cradled itself like an egg at the heart of the ship, nestled against the engine room as if seeking some adjacent warmth. At the end of the catwalk, Sully found what she’d been looking for — the hatch to the maintenance tunnels surrounding the central chamber. Whatever it was, it still needed water and light and air. And whenever you had systems like those, you needed ways to go in and fix them when they broke.

It was pitch dark inside, save for a distant well of soft light ahead, and once she’d shut the hatch, the noise of the engine room dropped to a dull thrum again. After nearly banging her head on a low-hanging pipe, she dropped into a crouch and inched forward along an even narrower platform. Thin railings denominated its sides, and reaching her hands beyond them, Sully felt only empty space.

Something moved in the darkness beneath her, once, quietly. Then the stale, close air filled with a familiar slithering sound, and Sully flicked on her lighter to see, several feet below the catwalk on which she knelt, the entire floor of the chamber alive with writhing black tendrils. They seemed to be pouring forward into the central well at the heart of the chamber.

Sully heard a voice, low and musical, faintly over the sound of the rustling tendrils, and then a panicked shout. It sounded like Nora.

Sully scrambled forward to the edge of the well, where the catwalk swelled into a ring surrounding the opening. Peering down through the marionette tangle of undulating tendrils, she saw a figure, almost human, suspended in its midst.
“… could have killed you in your sleep, I suppose,” the low, horrible, weathered voice was saying, each word drifting up to Sully like a puff from a hookah. “But I made myself wait. I wanted to see the fear in your eyes. I wanted you to know.”

Sully clenched both fists around the railing, felt her stomach double-knot itself, and took a deep breath.

The voice at the bottom of the pit said something else, quick and low, but Sully didn’t hear it. She had swung herself beneath the railing, off the edge of the catwalk, into the vortex of cables below.

She hit one side of the mass of cables and slid, picking up speed, the fabric of her cloak and trousers zipping and humming against the wriggling tendrils. Down and down she funneled, feet braced to land hard on the figure that dangled at the very heart of the obscene nest—

The wall of tendrils against which she slid gave way, and with a yelp she tumbled out into empty space. Black lines arced and darted at the corners of her vision, and she stopped with a sudden jerk, her arms and legs wrenching painfully, to dangle several feet above the metal-plated floor.

With a rough, nauseating motion, the cables snaring her limbs wrenched her up and around and face to face with the figure at the center of the tendrils — a woman, Sully saw, uncountably old, her face criscrossed with a fierce topography of scars. Beyond her, pressed against the wall, Nora struggled to pry loose the cables squeezing around her throat.

“I was not to be disturbed!” the old woman roared in a sandstorm voice, eyes blazing with hate. “I made that specifically—” Then she stopped; her eyes narrowed, her mouth pursed. Sully risked a glance at Nora and saw, to some relief, that the cables seemed to have loosened around her neck.

“Oh,” she said, as a tiger might say to a lamb. “You’re not one of mine, are you? That’s right… I haven’t had…” Her eyes clouded for a moment, and then snapped back to knife-edge keenness. “Another False Sister, are you? Another deceiver?”

“And you must be the captain,” Sully said, trying to keep the shaking out of her voice. She remembered what her grandfather’s books had taught her, all those long summers ago: A magician must be smooth and practiced in his patter, must weave a comforting hammock of words in which the audience may rest…

“I’m nobody,” Sully told her. “Just one of the many, many enemies you must have bested in your life. And I accept that. There’s clearly no hope left for me.”

“Sensible,” the old woman sniffed, as if slightly pleased.

Funny thing about patter. It could sound a lot like contract negotiations, if you listened to it right.

“And seeing how we’re all women here, the three of us,” Sully continued, “I wondered if, if your triumph, you might grant me one small boon before you do me in. A last cigarette.”

“Tobacco,” the woman exhaled, slowly, longingly. “I can’t even remember how long it’s been.” Sully nodded to herself. A fellow addict always knows.

“It’s just in my belt here, with my lighter,” Sully said, jerking her hands against the restraining tendrils. “If I could…?” She managed to meet Nora’s baffled, somewhat indignant eyes, and tried to project as much reassurance back as she could.

The old woman’s eyes narrowed again for a moment. “Young lady, I’ll have no trickery from you. Unless you prefer to be picked apart very deliberately, over several hours’ time.” The pincers on the end of each tendril opened and shut, meaningfully, and Sully’s stomach churned again. She tried to count minutes and seconds in her head, thinking back.

The cables slackened enough for Sully to reach slowly to the sash at her waist, and to draw from it her lighter and the box of cigarettes. She flicked the lighter open and shut, stalling for as much time as she could, and then opened the box of cigarettes and peered inside.

“Huh,” she said, and turned to show it to the old woman. “Empty.” Sully took some small satisfaction in the shadow of disappointment that flitted across her scar-scorned face. “That’s right, that’s right,” Sully continued. “I used them all up. Earlier. Funny thing about being a magician. You can turn women into tigers, playing cards into doves…”

She paused, and flicked the lighter open for effect, and watched the flame dance reflected in the old woman’s black, confused eyes.

“Or old dynamite and cigarettes into time bombs,” Sully said.

The entire ship shook and boomed in terrible sequence, the blasts as much felt as heard. The old woman screamed, long and horrid, her face contorted in real pain.

“Abracadabra, bitch,” Sully grinned, and just beyond the steel walls, the engine room of the Faithless burned.

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