Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Seven Signs of Salvation

Life, for Trip Morrow, was an endless string of small, discrete problems to be solved. Get to the opposite side of the street in the fewest steps. Chart the shortest possible course between the produce and meat aisles. Find the most accomodating person-sized space in the packed subway car.

His present problems had simply gotten bigger. And toothier.

Trip dashed across the open plaza beneath the endless night of the Winter City, trailing Maximillian, the Multipurpose Rifle in his arms seeming to grow heavier with every stride. He kept one eye on the uneven stones that paved the ground before him, and another on the exposed innards of the rifle. His long, multiply scarred fingers dipped and dived amid the wires in the main chamber, risking burns and shocks, making last-minute adjustments. In his head, diagrams danced, reshaping themselves from moment to moment.

The trail of destruction Rafe and his reptile pursuers had left was easy enough to follow. That was some small comfort. The thought that he might be too late — that Rafe might be, at the very moment, sliding down some improbable beast’s gullet — was most definitely not.

Trip could feel his own heart hammering against his sternum; every breath burned. He risked a glance over at Maximillian as they rounded one corner of the giant stone arena, the big man’s strides devouring ground with a glutton’s effortless appetite. Maximillian’s face wasn’t even red, and if he breathed with even slightly more effort than usual, the trailing swirl of his long black coat concealed it. Trip nodded to himself, filed those facts in an ever-fuller drawer at the back of his brain, and switched the positions of two final wires.

Two furious roars echoed through the gloom, from the far side of the stadium, and moments later, a pair of tremors rattled their way out through the paving stones and up Trip’s legs. They were close.

Trip slammed shut the casing of the Rifle, pinching the tips of two of his fingers in the process, and felt it charge and hum in his grip. Now or never.

He turned the far corner of the stadium a split-second behind Maximillian and saw two truck-sized reptile bodies surrounding a small prone figure, bending low, tails flicking, jaws wide.

Trip slid to his knees, friction burning through the fabric of his pants as he skidded across the stone. He braced the Rifle to his shoulder and aimed at the beasts. The trigger slid back beneath his finger.

The sound was so low, it nearly felt like silence. The Rifle slammed itself back against him, and even in the semidarkness, he could see the very air itself ripple in an expanding bolt of sonic force, leaping forth to slam against the Rexes.

They reared back as if stung, turning, lurching, the mass of their mass of muscle and bone turned to sudden disadvantage. They faltered, but did not fall. The one with the X-shaped scar across its face bared its jaws and rumbled drunkenly toward them.

Maximillian shot Trip a look of absolute disgust. Trip shrugged.

“Impatient, huh?” Trip said, and fired again.

A wall of sonic pain smashed into the Rexes’ blunt, eyeless skulls. Their legs wobbled at the joints, tiny arms flailing. With incredible slowness, they slid sideways in opposite directions, quavered at the very edge between standing and falling, and crashed over onto the stone of the plaza. The Rexes lay there like sudden snowdrifts, breathing like steam shovels, bellies rising and falling, and groaned piteously.

Maximillian made a small, grudgingly impressed noise at the back of his throat.

“Yeah, I figured,” Trip sighed, getting to his feet again.

The prone figure over which the Rexes bent stirred, and alarm curdled once more in the pit of Trip’s stomach. He ran forward across the stone plaza, dodging a few half-hearted snaps from the Rexes’ prone heads, to find Rafe sprawled full on his back on the ground. Rafe’s eyes were squeezed tightly shut, an obsidian knife clenched tight in each of his fists; aside from a few bruises and scrapes, and his pants stained and reeking with reptillian blood, he seemed miraculously intact.

“Rafe?” Trip asked gingerly.

“That answers my question,” Rafe said with a deep sigh, and opened his eyes. “I cannot possibly be in heaven.”

“Which has its definite upsides,” Trip offered, giving Rafe a hand up. The long run was finally catching up with Trip; he breathed in greedy gulps, the oxygen never seeming to get to his lungs, and waited for his pulse to quiet.

“Took you bloody long enough,” Rafe said, smirking, checking himself for missing limbs.

“Yeah, well, you run fast,” Trip said. “That was a great strategy, though — lying down for them to eat you.”

“Thought of it myself,” Rafe replied. “You missed all sorts of impressive bits before that. I got to ride one of them. The little ones, I mean.”

“And sadly,” Trip admitted, “that’s not even remotely the strangest thing I’ve heard or seen today.”

“Funny how quickly one adjusts to all this,” Rafe said. “I keep half expecting to just start screaming and screaming and not really, you know, stop.”

Or, Trip silently added, start thinking about Sully, and where she and Nora might be. Or if they were alive at all. In that sense, constant danger was a luxury; it left him time and energy to worry only about himself.

Behind them, one of the Rexes roared, this time in pain. Trip and Rafe turned to see Maximillian standing next to the beast’s prone head, delivering a series of probing, experimentally vicious kicks into the back of its skull.

“Stop it!” Rafe shouted, his voice seeming to unfurl like a sail into something larger and more majestic than the man who contained it. Maximillian looked over at him, bored, and delivered another swift blow to the soft, vulnerable tissue just behind the cranial bone of the one-armed beast’s head.

Rafe crossed the distance between them in a few quick strides and grabbed Maximillian by the arm. “I said—”

The big man whirled, and in the blink of an eye the point of his Needle rested dangerously against Rafe’s jugular. Unfortunately for him, the keen edge of one of Rafe’s blades had found its way up to the soft meat between Maximillian’s chin and neck.

Trip moved forward to separate them, but Rafe held out his free hand in warning. “They’re no threat to us now,” Rafe said to Maximillian, even and calm. “Get your sick amusement elsewhere.”

Long, tense moments passed. Then, with a huff, Maximillian moved the Needle away from Rafe’s neck and stepped back. He ran one cork-sized thumb against the line of his jaw, where Rafe had punched him earlier, and shot Rafe a meaningful, poisonous look. Then he turned crisply and strode off, pushing roughly past Trip as he headed toward the circular structure behind the stone stadium, from which the ring of lights rose into the subterranean gloom.

Rafe knelt down to rest a hand against the beast’s massive head. It huffed and rumbled mournfully, lone arm clawing the air, and its companion nearby answered in similarly pained tones.

“They’re just hungry,” Rafe said softly to Trip. “Just doing what they were made to. It’s nature, is all. I think I understand that now.”

“Come on,” Trip said nervously, watching the bellows of the beasts’ rib cages swell and shrink in time with their labored breathing. “I don’t know how long the sonics are going to keep them down. And I’m not wild about letting Maximillian get too far ahead of us.”

“Amen to that,” Rafe said, tucking his knives into his belt.

A single entrance, wide and cavernous, sloped downward into the heart of the vast stone-ringed structure. Trip played the light mounted on his Rifle against the walls as he and Rafe descended into the dimness. The searching beam illuminated suffering etched in stone: carvings of crude but identifiable figures wracked with starvation or disease; defeated soldiers put to the sword; children wrenched from mothers. Again and again, in each carved panel, zigzag lines rose from these figures toward the same sort of circle above.

“Charming, these people,” Rafe muttered. “I’d love to see their hospitals.”

“From what my grandfather wrote,” Trip answered, shaking his head, “you really wouldn’t.”

Light began to trickle in from the bottom of the sloping passageway, and they emerged into a broad hall lit by crystalglow from brilliant clusters on the low stone ceiling. Maximillian waited there, at the periphery of a forest of carved, rectangular stone pillars that seemed to sprout from the floor in a roughly checkerboard formation. There were a dozen of them — or should have been; the spot near the door where one seemingly would have stood was empty.

The tall man turned his head as they approached, impatience registering in his cold grey eyes, then quickly turned back.

“You waited,” Trip observed. “Why does that make me think you know something we don’t?”

Maximillian didn’t look at them, but Trip caught the ghost of a smirk on his face.

“Yeah, I thought so,” Trip sighed. “After you?”

Maximillian shook his head, and swept an arm forward toward the stone pillars, oozing mock courtesy.

Trip hefted the Rifle and stepped into the thick of the pillars. Rafe followed, knives out, and Maximillian swept along behind them.

They moved in silence, weaving through the spaces between the squat stone columns. Something about the strangely lovely, curling carvings that covered the surface of the upraised blocks chimed in the back of Trip’s weary brain. How long since he’d slept? His backpack hung like a millstone against his shoulders, and the scar of the Black Lotus still throbbed dully on the side of his neck. Stay awake long enough, he thought, and the whole world becomes a waking dream. Not that his present surroundings helped much on that account.

Stone shifted against stone, and Trip froze.

“What is that?” Rafe asked, escalating nervousness in his voice, as the sound seemed to multiply, increasing in volume all around them. Trip saw dust springing forth from gaps and joints in the stone columns, and his recollection caught up with him. Red lines coursed upward along the curving channels in the stone. Red eyes began to glow.

“Oh no,” Trip breathed.

And from all around them, ancient, igneous voices rasped out their question: “Irik ku ta Kroatoan?”

“Don’t move,” Trip said quietly, as the deadly, burning gaze of the stone sentinels slowly turned to fix on the three intruders. “Just. Stay. Still.”

“These are the things you found in the tube tunnel, right?” Rafe half-whispered, his knives held rigidly down by his sides. “With the heat vision?”

“I think so,” Trip said, shifting his eyes with painful slowness to the blank square on the floor near the entrance to the chamber. “There’s a blank spot over there where one of them should be, I think. He must have malfunctioned — wandered off and found his way up to the subway, and — hey!”

Maximillian was sauntering past them both, weaving through the deadly statues as if out on a Sunday stroll.

“Don’t move!” Trip hissed. “They track movement! They’re going to—”

The statues did absolutely nothing. Maximillian crossed unharmed to the far side of the chamber, where seven decidedly non-animate stone pillars supported the entrance to an ascending set of broad stairs.

“All right, fine,” Rafe hissed desperately. “This is part of some clever plan of his, right? He’s going to deactivate some switch, and—”

Maximillian grasped a stone dial set into the wall with a ham-sized fist and twisted it in a single quick motion. There was another brief rumbling; then glowing crystal spikes spat themselves up from the floor between the pillars, sealing Trip, Rafe, and the statues off from the rest of the structure.

Maximillian gave them both a jaunty little wave, smirked, and strode quickly up the stairs and out of sight.

“When Mrs. Stitch said ‘Four or more is cannon fodder,’” Trip said quietly, “I think she may have been fudging the numbers a little.”

“If we get through this,” Rafe swore under his breath, “I’m bloody well going to kill him.”

“No you’re not,” Trip said, the last pieces of one particular puzzle snapping together in his mind. “You can’t.”

“I beg—” Rafe began, then shifted down a few dozen decibels. “I beg your pardon?”

“Irik ku ta Kroatoan?” the stone statues chanted again, as one.

“Never mind,” Trip replied, his mind turning to new questions. The seven pillars at the far end of the chamber were not identical. There was a carving on each, outlined in shadow in the steady glow of the crystals overhead. He stared at each in turn, committing them to memory.

Turning his head slowly, centimeter by centimeter, Trip looked behind him, to the back of one of the stone sentries. A picture was etched there in a square block, and another, different, on the back of the one next to it. And another…

“Okay, good news,” Trip said quietly, feeling the glowing red gaze of the statues bore into him. “I think I know how to get us through this.”

“And?” Rafe asked, with expectant dread.

“We’re gonna have to start moving,” Trip said, and swallowed hard. “Those symbols on the pillars at the other end of the room — I think they’re a passcode. See the marks on the statues’ backs? The ones that look like there’s a gap around them? We find the symbols that match, we press them in order—”

“Right, right,” Rafe said. “And if you’re wrong?”

“Then it won’t matter much,” Trip said. “Ready?”

“Not at all,” Rafe replied. And then he dove forward, and the statues lunged after him.

Trip threw himself to one side as one of the statues swiped at him with a pylon-sized stone fist, then rolled to evade the stomping feet of another. Good — the quarters were too close for these things to use their heat beams without damaging one another. Which meant that, at worst, he and Rafe would only be crushed to death.

“First symbol?” he heard Rafe shout from the opposite side of the room. There was a flurry of motion, and Rafe appeared crouching atop one of the thing’s heads, leaping to another’s shoulders as a stone fist smashed into his original perch. “First bloody symbol, please?”

Trip scrambled out of the way as a statue’s stone fists plunged down, smashing a crevice in the rock floor.

“It’s… it’s like a bird, with a mohawk,” Trip shouted. “Three feathers sticking straight up!”

Rafe leapt again, landing in a clear spot on the floor. “Can’t see it! Can’t—” A statue rumbled toward him, and he ducked and rolled between its legs. “Can’t — oh, there it is!” He reached up and smacked the butt of one obsidian blade against the bird symbol in the statue’s back. It flared in a radial burst of red light; then the glow ebbed from the channels of the statue’s surface, and the thing froze in mid-lumber.

“Next?” Rafe cried.

Trip ducked a whizzing stone fist and shouted back. “Two knives, pointing sideways!”

Rafe caromed up off the outstretched leg of one statue, sprang off the chest of another, and vaulted the shoulders of a third to smack the butt of his blade against the twin-knife symbol; again, the eerie light faded from the statue, and it retreated into motionless.

Rafe leapt again, and landed in a crouch — and behind him, Trip saw a statue loom, fat blocky fists raised to accordion him into a puddle of meat and bone.

Trip ran forward, ducking the swipe of a stone guard’s massive arms, slid headfirst across the stone floor, and ratcheted back the lever that controlled the focus of the Rifle’s sonic pulse. Rafe turned, in the shadow of the thing, as it brought its hands down. In the split-second before Trip squeezed the trigger, he saw the third symbol, a pyramid formed with six circles, on the statue’s back.

The pulse sent a whirling furrow of dust rising straight across the chamber floor, smacked into the statue’s back in a fat puff of gravel pebbles, and sent it tumbling headfirst over Rafe. Its face cracked against the stone wall of the chamber, and its limbs had but a second to begin to flail before the red light died and it moved no more.

Rafe shot Trip a grateful grin across the room. Trip was about to return it when night fell, suddenly and quite painfully, in the immediate vicinity of his head.

He tasted ancient stone, registered the inhuman fingers as individual stripes of pain compressing against his skull. Dimly, he felt the thing wrench him up from the ground, his feet dangling, the Rifle clenched frantically in his hand. Wild amoebas of color exploded against the inner wall of his vision. He couldn’t breathe.

And then the dark world into which he’d been thrust popped like a bubble, and he had light and air, and the dusty floor smacked up against him as he sucked great lungfuls of breath. He lurched around, spots clearing from his vision, to see Rafe dangling from the neck of the stone statue that had grabbed him.

“You know,” Rafe grunted as the statue flailed and swiped at him, “for some reason I thought I could choke this thing.” He leapt away just as the statue backed itself against the side wall of the chamber, trying to crush him. “Silly me,” Rafe finished, skidding to a stop across the floor.

“New plan,” Trip gasped, shaking his head to clear it.

“We had a plan?” Rafe asked, nervously eyeing the defensive line’s worth of stone sentinels grinding their monolothic way toward him.

“You distract them, I’ll get the symbols!” Trip said, dragging himself to his feet.

“Oh, sure, you get the easy part,” Rafe groaned. “Just because I volunteered with the dinosaurs…”

He darted to one side as the statues came at him, and Trip searched the jostling crowd of rocky menaces for the next symbol. There! While Rafe led the pack on a chase around the room’s perimeter, hopscotching over the frozen bodies of their deactivated comrades, Trip darted forward and slammed a palm against the one bearing a jaguar’s head. As it stiffened and extinguished, two of the trailing statues turned; Trip darted between them, saw a radiant sun and a flowing river, and plunged his hands against each in turn.

“That’s six!” he shouted, retreating to cover behind one of the deactivated pillar-men. From across the room he heard Rafe yelp in fear, and heard stone sizzle and boil.

“I’m fairly sure they’re cheating now!” Rafe cried, lunging to one side as two of the remaining sentinels eyes’ flared red. The patch on floor on which he’d once stood flared orange, then white in an instant, and began to crackle and smolder with violent green and purple flames.

Trip’s eyes darted to the last pillar, carved with a symbol roughly resembling a human face.

“Just one more!” he shouted reassuringly, and risked a peek at the searching sentries broad stone backs.

A human heart … the head of a dinosaur … an octagon … a seven-pointed star … a checkerboard pattern of dots…

Trip’s stomach sank. He thought of the empty space he’d seen when they first walked in.

“Well?” Rafe shouted, as the sentries heat-beams scorched and blistered the far side of the statue behind which he crouched.

“It’s not here!” Trip shouted. “The last statue — it must be the one that wandered up to the subway!”

Rafe’s response was as heated, and nearly as colorful, as the pools of fire now flaring on the walls and floor around him.

“When the time’s right,” he shouted to Rafe, “go for their eyes!”

“How will I know when the time’s right?” Rafe hollered back. Trip felt his stomach lurch in fear, and took a last deep breath.

“Well, any time before I start screaming should be good,” he said, and stepped out of cover.

“Hey!” Trip shouted, waving his arms. The five remaining statues turned, as one, an ominous, millstone sound filling the chamber.

“That’s it,” Trip said, feeling the hammerblows of his own heart against his rib cage. “Over here.”

They turned with heavy, dead feet, and in the sudden silence of the chamber, the stone sentries began to shuffle toward him.

“Who made you?” Trip asked the statues; trying to understand things, to reason out their workings, pushed away fear. It made him an observer, above it all. “Is that some kind of fluid powering you? Energy?”

They stopped, in a rough semicircle around him. Behind him, the entrance to the chamber yawned, empty and inviting. He could turn and run; but maybe they would follow, if their heat beams didn’t boil him to ash in the first few heartbeats. And Maximillian, and the Misery Engine, still waited within.

Trip watched the red glow rise in their eyes.

“Now, Rafe!” he shouted. The brilliant light only intensified. “Now would be good!”

And then, with a savage yell, Rafe appeared in midair behind the lead statue, scrambling up its back to perch on its shoulders. He crouched, encircling its head, as the other four statues turned their deadly gaze toward him, and jabbed the blades of his stone knives swiftly into and out of the sentry’s radiant eyes.

Rafe leapt away, and Trip flung himself to one side, the weight of his backpack and rifle lurching and choking him as he slid behind the frozen bulk of one of the deactivated statues. The room erupted in streams of brilliant red light, and Trip heard stone ignite. The pillar-men screamed their rocky innards out as uncanny energy poured forth from the lead statue’s eyes, setting fire to the channels of energy coursing across their surfaces. Twin channels of dribbling molten rock scarred themselves against the bounds of the chamber, sizzling perilously close to Trip as he huddled in the shadow of the dead sentry.

At last, the gargling roars of the statues died away, and the eerie light faded. Trip rose from his shelter to see the room newly marked in still-glowing whorls and lines and zigzags where the statue’s uncontrolled heat beams had carved into the walls and floor. At the center of the room, a pile of rubble lay cooling and settling; perhaps, if closely inspected, it might prove to have once been something more wondrous.

“Still alive?” Trip called out, a tremor rising unbidden in his voice. There was a long pause, and then, from behind the dripping, half-molten remains of a dead sentry at the far end of the room, a hand rose, making an upturned V at him.

“That,” came Rafe’s sullen, indignant voice, “was a terrible, terrible plan.”

“A terrible, terrible plan that worked!” Trip offered, as Rafe emerged, dusting chunks of rubble from his bare shoulders and arms. “And look!”

The wild, unleashed beams of the statue’s heat had split and shattered the crystal bars blocking their path to the Misery Engine; as Trip and Rafe watched, awestruck, strange sparks rose and whirled from the ragged ends of the broken spikes, before the light in the crystals flickered and ebbed away.

“I have got to study those things,” Trip said quietly. Rafe shrugged.

“Funny,” he replied. “I was thinking the exact opposite.”

Composed and ready, they moved in stealthy silence through the gaps in the bars, and into the stairwell through which Maximillian had disappeared. The stairs were broad and deeply spaced, flat channels cut into them at vertical intervals — as if, Trip mused, something were meant to be easily slid down them. Or dragged up. Flat white light bled down from a wide opening at their apex. Trip and Rafe headed up, slowly, warily.

Something tumbled into the stairwell from above, bouncing like a soccer ball, emitting strange metallic thuds and clanks as it rolled awkwardly down from step to step. It stopped a few steps above them, at last, and Trip slowly illuminated the light on his Rifle and trained the beam on it.

Maximillian’s head stared back at them, eyes wide and expressionless, gray hair slicked with some viscous goo, and slightly smoking and hissing at the ends. His neck ended abruptly, raggedly, just above where his Adam’s apple would have been — and sprouting from it came not flesh and bone and blood, but a tangle of wires, coils, and metal struts, and a thick, red, oozing liquid.

“He was a bloody robot?” Rafe hissed, casting an uneasy glance toward the top of the stairs.

“I thought so,” Trip said quietly. “The breathing, the small muscles around the eyes — they almost got it right. Almost.” Something in him wanted to bend down and get a closer look, but a larger question kept nagging at him — what had happened to the rest of him?

“So, wait,” Rafe said, holding up a hand. “Were they all robots? Oh, dear God, are we meant to be robots as well? Wait, wait, stupid question. How about this: What in God’s name happened to him?”

“Only one way to find out,” Trip said darkly, and nodded toward the top of the stairs.

They left Maximillian’s head staring down the way they’d came, and continued upward.

The stairs opened suddenly into dazzling open space. Pillars of crystal, somehow carved and focused with the precision of diamonds, ringed the high stone walls surrounding the central pit in which Trip and Rafe found themselves now. Shafts of light stabbed upward from the crystals into the gloom above in a radiant ring.

Across the stone floor, steps led up to some sort of wide, flat stone altar, which stood before a vast stack of concentric rings of carved stone, rising taller than a house into the open air.

And at the top of the steps before them, standing in front of the altar, two distressingly familiar figures waited, and Trip felt cold, concentrated fear seep like Arctic water into every corner and channel of his body.

“There you are,” said Operator Vore, his spectacles glinting in the crystal-light. “You’ve kept us waiting.”

Behind him, Operator Grin slouched, Maximillian’s gray hat crumpled and cocked on the oddly shaped oblong of his head.

“Crunchy,” Grin said, and smiled, and proceeded to pick his yellowed, crooked teeth with the point of Maximillian’s Needle.

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