They tumbled together, the air buffetting and battering them, the world looping dizzily from sun and sky to green-black lake, and back again. And all the while, Nora Swift pursed her lips around thumb and forefingers and whistled, long and loud.
Clinging one to the other, they fell. Nora Swift watched the flat expanse of lake below loom closer, and wondered when, exactly, she was supposed to black out. If she was.
Then the sky above them shimmered and roared, and a sleek silver craft painted itself out of invisibility and dove toward them like some shining bird of prey.
It passed close enough beneath them that Sully could see herself reflected in the fuselage, and start at the livid wound winding itself around her forearm. And then she shut her eyes as a hot blast of backwash from the jet’s turbines hit them both, and they spun and slowed — but not enough.
The plane matched the speed of their fall, unsealing its aft hatch. They fell into cool dimness and the reflections of flashing red lights, and the scream of alarms.
Slowly, the plane angled its nose upward, degree by degree, until the deck met them with the smoothness of a kiss.
“We’re in!” Nora shouted above the roar of the engines and the panicked clamor of the warning buzzers. “Pull up! Pull up!”
The hatch sealed shut above them, and gravity’s wide cruel hand smashed them both down against the corrugated steel of the deck. Nora felt her own skull begin to bend. A black fog eroded her vision, and distantly, she heard the plane’s steel skeleton creak and groan and pop.
The Cyclone bellied out no more than five feet above the cold, indifferent waters of the lake, turbines blasting an escalating V of frothing water in its wake. Then, slung on some invisible string, it shot back into the sky in a swirl of lakefoam and terrified gulls.
When Nora was no longer entirely certain that she would either die or vomit, or possibly both, she opened her eyes, and rolled over onto her back. The G-force had squeezed the breath from her lungs, and she sucked the air back in deliciously.
“That’s my baby,” she gasped, and patted the cold metal deck of the plane with a parent’s fondness.
“Yeah, yeah,” the plane’s digital voice grumbled back. “I love you too.”
Sully’s eyes opened wide, and she blinked, and looked around slowly.
“Huh,” she said to Sully, when she’d gotten back sufficient breath. “Your plane talks.”
“Regrettably,” Nora groaned, and unsteadily pried herself up off the deck into a sitting position. “How you doing, Cyclone?”
“Been better,” the plane sulked. “I don’t want to think what that crazy stunt did to my fuselage. You owe me so much of an overhaul.”
“Your plane talks back,” Sully clarified, more for her own benefit.
Nora gripped one of the jump seats and hauled herself upright, staggering toward the pilot’s seat. It felt strangely right, comfortable, to strap herself in and wrap her fingers around the stick. She realized how much she’d missed it.
“What did we miss?” she asked the plane. “Any word from Professor Science or the jungle boy?”
“I wouldn’t know,” the plane said. “When the Faithless grabbed you two up, I decided I’d shadow you.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Sully interjected, hauling herself into a jump seat. “This plane was just floating around outside the Faithless the whole time? That would have made rescue so much easier.”
“Kinda slipped my mind,” Nora offered, only half apologetic. “What with crazy Lovecraft lady trying to kill us and all.”
“You got any kind of medical kit on this bird?” Sully sighed, wincing anew as she peered at the cut around her arm. “I could do with some bandages.”
Silently, seamlessly, a hatch zipped open in the wall opposite from Sully, revealing a sleek, squarish white box bearing a red cross. She popped open the lid, found disinfectant and bandages, and went to work on her arm. Only at second glance did she see what else the niche contained — a pair of shining pistols hanging on hooks, rows of spare clips trailing down below them.
“Score,” she said, and whistled softly.
“You say something?” Nora called back from the pilot’s seat.
“Your plane’s packing heat,” Sully smirked. She reached reflexively for her box of cigarettes, and then remembered they were gone. And then she thought of the last person to tell her not to use them, and she couldn’t decide whether to smile or worry.
“Trip and Rafe,” she said. “We’ve got to—”
“Find them?” Nora interrupted, suddenly quiet. “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”
Sully craned her neck to see out of the cockpit glass, and felt her mouth go dry.
From the northern end of the city, a crackling line of eye-searing nothingness rose and twisted straight up into the heavens.
“Here we go again,” Nora sighed, and opened up the throttle.
It didn’t have a shape.
It had about twenty, all somehow layered atop one another, and none of them matched any of the others, a Cubist’s fever-dream. It had eyes and arms and teeth and tentacles, and too many of all of them.
And from everywhere and nowhere all at once, it had a song, a hungry uluation that bored into Trip’s skull and surged in torrents around the corrugations of his brain.
Around, but not into. Trip had heard this song before, he realized, but smaller — the hunting-shriek of the Operators. And, some corner of his brain realized, like an inoculation, his exposure to Vore and Grin somehow now protected his mind from being swept away on a rising tide of pure alien madness.
At the moment, of course, he had larger concerns.
“I’d started crying by this point,” Jef said off to his left, philosophically. He stared with one human eye, and one not, at the rippling, shifting planes of the beast crawling its way out of the energies at the heart of the Misery Engine. “Of course, we can make allowances for my youth, but still — you’re clearly made of sterner stuff than I give you credit for.”
“You can stop this,” Trip said, eyeing the controls on the stone altar. Jef stood firmly between him and any means of shutting down the Engine, and Rafe, somehow, still slept in the far corner of the dais. “There’s got to be something left of you in there, Jef.”
“Is there?” the old man asked, cocking his head strangely. “I sometimes wonder about that. About when, exactly, it happened. Or maybe I was always this way. It all gets hazy. Oh, would you listen to that?” He closed his eyelids and let the song of the Eater wash over him. It had extended… appendages, of uncertain but horrible shape, and begun to grip the lip of the Engine, pulling itself across the roaring gap between worlds.
Trip stuck the Multipurpose Rifle into Jef’s rib cage and squeezed the trigger.
The Rifle bulged and sparked, all that sonic force hitting pure resistance and turning back on itself. It blew apart in Trip’s hands, and a great soundless wave of force knocked him up and over the edge of the dais.
He hit one of the rotating stone rings of the Engine, skidded, tumbled, nearly fell off the edge to the next ring rumbling away below. Trip spat blood, shaking the spots from his eyes, and looked up to see Jef standing on the dais, unruffled, straightening his tie. He gave Trip a brief, jaunty wave before the rotation of the stone ring carried Trip out of the platform’s view.
Trip got to one knee, then stood unsteadily. The air in front of him jittered and stuttered and Jef was there.
“Like it?” Jef said, waggling the index and middle fingers of his right hand in the air. “I got the works of a Needle put in a few years back. Awful handy.” The fingers moved again, and Trip spun to find Jef standing just behind him on the stone ring. Above them, the thing clawing its way through the portal sent forth another symphony of ravenous triumph.
Trip closed his right fist and hit Jef square on the mouth.
It hurt, lots — pain bloomed in Trip’s knuckles and shot up his arm to the elbow. Jef took a half-step back and touched his lip, where something that didn’t quite look like blood trickled forth.
“Clearly,” Jef chuckled, “your grandpop never taught you how he threw a punch.”
He smashed a fist hard into Trip’s stomach. Trip doubled over, gasping, and dropped back to his knees. For a moment, all the sound of the world went away, and there was only the song of the Eater ringing in his mind.
Jef squatted down, fixing Trip with his half-horrible gaze, and dabbed gently with his hankerchief at his own cut lip. Jef’s necktie hung down loosely from his shirtfront; as the pain radiated and dimmed out through Trip’s whole body, he saw that it was covered with equations.
“I don’t have to kill you, you know,” Jef said, soft and friendly. “It likes brains — not just the soft meaty parts, but what’s inside them. If you just let it in, well… the singing is quite lovely.”
Trip watched the tip of Jef’s fluttering necktie, and the grinding gap where the top of the stone wheel on which he rotated met the base of the next one up.
He sucked in air, shakily, and stretched out a hand, desperate and feeble, toward Jef.
“I knew it,” the old man smiled. “I knew this world would breed more sense into you than your grandpop.”
And then Trip grabbed his necktie and jammed it into the gap between the wheels.
It caught, and stuck, and the inexorable motion of the wheels drew the necktie tight. Jef let out a strangled gasp as the tie sucked him closer and closer to the spinning intersection of the wheels. Trip heard bones snap, saw Jef’s neck cant oddly.
And all the while, the old man never stopped smiling.
Trip scrambled to his feet and ran, leaping down to the next ring below. He heard nothing behind him, and paused, to rest.
Behind him, something gristly crackled and popped. Trip turned to see Jef, his neck now trailing a ragged stub of fabric, using both hands to set his head back at the proper angle.
“No more of that ‘dying’ stuff, either, is another benefit,” Jef said genially, as his windpipe reknit itself. “You didn’t let me get to that part. But I’m guessing your answer’s no.”
He casually waved one hand, and Trip flew backwards, skidded off the edge of the wheel, bounced off the one below, and rolled hard onto the fringe of grass on the field inside the baseline, bruised and aching.
Trip looked up and saw Jef leap off the ring above, arc through the air, and land just before him. Behind him, the Engine spun and roared, and the Eater’s mouth — one of many, perhaps — broke through the gap, saliva sizzling and boiling in the oxygen of our atmosphere.
“I suppose I could kill you quick,” Jef mused, rubbing one thumb against the palm of his opposite hand. “As a favor to old Tom Morrow.” He smiled again at Trip, showing teeth this time. Behind his slightly yellowed human set, Trip caught a flash of many rows of sharper, stranger teeth, prickling and unfurling down the back of the old man’s throat.
“Then again,” Jef said, “I’m a man of science. Always been the curious sort. And it’s been just about ages since I had a chance to do a proper vivisection.”
He reached out a hand.
The rumbling whine of the Engine changed, deepened. The beast at its pinnacle keened and shrieked. Its probing assault on the borders of Trip’s mind drew back, replaced with fainter, helpless blasts of shock and fear. Jef staggered back in unison, eyes clamped shut, clutching at his own head.
And Trip smiled, slow and triumphant.
“Gotcha,” he said.
The old man opened one eye, the wrong one, and it quivered furiously in its socket as he spat the words out: “What did you do?”
Trip dug in his pockets with both hands, and came out with his fists clenched. When he uncurled the left, three black lodestones sat in the palm.
“That stone key on the altar?” Trip grinned. “It was probably supposed to have these in it.” Before Jef could move, he flung them away to vanish in the grass and dust of the outfield.
He opened his right palm, and a small glass vial rested there, empty save for a few stray flecks of clinging black dust.
“And this,” Trip said, “well, at first I wasn’t sure what it was, or why my grandpa left it for me. Then I remembered his Looking Glass — how the gyroscope that served as its key had another one just like it inside. I figured maybe that stone key worked the same way.”
“What did you do?” Jef roared again, his voice expanding once more beyond his own body, each word striking like a thunderclap.
Trip nodded to the Eater at the lip of the Engine far above, its terror-song growing louder and shriller by the moment. Its ever-shifting appendages were now clinging to the topmost stone wheel, digging sizzling grooves into the stone as the Engine inexorably drew it back into itself.
“I gave it a destination,” Trip smiled. “Oh, and my grandpa says, ‘Don’t trust Jef.’ In capital letters.”
Jef screamed, in all the keys of a pipe organ at once, and lunged away toward the stone altar. One mighty leap carried him halfway up the steps, and with another, he was at the top, hands scrabbling over the controls. He reached for the stone key to turn it, shut the Engine down—
And found the top of the key gone, a jagged, irretrievable stub left behind.
“I’m sorry,” Rafe Windham said, perched on the edge of the altar platform. “Were you looking for this?” The black stone knives clinking and janging from his belt. His eyes stared out at Jef scarlet with burst blood vessels, but they were clear and sane and just a bit smug. He hefted the severed upper half of the stone key in one rough hand.
“I couldn’t help overhearing that this might be just a touch important,” Rafe offered. “And then I seem to have gone and broken it. Shame, really. Here, I’ll make it up to you — have it back.”
And he hurled the chunk of jagged rock right into Jef’s human eye.
The old man staggered back and swore in some inhuman cadence, and Rafe leapt away, down to the Engine, as the stone on which he stood burst into vapor in a spherical sizzle of light. Rafe dashed and dodged his way down the spinning stone rings, leaping from one to the next as Jef, half-blind, lashed out with blast after blast.
Dodging one last dazzling bloom of deadly energy, Rafe hit the grass running, loping to Trip’s side. “What’d I miss?” he asked, grinning.
“Armageddon, nearly,” Trip replied, dusting himself off.
“Well, you know,” Rafe shrugged, “heavy sleeper. I did hear that lovely bit about the destination, though. Good on you.”
“I was practicing it in my head,” Trip confessed.
The grass between them boiled and caught fire, and the two men flung themselves in opposite directions as the turf exploded. Jef strode across the outfield toward them, smearing blood away from his freshly regrown eye, a trailing wave of fire rising from the earth behind him. There seemed to be a shape half-glimpsed growing in the air above and around him, some larger and more terrible form tethered to his human body.
“Schoolyard pranks!” Jef growled. “High spirits and hijinks. I am the single most intelligent being ever born on this planet, and if you two think you can so much as slow me down, I hrrrrruuugh!”
This last interruption to his threat came with a fresh tide of panic washing out from the Eater. Trip glanced up at the Engine and saw it clearly losing ground, being drawn further back into the Engine. And as it did, the otherworldly shape looming over Jef — something all angles and edges and orifices, some horrible Mobius strip of a creature — was yanked back like a kite on a string, dragging Jef’s human body with it.
In its primal panic, the Eater was summoning all its children home.
Jef managed to slur out a string of murder-filled vowels, fighting the pull of his alien master. The heels of his scuffed brown penny loafers dug and clawed at the burning sod. He stretched out a hand, and the air in front of it prickled and rippled—
A shadow fell over the field, and a sudden wind howled. Trip and Rafe looked up to see a great sleek silver assemblage of curves and wings wheeling about overhead, kicking up vortices of baseline dust in the downdraft from its twin turbines. The rear hatch shimmered open, and a dark figure plunged out, tethered to a slim cable, fire blazing from each hand.
The bullets slammed into Jef, staining the front of his neat white suit in ugly bursts of crimson-black. He staggered backward, losing precious inches as the Eater hauled the inhuman parts of him ever closer.
The cable trailing behind the new arrival tightened, drawing out the slack to slow her fall, and she landed gently, catlike, on the ravaged turf between Trip and Rafe. Trip started at the slender intruder, all billowing black fabric, until she looked up at him from above her mask. Black hair fell and fluttered against familiar eyes.
“Sully?” he marveled.
“Hey, boy genius,” she said, peeling back the sash around her nose and mouth, and favoring him with a bigger smile than he’d ever seen from her. “We got shot at by apes and blew up a spider lady. And dammit, you’re still having a worse afternoon.”
Trip opened his mouth to reply, and found himself hurled to the ground as Rafe tackled the both of them. Another bolt from Jef sizzled through the air where they’d been standing, neatly severing Sully’s dangling cable.
“Could we possibly reschedule this reunion,” Rafe suggested, “until after the end of the world is done?”
He turned and rose, drawing his obsidian blades, to face Jef, who still struggled forward as if fighting some gale force wind.
“I understand your kind don’t like these too much,” he said to Jef, hefting the knives. “Let’s see if that applies to you, too.”
He leapt forward toward the old man, blades raised high to cleave into Jef’s head.
And stopped, in midair, caught in a crushing, invisible grip. He tried to scream, twisting, but hadn’t the breath to manage even that.
“I ssssstill have powwwwer enough,” Jef slurred around uncooperating lips, “tttto deal with you.” The strain of fighting the Eater’s pull seemed manifest in his body — the skin of his face was beginning to droop and bubble, wax on a candle. “All of you. A mmmman keeps his promisssses. Iffff I have to ggggo I’ll wwwwwipe this cccccity off the map. Attttomic fission — allllways did like that one.”
He raised his hand again, and the air around it seemed to glow, brighter and brighter.
Then time thickened around him, slowed to molasses. His words became a low, murky drone. He swiveled his gaze, slothlike, to see why.
Valencia Stitch, blind and nearly dead, stretched forth her arm across the grass to bind Jef with her Needle. She aimed by hearing and spite alone.
“I quit,” she rasped.
Then she did.
And in the precious seconds she had purchased, Trip drew Maximillian’s Needle from his belt, lunged forward across the grass, and plunged it sharp and shining deep into Jef’s heart.
“I’m sorry,” he said, looking deep into the old man’s one human eye. With strength he didn’t even know he had, Trip snapped the buried Needle in half.
The world flared nova-bright, hurling Trip back into Sully, sending them both tumbling to the dirt and grass. Rafe dropped to the ground.
The uncontained energies of the Needle surged through Jef’s human body, up into the larger floating shape above him, and back along some unseen conduit to the Eater at the lip of the Misery Engine. This last jolt of sudden pain was too much; the creature released its grip, and sank with an ungodly slurp back into the steaming mass of energies now boiling out of the Engine. It dragged Jef back with it through the air, screaming all the way, until he vanished into the shrinking circle of un-light.
Rafe coughed and shuddered, feeling blood force itself back into his limbs. He looked over at Trip and Sully, disentangling themselves with no small reluctance. Over the grinding howl of the Engine, he shouted, “How do we shut it down?”
Trip looked at the Engine, then at Sully, then at Rafe.
“I… I hadn’t really thought that far ahead!” he confessed.
The ground shook. Fissures began to spread from the base of the Misery Engine as it slowly sank into the earth, drawing the entire field with it. All around them, the steel frame of the stadium groaned. Light poles bent. Bleachers peeled themselves up from their bolts and moorings. The green metal scoreboard began to pitch forward, and the digital signs ringing the upper decks exploded in sparks. Wrigley Field was imploding.
Drawn by the rioting Engine’s magnetic force, chunks of steel broke free and hurtled through the air, clanging off the shining hull of the Cyclone. In the cockpit, Ruby swore amid a clamor of alarms, fighting to keep the craft level. She swung the plane around, dipping it precariously lower, to shield her friends below from the storm of whirling debris.
“Get the hell onboard!” she boomed through the jet’s external speakers, extending the rear hatch’s ramp as close to the ground as she dared. Individual seats plucked themselves from the stands, crashing off the windshield, narrowly missing the hungry suction of the Cyclone’s powerful turbines. And as the plane shuddered and rolled around her, she fought to keep pace with the escalating pull of the Engine…
The fissures spread, and the ground began to slope. The whole stadium creaked and buckled, closing like the petals of the flower around them. Rafe dashed through the choking storm of dust and debris and leapt for the Cyclone’s ramp, sinking one blade deep into the metal, with a silent apology, to hold him fast. With the other, he reached back an arm to the trailing Sully and Trip.
Sully leapt first, grabbing Rafe’s outstretched hand, Trip just behind her. He jumped, arms out, reaching with every last inch.
The Engine screeched and blew apart in a fountain of raw, white-hot energy, sending car-sized chunks of its stone wheels spinning and pinwheeling in all directions. The shock wave knocked the Cyclone forward, just out of Trip’s reach, and Sully only just caught him with the hand of her injured arm.
“Hang on tight!” Ruby shouted. “I’ve gotta take her up!” Amid the whirling storm of metal, the Cyclone strained to rise, inching its way skyward as the steel fingers of the stadium closed into a fist all around it.
Trip dangled, felt himself slipping. He looked up at Nora, desperate.
“Get your arm around my waist!” she shouted to Rafe.
“You’ll fall!” he cried, shaking his head. She whirled at him, eyes blazing, and he would ever after swear that someone else’s voice, someone far more terrifying, came from her mouth next.
“Do it!” the Gaunt Heir snarled. Rafe promptly let go of her arm.
For one terrifying moment, she and Trip pitched backward into space. And then Rafe shifted his grip, just barely encircling Sully’s hips with his arm, as she flopped forward and caught Trip with both hands.
“Grab my arm!” she shouted down to him, gritting her teeth. “Climb up!”
He reached upward, hands seizing her mutilated forearm. Beneath the bandages, pain exploded, and fresh blood began to seep. She let the pain stream past her, bits of paper in a wind, and kept her eyes locked on Trip’s. Slowly, agonizingly, she hauled him up until he clung to the hatch.
The Cyclone cleared the closing gap in the stadium roof by a matter of millimeters, sparks scraping from the tips of the wings, and shot forth into the sky. In a last burst of unearthly light, Wrigley Field collapsed in on itself, sealing shut the Misery Engine and the long passage down to the Winter City in tons of twisted metal and thick, impassable earth. A plume of dust rose and drifted westward, riding the breeze from the lake, and 911 switchboards citywide began to jam with calls.
Exhausted, Trip, Rafe, and Sully collapsed onto the steel deck of the Cyclone as the hatch seamed shut behind them, Rafe’s one stone blade still jutting from the metal. In the pilot’s seat, Nora Swift slumped in her seat, released a long, slow breath, and let the adrenalin seep out through her trembling limbs.
A wild animal yell pierced the cockpit, and then stinking, muscular arms seized her before she could scream.
“You!” Rafe whooped, spinning her around and contorting himself to give her a hug in her seat. “You magnificent queen of the air, bless you!” He stopped, regarding her with surprise and curiosity. “By God, I could kiss you. How frightening is that?”
“Very!” she grimaced, shoving him away. “Ugh! Good Lord, you stink. What the hell did you roll in?”
“Oh, that?” Rafe said, inspecting his grime-slicked torso and gore-stained pants. “That’s, yes, that’s probably the dinosaur blood.”
“Smells like,” Nora began, wrinkling her nose, and stopped. “I don’t even wanna know what it smells like.”
“I got several suggestions,” the Cyclone offered, moodily.
“Which I’m quite sure no one wants to hear,” Rafe replied. The cockpit lights flared at him in some digital equivalent of a Bronx cheer.
“Says the man who stuck a big-ass knife in me,” the plane huffed.
“You two be nice,” Ruby sighed, and looked back through the cracked glass of the cockpit. She saw a robin’s egg wall of sky, flecked with cottony wisps of cloud. It was freedom itself, a kingdom without fear. It was just about the loveliest thing.
In the back of the plane, Trip sat up, peeling back the sleeve of Sully’s silken blouse to see the bloodied gauze winding around her forearm.
“Oh, geez,” he winced, “your arm—”
“I’ll live,” Sully grinned. “Shut up already.” She stretched out a hand and ran one thumb gingerly across the stubble darkening his cheek. “Still haven’t had a shave, huh?” she asked.
Trip smiled. “I’m working on it,” he said.
“Well, when you get around to it,” Sully replied, “you let me know.”
The Cyclone cruised onward through the clear autumn sky, sun glinting off its hull. In the black depths of the lake below, the wreckage of the greatest menace the skies had ever known slowly began to rust. Far beneath the earth, in a city untouched by day, eyeless, hungry things prowled a wrecked mass of stone and crystal shards, searching for scraps.
And the whole of the living world above, slung in the gap between heavens and hells, went on about its lives, a breath away from terror and wonder, and never entirely knowing it.
Not the end! Two chapters more to go. Stay tuned...