Saturday, October 27, 2007

Here We Go Again

It's that time of year once more. My 2007 National Novel Writing Month attempt, His Majesty The Accident, begins Nov. 1. And trust me -- if you liked Trip Morrow, you'll probably enjoy this one, too...

Thursday, July 05, 2007

153,551 Words, Eight Months, and Five Days Later...

... I've finished my very first novel. A bit late for the end of last year's National Novel Writing Month, I know, but hey, I did write 75,000 words in those first 30 days. It just took me a bit longer to write the other 75,000 or so.

Thanks to the friends and family who cheered me on from the start; to those who picked up the story midway through, and encouraged me to keep at it, and to the handful of folks I've never even met who left kind comments on the chapters in progress. If even one person reads and enjoys this rambling, frequently incoherent wreck of a quasi-narrative (which needs so much rewriting, and will hopefully eventually get it), then it's all been worth it.

If you're just discovering it, or have been waiting patiently until it's done, you can start from the first chapter. And watch this space in late October for a link to my next NaNoWriMo novelblog. Yes, God help me, I'm doing this again. Maybe this time around, I can actually finish in a month. Or two. Three at the very most...

The World Reborn

On any other day, news of a dead gorilla found floating in the middle of Lake Michigan would have at least made the lower tier of the national news. There would have been footage of the baffled Coast Guard officers hauling the grisly, dripping anomaly onto their deck with hooks and poles, and perhaps some terrible pun on the newscaster’s behalf.

But Wrigley Field and its sudden, cataclysmic collapse kept that unusual item from attracting much notice. At first, the people of Chicago were just grateful that the stadium had been empty, and no one hurt.

There would eventually be a single body found among the wreckage, but not by rescue workers, and never reported. In the dark of night, it would be wrapped in its own heavy coat, and carried reverently to a long black car of uncertain make and model, and driven away toward a quiet, anonymous grave in a plot outside London, purchased many years before.

For now, as the entire South Side felt secretly delighted, and just a little bit bad about that, and the entire North Side mourned the passing of an institution, everyone could agree to be glad that it wasn’t terrorism, wasn’t some attack. Just bizarre bad luck. The final stroke of the Billy Goat curse, perhaps. There was talk that, perhaps, in the new stadium already going up on the drawing board, the Cubbies would finally have a shot at the series.

A stern, well-dressed city commissioner gave a briefing to the press, explaining the details of the structural collapse. But it was very dry, and very technical, and on the few stations that bothered to carry it, fewer viewers bothered to watch.

Even if they had, very few indeed would be bothered to note the small silver object gleaming in the commissioner’s lapel, just beneath his American flag pin.

A single sewing needle.

Indeed, in the years to come, a great many people — fishmongers and stockbrokers, policemen and architects, librarians and shop owners, would pass each other on streets and buses and trains, in highway rest stops and shopping malls, and spot the needles tucked in each other’s lapels. They would nod knowingly to each other, and go on about their lives. It had become a symbol without a purpose — just a reminder. A force of habit.

Had they ever risked exchanging anything more than glances, they might have noted a single, odd commonality to their lives: They all had extraordinarily bad luck getting a cab.

Nora Swift fell out of sleep with shapes still assembling themselves in her head. She nearly stumbled over the cat in lunging her way toward the drawing table, and fully awoke only after she’d already begun putting lines to paper.

The cat watched, tail flicking in annoyance, and padded off to the kitchen to further attack the mound of food that had been dumped into his long-empty bowl, by way of apology.

Nora wasn’t sure what she was drawing, but she knew why. She’d been dreaming about flying. And she’d been dreaming a lot, having spent the past three days catching up on her sleep, with occasional breaks to order pizza or Chinese, or take another shower. Sometimes, she had been dimly aware, the phone rang for a while, and eventually stopped.

Now the urgent flashing of her answering machine nagged at the corner of her vision, throwing off her concentration. She sighed, and slapped out the hand she wasn’t drawing with, and eventually hit the button that made it talk.

The first five messages were all from her mother, and more or less identical save for their escalating level of hysterics. After the first two, Ruby started skipping the rest.

The sixth message was from Murray, her NTSB boss, leaving a message to ask how she was enjoying her vacation, and to ask, if she had a chance, to let him know where he’d put that file on the latest upgrades to the cockpit doors on 767s. Ruby thought of the way she’d last seen him, tiny silver needles poking from the back of his head, and couldn’t tell whether to shudder or feel relieved.

The seventh message was where things got interesting.

“Ms. Swift? Hi, this is Tom Meachum, of Brinkley Fellowes Davis. This… this might come as a bit of a shock to you, but we’ve been operating under confidentiality agreements that have just been lifted. You may or may not know that you were listed as primary beneficiary in your grandmother’s will for any and all business interests she may have possessed.”

Nora nodded, pencil scratching away. She paused, hastily erased one line, and redrew it different. Better. Somehow, the news coming over the machine sounded like something she already knew.

“I’m not sure if you knew, but your grandmother operated a midsized aviation design firm for several years. It was purchased by a larger company in the ‘60s, but there were… complications and disagreements in the purchase, and your grandmother took the buyers to court. I’m getting all this thirdhand, you understand — I just started here a few months back.”

Nora stopped, squinted at the design emerging on the paper. She thought back to her engineering classes, imagined wind flowing over the shapes of it. Damn. She was going to need a better computer.

“Well, it seems the decision finally came down, in favor of your grandmother’s estate. So the upshot is that you, uh, you kind of own a company. There’s some property and assets, and some cash, plus the settlement. We should really meet to sort all this out in person. My number’s—”

The machine beeped, and cut him off. Nora smiled, having only half-heard any of it, and not quite paying attention to the next message, in which Meachum quickly blurted out his number, and a few more pleasantries, and hung up.

The next five messages, at least, were all from Nora’s mother. So she simply unplugged the machine, and solved that problem altogether.

At some indeterminate point afterward, she set down her pencil, blew away the fringe of eraser shavings, and looked at her work. It was just a sketch — just the faintest beginning, really. But she could see it already, had been seeing it in her dreams, carrying her through the clouds to all the places she’d never known she’d wanted to go.

She picked up the pencil again and wrote in small, careful letters in the corner of the design: CYCLONE MARK V.

The cat sauntered back into the room, looked up at her, and chirped. Nora rubbed sleep from her eyes, stretched in her chair, and lifted the sheet of paper to show to him.

“What do you think, huh?” she laughed.

The cat seemed singularly unimpressed.

The year’s first snowfall draped the city, muffling sound. The night sky glowed a soft orange-gray, fat, whirling flakes dancing in the beams of the lampposts and sticking themselves against windowpanes. Rafe Windham, his coast still dusted with snow, sat in a darkened office with a telephone to his ear. He reclined in a plush leather chair, savoring the way the springs creaked, his feet casually resting on a large, ornate mahogany desk. A crisp stack of cash sat neatly on the desk in front of him.

“You’re absolutely right, Mum,” Rafe said, and was still quite surprised to realize that he meant it. “Yes, yes, entirely foolish. Well, no, I think it’s more that my senses have come to me, really.”

He heard voices approaching outside the office door, and smiled to himself.

“As it so happens, I’m a class or two away from earning about four — no, wait, five degrees, I forgot zoology. Anyway, I’ve checked with the various institutions, and they’re only too happy to let me complete the courses by correspondence. In fact, they somewhat insisted I do all my learning at the greatest possible distance.”

The voices grew louder. A key fumbled in the lock.

“Money? Um, actually, I thought I might get a job. Mum? Mum, will you quit — Mum, please stop laughing, I’m serious. Please. Just… there you go. Breathe. There’s a bookshop I like that needs someone to do the deliveries, and I’ve been getting to know the city quite well… Mum, you’ve gone giggly again.”

The office door opened, the light flipped on, and Leopold “Eight Fingers” Kruczyk stopped dead in the middle of a very animated conversation with his two large, violence-prone associates to stare in sheer disbelief. Rafe looked up, nodded at him briskly, and raised an index finger. Just a minute.

“Mum, I — I think I heard a thump. Was that Dad on the extension? Oh. Oh dear. Have you checked his — yes, just to the side of the windpipe, on the right. His right. Oh, good. Well, just get him a blanket, then. Maybe a glass of water for when he comes round.”

Kruczyk’s large associates reached into their terribly unfashionable jackets and pulled out equally large guns, which they leveled across the desk at Rafe. He held up his finger once more, with a look that suggested they were being highly inconsiderate.

“Mum, I’ve got some friends here. Must go. Yes, yes. No, it’s really not a joke. Yes. Yes. Will do. Love you, too. Cheers.” Rafe hung up the phone and favored the three men with a dazzling smile.

“Mister Englishman,” Kruczyk grinned slowly. “May I ask, perhaps, what you are doing in my favorite chair?”

“Settling accounts,” Rafe said brightly, swinging his feet down off the desk. He scooped up the stack of bills and began thumbing through them eagerly. “That’s… yes, five thousand, three hundred, and twenty dollars. Less a few for the cost of a trans-Atlantic phone call, because I’m a sporting fellow.” He tucked the bills into his coat.

“And what is the significance of this sum,” Kruczyk asked, “which is apparently equal to the value of your life?”

“It’s the amount I would have won here a few weeks back,” Rafe said, “had your men — is it one of these two still, or do they all just look like that? — decided to so thoroughly cheat me. Not a penny more, I assure you.”

Kruczyk nodded, as if this were entirely reasonable. “I am just saying to the boys,” he said, “it is so difficult to shoot a man these days. Always the struggle, the resistance. Here I was very sad, thinking I would not have again the chance to shoot you. It is true what they say about you English — you are very considerate.”

Kruczyk’s very large associates cocked the hammers of their very large guns and centered them on Rafe’s skull.

“Considerate, yes,” Rafe said. “To a point.”

The men fired. The window shattered, and the leather chair died in a glorious flurry of upholstery and stuffing. It was no longer occupied.

The large men, the Tweedles, looked at one another, confused, and then at their guns.

The massive desk took flight, spinning end-over-end through the air, to come crashing down on the Tweedles, pinning them to the floor. Their heads hit with identical coconut thumps, and they saw stars, and then quite a lot of nothing.

Rising from his crouch beneath the desk, Rafe drew his twin obsidian blades from beneath his coat. Flakes of snow and a chill, cutting Chicago wind drifted in from the gaping hole in the glass behind him. He smiled at Kruczyk with neat white teeth.

The gangster reached into his shabby Members Only jacket, drew forth a pistol. Something blurred just in front of him, and he found that the pistol no longer had a barrel. Or an entire front half, for that matter. And then something very large and sharp came to rest just under the soft, wattled flesh beneath his chin.

“Eight fingers,” Rafe said, looming over him. At the point of his stone knife, he drove Kruczyk slowly back against the wall of his office. “Seems a positive surplus to me. It could always be less.”

It took Kruczyk a moment to identify exactly what this strange feeling was that came over him, this sensation of battery acid injected into his limbs, and a mongoose scrambling frantically around with his stomach. It had been quite a while since he had personally experienced fear.

“I think you should retire, really,” Rafe said, his voice low and quiet, his eyes unwavering. He began to drive the point of the knife very slowly upward, until Krucyzk stood pinned against the wall on his very tiptoes. “I hear Florida’s nice. Get a boat. Do some fishing. Play some cards with the other seniors. Might do your health some good.” Rafe paused, meaningully. “At least, it’d be far better for your health than staying here. Do you understand?”

Krucyzk mouthed words, maybe Polish, maybe English. His world had contracted to the face of the man before him, and the point of the knife at his chin.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Rafe smiled, genially, and whisked the knife away, leaving the faintest of cuts in the spotted flesh of the old man’s neck. Kruczyk sank slowly along the wall to the ground, shaking.

“Law of the jungle,” Rafe told him, not without sympathy. “There’s always something bigger than you out there. And chances are, it has very large teeth. See you around.”

Rafe strode from the office, leaving the door swinging open behind him, whistling. He stopped. The corridor between him and the upstairs casino was filled with even larger, unhappier-looking men, all reaching with thick, skilletlike hands into their poorly fitting jackets for their various firearms.

“Gentlemen,” Rafe smiled, holding up one hand as he moved to shrug off his coat. It was dry clean only, and he’d hate to get anyone’s blood on it. “Does any of you perchance know a good florist? There’s a young lady in Surrey I’d rather like to send a bouquet.”

Kruczyk’s men charged, guns drawn. Rafe sighed.

“Suppose I’ll have to look it up, then,” he said to himself. The knives moved him forward.

The spring rain had just ended, mist still curling up off the asphalt into the night sky, as the long blue car turned off Michigan Avenue and pulled up beside the nightclub. A rear door opened, next to the curb, and Trip Morrow folded himself out, clutching an only slightly battered assemblage of flowers wrapped in crumpled paper.

“You think about my offer, son,” came a stern, official voice from inside the car. A gray, weathered-looking man in a crisp green uniform, golden stars glinting in neat rows on his shoulders, leaned forward to catch his eye. “Your country could use you.”

“I will, sir,” Trip nodded, not quite daring to smile. “Thanks for the ride.” He shut the door; the car drove off, and Trip turned to the club, fishing a half-crumpled ticket from the pocket of his sportcoat. A line had already begun to form beneath the club’s shining marquee. In bold letters, it read: TONIGHT ONLY — DANGEROUS MAGIC.

After she had filled herself full of knives, and shot holes clean through a pair of playing cards — the exact pair her volunteers from the audience had chosen; after sealing herself in a tank of water, and reappearing from the wings, toweling herself off, to open it; and after her big finale, the notorious Flaming Coffin, left the entire club on its feet, stunned and applauding (and fire codes be damned), Sully Wells went backstage to find Trip Morrow waiting by the dressing room door.

“Nice of you to make it,” she grinned. “Saw you in the back row.”

“Thanks for the tickets,” he replied. “But what, you couldn’t have gotten me closer?”

“Ingrate,” Sully laughed. She leaned over and kissed him, further mangling the flowers crushed between them.

“You shaved,” she said after, running a thumb along her own lower lip.

“You noticed,” Trip replied, and kissed her again.

The air was cool and fresh, the shops of Michigan Avenue glowing in the mist, as they threaded their way among the crowds of jostling people. Buses and cars rumbled pass, an endless stream of light. Far ahead, the top of the Hancock Building vanished into the clouds.

“I still can’t believe you just walked away from OMG,” Trip said, shaking his head.

“Oh, God, if you had to put up with endless brownie-related conversations on a daily basis,” Sully groaned, “you’d have walked away too. I just… it’s not good when you find yourself looking across a table at your bread and butter and wondering where, exactly, you could shoot him so he’d take the longest to bleed out.” She shivered a little. “Guess it runs in the family.”

They passed the Virgin Megastore; row after row of OMG: Feel the Illusion video games filled the window, next to a cardboard cutout of the mystery man himself.

“Anyway, I wrote his contract way back when,” Sully continued, “so I still get five percent of the gross. Enough to fund my own little tour. I’m never gonna have his natural talent, but I’ve been practicing, and the reviews are good.”

“And how’s the arm?,” Trip asked, concern creeping into his voice. Sully unbuttoned the sleeve of her black shirt and rolled it up; a scar shone dimly against the rest of her skin, winding its way around her forearm.

“Still only skin deep,” Sully shrugged. “The docs say the tendons and nerves healed up better than they thought. It makes my sleight of hand a bit trickier, but like I said, I practice.” She looked over at him, and mussed his hair, over his hasty protests. “And what about you, boy genius? What have you been up to?”

“I, uh, I just had a very interesting conversation on the way to your show,” Trip said, smoothing out the single streak of silver in his hair. “Hey, you want to see something really great?”

Sully smirked. “What, you want to show me your etchings?”

“I don’t have etchings,” Trip said, mock-insulted. “I have blueprints.”

He stepped over the curb, held up his left hand to let the silver-and-amber signet ring catch the light, and whistled for a cab.

“Go on,” Trip said, as he and Sully stood before the vast silver door on the top floor of 900 North Michigan. “Guess how it works.”

“Duh, genius,” Sully laughed. “I opened it the last time. Where are those tuning forks?”

“Nope,” Trip grinned. “Changed that mechanism out. Too easy to fake with the right synthesizer.”

“An all-new impossible key?” Sully asked. “OK, this I gotta see.”

So he showed her.

“Oh, that’s good,” Sully smiled, as the unbreakable door swung shut behind them. “That’s really good.”

“Thought of it myself,” Trip said, reaching over to flip on a switch. Lights sprung to life, illuminating the now-familiar outlines of the Lookout. It was crammed with all manner of strange devices, cluttering corners and balancing precariously on tables, or on piles of half-opened cardboard moving boxes.

“I see you’ve made yourself at home,” Sully smirked. “You moved in how many months ago?”

“Hey, I’ve been busy,” Trip groaned. “Not all of this stuff is mine. Some of it got moved down from my grandpa’s storage locker in Jersey. Even with the notes he left, I’m still trying to figure how how half this stuff works.” He headed for the kitchen. “I think I’ve puzzled out the coffeemaker, though.”

“Dear Trip, do not use,” Sully said, peering under a dust cloth at some weird triangular assemblage of metal and wire. “Will blow up the Earth. Love, Grandpa. So all this is yours, huh?”

“I’m not sure who was more suprised,” Trip called from the kitchen, clattering around in the cupboards. “Me or the building owners. I don’t think they even knew this space was up here. I’m, uh, I’m still not sure it always was.”

“Can’t argue with the view,” Sully shouted back, opening the glass doors to the balcony. She saw traces of blue tape lingering at the corners of the frames, where the glass had been fixed.

She leaned against the railing and watched the traffic thread itself down Michigan. The clouds were too thick to see the lake; instead, she gazed into the black surface of the Hancock tower, looming unnervingly close. If she craned her neck, she could just make out the rough outline of the bland, Modernist skyscraper that had gone up in the ‘50s, according to city records she’d found, on the former site of the Wormwater Building.

Trip elbowed his way through the door, a mug of coffee in each hand; Sully took the one with the picture of Einstein printed on it, the one where he was sticking out his tongue.

“So,” she said, taking a sip. “This interesting conversation you had…?”

“Let’s just say there’s a lot of strange things popping up these days,” Trip smiled, holding up a mug that explained the mathematical relation between matter and energy. “Some of it safely tucked away in warehouses, some of it not. Satellite images showing landmasses that the eyes in the sky never quite managed to spot before. My former employers — you remember them? — they, uh, they came and looked me up.”

“Uncle Sam’s getting jumpy, huh?” Sully asked.

“To say the least,” Trip nodded. “Because if there’s anything the military loves, it’s uncertainty. And, well, my family has certain experience in these matters. And word’s somehow gotten to some higher-ups in the Pentagon about what really happened in Wrigley Field. I suspect there may have been some, uh, needlework involved in that.”

“Can’t say I mind that change of heart,” Sully said, taking another sip. A trace of winter still lingered in the air, and she was glad for the warmth.

“So it turns out that the Defense Department’s thinking it might just need a Special Science Division again,” Trip told her. “Very quietly, tucked away in some corner of the budget.”

“You break their balls about it?” Sully grinned, already knowing the answer. Trip blushed, and looked away.

“Uh, we haven’t really begun formal negotiations about it. I was hoping, maybe you…”

“Negotiations?” Sully said brightly. “With professional hardasses? I think that might possibly hold some appeal.” She leaned against him, giving him a convivial bump with her shoulder. “So tell me, are you just using me for my arbitration skills?”

“I thought maybe you might want to, I don’t know, travel a bit,” Trip smiled. “See the world. Keep your life interesting.”

Sully’s smile flickered for a moment, and she felt her fingers curl and uncurl, almost of their own volition. Her hands wanted to hold guns, these days. They wanted to hold guns all the time.

“My life’s plenty interesting,” she said quietly. Then she looked back at Trip, and smiled again. “But I wouldn’t mind some company. Think it might do me good. You talked to Rafe and Nora about this?”

“I was going to,” Trip said, “but I wanted to ask you first.”

Sully smiled, and shook her head a bit, shifting her sharp dark hair from her eyes. “Any particular reason?” she asked.

“You were likely to hurt me if I didn’t,” Trip said, and grinned at her. “Among other reasons.” And their lips met again.

“I can live with that,” Sully said, when they came up for air.

Trip exhaled, leaning over the railing next to her to gaze out at the lights and the city. In a few more hours, it would be dawn again; if the clouds cleared, he could stand here and watch the sun rise over the lake.

Somewhere, in some reality, his grandfather had stood on this same spot years ago, looking out on a world without limits, determined to never stop searching for the new and the marvelous. There was always a World Yet to Be, Trip thought, waiting just out of sight. Just beyond the curve of the earth. You simply had to look for it.

He turned to Sully and raised his mug. “To us,” he said softly, “and to doing the impossible. Preferably at least once a week.”

Sully clinked mugs with him. “Impossible?” she teased. “I thought impossible was just an excuse.”

Trip shook his head slowly, and felt a smile spread across his face, and all through him.

“No,” Trip said, looking off to the east, waiting for the sun. “Impossible’s just the beginning.”

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

1932: The Pit, The Peril, and the Promise

“You and Hark keep the robots off us,” Tom Morrow shouted over the growing roar of the strange energies lashing across the surface of the Well. “Ruby, you’re with me! Go!” As one, they scrambled over the fallen bodies of the metal men, and dashed down the stairs toward the edge of the Well.

Jefferson Edison Franklin, age 12, sat weeping at the edge of precipice, the lights of unearthly energies dancing reflected in his glasses, and waited for the world to end.

The mechanical men began advancing, as one force, before they’d even reached the bottom of the stairs. They lifted their hands, palms out, and the sizzling beams of Jef’s Electroplasmic Ray burst forth.

Mister Gaunt and Harker Windham forked off to either side, Gaunt clutching his pistols, Hark running low to the ground with his knives, as a blast boiled the stone floor between them. Tom and Ruby Gale ducked as another beam scorched just over their heads, cutting a glowing molten scar into the rock face beyond.

Gaunt opened fire with his pistols, ducking and whirling as the deadly beams lanced all around him. He began to laugh.

Hark leapt, swung from one of the robots’ stiff metal limbs, and vaulted up into the air, knives poised to plunge into the thing’s head.

Through the chaos, Tom and Ruby ran, ducking through the lumbering legs of the mechanical men, toward the base of the steel parabola that held the needle suspended over the heart of the Well. There was a ladder built into the side of it, and without a word, Tom all but flung Ruby up onto it, and clambered after her.

Then he stopped, just a few feet up, looking down at the undulating waves of light rippling in the heart of Jef’s device. A strange feeling of deja vu stole over him. He’d seen that light before, mere days before — shimmering across the surface of his own Looking Glass.

“Tom!” Ruby shouted from above him. “No time to dawdle! We’ve got to shut this thing down, remember?”

Tom looked up at her, his green eyes all but glowing with inspiration, and grinned. “No we don’t!” he called back, and slid down the ladder to the ground.

By the time Ruby scrambled down to join him, he was crouched by the periphery of the great metal ring, straining to pry open an access hatch on the side of it. Baffled, Ruby helped him peel the panel loose; behind them, the ground shook as another metal man came crashing down, accompanied by a salvo of Gaunt’s triumphant cackling.

“What the hell are we doing, Tom?” Ruby asked, as Tom’s deft fingers hunted through bales of twisted wire and thick rubber-coated power conduits in the guts of the machine.

“We’re giving this thing more juice!” Tom hollered back. “Grab hold of that loose cable and plug it into the circuit junction there!”

“More juice?” Ruby asked, even as she followed Tom’s instructions. The cable snapped into place in a flare of sparks, and when Tom did likewise with a third cable, feeding into the same junction, the noise and light of the machine intensified.”

“Trust me!” Tom smiled, and held out a hand. “And run!”

Together, they dashed away from the vast, crackling metal ring, as the light grew ever brighter. At the center of the Well, space itself crackled and split, and a strange not-light came seeping through. And something large and fast approaching sang out.

No, not sang. Screamed.

Ruby hauled Tom back at the last moment, as one of the last metal men thundered down into the magnetic dust before them, one arm missing, its head smashed and trailing blue firefly sparks. Hark perched on its neck, only slightly the worse for wear, and tugged his stone knives out of the thing’s head.

“Nice work,” Tom laughed, scrambling up onto and across the creaking torso of the mechanical man, Ruby close behind. “We’re gonna need some cover here in a second. Where’s Gaunt?”

Hark began to answer, but across the cavern, the last of Jef’s mechanical man suddenly bloomed into fire, falling in a clanking shamble of components to the rocky ground. Again, Gaunt’s eerie laughter echoed through the cavern, audible even over the rising roar of Jef’s mighty machine.

“Having his fun, I’d say,” Hark shrugged. “Wait, what was that about cover?”

Tom and Ruby both grabbed him by the arms and dragged him down the opposite side of the fallen metal man, as the pool of un-light at the Well’s center spread further.

The unearthly screaming intensified — not in their ears, Tom realized, but in their minds. The first shifting, rippling hint of some terrible creature showed itself through the hole torn between worlds, and even Tom, who’d trained himself to think in ten dimensions, found his mind instinctually filling with a wave of awe and terror.

The creature burst forth all at once, wounded, panicked. Hungry multi-facted extensions of itself sprawled forth as it twined itself up around the needle extending down into the heart of the pit. On the rocky ledge high above the Well, Jefferson Edison Franklin sobbed, curling into a ball in the black dust as his nightmares once more took solid form.

Then a whine rose from the vast needle poised above the pit. Blue-white electricity began to crackle along the length of it, congregating at the tip.

In his mind, Tom sensed the creature’s confusion, and fear — and, too late, its horrible understanding.

Then the needle pulsed, and energies nearly beyond human imagining blasted down into the grisly flesh of the Eater, permeating its every cell, cooking it from the inside out. Its scream died from Tom’s mind in an instant, and he flung himself back behind the hull of the fallen metal giant, shielding his eyes.

For a few long seconds, the Eater of Kroatoan glowed charcoal-red, bits of it flaking off and sizzling to ash even as it thrashed about. Then the light of the needle died away, and the brittle, blackened shell of the demolished beast cracked and collapsed in on itself. Its lifeless husk sank back into the dwindling circle of un-light from which it had came, never again to feed.

Jef watched it sink with wide, tear-stained eyes. The singing in his mind was gone. And then he began to scream.

“Give them back!” he roared, sobbing, all but tumbling forward down the steep face of the rock. “Ma and Pa and Scout! You spit them out! You give them back to me!” The black dust mingled with the tears streaming down his cheeks as he raced toward the metal ring encircling the well.

The thought occurred to Tom, Ruby, and Hark simultaneously, and they shook off the spots still dancing before their eyes and dashed forward, shouting warnings to Jef. But they were too far away, and he was closing fast on the rim of the pit.

“I want them all back, damn you!” Jef screamed at the dead creature, as it slipped further back across the shrinking border between worlds.

Gaunt appeared from a roiling cloud of black dust, coat swirling behind him, just at the boy’s heels. His gloved hands stretched forth, trying to snatch at Jef’s arm, haul him back, save him.

Jef leapt for the metal rim of the Well, clambering up. Gaunt dove for him and missed, crashing to the dusty ground.

For a long, terrible moment, Jef stood at the edge of the Well, watching the last withered appendage of the beast shrivel away toward the un-light. He turned his head as Tom shouted one last pleading warning, and the eyes with which he returned Tom’s gaze were no longer a child’s.

With a scream of pure inhuman fury, Jef leapt out, clung to the charred remnant of the beast’s last tendril, and pounded at it again and again with tiny, bloodied fists. Then the last of the creature, and Jef with it, sank into the dwindling circle of un-light. It sealed shut, and the energies rippling across the surface of the Well unraveled themselves thread by thread. And in the Well of Aeons Lost, all was still and silent.

Tom, Hark, and Ruby made their way slowly, shaken, to where Gaunt stood by the edge of the Well, brushing dust from the sleeves of his coat, and coughing dryly. As they approached, he silently held up the object clutched in his left hand, and let it fall to the ground. It was Jef’s right shoe, plucked from his foot as Gaunt fell.

“Almost,” Gaunt said softly, each syllable weighted in lead.

“Are you all right?” Tom asked him. “That thing, the sight of it — has it— are you—?”

Gaunt shrugged. “I’ve seen worse,” he rasped, and left it at that.

“We should get Satel,” Ruby said at last, her voice still a little shaky. She wasn’t looking at anyone in particular; just staring up at the needle poised over the empty pit, now stained and scored with rust-red, corroded tracks.

“Agreed,” Hark chimed in, briskly, as if changing the subject. “Tom, I can carry him if you and Gaunt keep a lookout. I hate to think there may be a few traps we missed on the way in.”

Tom just nodded, staring thoughtfully at the empty black void of the well. He thought of the light, and the Looking Glass, and the notes he’d left for his grandson in the journal safely back at the Lookout. That young man he’d met only days before, from some far and wondrous future — did he still exist now? Would he ever?

“I’ll catch up with you in a second,” Tom said, as his companions set off for the grating through which they’d entered the Well. He stooped and swept up a handful of black magnetic dust in his palm.

Better safe than sorry, Tom thought, smiling. He drew a small glass vial forth from his shirt pocket, and carefully sealed a trickle of the dust inside.

Through the cavern of ice, off the frost-rimed statues of strange and ancient gods, the sounds of hammering, and the sizzling splash of an acetylene torch, echoed into the darkness.

Ruby lifted her welder’s mask, exhaled a soft white cloud of breath, and studied the cooling seam of the frame she’d assembled for the Cyclone’s missing wing. Not quite the original, she decided, but not too shabby for the circumstances.

“Hark,” she called over, “I’m gonna need another panel from the metal men. Maybe four foot square?”

Hark, clad once more in his long fur-lined leather coat, set down his hammer on the steel plate he’d been flattening out, and dug through the pile of finished squares at his heels, hefting the thick metal with unforced ease. “Here we are,” he grinned brightly, scraping one loose from the middle of the stack, and hefted it on one shoulder across the icy ground to Ruby.

Together, they lowered it into place on the framework, Ruby making minute adjustments here and there. At last, she nodded. “I think we’ve got a rivet gun the crash kit,” she mused to Hark. “You mind checking in the back of the plane?”

“Can it wait?” Hark asked, wiping sweat from his brow. “I think poor Satel’s fallen to sleep again, and I’d rather not disturb him for now.”

Ruby sighed and shrugged, twisting off the flow of gas to the torch, and setting it carefully down on an intersection in the metal joints. She slid carefully off the skeletal wing, the plane rocking only slightly on freshly repaired landing gear, and peeled off her welding gloves to rub her hands together.

“Another day, do you think?” Hark asked, gesturing at the plane.

“Maybe less,” Ruby smiled. “All the crashes I’ve been in, I’m starting to think I could fix this poor bird up with my eyes shut. Not that I don’t appreciate the help.”

“And when we return to civilization?” Hark asked. “What then?”

“You mean, besides a hot bath and a steak the size of my head?” Ruby chuckled. “I thought I’d stick around town for a while. The Cyclone’s gonna need an overhaul anyway, and I’ve been thinking of improvements anyway. Plus, what with all Tom’s lost…” She stopped, hesitating, then spoke again. “He could probably use a few more friends around, for a while at least.”

“And?” Hark asked expectantly. Ruby scowled.

“And what, Your Lordship?” she said, lifting the welder’s mask off her head.

“It’s not all smell and sound with me, you know,” Hark grinned. “I’m quite good at reading those subtle facial cues that tell me when someone’s, say, not telling me the entire truth.”

“God, you give me a pain,” Ruby snorted, but there was a smile creeping around the edges of her mouth. “All right, all right, maybe I thought I’d go look up old Lemondrop.”

“The solicitor?” Hark asked. “I thought you’d said he was engaged.”

“Engaged ain’t married,” Ruby shrugged. “I got a granddaughter from the future who says we tie the knot. I figure that puts me in the ballpark, at least.”

“And is that what you want,” Hark probed, “or are you just trying to fulfill some sense of inevitability?”

Ruby looked over toward the edge of the ice, where a lone figure stood, wrapped in a long, dark coat.
“Can’t build a life on revenge,” Ruby said softly. “Not a good one, anyway. I figure, I spend all my time chasing Wicked West around, one way or another that’ll mean she wins in the end.”

“Attagirl,” Hark nodded, smiling. “Get in there and fight for him, then.”

“And what about you, huh?” Ruby smirked, poking a finger at the Lord of the Lost World. “I can’t remember the last time I heard about you taking a night on the town. You don’t get a social life, well, between that and the loincloth, I’d say people are going to start talking.”

Hark ducked his head with uncommon sheepishness. “Well,” he said, with no small hesitance, “in truth I’ve been getting some rather stridently amorous letters from a lovely anthropologist I met in Africa last year — I did tell you about the Mummy Pirates of the Nile, right?”

Ruby snapped her fingers, trying to jog her memory. “Right, right, Amanda something.”

“Amelia,” Hark corrected, perhaps a touch too quickly. “Dr. Amelia Sandsworth. Of the London Sandsworths. She’s, ah, she’ll be in New York, it seems. Curating some exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. I’m told I’ll require eveningwear. Chalmsworth says he knows a tailor…”

“Bring her flowers,” Ruby teased. “Nothing carnivorous.”

“Yes, yes,” Hark fussed, “I’m not completely ignorant as to how these, these rituals are conducted.”

“Geez, listen to you two!” Tom chuckled, ducking under the fuselage of the plane. His hands were black with engine grease. “Glad I don’t have to worry about any of that nonsense.”

“Really?” Ruby asked, quirking one bemused brow at him. “Cause I hear different from Jenny Wright, Tom.”

“If you string that poor girl along too much longer,” Hark scolded, “I fear she’ll demand either a ring or your head on a plate.”

“I’m working on it,” Tom blushed. “The former, I mean. Uh, anyway, your new engine’s looking good. I might even be able to tweak the fuel efficiency a bit, if I can shape the piston right.”

“Just make it work, Tom,” Ruby warned, a good-natured edge to her voice. “We can save the improvements for later.”

“Sure, sure,” Tom sighed, grease-smeared palms raised in surrender. He glanced over at the dark figure standing on the precipice of the ice ledge, and concern seeped into his features. “I could use a second opinion on the engine,” he said, nodding in that direction.

“Good luck,” Hark sighed. “I rather doubt he’s in a chatty mood.”

“Is he ever?” Tom offered with a quick, hopeful grin, and crunched his boots across the ice.

Gaunt stood staring into the abyss as Tom approached. The magician didn’t look back — just produced a handkerchief and handed it casually to Tom.

“For your hands,” Gaunt rumbled.

“Thanks,” Tom said, wiping off the grease. “Gum? I’ve got a few sticks left…”

Gaunt gave no response. He lifted his head to peer at the distant, shadow-shrouded shapes of the ancient statues lining the cavern walls.

“Once, they were worshipped,” he said, in a soft, serrated voice. “Surrounded by life. They were believed in. Now look at them. No different than the rest of us. All alone in the end.”

“I’ve been thinking on something,” Tom said gently, “ever since I met you. Tossing around ideas, talking to some friends, writing letters. If you… if you could go back to the world, would you? Could you give it up?”

The indigo-bound head shook slowly, side to side, in a rough whisper of tattered silk. “The question is moot,” Gaunt said. “I’ve long accepted that.”

“I’ve been corresponding with a Dr. Graftmann in Vienna,” Tom said. “About new methods of surgery. Maybe even a way to, well, to regrow new skin.”

Gaunt turned, and between the wrappings that covered his face, there was some strange glimmer in his eyes. “You have been working on this … for me?”

“For you, and everyone else who needs it,” Tom nodded. “It’s all theory now, I’ll admit. But in five years, I think — in five years I could make it fact. I know I can.”

“My work,” Gaunt said, quickly. “I swore to the Devil himself, Morrow. I— I couldn’t—”

“Five years,” Tom replied. “You could get a lot done in five years. Three thousand, seven hundred and twenty-two divided by five… That’s 744 a year, give or take. Something like 62 a month. I hate to say this, but I think Chicago can provide.”

“You’ve never liked my methods,” Gaunt rasped, the smallest quaver in his voice. “Why would you do me this — this kindness?” He sounded out the world as if it were foreign to his tongue.

“I may not like the way you operate,” Tom nodded, “but I’ve never doubted what side you were on. And I’ve never doubted that deep down in whatever bit of smoke and mirrors you’ve got for a heart, you really do this for the same reasons I do.”

Gaunt was silent for a long time. “Miss Sullivan,” he said at last. “Say nothing of this to her. Please. I — I think she has … hopes. I would not wish…”

“I’m not in the business of dashing hopes,” Tom said, with quiet resolve. “But I understand.”

Gaunt exhaled, and started to chuckle, and then stopped, as if testing the sound of it. He laughed again, a bit louder now, and for once, even in the midst of this palace of ice, the sound sent no shivers racing down Tom’s spine.

“I’ve always envied what you had, Morrow,” Gaunt said. “You and so many others.”

“And what’s that?” Tom asked, curious as ever.

“A future,” Gaunt whispered in a plume of breath. He gazed down the distant tunnel of ice before him, to the tiny square of blue-tingued sunlight at its farthest end. “A World Yet to Be.”

“You want to see yours?” Tom smiled, and Gaunt nodded slowly.

“Very much,” the magician said, as if concluding a prayer.

“Then come on,” Tom said. “I could use your help with this engine. We’ve got a plane to catch.”

And if, somewhere in the endless dark between worlds, a small boy with one shoe missing and an old man in a stained white suit were to meet … what, then, might they have to talk about?

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Demons Below, Angels Above

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...

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Man in the White Summer Suit

“You ever play the guitar, son?” asked Jefferson Edison Franklin, easily, a bit of music jangling amid his own softly gravelly voice. In the speckled shadows under the brim of his hat, his face could have been an old forty or a young eighty. It was the one good eye, the one not covered by the opaque lens of Jef’s mismatched glasses that threw Trip Morrow’s guessing off. It peered out clear and curious and sky blue, and its gaze was ageless.

“No, sir,” Trip said, watching the black-coated shape of Mrs. Stitch, just over Jef’s shoulder, shift her weight and purse her lips at her apparent employer. Trip kept the Multipurpose rifle slung at his hip, his finger not quite on the trigger. Just in case.

“I played the banjo a bit, when I was young,” Jef said, the fingers of his left hand, down at his side, briefly moving through some half-remembered finger pattern. “It was the strings, you see, that got me thinking about time. You pluck a string, right? Send energy all into it. And what happens?”

“It vibrates,” Trip nodded. He could hear Rafe snoring softly, all the way up the stone steps near the altar controls for the misery engine. In the distance, just audible through the hollow steel space of the stadium, he heard an elevated train clack-clack-clack into the Addison station.

“Right,” Jef continued. “And when it does, it seems to get wider. Like there’s two strings, instead of one. ‘Course, the vibration dies down, and the string quiets, and it’s back to being one again. And I’m afraid that’s what’s been happening the past few days, with us.”

“You plucked the string,” Trip said, handing the gnarled old baseball he’d been tossed back to Jef. “Sometime a long way back. The ‘30s, at least.”

“Sharp,” Jef nodded. “Like your grandpa. I was… well, I was just a kid, you understand. I was scared. Those things, those Operators Mrs. Stitch said you met — they’d figured out where we were — figured out a way to get back…” Trip spotted a twitch at the left corner of the older man’s mouth, a nervous, distant tension in his one visible eye. “You know an octopus, it can fit its whole body through anyplace big enough for its mouth to go… the tiniest little holes, if it’s hungry enough…”

Jef went very quiet, and with hands that did not quite tremble, he removed a folded white handkerchief from the inside of his jacket pocket and dabbed at his forehead under the brim of the hat. Mrs. Stitch took a half-step forward, but stopped when Jef turned back to her and nodded once, quickly.

“Mrs. S,” Jef said, “It’s a bit on the warm side today, for November. I believe I brought some lemonade in the Thermos. Would you run fetch it for me, kindly?”

Trip didn’t need any special perception to see just how greatly Mrs. Stitch enjoyed that particular nickname. But she nodded crisply and, with a curious glance back at Trip, swept off toward the bleachers.

“Anyway,” Jef continued, louder now, “I got all worked up and figured I was doing us all a favor. Splitting up the timelines so they wouldn’t know where to look. So we’d all be safe.”

“But it wasn’t perfect, was it?” Trip asked, nodding at the needle in Jef’s lapel. “You needed people to maintain the separation — to sew up the holes.” Mrs. Stitch was gliding back across the field, the fringes of her coat stippled with orange baseline dust, a silver thermos in her hands.

“At the risk of mixing metaphors,” Jef smiled, “you’ve got it in one. The Needles, like that one you seem to have got from old Maximillian there, well, they’re tuned to the frequency at which this timeline vibrates. They can use it, tweak it, smooth out bits here and there.”

Trip looked down at the Needle dangling from his belt. But he did not remove it. “Maximillian didn’t make it,” Trip said slowly. “Not for lack of trying, though.”

“He always was my favorite,” Jef sighed, in the manner of someone who’s just had an afternoon’s work go up in smoke. “Bit of a horse’s ass, but that’s artificial intelligence for you.”

Trip pointed at Mrs. Stitch, hesitantly, as she resumed her place at Jef’s side, handing her employer a bright silver thermos. “I’ve just got to say,” Trip told him, “you’re awfully friendly for someone who’s been trying to kill us.”

Jef paused, halfway through unscrewing the cap on the thermos with his long, lanky fingers, and let out an unforced guffaw. Mrs. Stitch didn’t follow suit.

“Kill you?” Jef said, through the tail end of his laughter. “Son, I was trying to improve you.”

Trip pulled down the collar of his shirt, eyes narrowing, to show the twisting scar of the Black Lotus still livid against the skin of his neck. “I don’t consider this an improvement,” Trip spat. “Or was poisoning me supposed to build my character?”

“Simmer down, son,” Jef soothed, pouring lemonade from the thermos into the hollow cap. “I knew full well you were close enough to Dr. Xiang’s to get help in time. How do you think I knew exactly where to find you? Besides, every good hero needs a little danger, a little tragedy…” His eyes focused once more on something a long time distant, but only for a moment. “A little toughening up. I needed people strong enough, smart enough, to fight the Eaters if ever I couldn’t. That’s the only problem with this world I built — same amount of awfulness, but not enough heroes.”

“And here we are,” Trip said, which would have sounded much more impressive had Rafe, still fast asleep on the altar, not chosen that exact moment to let out a somnolent snort.

“And here you are,” Jef nodded, and took a sip of lemonade. “Funny thing, though. As it turns out, you went and dug me up the one thing that makes you unnecessary.”

Trip’s hand moved on the Rifle at his hip, and Mrs. Stitch in turn began to draw a Needle from her sleeve, and Jef had to step between the two of them, lemonade sloshing perilously in the thermos cap.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” he said. “Pardon my poor choice of words. I just mean the hard part’s done for you. I can use the Engine to seal up the gaps, pluck that old string again — make everything like it was before we so rudely went and turned your life upside-down.”

Trip stopped, the prickle of danger fading from the back of his neck, and exhaled slowly. “Sorry,” he said at last. “You can understand how I might have gotten the wrong impression.”

“Surely, surely,” Jef smiled, screwing the cap back on the thermos, and handing it back to Mrs. Stitch. It vanished into her coat. He turned and began to stride toward the stairs leading up to the Misery Engine’s altar.

“You shouldn’t,” Trip said. Jef stopped, turned.

“Shouldn’t what, son?” There was a challenge in the old man’s one good eye.

“All your resources, all your intellect, and you’re telling me the best way to confront these things, these Eaters, is to hide?” Trip said. “To suck all the wonder out of the world? Lost kingdoms, and dinosaurs, and—”

“Plague bombs, and death rays, and sky pirates,” Jef cut in sharply, his voice quiet. “Walking metal monsters that can raze a city. And hungry, ceaseless things living just a heartbeat away, trying to find their way into our world. You think it’s all shining and golden?”

“I think the good in it’s worth fighting for,” Trip shot back. “We seem to have plenty of horror right here in this safe little world you made — and not enough to stand against it. You said it yourself.”

“Suppose I listened to you, then?” Jef offered, one foot on the lowermost step leading up to the altar. “Let time keep twining itself back together. You think you’d still exist? I knew your grandfather — Windham, Gale, Gaunt, all of them. Not exactly the marrying types. You’re only here because in this reality, your grandfather wasn’t scrambling all over the world, leaving dime-novel plots in his wake.”

Trip thought about this in silence for several long seconds, Jef watching him, waiting.

“Doesn’t matter,” Trip said at last. “The good he did matters more than anything I could possibly do in my life.”

“Oh, you say that now,” Jef laughed gently. “But you’re young. Who’s to say what you’ll do by the time you’re old as me? And don’t confuse shiny ray guns and fancy planes and radiocoder boxes with things the world could actually use. No, I’m saving your life, son, like it or not. I let the world settle back to the way it was, and I guarantee you, this conversation we’re having’s gonna get a lot more one-sided.”

“You’re wrong,” Trip said, stepping forward to take hold of the old man’s arm. The linen of the suit was soft, freshly pressed, and beneath it Trip felt surprisingly solid muscle. He heard Mrs. Stitch moving behind him, the rustle of the grass, and saw Jef’s eye flit to her, signal her to stop.

“I’ve got twice as many patents as you’ve got years, kid,” Jef said, calmly, softly. “I think you can trust me to do the math on this.”

“You’re looking at this as a binary choice,” Trip said, desperate, the words spilling out of him. “This world or that one. But I have to believe the universe, that time, is bigger than that. Big enough for the world you came from, and the world I came from, and whatever mixed-up world we’re both in now. You don’t have to destroy one to save another.”

“Let me guess,” Jef replied. “You’re about to tell me impossible’s just an excuse, right? If I had a nickel for every time I heard that…” He smiled at Trip, sadly, and for just a moment he seemed far older. “I like to think that, too. But it’s just a theory. And the evidence, well, sometimes the evidence says different.”

Jef turned away, gently pulling his forearm out of Trip’s grasp, and began to climb the stairs in a steady, measured gait. “Your grandfather once told me that he’d found the signposts, the trail markers, for the World Yet to Be. But he said it was my job to build it. He didn’t say anything about approving of the design.”

Trip started to race up the stairs, but a firm hand gripped his upper arm, and something cool and metallic pressed gently against the base of his skull.

“All appearances to the contrary,” Mrs. Stitch said quietly, “I rather like you and your friends. Which is why you still have a head at the moment. We’ll walk up, if you like — but slowly, and together.”

Helpless at the point of Mrs. Stitch’s Needle, Trip followed Jef up the stairs, the dark-coated woman trailing behind him. They reached the top, and Stitch moved away toward Rafe, curled up and still snoring in the corner.

“Let him sleep, Mrs. S,” Jef chuckled. “He looks like he’s had a tough day.”

“Wait,” Trip blurted out, as Jef reached for the stone keyboard of Kroatoan pictographs. “Sully and Nora — some… some thing took them, from the sky, and we don’t know if they’re alive—”

“It won’t matter,” Jef soothed. “Once I use the Engine to reset the timeline, they’ll be back in the same lives they were always in, none the worse for wear. Doubt they or you or anyone outside my organization will remember a thing.”

He looked back at Trip, with what seemed to be genuine fondness. “Which, I suppose, is call for me to say it was nice knowing you.” With deft fingers, Jef punched in a sequence of symbols in the stone grid, the pictograms lighting up from within as each was pressed. Jef adjusted the three crystal levers, placed one liver-spotted hand on the the stone key, and twisted it in the console.

Once more, rock rumbled against rock. The ring of crystal spires surrounding the Engine began to glow and pulse, but instead of riding in arcs from their tips, energy began to pour down through them. It surged and sizzled into the face of the carvings on the concentric wheels of the Engine, illuminating them an eerie crimson even in the daylight. And slowly, from the base on up, the Misery Engine began to turn.

In the hollow pit at its center, Trip watched as time itself began to ripple like a mirage. A web of brilliant white light wove itself across the opening, and coalesced into a puddle, and then a pool, and then the whole of the center of the Engine shimmered with unearthly light.

Then the rising whine of the Engine’s workings accelerated further. The platform began to tremble. And a hole emerged in the white light, growing ever larger, radiating every color at once, and none at all.

In the distance, somewhere inside his skull, Trip heard faint singing, growing closer.

“Say, Mrs. S,” Jef asked conversationally. “You remember that cancer you had when we first met?”

“Yes…?” Mrs. Stitch ventured, growing fear in her voice, as she watched the hole of un-light widen even further.

And then Jef turned, and touched two fingers to Mrs. Stitch’s brow. “You can have it back now,” he said.

The gray-eyed woman screamed, an entire lifetime of pain mushrooming inside her head. The world flew away, and darkness swallowed her sight. She fell backward, whimpering, hit the stone stairs and rolled all the long way down.

“What… what did you do?” Trip asked, his heart pounding, as the singing in his skull grew louder.

“A man keeps his promises,” Jef said, looking down the steps at the tiny, convulsing black shape of Mrs. Stitch below. “My dad taught me that. I’m keeping mine.”

He reached up and slowly removed his hat. His head was completely bald, and covered with gummy pinkish scars in strange and swirling patterns. And as Trip watched in horror, the lines of those scars began to undulate and glow, a soft purple, as if lit from within.

“A long time ago,” Jef said, “something put a bad thought in my head. And it grew. And grew.”

He took off his glasses. From behind the opaque lens, something pulsing and lividly purple stared back at Trip from Jef’s other eye socket. It would not, under even the most fanciful circumstances, have been considered an eye.

“And one day,” Jef said, his voice seeming to take on a shape far larger than the slender man who stood before Trip, “I just wasn’t myself.”

Behind him, through the crackling, stinking circle of un-light in the center of the Misery Engine, with a howl like twenty Guernicas, something began to break through.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Final Promise

Wicked West boiled in through the door of the hangar pod in a sea of wriggling black cables, trailing nightmares. Sully Wells barely had time to draw her pistols. The pirate queen scuttled across the flight deck in long, shivery spider-strides, pouring out one long knotted vine of tendrils to slug Sully tumbling across the flight deck.

Nora Swift froze, irrational terror rising in her throat, squeezing it shut. Wicked West turned sharply, useless body suspended above the deck by the thousands of long, animate cables trailing from beneath what remained of her skin. Behind the tiger-stripes of scars that criscrossed the old woman’s face, her cold, mad eyes seized upon Nora.

Bullets flared at Wicked West’s flank, rippling into the curtain of cables that held her aloft, causing them to dip and falter for a moment as the sky tyrant roared in sudden anger. Across the deck, back to a dust-covered stack of equipment, Sully leveled smoking pistols for another volley. Without looking, she shouted to Nora: “Run, dammit! Run!”

Nora’s legs finally moved. She sprinted for the line of small, needlenosed fighter darts lining the rear of the hangar, each poised on their slingshot tracks, aimed at the sealed retractable doors ahead of them. Wicked West rolled and roiled in pursuit, a hissing tidal wave of spreading cables scampering toward Nora’s ankles.

Nora hit the deck and slid feet first under the wing of the nearest black fighter, skidding across the metal plating inches ahead of the searching reach of the tendrils. Crawling the last few feet in a hasty scramble of elbows and knees, Nora huddled against the cold steel wall of the hangar, beneath the jet’s silent turbine. She held her breath as the cables reached their limit, groping blindly for her, tiny scissorblades on their ends snapping like angry moray eels.

Enraged, Wicked West smashed her tendrils again and again at the jet sheltering Nora, starring the glass of its cockpit, tearing jagged stripes in its fuselage. They wrenched loose the jet’s front landing gear in a shriek of rending metal and an arterial spurt of hydraulic fluid, sending the nose of the plane smashing down against the deck with an ear-rattling clang. In the dark behind the plane, Nora covered her ears and willed herself to fade into the wall.

“Hey, gruesome!” Sully shouted, and shoved hard.

A heavy metal cylinder, dangling from the end of a thick, trailing winch chain, swung on tracks across the length of the hangar, and slammed into Wicked West’s cable-studded rib cage. The old woman howled in pain, tendrils instinctively snarling the object that had struck her.

Brightly painted letters marked the side of it: OXYGEN. DANGER — FLAMMABLE.

Sully took careful aim with her pistols, and fired. Wicked West moved quickly, recoiling, a wall of tendrils moving up to shield her as she flung the tank away — but the bullets struck home. The tank boiled into a deafening flash of fire, lifting the pirate queen and her spider-legs off the ground to tumble through the air and smack into the opposite wall.

One patch of cables among her slithering horde mangled, oozing blue-yellow gouts of sparks, Wicked West rose again and swept across the hangar with centipede speed. But Sully was already moving, scaling a narrow ladder mounted to the wall. In a swirl of black silk, she vanished into the shadow-shrouded maze of catwalks above the deck.

“Your ship’s dead,” Sully’s voice echoed down from the gloom, resounding through the cavernous hangar. “And if those cables kept you hooked into it, I’m guessing you’re in bad shape yourself.” Wicked West turned this way and that on spider-stalk limbs, trying to squint up past the dangling lights. But the lamps’ glare obscured whatever might be hiding in the high dark, and the pirate queen saw nothing.

“True, child,” Wicked West called back, tongue probing the corners of her mouth, scheming. “Without the Faithless to sustain me, I am soon to die.”

Nora slid sideways, back to the aft wall of the hangar, to the shaded underbelly of an adjacent fighter. Peering ahead, she could make out a hatch just beneath its cockpit, twin doors hanging open. Big enough to fit a person.

“You plugged yourself full of those cables,” Sully’s voice floated down. “Connected yourself to a derelict ship. All to prolong your life. Seems a shame to throw it all away now.”

Wicked West listened keenly. She calculated. Amid the willow-tree of black tendrils that suspended her above the deck, four probed the boundaries of an inch-thich, three-foot square deck plate. Their sharp metal tips found the screws that held the plate to the floor, and slowly, ever so quietly, began to unfasten it.

“What do you propose, child?” the old woman sang out in her sand-edged voice, like every kindly crone in every dark forest of every fairy tale.

Beneath her, one by one, the deck plate’s screws came loose and plinked to the deck in piano tones. Her tendrils squeezed themselves into the gaps around it, and lifted it from the deck.

In the shadow beneath the fighter jet, Nora crept forward, breathing slow and shallow and quiet. The hatch doors dangled before her, and she crouched, grabbed up at the edges, and hauled herself up into the the glass bubble of the cockpit.

“You must know how to turn this thing around,” Sully’s voice echoed, all business. She’d learned, coddling OMG’s empire from its fragile beginnings, that nearly everything could be negotiated. It was just a matter of terms. “We can get you help — maybe reconnect you to something that’ll keep you going.”

Wicked West’s flowing mass of tendrils billowed, as in a sudden wind, and the steel deck plate whistled up and sliced throught the catwalk, severing it neatly. Supporting cables whined and pinged and snapped, and the catwalk swung down in halves, rattling the remains of the hanging winch chain, to dangle, v-shaped, above the deck.

Nothing came tumbling down with it. And from above, low, mocking laughter rang through the hangar.

“I knew another woman, once, who laughed at me,” Wicked West hissed up into the darkness. “Laughed right in my face. Oh, so lovely and proud she was. I tethered her with a chain and fed her screaming to my turbines, inch by inch by inch.”

Crouched in a triangular opening in the steel pillars beneath the hangar’s arching roof, Sully glanced at the deck plating the pirate queen had hurled at her, still quivering halfway into the face of an I-beam not five feet distant. She remembered the other crucial aspect of negotiation: Sometimes, no matter what, you couldn’t reason with a person. And you had to destroy them.

“Ladies and gentlem — no, excuse me, just ladies,” Sully’s voice floated down from the dark eaves of the hangar. “The most astounding, most exceptional illusion in the history of magic: The Empty Life!” Wicked West began to seethe, tendril-tips scraping slow, screeching grooves in the plating of the deck.

Hunched low in the cockpit of the black fighter dart, Nora realized that the proportions were strangely wrong. The stick sat far out in front of her; the rudder pedals sat a mere child’s distance in front of the seat. There were no dials, no instruments, no labels whatsoever. A jet built for apes with radio brains. No way she could fly this.

At the periphery of her vision, a shape stood out. Down the row of fighter darts to her right, one craft stood out sharper, taller, prouder than the rest. A slash of red paint marked its sharklike tailfin, and Nora began to wonder whether Wicked West let the gorillas do all her flying for her.

“It looks like a person!” Sully exulted, theatrical, staring down from the dark of the steel rafters at the slithering bulk of Wicked West. “It talks like a person! But abracadabra, open the box — there’s nothing left inside!”

“I was the terror of the skies!” Wicked West snarled upward, clawing at the deck. “Picked apart a thousand thousands little steel birds, and ate their innards! I had an army sworn to my command!”

“Where are they now?” came Sully’s reply. “What’s left to show for all that blood and thunder?”

The pirate queen opened her mouth to reply, and found only air on her tongue. In the wrecked cavern of her mind, her memories scattered like marbles. A harsh wind swept across Wicked West’s scar-scratched visage, carrying away all rage and pride and predation. And for the briefest of moments, she was left naked, and alone, and so very, very old.

Swathed in spiderwebs, slimed by slicks of leaking oil and hydraulic fluid, Nora quietly, quietly, hauled herself up onto the wing of Wicked West’s personal fighter. Stretched out full on the cool, dust-furred metal, she could see words painted along the nose in the same blood red that marked the tailfin: THE LADY DESPAIR. Ahead, in the open center of the hangar, she could see Wicked West, dangling from the tidal sweep of shivering black tendrils that danced back and forth against the deck. The sky pirate’s back was turned, and Nora crawled forward toward the open glass bubble of the Lady Despair’s cockpit.

Her weight shifted the balance of the plane, and it rocked gently, creaking on its wheels. Wicked West’s head snapped around, in the direction of the sound. Nora held her breath, flattened herself against the wing, prayed for invisibility.

“Up here!” Sully shouted, sharp and urgent, drawing the pirate queen’s attention back up to the gloom of the ceiling. “Forgotten about me already?”

“To the contrary, child,” Wicked West rasped, around an escalating series of wet, rattling coughs.

“Then quit fretting around down there,” Sully laughed, “and come and get me? Or do the gorillas do all your fighting for you?”

The sky tyrant grinned, a horrible, skeletal sight. Her tendrils oozed out, gaining purchase on one dangling half of the catwalk. Like a cloud’s shadow across the land, she swept herself up into the dark, hunting.

Nora let out a breath she’d barely realized she’d been holding. She lunged forward across the Lady Despair’s fuselage and slid into the cockpit. It stank of dust and rotting leather, but the instruments were in the right places, and once she swept aside thick mats of cobweb, she could read them all. One bank in particular, to the right of the main panel, caught her eye. In three languages, only two of which Nora recognized, the peeling label above it read AUTOMATION.

In the triangle-thick tangle of steel girders high above the flight deck, Wicked West listened to her own thickening breathing echo from the curve of the roof just above, and waited for her aged eyes to adjust to the dark. She sniffed the air, but scented only dust and iron.

Metal pinged on metal, off to her right. Whisper quiet, the tendrils swung her to the source of the sound. Nothing.

Laughter floated up around her. The other False Sister in her liar’s robes, mocking. If she’d had any left to her, Wicked West’s blood would surely have begun to boil.

Another ping, and the pirate queen’s eyes caught something sparkling in the light as it bounced off a rafter and down to the flight deck. A single brass bullet. So. It was deception, then.

She listened now, reaching out with banks of tendrils, letting them sense the brushing motions of air amid the dark and the steel.

There. A moving shape. A flutter of silk. The pirate queen smiled her Jolly Roger smile.

Slowly, so carefully, Wicked West spider-spindled her way in a wide, probing arc around her target. She could smell the girl now, sweat and gunpowder and — yes, that was definitely fear — beneath the familiar scent of her crew’s robes.

Another bullet pinged, far across the hangar, and Wicked West knowingly headed for it. She could all but taste her prey, just there, to her left—

The pirate queen lunged, swift and sudden, tendrils seizing a furl of sink. With a cry of savage victory, Wicked West tore it to scraps — but found no one underneath.

“Here,” the voice whispered from behind her, and she turned to see the girl in black stepping backward off a beam into empty air, leaving something behind. A small, hissing cylinder.

The flashbomb exploded, a quarter-second of sudden daylight filling every crevice of the hangar. In the flash, Sully was frozen, garments billowing upward as she fell toward the incline of the broken catwalk below. For an endless instant, light etched the grimace of Wicked West’s ravaged face, eyes closing an instant too late, as the flash filled her entire vision.

Sully hit the catwalk hard, gritting her teeth as the jolt rattled her every bone and tooth, and slid in a rising whine of silk on metal toward the flight deck below. At the last moment, she braced her feet, pushed off with the whole of her body, and made a desperate midair lunge for the hanging winch chain just to the right of the catwalk. It was a clumsy move, but it worked, the jolt of her own weight nearly wrenching her arms out of her sockets as she fought to keep her grip.

Sully’s momentum carried her flailing toward the port wall of the hangar, and she had just enough time to swing her feet up and around to brace her impact and push off again, sliding down the chain toward the deck.

Wicked West plunged in a torrent of tendrils from the rafters above, a seeking cloud of snapping black cables surging out blindly in every direction. Sully let go and fell the last few feet to the deck, landing so hard she could feel the blow in the back of her nose, as a serpentine sea of tendrils slashed through the air just above her. She ran around the periphery of the hangar, crouching low, Wicked West’s bellows of rage rattling off the iron walls as the black cables punched through the retractable door at the front of the hangar pod.

Too late Sully heard her own boots ringing against the deck, and saw Wicked West’s head swiveling, tracking the sound of her. Sully dove forward, one pistol slipping from her right sleeve, as five tendrils converged to smash themselves deep through the deck plating where she’d just stood. Sully hit, rolled, came up blazing bullets from her pistol off the rippling black wall of cables shielding Wicked West. The cables not pinned in the walls and floor surged en masse for her now, and as her pistol clicked empty, she felt one wrap tight around her ankle and begin to drag her back…

In the cockpit of the Lady Despair, Nora hit the switches for the hangar doors.

Machinery groaned and roared all around her, and in rising slices from the front and back of the hangar, sunlight and icy wind blasted into the room. The fore and aft walls of the hangar were rising, retracting, pulling Wicked West’s embedded cables tight, trapping her spiderweb-taut in midair.

Sully dropped her empty pistol, slid her remaining weapon down her left sleeve, and severed the cable holding her leg with a single well-placed bullet. As Nora and Wicked West both shouted at her — highly contradictory sentiments — she scrambled free and took refuge against the starboard wall of the hangar.

“Let’s see how you like it,” Nora muttered to the dangling, screeching sky pirate suspended at the hangar’s heart. She thumbed open the casing over a bright red switch, and flipped it on.

All down the line of black fighter darts, with Busby Berkeley precision, turbines howled to life in gouts of blue flame and shimmering, searing air. Nora thumbed a second switch, and spring-loaded accelerator cables running under the hangar floor screwed themselves to maximum tension.

“Flying Monkeys, go for launch,” Nora said, and punched the automated launch button. One by one, the planes roared forward out of the hangar. They smashed through the hanging remains of the broken catwalk, splintering it out into open air, and tore through the stretched-tight cables that trapped Wicked West. Blunt, pathetically wriggling ends trailed from her desicated torso, and the pirate queen screamed and screamed, until the hangar was emptied of all jets save the Lady Despair.

Nora fired the jet’s engines; felt the sleek craft roar to life all around her. A flip of a switch, and the cockpit sealed shut around her. She aimed the needle point of the Ladt Despair’s nose dead center at Wicked West, still pinned by a few last intact cables to the flight deck floor and the retracted hangar door ahead. Teeth bared, eyes narrowed, Nora clutched the stick with both hands and made ready to send Wicked West to Hell.

And stopped.

She watched the ancient pirate queen thrash and howl, pinned, and saw for the first time how very frail the remains of the old woman’s body truly were. Barely more than a skeleton, studded with a burnt-out forest of spark-fizzing tendril stubs. Nora remembered the grim look in her grandmother’s eyes, the resignation. This damn blood feud with Wicked West.

Even after the pirate queen had, in all probability, killed Ruby Gale, she’d kept on hunting. Kept nursing her grudge, pursuing its phantom to the ends of the globe, beyond the barriers of her own natural lifespan. Sustained by hatred. Nora wondered, if she took her family’s vengeance now, in a blaze of too-similar fury, whether that anger would truly die with Wicked West. Or whether it would haunt Nora too, hollow her out, leave her something less than an animal. Sometime, somewhere, these things had to end. And they had to end the right way.

Nora unsealed the cockpit and stood, slowly, feeling the jet rumble beneath her feet. Around her, the turbine roared, and the wind howled; she could see Sully clinging to the metal ladder in the starboard wall, staring back at her in surprise and alarm.

“I’m sorry,” Nora shouted through cupped hands, at the writhing black shape of her family’s blood enemy. In her mind, she saw the shattered pieces of Wicked West’s life strewn in a trail across the decades, and wondered how, if ever, they’d fit together into something good and whole.

“There’s a lot of wrong been done to you,” she shouted. “If I could make it right, I would. But it’s bigger than me.” Wicked West’s struggles calmed, and the old woman turned her eyes toward Nora’s. Somewhere in them, past the anger and the madness, Nora thought she saw something sadder, wearier. Something all used up.

“You want to win?” Nora shouted. “Fine! You win! I’m saying it right here and now. Just please, I’m begging you, don’t make me do this. I don’t want to. It’s not too late to let it all go.”

For a long moment, the Pirate Queen of the Skies stared through the rushing wind and noise of the anger into the face that looked so like her life’s defining hatred. Her mouth worked, lips trembling, and for a moment, it looked like she might speak.

Then Wicked West pursed her lips and spat, a stream of some black, inhuman fluid. The remaining tendrils anchored in the flight deck tore free, flinging metal plates out the hangar doors and into the sky. Below, the fuel tanks for the hangar pod’s generators waited, and Wicked West’s black cables scratched and tore at them, peeling back their iron skin, wanting just one spark to blow them all to eternity.

Sully saw this and ran forward, shouting, pistol raised to put one last merciful bullet between the mad old woman’s eyes. But a lone tendril snaked out, rattler-fast, snared itself around her forearm, and sunk its tiny metal jaws through her sleeve and into the meat of her arm. Sully screamed in sudden pain, and the tendril yanked her by the arm up into the air.

Nora all but fell back into the cockpit, slamming the glass bubble shut above her, forgot to even look for the restraint harness, and smashed a fist down on the Lady Despair’s launch button. Beneath the deck, the accelerator cable snapped free. The jet shot forward in a rising scream.

The pointed nose of the jet punched wetly through Wicked West’s body and hurled all three women out into the sky. Against the open hide of the fuel tanks, the sky pirate’s last cable wrenched loose, struck sparks.

The hangar pod mushroomed into smoke and fire as the jet shot forward, riding the shockwave clear of the blast.

When the world returned to Sully she found herself freezing, near deafened, pressed flat against the black metal skin of the Lady Despair. She turned and saw Nora in the cockpit, fighting the controls. Jagged fissures ran all along the skin of the jet, some beginning to smoke and flicker with flame, torn by the death-throes of Wicked West’s tendrils. In the far distance, Sully could see the Chicago skyline glinting in the early-afternoon sun. The plane’s angle of descent steepened, the blue waters of Lake Michigan slowly looming into view above its nose. They were falling.

Inside the cockpit, Sully saw Nora hammering at the glass, mouthing shouts of terror. She tried to crawl across the fuselage toward her, and stopped, held fast by a wrenching pain in her arm. Wicked West’s tendril still wrapped tight around her, and when Sully tugged against it, she realized to her horror that it was still pulling back.

The force of Nora’s nightmares closed around her, and all the air seemed to vanish from the shrinking bubble of the cockpit. The stick was dead, the glass ahead smeared with viscous black fluid from Wicked West. She wrenched again and again at the eject lever beside her seat, the cockpit release switch, but they didn’t respond. Inside her jacket, she felt her grandmother’s revolver hanging heavy. Smacking her elbows painfully against the confines of the cockpit, she yanked it out, gripped it by the barrel, and began to pound with the wooden butt against the glass that trapped her.

Sully felt herself going slowly numb in the chill of the speeding air. The wind tore at her eyes, leaving her half-blind. She reached for the cockpit, but the tendril around her arm squirmed and dug in deeper. Wicked West’s body dangled limp against the nose of the plane, but still the black coil persisted.

Sully tried to shake a knife down her sleeve into her free hand, to slash the coil free. But the knife slipped in her numb fingers and clattered away. She looked for her remaining pistol, only to spot it nestled in a divot in the surface of the fuselage, just beyond her grasping fingers’ reach.

Sully closed her eyes. She imagined her grandfather’s trunk, seeing the blueprints in her mind. There was the hidden panel. There was the secret latch. She took one long, slow, deep breath.

With a scream that the wind snatched away, she pulled her arm free of the tendril, its stubborn blades carving a livid red spiral into the skin of her forearm.

Freed of an anchor, the tendril fluttered away, batted back by the wind. Sully took one agonizing second to let the pain in her arm wash over her. Then she crawled, pressed flat against the steepening fuselage, and grasped her gun with her uninjured arm.

She slipped back down toward the cockpit of the plane, using dug-in dead tendrils as precarious footholds, and rapped the gun against the glass of the cockpit. Nora saw it, and her eyes went briefly wide. Then she steeled herself and nodded.

Sully aimed the pistol carefully, the angle aimed to go clear through both sides of the glass dome, as Nora flattened herself as far as she could into the cockpit.

Sully swallowed hard, mouth dry, and squeezed the trigger.

The bullet smashed into the glass, spiderwebbing cracks across the whole of the dome. Sully fired again, and again, the cracks growing wider. With a last smash of her pistol butt from inside, Nora shattered the glass, and pushed herself glittering out of the cockpit.

The two women clasped arms, looked at each other in mutual disbelief, and leapt out into the air.

The plane screamed by beneath them, trailing smoke, toward the water below. The air buffered and batted Sully and Nora as they fell, plunging ever faster toward the unforgiving lake.

“What now?” Sully shouted into Nora’s ear.

Nora didn’t answer. She just plugged thumb and forefinger into the corners of her mouth, and began to whistle for her life.