Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Peril in the Skies

“The rifle!” Nora shouted up to the balcony, her voice echoing off the curving roof of the hangar. Outside, the sound of rumbling motors grew louder; perhaps mere moments remained before the entire building would be overrun with heavily armed cops.

Rafe scrambled to his feet, still gaping at the television. “The what?” he shouted, his eyes not leaving the screen.

“The silver rifle, in my bag!” Nora shouted, making her way around the seamless-looking silver fuselage of the unveiled Whirlwind, looking for some way, any way, inside. “I need it, quick!”

Rafe dug through the satchel bag lying on one of the cabinets until he came up with a strange, metallic rifle, unlike anything he’d seen outside of bad science fiction.

“Hurry!” Nora hollered, finding herself at the aft of the plane. No use. There was no way in the damned thing -- but it was her plane, supposedly, somehow, so there had to be. She rested a hand on the cool metal skin of the fuselage and tried to think.

Something hummed beneath her palm, and with a hydraulic hiss, a hatch unsealed and lowered, granting entrance to the plane.

“Here,” Rafe said from over her shoulder, slightly out of breath. He had the stone knives tucked hastily in his belt, and he handed the rifle over to a startled Nora.

“Let’s hope this thing’s still got... uh... whatever it’s got in it,” Nora muttered. She hefted the rifle and took aim at the rear door to the hangar. With a few quick shots, Nora covered the door in quick-hardening goo, then aimed upward to do likewise to the high windows around the periphery of the hangar’s ceiling.

“That’s...” Rafe began, wrinkling his nose. “I can’t decide whether that’s fantastic or disgusting.”

“Little of both,” Nora sighed as the trigger began to click. “Empty, I guess. Or maybe it needs to recharge. Look, I think I can get us out of here, but I’m gonna need some time to figure this-- this--”

“Er... fantastical space plane?” Rafe ventured, getting his first good look at the Whirlwind. “It looks a bit Thunderbirds, really.”

“Right, whatever,” Nora nodded. “Look, that goo, whatever it is, ain’t gonna hold off the cops forever.”

“About the cops -- on the telly, I saw--” Rafe began, but Nora cut him off with a quick wave of her hand.

“Listen, dammit!” she snapped. “I need you to buy me some time while I get the plane up and running. Keep the cops busy.”

“Excuse me?” Rafe said, taking a quick step back. “Whoa, hang on, what makes you think I’d last two seconds against those people? I’ve seen your police movies! They’re like a bunch of steroid-addled pit bulls in body armor!”

“Well, for one thing,” Nora said matter-of-factly, “I just saw you jump straight over that railing, ten feet down, like you were stepping off a curb.”

Rafe looked back quickly, then at Nora, then back up at the balcony. Come to think of it, he didn’t remember taking the stairs.

“Oh,” Rafe said. “Well, okay then.”

“Good luck. I’ll let you know when to open the doors,” Nora said, nodding at the large hangar doors toward which the plane faced. “Just... uh... don’t die or anything, all right?” She paused for an awkward moment, clapped Rafe on the shoulder, and then ducked into the Whirlwind.

“Right,” Rafe said to no one in particular. “Very comforting, that.” He took a deep breath, then another, hearing the sound of a battering ram being applied to the nearby hangar door with considerable enthusiasm. Rafe drew the stone knives from his belt and tested their heft in his hands, letting his arms hang loose and limber by his sides. They felt somehow good -- like familiar extensions of himself. Like he’d been born to hold them.

Rafe took one last deep breath as the hammering at the door grew more fervent, then exhaled. He shut his eyes. Opened them. Smiled.

“Either I’ve just gone insane,” he said quietly to himself, “or this might possibly be fun.”

As the hatch sealed up behind her, Nora found herself in a darkened cargo compartment, jump seats lining the walls, that led to the cockpit at the front of the plane. There was just one seat up front, swiveled around to face her, and reluctantly, gingerly, she sat down.

She yelped in surprise as the seat rotated around to face the front windscreen. Lights sprang on all across the instrument panels as a variety of screens, dials and readouts blinked to life. A control stick rose forward, placing itself exactly in her outstretched hands.

“Hey, sweet thing,” the Whirlwind said in a deep, musical voice. “Long time, no see.”

“Excuse me?” Nora blurted, looking around.

“Did I stutter?” the plane replied. “Girl, you look a bit different. Do something with your hair?”

“Uh... it’s a long story,” Nora said. “I’m talking to the plane, aren’t I?”

“No,” the voice replied with dry sarcasm. “You’re talkin’ to a magical genie livin’ in the engine compartment. What do you think?”

“Okay, okay,” Nora said, stifling a nervous laugh. “Just... uh... had to make sure.” Her eyes swept over the dizzying array of instruments -- and for some reason, they seemed as familiar and comforting as the dashboard on her car. There was the altimeter, the artificial horizon, the throttle controls. Wherever her eyes fell, there exactly was the very gauge or screen she’d been looking for. She shifted in her seat slightly, and even there noticed the familiarity. It was like the whole plane was molded to her preferences.

“Fuel,” Nora said. “How’s our fuel?”

“Baby, we are gassed up and ready to go,” the plane purred. “I’d ask if you want to file a flight plan, but damn if I can’t get a read on the FAA wireless network.”

“Uh... that’s fine,” Nora said. “Just for the record -- who am I?”

“Don’t you make me run no medical scan on you,” the plane scolded. “Unless you’re trying to test me? You’re Nora Swift, CEO of Gale Aeronautics, and pilot of this superfine Cyclone Mark III-class customized piece of utterly badass machinery. If I do say so myself. Now can we quit the twenty questions and get to the preflight checkup already?”

There was a sudden, violent jolt, and the sound of chunks of something large and heavy bouncing off the rear fuselage.

“Ow!” the plane winced. “Damn, girl, are you throwin’ a party or something? I’m readin’ all kinds of heat and motion out there. You want it up on the cameras?”

“Uh... sure,” Nora said, and the video screen in front of her blinked to life, showing live feeds from angles all around the plane. The back wall of the hangar was simply gone, a jagged hole blown in it by some sort of explosive, and men in black SWAT gear with automatic rifles were pouring in through the smoke that roiled across the gap.

As Nora watched, someone seemed to leap down from the roof of the plane, ricochet off one SWAT trooper, and smash open another’s helmet with a blow from the stone knife held in his hands.

“Damn,” Nora said. “Look at the white boy go.”

It was odd, Rafe thought (as he ducked under a burst of machine-gun fire from a black-suited SWAT trooper, and neatly sliced the gun in two with one of his blades) how naturally this all came to him. Well, yes, there had been the krav maga (punch that one in the stomach, let his weight fall on your shoulders, give a heave, and there! You’ve topped that other one who was about to set off the tear gas grenade) and the Le Parkour training, and the bit of muay thai, and of course the tae kwon do. There were always better things to do than study in Rafe’s life, and learning to hit people -- or better yet, avoid having them hit you -- was most definitely one of them.

But it occurred to him (sprinting halfway up the staircase, balanced on the railing, and then turning a somersault to drag two pursuing SWAT cops backwards down the stairs into a heap of helmets, padding, and confusion) that he’d always felt slightly awkward in those pursuits, always conscious of his own motions, always running checks in his head (so, apparently, those whizzing sounds going by his ears were bullets -- fascinating!) to make sure he was going through each precise motion correctly.

This? This was as natural as breathing. Although sometimes, when he’d connect with a particularly satisfying blow, behind his eyes Rafe would see a split-second flash of the young man from his dream, and that tidy smile of his.

Rafe blinked, and looked about. The concrete floor was strewn with groaning, semiconscious SWAT troopers; through the gap in the wall, he could see the remaining forces falling back. He seemed to have run out of oppnents.

Or not. There was a familiar dark shape striding toward the hangar from the sunlight outside -- a very tall, very determined-looking dark shape. He seemed to be sorting out a crick in his vertebrae, cocking his head rhythmically to one side, and even at this distance, Rafe could hear the joints popping.

Maximillian stepped calmly through the hole the SWAT troops had created, gave one arm a little shake, as if he were still trying to get the bones back into place, and fixed his strange gray gaze directly on Rafe. The tall man’s eyes narrowed.

Then Nora, in the cockpit, flicked the Whirlwind’s ignition switch. Powerful turbines on each of the wings began to spin, first at a slow whine, then faster and faster. A gale force wind filled the tiny hangar, stray papers and bits of rubble blowing everywhere, and the full brunt of the thrust sent Maximillian skidding bodily backward to slam against the far wall.

Rafe didn’t need an invitation. Stowing his knives and snatching up a helmet from an unconscious guard, he dashed across the hangar, took three quick steps straight up the front wall (that was a good trick, wasn’t it?) and grabbed hold of the dangling chain that opened the hangar doors. Braced against the wall amid the howling tumult of the turbines, the helmet resting on his knees, Rafe pulled the chain hand over hand, and the doors, slowly, began to open.

“Come on, come on,” Nora breathed in the cockpit, watching the doors inch upward. She strapped herself into the seat with sweat-slicked hands and checked the rear cameras. Her stomach knotted itself all over again.

Maximillian, under the full blast of the turbines’ backwash, had stood up. And he was walking, one hard-fought step at a time, slowly toward the back of the Whirlwind.

With a last heave, Rafe got the doors all the way up, and felt the chain lock in place. He pushed backward off the wall, turning a somersault in midar, and landed with a thump in the nose of the plane. Nora, startled, waved.

“Now, just who is that crazy-ass white boy sitting on my nosecone?” the Whirlwind demanded, with vague indignance.

“Let him in!” Nora barked. “You got any kind of roof doors or something?”

“Baby,” the plane reassured her, “you know I got everything you need.” Seamless doors in the roof of the plane retracted smoothly, filling the calm air of the cockpit with the roar and buffett of the turbine winds outside.

Rafe scrambled up the front of the plane and paused at the edge of the roof doors, hefting the helmet, testing its weight. He looked along the length of the plane to the tail, where the dark form of Maximillian staggered forward, the whole of his coat rippling in the wind from the turbines. The tall man stretched out one hand, fingertips mere centimeters from the back of the plane.

Rafe cupped both hands to his mouth. “Oi!” he shouted. “You there!”

Maximillian’s head snapped up, and Rafe hurled the helmet with all his might.

Accelerated by the turbines’ jetstream, the helmet smacked into Maximillian’s face so hard that it split in two. The tall man tumbled backward to the cement floor, clutching his face, and Rafe dropped inside the cockpit, landing in a crouch.

“Get yourself a jump seat,” Nora shouted back to him as the doors slid shut above. “You like flying?”

“It depends,” Rafe said, breathing heavily, flushed with adrenalin. “Is there beverage service on this flight?”

“Don’t think so,” Nora replied. She eased the throttle forward, and the plane taxied through the hangar doors and began to bump across the weedy, open field behind the structure. Far ahead of them, the blue-green waters of Lake Michigan filled the horizon.

“Ah,” Rafe said, hastily strapping himself into a seat folded-down from the wall. “Failing that, do you perhaps know how to fly this plane? Any plane?”

“I flew the UFO,” Nora told him.

“Yes, and we all know how well that ended,” Rafe sighed.

“Baby,” the plane said, “I got some bad news for you. Field’s too short. No way we can take off.”

“No,” Nora insisted. “My dad said he used this field all the time.”

“Well, it may be good enough for your dad’s single-engine piece-a-crap kit plane,” the Whirlwind huffed, “but I happen to be one finely tuned piece of precision avionics, and I’m tellin’ you, the field’s too short.”

“Um, excuse me,” Rafe chimed in. “Is that the plane talking?”

“Yes!” Nora and the Whirlwind shouted simultaneously. Rafe nodded quickly, relieved that this was not, at least, the next progression in his apparent nervous breakdown.

Something outside struck the fuselage with great force, sending a reverberating ping through the entire cabin. Then another, and another, until it sounded like a sudden hailstorm had erupted.

“Dammit!” the plane thundered. “Those melonfarmers are shootin’ at me!”

“Melonfarmers?” Nora asked. Rafe snickered.

“Hey, you were the one installed Profanity Limiter 2.3 on me,” the Whirlwind sulked. “Ow! The hell kinda ammo are they usin’?”

Ruby checked the video screens. Police cars and SWAT vans had flanked the plane as it slowly bumped forward along the grass; behind them, officers fired pistols, shotguns, and machine guns in a steady barrage at the skin of the plane.

“Are you hurt?” Nora asked the plane. “I mean, is there damage?”

“Naw,” the Whirlwind said. “You know I got that Morrowlite cladding. But it’s gonna be hell on my finish.”

“Shame you didn’t build a helicopter,” Rafe sighed, and Nora’s eyes snapped wide.

“VTOL!” she shouted to the plane. “You got any kind of vertical takeoff capability?”

“For damn sure!” the plane replied, and from either wing, Nora heard hydraulics humming, and a change in the sound of the whining turbines.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Nora asked, seeing stats for the plane’s vertical thrust slide into view on the video screen.

“You didn’t ask,” the Whirlwind replied. “Hang on to your butts, people. Here comes the fun part.”

The roar of the turbines intensified, clouds of dirt and debris beginning to roil around the plane, and with a sudden lurch, it shot upward off the ground, momentarily leaving Rafe and Nora’s stomachs behind. The ground below shrank with dizzying speed, and then with another, gentler, buoyant sensation, the plane leveled off.

“Altitude, 2,000 feet, and damn if it ain’t a lovely day,” the plane said. “So, baby, where you want to go?”

“Nowhere, for just a second,” Nora said, her eyes squeezed tight, willing the wave of nausea from the plane’s sudden ascent to recede. “Then 919 North Michigan.”

“Headin’ over to Morrow’s? What gives?” the Whirlwind said. “Is my calendar off, ‘cause it sure as hell don’t seem like Saturday.”

“Give me my calendar for the week,” Nora said as the plane’s wings rotated back to the horizontal, and the Whirlwind began to coast in a slow looping arc away from the expanse of the lake and back toward the Chicago skyline. A list of dates and places flashed up on the video screen before her.

“Board meeting,” Rafe read over her shoulder, having unstrapped himself from the jump seat. “Lunch with the Commerce Secretary! You do get around.”

“Look at this,” Nora said, tapping one particular date on the screen. “Saturday. ‘SSD meeting, 919 North Michigan.’ What do you suppose that’s about?”

“Society for Sleep Deprivation?” Rafe guessed. “Sloppy Seconds -- no, can’t think of a good ‘D’ word for that one.”

“You wanna know something, jungle boy?” Nora sighed, swiveling the chair around to face him. “You’re really not as funny as you think you are.”

“And yet I keep trying,” Rafe grinned back. “You do realize you’re flying a plane right now, yes?”

“The plane’s helping,” Nora said uneasily, to a wordless affirming mmm-hmm from the Whirlwind. Rafe looked unconvinced.

“Where’s the altimeter?” he said. “Go on, quick.”

Nora swiveled around and pointed, without hestiation. The she stopped, blinking. “That was an easy one,” she wavered. Rafe put a hand on the back of her chair and leaned forward, gazing across the bank of the controls.

“Afterburner,” he said. Nora pointed. “Air brakes. Stabilizers. Auxiliary electrics,” Rafe rattled off, and she found her fingers landing effortlessly on each dial.

“Eyes shut, now,” Rafe said. “Secondary fuel shunt. Distress beacon. Hydraulics levels.” And without even thinking, Nora let her hands move blindly, instinctively to spots across the console. She opened her eyes and let out a breath.

“And you,” she said, “with the kung fu and the climbing up walls. How much of that was training?”
“More than you’d think,” Rafe said, narrowly avoiding banging his head on a bank of switches as he stood up. “Less than I’d like.”

A snowball of doubt coalesced in the pit of Nora’s stomach, and she ran her hands slowly back through her hair. “How much of this do you think is me,” she said. “Who I am, who I’ve always been? And how much of this is... whatever we’re becoming?”

Rafe opened his mouth to answer the question, and fell over.

The blast had come from nowhere, making the whole plane shudder, jolting Nora hard against the straps of her harness. “What the hell was that?” she and the plane shouted simultaneously, as Rafe scrambled his way to the nearest jump seat.

“Hell if I know!” the plane shouted, an edge of panic in its synthesized voice. “I got nothin’ on radar.”

Nora swallowed hard and wrapped her hands around the stick. “Give me external video,” she said. The skies around them were clear -- nothing on any pane of the video footage that scrolled across the video screen. But another jolt rocked the plane, and alarms began to whoop.

“Whatever that was, it was closer!” the plane said.

“You mean those weren’t hits?” Nora said, her eyes widening.

“Indirect only,” the Whirlwind replied. “I’m readin’ incredible localized bursts of heat and concussion.”

Nora took another look at the video screen, and then looked closer. There was some error in the video feed -- glitches in the pixels. A cloud of slight distoritions in the video algorithm, like bad compression, off the Whirlwind’s right wing.

“Give me manual,” she said, feeling the stick loosen in her grip, the plane’s systems shift themselves over to her. “Rafe, you strapped in?”

“Couldn’t be more so,” Rafe said quickly from the back. “Not that I’d mind if I were.”

Nora rolled the stick hard to the left and kicked up the throttle, sending the plane into a hard bank. The turbines roared, and the plane shook again from another near-miss.

A black helicopter unlike any Nora had ever seen, all sharp edges and angles, wheeled into view through the Whirlwind’s cockpit glass. A single silver needle was painted on its side, on the aft fuselage. The side of the copter was open to the air, and a tall, black-coated man in a harness dangled out the side, something long and silver glinting in his hand. Nora recognized the calm, almost mechanical body language. Maximillian.

Even from this distance, she could swear she saw him smile.

“Oh, hell,” Nora said quietly. “Hang on!” She shot the throttle forward and plunged the stick down, and the plane dove, skimming under the landing skids of the black copter as a brilliant flash of blue light erupted from Maximillian’s side of the copter.

“How do they keep finding us?” Rafe shouted as the plane levelled off low above the surface of the lake, a cresting V of frothing water rising in its wave. A sudden memory flashed in Nora’s brain, and she reached in her pocket for the small rectangle of paper she’d put there the morning before. Mrs. Stitch’s card.

“Son of a--!” Nora shouted. “I’ve been leading them right to us! We’ve gotta ditch this thing. Rafe?”

“I’m comfortable where I am, thanks!” Rafe called nervously, and Nora risked a look back to fix him with the sort of Death Stare Rafe had seen a thousand times on the faces of girlfriends and, most often, his own mother. With sinking hopes, he unstrapped himself and darted forward to snatch the card from her hand. “I’m not going to want the details of whatever you’re planning, am I?”

“You’ll get the particulars,” Nora said. “Get to the back of the plane.”

“I don’t like this already!” Rafe said, weaving his way handhold-by-overhead-handhold toward the back of the plane. Hydraulics hummed under his feet, and a seam of white light appeared and steadily yawned wider before him, admitting a fierce blast of cold air and fine misty spray. “Correction,” Rafe muttered, so low that even he couldn’t hear it over the engines’ roar. “I loathe this.”

Then the black helicopter dropped into view through the open hatch, making Rafe cling to the overhead handhold for even dearer life. His grip didn’t loosen any when a second, identical copter appeared behind it, in equally hot pursuit.

“I despise this plan,” Rafe said. “I would kick this plan in the teeth!” He balled the black business card in one fist and flung it forward; the jetstream roaring around the plane sucked it up and away and gone. The tall one from the hangar, the one against whose face Rafe had smashed a perfectly good reinforced SWAT helmet at considerable taxpayer expense, leaned out of the side of the lead copter and took careful aim with his needle thing.

“Climb!” Rafe shouted! “Climb climb climb!”

The plane shot upward, yanking Rafe off his feet to dangle from the handhold over a great deal of nothing and the lake far below. He saw blue light erupt from the lead copter and boil a semisphere of lakewater into a sudden puff of steam.

“Doors!” Rafe shouted. “For the love of God, close the doors!”

The hydraulics groaned and hummed, and the plane began to seal shut beneath him. Rafe clung to the handhold with all his might, the fat hand of gravity squeezing him back, feeling his fingers slowly slip. Then the doors sealed, shutting out the last out the harsh outside light, and the plane leveled off slightly. Rafe lunged forward, swinging himself up the cabin, and finally latched himself back into a jump seat, panting with exertion.

“I’m not speaking to you!” he called out to the back of Nora’s head, and concentrated very hard on keeping down his breakfast.

Nora, at present, had bigger problems. Steel, stone, and glass problems, twenty stories high, and fast approaching: the Chicago skyline.

“They’re still on us!” she shouted to the plane as another nearby burst from outside rattled the fuselage. “We got any kind of weapons?”

“Yeah, ‘cause the FAA just loves you carrying that stuff around civilian population centers,” the plane shot back. “They made you take off the guns after that thing in Milwaukee, remember?”

“Uh... sure,” Nora lied. “Fine. What’ve we got for defense?”

“Active camouflage,” the Whirlwind said. “Turn that on, ain’t nobody gonna find you. Still charging, though. The solar cells are at 70 percent right now.”

“How much time until they’re full?” Nora asked, watching the skyscrapers loom ever closer. There was the Tribune Tower, and the Wrigley Building...

“Two minutes, thirty-three seconds and counting, unless it turns cloudy.”

“What do I do till then?” Nora said, watching two cloudy hazes of glitchy pixels swing into view on the video feed from the rear cameras.

“Stay in the air!” the plane suggested. Then the plane shot through the narrow channel of the Chicago River, and into the city proper.

A burst of brilliant blue light flared off to the left of the cockpit, buffetting the whole plane, and Nora yelped in alarm. Hands slick with sweat on the stick, she rolled the plane hard to the left, rocketing over the El tracks down State Street. On the screens, a single roiling mass of bad pixels tailed her doggedly.

“I’ve lost one!” she shouted. “Where’d he go?”

“Beats the hell out of me!” the Whirlwind shouted. “Collision! Collision!”

Nora yanked back on the stick, G-forces slamming her back into the seat, as the Whirlwind narrowly missed one of the federal courthouses. The world went black around the edges of her eyes, and she fought to keep her view from graying out until the plane leveled off.

“Enough of this,” Nora said, wheeling the plane around. One of the two black copters swung around into view. “The fuselage is reinforced, right? Morrow-something cladding?”

“Morrowlite. Tougher than a defensive lineman and twice as light,” the plane affirmed.

“Could it take a direct impact with a helicopter?” Nora asked.

“Oh, no,” the plane. “Oh, hell no. Even if it weren’t in my programming, I’d be telling you no way, no how.”

“Could it take a direct hit?” The copter was looming closer outside Nora’s cockpit.

“Maybe,” the plane said. “The odds ain’t good.”

“I’m going to pretend I can’t hear anything you’re saying!” Rafe called from the back. “Unless you enjoy uncontrollable, vaguely girlish screaming.”

“OK,” Nora said, gritting her teeth as the black copter ahead of her swung away and began to flee. “One more question. Do you think they know this thing can’t ram them?”

“Probably not,” the Whirlwind said, with greater confidence.

“Good,” Nora said, and punched the throttle all the way forward.

The Whirlwind screamed ahead, coming at the copter from slightly above, forcing it to dive. It wheeled through the maze of skyscrapers, desperately fleeing, as Nora doggedly pursued it.

“Come on,” Nora snarled under her breath to the other craft, with a frustration truly known only to office workers with terrible and lengthy commutes. “Come and get it, you jackasses.”

Again and again the copter tried to rise; again and again Nora brough the belly of the Whirlwind down inches above its whirling blades, forcing it to lose altitude or ram the other plane.

“Any sign of the other copter?” Nora asked, as the two vessels raced up Michigan Avenue, the South Loop blurring past to their left.

“Like I can even spot that thing to tell you,” the Whirlwind griped.

“Okay, fine,” Nora said. “Is there any spot around us where you see nothing? I mean, absolutely nothing?”

“Checking...” the plane said. “On top of us! Dammit, they’re right on top of us!”

Above, coming out of the sun, the second copter steadily dropped lower, the silvery length of the Whirlwind a fat and easy target as it skimmed above the honking, baffled choke of daily traffic. Maximillian leaned out the side of the copter, one hand holding his hat on, the other aiming his Needle at the fleeing craft. A smile played at the corners of his mouth.

“Active camo status!” Nora called out in the cockpit.

“Fully charged in three... two... one...” the plane said.

“Hit it!” Nora shouted, jamming back on the throttle and hitting the air brakes. The entire plane lurched, and a crackling him raced along the skin of the plane all around them...

A burst of energy lanced down from the upper copter, passed directly through where the Whirlwind should have been, and enveloped the second copter. There was a brilliant, searing blue-white flash, and then the rear half of the copter was simply gone, rotors and tail neatly sliced into invisibility.

The lower copter wheeled wildly, bounced off the face of a building, smashed into an empty intersection and burst into flames. Something unseen formed a fleeting hole in the plume of fire and smoke, and then it was gone.

In the copter above, Maximillian clenched one gloved fist tightly around his Needle, and narrowed his eyes in wordless rage.

The cabin had gone eerily quiet, and the world outside seemed a strange silvery-green through Nora’s windscreen as she slowly guided the plane higher. It was coasting now, at its lowest speed, the posh shops of North Michigan Avenue falling away beneath it. Nora slumped back in her chair, legs shaking, and let out a breath she felt like she’d been holding for hours.

“You,” she said, patting the overhead console fondly, “are one hell of a plane.”

“I’m just fine,” Rafe said from the back. “Not praying for death or anything. Thanks for asking.”

“You’re welcome,” Nora sighed. “Whirlwind, gimme VTOL mode, and get us as close as you can to the top floor of 919 North Mich.”

“Will do, baby,” the plane said. The Whirlwind, invisible to the eyes and ears of the world outside, drifted through the air and made a gentle, skidding turn. Its rear hatch unsealed, extending a ramp onto the top-floor balcony of the skyscraper, now dwarfed by the nearby John Hancock Building and its 95 dizzying stories.

“All right,” Nora told the plane. “Seal up, stay in camo, and wait for us here. You got any way I can contact you when I need you?”

“You know how to whistle, don’t you?” the Whirlwind said.

“Best plane ever,” Nora grinned, and unstrapped herself. Rafe was sitting very still and very pale in his jump seat, and she paused in front of him.

“You coming, jungle boy?” she said.

“To solid ground?” Rafe replied. “Oh, absolutely.” He unstrapped and followed Nora through the cabin and down the ramp, blinking in the sunlight. Behind them, there was only a yawning black hole into the plane in the midst of empty sky -- no sound, no glimmer of the plane, not even the slightest gust from the turbines. Then the hatch sealed, the black hole in the sky shrinking, and the air was empty once more.

Rafe and Nora stood on a broad balcony ringed with metal railings, overlooking the sunlit streets of Chicago. Above them, the still-proud beacon of 919 North Michigan rose into the blue, and ahead of them, glass doors led into still and dusty darkness.

Rafe tried the doors -- unlocked. “That’s welcome,” he said. “Guess they didn’t expect anyone coming in this way.” He opened the door wide and beckoned for Nora to enter. She shook her head sternly.

“Guy with the big-ass knives goes first,” she insisted, and Rafe rolled his eyes.

“How come you’re giving the orders now?” Rafe sighed.

“’Cause I’m the one with the plane,” Nora shot back. “After you.”

Rafe drew the stone knives from his belt and entered the shadowy gloom of the penthouse, Nora following. The door swung shut behind them, and they were enveloped in dust and silence.

The room was entirely empty. No furniture, no trash, nothing. Just a layer of dust on the floor, thick enough to raise small puffs as they walked, and a large, circular metal door on the opposite side of the main chamber.

“Look,” Nora said, her voice low. “Some more rooms over there. You think we should--?” Rafe held up a hand, the black blade of the stone knife he held catching the light. From beyond the metal door, they heard the creak of elevator cables, and the opening of rattling doors. And faint voices.

They were alone and exposed, trapped in an empty room at the top of a skyscraper. Rafe looked at the door, and then back at Nora. His mouth moved soundlessly, forming words: What do we do now?

Monday, November 27, 2006

Operators From Beyond

The secret panel swung shut, closing on the drawn and frightened face of Dr. Xiang, and Trip and Sully were alone in the tiny shaft, enveloped in complete darkness. Behind the door, Trip could fainly hear the sounds of metal groaning, as the men in dark coats attempted to batter down the Doctor’s steel door.

The dark reminded Sully too much of the cabinet of her childhood. She clenched her hands hard around the metal rungs protruding from the concrete wall and swallowed a wave of sudden panic trying to scrabble up her esophagus. Then, feeling her way down to the next rung, she began to descend the ladder.

Trip followed, and they reached the bottom not far below. There was a rustling of fabric in the darkness, and then a light snapped on. It was a surprisingly bright keychain LED, and Trip shone it around the dim space, Sully wincing as the beam lashed across her eyes, and finally found the catch to the secret door the Doctor had mentioned.

Above them, they heard a crash, and a single, high scream. Trip fumbled with the catch on the cold concrete panel, and it swung open, bringing winter with it.

Trip and Sully emerged from the secret ladder to find themselves in a darkened meat locker, frost-dusted slabs of pork and beef dangling from hooks, casting strange and sinister shadows in the light of Trip’s LED. Sully hastily shut the door behind them, and they both unconsciously pulled their jackets tighter around them -- Sully’s black leather, Trip’s olive drab army coat -- amid the unnatural chill of the room.

“Wait, don’t people get locked into these things all the time?” Sully asked in tiny puffs of steaming breath. Trip smiled and shook his head, moving gingerly through the frozen meat to the opposite side of the room.

“Only in bad sitcoms,” he said, and found the latch, and opened the freezer door.

It led to a somewhat warmer stock room, cardboard boxes piled in high, narrow shelves, and Sully went first through the double doors that led to the store proper.

The offices of Dr. Xiang occupied the second floor of her family’s building on Wentworth Avenue; a Chinese grocery store filled the ground floor, there to disguise the true nature of Dr. Xiang’s livelihood from tourists and snooping neighbors. At present, the store was closed and dark, the only light admitted through the broad windows at the front of the store. Squinting over the aisles of brightly colored packaging covered in Chinese characters, Trip could see that it was a busy morning outside; some kind of street fair had drawn hundreds of people, filling the streets as they browsed at various booths set up along Wentworth.

They had just passed from the dried mushrooms into the bottles of wine when Trip and Sully froze. A pair of shadows loomed at the front doors of the shop, and like a gunshot, Trip heard the bolts locking the front doors shoot open. The door swung wide, admitting a brief burst of mingled conversation and syrupy Chinese pop music, and two of the men in black coats glided inside the shop.

Sully grabbed Trip by the collar of his jacket and yanked him down into a crouch. They glanced at one another, and in that moment, Trip found himself pausing the consider the absurdity of this situation -- running for his life with no idea why, his only companion a total stranger.

The soles of the two dark-coated men’s shoes squeaked softly on the tile floor. They were passing down the next aisle over from Trip and Sully, still between them and the front door.

The floor above exploded with a drumroll of footsteps, and the sounds of falling furniture. Fighting. The two intruders paused, as did Trip and Sully, to stare at the ceiling, where the tumult on the second floor shook gentle falls of white dust from the acoustic tiles. The noise stopped, with terrible abruptness, and there was a single, final, thud. Sully heard a self-satisfied snort of amuseument from one of the intruders, and her stomach turned.

Then Trip’s mouth was just brushing her hear, and he was whispering. “Don’t move,” he said. “Don’t run. Just trust me. And whatever you do, don’t touch me.” He unslung his backpack from his shoulders and set it down next to her.

Before Sully could stop him, Trip had stood up and smashed a whole row of wine bottles off the shelves. They shattered on the floor, spilling wine in a wide pool that crossed the aisle, and Sully’s heart caught in her throat as the figures of the two men in black coats appeared at the end of the aisle. Trip raised his arms in surrender as they began to walk toward him.

“You’ve got me,” Trip said, as the men -- one broad and stocky, the other with a scar running down his left cheek -- sized him up with strange, identically gray eyes. “There’s no point in running. We surrender.”

Sully, used to looking for these things, saw Trip’s right thumb and forefinger move almost imperceptibly against the cuff of his jacket. The two men in black coats stepped into the puddle of wine.

Trip made a quick motion with his upraised hands, and both men shot out to grab him around the forearms. There was a sharp cracking sound, a sudden flare of sparks and smoke around the two men’s feet in the puddle of wine, and both men dropped, convulsing, their shoes smoking.

“It’s the jacket,” Trip said, reaching out a hand to Sully, who ignored it and stood up, straightening out her jacket. Trip grabbed up his pack instead. “Just an experiment -- kind of a personal security thing. Once you arm it, it hits anyone who tries to grab you with a blast of a few thousand volts.”

“Yeah, I read about that,” Sully nodded, grudgingly impressed. She paused to give one of the men a kick in the ribs as they stepped over the intruder’s prone, twitching bodies. “The Israelis invented it, right?”

“The Israelis invented it, but I improved it,” Trip said, looking slightly hurt. “Built this one myself. It recharges based on the wearer’s own motion.”

“Trip Morrow, Trip Morrow,” Sully said, turning the name over in her brain. “I know I’ve heard that name bef-- wait. Do you... build special-effects rigs? Animatronics, that sort of thing?”

“Sometimes,” Trip shrugged, pausing to examine one of the men’s sleeves. He drew out a silver needle like the one Sully had seem Eyepatch use, and held it triumphantly up to Sully. “Right where you said it was. Yeah, I build lots of stuff, why?”

Sully quickly moved his hand and the needle away from her face. “Careful with that thing, champ. I saw it make an instant pothole. Did you -- uh, did you build anything for Double Deuce Industries?”

“Can’t talk about it,” Trip smiled. “I’m still under NDA.”

“Yeah,” I know, Sully sighed, crouched by the front windows, scanning the crowd. No sign of guys in black coats. “I wrote the NDA. You do good work.”

“That was you?” Trip said. “I wish I’d had another month. I could have gotten more of the fine muscles around the eyes working.”

“You did great,” Sully told him. “Only way it could have been more realistic is if it demanded a bag apiece of sensemilla and M&Ms a day.”

“Oh,” Trip said, cocking his head, looking vaguely shocked. “He looks so healthy.”

“Illusion,” Sully smirked. Behind them, she heard one of the men in black coats groan, softly, and the full danger of their situation flooded back to her. “Come on,” she said, grabbing Trip by the wrist and yanking him out the front doors into the sun-flooded street.

The crowd buffered and battered them immediately, busy shoppers and gawkers nearly dragging Sully and Trip apart. Sully kept scanning the crowds for black hats and coats. Nothing so far.

“This is your city,” she said to Trip, as they managed to work themselves into the flow of circulating pedestrians. “Where can we hide?”

“I haven’t been down here much, but if we can get outside this fair, we can probably grab a cab. I have a workshop in Pilsen--”

“If they found us here, they can find us where you live,” Sully said. “Other options? I’d suggest a hotel, but I don’t have that kind of cash, and if they were monitoring my phone, I’m betting they’ve got some kind of trace on my cards, too.”

“I had one other idea,” Trip said. “Something in the magazine -- it said my grandpa had a --”

A high keen cut through the air, and from behind them, the air glared flashbulb-bright. Trip and Sully whirled, alone among throngs of oblivious passersby, and stared at the building they’d just left.

It had suddenly become a McDonald’s. A very bright, very modern McDonalds. One that had clearly been occupying that space for quite some time.

“What the hell?” Sully blurted. “Did you see--?”

“Yeah,” Trip said, his face pale. “But why didn’t anyone else? Look. Nobody turned. Nobody’s staring.” All around them, shoppers laughed and joked and talked on cell phones. No one seemed to care that a fast-food franchise had suddenly materialized in a burst of radiance.

Sully dragged them both out of the flow of pedestrian traffic, to the far side of the street, and the two stood on tiptoes and craned to see through the front windows. “Oh God,” Sully said, spotting it first. “The guy with the mop.”

It was Hu, in a restaurant uniform, pushing a mop sullenly across the restaurant’s floor with the thousand-yard stare of minimum wage. Behind him, at the front counter, Trip thought he saw Anna Mei Xiang in a headset, staring ahead in boredom, taking a customer’s order.

Sully and Trip looked at one another, horrorstruck. And then Trip’s eyes went wide, and Sully followed his gaze to the roof of the building.

A tall man in a gray suit and a dark coat stood at the edge of the facade. He tipped his hat down to them, and as the brim of his hat lifted, Sully could see the eypatch on his face.

“Oh, no,” she said softly. “No, no, no. I hit him with a freaking car.”

“No time,” Trip said urgently, and when she looked down, she saw more men and women in long black coats, their silver eyes locked on the two of them, making their way calmly and casually through the crowds.

They ran, Sully following Trip as they barrelled through the weaving forests of people choking the streets. They slammed into pedestrians, sending people sprawling, raising angry shouts behind them. Trip tossed back an occasional “excuse me,” or “sorry;” Sully, hardened by years of freeway driving, had no time for such pleasantries.

Behind them, the black-coated men and women strolled on with no particular urgency, as if they were savoring the thinning yellow sunlight and the crisp autumn air. The crowds, without making any particular effort to do so, seemed to consistently part before them and close behind them, and with their progress so unimpeded, the black-coated legions steadily closed the gap between themselves and their quarry.

Sully and Trip ran up Wentworth and across Archer, the crowds thinning as they emerged from the street fair. Most of the crowds had been drawn away from Chinatown Square Mall, and the Square itself was nearly empty as they dashed under the Knowledge Gate; just a couple of men seated on a far bench, tossing crumbs to pigeons. Lungs burning, they crossed the square, headed for an alleyway on the far side between two shops. Sully risked a look over her shoulder, and saw two of the men in black coats crossing Archer. Then they flickered, like a film skipping frames, and suddenly a whorl of pigeons erupted from the square as the same two men appeared in the center of the square, mere steps behind them.

“No fair,” Sully gasped, stumbling forward into the alley -- only to run smack into Trip. The two fell into a heap on the ground and lay there, gasping for breath. A line of men in black coats filled the mouth of the alley ahead of them, and the two pursuing them were now joined, as if out of nowhere, by two more. Trip and Sully were boxed in. Trapped.

They lifted their heads to the sound of the slow clapping of gloved hands. Eyepatch emerged through the line of men and women closing off the mouth of the alley ahead of them, applauding sardonically.

“Oh, you’ve had us on quite the merry chase,” he said, smiling without mirth. “Young miss, I’ll have you know you left some terrible scratches on my fender.”

“It’s not my fault,” Sully spat, regaining her breath in gulps, “if you didn’t lie down the first time.”

“Lie down,” Eyepatch nodded. “That’s exactly what you both should have done from the beginning. Look what all this running around’s gotten you. A few extra hours, tops? Can’t be worth it at all.”

“It’s gotten us this,” Trip said, getting to one knee, and pulled out the needle he’d taken. He thrust it out at Eyepatch and squeezed his eyes shut, concentrating with all his might.

Then he opened one eye, and looked at Sully. “Is it doing anything?” Trip said, and Nora, looking more mortified than anything else, slowly shook her head.

“Well, well, sport,” Eyepatch chuckled. “Just full of surprises, aren’t you? Too bad for you that each Needle’s keyed to its owner. Can’t have them falling into the wrong hands, can we?”

He reached into his sleeve and pulled his own Needle out. “You want a demonstration? Here.”

At the far end of the alley, behind Trip and Sully, someone cleared his throat.

“If you’ll excuse me,” said a tall, immaculately dressed man in a wool overcoat and a pinstriped suit, striding through the crowd of baffled men in black coats, “I’m going to have to ask you not to do that.” His hair was slicked back, thin and sickly along his oddly skewed scalp, and the round, gold-rimmed spectacles he wore seemed to curiously distort his pale blue eyes.

He was followed by a shorter, much stranger man. This one sported a tweed overcoat, a day or so’s worth of stubble, black pants from an entirely different suit, and a lime green t-shirt reading MONTCLAIRE FAMILY REUNION 1996. He wore a red sneaker, untied, on his left foot, and a waterproof hunter’s boot on his right. Tufts of brown hair stuck out at intervals beneath the fur-lined cap he wore, earflaps down, and neither of his eyes seemed to point in the same direction of the other.

“And by that,” the shorter man said, “he means that thing where the air goes in and out of your breathbags.”

“Lungs,” the taller man corrected quietly, as if mindly embarrassed.

“I like my word better,” the short man sulked. Eyepatch rolled his eyes and debonairly waved his Needle at them.

“You’re not here,” Eyepatch said. But to his visible surprise, the two men remained exactly where they were.

“An intriguing philosophical dilemma,” the taller man nodded, smiling. His teeth seemed somehow too even, too perfect. “Where, exactly, is ‘here,’ in a metaphysical sense? Are any of us truly in any single place at a given time?”

Eyepatch nodded to the men and women at the far end of the alley, annoyed. “Take care of them.”

“I must confess,” the taller man said, “to some hope that you might issue a command of that nature.”

“Yeah,” added the shorter man. “I’m hungry.”

They both smiled -- wider, and wider still, Trip and Sully watching in disbelief as their skin seemed to contort beyond the limits of human anatomy. And then purple-pink light climbed out of their distended mouths, painful to behold, uncurling in smoking, crackling tendrils. It hurt to look at, seeming to cut right through Trip’s brain and transfix him, and in his head, he heard the singing of many distant voices...

One of the two tendrils from each man’s mouth lashed hungrily around each of the four black-coated men and women at the far end of the alley, and in a startling instant, dragged them screaming back toward the two men’s mouths. There were horrible cries, and the crack and slurp of folding bone and tissue, and the four black-coated guards were devoured entirely.

Sully tore her eyes away from the strange, painful light and looked back at Eyepatch. In the reflected purplish radiance, she saw real fear written across his face, just before he and the remaining men frantically lifted their Needles and stutter-stepped themselves away into nothingness.

The tendrils curled back into the two men’s mouths, and the singing stopped, and suddenly Trip and Sully were alone in the alley with just the taller and shorter men. The taller one withdrew a pink lace handkerchief from one jacket pocket and dabbed daintily at the corners of his mouth; the shorter one let out a thunderous belch and whacked himself on the chest.

“I’m terribly sorry you had to see that,” the taller man said to a baffled, terrified Trip and Sully.

“Yeah,” the shorter one said. “Especially with those eyes of yours. So limiting. Tasty, though.”

Trip muffed his first few tries at speech, intended syllables coming through as blurted puffs of air. He managed “Who are you?” on his third attempt.

“I am Operator Vore,” the taller man said, bowing crisply, “and my associate is Operator Grin. We have been sent by-- ah-- a certain interested party to ensure your safety in this most crucial of times. The body we represent has a vested interest in your survival and success.”

“Success?” Sully said, getting shakily to her feet. “Success in what?”

“What is the statement of the moment?” Operator Vore pondered, cocking his head as if trying to recall. “Ah, yes. If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

Operator Grin did exactly that. “We’re gonna eat you,” he said, in a slow singsong.

That was enough for Trip. He grabbed Sully by the arm, and they ran, fast as their feet could carry them, out of the alley and away from the two men.

Operator Vore sighed, pushing his spectacles up his pinched nose. “I can’t take you anywhere.”

Operator Grin let out another belch. “What? It’s true.”

Sully and Trip stopped running five blocks later, when Trip collapsed against a side of a building, waving breathlessly for Sully to hold up.

“Oh, Jesus,” Sully said, simultaneously cursing herself for not quitting smoking, and desperately wanting a cigarette. She leaned forward, resting her hands on the torn knees of her stockings. “Oh, Christ. What the hell were those things?”

“Worse question,” Trip gasped. “Why did they want to help us?”

“I don’t--” Sully said, breath shuddering in and out of her lungs. “Oh, God, I don’t want to think about that. I just want this all to be over, dammit. My schedule for the past two days is just completely shot.”

“I dunno,” Trip said. “I didn’t have anything to do this weekend.”

They looked at each other for a moment, and then Sully sputtered and burst out laughing.

“Oh, God,” she said between laughs. “I can’t tell if this is genuine laughter-- or, you know-- hysteria. Hoo.”

“Probably a little of both,” Trip said. “We need to -- phew -- we need to get back downtown.”

“What’s downtown?” Sully asked, and Trip dug the cigar box out of his bag and carefully opened the magazine curled up inside, leafing through the yellowed, autumnal pages until he’d found the right spot. “I saw this on the plane, when I gave it a quick flip-through,” Trip said, and began to read: “Tom Morrow kept his headquarters on the top floor of 919 North Michigan Avenue...”

“That’s a real building?” Sully asked, scanning the street for any sign of a passing cab.

“Um... yeah,” Trip said, slightly disbelieving. “Yeah, built in the late ‘20s. Used to be one of the biggest in town. I never heard of anything being on the top floor except, you know, offices, but I figured--”

“You figured,” Sully said, her black hair slicing above her shoulders as she turned to face him, “that if we just saw a Chinese grocery become a McDonald’s, stranger things have happened.”

“Exactly,” Trip nodded. Behind him, a yellow cab turned the corner and began to rumble toward them. Sully put thumb and forefinger in her mouth and let out an earsplitting whistle as it rolled past. But the cab had its OFF DUTY light on, and it simply kept driving.

“Bastard!” Sully shouted after it, kicking at the pavement in frustration -- then stopped when she saw the cab’s taillights flare red. It screeched to a halt, lurched as the driver threw the cab into reverse, and roared backward toward them. Sully glanced over and saw Trip holding up his right hand, displaying the silver-and-amber signet ring he wore.

“Playing a hunch,” Trip shrugged at her, as the cab screeched to a halt right next to them. “Dr. Xiang said something about the ring...”

The window rolled down, and an expansive woman with graying dreadlocked hair and a West Indian accent glowered out at them.

“You flash a ring like dat, boy, it better be genuine. You lemme see,” she commanded.

Trip held out his hand and the woman leaned over and grasped it in one broad, calloused hand. Her nails were about an inch long, Sully noted, bright pink, and aggressively fake.

The cabbie pursed her lips and let out a low whistle of amazement. “By de Great Dispatcher! How you get dis ring, boy?”

“Uh... my grandfather left it to me, miss,” Trip said, feeling slightly awkward with his hand still in the driver’s grip.

“Family inheritance... I tink dat’s acceptable under de bylaws. And dis is a time of urgent need, yes? You not just tryin’ to get to some concert or sometin’?”

“I can’t even explain how urgent,” Trip said, and the driver looked into his drawn and weary face and nodded in understanding.

“You get in, and your pretty friend too. I’m gonna forget what it was you call me, miss wit de fresh mouth.”

“Uh... thanks,” Sully said awkwardly, as she and Trip clambered inside the back of the cab. “Sorry.” It smelled of pineapple air freshener, and the seats were patched with broad strips of silver duct tape.

“Where to?” the driver said as the cab lurched away from the curb.

“919 North Michigan,” Trip said. He shot Sully a look: I can’t believe this worked.

“Haven’t heard of nobody getting an Order fare in ‘least twenty year,” the driver said. “Oh, wait, wait,” she laughed, and reached out a hand to hit some unseen switch on the bottom of the meter. The digital fare readout vanished, each of the numbers somehow replaced by a stylized circular emblem that looked to Sully like some sort of wheel.

“We’re, uh, we’re happy to pay you, Miss,” Trip said, and the cab driver whirled to transfix him with a blazing stare of indignation.

“You do nothing of the kind!” she said in a huff. She unclipped a walkie-talkie phone from the dash and thumbed the talk button.

“Dispatch,” she said, all business, “Agent 492, requestin’ an OSF override.”

“Granted,” a voice crackled back over the radio in a heavy Chicago accent. “Swift travels, Agent 492.”

“Safe roads,” she responded, then turned around to her befuddled passengers and smiled widely.

“You travelin’ wit de Order of St. Fiacre now,” she said. “De ride’s on me.”

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Woman Who Cheated Death

The cruelest thing about the tumor, Valencia Stitch often thought during the long, hazy last days of her life, was that it had taken her sight, but not her memory. She would lie in her hospice bed, feeling the sheets rustle against her dry, paperlike skin, hearing nurses’ shoes squeaking past in the halls outside and the wind in the trees outside. And as she stared up at the ceiling with blank, useless eyes, she’d see the faces of all the men she’d worked with -- all the ones she’d sent to die.

As with most everything else, Valencia thought of the tumor through the framework of her former job. It had infiltrated her brain, making its way undetected past her body’s security services. It had settled in, acted the part, and then reached out to other, healthy, normal cells, and turned them. Brought them over to its side. And then they went out and did the same, feeding the tumor’s power, extending its reach.

It was how Valencia had, in the better years of her rapidly dwindling life, brought down countries. As countries went, she supposed, so could she.

The second cruelest thing about the tumor -- and Valencia was not a woman given to excesses of self-pity -- was that it would deny her the culmination of her life’s work. Her friends from London Circus still came by now and then, sweeping the room for bugs as they habitually did, and then sitting down to talk some shop with the dead woman. And so she knew that the Iron Curtain was rusting through; that a great sea change was beginning to swell beneath an entire continent, that all the work and all the years and all the blood would pay off, and consign those miserable Soviet bastards to history’s dustbin.

But not yet. A few months, at most. By which time the greedy little goblin in Valencia Stitch’s skull, and her lymphatic system now, and who knows where else the doctors hadn’t the heart to tell her, would have had its final way with her.

The kindest thing about the tumor, the guilty secret she nursed deep in her heart, was that it might take her back to her dear Roger. She saw his face now and then, too, floating up out of the perpetual dark to which she’d grown accustomed. For the first time in ages, it felt like, the thought of him was more comfort than pain.

She woke on the last afternoon of her life from a hazy, blurred morphine dream of playing solitaire alone at her desk back in the circus, with each card bearing a dead man’s face. She’d just matched up Michaelson, who’d died badly somewhere in a Stasi secret prison, with Godfrey, who was poisoned in Malta, when the dream dissolved and faded into sightlessness and the smell of crisp starched sheets and spring air.

At the chair by her bedside, someone shifted and cleared his throat.

“Do I know you, sir?” Valencia asked in a voice like rustling papers. She knew the answer already, and posed the question with all the formality she could muster.

“I’m afraid we haven’t had the pleasure,” the voice said. American, possibly with a trace of the Midwest about it. “But I’ve read a lot about you.”

If her mouth had ever been moist anymore, it might have gone dry.

“Have they sent you to kill me, then?” she asked. “Afraid I’ll dose myself halfway to Heaven on the morphine, and spill a few secrets?” Her guest chuckled softly.

“No, no,” he said. “I’m outside that little game entirely. I understand you were quite the organizer, though.”

“I had my moments,” Valencia replied, her lips pursing in some ghastly approximation of a smile. There were some things she was glad not to see, and her own reflection was one of them. “Kept my boys in line. Kept things neat and tidy and running smoothly.”

“I can appreciate those talents,” the guest said. “Actually, I was wondering if you’d like to come and work for me.”

“Please don’t say such things,” Valencia told him. “It rather hurts me when I laugh. Besides, unless you propose to pay me by the hour, I doubt you’d get the better of that offer.”

“Who’s joking?” the guest said softly. “Fifteen years now, you’ve been a queen in the biggest chess game in history. Kept track of pieces all across the board, in multiple countries and multiple languages. Moved your knights and bishops. Your rooks. Your pawns. You weren’t afraid to sacrifice a piece when you had to.”

No, Valencia thought. Not afraid.

“And you can offer me, what?” Valencia asked him. “Something grander still? I’m afraid I must decline. There’s a skeletal gentleman who’s already come round for the preliminaries, and he has a rather exclusive prior claim to my services.”

The guest laughed again. “Death? Death’s nothing. Not compared to what I’ve done, or what we’ll face, or what we have yet to do. Are you afraid of dying, Mrs. Stitch?”

“No,” Valencia said, as convincingly as she could. But her guest laughed again, knowingly.

“You’re lying,” he said. “Young woman like you, not even close to 40 yet. And beautiful. I saw the pictures -- before the chemo, I mean. Tell me again, truthfully. Tell me you’re not afraid of sliding into that long dark just yet.”

Valencia said nothing, sliding her dry alien tongue around a mouth that hardly felt hers anymore.

“Because I can assure you,” the guest said, “if you’re not afraid of what’s beyond the borders of this life, you should be.”
“Get out, damn you,” Valencia said. “Who are you, to taunt a sick woman with false promises and mockery? Are you suitably amused, you horrid little man? I’ve had hallucinations more personable.”

She heard the visitor stand up, heard his chair scrape on the linoleum tile. A hand, unusually soft and very cold, fell not unkindly upon her brow.

“My promises aren’t false,” the visitor said. “I need your skills, Mrs. Stitch. We have great work to do. Many difficult choices to make, and many lives depending on them. Take the job, and I’ll cure you. Right now. Right here.”

“I...” Valencia faltered. “I should like to speak to my doctor.”

“Now or never,” the guest said, softly, with the edge of a threat in his voice. “Tell me you’re not afraid. Tell me you want to die, and I’ll walk right out the door.”

“I don’t,” she said quickly, even before she knew it was true. “I don’t, I don’t, I don’t.”

“I didn’t think so,” the visitor said, and she heard the smile in his voice. She heard the rustling of his jacket. “Now, this is just a prototype, but I assure you, it’s been thoroughly tested.” She felt a point of cool metal rest against her brow, and against her will, her lower lip quivered, just once, with a spasm of sudden fear.

“It’s inoperable,” she said to the visitor. “The doctors have said, over and over. Quite impossible.”

“Impossible?” he laughed softly. “Impossible’s just an excuse. All I need is a little time.”

She felt the tip of the metal slowly grow warm, and then hot. A singing just beyond the range of hearing filled her skull.

“Let there be light,” she heard the visitor say distantly. The darkness rushed away from her, like a curtain lifted.

And Valencia Stitch died, and lived, all in the same moment.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Reap the Whirlwind!

It was hot where he was, the air thick and steaming and alive, and all around him, he could hear and feel and sense the motion of a thousand living things, circulating. There was no light save silvery slivers of moon shifting through the trees like falling feathers, but Rafe treaded confindently through the vast and ancient trees, bare feet moving across whispering carpets of fallen leaves.

His eyes caught a gleam of orange firelight far ahead in the depths of jungle night, and he walked toward it, brushing dangling vines aside as he passed and clambering over tree roots as gnarled and knotted as an old prizefighter’s hands. There was a clearing, he saw, and in the clearing a ring of torches planted in the earth, and in the center of the clearing a table neatly draped in white linen, set with a china tea service. A young man about Rafe’s age sat at one of two chairs on opposite sides of the table, in evening finery, strange lines and whorls of color encrusted in paint upon his face. The man looked up at Rafe and grinned with neat white teeth.

“You’re just in time for tea,” he said.

Rafe sat. “Have you any scones?” he asked. “I’m famished.”

“I’d imagine you are,” the young man said, sliding a dish across the table to Rafe. “Proper currant scones, with jam besides.”

“Just like mum used to make,” Rafe smiled. The tableware was made of black stone, and he picked up a short, blunt knife and sliced open a scone, relishing the steam that rose from within it.

“Just like great-grandmum used to make,” the young man corrected him. “In your case, that is.”

“Do I know you?” Rafe asked, before taking a bite. It was an absurdly good scone. The young man grinned again. “Yes. And no. We’ve never met.”

It occurred to Rafe that he was dreaming; for one thing, no scone could possibly be this delicious. They were usually much drier, and the currants had hard bits in them that got stuck in your teeth. So it comforted him somewhat to remind himself of that when he reached for the jam and saw it softly pulsating, in a steady, even beat, in a glass jar shaped like a human heart.

“It’s in the blood, you see,” the young man said. “Eat up. You’ll need it.”

Rafe saw no harm in a bit of somnolent cannibalism, and slathered the red jam, steaming and vaguely sticky onto his scone. It smelled like American pennies. He bit into it.

“It doesn’t taste like anything,” Rafe said, puzzled. The young man laughed.

“It’s already in you,” he said. “Always has been. It’s one and the same between us.” Rafe suddenly felt something on the skin of his face, and put up a finger to trace lines of dried paint that ran across his forehead and down his nose and cheeks. As dreams went, this was a lot more exciting than his usual variety, which usually involved something on the order of shopping for socks on the set of Countdown.

Something moved in the shadows, and then a panther poured itself into the firelight of the clearing. There was a monkey on its back, and a great plumed bird of paradise. The monkey scrambled off and climbed up onto the table, greedily nibbling at a scone; the bird alighted on the lid of the teapot and cocked its head at Rafe; and the panther seated itself to Rafe’s left and the young man’s right, its tail curling back and forth, and watched Rafe with narrow, patient, iridescent eyes.

“I didn’t know we were having guests,” Rafe said. “Who did the seating chart?”

“We’re still waiting for the last arrival,” the young man said. “Before he gets here, look under your teacup.” Rafe turned over his teacup and saw a gold medallion on a chain curled underneath.

“St. Christopher,” Rafe said, examining it in the firelight. “My grandfather had one of -- ohhh.” He looked up at the young man, who looked terribly amused. “You’re him, aren’t you.”

“I wish you were a bit less of a rascal, I must say,” the young man said, smiling indulgently. “But then, I suppose, you’d hardly be a Windham.”

Rafe was about to issue an indignant rejoinder when the trees behind him creaked and shifted, and something vast displaced the air and entered the clearing. Rafe felt each of its footsteps shudder themselves up through his chair from the ground. Whatever it was, it stopped just behind Rafe, and lowered its immense head, and blew blasts of hot, stinking breath on the back of his neck. The animals, and the young man at the opposite end of the table, all looked past Rafe at whatever it was in friendly greeting, but somehow, Rafe felt it was entirely in his best interest not to look round.

He’s a bit skinny, said a voice that could rival any desperately overcompensating young man’s car stereo for sheer bass. Rafe could feel it in his spine and sternum. I could down him in a bite. Two at the most.

“You old piker,” the young man laughed at whatever was over Rafe’s shoulder. Then he looked at Rafe, and in the firelight, his eyes seemed to glow like the panther’s. “It’s time,” he said.

“Time for what?” Rafe asked, quietly beginning to hope that the reply included the words “wake up.”

“Time to pay fealty, Your Lordship,” the young man said.

Rafe woke up, and promptly fell out of bed.

The floor was cold and hard and not terribly clean, but nonetheless, Rafe was content to lie there for a moment and get his bearings, breathing in the short, agitated gasps common among racehorses and the freshly, violently awakened. He heard footsteps thumping closer, and then they stopped, and a woman’s voice said “Oh.”

With a great, wide-eyed heave, Rafe flopped himself into his back and lifted his head. There was a young, frizzy-haired black woman standing over him with a baseball bat, looking relieved, which made this only the fourth most colorful situation to which Rafe had awakened in his life.

“Where am I? Who are you?” Rafe looked down. “Where are my -- oh, there they are. Sorry! Sorry. I’m accustomed to lacking pants in these scenarios.”

The young woman’s face screwed itself up into something halfway between disbelief and disgust. “You’re welcome,” she said.

“What am I welcome for?” Rafe asked, giving his head a brief, cobweb-clearing shake and propping himself up on his elbows. It was a small, cozy little room, walls done in the absolute worst of 1970s wood paneling, and there were dust-covered bookshelves all about, bearing cobwebbed model airplanes and a lot of very stern-looking volumes with military-sounding titles. Also, he realized, he hadn’t fallen out of bed -- he’d fallen out of couch, and a very lumpy and well-traveled one at that.

“For carrying your heavy ass down three flights of stairs over my shoulders, for starters,” the young woman said, reaching up to rub the back of her neck in the manner of someone needing a proper introduction to ibuprofen. Rafe recognized the red t-shirt she wore, and the blue jeans, and things clicked into place.

“Ah,” he said. “You’re Dora -- Nora! Nora. Yes. The young woman who destroyed my flat with a UFO.” Some small part of Rafe’s brain realized that he’d had far too few opportunities in life to utter that sort of sentence, which was not necessarily a bad thing.

“Hey, your flat destroyed my UFO, too,” Nora said. “’Sides, it looked like you’d had a head start on wrecking the place.” She held out a hand, grudgingly. “Up. Come on. I’ve got coffee.”

“Coffee?” Rafe said. “I should very much like to marry you.” Nora raised the baseball bat warningly. “I didn’t mean right away,” he clarified. She just rolled her eyes and left the room through the single doorway. Rafe breathed out and smoothed out his shirtfront -- his clothes looked and felt decidedly slept-in, and he wondered how long he’d been out. He no longer felt like dying was a particularly lovely option, so it must have been a while. He followed Nora through the door.

It led to a little balcony with a makeshift kitchen -- sink, coffeemaker, electric burner, cabinets, mini-fridge -- that overlooked a much larger space. It was some kind of garage -- no, hangar, if the large sheet-draped object sitting ghostly in the middle of the bare concrete floor below was any indication. The whole room smelled of dust and petrol, and Rafe could see drums of fuel and a workbench with tools and dray parts against the far wall. A large set of roll-up doors, now shut, made up one wall of the room below, and a metal staircase led down from the balcony.

There was a rickety, much-abused wooden table in the open space on the balcony, next to the paint-peeling steel railing, and Nora was setting it with bowls, spoons, and mugs from one of the cabinets. Rafe saw a sleeping bag spread on the floor against the cabinets at the far wall -- well, that was nice of her, giving him the couch -- and on the counter above it, a small black-and-white TV playing the local news at low volume through a faint snowstorm of static.

The coffeemaker had percolated, and Nora poured the coffee dark and steaming into two mugs, handing Rafe one that read 30th Annual Chicagoland Aviation Conference. “No sugar, sorry,” she said, “but there’s milk if you want it.”

“Black’s good with me,” Rafe said, and then added, “the coffee, I mean. I like my coffee black.” Nora looked at him wearily, and his brain finally had the good sense to shut up. She opened another set of cabinets and took out two brightly colored boxes.

“Cheerios or Lucky Charms?” she asked, and Rafe took the red box.

“Always been partial to leprechauns, really,” he told her, and she smiled in spite of herself. Rafe was generally in favor of making young women smile, especially if they had baseball bats, except of course if it was the thought of hitting you with said bats that was making them smile in the first place. They sat down at opposite sides of the table, the telly playing over Nora’s shoulder, and ate in silence, sharing a small plastic bottle of milk from the mini-fridge.

“So,” Rafe said after swallowing a spoonful of wheat bits and purple horseshoe marshmallows. “This is a very nice, um, hangar. Yours?”

“My family estate,” Nora said, looking around without a great deal of fondness. “Used to belong to my dad, and his mom, and her dad before that. I haven’t been out here since Dad moved to Florida.” She nodded down at the shrouded thing on the floor below. “He keeps saying he’s gonna come up here one spring and get that old beast off the ground, but somehow, his golf game always takes priority.”

“Could be worse,” Rafe said, taking another gulp of now-lukewarm coffee. “Could be polo.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Nora said as she dropped her spoon into her emptied bowl. Rafe shook his head emphatically.

“Oh, God, he’s mad for it,” Rafe sighed. “Even the horses think he’s a bit off.”

They sat there, drinking coffee, in silence for a little while. Rafe studied the scratches in the wood of the table.

“This is nice,” Nora sighed at length. “Just talking, like two normal people. I can almost pretend that crazy people in black coats didn’t try to kill me in some silver science fiction airplane yesterday.”

“You had the people in black coats, too?” Rafe said, perking up.

“Yeah,” Nora told him, running her hands back through her springy mass of hair. “Yours say anything to you?”

“No,” Rafe said. “They just... they killed somebody, for no reason, in a very cruel way. And then you, well, squashed them.”

“Never flown before,” Nora said, her mouth tightening into a bitter, remorseful line. “Never killed anyone before, either. I had my eyes shut the whole time.”

“Did you mean to actually crash into my flat?” Rafe asked her. Nora shook her head.

“I was trying to land on the roof or something. Thing’s got a hell of a literal definition for ‘take me to such and such an address.’”

“Wait, wait, one second,” Rafe said, getting up for a refill of coffee. “How did you know my address? Come to think of it, how do you know me?”

“I don’t,” Nora replied. “At least, I’m not sure. I think -- okay, let’s try this. I’m gonna tell you some stuff about yourself, and you tell me if any of it’s true, or if it just sounds crazy.”

“That’s going to be a decidedly relative judgment after the last -- has it been a day?” Rafe asked her. “Did I sleep that long?” Nora nodded.

“Okay,” she said. “Your name’s Reginald Windham, but you go by Rafe.”

“Correct so far,” he nodded, then winced, because he’d burned his tongue on the new coffee.

Nora knotted her fingers together and shut her eyes, reciting from memory. “You’re in line to be the nineteenth Lord Havoc, after your father. You live in New York City, in some crazy English mansion your grandpop had bricked all the way over from England, on like four square blocks of prime real estate turned into your own private park. You’re big in industry -- the number two man at the family multinational. Your granddad was some major-league adventure guy, national hero type, who was born on some crazy-ass island off the coast of--”

Rafe nearly spit coffee. He’d been holding in the laugh too long, and it sort of leaked out, along with the coffee, around the corners of his mouth in a fine mist. Then he started coughing, and when he could breathe property, he indulged himself in a chortle or two.

“I’m sorry,” he said when he was able to. “I’m sorry. That’s just so terribly, terribly wrong. Windham Hall is still in dear old England; my Dad’s a high muckety-muck with the home office, and wants me nowhere near any line of work with which the family name’s connected. And he’d rather dress like a chicken and go running up and down the high street than see me inherit his precious family title, which, well, I can’t blame him, and it’d almost be worth it for the chicken suit.”

Rafe sat down at the table again and looked at Nora, grinning bemusedly. “And my grandfather, far as I know, was born at the hospital in London. I mean, he was a bit of the safari type -- had adventure in his blood, I suppose, always tramping off to strange corners of the globe in the name of science. He died when my dad was just a boy -- drowned somewhere up the Amazon on another of his expeditions. We didn’t speak of him much in the household, and my gran never quite forgave him either. So I have to ask, because you’re the second person in the past day -- sorry, two days -- to tell me a lot of extremely wrong things about my life -- where are you getting this?”

Nora reached down under the table and hoisted up a satchel bag, from which she removed a what looked like half a notebook computer. It was pebble-sleek, all glossy screen, and when Nora tapped it with a finger, the screen sprang to sudden blue life.

“I popped it out of the, uh, the UFO,” Nora said. “Two days running now, and the thing doesn’t need a battery charge. It says I fill it up with alcohol in a little slot on the back.”

“And the UFO came from...?” Rafe asked, staring half-hypnotized at the weird glow from the screen.

“The big silver space plane that crashed down in Lake Michigan yesterday morning,” Nora said. She told Rafe about her job, and Murray, and Mrs. Stitch and Maximillian and the strange plane, and in turn, he told her about the painted warrior who’d turned up in his living room.

“That reminds me,” Nora said, and fished his stone knives out of the satchel bag, passing them gingerly across the table to Rafe. “Damn things nearly cut a hole in my bag. They looked important, though. I didn’t have room for the box.”

“Quite all right,” Rafe said, resting a hand on them. For a moment, he had a flash of his very odd dream -- a dream that seemed to be hanging back whole and patient in his subconscious, where most others would’ve had the courtesy to dissolve into fragments by this point. “You were going to show me something?”

“Hey,” Nora said to the glowing screen. “Biographical data. Rafe Windham.”

“One moment,” the computer said in a cheerful, tinny voice. Text spilled gracefully onto the screen, along with a photograph, and Nora handed the screen to Rafe.

He was looking at himself -- a bit better-fed, perhaps, with fewer signs of wear and tear, and possessed of some undefinable vitality -- in an impossibly good suit. It was a candid shot, taken at some society function; he was toasting with a glass of champagne, and there was a young woman whose arm encircled his at the elbow. Rafe recognized her instantly, and with a pang of guilt and longing.

Windham Industries COO Rafe Windham, with fiancee Julia Smythe, at the 2005 New Atlantis New Year’s Eve Ball, the caption read. And there, in crisp text, was the entire unreal history of his life that Nora had laid out for him.

“Now try mine,” Nora said, when he’d finished reading and his face had gone at least a shade paler. “Nora Swift.” The computer seemed to hear her and obliged, and new text fell onto the screen like a hail of cherry blossoms.

“Um,” said Rafe, reading in bafflement. “Apparently I just had breakfast with an accomplished pilot, designer of vast, ocean-spanning airliners, and third-generation CEO of the nation’s largest aerospace contractor.”

“Not even close,” Nora said. “I’m CEO of nothing -- heck, my cat doesn’t even listen to me. I investigate plane crashes for the government, which is my pride-preserving way of saying that I read a lot of reports filed by people who actually do investigate plane crashes, and sometimes I get to look at pictures of dead people. And if you think that’s freaky, look at this.”

She put the in-flight magazine and the newspaper down on the table with a thump, and after Rafe had gaped sufficiently, she unfolded the paper to a two-page spread inside, paying lavish tribute to some old man Rafe had never heard of, but was clearly expected to. Nora thumped a finger on one of the photos, which showed a younger version of the man in question, a tall chap in a cowboy hat, a young boy with glasses cradling a floppy-eared mutt, and a smiling black woman -- who, come to think of it, looked a bit like Nora.

“Tom Morrow, the late Lassiter Odes and Ruby Gale, and the unfortunate Jef Franklin, as seen before their 1931 expedition to Tibet to explore the temple of Tal Xan Sherat,” Rafe read slowly. “That woman--”

“My grandma Ruby,” Nora said. “Except she wasn’t a pilot, not by then. She did a little flying when she was in school, but she quit when she married Grandpa Thad. I mean, she talked about -- what is it?”

Rafe turned the paper around wordlessly, and pointed at another photo, which showed this Tom Morrow person shaking hands and grinning with the young man who’d sat across from Rafe in his dream. “That’s my grandfather,” Rafe said. “At least, I think. Can’t be too many Harker Windhams in the world, right?”

Nora scanned the text in the article. “Says here Tom Morrow had a headquarters downtown -- 919 North Michigan.”

“The one with the big light on top?” Rafe asked absentmindedly, and Nora nodded.

“Look, whoever the folks with the needles are, they’re after the both of us,” she said. “There’s some kind of connection, and I think this Morrow guy’s the key. We go to 919 North Mich, maybe we’ll find that headquarters of his and get some answers.”

“Um, not to raise a ridiculous question,” Rafe interjected, as Nora glanced over at the sheet-draped form in the middle of the hangar floor and furrowed her brow in curious thought, “but what if there’s nothing there? I mean, this paper talks about--” he flpped back to the front pages of the A section -- “the Caliphate of Greater Islam where I’m fairly certain a whole load of scrapping, oil-greedy countries are, and last I checked, no one’d redone the maps.”

“Yeah, but there was sure as hell a whole flying wing floating in the middle of Lake Michigan yesterday morning,” Nora said, still peering distractedly at the thing under the tarps below. “And I haven’t seen anything about it in the papers, on the news, nothing.” She set her dishes hastily in the small sink and then thumped down the stairs to the hangar floor.

“Don’t mind me,” Rafe said. “I’ll just, uh, sit up here.”

“Okay,” Nora said. “I won’t. Just something weird about this I can’t put my finger on.”

“New tarps?” Rafe offered. Below, Nora shook her head, hair flopping about.

“I think...” Nora began. “I think it’s the wrong shape.”

The sad thing, Rafe thought, as he turned back to read more fake news about a Caliphate that didn’t exist, is that Nora’s statement was beginning to sound downright normal. He was poring over an infographic about the success of CO2 reduction protocols in restoring the ozone layer when a snatch of conversation from the running telly brought his head snapping up.

There was a pretty blonde newsreader -- well, she looked blonde, but it was hard to tell with the black-and-white and the static -- and some kind of graphic plastered up over her shoulder, with CONDO CRASH in garish letters.

“Breaking developments now in yesterday’s shocking crash of a small aircraft into a Wrigleyville condominium,” the newsreader was saying. “We told you yesterday that Homeland Security had declared it a terrorist act, and now we’ve got word that the FBI is about to launch a raid on a South Side airfield. We’re going live to Brett Hardwick at the scene. Brett?”

The picture changed, and there was a sensible-looking man in a proper overcoat with a microphone to his mouth and his other hand to his ear, standing in front of a bustling hive of activity. There were men in SWAT gear running about behind him, and other men in dark windbreakers with FBI on the back.

“Thanks, Amy,” Brett said on the telly. “The FBI has asked us to stay back, but it appears that they’re about to raid a disused aviation hangar that sits on this rare patch of open field off the South Side lakeshore, near the Bronzeville neighborhood. No word yet on whether there are suspects inside, or who they might be. We’re hearing that the FBI believes yesterday’s crash, which killed at least one unidentified man, was a deliberate act of terrorism, possibly carried out by a cell operating here in Chicago...”

Rafe slowly got up and walked toward the set, hunching down to squint through the static at the background of the picture. There were people standing next to one of the FBI men... familiar people...

Down on the hangar floor, Nora slowly lifted one corner of the tarps covering her dad’s old wreck of a repair job, the old Curtiss P-38 he’d sworn to get restored and flying again one of these days. The Curtiss had a bad paint job he’d never gotten around to fixing, black and peeling and spotted with rust underneath. But the metal revealed as she lifted up the tarp was bright silver, polished so finely that Nora could nearly see her reflection in it.

She began gathering tarps in great handfuls, fast as she could.

Up on the balcony, Rafe squinted harder. Then one of the people behind the reporter, the people in long black coats and wide black hats, lifted his head, and Rafe scrambled backward from the TV and landed on his bum.

On the hangar floor, Nora flung off the last tarp in a cloud of dust and gaped. It was a vision, all curving lines and fins and wings. She’d pored over the schematics for every plane in the air in the United States, and never seen anything like it. Not even on the covers of the endless back issues of Popular Mechanics Murray kept in his cube.

Painted in looping letters on the side of the nose: THE WHIRLWIND. And underneath it, in block print: “NORA’S BABY.”

Staring out of the TV at Rafe, in a whirl of phosphor dots, was a woman of indiscriminate age in a black coat and hat. And next to her, the very tall man Rafe had seen barging into his flat the day before. The man who’d broken the painted warrior’s neck as if he’d been cracking a whip. The one Nora’s UFO, he’d thought, had smashed to a fine red stain on the carpet.

“And it looks like --” the reporter said. “Yes, they’re giving the go signal, and we’re being asked to move back. The raid has begun.”

There was a roar of heavy engines outside, growing louder, and shouts, and the thudding of boots across asphalt.

“Oh my God,” said Nora, and Rafe, all but simultaneously.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

In the Lair of Dr. Xiang

Trip Morrow tumbled through a long period of choking, turbulent unconsciousness. Tiny bits of his brain broke loose and scrambled about until the inside of his skull became a nest of snakes, all slithering over one another in constant, chaotic, feverish motion. And underneath it all, strange shapes at the edges of his consciousness, their movements vast and slow and seismic, and a curious and fearful uluation of harmonies not issued from any human throat.

Trip woke, and stared into the face of a dragon.

It stared down at him from the walls with huge, googly paper-mache eyes, and a grimace as comical as it was fearsome, tufts of fur-scales bristling in brilliant greens and yellows around its head, and for a moment, Trip thought he was still dreaming.

Then reality sorted itself out, the tumblers in the lock of his brain clicking into place, and Trip recognized it as a fake dragon head, the kind used in Chinese New Year’s ceremonies. He was shirtless, lying under a thin sheet on something soft and comfortable, his torso and the back of his neck clammy with slowly drying sweat.

His mouth was cotton-dry, his throat parched and prickly, his muscles sore. There was a dull, fading ache at the side of his neck, where -- yes, he remembered now. Thje stone giant. Muriel and her needle. Running, the world inverting itself, the headlights. And now, a dragon’s head.

He felt whole, and alive, and incredibly hungry.

It took him a solid minute to muster the energy to sit up and turn his head. The room was high-ceilinged, the windows tall and criscrossed with the fine metal mesh of industrial glass, and barred from the outside. The walls and floors were concrete underneath, unpainted, but hung with elaborate Chinese scrolls and paintinings. Trip put a bare foot down to the floor, braced for cold, and found instead thick, soft rugs. Red paper lamps dangled from the pipes along the ceiling at intervals, and the air smelled of incense and oranges.

He’d been lying on a deep red overstuffed couch; he saw a wooden chair nearby, as if someone had been keeping watch. His button-up shirt and t-shirt were draped over the back, and his shoes and socks rested underneath, neatly stacked.

He turned his head a bit more, slowly, and saw a heavy metal door ajar at the far side of the room -- and next to it, another window, and a lush, overstuffed armchair, and curled up asleep in the chair, a young woman with dark hair and fishnet stockings. Her boots splayed on the floor next to the chair, and she was hugged in a silk blanket, her exposed toes -- the nails painted black and red, alternating -- twitching softly. Her hair had fallen in dark, sharp slants across the pale skin of her face. Her breathing came in even, regular gusts. Trip felt a sudden, inexplicable need to put a shirt on.

His arms and shoulders ached as he shrugged the t-shirt over his head, but it felt good to move. He examined the skin of his arms and found tiny, dark-red dots at even intervals; there were more on his stomach and chest, when he checked, and his mind immediately suggested, accupuncture. He stood slowly, on shaky but reliable legs, and slowly shuffled his way across the room in his bare feet. The woman in the chair shifted as he passed, muttering cottony mush-syllables, and he froze for a moment, suddenly afraid he’d wake her. But she settled back into sleep, and he squeezed himself carefully through the steel door and into the next room.

It was some kind of kitchen, a cold kettle still on the stove and dregs of loose leaf tea in the sink. The refrigerator hummed softly, and at the far side of the room, seated around a table, Trip saw two more sleeping men. They were Asian, about his age, heads both shaved bald, wearing some kind of black silk robes. They slept deeply with their heads down on the table, and as Trip studied their faces, he saw nasty-looking bruises, yellowing around the edges of the purple, and a multitude of neatly dressed cuts and scratches beginning to heal. A pizza box from Giordano’s yawned open on the table between them, and to Trip’s considerable disappointment, it contained nothing but dark grease-spots and a forlorn plastic tripod, lying on its side.

He moved past them, bare feet on the cold linoleum tile of the kitchen, past one steel door that seemed to lead outside, and slipped through another open doorway to what looked like an office. There were more windows here, admitting early-morning sunlight, and elaborately carved and laquered cabinets lining the walls, bristling with tiny, regular drawers, like a library card catalog. A desk sat beneath the window, with a high-backed chair behind it. A calligraphy brush and a pot of ink sat next to an unfurled scroll of white paper, elaborately painted characters unreeling themselves neatly down its surface. Trip’s written Chinese was shaky at best -- he’d only gotten through the basic textbook -- but he recognized some of the characters. Herbs. Some kind of recipe, perhaps.

And there, to one side of the desk, his grandfather’s cigar box. With a pang of urgency, he reached for it, and lifted the lid, but to his unaccountable relief, its contents were all in place.

The strange gyroscope. The two tuning forks. The glass vile of glittering black dust. The battered moleskine notebook, filled as far as Trip had been able to tell with his grandfather’s characteristically dull and minutely detailed notes on various acoustic and mechanical experiments from his early Bell Labs days. And, strangest of all, the yellowed, crumbling magazine printed on cheap, grainy paper.

Trip hadn’t had a chance to crack it yet; he’d been too struck by the cover, which showed a man smashing feet-first through a window, into some mad scientist’s laboratory where a beautiful, negligee-clad blond had been shackled to a heavy wooden table. The man on the cover had his grandfather’s face, lean and youthful, but with a single white streak in his hair his grandfather had never possessed.


Trip shook his head slowly, wondering if it had been some kind of joke -- a gag gift worked up by his grandfather’s buddies at the lab. He put the magazine back carefully and shut the lid of the box. It was the only thing left specifically to him in his grandfather’s will -- the lawyer had been instructed to personally put it in Trip’s hands -- and it represented a puzzle even Trip’s active, searching brain had yet to piece together.

He caught a face out of the corner of his eye and turned quickly -- a bit too quickly, the motion making him briefly dizzy -- only to see a shrine against the opposite wall, next to the door through which he’d entered. It was dominated by a photograph of an earnest, serene-looking old Chinese man with a long white beard, smiling at the camera as if he knew a particularly amusing secret. Before the picture, a low altar bore smoking sticks of incense and a plate neatly stacked with fat, firm oranges. A single painted scroll hung next to the picture, and Trip instinctively, quietly sounded out the characters, first in Chinese and then in English.

“The Most Honored and Wise Doctor Xiang Chen-Hee,” Trip said.

“Not bad for a gwailo,” came a sleepy voice from the opposite side of the room. Trip turned to see a Chinese woman in her early thirties shuffling into the room from a door he hadn’t previously noticed, wearing a purple camisole and long flannel pajama pants with a bacon-and-eggs pattern on them. Her hands worked deftly behind her head, braiding a long lash of black hair into a neat ponytail.

“I’m sorry,” Trip said -- apology was his default reaction most of the time -- “I didn’t mean to intrude. I just woke up, and, uh... where am I?”

“In the land of the living, for one thing,” the woman smirked, and padded over in slippered feet to join him by the altar. She yawned hugely. “You’re in Chinatown, couple blocks from the Red Line stop, if you’re in any great hurry. Been out for about a day straight. I’m surprised you’re even awake this soon. I didn’t think a skinny guy like you would make it, but you’re a fighter.”

“Make what?” Trip said, rubbing the side of his neck absentmindedly.

“The Black Lotus,” the woman said, her face growing serious. “Deadliest poison this side of Australia. Hell, I can’t believe you even made it here.”

“How’d I get here?” Trip asked, his stomach suddenly tight with disbelief and alarm. “And -- wait, poison? Who’d want to poison me?”

“You tell me,” the woman smirked, drawing a fresh stick of incense from a holder near the altar and lighting it in the flame of a nearby candle. “One of the Order guys -- I’m gonna assume you’re a bit slow, so that’s the Order of St. Fiacre -- picked you up. Must’ve seen that ring of yours. And when he saw the Black Lotus on your neck, he knew to get you here.”

Trip opened his mouth to ask another question, but the woman saw it and sighed heavily. “It’s gonna be Cliff Notes all the way with you, isn’t it? ‘Here’ is the offices of Dr. Xiang, Foe of Poisons and Mender of Ills.”

“And the doctor is...?” Trip asked slowly, looking at the picture over the shrine.

“Oh, so sorry,” the woman said, bowing low. “Honorable Dr. Xiang is off getting crispy fried duck from takeout place.” Quick as a flash, she shot out a hand and slapped Trip hard enough to sting against the side of his head. Her eyes narrowed in annoyance. “I’m Dr. Xiang, dumbass.”

“Ow!” Trip said, baffled, rubbing his skull. “Sorry.”

“Dr. Anna Mei Xiang, and yes, I have a “real” degree too, thank you very much,” the woman said. “And you, Thomas Roosevelt Morrow the third, of 103 W. 18th St., Pilsen, eyes brown, hair brown, drivers license photo surprisingly non-crappy, are one amazingly lucky bastard. I was up half the night with you bleeding out the poison and administering the antidote.” She gestured at the photo. “My grandpa there had only told me about the Black Lotus. Never saw it myself, before you. Somebody wanted you way the hell dead.”

“There was a woman--” Trip began, but Dr. Xiang cut him off, breezing past him toward the kitchen.

“Talk later,” she said. “Food first. And so much tea.”

Trip sat at the table with the two black-suited guys -- Hu and Gary, rubbing sleep out of their eyes and yawning, looking at him with a distance that suggested less unfriendliness than some private trouble of their own. Dr. Xiang fired up the rice cooker, then rummaged and rattled through the fridge, coming up with a dozen eggs and a handful of vegetables. In a few minutes, she was frying eggs and veggies on the stove as steam rose from the rice cooker, and a kettle whistled on the back burner. The noise brought the woman in fishnets into the kitchen, bleary-eyed and pushing her hair back from her face. She sat down at the kitchen table without saying anything to anyone, stealing occasional sad looks at Hu and Gary, and accepted a mug of tea from Dr. Xiang in silence.

“That’s new,” the fishnet girl said at last as they ate, nodding at Trip.

“What’s new?” he asked, his mouth full of eggs and rice, suddenly self-conscious.

“Your hair,” she said. “You didn’t have that yesterday.”

Trip stood up abruptly, searching his pockets. “Mirror,” he said absentmindedly. “Anyone have a mirror?” The fishnet girl reached into a pocket of her jacket and handed him a compact. He flipped it open and looked.

The first thing he saw was the side of his neck, and a deep purplish-red scar where Muriel’s needle had stuck him. It unfolded radially, like a flower. The Black Lotus. Then he moved the mirror up, and probed at his hair with slender fingers. There was a streak of white now running from the crown of his head down to the strands along his forehead, just over his right eye. Just like the Tom Morrow on the magazine cover.

“That’s not new,” he said, baffled, handing the mirror back to the fishnet girl. “I think that’s old. Very old” She just looked at him strangely, shrugged, and kept on eating.

“Could be the poison,” Dr. Xiang chimed in, reaching over Gary’s plate to help herself to more rice. “Sure put your system through enough stress. You want to tell us who exactly thinks you’re worth offing?”

Feeling the food settle comfortably, almost gratefully, in his stomach, Trip told them, starting with the subway accident, and ending with what he could remember of Muriel’s last, strange words. When he mentioned the needle, he saw the fishnet girl visibly stiffen across the table. Her eyes met Hu’s, then Gary’s, and she hunched her shoulders and stared into her teacup.

“Your turn,” Trip said at last, picking up his fork again and pointing to the fishnet girl with it. “What do you know about needles?”

She spoke, slowly at first, then more expressively, about Eyepatch and the men in the black car. She spoke around the subject of Pang, and her silences said plenty. Hu and Gary and Dr. Xiang filled in the gaps in her story -- how before he died a few years back, the Doc’s grandfather had written out a scroll for her, to be opened on a given date and time. The scroll contained instructions for contacting the Three Brothers of the Dragon -- at a phone number they hadn’t even had when it was written -- and described the girl, Sully, right down to where she’d be on the night they grabbed her.

“What did Pang mean,” Sully asked, leaning forward on her elbows, “when he called me the Gaunt Heir?”

“Is there a Michael Gant in your family?” Dr. Xiang asked her. “Three, maybe four generations back?”

“My great-grandfather,” Sully said. “He was a stage magician. I think he spent some time in Asia when he was young -- that’s what my grandfather said.”

“My grandpa,” Dr. Xiang said, “once showed me a scar on his shoulder. He said it was a bullet wound, decades old. Said a man named Michael Gant had saved his life.”

“There’s somebody like that in our history, too,” Hu piped up. “Our master back in Oakland used to tell us about the time his master emigrated here, back in the ‘30s. Said he owed his life to a guy named Gaunt.”

“His English wasn’t so good,” Gary added. “Maybe he got it wrong.”

“Wait,” Trip said, standing up from the table. “Wait, wait, that name sounds familiar.” He ducked into Dr. Xiang’s study for a moment, and returned with the cigar box, which he set carefully down on the kitchen table. He took out the magazine, and carefully flipped it over to the back cover, which listed the stories inside:


Tom, Nosh, and Shida battle deadly doppelgangers in a haunted castle!

An artificial moon to orbit the Earth?

October is Thriftiness Month -- build your own Tom Morrow Savings Vault!

Tom Morrow teams with Mister Gaunt to thwart the Caesar of Crime!

“Muriel said something about my grandfather,” Trip said, as their eyes all moved in unison over the back-cover text. “I didn’t understand -- Grandpa spent his life in a lab, pretty much. I mean, he invented telephone switching equipment. New kinds of synthetic rubber and copper wiring. Stuff nobody would care about.”

“Then what’s he doing playing Indiana Jones on the cover of a dime novel?” Sully shot back, and Trip could only shrug. He glanced down into the box again, his eyes falling across the notebook--

He had to look twice, to make sure he was seeing it. He picked up the diary, stared at it hard, brushed his fingers over the leather cover. Then he hastily began to undo the elastic straps that bound the book shut.

“What?” Sully said. “I’m pretty sure that’s a notebook, chief.”

“Yeah,” Trip replied. “My grandfather’s. Except the last time I looked at it, it didn’t have this.” He pointed to the cover, where a creased, yellowed, well-worn stamp from Borneo was stuck in one corner.

“Maybe you missed it?” Hu asked, but Trip was shuffling quickly through the pages. “1942 -- okay, this is the same, just notes from the lab. But...” Trip paged back to the very first entry, flipped through a couple pages, then back to the beginning, then forward again.

“The second entry’s ordinary stuff. Equations, diagrams for some kind of switchboard,” Trip said. “But when I looked in it on the flight back to Chicago, the first entry was about a picnic he had with my grandma in Nantucket.”

“And now?” Sully asked, leaning forward, craning her neck to see. Trip handed her the diary, and she began to read. “January 1, 1931. New Year’s in the Lookout. We’re fresh back from New York, where --” She stopped, blinked a few times, and started again. “Where the Sovereign of the Sewers had stolen the Christmas Tree from Rockefeller Center. Lasso and I tracked him to the Great Undercity Basin...”

She looked up at Trip, baffled. “So your grandpa wrote fiction?” Trip shook his head.

“I saw his bookshelves. My grandpa didn’t even read fiction. And besides, that entry -- and that stamp -- weren’t there two nights ago.”

From outside, the metal stairs clanged. Once. Again. Footsteps, heading upward. Everyone froze.

Dr. Xiang looked slowly at Hu and Gary. “You guys didn’t order a pizza?” They shook their heads. “That cabbie guy, Jimmy, when’d he say he’d be back?”

Gary checked his watch, his voice dropping to a whisper. “I think he’s still on shift.”

There was a square of frosted glass in the steel door that lead to the outside, and as all five watched, their mouths suddenly dry, it filled with shadows. Shadows wearing dark coats, and broad-brimmed hats. Someone tried the latch, rattling it first softly, then harder.

Then the door boomed with a solid blow.

Dr. Xiang looked first at Sully, then at Trip. For the first time, he saw real fear in her eyes, and when she spoke, it was a thin, harsh whisper of controlled terror.

“You need to leave,” she said. “You need to leave right now.”