Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Spider Queen Spins a Story

Engine oil and jasmine.

Nora Swift awoke to engine oil and jasmine, mingled in the warm, close air. Eyes still shut, half-dreaming, she rolled sideways — and found herself tangled, limbs swathed.

Nora lurched to full consciousness in a panic, arms and legs flailing, anything to escape the horrible, choking helplessness of the dark tendrils—

But these were sheets. Silk. The tendrils were gone, and Nora was alone, and indoors, and quietly afraid.

The room was dim and golden-hued, illuminated by paper lanterns strung from the walls. Thick steel girders ribbed the walls, studded with bolts as hefty as a fat man’s knuckles, stretching up beyond the pools of lantern-light into shadows that softly shaded into absolute darkness, some unknown distance above. The steady thrum of immense, constant machinery pulsed through the walls and floor, almost more felt than heard.

Nora threw off the sheets and sat up, slowly. She tried to remember. The tendrils had pulled her out of the window, Sully clinging to her hand; they’d been hauled up into the mist, dizzyingly high, momentarily breaks in the clouds showing glimpses of light shimmering on rain-drenched streets sickeningly far below. And then…

She couldn’t recall. Nora checked her watch; a smashed, ugly crystal and horribly blank display looked back at her. She had to get up from this strange bed, get out, find Sully, escape from wherever this was. She tried to stand up.

Heavy iron shackles, cuffed around the hems of her jeans, clanked and rattled, and she nearly fell over.

Nora stared at the shackles, not knowing whether to burst out laughing or get really, really pissed off.

She tested them. Thick, sturdy, peppered with rust and age, but they offered no easy escape. The damn things weighed a ton, and had just enough chain between them to allow Nora a convict’s sort of half-shuffle. Enough to move, but not enough to run.

Nora briefly considered that, not four days ago, she had been worried about processing the report on the near-collision between two small planes over Waukegan. Given that, wherever this place was, it didn’t seem to have a dress code, she wasn’t entirely sure whether this was worse.

“Hello?” she called out to the darkness. “Someone wanna let me out of these damn things? I mean, this is, like, five kinds of wrong.” No one responded, save Nora’s own faint echo. “Fine,” she grumbled. “See if I don’t sue your ass.”

The room was vast, and at a shuffle, it took several minutes to circle completely. It was mostly empty space, populated here and there with tables and glass cases containing strange, carefully lit and displayed relics. At the far end of the chamber from the low, mosquito-netted bed where she’d awakened, Nora found a thick hatch, but it, too, was sealed tight, and five minutes of irrationally optimistic tugging at it only made her arms tired.

So back at a clanking shuffle she went, legs already getting sore, to inspect each of the cases in turn. The significance of the objects inside largely escaped her: a gorgeous, jewelled scimitar in one, a golden statue of a falcon in another. Only the case closest to the bed gave her pause; a leather aviator’s jacket, and a six-shot pistol, slightly worried by age, and uncomfortably familiar.

And then there was the box.

It had no case; only a pedestal, lit with a single flickering spot. It was built from black lacquered wood, inlaid with mother of pearl, and Nora could not even hope to guess at its age. Nora stretched out a hand to touch the box; it felt strangely warm. The patterns etched in its surface curved and swirled hypnotically, labyrinths for the eyes. There was no latch.

Nora opened the lid, just a crack. From the darkness within, a sickly-sweet smell slid out, mingling with the jasmine and the engine oil. She started to lift the lid further.

And let it drop shut, with a snap, as a voice coiled down out of the darkness above her.

“Hello, sister,” it said.

It was a woman’s voice, made of smoke and sand; audibly ancient, yet somehow still musical, dipping and swaying with the ghost of some unfixable accent. Nora looked up, but saw nothing but shadow. She shivered and backed away from the box, suddenly feeling very small, and very alone.

“At last,” the woman’s voice said. “You’ve come home, sister.”

“Where am I?” Nora called out, with all the courage she could muster. “And what’s with these damn shackles?”

“Not to your comfort?” the voice chuckled, affecting a treacly, mothering voice, shot through with a curl of poison. “I can sympathize. They were mine, once. After the first three months, your ankles stop bleeding. By six, the calluses have formed. And within a year, your legs forget that you could ever run, that you ever did without them. And you carry your cage with you.”

“Are you — are you with the Needlemen?” Nora asked, eyes raised, slowly shuffling backward toward the nearest wall. Right now, she wanted her back against something firm, impermeable; maybe them, the voice wouldn’t sound like it was always just over her shoulder.

“The Needlemen? The Needlemen are a myth, sister,” the voice laughed, dry and mirthless. “Of course, so am I. Your spook-stories don’t trade here.”

“They’re real as a heart attack,” Nora risked, “and — and if they know where I am, and they probably do, you better believe there’s a whole bunch of ‘em on their way to pay you a visit.” Maybe this woman, whoever she was, was as scared of the Needlemen as Nora. Then again… Nora remembered the black tendrils, and shuddered. Maybe not.

“These Needlemen…” the voice began. “Do they have wings, perhaps?”

“They’ve got helicopters,” Nora answered. “Close enough?”

The voice sighed, almost wistfully. “Helicopters. Haven’t eaten any of those in, oh, I can’t remember. I can’t wait.”

Nora risked a glance over her shoulder; the wall was maybe fifteen feet away, agonizingly close. But with every step, the heavy shackles bit into her legs, dragging at her, scraping noisily along the metal-plated floor.

“Who are you? Why did you bring me here?” Nora asked, trying to control the quaver in her voice. It suddenly occurred to her that if she died, no one would ever feed her cat again. If it hadn’t gone feral already.

“Would you like to hear a story?” the voice asked. “Stories are — forgive me, stories were my trade, long before blood and steel. Shall I tell you a story, sister?”

“Is it a story about getting these damn shackles off me?” Nora said, anger flaring in her.

“In a manner of speaking, perhaps,” the voice responded. “Once upon a time — that, you see, is how all good stories should begin — there was a princess in a distant kingdom. The details no longer matter; how wise was her father, how brave her mother, how numerous her courtiers … how she bathed in perfume and danced on pearls … how very happy she was. All irrelevant. All dust and ash.

“They say seven is a lucky number, but not for this princess. She had seven years, seven years of goodness and happiness. And then, because the world hates nothing so much as imbalance, she received all those years’ allotment of misery in a single night. The Enemy came, ten foot tall to the last of them, swarming over the walls. The princess watched her garden burn, her horses and camels and dogs and cats punctured and bled to lifelessness. They painted her mother across the walls of the dancing-chamber, and hung bits of her father in the rafters.

“And what of the child, you ask? Oh, they saved something very special for her. When she thought she had lost everything there was to lose, they proved her wrong. They brought out a steel box, not much bigger than the princess herself, and they locked her inside. And for seven years, she lost the light of the sun.

“Imagine. Seven years of noises in the dark, of sudden thumps and blows. Seven years of having food, such as it was, pass in through one slot, and passing its remains out through another. Seven years in a world of arbitrary gravity, where up could just as easily become down. You can understand, can’t you? How it would drive anyone, even a princess, utterly mad?

“And then, after seven years, after the dark had even become her friend, the light, the terrible light. And the pain. And the men, endless men, with stinking breath and rough, cruel hands. And the princess discovered yet more things that could be taken from her, and knew she must be mad. In her youth, you see, every face had been different, unique. Now every man wore one face, cruel and hateful. And the princess, mad though she was, had wits enough to know this, know the wrongness of her perceptions, and despair in her madness.

“Sometimes, the princess found, she could spin a story to her visitors, and delay the pain they visited upon her. Some were amused. Some not. But she became known as a storyteller, and the visitors began to insist upon it, and the stories became just another shackle, in the end.

“They say a single bite of food can be crueler to a starving man than continued hunger. So it was for the princess, to know tiny islands of kindness in her ocean of pain. To share the company of women, other women like her; to hear them, at night, whisper bits and baubles of their former happiness, like treasures shown and shared only in secret, only for moments. To learn from them of art and science and mathematics, things to focus the mind during those moments when the princess had to sever it from her body, make a dead object of herself, or else go madder still from the purposes to which she was put.

“They kept her chained when the men came to her, of course; it was assumed that long years of captivity had broken her spirit, but no one wished to risk her fingernails across their tender eyes all the same. But they unshackled her feet, for reasons I shall spare you, however obvious they may prove upon careful thought. And the body, oh, the body is a wonder. Infinitely adaptable, infinitely resourceful. And so it was that on the day a careless man at last forgot to leave behind the knife at the back of his belt, the princess gripped it fast in her her toes, and with her legs and feet drove it deep into his back, again and again, until at last he died. And when his death-cries brought the guard, the foolish guard with the keys on his belt, who came too close, who did not see the knife in her toes until it had lodged in his belly… she was free.

“Freedom. After fourteen years without it, it seems huge and abstract, less real even than death. It is shameful to relate, now, that at first the princess feared to even leave her cell, though the door swung wide. But leave she did, her hard-won knife in one hand, and the keys in the other. She freed the other women, her friends. And together they swarmed as one over the guards, devouring them with blows and curses, and regained the air and the sun. Long years of shackles had, perversely, made them strong.

“And when the princess looked over the faces of her dead tormentors, she still saw one and the same face. And she knew she had passed beyond madness, and reached real sanity, real truth. That the world had held but one good man, her father; and that with his passing he had left behind an ocean of vermin, demanding extermination.

“So she took one of their heads. And she kept it, preserved it, as a reminder. And it served her well.

“Like a hot wind the princess and her new army swept across the distant kingdom upon whose shores time and confinement had washed them. Their feet grew stained with shed blood, their hands leathered from the grip of swords and guns. They were a tide of liberation, and wherever women suffered, their ranks only grew.

“And at last they reached a palace, not that of the princess’s youth, but similar in its way, and yes, haunting for that similarity. And they stormed over the walls, and burned the gardens, and put every last man to the sword. Not the girls, no, not the women, even the poor sad beasts so blinded by their slavery as to fight them. No, they were turned aside with care and kindness, for they knew not what they did. And when they died, as they sometimes insisted, they died with the invaders’ apologies, and with their love and respect.

“They came to the throne room, and found the king there, waiting, fat and stupid and terrified. Livestock. And as the princess stepped forward to dash off his head, a young girl stepped forth to block her path. The king’s daughter.

“She spun the most outrageous lies, of course. That her father was a new ruler, fresh to power following the death of his wicked, greedy brother. That he had not known of the women’s confinement until he took the throne, and indeed, had moved to abolish it in the country’s laws. As if laws were more than breath and air. But her blindness stirred pity in the princess’s heart, and moved by her courage, the princess agreed to make the one and only exception of all her remaining days, and spare the stupid king’s life.

“And as her price for this generosity, the princess took her lash, the one she had hand-braided from leather and bits of broken glass, and struck the girl’s arm in a spiral, nearly down to the bone. To remind her of her simpleton’s loyalty, of her tragic error, evermore.

“And then, ripe with rightful spoils, the princess and her army left the soiled, blood-soaked earth behind, and took to their rightful place in the skies. And the princess became a Queen.

“For a decade, and more, the Queen and her army of sisters roamed the blue kingdom of the skies as they pleased, and took what they wished, and devoured whom they would. And even the low animals bowed to her, and learned to fly at her merest whim, and became her dutiful army, as well they should.

“And then came the betrayer. The False Sister. Swaggering and deceitful, she won the Queen’s trust, then tore out her heart. For the second time, the Queen saw all she loved, all she had amassed, burnt to nothingness. And from that time forth, the Queen breathed hate, ate fury, drank rancor, all to destroy the False Sister who mocked her with every heartbeat more.

“Again and again they would clash, and the False Sister was bold and cruel and clever. Again and again she took more from the Queen, and redoubled her fury. But the Queen remained strong in her anger, and the False Sister at last grew weak, and tired, and conspired to deny the Queen one last victory. She hid, you see. The False Sister fled forever from the skies, and scattered her craft upon the surface of the sea, and left behind her jacket and her gun in the wreckage, to make the Queen think her dead. But the Queen knew better — knew that she must yet live, and be laughing at the Queen, laughing and laughing.

“So the Queen persisted, down through the years, even as her army withered and her own body failed. She learned to replace the parts of herself that betrayed her, surrendered herself piece by piece. And yet her hate grew steadily brighter, and hotter, and in the end, it glowed like a star, and became larger and more glorious and more true than the Queen herself.

“And still she draws breath, such as it is. And still she clings to life by her nails and her teeth. She waits for her deliverance.

“And you, Ruby Gale … you have brought me that deliverance at last.”

Ice formed in the pit of Nora’s stomach as she shuffled the last steps back to rest against the wall.

“I’m not her,” Nora said, quickly, desperately. “My name’s Nora Swift — I — I work in an office. I’m not her!”

And then she realized the wall was moving. She turned and saw a curtain of the black coils covering the wall, wriggling against her back, curling around her arms and legs. Before she could scream, the tendrils had seized her and held her fast.

She heard the coils buzzling and rustling above, and then something lowered itself down out of the shadows that cloaked the ceiling. A woman, unguessably old, her face lined with bright white lines of uncountable scars. At first, Nora thought her frail husk of a body was merely cocooned in the slithering coils. But they shifted, and Nora realized that the coils, dozens of them, led directly into her, and seemed to pulse in some obscene, circulatory rhythm.

Wicked West’s eyes slowly opened, and fixed on Nora, blazing with fierce hatred. “You were so very clever, sister. You even changed your face, changed your voice, shed your years. But I can smell the truth in your blood. I could have killed you in your sleep, I suppose. But I made myself wait. I wanted to see the fear in your eyes. I wanted you to know.”

The coils snaked around Nora’s throat, tightening slowly, as she struggled in the grip of a waking nightmare. The coils lowered Wicked West, or what remained of her, inch by gradual inch until her face was level with Nora’s. And then the pirate queen smiled, slow and terrible, and spoke two last words:

“I win.”

Next: Trip and Rafe partner with an unlikely ally, breach the ruins of an underground empire, and discover the difference between bad and worse.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Tempest and the Terrible Tendrils

The rain continued into the night, lashing in dense and chilly sheets against the windows, seeming to cling tenaciously to every outside surface of the penthouse at 919 North Michigan. It was unseasonable for November, a month that generally presaged snow with an almost clockwork regularity; but if any of the quartet encamped there in the close, comforting gloom bothered to ponder this, they most likely dismissed it as the least unusual of the past few days’ events.

Nora, through diligent foraging, had turned up a cobweb-coated brace of thick white wax candles in the depths of an abandoned cabinet, and with help from Sully’s lighter, they soon had warm, flickering orange puddles of light dotting the ever-thickening blue-black of Chicago night. Outside, the twinkling brilliance of the city was dimmed and swaddled in fog, and a dull orange glow radiated down over all, reflected from the clouds.

With light provided for, and a ready supply of decades-old wonderfood in shiny new tins, the foursome turned to their next most urgent priority. Sully and Nora waited outside the narrow door in a far corner of the penthouse, listening intently.

“Flip you for it,” Nora said.

“Heads,” Sully replied. Nora fished out a quarter from her jeans, flicked it deftly into the air, and caught it in one palm, turning it over onto the back of her other hand.

“Tails,” Nora grinned. Sully made a low, gravelly sound in the back of her throat, and narrowed her eyes in unconscious imitation of her great-grandfather.

From behind the door came a thunderous torrent of sudden water, a hiss of pipes, a smaller splashing, and a final squeak of valves. The door opened and Rafe emerged, patting his hands dry on the side of his slacks.

“Ladies,” he exulted, “we have indoor plumbing. Hot water. Soap, even.”

Nora all but shoved him aside and slammed the door behind her. Rafe shrugged and padded off in the direction of dinner.

“Go fast!” Sully hollered through the door, and continued to wait, fidgeting only slightly.

The canned Morrowmeals proved vastly more exciting than expected in preparation; a yank of the pin from the chamber at the bottom of each can, and the binary chemicals inside combined, reacting to produce intense and instant heat. As the contents in the upper chamber warmed, the non-toxic, organic sealant securing the lid weakened; by the time the vacuum-sealed food was thoroughly heated and ready for eating, the top simply popped off, unleashing the savory aroma of its waiting meal.

“This,” Rafe said with his mouth half-full, “is easily the best -- “ he paused to check the label -- “peach cobbler I have ever had.”

Nora regarded him suspiciously over her tin of chicken noodle soup. “You ever had peach cobbler?” she cross-examined.

“Many times,” Rafe egregiously lied, and continued eating. “Are you going to finish that?”

Sully left them bickering genially, and with her can of rice and beans in one hand and a container marked BEEF STEW in the other, she followed the trail of candles and their dancing shadows back down the corridor to the lab.

“Hey. Eat something,” she said to the figure hunched over the work table, elbow deep in a pile of strange rotors and coils and components scavenged from the surrounding shelves.”

“Be there in a minute,” Trip said, not looking up from his work. He had the pages of his grandfather’s journal pinned open with one hand, while the other traced a pattern of wiring on some gizmo under assembly on the table beside him.

“You said that an hour ago,” Sully sighed. “Eat. Come on, it cooks itself. Bachelor like you, that’s gotta be a plus.”

This got Trip to look up, if only briefly. “I cook,” he insisted, candlelight glinting off the lenses of his glasses.

“The hell you do,” Sully smirked, setting down both cans with a clank on the work table, displacing something covered in bolts and coils and wires. “I don’t even cook.”

“I work,” Trip said, stripping plastic coating from the end of a spool of wire, “with my hands, every day. I like to solve puzzles. Assemble components. Figure out how things work in balance with each other. Any of that makes you think I don’t cook?”

“I had you pegged as the absent-minded professor type,” Sully grinned. She pulled the tab on the bottom of the beef stew can and heard the heating chemicals hiss and gurgle satisfyingly within. “All living off ramen in some studio apartment crammed ceiling-high with half-built gadgets.”

Trip threaded the bare end of the wire into one end of a crude circuit board, checked the diagrams in Tom Morrow’s journal, and nodded to himself. “I’ve got a loft, actually,” he said. “And I try to keep everything but the workship clean. Try.”

Sully thought of her one-bedroom condo in a twenty-story high-rise in downtown L.A. — the place she went, on occasion, for those few hours of each day when she tired of the office. She tried to remember whether she actually had any food in her fridge, then mentally subtracted any leftover origami boxes of lo mein and orange chicken that might gradually be achieving sentience therein.

“You might want to back up a little,” Trip told her, hoisting a soldering iron. “This thing tends to throw off sparks.”

Sully studied his face, the dead-earnest sincerity that spilled out of it, and couldn’t help but smile, even if she didn’t know quite why. “You say that like sparks are a bad thing,” she found herself saying, and immediately wished she hadn’t.

“Suit yourself,” Trip shrugged. He switched on the soldering iron, and, as he’d done more times than he’d ever admit to anyone, promptly burned himself.

“Ow! Dammit,” he winced, hissing in air through involuntarily clenched teeth. He fluttered the burned finger back and forth, feeling the air congeal around his hand from the constant motion.

“Here,” Sully said, moving around the table. “Let me see. Come on, let me see.” OMG burned his fingers often, too — his precious, actually insured for real money fingers — albeit under different circumstances, generally involving butane lighters and sophisticated bongs. And since OMG’s girlfriend, sweetheart that she was, assumed First Aid was some sort of benefit concert, Sully had gained more experience than she would have liked at tending to minor injuries.

“It’s nothing,” Trip said, as she grabbed him firmly by the hand and yanked the injured finger into view.

“Let’s get it under some water,” Sully sighed.

They found an industrial sink in the back of the lab, and after some knocking deep in the pipes, and a few alarming barks of rust-red muck, clear, cold water poured forth. Trip held his finger under the faucet, and quietly felt like an idiot.

“Geez, look at your hands,” Sully said, and whistled softly. They were crisscrossed with thin whitish lines of scar tissue, some more faded than others.

“Hazards of the tinkerer’s life,” Trip shrugged. “That big one’s from the engine block of a tank, and there — that’s from when I cut myself on the armature for Death House 2. And that, that, and, uh, I think that’s just from working on my bike.”

“Your bike?” Sully smirked, with the instinctual resident smugness bred from living in a town where bicycles were largely considered target practice.

“I like it a lot,” Trip protested, “but I don’t think the feeling’s mutual."

“So what is this?” Sully asked, nodding at the pile of components on the workbench, as Trip shut off the faucet and dried his soothed fingertip on the hem of his shirt.

“Actually?” Trip said. “I’m, uh, I’m not entirely sure yet. Grandp — uh, Tom’s sketches are a little vague on that. But I think it’s a weapon. Multipurpose, and strictly nonlethal, which I kinda like, truth be told.”

“You’re building a weapon, and you don’t even know what it is?” Sully said. “I mean, you spent more time with the guy than I did, but do you really think it’s a good idea to just blindly build exactly what he’s sketching out for you from a couple generations in the past?”

“One, yes I do,” Trip said, cautiously picking up the soldering iron again. “And two, I’m not blindly building anything. I mean, the design — he’s clearly a genius, but I’ve picked up a few shortcuts of my own over the years. See this, right here? I think if I can wire it in parallel with another capacitor, I can geometrically increase the output, and — you’ve just gone crosseyed, haven’t you?”

“I was with you right up until ‘wire,’” Sully shrugged. She popped the top off the can of beef stew, now perfectly heated and steaming, and pushed it over to Trip. “Come on, eat something. We’ve both been going since this morning. You’re gonna drop if you don’t get some food in you.”

“Was it really just this morning?” Trip sighed. He reached a hand up to probe the still-fresh mark of the Black Lotus on the side of his neck; huge, cold, impossible thoughts of his own death swam suddenly up from the dark of his mind, and he pushed them down again quickly.

“Mmm-hmm,” Sully nodded, equally weary, handing him one of the spoons Rafe had liberated from a dusty drawer. “And these boots? Really not built for this kind of use. Can a girl get a seat around here?”

Trip pulled a stool creaking over from one of the workbenches, and the two of them sat around the table, elbows bumping strange components, and ate for a while in mutual silence. The intensity of his own hunger surprised Trip the moment he swallowed the first spoonful of rich, warm stew, and before long, he found himself scraping at the last dregs at the bottom of the can.

Sully exhaled with post-prandial satisfaction, setting her empty Morrowmeal tin to one side, and instinctively dug in the pockets of her jacket. Her fingers emerged clutching the slender box of cigarettes Mister Gaunt had given her, and she hesitated.

“Tell me I should quit,” she said, without looking at Trip.

“I figure you’re smart enough to figure that out for yourself,” Trip said, carefully, taking a fresh look at his grandfather’s schematic.

“Nobody says no to me anymore,” Sully told him, turning the box of cigarettes over in her hands. “I’ve been realizing that. I set myself up as the boss, and at some point, I think I just made everyone too terrified to say anything but yes to me.”

“Doesn’t sound so bad to me,” Trip said, but there was something measured, probing, in his tone.

“You’d think,” Sully smirked. “I just… it’d be nice to know someone cared enough about me to risk pissing me off now and then.”

Trip soldered one last set of wires, then looked up at her, all seriousness. “You should quit,” he said.

Sully laughed and rolled her eyes at him. “Oh, please,” she said. “You don’t even know me.”

“Do I have to know you?” Trip said. “To care, I mean? All the crazy things that happened to us today — I don’t know if I could have made it if I’d had to do it all alone. That’s gotta count for something, right?”

Sully felt an unfamiliar warmth in her cheeks, and it took her a few seconds to recall what blushing felt like. “God,” she said, “are you always this cornball?”

“I think it’s genetic,” Trip laughed. “So — you pick up anything useful from this superbadass great-grandfather of yours? Rafe’s been showing off with those knives of his, and I didn’t want to ask her about it, but I think Nora’s packing heat now.”

Sully grinned, slyly. “Oh, you want a demonstration, huh? Okay.” She rolled up the sleeves of her leather jacket and brandished her bare forearms. “Nothing up my sleeves.”

“Of course,” Trip said, making a few quick solders.

Sully tapped the cigarette box once on the table and deftly withdrew one long, slender smoke from the half-dozen remaining inside. She walked it back and forth across the knuckles of her right hand, snatched it into the palm of her left, brought her hands together quickly, and opened them. Empty. She showed both hands, front and back; no cigarette

“Do I clap now, or should I wait?” Trip grinned, and Sully stuck her tongue out at him.

“Hold your horses,” she said. “You’ve got something behind your ear.”

“Let me guess,” Trip told her, holding still as she leaned over and reached in back of his right ear. “The cigarette?”

“Nope,” Sully said, and brought forth her silver lighter, flame flickering. “That’s your other ear.” And sure enough, from behind his left, there was her cigarette. Without thinking, she brought the tip of it up to the flame to light it — and stopped, catching Trip’s steady, trusting gaze.

“I meant it,” Trip said. “You should quit.”

Sully let a smile break, slow as dawn, across her face. “All right,” she said. “You hold onto it.”

She snapped the lighter shut and put the cigarette back behind his left ear, though Trip felt nothing there; and on its return trip, her empty hand paused, her knuckles just resting on the light sandpaper stubble on Trip’s cheek.

“You need a shave,” she said softly.

“Why?” Trip asked, equally still. “Any special reason?” He could feel the beat of his heart reverberating seismically through his entire body.

“Maybe…” she began, and swallowed. “Maybe somebody might want to—”

Down the hallway, from the main chamber of the Lookout, glass broke, sudden and loud, and Trip and Sully nearly fell off their chairs.

“Get the hell in here!” Nora shouted, and before they even knew they were moving, Trip and Sully were in the corridor, at a run.

Broken glass glittered like fallen starlight across the empty expanse of floor in the Lookout’s main chamber, scattered from the jagged remains of the glass doors that led out to the patio. The few panes left intact looked punched and scarred, hail-pocked. Outside, the world seemed strangely dark, the rain seeming to writhe in the faint reaches of the candlelight within the Lookout, only admitting brief glimpses of the city lights beyond. Rafe and Nora stood next to the work table, Rafe’s inky knives gleaming in his clenched fists, and Nora propping up a heavy-looking revolver pistol in shaking hands.

“What happened to the rain?” Trip asked, edging closer. The air held a terrible stillness. “Why can’t we see outside?”

“Listen,” Sully said, her voice dropping to a whisper. Around them hung a strange silence, and Trip realized that until just a few minutes before, the Lookout had hummed with the steady drum of rainfall on the roof above. Now there was nothing.

“I don’t think that’s the rain,” Nora said, cocking back the hammer on the pistol, breathing deep.

And then the dark outside surged in, serpentine, a thousand thousand storm-dripping metal tendrils, seemingly alive with malign purpose. They boiled together in a giant, probing arm, and then split into dozens of seeking branches, slithering through the air and across the floor toward the Lookout’s four terrified occupants.

Rafe slashed out with his knives as a writhing coil of black reached him, and it fell away twitching blue sparks, shuddering as if it were some wounded beast. “Mechanical!” Rafe shouted, as Nora squeezed two rounds into the black heart of the thing, and Trip and Sully hefted chairs. “The thing’s mechan— oh, bollocks!” A vine of black ensnared his arm, and he hacked at it with his free hand, desperately trying to break free.

The black tendrils, humming and whirring, grabbed and bit at Sully’s chair, and she could see tiny metal teeth at the end of every strand. She fought with the thing, trying to yank the chair back, but it was pulled from her grasp. The tendrils diverged, each ensnaring a different corner of the chair, and in one neat jerk rent it to bits and splinters.

“We’ve gotta get out of here!” Sully cried as Trip leapt forward to swing at the dark, wriggling mass with his own chair. “The door!”

“I’ll cover you!” Nora said, gritting her teeth, fighting back the cold terror clenching at her stomach. She fired once more at the core of the thing, and it seemed to shrink back for a moment, giving Rafe purchase enough to finally cut himself free. He bled in ribbons where the tendrils had gripped his forearm, but hardly seemed to notice, his eyes alive with a strange, savage energy.

Timing her shots — three more, now two — Nora backed slowly toward the rest of the group as Trip gripped the latch to the unbreakable door and, with Sully’s help, swung it open. He pushed Sully through, then made way for Rafe, as Nora backed away from the searching tendrils.

“Nora!” Trip cried, one foot in the antechamber where Sully and Rafe waited. “Come on!”

She put her last bullet sparking and roaring into the thick of the invader and turned, reaching for Trip’s outstretched hand. He grabbed tight and pulled her through, into the white stillness of the anteroom.

“Close it!” Nora shouted. Rafe and Sully sprang forth, helping Trip tug at the door—

The tendrils surged forward, boiling through the gap in the door, wrenching it out of their hands. Before any of them could move, the darkness grabbed Nora, cables encircling her arms and legs, and yanked her shrieking back into the room. She clawed desperately at the floor, fingers scrabbling for purchase and finding none, as the dark dragged her steadily through the field of glittering glass, toward the broken windows.

Sully was the first to find her legs, darting back through the door, crossing the floor of the Lookout in a few swift strides, and grabbing Nora’s outstretched arm in both of hers. She dug in her heels, but it wasn’t enough — the two of them were still being hauled inexorably toward the dark without.

“Little help?” Sully shouted through clenched teeth, though Trip and Rafe were already racing toward her.

“Don’t let go!” Nora pleaded, fighting as the tendrils cruelly squeezed her limbs.

“Hey,” Sully grunted, “we girls gotta stick together, right?” Trip seized her around the waist, and Rafe locked his arms up under Trip’s, and for a moment, it seemed they were winning.

Then the writhing thing gave another hard jerk, yanking Nora out into the dark, lifting her bodily into the air. Sully could only keep one hand gripped to Nora’s, and another vicious tug nearly wrenched her from Trip’s grasp. He shout out his hand and caught hers; behind him, still gripping him under the arms, Rafe wedged his heels at the corners of the doorframe and strained in the opposite direction with all his might.

Trip felt Sully slipping from his grasp, inch by inch, finger by finger. He looked up at her, desperate, helpless, and saw the fear in her own eyes. He watched her fight it, and win, and give him one last confident smirk. And then her fingers seemed to fly from his, and Nora and Sully vanished upward, drawn into the dark. Trip caught a glimpse of something black and massive overhead, retreating up into the fog, and then the rain returned, pounding down, and he could see nothing more.

Trip and Rafe staggered back inside, aching, defeated, and collapsed side by side in the floor, breath burning in their lungs.

“Have we come at a bad time?” came a voice, crisp and English, from the doorway to the anteroom.

“Oh no,” Rafe groaned, before he even looked. “Oh, no, no.”

The anteroom seemed suddenly filled with Needlemen, fringes of their dark coats brushing the floor, each pointing a silver Needle at the two prone men. They were led by a compact, grey-haired, steely-eyed woman who stepped neatly through the doorway, into the Lookout. “Oh yes, Mr. Windham. And hello to you as well, Mr. Morrow.”

“You must be Mrs. Stitch,” Rafe spat, and wished he had the presence of mind, or the breath, to say something suitably cutting.

“Where did you—” Trip said, and coughed, and started again. “Where did you take them? Sully and Nora?”

Something strangely like sympathy flitted across Mrs. Stitch’s face. “I sincerely wish I knew,” she said at last, “although I suspect it’s no place any of you would want to be. However, your friends are presently the least of your concerns, I fear. Maximillian!”

The hulking man, silent as ever, stepped forward through the parting crowd of black-coated minions, crading a large metal suitcase in his outthrust arms. He caught Rafe’s glare, and nodded, and narrowed his eyes in a decidedly unfriendly manner.

“You’ve caused us quite a bit of trouble,” Mrs. Stitch sighed, as Trip and Rafe dragged themselves to their feet. “And in light of our current situation, I feel it’s high time we had a good, long talk about that.” She nodded to Maximillian, who undid the snaps on the suitcase and slowly opened the lid.

A pizza box sat inside, the aroma of cheese and tomato sauce suddenly filling the room.

“We brought Gino’s East,” Mrs. Stitch said primly. “I hope that’s all right.”

Trip and Rafe looked at each other, baffled.

“We just ate,” they said in near-unison.