Monday, April 16, 2007

Darkness Above, City Below (Part 2)

OK, finished at last. The end of the chapter begins here.

Rafe lay for a while with his cheek pressed against the cool stone floor of the train, waiting for his ribs to stop burning with every thunderous beat of his heart. He dimly registered that Trip was saying something, but didn’t much care what.

At length, he flopped over on his back (ouch) and then slowly hauled himself into a sitting position (ouch ouch ouch). Trip sat across the aisle from him, his back resting against the edge of the row of stone seats, knees drawn up, rubbing the back of his neck.

“I’m sorry,” Rafe said, testing his arms and legs to make sure nothing was broken. “Did you say something?”

“Nice aim,” Trip replied, and nodded to his left, where Maximillian lay like a felled tree. His hat lolled beside him, upended, a shabby half-planet in a crooked orbit.

“Is he breathing?” Rafe wondered, and Trip shrugged.

“Can’t tell with the coat,” he said. “And I’m not exactly keen on getting close enough to check.”

“I shouldn’t have been able to do that,” Rafe said, still sucking in air in short, sharp breaths. “Any of that. You should have fallen on the tracks, assuming I could even have picked you up at all.”

“Adrenalin?” Trip suggested, but Rafe could see from his face that even he didn’t believe it.

“Whatever’s happening,” Rafe murmured, a slightly sick, unsteady feeling twisting in his stomach, “It’s not just changing the world around us. I think it’s changing us. I can smell things, hear things—”

Trip reached up to the seat and pulled down the Multipurpose Rifle, laying it across his lap. “I know,” he said quietly. “This thing uses principles I never studied — principles I’m not even sure are supposed to exist. But I know it like I was the one who designed it to begin with. And I’m starting to remember things — I think I read them somewhere in my grandfather’s journal, but when I go back, I can’t find the pages that have them.”

Rafe sucked in a deep breath and let his head lean back against the rough edge of the stone seat. “I don’t want this. I’m not sure I know what I’ve ever wanted. The opposite of whatever anyone else wanted me to do, I suppose. But not this.”

Trip smiled ruefully. “Some men are born great,” he recited, “some achieve greatness—”

“Thank you, yes,” Rafe cut him off, shutting his eyes in annoyance. “I might have some passing knowledge of Shakespeare myself.”

“You’re telling me you never thought the world wasn’t exciting enough?” Trip asked him, flipping open a hatch on the side of the rifle. He peered inside, grimaced, and began fiddling with the innards. “You never looked at the world and thought, is this it? Is this everything?”

“Maybe about my life, specifically,” Rafe sighed. “But the world in general was more than exciting for me already, thank you. No blind dinosaur things needed.”

Maximillian’s entire body twitched, once, again, and then the big man folded himself upward at the waist. He rubbed the back of his head tenderly, and glowered first and Trip, then at Rafe.

“Serves you right,” Rafe smirked. Maximillian huffed and quickly snatched up his hat, cramming it back on his head.

Beneath them, the hum of the train deepened in pitch, and the solid black tunnel walls outside the windows gave way to open space. Rafe hauled himself up and stared out the window, filled with sudden, undeniable awe.

An entire city, outlined in pinpricks of soft crystal-glow, spread itself out away from the train on either side. Rafe glimpsed broad stone streets, and the husks of squat buildings, some squarish, others vaguely pyramid-shaped. Canals snaked through the city in gentle curves, rivers of ink across the web of jeweled light.

The train coasted to a halt on a steep platform in the city center, wheezed its doors open, and flickered at last into silence and darkness. Rafe stuck his head out cautiously, but found only an empty plaza of stone, lit at intervals by raised towers of radiant crystal. Behind the train, tracks stretched across a brief swatch of city to a tunnel in a wall of sheer rock; ahead of it, the track and three others converged in a central, circular hub.

Trip, still poking around in the guts of his rifle, followed Rafe out of the train and along the platform, trailed by a still-sulking Maximillian. As he approached the hub, following weird lines of time-worn carvings in the stone underfoot, Rafe could see one of the three other tracks stretching empty off into the gloom. The stone pillars supporting another had crumbled away several thousand yards distant, leaving a yawning gap in the tracks. On the last, a zig-zag train of derailed stone cars sprawled on their side, perilously close to falling, like a dead snake. At the hub of the tracks, a circular staircase of stone descended into the city below.

“The Winter City,” Trip said, setting aside his rifle for a moment to rifle through his grandfather’s journal, plucked from his hip pocket. “My grandfather said it started as a place for storage, waste treatment, the Kroatoan’s prisons—”

“They needed an entire city for prisons?” Rafe asked quietly, horrified.

“He’s… kind of vague on that subject,” Trip wavered. “I’m, uh, I’m thinking again of the Aztecs…”

“Right, yes, sorry,” Rafe interrupted. “The next time I ask a question I probably don’t want to know the answer to, could you just, I don’t know, favor me with a mysterious silence or some such?”

“Gotcha,” Trip sighed apologetically. “Anyway, they ended up building it out — don’t ask me how, or with what — into a whole other city down here, for when the one up top got too unseasonal.”

“A whole other city just for winter?” Rafe asked. “Seems a bit — I don’t know, wasteful?”

Trip just studied him quizzically. “You haven’t lived through the winter here, have you?”

From the city below, far distant, a series of heavy thuds echoed. Rafe peered over the edge of the stone platform and saw the dim outlines of something moving in the streets below. Something large.

“What was that?” Rafe asked, glancing back at Trip. “Did you see that?”

Trip glanced down at the journal, looked back up at Rafe, and set his mouth in a tight, deliberate line.

“You’re being mysteriously silent, aren’t you?” Rafe asked quietly. Trip nodded. “How mysteriously silent?”

“Very,” Trip said, closing the journal quickly, and Rafe’s stomach knotted itself anew.

“Right, fine,” Rafe sighed. “This Misery Engine, whatever you call it — where are we to find it?”

Trip pointed across the expanse of half-lit city to a distant ring of unusually bright lights, casting visible beams up into the gloom. The path from the platform to the ring, Rafe noted with no delight whatsoever, would take them right across the track of whatever had been out there moving in the shadows.

“Lovely. Excellent. Bloody marvelous,” Rafe groaned.

Maximillian gave a heavy snort of impatience, and they turned to find him with arms folded, fixing them both with a look that suggested a severe temptation to hurl them both off the platform. He jerked his head in the direction of the spiral staircase, and turned and strode off without waiting for their reply.

The stairs wound down to empty, spreading boulevards. From the ground, Rafe could see that the stone structures were nowhere near as sturdy as they had first appeared. More of the green vines wound parasitically into and among the chinks in the stone, sprouting like frayed stitching from gaps in the upper stories of the buildings and twining in thick, leafy cables from one building to the next.

Some of the buildings, Rafe noted, had yellowed human skulls for the capstones of their front doorways. A few of the larger, more elaborate-looking structures had them framing all the doors, with long bones Rafe recognized as femurs. It reminded him too much of the catacombs of Paris — entire walls of underground chambers blistered with row upon row of plastered-together skulls. He suppressed a shudder and kept one hand on the clacking hilts of the stone knives in his belt.

The dead eyes of empty windows stared down on the three explorers as they walked in near silence through the deserted streets, stumbling over snarls of twisted vine sprouting up from gaps in the paving stones. At intervals and intersections, towers of glowing crystal wore soft-edged blue-white holes in the city’s shroud of perpetual night.

They emerged into a wide, spreading plaza, ringed with crystal lights growing up from the ground. There was some sort of dry fountain or basin in the middle; from its center, a blocky stone figure rose, one thick, squarish arm upraised, preparing to plunge a knife down into another figure kneeling prostrate at its feet. Even in the dimness, Rafe could see dark stains permanently blotched into the stone around the inside of the fountain, which more than killed any desire he had for a closer look.

They had nearly reached the center of the plaza before Rafe heard it. A soft, compound scrabbling — the shuffling of many small feet.

“Does anyone hear that?” he began to ask, and trailed off. In the shadows of an avenue mouth to their right, a cloud of bobbling, jostling eyes reflected the lights from the crystals.

They all froze, Rafe slowly moving to draw his blades, Trip slowly raising the barrel of his rifle. Maximillian unleashed another long, exasperated sigh.

“That building across the square,” Trip said quietly to Rafe, risking a quick glance at a tall, narrow building draped with stone steps and fronted by thick stone pillars. “It might provide some cover—”

And then the creatures stepped out into the light.

Well, shuffled, really. Ambled, even. There were several dozen of them, each perhaps the size of a mastiff, bristling with furry, milk-white pelts. Above their snubby, rodentlike snouts, pale pink eyes surveyed the intruders with level disinterest.

“Groundhogs?” Rafe snorted. “Albino bloody groundhogs?”

“Capybaras, I think,” Trip corrected, as the herd trundled its way with quiet snufflings diagonally across the plaza. “Giant, semiacquatic rodents. Down in South America, they use ‘em as food, I’ve heard.”

“Honestly,” Rafe asked, a trace of his former annoyance flaring anew. “Did you eat an encyclopedia as a child?”

“I read,” Trip shrugged. “What’s your excuse?”

Then the capybaras shrieked, and claws clacked and clattered and echoed through the plaza, and chaos erupted.

Across the empty expanse of stone, the creatures squealed and smashed into one another, trying desperately to flee from the eyeless raptor-beast that had appeared in their midst. More of the creatures poured forth from the vine-snarled windows of a nearby structure, rear claws gutting the squealing rodents in a single swipe, vicious jaws snapping shut around the capybara’s necks.

“Oh, crap,” Trip said quietly. “I should have figured. Predators that large, they’re going to need a steady source of food. Protein. They—”

Maximillian shot him a look of pure murder, and Rafe tried to silence Trip with an emphatic hiss, but it was too late. The blind lizards’ long snouts snapped up, in birdlike unison, to fix on their position. In a few quick jerks of their necks, they choked down flayed chunks of still-wriggling capybara, and began to issue a steady series of clicks. The beasts began to move, click-click-clicking, tottering forward across the blood-slick stone, toward Trip, Rafe, and Maximillian.

“Please tell me you’ve got that thing working right,” Rafe whispered, as Trip raised the rifle once more.

“I guess we’ll find out,” Trip replied, a nervous chuckle in his voice.

The ground shook, a steady drumbeat of approaching thunder. The blind beasts froze. Their heads swiveled back and forth, first to the direction of the oncoming thuds, then to the tantalizing prey mere feet away from them. Tiny brains calculated complicated risk-reward scenarios.

They waited too long.

Seven and a half tons of death charged into the light of the plaza, steam-shovel jaws open wide, and snatched up one of the blind beasts. It reared up, sixteen feet high, to slam its unwilling meal against the wall of a nearby building, again and again, until the stone cracked and crumbled and the beast in its jaws dangled limp and horrible.

It was, Rafe’s brain dimly registered, a genuine Tyrannosaurus rex, and long milennia of supposed extinction had apparently done nothing to diminish its appetite.

Its hide was a pale, ghostly white, with the grotesquely moving forms of its formidable muscles and organs barely showing through from beneath. It had only one tiny, grasping foreclaw jutting from its chest; a mass of pulpy, long-healed scar tissue supplanted the other. And when it turned on tree-trunk haunches to crunch and tear at its fresh prey, Rafe saw that it, too, had no eyes — just a smooth progression of eerie white skin over the thick bone of its skull.

The rest of the blind raptors turned to flee — and another Rex, this one with an x-shaped pair of gashes painted in scars across the fleshy bridge of its snout, loomed from the dark to snatch up another raptor and crunch it to bits. The rest vanished shrieking into the darkened city.

This sequence of events, perhaps understandably, was entirely too much for Rafe.

“Oh, COME BLOODY ON!” he roared, more at the world in general than anything in particular.

The Rexes paused, intrigued by this sudden noise, and snuffed the air quizzically.

Trip tried to grab Rafe’s arm, haul him toward the shelter of the temple, but Rafe shook him off angrily and stood his ground as the thunder lizards began to trudge toward him.

“No,” Rafe insisted, striding forward, clenching his blades in his hands. “I’ve put up with UFOs and mystery assassins and time travel,” he shouted at the beasts. “I can handle stone trains and lost kingdoms. I can even spot the universe a few reasonably proportioned dinosaurs. It’s a stretch, yes, but I’m forgiving. But I deny you!”

“Rafe, stop!” he heard Trip shouting from across the plaza. He was past caring.

“I refuse,” Rafe thundered, “to believe that you exist! I refuse to believe that my life could have become so hellaciously buggered as to have incorporated a pair of bloody great monstrosities like you. I refuse!”

One-Arm lowered its massive steamer trunk of a snout to sniff at this strange, noisy gobbet of hot meat. Rafe, annoyed beyond reason, promptly hauled back and punched it in the nose.

It took a good second for the nerve impulses to travel to the Rex’s brain, register, and prompt a response. One-Arm opened its jaws and roared deafeningly. In that sudden blast of rotting breath, and formidable display of teeth, Rafe’s sense of self-preservation came rushing back from its momentary tea break.

“Oh,” Rafe said quietly, as the Rex tensed to bite him in two, and wondered how it would feel to be digested.

Hot, sizzling energy splashed across the side of One-Arm’s face. It roared again and reared back, tiny foreclaw flailing pathetically at the sudden pain radiating from its sizzling, smoking flesh.

“Run, dammit!” Trip shouted from the steps of the temple, sending another blistering blast across the haunch of the Rex with the X-shaped scars on its face. This time, Rafe needed no further encouragement. He turned and sprinted across the plaza, feeling the earth thunder behind him, seeing paving stones leap and jostle themselves from the ground at every step from the pursuing beasts. He dashed up the steps and dove inside, inches ahead of the Rexes’ snapping jaws.

It took Rafe’s eyes a moment — but not nearly as long as he’d expected — to resolve objects from the gloom within. There was Trip, backing away from the pillars as the Rexes thundered against them, shaking the building with their blows. And there was Maximillian, sneering down at him with utter disgust.

“Oh,” Rafe replied weakly. “And I suppose you’ve never done anything stupid?”

The temple was nearly empty inside, save for another statue on a raised platform — some sort of strange god, feet planted, arms outstretched. In place of a head, it had dozens of stone serpents zigzagging down its body from the empty stump of its neck.

The Rexes charged the pillars again, blasting hot stinking breath against the temple’s occupants, and Rafe heard stone crack, and felt dust powder him from the ceiling far above.

“I had to cut the power on the ray,” Trip said quietly, almost apologetically, “to keep the whole thing from burning out. Or, you know, exploding. It’s hot enough to distract them, make ‘em mad, but that’s about it.”

Rafe stumbled to his feet and backed deeper into the temple as the Rexes slammed against the pillars once more. Rafe saw the stone blocks begin to shift and buckle, and knew he wouldn’t last long in here.

High on the back wall, Rafe saw a tiny crevice. Too high for Trip to possibly reach, and too small to accomodate Maximillian. But he…

Yes, all right, it was a horrible thing to do, Rafe thought, his eyes fixed on the gap, moving slowly closer to the wall. Perhaps not to Maximillian, but Trip — well, Trip had saved his life at least twice. He was decent enough. He deserved better.

But Trip was some sort of genius, yes? He had Maximillian’s muscle, and his Dan Dare laser ray. He’d be fine on his own — have this Misery Engine thing licked in a trice. Rafe probably wouldn’t even be missed.

He could just crawl out through that gap, steal his way back to the train, find the stairway out. Surely the Needlemen wouldn’t bother with him again — bigger fish to fry, and all that. He could collect some funds and run away, far and fast. Rafe had considerable experience at that.

Rafe reached one hand out and touched the wall. The gap was not twelve feet above; with the uneven stone, and his own agility, he could climb it easily.

He just didn’t want to die, was all. He shut his eyes.

And saw Julia again. That last, tear-stained look before she’d shut the door on him for good. It wasn’t disappointment in her face. Disappointment would have been bad enough.

No, she looked as if she’d entirely been expecting it of him.

Up until this very moment, he’d assumed he could live with that.

“I think I can reconfigure the rifle,” Trip was saying, oblivious to Maximillian’s annoyed boredom. “Get it to send out an acoustic pulse to rattle their brains, disorient them, maybe knock them down for a little bit. All I need is fifteen — no, ten minutes. Just ten minutes.”

“You won’t get it,” Rafe said quietly, striding out of the shadows at the back of the temple. “Those things are either going to make snacks of us by then, or bring this entire building down upon us. Unless somebody distracts them.”

Realization dawned on Trip’s face. “No, Rafe,” he said softly. “No, you can’t—”

“Who else is going to do it?” Rafe said. “Maximillian?” The big man snorted in amusement and quickly shook his head.

“You need to stay here and… do inventor things with that gadget of yours,” Rafe went on, waving his hands to indicate the technical vagaries involved. “I’m fast, I’m strong, and I’m practically marinated in the blood of their very favorite meal. I’ll buy you enough time to fix that thing up.” He paused, then made a hasty addendum. “Just try to keep up with me, all right? Don’t mistake this for any noble gesture of self-sacrifice. If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not be eaten today. I have plans later.”

Trip nodded, and Rafe put out of a hand to grip his shoulder. “And remember this with that encyclopedic brain of yours, because it’s important. Julia Smythe. She’s an architect at a little firm in Ipswich. If anything happens to me, find her. Promise me. Find her and tell her that I died as I lived: Being absolutely bloody stupid.”

“I promise,” Trip nodded. He put out a long, spindly hand, and Rafe grasped it, and they shook hands, like the people in action movies do.

“Ten minutes,” Trip said. “Give or take.”

“You really didn’t need to add the last part,” Rafe sighed. He turned to Maximillian, who stared at him dubiously. “And as for you—”

Rafe smashed him in the face with a roundhouse punch. It hurt his knuckles like holy hell, but the big man went down on his bum, shocked and indignant.

“Good,” Rafe grinned. “Now I can die happy, at least.”

The Rexes roared and smashed against the pillars again. Stone cracked like gunshots. Rafe took a few steps back, aligned himself with a gap in the pillars, and waited. The one with the X lifted its head, exposing its belly—

Rafe dashed forward, arms pumping, and sprang through the gap in the columns. He hit the steps at a tumble, jouncing and bruising his way down through the Rex’s massive legs. As the world whirred from stone to pale lizard-belly flesh and back again, Rafe slashed out with one stone blade and cut deep into its underbelly — not deep enough to puncture the skin, unfortunately, but enough to hurt.

Rafe rolled to a halt on the stone of the plaza, making one last dive to avoid the swipe of X’s massive tail. He shook himself quickly, banishing dizziness, sprang to his feet, and flung his arms wide as the beasts slowly turned to face him.

“Come on, you stupid, ugly lizards!” Rafe bellowed. “I’m right here, and I’m bloody delicious! Come and get me!”

He turned and ran, and twin engines of prehistoric slaughter rumbled after him.

Time slows. The world becomes all paths and edges and options, and his breathing, and the beat of his heart.

He can feel them behind him — the air they displace with every motion, the force of their reptile breath, the raw animal hunger for prey. He doesn’t even have to look to tell which is which; the missing limb gives One-Arm a slightly different way of shifting its weight.

He seems to fly across the plaza, and then he is through an empty door and swallowed in shadow and running up vine-slung stone steps.

People died in here, a long time ago. He can smell it — old copper, dry dusty bone, spoiled meat. He is dimly aware that the bannisters on the stairs are human bone.

He reaches a landing and the whole front of the house explodes behind him in dust and vines and fist-sized teeth. He hears a chunk of stone whistling toward the back of his skull, jukes left so it spatters against the far wall, and skips the second zigzag flight of stairs. He jumps straight up, using the knives in chinks of the stone like claws, clambers up the wall and over the balcony and into the rooms beyond.

The beasts are tearing through the house to get to him. Good.

It was someone’s room, his senses say “woman,” but there’s no time. The back wall is gone, long claimed by time and age and vines, and the back window of someone else’s house stares back at him. He leaps out through the gap, compressing his body in midair to squeeze through the far window, hits the ground rolling.

The house behind him releases any pretense of stability, falling to dust and stone, rotted and eaten by the vines centuries before, and the blind monsters keep coming.

There’s a hole in the roof and he leaps, grabs fistfuls of dry dead vine around the handles of his blades and hauls himself up and back into the subterranean night. Rooftops stretch out before him, and he runs. Houses crush and crumble behind him; these are hungry beasts, and he’s hurt them, and they’re drunk on the smell of the blood that soaks his clothes.

He leaps, roof to roof, and on to the next. A cloud of powdered stone dust and hot carrion exhalation rolls after him, begins to overtake him. He can hear them snapping their jaws.

The stone beneath his feet gives way, and he jumps a split-second before he wanted to. He jumps wrong. There’s air beneath his feet and he lunges out with the blades. They scrape and shriek across stone and hold. The building he just left disintegrates as he scrabbles his way back up, X and One-Arm jostling in the ruin, painted even paler by the dust.

They get to this building as he’s still on the roof. He feels solid ground roll like vertigo and begin to tilt, buckle, send him sliding backward to gnashing teeth and quick digestion. Fifteen tons of thunder lizard slam into the crumbled masonry and it just won’t hold.

Vines. They’re thick here, spidering between the buildings, asserting their primacy. He takes the last two steps of roof left and throws himself sideways into the air. A vine finds his hand and he twists wildly, slicing it behind him, and he begins to fall.

Not fall. Swing. Leaving the pit of his stomach above and behind him, he parabolas down, lavished by the fluttering air. His knees draw up tight to his chest, and he lets go, tucks and rolls. He comes up on the street and doesn’t stop, doesn’t even look.

The street he’s on opens to another plaza, broad and huge, a squat, massive, open-topped ziggurat seated at its center like a stone toad. Some distance behind it he seems the ring of lights painting the sky, the place Trip had told him about. He’s close.

As he runs toward the thing he realizes why it feels familiar. It’s like going to the stadium with his dad, when he was six years old and his dad was still the best man in the world. This is some sort of arena.

There are statues on the face of it. A warrior on one side, sword and spear in his hands. And zigzaggy block beasts that he recognizes as something like his pursuers, square chains yoking their necks, on the other. A lot of things about his current situation begin to at least sort of make sense to him, but only because he doesn’t have time to think them through properly.

In the few seconds’ luxury of thought, of analysis, they’ve found him, flanked him. Jumbo bird bones working like pistons under leather armor skin, sick blind heads lolling greedily at him, X on his left, one-arm on his right, their tails blocking any hope of doubling back. He has to keep running, keep them off-balance, and maybe when they lean in to bite him in halves —

The ground drops from under him.

He’s someplace wet and dark, more deathsmell, and a pale white dust-caked snout is lunging futilely at him from the gap above. He crab-walks back against a wall, pauses to breathe, laughs. They can’t get him down here.

He thinks maybe he should light a match, but there’s some odd shift occurring in his eyes and then the dull outlines all become clear. Night vision, augmented by smell and taste and the faint vibrations of the air on his skin. This is some holding pen.

He remembers the Colisseum in Rome, the waiting areas under the floor of the great arena, where the slaves and the beasts and the armaments would be kept. Clearly, Rome didn’t have an exclusive on the idea.

He’s moving through the not-dark, dodging stone columns, stepping around rusted-out chains holding empty iron collars, and there’s a smell, a wrong smell, something he knows should be a warning.

Click-click-click, goes the darkness, and before he even thinks the blades are up before him.

Eyeless heads bob birdlike over the tops of stalls. Of course. This is where they were bred. This is where they were kept. Ancestral memory tells the blind raptor-beasts that this is home.

And he’s just blundered into it.

Crocodiles have amazing immune systems. They have amazing immune systems because their mouths are filled with incredibly nasty bacteria, on account of all the rotting things they kill and eat. He is remembering this now because some part of his brain is screaming at him that it is highly imperative to let none of them bite him, not even a little.

And he says yes, thank you, as the beasts circle him and close in, and lets the blades move him.

It takes less than sixty seconds, and then he’s freshly marinated and he can smell the offal steaming off the blades. But the last one took a few seconds too long dying, giving off shrieks that still echo through countless corridors, and there’s an answering chorus of so many clicks that it all sounds like one continuous noise. He has to find a way out.

He stumbles on through the dark, listening for clicks and claws and harsh animal breathing. They’re getting closer. He finds the center of the maze; there’s a platform, a heavy chain reaching upward into the ceiling, and up there, the thick mass of a counterweight. The chain is old, rusted. He begins to hack at it with the blades, praying they’re strong enough.

Sparks flare in the dark as he batters the chain again and again with his stone knives, and in the sparks, he can see pale, hungry forms gathering in each of the six tunnels leading to this central spot. They close in slowly, saliva pooling around the rims of their jaws.

A link gives way, and one of the beasts gets greedy and rushes in. He ducks the swipe of its claws and peels its head off its neck almost to the bone with one of the blades, and before it even thuds to the platform behind him, he turns and smashes the butt of his other blade into the last stubborn link of the chain.

It breaks. The counterweight plunges. The beasts charge, and the ceiling opens, and the floor bears him up into the grand arena.

He stops, breathes, trying to take all that space and majesty into his lungs. The square stadium is pocked with blooms of light-crystals, illuminating the four thousand square meters of dusty arena floor. On three sides, stone benches rise in steps, dizzyingly high; behind him, a massive gate, wooden planks as big around as he is, sits firmly barred. He tries to remember that this was all built by hand.

One of the beasts got its head into the gap between platform and ceiling before it fully rose. Now it twitches and squirms and snaps comically. He looks at it and shakes his head sadly.

Puffs of dust rise from the arena floor, six, in a circle all around him. Doors flop open. Oh, damn it all to hell. Of course they know the secret, hidden ways to get up here, the white eyeless horrors and their sickle-curved claws. They were once the entertainment here, too, and that racial memory must die hard.

The beasts don’t play coy this time, don’t wait. They charge sprinting.

God coughs and the wooden gates behind him fly open, timbers pinwheeling like matchsticks. One of them hits an unsuspecting beast and pulps him to jelly, and Rafe just squeezes himself between two more as they fall and tumble and skid through the dust. For just one sweet moment, there is joy in his heart to see X and One-Arm stomp into the arena, roaring their hate. Then he remembers who they’re roaring at.

The situation gets, if such a thing is possible, even more Darwinian, even more quickly. There are five smaller raptor-beasts and one of him on the arena floor as the Rexes draw close, and whatever is slowest, or not moving, is virtually guaranteed to be a meal.

He runs toward the far side of the arena, and everything with teeth gives chase.

Fortunately, everything with teeth is pretty stupid, and also hungry. One of the raptors gets close, and gets a knife into its brain, and goes down twitching, an instant appetizer. Two more aren’t fast enough; they’re pinned by thick Rex claws and picked apart squealing and scratching in a matter of moments.

There are two left and him as he approaches the far wall. He finds himself taking off his blood-soaked shirt, twisting it into a solid cable, and then it occurs to him why. Shouldering aside a lifelong antipathy for equestrian sports, he takes a deep breath and jumps on the back of the nearest eyeless raptor.

His shirt slides neatly between its jaws, and he yanks it back hard enough to hear a stunned little gack from the depths of its throat. Nothing like this has ever happened to the beast before, so it just keeps running. Its last remaining comrade stops and cocks its head, thoroughly baffled, and gets a swift introduction to One-Arm’s jaws.

In about five seconds, the beast he’s riding — Whitey, as he has suddenly and affectionately begun to think of it — is going to realize what’s going on, and most likely kill the hell out of him. That’s okay, though. The wall is four seconds away.

Still gripping his makeshift bridle, he plants one foot on Whitey’s back, then the other, and surfs toward the wlal on the beast’s spine. Behind him, X and One-Arm loom. Closer… closer…

He lets the ends of his shirt slip out of his hands, and he jumps from Whitey’s back up and over the wall, and into the stands. The poor beast smacks hard into the stone wall, and is then promptly pulped under X’s right front claw.

Up and up and up he runs, legs screaming for rest, lungs on fire. X and One-Arm, awkwardly but with great enthusiasm, flail and scrabble and finally lunge up over the stone barrier into the stands, and follow.

They’re gaining on him swiftly, big Rex strides swallowing distance, and he’s running out of up. The rim of the stadium bearded in vines, and as he gets to the edge, he reaches down and scoops one up and dives. One-Arm’s jaws close an inch from his trailing foot.

He tumbles through the air. The vine catches, draws taut, and he swings back around and smacks into the leafy, tendril-covered wall. Above him, the Rexes roar their fury, jaws smeared in raptor guts, and he whoops and, best he can around the blade in his hand, shoots them the V.

Mid-taunt, his vine snaps.

He falls end-over-end through nothingness. His hands strike out, the blades snarl in the tendril of leafy vines, and he’s slowed, controlled, but still falling, and the ground’s coming up way too fast—

At the last minute he pushes off from the wall, hits, rolls, end over end over end, and finally stops.

And in the pain and the stillness that follows, time speeds back to normal.

Rafe Windham was done. No more, said his arms. No more, said the legs. Rather nice here, mind if we settle in?, said the dozen or so bruises forming in the general vicinity of his everything.

“Okay,” he replied, and lay on the stone, gasping. He was beyond the stadium, and if he craned his head backward against the stone-cobbled ground, he could see some sort of entrance, some sculpture-molded circular wall, and the ring of lights stretching up — well, down, from his point of view — into the darkness.

He glanced back up at the Rexes atop the stadium wall.

There were no Rexes there.

The ground spat him two inches up, and jarringly down again, as the massive beasts crashed down on either side of him. No room to move. No time to get up and run.

“Good exercise, though, wasn’t it?” he said weakly, to their eyeless heads. And then their jaws drew near, and opened, and Rafe stared down their steaming, stinking throats at the very short rest of his life.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Darkness Above, City Below (Part 1)

Basically everything was built atop something else.

Rafe Windham, being from England, a country that not only kept in touch with its history, but had it round for tea and biscuits and a nice long chat at regular intervals, knew this particularly well. So it hadn’t surprised him to learn, in some book he’d read years ago when he ought to have been studying something else entirely, that the entire city of Chicago had, at one point, literally raised itself whole on wooden stilts.

The problem with building a city on a swamp, as Chicago had, lay in that whole troublesome “swamp” aspect. Early Chicago’s mud-choked streets, helped not at all by the city’s typically murderous climate, had proven as unsanitary as they were impassable. Yet the ground offered no purchase for a proper underground sewer system. So engineers and jacks and crews were called in, and over a period of roughly two decades, the entire city was elevated between four and fourteen feet off the ground. New, wooden streets were built, life continued blissfully above the mud, and everything beneath was left first to the criminals — giving rise to the notion of the “Chicago underworld” — and then, eventually, to a more literal sort of effluent.

As most things do, this strategy included unintended consequences. For one thing, the new, upraised city was constructed largely of flammable wood. Within a few years, a cow, or carelessness at a card game, depending on whom you consulted and how much they’d been drinking, would provide ample evidence of the flaws in that particular method, and the city would have to rebuild itself all over again with more sensibly non-combustible material.

For another, raising the entire city up over its old foundations tended only to encourage people to forget entirely that, even when it was a ground-level morass, it might yet have been constructed atop something older still.

Which, in fact, it was. An ancient empire, all but obliterated from the scope of human knowledge, slumbering in frank defiance of all established geological principles in lightless caverns beneath centuries of urban hustle and bustle.

Until today, Rafe could claim no firsthand experience with ancient underground empires, but he had seen several quite entertaining films on the subject. As such, he was party to certain key insights: Underground empires were dangerous places that did not welcome visitors, filled with various sharp and pointy objects, and possibly hungry things with extremely large teeth.

Now, as he huddled in the ruins of a headless god’s temple, with a man he barely knew to one side of him, and an almost certain enemy on his other, listening intently for sounds from the dark without, he knew that those films had been entirely correct.

“Scientists are wont to speak of time as a fabric,” Mrs. Stitch had said hours before, dabbing genteelly with a paper napkin at a smudge of tomato sauce at one corner of her mouth. “Fabric, by its very nature, unravels. Frays. Tears.”

“And you’re the ones who sew it back up,” Trip said.

Rafe, for his part, stood as far away as possible from everyone else in the room, with his back to the wall, knives at the ready. He did not want pizza. He did not want to chat. He had not forgotten that, until they had showed up quite literally at the door to this secluded penthouse, the dozen or so people in black coats now polishing off bits of a deep-dish special with everything had seemed hellbent on killing him. He was apparently the only one who remembered this.

Trip sat on one side of the worktable in the main room of the Lookout, the venerable Mrs. Stitch on the other. A spent pizza box, spotted with grease and moisture, yawned between them. The alarmingly tall chap, Maximillian, remained stock-still behind Mrs. Stitch, studying Rafe with a cool, grey, clinical stare. Unlike his comrades, Maximillian hadn’t touched the pizza, except to open the box. Perhaps he’d already eaten, Rafe thought. A rasher of kittens to start, followed by a chainsaw, well-done, and maybe an orphan or two as a chaser.

“Quite so,” Mrs. Stich said, to Trip’s speculation. “As you may know, certain … alterations have been made to the world we all accept as reality — entirely for its own good, I assure you. My agency works to nurture and protect these alterations, lest we all face annihilation in their undoing.”

“Which means you’ve been busy in the past few days,” Trip said levelly. “Aside from trying to kill us, I mean.”

“Business, young man,” Mrs. Stitch sighed. “Merely business. Not the worst thing I’ve ever done, nor the most regrettable. Our projections indicate that you and your three new friends, owing to your, shall we say, family ties, would be most likely to thwart our efforts. A permanent solution to that problem seemed the most effective approach.”

“I don’t suppose you’ve heard of self-fulfilling prophecies?” Trip asked.

“Welcome, Mr. Morrow, to the perils of working with time,” Mrs. Stitch replied with a thin, weary smile.

“But now, I suppose,” Rafe chimed in, “that’s all water under the bridge. You’ve popped round to say, no hard feelings, sorry we tried to kill you and all, have a lovely life.”

“Oh, no,” Mrs. Stitch said, with no trace of mirth in her proud features. “Killing you both remains very much an option, and a popular one.” Maximillian shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and his mouth tightened. “But you’ve given us considerable trouble thus far,” Mrs. Stich continued, “and it seems the damage is accelerating, even as our time — so to speak — grows increasingly short. I’ve made an executive decision in your cases. When you’re bleeding to death, you don’t waste time swatting at flies.”

“Charming little simile,” Rafe muttered.

“Metaphor,” Trip corrected. Rafe, despite being English, had never particularly been good at studying it. He knew this, but it didn’t stop the bespectacled Yank and his maddeningly calm, autistic-savant demeanor from wearing on Rafe’s already frayed nerves.

“My agents — those apparently uneaten — tell me you made friends with a most unusual pair of … I hestiate to call them ‘people,’” Mrs. Stitch said.

“The Operators,” Trip said, and Rafe could see the beginnings of a shudder twitch its way against Trip’s shoulder blades, and stifle itself. “They said their names were Vore and Grin.”

Mrs. Stitch’s eyes widened slightly, her eyebrows elevated in a sudden gust of surprise. “Naming themselves,” she said quietly, almost to herself. “There’s a curious turn.”

“So if they were trying to help us,” Trip said — and here Rafe noted the shadow of contemptuous disbelief that passed across Mrs. Stitch’s features — “they must have been trying to encourage whatever you’re trying to stop.”

“Which is what, exactly?” Rafe asked, shifting his grip on the knives until he could no longer feel his pulse fluttering in the palms of his hands.

“There are dimensions beyond our own,” Mrs. Stitch said, “infinitely many. Some of them, to the best of our knowledge, are inhabited. And some of those inhabitants are very, very hungry.”

Rafe stepped forward from the wall and crossed the room, slowly. He turned the empty chair next to Trip around and draped himself across it. And then he very swiftly and very deliberately sank one of his stone knives halfway into the surface of the table. He had the immense satisfaction of seeing Trip jump, and a small muscle in Maximillian’s jaw twitch; regrettably, Mrs. Stitch looked no less unimpressed.

“So tell me,” Rafe said quietly, removing the blade from the table with slightly more effort than he would have preferred. “What is it makes us more valuable to you alive than dead?”

“The Operators trust you,” Stitch said. “Or at the very least, consider you harmless, which would appear to be the same mistake we made. That makes you the most likely to get close enough to harm them.”

“Harm them how?” Trip sputtered. “I saw purple coils of energy coming from their mouths…”

“Really, now, Mr. Morrow,” Mrs. Stitch sighed with no small amusement, and perhaps a touch of venom. “I was told you were inventive.”

“And what if we don’t jump through your hoops?” Rafe said, summoning his very best poker face. “Our friends just got snatched up by some black thing in the clouds. We don’t even know if they’re alive. What’s to stop us from telling you all to piss off and going off to find them instead?”

Mrs. Stitch didn’t issue a command, didn’t even move a muscle. But suddenly every Needleman in the room had the silver points in their hands levelled toward Trip and Rafe. In the silence that followed, Rafe heard the leather of Maximillian’s gloves squeak as the big man’s fists slowly tightened.

“Well,” Mrs. Stitch sighed, “there’s that.”

“We’ll do it,” said Trip levelly.

“Are you mad?” Rafe blurted, although he had in fact been thinking the exact same thing.

“I see which of you is the genius,” Mrs. Stitch said, a schoolmistress’s smile bowing briefly on her lips. Rafe subjected her to the sort of withering glare he’d been reserving for a special occasion, then prepared to favor Trip with it as well. But something in his involuntary comrade’s eyes, owlish behind his round spectacles, gave Rafe pause. Trust me, the eyes said, and Rafe found it surprisingly difficult to argue with them.

“You’ve got men,” Trip said. “Vast resources. Superior technology. What exactly do you need us for?”

Mrs. Stitch leaned forward, resting her arms on the table. “What, if anything, do you know of the Misery Engine of Kroatoan?”

They had driven for some minutes through rain-slick streets, shimmering with impressionist colors from the city lights, in a caravan of long black cars. Trip and Rafe shared the back of the lead car; Maximillian drove, with Mrs. Stitch in the passenger’s seat, keeping one steady eye on them in the rear-view mirror.

Trip had stuffed his backpack with supplies; he sat now with his grandfather’s stamp-speckled diary in one hand and the strange ray gun device he’d been building in his lap, making final adjustments and connections to its wire-strewn innards. Having gone about shoeless for the better part of two days, Rafe wiggled his toes in the new boots he’d requested, and gotten, from a comparably sized Needleman. It cheered him somewhat to think of a sinister agent of some secret organization going about his business in stocking feet, and though Rafe hated to admit it, the boots were sort of obscenely comfortable.

Trip lifted his head and sniffed the air quickly. “What is that smell?” Rafe, whose own nose had long before detected that particular pong, with what seemed to be an escalating keenness, sighed.

“I believe that’s us,” Rafe said. “I don’t know about you, but I’m going on —” he did a quick mental count — “three days without a proper bath? Four? Something like that.”

“Oh,” Trip said matter of factly. “Well, can’t be helped.” He went back to his wiring, and Rafe found himself wondering how the boy genius would react if you spilled a box of toothpicks before him.

The cars slid smoothly through the nighttime streets. Periodically, Rafe would catch glimpses of other cars on other streets running parallel, but no matter how many turns the Needlemen’s cars took, their streets always seemed free of all other traffic, and all their traffic lights were green. They headed south, into the Loop.

It was an underground station, cordoned with yellow police tape, and as they emerged from the car, Rafe saw Trip cock his head with quizzical familiarity at the sight of it. Mrs. Stitch ushered them to the top of the stairwell leading down into semidarkness; a sign said CLOSED BY ORDER OF CHICAGO TRANSIT AUTHORITY, with a list of stopgap bus routes.

Rafe stretched, working kinks out of the muscles in his legs and back. Trip shouldered his backpack and cradled the silver space ray he’d made unfamiliarly in the crook of one arm.

“Well, thanks for the ride and all,” Rafe said. “And the boots, I suppose. This is where we part company, then.”

At which point Maximillian shouldered past him, with no particular gentleness, and snapped through the police tape on his way down the stairs.

“Really, Mr. Windham,” Mrs. Stitch sighed. “I’m not so naive as to leave you both unsupervised.”

“Just him?” Trip asked, nodding at the phalanx of black-coated Needlemen milling attentively around their respective sedans. “We might need the backup.”

“Two’s company,” Mrs. Stitch said. “Three’s a crowd. Four or more are cannon fodder. I’d wish you good luck, but really, I’d call this a win-win for me either way.”

“I hope you die slowly,” Rafe replied, before even thinking about it. To his considerable surprise, he saw it register with a flash of genuine hurt on Mrs. Stitch’s face.

“I’ve tried that,” she said, regaining her composure — not without effort. “And yes, I imagine you would.” Rafe tried to feel proud. He couldn’t.

The three of them descended the dark stairs in silence. Maximillian held his Needle aloft, its point glowing magnesium-white, outlining the tile walls and metal gates in stark, crisp radiance. The big man jumped the turnstiles effortlessly, and Trip and Rafe followed, slightly less so.

The platform was empty, emergency lights only burning. There were signs of an investigation; a stray toolbox here, a folding-legged table and a few clipboards at the opposite end of the platform. Maximillian paused at the edge of one platform and glanced probingly at Trip, who nodded.

“So this is the underground stop where—” Rafe began. Trip nodded quickly, and held a finger to his lips.

Rafe could hear tiny things on tiny feet scattering into their respective holes as the three men walked into the darkness of the tunnel ahead. Bits of twisted metal, nuts and bolts began to crunch and ping beneath Rafe’s boots, and soon they reached a point where the rails twisted and buckled, as if crushed by some great weight. Chunks of gray rock were scattered across the tracks, and in the circle of illumination from Maximillian’s Needle, Rafe could see black scorch marks along a section of the third rail.

“Huh,” Trip mused. “Wonder where they’ve taken it?” Maximillian heard this and smirked.

“Oh, I assume you’ve swept this under the rug, too, have you?” Rafe sighed. The hulking man favored him with a look that suggested this observation was not exactly genius-level. Then he swung the arm holding his Needle, with the heavy swiftness of a ship’s mast, toward the wall of the tunnel, where a hole punched in the concrete yawned into inky nothingness.

Maximillian gestured with mock courtesy. After you.

Trip made some adjustments to the space-laser-whatever-it-was he was holding — Rafe had heard him dub it a Patented Morrow something or other — and a bright beam of light sprang forth from above the barrel, revealing a low, dripping stone tunnel leading down into the earth. He looked at Trip, nervously, then reshouldered the weight of the rifle and stooped into the hole.

The passage was steep, twisting and slippery, but there were stairs — neat, carved in stone, only slightly weathered by untold years of steadily dripping water. The obsidian blades, tucked in Rafe’s belt, clanked and slapped against him with each step, strangely warm amid the clammy atmosphere. Here and there, Rafe’s hands brushed against what felt like a carving, but with Tom forging ahead in front of him, and the menacing bulk of Maximillian fast behind, he had little time to explore.

The air smelled of cold, ancient stone, and stagnant water. Rafe decided that it wasn’t his imagination; since this morning, since the dream of his grandfather, the world perceived by his nose had slowly taken on greater color and detail, like the slow, ghostly development of a Polaroid. He could smell faint traces of beef stew on Trip’s shirtfront, and the leather of his own new boots, and the thick, laundered wool of Maximillian’s coat, laced with a faint tang of aviation fuel.

Maximillian. There was something odd about him, something just at the edge of Rafe’s burgeoning senses that felt subtly wrong. It nagged at him like a loose tooth, but as he turned the matter over in his brain — the better not to think about, oh, everything else currently happening to him at the moment — a rush of sweeter, more verdant air suddenly rushed at him from below.

“Oh,” said Trip, several steps down from him. “Oh, my.”

They waded into a shallow, muddy basin, shin deep with silty water and choked with leafy green vines. Above and behind them, the rock face from which Rafe had just emerged climbed into distant shadows far above. And shimmering before them, reflected in the water, were softly glowing spires of blue-white crystal, so radiant that they illuminated every vein and vesicle of the vines that entwined them.

“We saw these plants in the sewers,” Trip said, in a velvet-couched tone Rafe had generally heard reserved for cathedrals. “Sully and I. I think they’re pulling impurities out of the water.”

“We’re walking through an ancient waste treatment plant?” Rafe shuddered. “So glad these aren’t my boots. What of the crystals?”

“My grandfather wrote some about them in his diary,” Trip said, patting the inside pocket of his jacket. “I think they were the city’s power source — but he could never chip off a sample to study ‘em further. Even with a diamond-tipped drill.”

“So how much further to this — what was it called?” Rafe asked, eyes scanning the darkness. The crystal spires cast just enough enough light to let his eyes play tricks on him, it seemed. Or was there something out there, moving in the distant peripheries of shadow?

“The Arrow of Night,” Trip offered. “I’d have to check the map in the diary, but it shouldn’t be—”

Behind them, the sound of Maximillian’s steady, splashing footsteps abruptly halted. They both turned to see the big man standing stock still, head tilted to one side, listening.

Then Rafe heard it, too. Distant, but approaching. The soft, deliberate tread of feet through the water.

Many, many feet.

Rafe drew his blades and waited. Trip fiddled about with something on the side of the laser device, and Rafe saw red lights begin to strobe softly along its length. Well, lovely, he thought, at least we can blink whatever-it-is to death.

Then he caught his first glimpse of the source of the noises, emerging from the gloom beyond into the hazy light of the crystal spires, and realized he was wrong about that.

They had no eyes. Teeth, oh, they had teeth in abundance, and nasty little foreclaws, and thick muscular haunches ending in curved sickle-claws, and gently swaying tails. But the man-sized reptiles that bird-walked their way out of the darkness around the three explorers, snapping and tasting at the air, sounding steady pulses of guttural clicks from the depths of their elongated skulls, had no eyes — just leathery skin, long evolved to cover whatever vestigial structures remained.

“They’ve been down here in the dark so long,” Trip breathed — but not so quietly that a few of the beasts’ heads didn’t swing in his direction. “Hear that? Those clicks? I bet that’s echolocation.” Rafe was apalled to see wonder, even delight, on Trip’s face — not the sort of reactions one expects in the face of imminent, messy consumption.

“Thank you David bloody Attenborough,” Rafe hissed. “But I think we have a much larger concern at present. Are they hungry?”

And then there was a splashing to his left, and the sound of something large and heavy moving through the air, and Rafe had his answer.

He moved, and then a great, hot stinking torrent of something gushed all over his shirt and trousers. It took a moment for Rafe to realize it was blood. Another moment to realize that it wasn’t his, but that of the beast now wheezing out its last at his feet, two deep gashes along its throat and breastbone. Perhaps it was the faint half-light from the crystals, but Rafe almost thought he saw the vines in the water move, curling toward the dying animal.

It was as if the blades had moved themselves, and merely pulled Rafe along. He looked at them, strange blood slick and steaming against the black stone, and thought: Now, if you can just repeat that several dozen more times…

The beasts smelled the blood of their own, and screeched, blind heads lolling. They had formed a circle around Trip, Rafe, and Maximillian, and slowly, that circle began to shrink.

Maximillian narrowed his eyes, and pointed the tip of his Needle at the nearest grouping of beasts. The magnesium microstar at its tip flared—

— and fluttered, and sputtered, and died away. As it did, the light from the neighboring crystals seemed to flicker in synch. Maximillian shook the Needle again, and again, with increasing vehemence, and still nothing more than a pathetic dandelion-burst of dim sparks.

Two of the beasts leaped, claws poised to rend him in two.

Blinding light seared through the air, engulfing the beasts, shrieking, in its radiance, and when Maximillian batted them away, they fell apart in neat, cauterized lengthwise halves.

“Holy smokes,” Trip said at last, staring down at the rifle in his hands, the barrel still glowing faintly. “So that’s an electroplasmic ray.”

Then the beasts charged, as one, and all was chaos.

Rafe stopped thinking, and the blades took over. The world became as much about sound and smell as sight — the leathery hide of the beasts, their rumbling clicks and guttural rasps, became points on some 3-D geometry unfolding in his head.

He glimpsed Maximillian, teeth clenched in fury, holding two of the beasts aloft, a thick hand clamped about each of their necks. He was using their limp bodies to bludgeon their comrades. Rafe had a sudden, horrible image of what he’d done to the man who gave Rafe the blades.

Like strokes of lightning, blasts from Trip’s rifle turned the half-light bright as noon, and it took Rafe a few seconds to realize that the curiously savory smell rising in the air was the beasts’ own electroplasmically cooked flesh.

Rafe found himself back to — well, somewhat larger back with Maximillian, as the big man split a beast’s head open with a single vicious yank of its jaws. Maxmillian smirked, and shook the gore from his fingers in Rafe’s general direction. Rafe glowered at him, then turned just in time to narrowly avoid disembowelment, and stab one of the things up through the bottom of its jaw, into the brain.

The electroplasmic ray flared again, and a great swath of water erupted into vapor with a vicious hiss. Rafe turned to see Trip playing the beam in an arc along the surface of the water, igniting the leafy plants and creating a screen of searing steam between them and the remaining beasts.

“The Arrow of Night!” Trip shouted. “Now, while they’re held back — let’s go!”

They ran, spattered in muck, painted in reptile blood, through the swamp toward the faint outlines of looming structures ahead. Behind them, the shrieks of seared creatures died away, and hungry shadows cut through the lingering cloud of mist in keen pursuit.

The swamp fell away from their ankles, the last of the curling vines peeling away, and Rafe felt solid stone underfoot. Across a wide plaza that sloped gently up from the surrounding water, Rafe saw stairs, carved from vast smooth slabs of rock, rising up to an elevated platform whose support posts trailed away into deeper shadow. Crystals embedded at intervals in the stone gave off just enough light to see by, and similar glowing dots shone down from the platform above. It almost looked like…

No time for speculation. Trip charged up the stairs, Rafe just behind him, and Maximillian bringing up the rear. Again, Rafe’s brain noted something odd about him, but what, exactly, it declined to specify. (It was a troublesome brain, Rafe decided, in need of replacement, perhaps. Inspection, at the very least, and maybe a good tune-up to be thorough, at some point when blind dinosaurs weren’t immediately intent on eating him.)

The stairs led up, and up, and heart-poundingly, lung-squeezingly up to a flat platform, and there it was: The Arrow of Night.

“It’s—” Rafe said, and paused to gulp air, “it’s a train. A stone train.”

The windows and doors were clear quartz crystal, and exterior assembled from stone blocks embossed with strange, writhing carvings. There were discrete cars, each linked to the other by stone passageways, and in the dim light of the crystals lining the platform and glowing within the cars, Rafe could even see low benches lining the walls.

“Mind the gap, indeed,” Rafe marveled.

The stairs echoed with the tap-tap-tap of sharp reptillian claws, and the distinctive echo-clicks of the pursuing beasts, and the time for amazement was over.

“You,” Trip said, suddenly standing straighter, shoulders squared, to a bemused Maximillian. “Can you get those doors open?”

Maximillian shrugged diffidently, but his eyes widened when Trip calmly turned the rifle toward him.

“The way I see it,” Trip said in a low, even tone, “your Needle doesn’t work down here — something about those crystals, I’m betting. And I can see you weren’t expecting that. That makes you outnumbered, and lacking your great equalizer. Open the doors, or pick a leg to lose, and see how those things like the taste of you.”

The big man’s face registered a brief moment of shock — and then an amused, even somewhat impressed, half-smirk. He ran down the length of the train toward the front car, Trip and Rafe pursuing, until he found one set of crystal doors opened just a crack. Then he turned in one swift motion and dug thick fingers into the gap between the doors, and wrenched.

The doors scraped smoothly apart, and Maximillian wasted no time ducking inside.

“Go!” Trip shouted to Rafe, as the first of the beasts came hissing up the stairs and got a faceful of electroplasmic ray for its trouble. “I don’t trust him alone in there!”

Rafe leapt into the musty semidark of the car, and Trip followed, blasts sizzling from his rifle as more and more of the creatures clambered up to the platform.

“Shut the doors!” Trip said, without looking back. Rafe glanced at Maximillian, who was lounging on one of the stone benches; the big man just grinned nastily at him, as if to say, your turn.

“Soon, please!” Trip said as he squeezed off another burst of radiant energy. “This thing’s getting really hot, really fast!” Rafe cast his eyes about wildly, and finally saw a handle jutting from one side of the door. He grabbed it, hauling a block of stone out from the wall of the car, agonizingly slowly. Just as his shoulder felt like it might wrench from its socket, Rafe heard the blessed click of some hidden counterweight, and the crystal doors slid shut.

Trip hastily unslung the rifle and dropped it on one of the seats, shaking his hands and wincing. Rafe could see steam hissing from the metal surface of the .

“Insulation,” Trip said to himself. “Next design, I’ve gotta add insulation. And cooling.”

The blind faces of the beasts thudded obscenely, frantically, against the crystal windows. Their claws scraped and scrabbled, and their tongues lolled wetly, but the cars held. Rafe let out of a breath he didn’t even realize he’d been holding.

“Right,” he gasped, heart still hammering in his chest. “I’m enjoying my jaunt to Disneyland Hell. Anyone else?”

“We’ve gotta get this thing moving,” Trip said ominously, “before those things figure out how to get in. Rafe, I think I’m gonna need your help on this.” Maximillian settled back in his seat, shifting his weight as if to get comfortable, and stared coolly at the beasts scrabbling just outside.

There was no driver’s seat at the very front of the first car, and no controls — just a stone basin, arrayed above a brace of softly glowing crystals. Trip sighed and began rummaging in his backpack, until he pulled out a small first aid kit. He opened the lid and set out a roll of bandages, a cotton swab, and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.

“You’re going to make it run with first aid?” Rafe asked, baffled.

“Nope,” Trip said, sucking in a deep, reluctant breath. “I’m gonna need one of your knives for a second.” Curious, Rafe handed one of the blades over. Trip wiped it clean as he could on one of his shirttails, splashed it with peroxide, and clenched his teeth.

Before Rafe could move, Trip had drawn the blade in a swift, neat, shallow line across his own left palm.

“Gah! Ow!” Trip winced, quickly handing the blade back to Rafe. “Ow, ow, ow. Dammit.” Already, blood sprang forth in a red line from his palm. Trip turned his hand sideways and made a fist, squeezing blood from the cut down into the stone basin.

For the first few drops, nothing happened. Then the crystals glowed brighter as more and more blood dribbled in. Lights sprang on in the cars along the length of the train, and beneath his feet, Rafe felt a distinct hum of weird energies. Then the train scraped, lurched a few times, and began to rumble forward, gaining speed, into the darkness.

“That’s… that’s positively barbaric,” Rafe said, as Trip poured more peroxide on his palm and winced anew. “A vampire train.”

“It was just a hunch,” Trip sighed, wrapping gauze tightly around the cut on his palm, and pressing down with his other hand to stop the bleeding. “My grandpa wrote some about Kroatoan in his diary, but he didn’t go into specifics. Which I think was probably a good thing.”

“Oh,” Rafe said, dread fluttering in his stomach. “Lovely.”

They emerged into the regular car, Trip packing the first aid kit back into his pack. Maximillian was in the same spot, his hat brim pulled down over his eyes, as if catching a nap.

“Come on,” Trip told Rafe. “We’ve got some time before we get where we’re going. Want to explore the train? It’ll give the Morrow Multipurpose Rifle — what? That’s what the plans were labeled — time to cool off. And take my mind off what I just did to my hand.”

Rafe briefly pondered being left alone in the car with Maximillian. None of the outcomes he envisioned were pleasant.

“Fine by me,” Rafe shrugged. “Provided there’s no more bleeding involved.”

They squeezed through the narrow tunnels connecting the cars, making their way through one empty stone chamber after another. Strange designs swirled in the stone floor beneath their feet, and darkness rushed past through the quartz windows.

“Would you really have done it?” Rafe asked at last. “Shot him?”

Trip smiled with an odd sheepishness. “Nah. I don’t think so. But you spend enough years yelling at cadets in ROTC, and some of the motivational tricks kinda stick with you.”

“I’m not sure I would have objected, mind you,” Rafe muttered. “He’s— oh my sweet merciful God.”

“What?” Trip asked, as Rafe craned his neck upward, turning in a slow circle, eyes riveted to the ceiling of the car.

“The tiling,” Rafe said softly, and swallowed hard. “Look at the tiling.”

The entire ceiling of the car was covered in tiny, squarish white tiles — uniform at first glance, but each distinct upon further notice.

“Teeth,” Trip breathed. “Human teeth.”

“Exactly what sort of empire was this, again?” Rafe asked.

“You know the Aztecs?” Trip asked. “Hearts cut out, human sacrifice, all that?”

“With obsidian knives,” Rafe confirmed, suddenly feeling deeply disturbed by the blades tucked in his belt.

“Well, apparently these guys were worse,” Trip said.

“I’m going to file that under, ‘Things I should have known before agreeing to this,’” Rafe said, and shuddered, and kept moving.

They reached the next-to-last car and stopped; the final car beyond was strangely dark and still, and emitting a noxious stink.

“We really don’t need to investigate that, do we?” Rafe asked. “Let’s just turn around. Really. Just — oh, dammit.” Trip was already moving forward, fishing his keychain light from his pocket.

They squeezed into the entryway between the two cars and stopped as another reeking wave of air rolled back at them.

“Smells like… compost,” Trip said. “Fertilizer.”

“Why’s it so hot in here?” Rafe murmured, holding the collar of his shirt against his face to ward off the stink. “The other cars are cool, but this—”

“Uh oh,” Trip said quietly. “I, uh, I think you were right?”

“Why?” Rafe asked, immediately reaching for his blades. The passageway was tight, cramped. He had no room to swing…

Trip shone his light across heaps of rotting plants piled upon the stone floor of the final car, up a particularly dense pile of the muck, to a clutch of football-sized whitish-yellow oblongs. Eggs.

Then the darkness had teeth.

“Run.” Trip said.

There were three of them, hissing and eyeless, walnut-sized brains surging with thousands of years’ worth of concentrated maternal instinct. And, luckily for Rafe and Trip, they all tried to get through the passageway between the cars at once.

They ran, stumbling through the cars, the angry creatures claw-clacking in long, avian strides too close behind.

Rafe, his brain summoning tactical knowledge he was not aware he’d had, chose a choke point, and resolved to do something incredibly stupid. He sprinted through a passageway between cars and turned, even as Trip kept running ahead.

“Rafe, come on!” Trip shouted, paused at the far end of the car.

“Be with you in a minute,” Rafe said, around the cloud of raw terror filling his brain. The beasts boiled up toward him through the car beyond. The lead one, barking angry echo-clicks, took two leaping steps and went airborne, claws poised to shred Rafe.

He waited until the last possible moment, stepped to one side, and drove one blade into the back of its skull as it passed through his side of the connector. It shuddered once with its entire body, nose to tail, and dropped, two hundred pounds of meat and gristle, its body wedged between the cars. Its companions snarled and craned their necks through the gap, but they were blocked. For now.

Rafe turned and ran once more, and behind him, the beasts began to tug and feast at their dead broodmate, slowly pulling it free of the gap…

Lungs burning anew, new fatigue piling on old, Rafe followed Trip up through the cars, nearly losing his balance as the train suddenly rounded a sharp curve.

“What do we do when we get to the front?” Rafe asked, glancing behind him. No sign of anything hungry. Yet.

“Uh… we might not have to worry about that,” Trip replied, and when Rafe cast his eyes forward, through the next two cars, he saw Maximillian crouched on his side of the passageway to the lead car, meticulously removing one long stone block from the floor of the car. As he pulled it free, the entire train shook and swayed, and the humming beneath Rafe’s feet diminished by half.

Maximillian was decoupling the lead car. He looked up, caught their gaze, and gave them a curt, nasty little grin.

“Oh, you absolute—” Rafe began, and then thought better of it, and saved his breath for running.

Behind them, the renewed shrieks and roars of the pursuing beasts. Ahead, too far ahead, the calm, methodical work of the man attempting to strand them. It sounded like — yes, Rafe was sure of it now. The bastard was whistling.

They just managed to enter the second car before the whole train lurched and jolted beneath them. Ahead, Maximillian waved jauntily and began to diminish, surrounded by increasing shadow.

Trip and Rafe hurled themselves toward the last passageway — and nearly tumbled to their death on the tracks as the lead car pulled farther away. Rafe could feel it beneath his feet; the hum of the train diminishing. The light in the cars began to flicker, and in the strobing glow, he looked back to see the two beasts, muzzles red and gory, charging toward them two cars.

“I can do this,” Trip was saying, eyes shut. “I can think of something, come on, come on…” The gap between the lead car and the rest of the train steadily grew. Maximillian lingered in the opposite doorway, amused, watching.

It was not an idea that formed in Rafe’s mind, so much as a powerful resolve. He tucked his knives back into his belt and flexed his knuckles.

“I’d just like to say,” he told Trip, “if this doesn’t work, I’m quite terribly sorry.”

Then he picked up Trip and threw him, with all his might, through the air toward the front car.

Maximillian’s eyes had a split-second to grow wide before Trip crashed into him, sending them both tumbling back into the front car. And the gap grew wider still…

Rafe backed up a few paces, not daring to look back, hearing the animal snorts and screeches behind him grow, louder, louder.

He moved, arms pumping, dashing forward in long, determined strides. Hot reptile breath frothed at his back. He dove through the passageway and leapt into emptiness.

Time seemed to slow. Rafe tumbled through the air, the front car approaching — but not far enough, not fast enough. A guttural snort behind him — he turned to see one of the beasts just behind him in the air, having leapt out to follow him. Excellent.

As Rafe reached the peak of his leap, he braced a foot on the snout of the beast behind him and pushed off.

The extra momentum got him to the car ahead, just barely. He slammed against the stone platform with his whole upper body, legs kicking and dangling. Behind him, there was a sudden screech, and then a series of snaps and wet, ugly sounds as the rest of the train, still slowing, nonetheless rolled onward.

Rafe clawed, sliding slowly backwards, warring with gravity and losing. If he could spare a hand to reach the knives on his belt, he could dig in…

Trip’s hand reached out, grabbed his, and hauled Rafe aboard.