Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Aerial Inferno (Part 1)

It had survived bitter, freezing wind, and the relentless assault of equatorial sun. It had turned away bullets, rockets, harpoons, and bombs, and even, once, the envious talons of something far older than man.

But now, far above the churning waters of Lake Michigan, the Faithless, night-sweat terror of the skies, burned and slowly died.

Had the great and terrible craft retained any crew members, they might have forestalled its end — quelled the fires that boiled in ravenous billowing gouts from the jagged fissures blown in the aft hull, patched the ship up, limped it home to pillage another day. But it no longer had a crew. It no longer had a home. And the majority of its inhabitants knew only of the terrible noise, and the frightening heat, and were moved to blind, savage destruction.

In the black heart of the main armored gondola, Wicked West screamed bitter hate through ancient lungs, the countless black cables that knitted her body and being to the ship itself writhing and lashing in the Faithless’s dying agonies.

Sully Wells’ vicious grin of triumph died on her lips as the tendrils encircling her rib cage began to squeeze. Fighting for breath, she flicked a wrist, disgorging a curving knife from up one sleeve, and began to desperately hack at the cables that held her. But their casings were hardened, resilient, and already black spots began to dance at the borders of Sully’s vision…

So, too, did the cables tighten around Nora Swift’s throat as she hung in the air, danging almost face-to-face with the withered, revenge-mad pirate empress. Nora’s fingers scrabbed for purchase against the cables, pulling them away from her neck with all her strength, desperate for a few centimeters’ room. The heavy iron shackles clamped around her ankles dragged her down, down, to certain strangulation.

Wicked West shuddered and screamed anew as a fresh round of explosions rocked the ship, turbines just on the opposite side of the bulkhead exploding in flaming hails of shrapnel. And as the pirate queen’s scar-scratched visage contorted in fury and pain, Nora saw her chance.

Grabbing hold of the cables that entwined her neck with both hands, summoning the memory of every hateful sit-up she’d ever done in her life, Nora lifted her iron-bound feet and smashed them hard into Wicked West’s face.

The cables dissolved into slack as the pain and shock jolted through the old woman’s body, dropping Nora and Sully to land hard on the metal plating of the deck. Still shrieking, Wicked West spooled herself and all her flailing cables back up through the portal in the apex of the chamber’s ceiling, and vanished.

Ribs burning, Sully dragged herself into a sitting position, only to see Nora sprawled across the deck.

“Nora!” she shouted; the death throes of the engine room thundered in the air, blotting out whole spectrums of sound. Sully crawled across the deck, already feeling the heat from the fire in the next chamber beginning to spread through the flooring, and found Nora gasping and coughing, rubbing her bruised throat.

“Ow,” Nora rasped, strength returning to her voice. “Sully? The hell you wearing there?”

“Long story,” Sully sighed, flooded with sudden gratitude at the simple fact that she was no longer alone in all this madness. “You all right?”

“I’ll be a lot better if you can get these damn things off me,” Nora coughed, rattling the chains around her ankles.

Sully dug in her sash and producing a lockpick kit. “I went shoplifting,” she explained. “They had all kinds of really great, dangerous stuff lying around.” She tried not to think about all the things she hadn’t found in the ship’s armory — the racks of heavy arms sitting empty and dust-choked, the boxes of high-caliber ammunition hastily smashed open by inhuman hands, stinking of the same reek that pervaded the rest of the ship.

“Just a sec,” Sully said, digging in the shackles’ latch with a precisely twisted point of wire. “I think I recognize this design…” With a last twist of Sully’s wrist and a heavy clack, the shackles fell open, and Nora sighed in relief.

“Thank you, Eisenheim’s Second Revised Guide to Shackles and Restraints,” Sully said, prompting a very strange look from Nora. “For work! I read it for work! Can you walk?” Sully asked, helping Nora to her feet. “We’ve got to get off this thing. I may have done some damage to the engine room.”

“You think?” Nora snorted, as a fresh round of explosions rattled the steam seams of the chamber. One wall was slowly beginning to glow red, the rivets pinning together its steel plates popping and pinging loose. “Door’s locked,” Nora said, nodding toward the lone hatch she’d tried earlier. “Unless you’ve got some more of that dynamite?”

“Yeah, because I really want to be carrying that stuff around,” Sully replied. “Wait, I’ve got some blueprints here — maybe there’s another way out.” She unfolded the diagram and began to trace lines with her fingers. Nora peered over her shoulder and frowned.

“Wait,” Nora said. “Wait, wait, wait. Give me that. You see these lines here, running under the chamber? I think…” Nora eyed the deck plates, bent down, tugged at the corner of one. It lifted slightly, and Nora broke into a smile. “Come on, help me with this.”

Sully, confused, shifted aching muscles to help Nora lift the deck plate away, revealing a thick tangle of pipes, hoses and conduits running beneath the deck of the ship. Nora wiped a growing layer of sweat from her brow and shook it against the deck. In a few seconds, it began to dance and sizzle; the air in the chamber had begun to shimmer.

“What are we looking for?” Sully asked, as the two peered into the knotty mass of utility lines, and Nora pointed.

“There!” The rubberized skin of the thick cable was beaded with drops of moisture. Condensation. And when Nora reached down to tug the line free and lift it out of the hole in the plating, it was blessedly cool to the touch.

“If there’s one thing I understand,” she told Sully, “it’s ways you can stress metal. It’s getting hot in here, right? Well, this is a coolant line. And if we hit that door—” pointing at the hatch a few feet away — “with what’s in this, the sudden change in temperature—”

“Say no more,” Sully nodded, producing her silver knife with a flourish. “You wanna do the honors?”

“Hold up,” Nora said. “That’s not gonna do it. You’d have to hack through the line slowly, and the stuff inside might make the blade too brittle.” Her eyes roved the display cases dotting the room, resting at last on the jeweled scimitar near the bed where she’d awakened. “Oh, much better.”

Picking up the iron shackles from where they’d fallen on the deck, Nora dragged them over to the case in which the scimitar gleamed, pristine and lovely. Up close, Nora saw fine traces of long-dried blood along the edge of it, and shivered a bit despite the rising heat.

She stepped back, whirled the shackles with her right hand, building up momentum, and them flung them at the glass case. It dissolved into bits and shards, and Nora reached forward and picked up the sword. Heavier than it looked.

Nora was halfway back to where Sully waited with the cable when she stopped. The leather jacket she’d seen earlier, and the old revolver, hung suspended in light in the case to her left. Nora drew close, peering through the glass. The faded letters painted in flaking golden script on the breast of the jacket just barely read Gale.

With the butt of the jeweled sword, she smashed the case open. The jacket, once she’d shaken the bits of glass off, felt surprisingly sturdy in her hands; age had made the leather soft to the touch, the sheepskin collar pillowy and pilled. She slipped it on — a little small for her, perhaps, but it still felt right.

And when she picked up the revolver, it felt curiously familiar in her hand. It was older, more battered — yet somehow, the same pistol her grandmother had given her, the one she’d lost as the tendrils dragged her away. She checked the cylinders — empty, but somehow, she didn’t mind. The gun slipped into the inside pocket of the jacket as if the two were made for one another.

For the first time in hours, for reasons she couldn’t even begin to explain, Nora felt safe again.

“You about done accessorizing?” Sully griped as Nora drew near with the scimitar. Nora cast a critical eye on Sully’s own outfit, then hefted the sword.

“You just watch yourself,” Nora said. “This is gonna be cold.” She brought the sword down through the cable, striking sparks on the deck.

The coolant hose writhed and jerked in Sully’s hands, blue-white fluid jetting forth to splash against the metal of the locked hatch. Nora tossed the sword aside and helped her steady the cable, training the torrent of supercold liquid against the door. Frost began to crack and crawl across its surface, fingers of sudden steam curling off and away from it, and Nora and Sully could hear the metal groan under the sudden shift in temperature.

Another roar from the engine room, and suddenly the entire ship lurched, sliding several degrees left of horizontal. Large spots on the back wall of the chamber now glowed yellow-orange, and fiery red rivets pinged and sizzled like burning acorns from the creaking walls. Nora felt the heat like a hand laid heavily across the back of her neck.

“That’s gonna have to do it!” Nora shouted, and Sully cast the coolant hose aside to fizz and sputter against the deck. They approached the door warily, its cool breath to their faces, the searing escalation of fiery heat at their backs.

“On three?” Sully asked, and Nora nodded. She held up one finger, two fingers, three, and they reared back and kicked in unison. The door shuddered, a large crack spidering out from their point of impact, but it did not give.

“Okay, okay,” Nora nodded, “we just try again. Ready? One—”

The whole room shook, and with a ear-scraping screech, bicycle-sized shards of turbine casing plunged themsleves through the back wall and into the room, tips glowing and molten and beginning to drop. The gondola began to list even further, the door before Nora and Sully growing increasingly uphill.

“Again!” Sully shouted, and without waiting for a count, they rammed their feet against the door. The cracks widened, deepened; red light began to show through in gaps.

“One more time!” Nora cried, and took a few steps back. She and Sully squared their shoulders, got a running start, and hit the door with a pair of graceless but effective flying kicks.

The door gave, exploding off its hinges in fat, jagged shards, and Sully and Nora tumbled backward and fell to the deck.

“Gah!” Nora recoiled, as the stench from the corridor invaded her nose. “What the hell is that?”

Sully grabbed her arm and helped drag her to her feet as the back wall of the chamber groaned ominously. “Don’t ask!” she shouted, amid the rising chords of rending metal. “Just go!”

They threw themselves out the hatch and into the hall as the back wall of Wicked West’s private refuge collapsed. A wall of flame rolled across the room, consuming the silk-laden beddings, devouring the accumulated spoils under glass. And whatever Wicked West preserved in that black laquered box, it would whisper to her no more.

Sully and Nora scrambled to safety up the canted corridor as a fat, whirling tumbleweed of fire belched itself out of the hatch. They watched it recede into genteel cat’s tongues of flames, then turned to one another.

“So,” Nora asked, as her lungs’ need for oxygen battled her sinuses’ urgent demand to breathe in as little of the funk as possible. “How do we not go down with the ship?”

Sully once more unfolded the blueprints. “Apparently, your crazy friend in there wasn’t a big believer in escape pods,” she shouted above the groans and shudders of the dying craft. “But there are walkways, here and here, port and starboard, leading to smaller blimps. If we can get to one of those, well, at least we won’t be on anything that’s currently exploding.”

“Think maybe you overdid it?” Nora grinned grimly, nodding her head in the direction of the engine room.

“Business instincts,” Sully sighed. “Last time I blew up a whole building. You’ve always gotta make the encore bigger.”

They wobbled, arms flailing, as the craft listed even further to the left. The walls were now perilously close to becoming floor and ceiling. Sully folded up the map, dug around in the sash at her hip, and handed Nora a small, dust-coated paper box emblazoned in colorful foreign script.

“Bullets,” Sully explained. “For that piece of yours. I took a few different kinds, just to be safe.”

“Wait, why do we need guns?” Nora asked, the revolver feeling suddenly heavy against her ribs.

Sully shook her wrists, and twin automatic pistols slid out of her sleeves. One fell neatly into her grip, but she nearly fumbled the other, catching it before it could clatter to the deck.

“I’m, uh, still getting the hang of this,” she said hastily. “Pretend that was a lot more badass, okay?”

“You didn’t answer my question,” Nora replied, thumbing shells into the open chambers of her grandmother’s gun. The spare rounds clinked and jangled in her jacket pocket.

“I’m not sure I know the answer,” Sully said darkly, cocking one silver pistol, then the other. “And I’m not sure I want to. Come on.”

The infernal heat grew with every step they took through the flickering red lights of the corridors, even as they put greater distance between themselves and the engine room. Several times, Sully thought she could hear other, pursuing sounds just below the groaning, roaring din. But the corridors betrayed no shadow, no flicker of motion save their own.

“It’s not far now!” Sully shouted to Nora as they reached a t-junction in the halls. To their left, a tangled, narrow passage festooned with pipes led to the opposite side of the ship. But ahead, the steepening grade of the corridor revealed the hatch she’d left ajar upon first entering the craft. Now all they had to do was find a ladder up to the next level...

A dark, broad, form loped out of the doorway ahead and stopped. Sully froze, flinging back an arm to restrain Nora. The shadow was joined by another, and then more and more, spilling out of the hatch in shambling, pendulous motion. As a mass, they shuffled forward, into the flat red glare of an emergency beacon.

The troop of gorillas, skinny and scarred from countless inter-tribal skirmishes, regarded them in hooting, nervous uncertainty for several long moments. Then the leader raised something cradled in his thick, powerful arms, a long, tapered tube of metal that gleamed dully in the crimson lights. Even with her ears ringing from the constant noise, Sully could make out the unmistakable sound of a bolt sliding into place.

She swore, inventively, and with great enthusiasm.

“What you said,” Nora seconded.

To be continued...

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Seven Signs of Salvation

Life, for Trip Morrow, was an endless string of small, discrete problems to be solved. Get to the opposite side of the street in the fewest steps. Chart the shortest possible course between the produce and meat aisles. Find the most accomodating person-sized space in the packed subway car.

His present problems had simply gotten bigger. And toothier.

Trip dashed across the open plaza beneath the endless night of the Winter City, trailing Maximillian, the Multipurpose Rifle in his arms seeming to grow heavier with every stride. He kept one eye on the uneven stones that paved the ground before him, and another on the exposed innards of the rifle. His long, multiply scarred fingers dipped and dived amid the wires in the main chamber, risking burns and shocks, making last-minute adjustments. In his head, diagrams danced, reshaping themselves from moment to moment.

The trail of destruction Rafe and his reptile pursuers had left was easy enough to follow. That was some small comfort. The thought that he might be too late — that Rafe might be, at the very moment, sliding down some improbable beast’s gullet — was most definitely not.

Trip could feel his own heart hammering against his sternum; every breath burned. He risked a glance over at Maximillian as they rounded one corner of the giant stone arena, the big man’s strides devouring ground with a glutton’s effortless appetite. Maximillian’s face wasn’t even red, and if he breathed with even slightly more effort than usual, the trailing swirl of his long black coat concealed it. Trip nodded to himself, filed those facts in an ever-fuller drawer at the back of his brain, and switched the positions of two final wires.

Two furious roars echoed through the gloom, from the far side of the stadium, and moments later, a pair of tremors rattled their way out through the paving stones and up Trip’s legs. They were close.

Trip slammed shut the casing of the Rifle, pinching the tips of two of his fingers in the process, and felt it charge and hum in his grip. Now or never.

He turned the far corner of the stadium a split-second behind Maximillian and saw two truck-sized reptile bodies surrounding a small prone figure, bending low, tails flicking, jaws wide.

Trip slid to his knees, friction burning through the fabric of his pants as he skidded across the stone. He braced the Rifle to his shoulder and aimed at the beasts. The trigger slid back beneath his finger.

The sound was so low, it nearly felt like silence. The Rifle slammed itself back against him, and even in the semidarkness, he could see the very air itself ripple in an expanding bolt of sonic force, leaping forth to slam against the Rexes.

They reared back as if stung, turning, lurching, the mass of their mass of muscle and bone turned to sudden disadvantage. They faltered, but did not fall. The one with the X-shaped scar across its face bared its jaws and rumbled drunkenly toward them.

Maximillian shot Trip a look of absolute disgust. Trip shrugged.

“Impatient, huh?” Trip said, and fired again.

A wall of sonic pain smashed into the Rexes’ blunt, eyeless skulls. Their legs wobbled at the joints, tiny arms flailing. With incredible slowness, they slid sideways in opposite directions, quavered at the very edge between standing and falling, and crashed over onto the stone of the plaza. The Rexes lay there like sudden snowdrifts, breathing like steam shovels, bellies rising and falling, and groaned piteously.

Maximillian made a small, grudgingly impressed noise at the back of his throat.

“Yeah, I figured,” Trip sighed, getting to his feet again.

The prone figure over which the Rexes bent stirred, and alarm curdled once more in the pit of Trip’s stomach. He ran forward across the stone plaza, dodging a few half-hearted snaps from the Rexes’ prone heads, to find Rafe sprawled full on his back on the ground. Rafe’s eyes were squeezed tightly shut, an obsidian knife clenched tight in each of his fists; aside from a few bruises and scrapes, and his pants stained and reeking with reptillian blood, he seemed miraculously intact.

“Rafe?” Trip asked gingerly.

“That answers my question,” Rafe said with a deep sigh, and opened his eyes. “I cannot possibly be in heaven.”

“Which has its definite upsides,” Trip offered, giving Rafe a hand up. The long run was finally catching up with Trip; he breathed in greedy gulps, the oxygen never seeming to get to his lungs, and waited for his pulse to quiet.

“Took you bloody long enough,” Rafe said, smirking, checking himself for missing limbs.

“Yeah, well, you run fast,” Trip said. “That was a great strategy, though — lying down for them to eat you.”

“Thought of it myself,” Rafe replied. “You missed all sorts of impressive bits before that. I got to ride one of them. The little ones, I mean.”

“And sadly,” Trip admitted, “that’s not even remotely the strangest thing I’ve heard or seen today.”

“Funny how quickly one adjusts to all this,” Rafe said. “I keep half expecting to just start screaming and screaming and not really, you know, stop.”

Or, Trip silently added, start thinking about Sully, and where she and Nora might be. Or if they were alive at all. In that sense, constant danger was a luxury; it left him time and energy to worry only about himself.

Behind them, one of the Rexes roared, this time in pain. Trip and Rafe turned to see Maximillian standing next to the beast’s prone head, delivering a series of probing, experimentally vicious kicks into the back of its skull.

“Stop it!” Rafe shouted, his voice seeming to unfurl like a sail into something larger and more majestic than the man who contained it. Maximillian looked over at him, bored, and delivered another swift blow to the soft, vulnerable tissue just behind the cranial bone of the one-armed beast’s head.

Rafe crossed the distance between them in a few quick strides and grabbed Maximillian by the arm. “I said—”

The big man whirled, and in the blink of an eye the point of his Needle rested dangerously against Rafe’s jugular. Unfortunately for him, the keen edge of one of Rafe’s blades had found its way up to the soft meat between Maximillian’s chin and neck.

Trip moved forward to separate them, but Rafe held out his free hand in warning. “They’re no threat to us now,” Rafe said to Maximillian, even and calm. “Get your sick amusement elsewhere.”

Long, tense moments passed. Then, with a huff, Maximillian moved the Needle away from Rafe’s neck and stepped back. He ran one cork-sized thumb against the line of his jaw, where Rafe had punched him earlier, and shot Rafe a meaningful, poisonous look. Then he turned crisply and strode off, pushing roughly past Trip as he headed toward the circular structure behind the stone stadium, from which the ring of lights rose into the subterranean gloom.

Rafe knelt down to rest a hand against the beast’s massive head. It huffed and rumbled mournfully, lone arm clawing the air, and its companion nearby answered in similarly pained tones.

“They’re just hungry,” Rafe said softly to Trip. “Just doing what they were made to. It’s nature, is all. I think I understand that now.”

“Come on,” Trip said nervously, watching the bellows of the beasts’ rib cages swell and shrink in time with their labored breathing. “I don’t know how long the sonics are going to keep them down. And I’m not wild about letting Maximillian get too far ahead of us.”

“Amen to that,” Rafe said, tucking his knives into his belt.

A single entrance, wide and cavernous, sloped downward into the heart of the vast stone-ringed structure. Trip played the light mounted on his Rifle against the walls as he and Rafe descended into the dimness. The searching beam illuminated suffering etched in stone: carvings of crude but identifiable figures wracked with starvation or disease; defeated soldiers put to the sword; children wrenched from mothers. Again and again, in each carved panel, zigzag lines rose from these figures toward the same sort of circle above.

“Charming, these people,” Rafe muttered. “I’d love to see their hospitals.”

“From what my grandfather wrote,” Trip answered, shaking his head, “you really wouldn’t.”

Light began to trickle in from the bottom of the sloping passageway, and they emerged into a broad hall lit by crystalglow from brilliant clusters on the low stone ceiling. Maximillian waited there, at the periphery of a forest of carved, rectangular stone pillars that seemed to sprout from the floor in a roughly checkerboard formation. There were a dozen of them — or should have been; the spot near the door where one seemingly would have stood was empty.

The tall man turned his head as they approached, impatience registering in his cold grey eyes, then quickly turned back.

“You waited,” Trip observed. “Why does that make me think you know something we don’t?”

Maximillian didn’t look at them, but Trip caught the ghost of a smirk on his face.

“Yeah, I thought so,” Trip sighed. “After you?”

Maximillian shook his head, and swept an arm forward toward the stone pillars, oozing mock courtesy.

Trip hefted the Rifle and stepped into the thick of the pillars. Rafe followed, knives out, and Maximillian swept along behind them.

They moved in silence, weaving through the spaces between the squat stone columns. Something about the strangely lovely, curling carvings that covered the surface of the upraised blocks chimed in the back of Trip’s weary brain. How long since he’d slept? His backpack hung like a millstone against his shoulders, and the scar of the Black Lotus still throbbed dully on the side of his neck. Stay awake long enough, he thought, and the whole world becomes a waking dream. Not that his present surroundings helped much on that account.

Stone shifted against stone, and Trip froze.

“What is that?” Rafe asked, escalating nervousness in his voice, as the sound seemed to multiply, increasing in volume all around them. Trip saw dust springing forth from gaps and joints in the stone columns, and his recollection caught up with him. Red lines coursed upward along the curving channels in the stone. Red eyes began to glow.

“Oh no,” Trip breathed.

And from all around them, ancient, igneous voices rasped out their question: “Irik ku ta Kroatoan?”

“Don’t move,” Trip said quietly, as the deadly, burning gaze of the stone sentinels slowly turned to fix on the three intruders. “Just. Stay. Still.”

“These are the things you found in the tube tunnel, right?” Rafe half-whispered, his knives held rigidly down by his sides. “With the heat vision?”

“I think so,” Trip said, shifting his eyes with painful slowness to the blank square on the floor near the entrance to the chamber. “There’s a blank spot over there where one of them should be, I think. He must have malfunctioned — wandered off and found his way up to the subway, and — hey!”

Maximillian was sauntering past them both, weaving through the deadly statues as if out on a Sunday stroll.

“Don’t move!” Trip hissed. “They track movement! They’re going to—”

The statues did absolutely nothing. Maximillian crossed unharmed to the far side of the chamber, where seven decidedly non-animate stone pillars supported the entrance to an ascending set of broad stairs.

“All right, fine,” Rafe hissed desperately. “This is part of some clever plan of his, right? He’s going to deactivate some switch, and—”

Maximillian grasped a stone dial set into the wall with a ham-sized fist and twisted it in a single quick motion. There was another brief rumbling; then glowing crystal spikes spat themselves up from the floor between the pillars, sealing Trip, Rafe, and the statues off from the rest of the structure.

Maximillian gave them both a jaunty little wave, smirked, and strode quickly up the stairs and out of sight.

“When Mrs. Stitch said ‘Four or more is cannon fodder,’” Trip said quietly, “I think she may have been fudging the numbers a little.”

“If we get through this,” Rafe swore under his breath, “I’m bloody well going to kill him.”

“No you’re not,” Trip said, the last pieces of one particular puzzle snapping together in his mind. “You can’t.”

“I beg—” Rafe began, then shifted down a few dozen decibels. “I beg your pardon?”

“Irik ku ta Kroatoan?” the stone statues chanted again, as one.

“Never mind,” Trip replied, his mind turning to new questions. The seven pillars at the far end of the chamber were not identical. There was a carving on each, outlined in shadow in the steady glow of the crystals overhead. He stared at each in turn, committing them to memory.

Turning his head slowly, centimeter by centimeter, Trip looked behind him, to the back of one of the stone sentries. A picture was etched there in a square block, and another, different, on the back of the one next to it. And another…

“Okay, good news,” Trip said quietly, feeling the glowing red gaze of the statues bore into him. “I think I know how to get us through this.”

“And?” Rafe asked, with expectant dread.

“We’re gonna have to start moving,” Trip said, and swallowed hard. “Those symbols on the pillars at the other end of the room — I think they’re a passcode. See the marks on the statues’ backs? The ones that look like there’s a gap around them? We find the symbols that match, we press them in order—”

“Right, right,” Rafe said. “And if you’re wrong?”

“Then it won’t matter much,” Trip said. “Ready?”

“Not at all,” Rafe replied. And then he dove forward, and the statues lunged after him.

Trip threw himself to one side as one of the statues swiped at him with a pylon-sized stone fist, then rolled to evade the stomping feet of another. Good — the quarters were too close for these things to use their heat beams without damaging one another. Which meant that, at worst, he and Rafe would only be crushed to death.

“First symbol?” he heard Rafe shout from the opposite side of the room. There was a flurry of motion, and Rafe appeared crouching atop one of the thing’s heads, leaping to another’s shoulders as a stone fist smashed into his original perch. “First bloody symbol, please?”

Trip scrambled out of the way as a statue’s stone fists plunged down, smashing a crevice in the rock floor.

“It’s… it’s like a bird, with a mohawk,” Trip shouted. “Three feathers sticking straight up!”

Rafe leapt again, landing in a clear spot on the floor. “Can’t see it! Can’t—” A statue rumbled toward him, and he ducked and rolled between its legs. “Can’t — oh, there it is!” He reached up and smacked the butt of one obsidian blade against the bird symbol in the statue’s back. It flared in a radial burst of red light; then the glow ebbed from the channels of the statue’s surface, and the thing froze in mid-lumber.

“Next?” Rafe cried.

Trip ducked a whizzing stone fist and shouted back. “Two knives, pointing sideways!”

Rafe caromed up off the outstretched leg of one statue, sprang off the chest of another, and vaulted the shoulders of a third to smack the butt of his blade against the twin-knife symbol; again, the eerie light faded from the statue, and it retreated into motionless.

Rafe leapt again, and landed in a crouch — and behind him, Trip saw a statue loom, fat blocky fists raised to accordion him into a puddle of meat and bone.

Trip ran forward, ducking the swipe of a stone guard’s massive arms, slid headfirst across the stone floor, and ratcheted back the lever that controlled the focus of the Rifle’s sonic pulse. Rafe turned, in the shadow of the thing, as it brought its hands down. In the split-second before Trip squeezed the trigger, he saw the third symbol, a pyramid formed with six circles, on the statue’s back.

The pulse sent a whirling furrow of dust rising straight across the chamber floor, smacked into the statue’s back in a fat puff of gravel pebbles, and sent it tumbling headfirst over Rafe. Its face cracked against the stone wall of the chamber, and its limbs had but a second to begin to flail before the red light died and it moved no more.

Rafe shot Trip a grateful grin across the room. Trip was about to return it when night fell, suddenly and quite painfully, in the immediate vicinity of his head.

He tasted ancient stone, registered the inhuman fingers as individual stripes of pain compressing against his skull. Dimly, he felt the thing wrench him up from the ground, his feet dangling, the Rifle clenched frantically in his hand. Wild amoebas of color exploded against the inner wall of his vision. He couldn’t breathe.

And then the dark world into which he’d been thrust popped like a bubble, and he had light and air, and the dusty floor smacked up against him as he sucked great lungfuls of breath. He lurched around, spots clearing from his vision, to see Rafe dangling from the neck of the stone statue that had grabbed him.

“You know,” Rafe grunted as the statue flailed and swiped at him, “for some reason I thought I could choke this thing.” He leapt away just as the statue backed itself against the side wall of the chamber, trying to crush him. “Silly me,” Rafe finished, skidding to a stop across the floor.

“New plan,” Trip gasped, shaking his head to clear it.

“We had a plan?” Rafe asked, nervously eyeing the defensive line’s worth of stone sentinels grinding their monolothic way toward him.

“You distract them, I’ll get the symbols!” Trip said, dragging himself to his feet.

“Oh, sure, you get the easy part,” Rafe groaned. “Just because I volunteered with the dinosaurs…”

He darted to one side as the statues came at him, and Trip searched the jostling crowd of rocky menaces for the next symbol. There! While Rafe led the pack on a chase around the room’s perimeter, hopscotching over the frozen bodies of their deactivated comrades, Trip darted forward and slammed a palm against the one bearing a jaguar’s head. As it stiffened and extinguished, two of the trailing statues turned; Trip darted between them, saw a radiant sun and a flowing river, and plunged his hands against each in turn.

“That’s six!” he shouted, retreating to cover behind one of the deactivated pillar-men. From across the room he heard Rafe yelp in fear, and heard stone sizzle and boil.

“I’m fairly sure they’re cheating now!” Rafe cried, lunging to one side as two of the remaining sentinels eyes’ flared red. The patch on floor on which he’d once stood flared orange, then white in an instant, and began to crackle and smolder with violent green and purple flames.

Trip’s eyes darted to the last pillar, carved with a symbol roughly resembling a human face.

“Just one more!” he shouted reassuringly, and risked a peek at the searching sentries broad stone backs.

A human heart … the head of a dinosaur … an octagon … a seven-pointed star … a checkerboard pattern of dots…

Trip’s stomach sank. He thought of the empty space he’d seen when they first walked in.

“Well?” Rafe shouted, as the sentries heat-beams scorched and blistered the far side of the statue behind which he crouched.

“It’s not here!” Trip shouted. “The last statue — it must be the one that wandered up to the subway!”

Rafe’s response was as heated, and nearly as colorful, as the pools of fire now flaring on the walls and floor around him.

“When the time’s right,” he shouted to Rafe, “go for their eyes!”

“How will I know when the time’s right?” Rafe hollered back. Trip felt his stomach lurch in fear, and took a last deep breath.

“Well, any time before I start screaming should be good,” he said, and stepped out of cover.

“Hey!” Trip shouted, waving his arms. The five remaining statues turned, as one, an ominous, millstone sound filling the chamber.

“That’s it,” Trip said, feeling the hammerblows of his own heart against his rib cage. “Over here.”

They turned with heavy, dead feet, and in the sudden silence of the chamber, the stone sentries began to shuffle toward him.

“Who made you?” Trip asked the statues; trying to understand things, to reason out their workings, pushed away fear. It made him an observer, above it all. “Is that some kind of fluid powering you? Energy?”

They stopped, in a rough semicircle around him. Behind him, the entrance to the chamber yawned, empty and inviting. He could turn and run; but maybe they would follow, if their heat beams didn’t boil him to ash in the first few heartbeats. And Maximillian, and the Misery Engine, still waited within.

Trip watched the red glow rise in their eyes.

“Now, Rafe!” he shouted. The brilliant light only intensified. “Now would be good!”

And then, with a savage yell, Rafe appeared in midair behind the lead statue, scrambling up its back to perch on its shoulders. He crouched, encircling its head, as the other four statues turned their deadly gaze toward him, and jabbed the blades of his stone knives swiftly into and out of the sentry’s radiant eyes.

Rafe leapt away, and Trip flung himself to one side, the weight of his backpack and rifle lurching and choking him as he slid behind the frozen bulk of one of the deactivated statues. The room erupted in streams of brilliant red light, and Trip heard stone ignite. The pillar-men screamed their rocky innards out as uncanny energy poured forth from the lead statue’s eyes, setting fire to the channels of energy coursing across their surfaces. Twin channels of dribbling molten rock scarred themselves against the bounds of the chamber, sizzling perilously close to Trip as he huddled in the shadow of the dead sentry.

At last, the gargling roars of the statues died away, and the eerie light faded. Trip rose from his shelter to see the room newly marked in still-glowing whorls and lines and zigzags where the statue’s uncontrolled heat beams had carved into the walls and floor. At the center of the room, a pile of rubble lay cooling and settling; perhaps, if closely inspected, it might prove to have once been something more wondrous.

“Still alive?” Trip called out, a tremor rising unbidden in his voice. There was a long pause, and then, from behind the dripping, half-molten remains of a dead sentry at the far end of the room, a hand rose, making an upturned V at him.

“That,” came Rafe’s sullen, indignant voice, “was a terrible, terrible plan.”

“A terrible, terrible plan that worked!” Trip offered, as Rafe emerged, dusting chunks of rubble from his bare shoulders and arms. “And look!”

The wild, unleashed beams of the statue’s heat had split and shattered the crystal bars blocking their path to the Misery Engine; as Trip and Rafe watched, awestruck, strange sparks rose and whirled from the ragged ends of the broken spikes, before the light in the crystals flickered and ebbed away.

“I have got to study those things,” Trip said quietly. Rafe shrugged.

“Funny,” he replied. “I was thinking the exact opposite.”

Composed and ready, they moved in stealthy silence through the gaps in the bars, and into the stairwell through which Maximillian had disappeared. The stairs were broad and deeply spaced, flat channels cut into them at vertical intervals — as if, Trip mused, something were meant to be easily slid down them. Or dragged up. Flat white light bled down from a wide opening at their apex. Trip and Rafe headed up, slowly, warily.

Something tumbled into the stairwell from above, bouncing like a soccer ball, emitting strange metallic thuds and clanks as it rolled awkwardly down from step to step. It stopped a few steps above them, at last, and Trip slowly illuminated the light on his Rifle and trained the beam on it.

Maximillian’s head stared back at them, eyes wide and expressionless, gray hair slicked with some viscous goo, and slightly smoking and hissing at the ends. His neck ended abruptly, raggedly, just above where his Adam’s apple would have been — and sprouting from it came not flesh and bone and blood, but a tangle of wires, coils, and metal struts, and a thick, red, oozing liquid.

“He was a bloody robot?” Rafe hissed, casting an uneasy glance toward the top of the stairs.

“I thought so,” Trip said quietly. “The breathing, the small muscles around the eyes — they almost got it right. Almost.” Something in him wanted to bend down and get a closer look, but a larger question kept nagging at him — what had happened to the rest of him?

“So, wait,” Rafe said, holding up a hand. “Were they all robots? Oh, dear God, are we meant to be robots as well? Wait, wait, stupid question. How about this: What in God’s name happened to him?”

“Only one way to find out,” Trip said darkly, and nodded toward the top of the stairs.

They left Maximillian’s head staring down the way they’d came, and continued upward.

The stairs opened suddenly into dazzling open space. Pillars of crystal, somehow carved and focused with the precision of diamonds, ringed the high stone walls surrounding the central pit in which Trip and Rafe found themselves now. Shafts of light stabbed upward from the crystals into the gloom above in a radiant ring.

Across the stone floor, steps led up to some sort of wide, flat stone altar, which stood before a vast stack of concentric rings of carved stone, rising taller than a house into the open air.

And at the top of the steps before them, standing in front of the altar, two distressingly familiar figures waited, and Trip felt cold, concentrated fear seep like Arctic water into every corner and channel of his body.

“There you are,” said Operator Vore, his spectacles glinting in the crystal-light. “You’ve kept us waiting.”

Behind him, Operator Grin slouched, Maximillian’s gray hat crumpled and cocked on the oddly shaped oblong of his head.

“Crunchy,” Grin said, and smiled, and proceeded to pick his yellowed, crooked teeth with the point of Maximillian’s Needle.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

In the Crimson Jungle of the Clouds

She dreamed of drowning, tangled in the rigging of some sunken galleon. And when Sully Wells at last awoke, sodden and shaking and faintly blue, she looked up and saw the ground.

It took her a few seconds to realize that yes, that was the Sears Tower pointing back at her, so far below. Then it vanished behind a curl of cloud, and all was gray mist once more.

She had gone so far past cold that she nearly felt warm again, soaked to the bone by the previous night’s storm and the pervasive, clinging mist of the cloud that surrounded her. She tried to move, and something caught at her, snagged her. Sully craned her neck and looked back and up and saw the tendrils, and nearly screamed.

They were still now, inert, and she had somehow gotten twined within them. She didn’t remember how; just a long, rushing flight up toward darkness, Nora clinging to her hand. And then…

She tried to move again, and the cables started to loosen their hold — and she began to fall. Panic stabbed at her gut, fear shot a torrent of heat through her limbs, and she grabbed the black cables to steady herself. She lifted her neck to look ahead. The cables stretched over her, taut, to some sort of gondola a good distance ahead, hanging suspended in the air by a great black patchwork balloon.

It took her some terrifying minutes, working numb hands and stiff limbs, to push herself up carefully through the tangle of black cables, slip from where they’d looped and knotted around her limbs, and lie with her weight carefully distributed across the slithering net of tendrils as they bounced and swayed in the air. Her teeth chattered like a wind-up toy, until she thought her jaw would rattle itself off her face.

When she could finally tear her eyes away from the dizzying depths below her, she slowly turned her head to the left. There was a walkway, dull rusted iron, stretching across the cables, extending to the gondola. Only after she had crawled, inch by shaking inch, and sprawled full on its freezing, rain-spotted plates, did she bother to wonder where it originated.

She looked back over her shoulder and saw it — armored hull battleship-huge, bristling with pikes and harpoons and colonized in fractals of rust and wear. Bulging steel cables, thick as a clenched fist, stretched up from the top of the massive gondola to a mammoth, sun-blotting oblong of thick, black-painted fabric. The weathered outlines of a skull and crossbones leered out from the side of the balloon, big as a house.

There was a door in the side of the massive gondola, connected to the walkway, and Sully rose on muffled, unsteady limbs and lurched her way toward it — only to find no outward latch. She banged on it with icy white fists, kicked it and shouted, and heard nothing.

At last, her legs gave out. She dropped to her knees, muscles jumping like bugs beneath her skin, trying to shake out the cold.

There, on the plates of the catwalk, she looked down through the tangle of black cables sprouting through ports on the side of the gondola, and saw an open porthole below.

She nearly fell sliding herself off the catwalk, and again lowering herself through the cables to kick her feet at the circular open window. Slowly, numb hands gripping the slippery black tendrils for dear life, she managed to work one leg, and then the other, into the hole — and with one last, sickening lurch, and a number of bruises she barely felt, she slipped and bumped and fell into the gondola.

It was warmer here, even with the chill coming in through the open window. Warm air rose through gaps in the deck plates, and Sully spread herself flat on the floor and passed out for several minutes, exhausted and shivering.

Distant footfalls, vibrating all through the metal of the ship, woke her. Slowly, aching, she pushed herself up from the floor. The heat only served to make her realize how cold she really was, under layers of freezing, moisture-sodden clothes.

She was in some kind of crew quarters; rows of spacious, comfortable-looking bunks and heavy metal lockers lined the walls on either side. At the far end, she saw a door, pressure-sealed with a circular valve from the inside. Dents from outside bulged in the metal of the door, and a pile of chairs and a metal table had been haphazardly stacked against it.

Behind her, the porthole yawned open, cold air whistling in. She stood gingerly, stumbled forward, and shut it, hearing it latch tight. Then she looked down at the low ledge beneath the window, where the massive outer plates of the hull had been welded together, and something gleamed back at her.

Earrings. They were a pair of gold and pearl earrings, simple but lovely. They had been placed neatly and precisely, one beside the other, on the metal. On the floor beneath them, a pair of worn black silk slippers, set down with the same solemn care.

Sully thought about this, and about the open window. She looked back at the makeshift barricade barring the door, and when she shivered, it was not entirely from the cold.

The air grew steadily warmer in the narrow room, now that the window was shut. Sully rummaged the bunks and found blankets, dust-choked and moth-worn but still thick and warm. Clumsily, she stripped out of her soaking clothes, the leather jacket, the thick boots and fishnet stockings, and huddled in a mound of blankets at the center of the floor until her shaking subsided and she felt fully alive again.

The lockers had no locks, and inside them, Sully found more of the neat black slippers, and black silken pants, tunics, and cloaks — the Stevie Nicks ninja brigade, Sully wondered? Jean-Paul Gaultier designing for the Nazi Women’s Auxiliary? But at the moment, staying warm — and not running around a strange and possibly dangerous death ship in mismatched, several-days-old underwear — trumped the possibility of looking stupid.

After a few tries, she found a set of clothes that fit — a loose long-sleeved shirt, baggy harem-like pants with a sash for a belt, and a hooded cloak that draped across her shoulders. The dark fabric was lightweight, comfortably warm, and nearly soundless when she moved. She didn’t want to think about how much a getup like this would have run her back in L.A.

She rummaged through her thoroughly ruined jacket and found, at last, her silver Zippo and Mister Gaunt’s box of cigarettes — a bit damp around the edges, but miraculously undamaged. None of the slippers she could find fit, and something made her leery of touching the pair by the porthole. So she sighed, gritted her teeth, and squished her feet back into her boots.

Wherever she was, the tendrils had taken her. Which meant Nora was here. Sully didn’t really know her — they’d talked some at the Lookout — but in all likelihood, Trip and the British guy were somewhere far, far below. Which made Nora the closest thing Sully had to a friend, literally.

And wherever the tendrils had taken her was probably nowhere that anyone wanted to be.

She moved the furniture away from the door, slowly, carefully. From the dust piled in the corners of the room, and the mothholes in the blankets, whatever had happened here happened long ago. That didn’t make Sully feel any more comfortable.

A turn of the wheel, a few sturdy tugs on the hatch, and the door screeched open, terrifyingly loud. Sully froze, listening to the shriek of rusty metal echo through distant corridors. Then the smell hit her.

A butcher shop. Hell, an entire meat department. In the middle of a monkey house — scratch that, ten monkey houses — in the dead of summer. Sully stumbled back, the sheer stink of it hitting her like a shove to the chest. One hand pinching her nose shut, she rummaged through the lockers again until she found a spare sash, which she wrapped around her nose and mouth until the sheer stench was cut to tolerable limits. She caught a glimpse of herself in a cracked, spotted-over patch of mirror inside one of the locker doors; a strange-eyed bandit stared back at her, and for a moment, she felt her lips twist into a grin beneath the sash, and wasn’t sure why.

The smell didn’t get any better outside. The hallway was empty, lit an eerie, eye-burning red by emergency bulbs sprouting from the bulkheads. Dried black piles of something Sully didn’t even want to contemplate soiled the edges of the corridor, and as she crept along the corridor toward what she vaguely remembered as the front of the gondola, she saw entire lunar fields of tiny craters and dents pocking the thick steel walls. Bullet marks.

Something howled, indeterminately far away, the sound ramming itself madly off the corridor walls, sending a flock of centipedes clamoring down Sully’s spine. Okay, guns, she thought. Guns had just become a priority.

She passed many doors; most were locked, while some yawned open into kitchens or bunk rooms preserved in some hurricane state of disarray. Sully kept moving.

At last, she found a ladder, which she climbed to a closed hatch, white light leaking in around its edges. Sully waited, listening. No voices. No sound at all. She pushed, arms still aching from that manhole cover yesterday, and the hatch creaked open into light and cold air. Sully had found the bridge.

Cold, wet wind blew in through the smashed-open windows that ringed the fore of the room, bits of jagged glass clinging like barnacles at their edges. Steering, throttle, communications — the stations sat empty and unmanned. A captain’s chair, all smooth curving metal and rotting leather, bloomed roselike in the center of the room.

No one was piloting the ship.

Sully fought down an initial wave of panic and shut the hatch behind her. Something had to be controlling this ship; it had grabbed her and Nora, hadn’t it? And she saw lights glowing softly on the control panels — those not smashed, melted and blackened by fire, or chewed up by what looked like gunfire.

She had a sudden urge to sit down, legs tired and aching. She was still getting warm from her time tangled outside. She moved toward the captain’s chair and stopped. Even empty, it had some sinister presence about it — a sense of being occupied, even when it wasn’t. Sully thought better and retreated to one of the stations around the rear periphery of the oblong chamber.

She sat for a while, watching clouds and the occasional bird pass outside the gaping front windows, her brain trying to catch up with the rest of her. Something fluttered at the periphery of her vision, and she turned to look at the console before her, where a slim curl of tattered yellow paper peeked out from one of several slender, vertical drawers mounted into the wall. She pulled out the nearest drawer, and found a map — topography of some strange island, with runways and flight vectors marked by hand in red pencil. The other drawers held more maps, and blueprints — science-fiction aircraft like Sully had never seen, sprouting strange multitudes of wings and engines. Here, too, careful handwritten annotations had been made — circles and x’s noting what appeared to be weak spots and points of entry.

The last map was different. Sully recognized the shape of it — the very gondola she occupied. She found the bridge, traced the corridor back to the room from which she’d entered. The diagram was rougher than the others, sketched by a shaky but trained hand. In sharp, slashing letters at one corner, it had been labeled: FAITHLESS.

She pulled the diagram as far as it would go from the wall, and stood, fingers pressed to the yellow, gummy celluloid that sheathed it, searching. Looking for points of interest. The ARMORY, there, on the opposite end of the ship. ENGINE ROOM, not far away. And right at the heart of the ship, a vast empty space, pointedly unlabeled…

The gentle slithering sound crept slowly around the edges of Sully’s consciousness, and at first, when something brushed lightly against her shoulder, she nearly reached up and swatted it away. Then she saw movement in the corners of her eyes.

The black tendrils were spooling from ports in the ceiling, twisting and twining and searching their way across the bridge.
Sully froze, her heart jackrabbiting against her rib cage. She started to move, and five or six individual cables stopped with a jerk, and turned their pincer ends in her direction. The cables began to diverge, slowly, winding themselves into a cord thick as a man’s arm, oozing like oil across the open air of the room toward Sully’s face.

She shifted her weight to one side, ready to dive, and in a blink, the tendril had closed its distance, sharp metal pincers on the ends of the dozens of cables jawing in predatory leisure.

And then it split, and slid around her head, and neatly shut all the map drawers she’d left open.

Across the bridge, Sully saw the cables flipping switches. Strands wound around the rudder controls, making careful adjustments to the ship’s course. Even at the broken, burnt-out consoles, the tendrils continued to adjust switches that no longer worked, and grope for dials and levers smashed and blackened beyond recognition.

After a minute or two, the tendrils retreated, reeling back up into the ceiling. The bridge was empty. Sully was alone.

She looked down and saw her own knuckles white against the edge of the console.

Sully pulled the map drawer back open and yanked the blueprint of the Faithless out of its frame. She clenched it in her fist until she felt the shaking go from her hands.

A quick scouring of the bridge turned up nothing else — no weapons, just a frustratingly empty cabinet that looked like it might once have held rifles. Sully found a second hatch, on the opposite side of the gondola from where she’d entered. Fastest way to the armory, the map said. She opened it carefully, listening again for any sound or motion below. And when she heard nothing, she climbed down carefully.

She got one final glimpse of the strange, unsettling captain’s chair before the hatch swung shut above her.

The corridors on this side smelled no better, nor were they any less strewn with debris and the marks of battle. Sully followed the blueprints as best she could, but it wasn’t easy; the corridors all looked the same, save for their various desecrations, and the eerie red light made the diagrams hard to read.

She had paused at an intersection to check her progress when she heard it. Shuffling, scraping sounds. Grunting. She turned to check the corridor behind her. Strange shapes flitted and bulged on distant walls.

The inhuman howl rose again, reverberating off the surrounding metal. Closer. Too much closer.

Sully turned and ran, stuffing the map back into the sash around her waist. Every footfall of her boots on the deck plates seemed to ring out like a hammer blow. Behind her, the grunts grew louder, more aggressive. She didn’t dare look back.

She started testing doors, looking for any shelter she could find. Locked. Locked. Locked again. The latch on one seemed to give, only to snap off in her hand.

Shadows, cast from behind her, began to flicker and dance along the walls. She heard shuffling, the tread of heavy bare feet on the metal. Ragged, aggressive machete-blows of breath. And the stink in the air, choking, thickening.

Her hands fumbled. A latch gave, a door swung wide, and she tumbled inside and slammed it shut behind her.
It wouldn’t lock. She looked at the door and saw that something, long ago, had smashed and twisted the handle. Sully turned and saw a lab table, large, heavy, and pushed it shrieking across the metal floor to block the door. No sooner had she slammed it home across the hatchway than the door boomed with a sudden, heavy blow from outside. Another. The table rattled, and the door shook. Dents began to appear in the metal. It’d hold, but only so long.

Immediate danger faded, Sully drank in her surroundings. The stink was somehow even worse in here. Some kind of lab, it looked like. Rusted metal cages lined the walls, big ones, stacked atop each other four high to the ceiling. The doors of most had been torn off, bent, dangling limply from their hinges.

Beyond where the table had been, Sully found the floor painted in red-brown dried blood. Bits of thick white fabric, liberally stained, were scattered about. Surgical tools, scalpels and chisels and saws, lay scattered and rusting on the metal plating, where they’d fallen from an overturned cart.

On shelves on the walls, past the cages, row after row of elongated simian skulls stared out at her. The skulls had been cut open, and mechanical components, of differing design, placed inside. Sully shuddered.

A thunderous blow shook the door, and the heavy table screeched inward a half-inch. The hatch cracked open, and Sully heard angry hoots and shrieks from without. There was another door at the far end of the room, and Sully opened it hastily, finding herself in an office blanketed in cobwebs.

There were a desk and chair here, and more shelves, with jars; strange, blind things floated preserved in formaldehyde. Some had more than the usual number of limbs. Or heads. Sully didn’t care to look too closely.

Another boom from the chamber without; another screech of the table. Whatever was outside, it was quickly getting in. Sully looked up and saw a ventilation grate in the wall, up near the ceiling. Rusted and treacherous, but big enough for her to fit.
She pushed the desk over to the wall, shedding papers snowdrifted on top of it. A framed picture on the desk toppled and fell, and Sully, curious, picked it up and shook the glass free. It was a young woman, hair tightly pinned back, neat lab coat perfectly fitted, strange piercing eyes boring through the camera. She stood behind a table, on which a young chimpanzee sat, staring ahead at the photographer. It took Sully a moment to realize that the top of the chimp’s skull was missing, its brain showing beneath. She dropped the picture back on the desk as if it had suddenly squirmed in her hand.

There was another loud crash from the door outside, and the sound of the lab table clattering on its side. She had no time. Sully grabbed the grating and tugged, flinging it to one corner of the room. She planted her hands inside the duct and hauled, wriggling up and into the narrow tunnel.

The duct seemed to contract around her, squeezing the breath from her lungs in a single gasp. She was back in the attic, locked in the box, blind and helpless and terrified.

Sully squeezed her eyes shut and concentrated. Remember the diagram. The false panel. The hidden latch, just underneath the back of the lock…

A thick, powerful hand seized her by the ankle and yanked her backward.

The skin of her palms squealed and stung against the metal of the duct as she slid, clawing frantically for traction. She looked back — a shadow blocked the light at the entrance of the grate, one thick, impossibly long arm winding its way inside, clamped around her boot. Waves of stench rolled off the thing, and Sully heard grunting, and saw a flash of teeth.

She kicked out hard with her free foot. Her heel smashed against skin and bone, and she heard something cracked. A howl erupted into the duct, rattling her eardrums, and the hand let go of her ankles. She crawled forward into the dark, desperate, awkward, fast as she could. The light blotted out behind her, and she heard the dark shape swatting and pawing around, just out of reach of her feet. Sully looked back at saw the thing smashing itself again and again at the entrance to the vent, trying to get in. Too large to fit.

The thing roared at her, and Sully, triumphant, blew a raspberry back at it. Then she turned and wriggled onward into the dark. At a safe distance, she fished out the blueprints and flicked on her lighter, tracing ventilation ducts. This might work.
Some minutes later, she battered open one last grating, reached out to grip a particularly sturdy-looking pipe bolted to the ceiling, and dragged herself out to dangle and drop into the heart of the ship’s armory.

It was a long, narrow room, one wall all panels of glass, the others rows and rows of lockers, interrupted at one end by a thick, securely fastened door. A steady, constant thrumming, louder here than elsewhere in the ship, filled her ears. That was the first thing Sully noted.

The second: She wasn’t alone.

The body, dessicated by the passing of unknown decades, wore robes like the ones she sported. It slumped against the wall of windows, legs splayed out across the floor, undignified. In the bony claw of its right hand, it held a revolver loosely. It was largely missing one side of its head.

Sully’s gorge rose, and she fought it down. It wasn’t a person, she lied to herself. Never had been. Just some elaborate prop. She could deal with props.

She busied herself checking the lockers. OMG had done tricks with guns — impossible shots, death-defying exploits — and she’d had to learn them herself, to make sure the tricks were safe. She never liked the way the guns felt in her hands. Largely because she liked them too much. The concentrated power of God, a fingertip away. All you had to do was point, exhale, and squeeze. If she held a gun for long enough, and stayed quiet and listened, she could begin to hear her brain making quiet, awful suggestions, in honeyed tones.

But she knew enough to find the most reliable models among the racks of weaponry that awaited her behind the locker doors; to check that the automatics were clean, to know where to find the safeties, to find the right caliber of extra bullets. She found all sorts of useful things.

And only when she was fully stocked, and nearly adjusted to moving around with a bit of extra weight, did she bother looking through the wall of windows into the dim, red-lit gloom beyond. Vast turbines hummed and crackled, and person-sized pistons turned at dizzying speeds. The engine room.

Almost without her knowledge, Sully found her fingers digging out the box of cigarettes, her hands moving to flick open the lighter. She stopped, and turned, and looked at the heavy wooden crate she’d very carefully pulled out from one of the farthest lockers. Better safe than sorry, she thought, and gingerly closed the lighter.

Then her eyes fixed on the cigarettes in one hand, and the lighter in the other, and then back on the wooden crate, sitting there in ominous innocence on the steel floor.

She had an idea.

Sully pushed at one of the windows, scrabbled her fingers around its edges until she found a latch. It clicked, and the window swung open, and Sully stepped out to a platform behind, and a narrow, steep staircase leading down into the pit.
Beneath the sash, she smiled.

The noise in the engine room was nearly deafening; as she climbing the ladder up from the pit to the catwalks high above, quickly but deliberately, Sully could feel the inside of her skull reverberate. Reaching the top, she risked a quick look back down, but it was more instinct than anything else. It was too far, and too dark, to see anyway. She headed onward along the catwalk, feeling more than hearing the clang of her footsteps against the metal, tracing the pathways of the blueprints in her mind.

The vast, unmarked chamber she’d seen on those plans cradled itself like an egg at the heart of the ship, nestled against the engine room as if seeking some adjacent warmth. At the end of the catwalk, Sully found what she’d been looking for — the hatch to the maintenance tunnels surrounding the central chamber. Whatever it was, it still needed water and light and air. And whenever you had systems like those, you needed ways to go in and fix them when they broke.

It was pitch dark inside, save for a distant well of soft light ahead, and once she’d shut the hatch, the noise of the engine room dropped to a dull thrum again. After nearly banging her head on a low-hanging pipe, she dropped into a crouch and inched forward along an even narrower platform. Thin railings denominated its sides, and reaching her hands beyond them, Sully felt only empty space.

Something moved in the darkness beneath her, once, quietly. Then the stale, close air filled with a familiar slithering sound, and Sully flicked on her lighter to see, several feet below the catwalk on which she knelt, the entire floor of the chamber alive with writhing black tendrils. They seemed to be pouring forward into the central well at the heart of the chamber.

Sully heard a voice, low and musical, faintly over the sound of the rustling tendrils, and then a panicked shout. It sounded like Nora.

Sully scrambled forward to the edge of the well, where the catwalk swelled into a ring surrounding the opening. Peering down through the marionette tangle of undulating tendrils, she saw a figure, almost human, suspended in its midst.
“… could have killed you in your sleep, I suppose,” the low, horrible, weathered voice was saying, each word drifting up to Sully like a puff from a hookah. “But I made myself wait. I wanted to see the fear in your eyes. I wanted you to know.”

Sully clenched both fists around the railing, felt her stomach double-knot itself, and took a deep breath.

The voice at the bottom of the pit said something else, quick and low, but Sully didn’t hear it. She had swung herself beneath the railing, off the edge of the catwalk, into the vortex of cables below.

She hit one side of the mass of cables and slid, picking up speed, the fabric of her cloak and trousers zipping and humming against the wriggling tendrils. Down and down she funneled, feet braced to land hard on the figure that dangled at the very heart of the obscene nest—

The wall of tendrils against which she slid gave way, and with a yelp she tumbled out into empty space. Black lines arced and darted at the corners of her vision, and she stopped with a sudden jerk, her arms and legs wrenching painfully, to dangle several feet above the metal-plated floor.

With a rough, nauseating motion, the cables snaring her limbs wrenched her up and around and face to face with the figure at the center of the tendrils — a woman, Sully saw, uncountably old, her face criscrossed with a fierce topography of scars. Beyond her, pressed against the wall, Nora struggled to pry loose the cables squeezing around her throat.

“I was not to be disturbed!” the old woman roared in a sandstorm voice, eyes blazing with hate. “I made that specifically—” Then she stopped; her eyes narrowed, her mouth pursed. Sully risked a glance at Nora and saw, to some relief, that the cables seemed to have loosened around her neck.

“Oh,” she said, as a tiger might say to a lamb. “You’re not one of mine, are you? That’s right… I haven’t had…” Her eyes clouded for a moment, and then snapped back to knife-edge keenness. “Another False Sister, are you? Another deceiver?”

“And you must be the captain,” Sully said, trying to keep the shaking out of her voice. She remembered what her grandfather’s books had taught her, all those long summers ago: A magician must be smooth and practiced in his patter, must weave a comforting hammock of words in which the audience may rest…

“I’m nobody,” Sully told her. “Just one of the many, many enemies you must have bested in your life. And I accept that. There’s clearly no hope left for me.”

“Sensible,” the old woman sniffed, as if slightly pleased.

Funny thing about patter. It could sound a lot like contract negotiations, if you listened to it right.

“And seeing how we’re all women here, the three of us,” Sully continued, “I wondered if, if your triumph, you might grant me one small boon before you do me in. A last cigarette.”

“Tobacco,” the woman exhaled, slowly, longingly. “I can’t even remember how long it’s been.” Sully nodded to herself. A fellow addict always knows.

“It’s just in my belt here, with my lighter,” Sully said, jerking her hands against the restraining tendrils. “If I could…?” She managed to meet Nora’s baffled, somewhat indignant eyes, and tried to project as much reassurance back as she could.

The old woman’s eyes narrowed again for a moment. “Young lady, I’ll have no trickery from you. Unless you prefer to be picked apart very deliberately, over several hours’ time.” The pincers on the end of each tendril opened and shut, meaningfully, and Sully’s stomach churned again. She tried to count minutes and seconds in her head, thinking back.

The cables slackened enough for Sully to reach slowly to the sash at her waist, and to draw from it her lighter and the box of cigarettes. She flicked the lighter open and shut, stalling for as much time as she could, and then opened the box of cigarettes and peered inside.

“Huh,” she said, and turned to show it to the old woman. “Empty.” Sully took some small satisfaction in the shadow of disappointment that flitted across her scar-scorned face. “That’s right, that’s right,” Sully continued. “I used them all up. Earlier. Funny thing about being a magician. You can turn women into tigers, playing cards into doves…”

She paused, and flicked the lighter open for effect, and watched the flame dance reflected in the old woman’s black, confused eyes.

“Or old dynamite and cigarettes into time bombs,” Sully said.

The entire ship shook and boomed in terrible sequence, the blasts as much felt as heard. The old woman screamed, long and horrid, her face contorted in real pain.

“Abracadabra, bitch,” Sully grinned, and just beyond the steel walls, the engine room of the Faithless burned.