Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Final Promise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behold the Misery Engine!

Centuries upon centuries ago, as humans reckon time, fire fell from the sky. And everything changed.

The immense, flaming ball of interplanetary debris punched though this flimsy atmosphere, the sound of its own descent trailing somewhere far behind it, and smashed a hole in what is now the Yucatan peninsula.

The Earth burned. Towering walls of soil and dust splashed upon impact into the highest tiers of the stratosphere, turning away the sun, as if shamed by the planet’s disfigurement. And in the night and the cold that followed, the reptile kings of the planet’s food chain shivered and wasted into fascinating clusters of bone. (There were, of course, a few fortunate exceptions.)

In the center of the crater, untouched amid the shimmers of searing air and toxic vapor, a spiky cluster of golden crystal glowed. Probed. Shifted its dazzling snowflake structure, with a sound like the scattering of broken glass. It sank new spars of itself deep into the traumatized, blackened ground, and pulled itself beneath the soil.

In the millennia that followed, it quietly spread.

Had enough of Kroatoan civilization survived to pass on its creation myth, it would have gone something like this: In the beginning, there was darkness, and humans were as animals. We groped across the surface of this world, bounded by the narrow perimeters of our own fears, concerned only with food and survival.

One of these sad, blunted creatures, scavenging in the jungles of what is now Mexico, was swallowed by the great mouth of the Earth. He fell a far distance, terrified, lost in darkness. And as he screamed and cowered there, so far from the world he knew, a song curled its way up through the winding maze of channels and slipped gently into his mind.

The man-creature felt a new world of sensation slowly begin to unfurl itself inside the head he scarcely acknowledged has his own — colors, scents, visions, ideas no human being had ever dreamed before, all opening like a flower in spring. But only so far. And once he’d tasted even the tiniest melody of this, the man-creature wanted more.

He followed the song, blind eyes and stumbling feet guided by the bright music unfurling itself in his head. And after a time, heading down, down, ever down, his eyes began to perceive the faint borders of things, outlined in radiant gold. The light intensifed, the song growing louder in his head. The man-creature was now consumed, overwhelmed, nearly drowned in a flood of thoughts that had nothing to do with meat or predators or procreation, thoughts that might no longer have even been his own.

At last, he reached the Cathedral Cavern, and collapsed, a whole chorus bursting in his brain.

The cave was filled with vast and slanting spires of coruscating golden crystals, big as ten men, or bigger. And all of them sang to him, ten million voices but the same song.

It is possible that the creature that got to its feet, after a time, was no longer entirely the same one who had first stumbled into the cave. He picked up a loose clump of the singing golden crystals that seemed to be waiting for him on the jagged, prickly floor of the cavern. And then he turned with sure, ceaseless steps, and carried it all the way back to the surface. To spread the crystals’ light, its seductive song of expanding intellect, to others. To colonize.

The Empire of Kroatoan was born.

In time, it grew to mirror the entire subterranean reach of the crystal network, stretching from outposts in the near-polar southern tip of South America to the vast northern capital city on the site of present-day Chicago. Led by crystal compasses, a fleet of Kroatoan even sailed in boats that skimmed just above the waves to a tiny island off the Western coast of South America. It was a chunk of land long broken away in some ancient tectonic shift, nestled at its secret heart with golden light and song. Wherever the crystals called, the Kroatoan spread.

Rebuilt, accelerated by the shimmering voice of the crystals, the people who would become the Kroatoan elite took up their crude tools and carved out advancements centuries beyond their time. They began with weapons — beams of searing, crystal-focused heat, to ensure all the food they could possibly need. Then the beams were turned to conquest, and neighboring tribes became armies of cowering slaves. Those slaves, in turn, hauled and chiseled and mortared the rock that built great spreading cities. And in those cities, newer and more wonderful discoveries blossomed. The crystals could be harnessed for light, for heat, for some strange, invisible motive force that made craft move under their own power. They could be shaped to bring distant stars leaping forth to the human eye. The crystals made all things possible, it seemed.

Civilization came early to Kroatoan. But it came with a price. The crystals hungered.

Certain lesser civilizations, the ragged, diminished remnants that lingered on after the terrible end of Kroatoan, believed the heart to be the center of a person’s life force. And with sadder, cruder versions of the black stone knives first devised by the Kroatoan, atop stone pyramids built in a child’s imitation of half-remembered Kroatoan majesty, they would cut out these hearts and dedicate them, still beating, to their god the Sun.

The Kroatoan would have found no end of amusement in this. Oh, the heart was useful, and certainly quite pyrotechnic when removed. But any sensible society would have already figured out that the brain was the seat of all man’s thoughts and impulses.

And far more delicious, besides.

The tender, savory meat of the brain, the Kroatoan knew, radiated waves with each electrical pulse of thought. Faint, all but undetectible by crude human means. But the crystals read these waves with ease, and were nourished by certain spectra of them. They glowed brighter, grew faster, sang louder and with greater exultation, when in the presence of human despair.

The Kroatoan were happy to oblige them.

Even at its utmost height, there were scarcely more than a quarter of a million full citizens in the whole of the Empire. The rest of its population, outnumbering their captors five to one, were slaves, swallowed by the spreading arms of the Empire to sacrifice their muscle and sweat and blood and bone to its greater glory. And when they could no longer haul stone, or prepare food, or bear shipments of goods and messages — or, sometimes, when their cruel masters simply felt like it — they were put to savage, horrific ends. And in their screams and blood and suffering, the crystals rejoiced.

The sacrifice-scientists of Kroatoan began to note curious side effects to the crystals’ grisly joy. Their light intensified. The flow of energy they produced increased, dramatically. Some varieties of crystal, the learned citizens found, could even absorb this excess energy, store it, harness it.

By this time, some of the more radical elements of the Kroatoan hierarchy had begun to speculate that other worlds beyond their own might yet exist; not only beyond the thin envelope of gases that shrouded their planet, but in realms invisible even the mightiest telescopes. The whole of their available landmass was rapidly falling under their dominion, and only their most daring thinkers had the vaguest idea that the endless seas stretching away to either side of their empire might contain other lands. The elders of Kroatoan, driven by the echo of crystalsong in the far depths of their brains, craved more territory to conquer.

Stone was quarried, cut, hauled, stacked, carved. The bones of the thousands who died in the effort were boiled, ground, made into mortar to seal together and consecrate the effort. The construction of the Great Arena a century before, though far grander in scale, paled in complexity to the new circular structure that rose behind it in the depths of the Winter City. The Misery Engine.

On the day of its consecration, the echoes of the doomed and dying so filled the cavernous reaches of the Winter City that the proctors carrying out the executions had to stuff their ears with cotton, or go deaf.

The bodies jammed the sluice canals that carried waste away to the Winter City’s great undergound swamp. The specially bred leechvines, usually lethargic to the point of immobility, swarmed over this torrent of nourishment with a speed and avidity never before recorded by Kroatoan naturalists. At least one proctor who fell into this writhing mass of hungry green and dead flesh was pulled out pale and drained and lifeless, and promptly thrown back in.

And when the prison pens of the Winter City were emptied, and the canals filled — sometimes to the height of a low house, or greater — the cream of Kroatoan society descended in their rattling, skeletal finery to encircle the Misery Engine. As the high sacrifice-scientists made ready the altar-controls, a phalanx of the empire’s finest Crystal Guards massed at the base of the rising stone rings, ready to march beyond the borders of their existence to campaigns unknown.

With an exultant cry, the sacrifice-scientists entered the seven key symbols on the altar-controls. The crystal spires ringing the engine erupted with blinding radiance, as the accumulated misery of thousands of lost lives flooded into them all at once. In a slow, millstone grind of rock upon rock, the concentric rings of the Misery Engine began to turn. Energy flowed up from the depths of it, to writhe and shimmer like a pool at its center.

The Empire of Kroatoan’s finest minds watched, behind inch-thick black quartz goggles, as reality itself crackled and yielded and yawned wide before them.

They were unafraid.

They were unprepared.

“They were delicious,” Operator Grin added, and sucked a dangling strand of drool back into the corner of one mouth.

Operator Vore turned slowly, the round lenses of his spectacles focusing his glare of annoyance to laser intensity. His strangely dressed comrade just stared into space, strange tongue swishing inside an unfamiliar mouth, trying to get the last bits of Maximillian out of his teeth.

“Can I finish?” Vore asked, in a way that wasn’t even remotely a question. “I’sdd like to finish now.” He swiveled his head in a too-neat motion back to Trip and Rafe, looking up from the bottom of the stone staircase, and rolled his eyes theatrically. As if to say, I can’t take this mismatched cannibal horror from another dimension anywhere.

“We sucked their civilization dry, down to the very marrow of its bones,” Vore continued briskly, as one might lecture on geology. “Oh, you should have heard the colony-mind squeal as we pulled it from its crystal husks and sucked it down like — like —” He snapped his fingers, or tried to, in imitation of something he might have once seen a real person do, in a way that showed only a rudimentary understanding of the act and its significance. “Oh, what are their names, the animals, they have shells, you like to crack them open and eat them—”

“Turtles?” volunteered Grin hopefully, gesturing with Maximillian’s needle, its tip still gummy with his saliva.

With an effort, Vore ignored him, and moved on. “We were younger then, you must understand. Time works differently where we’re from. We needed sustenance to grow. The Empire wasn’t much, but it sufficed.”

“You’re the Eaters of Kroatoan,” Trip said quietly, trying to keep the quaver out of his voice. Even in the staid, scientific language of his grandfather’s journals, the words had always carried an aura of holocaust, and a dark tinge of fear.

“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” Rafe hissed sidelong, through clenched teeth. “What with their talk of eating, and Kroatoan, and, you know, eating Kroatoan.” Sarcasm was a favorite resort of his in nearly every stressful situation. And in this case, as all his senses screamed at him about the sheer wrongness of the two figures on the raised altar, their strange commingled sent of burnt plastic and rotting flesh, the unnatural precision of their movements, it was all he had left save paralyzing, instinctual terror.

To Trip and Rafe’s mutual and considerable surprise, both Vore and Grin snorted with unconcealed amusement.

“Whoo,” Vore breathed, dabbing at his mouth with a deeply stained handkerchief plucked from one pocket of his overcoat. “I’m sorry, there’s — I’m dealing with an unfamiliar sensation here, like something within me wants to shake itself. Laughter. Yes. That’s it.”

“Good,” Grin added, looking relieved. He glanced down at his sagging stomach, sprawling out from beneath the valiant, insufficient hem of his T-shirt. “For a moment I thought he was trying to get back out.”

“It’s just,” Vore began, and then snickered again, and clamped the handkerchief to his mouth as if trying to hold it in. “Oh. My. There it was again. You referred to us as ‘Eaters.’ Plural.”

“There are two of you,” Trip noted, reluctantly. The destroyers of civilization were apparently having grammar trouble. “You kind of have to be plural.”

“In your meatsacks—” Grin began, and Vore stepped forward to cut him off.

“Bodies,” Vore corrected. Grin sulked.

“In your bodies,” Vore continued, “There are… how do I put this in sufficiently simple terms… a great many tiny rooms, yes? Each its own organism, of sorts, all cooperating?”

“Cells?” Rafe offered, testing the limits of everything he remembered from any biology class he’d ever taken.

“Yes! Ha. Little prisons,” Vore nodded, smiling perhaps a bit wider than the human mouth was ever designed to smile. “There is but one Eater of Kroatoan, as you so unimaginatively refer to us. And we Operators… we are its individual cells.”

“Can’t fit the whole thing through at once,” Grin chimed in. He spread his arms wide, as if pantomiming to very stupid children. “Greeeeeeat big us.” He compressed the space between his hands to mere millimeters. “Liiiiiiittle tiny holes.”

“Which is why we need you,” Vore added. “To make the holes bigger.”

Trip and Rafe looked at each other, profound bafflement quickly overtaking fear.

“I’m sorry,” Rafe ventured, shaking his head confusedly. “Did you just — did you just ask us to destroy the entire world?”

“Not the entire world,” Vore hastily added, in soothing lawyer’s tones. “We’d leave you both. I mean, I assume you’re a breeding pair, right? And one — no, no, I’ll be generous — two other living species. Go ahead, pick them.”

“Why do you even need us?” Trip asked. “You’ve got human bodies — at least, I’m assuming they’re human. The controls are right there. What’s stopping you?”

Vore and Grin grew very quiet, and something surprisingly like unease flashed across both of their faces.

“There are… certain rules to the arrangement,” Vore said at last, crushing the sodden folds of his hankerchief in a nervous, compulsive movement of his hand. “Governing bodies whose dictates must, must, must be followed.”

“It screams and it screams and we can still hear it,” Grin said quietly, eyes on his shoes. “Even after we’ve forgotten what it did.”

“It is quite forbidden,” Vore said, more forcefully than he probably intended to, “to take by force. Yes. That is the Fifty-Sixth Law. To breach the branes from our side. But! The Laws say nothing of concealment, cajolement. And if some careless strain of particularly fortunate monkey, poking at things it can’t possibly understand, should open a hole for us to get through, well, we can hardly be faulted for doing what comes naturally.”

“Num num num num,” Grin added, as if this were an eminently logical summation.

There followed a long silence, during which Trip and Rafe glanced first at each other, then at the Operators on the altar — their eyes wide and expectant, their smiles the phony, frozen variety one uses to persuade children — then back at each other.

“No thanks,” Trip told the Operators, then turned with Rafe to head back down the staircase.

Vore screeched, a keening, jagged sound that sliced through the two men’s brains and froze them in their tracks.

“Listen, listen, listen you paramecium!” the Operator snarled, face turning slightly more purple than the bounds of human anatomy would seem to permit. There was another sound, another voice, underlying his last three words, a bone-rattling growl that seemed to surround him like a looming shadow. “The holes through which we passed are growing. Your sad little thread of time is fraying itself to nothingness. We will break through, and our hunger will not spare you. The time of our multiplication is near, and we need your sustenance.”

“We’re going to be a mommy-daddy,” Grin gurgled, mildly.

“That’s great,” Trip shrugged. “Still. No.”

“Do not shun our mercy,” Vore spat, flecks of gelatinous saliva dancing forth from his lips to sizzle and smoke against the stone at his feet. “There are six billion of you swarming across the surface of this rock. You were just the most convenient.”

Trip stopped, shoulders square, and when he glanced back over his shoulder at the Operators, his eyes were hard and determined.

“I really don’t think so,” Trip said. “Go ahead. Name someone else who could have gotten past the booby traps. Survived the dinosaurs. Even known about this city in the first place. You need us. You always have.”

“It must be so terribly galling,” Rafe added. “All your great big plans dependent on a few miserable specks like us. Well, this paramecium has one word for you: Starve.”

The color slowly drained from Operator Vore’s face. His mouth compressed into a thin, bloodless line. Then, abruptly, he began to smile.

“Perhaps,” he said, a larger, more terrible shape once again rising behind his words. “But not today.” And his smile grew wider, and wider still.

Trip raised the Multipurpose Rifle, focused the sonic beam to maximum concentration, and fired at the altar.

A punch of pure rippling force shuddered through the air, splashing against the round, undulating figure of Operator Grin, as he flung himself in the path of the shot. The strange little shape of a man smashed against the stone and flopped, seemingly boneless, to the floor of the platform.

Vore paused, purple light already seething and spilling out from his grotesquely distended mouth, as Grin’s body lolled and flailed before the stone altar. Slowly, with a hideous scraping of gristle and shattered bone, the Operator got to something resembling his feet.

“Look at this,” Grin whined, his head dangling unnaturally from his neck, watching his elbow bend in ways the body was not designed for. “I think you broke it.”

Trip raised his rifle for another shot, and with a screech, sizzling tendrils of purple light burst forth from Vore’s mouth. Rafe tackled Trip to the stone floor of the central pit as Vore’s appendages raked and sizzled across the stone mouth of the stairway just behind them, collapsing the rock overhead in a growling, gravelly tumult.

A cloud of dust rolled forth from the ruined, chaotic pile of ancient stone. They were trapped in the Misery Engine with the Operators.

“On the whole,” Rafe shouted to Trip, gritting his teeth against the deafening shriek of Vore’s unnatural rage, “I rather think we shouldn’t have taunted them!”

Grin joined in now, horror in harmony, the whole of the Operators’ fleshy disguises lit from within by brain-searing purple light. The human shapes they wore began to bulge and distend as things unimaginable writhed furiously just underneath.

The sound, the light, knifed straight through Trip’s head as he struggled to rise. He faltered, muscles seizing, hands trembling, trying to raise the Rifle for one more shot. He could feel strange, horrible tentacles of thought winding their way into his mind, seizing around the amygdala, the lizard-brain center of pure animal fear.

Cower, ape, came the Operators’ words inside his skull. Fear makes you more delicious.

The Operators’ song of madness intensified, blotting out Trip’s vision, consuming his hearing, swarming over his thoughts. He was alone, helpless, cowering in the dark. He was prey.
Trip, halfway to standing, sank back to his knees. The Rifle clattered from his helpless hands. He pitched forward to the cold, loveless stone, eyes screwed tight, hands over his ears, in agony.

The steaming bright tentacles slithering forth from Vore’s mouth traced acid trails down the zigzag of the stone steps, across the empty floor, toward Trip. One began to curl keening around his outstretched arm…

Stone struck on stone, sparks flashing, and Vore howled and jerked the tentacle back. Most of it obeyed. The rest withered and died where it lay, a black stone knife marking the point of its severance.

Blood vessels bursting in the delicate whites of his eyes, his whole body shaking with the effort, Rafe Windham had stretched an arm out from the floor where he lay and cut Trip free. He turned now, hair falling in his face, and fixed burning, savage eyes on the tentacled horrors at the top of the stairs.

Bracing both hands against the stone-tiled ground, Rafe began to rise.

The Operators turned the full force of their mind-melting scream on him, the sound enough to make every veneer of civilization peel off from a human consciousness and blow away like tin siding in a hurricane. It might turn any man to a mindless animal.

Unless that man could accept, even embrace, his own savage nature.

Rafe shuddered, reeled, as the Operators’ assault hit him full force. Then he pushed back against it with the whole of his body and will. From low in his throat, a growl of combat rose, and he planted one foot upon the earth. Then the other. He held both knives tightly at his sides. And he stood straight.

In his mind there was no terrible color to burn the eyes, no shrieking that seemed to come from within one’s bones. There was only the cool velvet night of the jungle, and the stinking, primal breath of something large and hungry behind the dark, spurring him forward, refusing to let him fall.

Rafe put one foot on the stone staircase.

The Operators’ tendrils lunged for him, to snap and break and squeeze him down their gaping gullets. His blades flashed, moving as if of their own volition, and jellied hunks of dead alien meat flopped wriggling against the stone and began to corrode. Vore and Grin squealed anew in pain and strange, sudden fear.

In the dark underbrush of Rafe’s mind, the face of the painted warrior, the one who’d given him his knives, slid forth from the night into moonlight. “Civilized and savage,” he mouthed from the dark, silent lips forming the words. “A foot in both worlds.”

Rafe climbed the stairs, one excruciating step at a time.

The Operators’ mutilated tentacles reached down into the platform upon which they stood, wrenching forth slabs of stone and hurling them whistling down at Rafe’s head. He dodged, ducked, never wavered, and his bloodshot eyes never left the Operators.

Vore and Grin puppet-walked backward now, half-emptied bodies wobbling on jellied legs, tendrils uluating and undulating in distress, as Rafe reached the top of the stairs and faced them across the altar.

“Something about how they’ve been blessed,” the painted warrior said, and distantly Rafe felt the blades cool and certain in his hands.

Cornered, filled with unfamiliar surges of the terror they’d so often created in others, Vore and Grin charged forward, shrieking. Their rubbery deflated arms and stubby, half-healing tentacles plunged toward Rafe.

The vast beast over his shoulder hissed in breath and roared, a sound to shake the trees down to their roots. And Rafe roared too, plunging each of his knives deeply up and into the Operators’ chests. They doubled over, sagged against him, and for all their weight he did not tremble. He just stood there, breathing in short, sharp bursts, as their song died away and the purple arms by which they fed shriveled back into their sagging mouths.

Vore’s face contorted in pain and confusion, lips working, trying to sound out the explanation of his own end. At last, he simply said: “Ow.”

Grin looked at him thoughtfully, and nodded. “I wholeheartedly concur,” he said.

And they died, like salted slugs, retreating into vile, fast-decaying bags of skin and hair, and gouts of purplish fire. Maximillian’s Needle slipped from the sagging remains of Grin’s hand and pinged and rattled down the stone staircase.

Rafe shook both arms, sloughing off the Operators’ remains. They curled and bubbled into nothingness on the altar, leaving stained patches against the stone. In the jungle of his mind, the moon went out, and then the stars, one by one. The sounds moving in the trees padded away, until it was only him, and the hot breath of the beast behind him.

Rest, it rumbled, and extinguished like a match.

Rafe sagged for a moment against the altar, knees deserting him, and slowly slid down the face of it, and was mostly still.

Consciousness crawled back over Trip Morrow like a fleet of ants. He opened his eyes to a vast kingdom of gray, slanting away to some far, blurry distance. Then he felt rough rock against his cheek, and straightened his glasses, and found himself once more in the vast and echoing well of the Misery Engine.

Something cool and metallic brushed against his fingers, and he grasped it, and sat up slowly. It was not, as he expected, the Multipurpose Rifle — it lay a foot or two distant from where his outstretched arm had fallen — but a long, slender taper of pointed gray metal, stained somewhat at the tip. Maximillian’s Needle.

Trip slid it thoughtfully into his belt, shook the last, horrible echoes of the Operators’ screams from the inside of his skull, and got his bearings. The spires of crystal ringing the high carved rock walls around him still cast shafts of light into the subterranean gloom above, and the steps, now pockmarked with gaps of missing block, still led up to the strange stone altar that presided over the rising rings at the center of the pit. He saw no Vore, no Grin — just the edge of a human-like shape lying at the base of the altar, just beyond the rise of the stairs.

Standing up so quickly made him dizzy, especially with the weight of the pack on his back. Racing stumbling up the treacherous stairs didn’t help. Halfway up, something crunched and bent beneath the sole of his shoe; Vore’s gold-rimmed spectacles.

When Trip made it to the top of the altar, it took all his concentration not to stumble full out next to Rafe’s prone form. Instead, he kneeled down and checked for a pulse in Rafe’s neck.

He felt nothing.

Then his panic receded, and he remembered where the carotid artery actually was, and checked there. A jungle drum of circulation thumped in steady cadence, sounding an all-clear, and for the first time, Trip noticed the slow, steady rise and fall of Rafe’s respiration. When he rolled his companion over, he saw the flicker of swift, furtive motion beneath Rafe’s eyelids. Dreaming.

Trip sat down at the top of the steps and caught his breath, unshouldering the straps of his backpack. He shucked off his jacket and draped it over Rafe, shivering slightly as the damp chill of the cavern seeped in through his shirtsleeves. Then he looked down at the shattered, blocked mouth of the staircase that had brought him and Rafe into the Misery Engine, and the smooth, high walls of stone around the remainder of its periphery, and began to assess their options.

Trip dug into his pack, coming up with the nearly empty cigar box and his grandfather’s journal. The latter was all but covered now with strange, colorful stamps from exotic lands, and paging through it quickly, Trip saw nothing but sober, thoughtful recountings of battles with sky pirates and sea monsters and the animate statues of ancient tombs. He felt a pang of sadness to see the words of the man he’d known, the accounts of fishing trips and small, patient breakthroughs in the lab, completely overwritten by a tide of unfamiliar history. For the first time, he truly felt his grandfather’s absence, like the ache of a phantom limb.
As he thumbed through the yellowed pages of the journal, one entry toward the end caught his eye. It was a diagram, sketched in his grandfather’s sure, steady hand, of the altar against which he sat.

Malvolio Sinn discovered the Winter City in September 1930, while tunneling beneath Chicago in an attempt to breach the vaults of Barclays Bank. His criminal mind, hard and sharp as diamond, quickly appreciated the possibilities provided by the focused energies of the Misery Engine. Centuries of murder, heartbreak, catastrophic fire and corruption above had all seeped down to restore power to its matrix of now-mindless, still-hungry crystals. Sinn found a way to transfer that energy back into waves of pure human misery, and broadcast them to the surface.

It started when a pair of housewives, out for their afternoon shopping at the butcher’s, nearly beat one another to death over the last cut of pork loin. By nightfall, the police and fire departments were approaching their breaking point, and entire neighborhoods hefted bats and clubs and chains to make war with their bitter enemies living three streets away.

All this hatred, anger, and pure despair fed back into the humming crystals far beneath the earth, creating an endless loop of escalating disaster. And in the ceaseless night of the Winter City, Malvolio Sinn exulted to the distant roars of albino beasts, and dreamed of marching up to take dominion over a city that had levelled itself for conquest.

Tom Morrow and his team, fighting off their own private demons, plotted the epicenter of the escalating violence and, based on seismic readings Lasso had charted, launched an expedition into the hidden underworld. In single combat at the heart of the Misery Engine, a weary, half-murder-mad Tom had defeated Sinn and shut down the Engine, restoring Chicago to its usual semblance of peace.

Afterward, Tom and his friends had spent a week down in the darkness, racing to catalog all the wonders of the Winter City, before the mayor’s deadline to seal Sinn’s original tunnel with concrete and close off the wondrous, perilous subterreanean realm forever.

Now, standing at the edge of the altar, Trip saw its workings carefully outlined in the diagram in the journal before him. He examined the grid of symbol-labeled stone squares on the altar’s face, and the crystal levers beside them. Carefully, one eye on the instructions in his grandfather’s journal, Trip withdrew the heavy stone key whose turning activated the Engine; in a hollow channel within it, something rattled. He slid a series of smooth, cylindrical black rocks into his palm, and felt each exert its own invisible magnetic pull on the metal band of his wristwatch.

Trip read on, in the chill silence and the steady soft light of the crystals, paging past Tom Morrow’s entries on the Winter City, reading of adventures wilder still. He came to the very last entry in the volume, one of those specifically addressed to him, and carefully studied the pasted-in scraps of crumpled schematics from the lab of Arlos Satel.

His grandfather had written him a postscript, in large, hasty letters; three words at the bottom of the last page, underlined emphatically. Trip read them with puzzlement, and considerable interest.

Then he paged back to the altar diagram, making sure he’d really seen what he thought he had. He pushed his glasses further up his nose, and grinned.

Replacing the stone key in the console, he gripped the first and third of the three crystal levers, and slid them slowly upward.

Absolutely nothing happened. For all of five seconds, anyway.

Then the platform hummed beneath his feet, and the brightness of the crystals in the surrounding walls intensified. With a low, steady rumble, the entire complex began to rise into the air, rotating upward on a carved column of spiraling stone descending far into the earth below. Trip looked upward, and saw the rock ceiling of the Winter City approaching with troubling speed. The crystals flared, blinding bright, filling Trip’s vision with dancing blotches of ultraviolet color. Beams of energy lanced upward, converging into a single point; a drill of pure, focused light.

The rock above began to hiss and evaporate as the light splashed against it. A tunnel, woven by the spinning beams, dissolved itself into the bedrock. The platform spun steadily upward and upward.

Trip knelt beside the altar, trying to shield himself and the still-unconscious Rafe, as chunks of rock and earth rained down from the ceiling, and the rumbling of the platform intensified to nearly deafening levels. The beams of energy made quick work of the stony ceiling; utility pipes began to appear through the earth above, and sizzled away, severed, in a flash of light. Some small, wonder-impervious part of Trip’s mind hoped he wouldn’t eventually be billed for that.

Veins of sunlight began to break through the soil above, and the beams flickered and weakened at last. The light of day blazed in from above, full and dazzling, as the platform slowed and shuddered to a stop, the central pit and the engine itself continuing to rise until they cleared their surrounding walls.

Trip sat at the apex of the altar, shirtsleeves ruffled by a fresh, sweet breeze of open air, listening to the distant sounds of traffic. He looked up, and saw a familiar green-and-white scoreboard, flanked on either side by rows of bleachers, with rooftops just beyond. In a moment, he knew his precise address: 1060 West Addison.

The Misery Engine sat directly beneath Wrigley Field, a perfect fit within the borders its spreading grass-and-dirt diamond. A great many new hypotheses regarding win-loss records and the fortunes of sporting teams arose unbidden in Trip’s mind.

Beside him, Rafe stirred, mumbled something about a pair of argyles, and sank back into sleep.

Trip picked his way carefully down the steps, leaving his pack and journal next to Rafe on the altar platform, and gingerly hefted the Multipurpose Rifle from where it had fallen on the stone below. He stared up into the rows upon rows of bleachers, and wondered where the groundskeepers and security guards were, and how he would ever begin to explain this.

Applause reached his ears, a steady clap from a single pair of hands. He circled the rising stone perimeter of the engine to the home team dugout. A tall, reedy man in a white suit and a broad Panama hat strode out from its shadows onto the slim border of grass remaining on the field, clapping one last time before letting his hands fall casually to his sides. In her black coat and broad-brimmed hat, Valencia Stitch swept out just behind him, quiet, deferent. Trip couldn’t quite read the expression on her face.

The man in the Panama hat lifted his head, revealing a lean and handsome face of uncertain age. He wore thick, old-fashioned glasses, one lens entirely opaque, and a broad, unforced, oddly comforting smile. A silver needle gleamed from the lapel of his suit.

He reached into the pocket of his suit jacket, pulled forth a round whitish object, and hucked it easily underhand to Trip, who nearly fumbled it. It was a baseball, scuffed and yellowing, its stitches beginning to fray.

“I always liked the game,” the man in the Panama hat said, in a calm, easy Midwestern voice. He stuck out a slim, calloused hand for Trip to shake as he crossed from the grass to the stone platform of the Misery Engine.

“Pleased to meet you, son,” the man in the Panama hat said. “I’m Jefferson Edison Franklin. Most folks call me Jef.”

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Aerial Inferno (Part 2)

At the last possible moment, they leapt into the side passageway, slamming hard against the deck, as the gorilla chieftain opened fire with the M-80 machine gun clutched expertly in his massive, calloused paws. A cloud of firefly sparks erupted in the corridor where Nora and Sully had once stood, high-caliber bullets spitting and chewing and denting the walls and floor.

“Please tell me your grandmother said something about this!” Sully demanded, as she and Nora huddled against the deck. A dogfight’s worth of ricochets spanged and pinged above them.

“She said something about gorillas as pilots,” Nora shouted back, “but I sure as hell didn’t hear anything about them knowin’ how to shoot!”

The gunfire died away, replaced by the scramble of triumphant, predatory hands and feet against the metal of the corridor. The apes were coming. Sully and Nora rose and ran, ducking trembling pipes hissing treacherous needles of steam from every joint.

The lead ape, his back a broad stripe of silver, had by far the largest weapon — some things, evolution just sorts out for itself — but not the only one. And as the mass of apes lumbered into the corridor in hot pursuit of Nora and Sully, the jostling rear echelon of females and young males pointed submachine guns and pistols from thick, hairy paws, and pulled a multitude of triggers.

Sparks and steam exploded behind the women, bullets rupturing pipes and sizzling wildly into the walls and floors. The thick, white, searing cloud held the apes back for a moment, and Sully slid into cover behind a thick bulkhead, Nora doing likewise opposite her, and drew a bead on the roaring, hairy shapes flailing about in the steam.

Her hand shook. She could see the apes right there, teeth bared, waving their instruments of death…

“God damn it!” Sully roared, furious with herself, and yanked her trembling hand away.

“What?” Nora asked her, baffled.

“I watch a lot of nature specials, OK?” Sully spat. “And… and those World Wildlife Fund mailers! I can’t do it!”

“Hate to break it to you,” Nora replied darkly, as the first of the apes stumbled blindly out of the steam, pawing at its eyes. “But up here? I’m pretty sure we’re the endangered species.”

She took careful aim, and the revolver barked in her hands; blood flew out the back of the ape’s meaty shoulder, and it spun around shrieking and fell back to the deck.

Hoots of rage reverberated in the narrow passageway. Nora shrank back in terror as the apes’ guns responded, spattering the bulkhead that sheltered her with a punishing barrage of hot lead.

“Them or us, Sully!” she shouted, desperate, as Sully willed her shaking hands to still themselves. “And I really, really want it to be them!”

Sully did not so much hear her great-grandfather’s voice in that instant as feel it — the merciless scrape of it, passing through her bones, stiffening her spine. She thought of those two empty shoes, and the pair of earrings, and the open window. And how no one, whatever their past deeds, deserved so lonely and desolate a fate.

Her eyes narrowed. Sully Wells stepped full into the corridor with both guns raised, her midnight garments billowing in the steam like some terrible banner, and spat fire from each fist.

The apes fell back anew as Sully’s rounds cut into them, heavy primate bodies falling lifeless to the deck. Sully stood there fearless, exposed, aiming and firing and aiming and firing until her pistols clicked empty.

“Easy, easy!” Nora shouted, wrestling Sully back into cover. “I didn’t say forget about the nature specials altogether!”

“What?” Sully asked at last, shaking her head. “I didn’t — I’m sorry…”

“Are you kidding?” Nora asked, suddenly a little afraid of the strange, confused look in Sully’s eyes. As if she’d just awakened from some glorious, terrible dream. “You kicked their hairy asses! But they’re gonna be back, and I really don’t want to wait.”

Reloading on the run, they emerged from the access passage to the port-side main corridor. Behind them, Nora could already hear grunting and scrabbling as the pursuing gorilla forces regrouped.

“Which way?” Sully asked, jamming home a fresh magazine in one of her pistols.

“Just ahead!” Nora said, heading off to her right. “Can’t be too much—”

A thousand screeching, scraping tongues of metal sang, discordant. The gondola shuddered in its steel skin, as the corridor ahead tore itself open in a storm of metal and noise. Bright and fearsome, the sky came spilling in.

In happier, bloodier days, Wicked West still had a crew to amuse, and doomed male prisoners with which to amuse them. Those relatively fortunate souls not allotted to sharpen the skills of the elite Five Knives Brigade of Truth Extraction, or dragged screaming away to Rena Grimm’s lab as raw materials, would be marched at gunpoint into the engine room, to the cheers of the crew.

The Faithless drew propulsion from two vast turbines in the aft engine room, their diameters easily measured in elephants. The prisoners — grizzled cargo haulers, unwary fighter or bomber pilots, the occasional deluded explorer —
were stationed at a yellow line specially painted on the engine room floor, pointed toward the turbines’ intake valves, and made to walk forward.

Bets regularly arose over how far any given captive would travel under his own power, before the turbines’ ravenous suction did its terrible work. However far they got, the ultimate result never changed: long, ominious tracks of fine reddish mist, trailing in the Faithless’s wake.

When the initial dynamite bombs rocked the engine room, Turbine Two had been impaled by a flying pylon, consuming itself in fire. Turbine One had soldiered on bravely among the escalating flames and catastrophe until, at last, the inferno melted through the reinforced deck plates and found the fuel tanks beneath.

The blast lifted the entire turbine into the air with incredible force, the casing around its spinning, eleven-foot titanium blades shearing off like dried newspaper. The blades bored upward through the steel skin of the craft, shredded one of the remaining aft compartments of the Zeppelin’s immense balloon in a rush of escaping helium, and for a single, graceful microsecond, hung at the apex of their parabola directly above the dark expanse of the Faithless’s gasbag.

Then, succumbing to gravity, they fell. Before tumbling headlong into the lake far below, the smoking cluster of still-whirling blades plunged through a forward section of the balloon, shredded a gash through three decks and one wall of the gondola, and nearly tumbled Nora and Sully out to their deaths.

When her mind cleared, Sully found herself clinging to a ladder protruding from the craft’s inner wall with one hand, and clutching the wrist of Nora, precariously balanced at the jagged edge where deck gave way to empty air, with the other. The clouds outside had burned away in the late morning sun, and after growing accustomed to the dim reddish glow of the Faithless, the light seemed cruel and blinding.

Nora was a hazy shape against that light, and between the sudden blast of wind and the ringing only just subsiding in her ears, it took Sully precious, long seconds to realize that her companion was shouting something at her. A warning.

Down the corridor behind them, at the intersection from which they’d emerged, the gorilla gang had materialized, hooting and shrieking, brandishing their guns. They, too, seemed blinded by the sudden light — but recovering quickly.

Nora couldn’t even hear her own words as she shouted to Sully, stumbling forward to regain her balance against the howl of rushing air at her back. She raised her own pistol and fired into the mass of apes, but the shot went wild, over their heads. And it made the gorillas only angrier.

“What do we do?” Sully shouted, audible at last to Nora’s recovering ears. Nora glanced at the apes, then up the ladder to which Sully clung — to the portal in the ceiling through which it passed. She remembered the blueprints she’d glimpsed.

“We climb!” she hollered back.

Up the ladder they raced, hot lead spitting into the walls and rungs just beneath them. The fissure torn by the errant turbine greeted them again on the level above, and once more on the third tier; and all around them, on every level, the air rang with the panicked hoots of terrified, furious apes.

At the top of the ladder, Sully found a hatch, sealed tight by a rusted metal wheel. To one side, the gap torn in the Faithless’s side yawned, too far to jump; on the other, far down the corridor but steadily approaching, a wall of flames surged and boiled like a thing alive.

“I can’t — dammit —” Sully hissed, guns tucked in her sash, straining to turn the wheel and open the hatch above.

“Here, switch!” Nora called from just below her. “Just keep those apes off our asses!” She looked back, vertiginously, down the ladder, where heavy simian forms clambered in swift, syncopated pursuit.

Sully hopped sideways off the ladder, landing in a crouch on the deck, as Nora ascended. Peering down through the hole in the floor to the level below, Sully drew one pistol, all thoughts of endangered species and maudlin appeals banished. She could make out the face of the first ape up the ladder, pocked with tooth marks from long-ago fights; it bared its teeth at her.

“Hello,” Sully said quietly, and put a bullet between its eyes. It tumbled back down the ladder, taking a second ape with it. But more followed, and more still behind them…

At the top of the ladder, Nora clung to the rungs and stared up at the wheel, thinking hard. She flipped her pistol in her hand, grasping it by the barrel, and dug the butt into one of the four wedge-shaped opening in the wheel.

“Give me a place to stand,” Nora murmured, distantly recalling high school physics. She tugged against the barrel, using it like a wrench. And with a powdery shower of rust and a protesting groan, the wheel began to turn.

“I got it!” Nora whooped, to more gunfire just below her.

“Well, get it a little faster!” Sully shouted back, firing down the hole with one pistol while thumbing bullets into the a clip for the other. “I’m not sure I’ve got as many rounds as these shaggy bastards have reinforcements!”

Straining against years of neglect, Nora turned the wheel. The butt of the pistol scraped against the flaking paint of the valve; she spat and blinked as rust danced down into her eyes and mouth. Then the valve clicked, the lock unsealed, and with a determined shove from Nora, the hatch flopped open into clear air above.

“Come on!” Nora shouted. Below, Sully slammed a boot into the looming face of one last gorilla, leapt upward, and scrambled up the ladder behind her.

They emerged to the whistling wind, a black sky of reinforced tarp stretching away above their heads, and the smell of smoke and flame. A crisscrossing forest of thick, twining steel anchor cables sprouted at angles from fat rings sunken into the top of the armored main gondola, connecting it to the primary gasbag that held the Faithless aloft.

Nora slammed the hatch shut, and looked for some way to seal it from without; but it vanished into the hull nearly without a seam. The apes would follow, and there was no way to stop them.

“The other balloons,” Sully asked, scanning her eyes from side to side. The hull of the ship yawned wide on either side of them, and in the low, close shadow of the balloon above, their view of anything beyond was limited to washed-out white slices of sky. Far at the aft of the gondola, wild sheets of yellow-orange flame roiled away from the shattered remains of the engine room, lapping at what portions of the balloon hadn’t already succumbed to flying shrapnel. “If we can get to those catwalks…”

“Catwalk,” Nora said, feeling her heart deflate and collapse upon itself as she said it. “Singular.” She pointed to the port side of the gondola. Through the narrow gap between balloon and hull, they could see one of the two auxilliary pods once connected to the Faithless receding into a speck against the sky, light glinting off the ragged, shattered catwalk that dragged like a broken arm from its side.

“Must’ve been severed when the hull tore open,” Nora spat, strangely furious. “Dammit! How do we get off this nightmare?”

“One down, one to go, right?” Sully offered, hastily reloading her pistols. “Let’s check starboard.”

“And if that’s not an option?” Nora asked.

“This thing’s coming down one way or another,” Sully shrugged. “How well can you swim?”

“Let’s not find out,” Nora muttered, and swung herself under a anchor cable, headed starboard.

They picked their way through the maze of arm-thick steel cords, Sully’s cloak fluttering like a living thing in the ceaseless wind. Nora kept a keen eye back on the hatch they’d arrived from, expecting primate pursuers at any moment.

“Oh, thank you, good luck,” Sully breathed, then grabbed Nora’s arm and pointed. There, over the rise of the far side of the gondola, they could see the swelling top of a smaller black balloon — the starboard pod, still attached.

“Now we just have to figure out how to get down,” Nora sighed.

“I’m sure we’ll think of—” Sully began, but the jagged clang of an opening hatch swallowed the rest of her words.

Not the port-side hatch through which they’d emerged, but a starboard-side portal just ahead, between them and the sloping edge of the gondola. Long, hairy arms emerged, powerful muscles working beneath, and in a cloud of pure simian stink, a pair of gorillas emerged. Long machetes gleamed, clutched in their thick, gnarled hands.

“I swear,” Nora groaned, as the apes shuffled forward, grunting. “There needs to be, like a qualifying test for having opposable thumbs.”

“That’d make Arkansas a hell of a lot more interesting,” Sully replied, drawing a bead with her pistols.

“Hey, I’ve got cousins in Arkansas,” Nora protested, and the gorillas charged. Their machetes swung in sloppy, gleaming arcs.

Sully squeezed off a shot from each of her pistols, and the gorillas spun and died. “Stupid apes,” she sighed. Something inside her exulted in ways she found quietly frightening. “Bringing knives to a gunfight.”

Machine guns rattled, and bullets sparked and chattered off the crisscrossed steel cords behind them. Sully and Nora hit the deck as the port hatch overflowed with pursuing apes, the silverback they’d seen earlier leading the charge. More and more poured forth, crowding the top of the balloon, howling and shaking their guns in the air.

“You’ve just gotta gloat, don’t you?” Nora scowled at Sully, whose eyes narrowed above her makeshift mask. From within the starboard hatch just a few feet ahead, beyond the bodies of the dead apes, more hoots and growls echoed, and a second pack of gorillas began to emerge, teeth bared, hefting rifles and pistols and lengths of pipe.

Nora heard hissing, and looked up. Helium gas rushed in invisible jets from a scattering of ragged, fluttering bulletholes in the gasbag above. Her keen eyes flashed upon the machetes lying on the deck, just a few feet away, as the apes advanced with guns ready.

“If I had time to explain what I’m about to do,” she told Nora, reaching out to slide a machete scraping across the hull to her companion, “I’d want you to talk me out of it.”

“Good to know,” Sully said, holstering one pistol and gripping the machete, as Nora grabbed the other blade.

“On three,” Nora said, “we run for the other side. Start slashing the gasbag when we get there.”

“I’m not getting this plan,” Sully replied, “But it’s better than ‘get shot by gorillas,’ so…”

“One,” Nora said. The port-side crowd of apes sent a fusilade singing through the air above them. “Two.” The starboard troop drew close enough for her to smell their rotted-meat breath, to see the flies rising from their pelts. “Three!”

The women rose. The air erupted in roars and gunfire, sparks exploding from the steel cables all around them, as they ducked and leapt their way aft and toward the port side, away from the pursuing primate hordes.

“Slash the gasbags!” Nora roared, and punched the tip of her machete through the reinforced fabric above her. Gas rushed out, and she ran on, pushing the blade through the surface of the balloon, widening the fissure.

Sully reached the seam where one sealed compartment met the next and swung, her blade traversing a high, powerful arc; it sank through the bag above, rending open two compartments at once. And they ran on.

A chorus of bullets singing at their heels, the copse of anchor cables around them alive with firefly glimmers of ricochet sparks, Sully and Nora made ever-expanding V’s in the black, rustling surface of the balloon. Ahead of them, the fires still feeding on the engine room flared like blazing banners; behind them, the twin squads of apes had merged into a single charging crowd, firing wildly, rifle barrels glowing and sizzling as they began to overheat. In the rush of escaping helium, their hoots and shrieks became shrill, cartoonish.

Slowly, so slowly, the world began to shift beneath the women’s feet. Like a dying whale, the Faithless listed over further to port, as Nora and Sully robbed it of any buoyance on that side.

“It’s going over!” Sully shouted, as the balance of momentum finally tipped, and the deck on which they stood shifted irrevocably from horizontal to vertical. “Now what?”

“Climb!” Nora replied, scrambling toward the rising swell of the starboard side.

Machetes discarded to slide and skitter down to the deck and plunge off, they used the cables for leverage, climbing hand over hand up the steepening grade of the hull. Nora’s chest burned; the wind had blown most of the helium away from them, but what little had seeped into her lungs did her no favors now. Her foot slipped on the hull, and she nearly tumbled, clawing at the nearest cable for balance; Sully shot out a hand and held her fast until she found her footing again.

Behind them, gorillas clung to cables for dear life, or tumbled in hairy cannonballs screaming down the sloping black hull. Those with bullets remaining fired their guns wildly as they plunged, caroming off cables, to a last swim in the blue-green water far below. Seen from above, their impacts with the water bloomed like tiny pale wildflowers on the surface of the lake; and then a small churning; and then nothing.

Gasping for breath, Sully and Nora swung themselves past one last set of cables and threw their bodies full against the leveled-out hull, once the sheer starboard wall of the Faithless. Below, they could see the water, distant, but rising too quickly to meet them. Ahead, across a football field or more of riveted black metal, the starboard auxiliary pod — warehouse-sized itself — hung serenely from its own midnight balloon. The rusted metal walkway connecting it to the main gondola, and the snarled web of cables, were oddly angled against the hull by the Faithless’s lopsided lean, but they held true.

Strange weapons sprouted like gnarled trees from hinged ports along the side of the gondola. Sully saw serrated, multi-barbed harpoon guns, and thought of summers fishing with her father, the horrible ease with which the hook slid from the unprotesting meat of a captured fish’s mouth. Nora watched a blue ball of electricity coruscate at the tip of another cannon, feeling the faint prickle of current against her skin, even at several feet’s distance.

The wind blew harder now, here on the exposed flat of the hull, snatching at their clothing, leaning with a large dog’s mindless insistence against their chests. The women wound their way carefully between the jagged protrusions of weaponry, eyes always on the walkway. Seagulls had begun to dip and whirl around them, and dimly from below, they could hear the churn and slap of waves on the lake. Behind them, flames still consumed the flaccid, ruined compartments of the great black balloon. The Faithless was falling, and quickly.

Nora set one foot on the walkway and paused. She sucked fresh lake air deep into her lungs and exhaled.

“What?” Sully barked from behind her, over the wind. “What are you waiting for?”

“Apes!” Nora shouted back, prompting Sully to whirl around and check behind them. Nothing. “Apes, or more of those damn cables, or that lousy old scarface. I can’t believe we’re actually gonna get off this thing.”

Beneath her boots, Sully felt the hull begin to hum. Gears ground, motors whirred. With rising dread, she slowly turned again, to see the harpoons and electrical cannons and all of the Faithless’s terrible weaponry steadily grinding around to center on them.

“That,” Nora sighed, from some exhausted place far beyond terror. “I was waiting for that.”

Sully threw herself forward, smashing Nora to the clattering plates of the walkway, as a harpoon big as a dolphin whistled its way through the air where they had once been standing.

“Go!” Sully shouted, as she and Nora scrabbled for traction on the walkway. They lunged forward, racing across the fragile metal platform, as Hell itself filled the perilous air around them.

A ball of lightning burst forth from one of the Tesla cannons, scorching the trailing hem of Sully’s cloak as it tumbleweeded through the air. Chain-fed rivet guns chattered, chewing termite holes in the structure of the walkway. And all around them, harpoons sang deadly falsettos, plunging past to splash in the fast-approaching lake, or slamming point-first through the steel hull of the auxiliary pod ahead.

Sully should have been afraid. She wanted to be afraid. Next to this, being locked in a box would seem a blessing. And yet, pyrotechnics erupting all around her, she felt like she was on stage at last. Not watching from the cool shadow of the wings, but right there under the proscenium, at the center of all the energy, surrounded by miraculous danger. She was staring death right in its bleached, grinning visage, and beneath the sash across her face, the smile she turned back against it was its own.

The door was so close now, Nora could see the latch. She had raced and stumbled and shouted her way to a territory long beyond fear, and now everything around her took on the flat, cool, rational dimensions of the reports she had read every day. Terror and disaster stripped of their looming power, squeezed down genielike to alphanumeric codes. She watched a harpoon sail toward and just above her, the wind of it parting her hair, and marveled at how straight and keen it flew.

Then she turned back toward the door, and the world exploded bright blue in her face.

Eyes full of supernovas, she felt the ground fall away from her feet. Her blinded world pivoted, sharply, sickeningly, felt the meat of her side crash and swivel against the cold metal tube of the railing. She plunged, and something chill and elastic wrapped itself around her, twanged her to a stop.

Her vision returned, fighting away the moth-holes eaten in it, and she found herself staring up at the bottom of the walkway, Sully a shadow crouching down stretching out a hand. Her face stung, sunburnt. She tried to move her arms, and look, and saw them tangled in loops of coiled black tendrils.

And in a single instant, all her fear hit her full at the base of her brain.

She roared in terror, thrashing, and the cables grip seemed to give — and drop her inch by terrifying inch toward the water looming below!

A slim hand thrust itself full in her face. Sully, stretched out full on the walkway above, straining down to reach her.

“They’re dead, Nora!” she said, snatching the sash away so Nora could see her face. “They don’t move! Just relax. They only broke your fall.”

Heart hammering, Nora forced herself to be still, to spread her weight across the fragile web of cables that held her up.

“Good,” Sully called down to her. “Now, slow, easy. Just reach up to me.”

A harpoon slammed into the catwalk not ten feet behind her, severing nearly half its width. The whole thing shook, and Sully clung tight, bones rattling. Metal groaned as the auxiliary pod tried to pull itself up and away from the dying hulk of the Faithless. Bolts began to bend where the harpoon had struck, peeling up from its moorings the single slim plating that held the walkway together.

“Reach, dammit!” Sully cried. Their hands connected, slipped, grasped tight at last. Sully hauled, coronas of white-hot sparks bursting forth around her as vollies from rivet guns shredded the railings of the walkway. Nora gripped the walkway and dragged herself up. Beneath her, it twisted like a hangnail as the pull between the Faithless and the auxilliary pod inexorably tore it apart.

They crawled the remaining few feet to the door of the pod in a last, bitter storm of red-hot rivets from the Faithless’s cannons. Sully risked reaching up, sparks and shrapnel stinging through her gloves, as opened the door to chill, dim mustiness. They tumbled through and slammed the hatch tight; the point of a harpoon screeched through the door just above their heads and stopped, vibrating in some private key of mayhem.

Nora looked up, to the side of the hatch, and saw the lever, large and boldly marked: CATWALK RELEASE. She lunged up and pulled, with all her strength.

Outside, explosive bolts blew the walkway loose from the auxiliary pods; it twisted and tumbled away, dangled for a moment from the limping side of the Faithless, and then broke off, belly-flopping toward the lake below. The cables, now all that remained to link the ship and its offspring, stretched and writhed, and a dark shape seemed to ripple among them, pouring itself out from the belly of the Faithless. Then the tendrils snapped like piano strings, one by one, and the auxilliary pod lurched up into the sky, climbing back to the altitude for which it longed.

Farther below by the second, the Faithless bulged, then broke apart in clouds of fire. The few chambers of its gasbag still filled with helium burst. It fell, slapping against the green, murky depths of Lake Michigan in a mad froth of white foam and steam. And whatever dark secrets it still held sank with it to the silt and mud on the wide, lightless plain of the lakefloor, for the fish to ponder.

Sully and Nora sat for a while, backs to the cool metal of the door, thin light and bracing air dancing in their hair around the edges of the harpoon point above. They grinned like survivors.

The room was echoing and dim, lit by a few shabby pools of light — one above the door against which the women sat, another barely visible on the opposite side of the pod — and by needles of sunlight cast in from the fissures in hull where other harpoons had burst through. On the opposite side of the door from the catwalk release, Sully found a junction box, and ground the protesting switch upward into life.

Generators hummed, old flourescent lights buzzed and tank-tank-tanked themselves grudgingly on, and Nora let out a low whistle. It was a hangar. A smallish one, but still, there like silent stormtroopers in formation were row upon row of knife-sharp black-hulled fighter jets, the skull and crossbones painted across their tailfins. To their left, stretching across the front of the pod, a broad, segmented door waited; Nora could see tracks encasing it, running up to the ceiling.

“I think we found our way out,” Nora smiled, getting to her feet. Then she threw up her arms and whooped with delight. A week ago, the thought of getting into the cockpit of anything would have jellied her knees. Now it felt like a challenge.

“Not to be little miss killjoy,” Sully interrupted, tracing a streak in the dust across the nose of one fighter, “but, uh… you sure these things are still even working? Much less fueled?”

“What do you say we find out?” Nora asked, as they wandered into the center of the hangar. The pointed noses of the jets bristled out at them, expectant. Nora followed the shape of them with her eyes, imagining air currents flowing over their surfaces. They wanted the sky.

A dull scraping reverberated through the empty chamber, the sound clattering itself down off the ceiling above.

“See?” Sully grumbled, drawing her guns, looking around for the source of the noise. “Who's the gloater now, huh?”

“Easy, now,” Nora shot back, as her hand strayed inside her own jacket to rest on the grip of the pistol. “This thing’s old. Could’ve just been working the kinks out.” But she wondered: Had she had time to reload? How many shots remained? She patted one pocket and felt her spare bullets gone — fallen out, perhaps, when she nearly tumbled off the walkway.

“I really don’t think that’s it,” Sully cautioned, nodding back toward the door through which they’d entered.

Slowly, the harpoon head embedded in it had begun to turn. It rattled, lightly at first, then with sudden violence. Then it stopped, slid down limply against the door.

“Tell me that’s not who I think it is,” Sully growled, and Nora’s mouth went dry.

With a sudden shriek, the door tore off its hinges to flutter away. For a moment, empty sky blasted into the hangar — and then a creeping, many-fingered current of darkness rose and bubbled and seeped in around the edges.

As Sully and Nora backed away, the writhing mass of tendrils poured itself into the hangar, tiny metal teeth sinking themselves into the metal flooring, itsy-bitsy-spidering its way forward. And from the bulging, slithering mass of it, a face emerged, and the frail husk of a body.

Framed by the topography of scars upon her countenance, Wicked West’s eyes did not blaze with hatred, nor madness, nor fury. They were calm, and cold, and certain. They were absolutely terrifying.

“Now it ends, little ones,” she said to Nora and Sully, and the tendrils sprang forth to consume them both.