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.

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