The second part of "On the Threshold!" Chad starts work at the Chronicle, Teddy and Barbara begin their unicorn hunt, Leo and his brain trust begin their efforts to save Earth, Astrid begins her new life, and Mason begins his journey… but may not begin it alone…
Monument City, MD
Monument International Airport
Concourse C Baggage Claim
Astrid was tired, a little cranky, and just wanted to get to her hotel. Her apartment wouldn’t be ready for another week, which was fine because all her stuff was still sitting back in Minnesota. Her parents were waiting for the official ‘go’ to send it out. Of course, that meant she needed her luggage pretty badly, and they hadn’t even started the belt yet.
Astrid ran her hand through her thick, red curls. They were currently pretty messy, as she’d slept on the flight. Between that, her freckles, her five foot four height and her thin build, she could pass for twelve if she wasn’t careful. She really wanted a shower, especially since that Foundation representative would be picking her up.
She looked around. The same tired-looking passengers were waiting, same as Astrid herself. Closer to the doors, people were walking back and forth with their luggage. Professionals, families, college students — people from all walks of life. She saw a number of limo and taxi drivers with their signs, waiting to pick up VIPs. She didn’t rate that, of course. She was hoping whoever was coming would have them announce over the PA. She knew it wasn’t Doctor Kasparian, and she didn’t know a lot of the other Foundation representatives, so…
Astrid blinked as her eyes hit one of the signs. ‘BIXBY, A’ it read, writ large in black magic marker. And the man holding it was in a uniform, but not a chauffeur’s kit. He was military. Blue, so Air Force, with a pretty decent salad bar and pilot’s wings above it. So an officer. In the Air Force.
They’d promised there wouldn’t be any Air Force personnel involved. Could there be another ‘A. Bixby’ on this flight?
Well, anything was possible, but Astrid didn’t count on it. Glancing back at the still motionless belt, she shrugged and walked over to where the man was patiently standing. Oak leaf in gold, so a major. Brown hair, tanned to the point of tawny, blue eyes. Solidly built. The ribbons were pretty impressive, but then, any time she saw solid purple on a serviceman’s ribbon rack, she was impressed. ‘STORM’ was written on his name tag. Major Storm. She wondered if this were a joke.
Well, she may have been impressed, at least by his medals, but that wasn’t the same as being pleased. “Excuse me, Major,” she said. “Are you waiting for Astrid Bixby?”
The major had been mostly zoned out. She had no idea how long he’d been standing there. He blinked, turned, and smiled a very professional smile. “Yes, ma’am. Are you Astrid Bixby?”
Astrid looked sidelong at the Major. “Well, that depends,” she said. “Given that Astrid Bixby is joining a nonpartisan think tank with no government affiliation, why would the United States Air Force want to intercept Astrid Bixby? Because Astrid Bixby has had kind of a long day, and Astrid Bixby is going to be met by an Eirene Foundation representative, and really doesn’t want to be waylaid. Astrid Bixby knows that nuclear disarmament isn’t the Department of Defense or Air Force’s first priority, so Astrid Bixby wants to know what’s going on before acknowledging whether or not she’s Astrid Bixby.”
The major blinked a couple of times, then grinned. “My God. Could you have fit ‘Astrid Bixby’ into that sentence a few more times? On a bet, if nothing else?”
“That doesn’t sound like an explanation.”
“Yeah, well. I figured I’d hit up another conversational round or two first. I mean, what’s your encore? Climbing up on a luggage cart and reciting the Bill of Rights?”
“I see. It sounds to me like you mostly just want to waste Astrid Bixby’s time. I’ll be sure to tell her if I see her.” She turned back towards the luggage claim.
“At the moment, it’s not possible to waste Astrid Bixby’s time. See, as it turns out, there was a luggage incident while they were offloading Flight #214 from Saint Marguerite. I don’t know the details, but I guess they had to do a full search after that. It’ll be another hour before that carousel starts turning, and that’s assuming they don’t find anything.”
Astrid paused, then turned back to face the Major. “How do you know that?”
“I asked security what was taking so long. The uniform actually helps with that, sometimes.”
“I’m sure it does. You still haven’t told me who you are or what you want.”
“And that is probably pretty annoying.” He grinned again. “My name’s Major Kyle Storm, United States Air Force. I’m currently on detached duty and assigned as the military liaison to the Eirene Foundation. I’m specifically here at the request of Doctor Lev Kasparian, who regrets he can’t meet you — sorry, ‘Astrid Bixby’ — himself.”
Astrid stared. Major Storm just kept grinning.
“The Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Force Commendation, two Air medals with Valor, two short tours, one long, a longevity award, Small Arms Expert, two Distinguished Shooter medals, a Purple Heart, and the Silver Star, and you’re detached to a bunch of long haired hippies and ne’er do wells who want to chuck our nuclear arsenal into the sea and sing happy love songs to the Soviets?”
“A bunch of long haired hippies, ne’er do wells, and a Nobel Laureate. And, since I’m technically still recovering from the reason I have that Purple Heart, I have to do something with my time, don’t I?” He held out his right hand. “Astrid Bixby, I presume?”
Astrid shook his hand. “They won’t start baggage claim for another hour?”
“At least an hour.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Major. Please for the love of God lead me to coffee.”
“That would be my pleasure. C’mon, there’s a Pro Bono Donuts at the top of that escalator. Their coffee might be a bit boiled down at this time of day, but—“
“I’ll take it. God, I’ll take it.”
They started walking for the escalator. Major Storm dropped his sign into a trash bin as they passed. “I’m impressed, by the way. Most civilians can’t read a ribbon rack. Those that can usually can’t pick out Air Force ribbons in particular.”
“Yes, well — you must know I have an advantage, there.”
“What do you mean?”
Astrid stepped onto the escalator, letting it lift her up. Major Storm stepped on two steps below her. She enjoyed briefly being taller than the Major. “Are you saying… Major, what do you know about me?”
“I… know you’re Astrid Bixby. I know you have a Bachelor’s in Poli-Sci and passed the Bar in Minnesota and the Capital District. I know you’ve written a number of well received position papers on the geopolitical ramifications of nuclear proliferation and disarmament, though I’m afraid I haven’t gotten to read them yet. I know you impressed Doctor Kasparian, which means you impressed me by proxy. And I know you’re not someone to trifle with. Admittedly that last part I just figured out.”
“Ah. Well, all right then.” She smirked a bit.
“Is there something else I should know?”
“Oh, no. But most airmen focus less on my credentials and more on my parents. It gets tiring.”
“…and… who exactly are your parents?”
Astrid’s grin turned slightly impish. “Well, my father is Lieutenant General Reuben Bixby, U.S.A.F., now retired. And my mother is Doctor Angela Osborne, former Surgeon General of the Air Force.” She stepped off the escalator. “Oh, God, the sweet sweet smell of burnt coffee…” She made a beeline for the cafe.
Major Storm didn’t stumble as he stepped off the escalator, but it was a pretty near thing.
Justice Wing: Emergence #2
“On the Threshold”
Las Bendiciones, CA
When Mason Temple made it back to his office, he’d had to force his way past various coworkers, a boss, a number of hungry people who were pretty upset he had some stranger bringing them their pizza, and multiple pieces of paper that had been waiting for his review. Mason wasn’t known for being forceful, but there were times he was insistent. This was one of those times. If Amana Juma had called him from the Yucatán Peninsula and said it was important… the cost of a call like that alone…
They’d scribbled the number down. Mason looked it over, and punched the numbers into his phone. 011… 54… 999…
It took a few moments and the sound of audible clicks as the relays and phone switches made the connection. Mason could almost visualize the process. There had to be a better way to automate that… design a system that would increase bandwidth while minimizing handoffs…
The phone began ringing, an odd two-tone electronic buzzing. Mason rubbed his eyes, waiting.
The phone connected, and a male voice said something in a language Mason didn’t understand. Spanish? He assumed so, but the dialect sounded odd. Mason hadn’t thought about any of that since high school.
“Hello?” he said. “May I speak to Doctor Amana Juma, please? Doctor Juma?”
“Yes. Doctor Juma.”
There was another burst of that language, and then a muffled sound. Probably the man’s hand over the receiver.
Mason felt his heart unknot. He hadn’t realized how nervous he’d become, waiting for Amana to pick up. Hearing her voice, still filtered through her Kenyan accent, was a profound relief. “Amana? It’s Mason Temple. I got your message. Is everything all right?”
“Mason? Oh, thank God. I had no idea if they’d taken my message properly, and they said you were out of the office at important client meetings.”
Mason rolled his eyes. Picking up pizza for the department didn’t count as either important or a client meeting, but Arclight had gone in hard on business culture with all its meaningless crap. “Amana, what’s wrong? Do you need help?”
“Yes, Mason. I need a lot of help. Look. I need you to come down here.”
Mason was stunned. “Go down– where are you? Mexico, right?”
“Yes. On the Yucatán Peninsula. Mason… it’s important.”
“I… Amana, are you in danger?”
“I don’t think so…” there was some interference on the line. “But there’s… look, I found something on the dig. Mason, you were always the guy who could figure out anything. Any machine, any device. I need that, Mason. Really badly.”
Mason frowned. “Why would you possibly need that?”
“We… we found some artifacts, Mason. And… and we’re going to need help identifying them. And… and I’m worried that the clock’s ticking.”
“Amana. I’m an engineer. I’m… thank you for thinking of me, but I don’t know anything about archeology or Mayan culture. There’s nothing I could possibly—“
“I know that, Mason! This… look. Trust me. We need an engineer. We need the best engineer. And… these aren’t Mayan artifacts. They’ve been there longer than that.”
“So, pre-Columbian? Prehistoric?”
The phone crackled for a moment.
“Pre-human, Mason. Maybe by a million years or more.”
Crown City, IL
Crown City Chronicle Building
Teddy Porter nodded to Barbara Babcock as they met at the bank of elevators in the lobby of the Crown City Chronicle. She looked a bit haggard. She generally did in the morning. Teddy was the morning bird. Barbara was the night owl. It worked well for them, really. Teddy was generally ready to attack the thousand tasks that waited for investigative reporters when their day began. Barbara was generally considered the stronger writer of the two, and she would usually write and polish into the evening, assuming they hadn’t hit a hard publication deadline. She liked to write the stories up each night as though they were going to print the next day, then rewrite with each day’s changes. It helped them keep track of what they had, and made the story that much more solid when they were ready to turn it in.
She had a few manila envelopes in her hand as they climbed into the elevator. “What’re those?” Teddy asked, hitting fourteen and turning to face the doors.
“A summary of what the services and TV had on the I-94 Westbound Miracle. It’s a jumping off point for our unicorn hunt.”
“The I-94 Westbound Miracle?” Teddy shook his head. “Please tell me we’re not going with that.”
“In print, absolutely not. Unless we do. You need punch, Mister Porter. It’s the spoonful of sugar that helps the real news go down. Besides, we’re chasing that story. We don’t intend to print it.”
“Unless we do?”
“So what’s the other envelope?”
“A little test.” She grinned a bit more. “See, we’re meeting our librarian today. So I pulled an old version of the Nowak/Carlotti and retyped it. We already know what’s wrong with that old version, but the librarian doesn’t. So let’s see if he’s worth a damn to us.”
“Do you have to put that extra emphasis on ’librarian?’”
“Yes. My sanity demands it.” The doors opened. “Let’s go meet this guy.”
‘That guy’ was listening to Bernie Jonson when they walked into the news room. He looked to be about six-two, blond, and addicted to tweed. Striped button-down shirt, tie, aviators but not sunglasses. Brown eyes, skin on the pale side of pink. Preferred earth tones. Could match shirt to trousers, but bought off the rack.
Clothes told people who you were. Barbara knew that. That was one reason her own clothing was a chaotic mess most of the time. It meant people misread her. Also, she didn’t care that much.
“—get assignments in this ‘in’ slot,” Bernie was saying to him. “Now, you’re going to head straight down to the library?”
“The library, city hall, hall of records. Wherever things need checking,” the guy said. He glanced up and nodded to Teddy and Barbara, then turned back to Bernie.
Bernie herself arched her eyebrows. “Oh good. They’re on time. Chad, this is Barbara Babcock and Teddy Porter. People around here call them Babcock and Porter, Incorporated, because everyone loves a catchphrase.”
“Hey there,” Chad said, offering Barbara a hand to shake. “I’m Chad Keillor. It’s a pleasure.”
Barbara shook his hand. “Good grip. I guess book shelving strengthens the hand muscles.”
“Ignore her.” Teddy shook Keillor’s hand. “Glad to meet you! I hear you’re our latest master of correction fluid and pedantry.”
Keillor grinned. “Well, I’m going to try my best,” he said. “But pedantry’s more an editorial process. I’m the annoying guy in the back of the room who points out your mistakes.”
“And the beautiful thing is you said it,” Barbara said. “Here. Add these to your stack of Dewey Decimals.” She handed him the envelopes.
He glanced through the top envelope. “The Dewey Decimal system’s actually a cataloging system, and most libraries — including the Crown City Public Library — have adopted the Library of Congress system instead. Though Crown U’s libraries still use Dewey.”
“You know, I tried to figure out what meeting you would be like, and here we are and it’s everything and nothing like I expected all at once.” Barbara shook her head. “We’re hitting the road, Boss.”
“You’re… investigating the tractor-trailer jackknife?” Keillor asked, frowning slightly. “That seems a little…”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Barbara said. “You have an opinion on our journalistic instincts? Because I thought librarians were all about taking the stuff we write and figuring out where to shelve it.”
Keillor blinked. “I’m sorry. Do… you actually think you’re insulting me?”
“She’s a little rough around the edges before her first cup of coffee,” Teddy said, cutting in. “Come on, Barbara. Let’s get going.”
“Right,” Keillor said. “Well, I’ll run through these and drop them off around noon, along with the rest.”
“See that you do,” Barbara said. “If you’re late, it’s ten cents a day.”
Keillor laughed weakly. “Right. Sure. Because—“
“—you’re a librarian. I can see why they snapped you right up.”
“Come on,” Teddy said, taking her arm. “Let’s let the nice man go to work.”
Bernie shook her head as the two left. “They really are good reporters.”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Jonson. Did I… make her mad, somehow?”
“No, I did. You just get to be the brunt of it.”
Bernie turned to look at her new fact checker. “Excuse me?”
“Oh, you bear the brunt of things, not ‘be the brunt.’”
Bernie kept looking at Keillor.
Keillor shifted uncomfortably. “I should get going.”
“Yes, you should.” Rolling her eyes, Bernie turned and headed back to her office.
Crown City, IL
The Facility, Level 9
Cordelia Chance stepped into the Facility’s central lift, carrying a large metal thermos. She was in one of her red operative uniforms, and had gone fully armed. She found it made things easier when dealing with subordinates who didn’t understand the pecking order. She touched her thumb to the reader-plate. “Nine.”
The plate flashed three times, and then the lift started to descend.
Only four people allowed in the Facility in the first place were permitted access to the ninth level. Of those four, one was a housekeeper. Someone had to empty the wastebaskets and vacuum, and Chance had made it clear early on it wouldn’t be her.
Of the remaining three, one was technical. One was Chance herself. She fell into the role of aide de camp, bodyguard, security advisor, and wetwork consultant, depending on the day.
The last lived down there.
The door opened into a relatively drab lobby area. It looked like… well, exactly what it was: the sub-basement of an underground facility, sealed against the water table, largely made of concrete, with linoleum tile over it.
The corridor circled around the level. There were obvious places on the outer wall where the concrete could be opened back up and an expansion bored into the bedrock, but there wasn’t much chance of that happening. Not this year, anyhow. The inner wall was mostly blank except for a single metal door. Unlike most of the doors, it didn’t have a window in it. It did have a small doorbell/intercom unit, and Chance pressed its button smoothly.
"What?!” she heard shouted through the door. He didn’t bother with the intercom. Which meant he was in a mood.
Well, Chance was used to that. She pushed the button again. “I brought coffee.” She let go of the button and waited.
There was a pause.
“All right.” This time the voice came out of the intercom.
Chance opened the door and stepped inside.
The inner rooms had been designed as a suite. There was a well appointed full bath deeper inside, as well as a frighteningly complete kitchen. There was, in the boss’s words, a ‘rumpus room’ with a television and shelves upon shelves of books he never touched. Chance had asked him about those books once. He’d waved them off. He’d read them all once. Having them at all after that was just rank sentimentality.
But this outermost room wasn’t part of a normal apartment. It was larger than a full sized basketball gymnasium, though the ceilings were only three meters up. There were partitions here and there, designed to rise out of the carpeted floor, forming smaller rooms or freestanding walls as the boss wanted. A lot of them were up right now, making a smaller room inside the larger one, each wall given over to blackboard space, covered in chalk. There were several tables — conference room tables, a card table, a couple of end tables — and a few chairs here and there. The whole thing looked like an undergraduate dorm lounge, really.
The boss was never neat, but today the place looked like a bomb had hit it. Paper was everywhere. Every blackboard wall was covered with math Chance couldn’t have interpreted if her life depended on it. A number of them looked recently erased, with various asteroid-related chaff substituted. The visual chaos was boosted by a cacophony of sound coming from a series of oversized boomboxes, at least three of which were turned on.
And in the middle of it all, standing with his eyes closed and his fingers steepled, stood Leonardo Lucas. His dark hair was short, but a bit messier than normal. His black beard was a touch shaggier than Chance was used to. His clothing was rumpled and his sleeve had a coffee stain. He wore a white button down shirt, untucked, and grey slacks. In years of working with him, Chance had never seen him like this.
Chance looked around, then spoke up. “Can I turn those off? What are you even listening to?”
Lucas didn’t open his eyes. He just pointed one after another at the stereos. “Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Joji Yuasa. Callas singing La traviata with Rescigno conducting. I find they synergize and allow for new insights into the nature of sound. Oh, and that one’s playing a special extended cut of John Cage’s big hit.”
Chance looked at the last stereo. “It isn’t even turned on.”
Lucas’s eyes snapped open as he turned to glare. “It was a joke. God, I really am the last Renaissance man, aren’t I? Culture? Sophistication? Appreciation of the world around us? All deader than disco. That’s it. I’m rooting for the asteroid.” He frowned. “You said you had coffee.”
Chance offered him the thermos. “You’re wearing the same clothes you wore yesterday. Have you slept at all?”
Lucas took the thermos. He unscrewed it, sniffed, nodded, and looked for an empty mug on one of the tables. A pizza box with two forlorn slices was sitting in the middle, surrounded by reports, papers, and what looked like pieces of an erector set. “I got one hundred twenty-seven minutes.” He nodded to a easy chair off to one side.
“That’s not very much.”
“I sleep when I need to sleep. I don’t otherwise bother. On a given night I’ll usually manage somewhere between ninety minutes and four hours. I admit what I did get wasn’t the best I’ve had.” He poured himself coffee. “I may be slightly preoccupied.”
“Boss. You’re really worried, aren’t you?”
Lucas sipped the coffee. “There’s little to be gained by concern. Either we will stop Akane before she slams into the planet and kills us all, or we won’t. If the latter, I doubt we’ll survive long enough for recrimination.”
“That’s what I mean, though.” Chance started turning off the stereos. “You’re not exactly given to doubt.”
“Leave the Yuasa, but turn it down.” Lucas sounded distracted. “And doubt implies a lack of conviction. I do not suffer from lack of conviction, Miss Chance.” He looked at one of the chalkboard walls, with angles and approaches plotted for several gravity pulsers towards asteroid (do9541) Akane and more than a few curse words.
“Are we going to tell anyone about this?”
Lucas looked over his shoulder. “What’s that, Miss Chance?”
“Are we going to tell anyone about this? Governments? Militaries? Scientists?”
Lucas snorted. “Of course not. None of those would have the slightest ability to avert what’s coming. All they could do is hinder our efforts to save the planet.” He considered. “If Dale’s negligence hadn’t caused this, we’d tell them. It would be a chance to assume a position of authority and save the planet at the same time. It would shave years off our timetable. But Dale’s negligence did cause this, and if we announced this to the world someone out there would figure that out. That setback we don’t need.”
Chance nodded. “That’s what I figured.”
“Undoubtedly, our attempts to stop Akane will be detected. At that point, either people will find out an asteroid isn’t going to hit the planet, or there won’t be enough time to make a difference unless we are very, very unlucky.”
“Wait. There’s a way this could be worse?”
Lucas drained the coffee, and started to pour another cup. “My dear Miss Chance, if I teach you nothing else, let me teach you this: it can always be worse. Always.” He looked at her. “Our timetable isn’t the only timetable out there. We have been in a race for some time. If we don’t stop Akane, there are indeed worse things than the destruction of Earth and all her children. Well. I need eight minutes to shower and dress, and then we should head up to two. I’m curious to see if our vaunted brain trust has come within orders of magnitude of any of my solutions.”
Menominee Lane just off of East Bauer
“Just tell us what happened in your own words,” Teddy was smiling and being charming. That was Teddy in a nutshell. Everyone liked Teddy on sight. “Please.”
The reporters were in a cul-de-sac in a Crown City suburb. Not half an hour’s commute from City Center, yet they were lost amidst carefully cultivated trees and two- to three-bedroom houses, with PTAs and local grocery stores and quiet after ten pm. Barbara was always a little amazed at just how close suburbia encroached upon the urban world she lived and thrived in. In the Core, trees and their placement were just as carefully planned as the concrete pillars holding the EM above the streets. Another half hour out of the city would get her into farmland and huge empty Illinois spaces, which was just weird. She took comfort in the fact that any actual forestland near Crown City was safely locked up in preserves, and that you had to drive to the very bottom of the state if you wanted to lose yourself in ‘nature.’
Barbara saw no reason to hide her misanthropy. Visible misanthropy was functional misanthropy.
Teddy and Barbara were interviewing a mother of three, standing next to her Dodge Aspen station wagon with the fake wood panels and the roof rack. Her husband was at work. Two of her kids were at school. The third was edging towards six and would start kindergarten next fall. He was in the front yard, running around making vroom noises with an X-Wing fighter toy. The mother looked at him then back at Teddy. “I told all this to the police and the reporters,” she said.
Television news, Barbara thought, derisively, but didn’t say anything.
“I know,” Teddy said. “But we don’t have television cameras, and you’ve had a chance to relax. I thought maybe you’d have a little more to say today.” He kept smiling. The thing that made it work was he was sincere about it.
“Well, all right. So we were driving Westbound on I-94. Heading up to Northboro. My kids have basketball and ballet up there.”
“Why not something closer to home?”
She shrugged. “Better programs. I know a guy. Anyways, we’re driving maybe fifty or sixty, whatever flow of traffic was doing. A couple cars ahead of me brake hard. I do too. I always make the kids belt up so they don’t get tossed around or anything. And I hear brakes behind me too, screeching and sliding, but it seems like stuff’ll be okay. Only there was a loud bang, and then… okay, this is the crazy part.”
“The weird part,” Teddy said. “You’re clearly not crazy.”
“Yeah, well. Suddenly we’re, like, spinning in the air, like we were on a Six Flags ride. Going up, but spinning around at the same time. In a circle, not, like, not in a roll. But it was almost unreal. I mean, it was wicked fast, and I swear I saw lightning or sparks or something, but we didn’t get thrown too hard. I been in car accidents before, y’know? You get bruises all along where the shoulder belt was. I had nothing like that this time, and neither did the kids.”
“Did you get dizzy? Vertigo?”
“Not really. It didn’t last long enough, maybe. Anyway. Then we felt a jolt and the car lurched forward and stalled out, only we were maybe a hundred yards back from where we were, and we were on the side of the road. Then I saw what looked like flashes of blue and yellow, and like three other cars landed in front of me. All with the same story. I guess there was, like, a raccoon or something. Then for like a second I saw what looked like a big rig trailer up in the air, and then nothing. Now, I’m beginning to freak out and check the kids, but that’s when I remember the thunder.”
“Yeah. Like, like a rumble. Shook the car but just a little, like it was far off.”
Teddy chuckled. “I believe you. But it sounds a little like Captain Prestige’s comet-burst.”
She laughed too. “You think I don’t know what it sounds like? Like I said, it’s crazy.”
“Comet burst?” Barbara asked.
Teddy looked surprised. “Right, you know? Captain Prestige? Kenny Kirkland shouts the magic word zeugma, and a comet streaks down and explodes, and that turns him into Captain Prestige.” Teddy cocked his head. “You saw the movie.”
Barbara shrugged. “Not really my thing.”
“Yeah, but you saw the movie,” the mother said, looking incredulous. “Everybody saw Captain Prestige: The Motion Picture.”
“Y’know what? You two keep talking. I’m going to step over here and not be part of the conversation.” Barbara moved away. Of course she’d seen the movie, but this was part of her patter with Teddy. Give the interviewee something in common with Teddy, and let them both tease the clueless girl in the windbreaker. It worked better than people’d think.
She saw the boy watching her, the X-Wing having fallen out of his hand.
“Hey,” she said, crouching down to his level. “Had a wild day, yesterday, huh?”
He shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Yeah, well. I’m Barbara. What’s your name?”
“Hey, Mick. So what did it all look like to you?”
He shrugged again. “You won’t believe me.”
Barbara pursed her lips, then shrugged. “I’ll believe you’re telling me the truth, no matter what I think about it. I mean, maybe I’ll think you were just seeing things, but I won’t believe you’re lying. Fair?”
He thought, then nodded.
“Were you in the back seat?”
“Yeah. My sister always hogs the front seat when Dad isn’t there.”
“Yeah, my sister’s a pain, too. So what was happening?”
“Well, I was bored. Jim was kinda asleep, and I was staring out the window, and then we were sliding an’ I hit up against my belt, and then we were up in the air, like Mom said.”
“You were listening, huh? Okay. What then?”
“We ended up on the side’a the road, but that’s when I saw him.”
Barbara’s eyebrows went up. “Him?”
“A guy. In blue. Big guy. I think he’d just put the car down, and then he was just gone. It was — he was just there and then he wasn’t but we weren’t moving.” He made a disgusted noise. “You don’t believe me.”
Barbara frowned slightly. “I believe you’re telling me the truth.” She thought a moment longer. “And you know something? Right now, you’ve got the best explanation for all this I’ve heard, so who knows?”
Mick cocked his head like a dog. “Really?”
“Really.” Which didn’t make the kid right, but it beat ‘no explanation at all,’ which is what they had right up until then.
“Cool.” The kid ran off without a goodbye, like kids do. She noticed he left the X-Wing sitting on the lawn.
Barbara turned to look at Mick’s mother. She was chatting — full on chatting — with Teddy. Weird how easily that could happen, really. She stayed crouching, even as she looked at the station wagon. Green, with fake wood panels and yellow trim. Just another suburban wagon on the streets.
Or briefly above them.
This wasn’t their real investigation — this was the ‘unicorn’ they were using to cover up investigating. Still, the question was still out there — how did one point eight tons of automobile plus driver and passengers lift into the air, spin around, and land a hundred yards back, with no one so much as mussed?
She hadn’t been lying to Mick. Right now, Captain Prestige was as good an answer as any. Except, of course, that he wore green and silver, and this guy apparently wore blue and gold.
Ridiculous, except they had no better answers. Which made this ‘unicorn’ perfect… except Barbara was sitting next to the car itself. And somehow it had gone from the middle of the road to the side of the road without hitting anything.
Could she believe a car could fly?
Evergreen City, WA
Operation Tangent Swan field office
If one went looking for the military in and around Evergreen City, they generally ended up somewhat north of the city, finding their way to the Puget Sound Joint Military Command. Alternately, they might end up at one of the individual bases: Si’ahl Air Force Base, Darrow Navy Yard, the Puget Sound Coast Guard station, and so forth. Some might end up at one of the various government offices in Evergreen City’s downtown core, instead.
Very, very few would find themselves on Ordway Island. It was a wealthy island, most notable for I-90 passing through it via bridges, for good schools and opportunities. Not very many people would think much of White Pine Commercial Park, down on the southern tip of the island. It was a standard red brick commercial park in three buildings — one an administrative headquarters for a courier company, one a series of medical offices and a weight loss clinic, and one taken up by the field offices of a government afterthought. Operation Tangent Swan had been a joint military effort investigating E.S.P. phenomena. It was less dramatic than the Air Force’s Project Blue Book, and significantly lower funded. But, it was a line item in several different budgets, and no one wanted to see their budgets cut, so it limped along. A few choice field offices stayed open, usually as a relatively nice pork package for a congressman’s district.
At least, that was the official story.
Once upon a time, Lynette Hardesty had been an officer in the United States Air Force. Then-Captain Hardesty had moved from department to department, flying whatever gear she could get her hands on. That didn’t usually include F-15s, though she’d been on an Eagle’s stick more than once. Most of the time, Hardesty had ended up flying supplies, acting as air crew… essentially doing anything but pulling G’s. Nothing personal, she’d been told. It was the law. No women in combat positions.
There was a reason Hardesty was driving a civilian car across the floating bridge to Ordway Island instead of a government car to the Puget Sound Joint Military Command. She’d ended up on General Bixby’s command staff before his retirement. The general had recommended she join Operation Tangent Swan when he learned more about her — especially after learning about some of her more unique skills. Officially, Captain Lynette Hardesty was on detached duty, but by now she’d actually run through her enlistment and would simply be in the reserves. Unofficially, Field Agent Lynette Hardesty wasn’t likely to put on Air Force Blue again.
She pulled into White Pine’s lot and swung her sedan around into a spot in front of building A. She opened her door and slid out, shutting it. Behind her, she heard the doors lock themselves. Similarly, as she walked up to the secure side door, it cheerfully unlocked. When she pulled the door open, the various alarms that were supposed to go off elected to stay quiet. She was most of the way down the hall before she heard the door re-lock itself behind her.
She pushed into the actual field office of Operation Tangent Swan. Most days it was just three people — a senior agent, a field agent, and a ‘special consultant’ that otherwise didn’t appear in the documentation. Said consultant never left the building if he could help it, sleeping in a custom built apartment in the basement, so he was always in first. The senior agent was usually there second. Hardesty wasn’t sure when, or even if, Lillian Tartikoff slept. Hardesty was usually third.
She pushed into the office, nodding to Lillian who was on the phone. Taë was in his corner, which was partitioned off as normal. Taë had no interest of having an office of his own, but also valued his privacy. It was a weird contradiction. Hardesty walked over to her own desk, where her coffee maker was mostly finished pouring. It was a six-cup Mister Coffee drip-style. It had a clock function on it, but Lynette had never set it. There really wasn’t a need to do so.
Lynette slid around into her wooden swivel chair. She was in one of her blue pantsuits. She wouldn’t wear an Air Force uniform when she wasn’t actively serving in the Air Force, but her preferred jumpsuits or flight suits got noticed off of bases. This was her compromise. Besides, it concealed her gear. Her drawer unlocked itself — part of its security was its complete lack of a physical key — and she opened it up, pulling out the Gunderson file. She had several cases she’d been tracking, but Gunderson was the noisiest, potentially.
And quieting down noise was what Operation Tangent Swan was all about.
“Hey,” Tartikoff said, walking over. She was in a burgundy suit with skirt and white blouse. Her often dyed hair was currently blue-black, setting off her almost terra-cotta complexion. She was ‘half Russian, half Sri Lankan, and all Nebraskan’ in her own words, said over drinks at the previous year’s Christmas party. Today, she was all business. “Don’t get too comfortable. You’re hitting the road.”
“Oh, am I, now?” Hardesty asked, grinning. “Let me guess. Gunderson got angry and knocked a hole in a gym wall?”
“Not as far as I know. That’d be my job anyway. No, are you familiar with the Temple case file?”
Hardesty frowned. “Temple… wait, Mason Temple? Berkeley graduate? Ubertech wunderkind? I want to say he joined up with Arclight Tech?”
“Give the agent a gold star.” Tartikoff set a file down in front of her, opening it up. Temple’s high school and college transcripts were in it. “I have the Blue Level file being transmitted here, too.”
“Why here? Wouldn’t the Las Bendiciones office take this one?”
“The Bendicinos might want it, but they can’t have it. Besides, the potential incident isn’t in Las Bendiciones.”
“Where is it?”
“About two hours by car outside of Ichkanzihóo.”
Hardesty frowned. “The… Yucatán? But Mexico, not Belize or Guatemala?”
“Got it in one.”
“Do we currently have a reciprocal agreement with Mexico?”
“That would be a ‘no,’ so please do your best not to… I don’t know. Start a war.”
“What’s the situation? And why specifically me?”
“Temple was called by an old friend of his. They went to college together. Doctor Amana Juma. Kenyan by birth, naturalized U.S. citizen when her parents moved over here. She’s an archeologist specializing in Mayan and pre-Mayan history.”
“Then she’s in the right place. Why’d she call Temple?”
“From what we intercepted? She believes she’s found ancient artifacts. She didn’t go into detail, but she claims that they predate human civilization. She wants Temple to have a look at them, which suggests they may be xenotechnology of some sort — and they may be in good, maybe even working, condition.”
Hardesty’s eyebrows went up. “Xenotech? Could they be Vril-ya?”
“Unlikely,” came a sonorous voice from the back of the room.
The two turned. Taë had emerged from his cubicle fort, seemingly drifting forward. He was six foot five, with a slightly larger than normal head and angular features. His hair was black, but seemed to reflect white or silver indirectly. His skin was ruddy, and had a similar, unnaturally reddish reflection. He had a white, blue, and black robe and cloak which looked almost like a kimono wrapped around him, with two wing patterned strips crossing before him and tying off. He held what looked like a hollow copper staff with a series of keys and holes on it, like it were a flute. And his slightly overlarge eyes had solid black irises which made it impossible to tell where his pupils began. He looked humanoid — or humaniform, to use his term — but it wouldn’t take much for someone to realize there was nothing human about him.
“Why?” Tartikoff asked. “I’d think that’d be the most likely. The Yucatán’s mostly limestone. Lots of sinkholes and caves. Is it so hard to figure some Vril-ya or one of your other nations went exploring fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago?”
“Doctor Juma claimed the artifacts she had uncovered predated humanity, not human history. That would suggest a time period in the millions of years, not thousands. The artifacts of the Vril-ya would not draw the interest of engineers if they were more than two hundred and thirty thousand years old, by your reckoning.”
“You think.” Tartikoff’s voice was dry.
“We know. This is well within my peoples’ recorded history. Further, there are no Vril-ya caverns corresponding to that region of the exposed surface. A… local geological event made the area unsuitable for expansion.” He turned to look at Hardesty. “S’si, Agent Hardesty.”
“Hello, Taë. ‘Local geological event’ in the Yucatán? You mean the Chicxulub impact, don’t you. The dinosaur killer. Taë, you’ve always told us Vril-ya history was around two hundred and fifty thousand years old, more or less. The Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event was sixty-six million years ago. It couldn’t possibly still have had bearing on—“
“Of course it could, Agent Hardesty. From what geologists and archeologists like your Doctor Juma have determined, the geological repercussions of the asteroid strike helped shape the societies that evolved on the surface, particularly in that area. Why should that not also be true below the surface?” He smiled a bit more, his expression mild as always. “The artifacts are not Vril-ya artifacts.”
“Which doesn’t rule out xenotech,” Tartikoff said. “Which means that we are potentially perilously close to having an archeological expedition find evidence of extraterrestrial life and technology. I sincerely doubt they’ll want to keep that information to themselves.”
Hardesty frowned. “That’s not the real danger,” she said. “The real danger’s Temple. We have reason to think he’s a zero-point type expressed. His engineering isn’t just groundbreaking, it’s beyond human norm. It’s entirely possible he could figure out xenotech, even if it’s ancient and broken. The impact that could have on tech development—“
“I agree,” Tartikoff said. “Add to that the potential benefit of locating artifacts like that, if we can do so without exposing expressed or xenological existence to the general public—“
“–and suddenly I have a field assignment.” Hardesty smiled a bit more. “You’re hoping I can talk to it.”
“And therefore contain it. Perhaps even control it.” Tartikoff nodded. “That’s exactly what I’m hoping. Lynette, this may be one of the most significant finds since the Corner Rise Spire Event of 1912. If it’s not managed carefully, it could be devastating.”
Hardesty frowned a bit more. “Lillian… we’ve been seeing an increase in expressed incidents for the past six years. What’s more… the growth model’s changing. We had logarithmic growth after the Corner Rise Spire Event, but now the chart’s potentially shifting to exponential growth. And we have no idea why extra-human abilities are growing more quickly.”
“It’s evolutionary,” Taë said. “I’ve told you both before. Humanity is adapting to Vril, and with those adaptations come increased capacity to manipulate the Arcane or the Divine. Between those, the clear capacity for discipline and will growing among certain segments of your population, and the influences of xenotechnology and other quintessence based systems in isolated circumstances…”
“Please, Taë,” Tartikoff said in a tired voice. “We call it zero-point energy. Not Vril. For all sorts of reasons. We’ve gone over this before.”
“Fallacious ones. Vril is not the Nullpunktsenergie. Vril exists not in quanta or as vacuum energy states. Vril flows from and through the five imperceptible dimensions. The deoxyribonucleic acid common to all Terrestrial life acts as a natural pandimensional key, allowing for—”
“Well, thanks to Bulwer-Lytton writing up your pal’s experiences, a big chunk of the planet associates Vril with Nazi occultism. When expressed humanity does get outed to the general public — when, not if — it would probably help if we didn’t uselessly tie it to the Aryan Nation.”
“That ‘pal’ was my friend, Agent Tartikoff. Please do not be dismissive of him. He may have speculated that the Vril-ya were somehow connected to Northern European or Scandinavian tribes, but he was in no way correct.” He looked thoughtful. “He also misinterpreted some of our own evolutionary studies as I recall. He thought we were salientian.”
“And he died a century before Hitler and it doesn’t matter. Vril and the ‘coming master race’ and Aryans—”
“Taë. Lillian. Hold on. This is what I’m actually trying to say.” Hardesty looked at the agent and their Vril-ya consultant. “Tangent Swan’s been keeping expressed humanity under wraps for years. But it can’t last. It won’t last. There are just too many people expressing. It’s going to draw more xenological attention. It’s going to draw more press attention. At what point do we begin shaping an introduction instead of a coverup?”
Tartikoff looked at Hardesty, considering. “In one sense? That’s been ongoing for some time. In another sense? It’s not up to us. It’s above our pay grade.”
“The world will be what the world is. Time flows over the rocks in continual revelation.”
“Yes, thank you Taë.” Tartikoff smiled a bit more. “Whatever the answer to your question? It’s probably not going to be an issue while you’re on this assignment. You should head over to outfitting.”
“Right. I will, after the Blue level file gets here. Do we have anything being pulled on Juma?”
“They’re doing that back in Paramount City right now. They’ll transmit their findings as soon as they have them.”
Hardesty nodded. “Works for me. And although I work for you, it is my pleasure to happily reassign priority casework to you.” She picked up the Gunderson file and offered it to Tartikoff.
“Oh, Gods,” Tartikoff said, accepting the file with one hand and rubbing the bridge of her nose with the other. “Please, please hurry back. This idiot’ll take years off my lifespan.”
“No promises. I may work on my tan.” Hardesty smiled, looking back down at Temple’s file.
“You’re a redhead,” Tartikoff said, walking back to her own desk. “You don’t tan. You develop sunburns occasionally broken up by freckles.”
Hardesty grinned, thumbing through the pages.
After a moment she paused, and looked up.
Taë was still standing there, that same placid smile on his face.
“What? What is it?”
“Time flows over the rocks in continual revelation,” he said again, looking at Hardesty.
“I… thought your people didn’t go much in for metaphors or poetry.”
“We do not. I expressed a truth. Glye-bosdh. There is nothing metaphoric about that term. Unfortunately, your barbaric tongue hungers for syllables and yet lacks clarity. Only through approximation are thoughts expressed. So instead of the simple and clear Glye-bosdh, I can only say that time flows over the rocks in continual revelation.”
“And you’re saying it… to me. Why?”
Taë fluttered his shoulders slightly, the closest thing the Vril-ya had to a shrug. “I have already explained why. Perhaps in time you’ll understand the explanation.”
Crown City, IL
The EM F-Line
“Next stop, Sacramento. Sacramento Ave.”
The PA in the EM car crackled badly, which was par for the course. At this time of day, the EM into Binghamton Park wasn’t all that full, so Barbara and Teddy didn’t just get to sit — they had the back block of seats to themselves. Barbara was scribbling notes. Teddy was reading through the folders that had been waiting for them when they got back to the Chronicle.
“I don’t think this new guy’s gonna work out,” Barbara said, her pen still moving.
“Imagine my surprise,” Teddy said, absently. He was still reading, of course.
“Seriously. We gave him the info from the news to check out, and we gave him an early draft of an article we spent months on. We knew the draft had problems. Four hours later, it’s waiting for us? The librarian’s not worth the paycheck.”
“Still reading,” Teddy murmured.
“I bet it’s fascinating, too. Do I even want to know?”
“He got some good stuff on the I-94 Westbound Miracle,” Teddy murmured, handing one of the folders to her while reading the other one. “Including correcting the name of the guy we’re supposedly gonna go meet.”
“Whatever.” She took the folder, opening it up. There were red ink marks throughout, making notes and numbers. She thumbed to the back, where Keillor had typed out references for each of them. Points for neatness, she supposed. She closed the folder and looked out the window. The EM was up high, of course. That’s why ‘elevated’ was in its name. The city was bright, today. Good weather, sunny, not too hot. They’d yearned for this kind of weather back in January and February. “So. Let me guess. He got the most obvious crap on the Nowak, but he missed—“
“…what the….” Teddy had started frowning, flipping back and forth between the article and Keillor’s notes.
“What? What is it? Did he mess up?”
“Are you… kidding me?”
“Teddy? Want to bring me into this conversation, or keep it all to yourself?”
Teddy shook his head slightly. “He got everything.”
“You’re kidding. There’s no way—“
“Barbara, he got everything. Including three things we missed in the final.”
Barbara flushed. “What?”
“Here’s the most obvious. Remember the re-zoning votes? We’d tracked Nowak’s votes and cross compared them to other city councillors in those votes and historically—“
“I wrote it. I remember.”
“He found errors in the historical votes.”
Barbara stared. “He’s wrong,” she said.
“He included microfiche prints.” He flipped to the back, where a stack of the various crappy xerographic prints of old voting records were annotated in the same red ink.
Barbara grabbed the folder from Teddy and began reading through it. She saw red marks all through where she knew there were problems — all through. She saw the notes on the voting… saw the incorrect votes they’d included… flipped back to his typewritten comments and the rough black and white photostats he’d printed…
Not only were the corrections there, he’d actually reworked the math to correct the trends. Which were still clear, but not quite as stark as before. They were the kind of inconsistency corrupt politicians jumped upon. A minor error made it much easier to discredit an otherwise perfect report. That’s one reason they used fact checkers in the first place.
“I don’t believe it,” Barbara murmured.
“Right? I’m… how? And he did it in, what? Four hours?”
“He turned it in in four hours. So he must have done it in like… two.”
“Yeah.” Teddy paused for a moment. “I think you’re right. I don’t think this new guy’s gonna work out.”
“Seriously. I mean, Bernie’s nuts, clearly. There’s no way—“
“Shut. Up. I’m a trained killer. I will prove it if I have to.”
“I’m just saying—“
“And I’m saying shut up.” Despite herself, Barbara smiled, just a bit. “You know, I had a good feeling about him right from the start.”
“Oh, did you now?”
“Sure. Couldn’t you tell?” She laughed a bit. “What did you think about her story?”
“I think something weird happened, and I think a lot of people are jumping to conclusions, so their stories are reinforcing each other. Maybe they all hit a slick section of road, and that spun them around, and then one of them said something about flying and jumping back a hundred yards and that’s suddenly what happened. I dunno.”
“Yeah.” She laughed again, a little more quietly. “It’d be kind of nice, though. Wouldn’t it? Angels or super heroes looking out for us?”
Teddy chuckled. “Maybe. Corrupt cops are bad enough. I don’t think we want them flying.”
“Captain Prestige wouldn’t ever be corrupt.”
“Captain Prestige is made out of screened cyan, magenta, yellow, and black dots on really crappy paper.” He chuckled again. “Don’t start expecting the unicorn to show up.”
“Don’t worry about that. I’m just saying it’d be nice.”
“Yeah, well. Alansford was just the unicorn hunt. Binghamton Park’s the real deal. Carlotti’s got lots of fingers in lots of pierogi around there. You think they’ll be doing anything different today?”
“Depends on how smug they’re feeling. I expect we’ll hear some gloating, though.”
“Right.” She closed up the folder and handed it back to Teddy. He had the soft briefcase, so he carried papers. Barbara had an oversized handbag, so she had the cameras and tape recorders. “How the Hell did we get the votes wrong?”
Teddy laughed, shrugging. “We stared at those numbers so many times, who knows? Maybe it’s a good thing the story got pulled.”
“No. It sucks. Don’t try to find a silver lining.” She looked at the floor. “Would the fact checkers have spotted it, you figure?”
“What? Carstairs? Minnelli? Not a chance.”
“Yeah. Well, maybe Nowak’s people wouldn’t have either.”
“Would you bet on that?”
Barbara shook her head. “No way.”
Crown City, IL
The Facility, Level 2
“There’s no way twelve pulsers will successfully intercept Akane,” Kandagawa said. “All going different accelerations, with different programs and different triggered envelopes? It’s like juggling plates with bullets!” The scientist looked tired and ragged, the paper-strewn conference room table doing a pretty good imitation of Leo’s table down on Nine.
“I could juggle plates with bullets,” Chance said, idly cleaning her fingernails. She was sitting on one side, feet up on the table. She was a good aide and an expert in a lot of fields, but gravity-pulser course plotting wasn’t one of them. As usual, she was in a red bodysuit Emma Peel would find a bit outré, which suited her unnatural auburn hair.
“We don’t expect to get twelve pulsers to intercept,” Li said. “That’s the point. We already have to go well above spec to get them there on time. That means we need redundancy. We need to be ready to change the program as the pulsers get closer and one or more fail. We only get one shot at this.”
“Pulsers are expensive,” Corben said. “Twelve of them pushes back all our other projects.”
“We’re fabricating from asteroid mined materials,” Li said. “None of these cost anything at—“
“Shut up, you idiot. You’re proving my point! We need mined raw materials delivered to Da Vinci 3 to fabricate pulsers! We can’t just buy materials! That makes them astronomically expensive!”
“No pun intended,” Chance said idly.
Li took a deep breath. “We need as much redundancy as we can get. If I could get all thirty seven active pulsers on track for this I would, but these twelve are the only ones with windows that allow for a coordinated intercept—“
“And using all twelve will unacceptably—“
“Quick question,” Leo cut in. Everyone shut up. They were pretty well trained most of the time. “If we’re all dead, what does that do to our timetable, again? Are we anticipating a shortfall?”
Corben flushed. She didn’t look happy. Of course, Li looked just as angry. And so did Kandagawa. They hadn’t slept much better than Leo. “I’m assuming we’re going to be successful,” Corben said. “Therefore, I’m assuming we’re going to need to step up production after this.”
“Fair. Wise. Prudent. Forget it.” Leo sipped the last dregs of the coffee Chance had brought him. He had to ask her where she got it. It was better than most of the slop that passed for coffee in the Facility. “I don’t care if we start from scratch, so long as we get the opportunity to do it.” He looked at Li. She flushed and shifted in place — she was the newest of his brain trust. “I figured ten pulsers. How’re you getting 55B and 42C?”
“I— gravity assist from Mars.”
Leo considered, seeing Mars’s orbit in his head, letting the dance of mathematics play through his brain. “Makes sense,” he said. “Nice. What’s your favorite kind of doughnut, Li?”
She blinked. “Wh— maple.”
“Of course. Canadian. Maple doughnut. Predictable, really. Miss Chance, make sure we have a dozen maple doughnuts for tomorrow’s session.” Leo stroked his goatee thoughtfully. “So, twelve. Assuming losses, what’s your minimum for success?”
“We need at least seven. If they hit specific targets in sequence over the course of fifteen seconds, discharging as predicted and creating an additive pseudomass, that will pull Akane at twenty-six meters per second squared cumulatively, slowing it and adjusting its vector at the same time. The combination should mean Akane misses our atmosphere by at least twelve thousand kilometers.”
“Which will still screw with a bunch of satellites, but we’ll live,” Leo said, nodding slightly. His solution would have given them more of a gap, but Li was right. They had to assume they’d lose a bunch of pulsers on the way, and her solution only needed seven to make it. “All right. Get programming. The first one of these will need to maneuver in sixteen hours to make its deadline, and don’t forget the transmission delay.”
“We– that’s not enough time to build the impact trigger effect,” Kandagawa said.
“It doesn’t have to be. We’re going to be adjusting the whole way, so long as they get moving. Go.”
There were murmurs, and the scientists cleared the room.
“So, are we going to live?” Chance asked, still cleaning her nails.
“Probably. Li’s clever. We should retain her after this is over.”
“Right.” She paused. “Do I really have to get maple doughnuts?”
Leo rolled his eyes. “Do we need to make this difficult, Miss Chance?”
“I hate maple. Hate it.”
“So get yourself a cruller. What do I care? Just make sure the doughnuts on the table are maple. It’s the little things that build loyalty, Miss Chance. Remember that.”
“Should I be working out what ‘little things’ you used on me?”
Leo shrugged. “How’s your sister?”
Chance paused. “Full remission,” she said, after a moment. “Her oncologists say it’s a miracle.”
“Consider this an economics lesson, Miss Chance. Li’s loyalty? Bought by a few kind words and a box of doughnuts. Cordelia Chance’s was more expensive.”
“But still a ‘little thing?’”
“From my point of view? Absolutely.” Leo looked at his empty cup. “Make some more of that coffee. It’s a two-thermos day.”
Crown City, IL
Crown City Bulgogi
Barbara and Teddy waited for their interview at the corner of Hardy and Laurence. The buildings here were old, worn brick or cement. Too new to be concrete or anything fancy, too old to be of much interest. Depending on the side, Binghamton Park was where Little Korea, the old school Polish community, and the Latino neighborhoods met. Solidly middle class, but on any given street you might see Hangul, Spanish, Polish and English signs in equal measure. On this block alone, Polonez’s offered up flaczki, El Guerrero countered with mole poblano, and Crown City Bulgogi rounded it out with jumuluk-gui. The reporters were waiting outside that last restaurant. It looked a bit battered. From the outside, you’d think it was barely making ends meet. Inside, the food was some of the best in the city. Par for the course, up this way.
It was a ‘good’ neighborhood, which meant Carlotti’s machine was quieter up around this way. It wasn’t Nowak’s district, but her votes made a difference up here, and Carlotti had leveraged that. Barbara and Teddy had done a lot of digging around these streets.
An Asian man, late twenties, beige skin with a cool, bluish undertone and short black hair, pushed out the front door. He was wearing a black t-shirt and jeans, and had a stained white apron on around his waist. He was pulling on a light coat, despite the warm weather.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m on ten minutes. Let’s walk around the block.” So saying, he walked up towards Hardy, but turned off into a parking lot with an alley at the far end.
“You’re a line cook, right?” Teddy asked. “I’m surprised you weren’t open for lunch.”
“Yeah, I’m a line cook, and we run five to one.”
“Three and a half hours to open and you’re already here?” Barbara said. “Why?”
“You think oi muchim and mu saengchae make themselves? We open at dinnertime. Having sides chilled means we’re ready to go.” The three walked into the alley as they talked. “You’re not here to ask me about food.”
“No, we’re not,” Teddy said.
“Any reason we’re playing this like Deep Throat at Watergate?” Barbara asked. “We’re here to talk about your flying car.”
“You two in this neighborhood asking questions? I’d rather be discreet,” he said. “And are you telling me you’re not gonna ask about the machine?”
“We got pulled off that story,” Barbara said. “We’re here to talk about miraculous saves and magical fairies. But if you want to talk about—“
Sobang stopped short. “Be respectful,” he snapped. “Don’t you make fun.”
The reporters managed to stop as well. “She’s just like that,” Teddy said. “She didn’t mean—“
“I was in the back car, okay? I stopped maybe two inches from this guy’s bumper in front of me, and I was the closest to the truck. I was gonna die, but I didn’t, because something saved me. Don’t you make fun of it.” He shook his head. “’Sides, everyone knows about the haechi.”
John shook his head again. “Sorry. My grandmother calls it a haechi, because of the fire.”
“What fire?” Teddy asked.
“Eight story apartments, down on Clarkson Way. Starting burning mid-day. Lot of old people, housewives, and kids. Maybe they’d have made it to the fire escapes and maybe not, only there was wind and sparkles and the fire was put out. My grandmother’s bridge partner says that there was ice clinging to the walls that had been on fire. So she started called it a haechi, because they eat fire.”
“How do you spell that?” Teddy asked, pulling out his notebook.
“I don’t know how to spell it. And I don’t care. People have been talking about it for weeks. Flashes of blue. Lightning or sparks or fireflies. People getting pulled out of bad situations. The only reason my car was different was ‘cause the news picked it up.”
“So you believe it? Someone’s out there? Captain Prestige to the rescue?”
“I don’t know what it is. No one does. The Catholics say it’s an angel. But yesterday I was a second from death and then I saw it. Blue, sparks, just like they said. And then I was safe on the side of the road.” He took a deep breath. “Sorry if I’m being… I quit smoking last night.”
“Quit smoking?” Teddy asked.
“Yeah. I was a two pack a day smoker. I was smoking when the thing happened. Lucky it didn’t burn me when I dropped the cigarette. After that… man, the haechi saved me when I should have died. That’s a gift. Smoking… it seemed wrong. So I quit. Figured I had a day or two before it got bad, but…” he shrugged. “You’re really here about Lisowski, right?” Mark Lisowski was one of Carlotti’s lieutenants. He ran operations on this end of town.
“Not officially,” Barbara said. “But I have to ask… have you noticed anything different, today?”
“Man, everything’s different after I didn’t die yesterday, but, yeah. Yeah, things are tense. Like everyone’s holding their breath, waiting.” He paused. “‘Course, I quit cigarettes yesterday, so it may just be me.”
“Tense. Why tense?” Teddy asked, not really directing the question to John. “I mean, they have to know that the story got pulled—“
“You sons of bitches!”
The three jumped. A man was at the end of the alley — the same way they’d come. He was walking towards them. Long strides. Angry strides. Coming for a fight. Six-three, easy. Black hair. Leather jacket over black tank for a band Barbara didn’t recognize. Jeans. Swarthy. And angry as Hell. Joe Mazur. Barbara knew him on sight.
“Hey! Whoa whoa whoa!” Teddy said, shifting to put himself between Mazur and John. “We’re not here for trouble, Mazur. We’re not even covering—“
“What’s crawled up your butt!?” Barbara shouted, dropping her bag and walking forward to meet him. She crouched as she walked. Like Teddy, she was covering their source. Teddy did it by staying close to John. Barbara… had a different method. “We’re here covering the blue miracle! We got yanked off Carlotti! So unless you’ve seen Pinocchio’s blue fairy—“
“You think I care?” Mazur shouted at Barbara. “You pissants sniffing around here — Carlotti went off on Lisowski, so Lisowski freaked! He blamed me! He fired me! You know what happens when you get fired from the machine, Babcock? Huh?!”
Barbara Babcock didn’t really ‘do’ fear for herself. She didn’t know why. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t be afraid, especially for other people. “Jesus,” she murmured. “Mazur, there’s nothing you did… it wasn’t you!”
“You think I don’t know that?” He was about five feet from Barbara now, screaming. Eyes wild. “But you guys got something and it came from here, so someone had to get blamed! And now I’m a dead man! You hear me? You and your pissant partner killed me, Babcock!”
“Mazur. Turn yourself into the police, right now,” Barbara said. “Right now. Confess to something! Anything! Confess to kidnapping the Lindbergh baby! You can try to cut a deal later, but for now—“
“You think Carlotti doesn’t own the police? You think there’s a deal I can cut? There’s no way out of this, Babcock. I’m dead.” He pulled a gun from inside his coat. “But I’m not dying alone.”
“Mazur!” Barbara shouted, throwing herself forward and down, trying to get out of his line of fire and close to hit him—
The sound of the gunshot might as well have been a cannon. Barbara knew, after the fact, that it was a kill shot. The barrel had been lined up with her head.
But at the time she just heard it, and then felt a blast of wind all around her. A blue specter seemed to flash in front of her, bursting with crackling light like off a sparkler. And then Barbara was a good five feet to her left and Mazur was coming out of a spin like a top, shrieking in terror.
Barbara drove forward, driving a knee into Mazur to double him over, then head butting up and slamming him down. She dropped on him, slamming her hand into his face three times then rolling off him before he could grab her.
Mazur didn’t move. He just bled, very unconscious. The gun was off to the side. Barbara pushed herself up to her knees, looking at it. Semi-auto. Looked like a 1911. Yeah. Colt auto. A .45 cal. Pretty serious gun…
“Oh my God,” John was saying. “What do I do? What do I do? Do I call the cops?”
“No,” Teddy half-shouted. “No, go back to the restaurant! You never saw either of us, and you never saw Mazur. Stay out of this!”
“Yeah — yeah, all right!”
Barbara barely noticed the line cook run past her. She moved closer to the gun. The hammer was cocked back, but distorted. She realized it was deformed like… like it had melted. But along the rear sight and down where the firing pin lay it was white…
No. It was frozen. The hammer was melted, and the firing pin assembly and rear of the gun had been frozen, while the gun itself had been taken out of Mazur’s hand and dropped on the ground.
“Barbara?!” Teddy was saying. “Barbara?! Are you all right?”
Barbara shook her head, almost in annoyance. “I’m fine,” she said. She looked around for anything else, any other clue—
Lying on the ground, probably right about where she’d been standing just before Mazur had fired, there was a small grey lump. It didn’t look like much of anything, but Barbara was pretty sure ballistics would say it was a bullet. Specifically, a bullet fired from that gun, right at Barbara’s head.
“Grab my bag,” she said, her voice almost distant. “Give it to me. I’ll get pictures. You grab a cop.”
“A co— what do I tell them?”
“Tell them Joe Mazur just tried to shoot me in the head, and that he’s lying here bleeding in an alley.”
“But — but what about—“
“Just do it, Teddy. We’ll work out the rest later.” Barbara reached over and picked up the bullet.
It was cold to the touch. Not ambient temperature. Not hot from the gun. Cold. In exactly the way bullets don’t get when they’re fired.
Maybe the haechi really did eat fire.
Las Bendiciones, CA
Las Bendiciones International Airport
Mason was trying and failing to read a copy of the Las Bendiciones Tribune. He was tired and a little frazzled. It had been a pretty long day, and it would get even longer. The flight would only reach Benito Juárez at two in the morning, and then the next flight would take off at eight-thirty. His travel agent couldn’t confirm a nearby hotel booking for the layover, so Mason was going to spend the overnight in a Mexican airport terminal, followed by another couple hours in the air before he made it to Ichkanzihóo.
Still, the fact that he was waiting for his flight at all was remarkable. He’d had an argument with his boss over it. Chester Stanton had risen through the ranks at Arclight Technologies and had very orthodox business views. Maybe it was a good thing for a manager — Mason didn’t know. He just knew it made being an engineer under him that much harder.
Mason had told him he needed to take time off on an emergency basis for personal reasons. Stanton had pushed back. He’d cited eight projects that would be delayed. Stanton only got angry when Mason explained that they were ahead on six of those projects, and that the other two didn’t have anything to do with Mason or his workload. That had just made Stanton angrier.
Mason supposed it was partially his own fault. He didn’t generally push back when people imposed or demanded things of him. It was easier just to give them what they wanted. So, when he wouldn’t give in to Stanton, Stanton lost it. Mason let him shout himself hoarse, then said, as calmly as possible, that he was going to be getting on the next available flight. He had plenty of vacation time. He was ahead of his workload. And if he didn’t have a job when he returned, then he was glad he’d had the opportunity to work at Arclight. And he’d left.
Mason wasn’t sure if he’d rather they fired him or not. It was so frustrating there sometimes, especially when he made suggestions he knew would work, but…
Well. It didn’t help to dwell.
“May I have your attention, please?” a pleasant female voice said over the PA. “Aerolíneas Mejorvuelo Flight 335 to Benito Juárez International Airport will be boarding in approximately fifteen minutes. At this time, we ask that passengers on Flight 335 to Benito Juárez please gather all your personal belongings and prepare to board at Gate 19. Once again—“
Mason didn’t move. He was already sitting at Gate 19. At least the flight was on time.
Behind Mason and to the right, Lynette Hardesty was also not quite reading the Las Bendiciones Tribune. In her case, she wasn’t actually trying to read the paper. She just wanted the cover while she kept an eye on Mason Temple. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail for travel, and she’d changed into a slightly more formal business suit with skirt and hose. Her carry-on had all the gear she’d normally need, not counting what she had on her person. She’d put it through security, but the x-ray machine had declined to reveal the gear, and the metal detector had kindly stayed silent on her behalf. She’d flown down from Evergreen City after they’d identified the flight Temple would be on, to make sure Hardesty was on the same plane.
Lynette was listening to the echoes of technology that clung to Temple, both the traces of his engineering work and the different tech he’d brought with him. He’d brought along a decent tool and analysis kit, including some things Lynette had never encountered. He had that portable phone of his, though it would be out of range of its tower not long after takeoff. His watch was a spring powered marvel, clearly made by Temple’s own hand.
Temple had no weapons or other means of defending himself with him. He clearly saw no need for them. Lynette hoped he was right about that. If there were trouble, she’d try to help him, of course. On the one hand he was tremendously valuable and important to American interests. In the times to come his engineering skills would change the course of history, assuming he lived that long.
On the other — more important — hand, he was a human being and an American citizen. The movies loved to show off their shadowy conspiracies and government coverups, where lives were cheap and nothing was more important than the secret. In reality, most people who enlisted or were commissioned in the military actually wanted to serve their country. Project Tangent Swan, in particular, was more interested in protecting America than maintaining the status quo at all costs. It was Lynette’s job to make sure Mason Temple came back to America safe and sound.
Of course, if there were xenotechnolgical artifacts or something equally valuable on the Yucatán Peninsula… and if she had to choose between them and Temple…
Lynette sighed, and turned a page in her otherwise ignored paper. She would just have to avoid circumstances where she’d have to make that choice, for everyone’s sake.
Crown City, IL
Crown City Chronicle building
14th floor Conference Room
“So, let me get this entirely straight,” Bernie said, sitting at the head of the conference table. “You were investigating the I-94 incident from yesterday, which took you to Binghamton Park, and you just happened to survive an assassination attempt against you by one of Carlotti’s thugs, despite my explicitly taking you off the story. That’s what you’re telling me?” It was almost eight pm, and Bernie was clearly tired.
“Well, yeah,” Teddy said. He and Barbara were on one side of the table just down from Bernie. Chad Keillor was on the other. “And come on. When someone literally takes a shot at a reporter, that’s news regardless of the Carlotti thing. Of course we were going to write it up.”
Bernie narrowed her eyes, then nodded slightly, a crooked smile touching her lips. “And you thought unicorn hunting was a bad idea.”
“Excuse me?” Keillor asked. “Unicorn hunting?” He looked a bit uncomfortable. He clearly hadn’t expected to be pulled into a meeting like this on his first day.
“It’s a long story,” Bernie said. “Consider it an inside joke—“
“Remember this morning, when you asked why we were investigating the I-94 Westbound Miracle?” Barbara grinned broadly. “That was us hunting a unicorn. Since there are no unicorns, we can hunt one while poaching a deer. And in this case the deer is Nowak/Carlotti.”
“Which explains the article you had me fact-check,” Keillor said. “Okay… that makes sense.”
“We got lucky,” Teddy said. “Not only did we get a pretty juicy deer on day one? We were in the middle of interviewing someone for the I-94 story. Barbara carries a tape recorder in her handbag. She had it on while we were talking to Sobang, so we caught a lot of what Mazur was shouting. Including him specifically naming Carlotti and Lisowski. And alleging Carlotti owned the police and that Mazur’s life was in danger.”
“Honestly, we have to print the story,” Barbara said. “Getting attention on Mazur’s claim makes it less likely he’ll be murdered in police custody.”
“Oh, we’re printing the story,” Bernie said. “This one’s a slam dunk. A lot of the audio on that tape was garbled—“
“Yeah, I had to drop the bag so I could crawl the guy before he shot me in the face.”
“Whatever. We have enough to corroberate. If we could get Sobang on the record—”
“That’s a death sentence for Sobang,” Teddy said. “We don’t need it. We have what we actually need from him, which is Sobang talking about his haechi. Even if we have idle conversation from Sobang about Lisowski on the tape, none of it’s stuff that Carlotti or Lisowski would find incriminating. And since the police heard and impounded the original tape—“
“Original?” Keillor asked.
Barbara looked smug. “Anyone can have a portable tape recorder. It takes a special person to have one that records two tapes at once. It’s always good to be able to solemnly hand over your cassette to the nice officer who asks for it, and still not lose anything.”
“The point is, Sobang should be in the clear,” Teddy said, raising his voice slightly. “If anything, they’ll be glad to hear the average person’s scared.”
Bernie nodded. She looked at Keillor. “Anything on review?”
“Not much. I caught a detail, but it wasn’t a huge one.”
“What detail?” Barbara asked, narrowing her eyes.
“The handgun. You said it was a .45 caliber Colt automatic. It wasn’t. It was an AMT Hardballer.”
Barbara flushed. “I know a 1911 when I see it!”
“Sure, but this is a knockoff. Well, a clone. It’s designed for hardball rounds, which is where the name comes from, but that’s probably obvious. Actually, the Hardballer’s the first pistol using the 1911 design to be entirely made out of stainless steel.”
Barbara snorted, then looked away. “I’m going to spend at least part of every day annoyed with you, aren’t I?”
“Uh, well… probably?” Keillor looked around, awkwardly. “I mean—”
“It’s fine, librarian. It was a good catch.” She paused. “You got a lot of good catches today. I’m glad you’re on the team,” she said, though she didn’t turn back to look at him.
“And having successfully navigated an Afterschool Special, I’m going to get this up the line so I can go home.” Bernie grabbed the story and headed out the conference room door.
Keillor shifted, still uncomfortable. “So… you two were pulled off the Nowak/Carlotti story?”
“Officially,” Barbara muttered.
Keillor nodded. “But you gave me a draft of an Nowak exposé.”
Teddy and Barbara looked at each other for a moment. Teddy looked back at Keillor. “Well. We had to know if you were any good,” he said.
“And… was I? I passed the test? I found the errors you expected me to find?”
“You’re here, aren’t you?” Barbara sighed, turning to face Keillor too. “Look. Teddy’s the diplomatic one. I’m feisty.”
“She means sociopathic,” Teddy said.
“Let’s stick with feisty,” Barbara snapped. “I get passionate and angry, and I take things out on people sometimes. You’ll catch a lot of that. Teddy gets it from me too. And after the stuff I said yesterday, I’m kind of shocked Bernie didn’t fire me.”
“Barbara and I work really well together,” Teddy said. “In part because I’m used to her, and I know what she’s like. I don’t take offense easily. But she decided she trusts you.”
“She… did?” Keillor asked.
“She told you about the unicorn thing. That’s not nothing.”
“Look, the point’s this. I’m a terrible person. If I didn’t have Teddy as my partner, I’d be out on my butt and probably end up homeless and on fire.”
“Wait, literally on fire?” Teddy asked.
“Oh, like you’ve never caught fire.”
“Anyway.” Teddy smiled a bit more. “Chad, there’s almost no one here we know we can trust with Nowak stuff. If we get caught out, then we’re directly insubordinate, and we don’t know who leaked our work to Carlotti. But we know it couldn’t have been you. And… as it turns out, you bring more to the table than… um…”
“Then a seventy-six year old spinster nun at the local public library,” Barbara said. “But… working with us… with me… I’m not easy to work with.”
Keillor looked from Barbara to Teddy and back. “I have no problem working with either of you,” he said. “And I have no problem researching Councillor Nowak or Carlotti ‘off the record’ for the two of you. I’m… happy to help. Really.” He smiled a bit more. “To tell the truth, I’m glad to hear the… uh… ‘unicorn’ isn’t really what you’re looking for.”
“Gosh, really?” Teddy grinned.
“Though, for the record? I wouldn’t underestimate librarian nuns. Though… I think a seventy-six year old nun’s going to be a spinster by definition.”
“Widows can take the vows!”
Keillor opened his mouth, then smiled. “Point taken and conceded.”
“Yes! See, this will work.” Barbara grinned openly.
“Hey, I know it’s been a long first day, but… Barbara and I are gonna go grab a drink. You want to come?”
Keillor blinked. “A drink? I… yeah. Oh, but… I… I’m supposed to go meet my roommate for a thing. I… how about tomorrow night?”
Teddy paused, and glanced at Barbara, who glanced back.
“Sure,” Teddy said.
“Tomorrow night it is,” Barbara chimed in.
“Thanks. Um… I should… get—“
“Leave, leave.” Barbara grinned.
Keillor grinned and stood. “Thanks. Nice to be working with you both.” He left.
“Guy is not smooth,” Teddy said. “And you were right. Telling him about the bullet would have been too far.”
Barbara slid her hand into her handbag. She had the deformed bullet in one of the inner pockets, and feeling the lump through the fabric was reassuring. “He’s not ready for it. Neither’s Bernie. God knows we didn’t want to complicate the police investigation into Mazur. No one’s supposed to admit they saw a unicorn on one of these hunts.”
“Not until we have more, anyway.”
“Yeah.” Barbara frowned a bit. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.” She pushed up and dashed out the door, missing Teddy’s reply.
She caught up to Keillor just as he had stepped into the elevator. He put a hand on the door. keeping it from shutting. “Ms. Babcock? Going down?”
“No, not yet,” she said. “Um… that really was a good job on the Nowak/Carlotti.”
“Oh. Well, thank you.” He pushed the button.
“I gotta know. How’d you… how you find those vote discrepancies so fast? I hammered those records for days!”
Keillor blinked, and smiled a bit. “How? Ms. Babcock…” The elevator buzzed a warning buzz, so he shrugged and stepped back. “I’m a librarian.”
Barbara watched the doors close. She stared at them for a moment. “Damn it,” she muttered. “I walked right into that.”
The Seas off Devil’s Knot, NC
The Graveyard of the Atlantic
The shoals along the southern coast of North Carolina were treacherous and sharp. The seas churned and mixed, most weather made more dangerous as fog clung to the area like a well knit shroud and sandbars cropped up like hungry fingers grasping for new sport. A hundred feet or more below the whitecapped water’s surface, the sea bed was strewn and embedded with the timbers and steel of more than five hundred ships, and the bones of their ill fated crew. Some fell to mischance, some to bad weather. Some were even lured by terrible men on the shore, using lights on horseback to make it seem like there was open water beyond, so they could plunder a fresh wreck of all it had. The USS Monitor — the first ironclad of the navy — rested down deep along these shoals. Blackbeard the Pirate’s own Queen Anne’s Revenge went aground here. German U-Boats would take ships down like ducks in a shooting gallery at one point during the Second World War. Some of those submarines never left, their hulls open and their crews as lost as their enemies. Battleships and sloops, merchants and marines… the sea didn’t care, and neither did this place they called the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
During daylight and good weather, divers liked to head down and explore the wreckage and the reefs those remains formed as nature reclaimed steel, wood, and bone. At all hours and in all weather, amberjack and deadly barracuda swam among the timbers and spars, looking for the prey that nestled into hiding among the skeletal frames. Despite all who died here, there was life in these waters too.
Life and death. Life among death.
Life-in-Death. This place was special to her.
In the waters and the hidden shallows he lay, sleeping but not sleeping. Dreaming of the waking world, reliving the nightmare that had been his world, so long before. He lay and waited for the curse to claim him once more, to drive him forth from the waters and force him upon the living Earth, his penance never complete, his crime never forgotten.
He didn’t stir. Could he stir? Did he still have corporeal form? Was he given it anew?
The voice was lulling and lovely, deceptively warm over deadliest ice. It was the voice he had known for so long now, the only voice that mattered. Her voice. He belonged to her. “Am I yet alive?” he whispered, his voice echoing, his speech not obscured — as though he were on the shore and in the air, not sixteen fathoms below.
“…oh yes, Augustus… you have so much left before you sleep…” Life-in-Death sounded amused.
He didn’t know if his eyes were open or closed, but he knew he could see. See the waters and their life. See the fish and the flotsam. “How much more?” he whispere
“…there is a reckoning coming, Augustus… a reckoning for the world… and your role must change to fit that reckoning…”
“Change?” he asked, his voice reedy. “Have I not done all bade of me?”
“…it is not what you have done… it is what you will do… look now, my ancient one… look and see…”
He could feel his perceptions shift and flow like the water he felt part of, feel his understanding rise and lift… out of the waters to the long shore of the Carolinas, so different now than when he was young and needed breath to support his existence… out along the glorious beach past the outer banks, on the islands and peninsula-like world… the night gloom was made worse by clouds, lighting up with thunder and wind… until he saw them… saw two… a woman and man… hearts entwined with bright ribbons… newly joined, in marriage or betrothal… a man before them with a knife, in ragged clothes and mind, angry and flailing and uncared for and therefore caring not.
“…no…” he whispered, and was surprised to see all three react, as though they had heard the echoes.
“…that is your thought, Augustus? The thought that this tragedy must not be…?”
If he still had a heart, it was pounding now. The girl so young, the boy so full of life. Both on the threshold waiting to be carried into the fullness of their world. “Please, my Lady,” he whispered. “Stop this.”
Once again the three were looking around themselves. Where two had been scared now three had a panic upon them. He didn’t understand. It had not been like that before, in all those years and decades and centuries…
“…if you would see it stopped… then stop it yourself, Augustus. Or do not. This is your choice and your decision…”
He felt a rush of anger and strength. Anger that his Lady would not intercede. Strength that this once, this once he might do something more than be a harbinger… he felt his hand thrusting forward… felt the timbers beneath his feet… he saw a liminal glow… the faces of the spirits that once had been his comrades driving the ship ever forward in the rushing wind of the oncoming storm…
There was an explosion of water, from which he appeared — a man in body, hand thrust forward as though it were still on the tiller, the water breaking far inland around the three even as his hand — Augustus’s hand — slammed into the ragged assailant, hurling him far back. It was a blow that would kill even a strong man, but this wretch would not die or even overly bear the mark. His aim was not murder, whether righteous or fel. But these two would not be touched this day!
And then he stood, the water pouring off him, leaving him curiously dry as it receded. His hair was long and tangled, brown with white, his beard thick and white and tangled. His thews were those of a youth, but the lines graven in his ruddy face were those of age. A rope like a noose was about his neck still, but broken, the albatross a burden now and not a bird. A grey open shirt and sailor’s breeches and boots rounded him out, as his dark eyes stared out at the man he had felled for the sake of these two.
“Oh my God,” the girl was saying. So young. Her clothes were strange and slight but aroused neither disgust nor lust in Augustus’s heart. His Lady held all his passion and intellect alike. “Oh my God, thank you! Bobby? Bobby, are you okay? Oh my God I — how did you—“
“…there was a ship…” Augustus rasped, feeling the weight of the rope about his neck and the ache in bones that not long before hadn’t even existed.
“Wh-what?” the girl asked, stepping back. Her exultation in life had been shaken now, and her eyes grew wider with fear.”
“…I… we… Bell, let’s get out of—“
“There was a ship!” Augustus roared, wheeling to fix his gaze upon the pair, his eyes glowing in florid green and flowing purple, a glitter that reached out like arms and seized the hearts of the two, freezing them in place and holding them rapt to his words whether they wished or no.
And then, with the two so-fixed in place… the words poured from him like the sea through a breached dike, unstoppable by Augustus or any other force, his voice a hiss and roar, echoing with the furls of sails and the pounding surf and the last gasps of the fallen. “The ship was cleared, the harbour cleared… merrily did we drop below the kirk, below the hill… below the lighthouse top…”
- With thanks to Mason L. Kramer, Matthew Gerber, Roland Burns, and Wednesday Burns-White for their assistance.
- A special thanks to Gary W. Olson. It took longer than expected, but the serial numbers finally wore away just enough.
- I’ve known more than one Catholic Nun who’s been a reference librarian. Their power is mysterious and mighty, and I hope they do not take Barbara’s opinions for mine.
- Captain Prestige is a derivative work based on Whiz Comics and its related works, published by Fawcett beginning in 1940 and currently in the public domain in the United States of America, where this was written. No infringement upon any trademarks or any currently copyrighted material is intended.
- Taë and the Vril-ya first appeared in The Coming Race written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton and first published by Blackwood in 1871.