Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Hypnagogic Jerk

            Isabelle leaned over and placed the book she had been reading on her bedside table. It was a dull story – something she had been recommended by a friend, but it was flat and had a kind of self-righteous conservatism that she found grating. She meant to read at least a quarter of the way into the book, to give it a proper chance, but she expected that when she had, she would abandon the attempt and simply return it.
            It was late at night, which was unfortunate as she had school in the morning. But her sleep was constantly interrupted by odd dreams. Not really dreams, exactly, but rather sounds. She felt as if she could hear a horribly loud crash, but when she was brought back to full consciousness, she found that her room was quiet.
            She had hoped the book would put her to sleep, but sleep seemed to flee from her, so instead she came downstairs to sit in the study, where it was a little warmer than her room and she could sit in her favorite chair.
            When she came to the room, Richard was sitting in the chair, his head propped up with a hand. He noticed her arrival and raised his eyebrows slightly, which to her signified that he was quite startled.
            “Isabelle, you’re still awake?”
            “I’ve been having trouble sleeping, dad.”
            “Yes, that seems to be going around.” Richard broke his gaze with her and took a deep breath.
            “Dad, what’s wrong?”
            “Nothing. Nothing that should concern you… just…”
            “Is it Jim?”
            Richard opened his mouth to speak, but it took him a few seconds before words came. “What makes you say that?”
            “Well, I haven’t seen him around. I know you keep him in the vault most of the time, but there hasn’t been much coming and going there.”
            “He’s a demon, Isabelle. It’s important that you remember that he is not some innocent prisoner. He is a tool to be used, and one that has the potential to be extremely dangerous.”
            Isabelle nodded. She knew to be wary of Jim. Still, evil or no, she was undecided on the ethics of using a demon as her father did. “So he is down there?”
            Richard chuckled, but in a perfunctory manner that betrayed its artifice. “I think that’s enough demon talk tonight. You’ll sleep past school at this rate.”
            “I’ve been trying to sleep. It won’t come. I keep waking up as soon as I think sleep is about to come.”
            “Like a hypnagogic jerk?”
            “Sort of, but I hear sounds instead. Like some terrible crashing sound.”
            Richard considered this. “I don’t know if I have an explanation.” He looked up to the doorway that led to the kitchen. “Would you like some chamomile or mackgrin root tea? I’ll put the kettle on.”
            He got up and walked to the kitchen, setting the stove to heat the kettle.
            “Have you ever been to Sarona, dad?”
            “Once. When I was about twenty. I went on holiday in Damana. I should like to return at some point. Perhaps when we’ve got you into the rhythms of college life next year we could go during the winter break.”
            “Did you get to go out into the desert?”
            “Get to? I suppose I had the opportunity, but you know I’ve always been somewhat more enamored of urban locales.”
            “I think I’d like to go into the desert. Far enough to see the Path of Aeoes, at least.”
            “Well, you know, you can see the Path of Aeoes from Retrein, if you have the right telescope.”
            “No, I mean with the naked eye. I’ve seen photographs where it looks almost solid.”
            “Yes, well, I think that such a thing would be something more of a production than a quick day-trip out of Damana. You’d probably need to go a few thousand miles, which is not particularly easy out in uninhabited desert.”
            Isabelle sighed. “I suppose it’s not particularly practical.”
            “Well,” said Richard. “I’m sure you could find some people who would like to join you in your expedition, but I think I’d be ill-suited to such a sojourn.”
            Isabelle was quiet for a moment. The kettle began to whistle, and Richard stood up and poured each of them a cup of chamomile. The water was still quite hot, so Isabelle accepted the cup but waited before she drank.
            “Was there something about an observatory in Arizradna? I seem to recall something about that. Perhaps it was on the news.”
            “An observatory?”
            “Something like the Long Field… Deep Field? No… anyway… I thought there was some catastrophe, and they hadn’t been able to find the people stationed there.”
            “I hadn’t heard about it,” said Richard.
            “I think that might be what the sounds I’m hearing are. That is to say, I think that in my mind, I am subconsciously imagining what it sounded like when the telescope fell.”
            “The telescope fell?” said Richard. “Was it one of those great suspended things, miles up in the air? Dear lord, what a mess.”
            “Yes, I think so.”
            “Well, as I’m sure you know, there is no enormous telescope suspended above our house, so you should be safe to sleep tonight.” Richard smirked, and Isabelle returned this with her own pleasant smile.
            She drank the tea and began to relax. “All right, I think I’m going to attempt sleep once more,” she said. And with that, she returned up to her room.

            Richard sipped his tea. He only wished his concerns were so minor. Jim had not returned from Sweet Clara’s house. Two scenarios presented themselves, neither of which was an appealing possibility. In one, Jim had somehow gotten himself unleashed, allowing him to visit actual profound violence against Clara or any bystanders in Ravenfort, for that matter. The other possibility was that Jim had somehow been caught, which seemed unlikely, but perfectly within the realm of possibility given that Henry Thall was involved.
            It had been petty. He had justified himself, thinking that if he could exploit Clara’s fear that Jim had seen, he might manipulate her to his advantage. Yet now his most valuable asset was missing, and Richard could see soberly that it was a momentary flare of anger at the perceived threat to his daughter that had led him to this misstep. Control must be maintained. That Henry had laid a trap for him Richard had no doubt. All the killings were meant to accomplish something, but their ultimate purpose remained elusive. Richard had not lost himself to Henry’s trap just yet, but if he could not get Jim back, he would be vulnerable. Jim’s use as a bodyguard had been proved, but it was his innate ability to see into people and sense their thoughts and dreams that made him indispensible.
            He would not be able to move immediately to get Jim back, for that was certain to be a trap of some sort. Richard even worried about calling Jim back – his binding was expertly done, but again, Henry was an expert as well.
            These thoughts circled each other in Richard’s head until the morning twilight began to illuminate the world around him. He felt stale and sweaty. His clothes were somehow both too warm and too cold. A half hour after the sun began to show, the newspaper landed on the Airbrights’ front walk.
            Richard opened his door and gathered the paper up. There was little of particular interest until he spotted a small headline on the bottom half of the front page. “Astronomical Observatory in Arizradna Collapses.”
            He read on through the article. The Deep Field Observatory, which had been generously funded by the Sinret Project based in the Redlands, suffered some sort of malfunction that caused the suspended telescope to fall down and crush the observatory. The scientists stationed at the observatory had not been confirmed to be located, but some bodies had been found in the wreckage.

            It had happened during the night, just when Isabelle had come downstairs. Richard looked up to Isabelle’s window. The light was still on.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2014)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

1. Off Route 27A

            Yael Tucker sits in her dusty blue truck. There is a black cardboard cup filled with lukewarm tea in the cup holder. The radio is tuned to 87.3 FM, and hisses with static of a silent airwave. In the passenger seat, there is a shotgun and a box of cartridges. The right side-mirror has been smashed, and only a few shards of glass remain on the mirror’s mount.
            Above, the sky is pale blue. It is hot within the cabin of the truck. The windows in the doors are still up, and the light shimmers in the distance over the desert floor.
            The truck is a half mile off of Route 27A. 27A is the highway that leads between Towatki and Bajada before becoming simply Route 27 as it continues north toward Damana. Yael cannot see any of those cities from here. She is in the desert.
            A mile away, a rough rock cliff rises, and a few scraggly plants grow in its shadow. The truck dings at her, indicating that she should fasten her seatbelt while the vehicle is on.
            Yael turns the key, and the motor powers down. Her face is covered in sweat. She wipes her forehead, only to smear dark red blood across it. She looks down and finds that her sleeve is positively dyed crimson. She takes the shirt off, leaving only her sleeveless undershirt on.
            She has no idea where she is, except that she is just off route 27A.
            She does not know how she got there. She does not know how long she has been there. The clock on the dashboard reads that it is three in the afternoon. Her clothes stick to her because of the sweat, and her right arm is still red with blood. The light hairs on her arm are slicked down with it.
            Hesitantly, Yael grips the door handle and pulls. The door swings, creaking. She is shaking as she lifts one sore leg up and over the threshold of the vehicle’s cabin, stepping down on the desert hardpan.
            She steadies herself on the side of her blue truck, but it is painful. The metal has grown extremely hot in the sun. The oven-like air from the truck blasts its way out behind her. The air outside is hot as well, but it is a relief from the sweltering sweatbox from which she has emerged.
            She feels shaken, as if she had just experienced nausea. She stumbles slightly, freeing her other leg from the truck, but steadies herself. Her legs are burning with a powerful ache. She is thirsty.
            She walks around to the back of the truck. She keeps water in the covered compartment underneath the flatbed. When she comes around to the back, she finds that the tailgate is open. Its surface is dark with blood. She peers beyond it, and there is a man propped up against the back of the truck’s cab. It is his blood.
            The man is of a medium build and heavy. He has close-cropped curly hair and a dark beard. His eyes are closed. There are flies buzzing around him. If he is breathing, his breaths are shallow. He wears an olive-grey uniform that is stained dark with blood.
            There is a name on the uniform. It reads “Welker.” Welker has a holster on his belt, but the gun has been removed. There is a rusted and dinged shovel next to him.
            She climbs up into the back of the truck. Cautiously, she approaches Welker. He does not react. She places a hand on his shoulder and squeezes. Welker falls over. She feels his neck for a pulse. She cannot find one.
            The bloody trail does not end at the tailgate. Someone must have dragged Welker through the desert and gotten him up into the truck. The trail leads onward, out into the desert and up to that rough cliff. The trail shrinks to a vanishing point, but the direction is clear.
            She returns to the cab and retrieves the shotgun. She checks it and finds that it is unloaded. She takes a box of cartridges and stuffs it into her back pocket. The gun is heavy and the metal of the barrel is hot. Her bloody right arm is sore as she hoists the gun onto her shoulder.
            Half a mile down the trail, she finds the remains of a chain-link fence. There is a sign on the fence that reads “Warning: Trespassing Forbidden. Hazardous Environment.”
            The sign is covered in dust. It is bent and the paint has cracked.
            She returns to the truck. She puts the shotgun back in the passenger seat. She sits once again in the driver’s seat and turns the truck’s motor on.
            The truck jostles and heaves as it makes its way over the rocky hardpan. The radio signal remains a low static hum. There is a path that is clearly apparent, where dust has been kicked up and the scraggly plants have been flattened. Yael follows this path.
            As she approaches the rough cliff of dark red stone, it becomes clearer to her that it is very large. There are spires of gleaming metal and charred trees at the top of the cliff. In the bright daylight, it is hard to see, but she notices that there are flames licking the metal – bright, purple flames.
            Before long, the trail leads her to a road. The road circles the rocky cliff and then begins to ascend it. When she reaches the top, she finds a mass of wreckage. Metal beams, and a large metallic cylinder that has been smashed and is charred lie across the top of the cliff. There is what appears to be some kind of ruined building beneath the wreckage, but there is so much debris that it is hard to be sure.
            Closer now, the vibrant purple flames are easier to see. The flames hover in midair, as if they are burning invisible objects. There is a body in the road before her.
            The body looks like a rag doll that had been tossed aside by a child at play. She stops the truck. She steps out and approaches the body. It is a man wearing dark blue camouflage. His face is painted in similar patterns. There is a dark fluid coming from his eyes. It is pungent and unpleasant and deep black. The body itself has shrunken. It has been out in the sun for a long time. Several days, at least.
            Yael returns to the truck. She opens up the compartment with the water. Alongside several gallon-sized jugs is a jacket. It is the same olive-grey color and style as Welker’s. She picks it up. The name on the jacket reads Tucker.
            Yael drinks some of the water. She then pours some over her arm. The blood was clearly not hers, and as far as she can tell, she is free of injury. She imagines it is Welker’s. She does not know who Welker is, or rather was.
            Yael looks out over the desert to the east. The Great Sarona stretches out for thousands of miles before her. Yael takes a deep breath. She sees a glimmer out in the desert. There is something there. Either it is reflecting the sun’s light or it is itself a light.
            “…tion… A-7-6-B. Release… Station…” the radio blurts. Yael returns to her truck and attempts to better tune the radio, but she cannot find a stronger signal than that on 87.3.
            She drives down the hill. There is a road here that leads back in the direction of Towatki. She drives off of it, instead heading east. The signal on the radio grows stronger.
            “Station A-7-6-B. Release Measures…”
            She drives for nearly an hour. The battery indicator on the dashboard drops from 75% to 65%. The radio signal grows clearer. The message, on repeat, goes thusly:
            “Station A-7-6-B. Release Measures Engaged. Breach Observed. This is not a drill. Breach Observed. Templar One has lost containment.”
            The blinking white light comes closer. Alone in the vast desert plain, there is a small building, not much larger than a freight container. The building is a half-cylinder of corrugated steel. Next to the building is a short radio tower. It is from the top of this tower that the brilliantly bright, flashing light emits.
            Yael gets out of the truck, once again taking the shotgun with her. She loads the gun, but keeps the safety on. She approaches the door of the building. It is slightly ajar.
            She opens it and steps inside. There is a desk with a microphone and radio equipment. In the back of the building is a computer console with several monitors. Some of the monitors read “Containment Failure.”
            Sand has blown in through the door and has collected in a small cone.
            Yael walks over to the computer console. The central monitor indicates that of the five containment facilities, two have been breached.
            “You’re back,” says the man behind her.
            Yael turns. The man is white, with short, thinning hair and dark sunglasses. He wears a black suit. He smiles, but she does not think it is a friendly smile.
            “I see you haven’t buried him yet. It’s been a while. I would worry about the smell. Bury him in just a foot or so of soil and that will do.”
            “Where am I?”
            “Just off Route 27A.”
            “What is this building?”
            “Your office.”
            “Who are you?”
            The man in the black suit shrugs.
            “You don’t remember either?” asks Yael.
            “No, I remember just fine,” says the man in the black suit. “You really should bury him. He deserves it.”
            The radio recording is playing out loud in the room. She hears that name again: Templar One.
            “What is Templar One?” asks Yael.

            “I was hoping that you could tell me,” says the Man in the Black Suit.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Cut It

            To him. To him.
            (We are one in the machine.)
            To him. To him.
            (We are one in the machine.)
            For the first time in ages, Stalav had a headache. The flesh in his skull that had not rotted away had mummified. He had no physiological capability of feeling a headache, but then, there was no physiological way that he could still think or walk or see. His undeath sustained him, but he had not felt anything quite like this true and distracting pain since he had been a living man.
            They were getting too close to town. He would have to make his move quickly, or he would lose his opportunity. It was unlikely that they would stop to sleep for more than one night. If he got lucky, he might be able to kill both of the women in a frontal attack in broad daylight, but he did not like his chances. He was missing an arm, after all, and the headache was always getting stronger.
            (All the more reason to strike soon.)
            He knew the forest well, and he could walk silently. Stalav had marched in the legions of the Icelord for countless years. He had slain many wanderers in the forest, and they did not see him until he was upon them. The Icelord’s magic was not limited to mere necromancy. That was his gift – the one that he bestowed upon his reverent human disciples. But the Icelord’s power was far greater. Stalav could walk over snow without making a print. He could see clearly in near-total darkness. Stalav had in the past been used as a vessel through which the Icelord could do his work, and had effectively raised his own minions from death.
            But such confidence could in turn become overconfidence. The humans of the northeastern coast had been strong fighters, and had met the Icelord’s legions with ferocity and valor. Stalav respected them. And without the Icelord’s song in his mind, he could not be certain he still possessed the powers that would give him the edge in a confrontation.
            He kept his distance, following the women’s tracks, though sometimes he would come closer to peer at them. The tough-looking woman with the military uniform would be first. And then… and then… and then…
            Why? What would that accomplish?
            Stalav nearly stumbled when this thought came to him. The voice that asked this in his head was his own, but the thought seemed to shock him. It was as if someone else had been narrating his thoughts until this one.
            (We are one in the machine.)
            Horrific pain shot through his head. It felt as if someone was jamming a steel bolt directly through his temples. He had not felt this level of pain for so very long. He dropped to one bony knee, and he could hear a small shard of his kneecap as it chipped off from the rest of the bone.
            No, he thought. This was some sort of interference. Something that was trying to prevent him from serving the Icelord. Perhaps it was that witch, Giladra…
            Giladra’s dead. Has been for months.
            Stalav tried to remember what had happened to the witch. She was a member of the Stag’s Head Cult, but she stayed out in the forest. The Icelord had commanded his subjects to leave her be. They had come to some kind of arrangement, but then… Someone had killed her. There had been some kind of panic amongst his fellows at Castle Dusk… Stalav struggled to remember the details.
            My mind is going.
            No, his mind couldn’t be going. It hadn’t gone anywhere since he died. The Icelord spoke to him and acted through him, and everything was correct and right.
            Stalav, why are you trying to kill these women?
            (We are one in the machine.)
            Because they would… Because he had to…
            The arm, Stalav. Look at your shoulder.
            He moved his head slowly, allowing his eyes to fall upon the shoulder stump. The stump was pure white, whiter than the snow. It had become square, and only after a few inches did the upper arm gradually turn into the grey flesh that was his own.
            It’s spreading.
            No. It couldn’t be spreading. He had cut off the arm. He had amputated it. The corruption was removed. The faceless man had touched only his hand and his wrist. Both were far removed from his body.
            But it’s spreading.
            (We are one in the machine.)
            Stalav shook his head, which was now pounding and grinding and he felt like his teeth were going to explode out of his mouth.
            You couldn’t bear to lose the entire arm. You couldn’t cut the flesh where it was still yours. There’s still something of the human being you once were. He left it for you. You were not a simple thrall, some zombie. You were one of his chosen champions, and you were allowed to keep your name. He kept you human enough to think and to lead, but now, well. Now you’re paying the price for that.
            Stalav grabbed hold of his head, dropping his sword and burying his face in the frigid snow.
            You doomed yourself because you were not willing to cut where it counted. You were afraid. You were weak. And now…
            “I have to kill them!” he tried to scream. But in that moment he had forgotten how old and useless his vocal chords were. He did not need speech when the Icelord spoke directly to him and his comrades.
            No. Stalav. You don’t have to. He hasn’t told you to kill them. He is gone, Stalav. You are on your own, and you will probably be gone soon as well. Cut it. Cut it now, before it…

            (WE ARE ONE IN THE MACHINE.)

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2014)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Two Choices

            The ride up the lift took a long time. For several moments, Nascine stood in silence. Darron had explained on the walk over that they would pass through a “shared space.” The space was somehow both in Narcia and Retrein, and by walking through in a certain way or direction – that detail was foggy – one would step out of it in one place or the other.
            When she got in the elevator, she had asked him when they would pass through it, but he claimed they already had. There had been no indication that they were passing through some sort of magical portal. They had simply walked through an ordinary building and, apparently, had come out somewhere far away.
            She looked Darron over. He was tall, with black skin and wide eyes that seemed to scan his surroundings with constant vigilance. He wore a high-necked jacket not unlike the one she wore on her bike, but his was kept unzipped, presumably to allow easier access to the gun he kept at his side.
            She did not trust Barclay or any of these people. She was only confident that they were not going to kill her because logically, there was little reason to have kept her alive so long. They had not questioned her, and had never suggested any kind of ultimatum.
            She had been drowning. That she would believe. The smell in her hair after she had first woken up had all the elements of a filthy, urban river. And given that she had wound up with this lot immediately afterward, it stood to reason that they had been the ones to fish her out.
            But beyond that, there was little she could take at face value.
            “So I will arrive at the hospital. Your people will check me out. I will report to the Rookery and tell them only that I was taken in my apartment and that I woke in the hospital.”
            “Yes. Anything before you were drugged and after the hospital is up to you whether to tell them or not.”
            She nodded. There were decisions to make.
            First, ought she to defy them? After all, it was possible that Barclay was just as good as he said he was. Perhaps Darron and his ilk were true allies. Second, did they expect her to defy them? The House seemed to be quite good at misdirection. Did they expect her to defy them, and thus, by doing so, would she be serving their purposes? If she were to tell the Rookery about Barclay’s team, it could draw attention to Barclay and away from the mole. Yet by following their commands, was she not betraying her own side in hiding information from them?
            The difficulty in deciding this question was that, in order to do what was correct, she needed not to determine her trust in Barclay, but rather his trust in her.
             The lift slowed. It was one of these rudimentary, industrial lifts that one imagined one would find in a mine. On two sides, the bare rock wall slid down around them. They were ascending slowly enough that the bright, industrial lights set into the rock around them made a kind of shadow-puppetry of them on the opposite wall. With each floor, Nascine and Darron’s figures would elongate until they were great towers of shadow, and then vanish, to be replaced with a new set of shadows.
            Finally, the lift came to a stop. The door opened, but there was still no sunlight. Instead, there was just a large tunnel carved from white stone. Apart from the lights around the lift, there did not appear to be any more illumination, so that there was just a square of darkness that emerged as one looked farther down the tunnel. “Take this flashlight,” said Darron, and he handed her one of the gallon-sized torches arrayed just outside of the lift’s door.
            “Where will this let out?”
            “It’s a small town named after the ruins left there.”
            “I hadn’t heard of it.”
            “The ruins have been picked over for a while. They date back before Meriah. Built by the Woodfolk.”
            “I see.” It was a little frustrating that this Narcian knew more about the place than she did, but then, the Rookery tended to focus on things abroad. After all, you couldn’t steal artifacts for Retrein if they were already in the country.
            “We’re about a track east of Ravenfort,” said Darron.
            Twenty miles away, thought Nascine. And East! Not downstream. How far did they carry me from the river?
            The old mine was fairly linear, and the few turns they made were at right angles. It dawned on her that the mine hadn’t been built to follow a particular vein of ore or to haul blocks of stone either. It was probably only there to access the shared space.
            And who had been behind such a thing? Was it the House? Surely, if it was not the House, then how would they keep such a place a secret?
            “How are you doing? Do you need a rest?” They had been walking for nearly an hour. Darron pulled a thin canteen out of his jacket and offered it to her. The air here was dry and cold. She took a sip from it and passed it back. Darron took a big swig. He set down his torch, allowing it to project a long, narrow cone of light that spread out and faded as it grew more distant.
            It was dark. Darker than Nascine had ever seen. Where the light of the torches did not touch the stone, there was only inky blackness, or perhaps just a bare, faint reflection from light that had bounced between the walls many times. If they were to turn off their torches, it would be like total blindness.
            If the torches were destroyed, they might be forever lost.
            Now is not your time, Emily, she said to herself.
            “How much farther is it?” asked Nasicne, attempting to sound only bored and tired.
            “Not that far,” said Darron, providing absolutely no useful information. Except that perhaps he was unsure. Or perhaps he wished her to remain unsure. Even “not much farther” might have suggested they were over halfway through. He had either chosen those words precisely, Nascine decided.
            He was sure or he was not sure. She could tell the Rookery everything or nothing.
            Nascine recalled now an anecdote about a head of state, she believed it had been Jaran Hashel, President of Narcia about thirty years ago, who had been infamous for being an unintelligent puppet of his advisors. Hashel, she believed, had explained that he was the “Decider.” His Vizier of Security, whose name Nascine could not remember, explained this nickname in an interview that every morning, he would brief the President and present Hashel with the options he had, and then the President would decide between them.
            Of course, the troubling truth of all this, plain to see, was that it was really the Vizier – an unelected official – who was determining the policy of the nation. President Hashel was presented with the illusion of having only two choices, and thus, his Vizier was able to control him.
            Barclay had, effectively, given her two options: In following his instructions, she would be telling the Rookery that he did not exist. In defying him, she would be telling them that he did.
            Yet implicit in these two options was what Barclay would get either way: that Nascine return to the Rookery.
            The tunnel stretched onward into darkness. Darron plodded on steadily. He was just slightly behind her, so that she could only see him in her peripheral vision. Nascine slowed her pace, ever so slightly, so that after twenty steps or so, she would be behind him. Darron slowed to match her, always remaining behind her.
            Not here. Not now. You don’t know the way.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2014)

Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Haunting on Vinebarrel Street

            Jim felt more comfortable at night. Admittedly, it was a human construct, dividing the day, as the old song went. After all, the tiny pinpricks above were really no different than the large orb that flew overhead during the day – in fact, in this world, the sun was actually far smaller than any other star, and it did truly revolve around the planet, when in the previous world the sun that gave the humans daylight had been a fairly ordinary star, and the human planet a fairly standard ball of rock – but those pinpricks were far away and dim, and the land was dark, and thus a demon’s time was night. Humans feared the night because when they first evolved, the animals that threatened them hunted in the dark. Darkness became synonymous with fear and death, and thus evil, and thus demons. And thus, Jim.
            Retrein was rarely free of rain. Even in the middle of summer, precipitation and leaden skies were common, and during the winter, a clear day was the rarity. The entire country was constantly soaked. The Retrons had adapted their culture to the weather. All the major cities in Retrein were built on hills for drainage, and their architecture was all steeply sloped roofs and channels to keep the rain from eroding the foundations. The old, wooden buildings projected a scent of mould as one passed their doors.
            Even in the richest neighborhoods where the aristocracy had their city homes, the scent of rot could not be totally hidden. It was as if the land itself wished to remind the world that this was the nation of thieves.
            And Jim loved it. When he had first arrived in this world, he had spent some time tormenting the djinn and the Arizradna. He had passed a few centuries bloodying the darker alleys of Damana, back when he was known as Quiet Jabr, but when he traveled across the Tempestine Ocean and found himself on this rain-swept island off the northern coast of Ganlea, he knew he was home. He had watched the Narcians invade and set up their colony, and he had seen that colony grow into a nation called Retrein around him.
            He had not felt this free since Airbright had enthralled him. He drifted through the air, the chilly wind (because even without rain, there was always a chilly wind) rippling through his smoky form. Yet even as he did so, he could feel the dead weight of the cold iron shackles pulling his arms downward.
            He wore his slavery. He could not ever be allowed to forget it. Jim had never personally encountered Richard’s ancestor Paul, but for all the modern Airbright’s pretenses, the family had not lost its callous cruelty. Paul Airbright had been infamous for torturing his victims so that they would come back as willing slaves after he murdered them. Jim had always been impressed with his ingenuity. In fact, the elder Airbright was the only criminal in Narcia ever sentenced to death for his crimes. Queen Samanithia had commuted the sentence, instead making the necromancer the first inmate of the prison built out of his own home. In practice, Airbright had traded death for house arrest, which had caused quite the uproar.
            But where Paul Airbright had been allowed to live out his life in captivity, no court would have sympathy for Jim. Trials were for humans or djinn, and Jim had never been anything remotely like either. Besides, he had caused far more deaths than his master’s ancestor, though most of them had been indirect. None of the humans of this world knew of the victory their fellows had won in the last one, yet they still carried the arrogance of the triumphant when dealing with demons like him.
            So Jim did not feel sorry for what he did to them in return.
            It was easiest, then, to think of his current directive as if it had been his own idea. Take Airbright out of the mix, and, well, this Clara person was precisely the kind that he would target anyway. There was a kind of arrogance to putting on a brave face. Denying one’s fear was, in a strange way, a sort of lack of integrity.
            Add that to the fact that Clara had sold out the most basic moral principles for her current prosperity, and she seemed ripe for torment. Not to mention that she had been a whore, though that provided more of a cosmetic appeal than anything else. Long ago, he had known a fellow demon named Ripper Jack. Jack had made some bold claims about his actions (and Jim sometimes felt that Jack might be laying claim to someone else’s accomplishments,) but he had a particular fascination with the idea of people selling their physical bodies. Jim had never been so discerning, but he smiled slightly at the thought that he would impress that old rival.
            Still, Jim preferred to be subtler than Jack’s beast-like brutality, if he could help it. And besides, his master had commanded him not to kill the woman. Still, a little torment would do him well after so long.
            He drifted in through a window that was open by a crack, elongating his form so he was narrow enough to pass through. Clara was in the washroom. She had undressed and was stepping into the bath. Jim had peered into enough humans’ minds to know that she would be considered physically attractive, but it amused him to know that, alone, her posture was slouched and uninviting. Of course, being technically neither male nor female (even if he conventionally identified more with the former,) and possessing no sexuality that went beyond mere affectation, there was nothing to her body that appealed to Jim.
            Enough vapor had risen from the bath to fog the mirrors and windows. Jim chuckled silently to himself. This was an old one, but a good one.
            With one thin finger, he drew across the glass of the mirror, writing “I KNOW WHAT YOU DID.”
            He waited for her to look over. And waited. And waited. Clara had closed her eyes and settled in for a long soak. By the time she looked up, the condensation would likely have evaporated again.
            So he would have to be a little more proactive. He drifted over to a potted plant that stood near the window. It was heavy, but with some effort he could force it to fall over.
            “Margaret?” called Clara. “Could you come in and close the window? It’s quite chilly and I’d prefer to stay in the tub.”
            The serving-woman, probably not yet twenty, stepped inside. Margaret quickly walked right over to the window where Jim sat and brought the pane down.
            Jim was flexible, but he did have something like a physical form. Now, he had been forced to fold over, and about a third of his body was stuck underneath the window pane.
            “Anything else, m’am?” asked Margaret.
            “No, thank you,” said Clara, and she sighed comfortably as she slipped deeper into the bath.
            It took Jim a minute to pry himself out from underneath the shut window. Accidentally, he bumped the plant, and it began to wobble.
            Clara’s eyes opened, and she shot up.
            Well, not exactly the way I meant to do it, but that got her attention.
            The mirror-message was illegible at this point. Instead, Jim drifted over to hover above Clara’s shoulder. He whispered, as he was known for, so that Clara could only hear him subconsciously.
            “Well, you have been a wicked, wicked girl, haven’t you?”
            Pulse had accelerated, and a shiver ran up Clara’s spine. Good.
            Jim could sense the rationalizations that she had used. She resented the rich Arcane Society snobs – the hypocritical aristocrats that had railed against women of her profession in the halls of law but sweated and slobbered over her in the safety of privacy, and that had made it easier to see them die. But not all of the victims had been lecherous old men. Jim could see the ones that troubled her – the ones whose humanity she could not so easily ignore. Jim saw through her thoughts. After all, like all of his kind, his form was drawn from the minds of mortals. Had humans never dreamt of demons, he would never have become one. Most humans had no idea how broadly they projected their thoughts, and thus did not even think to guard them.
            “Isolde Matthews. Remember her?” Matthews had been a young one – a kind-hearted feminist who had had to put up with the creaky old men in the society, yet had been killed just the same. “She could have been your sister.”
            Clara stepped out of the bath and dried herself with a towel. He could sense Clara’s thoughts swirling now, recalling everything she remembered about Matthews – who she had paid to kill her, where it had been, what had been written around the body. Now he was getting somewhere. He could build on what he had.
            As she wiped her face with the towel, Jim brought forth a brief illusion – that the water she was drawing off herself was actually blood. The towel seemed stained with red, and when she saw this, she dropped it, letting out a very quiet yelp.
            On the floor, the towel was merely damp, and with ordinary water.
            Clara dressed herself in simple clothing. She went to the study. All the while, Jim drifted lazily behind her. Clara sat in her favorite chair and took a deep breath. “Jaquis?” she called. The old man entered the room.
            “Yes, m’am?”
            “A brandy. Actually, bring the bottle.”
            “Yes, m’am.”
            Clara picked up a book. Actually, it was a fairly trashy novel, despite the projection of class that the room exhibited.
            Jim blew the pages so that she lost her place. Sadly, there was nothing in the book that would really serve to scare her, so he had to resort to more obscure symbolism. A few hundred years ago he had done a similar trick with a man who had covered up a murder, and just happened to be reading a book that described a similar crime. The moment the man’s book fell open to the page describing it was the first step toward driving him into catatonic insanity.
            It wouldn’t work here, though.
            Delving back into the images that were burned into Clara’s mind, he could make out the writing that had been left around Isolde Matthew’s body in chalk. The carpet here was the kind that would have two very distinct tones if one rubbed its fibers in one direction or another, which allowed him to draw out symbols.
            Once he had drawn the figures that had surrounded the body, he would shift himself to appear in the young woman’s form in the center of the room, throat slit and pouring blood out in a pool around her. And then he would stand up, march over to Clara, slowly, pointing an accusatory finger at her, and then say something deeply creepy like “You did this to me” or “This is what you did.” And as soon as he got a reaction out of her, he would once again become invisible, leaving only the writing on the carpet, and letting her panic do the work for him. After that, he might simply call it a night and head back to Richard’s house.
            Clara’s attention was focused on the book as Jim did the drawing. It took him very little time – these symbols were not unlike the ones that people had sometimes drawn to attract his attention. He had dabbled with invocative magic for a time, but he found that he lost patience with the practitioners who acted as if it were some exact science – that the glyphs and runes they presented compelled him to act in one way or another, when in fact they were merely a set of requests and instructions.
            And it was as he was rubbing the carpet to spell out the words “Mournful Emperor” in Chinese that Jim realized something. That’s what these were – messages to someone far more powerful than the writer. Jim read his own writing – he had memorized it from Clara’s plucked thoughts by rote, and he had not had any reason to read or write Chinese since he had come to this world, so it had been easy to see the writing as mere lines and abstract symbols.
            It was not a simple matter to read the scrawl, as it did not follow the linear pattern of ordinary writing. Every word did a sort of half-turn around the spot where the body would be positioned. But once Jim had figured out the pattern, he was able to read it.
            “You have shown me what I truly am. You will be the mournful emperor of my rebirth. I will take my place in history. This is my becoming.”
            Then, in smaller script, which Jim now vaguely remembered from the newspaper photographs, as opposed to Clara’s imperfect memory, as being made out in Isolde Matthews’ blood: “I am nearly complete. My friend will send his slave to mine. I will transform it as you have shown me.”
            Jim read this once again, and was then connected the words with his present situation.
            Time to go.
            Jim drifted upward, but it was as if he had hit a wall even invisible to himself. To either side of him stood a faceless man. Jim had heard of these beings, but never had he laid his own eyes on them before. The faceless men were there and not there. They each stood as if they were solid forms, yet in another way, all Jim could see when he looked at them were holes in space – each a dark abyss. Jim struggled, but somehow, without touching him, even though Jim could usually see the essence of projected magic force, the faceless men held him still. The longer he remained there, the more constrained he felt, until he was utterly paralyzed.
            Clara gasped, but it was not at anything Jim had done.
            “Mr. Thall, you surprised me!” She sat back in her chair. It was clear by her eye-lines that she could see the faceless men as well, but not Jim.
            Henry Thall strode past Clara and walked directly toward Jim. “Show yourself,” he commanded, and Jim felt himself become visible once again.
            “Oh fuck,” exclaimed Clara. Thall put up a quieting hand.
            “Don’t be afraid. Here, come, take a look.”
            “What is it?”
            “A demon. His intention was to frighten you. That was very discourteous of you.” He turned to Clara. “Did you notice anything strange this evening?”
            Clara nodded. “Yes, a few things out of place. And now that you mention it, I thought I heard whispers.”
            Thall nodded. “Clara, this demon is called Whispering Jim. Richard Airbright sent him to torment you.”
            Clara regarded Jim with a mix of curiosity, fear, and revulsion. “He did?”
            “Yes.” Thall now pulled Jim’s head up toward his own, looking directly into the part of Jim’s form that served as eyes. “Now, Jim, let us begin.” Then Thall nodded to the faceless men.

            And then Jim felt nothing but pain.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2014)

Saturday, May 10, 2014


            The faceless man stood at the foot of the hill. The observatory was nearly in alignment. With the positioning ascertained, a corridor could be opened. All the data that had been collected suggested that tonight, the telescope would do the fine-tuning, pinpointing the location, and that information would be used to bring about an acceleration.
            The faceless man did not need this information. It could step between planets, across light-years, in an instant. Space meant very little to something like a faceless man. But a faceless man could only do what a faceless man could do, and thus, there were people who needed to know where the planet was, hence the need for this observatory.
            The faceless man did not think these ideas. The faceless man did not know these facts. The facts stood on their own as information that the faceless man would act upon, but to suggest that it could truly know anything would be to attribute qualities to an entity that did not have them.

            “No, but seriously, I need you to double-check this.”
            Tessa ran up the stairs after Freya. It was half past one in the morning, and the temperature had dropped to where there was now a little dusting of frost on the ground.
            Freya skipped steps as she ran up to the room to the observation deck. Tessa took longer to get there, and was panting a little when she reached the top.
            “Ok. Look at this.” Freya sat at one of the computers and pulled up the graph. The light shining from the star designated HSL91023 had, indeed, dipped considerably for a few brief moments.
            “A planet?”
            “Yes, and given the size of this fucker, the profile is looking really good.”
            “Do you have video?” said Tessa.
            “I haven’t checked yet. I wanted you to be here to see it with me, just in case.”
            “Well do it!” Tessa was already grinning. She didn’t want to get her hopes up. Even if there was a planet there, it was no guarantee that they had actually found Arashka… though given the position that that star had relative to Ashtor’s Bleed and the relative distance and the theories about the propulsion of the Red Ships…
            She was getting ahead of herself. Her throat had gone dry. Freya tapped a few commands into the console and pulled up the video.
            There it was, a big, grainy, pixilated white dot. “Ok, and it should be right about… damn, ok, wait like ten seconds…” They did. “And…”
            And in front of the big white dot, there was a little dark spot that came into view. It slowly passed in front of the white dot and then disappeared back into the black of space.
            “Oh my gods, Freya.”
            “Exactly, Tessa. Your gods. They’re there. Right there.”
            Tessa shivered a little. Then the two of them hugged and screamed in celebration.
            They woke Azjar and Jack. Freya took a bottle of sparkwine out of the icebox and popped the cork. The four of them watched the video over twenty times before heading back to the lodge to celebrate some more. Azjar made the call to Dr. Peters, the head of the Sinret Project, all the way over in the Redlands, where they were pretty sure it was day already, not that they would have waited if it hadn’t been, to tell him the good news.
            With the sparkwine gone, Freya broke out more booze, chugging an entire bottle of dark ale in a single swig.
            Tessa ran to her room to retrieve a music record she had been saving for the occasion and put it on the player in the living room. Freya immediately began to dance, and pulled Azjar to her to get him to dance, which he attempted to do.
            Tessa laughed at this, giddy and light-headed.
            Jack smiled at her. “Congratulations.”
            “Well, just to be clear, this isn't exact proof – all we know right now is that we’ve found an another planet. This isn’t the first time it’s happened. There are actually a lot of planets out there in the universe, and most of them orbit stars, rather than the other way around. It’s just… the positioning of this one really puts it pretty much exactly where Arashka ought to be, so…”
            “It still seems like a big accomplishment, regardless.”
            “Yes. Finding a new planet, well, that’s the sort of thing that you dream about.”
            Jack then glanced out the window very suddenly, his eyes wide. Tessa thought he even might have sniffed the air.
            “What’s wrong?”
            Jack took a moment to respond. “Nothing. I don’t…”
            And at that moment, she heard something. There was a car coming up the drive. Out the window, Tessa could see a single headlight heralding the vehicle’s approach.
            “Who is that?” asked Jack. There was a steeliness to his tone of voice that worried her.
            “I have no idea,” said Tessa.
            Azjar went to the window. “I don’t know that car.”
            The car’s door opened, and a man stumbled out of it, holding his right arm stiffly. “Hang on, Eitan,” said the man. Tessa peered out the window to look with Azjar. She noticed that there were two spots on the man’s arm that seemed to be glowing, like embers. “Wait there, I’m going to get her,” said the ember-studded man.
            He walked up to the door, banging on it. Tessa and Freya looked to each other. Tessa noticed that Jack had backed away from the door. “Who is it?” called Tessa.
            “Dust!” the djinni cried. “I need to see Dust!”
            Tessa’s world seemed to freeze, and an eternity passed as she looked from the door to Freya’s inquisitive expression. “What?” she heard herself responding.
            “I have Tall Man in the car with me. He’s in really bad shape.”
            “You need to see what? What was that you said?” asked Freya. She turned back to the others. “Is this guy a crazy person?”
            Out of the corner of her eye, Tessa could see Jack staring at her.
            She stepped forward and opened the door. The djinni was breathing heavily. Embers and sparks bled out of the wounds in his arm and his shoulder. “Oh, Gods, you’re wounded.”
            The djinni shook his head. “It’s not that bad. I’ve had worse. Someone come help me get my friend out of the car.”
            They all followed him back to the vehicle. It had been brutalized – a big dent in the hood, a headlight obliterated, the rear windshield smashed to powder, the surface polka-dotted with bullet holes. The entire right side of the car was smeared with blood.
            And in the passenger side, Tall Man was lying motionless. “Oh Gods,” said Tessa. He was going pale. He seemed almost deflated. Azjar and Freya lifted him up by the shoulders and carried him out of the car.
            He was totally limp, and in his seat he had left a veritable pool of blood.

            It was the man he had seen by the Staten Island Ferry. Jack was certain of it. Even the stab-wounds were in the same places. A man stabbed like that could live, but only if he got to a hospital soon.
            And this man isn’t going to a hospital.
            They brought him inside and laid him down on the ground.
            “Is he breathing?” asked Azjar. He bent down to listen at the man’s mouth. “Dammit, ok, someone put pressure on the wounds.” Freya grabbed a blanket from the couch and balled it up, pressing it onto the man’s stomach. Azjar began compressions on his chest.
            Tessa had grown quiet, slowly backing away from the dying man.
            She knows him. Jack could see that. The djinni had referred to her by her codename. These were House agents.
            Freya looked up at him. “Someone call an ambulance.”
            Jack nodded and took a step toward the phone, but the djinni stepped in front of him.
            “I’m sorry, but that’s not happening.”
            The djinni had pulled out a gun, holding it awkwardly, but still sufficiently deadly, in his left hand. “There’s not enough time. They’ll have followed us here.”
            For a moment Mr. Flow was confused by their reaction –they all backed away at the sight of the gun. Well, three of them. The Prisoner stood his ground, simply looking at the weapon.
            “Here,” he said, handing Jack Milton the gun. “You’ll be able to use it better than I can.”
            His arm hurt like hell. Glowing ashes of blood floated out of the wounds in his arm and shoulder. “I’m going to need a tourniquet. You, local boy, give me your shirt.” In fact, Mr. Flow knew Azjar’s name, and the names of his parents and his supervising professor, but on the off chance that the kid survived the night, Flow figured it would be best to keep things simple.
            Freya, the Sardok girl, looked stunned. “Blondie, over here. You know anything about treating my people?” Freya shook her head. “Ok, I need you to get that shirt nice and wet. Boy, keep working on those compressions. Dust, go into your closet and lift up the floorboards.”
            “What?” said Dust.
            “There’ll be a couple rifles and some ammunition there. I was really hoping you wouldn’t have to use them, but such is life.”
            Freya came back with the soaked t-shirt. She was visibly shaking. “Ok, wring it out a little,” he said. She did, and what looked like a gallon of water poured out of it and onto the floor. “Now, we need to cauterize the wound.”
            “With water. Just… tie it around the wound and press it in.” With his help, she brought the t-shirt around the arm and pressed down. A bolt of pain shot through him, and he growled as the embers darkened. “Ok, now the shoulder. Same thing.”
            With the wounds very temporarily closed, Mr. Flow hazarded a glance out the window. It was the middle of the night, and there was nothing but faint starlight illuminating the desert. The lights from Towatki were fairly faint this far out, but still enough for him to guess that they would come from the east and take advantage of the night’s darkness.
            Compared to the House’s normal operations, the last year had been utter chaos. Mr. Flow had no idea what Templar One was, but that monster was unlike any Agent he had ever met. He could hardly assume the thing was sentient, much less that it was somehow pulling the strings.
            Yet in all that chaos, he had never seen anything like this night’s actions.
            Somehow, someone had found his safehouse. Mr. Flow was no rookie Agent. He had been with the House for forty years. He could recognize when an observer had gone “dim.” He knew how to sweep for bugs both technological and magical. He had exhausted the entire breadth of his knowledge of spycraft, and yet someone had found him.
            It had been dumb luck that he wasn’t dead. Iron String had scheduled a meet that night, and so Mr. Flow was already heading out the door when he came across a group of assassins preparing their ambush. He had killed two and lost the third, and went on to discover that everyone in his circle was being targeted. Mr. Flow had not had time to process his losses, but they were high.
            It was only a matter of time before they came to the DFO.

            Jack checked the gun. All told, it hadn’t been very long since he had last held a weapon like this, but the last few months had felt like a decade.
            “Keep checking the driveway. I’ll try to look around the back,” said the djinni.
            Milton did as he was told, but there was something far worse bothering him.
            He could smell the coffee. It was unmistakable, even if it was faint. After his experience in that strange, dreamlike city called New York, the haze of the coffee had lifted from him. He was certain that he had purged the foul stuff from his system, yet here the scent of it returned.
            He wished to dismiss the dread that he felt in his heart, but his own voice within his head could not be denied.
            The faceless man is here.
            Tessa returned with the rifles.
            Azjar said, quietly “I can’t hear his heart.”
            Mr. Flow said “Tessa, here,” and took one of the guns.
            The chaos passed into sudden silence, except for the thuds of Azjar’s compressions on Tall Man’s chest.
            A minute, or maybe an hour, or maybe three, passed. Freya was now staring at Tall Man’s lifeless body.
            “There’s nothing you can do for him now,” said Mr. Flow. “Get behind the kitchen counter. Have either of you ever heard of a Molotov cocktail?”
            Azjar continued to perform compressions. Freya looked to Mr. Flow. “Me?”
            “Ok. Do you have any weapons?”
            “I have a sword,” she said, her voice small.
            “My room.”
            “Can you use it?”
            Freya stared forward. “I think so.”
            “Get it.”
            Freya got up.
            “Local boy, stop. He’s dead.”
            Azjar sighed. “I don’t have any weapons.”
            “Ok. You’ll have to treat the wounded.”
            Mr. Flow’s commands faded into the back of Milton’s mind. He was not a stranger to violence, though never as an Enforcer had things felt as dire as they did now.
            There will be violence, but the assassins are not the true threat.
            He closed his eyes. He allowed his memory of the grounds around the observatory to form a mental map. He could see where they would approach. He could see where they might take cover. Somehow, he could almost sense that a small number of them were already coming around the back, but the majority of them were massed in front. He did not see them, but for some reason, he was certain of it.
            That was the pair coming in the back. They had come in through the back door, simple enough. Milton stepped to the left, giving him a clear view of the corridor, and fired twice. Both assassins, dressed in dark blue camouflage gear, dropped.
            “That’s the back. The rest are in front,” said Jack. He was not worried about being wrong. Somehow, he knew he was correct.
            Mr. Flow took aim, firing out the window, missing one of the figures dashing behind the car. A bit of plaster exploded near Tessa, who thankfully took this as a cue to get low. Milton fired another shot, this time taking the leg out from under one of the assailants. He took a deep breath.
            There were probably another ten assassins coming up the drive. Mr. Flow fired again, but it was apparent that his injured arm had ruined his aim. Without a word, Milton approached him, handed him the pistol, and took the rifle.
            The attackers had grown wary, and were now more gradually advancing, hiding themselves with the many rocks and trees that made the site such a pleasant place in ordinary circumstances.
            There was nearly a minute of quiet, though he could faintly hear the murmurs of the attackers behind their cover. There was a hint of frustration, if not outright panic. Clearly, they had not expected much of a resistance.
            It would be several hours before the sun rose, so waiting for daylight did not seem to be an option. Most of the attackers seemed to be gathered behind one large boulder, with two others behind a pair of young redwood trees. Just in case, he scanned across the drive, but he could see no other movement. He had them pinned down just as much as they had him.
            “Everyone all right?” whispered Milton.
            There was a sufficient number of affirmative grunts.
            “Freya, are you near the phone?”
            “Yes,” she said, her voice shaken, though not as much as he would have expected. It then occurred to him that she was probably still drunk.
            “Give the phone to Azjar and have him call the enforcers.”
            “The what?”
            “The police.”
            The sun would take too long, but law enforcement would put real pressure on the attackers. “Make sure they know what they’re getting into.”
            Azjar dialed. “Dammit,” he said. “The line is dead.”
            “Do you have a mobile?”
            “I do,” said Tessa. She made the call. Milton did not allow himself to relax. He would have to maintain this stalemate until the cops showed up, and that could take a long time. It would take a fair amount of time for them to merely get to the DFO from Towatki.
            Mr. Flow spoke. “We don’t have a good cover story. What do you expect us to tell them?”
            “I don’t give a flying fuck,” said Milton, his unblinking eyes trained on his enemies.
            “This is a lot bigger than you and me, Milton. If we get exposed to the police, the repercussions could be enormous. I know you don’t want to hear it, but we’re going to have to finish this ourselves. And now we’re going to have to do it fast, before…”
            “Shut up!” said Milton. Three of the attackers began to run. But they were not running toward the lodge. Instead, they were heading to the observatory building. “Why are they heading to the telescope?”
            “The telescope? Why? What do they care about a new planet?” asked Tessa.
            Mr. Flow looked back at her. “A new… what did you say?”
            “We found a new planet tonight. That’s why we were celebrating. I think it’s Arashka.”
            Mr. Flow’s face sunk. “Oh fuck me,” and with that, he ran out the front door.

            Milton attempted to provide some semblance of covering fire, but with only ten more rounds, his heart was now racing. “Tessa! Shoot!”
            “Anywhere that’s not him!”
            She opened fire as Mr. Flow charged his way into the observatory. One of the assassins fell.
            Milton drew a bead on one of Flow’s pursuers when he suddenly felt a sharp chill run up his spine.
            In the midst of it all, there was the faceless man. It stood in the middle of the drive, staring eyeless right back at him.

            Mr. Flow smashed his way through the door, slamming it shut behind him. There was a bolt at the bottom, and he clapped it down into place.
            He moved up the stairs carefully and slowly. The pain in his arm had been dulled by the excitement, but he would still have to fire left-handed.
            He could hear them at work in the computer room. “Get everything. Everything we can carry.”
            “I’m trying, just give me a sec and… Mack, door!”
            “Mack” fired as Mr. Flow passed close to the door, and something – if not the bullet, then a hunk of metal blown off the doorframe, hit him in the gut.
            Flow fell to the floor, firing back. Mack dropped, shot in the head.
            The other assassin moved to get his gun.
            “No. No. You won’t have time,” said Mr. Flow. He was leaning on his elbow, aiming up at the other man.
            His target froze.
            “Here’s the deal,” said Mr. Flow. “You step away from that gun, you leave here, and you get to live.” This was bullshit. Mr. Flow just wanted a clearer shot.
            “You’ll just shoot me.”
            “Not if you do as I say. Now, why are you here?”
            “You betrayed the House.”
            “No, kid, I did not.”
            The young man looked to the monitor at the end of the room. A small shadow was passing over a large white circle.
            “The others are coming,” said the young man. “They’ll get what they came for.”
            The data. They weren’t here to kill Dust. Or at least, that wasn’t the main reason. They wanted to know about Arashka. The orders to have an Agent inside the Sinret Project came from high above Mr. Flow’s level. He had never given it much thought, but now it was clear that this is what they were after. Was this what all the death and mayhem of the last six months had been about?
            “Ok, kid. Sorry,” and Mr. Flow fired. The young man dropped, though Mr. Flow did not bother checking if the shot had been fatal. Instead, he took the man’s gun and made his way up to the control room.
            He had seen blueprints of the DFO, but he had not realized the celestial majesty that the observatory had on display. The control room had an open roof, and one could almost imagine seeing the telescope, hovering far above the ground site, a glimmering metallic speck.
            Runes adorned the four walls of the room, which Mr. Flow guessed were there to keep the telescope positioned over the observatory. An arcane sigil stood in the center of the control room and a circular table. The sigil projected the field of “exotic gravity” that kept the telescope aloft without requiring the angular momentum to achieve orbit.
            The sigil was drawn in some kind of special sand. Mr. Flow did not have anything beyond a layman’s understanding of the arcane, but it seemed clear that if he wiped the sand away, the spell would be broken.

            Milton stepped backward, his breath shortened as if he had plunged into icy water.
            The gunfire grew muted, and even the light around him seemed to dim. The faceless man was growing closer, even though he was not walking. He was merely closer, and closer, and then he was only a few yards away.
            And Jack suddenly felt as if he was back in his cell, answering the Shabby Man’s questions, enduring the games played by the Thin Woman and Gold Tooth.
            “Jack?” said Tessa, a note of suppressed panic underneath.
            The world came back into focus. What few lights there were grew bright again, and the sound came back to him.
            And the faceless man was still there, but now, Milton could see it for what it really was.
            A shape. It was the shape of a man, but there was nothing within it. No substance, no reality to it. The emptiness of the faceless man had filled him with dread the first time he saw it, but now, as the world erupted in chaos around him, the emptiness of this nightmare creature felt more like a weakness, something that made it pathetic.
            A little origami man. Nothing at all.
            The faceless man stopped its advance. It tilted its head to the side, but even this gesture, which might have seemed unnerving in the past, now appeared to be the action of a mindless puppet.
            And Milton reached out toward the faceless man, reaching somehow through the window and across the distance between them with invisible arms made of thought. He took hold of the faceless man, that paper nightmare concealing nothing, and tore.
            There was something like a blast – raw force erupting from the place where the faceless man had been (or, to be precise, had not been) and there was a deafening screech, like metal scraping metal.
            He had killed the faceless man, to the extent that a thing that was never alive could be killed. He had broken that shape, and now the faceless man was truly nothing.
            He could hear cries from outside. The assassins were screaming, and he could see many of them writhing on the ground.

            Tentatively, Milton stepped out of the lodge. He walked over to the nearest wailing assassin and kicked his gun away. The man was bleeding from his ears. There was something deeply strange about the color of the blood, as if it had lost some of its pigment and had faded to the grey of a black and white film, though Milton couldn’t be sure if this was merely because of the dim starlight.
            The ones who were still alive were all incapacitated. Milton gathered their weapons, though he doubted they would be in a state to fight any time in the near future.
            How long had they been fighting? It had to have been a few hours; the sky in the east was growing lighter. Milton looked out toward Towatki, and sure enough, there were a few blinking lights off in the distance. The police were finally coming, though their timing was a bit off.
            Tessa stepped out of the lodge, with Freya and Azjar peeking out the door. They were quiet. Everything was quiet, except for the moans of the assassins.
            There was a metallic creak as the observatory door opened. Mr. Flow stumbled out the door, falling to his knees. Milton and Tessa ran to help him.
            “Are you all right?” said Tessa.
            “I’ll live, but we have to go.”
            “Our attackers are down,” said Milton.
            “Still, everyone get in the car.”
            “Why?” asked Tessa.
            Then they heard Azjar. “Oh no. Oh no no no no no!” and he began to run toward the observatory. Milton looked up. There was something coming down from the sky – something gleaming, and maybe even beginning to glow red hot…
            Oh shit.
            “Everyone in the car! Now! Now!” yelled Milton.
            “I need to fix it!” yelled Azjar as he attempted to run past them, but Milton caught him.
            “In the car,” said Milton.
            Tessa helped get Mr. Flow up as Milton dragged Azjar to the vehicle. Freya ran to get the door open. “Wait, what’s happening?” she asked.
            Mr. Flow pointed up at the falling telescope before he got in the vehicle. “That.”
            Milton got in the driver’s seat and turned the key. Thankfully, the dashboard lights came on, and with a slight hum, the car began to move.
            They traveled down the long drive, descending the hill as fast as possible. Wind howled through the car’s shattered windows. As they came to the foot of the hill, where the drive turned on to the main road, Milton clipped a corner, and the car briefly went up on two wheels before slamming back onto all four.
            Milton slammed his foot on the accelerator, and the hill began to shrink in the rearview mirror. He turned back to speak to Azjar. “Do we have any idea where it’s going to…”
            And then there was the most tremendous, thunderous crash Milton had ever heard. Instinctively, he slammed on the brakes. The car stopped, and Milton stepped out.
            There were still shards of metal erupting from the hilltop. Strange, purple lightning crackled around the wreckage – some last gasp of a broken spell to maintain the telescope’s position. The burning metal had ignited some of the trees as well, and flames began to spread over the hill.

            The Deep Field Observatory was no more.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2014)