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)