By David Farnell, (c) 2000
They pulled the truck behind the mini-strip mall, rapidly donning armored vests and equipment, Maria and Danny choosing suppressed H&Ks, Derek grabbing a shotgun.
“Tell me again why we gotta storm in with even less prep than last time?” Derek said quietly while they were getting ready.
Thinking of the Government Death Chamber she had seen, Maria asked, “Where were you born, Derek?”
“Wha–Equiano, in Suanee. I thought I already told you.”
“You told me Louisiana.”
Derek looked at her strangely, confused. “I…no, I…did I say that?”
“I was warned about this. Things are changing fast. Collins is trying to bring about a conjunction, so that two possible worlds overlap. Then he can change the possibilities, make it over into a world where he can have power. If he succeeds, it’ll be much harder to stop him, if not impossible.”
“That…doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
“It was tried once, eighty years ago. Maybe more times since. If Collins succeeds, he’ll be the King of America. Everyone will know it, and most will follow him, support him. History will change. Look, I don’t really understand it either–we just have to do this.”
Danny jerked his head toward the strip mall. “Why do I get the feeling that the inside of that place is going to be really nasty?”
Maria worked the bolt, feeding a round into her submachine gun. She could feel the vibe coming from the place, making her breastbone ache and throb. “It might be the place we went to, by the lake.”
“Jesus.” Danny actually crossed himself.
“Just get me to Collins. I can take care of it then.” She looked at them both. “If I tell you to get out of here, you do it, hear me? Don’t wait for me.”
“Maria!” “Doe!” Both men exclaimed at once.
Derek looked at Danny. “Maria?”
Danny ignored him. “Who warned you? Who told you what’s going to happen and what to do?”
Maria opened the door. “A worse son-of-a-bitch than Collins could ever hope to be, and with a lot more style, too. Just do what I say.”
While Danny applied thermite paste to the lock on a steel door next to the shuttered loading bay, Derek stood next to Maria. He racked his shotgun, then loaded another shell in, eight plus one up the spout. While he did, he spoke softly to Maria.
He shrugged. “Nice name. Not as pretty as Doe.” He smiled at her.
She smiled back. “You just keep calling me that. Dolores is my middle name.”
“You got it.” He sounded happy.
Danny ran back and signaled them to get away. The thermite lit up with a hiss and brightened the narrow parking area with sputtering white flashes. When it finished, Derek ran up with a tire iron, sticking the crooked end into the still red-hot hole and yanking the door open. Danny went through, weapon at the ready, taking station against the wall just beside the door. Maria followed, then Derek.
With only the dim exterior light from the doorway providing illumination, the room was full of shadows. The interior walls had been ripped out to make the chamber larger. Maria turned on the flashlight attached to the side of her submachine gun.
“Jesus fuck,” Derek whispered.
The room was a slaughterhouse. Some bodies were suspended by hooked chains; others lay tossed in the corners or in the middle of the chamber. Some were so badly brutalized that it was difficult to be sure they were human. And it had been very recent. Blood and spattered gobbets of flesh dripped visibly down surfaces. Maria focused on one that was still twitching in random death spasms. The death-smell of blood and bile and waste slapped her like an open hand. She fought her stomach’s need to disgorge its contents.
What clothing she could see indicated that these were likely the guests who had arrived in expensive cars parked outside. Maria stared around, trying to spot whoever had killed these people. The door behind them swung shut naturally. She felt the throbbing vibe all through her bones, centering on the tiny bit of metal in her chest, growing stronger. Her flashlight began to fail.
A gong sounded with a crash. The sound came from nowhere, everywhere at once, every atom in the air, the walls, their bodies resonating, carrying the sound. Her flashlight died as time slowed and came to a halt.
Then a light grew all around them, coming from the walls themselves. It was a weak yellow glow that shimmered in time with the still-lingering infrasound frequency of the gong. And with it, the beat of a large, deep drum, and a sound of rhythmic breathing, like Inuit throat singers. The walls were different now, no longer concrete but some kind of yellow-brown adobe. The bodies were all gone, though the chains still hung, clinking against each other as they swayed in a sudden shift of the air. And before them was a large hallway, with huge, golden doors, out of which came the drummers, the singers, and those who danced for them. The musicians were small men, their features Asian but like some wartime propagandist’s caricature of Asians: pointed, rat-like faces, skin mottled and jaundiced, covered with tattoos, teeth sharpened to triangular points, none over five feet tall. The dancers were tall, graceful women, veiled, and at first were silhouetted and beautiful. But as they drew near, their faces showed open sores, acid-etched wounds, disease-eaten flesh.
Danny cursed. Maria glanced at him to see him working the bolt on his weapon. Then she did a double take; his back had been aginst the wall, but there was no wall behind him. She looked behind her and saw that the wall had moved back more than ten yards, and the door to the outside was completely gone. They were standing in the middle of the room. Another hallway was behind them–and through it came another host of dancers and musicians. And along the ceiling came dozens of insectile horrors, twins to the thing they had killed in Collins’ house the night before. The blue glow sputtered around the hairs on their thoraxes, and she felt the itch in the back of her brain sputter with it.
She switched to full auto and squeezed the trigger on her gun, trying to spray the dancers, drummer, and singers. Nothing happened. She was dismayed but not surprised. She heard Derek shout as he pumped the shotgun and tried to fire again and again, ejecting primer-dented shells that wouldn’t fire. The dancers drew closer; the trio backed toward each other, aiming their useless weapons.
A dancer swept her veil over the front of Danny’s submachine gun. It touched the exposed skin of his left hand and wrist, slithering across them. He screamed in agony as his flesh started to bubble and whither. Two drummers cast down their instruments and charged Derek. He shifted his grip on the shotgun, using it as he’d been taught in bayonet training to smash the jaw of one of the little men. The other got past and leapt on Derek’s face.
Maria swung the strap of her submachine gun over her head and tossed it aside, drawing a combat blade from a leg sheath with her right hand, a can of pepper spray wit her left. She doused another dancer who came for Danny; to her surprise, it was quiet effective, the dancer collapsing and writhing in silent agony. She slashed at what she assumed to be a Tcho-tcho clawing at Derek’s face; she barely touched its skin before it had jumped nimbly away. Derek was screaming, clutching at his left eye, from which blood covered half his face. The Tcho-tcho grinned, Derek’s eye clamped in its shark-like teeth. Then it bit down, crushing the eye like a grape, and swallowed.
The gong crashed again. It felt like the heartbeat of the universe. When time began again, the dancers, drummers, and breath singers stood assembled peaceably. Maria stood in the center of the room, gripping her blade, turning, trying to take it all in. To one side, Danny lay, gasping for air, tightly gripping his forearm, watching the flesh of his hand wither. On the other kneeled Derek, trying to stanch the flow of blood from his ruined socket. Maria realized that she alone had not been attacked.
>From one of the halls came a figure, the assembly parting to allow him through. He shimmered and shifted as he approached, first looking like Collins, then the young Vietnamese girl from the hospital, then a large tiger. Then he was a man she had not seen before, tall, slender, middle-aged, with an aquiline nose and deep-set eyes. He wore a robe that one moment looked to be made of ancient yellow silk, finely made and beautiful; the next moment it looked to be a cheap stage costume, something for an old, nearly bankrupt theater company. In his hands he carried a crown. It too shimmered and changed, from paste-and-brass junk to gem-encrusted magnificence. He handed the crown to the tallest of the Tcho-tcho, who leered and bowed reverently to the man. Another brought a simple machete, old and well used, bowing and handing it to the man as if it were an Excalibur. It did not change. The man held it casually at his side.
His voice had a slight French accent now that he did not try to hide it. “I knew my queen would appear, though I didn’t know it would be you until after our chat in my office.” He held his hands out to indicate the chamber and its inhabitants. “As you can see, we’ve already held the play. Everything is now ready for us to write the final act.”
“What do you want with me, Castaigne?” She already knew, but she spoke as if she were reading lines from a script.
“Join me willingly, my Camilla. If you do, I will release these inconsequential friends of yours. Come with me. When we return, I will rule, and you will be at my left hand.”
“Why me?” She was controlling her breathing, drawing strength from the earth, preparing herself for what was to come. Her words were unnecessary–Alzis had already told her what would happen.
“Like me, you are a Dancer. Untrained, yes, but you can help me, support me. More importantly, you can survive my affections, and thus provide me with an heir. There are few who can do that. First you must be broken to my will, but I promise, you will not be like these,” he said, indicating the mutilated dancers.
Before he was finished speaking, she had already started to take off her equipment belt. “All right. Let them go. I’ll stay with you, Castaigne.”
“No!” Danny shouted. He struggled up to his knees.
“Danny, you have to go. You and Derek need to get to a hospital. I can take it from here.” She tossed the knife and pepper spray aside and began to rip open the Velcro straps on her body armor.
She turned and took his face in her hands. “Shh.” She touched his ravaged hand, drawing power from the dislocated realm they were in to ease the pain and repair some of the damage. “I got out before. You’ll see me again, I promise.” She kissed him. “Now go. Take Derek and go. If you stay here I’ll lose you, and I can’t take that.”
Fighting tears, Danny rose and grabbed Derek’s arm to help him up. They saw that the lock-damaged door was back, standing in the middle of the room quite close to them. It was not closed completely; they could see a sliver of the Texas night through it. Maria pulled a bandana out of her pocket and pulled Derek’s hand away from his eye socket; as she pressed the bandana against it, she kissed Derek and took some of his pain and shock. Danny put Derek’s arm around his shoulders and helped him to the door.
Maria opened it for them. Derek stopped, letting go of Danny, and looked at Maria for a moment. His shoulders sagged and he went through the door. Danny followed, looking half in despair at his sister.
“Go,” she said. “Drive fast.”
He nodded and turned. The two men went to the truck, got in, and drove away. Only when she could no longer see the truck did Maria let the door close.
She turned to Paul Castaigne. He knew she had power, but not how much. And he did not know that this morning she had taken some lessons from Stephen Alzis.
“All right, Castaigne. Let’s dance.”
Danny got only a block away when he saw the lights above the strip mall in the mirror behind them. He pulled over, almost hitting a bicyclist.
“What?” Derek said. He felt himself hovering at the edge of shock; he kept seeing that little bastard chomping down on his eye, the smile Maria had given him before they entered the building, the farewell kiss.
“Look.” Coruscating balls of St. Elmo’s fire were leaping along the wires, rising above the strip mall and dancing in the air over it. They could feel, not hear, the drums rolling, pounding wildly, feet smashing against the ground and skipping lightly over it, the balls of light moving with the rhythm.
Traffic was stopping up and down North Lamar. Streetlights burst and the whole neighborhood suddenly blacked out, lights disappearing from windows, lighted signs turning off suddenly.
The vibration grew, building to a crescendo. A car rear-ended another half a block away. The horns sounded flat and insubstantial as the air became palpable, almost gelatinous, curdled by the vibration.
For a third time, the gong sounded.
It was an instant release of pressure. Like a candle blowing out, like a bent tree snapping in half, the thickness in the air was released, the vibration gone. Still, their ears rang with the aftersound of the gong, fading away into the tiny motes of atoms from which it had come.
Danny got out of the truck. He could see that the strip mall looked different, older. As he watched, it began to fall into itself, as if it were made of mud and sand that had dried too much. It sagged and collapsed, the roof first, then walls leaning drunkenly and crumbling. Even the glass in the front of the restaurant crumbled like sand. Still cradling his injured hand, Danny began to run toward it.
Derek stepped carefully out of the truck to see Danny running. He shook his head sadly, then reached in to get a first-aid kit. As he walked toward the crumbling ruin, he put the bloody bandana in his pocket and replaced it with a clean compress, and started wrapping a rolled bandage around his head to hold it in place. Passersby shocked by the strange phenomena now stared at him as he administered first aid to himself while walking up the sidewalk. That he was half-soaked with his own blood and had a high-capacity pistol on his belt probably didn’t help things. He ignored them.
He found Danny digging through the sandy mixture of powdered concrete, steel, and glass. Bones–human bones–turned up, the only things to remain solid. Danny’s face was streaked with tears and smeared with grey powder. Derek put his hands on Danny’s shoulders.
“Come on, man, let’s go.”
Danny shrugged him off and kept digging. Sirens wailed in the distance, coming closer.
“Come on, you heard what she said.” Derek’s voice shook. “She said she’ll see you again, and she will. But she ain’t here. Can’t you feel it? She’s gone, man.” He was on the verge of crying himself. He reached down to take Danny’s arm. Suppressing an animal sob, Danny let him, and got to his feet.
They were in the truck and heading for the hospital before the police and fire vehicles got through the snarled traffic.