Authors: Aaron Allston
Tags: #Science fiction
In the elevator down, Doc handed him a paper bag and a strange ceramic cup—it was capped by a hinged top like a beer stein. In the bag was a pastry something like an eclair, but the filling was meat and the breading reminded him of a bagel. The stein was filled with a thick, hot liquid as bitter as bad coffee, but tasting like unsweetened chocolate. Harris grimaced over the flavor but guessed that it was strong with the caffeine he needed.
In the basement garage, Fergus slid out from underneath Doc's top-down two-seat roadster and cheerfully told him, "It's ready, sir; all patched. Try not to drive over the potted plants next time." Harris wondered if the mechanic ever slept.
This car, lower than Jean-Pierre's but just as long, had a different sound to its engine, a throaty growl that told Harris that it was a different class of vehicle. As he and Doc roared out of the basement garage, it sounded like a leashed lion. Harris washed that thought away with the last of the bitter chocolate. "Did you get any sleep?"
"Well, thanks for driving, then. Did you get anything figured out?"
"Yes." Doc turned right onto the main street the Monarch Building faced and blasted his way into the southbound traffic. Harris estimated that this would be somewhere near Fifth Avenue if he were home. But the real Fifth Avenue would be southbound only instead of having two directions of traffic separated by a tree-filled median. It wouldn't be thick with the antique autos he was growing used to. There would be lanes painted on asphalt instead of a brick surface with metal tracks set into it for the frequent rail-bound red buses they passed. Taxis wouldn't be Christmas green. One vehicle in twenty wouldn't be a horse-drawn cart, for Christ's sake.
"First, unfortunately, none of the men we took has talked. I doubt they will; they are a very confident lot. They're in the prison of the Neckerdam Guard now.
"Second, though, I do have results from your valence tests of this morning."
Harris grimaced. The last thing Doc and Alastair had done before he'd been allowed to go up to his room was take him into a small side laboratory and load him into a preposterous upright glass cylinder capped with electrical apparatus. Harris hadn't been alarmed until the two men drew on thick goggles with lenses that were almost black.
Then they'd fired up the equipment, the noise of transformers and discharging electricity striking fear into Harris' heart. That was only the start; things got worse when a continuous chain of green lightning poured into the cylinder and washed over him, rattling Harris' teeth and standing every hair of his body on end.
But that had been over soon, and they'd sent the shocked (and, he suspected, smoking) Harris up to his room immediately after.
Doc continued, "The Firbolg Valence was zero. Meaning that you're not Gifted. You can't influence your surroundings except through normal means."
"You mean, not like Alastair does with his medicine."
Doc nodded. "But you have a Tallysin Aura like none I've ever seen. That's what Alastair sees around you. With normal people—" he ignored Harris' bark of laughter "—it shows up among the Gifted. In your case, when I subjected your aura to analysis, it indicated that you were . . . from somewhere else." They roared by another red rail-bus, and Harris barely glimpsed the man dancing merrily atop the vehicle.
Harris glared. "I told you
last night. So tell me, where is this `somewhere else' of yours?"
There was a stoplight on the median ahead. It was different from the ones Harris was used to. It didn't change colors; a black-and-white sign swung out of the pole's summit, reading "Halt." Doc's car and the other traffic slowed to a stop at the corner.
Doc took his time answering, not speaking until long after the "Halt" sign snapped back into the pole and was replaced by "Go."
They left one cluster of skyscrapers and too-tall round towers behind and headed into a second one, near what should have been the financial district. Harris looked around to see if he could spot any familiar landmark, but there was nothing until a side street gave him a glimpse of the distant Brook—the
"Some of the old stories say that there used to be two worlds," Doc said; his voice sounded as though he were reciting. "The fair world and the grim world. On one lived the fair folk, on the other the grim folk. And it was easy to go from one to the other.
"The fair folk were our ancestors, in our thousand clans: light, dark, and dusky. Smaller than people today, of course, and knowing many things that modern man has forgotten. Ignorant of many things modern man has learned.
"The grim folk were barbarians. They were bigger than our ancestors, stronger, more constant in size and form, but savage. Bloodthirsty men who preferred killing to lovemaking or anything else.
"And the grim men were entirely immune to iron and iron's daughter metals."
Harris frowned as what Doc was saying sank home. "Hey, wait a minute."
"Some of the men and women of the grim folk were better than others. More beautiful, more tolerable. They came to live on the fair world. And they were more prolific than the fair folk, more fertile. Those of our ancestors who wanted to have larger, healthier families found it no hardship to bring some of the grim folk into their bloodlines. And while this was going on, while these crosses were taking place, it became harder and harder to move between the grim place and the fair place."
"You think I'm from this grim world."
Doc nodded. "I've been rooting around in antique records and collections of legends, calling to experts on the talk-box, since you went to sleep. A lot of them put credence I never would have imagined into this twin-world idea."
"So I'm a savage." Harris felt himself get mad.
Doc cracked one of his rare smiles. "And most of us are the descendants of you savages, too. Caster Roundcap, an arcanologist I talked to this morning, who takes this sort of thing seriously, suspects that most modern men owe a quarter or more of their ancestry to the grim men. It explains a lot. A greater resistance than our ancestors had to iron poisoning. Increasing uniformity in the size and physical nature of people over the last three thousand years, something that still confuses arcanologists."
Harris sat back, his thoughts running around in circles. They thought he was a caveman. Some sort of Neanderthal.
But, wait. If his people were the ancestral boogey-men of the fair world folk, what were
people? He shot Doc another glance, looking again at the sharp-pointed ear revealed by the wind whipping at Doc's hair.
Then another thought occurred to him. "Wait a minute. There's no way."
"Something I learned in college. I was a theater major. That accounts for my glittering job prospects. When people move apart and live in isolated communities, their language changes. That's where dialects come from. After long enough, the languages are almost completely different. It takes a scholar to figure out that they're related."
"But you're speaking English. Weird English, maybe. But I understand it."
"We are speaking Low Cretanis."
"I don't speak Low Cretinish at home."
Doc shrugged. "Perhaps your speech adapted itself when you came here, a mystical transformation. It's something I admit I hadn't considered. It's a good question. But you're speaking the vulgar speech of the Islands, regardless of what you spoke on the grim world."
"The hell you say." Harris thought furiously, then recited: " `The play's the thing/Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.' There, did that rhyme?"
Doc looked startled. "Yes." His lips began moving silently as though he were reciting to himself.
"What are the odds of a random rhyme surviving some sort of hocus-pocus translation like you were suggesting?"
Doc didn't answer. For the first time since Harris had met him, he looked stunned. "That was William Shakespeare."
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
. Act Two, Scene Two."
"Yes, goddammit, yes! How do you know that?"
"There's no need to curse . . . Shakespeare was an insane fabulator several centuries ago. He wrote plays about places that never existed. They've survived as classical examples of fantastic literature. There has never been any proof that he himself really existed; it's long been suspected that Shakespeare was a quill name for Lord Conn MaqqMann, the poet who `discovered' his work."
"No, he was
. Where I come from. And Denmark was real, and Richard the Third was real, and England was real, and William Shakespeare wrote about them." Harris blinked. "Okay. So there are some people who think somebody else wrote the plays for him. But they don't deny he existed. And we're speaking the modern version of his language, English, whether you like it or not."
Doc pulled over and parked beside a high, rickety wooden fence and looked closely at Harris. "Of all the things I have seen since you arrived, I think that disturbs me most. For everything else there is a reason. Not for this . . . duplication."
"Sorry." Harris waited a long moment. "Shouldn't we get going again?"
"No. We are there."
Harris looked up. Over the fencetop, he saw the metal girder framework of a skyscraper under construction.
Phipps entered the Manhattan office of his employer and cursed to himself as he felt his armpits go suddenly damp. The air-conditioning never seemed to help. He didn't know why his employer affected him this way. The old man might be murder on those who stood in his way, but he was always solicitous of his own people. Fixing their ties, inquiring after their families, giving them little gifts and big bonuses. And yet there was something about him, as though he were a hooded cobra hiding inside a teddy bear.
The old man sat in his leather-bound throne of an office chair behind his gleaming desk and smiled. "Bill. How's the arm?"
Phipps, rueful, gestured with his right arm. He didn't move it much; in its cast, hampered by the sling, it wasn't very mobile and still gave him shooting pains. "Could be worse. I can't wait to catch up to the guy who kicked me. He got his lucky shot in. Next time I kill the son of a bitch."
"No need to curse, Bill. But, yes, you'll get that chance. Do you have some news?"
"We found her." Phipps set the manila folder in front of the old man. His employer flipped it open and peered at the files and photographs it contained.
"The woman is Elaine Carpenter, born Elaine Johnson, one of her friends from high school. The man is James Carpenter, her husband. She works with a suicide hotline part-time. He's a tax lawyer. They live in Connecticut, and this Donohue girl is staying with them."
"Good, good. How did you find out?"
"I had Costigan make up some of those instant business cards out of a machine. General Carpentry. Gave one to every apartment manager on the block and quoted nice high rates. But for the manager of the girl's building, he had a special offer. A low, low introductory rate. And—surprise!—it turns out the manager had a door he wanted repaired. We gave it to him dirt cheap . . . and while Costigan was doing the repairs, he asked the manager how the door got broken." Phipps smiled in rich appreciation. "The manager told him the story. Also, how he had to collect the girl's mail and send it to her, since her keys were lost. Costigan got him alone and asked him a few questions."
"And then he finished fixing the door."
"No, I mean—the manager?"
"Oh. He's gone on a river cruise. He may pop up in a few months."
The old man crinkled a smile at Phipps' word-play. "Good. We'll visit Miss Donohue again tonight, after the house is asleep. Do you have a man in place?"
"Naturally. I'll have the device out to him within the hour."
"Excellent." The old man waved him away. But as Phipps reached the door, he called, "Bill?"
"If you had the choice, would you lead an army, rule a nation, or retire to a life of decadent self-gratification?"
Phipps smiled. He never knew whether the old man were testing or taunting, so he always answered honestly. "I'd take the army."
"I knew it. Go on, then. Get someone who is good at intrusion. And make yourself ready at moonrise."
The site foreman, a squat man who waddled comically as he walked, but looked as though he could bench-press an I-beam, guided Doc and Harris to the open-faced elevator. He handed a pair of long-cuffed leather gloves to each of them. "Joseph's up eighty," he said. "My best man. He's not in trouble?"
"No trouble," Doc said, and put the elevator into motion. He donned the gloves, and Harris followed suit.
As the elevator rose, Harris watched the metal girders flash by. "These look like the ones at home. Steel I-beams and H-beams."
"They're steel? I thought you people had a problem with that."
Doc nodded. "That's why he gave us gloves. You don't need them; I do. Workers wear very heavy protective gear so they never touch the metal. Hundreds die every year from heat; and in spite of the fact that they try to hire only those with some immunity, many others die of poisoning. But if we're to have modern towers, we have to have steel frames." There was a melancholy light in his eye that Harris found unsettling.
Harris drew off his gloves again. "I guess when you put up all the wood and Sheetrock around the girders, it's safe to live in."
"Not entirely. I invented a process to bond neutral agents against the steel when it's all erected, and that is how the Monarch Building was crafted; but not every builder uses it, as it's costly. And when buildings that don't use it get old, cracks open, rain leaks in, rust seeps through, and rust poisonings take place. A particular problem in the tenements, where rust poisoning makes hundreds or thousands of babies mind-damaged every year."
"Oh." There was not much Harris could say to that. It all sounded very familiar, and he was struck by how much things were the same between this fair world and his grim world, despite their many differences. "You helped build the Monarch Building?"