Authors: Aaron Allston
Tags: #Science fiction
Jean-Pierre pulled open the rear doors of the slabside lorry and everyone piled out onto the tarmac of Gwaeddan Air Field.
Doc had parked outside a huge hangar set well away from the diminutive tower and commercial hangars. The hangar doors were closed; Doc led them through a side door and the small office beyond into the hangar proper.
There were five aircraft inside. One was a small, single-wing, single-engine propeller job that looked good for carrying popular musicians to their deaths. Two were two-seat biplanes, one gold, one blood-red, and Harris could see machine guns mounted on them. One was a larger black twin-engine job that looked as though it were raked for speed. These four planes were crowded into a third of the hangar.
The last plane . . . Harris gaped at it.
It had the wingspan of a 727. The wings extended across the top of the fuselage, with four huge engines spaced along them. Two stubby, vestigial wings were situated underneath the main wings, extending from the bottom of the fuselage. The fuselage itself was thicker than a 727's, and looked only two-thirds as long. Harris could see two banks of windows on the fuselage, one above, one below; Noriko was visible behind the top windshield. Below her, the windshield into the first lower compartment was an oversized bubble.
And the whole thing was made of wood.
It looked like a giant Dutch clog given wings and made glossy by a rubdown of wood polish. Harris thought it had to be about as maneuverable as the space shuttle.
"Tell me we're not flying in that," he said.
Jean-Pierre smiled. "The
. Doc's creation. One of a kind, unless he can manage to sell the design."
"Why is it called that?"
"Kiss it and find out."
"I figured it was named after you."
Alastair said, "Because it lands on ground and water and is prettier on the inside than the outside."
"It would have to be." Harris hefted his bag and followed them to the rollaway steps positioned against the rear of the plane.
The steps led to a bare, wood-paneled compartment that had stairs to the upper level and a cabin door leading forward. As they came aboard, Doc gave the newcomers the penny tour. "The
is forty paces long, fifty-two in span. The lower level is arranged in ten cabins. If there is ever a commercial version, it will accommodate forty passengers, or more if we install just seating, but the original is too full of equipment for that. Baggage goes up to the upper level with the stores, cockpit, and extra fuel tanks. Main fuel is in the wings."
Harris saw workmen drag the stairs away from the hull; Doc pulled the door closed and dogged it shut. He led them through a door in the center of the cabin's forward wall.
The next cabin up was a reproduction in miniature of Doc's laboratory. There was room for only two tables, and they were currently clear of equipment; the walls were heavily laden with racks of gear and cabinets, everything lashed down or locked in place. "The men we're chasing are flying Valkyries, which are very durable cargo planes that can be outfitted with guns and bomb racks. The Changeling's planes are probably armed." He pointed to the world map occupying a section of wall. He tapped Neckerdam. "But the Valks have limited range. To get to Cretanis, they'll have to put in somewhere north, probably Acadia, to refuel." He tapped Nova Scotia. "Then northeast, either to Hel or Nordland." He touched Greenland and Iceland in turn. "Then they can reach Cretanis." He touched the British Isles. "The
can take it in one hop."
"So to speak," Harris said.
Doc led them forward. The next door opened into what looked like a small bedroom, including a rug, two sofas, and windows to either side with pull-down window shades. "Joseph, none of the sleeper compartments is large enough to accommodate you, so you should take this cabin. The sofas fold out into beds, or you can use the deck."
Joseph tossed his duffel onto one of the sofas.
The next cabin was a narrow galley, including a stove, sink, closed pantries, and cabinets stacked with plates. Harris saw that the cabinets had slots instead of doors, with dishes inserted through the vertical slot and lowered into place via a horizontal slot, so they would not come spilling out in rough air. Doc and his audience breezed on through.
Next was something that looked to Harris like a train's sleeper car: right and left of the aisle were three rows of curtained bunks, above and below, a total of twelve bunks. The curtains varied in color, some red, some gold, all looking like velvet or velour.
"Sleeping cabin," Doc said. "The landing gear is hidden away behind the bunks." He pitched his bag into one of the lower starboard bunks. "Choose yourselves a place to sleep. There's another cabin like this one forward, if you prefer." Alastair took the bunk farthest forward.
Harris chose an upper bunk on the port side. He was surprised to see that his bunk had a little fan in a corner bracket and find that the mattress was actually comfortable. "First class," he said.
Doc said, "It's supposed to be a luxury craft."
The next cabin forward had several small sofas and tables, windows to either side, hull doors to either side, even a talk-box on one of the tables. "The main salon," Doc said. "And water debarkation. From the doors you step down on the water stabilization wings."
Next up was another sleeper-car cabin. Gaby picked a bunk and left her bag there. The door forward out of this cabin opened into a narrow hallway between small cabins right and left. "Jakes port, wash-stall starboard," Doc said. "I don't recommend you wash up in rough flying weather." He pointed to a tiny circular staircase leading up. "That goes up to the cockpit, and the door forward goes into another private sleeping cabin."
Jean-Pierre took his bag into that forward cabin.
"Pretty cool, Doc," Harris said helpfully. "I'd order one if I could save enough out of my allowance."
"I'll remember that. Everyone, prepare yourselves for takeoff." He climbed the stairs out of sight.
Jean-Pierre called, "Takeoff is best from in here. Come in."
Harris and the others filed on in. Jean-Pierre's was the cabin Harris had seen from the outside, with the oversized window forward; it provided an unimpeded view of the tarmac in front of the plane, and the cabin's sofa and chairs were set up to provide the best view possible.
Jean-Pierre was fiddling with ice, glasses, and bottles from a corner cabinet. "Sit. What are you drinking?"
Harris took one of the chairs. "Nothing, thanks."
Alastair, Gaby, and Joseph took the couch; Alastair and Gaby accepted uisge. Jean-Pierre handed them the drinks. He switched out the cabin light and took the other chair just as the first starboard motor shuddered and coughed into life.
"No seatbelts?" Harris asked.
"It's supposed to be a luxury craft," Jean-Pierre said in deft mimicry of Doc's voice. "No crashing allowed."
The other three engines sputtered into life, one after another. Harris was surprised at the noise they made. He'd flown in jets, but the shuddering roar of this prop plane was new to him. It vibrated his bones.
lumbered into motion, bobbing a little, moving slowly and awkwardly through a series of turns until it stood at one end of an airstrip.
The pitch of the engines became louder, more insistent. The plane picked up speed. Harris felt the ride get smooth as the front of the plane came up off the ground—and suddenly they were heading skyward at an angle that put Harris in mind of stalls and sudden, uncontrolled descents. He tried to keep his voice from squeaking: "Just how good a pilot is Doc?"
Jean-Pierre laughed. "Only fair, like me. Fortunately, Noriko's our pilot. She could fly a paper kite through a shotgun blast and bring it out unhurt." Harris heard ice clatter as the man took a drink. "In just a moment she'll give us the View."
On cue, the
heeled over to port. Harris saw the lights of distant towns disappear to the right. Then Neckerdam moved into view from the left.
The island was a concentrated mass of light. Harris was surprised at the amount of red, green, and blue light scattered among the white-yellow glow he expected. He could make out the clusters of skyscrapers, fingers of light reaching optimistically for the sky.
"Damnation," Harris said.
"There's the Monarch Building," Gaby said.
Harris almost didn't spot it. It was a column of glowing windows with four broad white bands across it—the ledges filled with statues.
Then the plane's turn put the island out of sight to their right. They stared at more distant lights on the coastline stretching away south . . . and then they were pointed out over the water, nothing ahead but stars above and moonlight on the waves below.
Jean-Pierre sighed. He rose and turned the cabin light back on; Harris blinked at the sudden glare.
"I'll be up for a while, studying the papers from the Aremorcy safe," Jean-Pierre said. "If anyone is foolish enough to join me, I'll be in the lounge. To the rest of you, I say, warm dreams."
"Thirty-five names," Harris said. "All of them with `Eliminated' written out to the side, with a date. They go back about twenty years. Gaby's name is at the very bottom, in longhand instead of typed, and it says `Transferred.' The date is right—it's the day we brought her back."
Jean-Pierre looked over a sheaf of papers at him. The two of them occupied the plane's lounge; they were alone. "I think I have more of that file here. The name above Gabriela's, was it a Carlo Salvanelli?"
"See what you make of this." Jean-Pierre shoved a stapled stack of papers at him. "It looks like it came off a printing press."
"No, a laser printer." Harris held it close and could see the faint rough edges to the printed letters. "That's like a printing press individual people can own. My friend Zeb has one."
The papers were miniature biographies. Each one corresponded to one of the names on Harris' list. Some were short, others ran several pages.
Gaby's record, the shortest one, listed her name, profession, birthplace, and interests. Harris skimmed through the others. "Weird people," he said.
"Most of them seemed to be mental cases. It looks like a third of them or so were in and out of mental hospitals at one time or another. Several ended up bums or were in VA hospitals when they were `eliminated.' But a lot of them, including some of the ones I just mentioned, did a lot of stuff. This woman was a famous psychic in England. I remember her getting killed—bunch of snide people asking, why couldn't she predict her own death? And this other guy won a Silver Star at Okinawa—that's a big military decoration and a big war."
"I think I have the counterpoint of your list." Jean-Pierre held up another sheaf. "People killed here in the fair world in the last twenty years. Of course, this list was made on a proper typewriter.
"Here's one I've heard of. A woman doctor. Patented several processes, some of which didn't work. One that did, insulin from pigs, made her rich about ten years ago. I always wanted to know what sort of stupid name Stevens is."
"It's a very common name on my world."
"Well, you have stupid names—" Jean-Pierre shut up for a moment. "Is Salvanelli a common name on your world?"
"I don't think so. It sounds Italian, but I don't think I've heard it before."
"It's Isperian. Very common. There are thousands of Salvanellis, immigrants, in Neckerdam."
"Well, there's no mistake. This shows them eliminating him in New York City."
"And Stevens in Nyrax."
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
"Yes. There were other people from the grim world on the fair world . . . and the Changeling has been systematically tracking them down and killing them."
"And Duncan doing the same on my world . . . to people from your world. Why?"
Jean-Pierre shrugged. "I don't know, but I wager Doc will be fascinated. By the way, your name and Gabriela's are the last additions at the bottom of this list."
Jean-Pierre yawned and stretched. "In case you haven't noticed, the sun is well up."
He was right. Round patches of sunlight wandered around the cabin floor with every movement of the airplane.
"So after I tell Doc about this, I'm to bed. How long have you been awake?"
"I don't know. I'm not sleepy."
"Get some sleep anyway." Jean-Pierre rose and went forward.
Harris continued looking through the papers.
The dead man on the concrete finally moved, lifting his head to stare at Harris. There was hurt sorrow in his eyes. He pointed at Harris. His expression didn't say "I hate you," even "I blame you." Harris read it as though it were newsprint: "You can never fix this."
Harris gasped and came fully awake. The light over his bunk was still on. The fan still drove air into his face. It smelled like sausage cooking; someone had to be back in the galley, rustling up breakfast.
He lay there and rubbed his eyes. He'd fallen asleep for a moment. He needed to sleep. He was so tired that sometimes he couldn't tell the engines throbbing from the waves of tiredness flowing through him. But the face was waiting for him. Whenever he closed his eyes he saw the dead man staring sightlessly upward.
Harris kept his own eyes open.
His thoughts floated around unconnected.
He might have shot them, wonder what a hot dog costs, if I drank a gallon of xioc I might not sleep for a week, blasting through the sky in the belly of a giant frog. Grow up Gaby doesn't want you anymore. He's waiting for you behind your eyelids. Transitions, he'll get you when you move in or out, in the transitions.
He felt the idea click home like the last piece in a jigsaw puzzle. He sat up so fast he banged his head on the ceiling of the bunk. He cursed, hit the wood in anger, and swung out of the bunk. Almost falling, he landed on the slightly tilted floor.
Wearing only boxer shorts, he moved forward out of the darkened sleeper-cabin into the lounge. It was empty of people; the circles of light moving around on the floor were brighter than ever. He stayed well away from them, irrationally afraid that he'd crumble into dust if they fell on him. He flopped onto the sofa in front of the talk-box. "Gabrielle," he said.