Authors: Aaron Allston
Tags: #Science fiction
Then he could see, swimming out of the blur, the tops of trees surrounding him. Normal-sized trees. But the nearest trees were only twenty feet from him, scores of yards too close—and they were now evergreens.
The trees were illuminated by old-fashioned oil lamps hung from their lower branches. And overhead, though a few thickening clouds promised rain to come, the sky was full of stars like a velvet carpet sewn with diamonds, when moments ago it had been hazy.
He didn't have time to wonder. A figure moved into his line of sight and stood over him.
This was a man, the most
man Harris had ever seen. He was lean, with short, curly hair that was golden rather than blond. His eyes were the bright blue of the daytime sky. His face was a Greek ideal of sensitivity and youthful, masculine beauty, and shone as though lit by internal fires. He wore a dark suit, nearly black in the dim light, that looked years out of date, with its high waistline and too-broad lapels and tie, and yet didn't manage to detract from the startling impact of his physical presence. Harris thought,
When I'm a soap opera hunk, this guy can be my blond rival.
He stood by Harris' knee, leaned over and asked, in a rich, controlled voice, "Where is Adonis?"
Harris grimaced, letting his confusion show. "Where the hell am I?"
The golden man's expression changed, losing its serenity, growing angry. "When I ask, you answer. It's time for your first lesson. I think I'll take your thumb." He reached the long, delicate fingers of his right hand into the sleeve of his left arm and extracted a knife—a long, thin, two-edged blade on a slim golden hilt. "Give me your hand, you bug."
Harris just looked up at him, amazed. Another maniac. He kicked out with his good leg, slamming his heel into the beautiful man's kneecap.
The golden man's face twisted and he fell beside Harris. Harris lashed out, cracking his fist and forearm into the man's temple once, twice, three times . . . and the golden man's eyes rolled up into his head. He was out for the moment.
Harris stood. The burning in his injured leg made it difficult. He took an uneasy look around. No, this sure as hell wasn't Central Park. He stood in a good-sized lawn filled with trees; the clearing in the center was barely large enough to accommodate the circle-and-X of white stones, similar to the one back in the park. He could see, in gaps between the trees, a wall, nine or ten feet tall, bounding the property on three sides. On the fourth side rose some sort of house, hard to make out in the darkness, but massive and taller than the trees.
Where was Gaby? And how had he gotten here? Had he passed out and been brought by Adonis and the crazy old man? No, that just wasn't right. There were no breaks in his memory from the time he arrived in the park. But even the
was different. He took a deep breath, and it was richer than he was used to, like the air of a greenhouse.
And now was no time to think about it. From the direction of the house came a voice, low and rumbling and thickly flavored with what he recognized as a Scottish accent: "Sir? Clock belled six. Did Adonis come?"
No time to stay around, either. As quietly as he could manage, he walked toward the wall and directly away from the source of the voice.
Within a couple of limping steps his thigh began to burn with pain. His leg trembled as he walked.
Not ten feet ahead on the ground was the duffel bag Adonis had used to carry Gaby. Hanging half-out of it was her fanny pack. Harris grabbed it, buckled it on, and continued.
The clearing narrowed into an earthen pathway between the trees. A few yards further, he reached the wall itself: ten feet high, made of beautifully dressed stone assembled without mortar. Expensive and classy. The gate to the outside was just as tall, heavy hardwood with metal hinges and edges—they looked liked tarnished brass—and closed with a wooden bar set into brackets. There were lights beyond.
Yards behind him, the Scottish voice sounded again: "Sir! Who did this? Where is he?" And Harris heard a faint reply; the golden man had to be conscious again. Grimacing, Harris put his shoulder to the bar and shoved it up out of the brackets. He juggled it but couldn't keep it from falling to the ground; the impact was loud.
He pushed against the heavy gate and it swung slowly outward; as fast as he could manage, he ran out onto the sidewalk beyond.
Broad sidewalks with trees growing from them, wide streets with tree-filled medians, roadways made up of
instead of asphalt, flickering streetlights set atop what looked like tall, narrow Greek columns—where the hell was he? He turned right and trotted, fast as the pain in his leg would allow, along the concrete sidewalk.
The first car that passed him was like something out of a classic car show, a golden-brown roadster so vast that its hood alone stretched as long as an entire compact car. The spare tire, the spokes and hub of its wire-wheel assembly painted incongruously white to match the other wheels, sat tucked firmly in a notch at the rear of the car's running board. The driver's seat was an enclosed, separate compartment of the car, with the steering wheel to the right, like a British auto; the driver, his lean face pale in the glow from the streetlights, was a liveried chauffeur all in black.
And the car was driving the wrong way down the street, left of the median. Harris fought down an urge to shout after the driver.
He stared a moment after the classic automobile, then stepped out to cross to the median—and immediately leaped back as a horn blared to his right. He stared as a second car drove by, also traveling on the wrong side of the street. This was a narrower, boxier car, resembling a Model T with its black body and high carriage. In the seat were a young couple, he in a broad-lapelled suit jacket in glaring red, she in a green, high-neckline dress like something Harris had once seen in pictures of his grandmother. The steering wheel on this one was also on the wrong side. The woman, smiling at the driver, was oblivious to Harris. Both of them were lean, delicate of appearance.
Then they were gone, taillights fading into the dark. Harris shook his head after this parade of classic cars; then he checked both directions for traffic before trotting to the median as fast as his bad leg would let him.
It wasn't fast enough.
"You, there!" The shout came from the way he'd come; it was the Scottish accent. Harris spun around to look.
The man who stood at the gates looked like a wrecking ball: short and squat and heavy. He couldn't have been more than five feet tall. But he was built like an inverted triangle, his shoulders huge, his body narrowing down to his waist and incongruously lean legs. His clothes were brown, baggy, and featureless, his leather boots heavy and thick, like workmen's garments from decades earlier, and were set off by his wiry gray mass of hair and heavy beard. On his head he wore a bright red beret.
As he shouted after Harris, his eyes seemed to glow red in the streetlights' glow . . .
. . . and his teeth, long and white, were sharp.
Harris felt a shudder across his shoulders. Of all the strange and wrong things he'd seen this night, sharp, pointed teeth on a squat man weren't the worst. But they were his limit—one thing too many for him to accept.
"You, there!" the man called again. "You're dead!" And the squat man with the beret bent over, dug his fingers in the gap between two concrete paving blocks . . . and pulled one block up, the effort breaking it away from its neighbor. He hefted it one-handed as though it were a paperback book.
Harris felt his world reel around him again. He heard more automobile traffic driving the wrong way on the street behind him, felt his injury burning along his thigh, tasted the unaccustomed sweetness of the air, but all he was aware of was the man in the beret and the huge block of concrete he handled.
The man drew the massive concrete square back over his shoulder. And threw it at him.
Harris dived behind the nearest tree, fetching up against the rough bark, and saw a gray-white flash as the concrete sailed past. The slab flew across the median and the street beyond. It smashed into a stone wall, the impact sounding like the world's largest porcelain jar shattering, and threw gravel-sized chips in all directions.
Wide-eyed, Harris looked back at the man who'd thrown it. The stunted man was already in motion, running his way.
Harris bolted, running beside the median, cursing the pain in his leg as it slowed him. There was no question of him trying to defend himself against a man like that. A glance over his shoulder showed the short man catching up—damn, he ran fast. Like a sprinter, like an Olympic gymnast charging toward the vaulting horse.
But just beyond the short man was a truck, passing him by and headed Harris' way. It looked like an Army truck, but dark crimson instead of green.
As it came abreast of Harris, he angled toward it, got his hands on the tailgate, and hauled himself into the rear.
Dragging himself over the tailgate and dropping into the truck bed sent fiery pain through his injured thigh. A gold-and-red haze obscured his vision. He lay on his back, gulping in air, waiting for the haze to fade.
He was either someplace very strange, or he was having a psychotic episode. After all his recent disappointments and all that vodka, he could believe the latter. But he didn't; this was all too real.
After half a minute his vision returned to normal. He could see wooden crates lashed down to the front half of the truck bed. He sat up wearily and looked out over the tailgate.
The squat man was still there. About fifteen feet back, he was running hard and fast. And as he caught sight of Harris, his eyes gleamed redly again; he put on another burst of speed, gaining a couple of feet on the truck.
He'd lost his beret, sweat poured down his face and into his gray mustache and beard, his shirt was askew with its tails free of his pants, and he was still running faster than any man Harris had ever seen. Harris froze, shocked beyond thinking.
The truck bed beneath him vibrated and rumbled; Harris heard its gears shift. It slowed and the short man gained another half-dozen feet. Harris forced himself to rise to a half-crouch, ready for a futile fight against this unstoppable little man.
But the truck accelerated. The gap between two-legged pursuer and four-wheeled prey widened. Harris might have cheered, but all his air seemed to be going to fuel the pounding of his heart. The short man was twenty feet back, twenty-five and still running, then thirty . . . and at last Harris saw him give up the chase, stopping in the middle of the road, shaking a fist furiously after the truck and its passenger.
Then, finally, Harris felt he could slump back down behind the tailgate and get his heart under control.
The skyscraper loomed up fifty or more stories, but was round instead of square, with its upper floors shaped like the top of a medieval castle's tower. Electric light poured out of round-topped windows on each story. Stone gargoyles lurked on ledges every few stories, and their neon light eyes blinked on and off. The building stood between other skyscrapers equally tall, equally strange. Then the truck left the building behind and a slight bend in the road hid it from sight.
More neon blinked, advertising storefronts: "Pingel's Cafe," "Gwenllian's Beauty Salon," "Drakshire Opera House." Many of these signs were tall vertical marquees extending from the faces and corners of buildings. Harris saw signs with neon lines twisted like Celtic knotwork to frame glowing, blinking words.
"The Tamlyn Club. Featuring Addison Trow and His New Castilians. Light, Dark, Dusky Welcome." Men in tuxedos and top hats, women in evening dresses and gloves reaching nearly to their shoulders, walked in and out of the club's double doors, admitted by uniformed doormen. These patrons seemed short and slight, with unlined faces, so that it looked like a parade of acne-free teenagers out for a night on the town.
The tuxedos weren't normal. Dark green, dark red, dark gray—no black. The women's dresses were more brightly varied in hue, some of them in lamé that caught the light and held it, shimmering with color.
A newsboy—work shirt, shorts with suspenders, beret—hawked newspapers on a street corner, mere feet from a cart laden with fruit; its hand-lettered sign read, "Apples 1p, Pomegranates 5p."
The buildings were all of stone or brick, many with ornately carved lintels or panels flanking the doorways. They bore no graffiti, no metal bars on the windows or across closed storefronts. Few buildings had windows on the first floor.
The cars, brightly colored blocky things with extended hoods and running boards, most with steering wheels on the right, all drove on the wrong side of the road.
Harris watched this parade of bewildering images whenever he could no longer resist, but most of his attention was focused on his injury. Bounced around by the motion of the truck, he managed to brace himself in the corner by the tailgate, then pulled off his shoes and pants to look at the wound.
There was a lot of blood, but the parallel slashes were not deep . . . just long. Swearing, he pulled off his denim jacket and shirt, then tore the latter into strips. As well as he was able, he bound his injury, cinching the impromptu bandages as tight as he dared. Then he pulled his clothes on again.
By now the street scenery had become monotonous: block after block of stone-faced residential buildings, curiously clean, the streets free of trash. Here, there were windows on the first floor, about eight feet off the ground, and Harris could see into the apartments. Occasionally he caught the smell of meat roasting.
The truck pulled over and parked. Harris scrambled up and over the tailgate as fast as his leg would allow him. But as his feet came down on the brick of the street more pain jolted through his wound and his head swam with dizziness. It was a moment before he could turn to the sidewalk. Once again, he wasn't fast enough.
From behind him: "Here, now!" A man's voice, clipped, deep.
Harris sighed and turned.