Authors: Aaron Allston
Tags: #Science fiction
The truck's driver stood at the left rear quarter of the truck. He was a short man, no more than five and a half feet tall, but very broad shouldered. He wore a flannel shirt and dark pants but, incongruously, was barefoot. His gray hair, flowing long from beneath his fedora-type hat, suggested that he was an older man, but his face was ruddy and unlined. He held an elaborately curved pipe in one hand and an unlit match in the other as he looked gravely at Harris. "You steal anything, son?"
Harris shook his head. It was a stupid question; he couldn't have stuffed one of those wooden crates under his jacket.
"Imagine that," the man said. He lit his pipe, puffing a moment, and then tossed the match into the street. "Truck full of talk-boxes and you don't try to take a thing. Must be an honest man." He spoke without irony. There was a faint accent, an odd lilt to his words, but Harris couldn't place it. "You look like you're fresh off the boat. Looking for work? I have a fair of sisters' worth of deliveries left tonight. Could use a man to unload. I'll pay a dec."
Harris tried to follow the man's odd words, couldn't quite grasp all their meaning. "Uh, no, I can't. I—" He gestured vaguely at his leg. "I got hurt."
The barefoot man glanced, and his eyebrows rose. "You did. Lot o' red, son. You have any money?"
Harris shook his head.
The barefoot man fished around in one of his shirt pockets and drew out something that glinted silver in the streetlight; he pressed it into Harris' hand. "Get to a doctor before that cut fouls. I saw enough of that in the war, don't need to see it at home."
Harris stared stupidly at what the man had given him. It was a big coin, maybe two and a half inches in diameter, and heavy. On the face was the profile of a handsome, lean man with a prominent nose and a crown; on the back, a three-masted sailing ship. It looked like real silver.
"That's a full lib, son," the barefoot man continued. He unlatched and lowered the truck's tailgate. "That'll get you fixed up. When you're on your feet again, you can pay it back to Banwite's Talk-Boxes and Electrical Eccentricities. That's me, Brian Banwite." He scrambled up into the bed of the truck.
"Brian Banwite," Harris repeated dully. "Thanks." He slid the coin into his pants pocket and moved to the sidewalk, then turned back to the truck.
Banwite climbed back out of the bed, a large wooden crate over his shoulder. On its side were stenciled the words "Model 20, Double, Black."
"Where am I?"
"Cranshire." Brian pointed past Harris. "A few blocks that way you get to Binshire." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, gesturing the other way. "North is Drakshire. That's my neighborhood, Drakshire." Then he pointed to Harris' right. "River's that way."
"No, I mean . . . what city?"
Banwite laughed. "You aren't just fresh off the boat, you stowed away on it. This is Neckerdam, son. You've reached the big city." He turned away and marched up the walk to the nearest house.
Harris wanted to say,
No, what I want to know is, where's Gaby?
But Brian Banwite wouldn't know. For lack of anything better to do, he slowly turned toward Binshire and moved that way.
The breeze was cool. The concrete was solid under his feet. Harris passed stoops leading up to building doorways a few feet above street level and could grip them, feel the reality of them. Feel the insistent burn of the slashes on his leg. Nothing that had happened since he woke up in Central Park made any sense, but it
And yet, in the half-dozen lit windows he peered up into, there were furnishings that looked like the ones they'd cleaned out of his late grandfather's house. Wooden chairs with carved, curved legs. Stiff, upright sofas. There was something that looked like a TV set, but with a round screen; it was not turned on. Most of these furnishings were new, in good shape.
And the people . . . One man in three wore a tie in the comfort of his own home. The women were in knee-length dresses, dated of style but bright of color. A happy young couple listened to a radio, which blared something that sounded like Irish dance music.
There were no old people. Well, no old people who looked really old. White hair framing young faces.
Then he caught sight of the woman working over her stove. The woman with pointed ears.
They weren't like those of Mr. Spock on TV, not rising to a devilish point at the rear. They were normal except for the slight, subtle point right in the middle of the curve at the top. Harris looked for pointed ears in the next dozen people whose windows he passed and saw them on three; the rest had ears he considered normal.
Dully, he shook his head. He didn't understand what was happening. It confused him. It had hurt him.
Therefore it was the enemy.
It wasn't enough that the whole world was his enemy. Now, it was a world he didn't even recognize.
When you didn't know what an opponent could do, you stood back, ducked and feinted, watched him work until you understood what you were up against.
That's what Harris would do. Then he would fight back.
His shoelaces flopped around as he walked; his shoes had come untied. Noticing that, he suddenly felt sad, but couldn't explain why.
Harris looked out over what should have been the Brooklyn Bridge.
It stretched across a broad waterway that, lined with lights on both shores, seemed to follow the contours of the East River. But where both of the Brooklyn Bridge's stone support towers had two soaring arches, this bridge's towers had only one apiece . . . and yellow lights shone from windows at the top of each tower, as though the bridge's heights were occupied. Where the Brooklyn Bridge had its elevated pedestrian walkway along the center, between the outbound and inbound roadways, this bridge had two wooden walkways at road level along the sides, overlooking the water. And this bridge seemed darker and heavier than the one he was used to, its support pillars more massive.
It was the right river and the right place . . . but the wrong bridge. Harris limped along its walkway to see more.
The brisk north wind tugged at his clothes and chilled him. His leg ached worse than ever and his hands trembled from exhaustion when he didn't keep them jammed into his pockets. Maybe he should have done what Brian Banwite said—find a doctor, get it bandaged up. But with everything so wrong, he knew deep down that all the doctors had to be wrong, too. Instead, he kept moving. The strangeness of this place wouldn't get him if he kept moving.
An endless stream of antiquated cars roared by, always going the wrong direction on the road. Once there was a motorcycle with a sidecar attached, its helmetless driver not even glancing at Harris through his thick aviator-style goggles.
Harris caught sight of lights moving up in the sky; they floated over the skyline in far too slow, steady and stately a fashion to be an airplane or even a helicopter. He watched, puzzled, until portions of the aircraft were caught in a spotlight shining up from the city, and Harris recognized it as a zeppelin, drifting as serenely as a cloud.
He passed the first of the bridge's two support towers and walked underneath its enormous arch. Far overhead, small spotlights were carefully situated to illuminate the stone gargoyles leering down at him. He numbly shook his head and kept going.
Off to his left, there was no Manhattan Bridge to be seen. To his right, he could see the contours of Governor's Island—better, in fact, than he should have been able to see them at night. The whole island was brilliantly lit, and Harris could only stare at the island's giant wooden roller coaster and Ferris wheel, which had never been there before. Both were in motion, as were other amusement-park rides too distant to make out in detail. Beyond should be the glinting golden point of the Statue of Liberty's torch, but there was no such beacon.
As he reached the center of the bridge, exhaustion finally caught up with him. He sagged against the rail, shutting his eyes against the parade of lights lining the river, and tried to keep his legs from shaking.
And still the cars roared by, each one carrying someone who wasn't hurt, wasn't confused, wasn't totally out of place. Harris felt resentment stir in him. They'd probably enjoy seeing him slip and fall, like the crowd earlier tonight.
He concentrated on taking long, deep breaths; he tried to slip into a calmer, meditative state, the kind he once enjoyed while performing the exercise forms of tae kwon do.
A faint squeal of brakes—Harris heard one of the outbound cars slow to stop just behind him. A cop, had to be a cop; but when he sneaked a glance over his shoulder, it was nothing he could recognize as a police car. It was a beautiful, massive two-tone thing gleaming black and gold in the bridge lights; its passenger compartment was a four-door box, the engine compartment a lower rectangle just as long, its front grille capped by a hood ornament shaped like a dragon in flight.
The far door opened and the driver emerged. Tall for one of these Neckerdam people, he was Harris' height, though he had to weigh forty or fifty pounds less; he was thin-boned and lean-muscled. He was paler in the overhead lights than Harris; this contrasted starkly with his trim, black mustache and beard. His eyes were bright and alert, his features so mobile and full of sympathy that Harris decided he looked like a stand-up comedian who did psychotherapy on the side.
And his clothes—a full tuxedo in the brightest red imaginable, black shirt and white cummerbund, a combination that was eye-hurting even in the dim bridge lights. Harris felt a laugh bubble up inside of him, but managed to choke it before it emerged.
The newcomer walked around the car and up onto the walkway. His voice was a musical, melodious treat: "Son, don't do it."
"Don't do what?"
The tuxedoed man shook his head gravely. "Don't jump. I know things may seem hopeless now, but—"
The laugh Harris had restrained finally emerged, a high-pitched cackle that sounded crazy even to Harris' ears. "Don't
? Mister, you've come to the wrong place. I wasn't going to jump."
The man took a cautious step forward. "You might not have known that you were. But the moon's full and there's a storm in your heart. You could have hit the water before you knew what you were doing. Come away with me."
Ah, so that was it. This guy wanted something. Was he a smooth-talking mugger or a stubborn homosexual who wouldn't take no for an answer? Harris didn't care; he waved the intruder away. "Scram."
"Is that your name? Scram? I am Jean-Pierre." The man took another careful step forward; he was now within half a dozen feet of Harris. "But if you're not going to jump, you can come away with me. I'll take you somewhere safe. Warm food. We can talk."
Harris gave the man his most knowing smile. "Yeah. Sure. I don't know what you want, man, but you're not getting it from me. And if you don't get in that freak show of a car and get out of my face, I'm going to have to break your head. You got that?"
The man with the French name paused and frowned over that. Then: "Yes. Yes, I do." He started to turn—and then made a sudden lunge for Harris, both hands outstretched.
A bad, clumsy move. Harris stepped sideways and fell into a back stance, keeping his weight mostly off his bad leg; he was surprised to feel himself go off balance from dizziness and he nearly fell over. But he still managed to use his left hand to sweep the man's arms out of line, a hard knifehand block, and brought his right up in a fast uppercut that cracked into Jean-Pierre's jaw. The man in the red tuxedo looked dazed and surprised, as though some six-year-old had walked up and broken a shovel across his face, and took an involuntary step backward.
Which set him up for a follow-through kick. Harris brought his injured leg up in a front straight kick that ended with the ball of his foot cracking into the man's jaw. Harris' extended leg seemed to scream as the move stretched his wound taut, but Jean-Pierre stiffened, spun partway around, and slammed down to the boards of the walkway.
Weakness washed over Harris again; he swayed and heard a roaring in his ears. The exertion had come close to taking him out, too. But, tired and hurt as he was, he'd won.
He'd better leave before Mr. Fashion Disaster woke up, though.
He turned, and there she was.
Not Gaby. This woman was short, beautiful, and Asian. All he had time to register was her face, the somber expression it wore, and the stick she held.
The stick she rapped against his temple.
Suddenly the pain in his leg was gone.
Along with his eyesight. His hearing.
He never even felt the impact when he hit the walkway beside Jean-Pierre.
Sound returned first. Indistinct murmurings that became words: " . . . said he wasn't . . . off-guard . . . stop laughing . . . "
Then, sensation. Warmth. Uncomfortable, lumpy softness under his back. A little pain in his leg. The pain was actually comforting. It meant that the events he was starting to remember had actually occurred.
Light through his eyelids.
He opened his eyes, and for the second time in hours saw a face hovering over his.
It wasn't the beautiful blond man again. This was a large pug nose surrounded by a merry round face and eyes as green as jade; this man's skin and hair were nearly as brown as a pecan shell. He wore a stiff white shirt, undecorated and short-sleeved, and a large, bulky stethoscope around his neck. He glanced back over his shoulder, revealing his ear to be sharply pointed, and called, "Your
is awake, my prince." His voice was surprisingly light, his accent cultivated and not quite American.
"You'll be healing yourself if you keep at me." The voice was Jean-Pierre's, and angry. Harris groggily turned his head to look.
He was in a big room, the size of a low-ceilinged gymnasium, crowded with dozens of large work tables. Some tables were piled high with books, others with burners and glass tubes and complicated glass-and-wood arrays Harris didn't recognize, still others with what looked like mason jars filled with jams and jellies. The walls were paneled in dark, rich wood, and the floor was wooden planking of a lighter tone.