Authors: Aaron Allston
Tags: #Science fiction
It descended into the hangar, a diamond shape all in dark blue, with a helicopter-style rotor at either end. It was about as large as a Coast Guard rescue helicopter, but broader in the middle where the diamond shape was at its widest. It touched down on four wheels.
As the rotors spun down, Noriko returned the switch to its original position; the overhead door groaned and began to close again. On a narrow end of the helicopter—rotorkite? that's what Noriko had called it—a gullwing door opened. A man climbed out and dropped to the hangar floor.
He was tall—taller even than Harris, the first man Harris had seen here who didn't make him feel like some sort of Viking invader. He was broad-shouldered but otherwise built lean, and moved as gracefully as a dancer.
He wore loose-fitting dark slacks tucked into high leather boots, and was bundled into a waist-length coat of yellow leather worn over a white shirt with an elaborate frilled collar. As he turned toward Harris and the others, he tugged off a yellow leather helmet fitted with archaic glass goggles; out tumbled shoulder-length hair. Hair that was pure white, the precise white and softness of thick clouds. Hair that didn't quite conceal the most sharply pointed ears Harris had yet seen.
His features were young, of a man perhaps thirty, but there was nothing youthful in his unsettling, pale blue eyes.
He saw Harris and stopped. With a trace of curiosity in his expression, he looked Harris over before turning to the other three.
"A guest," Alastair said, gesturing at Harris. "You remember
, don't you? We used to have them from time to time. Doc, this is Harris Greene, who wears blue so we don't understand the name. Harris, this is your host, Doc—Doctor Desmond MaqqRee, founder of the Sidhe Foundation." He pronounced it "She Foundation."
Doc looked at Harris again, his lips moving a little; he appeared to be working out a problem. Finally, in a surprisingly deep and rich voice, he said, "Grace upon you, Harris, health and wealth, love and children, and on all your line."
"Hi," Harris said.
"High." Doc wasn't returning the greeting; he was puzzling it out. Alastair snickered at his obvious discomfiture.
It took twenty minutes, as Doc and Jean-Pierre checked the rotorkite from end to end, for Harris to repeat his story. Doc had him back up and go over several points and incidents; he paid special attention to Harris' descriptions of the glorious blond man. They returned to the laboratory before the story was done. Doc was removing his pilot's gear and settling on one of the sofas when Harris described the dwarf who'd thrown the concrete block. Doc looked over at Jean-Pierre.
The other man nodded grimly. "I've already shown him the picture. It was Angus Powrie."
Doc returned his attention to Harris. "You mention a thing called a pannyfack."
"Fanny pack." Harris looked around for it but didn't see it.
Jean-Pierre brought it up from behind his chair and tossed it to Doc. "It's all there. One pocketbook crowded with paper treasury notes and draft-notes I don't recognize, many cards all bearing the name of Gabriela Dono-hooey—"
"Thank you, Harris, why don't you and your friends learn to spell more sensibly?—including one of the drover licenses like Harris had, some coins, a small gnarled canister of `pepper spray,' seasonings I suppose, and miscellaneous items. I also put Harris' keys and clasp-knife in there." As Harris groped his pocket, belatedly realizing that his things wouldn't be in these pants anyway, Jean-Pierre smiled mockingly at him. "My apologies, Harris. I didn't know whether or not you would want to come after me with that knife. I couldn't risk it, once I noticed your knife's special trait."
Harris frowned at that. "What trait is that?"
Doc looked at him, then unzipped the main pocket of the fanny pack. He pulled out the lockback hunting knife Harris usually carried. He turned it over, looking at the wooden tang with its brass ends. "Unusual design, but I see nothing else strange about it." Then his thumb brushed the back of the blade.
Doc hissed and involuntarily dropped the knife back into the pack. He put the last joint of his thumb into his mouth and looked curiously at Harris. Then he blew on his injured thumb, on the blister Harris saw rising there, and asked, "You carry a knife with a
"Sure. Why not?"
"Odd question. Because it will make you sick. Noriko at least has the sense to keep her steel fully sheathed when she's not using it. You must touch that blade every time you put your hand in your pocket."
"So what?" Harris moved over to Doc, then reached into the fanny pack and came up with his knife. He held it so that the closed blade touched his skin. Then, slowly and with exaggerated care, he opened it out and placed the blade across his palm.
He lifted the blade to show them there was no problem with his skin. The surprised reactions of the other four were very gratifying. Then, with malicious humor, he slowly drew the back of the blade across his tongue, and was rewarded with a startled hiss from Alastair.
Jean-Pierre stood and took a step away from Harris. "He's obviously insane, Doc. A high degree of immunity, surely. But mad anyway."
Doc also stood, looking troubled. "I don't think so. He shows no pain at all."
"Completely immune," Alastair said. "I've heard of such people, but never thought I'd live long enough to see one."
Harris folded and pocketed the knife. In spite of the fact he didn't know what any of this meant, he felt strangely superior. He rooted around in the pack, retrieved and pocketed his keys, and then took the fanny pack back to the sofa.
He told himself that all he wanted to do was make sure she hadn't lost anything. But after he determined that the pack still held Gaby's keychain and pocketbook, he kept looking.
On the chain was her canister of defensive pepper spray. Harris grinned at the thought of Jean-Pierre trying to hose down a salad with the stuff. Maybe he should let him try; that might be entertaining. But the canister was strangely twisted, as if exposed to great heat, and the plastic spray mechanism on top was melted and fused, obviously not usable. He'd seen it only two days ago, and it was normal then.
He looked in the fanny pack's other compartment; it still held things he didn't care to prowl through, like wadded facial tissues, bottles of nail polish, tampons.
The others murmured among themselves, excluding him from their conversation. That was fine. He used the opportunity to sneak a look through the contents of her pocketbook. Maybe there he'd find some clue explaining why she'd left him. He had a right to know, didn't he? He ignored the little voice that immediately whispered
Two credit cards, two gas cards, a New York driver's license that gave her address on Waverly, an employee identification card for the local UHF TV station she served as program manager, her miniature address book, thirty dollars plus change, her checkbook showing less than two hundred dollars in the bank, miscellaneous other effects.
No photograph of some new guy who looked like he belonged on a soap opera. No letter to her friend Elaine explaining the situation. No checklist detailing the characteristics of her ideal man with notes on where Harris fell short. No names in her address book that he didn't recognize. Of course, it could be someone they both already knew. Zeb? Nah.
A shadow fell across Harris; he started guiltily and looked up at Doc, who'd appeared beside his couch without making a sound. "The Changeling," said Doc.
"The blond man you describe sounds like the Changeling. I do not know his true name. He's a criminal. His men rob treasuries, brew and sell glitter-bright, and try to control rulers and industries. It's very bad to know that an old-time strong-arm man like Angus Powrie is working with him. I want you to take us where you saw them."
"I'm not sure I can find it again. I wasn't looking at a map when I was running away from the little son of a bitch—"
Harris realized that Doc was no longer listening. The white-haired man frowned, staring at the pocketbook in Harris' hands, and reached down to pluck the driver's license away. "This is Gabrielle."
"It's Gabriela. It's Spanish. She goes by Gaby."
Doc gave him a puzzled look. "This cameo is very bad, but it is definitely her. Gabrielle." He turned back to the others and showed them the license. "Have any of you seen her?"
Alastair shook his head. "Just you, Doc. She never talks in when we're around. We decided that she was either imaginary, or sweet on you."
Doc spun to face Harris again, his expression oddly intent. "And this is your lover, the woman you rescued."
"If you can call it a rescue, yeah. How do you know her?" His tone was more hostile than he intended. He reined in his emotions.
"We've never met in person; she has spoken to me a few times on the talk-box. Always when there is trouble brewing. Now it seems that trouble has found
. Now, it's even more important that we—"
He was interrupted by a loud pop from the large round-screened TV. A white dot appeared in the center of the screen, and expanded outward to resolve itself into a black-and-white picture.
Of Gabriela Donohue.
She didn't wear the clothes she had on at the park. Now she wore an elaborate dress, something with a scooped neckline lined with embroidery and flaring long sleeves that spread out over the tabletop they rested on. Her hair was longer than before, was twined into a single braid and brought over her shoulder to hang in front. It had to be a wig or hair extenders. She stared straight into the screen, her expression concerned. Behind her was a wall of large, irregular stones.
She looked great. Harris felt his heart trying to break out through his breastbone. "Gaby! Are you okay?"
She glanced at him with a curious expression, dismissed him instantly, looked at Doc. "They're coming to kill you, Doc. And some man you have here." Her American-heartland accent was gone; she spoke with the same mid-Atlantic accent he'd heard on Jean-Pierre, Alastair and Doc.
"Who is?" Doc asked.
"I don't know, but they are
. I've only just heard. Don't waste time talking to me. We'll talk later." She raised a hand as if to wave good-bye.
Harris found his voice: "Gaby,
. Are you okay, honey?"
He would have said more, but she looked at him as though he were some stranger babbling at her on a street corner. She finished her motion, gesturing good-bye to Doc. The screen went blank, the image contracting down to a white dot. The set crackled with static electricity.
Harris found that he had to sit down again.
She couldn't even admit that he existed.
Harris glared up at Doc . . . and was startled to see that a gun had appeared in the man's grip. It was a monstrous automatic pistol, bigger than any he'd ever seen, and seemingly made of copper or bronze. Harris glanced nervously at the others, but they were in motion, moving across the room toward several wall cabinets.
nearly deafened Harris and he felt a shock in the soles of his feet. Not twenty feet away, just in his peripheral vision, a black spike sprang up out of the floor, throwing splinters of wood up as it emerged.
Harris felt Doc's hand close on the collar of his jacket. Doc yanked him backwards and casually hurled him behind the big TV set. The impact didn't seem to hurt his leg. He scrambled up to kneel behind the set and could see that the spike in the floor was now pouring out black fluid, a steady stream in all directions like a lawn sprinkler.
And then they were there—men, appearing as suddenly as though they'd been there all along and he'd only just noticed them. There were a dozen of them, wearing dull red suits, holding big firearms that looked like tommy guns made of brass. Each man stood half a dozen feet from the spike in the floor, facing outward from that center point.
Doc shouted, "Surrender, or—"
They opened fire, short sprays of flame erupting from the muzzles of their weapons. All around Doc, things shattered and exploded: books blew off the tops of tables, colored glass beakers disintegrated in spectacular sprays of glittering debris, impacts rocked the case of the television Harris crouched behind. The roar of the weapons hammered at Harris' ears, deafening him. Harris crouched lower, hugging the wall, and looked around for a doorway out, a heavier piece of furniture to get behind, even something heavy to throw.
Doc sensed rather than saw the explosive lines of gunfire converging on him. He dived away—hurled his body under an adjacent table and past it, rolled beneath a third. The bullets sought him out, but he lashed out with a boot and toppled the table, making a shield of its top.
He saw the table shudder under the impact of gunfire. This was bad, very bad. His people had handguns, the enemy had autoguns, and the odds were more than two to one against him. He had to divert the invaders until Alastair and Jean-Pierre could get to their heavy artillery.
For speed, rely on simplicity.
Was that a memory of his father's voice, or of his own voice when he taught? He didn't know. He set the gun down and found the small box of matches in his pocket. Out of his sight, men were shouting, firing, maybe advancing.
There was no time to figure out links of contagion; therefore, it had to be similarity. He struck the match. He breathed the smoke and felt the life of the fire beneath it; then he tossed the match over the shuddering tabletop, toward his enemies.
Go, little fire. Find your kin.
For a brief moment, he was with the match as it flew, the fire atop it precariously alive. Hungry to feed, it sought out the food Doc had promised it. It flew past the startled face of a gunman, sensed the burner on the table beyond, and with the last of its vitality reached the simple scientific device.
The knob on the burner twisted and bright new fire a half-dozen feet high leaped into the air. The red-suited gunman nearest the table edged away from the sudden eruption of heat.