Haven't been here in a while, and I've barely written a word in all that time. Changing jobs and moving to a new city will do that.
But, by Crom's grim grey goblet, it's October and NaNoWriMo is coming. This is going to be a busier month than ever to write in, but my project is going to be a "planetary romance" novel called Starfell, something which I hope will come out reading like Ursula K. Le Guin's first three novels in her Hainish Ecumen series.
I doubt that will happen, but one can always dream.
Friday, October 30, 2015
The month of November looms nigh, so it's time to get a-writing again. This year I haven't had any time to plan out the Choose Your Own Adventure Whisper novel I was hoping for, so instead I've reached waaaaay back into my pot of unused ideas and am going to wing it with a silly, random time travel exercise I'm calling The Hanged Man. I imagine this novel is going to be goofy and useless enough that it'll never see the light of day anywhere, even on this blog - so NaNo should be extra fun this time around.
Also fun: I got interviewed for a podcast on AL.com by the most excellent Carla Jean Whitley. Go give it a listen! I'm pretty enthused by how well it turned out.
Since I'm in the midst of a move to Atlanta, this will be my last year as Municipal Liaison for the Birmingham NaNo region. It's been a fun five years, but as with Write Club it's now time to turn over the reigns to someone with fresh ideas. I imagine that in the future I'll drop in on the forums from time to time to see how things are going, and also to let people know if and when that next Whisper novel ever goes up.
Here's a treat for anyone stopping by my blog during this year's NaNo: the first story I ever sold! Here it is, warts and all, from the 2010 issue of Shelter of Daylight. Enjoy:
Iro flipped her observation bubble’s shutter open. Her tiny craft’s instruments told her exactly where she was and where she was headed, but that didn't matter. She wanted to see.
The bright yellow star was a welcome beacon. It was too far away to activate her heat shields, but close enough to show a definite disk before the speckled background of night. Several of the pinpricks around it weren't stars but rocky planets. She had to consult her chart to identify the one she wanted.
The star was cataloged as 742/Grα91. The amphibious tree-dwellers of Lesut, thirty light-years away, called it “The Moss Heart.” The blue planet that sat comfortably in the system's liquid-water zone was referred to by the charts as Grα91/3A, by the interstellar biogenetics community as TGAC Prime, and by its long-extinct inhabitants as “Earth.”
Iro loved that name. She loved all indigenous names, preferring them to the cold designations of the Galactography Institute at which she apprenticed. It irritated her professors to no end that she used native nomenclature whenever possible in her research. “The word Earth,” an instructor once pointed out, “translates as dirt.” She didn't care.
Her pod approached Earth in a high arc over the orbital plane. She coasted on momentum alone, her last course correction made several days before. Any further use of her fusion drive would alert the Ish Marak sentinels in Earth's orbit and the game would be up. Before she came within a thousand diameters of the planet, she would have to shut down her life support and trust that the pod's insulation would keep her heat from bleeding away. At present, the liquid inside her ship was a comfortable 35°C. If it fell below zero, she'd die of hypothermia long before impact.
Ck'Luō reached Earth a month before Iro. Instead of arriving in a working spacecraft, Ck'Luō had hidden in the hulk of a Chango supply vessel found drifting in the system’s cometary cloud.
With Ck'Luō inside, his pod-brothers launched the derelict sunward. The ship would eventually burn when it hit the solar atmosphere, but Ck'Luō jumped overboard when it crossed the orbit of the small, red fourth planet and fell the rest of the way in a stasis-suit.
It wasn't the longest interplanetary dive on record, but it was by far the trickiest Ck'Luō had ever attempted. His stasis field cycled off for one second every ten hours of his descent, making the seventy million kilometer plummet pass in a matter of moments. The cycle grew shorter as he made final approach, creating the illusion of slowing while the azure water-world filled the sky beneath him.
“This goodly frame the Earth,” he couldn’t help but notice, was hardly the “sterile promontory” that the Bard’s fictional prince lamented. The “brave, o’erhanging firmament” had been more justly described, but Ck'Luō didn’t have time to admire the view.
The trick was in the proper timing of his antigravity thrust. If he triggered it low enough in the atmosphere, the Earth’s magnetic field would mask its signal; if he waited too long, he and a hundred square kilometers of the surface would revert to elementary particles.
As it was, he pulled the cord too early, while he was still within easy range of the Ish Marak’s scanners. He realized his mistake when the warning claxon went off in his mask. The sentries were fast, and he had scant moments to avoid being pulled into a holding cell and charged with criminal trespass.
Ck'Luō cut the antigrav before it was fully expended and spun around by thrashing his tail. He thanked the Bard that Earth had a sister planet or this would never have worked. With his thruster pointed at Earth’s airless companion (against which he already saw the outline of an Ish Marak cruiser) he cut the antigrav back on and used the mass of the silver Moon to accelerate him toward the gossamer clouds below.
He broke atmosphere going way too fast, faster than his stasis suit could tolerate. The emergency heat shield kicked on at 75,000 meters and slowed his descent, but it wrapped him in a pillar of fire that surely gave his position to anyone with eyes to see. It couldn’t be helped. All Ck'Luō could do was hope that the planetary guardians weren’t crazy enough to intercept him before he hit the surface.
In that, he was in luck. Beneath him stretched an endless plain of blue. There was enough power left in the antigrav for him to survive a rocky landing, but he would have been captured within moments. Coming in over the ocean gave him a fighting chance.
He couldn’t see the Ish Marak overhead, but he assumed they were there. The sentinels were nothing if not relentless, and the flora and fauna of Earth were some of the most prized in the galaxy. It had taken years for the Ish Marak to curb the exploitation of Earth’s biosphere, but in doing so they had forbidden access to the planet for almost any other purpose. That didn’t stop the odd pilgrim or thrill-seeker from trying, and it was only that possibility that Ck'Luō wasn’t a gene-pirate that had kept the sentries from shooting on sight.
His heat shield overloaded two clicks above the ocean’s surface. Ck'Luō waited another thousand meters before turning his antigrav back on. “Most provident in peril” he imagined himself in the Bard’s words, “courage and hope both teaching him the practice.”
The antigrav kicked like a wild kushat, but he clamped his jaw and rolled with the blow. He flipped over in time to see that yes, there were three Ish Marak flyers homing in on him.
He stripped in mid-air. His limb-sheaths came off first, freeing his arms and legs. His torso plate ejected and his tail-cover slid off when he unbuckled his harness. His helmet was the last to go, the wind almost blinding him as it ripped past his head. The shadows of the sentinels grew near, as did the chop of the surf. Ck'Luō smiled and waved at his pursuers, then he deactivated the antigrav, slung the last of his harness away, and dove head-first, naked, into the sea.
Iro’s craft blazed through the sky over the continent that had once been Eurasia. Her trajectory took her toward the largest of the inland seas that separated the northern and southern landmasses. She hoped to make it all the way; if she didn’t, she would have a long walk ahead.
As it was, she had to eject before her flyer slammed into the top of a mountain. The force of the parasail snapping taut almost broke her shoulders, but she kept her wits long enough to steer toward a valley beyond the glacier below her. Not for the first time she wished that the ancient Human geneticists who’d gifted her race with arms and legs had had the foresight to grant them wings as well.
She glided for miles as the mountains became green foothills. Tiny motors in her parasail kept her aloft, but in the end gravity won and she touched down (rather hard) by the banks of a rippling stream.
Iro sloughed out of her flight suit and crawled, aching, on knees and elbows to the water. It was cold – colder than any of the currents on iceless Siren, her home. She clamped her teeth and slithered in, letting her lungs empty and the chill of snow-melt pass through her gills. The harness had left creases in her flesh; she rubbed her shoulders and thighs and hoped the marks would heal quickly. Her tail shivered violently in the chill water, but she held to the rocky bottom and forced her body to adjust to the temperature.
She wondered what the ancient Humans would have thought if they could have seen her. Doubtless they would have imagined her some fantastic mythological creature, yet thanks to their star-faring descendants there was as much terrestrial DNA in Iro’s blood as there was native Sirene. Would the Humans have been proud that one of their long-lost children had finally returned home?
Iro strode back to the bank, dorsal fins quivering in the air, and checked her position with her navicomp. It could have been much worse. She had made it as far as the northern end of the peninsula that had been her destination. Now she only had to traverse three hundred kilometers of hilly terrain to reach the settlement of the Roänn caretakers.
It was a long way to go on foot. It would be better, she decided, to follow the stream to the sea and swim down the coast. She hoped Ck'Luō was having a better time of it. With luck, he was waiting for her already.
After diving in the icy waters of the open ocean, it became clear to Ck'Luō why Humans had evolved on land. Earth’s seas were too damned salty, for one thing, and the cold made him wish for a layer of blubber like his portly pod-brother Vh’Las.
For the first few days, Ck'Luō kept below the surface and focused on evading capture. Once he felt sure (or at least hopeful) that the Ish Marak had abandoned pursuit, he poked his head into the air and attempted to get his bearings. The navicomp strapped to his waist had thankfully survived the fall, and it placed him some five hundred kilometers west of the inland sea where he and Iro had arranged to meet.
Coming to Earth had been Ck'Luō’s idea. Splitting up had been hers. It was easier for one, she pointed out, to slip around the sentinels than it was for two. By staggering their arrivals, they would be less likely to arouse the Ish Marak’s suspicion. By keeping a low profile, they would only increase their chances of reaching the Roänn colony.
Iro was always the practical one. Ck'Luō was the poet. “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” said the Bard, and Ck'Luō believed it. It was the same every time Iro left on one of her expeditions for the Institute. Ck'Luō always welcomed her home with verses culled from the finest Human and Sirene wordsmiths, or fresh songs of his own devising. They always made her smile, even if she didn’t fully appreciate them the way he did.
They had never traveled off-world together, and Ck'Luō had wanted to on this of all occasions, but Iro’s logic won out. He reminded himself that love “looks on tempests and is never shaken; it is the star to every wandering bark.” It was enough that they were both there, on the world of their genetic and spiritual ancestors.
He waited until night to plow eastward through the waves, and he used the stars to guide him.
On the third day of her trek down the coast, Iro needed a rest. She was cold, tired, and wrinkled as an old woman. She wanted to be beautiful when Ck'Luō saw her next, not frigid and withered like a water-logged ckabba-fruit. There was a narrow beach at the base of a cliff; she pulled herself ashore and lay in the sun to dry.
Birds wheeled overhead, their brilliant white bodies a contrast to their dark faces. Iro’s biocomp implant identified them as ichthyaetus melanocephalus, the Mediterranean Gull. She told it to record the video stream from her optic nerve. She meant to record every life form she came across. One didn’t visit Earth, even illegally, without taking pictures.
Of all the known biospheres in the galaxy, Earth’s was the most abundant by an order of magnitude. Even her own world, with its unbroken oceans full of life, couldn’t match the sheer variety and unparalleled bounty of the species of Earth. It was because of the peculiar nature of Earth DNA – more aggressive, competitive, and adaptable than any other genetic blueprint known to exist.
Iro sunned on the beach until she felt like herself again. The Institute’s records had warned about strong tidal effects caused by Earth’s moon, but the inland sea was mostly sheltered from them and Iro slept undisturbed by the rising water.
It was only after she woke that she noticed the stairs. She hadn’t seen them before, but now that the sun had dropped closer to the horizon, she could see the shadow they cut against the face of the cliff. It would soon be too dark to swim any further, so she decided to explore upward.
It was a tricky climb. The steps were so old they’d almost weathered down to the original rock. It was slow going and at times she had to drop on all fours to keep her balance. She didn’t want to think about getting down again. It was already too late to turn back.
There was nothing at the top of the cliff but a jumbled collection of stones. She’d hoped for a forest with more animals to record, but the woods didn’t begin for another kilometer. Instead, only grass and moss grew through the piles of rock that it took her several minutes to recognize as the remains of a Human village.
She started recording. Out of reverence, she almost stopped breathing. Her colleagues at the Institute wouldn’t care about the ruins, but Ck'Luō would never forgive her for not sharing. Iro was a Naturalist, but Ck'Luō was a Humanist. She knew he would trade the sight of a million new species for five minutes on the hallowed ground of the Ancients he so adored.
In the center of the village was a marker. It was old, probably as old as the steps from the beach, but not as old as the ruins themselves. On the black obelisk were markings in a flowing Roänn script, faded by centuries of wind and rain. The language was Galactic Standard, but the words were those of one of the poets Ck'Luō idolized. Most of the passage was lost, but she could still read the heart of it.
“The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, Ye all which it inherit…”
Humans weren’t much for modesty, Iro thought.
Oh, she corrected herself.
“And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind.”
By all that lives, Iro wondered, did the Humans even then understand that they would one day be no more? Is that what drove them to such lengths to seed themselves across the cosmos?
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on…”
The rest was too worn to read. She would have to remember to show it to Ck'Luō. If they were lucky, she could even bring him back. She listened to the gulls for a while, then climbed down the steps to the cool evening waves.
The warm Mediterranean was a relief after the frigid and tempestuous Atlantic. Ck'Luō found a quiet cove almost immediately after passing the boundary waters and camped for several days. His ration packs were nearly gone, and he would have to start hunting his food if he wanted to survive. He’d seen many new species already, and he wished he had an implant like Iro to record them. He would have to describe them to her in verse instead. It would probably be best, he thought, to leave out the parts about eating them.
Earth fish were quick, he’d give them that. Unfortunately for them, though, they’d gone too many millennia without being hunted by anything except other fish. Ck'Luō hadn’t brought any of his gear, but he was able to fashion a net and a crude spear out of some local plant life.
He decided to start small. There were schools of a particular silver fish that were especially plentiful. After a little exertion, he nabbed three, slit them open, and let them bake in the sun for an hour before dining on their succulent white flesh. It was filling, but only whetted his appetite for more. In the deeper sea he had seen larger creatures; he would have to make a go at them as soon as he was a little more rested.
Iro was beginning to wish her journey would never end. Earth was so very, very beautiful. She had to wonder what had pushed the Humans into space to begin with. Why travel outward into the void when they had paradise all around them?
Her navicomp told her she was less than a day’s swim from the Roänn colony, but there was so much to distract her and it was so hard to resist indulging herself.
The creature she swam with that morning was a mobula mobular, a giant devil ray. It fluttered almost effortlessly like one of the great cloudwings of Cavor, only beneath the waves instead of above them. She trailed it for an hour, logging the entire experience into her biocomp. She wished she could capture one and bring it back to Siren, but knew that even speaking that thought aloud could land her in an Ish Marak holding cell.
Her stomach cramped. She was hungry, but she couldn’t bear to eat any more rations. The Roänn settlement waited only kilometers ahead; she turned from her lovely watery companion and started toward shore.
When she looked behind one last time to watch the ray vanish in the distance, another creature caught her eye. She stopped swimming and started recording again, waiting for her biocomp to classify the animal and correlate the video stream. When the beast’s name inserted itself into her field of vision, it was outlined in red.
Isurus oxyrinchus, Lamnidae family. Colloquial name: Mako shark. Warning: EXTREME HAZARD.
An image from the computer file appeared underneath the warning. All she saw was the creature’s teeth. Iro twisted in the water and bolted. She hoped she was far enough away that the monster wouldn’t follow.
She was tired, but thanks to her journey she was also in the best physical shape she’d ever been. Arms and legs tucked in tight, she slithered eel-like toward the still-unseen shore. It couldn’t be too much farther, she thought. She glanced behind her to see if she’d lost the mako.
It had closed half the distance. By all that lives, it was fast! Iro redoubled her efforts; she could feel all three of her hearts ready to burst from the exertion. She glanced over her shoulder again. The shark was closer still, and it didn’t even seem to be trying.
She thrashed her tail harder, but she couldn’t go any faster. She could see the bottom now; the shore had to be close. The water around her was warming up with the heat from the monster itself. Iro glanced behind one more time.
All she saw was teeth.
Ck'Luō was on his guard, his spear at the ready. He’d grown to know Earth’s creatures well, and he knew to be cautious. The Mediterranean current carried him toward his destination, so he conserved his own strength. He didn’t know what it was that drove the bigger fish to attack. Maybe it had to do with pheremones or the high body temperature of Sirenes compared to the local fauna. He’d have to ask Iro about it when they met.
One more day, he told himself. Less than a day. Hours now. His gills practically quivered with anticipation. It had all been worth it, he thought. The hardship, the cold, the loneliness… Ah, but the adventure! The wonder! The sheer beauty! Even if he never did it justice in verse (and he would sure as life try) to share such a breathtaking voyage with the woman of his dreams was the experience of a lifetime.
There was a bitterness in the water, at once familiar and out-of-place. Was it her? The Roänn were close, and the sea only five meters deep. Had she recently passed through these shallows ahead of him? Had he actually picked up her scent?
He couldn’t help but assume that the answer was ‘yes.’ He turned away from the current and followed her trail. Of course, he knew, it could turn out to be some other form of sea-life that he was tracking, but it suited his own romantic notions to believe otherwise.
As he neared the shore, anticipation turned to worry. The scent had become stronger and it was definitely Sirene, but what he smelled couldn’t be right. His hearts went cold as he pushed toward the bottom. What he tasted in the water was a hint of blood.
He found the strongest confluence in a small hollow on the sea floor not fifty meters from the coast. Sirene blood tended to sink in Earth’s over-salty water, and the hollow was coated in it.
Ck'Luō couldn’t believe it. There had to be another explanation, but he couldn’t think of one. Could there be other Sirene on Earth besides he and Iro? He knew there weren’t, but he begged the fates and the Bard’s uncaring God otherwise. He swam back and forth along the seabed looking for any sign or clue.
He found a piece of her waist-harness with a few remaining ration-wafers wedged between two boulders. Later, he found the end of her tail.
The Roänn caretaker found the young Sirene sitting quietly at the edge of the surf. The Roänn’s name was Beach-Comber, after an old Human pastime. He doubted that Human beachcombers had ever come across anything so strange.
He held up his roots as he trudged into the water. He wasn’t quiet, yet the Sirene didn’t stir. Beach-Comber leaned over and touched a branch to his shoulder. Only then did the boy jump.
“Forgive me,” the Roänn rumbled in Galactic Standard, “but are you the Petitioner who fell into the ocean six weeks ago?”
The Sirene boy’s eyes were wells of sadness. He nodded.
“Most amazing,” the Roänn observed. His leaves fluttered excitedly in the breeze. “We’d thought you lost. We never imagined that you could survive such a journey. Incredible!”
The boy wiped water off his cheek. It was a very Human reflex, one that only a few of their descendants shared.
“Don’t cry,” Beach-Comber told him gently. “You mustn’t cry. You’re here! You’re alive! This is a time for celebration. Please, come with me to the colony. We can be there before nightfall. There’s still plenty of light.”
“What light is light, if Iro be not seen?” the boy suddenly said. “What joy is joy if Iro be not by? Tarry I here, but I attend on death. Fly I hence, I fly away from life.”
“Pish,” the Roänn scolded. “None of that. Besides, you’re saying it wrong and leaving parts out. The Bard would never approve. Now pull yourself together and take my branch.”
He had to practically drag the youth out of the water. Once on land, the young man followed without argument. He didn’t say anything, in fact. Beach-Comber knew that of all the races in the galaxy, the aquatic Sirene were the most like to Humans as the Humans themselves. This one, he mused, was displaying the Human quality of “dragging one’s feet.”
“This ‘Iro’ you speak of,” he said. “Tell me about her.”
The youth was silent at first. “She was everything,” he eventually said. “She was the light that shimmers on the face of the water, and the comforting shadows beneath. She was a splash of color on a barren seabed. She was a flower in the coral. She was the music of the tide, and the dance of the waves.”
He went on like that for a while. Beach-Comber let the words drift through his leaves and into the air, where the wind carried them in the pollen to his brothers and sisters at the colony. When at last the pair of travelers arrived, everyone there had heard Ck'Luō’s song filtered through the language of trees.
Beach-Comber gestured to a low hilltop that overlooked the sea. “This way, Petitioner.” On the crest of the hill was a small stand of Roänn who had already gathered.
Not many made requests to visit the Roänn colony on Earth any more. Fewer still were granted permission to land, but the two Sirenes’ request had been so unusual that it intrigued the Roänn even after the Ish Marak guardians above denied them access. The young ones’ bravery in defying the sentinels could not go unrewarded. The Roänn would grant what they had asked.
Beach-Comber guided the sorrowful young man to the top of the hill. At the summit, two of the trees stepped aside and Ck'Luō gasped in wonder.
For there stood Iro. Her tail was a bandaged nub, her face and arms bore fresh cuts, there was a hole in her dorsal fin, and she leaned on a crutch for support, but there she was. She smiled.
“The light that shimmers on water, huh?”
Ck'Luō blushed. Beach-Comber watched bemused as disbelief and joy battled on the boy’s face. At last, the youth ran to his companion on exhausted legs, took her in his arms, and kissed her in the setting sunlight.
Beach-Comber managed a chuckle. “That part comes at the end, I think.” The two Sirene, both embarrassed now, stepped away from each other while another Roänn, the eldest of the colony, addressed them in quiet solemnity.
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,” he began.
It was a ceremony as old as Humanity, as old as time. The words were fluid and had changed over the eons with the shifting of oceans and the passing of stars. The intent was always the same: a binding of hearts and a sharing of souls.
The elder Roänn spoke of commitment and honesty, of suffering and joy, in sickness and in health, until the two were parted and reunited in eternity. At the end, he asked a question.
They each answered in turn, “I do.”
This story is copyright 2010 Jared Millet. It was originally published in Shelter of Daylight Vol. 3 from Sam's Dot Publishing.
Thursday, August 13, 2015
So I did that one-day SF mini-con put on by the Hoover Public Library, and it was a blast. There were gaming tracks, panels, trivia, a costume contest, and (since this was at a library after all) lots and lots of authors. Van Allen Plexico was in attendance, as were David Alastair Hayden and Pepper Thorn. I got to moderate a panel consisting of (above, L-R) S.L. Duncan, Lou Anders, J.F. Lewis, and Ingrid Seymour. Read their stuff.
Birmingham is in desperate need of a regular SF convention. Alabama Phoenix Festival was fantastic, but there were complications that prevented it from happening this year. It's good to know that our local libraries are willing to fill the void and pick up the slack.
Oh, and check it out: Here's the second half of my new Whisper story!
Previously: I used to be a newshound named Allan Jones. Now you can call me The Whisper. It's August, 1959. I was taping a clandestine meeting between New York City Councilman Farstow and a Ukrainian hit man named Luczek. Farstow was trading plans to New York's electrical grid for Luczek's help with some union troubles, but the meeting went south when Farstow's secretary Daisy made off with the plans on her own. Luczek killed Farstow and chased after Daisy. I did too, and revealed myself to both of them in the process of saving her life.
Daisy and I gave Luczek the slip in Central Park, then I followed her to a meeting in a subway station with none other than my old pal Special Agent Powell of the F.B.I. She was upset about his lack of protection and Powell was pissed that I was still sticking my nose into Federal investigations. Luczek got the drop on all of us, and even on the crowded platform it looked like he would start shooting, when suddenly...
With an electrical groan, every light in the station went out. The train’s lights flickered but remained; the third rail must have been on a separate grid. The passengers who’d been spilling out stopped in their tracks at the sudden darkness. Everyone was a shadow, an outline, a partly lit face. It was like being stuck in some surreal European horror film, right down to the Ukrainian nosferatu with a long black gun.
Powell was armed, so I decided he didn’t need my help. I grabbed Daisy’s wrist and made her invisible, then pulled her behind me into the crowd. She yanked and tried to pull away, so I grabbed her wrist with both hands and dragged her close enough to whisper in her ear.
“You want to get out of this? I can protect you more than Powell can. Let’s get somewhere safe, you give me the story, and then later we’ll give Powell the goods.”
“Screw you,” she said over the crowd’s rising panic. The lights still hadn’t come on. “I’m not your damsel in distress and I don’t need a goddamn rescue.”
With uncanny accuracy she jabbed my shin with her heel. I yelped, fell down to one knee, and let go. She vanished like a wizard as the crowd closed in. A whistle sounded from the train. The people on the platform, realizing that their only source of light was about to drive off, shouted in protest.
The doors shut, the train ground into motion. I dialed myself visible, pulled off my mask, and shouted Daisy’s name.
Powell’s fist bashed into my face and scraped part of my ear. I fell into three women, knocking all of them down with me. Powell yanked me up and twisted my arm while throwing his other around my neck in a choke hold.
“Where’s Daisy, you idiot,” he said. “Did you lose her?”
“Yes I lost her. Let me go.”
“Not on your life, prick. Give me your Whisper belt. Give it now or I’ll break your arm.”
As much as I struggled, it was no good. My Army training hadn’t covered wrestling, and I was too out of shape anyway. As the last train car left the station, I spotted a gaunt face on the edge of the mob not thirty feet away.
“Luczek! I see Luczek!”
“Dammit, he’s right there!”
With a growl, Powell let go. “Don’t ghost out on me.”
Hell, in this situation I didn’t dare. Unable to see, I could walk through the tunnel wall and be lost underground unable to breathe – the worst kind of buried alive. I caught Powell’s sleeve and pulled him along the edge of the platform, hoping I wouldn’t fall off.
Luczek had apparently given up on finding Daisy in the dark and was making for the stairs to the street. The light from above was too faint to notice before, but with the train gone it was just about visible over the sea of heads.
So was Luczek. Being tall made him a good hunter, but it also made him stick out. Neither I nor Powell were going to spot Daisy in this mess, so I decided to cheat and get ahead of the game.
“Powell,” I said. “How long can you hold your breath?”
“A couple of minutes. Why?”
I fit my mask back on and checked it was still running. “Shortcut. Don’t let go of my arm.”
Ghosting two people through a crowded subway in the dark was like pulling a drowning man through seaweed at night. I took off my squid face when we reached the stairs and went solid. We both headed up to the blazing heat of August.
It was the first time Powell and I had seen each other since that night almost a year ago that I’d first become the Whisper, and to his eyes I must have looked like an absolute bum. My shirt was soaked through and my hair dripped. At least I could straighten my tie.
Subway commuters kept emerging into daylight. Each one staggered while their eyes adjusted, then tried to move along as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened down there. The rest of Manhattan buzzed on its busy way, but I could tell something was off. People milled around outside their buildings as if not knowing what to do with themselves. Traffic was at a standstill and the traffic lights were out.
“Hey buddy,” Powell said to a passerby. “Is the power out the whole block?”
The man pointed the way he’d come. “Store clerk said it’s out at least as far as 97th. Might be the whole island.”
“Thanks.” Powell turned back and gave me the once over. “So why are you still here?”
I shrugged. “Got to get my story.” The truth is, this was the first time I’d been visible to anyone who knew my real name in a very long time. It felt nice. I was probably going to pay for it.
“You can get it from Luczek when he pops out of his hole.” Powell motioned for me to step farther from the subway entrance as the steady stream of train passengers shoved their way out. If we wanted to catch Luczek off guard, we’d have to be quick. He hadn’t shown any reluctance to wave his gun around in public.
“So why is he after the plans to the power grid?” I asked. “You think it’s got something to do with this outage?”
“Don’t see how,” Powell said. “Daisy’s still got them. I think this blackout shows what those plans could do, though. If someone knew the weak points of the grid, they could knock out a whole city. Just think what that’d be worth to the right buyer.”
“Maybe. Word I hear from my sources is that after your dust up last year, they’re a little tight on cash.”
“We’ll have to compare notes.”
“You’re a selfish asshole, you know that?” he said. “Can you imagine how much good that invisibility belt would be in the hands of law enforcement? Hell, can you imagine what I could do with it?”
“Two things,” I said. “One: It would never stay in the hands of law enforcement. The CIA would snap it up and spend decades trying to reverse engineer it. That is, if JANUS wasn’t able to buy or steal it back from them. Two: You wouldn’t be able to use it for long. JANUS has a time machine, remember? They’d travel back and erase you before you ever got hold of it.”
“What’s to stop them from erasing you?”
“They already tried. The real me died last year. This version?” I pointed to my face. “I’m just an anomaly. A glitch in Time and Space. It doesn’t make me untouchable, but it means they have to hunt me down the old fashioned way.”
We waited a few more minutes. More and more people filed out of their buildings, which I’m sure were getting stuffy inside. The queue of passengers from the darkened station petered out, but neither Luczek nor Daisy emerged. Daisy may have gotten out ahead of us, but we knew for a fact that Luczek hadn’t.
“What the hell?” said Powell. “Is he sitting down there in the dark?”
“The trains are still running,” I said. “Maybe he hopped on another one.”
“Crap. Can’t believe I lost him like that. Of all the days for the electric to go out.”
“What about Daisy? Is there some other place you were supposed to meet?”
Powell shook his head. “No, but I know where we can find her. She’s got a daughter staying with friends up on West 101st. Sooner or later she’ll turn up there.”
Powell paced and scratched his head. “She’s right, too. I owe her protection. She stuck her neck out to help me catch Luczek. Now she and her kid are in danger because I missed my chance to drop him.”
“You might get another.” An ugly thought bloomed in my mind. Powell looked into my eyes and read it.
“You want to let Luczek go after her?”
I nodded. “He won’t know I’m there if I’m the one watching her. You keep your distance until he goes for the kill.”
“You’re a bastard, Jones. You better make this work.”
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Okay, I admit it. Using Daisy as bait to catch Luczek was cold, ill-considered, and stupid. What would I do if Luczek got the drop on us? I could only hope that I saw him first before he zeroed in on Daisy and that he’d move in slow motion like a matinee serial villain.
Daisy’s friends lived on a fifth floor walkup. Instead of climbing all those damn stairs, I kicked off from the first step and cut my frame of reference so I drifted up through all the others. Pretty clever, huh? Yeah, let me tell you how many times I screwed up while trying to practice that move.
I reached the fifth floor and poked my head into the apartment – literally. Inside was a single bedroom flat with a tiny kitchen and a living room about the size of a rich man’s closet. Daisy’s kid sat on the couch reading a Casper comic in the light from the window. I knew she was Daisy’s because she looked just like her, blonde curls and all, while the older couple in the apartment were either Greek or Turkish. They’d opened the windows and lit candles in the kitchen. The old man squinted at the crossword from the Times while his wife cut up tomatoes for sandwiches on the counter. There was no sign of Daisy, and still no sign of the power coming back.
The building’s elevator had been disabled by the blackout, but I checked it anyway. Stuck in it was a middle aged woman, trapped there since the lights went out. I almost gave her a heart attack when I told her I would rescue her. I almost gave her another when I pulled her through the wall and let her loose. It was probably a stupid move –nothing would tip of Luczek better than some lady chattering about the “magical spirit” that freed her from the lift, but I’d have felt like a heel had I left her.
Not that I didn’t feel like one anyway. Daisy showed up an hour later, dragging a suitcase through the street-level door. I’d already walked a dozen patrols of the block waiting for her. Powell was stationed on floor number 6; he promised to come running at the first sound of trouble. Until then, it was all up to me.
I’ve never felt so paranoid as when I trailed her up the stairs. I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder half the way up. For the other half I watched every door on each landing, just waiting for a mad Ukrainian to bust out of one. Shadows were omnipresent and the occasional shaft of light only made them darker. Daisy tripped on a stair and fell forward. It was all I could do not to reach out and grab her.
She knocked on her friends’ door. The Greek lady answered.
“Daisy, darling.” She pulled Daisy in and hugged her. I turned an eye back to the stairs. “I was so worried about you out there with this blackout. I hear it’s the whole upper west side.”
“Sophia, believe me, the power being out is the least of my worries. Thank you so much for watching Zoe.”
“I’m always happy to, you know that. She’s such a dear. What are you doing with that suitcase?”
There was no one in the hall, no one coming up or down the stairs. This couldn’t be right. Had Daisy really managed to give a professional killer the slip? Then again, in the darkness of that subway she didn’t have to be a super spy to disappear in a press of bodies. Once she was loose in the Big Apple, vanishing into the teeming masses wasn’t that big a feat in retrospect. I’d only found her again because Powell knew who her babysitters were.
I was disappointed, to tell the truth. Once Powell had mentioned the JANUS connection, I’d really wanted to get my hands on Luczek. I wandered back inside and canvassed the apartment as an invisible ghost, just to make sure he wasn’t hiding in a closet or anything.
“To tell the truth, I’m in trouble,” Daisy said. “I’m going out of town for a while to stay with some friends upstate.”
“But what about your job?” asked Sophia’s husband. “What about that lad you were seeing. Karl was his name?”
“My job is over. Me and Karl were finished already. No, this is for the best. I’ll send you a postcard when I’ve settled. Zoe, come on. You and Mommy need to go.”
I stood by the open window and let the fifth story breeze pass through me. Every window in the apartment building across the street had also been thrown open. Their curtains fluttered like flags, one for each family’s little kingdom.
Metal glinted in one of the darkened openings. I’d seen that glint before in the hills of Korea.
I dialed solid and tackled Daisy. “Everybody down!”
Neither of the elder couple reacted except with blank stares. For a moment nothing happened and I wondered if I’d panicked for nothing.
“Get off me, creep!” Daisy elbowed me in the gut and climbed to her feet. As soon as she did, one of Sophia’s cabinets exploded.
“Down!” I screamed again. Daisy obeyed and dragged Zoe down with her, pulling her child so that the sofa sat in between her and the window. Sophia stared at her cabinet like a confused rabbit, but her husband grabbed her by the waist and pulled her to the floor, covering her head with his arms.
Powell kicked open the door and shouted, “F. B. I.!”
The shooter answered with a shattering blast that took out part of the wall. Whatever Luczek was shooting was big. Another blast took out a lamp, and another a cabinet full of china, showering the room in plaster and glass.
“I don’t think he can see in here,” I said. “He’s just taking shots at random.”
“No shit, Jones. I’ve called backup. Let me radio his position.”
Another blast blew stuffing out of the sofa not a foot above Daisy’s daughter’s head.
“No time,” I said. “I’m taking him now.”
And this is where I got stupid. Manhattan streets are sixty feet wide, give or take. Add fifteen feet of sidewalk on either side plus the inset of the apartments and the thickness of the walls and I was looking at a hundred feet to cross horizontally. No human being could have made that jump, but I was a human being with comic book superpowers.
With intangibility set to maximum, I ran to the back end of the apartment to give myself room to build up speed. Then I charged through the walls toward the open window and launched myself into space, detaching my frame of reference as I hit open air. Just as I’d learned to drift up stairs on momentum alone, so I flew sideways across the street at what felt like a snail’s pace. In theory I had nothing to worry about, but my eyes and my stomach reminded me that I was flying five stories above cars and pavement.
I saw the gun flash. The killer shot right through me and didn’t know it. The window flew towards me, or I towards it. My angle of attack was slightly at an incline; I was rising relative to my target. This would be a problem if it put me in the ceiling when I wanted to materialize.
Thirty feet and two seconds away, I was definitely coming in too high. Just before I ghosted through the opposing wall I turned my tangibility slightly back on so that gravity would notice me again. Momentum carried me through, then I dropped and locked onto the floor.
Because of the sun’s angle, this apartment was darker than Daisy’s friends’. Luczek knelt in the window with a high powered rifle on a tripod. I could never take him fair, so I threw my arm around his neck, jerked him away from his gun, and faded to full ghost, bringing him into my world.
He gasped. His eyes bulged and his lungs deflated. If I held him long enough he would die. I couldn’t really care about that. This was one guy the world wouldn’t miss. Then again, he had access to JANUS. If I wanted to get back on their trail, dare I take this scumbag out?
He made my choice by slamming his fist down on my groin, and world turned white. I dropped to the floor and cradled my privates, screaming through my breather. Luczek rolled away, solid once more. He couldn’t hurt me again, though he tried kicking through me a couple of times.
Two bullets ripped through the room from the apartment across the street. I presume that Powell was firing back. Despite the agony running from my tailbone to my skull, I staggered back to my feet. Luczek pulled his rifle off its tripod and ran out the door.
Oh no you don’t, you bastard.
I ran after him. By “ran” I mean stumbled like a drunk. He made it down the hall to the elevator and jabbed the button repeatedly, somehow forgetting that it wouldn’t run without electricity. I dialed solid and slammed into him, pinning him against the doors so he couldn’t point his gun at me.
“End of the line, dumbass,” I said. “The Feds are on to you, and you’ll never escape me.”
“Bastard!” He worked a hand loose and shoved it into my breather. I could feel the straps giving way. I squirmed to hit my ghost dial without losing my grip. He twisted the mask halfway off my face and I accidentally turned the knob all the way.
We fell through the closed doors into the elevator shaft. Somewhere in the open shaft, Luczek let go of me and turned solid. I heard him scream, then I fell through the exterior wall and hurtled over a fire escape. I turned solid enough to catch it and pulled myself to safety.
Who knows how far Luczek fell. I didn’t go back to find out.
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The conversation back at Daisy’s friends’ apartment was short and to the point. I let Daisy know that Luczek had taken a long, steep dive down an elevator shaft. Daisy handed Powell the electrical grid plans that Farstow had tried to sell. Grudgingly, I handed over my tape recording of Farstow’s meeting with Luczek and his subsequent murder. Since all the active parties were dead, Powell said, the tape should serve as an adequate stand-in for Daisy as a witness.
Nevertheless, Farstow had friends and Luczek had associates. It was possible that someone might still come after her.
“Do me a favor,” Powell said to me in the hall as Daisy made her farewells. “Help her disappear.”
“You got it.” I shook his hand, keeping my other firmly latched on my invisibility belt in case he made a grab for it.
I escorted Daisy and Zoe down the stairs, fully visible and solid. I didn’t want the kid to see me wearing my mask, so I carried it in my hand. I could feel her eyes on me the whole way down. Finally she spoke.
“Hey mister. Are you the invisible man?”
“That I am, kiddo.”
“If you turn invisible I could tell where you are anyway,” the kid said. “You smell like you need a bath.”
Daisy laughed. I couldn’t help but grin. “You found my weakness. Cops and gangsters can’t catch me, but your nose could spot me a mile away.”
“Do you think we could go back to my place?” asked Daisy.
I shook my head. “Powell said vanish, so we vanish. If there’s anything you need to pick up, I’ll go for it myself. As the Invisible Man.” I reached down and caught Zoe with a tickle. “I’ve got a hotel suite on Fifth. You two can have the bedroom. I’ll sleep on the couch.”
It was a long walk. Thanks to the outage there was an odd holiday air to the city. The Mirror had managed to get a POWER BLACKOUT headline up for the evening edition. Most stores were closed. A bakery had posted a sale on whipped cream and custard items. One grocery had a sign that read “Open For Business At Your Own Risk.”
At my hotel, the concierge offered apologies and handed us flashlights. I was glad Daisy looked respectable. On my own I might have been thrown out before I could convince them I was a paying guest. I could have slipped in as the Whisper, but it was hard getting by as a regular human being without an actual identity. I ran that thought through my mind as we climbed the endless stairs, then sprung an idea on Daisy when we finally got to my suite.
“Powell said to vanish. I want to offer you a job.”
“A job. For money and everything. So you can have your own place and take care of Zoe.”
Daisy gave Zoe a match and told her to light the room’s candles. I dropped my mask on a chair and pulled off my tie. With the kid occupied, Daisy pulled me into the bedroom, where the last light of day hung around for final call.
“What kind of job?”
“I can’t be a real person. I’ve got money, but I can’t get a bank account. I can stay in hotels, but I can’t rent a place long term. I can’t even go to the same grocery to often in case people might start to recognize me. It’s wearing me out, living like this. I need an intermediary.”
Daisy crossed her arms. “So I’d be what, a live in maid who pays all your bills?”
I reached back in my brain to all those old Shadow serials. “You’d be my agent. My representative. Like an attorney. I’d be your client. And I’d pay really well.”
“You’ve got money?”
“You’d be surprised how much loot criminals leave locked up. There isn’t a safe in the world that can stop me.”
“And where will this be?”
“I’ve been working out of Baltimore but I need to move on. We could get lost anywhere there’s a lot of people. Take Manhattan. There’s so many millions here I bet we could move across town and no one would find us.”
“Please,” said Daisy. “New York is smaller than you think.” Someone, probably housekeeping, knocked on the door and Daisy yelled for Zoe not to answer it.
“Think about it,” I said. “I’m not going to pressure you, and I’ll set you up on your own somewhere if that’s what you decide. I just want you to know it’s on the table.”
“Mommy?” Zoe’s voice was shrill.
“What is it, honey?” Daisy went to the sitting room door. Her breath caught in her throat. “Karl!”
I looked over her shoulder. In the flickering light, Luczek looked like a ghoul. He had Zoe by the shirt and held a pistol to her head.
“If you vanish, she dies.”
The question I wanted to ask was ‘How are you still alive?’ The one that came out of my mouth was “Karl? This guy was your boyfriend?”
“You,” said Luczek. “Remove your cloaking belt and set it on the floor.”
“Did Powell know?” I asked Daisy. “Did Farstow know? How does this even make sense?”
“Hey,” said Luczek. “Are you listening? Put down the cloaking belt or the girl dies.”
Daisy sniffled. She started to shake. “Farstow didn’t know. Luczek used me to get information about him, so he’d know what to offer in exchange. I went to Powell so I could get rid of this bastard.”
“That’s it,” said Luczek. “The girl dies on 3.”
“Stop,” I said. “I’m taking off the belt and I’m setting it down where you can see it.” I moved slowly and laid the bandolier on the floor in the last shaft of twilight from the window. As I let go, something clicked in my head. “You called it a cloaking belt.”
“I know what it is. My employers want it back.”
“All right,” I said. I inched my way to the left, deeper into shadow. Not that a pro like him could have missed me at this range. “I’m giving it up. I know you won’t let me live. But please, let the girl go.”
“Mommy!” Zoe cried. Luczek tightened his arm around her neck.
“The girl will live. My employers need servants. I’m glad you’re not a fool. Now get down on your knees.”
“Mommy!” Zoe shouted. I did as instructed. I was out of plays. I’d known this gig might not last. I only wished I could have been more of a thorn in JANUS’s side.
Luczek aimed his gun and said, “Sorry.” He squeezed the trigger and fired.
The blast ripped the air by my head. I flinched and glass sprayed me where his bullet smashed a mirror. A ringing echoed between my ears. I toppled on my side and put my hand to my scalp, but it came away bloodless.
Luczek had missed. Zoe slid across the floor like a flung doll. Luzcek jerked left, then right. A crater formed on his cheek from an invisible blow. Blood sprayed from his mouth. His feet fell out from under him and his stomach crumpled.
Something crushed his head to the floor. Again, and again. His eyes bulged, his arms flailed. Daisy was nowhere to be seen. Daisy was nowhere to be seen. While Luczek had been focused on me, she must have put on the cloaking belt. Now she used some object to beat Luczek’s skull in. Luczek’s eyes lost their focus and his arms stopped their flailing.
“Daisy,” I said. “You can stop!”
“Mommy?” Zoe crawled to her knees where she’d fallen. I grabbed her and held her close, keeping her from seeing Luczek’s body.
“Daisy, you can stop. Karl’s gone. You need to come back now.”
A battered hotel chair materialized in midair and fell across Luczek’s body. Daisy didn’t appear.
“Feel the knobs. It’s the top one, the one you turned before. Not the other two. Turn it counterclockwise until it stops. Don’t touch the others, whatever you do. You won’t be able to breathe.”
The seconds stretched out. She didn’t appear. I couldn’t even guess where she was from the sound, since my ears still rang from the gunshot. At last she faded into view, kneeling beside Luczek’s broken body and panting heavily.
“It’s all right,” I whispered. I patted Zoe on the shoulder. “Your mommy’s all right. She’s back and the bad man is gone.”
“Sweetie,” said Daisy. “I need you to hide in the bathroom. Close the door and don’t come out until I say.”
“I love you, Mommy.”
“I love you too. Mommy’s a mess and she needs to clean up.”
I let Zoe go and she ran to the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. Daisy put her hands on her face and sobbed. I should have gone to comfort her, but instead I slumped to the floor. It had been a long goddamn day.
“You still want that job?”
Daisy laughed or cried, I wasn’t sure which. I’d have to make a call to Powell, and we’d soon be hightailing it to another hotel room, preferably one in Jersey. Anywhere but Manhattan.
“Thank you, Mister Jones,” she said.
“Don’t call me that. You can call me Allan if you want.”
“Allan. What are we going to do now?”
No need to sweat the details. “We’re going to take a vacation, then get set up somewhere else. I think Zoe’s taking a shine to me. I can be her crazy uncle.”
Daisy nodded. “She can call you Uncle Whisper.”
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Friday, July 24, 2015
Way back when "River Ascending" came out I made the statement on this here blog that I'd publish a new Whisper story on this blog "or die trying." Well, apparently I've been dead for quite some time. Thankfully, I've managed to claw my way back from the Nethersphere just in time for an SF mini-conference at my old haunt, the Hoover Public Library!
I'm going to be on a local authors panel with some real authors of note, such as Ingrid Seymour, S. L. Duncan, J. F. Lewis, and Hugo-winner Lou Anders. Immediately afterward I'll be selling copies of Summer Gothic and giving away copies of Dreams of Steam Vol. 1 for free!
Oh, and what's this? That new Whisper story I promised! --->
I'm going to be on a local authors panel with some real authors of note, such as Ingrid Seymour, S. L. Duncan, J. F. Lewis, and Hugo-winner Lou Anders. Immediately afterward I'll be selling copies of Summer Gothic and giving away copies of Dreams of Steam Vol. 1 for free!
Oh, and what's this? That new Whisper story I promised! --->
I’ll try to keep this short.
I used to be a reporter named Allan Jones. That guy died, for real. (Long story.) Now I’m just a temporal anomaly armed with a bandolier from the future that lets me turn invisible and walk through walls. I’ve got a special mask that lets me breathe when I “ghost out,” which has the added benefits of muffling my voice and concealing my identity.
I don’t carry a gun or beat up crooks like some kind of vigilante. Instead, I use my abilities to uncover secrets that the powerful and corrupt don’t want exposed. You’ve seen my work in the paper, but you’ll never see my byline. To my contacts in the news business I’m a phantom. You can call me The Whisper.
Believe it or not, I’d never been to New York. So of course I picked a heatwave in the middle of August to follow up on a nice, juicy corruption case. What’s worse, the stooge politician I’d targeted was an even bigger bonehead than me. Instead of using some nice, airy office or hotel for his clandestine meeting, he chose the sweltering ground floor of a building under construction. The walls were finished, providing a modicum of secrecy, but the only light came from some extremely hot construction lamps.
The building was an upside down cupcake of a Frank Lloyd Wright monstrosity on the edge of Central Park – the Guggenheim, they were calling it, and it wasn’t due to open for two more months. Invisible, I leaned against a workbench and waited for the players to arrive. If it makes you feel better to imagine me in a cloak and hat like the Shadow, go ahead, but I’m not that dumb. A short sleeve shirt and loose tie, that was the way to go. My breather was too stuffy already; if it wasn’t for the off chance that I might have to turn visible, I’d have been in my skivvies.
My mark was already there: City Councilman Fred Farstow, accompanied by two bodyguards and his jittery secretary. They were all sweating through their clothes, but that girl looked like she would pass out from fright before the heat ever got to her. She wore a severe business outfit with her blouse buttoned up to her throat and a tight skirt down to her calves. Her only concession to femininity was the blue and yellow kerchief around her neck.
“Jeez, Mr. Farstow,” she said. “Was this the best place you could find? Why not an icehouse?”
“I said no talking, Daisy. I told you once already.”
“Sorry, Mr. Farstow.”
“See? No talking means no talking. Tell me you’re sorry later.”
She hung her head and clutched her oversize handbag. I nixed any benefit of doubt I might have given the Councilman and turned on my tape recorder. It wasn’t a moment too soon, because just then a thin figure in black pin-stripes stepped out from a shadowed alcove. Four other men in business attire followed close behind.
“I see you have brought an entourage,” said the pin-striped man in an accent from the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.
“Mr. Luczek,” said the Councilman. “Good afternoon. I see you did the same.”
Luczek gestured at his men. “This is not an entourage. This is my merchandise. You wish to put pressure on the dock workers union? These men are the pressure.”
Farstow snorted. “What are they, accountants?”
“Show,” said Luczek. At his order, two men pulled out guns. The third whipped out a hammer and the fourth a crowbar.
“This is what you need, yes?” Luczek sounded annoyed. Farstow swallowed. I did my best to memorize faces. “What about you? Did you bring what I ask?”
“Daisy,” said Farstow.
She reached into her handbag and pulled out a thick folder. “You didn’t tell me you were dealing with a Russki,” she said as she handed it over.
“I am Ukrainian, not Russian.” Luczek took the folder and quickly thumbed the pages. Daisy backed away, white as a ghost.
“Everything you wanted,” Farstow said. “Plans for the whole Manhattan power grid, whatever good it’ll do you. You got a buyer wants to make a bid on the utilities, is that it?”
“Something like that,” Luczek said. “I will honor our arrangement. Give me a few days and you’ll find the dock workers much more amenable to negotiation.”
“Maybe I should get you to negotiate me a raise,” said Daisy.
“Excuse me,” said Farstow. He launched a haymaker at her jaw.
I saw it coming and couldn’t stop it. His punch connected with a crack that made even his bodyguards flinch. To her credit, Daisy didn’t drop right away. She staggered but kept her feet until she stumbled on a loose timber and fell over backward. Her head hit the concrete and I cursed myself for not being armed.
“Sorry about that.” Farstow straightened his tie. “Where were we?”
“Concluding our arrangement,” Luczek said.
Daisy sobbed and pulled herself to her knees. Farstow swore under his breath.
“Are you too dumb to stay down?” he said. “Get back to the car. I’ll deal with you later.”
She wobbled to her feet and made her way out of the construction site. I could see there was blood on her face and being the idiot I am, I had to fight the urge to follow her. I had to remind myself I’d be doing a bigger favor by tape recording her boss. When the next day’s papers came out, Farstow would be disgraced and in handcuffs.
“I got a couple names for you,” Farstow said. “Some union guys I think merit special attention.”
“Wait,” said Luczek. He was looking through the papers a little more carefully. “What is this?”
“What do you mean?” said Farstow. “It’s the plans you asked for. I checked them myself.”
A gun flashed into Luczek’s hand. Double claps exploded and both Farstow’s guards flew backwards.
Luczek walked up to Farstow, aiming at the Councilman’s chest. “The first few pages, yes. The rest are diagrams for transistor radios. Where are the power grid schematics?”
“They’re right there!” Farstow sounded like a balloon about to pop. “I put them there myself, in that folder. I watched Daisy put them in her bag. I… Oh my god. It’s Daisy! She must have run off with them. Look, Luczek, I promise –”
Thunder clapped again and blood sprayed the Guggenheim’s floor. I cried out, but luckily the noise and my mask hid the sound. Luczek dropped the papers on Farstow’s useless corpse.
He addressed his men. “Dispose of the bodies. I locate the girl.”
The girl. I ran before Luczek started walking. She had a head start on both of us, but I was the only one who could move through walls. I could outrun her, but could I outrun a bullet? Ever since I took on this “phantom reporter” gig, I’d made it a point not to risk my neck. Now, thanks to Daisy, I could feel myself drawn into the open, in a city I didn’t even know.
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My lungs were cramping by the time I reached the street. It’s hard to run when “ghosted.” My breather had a hard time keeping up. Maybe the damn thing needed its filter replaced. I didn’t even know if it had a filter. I’d stolen my gear from a super-crime syndicate from the future called JANUS, and as a result it didn’t come with a warranty.
Staying invisible, I dialed myself solid and pulled off the mask to breathe real air. There was no sign of the girl on the sidewalk in either direction. Across the street was Central Park. I caught a glimpse of her blue and yellow kerchief and darted after her.
I almost got creamed by a car. Damn thing didn’t even honk. The driver couldn’t see me and I’d forgotten to ghost out again. Breathing be damned, I dialed myself intangible and put my mask back on.
For a hot afternoon the park was sure crowded, probably by people who didn’t have air conditioning. I followed Daisy across and through a short stretch of woods until I hit a walking trail, an iron fence, and a huge body of water. Christ, no one told me there was a lake this size in the middle of New York City.
I looked left and right and picked her out on the left, moving at a steady jog despite her attire. As such, she wasn’t inconspicuous. Assorted strollers turned to watch her dart by. At my feet lay a discarded pair of women’s shoes. Smart girl, those heels would have slowed her down. Running barefoot on concrete would eventually do the same, but she had desperation on her side. I would have to work to catch up.
We ran a good three blocks before the lake came to an end and the path curved to the right along its bank. I don’t know how that girl was doing it. I used to run five miles a day in boot camp, but that was before Korea and I hadn’t kept up with my exercise. My mask was fogging and my chest felt like it had taken a bayonet. At least I didn’t have to worry about dodging pedestrians. Instead, I ran right through them.
From behind, Luczek ran through me. I had the disconcerting experience of my head being inside his for a moment before I veered aside.
He’d made her, sure as I did, and at the speed he was moving he was going to catch her first. His legs were longer and his stamina had a one-up on mine. My mission had to change. If saving Daisy was more important than catching her, then stopping Luczek was priority one.
At least he didn’t know he was racing me. I poured the last of my strength into one mad dash to pull in front of him, then dialed myself solid and planted my feet.
He creamed me and we both went sprawling. Luczek hit the fence on the edge of the lake and I plowed into a man and his lady friend. I pushed myself up while he swatted the air. Luczek came halfway to his feet, but I kicked him in the gut and then kicked him in the side when he was down.
I reached into his coat and got my hand on his gun, but he punched me away before I could grab it. He nailed me in the chest; if he could have seen me he would have put me down. I shoved him against the fence with all my weight.
Crazy, right? For all I knew, Daisy was as crooked as her boss Farstow. At the moment, I didn’t care.
Luczek figured out quick that he was fighting an invisible man, ludicrous as that must have seemed, and he shifted his tactics accordingly. First, he closed his eyes. Second, he hooked his arm under mine and twisted. I cried out. He reached his other hand to the sound of my voice in order to rake my face. His fingers latched into my breather instead.
“Gyuh!” he said, and pulled his hand back in disgust. I should probably mention that my breather isn’t like a gasmask. Instead of a canister, there’s a mass of rubber tubing covered in some kind of grease that never comes off. If you saw it you’d think that a squid had swallowed my head.
There was no point in wrestling this guy any more. I’d done all the good I could without hurting myself, so I pulled away, turned intangible, and kept running after Daisy.
Did I mention the park was hot? It was worse when running in ghost mode. Instead of stopping at my skin, the summer air got to pass through my whole body. And yes, while I couldn’t feel the people I ran through I could definitely feel the heat. With the sun in the cloudless sky shining straight down through the trees, it felt like my guts would boil.
Ahead, the way opened to a wide, treeless platform. To the left were steps down to another walkway, and to the right was a large stone building jutting out into the lake. An inscription read “Central Park Reservoir – South Gate House.” Daisy stood there in the open next to a pair of drinking fountains, looking back the way she’d come. Her hair was disheveled, her feet bare save for torn hose, and she clutched her carrying bag like her life depended on it.
A shot like a backfire knocked a bite out of the stonework above Daisy’s head. I turned to see Luczek with his gun out in broad daylight. Women screamed and men jumped aside. He took aim again and I dove at Daisy, dialing solid and then ghosting again when I had her in my arms.
The bullet went through us like a hiccup. I said “Don’t scream” in that atonal rasp that’s all that my mask allows. I dragged her around the corner of the gate house. She flapped and flailed exactly like a fish on land. I spun my bandolier’s dials to turn solid and visible, and for the first time in forever someone got a look at my get-up. I can imagine what she saw: some sweaty guy in a dripping white shirt, ramshackle tie, and a black rubber sea monster for a head.
She gasped. Holding on to her, I dialed us invisible-only and rolled us both to the side as Luczek’s third bullet cut the air behind us. I couldn’t ghost us again without choking her, so I pulled Daisy along down the steps away from the reservoir.
“Wait,” she said. “What are you? Where are we going? I was supposed to meet –”
“Shut up,” I said. “You’ll give our position.”
I glanced over my shoulder to see Luczek standing exactly where we’d been a moment before. If we’d been lucky he would have kept on the way Daisy had originally been running, but he guessed correctly and followed us down the other path instead. I pulled Daisy by the arm and we ran the shady path south. Before long it dropped us on 86th Street as it cut east and west through the park. Cars whizzed by at a steady enough clip that it would have been suicide to cross while invisible. I knew Luczek wasn’t too far behind.
Crap. There was a way out of this, but it needed timing and cooperation.
I watched the oncoming cars and picked one. “When I say jump,” I said, “jump straight forward and hold your breath.”
There was a third dial on my bandolier besides visibility and tangibility, and it was the trickiest one to use: the dial that set my frame of reference. It’s what stopped me from sinking through the ground or let me match speed with any vehicle I happened to be riding in. It also, when I was feeling particularly stupid, let me try a stunt like this. My target, a bright red convertible Chrysler with tail fins like a god damned rocket, was almost upon us.
“Jump!” I screamed through my mask and spun all three of my dials.
We jumped right in front of the car, fully visible. As the driver slammed on the brakes, we ghosted through the engine block and the front seat. By the time we reached the back seat, my bandolier had shifted our frame of reference from the road to the car, so we were moving along with it. I dialed us solid so Daisy could breathe and I pulled off my mask before our driver, some poor kid out on a joy ride, decided that aliens had landed.
He swerved all over the road. I reached and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Hey, hey, hey, kid, calm down. Get a grip.”
“Who are you?” he shrieked. “How’d you get in here? What the hell, man? What the hell?”
“Road!” I shouted.
The kid swerved again to avoid an oncoming car. He gripped the wheel so hard I thought he might rip it off. His chest heaved. I was afraid he might lose consciousness.
“Breathe, kid. Breathe.” I patted his shoulder. “Keep driving. We’ll be out of your hair as soon as we figure where to stop.”
“What do you mean ‘we’?” said Daisy. She leaned back in the seat to collect herself. I could see where she’d ripped the hem on her skirt to make running easier. “Why are you after me?”
I wiped sweat off my face. I hadn’t shaved in days. I probably looked like I’d escaped from the drunk tank or a lunatic asylum.
“You can call me the Whisper.”
“I don’t want to call you anything,” she said. “I want you to leave me alone.”
“Daisy,” I said. “I know you’re on the run from Luczek. I know you’ve got what he wants in that bag. He’s already killed Farstow. Next he’s going to kill you.”
Her face was white. “How do you know all this?”
“I was there. I saw the whole thing.” I cracked my best cocky smile. “I’m the Whisper, baby. The Shadow took the day off.”
Our joyrider screeched to a halt at the corner of Central Park West. Daisy jumped from the car. I shouted for her to wait, but she was already dashing down the sidewalk.
“Thanks for the ride, kid,” I said. I pulled my mask back on.
“Sure thing, Dad, no problem.” He spoke slow while he watched me in his rearview, then yelped as I turned invisible. If nothing else, I’d certainly made his day.
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Confident that I’d lost Luczek, now I needed to make sure that I didn’t lose the girl and with her the story. There was still a story, I just didn’t know what it was. Farstow’s death would hit the papers without my help. The question I needed to answer was “Why?”
Daisy kept a brisk pace toward 87th, but I had longer legs and the benefit of shoes. She was starting to limp and the sidewalk must have been scorching. Instead of crossing to the shady side of the street, she kept on the side by the park. Before long I saw why: up ahead was an entrance to the subway. It wasn’t one of the big ones, just a fenced-off set of stairs heading underground, no wider than those in a brownstone.
I followed her down. I must have jostled the knobs on my belt wrong when getting out of that kid’s car, because apparently I was still partially solid. A short Hispanic guy walked through me and stumbled. For me it was like swimming through molasses. Unknowing, he dragged me ten feet upstairs with him before I got unstuck. I lost sight of Daisy in the process.
I fixed my ghost setting and walked through the turnstiles. Just as I faded through them, the lights flickered in the station and several people gasped. Had I just made that happen? My equipment never seemed to short out electrics before.
The station was a narrow concrete cavern with a crowded shelf for passengers and an empty chasm for the trains. I really preferred D.C. and its trollies, safely above ground where you could jump off and book it if you had to. I looked up and down the platform for Daisy, but couldn’t see her. Where the hell had she gone?
Wait, there she was, hiding behind a column. She wasn’t alone. I could tell from her body language that she was chewing somebody a good one. Curiouser and curiouser. No need to be coy when you’re a phantom: I strolled around the pillar to scope what was going on. The man she was reading the riot act to was a well –dressed black fellow; he turned his head and I got a look at his face.
Christ almighty with a hockey stick, it was Special Agent Buck Powell of the F. B. goddamn I. He was one of the very few people who knew my story, and though he was on the side of the angels, he’d still like nothing better than to catch me with my pants down and confiscate my Whisper gear.
“Look, we can handle this,” he said to Daisy. “Just let me have Farstow’s papers. With that and your testimony, we’ve got Luczek dead to rights.”
“Yeah, when you catch him!” She gripped her carrying bag like a bulletproof vest. “If you catch him. You were supposed to take him out when the deal went down. Now that maniac’s loose and he’s after me. Not you, me.”
“I know and I’m sorry.” Powell wiped his brow. “Nothing went down the way it was supposed to. First the meeting place changes at the last minute, then Farstow’s driver manages to lose his tail. Nothing today’s gone like I planned, but that doesn’t mean our deal has to change.”
“You bet it does, sugar.” Daisy inched away from Powell in the direction of the edge of the platform. I resisted the urge to go solid and pull her back. “I’m gonna need protection. More than you’ve given me so far. And not just for me, for my family, for as long as that goon is out there.”
“Now Daisy, we’ve talked about this,” said Powell. “We can’t afford to keep you under guard indefinitely. And besides, that would make you even more of a target.”
“Don’t tell me what you can’t afford,” said Daisy. “If you can afford to send some spooky Invisible Man after me, you can pay for a couple of beat cops.”
“Invisible Man,” said Powell. “What are you talking about?”
“You know, you Feds and you cops like to pretend you’re all strapped for cash and manpower, but if the government’s figured out how to make a guy see-through I don’t see what you need me for at all.”
God damn it, Daisy. I wanted to chase a story, not become one. Again.
“This invisible character,” Powell said. “He give you a name?”
“Jones!” Powell turned slowly in a full circle. “You meddling son of a bitch. I know you’re watching us. Stop being a coward and show yourself for once.”
What the hell. I turned half-visible but not solid.
“Ehh. What’s up, doc?”
Powell punched harmlessly through my face.
“Oh well,” he said. “Worth a shot.”
“What, he’s not with you?” Daisy backed away from both of us. A gust of wind from the tunnel ruffled her skirt and the rails sang a high pitched whine.
“Most definitely not,” said Powell. “What’s your angle, Jones?”
I shrugged. “Following a story. I thought the Times might like to know that Farstow’s been dealing with organized crime.”
“It’s more than that, Jones. I’ve got intel that says Luczek’s got ties to JANUS.”
Holy shit on a hamburger. “That’s why you’re here and not someone else. Has the FBI got a JANUS task force now?”
“If you can call it that,” he said. “It’s only me.”
“Guys!” said Daisy. “Guys, remember me? I’m glad for your little reunion, but can someone please explain what you’re gonna do for me?”
A train blew into the station and drowned Powell’s answer. The rush of air pushed Daisy away from the tracks. Overhead the lights flickered; this time I couldn’t take credit. Somehow over the din, I picked out the sound of a gun being cocked.
I spun around. Luczek, as brazen as daylight, stood the length of a train car away. He leveled his gun.
Everyone around him was pushing away, and I heard someone shout for police. The train’s brakes hissed and the doors slid open.
A strange, deep sound vibrated through the station. Lights flickered a third time, now much stronger than before. Luczek looked up, distracted, as did everyone else. I put my hand on my control knobs, unsure if I could ghost both Powell and Daisy.
Somewhere a light bulb popped. Then every other light blacked out.
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