Conrad Aiken, The House of Dust
Delicious, I say. Sight, sound, pure sensation, all magnified by the other I was irrevocably bonded to. The throne is burning, but that serves only to warm my flesh. Before me, countless in number, stretching on forever, lay the fields of pain that I have always called my true home. Something stirs within me - within us - and I shudder at the sensation: fire, rage, madness, retribution.
But it is easy to ignore that part of us now. I step off the throne, the rock razor-sharp beneath my bare feet; a trail of bloody footprints are all I leave behind as I walk toward the ledge that separates us from the fields. The pain comes, and I revel in its purity.
My lover, my Master, stands before me, looking out over his vast domain, drinking in each scream, each instant of agony, the product of millennia of practice... but, then again, what does Time mean in this place of eternal torment? He turns and looks at me with his black eyes, then leans down, tracing a searing path with a fingernail across my face, down between my breasts. His lips meet mine as the blood flows freely, staining the stone beneath our feet -
The stirring comes again, stronger this time, and I can almost hear her voice...
Johnny Ventura turned the Cadillac into the parking space and killed the engine, every minute of his sixty-plus years weighing heavily on him. The motel they had spotted was old, the paint was peeling away in huge patches, but it was here and they were all very tired. Alex was lying across the back seat, twitching every so often as some unwelcome horror passed through her dreams; Joan Kelleigh sat in the passenger seat, her eyes closed, her forehead wrinkled in that way Johnny knew meant she was fighting one of her headaches. "I'll get a room," Johnny said as he opened the door. Joan only nodded, pressing her left hand to her temple.
After the previous day - passing out in a long-abandoned asylum, meeting Alex (who had been living there), discovering the locked room and its disturbing contents - the six-hour trip from Chicago to East St. Louis had been extremely taxing. Johnny managed to get a room just a few doors down from where he had parked, and returned a after a few minutes with the room key. He helped Joan out of the car and opened the room door, looking at the grubby room and its twin beds with what little thanks he could muster at the moment, then took the bottle of pills Joan had pulled from her pocket. "Think they'll do any good?" he asked as he filled a plastic cup with tap water.
"I don't know," she said as she laid back and nudged her shoes off, letting them drop to the floor at the foot of the bed.
Johnny walked back outside, returning a few minutes later with a groggy Alex a few steps behind. In his arms he held the box that contained Micki's photos and laptop computer. He set it down on the desk and sat down, digging through its contents until he reached the photograph labeled Ivan??. The image was grainy, taken from far away and blown up so much that even modern image-enhancement programs probably could not have added much clarity. The man was wearing a dark jacket, maybe a trenchcoat, dark glasses, and had chose-cropped dark hair. He could have been a thousand people... but Micki had only managed to take this single photograph.
He sat back and rubbed his eyes, then looked over at the occupied beds; both women were already asleep. Not a bad idea, Johnny thought as he looked at the photo one last time. Who the hell are you, Ivan?
Then he turned out the light.
32,000 feet over Kentucky
9:24 AM CST
The luxury jet cruised along at well over twice the speed of sound, sending ripples through the occasional nearby cloud as it sliced through the thin air. Emblazoned on the side of the slim white conveyance was a bright crimson O, with the word Orton set in its center. Inside, the pilot idly checked over the various readouts before turning his attention back to his dataflat; modern AI systems operated so well that pilots were only necessary for landings and takeoffs, and then only to ensure someone was ready in case the AI had some problem it could not auto-correct.
Further back a blonde flight attendant finished pouring a martini and dropped a toothpick-impaled olive into the glass, then walked toward the passenger area and set it down next to the only passenger aboard and the plane's owner. Douglas Orton did not even notice her presence, his attention focused on the Vox pressed to his ear and the dataflat in his other hand. "Progress at the site?" he asked.
"As planned. We'll be ready on time. What about the item?"
Orton looked at the locked metal case the color of brushed silver at the back of the plane, secured to the floor with thick plastic straps. "En route. I'll be on the ground within the hour, at the site within two. What's the status of your teams?"
"I've got three ready to roll. Beta team informs us that Ventura is at a motel in East St. Louis... but we've had no contact as yet from Simone."
Not good, Orton thought for an instant before strangling off the rest of the notion. "She'll be there. Take no action until she arrives."
"Understood." The line disconnected, leaving Orton alone in the near-silence of the cabin. His gaze wandered back to the case; even from here, he could feel unimaginable energies beginning to coalesce around the artifact nestled within...
And, for the first time in many years, he was afraid.
9:45 AM CST
"Oh, yesss..." Simone purred, relishing the tastes that lingered in her mouth - tangy, pungent, metallic - the motions of Rachel's fingers against her sex, the gentle heat that burned within her mind. Her eyes fluttered open but did not see the woman above her but a pretty, innocent young woman she had met a few hours before, the woman whose earthly remains were now lying in a far corner, her blood draining in an ever-widening pool that soaked into the tan carpet of the motel room. One eye dangled loosely from its ruined socket, the only witness to what had taken place... other than the women lying on the bed, of course.
"Good." Rachel raised her hands to Simone's head and pressed her fingers gently to her temples, sending a shudder through Simone's body. The fire turned cold, desire became need; chills raced up her spine and drilled deep into her brain as darkness covered her vision.
"Soon you'll be ready."
Ryan's eyes were locked onto the suddenly familiar face in front of him, the face of a man who could not possibly be standing here, the face of a dead man who had once, long ago, been his friend. Memories rushed up from the back of his mind, breaking out of the mental chains that had held for so many years: living at Curious Goods, breakfast with Micki and Jack, knife-wielding maniacs, laughing at one dumb joke or another, seeing Micki lying dead in her coffin, on the asphalt, looking at their reflections as he mourned his father, laughing, crying, screaming -
His legs folded suddenly and Ryan fell toward the concrete floor, barely caught in time by the man standing before him. "Gina, get the door. You there," - he pointed at Nate - "help me get him up." Each man took a shoulder and lifted Ryan to his feet, carefully carrying him toward a door in a far corner of the room. Beyond it lay a dim hallway, some sort of office area with several evenly-spaced doors; the remnants of green carpeting lined the floor, and cracked blue paint flaked off the walls. Gina was standing about halfway down, holding one of the doors open. As they turned, Nate saw the room had been turned into some kind of makeshift living area, complete with bed, toilet and collapsible shower booth.
When Ryan was lying down, the curly-haired man - the one Ryan had called 'Jack', and that Gina called 'Ivan' - pulled a blanket over him and sat down on a stool beside the bed. "Damn..." he whispered, fighting back tears. He took Ryan's wrinkled hand in his, looking at it in wonder. "It wasn't supposed to be this way. He did his part, sacrificed so much..."
"He's supposed to be here. He's one of us."
"Impossible. We would have known if there were any others."
"He had the visions, Ivan." Gina walked over and looked at Ryan's unconscious form. "He was there that night... the night I died. He was at the antique shop."
"He was one of the boys at the back door? What about the other one, where is he... oh, God..."
His words hung in the air as he looked at the frail body lying on the bed. "Oh God, not him... not after what he went through..." Ivan whispered.
"You're Jack," Nate said from where he stood by the doorway. "You were with him, you helped him with the antiques, didn't you? He said you were dead."
"Yes, I was..." He paused for a moment. "What was your name?"
"Nate. Nate Ackley."
"Nate. Jack Marshak, the person I was... he's been dead for a very long time. You can call me Ivan, I suppose."
"Fine, wonderful, I don't really give a shit," Nate barked, pacing as he ran his hands through his hair. "Dude, this is too goddamn much..."
Gina had opened a cabinet and was wolfing down a granola bar, reminding Nate just how long it had been sine he'd eaten. "Ivan, what's changed? You said it was urgent."
"It is. The final piece is in place."
Gina swallowed, her appetite suddenly gone. "It's too soon. We're not ready."
"We have to be. We have no choice." He stood up and walked toward the door. "Ellis should be here in a few hours. In the meantime, keep an eye on Ryan. There are preparations to make."
"Preparations? To do what, exactly - die?" Nate said, taking the granola from Gina's hand and biting off a huge chunk, his eyes widening with worry. "Cause that's what sounds like is gonna happen, that whole 'Hell on Earth' thing -"
"Quiet!" Ivan snapped. "I don't have time to explain it right now. Gina, tell him what you can.
"I have to prepare the White Room."
A few hours later, when Ryan's eyes finally fluttered open, Nate was sitting on the stool beside him. "Hey, you're up," he said, cracking open his third soda of the morning. "You okay?"
"I... I don't know. I was dreaming." He closed his eyes, remembering what he could of where he had been just moments before; someplace warm, someplace safe. "Where are we?"
"Somewhere west of the Twilight Zone, I think," Nate replied. "Wish I could get a beer." He took a deep swig and offered the can to Ryan, who took it and drank. "Your buddy Ivan doesn't keep the walk-in cooler stocked with brew."
"Ivan..." Ryan whispered, and the memory of the man came back to him. "Jack."
"Yeah, so he says. Man, I thought you were crazy... now I just wish you were." He took the can back. "Here's to nothing ever being the same."
"Where is he?"
"He said something about getting the White Room ready. Mean anything to you?" "No, never heard of it." Ryan sat up and shook his head, trying to clear the fog that clung to his mind. "What about Gina?"
"She'll be right back; she went to get something to eat. You wouldn't believe the setup they've got here. Cafeteria kitchen, walk-in cooler and freezer, enough food for World War Three... not that it matters." Nate drained the can and let it drop, just like he had with the previous two. Ryan could see how drained Nate looked, how exhausted... how old.
As he sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed the door opened; Gina locked it that way, allowing her to push a plastic cart into the room. On the top were plastic containers of chicken salad, a loaf of bread, a box of crackers, cheese, paper plates and plastic utensils. She half-smiled when she saw Ryan sitting up. "Morning, Ryan. Hungry?"
"Not really. Where's Jack?"
"He's busy. He'll be back as soon as he can." Gina pulled off the lid of the chicken salad and grabbed a plate. "Better eat now; we might not have much time later."
"What do you mean?"
Nate was loading up his own plate. "She means that it's gonna be a busy day. Places to go, hideous-secrets-not meant-for-human-eyes to uncover, things like that. She's told me a few things..." He sat on the stool and picked at the small pile of chips. "Not good, man."
Ryan kept his gaze locked on Gina. "Okay... but you start talking."
"After I saw the vision, Ivan brought me to the factory. I thought he was crazy; nobody could ever live here. He parked at the loading dock, he opened the security door, and he showed me the War Room - where we plan our battles."
"Battles?" Ryan asked.
Gina swallowed the last bite of her food and tossed the plate into the trash. "Nothing happens in a vacuum, Ryan. There's always two sides to everything, whether it's a story or a war... and what we do here is fight a war. Every day we try and stop the end of the world, working from here, picking our battles, sometimes winning, sometimes losing." She stood up and walked toward the door. "Come with me."
Nate scooped the rest of his plate into his mouth; Ryan just left his unfinished. "It's not easy living this way. We're not people anymore, not in any normal sense of the word. The people we used to be ceased to exist the day we walked through the door; our identities were a liability to everyone we ever knew, just as they were liabilities to us. If anyone ever made that connection, we could easily be compromised," Gina said as they walked down the main hallway that led to the War Room. "Ivan managed to take care of that."
She opened the door and walked into the huge chamber, leading Ryan and Nate toward the ring of work lights and the computers and tables they illuminated. "Some time ago, Ivan had this place tricked out with the latest in computing and communications equipment... along with the best codebreaking gear money can buy. Satellite uplinks, microwave taps into any database you can imagine, secure Vox communications anywhere in the world, anything you can imagine. From here, we can look in on any system in the world."
Ryan looked up, his eyes following the huge trunk of thick cables that disappeared into the darkened rafters above. "Must have cost a fortune."
"You have no idea. I guess you could say we were well provided for; when Ivan had his vision, his family had just left him a rather sizable inheritance." Gina stopped at the table and gazed down at the map. "Doesn't seem like it did any good."
Ryan looked over the expanse of multicolored push-pins. "What are these?"
"Places where it might happen. There has to be a ritual, a focusing of the energies; you've seen them before."
Ryan shuddered at the memory. "Yes."
"All we've ever been able to find out is that it has to be somewhere in St. Louis. There aren't any records, no books, no legends, nothing written. Whoever passed on the knowledge has done well in keeping their secrets... But I'm getting ahead of myself.
"Our sins stay with us, Ryan, no matter how far away we run. You grew old, made a life for yourself; I ran to another life altogether, and still it didn't make any difference, did it? We can't ever escape... but sometimes we can atone." Gina looked into Ryan's eyes. "When I died in 1975 I ended up somewhere between Heaven and Hell, a place outside the universe that human minds can comprehend. I didn't know where I was, or why; all I knew was that I was cold and alone... and that I was sorry for what I had become."
She looked away as tears filled her eyes. "And then I felt something there in the nothingness, a presence, something more than I could ever hope to be. It never spoke; I felt its question in my mind."
"And that was?" Nate asked.
"What would I do to make it right? What would I do to save the world I had helped to condemn? All I could think of were the two boys in the alley, how they had probably been killed, how they had never hurt anybody in their lives. And I told that presence that I would do anything to make it right, anything at all."
Gina walked away from them, her arms folded across her chest. "That's the way it happened with all of us: when we died, we made a choice to return and fight what we had helped create. We're fighting a war to save the world."
"How many of you are there?" Ryan asked... but, somewhere inside, he already knew he would not like the answer... and he was right.
A voice called from behind him, "With you... four." Ryan turned and saw Jack walking toward him, barely visible in the shadows beyond the ring of lights. He was leaning on a wooden cane, and looked years older than he had earlier... but he was alive, and Ryan realized as he reached out and touched the man's shirt that he was real.
"Oh my God..." he whispered, and wrapped his arms around his old friend. "You're alive."
"I am." Jack pulled away and looked at his friend. "Indeed, I am."
"So what should I call you?" Ryan asked. He and Jack were walking out on the factory floor, past the long-dormant machinery, leaving trails in the dust.
"Jack died, Ryan. I'm still him, but the things he did, the person he was... I will never be again. Now, I'm Ivan."
"Why Ivan, anyway? It doesn't seem like you."
Ivan laughed. "It's more like me than you think. Marshak is a Russian name, after all; Ivan means John in English -"
"And Jack is a common nickname for John," Ryan finished. "I guess you're not as far removed from who you were as you think.."
"Perhaps not." Jack stopped and looked at the old man in front of him. "Is this how you saw me? Did I look so old?"
Ryan leaned against one of the machines, a twinge of pain flaring up in his lower back. "Sometimes, I guess. At least I kept my hair."
"Gray is a fine color, Ryan." He paused and looked down at his feet, trying to find the right words. "I know about Micki. I'm sorry."
"Thanks. It's been... kinda rough, you know?"
"Yes, I know." Both men were silent for a long moment. "I wish I could say it was good to see you, Ryan... but with you being here, right now, it's not."
"Gina told us you're fighting a war, trying to stop something you started back that night she died, the night with Jimmy and me were at Lewis' shop. Jack - Ivan - what the hell did you do?"
"That's a long story... but you need to hear it." Jack leaned on a nearby assembly table. "A long time ago, long before mankind walked the earth, there were other beings that lived here. They nurtured the world, they protected it, helped it grow... but most of all they served He who had created the world."
"Angels," Ryan said.
"That's what man came to believe, but they were much more than what the legends tell. Some lived among the creatures of the earth, guiding their development; others lived above, helping Him in His efforts there. They were among the first of His creations, and existed long before mankind came to be.
"As man developed, though, some of these beings chose to exist among mankind... first as observers, then as equals... and finally as rulers. They saw themselves as superior, and in many ways they were - they were immortal, intelligent, capable of taking on any form they wished, endowed with great power. But, as you know, power corrupts... and these beings became terrible tyrants, gods who held the power over both this life and the next."
"So why didn't God stop them? He sent them, didn't He?" Ryan said.
"The same reason He didn't stop Lewis directly; their decisions were of their own free will, as was my own. But there were some who believed what they had become was wrong, that they had strayed from their purpose. They created a way to separate their kind from their powers and make them mortal, a device that would trap those powers and lock them away forever since they could never be destroyed."
A thought clicked in Ryan's mind that sent a chill right through him. "Like the antiques."
"Exactly. Thousands of years ago, those powers were locked away somewhere safe... until seven days ago. That's when someone found a stone slab buried on Mount Ararat that concealed an artifact... the same artifact that holds all that power. It was never meant to be found... but it was always destined to. And now those very same beings want it back."
"But the angels, or whatever, became mortal, right? How could they even exist anymore?"
"Not all of them do, Ryan. Most have faded away, what little power they managed to save long since dissipated among the population of the earth. A few, however, realized what had happened and created ways to ensure their survival. Their essence is passed along in the blood, you see; generation after generation inherits their potential. The tiny fragments of that power help create our geniuses, our heroes, our poets and writers; at the same time they nurture killers and madmen, the ones unable to cope with the shards of divinity they have been given. Noble lines were created to prevent the dilution of that essence, clans arranged marriages to strengthen it, children were murdered to preserve it. And now, thousands of years later, some of that power has managed to reconstitute itself inside one man."
Jack walked toward a dirt-covered window; the lights of St. Louis were barely visible across the Mississippi River. "In the original timeline - the one where both Lewis and myself made the pact with the Devil - I knew a man named Douglas Orton. He had great innate powers and tremendous skill, more than Lewis or myself could ever have hoped to achieve. That's why we chose him."
"Chose him for what?" Ryan asked as he walked up and stood beside Ivan.
"Our ultimate plan was far greater than Lewis ever conceived on his own. Lewis' shop was just the beginning; what we wanted was for evil to spread across the face of the planet. That would take more power than any one man could hope for, more years than in any one life... so we gave him ours, pledged it to him when we died. That pledge survived the changes I made in history; without ever knowing us, he grew strong when Lewis died. When I passed on... he had the power he needed.
"He began assembling more of his kind, using that combined power to create an army. None of them have his potential, but they will do anything for him... especially Simone. Believe me, you don't want to cross her path."
"Impossible. If you'd met her, you'd be dead now."
"We almost were. We were someplace in Wyoming, some hotel by I-80. There was someone with a gun at the door; Gina killed him. Then a dark-haired woman showed up, put Gina out like a light, and very nearly did some unpleasant things to me. Later on, Gina told us that woman was named Simone. Nate caught her by surprise, came out of the bathroom with the toilet tank lid and clobbered her. Split her skull open, killed her dead." Ryan closed his eyes as he remembered the pool of blood spreading around the woman's shattered skull. Ryan closed his eyes as he remembered the pool of blood spreading around the woman's shattered skull. "I think I've seen enough bodies to know."
"I believe you, Ryan, but in ten years I have never seen anyone or anything surprise Simone. If your young friend did so... he's very special indeed."
Ryan could not help but laugh. "That's one way to put it. I think he reminds me of me, back when I was his age."
"Junior shadow hunter," Ivan said, and Ryan gave him an odd look. "That's what we've taken to calling ourselves: the shadow hunters."
"You gave yourselves a handle?"
"It seemed appropriate; helps break the tension." Ivan looked at his watch. "We'd better get back. I'm expecting a delivery."
"What kind of delivery?"
"One professor of anthropology, with specialized knowledge of ancient buried artifacts."
By the time Ryan and Ivan returned to the War Room, Gina had pulled up several files and was quickly reading through them. Nate was wandering around the shelves, occasionally picking something up and looking at it closely before setting it down again. "What the hell is this? A shrunken head?"
"As a matter of fact, yes," Gina said, keeping her eyes on the screen. "Ivan, I've found something. I didn't get the chance to copy the file, but I remember that professor MacKenzie managed to track down a secret society called the Order of Thirteen. He found no direct information, no written records, but many references to the Grand Crescent. According to his notes MacKenzie thinks the Crescent serves as some kind of focusing device for mystical energy.
"What, like an amplifier?" Nate asked, walking over and looking at the screen. "Who are these dopes?"
Images of people dressed in suits and their personal data were flashing across the screen. "The board of directors for the Orton Conglomerate - all thirteen."
"The Order of Thirteen - thirteen reassembled beings who want their power back," Ryan said.
"But where?" Ivan asked, shifting his attention to the map. "All we know is that the ritual will take place somewhere in St. Louis."
"The Grand Crescent, Ivan. Think about it. What's the largest object in St. Louis? The most famous?" Gina said, typing rapidly on the keyboard in front of her. On the screen an image of the St. Louis riverfront came up. A single object dominated the skyline, a huge curved monument assembled sixty years before.
Ivan was the first to speak. "The Gateway Arch."
"So what do we do?" Ryan asked.
Gina and Ivan were already moving toward a large steel cabinet on a nearby wall, secured with a heavy padlock. Ivan quickly produced the key and popped the lock open, then pulled the doors apart to reveal a sizable assembly of all sorts of weapons: pistols, submachine guns, four full-sized rifles (one obviously meant for sniping), knives, grenades, ammunition, night vision gear, all types of other gear. "What the hell is this?" Ryan asked as Ivan pulled out an automatic pistol and checked the chamber.
"This is how we stop the end of the world," Gina said, strapping on a shoulder holster. "All we needed to know was where. What about Ellis?"
"He can meet us there. Grab his gear," Ivan said.
"And Ryan? What about him?"
Ivan stopped and looked at his friend. "If we do this... he'll never have to see the White Room." Ivan slipped the pistol into his waistband and reached back into the cabinet.
"Ivan, stop. All you're going to do is get yourselves killed." Ryan said, stepping in front of Ivan as he reached for one of the submachine guns. "What kind of plan is that?" Ivan pushed him aside and grabbed the weapon, checking the magazine before slinging it over his shoulder. "Jack would never -"
Ivan grabbed Ryan's throat and shoved him up against the wall, driving all the air from his lungs. "I'm not Jack," he hissed as Ryan tried to regain his breath. "I can't afford to be like Jack anymore. There's too much at stake. You want to know how much time the world has left? I'll tell you: exactly twenty-six hours and twelve minutes. That is how long we have to prevent the Order of Thirteen, to prevent Orton, from completing the ritual."
Ryan grabbed his arm and tried to pull it away, but Ivan had a grip of iron. "How the hell is that going to end the world?" he wheezed. "So they get their power back, it's not Armageddon -"
"But it is, Ryan. The world exists in a balance between the Light and the Darkness, but this power has no balance - it can be used for either good or evil. It can never be released... no matter the cost."
"Is there a problem?" a deep voice said from behind them, and two figures stepped out of the shadows. One was short and balding, obviously nervous; the other was taller with dark hair... and holding a short-barreled shotgun on them. "Oh, this isn't good..." the short man said, looking at the scene nervously.
"Not at all, Ellis," Ivan said, releasing his grip and stepping away from Ryan. "I was just explaining the stakes to an old friend."
"I see. I brought you what you asked for," Ellis said, lowering the weapon. "Kevin Hanley, professor of archaeology."
"Are you in charge of this mess? What the hell is going on? Who the hell is trying to kill me? What do you want?" Hanley asked, mopping the sweat from his head.
"Simple. I need you to tell me everything you know about the artifact you unearthed in Turkey," Ivan replied as he turned away from Ryan. "Everything."
They were sitting at the round table, the map in the center now all but useless. Ivan, Gina and the man they called Ellis were all sitting together, watching as Hanley drew a box on a small dry-erase board. Ryan and Nate sat on the far side; every now and then Ryan would look at Ivan, unsure of what his friend had become. "The artifact is made of obsidian, a solid tablet approximately forty centimeters long, twenty-two centimeters wide and eight centimeters thick," Hanley was saying. "It weighs about three kilograms. There are eighteen lines carved on each of the largest faces; the symbols are unlike any language known, and predate the written word by some ten thousand years."
"Did you make any record of the symbols?" Ivan asked.
"Yeah, yeah," Hanley said, pulling a folded piece of tracing paper from his pocket. "We did full scans at the site, but I made this out of habit before we packed up the artifact." He quickly straightened out the paper, revealing a charcoal impression of the artifact.
Ivan stood and looked over the symbols for a full minute. "I have no idea what this means," he finally said. "I've never seen these symbols before."
"Shouldn't we find out?" Ryan said. "Might be important."
Ivan looked at him, surprised at the anger in Ryan's voice. "I guess you get to see the White Room after all."
It was midafternoon when Johnny awoke from dreams of being lost somewhere cold. "Hi, honey," Joan said as he sat up and rubbed his eyes.
"Hey. How are you feeling?" he said, reaching out to take her hand.
"Better. Almost human." Joan gestured toward the desk; the laptop had been opened and its screen displayed another of Micki's video files. "Johnny... what the hell happened to her?"
"I don't know. We need to get a hold of Ryan."
"I already tried; no answer. I've been looking through the pictures. I've... I've never seen images like that. Johnny... I don't think he needs to know about this. I mean, it'll do far more harm than good."
"He deserves to know the truth."
"He also deserves to move on, to grieve -"
The bathroom door opened and Alex stepped out, seemingly unaware that she was naked. She walked past Johnny and Joan and pulled a shirt from a duffel bag. "We should get going."
Johnny tried not to look at the attractive nude woman; he barely noticed Joan's ghost of a smile. "Going? Going where? That picture could have been taken anywhere in the city," Johnny said, pulling off his shoes. "I need a shower first."
"I think I've figured out where to start," Joan said, sitting down at the computer and pulling up a map of East St. Louis. "Micki was doing a grid search, a block-by-block survey of East St. Louis. She made notes in her journal." Joan pointed at a highlighted sixteen-square-block area. "If he's in the city, he's somewhere in here."
"Why couldn't she find him?" Johnny said, peering at the screen.
"She ran out of time," Alex replied. "Her last trip to St. Louis was right before her last time at the hospital... right before her last video journal. When she decided to stop making her trips to Crittenden. She wanted to give her husband a normal life in the time she had left... so she let it go. She let me go."
"Yeah, well, I won't. This guy Ivan knows something, and I sure as hell am going to find out what." Johnny pulled the pistol from his coat pocket and checked the cylinder.
"One way or the other."
Douglas Orton stood beneath the span of the Gateway Arch, looking up at the mass of steel curving toward a point directly above him. "Looks good for being here sixty years."
"We've taken excellent care of it, Mr. Orton," said the site foreman. "Especially now that you've invested in its upkeep." Dozens of workers were scurrying around the site, excavating a deep trench in the area between the north and south bases of the Arch and lining it with thick steel sheets.. "The reinforcements are coming along right on schedule. To be honest, we didn't expect you to visit the site, being the CEO of a multinational corporation and all."
"I like to keep a close eye on my interests. The Arch has... sentimental value." Orton looked at the trench and adjusted the yellow hard-hat perched atop his head. "When will the trench framework be finished?"
"Tomorrow afternoon at the latest."
The Vox chimed in Orton's pocket. "Excellent," he said to the foreman. "Hello?" he said into the pickup.
"Simone. I'm in the city." Her voice was smooth, as calm as ever.
"It's about time. Where have you been?"
"Working. I'm at the motel; looks like Ventura and the others are about ready to move."
"Stay on them. Follow them to whatever hole our enemies are hiding in and kill them. No time for fun now, Simone, understand?"
Orton disconnected and gazed up at the arch again, then checked his watch: 3:33 PM. "Twenty-four hours," he whispered. "It's been too long."
From the outside the van appeared normal; blue-on-white Illinois plates, fading brown paint, a crack or two in the windshield. Inside, however, was the latest in surveillance gear. Two men sat in the rear of the vehicle, peering at computer screens and readouts; two more sat in front, peering at the motel through binoculars; two women, blonde and brunette, sat farther back whispering to each other. All except the blonde woman were armed with at least a pistol and a wickedly curved dagger; most had shotguns or submachine guns close by. On the roof, a slim box housed several cameras, all of which were currently focused on the gray Cadillac parked in front of the dingy motel. One was a thermograph which showed three distinct human heat signatures moving inside the room, along with a television and laptop computer. Their attention had started to wander after several hours of inactivity, but the focus quickly returned when the motel room door swung open. "They're on the move."
Simone instinctively checked her pistol, then slid it back into its shoulder holster. "Follow them, but keep a thousand yards between us. Track them by satellite."
One of the team looked up from the his flatscreen monitor. "We should have tagged the car."
"You're not here to think, you're here to do what you're told." She ran a single sharp fingernail across the back of his neck before she grasped his shoulder hard, pinching the nerves just enough to cause tremendous pain but do no damage. "Follow at a thousand yards."
Rachel spoke as Simone sat back down. "Satellite tracking. Thermographs. Pistols and shotguns and grenades, oh my." Rachel laughed, a short, harsh sound in the confined space of the van. "All this technology... no wonder I was forgotten."
Simone tensed as the unexpected touch of Rachel's hand against her neck sent shivers trembling down her spine. The energy burned across her nerves, locking open certain receptors, burning out those Rachel felt irrelevant. "You look so tense. What would make you feel better?" Simone closed her eyes, her world now nothing but the touch of her lover, her master, her goddess.
When at last they opened she said, "I want them to die by my hand."
A few minutes later, when the Cadillac pulled out of the parking lot, there were only two passengers in the van that followed.
None of the men even had the chance to scream.
Ivan opened a sliding door in the far corner of the War Room, rolling it back to reveal a short, dark hallway; on the far end was a nearly identical door. As Ryan got closer, though, he could make out symbols on the door, esoteric markings that were all too familiar after years of recovering cursed antiques. "Why are there protection runes on that door? What's in there?" he asked, following a few steps behind.
"That's the White Room... and it's as safe as anyplace on this world could ever be. It's not designed like the Vault; it keeps evil out, not trapped within. If you were working for Orton, you'd be unconscious by now just by your proximity to it because of the energies he has infused his followers with." Ivan pulled back the deadbolt and grasped the handle. "Once you enter there's no turning back, Ryan. This is where we communicate with whatever lies beyond; it's where we get our orders from, where we ask our questions. We don't always get answers... and when we do, they aren't always the ones we like."
"What did it tell you?"
"I asked if we would win or lose now that we had you with us... but this time it told me nothing at all, as if the future no longer existed. I can't even guess if that's good or bad."
Ryan took a deep breath and closed his eyes. "Just like old times, huh? Let's get on with it."
Ivan nodded and pulled the door back, revealing a featureless black chamber. Ryan stepped across the threshold and took a few steps inside, then turned back to face Ivan. "Why do you call it the White Room?"
The door handle pulled itself from Ivan's grasp as the door slammed shut. He hurried back toward the War Room as the edges of the door started to glow, slamming the outer door closed before the light could spill out of its sealed chamber. He leaned against the wall, shrugging off the offers of help from Gina and Nate. "I'm okay," he wheezed, walking toward the round table.
"The fuck you are," Nate said. "Dude, you look like death set out in the sun for about a year too long."
"It's the White Room. It... drains the human body."
"Drains... you mean, ages," Nate spat. "Open the goddamn door, get him the hell out of there -"
In a single smooth motion Ellis drew a large pistol and pressed it to the base of Nate's neck. "Ivan says he needs to stay in the White Room, he stays in the White Room."
"Back off, asshole, or I'll put you in the ground," Nate said, trying not to tremble at the thought of a large lead slug blowing through his neck.
Ivan turned to look and nodded at Ellis. "You could try, though I wouldn't recommend it," Ellis said as he holstered the weapon. "I don't know if that was courage or just stupidity."
"Both." Nate trotted over to Ivan. "How long you gonna keep him trapped?"
"It's not up to me," Ivan replied, looking back at the closed door. What Ryan might be going through even now... the thought terrified him.
"It's up to whoever he meets in there."
Ryan wished he could scream as light flooded the chamber, burning through every hair, every inch of flesh and bone, every cell of his body. He fell to his knees, his eyes nothing now but sacks of boiling fluid, his flesh sizzling as it touched the floor. His muscles melted away; the breath in his lungs twisted its scalding way past his larynx and out his mouth and nose. He wished he could scream... but there was nothing but pain now, not heat, not sound; even the light faded before the agony.
After eternity the pain faded somewhat, leaving him lying on something cold and hard and rough. He opened his eyes and was greeted only with darkness. He moved his head and looked around, but there was nothing visible but a tiny circle of ground around him; beyond that what little light there was seemed to be swallowed by the darkness. He coughed; something sprayed from his mouth and spattered the broken ground. He touched the dark droplets and realized they were blood.
Ryan carefully got to his feet and turned in a slow circle. There was nothing near him he could see, but the light was so weak that something could have been a few feet away and he would never notice it. He took a careful step, then another -
And his heel barely caught the edge of the cliff he would have walked over had he taken another step. "Jesus," he breathed as he planted his feet securely and leaned over the edge, barely able to see the smooth black stone wall dropping away from where he stood. Ryan looked up to see a sky shrouded in a single unbroken sheet of clouds; the gray light barely seemed to penetrate to the ground.
Something scraped the ground behind him and he spun around. "Hello?" he called out, his voice flat in the motionless air. "Is anyone there?" He could feel his heart hammering in his chest as he searched in vain for some sign of movement, of life in this dead place.
On the back of his neck something moved, soft like a lover's touch, sharp as a scalpel. Ryan flinched at the pain and fell to his knees, tearing the skin on the sharp rock beneath that sliced through his pants. He looked around desperately and saw nothing, then looked in front of him again.
Before him was a single, tiny candle, its flame steady as it sat in a tall brass candlestick. The dream, it's the dream, was all he could think through the pain. He struggled to his feet and took a step forward, the stone slicing open great gashes on his feet as the ground became more jagged. Beyond the flame the figure had appeared, blurry, indistinct. Ryan reached the candle and plucked it from its stand as the flame began to flicker, desperate to keep it from dying.
He shielded it with his hand and took another step, and in the candlelight the figure began to take on form and substance. Another step, and he could see it was a woman; one more, and he could see her gray hair was in a long braid that snaked out from underneath a wide-brimmed garden hat and draped over her shoulder. With one last step he was right in front of her... and he could clearly see her face. "M... Micki?" he whispered, raising his hand to touch her face. "Oh, God, Micki?"
Her hands found his throat and squeezed as her eyes opened, the blackened flesh of a forever-fresh circular burn in the middle of her forehead. Ryan looked into those eyes and found himself looking down into oblivion, forever lost in the abyss within her.
As the light reclaimed him, Ryan heard her whisper two words -
After almost an hour the light faded and the doors rolled back on their tracks. Nate hurried inside only to find an unconscious and bleeding Ryan lying in the center of the chamber. "Get in here! He's hurt bad!" Ivan and Gina rushed in and helped carry Ryan back to the living area, laying him in the same bed they had put him in that morning. "What the hell happened in there?"
"He knows why he's here now. That's what the White Room tells us," Gina said as she opened a first-aid kit. "Ivan, he's lost a lot of blood."
"Type AB-neg, and the surgical kit. Go!" Ivan said as he opened a multitool and used the pliers to pull out a three-inch long shard of glass from Ryan's leg. "Nate, get bandages, gauze, anything, and pack these wounds."He worked quickly, dropping each new piece into a plastic glass as Nate shoved wads of his own torn T-shirt into each gash, trying to slow the flow of blood. Gina returned a few minutes later with a large green canvas bag; Ellis was close behind her, a dozen bags of blood in his arms. He set up an IV stand and expertly inserted a needle into Ryan's arm as Gina unpacked the kit.
Ryan's wounds were extensive but not serious in and of themselves, but the blood loss was what scared Ivan; after fifty stitches and judicious bandaging, the bleeding had slowed to a gradual seeping and he allowed himself a breath of relief. "I think he'll be okay," he said as he cut the last stitch off.
"Where did you learn that? The White Room?" Nate said, the anger clear in his voice.
"Anzio, Italy. The Second World War," Ivan replied as he dropped the needle into the same glass as the razor-sharp rocks they had removed from Ryan. "He was in there a long time."
"You people always come out of there looking like hell? I thought it was supposed to give answers, not torture you."
"Like I said, we don't always like the answers we receive." Ivan walked toward the door. "We'll be in the War Room. Will you call us if he wakes up?"
"When, goddammit, when he wakes up," Nate spat, taking a seat on the stool by the bed.
"When he wakes up," Ivan echoed, and departed.
"He's asking for you."
It was almost midnight when Nate came to the War Room and spoke to Ivan. The round table had been cleared of the map and push pins; now it held an arsenal. Ivan and Ellis were checking each weapon and readying what looked like body armor; Gina and Hanley were sitting at a computer console, trying to identify the symbols on the tablet. "How is he?"
"You tell me, man. Thought you'd all be off to save the world by now, especially Trigger over there," Nate said, pointing at Ellis. He looked up for a moment, but reacted in no other way.
"There's little time... but there still is time," Ivan said. "And Ryan was right; running in blindly will only get us all killed." He set down the weapon he was checking and started toward the door. "Are you coming?"
"Not this time, man. Said he wants to talk to you alone." Nate looked at the weapons and walked over to Ellis. "If I'm gonna die, you could at least show me how to go down shooting without hitting any of you."
For the first time, the hint of a smile crossed Ellis' face. "Gladly."
Ivan walked into Ryan's room and closed the door. "How are you feeling?"
"It hurts, Jack; damn, it hurts."
Ivan ignored the use of his former name, knowing that Ryan was not quite himself. "The morphine must be wearing off; I'll get some more." He went over to the surgical bag and pulled out a disposable syringe wrapped in plastic.
As he uncapped it Ryan said, "Micki was there."
"I can believe it; the messages are sent through metaphors, through imagery salvaged from the mind of whoever receives them -"
Ryan grabbed Ivan's wrist as he tried to deliver the injection, and his grip surprised Ivan so much that he dropped the needle. "It was her, Jack. She was there, just like the dreams I've been having since she died... but I never saw her face before now."
"Ryan, she passed away. She's in a better place now, not part of this insanity."
Ryan looked at him, his eyes a thousand years too old. "No, Jack... she is. Something happened to her, and now she's trapped... in Hell..." His tears broke free as he realized what had happened to the woman he loved. "Jesus, Jack, what the hell have I done?"
Ivan's watch chimed as a new day began... quite possibly the last day. "I don't know, Ryan.
"I don't know."
There is no sound here; the silence is only broken by the rare sound of my own weeping. I don't know how much time passes before I hear her voice: "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust..."
I know that voice, and I am afraid... but then it's gone, and I am alone again. There's nothing here, nothing but darkness and pain and nothing...
Am I awake or am I dreaming?
Am I alive or dead?
"Damn you, where am I?" I scream for the millionth time... but this time, I hear a voice in response.
I know this voice, and I run toward it screaming at the top of my lungs: "Help me! Please, Ryan, help me!"
But he does not answer... and then there is silence again.
"Help me!" I scream again.
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This page was created on October 14, 2003.
Last modified on February 10, 2005.