Posts tagged ‘Candlepark Station’

August 31, 2010

Masque Ball: Chapter VII

by Mallard

It felt like I sat there for two years, motionless, before a voice barked “Stand down!” and a moment later Hattie stepped forward, her face white in the glow of the flood lamps, her left arm covered in a red-soaked bandage. She stopped next to me, and stared upward at the tiny twinkling star against the clouds.

“Serah?” she said softly.

I shook my head and pointed.

“Damn that woman,” my superior said and clenched her first on my shoulder. She withdrew her hand and, a moment later, my right ear exploded in pain.

“Ow!” I shouted, stumbling to my feet. “What in the hells–”

“Do you think you’re doing?” Hattie roared, turning my own words against me. “We have no time. That damned airship is escaping, and you’re sitting here moping like a little girl. Are you a little girl, Victor? So weak, unable to do anything to stop the pirates? Casting great damned big birds at them is the best you can do, huh?”

I tried to protest, but Hattie hammered on. “And when you fail, you just sit there and cry? I thought you were a little stronger than that, Victor. I guess I was wrong.”

She turned and stalked away, and I stared after her.

(Ah, it looks like I was too late,) Kristopher whistled idly above me. I shot him a glare. (Your Hattie beat me to it.)

“Damn you both,” I muttered, then straightened up and took a good look at who had surrounded me.

They weren’t Peace Workers. Not even close. The standard khaki uniforms of the Kestral Armed Forces surrounded me, some standing in a stiff parade rest, others staring openly at the sky and the flood lamps that still glowed brightly on the rooftop.

I followed their gaze, and I could still see the tiny glowing light that was Serah’s beacon, though only because I knew where to look. In a few moments, it would be gone. Which gave me no time.

“Right,” I said, snapping back to business. I turned to Hattie. “We need to get in the air and follow them. That’s what Serah put that beacon up for, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let them just waltz away.” Never mind that, thirty seconds prior, I had been about to do just that.

Hattie nodded, but before she could speak, one of the regulars stepped forward.

“Actually, we’ll be taking over from here, Specialist Haas, Sergeant Major Morrison. You should probably get back inside and await debriefing.”

I stared at him. Who in the hells did this guy think he was? I was the one who had run to stop the pirates, who had risked his life to escape their notice. And Hattie had been shot! We had every right to be a part of any forthcoming operations, even if technically it fell under the army’s purview.

I expected that Hattie would say something along those lines, and so it was with some surprise that she said nothing of the sort.

“I don’t recall seeing any notices that this had been transferred,” she said, her voice like ice. It was the sort of voice that usually meant I was in for a dressing-down, the sort of voice that stilled subordinates in their tracks and made the recipient feel an inch tall.

The sergeant–I could just make out his rank in the shadows where he stood–stepped back involuntarily at Hattie’s tone. He opened his mouth, but Hattie didn’t let him speak.

“This started out as a Peace Worker operation. It remains a Peace Worker operation until someone higher than me–which you are not–orders me otherwise. So unless you are willing to help us, get the hell out of my way.”

Not for the first time that evening–and surely not for the last–I found myself confused. What did Hattie mean that this had been a PW operation? We had been at the ball as representatives, and true we had been the first responders, but that hardly gave us authority over it, right? And there was nothing about the situation that particularly screamed Peace Workers at me. The kidnapping of the mayor and the minister–and Serah–was a devastating blow, but still fell well within the jurisdiction of the standard guard.

Then again, Hattie has been known to occasionally bully others into getting her way, combining her personality–no mean weapon–with her rank.

To his credit, after his initial fall-back, the army sergeant held his ground. He gritted his teeth, as if unwilling to say his next words, forcing each one out individually. “I’m sorry, sir. But right now, it’s a matter of logistics. You have two people; we have ten. You just don’t have the manpower to deal with this, sir.”

Hattie gritted her teeth. “We’re coming with you,” she said by way of acknowledgement. Which meant that I didn’t have to. It was a predetermined course of action for me.

The sergeant shook his head. “This isn’t your jurisdiction. We’ll handle this. You–”

“I said, we are going,” Hattie repeated, her voice low. I took an involuntary step backward. “So unless you–”

The sergeant opened his mouth to begin arguing with her more–he seemed to have lost his fear when he won the first argument–but a third voice rang out shrill above them both.

“If she wants to go, let her go! Who do you think you are, to be bickering like children over who gets the last piece of cake? They took my husband! Your mayor! Have you no shame?”

Rachel Downing stood in the doorway, half bent over and panting with effort, one hand still held over the slight bulge in her belly. Her makeup had run, black streaks dripping down her cheeks, and her hair was matted to her forehead with sweat. She no longer looked the beautiful arm piece of the mayor, and something in her eyes had changed. She looked wild, like a caged animal, ready to rip out throats if only she could get her claws on the ones responsible. Hers had not been a marriage of convenience, and however I might dislike Joel Downing, she loved him. And he had been taken from her.

I could understand her upset.

“We’re going, that’s final, and we’re wasting time arguing about it,” I interjected smoothly into the silence that followed Rachel’s outburst. “You can always use two more bodies.” And, I almost added but restrained myself, if you keep arguing about this, I’ll blind you and make you stay behind.

The sergeant grimaced, as if I had forced him to bite into a lemon, then nodded sharply. “You will follow my commands. If you disobey or fall behind, I’ll leave you.”

Ah, the last refuge of those who know they have lost. The final exertion of what little power he had left. I didn’t bother agreeing–I half expected that I would be disobeying him before the night was out, if not in the next ten minutes–but he took my shrug to mean something, and turned to bark orders to his crew.

We turned and filed back through the doorway, past the frantic eyes of Rachel Downing. I paused in the doorway and stared back into the night sky, hoping to catch one last glimpse of Serah’s beacon. But it was gone, swallowed up in the night, and it was a heavy heart that pulled me down the stairs I had raced up so soon before.

 * * * * * * * *

The army had arrived in a convoy of three identical black automobiles, sleek and fast and fully armored. The windows were a dark glass that made the insides impossible to make out, especially in the spotty light of the gas street lamps outside the mayor’s home, and the entire vehicle was fully enclosed, the rear bulging with a hidden boiler and steam engine, only a small pipe sticking up vertically to vent. This was the only point at which the insides of the auto were exposed to the outside, and even it appeared to have a hefty one-way valve to limit access.

These were expensive vehicles, halfway between a standard open automobile and a tank, suitable for driving around in cities and protecting the occupants from the bulk of most dangers, but not something one would drive into an actual battlefield.

Each auto sat four, including a driver, and there had already been a dozen army men. So I was treated to the uniquely unpleasant experience of sitting crammed between two large uniformed men in the rear of one vehicle, straddling a recess that held their rifles. Let me tell you, there are few things more uncomfortable than sitting astride two loaded weapons and driving at top speeds through the city at night.

And we were driving fast. The automobile’s air horn blazed almost continuously, roaring our challenge to the other vehicles on the streets of Kestral, letting them know that if they did not move, they would without a doubt be flattened.

Most took the hint. Not always quickly, however, and shouts of alarm and curses filled the air as pedestrians and cyclists leapt to one side. Monowheels tilted dangerously far as they fought against their own momentum, automobiles slid and scraped against stone and wood walls, and the sleek half-tank slid through the morass, skipping through gaps that should have been impossible.

At night, the enormous cargo walkers came out, ferrying goods and equipment to distant cities, eight steel legs pounding the ground as they crept ponderously along, supporting gigantic cargo bays, vehicles, and in one case most of a small house on their backs. These walkers were not much faster than a running man, and had the maneuverability of a charging rhinoceros. It took obscene amounts of fuel to even get one of them moving, and once it had taken its first few steps, it was no mean task to stop it. The pilots had to plan turns and stops well in advance, and a careless mistake, a single sleepy moment, could have disastrous consequences. I had been witness to cargo walkers out of control before. One of the great steel beasts had taken a turn a little too sharply and simply torn the corner off a sturdy brick building, spilling desks, papers, and filing cabinets out into the dark night. No one had been inside, fortunately; one of many reasons the cargo walkers rarely moved during the day.

The walkers obviously couldn’t dodge the pseudo-tank, and didn’t bother trying. The army drivers wove their cars between the pounding legs of the giant autos, and though I knew their skills were more than up to the task, it was still sobering to feel the ground shake as a foot half the width of the automobile itself struck down just moments after we had passed.

Most automobiles can manage an easy thirty or forty miles per hour at cruising speed, and some of the more powerful ones can go as high as fifty or sixty. We must have been cruising at similar speeds through the narrow streets of Kestral, and while the army folk were strapped in and had hefty hand-holds to grab onto, I had nothing but a pair of rifles between my legs and two burly men beside, neither of whom liked me. It was not a pleasant trip.

We slowed down well before we reached our destination; an inevitable side effect of trying to reach Candlepark Station.

The station is the largest and most active transportation hub in all of Kestral, and the nearest to the mayor’s mansion. Every rail line that webs the sky runs into it at some point. Every airship that visits the city docks there at least once. The subway tunnels that had been abandoned beneath the city formed a wide hub beneath the station, and had they been completed, the underground would have swarmed as mercilessly as above.

Though the station quieted some at night, it was a relative thing. Something akin to trying to fit a great lake of water into a swimming pool, as opposed to only a bath tub. Strictly speaking, one was more doable, but practically, both were equally impossible.

The streets around the station were always congested. More than congested: stopped solid. It was the next best thing to a parking lot, and some people in a hurry tended to treat it as such, which only exacerbated matters. Only a bare fortnight ago, I had fairly flown through the crowd, as Scott Casterly had carried me in the most rickety and unstable walker I had ever had the misfortune to ride. Fast, surely. But it does no good to get somewhere quickly unless you also get there in one piece.

This was something the men in the army had also yet to learn, and though we slowed down, it was not nearly as much as I would have thought reasonable.

But then, my own stakes in this matter were as dire as theirs. Hells, more so in my opinion. Let the mayor burn; I was taking Serah back.

The vehicle plowed into the morass of autos, bikes, walkers, and just plain old people, blaring its horn and looking like nothing so much as a sleek black demon breathing smoke from its rear.

The outer edges of the mess were thin enough to allow us to progress a little, but eventually even the armored half-tank had to stop.

“Now what?” I asked. We were still some distance from the station.

“Now,” said the driver, turning and grinning. “We walk.”

The doors struck the side of the neighboring vehicle, and we squeezed out into the bare inches between us. I looked around in the suddenly brighter light of the gas lamps, no longer dimmed by the tinted windows of the auto. The lamps were thick here, lighting the place up to near daylight as a thousand fires burnt from street lamps, from lanterns within the vehicles, and from the station itself. Every window in the station was bright, every gaping maw glowing a cheery yellow and white. Red and blue signal lights burned high atop the building–less a building, and more an enormous termite colony, built and added upon as necessity demanded over the years.

We ran, threading our way between stopped cars, hand-held horns and deep-throated shouts warning those ahead of our coming. I slid through the slim space between two bikes, ran across the exposed back seat of a topless automobile, danced beneath a walker’s spindly legs. Despite my long legs, I was not used to this sort of frantic maneuvering, and the army men beat me to the station proper by several seconds. As promised, they did not wait, and I raced after them, past a congested and perpetually under construction parking space and through a pair of hanger-sized doors that led into the station proper.

Inside, the station appeared much less crowded, simply by the shear scale of the place. A great central space rose several stories high, surrounding by rings of platforms laden with travelers rushing to catch their train or to escape the incoming crush. The army men and I raced across the expansive marble floor for the far wall, chipped and stained by decades of abuse. Murmurs of confusion rose and fell amid the constant ambient echoes from thousands of travelers all throughout the station, voices echoing off thin steel walls, bouncing off decorative marble and filling the air with a low roar.

The far wall of the enormous space held a bank of elevators, constantly in motion, rising up to the various train platforms, and higher still to the levels of the airship towers. And as massive as this room was, I knew the station extended much further back than we could see, occupying the whole of the park that had once been the largest in the city, and that which had given the station its name.

The wait for an open elevator was interminable, and I wanted nothing more than to break away and race up the stairs, just to be doing something, rather than standing and waiting, letting precious seconds seep through my fingers. But the station stretched high, high above the city, and I would collapse in exhaustion long before making it to the top of the spires where the military airships awaited.

The elevator doors opened, revealing a space large enough for most automobiles, and we piled in. Just as the doors began to slide shut, Hattie shoved her way inside, her face set in a pale grimace, the stained bandage now entirely red. Kristopher circled above her injured shoulder in a slow, fiery halo, humming to himself. I opened my mouth to suggest Hattie stay behind–she looked about to collapse–but I didn’t let the words out. She would take it as an insult.

The elevator rose with speed, powerful engines driving the cables that pulled it up and up, to the base of the tower levels. The military tower was further back in the station, but this level was largely empty and for the first time we were able to run all out. My long legs gave me the advantage here, and I did not have a rifle to carry, so I had no trouble keeping pace with the army officials. Hattie again fell behind, but I couldn’t stop to wait, couldn’t risk losing these men. A second, much smaller elevator awaited us, and as we piled into it, she shouted at us, but the men ignored her. I watched her run with a grim look on her face, and I sympathized…but I couldn’t stop and wait. It was for the best, I told myself as the doors cut her off from view. She needed a doctor and rest, though she would never admit it.

When the doors opened once more, it was to a metal platform, the floor corrugated to give some traction against the frightful winds that roared this high above the city. A low fence rimmed the platform, as if that would prevent the gales from picking a person up and throwing him to the ground so far below. I kept well back from the edge. As a rule, heights don’t bother me overmuch, but there’s a difference between standing in Jedediah Millston’s office atop the university and looking out across the city…and this insane platform atop a spindly tower that seemed hardly capable of supporting its own weight. That I knew it had been designed and built by army engineers who had a clue what they were up against did nothing to alleviate my fears, primal and unreasonable.

A covered ramp led to the airship gondola, not unlike a ramp from an ordinary dock to one of the many steamers that called at the Kestral ports…except a misstep here would have far more dire consequences. Yet, people traveled like this every day. Were they insane? Was I?

The soldiers seemed to have no qualms, and led the way onto the ramp that was shockingly stable. Once on it, I could see the heavy steel cables and girders that locked the ramp to the spire, not suspended in midair as I had originally thought. Even if it swayed some as we ran across it, I could almost imagine it was just the breaking of waves rocking the ship we were about to board.

The airship broke away from the spire almost before we were all aboard, and the sergeant pulled the door shut and spun the wheel to lock it as we crept from the dock, the airship’s propellers spinning up to a whine, then a roar.

Inside, the gondola was sparse, utilitarian. Metal floors and benches, where most airships were lavish with elegantly carved wood, thick colorful carpets, paintings across the walls. Traveling was an experience, and the goal was to make it as pleasant and enjoyable a one as possible. But the army had to move large amounts of people and equipment quickly; they had no room for frills. Behind us, the great engines shivered and growled, keeping the airship moving, cruising at speed through the air, though from within I could barely sense our motion. Most of the soldiers sat, to take what rest they could before the upcoming confrontation, but I was too restless to remain still. I made my way to the forward of the gondola, where the pilot sat peering through thick glass at the darkness outside, guiding the airship by a eyesight, aided by a series of dials and gauges. It was a frightening business, at least to me. Near a port, an airship pilot could rely on a nearby spire to communicate via flashing lights, transmitting weather conditions, docking instructions, and so forth. But out between cities, an airship pilot was alone; there was no support he could call in, and if the airship went down, the lives of everyone aboard were solely in the hands of this one man, who in the end, could only do so much.

He was peering at the compass now, steering the airship toward the last place we had seen the beacon. I was surprised he remembered.; I had gotten turned around on the frantic rush to and through the station and had not the slightest idea which direction to fly. It was frightening to think that, had I been in charge, we would never have gotten past this first stage, never have a hope of catching the pirate airship.

After a few minutes, the pilot let out an exasperated sigh and spoke, his eyes never wavering from the instruments. “Look, do you want something?”

“Um,” I said. Of course I wanted something. I wanted him to be faster. I wanted Serah safe and in my arms. I wanted to sit at home with a mug of hot tea and a good book, a plate of Annabella’s blackcurrant scones fresh from the oven, Kristopher singing quietly to himself in the fireplace.

“You’re one of them, right, magic guys?” the pilot asked when I didn’t continue.

I nodded, then said “yes,” when I realized he still wasn’t looking at me.

“Can you do anything to help? Track that beacon, make us move faster, anything?”

I thought for a second. “I could…give us some light?” Maybe that would make it easier to see the pirates if we got close enough. The pilot snorted.

“About the opposite of what we need, then. You catch a glimpse of the airship before you got in?” It took me a moment to realize he was asking about the one we were currently flying, not the one we chased.

“Not really.”

“Well, if you had, you’d know it was a stealth gal. No insignia, no colors, no lights. Last thing we need is a great bright light to show the pirates exactly where we are. If they go to ground, we’re done for. Now, unless you’ve got a spyglass in that coat of yours, I’d prefer you get back with the others. You’re distracting.”

I turned to go. Then stopped. Not a spyglass, but…

“You still here?” he said, a note of annoyance creeping in his voice.

“Yes,” I said, looking past him out the window. “Shut up for a second, please.” I stepped closer to the plates of glass that made up most of the front of the gondola. I focused beyond that, to the dark air outside the airship. The night seemed to grow brighter in my sight, as my senses came alive, showing me the rays of light passing from every which way through the air and the glass. Light from below us, ambient light of the city we were still passing over; light from the stars and the moon, what little made it through the dense cloud cover; and somewhere out there, the light of that lone lantern Serah had rigged to mark the pirate airship.

I saw the rays of light, and carefully, delicately, reached out to bend them. First to converge and concentrate them, then to diverge them back to parallel. This was a much finer art than the periscope effect I had used so disastrously a few weeks previous to peer around corners at the group of terrorists who had kidnapped a little boy. Lensing was necessarily a delicate business, and it always took a bit of time to get right, adjusting it incrementally until, suddenly, the rays bent in just the right way and we had a working spyglass before us. There was nothing to see yet beyond the dark clouds, but the pilot could tell that something was different, and he spoke, a frown in his voice.

“What the hell did you just do?”

“You wanted a spyglass,” I said absently, concentrating on keeping the effect in place, scanning the sky in front of us for a pinpoint of light lower than stars, higher than a house. Vague shapes leapt out at me from the dimness: tall trees and buildings, low fuzzy stars on the horizon, and there, out in the distance, a tiny pinpoint of orange.

Hardly breathing, I stretched the lenses, pulling them larger to get more light. The focus failed, and for a moment I lost the spot entirely, but I took my time to readjust, and several seconds later it floated back into being.

I couldn’t tell how far it was, or how fast it was moving, and the image was too fuzzy and dim to see the airship itself, but at least now we had a direction.

I allowed myself to relax a little, no longer needing to fine-tune the “spyglass,” and I sank into the empty copilot’s seat. The pilot said nothing, seeming to understand what I had done, and simply steered the airship toward that distant point, flickering in the blackness of night.

* * * * * * * *
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May 30, 2010

Illusion 1, Chapter IV

by Mallard

Traveling with a cop can have certain perks. They can use the station vehicles, many of which are fast and sturdy, and have loud, clanging brass bells to warn others out of the way and bright rotating lights. On the other hand, you could travel with Scott. He took out a four-legged spider walker from the station’s garage, a tall gangly thing that towered over me even, with two bucket seats and a boiler at the back like a giant tumor. Serah would have had fits at its construction. Too tall and unbalanced, she’d say, and four legs limits it to a speedy pace or stationary; anything in between and the ridiculous thing would tip over and spill its occupants onto the hard cobblestones. I was glad it wasn’t raining; there wasn’t even a canopy. The contraption was minimalism to its extreme, and smelled strongly of oil, to boot.

“I said,” shouting over the clanking of its many-jointed limbs as the walker lurched out of the garage and down the street. “Why did you choose this junker?”

“It’s fast, and no one cares if we break it,” he shouted back. A fly zipped past and I ducked out of the way before it smacked into my face.

“What, are you worried we’ll run into some rough business?” I almost wished we would; this piece of garbage had no business being on the streets, let alone in one piece. It’d look a whole lot better dismantled and stored in Serah’s enormous and varied scrap piles in her back room. It would at least be less hazardous then.

“Are you kidding?” Scott called, and I swear he was suppressing a laugh. “I’ve seen you around machines, Victor. You look at the buggers cross-eyed and they break. Where’s your autobike, by the way?”

“…You know? I think this thing is too loud for conversation,” I shouted and sat back. Kristopher gave a little musical tinkle that was almost certainly a snigger. I glared at him.

I’ll give Scott one thing: rude though he might be, he was right about the walker’s speed. It wasn’t so much that it could move any faster than an automobile or standard eight-legged spider, but being so narrow and tall, it could squeeze through small gaps in traffic, or just step over a car or person. Scott was a skillful driver, and no one had to jump out of the way of the walker’s thin limbs as they stabbed back down into the road.

Our route took us past Candlepark Station, the largest transport hub in the city. The station spans a space the size of a city block: a confused mess of buildings, rail tracks, and airship mooring spires. The station was once a railway station on the corner of Candlepark Avenue and Twenty-Second Street. It had grown as more and more rail lines crisscrossed above the hub, expanding out and up, so that it became a convenient airship docking station as well. The park had once occupied much of the rest of the block, but had been swallowed up as the station expanded like a virulent moss, growing over grass and trees, replacing them with steel girders, enormous gas and steam pipes, boilers the size of houses and maintenance hangers that could swallow the gigantic cargo walkers like they were flies.

The streets around the station were perpetually congested, and the walker slowed down as we passed by. Conversation became truly impossible as trains roared overhead constantly, a dozen of them arriving, departing, switching, and just barely avoiding collision. The station also handled much of the intercity traffic, and we could see a number of the much wider-gage tracks that spanned the spaces between cities, carrying enormous worms of steel that could–and sometimes did–carry seaships manufactured further inland to the port city of Kestral for their maiden launches.

As we wove slowly through the crowd, Scott working furiously to keep the walker from tipping over at the slow pace, I recognized a tall, domed shape in the distance: KAMA. The school was easy to spot, taking up more space even than Candlepark Station. It lay between Annabella’s and our destination near Emelia’s home, and occupied its own university district in the city, a sort of mini-town within Kestral proper. I couldn’t see any at the moment, but I knew that the tall spike atop the main dome of the university also doubled as yet another airship spire, reserved though for university traffic.

It was past five when we reached Emelia Withers’s neighborhood, though I admit that had we taken a larger walker or automobile, it would have taken us much longer to bypass the station. So score one for Scott, I suppose. The clouds still covered the sky above the city, but an orange glow was beginning to shine to the west. To the east I could see a light fog beginning to move in, melding with steam clouds that rose from a thousand points in the city, from walkers to autos to small businesses and most homes. The largest clouds hovered above Candlepark Station and KAMA, sending cloud signals into the sky that shouted Here Be Activity. Within a few hours, the sun would be gone and the city would be blanketed in a bed of nighttime fog, and these markers would vanish.

“They live on that street,” Scott called out suddenly, pointing down a narrow lane lined with identical single-story homes. This was a much more residential district than where I lived, and lacked the plethora of independently-run businesses and the ever-present street vendors. It was much less crowded as well, to the point of being a little disconcerting. I’ve never lived in such a neighborhood, at least not since I first came to Kestral. The flat I’d shared while attending KAMA had been only a few blocks from Annabella’s, and when I’d been stationed south during the war, I’d been either on the move or living in the districts the army had effectively claimed as their own. And one thing the armed forces was not, was quiet.

Scott kept the walker going another block or so, to a five-way intersection where the narrow streets opened up by necessity into a pentagonal region, currently devoid of all but the occasional foot traffic. The walker lurched to a halt, and tilted alarmingly before its internal gyros compensated and it settled in place, its many-jointed limbs slowly folding in on each other until the main body of the spider rested on the ground. Collapsed like that, the blasted thing didn’t look nearly so rickety, but I wasn’t looking forward to climbing back aboard later.

“So this is where they were playing?” I asked. Scott nodded, and pulled a lamp from a tiny cargo box under the front seat of the walker. The lamp was a small enclosed metal box with a compartment for oil and a number of mirrors that directed the light through a focusing lens, producing a bright light that could be shuttered or allowed to shine full strength. A second compartment at the top held magnesium shavings, which could be dropped into the flames to create an incredibly bright flash, suitable for temporarily blinding or at least startling a suspect. Scott pulled out a flint striker, but Kristopher beat him to it, darting into the lamp and emerging a second later, the wick alight with a gentle yellow glow.

“Thanks, spook,” Scott said, pocketed the flint and lifting the lamp by its handle.

“What’s the light for?” I asked, a little miffed. If it’s light he wanted, I don’t see why he needed a lamp. I specialize in illusion, after all, which is just applied light magic.

“To see things in the dark,” Scott said, frowning. Then he blinked in understanding. “Oh, I see. Habit, then. Not everyone makes light of out nothing, Victor. And this way you can concentrate on what I’m showing you, not on your hoodoo.”

I could have told him that just making a general light takes next to no concentration, but I didn’t bother. Let him do things his way, and I’ll do things my way. It’s the differences in our approaches that make us work well together, not conforming to each others’ expectations and preferences.

Scott led me away from the walker and down one of the five streets that led off the intersection. Street lamps were starting to come on around us, as the gas began to flow more copiously to the pilot lights in their glass bulbs. By their light, and the much more directed beam of Scott’s lamp, we examined the steel garbage bin Robert had hidden in. It was half full of rubbish and smelt like rotten fruit, but there was nothing about it that gave any clue as to where a little boy could have vanished to. The automobile Robert had hidden under had since gone, and left behind no clues. There was a storm drain grill set into the cobblestones near there, but without tools, Robert couldn’t have gone through. And I doubt many kids in this neighborhood walked around with spanners and crowbars. The railway support truss was the third and final place Robert had hidden, and though we found some footprints in the dirt within the truss, we had no way of knowing if they were Robert’s or not.

“And you’re sure he didn’t hide anywhere else?” I asked Scott as we returned to the square. Well, the pentagon.

“Well, no, I’m sure he did hide somewhere else,” Scott returned. “But where? I can’t tell you. Which is the problem.”

I sighed. I didn’t know what I had been expecting to find, really. But finding absolutely nothing was still a let-down. We were left with no more than we ‘d started with.

Scott glanced at his pocket watch. It was past six. “What’re you thinking, Victor?” he asked, shuttering the lamp so that we stood in a pool of semi-darkness in the middle of the intersection.

Before I could answer, Kristopher drifted from my side and floated toward the center of the intersection, circling around as if sniffing for something.

“What is it, spook?” Scott called. He unshuttered the lamp and cast a beam of light in the salamander’s direction.

The cobbled surface of the intersection sloped down slightly toward the center, ending in another grill like the storm drain, but a round one that was not bolted down. A maintenance access cover, then.

“Did you–” I asked, and Scott answered before I finished.

“Of course we checked. Robert ran right over it a couple times, but he never went down. No one’s gone near that thing in weeks, from what we could tell. Nice try though.” He shut off the light and began to turn away.

I frowned. Kristopher never had hunches; if he thought there was something worth looking at with the manhole cover, then there was something worth looking at. “Hold on,” I called after Scott and walked closer to Kristopher. Scott followed me, letting the beam loose again.

“I thought you said spook here couldn’t sense anything any better than we can,” Scott said, though he sounded slightly hopeful.

(Someone suffered here,) Kristopher sang, and I shivered. Salamanders are attracted to suffering and trauma, in the same way that will-o’-the-wisps are attracted to the lost, and puddle jumpers are to innocence and joy. It’s what brought him to me in the fire swamps in the first place, curious and hungry to see who or what was feeling such pain so near his nest.

“You’re sure nothing has disturbed the cover?” I asked Scott in a hush. I don’t know why I was whispering. There wasn’t anyone else nearby to hear. Somehow it felt appropriate.

“Certain,” he replied, his frown heavily shadowed behind the lamp he held. “The dogs didn’t smell anything nearby, and we even went into the tunnels a bit. No scent trails anywhere.”

“Well, Kristopher says something happened here recently,” I said. I didn’t even think to question Kristopher. A salamander is as infallible in matters of suffering as a dolphin is in matters of the sea. It wasn’t a question of if he was right, only whether the pain he detected was related to the missing boy.

“How recently?” Scott asked.

I shook my head. “Salamanders don’t do time the same way we do. A day doesn’t really mean anything to Kristopher any more than a minute does.”

(Recently,) Kristopher sang. (It’s still strong.)

Which still didn’t mean much to us humans. It could have been a pricked finger a minute ago, or a mass slaughter a year previous, and it’d feel the same to him. Though, the time and location fit the case of the missing Robert Withers a little too well for me to believe either of those scenarios.

“Well,” I said, turning to the cop. “How do you feel about an evening stroll through the sewers?”

He grimaced. “Lydia will kill me when I get home.”

I grinned. “I’m sure she’ll understand. Just bring her some roses to balance out the smell.”

Scott snorted and set the lamp on the ground to roll his pant legs up. “Clearly, Victor, you are a man who knows women.”

The cover was lighter than it appeared, enough for a boy to pull it up and out of the way if he was determined enough. The ladder was cleaner than I expected, spotted with rust but relatively free of grime. Scott couldn’t turn the lamp on its side to shine down into the tunnel, so I called up a soft blue flame to light his way while he climbed. He’d insisted on going first, and since these would be my last clean breaths for some time, I was all too willing to let him.

About twenty rungs down, the shaft opened into a wide tunnel ten feet in diameter, with two narrow walkways lining the sides. The center of the tunnel was a wide river of water and filth, only a foot or so below the cobbled walkway. A mass of rusted pipes of varying sizes ran along the top of the tunnel, carrying water, gas, oil, and any of a dozen other substances around the city. Some of the pipes had clearly been patched numerous times, and it looked like a minor earthquake would rattle them apart, spilling their contents into the sludge below to flow out to the bay.

The state of the pipes and the build-up of sludge near the edge of the walkway made it clear that no maintenance workers had been down there for some time. I opened a valve on the wall, but heard no hiss of gas, and the lamps that lined the wall remained dark.

Scott shone his lamp first one way, then the other, illuminating the dank tunnel, a sight that really should have remained in darkness.

“You’re sure something happened here?” he asked, doubt creeping in his voice. “Doesn’t look like anyone’s been down here in ages.”

I frowned. I was a little less confident myself. Could it be that Kristopher had just sensed some old but powerful hurt that had happened here, completely unrelated to the current case?

But the salamander took no notice of our doubts, and after circling in place for a few moments, he began to drift along the northward span of the tunnel. I looked at Scott and shrugged, then followed Kristopher. Behind me, Scott sighed and swung the lamp around to light our way.

(Here,) Kristopher said suddenly, stopping at a section of wall that looked like any other.

“Here, what?” I asked. I tapped on the wall, but it sounded as solid as the rest of the concrete that lined the pipe.

(The first pain was here,) the salamander clarified. I frowned. First?

Kristopher kept drifting along, moving slower as he savored the taste of whatever he sensed. It was a little disturbing, to be honest. Salamanders aren’t evil or sadistic, despite the stories you hear about them. They’re simply attracted to pain in the same way a buzzard is drawn to a corpse, or we’re attracted to the smell of a really good rump roast.

The sudden sound of voices stopped us cold, and Scott’s light snapped off instantly. We stood frozen in the darkness, the only light the red glow of Kristopher making figure-eights in the air. I couldn’t tell what the voices were saying, but I had no doubt that they belong to no-one we wanted to see us. Who hangs about in a sewer at dusk, but maintenance workers and shady folk?

I was convinced we’d found what we were looking for. That they had nothing to do with Robert’s disappearance seemed unlikely, given Kristopher’s senses and the timing. The only question remaining was just who had we found, and in what way were they related to the missing boy?

* * * * * * * *
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