…reckon not those who are killed in Allah’s way as dead; nay, they are alive (and) are provided sustenance from their Lord.
Never think that those who have perished in jihad are dead—they are still here. You are simply unaware of them.
—Alternate translations of Qu’ran Excerpt 3:169, Set 11, Count 32.
Two months after Cal Fichtner took himself officially “off the map”, Greer Reizendaark logged onto the Company webmail account to find a particularly well-scrubbed piece of e-correspondence waiting for him. No header, no address, no send-date—just a numerical link embedded in the body, with this curt instruction: LIVE AT ONE. CLICK HERE.
He waited ’til the clock at the corner of his screen rolled over, then did—and watched the whole way through, without comment, not stopping even when some newbie from Homeland Security caught a couple of seconds’ glance at it over his shoulder, and started puking. “Holy Christ,” she kept on repeating. “Holy, holy Christ.”
Greer didn’t turn around. Just snapped back, as the footage froze, looped and started over: “That’s exactly what they want you to say, you dizzy cunt.”
For I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads, and strike off every fingertip of them—Excerpt 8:012, Set 28, Count 62.
The dhimmi, the Crusaders, the Jews: make ’em too afraid to fight you, to resist the tide of jihad, by showing them just how bad they were gonna die, if they did.
The funny thing, though? Fichtner didn’t even look all that scared, in the clip—stayed a cast-iron son-of-a-bitch, right up to and including the part where they stuck a knife between his top two vertebrae, and started sawing away at his spine. Like it hurt, yes; mad, for damn certain…
He’d known all along this was the likeliest outcome, though. Hadn’t needed Greer to tell him that.
Hadn’t let him, when he’d tried.
This world was full of empty spaces, especially where the maps fell away—holes that most often plugged themselves with phantoms, the minute you looked somewhere else. Nature of the game. Nothing was certain, only wars and rumors of wars, ’til the intelligence checked out.
Or, as his last wife liked to put it: “You’re physically present sometimes, but you’re not really here, Greer—not ever. You’re not just a spook, you’re a ghost.”
“That’s a cliché, darlin’.”
“You’d know,” she said.
Sheikh Mehdi Nebbou called a half-hour after Fichtner’s execution, to demand: “Why were you not watching him, Greer?”
“Other shit on my plate, buddy. As goddamn usual.”
Greer certainly had been, in the beginning—no big secret there. Because while Fichtner might’ve been righteously quick to drop his GPS-enabled cellphone in the very next dry well he saw, he’d already known (as Greer had taught him) how the basic fun of surveillance came from realizing you could track anybody, anywhere, so long as you had a fair idea of who they were likely to be hanging around with. People always made the best anchors.
So if somebody’d wanted to find Fichtner, all they’d ever had to do was watch the clinic Fichtner’s new lady worked at, then wait for him to turn up somewhere in the background. Or hell, they could just watch Mehdi himself, who’d offered Fichtner a job as a “security consultant” the week after Fichtner tendered his resignation.
But things had gotten hot elsewhere, like they always did, and Greer’s attention had shifted, accordingly. Wasn’t like the interest ever seemed much reciprocated, since Fichtner certainly knew—had known—his home phone number, and Greer’d made sure not to have it changed in the interim, just in case his wayward protege ever felt inclined to ring him up for a little chat.
“They killed his fiancee, as well,” Mehdi said. “Miss Al-Kimani—the nurse? Though I suppose it might be asking too much to think—”
“Don’t tell me what I do and don’t care about, you supercilious S.O.B. You were the one s’posed to look after him now, remember? Your territory, your rules. He trusted you.”
“If you had only trusted me, Greer—from the very beginning—then none of this would have happened,” Mehdi replied. Then rang off, leaving Greer with nothing in his bluetooth but an oh-so-sophisticated lack of static.
Only the truth, whatever that was: Just information, a wonderfully fluid thing. Given the right tools and impetus, you could move it around, cover it up, modify it—give it a fan made out of feathers and make it do the shimmy, if you wanted. That was what Greer did all day, every day, to earn his Christmas bonus…and what Mehdi did too, while saving for a considerably different holiday.
From Marathon to Peshawar, the same routine: guys like Mehdi and Greer put people into bad situations, hoping they’d find out what their governments didn’t already know they needed to know. Most-times, the people got hurt. Sometimes they got killed. But the rules didn’t change, no matter what—whether you were getting the bulk of your covert intel with black magic tech, or an old-fashioned gun to the head.
By lunchtime, Greer was vetting three separate reports (Holland, Spain, Equatorial Africa) while simultaneously balls-deep in a three-way conference call with Washington, Toronto and London, listening to some CSIS asshole pontificate, and trying to chew his way through a cruller without it showing up on tape.
“You can see how this makes us look bad, Agent Reizendaark,” this guy said. “Your Mr Fichtner died for being a member of the global intelligence community.”
Now, there’s an oxymoron, Greer thought. And shot back—
“‘My’ Mr Fichtner? Hadn’t been that since I accepted his L.O.R., back in February.”
“They wrote ‘CIA BLOODSUCKER’ on the wall behind his corpse,” the designated representative from Greer’s side of the table pointed out.
“Outdated, then,” London broke in; “let’s not quibble over semantics, gentlemen. Particularly since I’m still not hearing anything about how you mean to deal with this particular—breach of protocol.”
“Well, what do you suggest?”
“Erase all trace of Fichtner, retroactively.”
“Looks to me like somebody already beat you to it,” Greer replied, punching out.
Two months ago. Greer still had that last call .mp3’d on his hard-drive, somewhere—could listen to it later tonight, alone in his empty house, where the only company left for him to keep was with a dead man’s voice.
Fichtner: You get my message, G.?
Greer: Yeah, I got it. So…hear you’re growin’ a beard for real, prayin’ five times a day, and why? ’Cause Aqsa won’t let you up under her hijab if you don’t?
Fichtner: ’Cause I like it, Greer. ’Cause it feels right.
Greer: Uh huh. So what’s the part you like most, huh? The killing in the Name part? The eight-year-old human bombs?
Fichtner: I like the part says there is no God but God. Seems true to me, or like it should be. Might solve a fuck of a lot of problems, on either side, people just took it a bit more seriously…
Greer: Some people already take it a bit too seriously for comfort, you ask me.
Fichtner: …and the rest? That’s mostly misinformation, misinterpretation. People thinking they always know better. (Pause) Sound familiar?
Greer: Fuck you, son.
Fichtner: Can’t do that sort of thing no more, G. Sorry.
Greer: No matter how drunk I get you, first?
Fichtner: Can’t do that either, buddy.
Greer: Well, hell, buddy—that sure ain’t no kinda religion I’d be willin’ to die for, but to each his damn own. (Pause) ’Cause they are gonna kill you, Cal…that’s the no-God-but-God’s honest truth. Her too, probably. You do know that, right?
Fichtner: Well, if they do, they do. I mean, Aqsa’s been living with this shit a whole lot longer than either of us, Greer—she’s stronger than I’ll ever be. Plus, at least she tries not to hate.
Greer: You really think the two of you’re gonna end up in the same place, though, after? Given all you done?
Fichtner: (Long pause) Maybe not. But that’s the hope.
And here the mental transcript broke off.
To wash the conference call’s aftertaste away, Greer hit the Geek Room, where his two pet surveillance experts—one male, one female, so he always just called ’em Guy and Gal, in his head—were poring over the latest input from a bunch of gyro-stabilized recon ex-satellite cameras Mehdi had agreed to retrofit onto some of his bosses’ “new” Navy P-3 Orions. As a vain stab at trying to keep things privateprivacy, the cameras got changed around weekly, which meant Guy and Gal spent most days downloading intel, plugging it into a 360-degree spread and then trying to figure out from the resultant virtual landscape just where and when said footage had been snatched, as well as what the hell was (probably) going on in it.
Today’s spread showed a meet-up somewhere in the desert (big surprise), though Guy and Gal were having trouble deciding exactly which one. Scans showed two vans, three open-end trucks and a yoinked U.S. Army Humvee ’round which figures in robes and head-scarves filtered, their faces all equally blown out by harsh light and sudden shadow.
“We think this one’s Ajinabi,” Gal said, tapping what to Greer was an utterly random set of features. The name—an agreed-upon monicker floated first through Mehdi’s group, then adopted by Greer’s, after Fichtner started using it in his reports—was Arabic for either “stranger” or “outsider”: a legendary organizer for hire, possibly foreign-born, or even a Fichtner-style convert who’d chosen jihad over live-and-let-live. But on lack of background detail alone, Ajinabi’d quickly become scapegoat of choice in the region—a convenient catch-all for a complex range of mischief, everything from holding bomb-building classes to coordinating lethal actions.
“He might’ve been in on Fichtner, too, boss,” Guy suggested. “Or know who was.”
Greer shrugged. “Might’ve. Which is pretty much the same as sayin’ the boogeyman did it, ’cause we’ll never know no better.”
Gal frowned. “We figure out who some of the other players here are, though, and turn ’em—that’d get us one step closer.”
“Don’t look to me like there’s enough there for the facial-recognition software to work with, even if our current operatives database wasn’t so far out of date—”
Guy: “Oh, look at that. I think…we got a hit.”
They all studied the results for a while, silently. Until—
“That…looks like Cal Fichtner,” Gal said, at last.
“Couldn’t be, though.”
Damn, though, if it didn’t seem like it was. Right there in the background, half-hidden in a shadow cast by that second truck from the right—even down to choice of sunglasses, or that raggedly white-boy meth-cooker beard he’d grown so Aqsa would feel more at home letting him walk her down the street. Same stone-age vs. Star Trek outfit he’d last been photographed wearing, calculated for maximum blend-in when viewed from above; same guy got his head cut off on almost-live not-exactly-TV, and made it exciting enough to watch that the footage ended up being streamed on Al-Jazeera.
“Look, fellas,” Greer broke in, finally, “I’ve seen the man’s head. They sent it to us postage paid, packed in salt, care of my office.”
“What about the rest of him?”
“Out in the desert somewheres, I assume—the hell’s it matter? We got DNA, got a hundred per cent match. Whoever that is, Cal Fichtner don’t come into the matter.”
“Well,” Guy muttered, “it might be…” Then cut off in mid-breath as Gal shot him a dirty look, visual shorthand for shut effin’ up, you boob. Greer raised a brow, angled to include them both.
“Might be what?”
Gal sighed. “Sometimes…data stays behind. Like…when you overwrite stuff again and again, fragments stick around, in the interstices. They just sort of collect.”
“‘Pixel-geists’, we call ’em—”
“Whatever. So, stuff gets caught between the zeroes and the ones—I mean, so what, right? All part of the process.”
Greer shook his head, hoping that would help; it didn’t.
“Well…what do you do about it, when it does?” he asked, finally.
“Wait ’til it goes away again, mostly,” Guy replied.
That night, his BlackBerry chimed, and Greer opened it to find his inbox full of empty emails. At first he thought it was Fichtner’s killers trying to screw with him some more, but maybe not—these had addresses and time-signatures, though both jumped seemingly at random from past to present to future, ’round the world and back again. One was from Antarctica, for fuck’s sake. Greer shift-clicked the whole pile, hit delete. Then fell asleep watching football with one eye, BBC World News with the other, and head-first from there into a pile of dreams: Blurry, brief, bitterly disturbing.
That awful room, a tiny concrete cell with corkboard walls, with nothing in it but a gashed-up slab-topped table and a camera-stand. And bloodstains, layered in overatop of each other, so deep they looked like wallpaper.
The bluetooth buzzed against his cheek, hot with sweat. He reared back up, swatting at it, only to hear a voice he knew almost better than his own issuing from it—tiny and tinny, but distinct: internalized, like it was vibrating up through the bones of his jaw to reach the eardrum directly, its message’s content and delivery system alike both equally impossible.
Get my message, G?
Fichtner’s laugh, pricking tears from Greer’s eyes automatically, like a cold wind.
“Who is this?” No reply. “Listen, asshole, you need to get the hell off my line.”
Can’t do that. Sorry.
Greer knuckled his eyes, drawing sparks. “I…ain’t havin’ this conversation. You could be anybody, ’sides from—”
A long pause ensued, while Greer tried to figure out anything worth saying.
Maybe…not? the voice asked, gently.
Well…seems true to me, or like it should be. Buddy.
Then silence. Not even a tone.
Greer sat there a while, thinking about how insane he must have gone without noticing, to actually believe that he might’ve talking to Cal Fichtner’s—what? Pixel-geist? Spook?
Around three-forty-five, he gave up on getting back to sleep, and called up Gal (who was still in the Geek Room, like he’d known she would be). Got her to send the spread over and went over it again—homed in on that tricksy little background figure, Blade Runner-style, and saw it was pointing straight at the same other silhouette Gal had initially tapped, exactly. “Ajinabi”, caught foreground-framed with his mouth open in mid-lecture, similarly faceless yet somehow more authoritative than the rest, judging by the way the others angled towards him. And totally ignorant of Fichtner’s finger cocked to the back of his head, like: Him. Here. See? This guy, and no one else…
And then it was…later, and Greer surfaced to find himself somehow not only drunk as a lord, but already on the phone with Mehdi. Who was being surprisingly forbearing about it, given the circumstances.
“Things are still there even when you stop lookin’ at ’em, right?” Greer asked, pouring another drink he sure as hell didn’t need.
“I believe you may be veering dangerously close to the realm of metaphysics with this question, Agent Riezendaark. Or of spiritualism, perhaps.” A beat. “Why are you phoning me, exactly?”
“I…honestly have no idea.”
“Mmm. Do you happen to know what time it is here?”
“…early? Or late, I guess…”
“Yes, very likely one or the other. But then, time-zones were always a weakness of yours, as I recall. On a more personal note, however—you sound as though you need sleep, Greer, rather than alcohol. Rather badly.”
“Probably do, yeah.”
“…not yet. You hooked up? Online?”
“I’m in bed, Greer. Where you should be.”
“Well, I’m flattered, buddy; don’t think you really want me in your bed, though. I’d wreck the mattress.”
Mehdi made a half-sigh, half-snicker. “Send me your data,” he said, at last.
The next morning, his head full of cotton and mush, Greer saw Mehdi’s number blink alight, and picked up halfway through the first ring.
“You can’t possibly think this is what it seems,” Mehdi told him.
Greer shut his eyes. “Well, that depends. What’s it look like to you?”
“I want to hear you say it, Sheikh. Out loud.”
Another sigh. Then—
“…it appears to be a surveillance photo of Cal Fichtner. Standing in the desert. Pointing at someone.”
“Fella at seven o’clock, three from the right?”
“The very same. I cannot, however, make out his face.”
“Crap. I was kinda hopin’ you knew him.”
“Yes, that would be convenient, I suppose—if we had any idea what it was he was doing there, or why we should care to know, in the first place.”
“My geeks think he’s Ajinabi.”
Unimpressed: “Do they.”
“Yup. They say word on the Grid is, he keeps off it—does everything face to face, word of mouth. So if this is him callin’ a meeting, it’s gotta be about somethin’ pretty big. Think he might’ve been the one behind what happened to Fichtner, too…and Aqsa Al-Kimani.”
“The great Foreign Devil for Hire, wearing a thousand masks and pulling a thousand strings. I’ve heard those rumors as well, Greer—for quite some time, now. Far longer than you’ve considered them relevant, considering they really didn’t begin to attract your direct interest until a friend of yours…” A pause. “In terms of concrete proof, however, that’s exactly all they are. Rumors.”
“I’ve gotten the go-ahead on less.”
“Doubtless. But I’m not sure I’d boast about that, if I were you.”
Greer huffed out hard, and felt his temples start to throb. “Fine, then. What do you think these pics are, if they ain’t—that?”
“As you know, we of Islam tend to find representative images of the ineffable somewhat…difficult.”
Greer could practically hear Mehdi’s shrug. “Contextually, recent photos of a person one knows to be dead operating in the material world are likely to be almost as suspect as paintings of the Prophet, don’t you agree?”
“I think maybe this is some cultural thing we’re gettin’ into, here, and I ain’t exactly qualified to—”
“No? At best, Greer, this is a ghost, something whose testimony both our religions find equally suspect. We know Cal Fichtner was a good man, though not by all standards; all signs point towards the idea that he had come to terms with his past, made amends, found love, found faith…forgiveness. So he should be at peace—either in Heaven, or Paradise. Elsewhere, at any rate. Not—”
“You can’t know it’s not Fichtner,” Greer began, ridiculously annoyed.
“And you can’t know it is. The desert is a bad place to die, Greer—an empty place, home to many strange, empty things. Just because something wears a face you know…”
“What the hell you gettin’ at, exactly?”
“Do you really think a dead man still works ‘for’ you, simply because he seems as though he claims to? Or, better yet…when has chasing a ghost ever led to anything of true, lasting value?”
“We chase ghosts all the time, buddy.”
There was a small silence; Greer breathed into it, carefully, dialing himself back down. Trying to clear his aching head.
“We found her body,” Mehdi added, unexpectedly. “Miss Al-Kimani—buried up to her neck, stoned, then beheaded; the usual. Tragic waste of a perfectly good nurse, especially in a city with so few free clinics.” After a beat. “No further trace of Fichtner’s, unfortunately.”
“Desert’s a pretty big place, is what I hear.”
“Yes. It is.”
“Happened again, boss,” Gal said.
“We thought you’d want to know,” Guy chimed in.
This time, the photo spread came from a market in Casablanca, where some poor burnoosed bastard stood at a stall completely oblivious to the goons closing in on him (Guy had helpfully tagged him with a pop-up caption saying simply “ASSET”), and “Fichtner” was the one occupying the foreground—almost angled towards the fly-over, which was frankly impossible. Unfortunately, this still didn’t manage to bring the guy he was once again pointing at any closer.
“You run a point-by-point?” Greer asked.
Guy nodded. “Pretty much a match, so…looks like it is the same dude Fi, uh—” He stumbled, flushing, under Greer’s pointed look. “—same dude the…other one fingered.”
“But that don’t really tell us nothin’ we didn’t know before, huh?”
Greer scowled down at the multi-screen array. “What’s he even doin’ there, you figure that much out?”
They exchanged a look. Said, as one: “Maybe.”
The reason the missing operative grab hadn’t been clocked immediately—taking maybe five hours after he’d been grabbed from a nearby safe-house for his safe-house to call him in missing, plus another hour since after Fichtner’s pixel-geist had picked out “Ajinabi” for the birdie—was because he was just a local hire. Further examination revealed him as also A) one of Fichtner’s C.I.s, specifically during the last fiasco Greer’d puppetmastered with Fichtner as his man on the ground, and B) a guy Fichtner’d first found through Mehdi’s info-gathering networks, making that Greer’s next call. He sent over the new spread at the same time, and waited while Mehdi pulled it up.
“Offputting,” was all Mehdi had to say.
“Really ain’t no way anybody could fake that, is there?”
“Unless one of your pets is serving two masters, I think not.” Greer heard the click of a mouse as Mehdi fiddled around some, probably trying the image from the same angles Guy and Gal already had. Muttering to himself, as he did—
“If only we could see that man’s face a bit more clearly. If only Fichtner—”
(wasn’t blocking the view)
“Guess you don’t think it’s a jinn, then.”
“Ah, someone’s been Googling.”
“Gimme some damn credit, Sheikh. I work for a department’s been dealin’ with the Middle East for almost sixty years; might be I could’a heard the term, here and there.”
“Oh yes, you’re a veritable fount of Muslim marginalia—that must be why your Farsi is so atrocious.” With one last click: “So…are we meant to gather from this latest—communique—that Hasim Gullah is bound for the same place as Fichtner?”
“Beheadings-’R’-Us, then the Internet?” Greer paused. “Don’t suppose you’d be any closer to figuring out where that first stream came from…”
“Must I do all your work for you, Agent Reizendaark?”
Mehdi’d probably meant it to be light, a joke, but the tone wasn’t quite right. Still, Greer knew a kiss-off when he heard one.
So: “Fuck you, son,” he said. And hung up.
You get my message, G?
Thirty minutes earlier, the subdermal bone-buzz voice would’ve muffled itself against alcohol—but sleep had eluded Greer, and now the call rattled his skull straight through into incipient hangover.
My—a skip, sample-scratch brief—new—message?
Greer swallowed cold spit, sat bolt upright: he knew this trick, had used this trick. That one inserted word in a different tone, different stress pattern, different volume even from the rest of the sentence…and other than that, the sentence said the exact same way, every time. He was angrier at ever having fallen for the oldest Space Age surveillance Gaslighting trick in the book, if only the once, than at being targeted in the first place.
Tic-inducing, scrapy vibrations under his jaw: laughter, more tired than snide. People thinking they always know better.
Then another pause, while Greer timed it out exactly: Sound familiar?
“When I find you, shithead—”
No click, but Greer knew instantly the contact was lost. He closed his eyes, fighting the urge to puke—his mind already supplying the rest of the quote, whether he wanted it to or not—
…but that’s the hope.
“Got a phone call from Fichtner, just now,” Greer told Mehdi, minutes later. “Plus last night, and…night before that, too.”
“Not the reaction I was expectin’, but hell—I’ll take it. Care to elaborate?”
“Very well: this, as you know, is something ‘Ajinabi’ really could fake. You set your share of bugs in Fichtner’s rooms, his cars…they would only have had to tune in long enough to capture his half of the conversation, from which to sample and loop a few pertinent phrases—”
“Mentioned the photo array, though. Ajinabi, scopin’ out Gullah’s beat. Gettin’ things all set for the Big Scoop.”
“How long’d they keep Fichtner alive, you reckon?” Greer asked.
“Impossible to tell, without access to his corpse.”
“But you’ve been doin’ some investigation of your own in the meantime, I’ll bet.”
Mehdi didn’t bother to deny it; his fact-finding methods were legendarily effective, owing far more to the time-worn examples of Haroun al-Raschid and Hammurabi than to anything agreed on in the Hague. “My informants think…seventy-two hours at most.”
“Ain’t a whole lot of time to try and do anything about our Mister Gullah’s situation, is it?”
“I hope you recorded the calls, at least,” Mehdi said, eventually. “If so, perhaps you should have them analyzed, by someone not quite so…”
“I was going to say…personally involved. But make no mistake: someone is trying to puppet you, here, Agent Reizendaark—to get you down on the ground, where you are most unsuited to be. Having studied you, they no doubt know you like to sacrifice long-term build for short-term opportunity; they will lead you on some ethereal scavenger hunt in order to trap you, just as they did Fichtner. And what will happen then?”
Greer shut his eyes. “Oh, I think I got a pretty good idea.”
Forget the desert’s empty spaces and deceptive images—a guilty man’s mind had all of that and more, re-splitting under pressure exponentially, like a prism. Grief was an echo-chamber. No matter how hard you thought you were listening, the only thing you ever really heard was your own voice.
Or somebody else’s, still and small in the middle of the night, the way God’s was supposed to sound. Saying: Greer…you’re a ghost.
Well, maybe so.
But then again—not just yet.
Barely pausing to shower and shave, Greer hit the Geek Room again, doing his best Angry Fist of God impression. Told Gal and Guy to break it all down, far as they could, then farther.
As they did, he thought yet again about how “Intelligence”, so-called, was a machine that ran on universal constants—secrecy, stupidity, entropy. It wasn’t about the parts, and only slightly about the labor; damn thing’d keep running on its own, even if nobody did their fair share anymore. Stick a cog in, pop it out, throw it away, smash it to pieces; the machine kept grinding, exceeding fine, untouched. And though Greer might occupy its hub for the nonce, he had no illusions that that state of affairs would be perpetual. Lots of guys had held his exact same job, before being discarded and forgotten.
For now, however, he was still Big Man Off-Campus—the legendary Guy on the Other End of the Phone, running a large-ass part of Ajinabi’s competition. Knock Greer Reizendaark off his game, and the Foreign Devil would win a free block of unsupervised time in which to cut a few more people’s heads off…starting with Hasim Gullah, one assumed, before working his way back up the food-chain.
So: something to keep in mind, maybe, even now. Something to bargain with.
“Got something,” Guy said, finally.
Turned out, the very pixels making up the photos in which “Fichtner” appeared had GPS coordinates encoded in each of them—just beyond the border of Mehdi’s home turf, in (predictably enough) the desert. The location of Ajinabi’s death-room, Fichtner’s body? Or both?
“And get this,” Gal told Greer, excited as she ever got. “The phone-calls have a frequency and a series of tones mixed in, just underneath the signal itself.”
“A number.” She nodded. “Traceable?”
Guy: “Looks like it’s been overwritten at least twice, like it’s changing every time somebody switches disposable cells—but a direct line, every time. Somebody important. Like it might even go straight to—”
“Uh huh,” Greer said, then read it out loud, and pressed his ever-present bluetooth’s “dial” button.
“Wa’alaikum ah salaam,” a voice said, at the other end.
Greer grinned. “Ajinabi, I presume.”
Gal and Guy watched with horror-struck eyes as the negotiations commenced. Greer kept ’em short, if not sweet: a switch, him for Gullah, contingent on proof—positive, not ‘Net-based—that the guy was still alive.
“Sheikh Nebbou can ferry you to the meet-point, no doubt,” Ajinabi said, like he expected Greer to be impressed he knew they knew each other.
“He was gonna be my very next call,” Greer agreed—then paused, as he heard the “call waiting” tone.
“Ah, your superiors. You should probably take this,” Ajinabi suggested.
After that things began to move even faster.
Wasn’t much work to convince the CIA-CSIS-MI6 three-way that what had looked from the outside like Greer spiraling down into an alcohol-fueled psychotic break was really the triple-cross of the century—a trap so obvious, from either angle, that neither he nor Ajinabi could afford not to let it play through. Greer made sure to dangle the prospect of snapping up Ajinabi’s near-supernatural tech at the same time, of course: the combo of insider info and toys, whatever they might be, which had somehow allowed him to pose as the undeniably dead Cal Fichtner on phone and sat-cam alike.
(Amazing, really, how Fichtner’s current state had apparently given him skills Greer never knew him to possess, back when he was yet left upright. But then again, Fichtner’s best quality as an operative always was his ability to adapt to any given new environment they dropped him into, going native just as fast—and effectively—as humanly possible.)
Greer wasn’t too sure if they really believed him, or how much, or how much it mattered. But by Saturday afternoon he was walking off a transpo into bright sunlight, blinking at Mehdi’s familiar face in the unfamiliar flesh: all dolled up in a swank linen suit and a pair of custom shades, looking crisp. He towered over everyone but Greer, who only lacked a couple of the same inches—vertically, anyhow.
“Hadn’t thought to see you so soon, Agent Reizendaark, I must admit, Or at all, for that matter.”
Greer shrugged. “Well, that’s U.S. initiative for you.”
“Quite. So how do you find you like it, down here on the ground?”
“Not too much, buddy. Ain’t got the build for it.”
“Hmm,” Mehdi said, yet again.
“You’re startin’ to sound like a damn bee,” Greer told him, as they headed for the SUV.
Heat like a wall, dust everywhere. The drive went on so long, following GPS cue to GPS cue, it turned afternoon to night. The meet-point, meanwhile, turned out to be a low concrete building with slit windows; same place they’d brought Fichtner, like as not. Why mess with success?
“You don’t have to come with me,” Greer told Mehdi, who hissed, and drew some tiny little snub-nosed piece out from under his arm—small enough so it didn’t not to spoil the line of his jacket, the peacock. Greer put his own empty hands up, and kicked the car door open,
But when they hauled Gullah out to meet him, with Ajinabi striding behind, Greer (who’d earned part of the military rank few remembered he had while serving in EOD) only had to look at the way Gullah’s shirtjacket sat to know he was all rigged up and ready to blow.
Time went wonky, step-printed. To his right, he saw Mehdi raise his pint-sized gun. mouth opening, as Gullah’s guards pushed him headlong towards Greer. To the left, Ajinabi, fiddling with a pocketed cell—seemed like he might be trying to detonate it remotely, but the signal was being blocked. And Greer could suddenly see Fichtner standing next to him, haloed from behind yet snapshot-clear with one hand on the phone, while the other reached to seat itself deep in the back of Ajinabi’s skull: punch, grab, twist. A five-finger aneurysm in action.
“GET DOWN!” Greer yelled, kicking Mehdi away, and threw himself into the zone, as another of Ajinabi’s goons managed to trigger the bomb’s failsafe.
Amazing how little it hurt, after, considering the ungodly mess his body had made—his, Gullah’s, Ajinabi’s. (And where exactly had that bastard gone, anyhow? Greer sure didn’t see him, except in pieces.) But then, they’d all been ready to die for their respective causes, one way or the other.
Greer “stood” next to Fichtner, watching Mehdi grub around in the wreckage for a long minute or two: concussed and reeling, his suit unsalvagable, usually-dignified face streaming with tears. It was this last part which amazed Greer the most; hadn’t thought the man cared, let alone so much.
Fichtner “laughed”, or whatever its applicable equivalent might be. Little late in the day to go all modest on us now, Greer, ain’t it?
Greer “nodded”: True enough. He pointed at the half-leveled building, and “asked”—
Rest of you actually still in there, somewhere, or was all this for nothin’?
Buried out back, yeah. But they’ll find it easy enough, even without dogs—the grave’s dug shallow. A beat. Besides which…if this was really all about laying me to rest, I’ll eat my damn hat.
Greer could’ve argued that most ops were about more than one objective, at the very least—but it really did seem sort of immaterial at this point, so to speak. So instead, he just “nodded” once more.
Good end-game, son. You played it well—way I would’ve, pretty much.
Yeah? That’s almost flattering.
Uh huh. ‘Course, you did learn from the best…
But all twitting aside, Greer knew, it was only justice—payback after those years of Greer putting Fichtner’s ass on the line for whatever new info it might bring, when he’d staked him out like a goat again and again, just to see who’d come sniffin’. All the times he’d done his damn job, while helping Fichtner do his…
But: I really did let you go, Cal, Greer tried to get across, nevertheless. Just like you asked me to. Didn’t use you to draw Ajinabi—that was never my intent. Not you, and for damn sure not Aqsa—
Wouldn’t matter much if you had, not now. But for what it’s worth, Greer, I know. I know…
Like you could too, you only wanted it.
Cal just gave him a shrug, like: Sure. Why not?
And then, all of a sudden—
What was left of Greer Reizendaark raised his phantom no-hand to the sky, waving blithely at the satellite he knew Gal and Guy were currently hid behind, then reached right on back through the feed and into the mainframe to try some real tricks—sow a few search-links, start data-mining. Widening the parameters of the satellite’s sweep to track the rest of Ajinabi’s cell’s fleeing trucks as they dispersed, crossing borders at random; he started a new folder, hidden down deep in the infrastructure. Saved, clicked, saved again.
You’re good at that, what was left of Cal Fichtner “said”, almost admiring. Better than I ever was.
Greer had to agree. Turned out, his last wife had had it right all along, without even knowing—a ghost really was the best kind of spook imaginable.
Well, I been doin’ it all my life, son. Might as well keep on keepin’ on.
The answer came back, fading: Yeah, you just do that…
(But as for me, I’ll see you later. Maybe.)
Heat, dust, blood; the totaled SUV, a smoking crater. Mehdi, weeping. And then Greer was abruptly alone, half in and half out, still stuck to the world’s dirty back by—duty? Desire?
While Fichtner, his revenge served plastique-hot, moved on to…wherever. Someplace Aqsa awaited him, hopefully, where maybe even poor Gullah had a seat set aside at that infinitely bountiful table.
(Again, if only vaguely, he wondered where Ajinabi himself really had gone—to his bed of virgins, as advertised? Or somewhere just a tad more…offputting?)
One could only hope.
I could do that too, Greer caught himself thinking. Just go, in either direction. But—
“Looking down”, seeing Mehdi looking so stricken, and feeling a weird surge of affection. Plus the sting of power unused, and a million different places to use it—to plug himself into the universe’s hide and genuinely be the puppetmaster he’d only thought himself, before he’d known better.
—no. Not just yet.
Greer “smiled” to himself, settling in, now so adjusted to his new state he could almost feel a memory of lips moving, in sympathy with the concept. And sent Mehdi an email.
Originally published in Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing, 2012.]]>
You can read their winning stories in the upcoming December issue of Apex Magazine (both online and eBook).
Thank you to all who submitted. As a whole, the stories were stronger this year. People really got behind the “invasion” concept.
Check back next year when we do it all again!
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Second: his face against the fogged-up pane, breathless, mistless.
Drowned boy, storm god,
eyes like riverwater and hair the colour of ocean.
He exhales droplets that slide graceless down the glass
leaving misty runes
—and still the knocking comes.
Third: white hot blind the sky cracks in two
the hollow rumble
as corpse-cold hands trail signs and sigils
pick at the latch
seek entrance for the pale ghost-glistening lord
with his liquid eyes.
Cold, and still, and deep
—and still the knocking comes.
I stare greedy through the glass
to the gale to the storm to the rain;
to the hollow emptiness of the face outside the pane.
But we are inside here, and it is safe.
APEX MAGAZINE: Your illustration galleries are filled with many different styles, genres, and ideas. How do those explorations typically start, and how do they work in with your overall career style?
JAMES LINCKE: My earliest memories of making art as a child are of me drawing and painting for pure enjoyment. It was playtime and meant to be a way to exercise my imagination. Then in grade school I began entering art competitions, and for a long time image-making became more so a means to an end. It wasn’t until the very end of my high school years that I began a long and painstakingly arduous period of creating personal works of art. I spent so many hours upon hours drawing and rendering in pencil that there was this great escape into solitude that allowed for an intimacy with my craft that I never had before. Art became a language and a therapy for me to work through all sorts of growing pains. In turn, the experience of spending 40-plus hours creating an illustration was important in preparing myself for a career in art. I tend to work a bit more abstractly and stylistically these days when it comes to creating personal imagery, but I’m discovering that may be a very good thing. Whether or not there’s recognizable subject matter in something I create, that’s not really most important to me now. Raw expression: That’s the goal and it’s what I’m always trying to keep my process rooted in. Visual art as language and as a means to communicate to others by creating works of all styles and genres is my thinking when preparing to create something new.
AM: Some of the images in your gallery, such as “Soaring,” seem sublime compared to many of your horror pieces. Is that a conscious decision as you are creating a piece? How does the medium you choose affect the content of what you are creating?
JL: “Soaring” was a work that I had created during a period where I was feeling very passionate and free-wheeling in my creative pursuits. I was working on a series of large-scale paintings in pastel and there was a lot of movement involved by me standing and being more active physically in creating those sorts of pieces. A lot of the monster portraits and pretty much all of the darker, more tightly rendered, narrative pieces are smaller in physical size and have always involved me sitting at a desk for long stretches of time. I feel that the way a piece is created can greatly influence the direction of my thinking process. I love making art with my hands, with inks and paints and physical mediums. Also, there’s so much swimming under the surface when it comes to the experiences that one can draw from making art. I, for one, have always been drawn to extremes. I like to create images that explore a lot of dark, nightmarish happenings of everyday life, but I’m also drawn to creating more romantic imagery as well.
AM: You have a section on your website dedicated to humorous drawings, which many horror artists also dabble in. Do you think that your more humorous creations come from the same side as the horror images, say from a darker cynicism or sarcasm, or do they come from an opposing side?
JL: I enjoy being playful and trying to make people laugh, but I also like making people feel uncomfortable and awkward. Creating artwork is very much like exercising the body. Some days, you should jog and eat light, whereas other days you should hit the weights and really challenge yourself. It’s fun to explore different creative ways to connect with people. One piece that’s comedic in nature may be my way of trying to brighten someone’s day, while another piece that’s a monster portrait for example could be my way of pushing them down the stairs. I go back and study my work often in an attempt to better understand my journey with art, and I’d say there’s a definite twisted humor behind a lot of the artwork I’ve created. When I was a kid, I used to be a lot more religious, and so I just presumed there were predetermined reasonings behind what I was supposed to be doing with my creativity. Growing up in Catholic school, I was always told by teachers, nuns, and priests that my creativity was a gift from God and that I should use it to bring him “glory.” How’s a child, who simply wants to make art, supposed to process those kinds of outrageous demands? I guess it helped to get me to take my work very, very seriously as I started out, but I also think that a lot of the darker, more mischievous works I’ve created stem from my attempts to process those years.
AM: What kind of challenges do you face when you’re creating a comic series versus a standalone piece? Is the approach the same, or does the sequential side of it change your methods?
JL: A piece of art always has a story to tell, whether it’s a comic or a portrait. I love creating narrative art. Storytelling is something I’ve always had a fascination with. I’ve kept journals since I was a kid because I found taking notes and writing about daily experiences fascinating and very helpful to developing creativity. I still do it. It’s a great exercise. I recently self-published my first graphic novel, titled Jimmy’s Fun Nun. It’s based on my Catholic grade school upbringing and how those years contributed to my art. The story involves a semi-autobiographical version of me as a third grader creating a Fun Nun comic strip series (FunNun.com) with hope to inspire his curmudgeon old teacher, Sr. Ashtabula, to lighten up and have some fun in her life. The narrative that interweaves between the comic strips is purely visual and there are no word bubbles or captions to those pages. It was important to me to create a story that could allow for readers to apply their own dialogue and imagination to bring the narrative to life. I most recently completed a feature length film project that grew out of my work on the book. It began as a video project intended to help me in self-promoting the book, but over time it grew into a full-fledged experimental comedy, in which I played the title character. It was a lot of fun and an incredible learning experience. It’s a different kind of challenge though working in comics and film because you’re creating many different pieces of artwork that can’t be seen all at once, but it all has to add up to something. So, creating a singular piece like a painting or a drawing can be a lot more fun sometimes because I can focus all of my creativity on one space.
AM: With your cover for this month’s Apex Magazine, “The Time Machine,” the eye is drawn to the color and brightness of the machine. Are the color or detail areas typically where you start, or are the colors and details of an object like the machine picked up from the overall image as you work?
JL: I like to sketch out the overall composition for a piece before I dig into rendering areas. I do tend to begin with the eyes, if there are any present in an illustration. With “The Time Machine,” I created an underdrawing of oranges and reds, and then from that base I layered more and more detail. I wanted the warmness of the base to shine through so that there would unity overall. Illustrating certain areas before others does help to decide upon the most appropriate use of contrasting colors. The cold violets contrasting with the warm oranges was something I was going for from the start, but understood more and more as the most appropriate color choices as I layered detail upon detail. I find great enjoyment in developing an entire piece at once and then digging into particular areas to flesh out the detail. Creating a rhythm with all of the details is an important goal of mine from the onset. Some pieces, though, allow for more improvisation than others. I find those works can be great exercises in between the more planned out works.
James Lincke’s current project is a feature length horror/comedy film titled a Fun Nun…Halloween, inspired by his debut illustrated novel, Jimmy’s Fun Nun. You can learn more about the book and the film at www.FunNun.com. Lincke is also working on a few new film projects, including Duncan, USA, a road trip comedy about a puppet traveling across the country. See more of his work on his website at jameslincke.com.]]>
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Danville stared at his hands, only a few shades darker than the walnut wood of the desk. Grease and oil were thick under short chewed fingernails. His gaze strayed to the torn CSA battle flag nailed to the wall. It was riddled with holes and stained with gunpowder, smoke, and blood, a grisly trophy.
“I trust you.” The words came softly from the broad-shouldered lighthouse keeper seated across from Danville. His presence filled the room. Keeper Etheridge was a large man made even larger by the leather, metal, and gear additions that crisscrossed his chest to hold the massive artificial arm in place.
None of that was visible under the royal blue Revenue Cutter Officer’s jacket, but in the silence of the room, Danville heard the faint whirrs and clicks. It made him feel even more of an outsider. This time, it had taken only six months before he had been found out.
Etheridge closed the file in front of him and let his metal hand rest on top of it. “Explain yourself, Surfman.”
Danville bowed his head at Etheridge’s use of his rank. Stamped on the file was the seal of the United States Army. That file, like a curse, like his shame, followed him. He would lose everything. Again. “I’m a coward.”
Etheridge was silent; his dark face expressionless. In the next room, the other men who crewed the station laughed over a game of cards. The courier sat in a corner, puffing on a pipe, waiting for the foul weather to abate before continuing his mail run. The bitter scent of his tobacco permeated the whole commons area and crept into the office. Even though only a lowly private, he wouldn’t deign to play with the station’s Algerine machine-men.
Danville risked a glance up to find Etheridge staring at him.
“Tell me why.”
Danville fought to get the words out. “I couldn’t do it,” he whispered. “I didn’t charge with my unit. I wasn’t a part of the victory at Gettysburg. When the guns were firing and the incendiaries falling…” Danville swallowed, the memory left his mouth dry. “Iron Flyers, tap-gunners raining lead from the sky, I-I-I froze.”
Etheridge shifted, leaning forward, both elbows on the desk. “And?”
“And nothing.” Danville spat the words out. “Them gray-back rebels bested me.” His words flowed faster and angrier. “I saw my best friend, Jimmy, disintegrate in a hail of bullets. Our flag fell, I couldn’t bring myself to grab it. When the time came to be a man, I cried like a boy.”
Danville threw his arm out in an all-encompassing gesture. “This station is filled with men, heroes who battled for the Union. Men who sacrificed…” Danville trailed off. Not everyone had entered service voluntarily. This crew of colored men had been experimented on, treated as little better than animals. Etheridge himself was an example of how, in the Free Territory of New Orleans, Algerine machinery had been crafted onto living men.
The keeper gestured for Danville to continue.
Danville licked his lips. “Irving, Bowser, Meekins, they all tell stories about the war and offensives and camaraderie, thinking we’re brothers-in-arms. We bunk together and eat together and work together, but I’m not like them.”
Etheridge clasped his hands together, the metal digits interspersed with flesh. Danville refused to look up, imagining the pity and disgust on his superior’s face.
“I lied. I lied about who I am and what I am. I wanted a home. And by becoming a surfman, because I was a ‘natural’ man and could swim, I had a chance at that.” Danville took a deep breath. He recited from memory. “‘A man’s greatness consists in his ability to do and the proper application of his powers to the things needed to be done.’ But I couldn’t.”
Etheridge sat back in the chair, his expression thoughtful.
“A man has no worth—”
Etheridge held up a hand, halting Danville. “What would you have me do?”
Danville hesitated. “Do the other men know?”
“I doubt the Army courier will be circumspect, and people will wonder why he’s here.”
“And this station is already under scrutiny.”
“Some are not keen to see a lighthouse full of colored men in this service. Some would see me—us, fail. The war left a lot of open wounds.”
Danville let his hands fall to his side. “Then there’s nothing left to do. I’ll go.” He turned to leave, his steps leaden.
“War is not the only measure of a man.”
Danville glanced back, “Sir?”
Etheridge stood and stepped around the desk. “You’ve worked hard for your place here.” He held out his hand, the flesh-and-blood one, to shake, “I trust you.”
Danville choked up. He stared at the hand, at what it meant. It was too much. He did the one thing he knew he did best. He ran. “I’m sorry.”
After throwing his meager possessions into his kit, Danville left the station and trudged in piercing rain over to the lighthouse. The storm matched his own inner turmoil, but it was quiet in the tower. The thunder only faintly sounded through the rough stone walls. He didn’t want to talk to the men. He wanted to slip away into the night, but he needed something, some way to say his own goodbye.
He climbed the ladder up into the glass tower room, which was crowded with a large central Fresnel lens and copper-core lantern. The rotten-egg smell of the sulphorous additive filled his nose. The chemical changed the gas fire’s glow from its natural greenish tint to a muted red so as not to interfere with the crews’ night vision. It was warm inside the tower; outside the wind howled and rain pounded against the glass, like some mythical sea monster demanding entrance.
Danville sighed. He would miss this, the solitude, the beauty. He had betrayed it with his lies. He paused when he saw Meekins on duty. The young man’s slight frame and bald, scarred head were unmistakable.
After turning to see who had climbed up into the tower, Meekin’s mechanical eye glowed red and blinked once. “Run home, coward.” Meekins turned his back, his gaze returning to the ocean. “You’re an offense to every man who ever served.”
Danville shouldn’t have expected any more, but it still hurt. Meekins was his bunkmate and friend. He had thought, after their weeks of training and working together… Danville tried to shake the melancholy. Meekins was right; he didn’t deserve to be here.
Danville closed his eyes and listened to all the sounds. He’d walk the perimeter, just one last time. Turning smartly, he strode with purpose, his step a clear measured cadence. He circled the room, his gaze outward, into the dark where the ocean shrieked and shivered, mountainous waves crashed against the lighthouse rocks.
Lightning flashed over the swirling waters and then was gone, leaving utter darkness. The thunder crashed like howitzers of battle but different, louder and more demanding, as if the sky itself had declared war on the water. Danville shuddered as a frisson of fear and anticipation tangled in his stomach. It was the same, and yet different.
Was that a light? Out in the water? He leaned closer to the glass.
“You see something?” Meekins was right beside him.
Danville pointed. “Out there, a light.”
Meekins’s eye flickered as he focused. His mechanical vision was poor compared to most ‘natural’ men’s. The technology still wasn’t strong enough to replicate a human eye. Instead, Meekins saw the world in colors relating to heat—the sun bright white, men and women different shades of orange and red. “Got her. Three degrees off the point.”
Danville snatched a pair of field glasses from where they hung and squinted through them. He could barely make out the outline of a ship. “She’s a big ’un, sails and double-paddles.”
“A few more minutes and she’ll be on the reef.” With the extra weight of diesel engines and the reinforcement of the hull needed to carry them, there was no way the ship could clear shoals. There was a pause. “Lord Almighty.”
Danville lowered the glasses. “What?”
Hot…that meant she carried a lot of passengers. “How many?”
Meekins’s eye whirred, irising as he tried to estimate the number from the glow of warm bodies aboard. “Too far to tell. But either way, they’re in trouble.”
“I’ll sound the alarm.” Danville ran to the torch and turned the valve to bleed some of the pressurized gas into the alarm. Immediately, the klaxon assaulted his ears. The sound carried out across the tiny island. There was a reason the men had nicknamed the alarm “Shrieker.”
He turned to find Meekins glaring at him with his one human eye. Danville stepped back as if he’d been slapped. He’d forgotten. He wasn’t a surfman anymore. He was disgraced.
“I-I-I’ll just go tell the Keeper.” Danville stammered, backing toward the ladder. He grabbed the rails and slid down, the metal hot on his hands and boots from the speed of his descent. Above, he could hear Meekins tapping coordinates into the communications wire.
Upon reaching the bottom, Danville slammed open the door and raced out into the storm. The wind whipped about his body, threatening to knock him over. Even in the few minutes he had been in the tower, the storm had increased in ferocity. The rain came from every direction at once.
Danville ran toward the station house, his leather boots splashing in ankle-deep puddles. It was less than twenty yards away, but by the time he crashed through the front door, he was completely soaked from the deluge.
There was similar chaos inside as men dressed in oilskins and grabbed lines and pulleys, lifevests, and oars. The closed space was thick with the smell of heavy oil and grease. Pruden and Collins were smearing it over their mechanical body parts in an attempt to keep the water and sand out. The other three men had already seen to protecting their own sensitive gears and moving parts. During a rescue, none of them could risk having a limb lock up.
Above it all, Keeper Etheridge barked out orders. He called for readying of the Francis boat and strode amongst the men as they filed toward the boathouse.
Upon seeing Danville, Etheridge gestured him over. “We’ll need Meekins to guide us once we’re on the beach. You’re partnered with him. Get your slicker and lifevest.”
A jab of panic cored itself into Danville’s heart. He wanted to say no, that Meekins wanted nothing to do with him. That none of the men did. He couldn’t be trusted. And what if he failed again? Just like during the war. And more of his friends would die because of his cowardice.
But all Danville said aloud was, “Yes, sir,” and shrugged into his vest and oilskins. He glanced back up to the tower and prayed that he would make it through the next few hours without further dishonoring himself or the service.
Danville was only half a step behind the Keeper into the boathouse.
As if noting his hesitation, Etheridge said, “You ain’t going to run, Danville.”
Danville ducked his head and, jaw set, followed Etheridge into the boathouse. The crew stood in position at the wheels of the great wagon that would haul the rescue boat to the water. The two men at the fore, Irving and Bowser, were older, with broad shoulders and, like the keeper, had arms of gears and metal corded with wire sinew. Both also had full steam piston-powered legs. Shaped like a horse’s rear limbs, they now were covered in a thick layer of grease. The men were dockriders who had the massive mechanical power required to pull the heavily laden wagon and man the breeches buoy to pull people to shore. Because of the sheer weight, though, neither could swim. Pruden and Collins, with fewer replacement parts, were at the rear of the wagon to push, while Etheridge guided the wagon from the front. Meekins jogged out in front and took up point. And then there was him, Surfman Danville, the team’s swimmer. Every man contributed to the crew, and together their job was to save as many souls as possible on their small strip of coast, the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
“Move out!” Etheridge shouted. Danville and Meekins threw open the large double doors. Gale winds careened into the boathouse, knocking tools from the walls and kicking up the lighter dry sand. Icy needles of rain hit them as they jogged out onto the path. The crew pushed on out of the boat house and down to the dock. Within minutes, the wagon bogged down. The men cursed and pulled until the wagon was free, and they continued toward the water only to become stuck again less than fifty yards from the beach.
“Portage!” Etheridge yelled, his booming voice only faintly audible above the wind.
In synchronized motion, the men lifted the boat up over their heads. They wavered as the wind caught its profile but steadied as the mechanicals and enhancements added weight and stability. No ordinary men would have managed it. Danville and Meekins gathered up as many of the other rescue items as each man could carry. Danville didn’t have the reinforcements that would allow his body to bear more weight, and Meekins’s eye was his only Algerine part.
Heavy rope wrapped across his torso and with two oars under his arms, Danville filed in behind as they once again jogged toward the surf, Etheridge still shouting cadence. Meekins was barely visible in front of him, his head turning this way and that as he scanned the sea.
The sucking sand dragged them down and slowed their pace as they entered the ocean. Etheridge called a halt, and the men reversed the boat and set it in the water. Danville and Meekins tossed the rope and oars into the hull as another bolt of lightning split the sky and thunder rumbled around them.
Etheridge frowned. The beacon from the station glanced off the clouds and rain rather than cutting through the darkness. “Meekins?”
“I got ’er, Keeper!” Meekins shouted.
“Then oars up!” Etheridge commanded.
Danville clambered into the ship next to Meekins while Irving and Bowser kept the boat from rocking, their Algerine legs giving them greater stability. They were joined by Pruden, Collins, and finally Etheridge. Meekins’s eye gleamed red at the night.
“Ship sighted! Go!”
The dockriders pushed out hard, their enhanced strength giving the boat speed. The crew in the boat dipped oars into the frothing spray. Water rushed over the sides as the tiny boat rose and fell, leaping and dropping in the high surf. Meekins continued to shout directions.
Danville wiped an already wet hand over his face. He couldn’t see anything, just more rain and sea and wind. The small boat started to spin and tip, forcing the men to frantically rebalance it to stay afloat.
“We’re not going to make it out there.”
“We’re not giving up,” growled the keeper. Danville startled at Etheridge’s voice coming from right behind him. He hadn’t thought anyone could hear him above the thunder and roar of the ocean and the splash of oars fighting the tide.
“That’s not what I—” Danville didn’t finish the sentence. With a shudder, the entire boat lifted and canted to port, throwing them all from their seats and into the cold, roiling sea.
Water filled Danville’s nose and ears and eyes. He instinctively held his breath, but it exploded from him as the heavy boat slammed down on his shoulder and drove him further under. Danville scrambled for the surface and burst through, gasping for air. His collarbone throbbed as he swam toward the dim shape of the overturned boat. A strong hand grabbed his and pulled him forward.
“Danville?” It was Etheridge, whose mechanical fingers clung to the wood of the boat.
“Thank you,” Danville choked.
“Report!” Etheridge’s shout was gunshot-quick. Men counted off. Danville. Collins. Pruden.
Danville heard the worried tone from Etheridge. Meekins had the fewest mechanical replacements of all the men, but his range of motion was limited by war injuries and countless surgeries. In this storm that could be a death sentence.
“Meekins! You out there?” Etheridge began cursing under his breath.
Danville scanned the water, looking into an abyss of rain, thunder, and lightning. There was another flash and Danville shook himself free, kicking forward with all his strength.
“What the hell—” Etheridge yelled.
Danville ignored him and dove toward a hint of red glow in the water just to starboard. He swam down, farther and farther. Buffeted by the water, he kicked harder and reached out, more from instinct than from anything else. Feeling cloth, he grabbed hold. His lungs burned. He hadn’t taken a deep enough breath before submerging himself.
Reversing and praying that in all the tumbling water he had not confused up from down, he kicked for the surface. The extra weight dragged at him and forced him to double his efforts, his other hand coming down to also grasp at the cloth. Meekins was heavy, and he wasn’t swimming.
Danville surfaced less than three feet from the boat, its hull a grey shadow bobbing up and down on the surf.
“There!” Etheridge shouted, and a mechanical claw grabbed Meekins’ collar, dragging him and Danville to the boat.
Danville gasped and coughed as he and their rescuer passed the unconscious Meekins to Etheridge.
“We’re not out yet,” Etheridge growled. “Kick, men!”
Danville hung on to the lifeboat and kicked, unsure if they were even heading the correct direction, but trusting in the keeper. Overhead, the lighthouse’s red beacon continued to shine against the clouds.
“That’s it. Keep going.”
Danville tried to ignore the sounds next to him of Etheridge trying to revive Meekins. It was difficult enough to stay above water. Eventually, he felt sand brush the bottom of his feet. The boat jerked forward as the dockriders grabbed hold and dragged it and the exhausted crew to the shallows.
They all collapsed on the shore just out of reach of the grasping surf. A small reprieve, even though rain still cascaded from the heavens. Seconds later, an earth-shattering groan and crash that carried even over the sound of the storm was heard. Far out in the shoals, the large ship was grinding onto the reef.
“Sweet Jesus,” whispered one of the men.
Danville stood shakily. “We’ve got to get the Hurley cannon. Maybe a breeches buoy will get some of the passengers off.”
One of the dockriders, Irving, took off running toward the boathouse, the muck sucking at every step he took. Because of so many enhancements to his body, all four limbs, it was ironic that the man had been hired by the Revenue Cutter and Lifesaving Service, but those same enhancements allowed him to carry the small cannon back down to the beach by himself.
“Ready the rope and pulleys,” Etheridge ordered. “We’ve not much time.” Next to him Meekins coughed and sputtered. “Danville, help him up. We need a bearing.”
Meekins was slight, not more than a boy. Danville half carried him down the beach. “What do you see?”
Meekins’s red eye flickered and he shook his head, sending water flying. “Tough…” he coughed. “Tough to tell. Two degrees west, she’s on the shoal.” His voice was salt-water coarse.
Danville shouted the coordinates.
Between flashes of lighting, Danville saw Irving staggering back down the path, cannon heavy in his arms. The rest of the crew met him at a rock promontory further up the beach. Danville continued to hold Meekins up. The younger man’s gaze was trained on the trapped ship, but Danville watched Etheridge load the harpoon. The crew steadied the iron cannon and set the coordinates. Firing a line out to a ship was difficult enough in good weather, but with the wind so high and visibility so poor….
Danville snapped around at a curse from Meekins. “She’s not secure. She’s rising and falling with the tide.”
“Dammit.” Danville let go of Meekins. The younger man remained standing, but wobbled.
Danville raced toward the cannon. If the ship wasn’t—steady—“Wait, hold fire! Hold!” Danville screamed, waving his arms, but his words were snatched away by the wind. He felt rather than saw the whoosh of air as the cannon’s air blast sent the harpoon into the night. “She’s not secure! Raise the sights, raise her!”
It was too late. The harpoon sailed into the blackness. As the crew reeled it in, the rope didn’t pull taut. They’d missed. The keeper shouted, “Again!”
The men reeled faster. Danville joined them.
Etheridge shook his head. He cupped his hands to his mouth and leaned toward Danville. “Think you can swim it?”
Danville stared out into the crashing waves, feeling sick to his stomach. “I can try.”
Etheridge paused and was quiet for a second, then he held out a hand. Danville grasped it. They gazed at each other eye to eye for a moment, then Etheridge shook it. “Good man. Now get down to the shore. We’ll try a couple more times, but have Meekins spot you on the line.” He looked out over the water. “We’re running out of time.”
Danville followed his gaze, then nodded and took off at a run toward Meekins, peeling off clothing as he went. Except for his flotation vest, Danville couldn’t afford to be encumbered. Meekins was waiting, rope harness at the ready. They’d done this drill a hundred times, but somehow this seemed more…final. Danville swallowed.
Meekins tied off the rope, and they waded into the frigid water in silence.
“You saved my life. Thank you,” Meekins said softly.
They walked out until it was mid-thigh, where Meekins could stay on his feet. He braced himself. “You’re a better surfman than any of us. Now get out there.”
Danville steeled himself, took a deep breath, and dove in. His arms moved in powerful strokes, pushing him through the twisting water. He plunged under the waves and came up for air on the other side, working to keep his breathing steady and his gaze on the single point ahead, the silhouette of the ship.
Danville heard a muffled boom from the shore. The Hurley. The air pressure hadn’t been enough and, in desperation, the crew had moved to gunpowder.
The surging waves beat at him like hammers, and though he tried to keep his breathing even, he choked on salt water and caught himself struggling to keep enough air in his lungs. He broke the surface and searched for the ship. Nothing. He tread water desperately and turned to look for the shore, but it, too, had been swallowed by the darkness. There was no going back.
Danville’s heart constricted in his chest. Everywhere he looked was just surf and foam and darkness. The lighthouse’s red beacon flashed, its light dim, but still visible. Danville ducked his head. Pushing down the crushing fear, he focused on swimming. Forward.
It seemed like hours later when Danville’s hand found rough wood. He yelped as his knuckles scraped against barnacles. Ignoring the pain, he felt his way to the ship’s anchor chain. He used his carabiner and clockwork ascender to help pull him up the slick metal toward the deck. All the while, he shouted for the ship’s crew.
He climbed over the rail and heard calls of “God bless!” and “Praise be!” He leaned against the side and coughed the salt water from his lungs while the crew untied the trailing rope from his life vest and hauled it toward the mast. Danville saw no other rope, the Hurley cannon’s bolt hadn’t reached them. He watched one of the sailors climb the mast to tie off the rope to the yardarm.
The voices of angry and frightened passengers rose around him. It took only a moment for him to discern the cause—his skin color. He had almost forgotten. He stood straight and concentrated on walking steadily toward a white-bearded man wearing a captain’s coat and a worried expression. “Surfman Danville, Captain. You and your passengers will have to free-slide.” His voice croaked. If the breeches buoy hadn’t made it, they’d have to use a rope harness and one by one, slide down the line to shore.
The captain waited a long minute, staring him up and down, and then nodded.
“How many?” Danville feared the answer. Meekins had said the ship was hot.
“Will it hold?” the captain asked, his gaze earnest.
Danville swallowed and struggled for balance as the ship lurched on the reef, tipping to port. He grabbed the rail and fought a sinking feeling in his stomach. People fell and slid and screamed.
“Hold fast!” he yelled. “Hold fast!”
The sounds of panic gradually subsided. Thank God no one had fallen overboard. Danville straightened, feeling all eyes on him. “All right, let’s get ready to get you folks to shore.” He was grateful he sounded more confident than he felt.
He pointed to a couple of sailors. “You and you, start knotting rope harnesses. The rest of you line up and get ready. It’s a long slide.” There was a general shuffling, but none of the sailors moved. Even in the midst of a life-and-death crisis, the world still took note of the distinction between Colored and White.
Danville gritted his teeth and looked to the ship’s captain, who nodded. “You heard the surfman!”
They were just hoisting up the first passenger, a lithe young woman, when there was an ominous cracking sound.
Danville glanced up. “Everyone, off the mast!”
He’d just gotten the words out when the cracking grew even louder than the thunder, and the huge mast split and started to topple. Men fell screaming from the rigging, as did the young woman, to sprawl broken on the deck.
Now free, it slithered across the deck like a living thing. It rushed toward the edge of the ship. Danville raced in pursuit, throwing himself toward it before it could vanish over the side. His palm connected with the raw hemp. He wrapped his fingers around it, but the rope didn’t stop. With the force of water and momentum, it dragged him across the deck. He yelped as the rough wood dug splinters into his bare skin. His legs flailed as he struggled to stop until, with a teeth-jarring jolt, he slammed into the guard rail. Pain blossomed in his shoulder and ribs. It was too much, and the line slipped from numb fingers.
Danville wanted to cry. People screamed and ran and clutched at each other. Panic and desperation were rising. Struggling upright, Danville refused to look at himself. His skin burned from the salt spray, and he was sure the slick wetness on his legs and feet was not seawater. He limped toward the captain. Without the line, there was no way to get these people to land, and the Hurley wasn’t working. Danville would have to swim another line back to the shore.
“No! No, you can’t leave us! My daughter, please save my daughter!” The shouting woman was hysterical, her hair plastered to her head. Half-dragged behind her was a girl aged no more than four or five. Danville noticed them at the periphery of his vision. They faded into the milling crowd on the deck of the ship as sailors pulled her back. His focus was on the shore, on the tower beacon. From its light, he estimated where Etheridge and the rest of the rescue station crew would be on the beach.
He took several deep breaths, and winced at the pain. He shook out his shoulders. He could do this. He would do this. He looked over the side at the water, which swirled menacingly. His knees shook. Ignoring them, he turned to the captain. “Ready the line.”
The captain pulled out the rope and tied it to the loop on Danville’s life vest. It wasn’t a very thick line, but as it extended further and further from the ship, it would grow heavier. “Line is ready.” He offered Danville a brisk salute.
Danville blinked as the world stopped for a second. No white man had ever saluted him. He returned the gesture. “Surfman over!” he called. With a short run, he leapt the rail and dove from the side of the ship. That wasn’t regulation, but if he didn’t jump, Danville wasn’t sure he’d have the courage to re-enter the water.
The water hit hard and cold. Danville surfaced, disoriented for a moment before the deep red glow from the beacon once again showed him the way. He corrected his bearing and paddled for the beach. The storm’s ferocity had lulled, but the sea was still rough enough to drown a man if he wasn’t careful. At least he had a chance.
Behind him, screaming erupted, high feminine shrieks. Danville heard a splash in the water nearby. What in God’s name? If it was at all possible, the shouting increased in pitch, and the sailors joined in. They were exhorting him to do…something.
A flurry of squeals and wails near him didn’t fit with the sounds of the storm. He caught a glimpse of pink fabric, of golden locks. Dear Lord, the woman had thrown her daughter overboard! Danville kicked hard and managed get close enough to wrap an arm around the girl, who flailed and screamed. He swallowed saltwater and choked, going under. The girl’s frantic motions doubled. She would drown them both. Cuts and scratches opened up on his arms and chest as the girl scratched and bit, desperate for air.
Finally breaking the surface, Danville wrestled with the girl as he fought to keep them afloat and headed toward the beach. Her heavy skirts weighed them both down. He didn’t want to die. He wasn’t ready. Fear rose, choking and raw in his throat like sick bile.
Let her go. Just let her go. No one would blame him.
“Stop it!” he hissed. Any other words were drowned out by water rushing down his throat.
No! He couldn’t give up. Not this time. Rolling on to his side, one arm still gripping the girl, Danville kicked and swam. His free arm swung in wide strokes, pulling them forward, dragging them closer and closer to shore.
It wasn’t smooth or easy. The waves knocked them up and down and sideways. The salt burned his skin and the water beat at them mercilessly, but Danville kept his gaze on the beacon, its red glow his guide.
His legs burned and his shoulders ached from the motion of stroke after stroke. There was no thought of the ship or the storm or the rescue. Even the girl was gone from his senses though she weighed heavily in his arms, her movements weak. It was just the next arm stroke, the next kick, and the next gasp of air.
He felt a brief moment of relief as his feet touched down on the sandy bottom before another wave buffeted him, knocking him under. He struggled and kicked his legs to bring them both to the surface one more time. Perhaps the last time. He was tiring, and the storm had regained its earlier fury. Had it been hours? Or was it a few minutes? Or days? Years?
Danville found the air; the girl’s renewed screaming and choking sounds filled his ears, even louder than the storm. She clawed at him, her tiny hands frantic. They weren’t going to make it. Another wave crashed over them, and he went under again, but only for a second. An iron hand gripped his bicep and yanked him and the girl up and out of the water. He yelped at the force. A warm slickness trickled down his arm as a second limb, this one warm flesh, wound around his waist, pulled him and his human cargo upright.
“I got you.” The voice was gruff, a low rumble. Lightning cracked, and for a moment Danville could see his superior’s face. A second body brushed against Danville on his other side, and a metal hand gripped his other arm, helping to hold him aloft. He recognized Irving, only his head above water. “You just hang on to that lil’ girl.”
It was more difficult than the words indicated. The child was terrified, cold, and half drowned. She screamed and struggled in Danville’s arms. He wrapped his arms around her and murmured soothing words he was sure she wouldn’t hear. She was alive, and that was all that mattered.
Irving’s mechanical stride churned up as much sand and water as the storm itself, but his sure footing and powerful piston legs added additional momentum to their walk, standing firm against the waves that threatened to suck them back out to the deeper water. As they reached the shallows, Meekins splashed out to meet them and released the line from Danville’s vest.
Danville was dragged out of the foaming waters. His stomach cramped and he retched. Salt water burned his throat. A heavy hand clapped him on the back, causing him to gag and cough again.
“Good work.” It was Etheridge.
Danville gasped and spat water. He nodded weakly.
“Catch your breath. We’ve got this.” Etheridge strode toward the winch embedded into the stone promontory further up the beach, signaling the men.
Danville watched, exhausted, as the crew attached the rope and winched it taut. A few men waded into the water as far as they dared to catch incoming passengers. Even with the whipping wind and blinding rain, the team worked with amazing precision as, one by one, they helped passengers off of the ship, but it was too slow. They all heard the groaning of the ship as she was brutally beaten by the storm and dragged on the reef.
“We won’t get them off fast enough,” Danville whispered. “She’s going to break up. Slow, but fast enough that we won’t get them all.”
As if she heard, the ship responded with another groan and crack of timber.
“And there’s nothing we can do,” Meekins finished. His red eye was the only light on their part of the beach. Further up the shore, though, there was a string of dim lanterns. A trail of too few passengers trudged through the muck to the station.
Danville leapt to his feet as a thought struck him. “Maybe not!” He raced up the beach, his lungs still burning from his earlier swims.
Etheridge turned around, a frown on his face and weary disappointment in his eyes. He knew they were fighting a losing battle.
Danville saluted. “I have an idea.” He outlined his plan, and a slow smile spread across Etheridge’s face.
“They’re ready!” Meekins yelled. The winds had picked up again, making it harder to hear; harder to maneuver. No more passengers could slide down the rope line, but the winds would help with Danville’s plan. The lighthouse blinked a slow signal out to the ship. Meekins read the response from the ship, her bright yellow flares arcing up into the cloud-filled sky. The crew understood.
The buoy line was no longer winched to the promontory. Instead it was slack, held in place by the crewmen of the station, who stood lined up, their faces grim.
“We can do this. I know we can,” Danville said.
Etheridge’s deep voice boomed. “All right men, heave!”
With an audible mass exhalation of air, eight men gripped the rope and leaned back. The rope snapped taut.
Metal limbs strained. Danville gritted his teeth and stepped into the line of men. Number seven. He didn’t have any Algerine mechanical parts, but he still could help. The line of men pulled and took a step back, then another.
“She’s moving!” Danville threw himself into the task. His muscles strained. “Heave!”
“We’ll pull the whole goddammned ship in to shallow water if we have to!” Etheridge sounded fierce, challenging the whole ocean himself.
He couldn’t see it from the shore, but Danville could picture the passengers and crew throwing everything overboard to lighten the ship. They would take apart everything inside so she’d float just enough, be just light enough for them to get her over the reef. They had to get her closer to shore to give them a fighting chance to live past this night.
Danville strained, his muscles aching as he attempted to keep up with the rest of the crew’s enhanced bodies. The men moved backwards, inch by terrible inch. Far out in the water, the ship screamed as her keel dragged up and over the shoal. The bottom of her ripped and tore, but she moved closer.
The red light of the lighthouse cut across the bay, its glow growing fainter and fainter as dawn brightened the sky. The clouds had gone, and almost no trace of the storm remained. Summer squalls such as those were common in the Carolinas.
Strewn across the sand like driftwood from a wreck lay the crew, panting, exhausted, but jubilant. On the beach in front of them, tipped portside like a drunken edifice, rested the two-paddled ocean-going ship. Men and women struggled from her broken form, cheering and praying thanks for their deliverance. The crewmen stirred and made their way to help the survivors back to the station.
Danville watched from farther down the beach, feeling like an outsider once again. His muscles burned, and his lungs pained him with every breath, but he couldn’t help the smile that quirked up the corners of his lips. He dusted the stubborn sand that stuck to his damp body and shivered in the early morning chill.
The whirr of machinery approached. It was the keeper. Etheridge looked years older, and his clockwork arm ground and whined. Sand and salt water clogged the machinery. Danville’s elation disappeared. He’d forgotten. He swallowed, feeling gritty tears.
Etheridge stood beside him and stared at the view—lighthouse, beach, ship, rescued passengers. “To the things needed to be done…” he murmured. Straightening, he cast a sideways glance at Danville and spoke brusquely. “It’s a beautiful morning. I’m going home.” Not waiting for any response, he began walking back to the station.
Danville followed, his gaze on the lighthouse tower, its red glow now completely extinguished in the new dawn. “So am I.”]]>