A Red Letter Day
The ground was soft, and covered with ashes. The trees were covered with ashes as well, and there was not a single solitary leaf to be seen, green or otherwise. She was drifting through this place, it was impossible to stop or look back, her feet wouldn't allow it. A frigid breeze was blowing softly, making even the branches shiver. There were shadows among the gnarled roots, shadows of things that were, things that are, and things yet to be. They curled and danced away at her approach, as she was the only source of light, a dim reddish glow that seemed to come from somewhere behind her. Whispers traveled on the wind, half-remembered snatches of conversation.
"Patient is rapidly getting worse. I still can't pin down why. She's just wasting away... We've run every biopsy three times, negative for everything."
She could see something up ahead. It was a hallway. Rectangular and the kind of white that only comes from repeated sterilization.
"Perhaps it would be better if we moved the child to another wing? This is hardly something she should watch."
There was a figure standing just inside the hallway. He was tall and thin, with a shock of brown hair that was uncharacteristically untidy.
"I understand Dr. Carver's interest in his wife's condition, but he is not on the case. If I catch him in there with my good ECG monitor again, he will be suspended without pay."
The man walked further down the hall and turned a corner. She didn't know what it was, but something about that stretch of white, punctuated by doors on either side, reminded her of... something. She couldn't remember what, but it was important, and she had to find out. She paused as her feet touched the cold linoleum, leaving little footprints of ash. It was a familiar feeling, borne out of some ancient dream or other to haunt her. Hope. Good Hope. What did those words mean?
"I'm sorry, but we have a strict policy about this sort of thing, she must be left in the care of a guardian or relative, and "Gunnerkrigg Court" is neither. To be frank, I've never heard of it."
"It's a boarding school. I have already made all the arrangements. They will take care of her."
The light grew harsher by the minute, and she could feel heat at her back, but still she did not look behind her.
The voice was familiar. The door was familiar as well. Number 133, third one on the right, just across from the bathroom. The feeling of Déjà vu was intense, almost dizzying.
Time slowed as she turned and pushed the door open gently.
There was the bed, with the blanket draped over it. The curtain was drawn forward far enough to see that there was no one in it. There was, however, someone standing at the window. He looked around at her, his face a mask of hidden anger. She stared into his eyes as the inferno caught up with her. Her skin prickled and blanched as the fire ripped through the room with an unnatural fury, consuming everything in a roiling cloud of flame.
Antimony Carver woke with a start. She sat up and looked over. Katerina was sitting next to her on the seat, looking concerned. Other students were stepping off the train and onto the platform.
"You poor thing, you look so tired..." Kat said
"I'll be fine, you should go, you don't want to be late for Mechanical Engineering." Antimony replied, rubbing her eyes blearily.
"See you tonight."
Soon enough the crowd of students had all gone, leaving her car completely empty. She rested her head against the vertical handrail, but avoided falling asleep again. It wouldn't do to miss her stop. Mr. Cooper saw lateness as a sign of latent delinquency, a theory which he made reference to as often as possible. She had been exhausted for the last few days. Jones had been pushing her with ever longer training sessions and ever more complex tasks. Summoning fire was difficult enough, but sustaining it, with the wind threatening to blow it out and the freezing-by-comparison room temperature air suffocating it? It was enough to make her feel sorry for flame in general. It entered life with so many enemies.
It was not just that, though. Jones had also pushed her to make headway on her other abilities. Every session left her feeling more... it was hard to place it into words, more 'in tune'. She felt like an antenna. Whenever Parley jumped from one place to another she could feel each particle crying out before it vanished, sending out a wave that crashed over her. Whenever Andrew did his card trick, she could feel the innumerable possible combinations collapsing like a tree with its branches being hacked off until there was only one, and it was the one there in front of them.
Other things she could feel now, too. Distant pulses of energy from unexplained sources would rattle through their dormitory late at night, causing the hairs on the back of her neck to prick up, like an electrical storm only she could feel.
Perhaps this is how Zimmy feels all the time, she thought, not for the first time.
She gazed out the window at her surroundings as they whizzed past. There was not much to look at. The trains were set deep into the landscape in this portion of the court. Occasionally a break in the dull blur of industrial buildings presented itself and she caught sight of the forest of smokestacks surrounding her, some active, most not. She knew relatively little about the western area, except that Kat's workshop and by extension Jeanne's tomb, was close.
At last the train wheels clattered as they hit the bridge. The massive canals, which carried only a trifling layer of water at the bottom, flashed past in a few seconds, and there was a screech as the whole procession began to slow. When they finally ground to a stop, the doors opened and a cool female voice spoke, as it always did.
"Now arriving at stop 979e. Please watch your step as you exit the car, and have a pleasant day."
The rest of her Physics class stepped off of the other cars and walked towards the stairs. She did not know most of them. They were in the same year, but different houses. They chatted among themselves as they descended the staircase and down into the office building that lay just off the main foot path. A familiar gray colored haircut bobbed into her field of view, separated from the herd like she was. Jack gave her a cordial nod and a smile, which she returned. Almost immediately she felt weird and awkward, though she couldn't quite figure out why.
The group made its way up to the only door that was open and entered. Mr. Cooper was in his usual position. Penny loafers resting atop his desk, crossed, last months edition of Popular Mechanics obscuring him from the class. He looked over the rim of the dog-eared copy briefly, and then put his face in it again, waiting until they were all seated until he stood and addressed them.
"Good morning class."
"Good morning mister Cooper." The class intoned as one.
"Today we will be starting our unit on Aether Theory. I will be going over the history of mankind's study into the Etherium and its effects upon the physical realm. Since this class is not primarily concerned with history, but with physical laws and practical application, it will not be covered on the test, and thus you are not obliged to take notes-"
There was a subdued clatter as several dozen pens and pencils were placed back in their cases.
"-although I would recommend it." Mr. Cooper finished quickly.
Antimony leaned forward in her seat, which was already beginning to grow uncomfortable, not a good sign. The lean turned into a sprawl, supported by her left arm upon her cheek.
"First, to distinguish a little terminology. Aether with an 'A' refers to the field itself, ether with an 'E' is used when denoting the energy the field displaces and the effects it has on the 'real world'."
He marked the terms up on the board in his large, ornate script.
"The first person to speculate at the existence of a previously undiscovered energy field with implications for modern physics was a retired Signals Officer in Her Majesties Navy named Ambrose P. Clark. In the summer of 1935 he was compiling the results of the very first gravimetric soundings of the Channel floor, with the help of Lucien LaCoste, an American physicist who discovered the so-called "Zero Length Spring" and went on to co-invent the gravimeter and the seismometer. Clark discovered a measurement discrepancy that could not be explained by-"
Her head was wedged in the crook of her crossed arms now, which seemed to be the only comfortable position possible in these accursed chairs. They seemed to have been designed for someone two years younger. Between a crack in her arms she saw Jack, scribbling away whilst simultaneously staring intently at the board. He was probably the only one.
Drowsiness clawed at her eyelids, and though she made a valiant effort to resist, the deep baritone of Mr. Cooper had an intensely soporific effect. She drifted in and out of consciousness, picking up a little bit less of the lecture each time.
"-later that year Clark and his entire crew would disappear during the 16th experiment, along with a fully loaded destroyer, the HMS Witch Bucket and a perfectly circular portion of the Philadelphia dockyard. Neither Washington nor Whitehall had anything to say about this publicly, except that there had been a terrible accident. At the memorial servi-"
Darkness. Her eyes flicked open. The room was filled with the noise of students packing up. She raised her head and looked around to see the class filing out slowly. The sun was low in the sky, and it cast a deep orange glint through the haze of exhaust. There was a cloud bank gathering on the horizon, however, and the wind was beginning to pick up. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw something.
She turned to see Jack looking first left then right and ducking into a door off the main pathway. Antimony stopped and did a double take. She bent down and pretended to tie her shoes until the last of the stragglers had passed her and walked up the steps to the maglev station. A silent decision had been made in her head, before she had even looked up.
Hyland's behavior up to that day had been curious. Erratic. It was almost as though the spider had never been removed, although she supposed he had liked to go exploring before that. It was a past-time of hers as well, but hardly to the extent he took it. On more than one occasion she had run into him somewhere well off the beaten path.
Well, perhaps "run into" was a bit exaggerated. There were vast swathes of the Court seemingly completely uninhabited. She could go for miles and miles and not catch sight of a single soul, student, staff, robotic or otherwise.
The stairwell was constructed from the same grey, featureless concrete that composed most buildings. She quietly descended three flights and peeked out of the door at the bottom, which had been left ajar. She caught a glimpse of Jack's coat as it whipped around the corner beyond. For a moment, she looked back up the stairs, torn. The train would probably still be there if she ran.
No. Not an option. She was committed now. She pushed the door open and moved through the next room, which looked like it had been under construction for a century. Antique hand tools lay sprawled around, their cords gnawed by rats. The walls were halfway painted in various shades of green and grey. She watched her step as she descended yet another set of stairs, her toes kicking away little screws and other detritus.
She could feel Jack, actually feel him, just up ahead. He was walking brusquely, but he had a habit of stopping every few minutes and looking around, which gave Antimony a chance to keep pace with him. She followed him on and on, through the construction site and out onto the street once more. He almost lost her in the alleyways as she projected herself this way and that, trying to find him.
He stopped in front of a large warehouse door that led into a factory, this one still very much alive. She watched him fiddle with the lock from around the corner. Suddenly he stood back, and she felt a ripple in the Aether. The door clicked, loud enough to carry over the noise that was contained within, and slid to, leaving the way open. Large centrifuges spun with a deafening roar, powered by metal rods that ran all the way back into a machine room. Antimony used this as an opportunity to get closer, almost withing arms reach. Her heart pounded as they wound their way through. She was trusting that he knew where he was going. What if he was simply wandering? No, his step was too purposeful. Too direct.
At last he exited the factory, and Antimony saw that they were now right up against one of the canals. A small concrete footbridge crossed it, fenced in on either side. She was forced to wait until Jack was all the way across this before she followed him. The path led up to another office building complex. These ones looked a little nicer than the ones Mr. Cooper taught in, like they were constructed more recently and maintained frequently. Patches of manicured grass grew here and there, and the path looked spotless, perhaps as much from lack of foot traffic as from proper sanitation.
It was so like the Court to have something like this, she reflected. It was probably never used in an official function.
Except for now. She thought as she watched Jack approach the gate.
It was here that she would have to make her own way. She turned and moved quickly around the side, sizing up the height of the fence. It would require a jump of at least fourteen feet to clear the leaf-shaped blades that topped the wrought iron barrier and onto the awning that ran all the way around each building and over the walkways, connecting them.
She stood absolutely still and let herself drift outwards, beyond the confines of her body. Her legs compressed, and stretched, and just as they reached their full spread a forceful gust of wind pushed her, turning her small hop into a tremendous leap. She tried to land as quietly as she could, and then crouched, walking on the balls of her feet, heel to toe as the Anwyn had taught her. She peered over the edge of the balcony at Jack.
The gate creaked as he closed it behind him. Two figures were sitting on a bench next to the gate. One of them was a girl with snow white hair, and the other was a curious boy with a very pointy smile. Both of them held a fistful of cards in one hand and a mug of something hot in the other.
"Well, well, if it isn't the little troublemaker." The girl said.
"You're late Jack, you know he doesn't like it when you're late."
He waved dismissively and proceeded past them.
"I'm a student, not a bloody train station."
Annie followed him as closely as the awning would allow. He paused at a planter, selecting one flower and plucking at it methodically, one petal at a time. Eventually he discarded it on the pavement and proceeded right, to the large central building not reached by any of the awnings. Annie looked around, surveying her options. Her eyes alight upon an antenna that eminated from the roof of the building she was on, and stretched halfway across the gap. She looked back over at the two by the gate. The girl she had heard called "Tea" was engaged in a furious noogie of the others head, their card game forgotten. Confident that they were distracted, she pulled herself onto the roof proper and aligned herself with the antenna's span. Again she let all the distractions and doubts flow away from her, and let the warm, regular tides of ether aid her actions. She opened her eyes and began to run. At the last moment she leaped, landing on the end of the metal pole which recoiled, sending her flying into the air, her skirt rippling in the breeze. She rolled as she landed, another trick the Anwyn had taught her. Still, she managed to smack her shinbone somehow, producing a smarting pain that she had to work to ignore.
The interior courtyard of the building was open to the night sky, and Annie slid over its edge carefully and onto a balcony that belonged to one of the top floor offices. There were two figures in the courtyard below, both seated on a bench beneath a large oak tree. One was a tall, lanky man in a leather coat and jeans. A fedora sat crooked upon his crown, looking to be in permanent danger of falling off. When she projected her etheric self closer, she could spot the cauterized stump of a cigar dangling from his lips. Occasionally it emitted a faint orange glow and a cloud of smoke.
"Did you get what I asked for?"
"I forgot which chipset you wanted, so I took one of each."
The man squinted, as though he found this statement distasteful.
"Hells teeth Jack, you've got to be more careful. The court is already suspicious."
"The court is always suspicious. They've got more hidden cameras then they know what to do with."
She watched Jack open his book bag, and hand over a pair of paper sacks that one might carry a lunch in.
"Here's everyone else's haul."
"I suppose you want to be compensated for all of them then?"
"Damn right. You hand me the payment, I'll worry about who gets a cut."
The man shrugged resignedly and reached beneath the bench to pick up an identical sack that had until now been hidden beneath the leaf-litter. Antimony had to suppress a gasp as she watched Jack dump its contents onto his lap and proceed to count them. Thousands of Euros zipped past his fingertips.
"Yesh kid, relax, when have I ever shorted you?"
"Caution pays, like you said."
"But adventure is the spice of life."
"Good thing I managed to work both into my day. Perhaps a little too much adventure in the mix for my liking, though."
"What, close call?"
"Yeah, out by the warehouses a few nights ago. Almost got caught up."
"Don't take any risks Jack, Jones is waiting for you to slip up."
"It wasn't Jones, it was Carver and Donlan. Almost ran smack into them."
"Carver? As in, Antimony Carver? What was she doing out there?"
"Who knows. I've seen her in a lot of odd places lately. Sometimes its almost like..."
The man chuckled.
"Good lord, you don't fancy her, do you?"
"And what business is it of yours if I do, eh?"
"None whatsoever. But you should know, she's-"
"-part fire elemental, I know. I've read everyone's dossier, the network is wide open."
"Bet you haven't read mine."
"You don't have one. At least, not one I can find, and believe me, I looked."
"That's because when I first came to the court, they were just contemplating putting in punch tapes and magnetic readers. They didn't have room for trivial data like that, and I didn't exactly let them start collecting once they switched over to digital."
"Lucky you. I have to swallow six pills just to shut the trackers off for a midnight stroll."
There was a long pause. Antimony's head was swimming. This explained a lot, and yet at the same time it raised many more questions. She adjusted her body's position and resumed her surveillance, hoping that Jack would not be able to sense her presence. He had displayed some ability, but its extent was unknown to her. Best to play it safe.
"Peakes is out of the hospital ward." Jack said.
"Is he still game?"
"Good, here's your next shopping list. I want you to pass it off to him this time."
"I thought I was in charge of acquisition?"
"For sensitive stuff, sure, but this is about as low risk as you can get. Peakes is still in Advanced Chemistry, is he not?"
"Yeah, if he didn't flunk out on that last project." Jack replied.
"Then he just has to take some samples, with a little dropper or something. Very discrete. He should have access to the supplies room, no?"
"Capitol. Speaking of which, now might be the time to think about expanding. Hiring some extra help, as it were. I have plenty more lists I'd like to complete."
She watched Jack slip the bundles of cash back into their sack, and move that into his bag.
"Then send them over to my server. I'll farm out whatever I feel comfortable delegating, but remember, I'm the middle man. For everyone. Nobody else knows you, and I'll thank you to keep it that way, savvy?"
"Of course, Jack, I wouldn't want to deprive you of the opportunity to extort your peers."
"I'm charging a reasonable rate for my services that reflects the risk of doing business, same as you."
"You're forgetting why I started this little arrangement in the first place. The pay is just an incentive. People deserve to have this stuff, Jack, it doesn't do humanity any good sitting on a dark shelf somewhere collecting dust."
Jack laughed. It was an unexpected sound, full of mirth, that echoed up into the tree, sending a group of pigeons scurrying to more peaceful resting places.
"Yes, and I'm sure all those yank defense firms that are your biggest customers share your humanitarian bent."
"Boeing makes civilian jets too..."
"Yeah, and what about Raytheon? Lockheed Martin? Northrop Grumman?" Jack retorted, cutting across the man. "What about BAE Systems? Are they developing some new missile that explodes into teddy bears and candy for the orphans?"
"Oh, get off your high horse!" The man said, brandishing his cigar like a pointer.
"That's what I'm telling you. I couldn't care less what you do with what I give you." Jack said.
"Good. Because I've got another job for you, and you're going to have to put your soapbox away for this one."
She heard Jack let out a deep sigh.
"I want you to keep an eye on Carver."
In an instant, her heartbeat doubled. Jack seemed a little stunned as well.
"I don't want you to bug her room or follow her, or anything, just... keep an eye on her. See who she's close to, what Jones is teaching her. Ask questions. Get answers."
"Now hold on just a minute. Selling secrets, that's one thing. Asking me to spy on a friend, that's a whole different ball game."
"Is it though? I'm not in this to hurt anybody, Carver least of all. And if she truly is your... *ahem* friend, you should have no trouble-"
"What do you care who she sees, or what she knows?" Jack said, raising his voice.
"I care a great deal, as does everyone else. The headmaster, the staff, the administration. You'd be hard pressed to find a court employee that ISN'T following her progress with... great interest. She's the piece of the puzzle that ties it all together, I just haven't figured out which one yet."
There was another long pause. Very briefly, Antimony was frightened. Jack was in over his head, that much was certain, but was she? After that, she was angry.
"We can't keep meeting out here. It's too far out of my way. You're getting everything from dead drops from now on. I'll post the locations on my server. The password is Zosimos Panopolis."
Jack turned and began to walk out. The man tapped his cigar out on the cement and rolled it back into the tree's planter.
"Till next time, lad. Don't be a stranger."
She shadowed him with a thousand times more vigor on the way back, her indignant anger smoldering inside her chest. How dare he? She thought as she dashed along the rooftops beside him, staring furiously down at that gray head. How dare he put me in danger for money.
At last she could stand it no longer, she had to do something. Without a second thought, she leaped from the roof, using a burst of etherically-manipulated air to cushion her landing. At once, a ring of flames exploded skyward, trapping them in the same circle, a dozen fmeters or so in diameter. There was a slight clack as she landed on the soles of her dress shoes. Jack looked nonplussed.
"I have to hand it to you, Annie, you really know how to make an entrance."
"I don't know what you've gotten yourself involved with, Jack, and frankly I don't care, but you leave me out of this, you understand?"
Jack's face twitched ever so slightly, like a fly caught in a web.
"Of course. I never had any intentions to the contrary."
"Good, because otherwise-"
Suddenly she felt as winded as though she had just run a mile. Perhaps two.
She gasped a little and leaned forward, her legs suddenly too weak to continue alone. Jack reached out and grabbed her before she toppled over. The fire flickered and died.
"Whoa. Relax a little. You look really peaky, are you feeling alright?"
He looked a lot different up close. The black lines of dirt that had been caked around his eyes at the power station were long gone, but he still looked as exhausted as she felt.
"Not really. I feel all used up."
With some help she sat down onto the curb.
"I know what you mean." Jack said. "Some days I feel like a broken telly dish, picking up bits and pieces of whatever, and you can't turn it off. "
Antimony regarded Jack with a newfound interest.
"So, that factory door you opened, that was...?"
"You really were following me, weren't you?" Jack said, raising his eyebrows.
"You looked like you were up to no good, and you were."
"Quite a gut instinct you've got there. You should talk to Atta. He would appreciate someone with your nose for deviant behavior."
"You still haven't answered my question."
Jack looked away for a moment before speaking.
"Yeah. I could always sort of feel it. Like there was some extra texture to the world that I was picking up on, but I couldn't put my finger on it. After the spider though, it got a little more... intense."
"Perhaps I could show you a few things?" Antimony said quickly, without thinking.
She didn't know why she was offering. Just a moment ago she had been ready to burn him to a crisp, and now it was like they were almost... friends. It was confusing. Very confusing.
Jack smiled one of his strange smiles.
"I'm not sure Jones would like that."
They talked amiably a little while longer. Overhead the stars began their long, wheeling dance across the heavens.
At length, she mentioned that she was completley lost.
"Well, we can't have that." Was Jack's reply. "Lets get you home, Carver."
"How do you know the way so well?"
"I come here a lot, and not just because I'm-"
He made a pair of greatly exaggerated air quotes with his fingers.
"-up to no good."
"I go exploring all the time. There are some strange and beautiful things here," he continued- "if you know where to look."
Annie cast him a sideways glance as she stood.
"Indeed there are."