December 26, 2007

I want to reach my hand into the dark and feel what reaches back

The service was short and heartfelt. They laid my grandmother in the earth in quiet dignity, with a few words from a Catholic priest who had known her for longer than I had been alive and some murmured thoughts from her few friends. She'd outlived most of them. I stood at the end of the line afterwards, shook hands and endured the memories of all those old women intent on telling me what an adorable infant I'd been with a smile.

There were nine people at the grave site besides myself and the priest, who shook my hand last and walked away to give me time and space for a family goodbye. I waited until he was out of sight around the trees before raising my head to the surrounding woods. "You can come out now."

Dozens of shapes, some nearly human and some entirely not, emerged from the shadows. Some walked. Some drifted. Some simply weren't and then were, a moment later. Those I had known were there but had been unable to point to came to the graveside with me to pay their respects to my grandmother.

I had had no idea how many of the New York dispossessed knew her. As I moved in their circles, toes dipping in the pools of myth and immortality, I had come to understand that she was a Power among them. Perhaps not one of control, or retribution, or of wealth; but a Power nonetheless, whose presence they would miss.

The tall, ice-faced woman knelt before the grave, quickly, and did something with her hands before standing and walking past me. She spared me one glance of her sapphire eyes, but they flickered once with the persona behind them, something rare and gifted only to me on this afternoon in our shared loss.

A nondescript man with a cellular telephone headset and Middle Eastern features came forward to look at the tombstone. I didn't recognize him, but when he turned to leave, he nodded to me, once, and was careful not to touch me. I bowed to him them, and when our eyes met again I placed my right hand to my breast and the hard shape there. He smiled once, pleased, and hurried off.

There were dark shapes near the ground that sniffed about her grave and then scurried away without looking back. A glowing form hovered over the open cut hole for a moment before floating upwards and out of sight despite a moment when I could have sworn that it was looking at me. And so it went, the gods and demons of New York paying, if not tribute, at least acknowledgement to the passing of a human who had known them.

When the last of them had gone and the graveyard was quiet, I shoveled earth thrice on the coffin and went home.

In my apartment, the same small one near the Hudson where she'd raised me, I looked at the desk in front of me and the objects arrayed there. A pocket watch, gold and white and ornate; a crystal vial, and a stone spear point. The three of them, free of their leather prison, represented the most powerful of the talismans I had collected in my years of negotiating and conversing with the powers of New York. Two of them I knew intimately. The third, the spear point of Bobbi-Bobbi, I had little idea how to use. My talent could feel the power in it, crackling, different from the smooth ripples of the vial or the glow of the watch, but I had had no luck in releasing it or bringing it forth by demand.

The doorbell chimed once. I rose wearily and went to answer it.

On the other side of the fisheye lens was the Middle Eastern man I'd seen at the funeral. I gaped for a moment, surprised, then turned the locks and opened the door. He looked up at me, having been examining the lintel. "You have protection here," he said in an unfamiliar accent.

"I do."

"That is good. May I come in?"

I looked at him carefully, then said "Please wait here a moment." He nodded. I closed the door and went back to my office, scooping up the talismans and placing them in my bandolier - save the pocket watch. With that in hand, I returned to the door. I opened it and opened my hand, the watch lying on my palm with the face up.

The man looked at it and smiled again. "Ah."

"Please pardon my caution. This is my home."

"I understand." He reached out, very carefully, and touched the watch's face without touching me, then withdrew his hand. The watch gleamed brighter in the dim incandescents of the elevator lobby for a moment, then pulsed a deep and brilliant gold, light flooding from it to wash down the crevices and holes of the old building.

I bowed and stood back to let the Djinn inside.

We sat facing each other across the scarred kitchen table where Nan and I had had our lessons those years ago. He removed the headset from his left ear and placed it deliberately on the table, pressing a button on it to still its bright blue blinking, before looking me in the eye. "What do you know of Irem Zhat al-Imad?" he asked me.

This wasn't what I had expected. "Irem of the Pillars?"

"Yes."

I frowned. "I've read of it. Please excuse my ignorance if this is incorrect. It was supposedly a city built in the Rhub al-Qali, the Empty Quarter of the Desert, by the Djinn. They built it at the behest of the lord of a giant race. It's a myth; no-one - that is, no mortal - has seen Irem."

The Djinn nodded. "Some of that is even true." He looked around my kitchen, then at his headset on the table. I had the sudden feeling he was trying to avoid continuing.

"Old One, do you have something to tell me?" I asked him quietly.

He looked up, the eyes in his vessel's head dripping orange flame down onto the floor. It hissed and vanished without harming anything. His face bore a rictus grin. "Yes, Michel. I need your help."

That was new. "If I can help you, Old One, I will." I looked into the silently flickering eyes as I said it, wondering idly if the man sitting across from me had a family and if so what they thought he was doing at the moment. Sitting in my kitchen discussing lost mythical cities probably wasn't it. "May I ask you to do something?"

"What?"

"If you have a story to tell me, I would ask you to visit me and release this man."

The Djinn slumped. The eyes faded back to normal. "That was my intention, if you would allow it."

I reached across the table and laid my hand palm up on its surface. "What shall I tell him?"

"He is a taxi driver. Tell him he has delivered his package to you and he will leave. His cab is parked downstairs." The Djinn didn't move for a moment. "It has been a very, very long time, Michel, since I had a body."

"What will serve you more at this time, a body or your power?"

"My power." He laid his hand on mine.

There was a flash of soundless noise, of dark light. I felt his fingers clench reflexively around my own for a moment, and then release. I opened my eyes from the squint they had assumed to see the man across my table look around, confused, and snatch up his headset. "Where am I? Who are you?" He stood, quickly.

I stood as well, digging in my pocket for a bill. I held it out to him. "Thanks for the delivery." He looked at me, face wild for a moment. I worked to hold my face pleasant and slightly curious, the five dollars extended. He looked around again, then took it automatically.

"Uh. You're welcome. Package...?"

"Yes. I'd hoped you'd get this to me within the hour, and all set, plenty of time. Thank you." I walked around the table towards the door. He followed, still looking around himself with a confused look but willing to be led. I nodded to him and ushered him out without touching him before locking the door and returning to the living room and seating myself on the sofa. There was a mirror on the wall opposite, a tall thin one that might have passed for decoration. I faced it.

"Old one?"

In the mirror, I nodded, my eyes glowing slightly. "Yes."

"Why don't you tell me what this is about?"

So I settled back onto my couch and listened to the tale.

* * *

The streets of Manhattan channel the flows of humanity, gutters of intellect and emotion on the feast of interaction that is urban life. Walking east towards Central Park from the One/Nine train I reached out with what senses I have and those I have stolen, but feel nothing out of the ordinary.

The Djinn's story has brought me here. He is gone, into a random commuter in the Fourteenth Street Subway Station without a backwards glance, merely an assurance in my head that he will know to find me if I am successful. I reached a hand into my coat to touch the talismans for reassurance, feel their energy slick and warm near me. Bobbi-Bobbi's arrowhead crackled strangely.

I pass the Museum of Natural History, settled in for the night in its small but comfortable block of parkland. The new Planetarium building was a riot of glass and light on the north side, drawing my eye as I walked on towards Central Park.

The Park itself was dark, but not completely. Not the lethal anarchy of even ten years ago, Central Park now held strollers, the curious, the amorous, and even tourists. I slipped into the interior, heading for the eastern side of the Reservoir, where the Djinn had said to look. Still nothing to feel, nothing to See or Hear.

But perhaps a half-kilometer short of my goal, all that changed.

I stopped short, there on the paved ribbon of the Park Drive, looking eastwards into the gloom. There was a presence there, somewhere a distance off, in the direction I was heading. I'd never felt its like, but it was muted, somehow. A muffled basso drone of power.

I continued on, reaching the Reservoir, and circled it until I reached the closed and locked access point, iron door solidly shut in masonry stone. A maintenance access only.

The pocket watch flared, once, beneath my coat. There was a groaning shriek of metal and the door opened to let me slip inside and struggle to pull it shut. No-one notices me inside my shield of ripples, the vial holding me invisible, but the sound might have gotten out. I hadn't thought of that. A few moments of waiting brought no response, however. I turned, pulled a mini Mag-Lite from my coat, flicked it on and headed down the narrow steel stairs.

The pumping station wasn't quiet. I can't imagine it would ever be; its silence would imply New York's death, the water stopped. A constant moaning roar pervaded the space, which is lit somewhat indifferently. Gigantic shapes of piping, valves and locks huddle at the bottom of the space, much taller than a person, creating valleys and hummocks of shadow and steel. I let myself out of the access stairway and look around. There was an operator's booth visible down the gallery, some fifty meters distant, lighted much more brightly than this sullen open space. I did't see anyone in it, but if they're there, they wouldn't see me out here in the dimness. I stepped to the middle of the room and look around myself at the pipes.

Then I Looked at them.

In my gaze, they changed. Sharply defined edges vanished; straight lines wavered. The ranks of industrial machined forms shimmered in my vision, settling into a row of gigantic squared stone shapes, no two alike, with the steel pipe visible at their heads and feet where it disappeared into the wall.

Sarcophagi, for what I could tell. The thought is chilling, more so than the billions of calories of heat energy stolen into cold water rushing through the chamber. I climb up on the middle of the seven visible shapes and examine the top. There are strange runes there, carved into the metal, which I can't read. At one end, the shape is higher. I caught a glint of reflection there and moved to that end, balancing carefully atop the shape which part of my mind still saw as a giant pipe. There was a portal there, some form of glass or crystal, set in the smooth surface.

I really, really didn't want to look. But I had no choice. The Djinn had charged me with a task, and I'd accepted, although I still wasn't sure why. I lifted the Mag-Lite to the window and shined the small beam through it.

Whatever was within was gray, and green, and filled the sarcophagus, unmoving. Water was rushing past it, bubbles indicating the speed of its passage and that whatever else this was, it was a pipe, still. I twisted the Mag-Lite's head to widen the beam.

An enormous head, perhaps a meter and a half in diameter, looked up at me above a mass of what could only be tentacles. My chest contracted in purely involuntary response, and I'm quite certain I would have screamed had I not been too terrified to move a muscle. I was only released from my terror when there was a flash of color as the shape beneath me opened bright yellow eyes the size of dinner plates.

I fainted.

Irem Zhat al-Imad means `Irem of the Pillars.' It's an ancient city of myth, lost in the deepest deserts of Araby, inside The Empty Quarter. Some say that `pillars' in this case doesn't mean pillars, literally, but is a metaphor for the Old Ones - ancient gods who are singularly unconcerned with the fate of mankind itself, being so far above Man in terms of their power than to them Man is nothing more than a slight pest, or infestation of the world that they are interested in. Some legends say that other gods united to banish them or imprison them so as to make the world a place safe for lesser deities to play in, and, coincidentally, for man as well.

Only one of those Old Ones had anything resembling tentacles. It had various names, but most seemed to center on the arab word `Khadulu' or `abandoner.' It was the most powerful of the beings left physically on our world - one who could open gateways to the Great Old Ones, and in whose power the fate of our world rested.

His name was corrupted many times. Only one thing was constant, in the various descriptions of him among the various tellers of myths and keepers of lore - Cthulhu didn't care much about Men, among whose number was I.

I awoke at the base of the pipe I'd been kneeling on. My head, right arm and left side ached sharply, indicating that they'd probably taken a hit on my way down. My gun was digging painfully into my ribs. There was a burning feeling on my chest.

I struggled to my feet and looked around. A pool of dim light indicated the Mag-Lite; I collected it (dented but unbroken) and pocketed it again. This surely didn't look like any form of Empty Quarter, but the Djinn had said that didn't matter. "The Rhub al-Qali is as much a place of the mind as of the world, Michel. It exists, or co-exists, with your own. It cannot be found on its own. It can only be found when it overlaps with yours, much as I can only be addressed when I overlap with Mankind."

Well.

The image of those enormous eyes filled my head, and I shuddered. The Djinn hadn't told me what I would find, here. He'd hinted there might be `gods' but for sure hadn't mentioned anything like that. Time to be elsewhere.

MICHEL.

Have you ever heard a thunderbolt voice your name? I hadn't either. Until right then. I clapped my hands over my ears reflexively, realizing even as I did so that it would make no difference. "Fuck!"

MICHEL, FACE ME.

I looked longingly off towards the staircase. Then I reached a hand inside my jacket, cuffed away the sweat of terror with my other arm, and turned back to climb the pipe. It was easier the second time, knowing what I was about, and although I wanted to be absolutely anywhere else, I found myself looking down at the transparent portion again. There was a soft light behind it now, and the great gray-green face was there, eyes open. They tracked me as I came in view. There was nothing visible that resembled a mouth. If the rest of this fucker was in scale, he was probably around seven meters tall. I was uncomfortably aware, all of a sudden, that his presence in the pipe was possibly entirely voluntary, and hoped like hell that my discovering him didn't change that.

YOU KNOW WHO I AM.

I nodded. "I thought you were in the Pacific, somewhere. If you existed."

NO. I AM IN THE ABYSS.

"You're not in this damn water pipe?"

I AM ALSO IN THE PIPE. YOU HAVE A MESSAGE FOR ME.

I nodded again. "Uh, yes. I was charged to bring this message to you. Do I need to say it?"

IF YOU DO NOT SPEAK THE MESSAGE, YOU HAVE NOT FULFILLED YOUR CHARGE.

I thought furiously. Hopefully, that didn't mean it could kill me after I finished speaking. Hell, be realistic, I told myself - it can kill you anytime it wants. I turned my gaze downwards again. "Very well. I was sent by Azif. He wishes you to know he has not broken allegiance, and he remains in this place where he awaits your call."

YOU HAVE FULFILLED YOUR CHARGE, MICHEL. The great yellow eyes flared into brightness, briefly. I noticed that they had vertical pupils of greenish black, although not quite catlike. GO AND TELL HIM THAT I HEAR AND UNDERSTAND.

I bowed slightly. "I will." Wanting now more than ever to be gone, I turned away from the face and began to kneel in preparation to sliding down off the pipe. Before I could do so, the portal glowed briefly again.

FOR YOUR GRANDMOTHER'S SAKE, the voice tolled in my head, and my chest flared into pain. I cried out, sliding off the pipe. When I reached the ground, I frantically tore my coat open and pulled out the pocket watch, source of the burning. Its leather pouch was blackened around it, but by the time I retrieved it, it was cool again. The face was no longer white, however. Instead, the hands rested on a perfectly clear starscape, twinkling slightly. I brought it to my face and turned it, realizing that I could see past the watch's edge, as if it was a portal to deepest space. I swallowed once and placed it carefully back in the bandolier.

Then I ran like hell.

I made it to a wine bar on Columbus Avenue and was on my fifth drink when a hand fell on my shoulder. I snarled "What!" as I turned to find a woman standing there with her purse held defensively before her, wearing a leather jacket and middling-expensive jewelry.

She withdrew her hand and looked confused. "I'm sorry. Do I know you?"

Hello, Michel.

I looked at her, the anger draining. "No, I don't think so. Sorry." She nodded nervously and drew back, looking around herself in confusion. I watched her leave the bar, trying to hide her frightened gaze up at the street sign, before turning back to the mirror behind the tender and looking into my flame-flickering eyes there.

"You didn't tell me."

"I didn't tell you many things."

"You didn't tell me HE existed, for Christ's sake."

"Would you have gone?"

"No." I sighed and finished my drink. My reflection cocked his head.

"What did he say?"

I looked back. "I want answers first. What the hell was that about? All the legends say his purpose is to bring about the return of the Great Old Ones, and damn any of us who happen to still be around."

"Yes, they say that."

"Then what the hell are you reporting in to him for, if not for that? Doesn't the legend say you were the first masters of Earth, and will be the last?"

The Djinn raised my eyebrows. "Your knowledge is extensive."

"Don't shine me on. I can fucking read." I waved at the bartender for another drink. "And answer the question."

"I cannot."

"If you can't, then you don't get an answer either."

"Michel, you took the charge. You swore you would. You know you cannot withhold the information."

Shit.

I rubbed my face with my hands. "Look, answer me this then. Am I doing something that will end up contributing to the death or harm of humans?"

My reflection cocked his head, eyes flaming brighter. "I would be lying if I said no."

"I knew it. Fuck." I told the Djinn what had happened. His face blazed with excitement and he nodded in the mirror.

"Ah, he was there. Yes. Yes! It will be, then. It will be."

"Whenever you're finished being mysterious, just fuck right off. I agreed to help you because I believe in talking, and that's what you wanted to do. I didn't know you were going to carry out some ancient evil that affects my race, and I don't want any more part of it."

The Djinn leaned forward in the mirror, a disconcerting sight since I hadn't. "Michel, I will go, but let me ask you this question, and please think about it in days to come. What makes you think one such as He, and one such as I, wish you ill? What makes you think, that if we were undertaking something which concerned you so little that your deaths would not be of importance to us, that He would be manifesting inside New York City public works, or that I would be using a human agent to converse with Him?"

Then my hand reached out of its own accord and brushed a man walking behind me on his way to the door. He blinked, then his eyes refocused and he continued on his way, turning his head once to wink at me.

Shit. Posted by jbz at December 26, 2007 8:54 AM | TrackBack

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