<--Uptime | Park Ethereal | Downtime-->
Park Ethereal - Chapter 14
The waking. It always comes back to that, and I can't help but wish for a more satisfying awakening, one where it all is just there and I don't have to grope for more information about my life than I ever have every damn time I open my eyes. Bright sunlight had played its part in my rousing; a bright blue sky shone between the defiant ridges of buildings. Pedestrians moved past me in a typical New York rush.
There was an unfamiliar feeling stirring in my gut. I turned it over with the exquisite care of a drunk examining the shards of his broken bottle; held it up to the internal light and peered through it. The color was wine-red, unfamiliar; the name, at last, came.
Staggering to my feet with stiff limbs, I made my way downtown to Sixty-fourth and entered the downbelow in a familiar spot. The Wall of Destiny stretched out, unbesmirched, smooth, rusted. Shrugging, I slipped into the tunnels and walked steadily downtown.
It was different, this walk; I felt the slight tug at my anima as New York bent, and with an inaudible sigh flexed as I passed through the boundary. The quiet was not the same here; there was a lack of the constant subliminal background city rumble. The absence was a wound from which I shied and flinched as I moved through the broken pieces of a life.
No trains passed.
The Main Lobby. Deserted. Silent. No one there. For lack of a better idea, I went to lean against the information desk counter while surveying my surroundings. Almost, I could see an open saxophone case laid out on the floor in front of the bank machines- almost, then, hear a soft pure note that echoed in from the other side of Grand Central, where people walked, and touched my ears with the beauty of a thing lost but not forgotten.
An hour went by. Then another. I passed the time sitting by the information booth, idly reading schedules and newspapers left there by commuters. Someone was coming; that much was clear, but I had no idea who, or when.
The footsteps came first, of course. Grand Central is a magnificent amplifier of footsteps; marble and concrete, flat surfaces, echoing spaces. I heard the tapping and threw down the paper I was reading. Jumping to my feet, I realized I couldn't hear them while rushing about and froze, listening. The sound was steady, and perhaps growing louder, but I couldn't put a direction to it - the echoes were far too numerous and complex, with lag times confusing the matter further.
The only thing to do seemed, really, to just sit back down. So I did.
The face was as unexpected as the grin as both came around the corner from the Lexington entrance. I shot up to my feet again. "Kelly?"
"Sure and 'tis me. Who were ya expectin'?" He was in uniform, once more swinging the baton behind his back. He had stopped after coming into view. "There you are, boyo. Been lookin' for you for a time, now."
"Well, ya lit out of me flat without a word. The missus and I, we were concerned about you."
I was about to reply, stopped. "Kelly, where is everybody?"
"Everybody everybody." My IQ seemed to be taking a precipitous downturn. "Why are we the only ones here?"
He looked confused. "But we're not."
"The crowds, lad." He gestured around himself.
I looked at him for a moment. "I don't see anyone, Kelly."
That stopped him for a bit. He peered into my eyes, then looked around himself for reassurance. It wasn't until he got about halfway turned about that I saw him freeze, and knew in that slight moment that I wasn't crazy. He turned back to face me.
"There's nobody here."
"I know that, Kelly."
"There just was, though-"
"Sucks, doesn't it?"
Comprehension dawned. "This? This is your-"
"Alter New York, yes."
To his credit, Kelly looked far more fascinated than worried. "I thought maybe-" he trailed off, still looking about us.
"You thought I was imagining it."
"Well, no, I mean, the gun and all- but, yeah, you could've found that, told the story-" He turned to peer into the information booth and shook his head. "So what do we do then, boyo? Ye're the tour guide in this place."
"We wait for something to happen."
"Are you sure? We don't go make it happen?"
"Make what happen?"
"I figured you'd tell me."
I laughed with only about half of it humorous. "Do I look like I know what the hell's going on?"
He laughed as well, a slight edge audible. "Nope. Nope, ye don't."
"All I can tell is that there's usually something I'm supposed to see, or do. Then I get to go back."
"I don't know." More nervous laughter escaped me. "Usually it's obvious. Maybe not this time."
Kelly looked about us again, this time with a tinge of interest on his face. "You never get to see it empty."
"The station. Don't think I've ever seen it with not a soul in sight."
"Oh I'm sure, buck. At least, now, I am." He turned to smile at me briefly. "But as fer meself, this is me first."
"Yeah." I stretched, looked around. Nothing to be seen. Nothing tugged at me, pulled at my feet, showed me the way. I shrugged. "What do you say we wander?"
"Seems as good an idea as any." Kelly gestured to me, lead.
I picked a direction at random and struck off down towards the Shuttle train passage to the west of the Main Lobby. We walked slowly. Kelly's presence was strange, and not entirely reassuring. Despite the welcome company and the reassurance that all that had happened wasn't the product of my mind alone, the question of why he was here now kept nagging. I tried to catalog my jaunts into Alter New York in my head to determine if there was any sort of pattern to what 'point,' if any, they had. I was failing miserably when Kelly spoke up.
"Hah. That spot, there-" he waved at a corner. "Me first collar, that was."
"Down here? Didn't the Transit guys and Amtrak guys have authority in Grand back then?"
"Oh, yah, but I was chasin' the skell that night. Caught him purse-snatching, with a shiv, on Fifth and Forty-second, me and me partner did. Me partner was a bit slow, y'see, and I ran the bugger down in here. Tackled him, too; took a nasty whack on the head from the wall. But I got him. Whoo, was I proud." He grinned, remembering. "Then, just as me partner showed up, I tossed me lunch over there by the flower stand."
I laughed with him. We passed out of the confines of Grand Central itself, into the grimier climes of the New York Subway system. Turning right took us to a set of turnstiles, which we jumped, and a stairway down to the shuttle train platform. There was a train set in the station, breathing to itself in the quiet code of compressed-air brake systems.
Kelly looked about. "Would the train go anywhere if we got on?"
"I don't know. I don't think so. There's no one here but us, after all."
"That sounds a tad logical for what's going on, d'ye think?"
"Well, yeah. But I think I have to think of it in those terms, or I'll really lose my mind."
"Sound reasonin', then."
We stood there for a moment, then I shook my head. "This isn't the way."
Kelly nodded, and we turned back towards the Main lobby. It wasn't until we reached the entrance to that room that we heard the noise.
It was distant, directionless, loud; a clashy boom that rushed about until it had dashed itself to death against the hard stone walls. We stopped, and looked at each other. Kelly looked grim. "What?" I asked.
"Gun," Kelly said, breaking eye contact to automatically survey the area. His hand, I noticed, was on his own weapon.
"Shit." I looked around as well, more for something to do than because I thought it would be useful. "Can you tell where?"
"No. Too many echoes. Listen for anything else."
I nodded, and found my own hand sneaking into the pocket of my jacket when a second report slammed through the air. This time, it was flatter, more of the original bang than the first. Kelly was off and running towards the Lexington end of the room with his gun drawn before I focused and dashed after him. He turned right towards the Number 6 train, continuing the turn to descend to the second level of the station. Reaching the bottom of the ramp, he paused to look around the corner, gun out. I distantly realized that I too held a weapon; the Smith and Wesson tasted the air before me, waving only in search. Kelly looked back at me to be sure I'd stopped. His eye lit on the gun, but he only looked back up at me and nodded before jerking his head to indicate I should take the other corner of the passage.
Together, we peeked around into the lower level. Nothing. Kelly moved out into the space, and he appeared to have a specific destination in mind, so I followed, gun aimed at the floor and trying to look in all directions at once. I caught myself thinking so this is why they train to do this as my heart rate hit some improbable level, but we made it to the next corner and looked around.
We were looking at The Oyster Bar's front entrance.
Kelly rushed across the intervening space with me in his wake and burst through the doors of the restaurant before halting abruptly, almost losing his balance. I stumbled to avoid hitting him, and drew abreast of him before realizing why he'd stopped.
The restaurant wasn't empty. In fact, it was nearly full, with patrons at each table and the waitstaff moving between them. However, things weren't all normal. No one was moving, and all of them were staring at one corner of the dining room where a lone man stood before a table, arm outstretched.
Kelly moved slowly towards the tableau for a moment then stopped, as did I. As he'd moved, those around us had animated, moving in slow motion and stopping when we did. Kelly looked at me, gun still out and face ashen, now. His voice was a whisper. "What the hell's going on here, boy?"
I had to swallow an enormous lump of dried spit before answering. "I have no fucking idea, man."
He laughed without humor, then turned back towards the table in the corner. I saw for the first time that there was a haze of smoke above it, swirls and chaos patterns frozen in the strange amber of our experience. As we moved towards the scene, it became clear that the standing man was holding a gun.
Although the other inhabitants of the restaurant began to react ever so slowly, they were apparently moving on a much slower timeline than we; by the time we had crossed the restaurant to the table, the gunman's hand had just finished moving upwards with the recoil of his weapon. A sparkle caught my eye, and I tapped Kelly to point. A shell casing, winking brass, was slowly sinking through the air near the shooter's right hip, smoke still curling from its empty end.
We stopped at the table. Everything else stopped as well. Since no-one had given the slightest indication of being able to see us as we'd entered, I'd lowered my gun. Kelly, noticing, did the same.
There were four people seated at the table. One was pinned to the back of his chair, presumably by the kinetics of the bullets; blood blossomed from his chest and throat. The other three men at the table were in the process of diving beneath it, or away from the one who was shot; their eyes were diverted, fixed on getting to safety. I came abreast of the shooter, noting that things had stopped again, and looked at his face. I couldn't see it; he was wearing a ski mask, and the angle was too oblique to see his eyes.
"Holy shit." I couldn't come up with anything else to say. "What the fuck is going on?"
"As I said, boyo, that's your department. I'm a rookie here. Looks like our friends here-" Kelly gestured to the party at the table- "Have upset our friend here."
The masked head was turning, slightly; the gun, I noticed, was swinging. "Kelly, he's going to-"
There was a flare of light, painfully elongated, and a rocking blam from the gun, stretched but not shifted in tone, becoming a roar rather than a report. Kelly flinched aside as another of the men at the table, who had almost made it underneath, jerked under the impact of a bullet. Kelly's gun swung up, and it became clear that he was going to shoot the masked man, perhaps out of sheer reflex.
I have no idea what prompted me, but I yelled "Kelly, no!" as I dropped my weapon and grabbed him in a clumsy bear hug, slapping his gun upward with one hand. Luckily, it didn't go off, and I held him until I felt the motion stop, and he faced me.
"Don't do it, man, we don't know what's going on here." I released him.
He gestured to the tableau. "I'm a cop, boy, and this bastard's doing murder." The gunshot over, the scene had returned to its normal eerie silence and slow flow of motion.
"Kelly, we're supposed to see this. Not change it."
"How d'ye know?"
"I just- I just do. I changed something, once, in the tunnels; it wasn't in slowtime, like this. It was real and fast, and lethal, and I changed it. I don't even know if we can touch these people. They don't see us."
That stopped him. He nodded. "Yah, I see that. Ye're right about-"
-we both jumped as the gun spoke again, and I found myself scooping up the Smith in reflex. Kelly swung his gun up-
-the waiter who suddenly was approaching him recoiled, his tray smashing into the floor with the clatter of abused crockery. Kelly jerked his gun back up to point at the ceiling as the man fell backwards, his face ashen, and diners around us swiveled their heads.
The table before us contained an elderly couple, both of whom were looking at us with shocked stares. Sounds bubbled across the restaurant. The gunman was gone. More used to this sort of transition than Kelly was, I quickly stuffed my gun into my jacket and moved close to Kelly to hide his weapon while I watched him register the change of scene and look about him. Realizing his gun was out, he, too, shoved it into his uniform and caught my eye. We both sprinted for the door, exiting the restaurant and its surprised clientele to return to the stone corridors of Grand Central. We both fell against walls, the shocks of the past few minutes catching up, and I found myself panting and swallowing, trying not to vomit. Kelly didn't look much better, I noted as I looked at him; he was replacing his service pistol in its holster. Looking up at me, he grinned ruefully, then froze again, looking around. "Shit."
I followed his glance. Yup. There was no one to be seen. "Yeah. Again."
He looked from one end of the corridor to the other. "Not quite, boyo. Look." He pointed; I followed his arm, and saw a single figure near the top of the ramp leading up to the main level, moving hurriedly but not running. From the clothes, it was the gunman from the restaurant; his hair was visible, meaning he was unmasked, and his weapon was nowhere to be seen.
Without thinking, we both tore off after him. Kelly gained on me slightly, being in better shape, but we were still close when we turned around the curve of the ramp and reached the top; our quarry was heading across the main lobby towards the opposite corner, appearing to be head for the Vanderbilt exit. We were gaining as he swung up the steps; just as he vanished over the top, we hit the bottom. Throwing myself after Kelly as he shot off the top of the stairs towards the door, I ran squarely into his back as he stopped unexpectedly.
Rolling off and around him, I could see what had stopped him. The gunman was on the ground, having apparently run into a passer-by; he was groping frantically for something on the floor as the other pedestrian turned over to face him
Shock of blonde hair
And he closed his fingers about the grip of his gun, lifting it from where it had fallen just as his obstacle raised her head to meet his eyes. I felt the sweat start from me, and I screamed. "Ellyn!"
For it was, her black beret lying on the ground where it had fallen and coat muddled about her and hair tousled from the fall. The gunman snarled silently; she recoiled from him, then saw the gun in his hand and screamed. At least, she appeared to; no sound emerged from the tableau. I hadn't realized I'd thrown myself forward until Kelly's arms caught me, dragging me to the ground.
"No, boy! No, no, don't!"
"Why? It's her, damn it, he's going to kill her if we don't do something-"
"No he won't! She'll be okay, watch!" The certainty in his tone broke through my burst of panic, and I turned to look at him.
"How do you know?"
I swiveled my gaze back to our private show. Ellyn was holding her hands before her face in a warding motion, the gunman having gotten to his feet and standing over her; he, however, was looking around with the beginning of panic in his eyes.
I knew him.
Kelly turned instantly, the speed of his reaction shocking in the quiet slow stillness. "What?"
Kelly's face registered recognition. "Yeah."
"He's the guy that I got this gun from. The guy from the tunnels, and Ellyn's apartment."
Kelly's eyes narrowed. "Look at this." I followed his finger to the gun clutched in the still man's fist - my gun, the Smith and Wesson that even now I held. I turned it sideways to check the serial number, compared it to the identical one on the barrel of the other which was just slowly vanishing into the gunman's jacket.
The scene was accelerating. The gunman took off towards Vanderbilt. As we watched, he shoved aside several confused pedestrians who had somehow been there all along, and burst through the doors leading to the street. I turned back to Ellyn, instinctively wanting to comfort her, but before I could make the turn, Kelly's hand clamped around my arm. The pain drew me up short; he grabbed my other arm, preventing me from moving, and said "Slowly, now, boy."
Confused, I turned my head to see several pedestrians clustered around Ellyn, offering aid. One had her beret in his hand, and as others helped her to her feet, he held it out to her, a concerned look on my face.
For he had my face.
Pieces falling, turning, dancing with their edges sliding into place to mate with the sharpened click of verity. Several socketed themselves as I watched the scene, jagged jigsaw holes inside of me suddenly smoothed and colorful.
Ellyn took the beret from him, her eyes on his face. My face, damn it. His face. A rush of police was converging from around the main lobby; apparently the word had gotten out about the scene downstairs. Two angled towards the small knot of people near which we stood.
I stepped towards them, once, or tried to; Kelly's arms held me fast. I struggled silently behind the warm salt wetness of my unseen tears as the story unwound. Ellyn telling the policeman what had happened. Miming a gun. Their excitement as they realized she had seen the shooter. One spoke into a radio; four or five more police showed up and began questioning the remaining passers-by. Ellyn they appeared eager to bundle off downtown or wherever; she began to look increasingly nervous.
My double self stepped in. I wasn't sure exactly what he was saying, as the sound was mostly one large blur of noise, but she took his arm as he spoke, and the police, nodding, moved them both off towards the street and the no doubt waiting cars.
Kelly released me. I found, however, that I couldn't walk forward no matter how hard I tried; my body wouldn't obey. In frustration, I collapsed to my knees (which hurt. Grand Central is made of extremely hard materials) and let my tears drip onto the floor. Kelly let me cry.
When I looked up, there were people around us, walking, looking incuriously at the policeman and the stranger as they knelt on an unremarkable piece of floor. I felt the world leaving me, again, and Kelly's arms were there to prevent me cracking my head on the marble. I was vaguely aware of travel, and then there was Lori's voice, soothing even though I couldn't understand her; cushions, blankets, warmth, at last at last at last, run down quickly by oblivious dark.
* * *
The sofa was familiar when I awoke. I could hear a smooth rhythmic noise somewhere off in the near distance. Although I was sure I wasn't able to see any longer, it turned out to be just dark. Even as the thought left me, my eyes began to adjust; little chemical op-amps in the retinae sleepily waking and rousing their sensitivity.
I could hear him snoring. That was the sound. I grinned involuntarily at the patience of his wife, if that was the normal decibel level; then decided that in fact it was fairly soothing. From out in the living room, at least.
I slowly sat up. I was in underwear; my clothes were neatly folded on the coffee table next to the sofa I was resting on. Near them were two angular shapes. One was my Mini-mag flashlight; I reached for it reflexively before deciding with slowly returning brainpower to save my night vision. The other wasn't familiar until I held it.
The Smith and Wesson.
I turned it over in my hands, without expression. My cheeks hurt from maintaining composure. Metal is so very hard, really; cold even when warmed to room temperature. The checkered wood of the grips pressed ridges into my palm; I realized I was clenching my fist around it and relaxed my grip, deliberately allowing it to fall to my lap.
The hammer was down. I worked the slide; no round ejected. I had suspected Kelly wouldn't leave it primed, but had to be sure; removing the clip, I ejected the chambered round and reloaded it before sliding the clip back into place and releasing the hammer. The safety went back on with a sharp click before I lay the gun down on the table where I had found it.
Only then I noticed the two objects next to it. Picking them up, I discovered that they were in fact spare clips identical to the one in the gun. Fully loaded; I popped a round from each to make sure.
Kelly, it seemed, was serious about my being armed. I was unable to figure out why he would have gone to such lengths; I wasn't even sure that I would have allowed me to go about with a weapon were someone to ask me my opinion. The snores from the other room spoke of complete comfort on Kelly's part at having an armed, amnesiac street dweller in his living room, however. Shrugging, I lay back down and tried to fall asleep once more.
<--Uptime | Park Ethereal | Downtime-->