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Authors: Edward Irving

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BOOK: The Last American Wizard
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CHAPTER
EIGHT

 

 

Steve peeked through his fingers and, when he was certain that Ace had holstered her weapon, cautiously stood up. He should
have been colored purple from head to toe from the puddle of goo on the floor, but after even a close examination, he decided he looked about the same as
always.

“I don’t generally miss.” Ace squinted at him suspiciously.
“At this distance, I don’t ever miss. What did you
do?”

“Hey, don’t blame me if you can’t shoot your magical blue...thingies straight,” Steve said, and then waved a placatory hand at her glower. “I’m only kidding. I think I created some sort of shield. Or the Fool did. Or I’m the Fool. Or something.”

“I’ll go with the idea that you’re a fool.”


The
Fool.”

“Whatever.”

His phone began to play the stuttering guitar of Steppenwolf’s
Magic
Carpet
Ride.

Ace looked at the phone disgustedly. “Doesn’t that thing know any songs from this
century?”

The phone instantly switched to B.o.B.’s rap version
of
Magic.

Steve shuddered. “Now look at what you’ve done.” Looking at the screen, he saw a picture of the Rolling Stones’ iconic lolling tongue. He showed it to Ace. “I think this is for
you.”

She snorted and returned to stripping and examining her
pistol.

Steve put the phone to his ear. Aloud, he said, “Well, that was an unusual experiment.” Then, in a strangled whisper, he continued. “Please don’t ever suggest anything that stupid again!”

“Noted,” Barnaby said. “However, we’ve gotten much closer to what that anomaly is and, more importantly, what changes it’s going to
bring.”

“I’m making a command decision.” Steve said sternly. “Next time, we do it with less risk to my most precious
possession.”

“What’s that? Your reputation?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. My
life.”

“Noted.” The phone vibrated briefly. “Now, could both of you go over to the tables and look at the rift through the phone’s camera?”

Ace came over and stood beside Steve as he pointed the phone at the empty space between the tables. The voice switched itself into speaker mode. “All right. First, Master Chief, tell me what you see.”

Ace looked at the area between the tables. “An empty parking space.”

“That’s it? On the phone as well?” She glanced at the screen. “Yes, sir.”

“And you, Mr.
Rowan?”

“Well, things have changed. Before, I could only
see
the purple goo through the phone.” He sighed. “However,
apparently
I have problems, whether visual or mental remains to
be
seen,
because now, even without the phone, I’m beginning to see
the
six- inch bloody gash hanging in the air, the slimy goo leaking out
of it, and the cloud of vapor that’s filling this little hidey-hole.
It’s
like the weird is being overlaid on the real.” He looked
around
the enclosed
area
again.
“Oh,
and
I
guess
I
should
mention
that
the holes in the walls and ceiling–which were fairly
small
before–are now gigantic and quite a lot of the purple smoky stuff is
escaping.”

“Hmm. We’ll get to that in a moment.” Barnaby said. “So, you’ve gained the ability to see Other Than Normal events without the
phone.”

“What?” Steve was shocked. “You mean that I can see spooky stuff that normal people
can’t?”

“Yes.”

“What if I swear that I can’t see anything unusual?”

“Like a pistol shooting blue lightning bolts?”

“Exactly.”

“Sadly, you just blew that one.” The phone said. “We know that you have the ability to see the magical reality that coexists
with the real reality that we’ve become used
to.”

“Are you listening to yourself?” Steve said. “‘Magical reality’ and ‘real reality’. I’d say that you’re reaching for the record in redundant
oxymorons.”

“You mean like the intense apathy inspired by a short briefing from military
intelligence?”

“Ow.” Steve pulled the phone away, stuck his forefinger in his ear, and twisted it. “That actually hurt.” He switched the speaker back
on.

“Let’s get back to the job at hand.” Barnaby said. “We’ve established that you are perceiving the unreal real world at an increasing
rate.”

“I told you to cut that out.” Steve
warned.

The phone made a muttering noise that sounded a little like a chuckle. “How about you, Master
Chief?”

“Nope, not on the device or with the Standard Issue Mark One eyeball. I seem to have utterly lost what little juice I ever had.”

Steve said. “I just know that I’m going to hate myself for asking, but what is this purple
stuff?”

Barnaby’s voice sounded surprised. “You just got shot with a blue lightning bolt and you haven’t figured that out yet? It’s Magic.”

“Bull.”

“You’ve fallen to your death and didn’t die, a rather large creature smashed through your metal apartment door, and now you’ve raised a shield to protect yourself from a blast of blue destruction, and you’re still not convinced that there is something strange going
on?”

“Well...”

“It’s magic and, just as Madge says in the old dishwashing commercial, you’re soaking in
it.”

Steve thought about jumping up on the closest table, but they were all filled with scientific equipment and he was probably
about as soaked in purple goo as he could get. He pointed towards Ace. “Why isn’t any sticking to Ace
here?”

“When the Change occurred, we believe that those few people who could perceive and control magic in the pre-Change world immediately lost all their power and, possibly, are immune or resistant to its
effects.”

“Immune?” A smile came over Steve’s face. “Can I test that
on the Master Chief with one of those blue lightning
bolts?”

Ace’s face immediately froze into a
scowl.

Barnaby said hastily. “No, I don’t think that’s necessary and it certainly wouldn’t be
safe.”

“What if I only shoot to wound?” Steve attempted to sound innocent and failed
miserably.

“I meant that you would be in tremendous danger if you tried to shoot the Master Chief whether there was magic involved or not, so it wouldn’t prove anything.” Barnaby was firm and Ace relaxed slightly. Steve snapped his fingers in
regret.

Barnaby continued. “OK, we’ve established the
known knowns and the known unknowns, and it’s time to move on to the unknown
unknowns.”

“Don Rumsfeld lost a war we didn’t need to fight and did a pretty good job of wrecking the US military with that sort of reasoning,” Steve said. “Why don’t you shut off whichever memory bank that holds that sad remnant and let’s move on?”

“OK,” Barnaby said, and Steve could hear a few mechanical clicks and a muffled scream in the background. “We need to look ahead. Since this was clearly a planned event, we should assume a post-action
plan.”

Ace broke in. “Wait a minute. The Incident wasn’t natural? It was caused by
someone–”

“Three someones.” Steve
interrupted.

She looked up from the phone to stare at him. “How do you know...?”

“I could not-hear them on the plane that wasn’t there and didn’t crash,” Steve
explained.

“How long is this sort of conversation going to continue? I may have to put in for hazard pay.” Ace shook her head as if to clear it. “OK, if the crash and the Change were a caused event and not an accident, shouldn’t it be considered an attack on the United States?”

“Yes, we’re fairly sure that that’s exactly what it is,” Barnaby said. “And while natural talents such as yourself have lost their powers, we believe that the planners have worked out a way to maintain their ability to control OTN events and, in fact, can control magical powers at a higher level than before. First, as a hypothesis, it makes sense, and second, we are receiving reports of increased and more clearly defined magical
activity.”

“Great,” Steve said. “So, we’re being attacked by
wizards. How many wizards do we have on our
side?”

“I believe the Master Chief already told you that.” Barnaby paused. “We
have...you.”

Steve could feel anger welling up inside. “Well, that’s ridiculous. You guys over in that black glass building have been reading everyone’s mail, tapping phones, and fingering through the Internet for decades. Now that you have a clear and present danger to the United States, not only do you seem to know nothing about it, but, what’s worse, your only resource is a worn-out hack who has managed to perform two magical party tricks so far?”
His voice rose. “Am I going to have face violent death or injury every time you need a little magic
done?”

“We do think you’ll
improve–”

“Improve?” Steve was shouting. “I’d better freaking improve or these tarot-card-carrying terrorists are going to turn me into a freaking rabbit and stick me in a
hat!”

“Well, probably not a rabbit.”

“What
then?”

“From all indications, you’ll just be killed.” Ace said. “They won’t go through the trouble to transform
you.”

Steve threw the phone at the SEAL, who caught it smoothly. “That’s it. You hired me to come here and do a bit of reporting and now it turns out that I’ve been drafted as an Army of One. You have no idea what’s happening and I’m supposed to be the expert
as well as the grunt on the front lines? This makes no freaking sense. I
quit.”

“It’s only been an hour since this happened.” Barnaby
sounded petulant. “You’ll have to be
satisfied–”

“Want to bet?” Steve
interrupted.

“Um. No. I don’t like the odds.” Barnaby said. “Please reconsider. Your nation needs
you.”

“Find someone else.”

“There is no one
else.”

“Get out there and search every sideshow, run down every water dowser with a crooked stick, and ransack those towns in Florida where all the circus acts retire. I am not doing
this.”

Barnaby began to speak, but Ace put her hand over the speaker, muffling his voice. “Listen up, Rowan; you
are
going to do
this.”

Anger had the blood rising in Steve’s neck until he felt like his head was about to burst. He started to shout but the Master Chief made a cutting motion across her throat and he stopped. He was surprised at his reaction but then realized that Ace was simply the sort of person where a threat to cut your neck might just not be intimidation but something with more of the aspects of a promise.

“Now shut up and listen.” Ace spoke calmly, but somehow it had all the visceral impact of Hitler’s speeches to the Nuremberg Rallies in
Triumph of the Will.
“Whoever ordered that plane destroyed is determined to find you and kill you. They clearly enjoy killing or, at best, just don’t have any reservations about it and you are simply too dangerous to let
live.”

“I could join
them–”

“Like they’d take you.” Ace snorted. “You just said it: you suck at this. Face it–you really just have to answer a very simple question.”

“What?”

“Do you want to go off and die–probably within hours, at best days–cowering all alone in some lame hiding place, or do you
want to face this with me, Barnaby, and all the other resources of the US
government?”

Steve thought. “Is the government really a
resource–”

“Shut up.” Ace interrupted. “You’ll probably get killed either way, but with us at least you’ll have
company.”

At that, Steve
nodded.

CHAPTER
NINE

 

 

Steve took the cell phone back and said without a great deal of enthusiasm, “OK, Barnaby. I’m
in.”

“Do we have any more intel on the alleged perpetrators?” Ace asked. “Who are they? What do they want? Why use magic? And why hit an empty parking lot at Fort
Meade?”

The picture on the phone rotated to the horizontal and Barnaby said, “Watch the screen. This is what we’ve been able to construct from combining about a thousand of our best digital surveillance systems with a little guesswork. It’s a kludge but it may answer some
questions.”

Steve could have sworn he heard Barnaby say at a much lower volume, “Although it’s more likely to raise questions than answer them.”

A video of an American International 747 flying low over a leafy suburb appeared on the smartphone’s screen. It was silent
and Steve checked to see if the audio was
muted.

It turned out that the audio level was fine; when he turned it up, he could hear car horns, lawnmowers, and leaf blowers–just
not the
jet.

In this eerie silence, glowing red flames shot yards out of the engines as more fuel than could be burned was dumped into the straining jets. The strut that held one of the engines snapped under the pressure and dropped–flames and electrical arcs spraying out like a Fourth of July
sparkler.

Like one of those optical illusions where the real picture suddenly jumps out at you, Steve realized that the aircraft was flying only yards above his apartment complex. No other apartments he’d ever seen had that particularly nauseous combination of ochre and green. “That explains my car,” he thought. The engine disappeared behind one of the buildings and the viewpoint of the video changed to a shot that appeared to be next to the jet. Steve assumed it was some type of composite image.

The nose of the jet began to pull right and the plane’s wings lifted into a steep bank only to snap back into a straight and level descent again. It moved faster than Steve thought an airplane that large could–it was as if it had run into a rubbery wall in the air and bounced
off.

This was repeated several times–the airplane attempting to vector to the right and being forced back. The camera pulled back a bit so that it appeared to be slightly behind the jet and Steve could see the black monoliths and glass blocks of the NSA appearing ahead of it. Now its dive was steepening, and Steve felt an echo of the human terror he’d experienced this morning. His hands balled into fists, he couldn’t breathe, and tears began to stream down his cheeks.

The big jet was heading for the ground completely nose down. Steve could see that the impact point would be the same parking
lot where they were
standing.

Then it disappeared. No
smoke.

No
flames.

“There should have been a complete freaking fireball mushroom cloud,” Steve
thought.

“OK, here’s that last part again.” Steve jerked as Barnaby’s voice shocked him out of the powerful memory of the fear and terror he’d experienced in those moments. He began to gasp for breath–bending over with his hands on his
knees.

“Wait one second,” Ace said. Steve was surprised to feel Ace’s arm around his shoulders, bringing a feeling of calm and unwavering support. It took a few minutes, but his breathing became more regular, and he straightened
up.

Ace returned to examining her pistol. Steve didn’t thank her for the momentary comfort. He wiped some of the combined tears and sweat off his cheeks and raised the phone
again.

“If I may ask, what did you feel?” Barnaby’s voice had the level and emotionally stable tone of people who answer a suicide hotline. “Not now, but earlier, when it
happened.”

“Feel? I felt all of them. The pilots cursing steadily as they kept trying to pull out. Children screaming, last phone calls, a final kiss, and a lot of trying to hold the plane up by pulling on the armrests.” Steve paused in thought. “There were a couple–no, three–who were happy. No,
triumphant.”

He looked at the phone. “So, someone did do this on purpose.

It was an attack.”

“Yes.”

“Who? Al-Qaeda?
Jihadists?”

“I’d like you to watch the final moments again before I answer.”

On the little screen, Steve could see the same scene. However, this
was
a
freeze-frame
showing
an
unbelievable
picture–the
big airplane with its nose only yards from the ground. Then it began to creep
closer.

A part of Steve’s brain, working on automatic pilot, wondered how this camera–or any video camera–could capture enough frames to create this sequence; it was at a level of slow motion
he’d never seen, not even at the
Olympics.

He realized that Barnaby had never said it was from a camera. It had to be some secret technology–a computer image built from multiple sources. No one could have held a camera pointed so precisely at a disaster the exact instant it
happened.

All that vanished from his
mind.

Slender black rods appeared in front of the jet–short at first and then lengthening. Steve bent over the small screen, but he still couldn’t tell where they came from; they were growing from a point in the air close to the striped asphalt of the parking lot. He glanced over at the oozing gash hanging in the air between the tables.

His eyes flicked back to the screen. The rods were thickening, growing longer and gaining bumps and
bends.

Suddenly, the picture
snapped
like an optical illusion and he realized that he was looking at enormous claws with black talons. His mind instantly matched their size to the known size of the parking spaces and then he blinked furiously as his mind
absolutely refused to accept
it.

Each of those damn things would have been able to pick up a pair of semis. They were emerging from nowhere and pulling apart–what? The air was being molded and stretched like transparent Silly Putty; he could see the distortions it was causing in the buildings and trees in the
background.

The rip quickly widened under the pressure of those massive talons. Steve couldn’t see anything but blackness inside the hole. On the screen, the jet was now only feet away from the ground and inching downward slowly, although Steve knew that at the real speed, it had to be moving; the entire event had to have been far
too fast for the eye to
see.

The claws made a final colossal effort–Steve could see gargantuan muscles on the forelegs ripple and bulge as they ripped the fissure to the full extent of their reach. A snout appeared–as black as the claws–and began to open. Steve could see the creased, metallic skin. Jaws filled with jagged and irregular fangs–each as long as a city bus. Finally, a glittering yellow eye with a vertical pupil shining with terrible golden
light.

The jaws gaped wide and then impossibly wider–unhinging
the way a snake’s does when it prepares to swallow a rabbit. The jet with its 418 passengers disappeared into the terrible gullet. The tips of the wings didn’t even touch the sides. The jaws snapped shut–a quick movement even on the slow-motion
video.

Steve had no doubt that he’d just seen a dragon. Even the best Hollywood animation couldn’t produce the texture, the details, and the horrible brutality of that terrible
eye.

Then the jaws, the claws, and American International Flight 1143 disappeared into the rip. Somehow, the viewpoint zoomed in so they could see as the edges of the gap smoothly closed like
some kind of cosmic zip-lock
bag.

In the end, there was only a small six-inch gap left. Very slowly, reddish-purple goo began to drip out of
it.

BOOK: The Last American Wizard
9.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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