Birds Fly
Part One: Introductions

plot by Russ Allbery and Jameel al Khafiz
written by Russ Allbery
© 1995

The man pushed through the door of the makeshift barracks, tossing a pack onto a nearby bunk. A couple of the other mercs glanced up but then went back to rolling dice and playing poker. The newcomer seemed not to notice any of them. He pulled off his field uniform and changed into street clothes, stashing the rest of his gear in the locker at the foot of the bed. The others just ignored him as he headed out the door again, too intent on their gambling to bother with someone who would never even acknowledge their presence.

Outside, the man took a deep breath of the cool night air and walked around the side of the building, under one of the floodlights lighting up the area. He leaned against the unfinished wood, trying to quiet his ragged nerves, and looked out over the scorched field. The ruddy glow of emergency lighting still showed through scars in the ground, and a couple of warning signs had been stuck in the field, marking places where the ground was unstable. The technicians had given up trying to reinforce the structure and were trying to get as much as possible out of the base before it collapsed completely.

The sound of footsteps from the right indicated that whatever faults the kid might have, he was at least punctual. The man adjusted the collar on his leather jacket and turned to face Project: Serra's resident mage.

"Okay, this better be good to get me out of my bed in the middle of the night." The young man looked at the merc a bit distainfully and pulled his trenchcoat tighter to try to keep out the chill.

Intentionally taking his time answering, the merc gave him a long, evaluating look. The mage was in reasonably good shape, although it was unlikely he had any real combat training. He was also arrogant, egotistical, and totally cowed by his uncle. There was still a spark of intelligence in his eyes, though, showing that he had the potential to be more than a journeyman kept around for his knowledge of obscure subjects.

The mage fidgeted a bit and began to look impatient, but the merc caught his eye and he quieted down again. "You aren't very popular around here right now."

The young man looked confused, caught by surprise by the matter-of-fact statement. "What do you mean?"

"Before that," the merc gestured at the scarred and pitted field, "you were always with that uncle of yours, like you were his closest advisor or something. Now I hardly ever see you together."

"Well, yeah, after all it was my fault...." The mage's eyes narrowed with suspicion. "Why do you care what my relationship with my uncle is?"

The sound of more footsteps interrupted the conversation. Coming across the field was a third man in a white lab coat, still carrying a hammer that he never seemed to be without. As he came close enough that his eyes were visible, the merc supressed an inward shudder. John Henry was not sane by anyone's definition.

A quiet flash of words and concepts sped through the back of his mind: [Danger — instability. Caution.] The merc gave a silent nod and then welcomed John Henry. "Good, you came."

The mage's eyes jumped to John and then back to the merc. "What's he doing here? What exactly is going on?"

"I'd like to know that myself. And you can start by explaining exactly who you are." John's eyes had a deep and dangerous gleam.

"What do you mean, who he is? He's a merc that my uncle hired."

John Henry gave the mage a look of disgust. "Don't be an idiot. A regular merc doesn't dress like that and he doesn't invite the two of us out here in the middle of the night, and what's more, convince us to come." A burst of raucous laughter came from the card game inside. John made a vague motion towards the side of the building. "You stand out among those incompetent fools like a sore thumb. Anyone with any brains would have left as soon as they saw that Serra had powerful enemies and wasn't winning. Why are you still here?"

Here we go.... The merc turned back to the mage. "You need something to get you back in the good graces of your uncle. And you," he said, looking John Henry in the eye, "want Particle Man."

John nodded. "Go on."

Good...he's interested. "I can offer you both what you want. But I need your help." The merc pulled a sheaf of papers from an inside pocket. "This can take care of all our problems at once, but it would take both of you to build it." He handed the papers to John.

The scientist's eyes gleamed as he quickly absorbed the highly technical plans, working out the function of each part. The mage tried to look over his shoulder, but couldn't make out anything he understood. "What's this?"

"Ingenious...this may actually work...." John Henry turned back several pages to compare a drawing and then nodded. "It's a machine, a rather intriguing combination of magic and science. I would need your skills to finish it. But if this works the way I think it would, Particle Man would be helpless." The merc inwardly cringed again from those insane eyes.

John handed the plans back. "What do you get out of this?"

"We will build three of the field units. One is for Particle Man, and the other two are mine."

"How are we supposed to trust you? We don't even know your name!" The mage looked rather uncomfortable, as if he were caught up in something big that he wasn't entirely sure he wanted to be part of.

"You can call me Lance."

"Is that your real name?"

John Henry made an impatient gesture. "Of course it's not his real name. Why would he tell you his real name?" He offered his hand to the merc. "You've got my interest. Don't make me regret it."

"You know what you need to build it. We'll meet again in a week at this address." Lance handed John a piece of paper and then walked around the side of the building.

John stood there for a moment, looking after him. After a few moments, the roar of a motorcycle came from the other side of the building, and Lance rode off down the road on a black dirt bike.

With a final beat of his wings, he caught the thermal rising off the rocks of the cliff and began to soar. The hot air lofted him high into the late afternoon sky until he was visible from the ground only as a black dot against the deep blue. From horizon to horizon there was no sign of a cloud. A flick of a wing sent him into a shallow dive, crossing the canyon and then catching the hot rising air coming off the opposite cliffs. A cross breeze was converted into even more lift to send him circling ever higher. His wings spread and his back warmed by the sun, he rode the wind.

Below, the savage beauty of the desert stretched out towards distant mountains. The land was broken into uncountable ravines and box canyons, with only an occassional patch of green betraying the location of a water hole. A momentary reflection off a windshield drew his attention to a car on the highway, crawling along the black strip of asphalt like a bug. He was flying so high that even his excellent hearing could barely pick up the humm of the motor in the vast silence.

Windrider relaxed, letting the wind carry him, and opened his mind to his surroundings. The people in the car below were the only high-level intelligence and he quickly screened them out. Letting his mental senses overlay his sight, the ground below suddenly came alive. He passed over thousands of fleeting contacts: a scared rabbit leaping for a burrow; a coyote stalking quietly through the scrub; innumerable small birds flitting between rocks, scrub bushes, and the occassional cacti, never at rest for more than a second. The normalcy was peaceful and calming, as was being able to lower shields that had been up for far too long.

He pinpointed one particular rabbit in his mind and then dove, talons outstreched. The wind roared past his wings as the ground shot towards him. He could see his prey now; its protective brown coloring not enough to prevent him from picking out from the background. The rabbit shrank into the rock as he screamed a battlecry into the wind.

A mere twenty feet from the ground, he abruptly pulled out of the dive, saving the rabbit for some day when he was really hungry. The speed he built up sent him skimming above the ground, the vegetation a blur below him. With a couple of beats of his wings, he gained some altitude and caught another rising thermal, beginning a slow, circling climb.

He opened his mind again, but this time he stretched out farther, searching out other minds beyond the horizon. The scattered telepath or genius stood out as a distant glimmer in a sea of thoughts and emotions. Relying on his mental sense of his surroundings, he closed his eyes, letting himself sink completely into the web of minds covering the country. Population centers showed as flares of activity as he let his range expand, picking up major cities as far as half the globe away.

--Don't tell me you're flying with your eyes closed again.--

His bond with Drifter came alive as Drifter opened a channel. Windrider sent mental laughter reverberating back down it. ==You aren't the only one who is allowed to relax!==

--If you run into a cliff, I'm not going to come scrape you off.--

==No, you'll find some poor crow to haul around with you.== Windrider's accompanying mental picture of a huge, sad-faced crow sitting on Drifter's shoulder sent the man off into gales of laughter.

--Don't do that! Everyone's looking at me like I'm some mental patient! Anyway, I'm almost done here.--

==Okay, I'll be right there.==

Windrider turned his attention back to his mental view and began to reduce his focus and pull out of the web of minds. He paused, though, when a flare of telepathic activity he hadn't noticed before caught his attention. When a sudden burst of curiosity and attention focused towards him, he realized that someone else had detected him. The other telepath was in the midst of the brilliant patch he recognized as Net.ropolis, and the distance made the contact very tenuous. They barely managed to brush mental "fingers" and indicate interest in the other before the contact was broken.

Windrider opened his eyes and began a shallow glide down towards where Drifter was waiting. He made a mental note to search out this other telepath when he next visited Net.ropolis though; the feel of the mind was unlike anything he had felt before, and there was another impression that was very surprising.

The other mind was definitely avian.

It had appeared one night in the middle of a national forest. No one knew what had caused it or what it was made of. The geologists were all over it for several months before walking away baffled, saying that it must have been constructed. That was the only explanation that made sense. When they were asked who constructed it and how, though, they had no answer. Some accused the LNH of being involved and covering up some horrible accident, since the symbols of They Might Be Villains formed the top of the mountain and the base was directly over the last known location of their base, but there was no evidence. When pressed for a statement, the LNH was strangely silent.

After the geologists had left, public safety inspectors had their turn. Pieces of the stone were chipped off and sent to labs for thorough analysis, only to discover that they were normal bedrock. Radiation measurements, ground water tests, and tests of the local wildlife were all done, but nothing even remotely abnormal could be found. The mountain seemed determined not to give up its secrets. And so, with no other tests left to perform, people were allowed to return to the area, and the nearby roads were reopened. The locals eventually got used to living under its shadow, and the increase in the tourist trade proved to be good for local business. Still, at night, when the mountain rose up along the horizon blotting out stars, men would shiver and look away, filled with a sense of forboding that could never be completely ignored.

A glorious sunset in the western sky painted the mountain in shades of deep lavender as the sun sank slowly below the horizon. The sound of the dirt bike's motor was loud in the deserted streets. Lance rode through side streets and alleys in the poorer parts of the town, trying to remember directions from over a month ago and simultaneously trying to prepare himself for dealing with John Henry again. Exactly a week had passed since their last meeting, a week spent constructing strange devices from half-understood directions in the back of his mind. Not for the first time, Lance wondered if he really knew what he was getting into.

[Left. Warehouse.]

Again the flash of ideas through his head. Lance steered the bike around the corner, ignoring the stop sign, and pulled up in front of a nondescript warehouse near the edge of town. The white paint on the outside was flaking, and the lettering had long since faded into illegibility. Around the side, a pickup truck was pulled up next to a loading ramp, its tailgate still hanging open.

Well, this is it. Lance slung a pack over his shoulder and wheeled his bike up the ramp and through the door.

"Careful...just a little more...."

The mage closed his eyes in concentration, visualizing the strangely shaped piece of metal hanging in the air next to him, and attempting to subtly twist it. The edges blurred and shifted as John Henry slowly moved it into place with tongs, cautious not to actually touch the object. Finally, the edges touched the almost-assembled machine, and the piece snapped into place with a loud clang.

The mage shuddered in relief and wiped the perspiration off his forehead. "It's a good thing we're almost done...each one of those is getting harder. What is that one supposed to do?"

John was already around back of the helical construction, making more adjustments. "I believe it helps focus energy, but the amount of magic involved in that system is making it very difficult to be sure. You're the magician, figure it out."

Roger half-growled in frustration and threw himself into a chair. "I don't know! I'm way over my head here; I've never tried to do anything like this before. I'm working on hunches and intuition; it's amazing I haven't destroyed anything."

For a moment the only sound was that of tools on metal, and then John Henry's face reappeared from behind the machine. "That merc better get here soon. This thing isn't going to work without a power regulator, and all the plans for that are blank."

"I've got the regulator right here." Lance wheeled his bike through the door, leaned it against a convenient crate, and tossed his pack to John.

"Where have you been?"

"On the road. The drive was longer than I'd remembered."

John opened the pack and pulled out a slick metal cube. The surface was solid black and seemed somehow deeper than ordinary painted metal. The cube was totally seamless and slightly reflective.

"How is this made?"

"We don't have time for detailed explanations; the regulator won't remain functional for long. Just install it; if you made the control unit according to the plans, it will fit."

John gave Lance a long stare, and then slid the cube into the hole he'd left for the regulator. It went in smoothly and locked with a soft click, merging with several of the magical constructs he and Roger had installed earlier.

"Okay, it's done."

The metal base of the machine was about six feet in diameter and about two feet high. From it rose a wide strip of metal, twisting upward in a helix. This strip had largely been formed by Roger's magic, and parts of it were still glowing faintly green from the residual energy. Off to the side were three small statues, each vaguely resembling a man.

Lance slid into a chair next to Roger, and John stood next to them, in front of the machine, tapping his hammer on the concrete floor. After a moment of silence, Lance began:

"I'm sure you both want to know exactly how this works. John, you've probably already recognized that the power source is magical. That is correct, but the magic is not going to come from this reality.

"The power that we need is from another world, one so distant from this one that we would never be able to bridge the gap. This power is so strong, however, that it has created echoes, one of which is reasonably close. That's why we're here."

Roger nodded slowly. "Yes...if we need to tap into another dimension, this would be a good place.... The barriers separating dimensions are distorted and weak everywhere near that mountain."

"Right. Whatever created TMBV Mountain broke down reality, and it has yet to truly heal. We should be able to bridge the gap with only a fraction of the energy that would be required elsewhere.

"That's your task, Roger. We need someone to send the field units to the targets, and then we need an anchor to bring the power over. You need to cross over into the other reality and send power back. Part of the machine is designed to help you do that."

Roger leaned back and nodded to himself. The explanation had cleared up a lot of little things that had only partially fit together. He realized that he had been suspecting this; he could see the obviously extra-dimensional power requirements on the machine, and he could sense where and how that power could be obtained. Smiling privately at the reaction his uncle would have when he gave him a helpless Particle Man, he stood up. "Okay, I'm ready."

He stood on the top of a mountain as the fading sunlight cast long shadows across the ice. Surrounded by an aura of energy maintained by his link with the control unit and the Looniverse, he didn't feel the biting cold. Sending the statues to their designated targets had been simple; the coordinates were already in the control unit and all he had to supply was the power. The journey had also been easier than he expected, and the control unit had pinpointed the exact location where he wanted to be. He still remained in constant contact with it, hanging on to the input stream through which he would feed in energy and through which he could travel back home.

Reaching out with mage sight, he could feel the energies of this place. They were deep and strong, eddying through the mountains like ripples through a stream. He could feel them growing, concentrating, focusing on a point less than a mile away where the wind grabbed a column of smoke and spread it across the sky. Suddenly, there was the distant clang of a hammer on metal and the energy surged. Roger saw his chance and reached out for the power flow.

He was prepared for a shock, but he had never felt like this before. It was like stepping into the heart of the sun. The power flowed past and through him, more power than he had ever felt in his life. He had a moment to wonder what the main source must be like if this were only an echo. The flow pulled him in and dazzled him, and he felt his sense of identity slipping. He would have been lost in the surge forever were it not for the insistent pull of the control unit.

With effort, he grabbed that tether and pulled himself out. The control unit could feel the power, but it still couldn't reach it. Slowly, he pulled the input stream closer to the knot of energy under the mountain.

Suddenly the stream lept from his grasp like a snake and reached for the power flow. With a blinding flash, they met. A vast surge of power searched for the path of least resistance and arced through Roger's mind back to the Looniverse. He never had time to wonder what had gone wrong before his conciousness was blasted away.

"Why doesn't he hurry up," John Henry muttered, intent on the power gauges.

"I would imagine he has to find the right moment first."

"You'd think he'd — wait...." One of the dials jumped momentarily and then began to slowly climb. "I think he found something."

The machine emitted a low humm and the helix began to glow softly. All over the control panels, gauges began to show power increases as the input stream moved closer to the source.

Suddenly, the tip of the helix flared brilliant white. John Henry blinked tears out of his eyes and held up a hand to shade the dials just in time to see all of the needles peg. The brilliant flare began to spread slowly down the curves of the helix, accelerating up as it grew, and the machine's humm became a roar.

"It's drawing too much power!" John's bellow was barely audible over the scream of the control unit. "That was your power regulator — what the hell is it doing?!"

Lance could only shake his head numbly, and then turn away and cover his eyes as the glow of the helix made sight impossible. He thought he heard a thump nearby, and the smell of burned flesh, but the light and sound drove everything else out of his mind. It seemed to go on forever until the room exploded with the searing brilliance and the scream of tortured air, overwhelming eyes and ears.

When he was next aware of his surroundings, it seemed deathly silent and too dark too see. His eyes were watering and his ears ringing, and he hoped that there wasn't any permanent damage. Blinking through the tears, he tried make something out through the gloom. After several moments he found Roger lying motionless on the floor, his clothing and skin scorched and raw. John Henry was nearby, shaking his head and trying to clear his vision.

The control unit had been reduced to slag. Nothing remained of the helix except for a pool of cooling metal on top of the remains of the base. Leaning against the front side was a black dirt bike with silver trim. On the side of its gas tank, fading quickly but still obviously glowing silver in the darkness of the room, was the design of a hammer.

With a sudden roar, the motor of Lance's dirt bike, still parked near the door, sprang to life. As Lance and John whirled towards it, they saw the glow fade from the silver arrow on its gas tank. A mental shout echoed through the minds of everyone in the room.


Author's note: For the complete story of TMBV Mountain, see Constellation #12 by Dave Van Domelen.

Last spun 2013-07-01 from thread modified 2013-01-04