is electrifying, suspenseful, and poignant.
Lilia’s plan was simple.
1. She would attend the Nuclear Darwinists’ conference in New Gotham to present the award named in honor of Gid. The award had been her idea, after all, and was the perfect cover for what she really wanted to do.
2. She would discover the truth about Gid’s death.
3. She would quit the Society after the new award was presented, preferably with some panache.
4. She would stay out of trouble.
The last item was the only one Lilia expected to be an issue: she had only added it to her list to keep her mother happy.
Her mother didn’t need to know how quickly that item had been ditched.
Lilia had only been in New Gotham for an hour and she was wearing Gid’s best pseudoskin, idling a rented Kawasaki and considering the best way to enter the old city of Gotham unobserved. Revving the bike and wasting precious canola were the least of the multiple offenses either committed or pending.
She didn’t idle the bike because she was worried about breaking the law. Lilia did that all the time. Old cities were off-limits, by senatorial decree, which meant those who ventured into the old cities had to fend for themselves. Usually Lilia welcomed that edict: it meant less interference.
What troubled her was that the guys in the bike rental place had been joking about the wolves in Central Park.
Wolves. Was it true? It was one detail she hadn’t planned for. Lilia hadn’t given their chatter much credence, not until there was just the muck of the Hudson between herself and Gotham.
The sight of the old city made her pause.
Gotham was big, dark and legendary - she’d known that before. In this moment, though, it crouched on the other side of the river, a blackened wreck of what had been a glittering metropolis. It was hard to imagine that once it had shone with with so many lights that its illumination had obscured the stars above.
Now the stars had no competition. The steady rain and the darkness didn’t do the old city any favors - it looked like hell.
Maybe it was.
Lilia was sure that Gotham wolves would be bigger, more numerous and more nasty than most.
But rumor wasn’t going to stop her. This was a one-time shot. She kicked the bike into gear and turned into the darkness of the Lincoln Tunnel. Her geiger was already ticking faster than she might have liked, which meant she was soaking up radiation faster than would have been ideal.
As she drove down the curving ramp, Lilia held her breath, hoping that the tunnel wasn’t blocked. She turned on to the straightaway and the bike’s high beam showed that the snaking length of the tunnel was unobstructed. There was just a couple of inches of water on the roadway and the vehicles - there must have been some - were gone.
Pilfered, most likely, and raided for parts.
Her geiger settled to a slow tick.
Lilia grinned. Her legendary good luck was holding.
She accelerated and the roar of the bike’s engine reverberated in the tunnel. It felt good to ride, as good as being cut loose from a corset, as good as kicking five pounds of underskirts aside.
Even better, the Kawasaki had guts.
As the darkness closed behind her, she felt a prickle of fear. Lilia didn’t like darkness, never had. Logic, though, had dictated that the tunnel was the best option for entering the city. The tunnel shielded her from the radiation on approach, giving her more range once in Gotham, and it muffled the noise of the motorcycle from curious ears.
Had Gid, the king of logic, come this way?
The tunnel was long, or seemed longer than it should have been. It said something about Lilia’s fear of darkness that she was relieved to emerge into the hot zone of Gotham itself.
She burst from the tunnel like a bat out of hell and her geiger went wild. She had a heartbeat to note the wet road, gleaming like obsidian glass, before the bike tried to skid from beneath her.
Lilia swore as she corrected the skid.
The wolves chose that moment to howl.
The rumor was true.
Even better, there were a lot of them: their howls echoed one after the other.
Wolf telegraph. Lilia knew enough about wolves to know that they were summoning each other as a little welcome committee.
It made sense to move fast when she looked like lunch. Her heart was pounding as she turned to race into the valleys of the old city.
Lilia wasn’t unprepared for this adventure: she carried her nifty new laze, the one Joachim had bought her as a bonus for snagging the angel-shades. She’d brought Gid’s old suit because even his second-string pseudoskin was a better quality than any of her own. They’d been almost the same height and if it was a little snug around Lilia’s curves, well, there wouldn’t be a fashion show in the old city. And her dark cape would keep the eyes of Sumptuary and Decency averted when she was in public areas.
Like the bike rental shop.
Since there were multiple hungry carnivores in her vicinity, Lilia fretted about the extra heavy weight gauge mesh in the polymer of Gid’s pseudoskin. How much would it slow her down?
Her calculations had suffered from a small omission - would it be a fatal one?
Better not to dwell on that.
She’d memorized the map of Gotham from the archives, using a public reader in the netherzones to access it rather than her own palm. She’d told no one where she was going. It was a bit late for Lilia to see the parallels with Gid’s last fatal trip.
She’d avoided radiation for the past two weeks to allow herself maximum time in Gotham. Even so, the required monitoring patch on her sternum was already emanating a slight glow. There was no question of turning back. The shade who had contacted her out of the blue had implied that he knew something about Gid. Lilia didn’t know how to find the shade again.
It was now or never.
She drove faster. Skeletal hulks of old buildings stretched like fingers into the night sky, their height cast in impenetrable shadows. The thrum of the bike’s engine echoed and was magnified, as if a herd of motorcycles had invaded the ruin. Audacious young trees pushed their way through the cracks in the pavement, as opportunistic as the wolves.
There were no lights anywhere in Gotham, but the moon was nearly full and the night was surprisingly clear. Silver light slipped into more than one apartment, creating snapshots Lilia didn’t want to see. The streets were slick with water that reflected the moon and stars.
The grey dust was thick and dark over everything beyond the road, and it was probably mixed with ashes. Lilia didn’t have to speculate on what those ashes might have been: she knew. They had studied the hit on Gotham at the Institute for Radiation Studies - it was, quite literally, textbook stuff. Ten million people had made their homes in the city and roughly a quarter of a million had managed to evacuate before the firestorm started.
Lilia had never thought she’d see the damage live.
Maybe more people should see it, she thought. Maybe the Republic should offer tours. The old city of Gotham was a poster for disarmament.
Maybe that was the real reason why old cities were off-limits.
Not that Lilia was cynical about the objectives of central authority. Nuh uh.
The odd thing about Gotham was that it seemed to be awake. Everything she could see was destroyed, broken, trashed and abandoned, yet there was a strange watchfulness. She wasn’t at all convinced that she was alone, much less unobserved.
Gotham felt sentient. Most old cities didn’t have that kind of aura. Lilia had visited enough of them to know.
She shivered, although she wasn’t cold.
Maybe it was the wolves. Lilia was sure she saw the yellow eyes of wolves in every shadow. She was sure she heard the pad of their footfalls as they tracked her course.
But it would have been weird for wolves to have so much juju, even if they were starving.
Was someone else watching?
Or was the city haunted?
It shouldn’t have been far from the end of the tunnel to her destination, but the city didn’t quite look as it had when the archived map had been made. The debris piled into the streets wasn’t that easily distinguishable in the dark from actual buildings in decay. Lilia took a turn, realized she’d made a mistake, turned back and tried again.
Precious time was slipping away. She accelerated the bike even more, choosing one risk over another. Broadway and Seventh had become one cavernous pit, so Lilia made a quick u-turn. She had to retrace her course and go up Eighth, across 50th, wasting precious moments.
Two blocks left, then one. She was breathing hard, perspiring beneath her pseudoskin.
It was 20:59. Was she too late?
Would she get out of Gotham alive?
Or would she die here, just like Gid?
Lilia turned the last corner to her destination, sprayed an arc of water as she skidded the bike to a halt and stared. Unlike the rest of the city, Rockefeller Plaza was eerily similar to the way it looked in the archival photos.
Creepy. Lilia hesitated, revving the bike. The plaza appeared to be closed box, a sculpture at the far end being its focal point. There was a black hole in front of the statue, a pit of shadows that seemed to devour what little light there was.
“There’s a place in Old Gotham where the shadows are darker...”
She remembered the shade’s reedy voice all too well and her mouth went dry. His signal had been bootleg, on an unauthorized frequency, and the audio had broken up. Most people couldn’t have received the signal, but Lilia had her palm tuned to pirate frequencies. Even so, his voice had sounded as if he was pinging her from another world.
But then, Gotham could have been another world.
Lilia considered the plaza and didn’t like the lack of exit options. She turned up the audio on her helm and heard only the pattering of rain on stone. She tried very hard to be prudent, but being prudent wasn’t one of Lilia’s best tricks.
Her palm chimed the hour.
It was time for the rendezvous.
She gunned the bike and roared into the plaza.
As she drew closer, she saw that the statue at the far end still had enough of its gilding to glint in the moonlight. It depicted Prometheus, bringing fire to mortals and risking the wrath of the gods by so doing. (Considering what the human race had done with that bit of technology, to Lilia’s thinking the gods had good reason to be pissed off with him.)
Two dark sentinels loomed on either side of the steps that descended into the darkness before Prometheus, but she didn’t spare those sculptures more than a glance. Lilia parked between them at the top of the stairs.
No one was waiting there.
There was, however, something below.
That something was human in form. There had once been a pool beneath Prometheus, at the base of the stairs, and that something was on the pool’s lip. He was lying one one side, but not moving.
Maybe not even breathing.
The moonlight touched the small figure, the spaces on either side of the stairs left in impenetrable shadows.
Lilia had a very bad feeling, but there was only one way to be sure. She’d come this far, and she wasn’t coming back. She glanced over her shoulder and saw a line of yellow eyes closing into the shadows behind her.
So much for her legendary good luck.
She left the bike running and leapt down the stairs. Under the weight of Gid’s pseudoskin, she felt as if it took half of forever to get to the bottom. The wolves, she knew, were moving faster.
Lilia was sweating furiously when she turned on the external speaker in her helm. “Y654892?”
Big surprise - he didn’t answer. Lilia glanced back and found eyes glinting at the top of the steps. The wolves were drawing closer to the idling bike than she’d expected.
Hunger made them brave.
“Y654892?” Lilia shook his shoulder, because there was an off-chance that he’d settled for a doze while waiting for her.
At her touch, he rolled to his back. Even though she’d not expected anything good, Lilia screamed at what she saw.
The visor on his helm was open, as if to deliberately display the “third eye” right in the middle of his forehead. His normal eyes were staring back at Lilia, their blue irises glassy and lifeless. His skin was already puffing from the radiation exposure, his face mottled and red.
Lilia didn’t scream because he was dead.
She screamed because he had been eviscerated.
Excerpt from FALLEN ©2007 Claire Delacroix, Inc.
©1998-2009 Claire Delacroix, Inc..