This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2003 by Wen Spencer
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
Cover art by Bob Eggleton
Map by Avram Grumer
First printing, November 2003
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Production by Windhaven Press, Auburn, NH
Printed in the United States of America
Instant Message conversation dated
February 24, 2003, 7:00 p.m.
WS: To Don, who always helped me grow.
DK: Wow! Thanks. But that's kind of lame. How about: To Don, cute, but prickly like a hedgehog.
DK: Um, don't use that....
WS: To Don, who will someday get his hedgehog. To Don, the hedgehog is just for you.
DK: To Don Kosak, King of hedgehogs.
WS: To Don, I will never look at hedgehogs the same way again? To Don, Champion of the hedgehogs! To Don, "What, no, it's not a hedgehog, it's his head!" To Don, it's hedgehogs the whole way down. To Don, who is forever seeing hedgehogs.
DK: To Don, How do you know that Don doesn't know that the hedgehogs are enjoying themselves in the spring.
WS: To zen Don, who may or may not be there.
DK: Hee hee. Okay.
* footnote: ... is the Japanese way to indicate stunned or annoyed silence.
1: Life Debt
The wargs chased the elf over Pittsburgh Scrap and Salvage's tall chain-link fence shortly after the hyperphase gate powered down.
Tinker had been high up in the crane tower, shuffling cars around the dark sprawling maze of her scrap yard, trying to make room for the influx of wrecks Shutdown Day always brought in. Her cousin, Oilcan, was out with the flatbed wrecker, clearing their third call of the night, and it wasn't Shutdown proper yet.
Normally, clearing space was an interesting puzzle game, played on a gigantic scale. Move this stripped car to the crusher. Consolidate two piles of engine blocks. Lightly place a new acquisition onto the tower of to-be-stripped vehicles. She had waited until too late, though, tinkering in her workshop with her newest invention. Shuffling the scrap around at night was proving nearly impossible. Starting with the crane's usual clumsy handling—its ancient fishing pole design and manual controls often translated the lightest tap into a several-foot movement of the large electromagnet strung off the boom—she also had to factor in the distorted shadows thrown by the crane's twin floodlights, the deep pools of darkness, and the urge to rush, since Shutdown was quickly approaching.
Worse yet, the powerful electromagnet was accumulating a dangerous level of magic. A strong ley line ran through the scrap yard, so using the crane always attracted some amount of magic. She had invented a siphon to drain off the power to a storage unit also of her own design. The prolonged periods of running the crane were overwhelming the siphon's capacity. Even with taking short breaks with the magnet turned off, the accumulated magic writhed a deep purple about the disc and boom.
At ten minutes to midnight, she gave up and shut down the electromagnet. The electric company changed over from the local Pittsburgh power grid to the national grid to protect Pittsburgh's limited resources from the spike in usage that Shutdown brought. She had no reason to risk dropping a car sixty feet onto something valuable because some yutz flipped a switch early.
So she sat and waited for Shutdown, idly kicking her steel-tipped boots against the side of the crane's control booth. Her scrap yard sat on a hill overlooking the Ohio River. From the crane, she could see the barges choking the waterway, the West End Bridge snarled with traffic, and ten or more miles of rolling hills in all directions. She also had an unobstructed view of the full Elfhome moon, rising up through the veil effect on the Eastern horizon. The distortion came from the hyperphase lightly holding its kidnapping victim, a fifty-mile-diameter chunk of Earth complete with parts of downtown Pittsburgh, prisoner in the foreign dimension of Elfhome. The veil shimmered like heat waves over the pale moon face, nearly identical to that of Earth's own moon. Ribbons of red and blue danced in the sky along the Rim's curve, the collision of realities mimicking the borealis effect. Where the Rim cut through the heart of Pittsburgh, just a few miles southeast, the colors gleamed brilliantly. They paled as the Rim arced off, defining the displaced land mass. Beyond the Rim, the dark forest of Elfhome joined the night sky, black meeting black, the blaze of stars the only indication where the first ended and the second began.
So much beauty! Part of her hated going back to Earth, even for a day. Pittsburgh, however, needed the influx of goods that Shutdown Day brought; the North American counterpart of Elfhome was lightly populated and couldn't support a city of sixty thousand humans.
Off in the west, somewhere near the idle airport, a firework streaked skyward and boomed into bright flowers of color—the advent of Shutdown providing the grounded airplane crews with an excuse to party. Another firework followed.
Between the whistle and thunder of the fireworks, the impatient hum of distant traffic, the echoing blare of tugboat horns, the shushing of the siphon still draining magic off the electromagnet, and the thumping of her boots, she nearly didn't hear the wargs approaching. A howl rose, harsh and wild, from somewhere toward the airport. She stilled her foot, then reached out with an oil-stained finger to snap off the siphon. The shushing died away, and the large disc at the end of the crane boom started to gleam violet again.
In a moment of relative silence, she heard a full pack in voice, their prey in sight. While the elfin rangers killed the packs of wargs that strayed too close to Pittsburgh, one heard their howling echoing up the river valleys quite often. This sound was deeper, though, than any wargs she'd heard before, closer to the deep-chest roar of a saurus. As she tried to judge how close the wargs were—and more important, if they were heading in her direction—St. Paul started to ring midnight.
"Oh no, not now," she whispered as the church bells drowned out the hoarse baying. Impatiently, she counted out the peals. Ten. Eleven. Twelve.
In another dimension infinitesimally close and mind-bogglingly far, the Chinese powered down their hyperphase gate in geosynchronous orbit, and yanked Pittsburgh back off the world of Elfhome. Returning to Earth reminded Tinker of being on the edge of sleep and having a sensation of falling so real that she would jerk back awake, flat in bed so she couldn't actually have fallen anywhere. The gate turned off, the universe went black and fell away, and then, snap, she was sitting in the crane's operating chair, eyes wide open, and nothing had moved.
But everything had changed.
A hush came with Shutdown. The world went silent and held its breath. All the city lights were out; the Pittsburgh power grid shut down. The aurora dancing along the Rim dissipated, replaced by the horizon-hugging gleam of light pollution, as if a million bonfires had been lit. A storm wind whispered through the silent darkness, stirred up as the weather fronts coming across Ohio collided with the returning Pittsburgh air. On the wind came a haze that smudged what had been crystalline sky.
"Oh, goddamn it. You would think that after twenty years they would figure out a saner way of doing this. Let's get the power back on! Come on."
The wargs took voice again, only a block away and closing fast.
Was she safe in the crane? If the oncoming menace had been a saurus, she'd say she was safe on the high tower, for while the saurus was a nightmarish cousin of the dinosaur, it was a natural creature. Apparently designed as weapons of mass destruction in some ancient magical war, wargs were far more than pony-sized wolves; it was quite possible they could climb.
But could she make it to her workshop trailer, the walls and windows reinforced against such a possible attack?
Tinker dug into the big side pocket of her carpenter pants, took out her night goggles, and pulled them on. In the green wash of the goggles' vision, she then saw the elf. He was coming at her over the burned-out booster rockets, dead cars, and obsolete computers. Behind him, the wargs checked at the high chain-link fence of the scrap yard. She got the impression of five or six of the huge, wolflike creatures as they milled there, probably balking more at the metal content of the fence than at its twelve-foot height or the additional three-foot razor-wire crown. Magic and metal didn't mix. Even as she whispered, "Just leave! Give up!" the first warg backed up, took a running start at the fence, and leaped it, clearing it by an easy three or four feet.
"Oh, shit!" Tinker yanked on her gloves, swung out of the open control cage, and slid down the ladder.
"Sparks?" she whispered, hoping the backup power had kicked in on her computer network. "Is the phone online?"
"No, Boss," came the reply on her headset, the AI annoyingly chipper.
Her fuel cell batteries kept her computer system operational. Unfortunately, the phone company wasn't as reliable. That her security programs needed a dial tone to call the police was a weakness she'd have to fix, but until then, she was screwed. Shit, they could build a hyperphase gate in geostationary orbit and put a man in the seas of Europa, but they couldn't get the damn phones to work on Shutdown Day!
"Sparks, open a channel to the wrecker."
"Oilcan? Can you hear me? Oilcan?" Damn, her cousin was out of the wrecker's cab. She paused, waiting to see if he would answer, then gave up. "Sparks, at two-minute intervals repeat following message: 'Oilcan, this is Tinker. I've got trouble. Big trouble. Get back here. Bring cops. Send cops. I'll probably need an ambulance too. Get me help! Hurry.' End message."
She landed at the foot of the ladder. A noise to her left made her look up. The elf was on one of the tarp-covered shuttle booster rockets, pausing to draw his long thin sword, apparently deciding to stop and fight. Six to one—it would be more a slaughter than a fight. That fact alone would normally make her sick.
Worse, though, she recognized the elf: Windwolf. She didn't know him in any personal sense. Their interaction had been limited to an ironically similar situation five years ago. A saurus had broken out of its cage during the Mayday Faire, chewing its way through the frightened crowd. In a moment of childish stupidity, she'd attacked it, wielding a tire iron. She had nearly gotten herself killed. A furious Windwolf had saved her and cast a spell on her, placing a life debt on her essence, linking her fate with his. If her actions got him killed, she would die too.
Or at least, that's what Tooloo said the spell would do.
Sane logic made her question the old half-elf. Why would Windwolf save her only to doom her? But Windwolf was an elf noble—thus one of the arrogant domana caste—and one had to keep in mind that elves were alien creatures, despite their human appearance. Just look at loony old Tooloo.
And according to crazy Tooloo, the life debt had never been canceled.
Of all the elves in Pittsburgh, why did it have to be Windwolf?
"Oh, Tinker, you're screwed with all capital letters," she muttered to herself.
Her scrap yard ran six city blocks, a virtual maze of exotic junk. She had the advantage of knowing the yard intimately. The first warg charged across the top of a PAT bus sitting next to the booster rockets. The polymer roof dimpled under its weight; the beast left hubcap-sized footprints in its wake. Windwolf swung his sword, catching the huge creature in its midsection. Tinker flinched, expecting blood and viscera; despite their magical origin, wargs were living creatures.
Along the savage cut, however, there was a crackling brilliance like electrical discharge. For a second, the warg's body flashed from solid flesh to the violet, intricate, circuitlike pattern of a spell. That gleaming, rune-covered shell hung in mid-air, outlining the mass of the warg. She could recognize various subsections: expansion, increase vector, artificial inertia. Inside the artificial construct hung a small dark mass—an animal acting like the hand inside of a puppet. She couldn't identify the controlling beast, shrouded as it was by the shifting lines of spell, but it looked only slightly larger than a house cat.
What the hell?
Then the spell vanished back to illusionary flesh, reforming the appearance of a great dog. The monster rammed Windwolf in a collision of bodies, and they went tumbling down off the rocket.
These creatures weren't wargs, nor were they totally real. They weren't flesh-and-blood animals, at least not on the surface. Someone had done a weird illusionary enhancement, something along the lines of a solid hologram. If she disrupted the spell, the monsters should be reduced back to the much smaller, and hopefully less dangerous, animal providing the intelligence and movement to the construct.
And she had to try something quick, before the pseudo-warg killed Windwolf.
She ran twenty feet to a pile of sucker poles brought in last year from a well salvage job. They were fifteen feet long, but only two inches thick, making them light but awkward. More importantly, they were at hand. She snatched one up, worked her hands down it until she had a stiff spear of five feet fed out in front of her, and then ran toward the fight.
The monster had Windwolf pinned to the ground. Up close, there was no mistaking the weird-looking thing for a standard wolfish warg. While equally massive, the vaguely doglike creature was square-jawed and pug-nosed with a mane and stub tail of thick, short, curly hair. The monster dog had Windwolf by the shoulder and was shaking him hard. The elf had lost his sword and was trying to draw his dagger.
Tinker put all her speed and weight into punching the pole tip through the dog's chest. She hoped that even if the pole failed to penetrate, she might be able to knock the monster back off of Windwolf. As she closed, she wondered at the wisdom of her plan. The thing was huge. She never could remember that she was a small person; she had unconsciously used Windwolf as a scale, and had forgotten that he was nearly a foot taller than she.
This is going to hurt me more than it, she thought, and slammed the pole home.
Amazingly, there was only a moment of resistance, as if she had struck true flesh, and then the spell parted under the solid metal, and the pole sank up to her clenched hands. The beast shifted form, back to the gleaming spell. Both the spell form and the creature within reeled in pain; luckily someone had been careless in the sensory feedback limit. She reached down the pole, grabbed hold at the eight-foot mark, and shoved hard. The pole speared through the massive spell form, bursting out through the heavily muscled back, near the rear haunch.
The dog shrieked, breath blasting hot over her, smelling of smoke and sandalwood. It lifted a front foot to bat at her. She saw—too late to react—that the paw had five-inch claws. Before it could hit her, though, Windwolf's legs scissored around her waist, and she found herself airborne, sailing toward the side of the booster rocket.
I was right. This is going to hurt.
But then Windwolf plucked her out of the air on his way up to the top of the rocket. The crane's floodlights snapped on—the transfer of Pittsburgh to the national power grid apparently now complete—and spotlighted them where they landed. Beyond the fence, the rest of the city lights flickered on.
"Fool," Windwolf growled, dropping her to her feet. "It would have killed you."
They were nearly the exact words he had said during their battle with the saurus. Were they fated to replay this drama again and again? If so, his next words would be for her to leave.
Windwolf grunted, pushing her behind him. "Run."
There was her cue. Coming across the booster rocket were three of the monstrous dogs, the poly-coated tarp insulating their charge. Enter monsters, stage right. Exit brave heroine, stage left, in a dash and jump for the crane ladder.
What disrupted magic better than a length of steel was magnetism! With the power back on, the crane was operational. If she could get up to it and switch on the electromagnet, the dogs were toast. Through the bars of the ladder, she could see a fourth monster coming across the scrap yard, leaping from nonconductive pile to nonconductive pile like a cat transversing a creek via stepping stones.
She was twenty feet from the cage when it landed on the crane trusses and started up after her. And she had thought herself so clever in using ironwood instead of steel to build the crane tower.
"Oh damn, my stupid luck." She frantically scrambled up the rungs, fighting panic now. She was forty feet up; falling would be bad.
The dog was being equally cautious, taking the time to judge its jump before making it. She climbed fifteen feet before it took its first leap, landing nearly where she had been when it first reached the crane. It reared and stretched out its front legs, claws extended, trying to fish her down off the steel ladder without actually touching metal. She climbed frantically up and into the crane's mostly wood cage. She slapped on the power button and fumbled wildly through the dark interior for a weapon, tipping toward panic.
With the scrabble of claws on wood, the monster landed on the window ledge.
Her hand closed on the portable radio. No. Well, maybe. She flung it at the massive head. The tool kit followed. She snatched up the fire extinguisher as the monster growled and reached out for her like a cat with a cornered mouse. Cat? Dog? What the hell were these things? She'd have to figure it out later; it would bug her until she knew.
She started to throw the fire extinguisher and then caught herself. These things seemed to have full sensory feedback! Flipping the fire extinguisher, she yanked out the pin, pressed the lever, and unloaded the foam into the monster's face. The creature jerked back, teetering on the edge as it rubbed a paw at its foam-covered eyes. She changed her grip on the extinguisher, hauled back, and then nailed the dog with a full roundhouse swing to the head.
There was a nice satisfying clang, a wail of terror, a brief fast scramble of claws, and then it fell.
With luck, it wouldn't land on its feet.
She jumped to the crane controls. She had to lean way out to see Windwolf at the foot of the crane as she swung the boom around. Three of the monster dogs had him down, tearing at him like a rag doll. Was she too late? "Oh, gods, let this work!"
She activated the electromagnet, hit the siphon to drain off magic to the magic sink, and dropped the disc as fast and close as she dared onto the tight knot of bodies.
Luckily Windwolf and the dogs were on the booster rocket, which was far too big to be lifted by the electromagnet. The illusionary flesh of the dogs shifted to semitransparent shells. The spells unraveled, their power sucked away by the magnet, dropping the small animals controlling the monsters onto the rocket.
Dogs. Small, ugly, pug-nosed dogs, not much bigger than alley cats. Still, they launched themselves at Windwolf, barking and growling. She swore, swung out of the crane's cage, and slid down the ladder. As she landed, she saw a huge dark figure coming at her.
Shit, the monster dog she'd smacked out the window!
She raced for the booster rocket with the electromagnet still hovering over it, magic wreathing about the black disc. She could smell the dog's smoky breath, feel it blasting furnace hot against her back. With a strange clinical detachment, she remembered that cats killed their prey by biting down and breaking their necks. What did dogs do?
The dog hit her. She flung her hands back to protect her neck, and the massive jaws closed on her left hand. She screamed as they tumbled onto the ground. Gunshots cracked and echoed over the scrap yard as the dog shook its head, ravaging her hand.
"Help!" she screamed to the unknown shooter. "Help me!"
With a sharp crack, a bullet caught the dog in the center of its forehead, snapping its head backward. The flesh vanished to spell form, flaring deep violet, as the steel blasted through it. The dog released her hand, and she dropped to the ground. Immediately, she half crawled, half stumbled for the booster rocket. The shooter fired, again and again. She glanced back as she ran. The bullets struck the dog in a quick sharp hail, punching it backward. The runes flared with each shot, giving lightning flashes of the dog within, a vulnerable heart to the monstrous construct. The spell form, however, was robbing the bullets of their velocity and diverting them from a straight path. The monster came on, the dog within unharmed.
Sobbing in pain and fear, she hit the side of the booster rocket and clawed desperately for a handhold, leaving bloody smears with her savaged hand.
The monster launched itself at her—and hit the electromagnet's radius of influence. The spell flashed brilliantly, and then unraveled, the magic fraying upward in momentarily visible violet particles.
The small ugly dog within landed at Tinker's feet, growling.
"Oh, you're so dead!" she told it, and kicked it hard with her steel-toe boot. The dog landed a dozen feet away, struggled to its feet, and fled, yelping. "And it's good!" Tinker held her hands up like a referee judging a field goal. "And the fans go wild! Tink-ker! Tink-ker! Tink-ker!"
Elation lasted only a minute. The numbness in her hand gave way to pain. The wound bled at an alarming rate, though she suspected any rate would be frightening. Blood just had a way of being upsetting.
And there was still Windwolf to save.
"Is the phone working yet?"
"No dial tone, Boss."
Her luck, the phone company would only get the phones online an hour before Startup.
She struggled through cutting up her oversized shirt with her Swiss Army knife, reducing it down to a midriff. She had an individually wrapped feminine hygiene pad in her pants pocket. (They made good sterile bandages in such emergencies, and held twice their weight in motor oil.) She cut the pad in half and used her shirt to tie the two halves tight to either side of her bleeding hand. Not a great job, but it would have to do.
She walked around to the front of the booster rocket and clambered up the twelve feet to its top. Windwolf lay sprawled in a pool of blood. The ugly pug-faced dogs lay around him, dead. As she checked Windwolf's pulse, his almond eyes opened, recognized her, and closed.
The wounds that the dogs had inflicted on him were hideous. She needed to swallow hard to keep her stomach down. She noticed an empty shoulder holster tucked under his arm.
Oh, yeah, someone had shot the dog before it could kill her!
She glanced about for his gun, and finally thought to look up. An automatic pistol and a dozen shell cases were tacked to the bottom of the magnet. Windwolf was the shooter who'd saved her.
* * *
By the time she got Windwolf to the multiple trailers that served as the scrap yard's office and her workshop, she knew why vids always had men saving women and rarely the other way around. There just wasn't any way a woman—well, a five-foot-nothing woman—could carry around an unconscious, bleeding man in any artistic manner. In the end, she rigged a sling and used the crane to swing him across the scrap yard and down onto the front doorstep. She kept the electromagnet on until it was so close to the steel-shell trailers that they were shuddering. When she shut the magnet down, Windwolf's pistol dropped down into his lap.
She nearly fell climbing back down out of the crane and banged her head. She felt blood trickling down her face as she walked back to the trailers. She stuck Windwolf's pistol into her waistband. Getting the elf up into a firefighter's carry, she staggered through the office and into the trailer attached to it that she used as a workshop. Somehow, she got Windwolf laid out on her worktable without dropping or seriously banging him.
"Sparks." She sighed, head on Windwolf's chest, listening to his heart race.
Her computer churned slightly as the AI answered. "Yeah, Boss?"
"Are the phones online yet?"
"Oilcan check in yet?"
"What's the time?"
"Twelve fifteen a.m."
Fifteen minutes since Windwolf came over the fence. The longest fifteen minutes of her life.
* * *
Leaving Windwolf in her workshop, she staggered back into the office. It was a two-bedroom mobile home, complete with kitchen and full bathroom, forty years old and showing all of its age. She bolted shut the front door, got an Iron City beer out of the fridge, and then staggered back to the bathroom to wash her right hand well. Lava cleanser first, to scour off the day's layer of oil and grease, and then a rare soak in antibacterial soap for the upcoming messing with wounds. She cleaned around the bandage on her left hand, trying not to notice that it was blood-soaked.
The only clean place on her face was what the night goggles covered, giving her a weird inverse raccoon look. Her bottom lip was swollen, making her mouth seem even more full than normal. From somewhere within her haphazard hairline—a product of Oilcan's haircuts and her own occasional impromptu trims with whatever sharp object was at hand—blood trickled down. She hunted through her dark hair, looking for the source of the blood, and found a small cut. She wet down a washcloth and stood a few minutes holding it to her scalp, sipping her beer, and trying to figure out what to do next.
She had a weakness for strays. It was like someone early on had written "sucker" on her in magic ink. The weak and the helpless saw it, swarmed to her, and thrived under her care. Well, not all of them. Not plants. Her thumbs were black from motor grease and engine oil. She killed any plant she tried to doctor. Not the terribly fragile either. Baby birds and suicidal wrecks, she had found, all dropped dead in her care. They seemed to need more mothering than she could muster. Perhaps her lack came from never seeing the real thing in action.
The tough ones, though, survived. Perhaps more despite her care, she realized now, instead of because of it. When it came to healing, she knew enough to be dangerous. She could recognize that Windwolf was close to death. If he did die, she would find out if Tooloo was right about the life-debt spell. Except for throwing a few pressure bandages onto him, though, she didn't know how to deal with him. Usually elves healed at a phenomenal rate, but only in the presence of magic. The elves had mastered bio magic back when humans were doing flint weapons. Their dependence on magic to heal made Tinker theorize that their healing factor might mirror nanotechnology, that the elves had some type of spell interwoven into their genes that endlessly corrected their bodies, thus healing any damage and keeping them from aging.
She caught herself about to drift off into speculation on the type of spells they might be employing, and returned to the problem at hand.
Someone else would have to patch Windwolf up. Until she figured out who this mythical person might be and got Windwolf into his or her care, she had to keep the elf alive. It was Shutdown Day. They were on Earth. There was no ambient magic for his healing.
But she did have the power sink that collected the magic drained off the crane. She used a modified magnetic containment field to store magical energy—one of her more successful experiments. She couldn't use the stored magic directly on Windwolf's body—it would be like trying to link someone with an artificial heart up to a 110 outlet. She could, though, link the sink's energy to a healing spell.
"Search the codex for healing spells. Put the results up on the workshop screen."
She got the first-aid kit out of the back storage room and went back to her workshop. She ran out of pressure bandages long before she covered all of Windwolf's wounds, so she raided the bathroom for feminine hygiene pads and affixed them with lots of Scotch tape.
Sparks had cued up twenty healing spells. Some were quite specific: broken bones, kidney failure, heart attack, and so on. She culled those out and looked at the more general ones. One was labeled "will not work on humans."
She had Sparks call up the spell schematics, wishing she understood bio magic better. It seemed to do what she wanted, which was focus energy into the body's existing healing abilities. She cut and pasted in a power distributor as a secondary ring. She made sure the printer was loaded with transferable circuit paper, sent the spell to the printer, and finished her beer as it printed.
Windwolf had worsened. Blood soaked the bandages. All color had drained out with his blood, and he breathed hard and shallow. She let the bandages be, but washed his chest. Peeling the protective sheet from the circuit paper, she pressed the spell to his clean flesh. She checked the spell's hertz cycle, hooked leads through a converter box, and taped the power cords into the power distributor.
"Here goes everything." She checked one last time to make sure all stray metal bits were clear of the magic's path, and flipped the switch. She checked her database, and winced at the activation word phonetically spelled out. Oh great, one of those ancient Elvish words where you try to swallow your tongue. A footnote gave the translation: Be healed.
The outer ring powered up first and cast a glowing sphere over the rest of the spell. Then the healing spell itself kicked in, the timing cycle ring clicking quickly clockwise as the magic flowed through the spell in a steady rhythm.
Windwolf took five shallow breaths. Then a long, deep breath. Another. And another. He fell into a clean, easy breathing rhythm, color washing into his face.
"Yes! Be healed!" Tinker cried. "I am your magic god! Say Amen to me! Woohoo!" She danced around the room. "Oh yes, I am a god! The one! The only! Tinker!"
Still pleased to giggles, she went to look at Windwolf—really look at him—for the first time in years.
He was beautiful, but then again, he was an elf. They were all beautiful. (And unfortunately all snobs too.) A blue silk ribbon gathered his glossy black hair into a thick, loose ponytail that came nearly to his waist. She tangled her fingers in the curly tips of the ponytail and felt the smooth silkiness of his hair.
Deceptively delicate, his face held just enough strength in it to be masculine. All the fey features: full lips, sharp high cheekbones, perfect nose, pointed ears, almond-shaped eyes, and thick long eyelashes.
She couldn't remember the color of his eyes. They were the first elf eyes she had seen up close, within inches of her own, and they had been so stunningly vivid, she remembered that they left her breathless. But what color? Green? Purple?
She wrapped the lock of black around her finger and rubbed it against her cheek. So soft. It smelled wonderful—a musky spice. She held it to her nose, trying to identify the scent. Mid-sniff, she realized he'd opened his eyes and was looking at her with silent suspicion. His irises were the color of sapphires with the biggest price tags locked in jeweler's cases—the stunning deep blue that neared black.
She gasped with surprise, and then cried as he shifted, "Naetanyau! I've got a healing spell jury-rigged on you. If you move, it would be bad. Do you understand? Kankau?"
He studied the spell hovering over his chest, the power leads to the siphon, and then the bulky containment unit itself. "I understand," he said finally in English. He looked back at her.
She was still holding the lock of his hair. "Oh, sorry. You smell nice," she said, carefully dropping his hair.
"Who are you?"
He didn't remember her. Not that she was totally surprised—their minutes together, prior to today, could be counted on the fingers of both hands and had been shared with one nasty monster. She had been thirteen then, and still hadn't grown enough of a figure to distinguish her from the boys she played with. It seemed slightly unfair though; her imagination had decided that he stood as some kind of symbol and featured him often in her dreams.
"They call me Tinker." Tooloo had cautioned her against telling people her true name so often that using her nickname became habit. "You're in my scrap yard."
"Your eyes." He carefully lifted his right hand to make an odd gesture over his eyes. "They were different."
She frowned, and then realized what he meant. "Oh, yeah, I had my night goggles on." She fished them out of her pocket, demonstrated how they fit on. "They let me see in the dark."
"Ah." He studied her silently for several minutes. "I would have died."
"You still might. You're badly hurt. It's Shutdown Day, and we're on Earth. I'm afraid if I don't take some drastic actions, you're not going to make it."
"Then drastic actions it must be."
* * *
Tinker was trying to figure out what "drastic" might entail when a squad car screamed up the street and slewed in through the open gate.
The cop was Nathan Czernowski, shotgun in hand. "Tinker? Oilcan? Tink!"
"I'm in here!" she called to him, working the dead bolts. "A pack of warglike things attacked me. I think I got them all, but I wasn't taking a chance."
Nathan crossed the parking lot cautiously, scanning the yard, shotgun at his shoulder. "Someone stopped Cordwater out by the pike and said you were yelling for help over your radio line. There's an ambulance on its way. Are you okay? Where's your cousin?"
"One got my hand." She threw open the door, stepped back to let him in, and then bolted the door shut again. "It hurts like shit, but it's stopped bleeding. Otherwise, I'm fine. Oilcan is out with the wrecker. Sparks, edit the message to the wrecker: 'Oilcan, Nathan's here, the monsters are dead, and I'm fine. If I'm not here when you get home, I'll be at Mercy.'"
"Can you wait for the ambulance?" Nathan pushed up his goggles and gazed down at her with dark concerned eyes. "I can take you to the hospital."
"I'm fine, but the—umm—the wargs were chasing down an elf." Normally she was a stickler for accuracy, but lacking a name for the monsters, it seemed easier just to say wargs. "He's in my workshop. They chewed him over good."
"He's still alive?"
"Barely. I jury-rigged up a healing spell, so he's stable."
"You've got a spell running now?" Nathan asked. "During Shutdown? Where's the magic coming from?"
"I'm running off of a power sink that I invented. I siphon magic into it while I'm running the crane."
Nathan grinned. "Only you, Tinker. Is he conscious?"
"He was. I'm not sure about right now."
"Did he tell you his name?" Nathan moved into "just the facts" mode, taking out a PDA and stylus.
"It's Windwolf. You know, the one with the saurus?" She traced a symbol in the air over her forehead. Nathan had been a rookie when he took her to the hospital that day, bleeding and crying.
"The one who marked you?" He noted it into his PDA. "The elves have a word for this."
"It's like karma or something. Entanglement?"
"Entanglement is a quantum theory between photons. The polarization of one entangled photon is always the opposite of the other."
He worked his jaw as he thought. "Yeah. Once they're entangled, they stay that way, right?"
She looked at him, one eyebrow upraised.
"Well there's you, him, me, and a monster."
"Yeah, right." Strange, even after five years and with the monster dogs still fresh in her mind, it was the image of the saurus's mouth and the all-too-many ragged teeth that made her shudder. "Look, this has been pretty cranked. I talked to Tooloo about that symbol that Windwolf put on me. She said that's how elves mark life debts. Tooloo says that if Windwolf dies before I cancel the life debt, then some really nasty things will happen to me." Exactly what would happen changed every time she asked Tooloo about it. Once Tooloo had said that as Windwolf's body decayed, Tinker's would too. Another time, Tooloo had insisted that Tinker would simply vanish. She tried not to believe the old halfie, but she still had nightmares after every conversation.
Nathan looked troubled. "Tooloo is a superstitious fool. I saw the mark. You told me how long Windwolf took making the mark. That wasn't a full spell, whatever it was. It was quick and dirty, and is not going to turn you into a walking zombie five years later. Why would he do that to you, anyhow? You were just a kid."
"He was angry with me. I got in his way while he was trying to kill the saurus and pissed him off. You know what they say about elves."
"What they say and what is true isn't necessarily the same thing. It was nothing."
"It will be nothing. I'm going to save his life. I'm going to cancel the debt. We'll be even."
An ambulance came up the street, wailing, and pulled into the yard. Nathan went out to escort the EMT and Tinker swore when she saw who followed Nathan through the front door. "You? Damn, my luck is all bad today."
Jonnie Be Good was an elf wannabe; tall and slender, he wore his blond hair elf-long and had had his ears pointed back in the States. Why anyone would want to be an elf was beyond Tinker. True, the living forever came in handy, but their society sucked; the lower castes seemed practically enslaved by the castes above them, and they were all elegant nose-in-the-air snobs.
Odd, she usually thought of Jonnie Be Good as a good-looking slimewad—apparently after a few minutes' exposure to Windwolf's level of beauty, Jonnie seemed ugly as wood-grain, self-stick wallpaper.
Jonnie smirked and grabbed his crotch. "Oh, bite me."
Add stupid to ugly. Tinker sidestepped quickly to block Nathan; she didn't want Jonnie squashed before he had a chance to treat Windwolf. "I've got a chewed-up hand, and there's a guy really messed up in my workshop. Don't touch the spell I've got set up—it's keeping him stable."
"I like the shirt," Jonnie murmured, squeezing between her and Nathan instead of going around, and made it an excuse to slide his hand over her bare stomach.
"Watch the hands," Nathan rumbled, continuing his big-brother routine. Between him and Oilcan, it was no wonder she didn't date—not that there was anyone she wanted to date. Pittsburgh had a stunning lack of young male humans who weren't buttheads. And while elves were pretty, she had yet to meet one that didn't treat her like a subspecies.
Nathan glowered at Jonnie until the paramedic had disappeared into her workshop. "I'll take a look around. Make sure the wargs are all dead."
"That shotgun will only piss them off," she said, and pulled the dent-mender magnet off the wall. "Here, take this."
* * *
Because she spent most of her time at the scrap yard, either working or tinkering, she had her laundry machines hooked up in the small, second bedroom. She kept her clean clothes split roughly in half between her loft and a dresser in her workshop. She was annoyed, but not surprised, to find Jonnie pawing through her panties when she walked in.
He had the balls to act like nothing was wrong. He held up a pair of black silk panties. "Very nice."
She snatched it back and stuffed it into the open drawer, trying to pretend her face wasn't burning. "Do you mind?"
"Not at all." He grinned lazily, gazing at her groin. "Wouldn't mind seeing them on, either. Or off."
"Let me see your hand." For a few minutes he managed to be professional, undoing her bandaging, washing out the wound with peroxide, applying an antibiotic, and rebandaging it. "It's too deep for artificial flesh. You're going to want to go to the hospital with this. You could take nerve damage if it heals wrong, and there's a good chance it can go septic."
"Okay." She mentally took back some of the things she had been thinking of him, until he got up and made motions of packing. Slowly, though, as if he wanted her to notice. "Aren't you going to do something about Windwolf?"
He stopped and shrugged. "Mercy won't take him. According to the peace treaty, elves are to be taken to the hospice beyond the Rim. The elves don't want us messing around with them. Nothing says I have to treat him."
At one time Pittsburgh was home to dozens of world-class hospitals. Amazing what being transported to an alien world can do to health care. Mercy was the only hospital left open, doing only emergency work. Apparently, only human emergency work. All elective surgery took place on Earth. There were other hospitals, beyond the Rim, but Tinker neither knew where they were, nor wanted to be stuck at one when Startup hit.
"It's Shutdown Day. The hospice is on Elfhome."
"So? He's stable; wait it out."
"I don't know if I have enough magic to last twenty-four hours. I want him patched up."
"Well, I could be persuaded to treat him."
She clenched her jaw on a few choice names. She'd let him know what she thought of him after Windwolf was patched up. "What do you want?"
"Your name appears on a very short list of women who have never put out."
She clenched her fists. "So, what of it?"
"Well, there's money riding on who gets the first dip in your pool."
"I can pay you anything that's riding on the bet." She sneered.
"Oh, the prestige is more important than the money, although the money has a good bit to do with it. And then there's the thrill of conquest, going where no man has gone before."
"Yeah, right, with Nathan Czernowski poking around outside, and Windwolf bleeding to death in here, you think I'm going to let you do me?"
"Your word is good for me. I do the elf, and later I come back, and do you."
Some sounds, she decided, are fated to be huge no matter how quiet they are. The sound of Windwolf's knife coming out of its sheath was only a whisper of silver on leather, and yet it rang out in the room like a shout. She supposed Jonnie's eyes bugging wide and his sudden frozen attention to the blade pressed to his groin helped to make the noise seem louder.
"You do her," Windwolf whispered, "and you will never do another woman."
"It was a joke." Jonnie swallowed hard.
"Get out," Windwolf commanded.
Tinker glared at Windwolf as Jonnie scuttled out. Why did Windwolf have to wake up now? "Great. That was the only man in the tristate area who could help you."
"I would rather die than stain my honor in that way."
"Your honor? What the hell does it have to do with your honor? It was my decision to make, not yours. I would have been the one to screw him."
"And you think this would not reflect on my honor?"
"Look, I didn't really even have to sleep with him. I could have lied to him, got him to treat you, and then backed out later. No one would blame me. He's a complete slimewad."
"Would you really break your word of honor?"
"We'll never know."
He caught her hand. "Would you?"
How could he be so close to death and still be so strong? She finally gave up trying to get free and answered him, anger making her truthful. She considered her honor much more valuable than her virginity, which was a temporary thing to start with. "No." But that didn't mean she couldn't think rings around Jonnie Be Good any day; tricking him without lying would have been easy, probably would even have been fun.
Nathan returned from checking the scrap yard, his head tilted as he listened intently to his headset. "I hate Shutdown Day. People just turn into raging idiots on the road. They've got like twenty cars piled up on the Veterans Bridge. There's possible deaths involved, and apparently a fight has broken out. I've got to go. I've checked around. There's no wargs skulking around." He frowned, noticing the lack of the third person. "What happened to Jonnie?"
"Oh, he opened his mouth, the normal sewage came out, and Windwolf pulled a knife on him. Says his honor would be damaged."
Nathan's eyes narrowed, and he muttered darkly, "I'm going to bust Jonnie's ass if he can't keep his mouth shut and his hands to himself."
"I can handle him myself." Men. All their posturing, yet she was going to have to pick up the pieces anyhow. She guessed it didn't hurt to ask. "What am I supposed to do with Windwolf?"
Nathan gazed at the battered elf bleakly. "I don't know, Tink. Just ride it out, if you can. I don't know anyone more qualified to take care of him than you."
"Damn it, Nathan." She followed him out to the front door. "I don't know anything about healing an elf."
"Nobody does. Take care of yourself, Tink!"
"Yeah!" She watched him get into his squad car and pull away. "Nobody else is going to do it."
She bolted the front door and glanced at the office clock: 1:20. Only a little more than an hour since Windwolf came over the fence, and another twenty-three before Pittsburgh returned to Elfhome and its magic.
Already there was a tiny slice off the top of the sink's power meter. She marked the one-hour's usage, feeling a growing sense of despair. The sink would last approximately another twenty hours. Alone she couldn't move the heavy sink, and if she disconnected Windwolf from it to get him to help, he would die. And according to Tooloo, if he died without the spell being canceled, so did she.
She remembered with a start that Tooloo had at one time given her a cancel spell. Tinker had transcribed it into her computer as an appendix to her family's spell codex. Windwolf seemed to be asleep; still, she did the search by hand, using the keywords of "cancel, life debt." Since the workshop screen was viewable from the table, she quickly sent the spell to the printer and closed the file. The printer hummed as it spit out a page of circuit paper.
Tinker picked up the paper and stared at it. Tooloo had scribed the single complex glyph out, and Tinker had copied it carefully; but the blunt truth was, she had no idea what the spell would do. The thought of using it smacked of putting an alien device to Windwolf's head, pulling the trigger, and hoping it didn't blow his brains out. Even if the spell didn't kill him outright, what if it disrupted his healing ability? At this moment, the result would be deadly.
And she only had Tooloo's often changing assertions that what Windwolf had done to her was harmful. Because Tooloo had taught her Elvish, and the fundamentals of magic, Tinker's scientific psyche allotted the half-elf with the same basic faith she had in her other teachers. (If her grandfather had ever lied to her, he had done it with a mathematician's consistency and had taken all of his secrets to his grave.) Oilcan warned Tinker often that she was too trusting in general, so she forced herself to consider that Tooloo could be lying.
She sat in her still workshop, Windwolf's ragged, uneven breathing the only sound, painfully aware of the empty streets for miles in all directions, trying to decide. Did she risk killing Windwolf to save herself?
Throughout Tinker's childhood, Tooloo took odd perversity at being impenetrable; there was no knowing if what she told Tinker was anything more than attempts to frighten her. Windwolf, though, had saved her twice this evening, and once five years ago. Simple, cold, rational logic dictated that she owed Windwolf the benefit of the doubt. She put down the spell, but she found no comfort in her decision. Why was the unknown so much more frightening than the known?
* * *
A half hour later, with a rumble of the big Caterpillar engine and the rattle of chains, Oilcan returned to the yard. He had his tow lights on and a small shrub stuck in the flatbed's ram-prow.
"Tinker?" he bellowed as he swung out of the cab, a crowbar in hand. "Coz?"
"Here am I." She came out into the yard, the dent mender in hand.
Tinker and Oilcan favored one another, which sometimes made Tinker wonder about her egg donor. She knew that her grandfather had selected her mother mostly on intelligence—he could be quite vocal about his scheme to raise a genius grandchild—but she wondered occasionally if he had also tried to make it so that she and Oilcan looked like brother and sister too. Oilcan was just shy of average height for a man, slender built as she was, with the same nut-brown coloring. When they were little, Tooloo had called them her wood sprites. Tinker always thought the overall effect worked better on Oilcan; he had a spry puckish kind of look—what people used to think of as fey before they met the real elves.
Oilcan stopped at the sight of the blood on her, his dark eyes going wide and solemn with concern. "Oh, shit, Tinker—are you okay?"
"Fine, fine. Most of it isn't mine. Windwolf is chewed to hell. Someone cooked up a pack of monster dogs that—" She stopped as implications finally seeped in. While created for a war waged millennia ago, the wargs now ranged wild, for all purposes a natural creature despite their magical enhancements. Simple bad luck could account for a warg attack. Windwolf's mauling, though, was clearly an attempt of premeditated murder. Someone had made the monster dogs, taking days to set up the original spell and then copy it onto the five pug dogs. "Someone sicced a pack of killer dogs on Windwolf."
"Windwolf? Not the elf that marked you? That's bad, isn't it? Is he still alive?"
"Barely. We have to make sure he stays that way. Jonnie was here. He wouldn't do anything for him, and he says that Mercy won't touch him."
"The hell they won't. Not everyone is a self-serving bastard like Jonnie. We can take him over and someone will take care of him. It's not like they're going to let him bleed to death in front of them. Is it?"
For a moment, she thought she could let him take charge. Then she realized that he was waiting for her to say yes or no. The problem was that Oilcan knew she was smarter than he was. He had a lot going on upstairs, but he always deferred to her. She was never sure if it was because she'd played too many head games with him while they were growing up, or if it was some crippling fear of failure. He had been ten before falling into her grandfather's care and can-do style of child raising, and it showed. He was four years her senior, but still he was more than willing for her to be the boss.
Of course, that had drawbacks.
"I don't know!" She retreated back to the workshop to check on Windwolf, finding him unchanged. Oilcan trailed behind her, waiting for her to think of something. "Certainly if we can't think of anyone else to help with Windwolf, we can take him to Mercy. Can't hurt. Might help."
"Who the hell else is there? Tooloo?"
"She stays on Elfhome on Shutdown. Let me think." Tinker bounced in place. Weird as it seemed, sometimes bouncing helped, like her brain just needed to be jostled around so a good idea could surface to the top. "Elf. Heal an elf. Elf healing. Elf biology. Xenobiologist! Lain!"
Oilcan studied the setup around Windwolf. "How are we going to move him? You need to take the power sink, and that's nearly five hundred pounds there alone. I don't know if the two of us can move it."
She considered the sink, the pale battered elf, and all the blood. "We'll just take the workshop trailer, load it onto the flatbed."
"You've got to be joking."
"That's how we got it here in the first place."
"Shit, but up to the Observatory? And we don't know if she's even home. The phones are still out."
"She's usually home on Shutdown Day," Tinker said. "She transmits data from her home computer. If she's not, well, we'll just drive on to Mercy Hospital. If they won't take him, I don't know, maybe we'll drive out to Monroeville and see if we can find a vet."
"Monroeville? You mean drive to Earth?"
"We are on Earth."
"We're in Pittsburgh," Oilcan said. "Pittsburgh hasn't really been part of Earth for a long time."
"Yeah, we'll go to Earth if we have to."
* * *
It took longer than she thought to fill up the flatbed's gas tanks, jury-rig a power supply for the trailer, disconnect the city's power connections, rig a sling under the trailer, and use the crane (magnet turned off) to lift the trailer carefully onto the flatbed and secure it. She made sure that they had Windwolf's sword and pistol; if he lived until Startup, they'd deliver him and his weapons to the nearest hospice. Tinker found the abandoned cancel spell, folded the paper carefully so the rune itself wasn't creased, and tucked it into her front shirt pocket. If things went wrong, perhaps the spell could still work after Windwolf died, severing any magical bond between them.
The trailer's now-empty air-conditioning slot conveniently fit up against the flatbed's back window, allowing her to crawl between the trailer and the truck's cabin. Oilcan would drive, being the more cautious of the two of them, and certainly also the more patient. Tinker made sure everything was green with Oilcan, then slithered through the hole to ride beside Windwolf.
"What is happening?" Windwolf peered through slit eyes, his voice paper-thin.
"We're moving the trailer to someone that can help you."
"The house is moving?"
He closed his eyes and exhaled a very slight laugh. "And you humans used to think of us as gods."
* * *
The Allegheny Observatory sat high on a hill, deep in an old city park. A steep and twisty road wound up to it. In the winter, the road made an excellent bobsled course. In the middle of the rainy night, in a teetering trailer, with a dying elf, it was nightmarish. The Rim, however, cut through on the other side of the park, taking out one vital bridge to a saner route.
At the turn of the millennium, the district of Observatory Hill had apparently been struggling; the gate effect, and the loss of the bridge, had killed it completely. Whereas in other parts of Pittsburgh, the Rim remained a sharply marked borderline between Elfhome and transported Earth, here a young forest of Elfhome trees, a mile in from the Rim, stood in testament to how much of the neighborhood had been lost. None of the houses had actually been torn down; a scattered number still stood, lurking like undead under the trees. Some of the buildings had caught fire, whole blocks burning to rubble before the fire department could check the blaze's progress. The rest had just been whittled away: the windows, the doors, the sinks, the toilets, the copper pipes, and finally the nails. Little by little, they'd been looted by those desperate for finished building materials. Soon only sodden white piles of plaster would be left.
Now Observatory Hill was just a commune of scientists huddled around the Allegheny Observatory bulkhead. A hundred years ago, the area had been moneyed, and stately Victorian homes remained, refurbished to act as dorms for the transient scientists. Mean age hovered at twenty-seven, postdoctorate but still under the authority of older, well-established scientists on Earth. Every thirty days the population changed. Because of the Observatory, lights were low, but always on. The astronomers studied the parallel star system during the night. Xenobiologists studied the alien life during the day. They shared resources of backup generators, kitchen facilities, cooking and cleaning staff, and computers.
Lain Skanske's home sat near but apart from the dorms. A pristine white fence guarded a lush garden of roses, hosta, laleafrin, and tulilium. Lain called the garden her consolation prize for giving up a life in space after being crippled in a near-fatal shuttle accident.
Oilcan pulled the flatbed to a stop, headlights aimed at the front door of Lain's grand Victorian home, and called back, "Tink, we're here!"
Tinker slid into the cab beside him. "He's still alive." She had spent the ride wishing she had asked Windwolf about the cancel spell in his few moments of awareness. There seemed no polite way to say, "What does this do? Do you mind if I cast this on you before you die?" to a man mauled while protecting you. She had kept her silence. Besides, there was still hope. "I'll go see if Lain's home."
"It's four in the morning, Tink."
"Well, if she's in town, she's here, then."
* * *
Lain's house had a massive front door with leaded glass sidelights extending the entrance out another two feet on either side. The doorbell was an ancient device—one turned a key located in the center of the door, and the key spun a metal spring coiled inside a domed bell bolted to the other side. Tinker had broken it as a child; last year, she had fixed it in an act of adult penitence. She spun and spun the key now, making the bell ring unendingly.
Lights came on, starting from the lab in the back of the house. Lain came up the hall, her figure distorted by the lead glass and the shuttle accident. The xenobiologist had trained to study the life in the seas of Europa. Crippled, she'd found a second chance studying the alien life of Elfhome.
"Who is it?" Lain called as she came.
Tinker stopped ringing the bell. "It's Tinker!"
Lain opened the door, blinking in the flatbed's headlights, leaning heavily on her crutch. "Tink, what in the world? This better not be another tengu you're bringing me."
"A Japanese elf. Related to the oni. Sometimes it looks like a crow."
"I've never brought you a crow."
"In the dream I had last week, you brought me a tengu, and wanted me to bandage it. I kept on telling you that it was dangerous, but you wouldn't listen to me. We bandaged it up, and it turned you into a diamond and flew away with you in its beak."
"I'm not going to be responsible for dreams you had."
This was the way conversations tended to go with Lain. Tinker was never sure if she liked talking with Lain. They were never direct, easy-to-understand conversations, and were thus an annoyance and a treasure at the same time.
Lain pulled an umbrella out of a stand by the door and stepped out into the wet to thumb it open. "Well, the phones haven't started working yet, so I might as well deal with this emergency now. You couldn't have picked a worse day to bring me something to treat."
"If this weren't Shutdown Day, I wouldn't be coming to you with this."
At the flatbed, Lain collapsed the umbrella, set it inside the chest-high door, unlatched her crutch, put it beside the umbrella, and then reached up and swung gracefully into the trailer. Lacking Lain's height and reach, and with one hand nearly useless, Tinker scrambled up in a less dignified manner.
Running off the flatbed's electric, Tinker had only managed to set up two lights. The dimness hid the worst of Windwolf's condition. Still, the sight of the bandaged elf seemed to shock Lain.
"Oh, my," Lain said. "It is a tengu."
"I am not a tengu," Windwolf whispered.
"Close enough." Lain shrugged, picking up her crutch. "What happened?"
"He was attacked by dogs," Tinker said. "A pack of them—really ugly and bigger than wargs. They were magical constructs."
"They were Foo dogs," Windwolf whispered.
Lain limped to Windwolf and eyed his many wounds. "Foo dogs. Can tengu be far behind?"
"A good question." Windwolf sighed. "Do you understand the strictures of the treaty between our people?"
"Yes," Lain said.
"Do I have your pledge that you'll abide by it?"
"You'll trust my word?"
"Tinker has vouched for you."
Lain threw Tinker a concerned look. "I see. Yes, you have my word."
"Word about what?" Tinker asked.
"The treaty allows for simple first aid." Lain scanned the equipment connected to Windwolf. "It theorized that since we can interbreed, humans and elves must be ninety-eight percent to ninety-nine percent genetically identical. But then, we're ninety percent identical to earthworms, so it's not that amazing, except that this is an alien world."
"We're that close to earthworms?"
"Yes. Frightening isn't it?"
"How close are Earth earthworms and Elfhome earthworms?"
"Do you know how many species of earthworms are on Earth?" Lain eyed the power sink. "Of course primates are also ninety-eight percent identical to us, and we can't interbreed."
"Has anyone tried?"
"Knowing humans," Windwolf murmured. "Yes."
Lain laughed, looking amused and yet insulted. "As a scientifically controlled experiment or a sexual perversion?"
"Both." Windwolf earned a dark look from Lain.
"What does that have to do with anything now?" Tinker asked to distract the two.
"The point is that the elves want to keep it all theory," Lain said. "It's against the treaty to cull any genetic samples from an accident victim. It's why Mercy won't treat elves." She shook her head. "This is going to be tricky. I'll need him in my operating room to properly treat him."
Tinker considered. "I have longer leads. We could leave the sink in the trailer and run the magic into your OR with the longer leads. There might be a drop in power, though."
Oilcan peered through the AC slot from the truck cab. "If I take down a section of the fence, we can back up almost to the OR's window."
"Oh, we can't," Tinker said. "We'll drive over the flowers and ruin them."
"A man's life is more important than flowers." Lain brushed the objection aside. "Will the spell let you disconnect and reconnect?"
"I am not a man," Windwolf whispered.
"Elf. Man. Close enough for horseshoes," Tinker said, shaking her head in answer to Lain's question. "I can print a second spell and activate it in the OR. We'll have to scrub his chest to get all traces of the old spell off."
"Horseshoes?" Windwolf asked.
"It's a game," Tinker told him. "Oilcan and I play it at the scrap yard. When you're better, I'll teach it to you."
"Okay." Lain limped to the door. "Let's make this happen."
Tinker printed off another copy of the spell and found longer leads. Oilcan found help at the Observatory in the form of astronomers. They took down much of the picket fence and eased the truck to the porch. Luckily Lain had a hospital gurney in her lab, and they wheeled it over a ramp into the trailer. After Oilcan and two of the postdocs slid Windwolf onto the gurney, they wheeled it as far as the present leads allowed, which took them inside the foyer of Lain's grand Victorian home.
There they let him sit, while Tink threaded the longer leads out the lab window. Then came the mad scramble of disconnecting leads, pushing Windwolf to the lab, moving the truck, cleaning Windwolf's chest, applying the spell, and reconnecting the leads. Windwolf lay still as death on the gurney even after Tink activated the spell.
"Is he dead?" Tinker had been entertaining herself with thoughts of Windwolf's aristocratic reaction to flinging large metal horseshoes at a metal peg. Would he even come see how the game would be played, she had wondered, or would he vanish out of her life like he had done last time? The thought of him dead and unable to do either sickened her. Oh please, no.
And then after that, an even more horrible thought. Oh, no, the life debt! She patted her shirt pocket, and the cancel spell crinkled reassuringly. There was even magic left in the sink to power the spell.
Lain pulled on latex gloves and then pressed a hand to his neck. "No. He's hanging in there. Barely."
Tinker sniffed as blinked-away tears made her nose start to run.
Lain looked at her strangely.
"If he dies," Tinker offered as an excuse for the sniffling, "I'm screwed."
Lain frowned at her, then swung the brilliant light over to shine on the elf's face. "Wolf Who Rules Wind." She used his full true name in Elvish, seemingly stunned to immobility.
"You know him? Lain?"
Lain looked at her. "When are you going to start taking notice of things beyond that scrap yard of yours? There are two very large worlds out there, and you are in an uncommon position of being part of both of them. Speaking of which, Oilcan, can you see if the phones are working? I have several hours of data to upload while we're on Earth. These Foo dogs—they have fangs, like a cat?"
"These puncture wounds must have been made by the fangs. There is crushing damage from the teeth between them. I'm going to treat all this with peroxide, or they'll go septic."
"They weren't genetic constructs—more like a solid hologram. When I hit them with the electromagnet, they unraveled back down to the original creature. Their breath smelled like—" Tinker searched her memory now that she didn't have one of the beasts breathing down her neck "—like incense."
"Foo dogs are actually Foo lions—protectors of sacred buildings," Lain said. "Temples and suchlike. They're supposed to scare demons—oni."
"I thought you said oni were elves, related to the tengu."
"Elves, demons, spirits. Two cultures rarely have one-to-one translations. So, you're saying that these bites were made by holograms? You're guessing there's no bacteria involved because they weren't eating, breathing, real creatures?"
"Solid illusions, possibly. Oh, who the hell knows?"
"I'd rather be safe than sorry. We have another"—Lain glanced at the lab clock, which read 6:10—"eighteen hours. The thing about animal bites is that they will go septic if you don't stay on top of them."
* * *
It took hours. News of Windwolf's condition spread through the commune. Despite the frantic shuffle of leaving and incoming postdocs, many of the scientists stopped by to lend a hand. Hot food was carried from the kitchens. Biologists came to help with the first-aid efforts. When the phones came back online at eight in the morning, the biologists fielded phone calls from Earth-bound scientists looking for specimens and data forgotten during the callers' last trip to Elfhome. They even ran Lain's data transfer.
At ten, a van arrived to pick up botanical specimens that Lain had collected and quarantined over the last thirty days. Lain had to supervise, making sure that only the most harmless of Elfhome's biological flora were loaded, even though the most deadly, like the strangle vines and black willows, probably wouldn't flourish without magic. The drivers complained about the ten hours to travel the ten miles in from the Rim, unloaded the truck of food and supplies, stared at the improving Windwolf in open curiosity, and then hurried off, hoping aloud that the twelve hours of Shutdown remaining would be enough time to reach the Rim again. They prompted an exodus among the scientists who were returning to Earth.
Finally the house emptied, and Tinker sprawled on a white wicker chaise stolen from Lain's sunporch. Lain found her nearly asleep and tapped tapped her on the cheek with a printout. Tinker slit open her eyes, took the paper, and closed her eyes again. "What's this?"
"Carnegie Mellon University reviewed your application. Apparently they've been able to confirm your father's alumni-slash-faculty history prior to their hasty move out of Oakland. They were impressed by your placement tests and they've accepted you. They're offering you a scholarship, and your living costs would be handled by the displaced citizen fund. They're trying to decide if you qualify for the in-state tuition scale. If we get your reply out today, you can start in the fall."
"Lain!" Tinker kept her eyes shut, not wanting to see Lain's excitement. They were impressed by my placement tests? How? I know I didn't get any of the questions right. "I applied just to make you happy. I didn't think they would accept me." I thought I made sure they wouldn't accept me. "I don't want to go."
Frosty silence. Tinker could imagine the disapproving look. Even with her eyes closed, it had Medusa-like powers.
"Tinker," Lain said, apparently realizing the magic of her gaze alone wasn't working, "I didn't push this last year because you weren't legal yet, but now you can come and go without worry. You're wasting your life in that scrap yard. You are the most brilliant person I've ever met, and you're twiddling with junked cars."
Oh, the dreaded scrap yard attack! "The scrap yard pays the bills, gives me parts to work with and all the spare time I could want. It lets me do what makes me happy. If I want to spend three weeks inventing hovercycles, I make hovercycles."
"Any university or corporation would outfit you with a state-of-the-art lab."
Tinker made a noise of disgust. "No, they wouldn't." She cracked her eye, glanced over the paper, double-checking her facts before finishing. "See, I would be a freshman, whatever the hell that is, on probationary status due to the unusual nature of my schooling and lack of exposure to normal human society. They're not offering me a lab."
"They will. As soon as they see your full capabilities. Besides, a term or two of liberal arts classes could only help you. There's so much you don't know."
"Maybe about oni, but not about quantum mechanics."
"There's more to life than just physics. Shakespeare. Mozart. Picasso. You'll be exposed to the entire range of human culture, and meet intelligent people your own age."
"People my age are immature." She sat up, scrubbing at her hair and wincing as she hit a sore spot. "What's the bloody rush? Can't I think about this until next Shutdown?"
Lain pressed her mouth into a tight line, meaning she didn't want to answer the question, but her basic honesty forced her to. "You should go before you start to date." Lain held up a hand to check a protest. "I know you're not interested in any of the local guys yet, but it's only a matter of time before your curiosity overcomes repulsion, and once you get entangled with a man, it's so much harder to walk away."
With Jonnie Be Good fresh in her mind, Tinker said, "Oh, ick. I don't think that's really a danger, Lain."
"At CMU, there will be hundreds of intelligent boys your age who are more interested in graduating than getting married and having kids."
"Okay! Okay!" she cried to stop the flow. "Give me a little while to think about it. It was the last thing on my mind." Speaking of what was mostly on her mind, she asked, "How is Windwolf?"
"Stable. I'd like to think he's stronger than when I first saw him. I think he's out of immediate danger."
Rain still smeared the windows, graying the world beyond. The flatbed sat deep in Lain's prize flower beds. Rain-filled tire ruts ran across the yard and through the crushed flowers and the dismantled fence: six deep channels of torn-up earth zigzagging through the perfect lawn until it was more mud than grass.
Lain had spent hours, and days, and years working on her garden, crippled leg and all. It was going to take ages to right all the damage.
Tinker stared guiltily at the mess, and then looked at the paper in her hand. Lain had never asked, over the years, for any repayment for all the things she had done for Tinker. From comforting Tinker when her grandfather died, to advice on her menses, Lain had only given.
Classes would start in September and run until before Christmas. Three Shutdowns. Just ninety days, and she could always bail early if she hated it.
"Okay. I'll attend one set of classes and give it a try."
Lain went round-eyed in amazement. "Really?"
"Yes." Tinker cringed before her excitement. "One semester. Nothing more. I'll try it. I know I won't like it. And that will be that. We'll be square."
Lain gave her a sharp look, which probably meant she wasn't happy with the idea that Tinker viewed college as a prison sentence, but didn't debate it. She leaned forward and kissed Tinker on the forehead. "Good. I'll e-mail them your acceptance."
Tinker hunched in the chair, watching the rain sheet down the glass, feeling as if she herself were sliding down a slippery plane, gray and formless. There was no doubting she'd pleased Lain. The xenobiologist had always expected Tinker's best, and in doing so, usually got it. Tinker had learned all the levels of Lain's praise, from the scathing backhanded compliment for a job sloppily done, to the Mona Lisa smile and swat for a clever but naughty act. Lain had bestowed her ultimate seal of approval with the kiss.
Perhaps it was good that she was going to give Earth a try. Tinker had carefully avoided Earth her whole life, afraid that if she left Pittsburgh she wouldn't be able to return to Elfhome. Tinker grudgingly admitted to herself that it was childish to cling to the old and familiar, rebuking the new just because it was new. Didn't she pride herself at being extremely mature for her age?
And yet, with her whole heart and soul, she didn't want to leave home.
Tinker fell asleep sometime after that. Her sleeping mind twisted the day's worries and events and shaped them into her recurring "maze nightmare." As a new twist, Jonnie Be Good starred as a tengu, transforming into a crow's form to steal her diamond-shaped purity. Tooloo knew where Jonnie had hidden the gem inside the maze, but only spouted nonsense for directions. Windwolf did his typical "failing your potential" speeches—why him and not her grandfather or Lain, she never could fathom—and suddenly the dream went off in a new, erotic direction. Asserting that he knew what was best for her, Windwolf held her down and kissed his way down to her groin. His soft hair pooled over her bare legs as his insistent tongue caressed at a point of pleasure she barely knew existed. She woke with her abdomen rippling with the strength of her orgasm.
What the hell was that? She lay in the same position as in her dream, legs parted and hips cocked up. Her pose merged with the dream memory so strongly that for a moment she wasn't sure if she hadn't truly experienced the sex act. Common sense seeped in as she became more fully awake. No, it had just been a dream. Too bad. She squeezed her eyes shut, stealing a hand down the front of her pants, trying to recapture that roiling bliss.
Oilcan clunked into the room, rain darkening his shirt. "Hey."
Burning with embarrassment, Tinker yanked her hand out of her pants and tried to sound nonchalant. "Hey."
Oilcan shoved his damp hair back out of his eyes. "I went out to the trailer. The level indicators on the power sink are showing that we've only got a few more hours and then it's gone."
Tinker looked at the darkening sky, seeing that dusk was coming on. "What time is it?"
"Five more hours until Startup."
Oilcan shook his head. "The sink only has about two hours of power left."
"At the moment, holding steady. Lain says that he's likely to worsen, though, once the power gives out."
Then they couldn't stay at Lain's. Magic wasn't like electricity; you didn't flip a switch and get current flooding the power lines. Instead, like a gentle rain after a drought, magic would need to saturate the area and soak in deep until the depleted earth couldn't hold any more and then form useable runoff. Even after Startup, it would take hours before the ambient level of magic in Pittsburgh would be where anyone could do a healing spell and expect it to work.
Tinker checked to see if she still had the cancel spell printout and then levered herself out of the chair. "We should be sitting at the Rim nearest to the hospice at Startup."
* * *
Windwolf woke as they prepared to move him back to the truck, blinking in confusion.
"Lie still." Tinker said to him, and repeated it in Low Elvish.
"Ah, my little savage," Windwolf murmured, lifting his good hand to her. "What now?"
"We're running out of time, which is unfortunately common for us humans." Tinker squeezed his hand in what she hoped was a reassuring manner.
"Does life go by so quickly, then?"
"Yes," Tinker said, thinking of leaving Pittsburgh in a few months and already regretting her promise to Lain. "It must be nice, having all the time to do all the things you want to do."
He turned his head and looked out the window. "There is a graveyard on that hill. I see them all the time here in your city. We do not have them. We do not die in such numbers. But it never truly struck me as to what these graveyards meant until now; all around you, the churches and the graveyards—death constantly stands beside you. I don't know how you tolerate the horror."
It scared her to hear him talking about death. "I'll get you to a hospice at Startup," she promised. "But you'll have to hang in there until then."
"Hang in?" He looked mystified by the English slang.
"Life is a marvelous adventure," he whispered. "And I wish not to end it now. Especially now that things have gotten even more interesting."
* * *
They eased back down Riverview Road and through the maze of side streets to Ohio River Boulevard. There, the traffic snarled into knots as people fleeing the city collided with those trying to get back in. It took them an hour to travel the two or three miles to the first major split in the road. The night was sweltering, as only July in Pittsburgh could be. They rode with the windows down, and in the mostly stopped traffic, those without air-conditioning got out and stood waiting outside their cars for the chance to crawl ahead.
"There's Nathan's twenty-car accident." Oilcan indicated a score of wrecked cars and trucks sitting under the floodlights of the stadium parking lot. It wasn't difficult to guess which vehicle had been involved in the fatality. A red vehicle, make unrecognizable, sat to one side, smashed into an accordion two feet tall. "How do you suppose they managed that in this type of traffic?"
"One of the semis lost its load." Tinker pointed out the haphazardly loaded trailer. "It must have landed on the—minivan?—beside it." The parking lot's entrances, she noticed, had Earth Interdimensional Agency barricades up, and police tape strung at chest height about the cars created an imaginary fence. "Looks like someone got caught smuggling in the deal."
Judging by the amount of police tape and number of armed men, the EIA, the international agency in charge of almost everything in Pittsburgh even vaguely related to the elves, had stumbled onto a large illegal shipment. There were three tractor-trailer trucks, a dozen large Ryder and U-Haul box trucks, four pickup trucks, and the squashed car—any of which could have been the smuggler's vehicle. Unless they had been part of a convoy, it seemed strange that the EIA had impounded the whole lot.
"That Peterbilt is nearly new." The traffic opened up for a few hundred feet. Oilcan grunted slightly as he put in the clutch in order to shift out of first gear into second gear. The clutch in the flatbed, an ancient 2010 Ford F750, was stiff; Tinker nearly had to stand on it to shift when she drove. "It wouldn't take much to get it back to running."
Tinker drooled at it for a minute. "Yeah, but unless it's the smuggling vehicle and thus no one is willing to claim it, someone will have already made arrangements to get their truck back next Shutdown."
"One can dream." Oilcan grunted through another shift back down to first as they dropped to a crawl.
Speaking of next Shutdown . . . "I told Lain that I'd go to CMU for a term."
"You're kidding." He looked at her as if she had suddenly transformed into something slightly repulsive and totally unexpected, like one of those ugly pug dogs.
"It'll only be ninety days, and I'd get a chance to see what Earth is like."
"I've lived there," Oilcan pointed out. "Everything is too big. You can spend all day looking at thousands of people and not see a single person that you know."
They eased up onto the Fort Duquesne Bridge. Below them, barges choked the Ohio, the Allegheny, and the Monongahela rivers. It seemed possible to walk from one shore to the other without touching water. It happened every time Pittsburgh returned to Earth; trade goods coming and going by land, water, and air. She didn't want to think about living someplace this crowded all the time.
"You're not helping," she said.
"It's another world, Tinker. If you don't like it, you'll be stuck and miserable."
"Maybe I'll like it."
He shrugged. "Maybe. I don't think so. You hate having someone telling you what to do. Think about it. You're going for classes. You've never been to a regular school. Classes start exactly at eight a.m. Bang. A bell rings and you have to be sitting in your seat, quiet, facing forward. And you sit there, without talking, for hours, while you study what the teacher wants you to learn."
"Maybe college is different. Lain seems to think it's a good idea."
"And Lain likes to putter around in the garden, planting flowers. You tried that once. Remember how crazy it drove you."
"I already told Lain yes."
He scowled at her, and then focused on getting through the city.
Downtown, despite it being almost ten o'clock, was filled with activity. Stores were sorting hastily delivered goods, preparing for the Startup rush. Once the stores sold out, there would be no more until next Shutdown. Fall fashions were appearing in the windows; anyone who didn't buy early might be facing the Pittsburgh winter without gloves and sweaters.
The delivery drivers who were still trying to get home to Earth were few, and easily identified. They leaned on their horns, they cursed out their windows, and they disobeyed all laws of man, elf, and common sense in their rush.
"Watch, watch, watch!" Tinker shouted, bracing herself as one such idiot cut them off. It was a small rabid pickup truck, streaking through a recently changed red light with horn blasting. At the last moment, it recognized that the flatbed outweighed it by three times, and veered sharply to avoid them.
Only a motorcyclist was in the way.
A normal man would have died. The motorcyclist responded with inhuman speed and strength, wrenching his bike out of the pickup's way.
"Is he an elf?" Oilcan asked as he responded to the blare of horns behind him and drove on through the intersection.
Tinker leaned out to look back. Strangely, instead of focusing on the pickup truck that nearly hit him, the motorcyclist was watching the flatbed drive away. He was far too homely to be one of the fey; under a wild thatch of black hair, he was long-nosed and sharp-featured.
"Nah. Just lucky," Tinker said, and scrambled through the back window to check on Windwolf.
The power sink read empty, and the spell had collapsed. Windwolf was cool to the touch, and for a moment she was afraid he had died. She stared at him for what seemed to be eternity before he took a long deep breath.
During the day, Lain had kept dryer-warm blankets on Windwolf. The current blanket was cool to the touch. Tinker called Lain. "The magic's out. Windwolf's cold. Is there anything I can do?"
"Lie down beside him, under the blankets with him."
"Is he even conscious, Tinker?"
"I don't know." Lain was right, though. Tinker was letting the memory of her dream make her self-conscious. A moment ago she'd been afraid the elf was dead; how aware was he going to be of her? "Okay. I'll call you later, let you know how we're doing."
Tinker turned off the lights, took off her boots, and crawled onto the worktable with Windwolf. Sometime during the day, his hair had come unbound; it spread into a pool of blackness on the table. To keep from pinning his hair under her, she gathered it into her good hand and carefully moved it all to his right side. It felt as silky as in her dream. She stroked the long soft strands into order and then carefully cuddled up to Windwolf, trying not to press against any of his wounds. Lying in enforced idleness beside him, however, made her mind churn through possibilities at a feverish speed. Maybe, her brain suggested, she had dreamed so vividly of Windwolf because of the life debt, coupled with his proximity. Possibly he had shared the memory. Perhaps he had actually instigated the sex, since it was beyond her normal ken of experience.
She peered at his still face in the shifting beams of the passing headlights. Come on, Tinker, a male this beautiful—and in this much pain—doesn't dream about getting it on with scruffy little things like you.
Which left her solely responsible. Wow.
* * *
"What is it?" She blinked awake and realized she was in Windwolf's arms, his head on her shoulder and his scent on her lips.
"It's the EIA," Oilcan whispered through the window. "They're checking citizen papers. Do you have yours?"
"Yeah. Hold on." She slid out of Windwolf's loose hold to the floor. Someone banged on the trailer door, hard, making the whole back wall rattle. "Who the hell is out there? The Jolly Green Giant?"
"All three are big guys." Oilcan's face was visible only from his eyes up, but it was a portrait of fear. Border guards spooking Oilcan?
"What time is it? Where are we?"
"Six blocks from the Rim. It's five minutes to Startup."
"And they're EIA border guards?" Something didn't ring true, and she glanced about for a weapon. "Give me a minute!" she shouted. "I'm—I'm getting dressed!"
Windwolf's shoulder holster and pistol sat by the worktable. She reloaded the pistol quickly, looped the holster into place, and pulled on a jacket over it.
She unbolted the door and swung it open. "Here." She held out her citizen papers.
Some estimated the elfin population to be a billion for the entire planet. Others thought there might be as few as a few hundred million. No human knew and the elves guarded the information closely. Regardless, the elves had allowed displaced humans to remain only on certain conditions specified in the peace treaty. All humans judged criminal or insane in nature were banished, and immigration was to be by elf approval only. While many people fled living on an alien planet under control of an alien race, the benefits outweighed the negatives for many people. Nonexistent unemployment, cheap housing, and a blissfully unspoiled planet proved too much of a lure for many. A brisk trade of smuggling immigrants existed. The responsibility of controlling it fell to the Earth Interdimensional Agency, EIA.
The border guards usually hugged the border, since anyone a foot within the Rim made the trip to Elfhome. This close to midnight, they should be at the fence, catching the last desperate few and then calling it a night as Startup made all things moot. Six blocks away from the Rim, with only five minutes left, was setting off alarms. They were big men, all three Nathan Czernowski's size, which was odd in humans.
The largest one seemed to be the leader. He took her ID but dismissed it and her in a glance. Nor did he hand it back. She noticed that he also had Oilcan's papers.
"Check the trailer," the leader told the smallest guard, although that was a relative "small." "See if the little bird was right. Get the car," he ordered the remaining guard, who moved off into the night. "I want to be gone when this is done."
The smallest guard grabbed the door frame and levered himself up into the trailer, barely squeezing through the door. His nose worked like a dog's. "It smells like a slaughterhouse in here."
"We're transporting a wounded elf." Tinker backed away from him, keeping out of range of an easy grab. "We're taking him to the hospice as soon as Startup happens. Wargs chewed him up. He got blood everywhere. That's what you smell." She sniffed to see if it was really that noticeable, and caught his scent.
Smoke and sandalwood.
The guard saw Windwolf. His eyes narrowed, and he grinned savagely. "He is here," he rumbled to the leader. "Laid out like the dead. Easy prey."
"Do them all," the leader ordered. "Quietly."
Tinker yanked out the pistol, sliding between the guard and Windwolf. "Don't touch him! Touch him and I'll shoot you! Get back! Get out!"
"Tinnnker?" Oilcan asked quietly in the startled silence that followed, and then started the flatbed's engine. "I don't know what you're doing, but you'd better do it quick! The one outside just waved down some kind of backup in an unmarked car."
The smallest guard started to move toward her and she fired a warning shot over his shoulder. He jerked backward like it had hit him.
"Get out!" She fought to keep her voice firm. "This is your last chance! Go!" Amazingly, the small guard tumbled out of the trailer, almost onto the leader, and they both scrambled away. She'd never felt so huge before. She slammed the door, bolted it, and raced back across the trailer, yelling, "Drive! Drive! Drive!"
The flatbed lurched forward, roaring up through first. "Tinker, I don't think I'm going to be able to make it! The car is cutting me off! Oh shit!"
A black sedan had raced past them on the left and was swinging right to cut them off. Oilcan was already slowing down when Tinker hit the window. She slid through the window, down into his lap, and jammed her foot down on top of his.
"Just go!" she shouted. "Shift!"
Swearing, Oilcan stomped down on the clutch, threw the truck into second, and let up on the clutch. "Watch the car!"
"I am watching it!" she shouted, nailing the gas pedal to the floor. The big truck leapt forward, caught the sedan at the front bumper, and smashed it aside. The flatbed shuddered at the impact and then shrugged it off, roaring forward.
They had been down a side street, and needed to turn onto Centre Avenue to reach the border. They were going too fast, hough, for her to turn the truck alone. "Help me turn!"
Together they cranked the steering wheel through the sharp right turn onto Centre Avenue. There was a stop sign on the other side of the intersection. They mounted the curb, flattened the sign, and swung through the rest of the turn.
"That was a stop sign, Tink!" Oilcan complained.
"Yes! It was!" she growled. "Will you shut up? I'm thoroughly pissed off, and I don't need you complaining to me!"
They hadn't hit the sedan hard enough. It came sweeping up behind them, front panel gone and showing undercarriage.
The flatbed topped second gear.
"Shift!" Tink called, easing minutely up on the gas. Oilcan clutched and shifted up to third.
The sedan took the moment to leap ahead, veering into their path again.
"Fuck them!" Tink growled and elbowed Oilcan in the stomach as he started to turn the wheel. She stomped on the gas, and the flatbed roared straight at the sedan. "Eat this!"
She hadn't grown up in the scrap yard without knowing the strength of the vehicle under her. Built heavy enough to carry over ten tons, backed with a 250-horsepower engine, it was a close cousin to a bulldozer. She aimed at the sedan's back panel, knowing that the car would pivot on its engine block. The sedan spun like a child's toy as they hit.
The narrow strip of no-man's-land of the Rim was now only a block before them. Beyond it was a tall chain-link fence and the Oakland of Earth rising up in full glory.
"Oh shit, it's not Startup yet!" Tinker cried.
"Two more minutes," Oilcan said.
"Damn!" Tinker slammed the brakes. The big truck fought her more than when she'd hit the car, the wheels locking up, slewing them sideways. She sent up a quick prayer that the bolts on the trailer held.
Oilcan yelped and caught the clutch before the engine stalled out. "What are we going to do?"
The guards were swarming forward to intercept her the moment they stopped. Behind them, the sedan was gamely straightening out.
"Shift!" Tinker said.
"Shift to what?"
"Reverse." She shoved his hand aside and worked the gear shift into reverse. "Hold on."
They started backward, gathering speed. She watched her side mirrors as the sedan this time scrambled out of the way. The flatbed shot past its bumper by inches. Would they chase? No, they seemed confused.
"A minute," Oilcan intoned.
A block. Two. Four blocks, and she said, "Okay, let's stop."
They shifted back to first and sat, their feet arrayed across all the pedals. Far off, so faint Tinker barely heard it over the rumble of the flatbed engine, came the ringing of St. Paul's bells.
"This is it," Oilcan breathed.
"One hopes," Tinker said.
Void. The odd sense of falling without moving. All the streetlights flickered out, and only their headlights cut the sudden darkness. The chain-link fence and Oakland vanished. The primal forests of Elfhome and the elfin enclaves lining the border took their place. The aurora effect gleamed directly overhead, dancing along the gate's curving veil.
"Let's go!" Tinker nailed the gas pedal.
The gate remained closed. The guards, gathered to watch her wild driving, scattered, except one fool waving like he thought she'd stop. Tinker reached up, caught the pull on the air horn, and blared her intention to barrel through. Said fool took the warning.
The gate was wood, and it sheared off with a sharp crack. The enclaves on either side of the road formed a chute of tall stone walls, three hundred feet in length, and then they plunged into the dark woods.
She had driven the road before, knew it to be a straight path. Roads on Elfhome were mostly fitted stone, following ley lines, acting as both road and power source. Unlike the wide-berm, multi-lane highways of Earth, they were more like paths. Branches scraped along the roof of the trailer and threatened to take out her mirrors.
Tinker leaned up. "See if you can check Windwolf. I don't have him strapped down back there."
Oilcan slid out from under her, squeezed through the window, and called, "He's fine. There are cars coming."
Reaally? Imagine that!
The side mirrors polarized to keep the car's headlights from blinding her completely. "I see them."
"We're in shit trouble, Tink."
"I know." She was determined not to be sidetracked into being upset. "We get through this, and then I'll worry about the mess."
The hospice was two miles in. Luckily the road remained too narrow for the EIA cars to try cutting them off. She geared down to make the turn into the hospice parking lot, swung the flatbed around, and backed up to the hospice's door as the EIA cars swarmed about her like gnats, hemming the truck in on the sides and front.
A moment later, and EIA men clung to every surface of the truck, pointing guns at her through the windows. Tinker raised her hands.
They hit her with a police override, and the door locks thunked up. They jerked the door open.
"I've got a wounded elf in—" she started to say, but finished with a yelp of surprise as they plucked her out of the seat.
"Tinker!" Oilcan shouted from the back.
"There's a wounded elf in back!" she said.
They pushed her up against the flatbed's hot hood, face down, and twisted her hands behind her back. Pain flared from her wounded hand. She couldn't bite back the cry of hurt.
"Tinker!" Oilcan threw open the back door and was yanked down himself. A moment later he was slammed up against the hood beside her. "She's hurt!" he growled. "Be careful with her!"
There were elves among the men. She could hear the rapid bark of Elvish. A man was leaning his weight into her back, while frisking her.
"She's got a shoulder holster on!" the man shouted in warning. "They've got a pistol someplace."
The gun! Where had she dropped it? It was lost in a blur of events.
He reached her pants pockets and started to upload them onto the high hood. "Damn, she's carrying a household."
"We haven't done anything except protect our patient," Tinker said, trying to turn to face him.
"Shut up, punk." He pulled her backwards and then slammed her against the hood again.
"Leave her alone!" Oilcan shouted.
The guard turned, nightstick upraised. Tinker shouted wordlessly in protest.
Then everything went silent and still. An elf had hold of the nightstick, and there were others, armed and hard-eyed, ringing them.
"They're not to be harmed," the elf said in Low Elvish. "Wolf Who Rules has placed them under his protection."
"Naekanain," Mr. Nightstick said, slurring the word as if he'd learned the phrase by rote. I do not understand.
"They have brought Wolf Who Rules here to be cared for," the elf clarified in Low Elvish. "He asked me to protect the young humans. I will not let them be harmed."
"What's he saying?" Mr. Nightstick asked the woman beside him.
"He's saying, 'Hands off the kids or we'll break your face.' Get the cuffs off them."
* * *
It quickly became apparent that there were two types of armed elves present. Hospice security appeared to be laedin caste, in camouflage green and browns done with elfin flare for fashion. They carried bows and spell-arrows and interceded between the humans of the EIA and Windwolf's personal security—which was all higher-born sekasha caste, armed to the teeth and thoroughly peeved. Even the hospice healers seemed intimidated by the sekasha, taking care to make no threatening moves as Windwolf was shifted off the worktable onto a stretcher and then handed out the trailer. The cousins were kept back, out of the way, as the healers and the sekasha carried the injured elf into the hospice.
By then, news of the cousins' arrival with Windwolf must have reached the enclaves that lined Elfhome's side of the Rim; elves drifted out of the darkness to gather in the parking lot. They were largely ignored by everyone, but seemed satisfied with swapping information among themselves. Only one rated attention from the guards; she drifted out of the woods like a will-o'-the-wisp, a gleaming beauty who made Tinker extremely aware of how short, dirty, and scruffy she herself really was in comparison. Obviously one of the high caste, the female crossed the parking lot and stopped one of the hospice guards with a touch of her luminous hand. The two made an effective roadblock, preventing the cousins and their joint elf/human guard from entering the hospice.
"Wolf Who Rules has been found?" the female asked in High Elvish. The guard bowed low and answered in a rapid flow of high tongue that Tinker couldn't follow. (Tinker had always found the more formal language to be too tedious and pretentious to become fluent in it.) She did catch, however, the female's name: Saetato-fohaili-ba-taeli. Roughly, it meant "Sparrow Lifted By Wind" though the "Saetato" could indicate soaring rather than lifted. While the female did not seem the type to take a human nickname, she would probably be called Sparrow.
As if collateral damage from Sparrow's beauty were not enough, the guard indicated the cousins, and Sparrow turned her stunning regard their way. From ankle-length hair, so pale blond it was nearly silver, with ribbons and flowers worked through it, to her tall lithe body encased in softly gleaming fairy silk of pale green, she was perfection taking humanoid form.
"These two wood sprites?" A soft musical laugh as eyes of deep emerald studied the cousins.
The guard clicked his tongue, the elfin way of shrugging, and added something about Windwolf putting them under his protection.
"Yes, of course." Sparrow clicked her tongue against straight pearly teeth and drifted away.
* * *
Minutes later the cousins were alone, under joint human/elf guard, in a waiting room, holding mugs of hot chai. Oilcan was quietly shaking off the adrenaline, which left Tinker plenty of time to think. They had done it—kept Windwolf alive all of Shutdown Day and delivered him to safety. With all of Pittsburgh, why though, had he ended up in her scrap yard? Just stupid luck, or had the life debt between them somehow guided him to her? And now what? Did he disappear out of her life again, until the next monster and the next life-or-death fight?
She touched her breast pocket to feel the spell within. If she got a moment alone with Windwolf, it might be the last time she could ever cast the spell. Even if she was sure the spell wouldn't harm him, did she want to sever the link? She scoffed at herself; what did she know of him except that he was arrogant? Strong. Brave. Altruistic. Honorable. Beautiful. That he was capable of wit and patience even while enduring great pain, facing probable death. And he was possibly a great lover.
The door swung open, and a man came in as if he ruled the place. He could nearly pass as an elf. He was tall, sleek, had blond hair drawn back into a braid, and was stylishly dressed from painted silk duster to tall, polished boots. He checked himself at the sight of the cousins huddled on the couch. Finally, the man let out his breath loudly and glanced at his PDA. "Which one of you is Oilcan, and which is Tinker?"
"I'm Tinker," she answered. "He's Oilcan."
He crossed the room to tower over them. "Brother and sister?"
"We're cousins," Tinker said.
"I'm Maynard." He didn't need to say more. Everyone knew Director Derek Maynard, head of EIA. In Pittsburgh, it was just short of saying "I'm God."
Oilcan moaned softly and sank deeper into the couch.
"You are in luck that elves believe that the ends justify the means, as long as it's done with honor. We've been told that the court would be most displeased with us if we press charges." He said it almost like the royal "we." "So the question is, what all do we need to pardon you of? Are you citizens, or do we have to draw you up papers? Is that truck yours, or did you steal it?"
"We're citizens," Oilcan said. "But we need our papers back. Your men never gave them back."
"We didn't do anything wrong until your men attacked us," Tinker said.
Maynard looked at her, eyes narrowing. "Was this before or after you destroyed the checkpoint?"
"We were waiting for Startup about a mile from the checkpoint when they forced their way into the trailer," Tinker said. "They were going to kill Windwolf. I had Windwolf's gun, so I pulled it on them. I made them get out. Then we rammed the gate."
Maynard studied her, all expression going from his face until he was unreadable. "What made you think they would kill Windwolf?"
"The one who got into the trailer called Windwolf 'sitting duck' or something like that."
" 'Easy prey.' " Oilcan mimicked their thick rough voices. "He said 'He is here—easy prey.' Then the other said, 'Do them all. Quietly.' They were going to kill all of us."
"Yeah, no witnesses," Tinker said.
"What makes you think they were EIA men?"
"They had on the border guard uniforms and asked to see our papers."
"It is important for you to understand this." Maynard dropped to one knee so he was level with them. "The EIA did not try to kill Lord Windwolf."
"They were too big to be wearing stolen uniforms," Tinker said. "They were taller than you, with lots more muscle."
"Whether they were truly EIA or not is yet to be seen. I doubt very much that they were my men. If they were, they were not acting under my orders. It is very important that no rumors to the contrary start. Me sanctioning a murder of Lord Windwolf would mean war. Perhaps war isn't a strong enough word. It would be genocide. The elves would rid Elfhome of humans."
Had he ordered it? Tinker considered what she knew of the man. Everyone had something different to say about Maynard—some of it insulting. No one called him stupid, though, and sending men in uniform would be the height of stupidity.
"Okay," Tinker said. "You had nothing to do with it. So, I guess this means we won't get our papers back."
"I will see you are issued replacements," Maynard said.
"We had reports that Windwolf and his guard had been attacked by wargs just before Shutdown. His guard had been killed, and he disappeared. We had no idea if he was in the city or still on Elfhome. We were hoping he made Elfhome. Apparently he didn't. How did he end up with you?"
"The wargs chased him into our scrap yard at midnight last night. I was there alone. They were temporary constructs, so I was able to disrupt them with our electromagnet. They reverted to dogs, and Windwolf shot them."
"And you've been sitting on him the last twenty-four hours?"
Tinker explained about Jonnie refusing to treat Windwolf and about taking the elf noble to the Observatory.
Maynard cursed softly. "None of them thought to call the EIA?"
"No," Tinker admitted. "What could you have done?"
"The hospitals don't treat the elves because the elves are worried we'll take blood samples in order to study their genetics and use it to tailor spells and germ warfare. You took a member of the royal family to a conclave of scientists while he was helpless. Do you have any idea what this might mean to our peace treaty?"
"We told him the choices. He agreed to it," Tinker said. "Besides, we gave him our word of honor. No one took samples."
"You know that for certain? You were with him every second?"
"When I wasn't with him, Oilcan or Lain was with him. We didn't leave him alone."
"Who is Lain?"
"Doctor Lain Skanske; she's a xenobiologist. She did the first aid on Windwolf. He asked her first if she understood the treaty and would swear to abide by it."
Oilcan nodded. "Tinker vouched that Lain could be trusted, and Windwolf said that was good enough for him."
Maynard looked at her in surprise. "He trusted you to vouch for someone?"
Tinker shrugged. "I suppose. I saved his life. He saved mine. He defended my honor. I helped stitch him together. I got into bed with him. It was one hell of a twenty-four hours, okay?"
"I see." Maynard continued looking at her, but she couldn't read his expression.
"Are we all free and clear with the EIA?" Tinker asked.
Maynard sighed. "We need you to describe the men who attacked you the best you can. We'll get someone in with a composite sketch program. I know you've been through a lot, but we need to nail these men."
He gave them no chance to say no. Standing, Maynard motioned to one of the human guards to go make his wishes reality.
"If Windwolf is out of danger, can I see him to say good-bye?" Tinker asked.
"I'll let his staff know," Maynard said. "They'll decide."
With that, he swept out of the room, apparently to start the search for the mysterious assassins. The cousins were left, once again, under the joint guard.
* * *
A police officer with a datapad showed up. They worked through sketches for the three big men. Oilcan proved to have a better memory for their faces, despite the fact that Tinker had interacted with them longer. The cousins were provided with forms to fill out and turn in later to replace their lost citizen papers.
As they finished up, an elf came and announced something in fast High Elvish.
"Windwolf is sleeping," Oilcan translated for Tinker. He had had the patience to learn high tongue where Tinker had not. "He left word that our desires be met."
"Can I see him?" Tinker struggled through the request in High Elvish, earning a surprised look from Oilcan over the top of his chai.
"Batya?" The elf asked. Now?
Tinker stood and did a formal bow. "Shya. Aum gaeyato."
The elf returned her bow and led her to a door flanked by two stunningly beautiful elves elegantly carrying swords and automatic rifles. She ducked between them, feeling as scruffy as a junkyard dog.
They had worked serious healing magic on Windwolf. All his wounds were mere puckered scars. While he slept deeply, his breathing was regular and easy. All in all, he looked better than she did.
She took out the circuit paper, unfolded it, and looked at the glyph. Now or never.
Could she really lean over his battered body and place the glyph on his forehead? Cast the spell and hope for the best? Play magical Russian roulette with his life? She flashed suddenly to the weight and shape of his pistol in her hands, and shuddered at the thought of pressing that steel barrel to Windwolf's temple.
She dropped the paper into a wastebasket next to the bed. Bad as her luck was, she'd rather trust that Windwolf would outlive her by centuries than risk killing him by accident. Standing on tiptoe, she kissed Windwolf good-bye lightly on his bruised perfect lips. Perhaps in another five years, some monster would chase him into her life again. Strangely enough, she would miss him this time.
2: In the Eye of God
Time seemed to crawl by. The cousins went outside and found it was dawn. Someone had pulled the flatbed out of the way and locked it up. The keys needed to be found. Once they managed to get into the truck, they discovered that they'd made the break across the border on fumes. Oilcan dug out a fuel can and went off in search of gasoline.
Exhausted, Tinker bolted the trailer door, then stripped out of her day-old clothes and pulled on clean panties and her hoverbike team shirt. Curling up on her worktable where Windwolf had recently lain, she tried to sleep. Her torn left hand hurt, but she was too tired to check under the bandages that Jonnie had put on her. It wouldn't help to look anyhow; she'd killed all her first-aid supplies dealing with Windwolf. Jonnie had said that she would need to check into a hospital, she thought as she drifted off. When Oilcan came back, she'd have him drop her at Mercy.
A banging on the trailer door woke her. She felt cold and weak as she half fell off the worktable. She put out her left hand to catch herself, and the pain made her cry out; she curled tight around her hand, cursing. Whoever was at the door stopped beating on it.
The flatbed jostled oddly. Tinker squeaked in surprise as she suddenly found herself being hauled up and backward. Windwolf swung her up and sat her on the worktable.
"Windwolf!" She blinked at him, confused by his appearance, until she realized that he had opened the flatbed's cab door and crawled through the AC vent. "What are you doing here?"
"What is this for?" He held up the spell she had abandoned in the trash.
"Tooloo told me that's what I should cast when I paid the debt."
"You put a life debt on me, during a fight with a saurus—five years ago."
He cocked his head and looked at her for a long minute. "You're the fearless little savage with the crooked metal bar? The one that put the saurus's eye out while I was dazed?"
When had he been dazed? "Um, yes. I had a tire iron."
"You were a boy."
She shook her head. "I've always been a girl. I was only thirteen. I was a child."
He gave a cold hard laugh. "And you're not a child now?" He crumpled up the circuit paper and flung it away. "And who told you about this debt?"
"Tooloo. I showed her the spell you put on me and asked her what it was. She said if you died, as your body rotted, so would mine."
He went still. "So that's the only reason you saved me?"
She waved his question away with her good hand. "It just made things scarier, that's all. As if the Foo dogs weren't enough to scare the shit out of me, I had this added little creepiness to deal with. I wouldn't have done anything different, but now we're even."
"We are not even."
"What? Look, I saved you! I risked my life, got my hand screwed up." She held up her hand to show the bound wound. "I tore my place into pieces so I could crate you around! We drove all over Lain's flower beds and yard, making big ruts and killing the plants, and I told her I would go to college to make it up to her! I pulled a gun on the border patrol—who weren't even border patrol, but that's another story. All to save your life! And you would have been dead! If I hadn't helped you fight those Foo dogs, and then hauled your skinny elf ass out here to the Rim, you would have died a couple times over."
He pulled his knife, making her yelp and flinch back. He caught hold of her wounded hand. A glint of light from the silver blade, and he cut off the bandage.
Don't argue with the elf! Yes, sir. No, sir. Then get the hell away from him!
He gazed at her hand, and then caught hold of her head, pulled her to him. His lips touched her forehead where he had once painted the symbol.
What the hell does that mean?
Windwolf reached over and unlocked the trailer door. He picked her up then, like she was a child.
Tinker squirmed in his hold. "What the hell do you think you're doing? Put me down!"
"No." He carried her out of the trailer and across the street. Various elves scurried toward them, bowing and speaking quickly in High Elvish. Windwolf gave curt commands that were instantly obeyed with a fluid bow and "Shya, ze domou."
Windwolf carried her into the hospice, through a maze of hallways. A storm of High Elvish continued all around her, all too fast for her to understand.
"Please speak slower, please!" She hated High Elvish because it was so extremely polite. Yet no matter how many times she asked, no one seemed to take notice of her.
Windwolf stopped finally in a small room, typical of the hospice. The floor was a dark, warm blue color, the walls the color of honey, and the lighting came from the soft glow of the ceiling. Windwolf laid her on a high bed. Its pale birch headboard was more ornate than any human-style hospital bed, but otherwise it seemed to serve the same purpose.
Tinker sat up, swearing in a mix of Low Elvish and English. "Answer me, damn it! What do you think you are doing?"
A silver-haired female elf took a clear jar down from a birch cabinet. She handed it to Windwolf. He carried it back across the room, unscrewing the wide lid. Inside was a large golden flower.
"What's that for?" Tinker didn't bother with Elvish this time.
Putting the jar on the table beside the bed, Windwolf lifted the flower out and held it so close in front of Tinker's face that she nearly went cross-eyed looking at it.
"Smell it!" Windwolf commanded.
Tinker sniffed it cautiously. It reminded her of honeysuckle, a warm drowsy smell, with the soft drone of bees, the sway of green boughs, summer wind, blue skies, white clouds blistering white, softness piled and billowed upwards, wispy here, knife-edged sharp . . .
Tinker realized that she was going under, and jerked back. She tried to push the flower away with her wounded hand, too sleepy to remember it was hurt, and whimpered at the sudden flare of pain.
Windwolf caught the back of her head, holding her still, pressing the flower to her nose. "Just breathe it."
Tinker fought instead, not sure what was happening, only determined not to be helpless before him. She punched him as he bruised the sweet silken petals against her. She had aimed for his groin, but he turned and she caught him in the hip.
"Do not fight, little savage." He caught her chin between thumb and pinkie, holding her face as if in a vise, the flower cradled by his other fingers. He let go of her head and caught her wrists, forcing her back, pinning her down. "You are only going to hurt yourself."
She held her breath and squirmed under him, trying to kick him. He had his weight against her thighs and hips. Then she couldn't hold her breath any longer, and gasped. Sweetness, warm and sleepy as clean sheets on a feather-soft bed full in the early morning sun, white light through sheer curtains, open window to wind from a garden . . .
The female elf came across the room, laughing musically as only elves could, a silver knife in hand. The air went shimmering white, closing in around them, warm and liquid as honey, and sweet . . .
* * *
The Foo dogs chased her in her nightmares. Only they kept changing. One moment, they were great cats. Another moment—huge dogs. Other times—Chinese dragons, coiling through the scrap like giant poisonous snakes. She ran, her legs heavy as if she waded through mud. Suddenly the dream changed; Windwolf rocked her, warm and gentle as her grandfather's arms. His voice rumbled soft comfort into her ear.
"The Foo dogs!" she gasped, looking about wildly. The dream room held nothing more dangerous than shadows, a chair beside the bed, a low table with a pitcher of water and glasses.
"They are all dead," he murmured, stroking her back.
She clung to him as the dream wanted to slide back to the monsters in the scrap yard, the edges of the room blurring into heaps of metal. "Don't let go!"
"I will not."
She worked at forcing her dreaming to focus on him. She thought she heard the slither of scales over steel and whimpered, burrowing into his hair.
"Easy. You are safe," Windwolf stated calmly. "I will let nothing harm you."
Think of Windwolf. She ran fingers through his hair, found his ears and traced their outline. She investigated their shape and texture, the slight give of the cartilage, the softness of the lobe, and the intricate coil of inner part versus the firm, stiff points of the ear tip. After a few minutes, he gave a soft moan and caught her exploring hand. He moved it to his mouth, kissed her fingertips, the palm of her hand, and then ran his tongue feather light over the pulse point on her wrist.
Who would have guessed that would feel so good? She would have to try it awake some time. She gazed at him, stunned again by the beauty of his eyes.
"I don't think I've ever seen anything so blue. Cobalt maybe."
He studied her solemnly and then said, "Your eyes are the color of polished walnut."
"Is that good?"
This dream Windwolf looked at her with gentleness that she wasn't accustomed to from him. "Your eyes are warm and earthy and yet strong enough to face any adversity."
"Oh, wow, you like my eyes?"
"I like all of you. You are pleasing to look at."
Now she knew she was dreaming. "Yeah, right, with my hair and my nose." She twanged her nose a couple of times. It was numb, just like when she was drunk. Windwolf's nose, of course, was perfect; she traced her fingers over the bridge of his nose. Just right.
"I find your hair appealing," perfectly dreamy Windwolf said.
"It is very pure."
"I thought elves liked long hair." She tugged on a short lock to illustrate that hers was anything but long.
"There is beauty in functionality that makes fashionable seem jaded. In our case, fashionable has passed traditional and become something nearly geological."
She pondered this for several minutes before realizing that he meant that the length of hair in elves was set in stone. "Sounds boring."
"I am not sure if it is lack of courage or lack of creativity that dictates the length of elfin hair; unlike you, there is a notable shortage of both in our women."
"You are the bravest woman I have ever met, as well as the most intelligent."
"I'm brave?" When?
Tinker blew a raspberry. "Hell, no, I was scared a lot in the past"—how long had it been since Windwolf came over the fence, disrupting her well-ordered life?—"days." At least it seemed like days. She could remember at least two nights, but the number of meals and periods of sleeping didn't add to anything reasonable. "I only did what had to be done."
"And that is true courage. As you pointed out, without you, I would have died many times over. Indeed, I hazard a guess that of all the people of Pittsburgh, humans and elves, you alone had the intelligence and fortitude to keep me safe."
It was such a weird dream. The edges of the room slipped in and out of focus, and she felt too light and bold. It was like she was drunk, only usually then her limbs felt huge and needed effort to move them about. Her hands now kept adventuring off on their own, exploring Windwolf.
His fingers proved to be long and slender, with the cleanest fingernails she'd ever seen. Of course, everyone she knew spent a good amount of time with their hands in dirt or engine grease. Under a loose silk shirt of moss green, only faint silvery scars remained where the Foo dogs mauled him.
"Why did the wargs attack you? Who wanted you dead?"
"I do not know. I have many enemies. Other clans are envious of the Wind Clan's monopoly on the Westernlands, and within my own clan, many consider me a dangerous radical. This, though, was not a simple political assassination. This was pure madness, to loose monsters that kill everything in their path. I can not imagine any of my enemies attacking me in such a cowardly method."
"Yes. Who remains a mystery."
There seemed to be some barrier that she had breached. Normally she would not think of touching someone, nor did she need to rebuff most people. A quick hug. A handshake. A pat on the shoulder. It was like they all walked around with invisible shields, deflecting even thoughts of reaching out to another person. She had never noticed before, but now, snuggling against Windwolf, she noticed the lack of them. Like antimatter and matter meeting, their protection shields had collided and annihilated one another.
Windwolf allowed her to explore his scarred shoulder. She found herself nuzzling into his neck, once again tracing the outline of his ear. She drew back slightly in surprise of herself.
She tried to form an answer and lapsed into confused silence until she forgot what she had been thinking about. He took her hand from his ear tip again.
"Does it hurt?" she asked as he lifted her hand away.
"It feels far too good to let you continue." He nibbled on her wrist, delighting her. "You are too pure to follow that course. You are not yourself right now."
"Who am I?"
"You are Tinker without her normal defenses. You are on the edge of sleep, still full of saijin."
"Very much so."
She considered her body. Yup. That would explain things. "Why?"
"I did not want you to lose your hand."
She peered at her right hand. Windwolf took hold of her left, opening it to expose a network of pink scars, and anti-infection spells inked onto both the palm and the back. She flexed the hand, discovering it hurt faintly, deep inside. Thinking back now, she vaguely remembered he had carried her into the hospice.
"Oh. Thank you." She kissed him. She meant it to be a chaste kiss, but it became something more. Suddenly it dawned on her that she was half drugged, half naked, and alone with a male in a bed. Her heart started to hammer in her chest like an engine about to throw a rod.
"Do you think you can sleep now?" he asked, stroking her cheek lightly.
What did he mean by that? "Sleep sleep" or "sleep?" Luckily, the Elvish was a much more concise language. "Saijiata?" The act of sleeping?
He nodded, looking inquiringly at her, as if the other possibilities had never occurred to him.
Interestingly, the moment of panic had burned out all thoughts of monsters. "Yes. I think I can."
* * *
Tinker woke with a start. Her head seemed big, and full of air. The pain in her left hand had deepened into a constant dull ache. Turning her head, she saw the empty chair beside the bed. Windwolf.
A vase of flowers sat on the nightstand next to the pitcher of water. The vase was elfin, a deceptively simple twist of glass, a thick base sweeping up to an impossibly thin rim, elegant beyond words. The flowers were black-eyed Susans. She guessed that the flowers were from her cousin and that the hospice staff had provided the vase. As usual, the bright wildflowers made her smile. A note card leaned against the vase, printed in Oilcan's neat, over-careful hand and smudged with engine grease.
When I got back with the gas, they told me that your hand was going septic and that you were in surgery. I'm sorry I didn't check it before I left. I looked in just now, but you were still sleeping. If we want food and fuel for the next thirty days, I've got to go make sure to get it now. I hate leaving you alone. I'll be back as soon as I can. Get well soon. Love, Orville.
Orville. He must truly be rattled if he was using his real name.
There was a light tap on the door, and Maynard, God himself, opened it up.
"Yes." Tinker wondered what God wanted with little her.
"I didn't make the connection between you and the Tinker until Windwolf told me about some of what you did to keep him alive."
She shrugged. "Happens all the time. No one expects the legendary Tinker to be a little snot-nosed girl."
No smile. Maybe God didn't have a sense of humor. She often suspected that.
"How old are you?" Maynard asked. "Sixteen? Seventeen?"
"Eighteen, as of last month."
Little alarms were going off. "Where's this going?"
"I like to know who I'm working with."
Make that big alarms. "Since when am I working with you?"
"Since today. I've got a bit of a mystery I need solved, and maybe you can help. They say you're fit to leave."
He left it nebulous as to whether this was a declinable personal request or an official demand. Maynard certainly wasn't someone she wanted to alienate; as god of Pittsburgh, he could make her life hell. Now that she was a legal adult, she had nothing to hide. At least, she didn't think she did.
"Okay. Let me figure out what they did with my clothes, and you can show me this mystery."
* * *
Clothes found, and Maynard carefully shooed off, she got up to change.
Under the cotton gown she was naked. She put on her panties and bra without taking off the gown, eyeing the door—which had no lock. Luckily no one burst in to catch her dressing. She pulled on her carpenter's pants, and then in one quick motion pulled off the gown and slipped into her team shirt. With her back to the door, she took her time buttoning it up.
The hospice had cleaned her clothes, managing to get all of Windwolf's blood off her carpenter's pants and to find a replacement for the bottom button of her team shirt. It had gone missing weeks ago, and she'd been at a loss as to how to replace it. Cleaning clothes she could do. Repairing was something she could only do to machines.
She stepped into her steel-toed boots, sealed them, and clonked about the room, feeling more able to take on Maynard.
The contents of her pockets sat elegantly arranged in an elegant rosewood box. Elves stunned her sometimes. Most humans probably would have gone through her pockets and tossed most of her treasures. The hospice staff, however, had not only cleaned all the old grease-coated nuts and bolts, but had properly mated them together, and then arranged them by size on green velvet. They looked like bits of silver jewelry. Her spare handmade power lead (extremely crude looking but actually poly-coated gold) had been coiled and tied off with a strand of blue silk. They'd even kept the interesting-looking twig she'd pocketed the day before Shutdown, which now seemed weeks ago, instead of two days. It pleased her (she would have been unable to rebuild three separate projects without the various bolts), but still it weirded her out. When one was immortal, apparently, one had time to waste on other people's little details of life.
She pocketed her eclectic collection and went out into the hall to find Maynard waiting. He led the way out to the sun-blasted parking lot, towering over her. The flatbed was gone; Oilcan must have driven it back to the yard. Looking at the empty parking space where the tow truck had sat made her feel horribly alone and vulnerable. Stripped of her powerful toys and standing beside Maynard, she felt all of her five feet nothing. Nathan was as tall as Maynard, but he was a friend, so she never felt particularly small around him. Maynard was EIA. Her grandfather had viewed all forms of government with deep suspicion, which she of course had inherited in some part. After her grandfather had died, and she had been left an orphan in a town that exiled stray human children, the EIA had grown to bogeyman proportions.
I have nothing to fear from the EIA now. She and Oilcan had coasted a year, staying low, until Oilcan hit eighteen. At that time he could stand as head of household, and they were legal again, barely. There was the little matter that they were living in separate houses by that time. Last month, though, she had finally turned eighteen herself.
Maynard traveled in style; a big, black, armored limo rolled up to the curb, stopping so that the back passenger door could swing open without hitting them, and not an inch farther away. Maynard indicated that she was to slide into the air-conditioned comfort first.
"Parents?" Maynard asked after they pulled out of the hospice's parking lot.
"I'm eighteen—a legal adult." She tried dodging around the whole parent thing. Gods knew it was far too complex to go into. "I'm also a legal citizen: I was born and raised in Pittsburgh. I'm sole owner of Pittsburgh Scrap and Salvage. I did a quarter million dollars in business last year, and all my taxes are paid."
"Your cousin works for you?"
"Any other family?"
She tried to bluff him off. "Should I save us both the effort and just dump a whole family history on you?"
"Like I said, I like to know who I'm working with."
She considered him and decided that meant "yes." She made a note not to bluff with Maynard again. "My grandfather had two kids: my father, Leonardo, and Oilcan's mom, Aunt Ada. That's all the family that I know of."
"Oilcan?" Maynard lifted one eyebrow. "Surely that's not his real name."
Apparently the loss of their ID cards had slowed down the EIA network. "No, it isn't. Aunt Ada was married to a man named John Wright. Oilcan's real name is Orville John Wright. I'm sure it was Grandpa's idea; he had a thing about inventors."
"Orville Wright." Maynard proved he had some sense of humor and smiled. "I can see why he goes by Oilcan. How did you and Orville end up here in Pittsburgh? You're too young to immigrate."
"Grandpa immigrated during the first year. I was born here. Oilcan came to live with us when I was six."
"What about your parents? Both yours and Orville's?"
"Both my dad and Aunt Ada were murdered."
"I'm sorry." Maynard thought for a moment, and then cocked his head. "Not here in Pittsburgh, or I would have known about it."
"My father was killed in Oakland before the first Startup. John Wright was a man with a temper; he killed Aunt Ada in Boston. I stayed with Lain when Grandpa went to Boston to get Oilcan; I've never been on Earth."
Maynard looked at her for several minutes through narrowed eyes. "Your father was killed—what—ten years before you were born?"
So, one couldn't slip things easily past this man. "Yes. My grandfather never got over my father's death. Grandpa used cryogenically stored sperm to have my ovum inseminated in vitro ten years after my father died."
"But your mother is still alive?"
"Technically, no." Tinker sighed—so much for trying to avoid complexity. "My birth mother wasn't the donor of the egg that my grandfather had inseminated. He also used a cryogenically stored egg. My real mother was also dead before I was born."
Maynard stared at her for several minutes before asking, "Did your parents, your real parents, even know one another?"
"I don't think so."
"Your parents, who had never met, were dead when you were conceived?"
"Doesn't that bother you?"
"Mr. Maynard, if we're going to work together, can we just stick to scientific facts, and not go jaunting off through history and psychology?"
Maynard exhaled what might have been a laugh. "You hold your own."
Tinker wasn't sure what he meant by that. Sick of the whole inquisition, she forced the conversation off onto another track. "So what the hell do you want me to do?"
"Someone smuggled a large shipment of illegal goods in during Shutdown. Lucky for us, though, they were involved in a multiple-vehicle accident on the Veterans Bridge. Their vehicle was disabled, and they panicked in spectacular fashion, which makes us worried about what all they might have brought into Pittsburgh."
"You didn't catch them?"
"No," Maynard said. "They unloaded their truck, sorted through the shipment, and carried away what they deemed most important. The driver had been pinned by the accident; they shot him so we couldn't question him."
"Ouch." That earned her a dark look from Maynard. "So far it doesn't sound like a panic."
"Well, throw in a carjacking, assault on the other accident victims, picking up and throwing a Volkswagen Beetle over the side of the bridge in a fit of rage, engaging in a gunfight with police, and trying to blow up with C-4 what they couldn't carry away, and you start to get the idea."
Tinker gasped. Nathan! "Were any of the police hurt?"
Maynard looked surprised at the question. "Luckily, no. Not for the want of trying, though."
"And how do I fit in? I was in McKees Rocks fighting wargs when that accident happened."
"How do you know when it happened?"
"My friend Nathan Czernowski is a cop. He was with me at the scrap yard when the call came in. I'm assuming that there was only one multiple-vehicle pileup and fistfight on the Veterans Bridge."
"Yes." Maynard relaxed slightly, apparently accepting her alibi. "Well, you'll be interested to know that the description of the smugglers match that of your attackers at the Rim."
Tinker swore. "Smuggle in contraband one night, attack Windwolf the next?"
"Very busy people," Maynard said. "It denotes a large organization, of which these men are merely disposable muscle. So far, EIA has been able to keep such crime rings out of Pittsburgh. I want to pull this one up by its roots."
"Sounds like a plan. What does this have to do with me?"
"Some of the load wasn't contraband, just extremely expensive high-tech parts. The question is, what could they be used to make?"
"Oh, I see."
* * *
The impounded goods had been unloaded in a warehouse in the Strip District. Basically just one low room a block long, the place fairly crawled with armed EIA. While security for the building ran high, lighting and climate control left much to be desired. Natural light came in from windows lining an upper walkway. Work lamps tacked to support columns provided additional light, plugged into jury-rigged electrical boxes on newly strung Romex line.
Because of the virgin forests occupying most of the western continent, Elfhome usually ran several degrees cooler than Earth. Since Pittsburgh suffered from high humidity, the lower temperatures were a blessing. The rain storms of Shutdown and Startup over, a rare summer heat, however, had moved in. The warehouse's only nod toward climate control was ceiling fans, cloaked in the shadows high overhead, that barely moved the ovenlike heat of the building.
Tinker found herself wishing for shorts and a midriff shirt. In Maynard's company, she didn't even feel like unbuttoning her shirt. Sweat trickled down her back as she followed Maynard through trestle tables set up and loaded with smuggled goods.
What she discovered made her forget the heat.
There were digital boards, stripping kits, and connector kits. For fiber-optics work, they had a full run of splice trays, hot-melt connector systems, and a curing oven. She found a spool of gold wire. Fault finders, microscanners, and status activity monitors. There were tech kits that set her mouth drooling. Punch boxes. Wire crimp tools. Small precision mirrors. There were even new digital markers that laid out a metal-based ink held in a buckyball matrix. Tinker poked through the stuff, wishing she could take the lot back to her place. Lain had told her tales about the world beyond the Rim where such stuff was plentiful. Much as Tinker loved Pittsburgh, she had to admit that there was a true shortage of goods.
Maynard interrupted her trolling to hand her a length of cable with a box at the end. "Do you know what this is?"
Tinker took it. She turned it in her hands, studying it. The box was molded plastic with two power ports. She tried the various screwdrivers she had tucked into her pockets, the third being the charm, and undid the screws. "Oh my, this is sexy."
"What is it?"
"It's a power transformer."
"You recognize it?"
"What's to recognize? This is a male 220 line, meaning you plug it into a 220 outlet. It would have a pull on par with an electric clothes dryer or an electric range. The female leads are typical magic connectors. It takes electrical power and transforms it to magic. The question is—what type of spell is it keyed to?"
"It would have to be keyed to only one spell?"
"There isn't any way to change the output frequency. It's preset. Although, if you knew the frequency it was outputting, then you could probably set up a secondary translation spell anytime you wanted to use it for a different spell. You'll see a loss in power efficiency on the order of eleven percent, but at this amperage, such a power loss would be negligent. Shit, I could have used something like this on Windwolf. I'll have to build one."
"You could build one of these?"
"Yeah. It wouldn't be too hard. Of course, there's the whole question of why bother. Here on Elfhome, there's enough magical power to fuel any spell without the cost of electrical energy. And on Earth, except for healing elves, there are already mechanical solutions for almost everything."
"Magic doesn't work on Earth."
"Does too." Tinker replaced the screws and tightened them down. "The laws of the universe don't change just because you hop dimensions. The difference is the amount of magical power in the dimension. Think of magic as a waveform passing through multiple realities. Elfhome exists at the top of the wave: Magic is plentiful. Earth exists at the bottom of the wave: Magic is rare. Magic follows the laws of physics just like light, gravity, and time. I could show you the math, but it's fairly complex. There are types of radiation more common in one reality than the other, but lucky for us, the generation waveform seems larger, so we fall close enough on the curve that it doesn't affect either species adversely."
"So you can do magic on Earth?"
"It's how I kept Windwolf alive," Tinker said. "I had magic stored in a power sink and used it to feed a healing spell."
"Can you tell what the smugglers might have been trying to build with all this?"
Tinker shrugged. "Not a clue. I'm afraid I don't have a criminal mind."
"Make a wild guess."
She sighed, glancing around. "Well, unless they scooted off with all the uncommon stuff, they're not going to make a wide range of items. I'm guessing all those power transformers are set to the same frequency, or else they would be labeled somehow. There's a lack of moveable parts, so it's not like a car or a bike or a printing press. It's magic-based, either many scattered copies of one spell, or one massive spell."
"Can you tell what spell?"
"You'd better check with the elves for that. The best I can do is to match the frequency to a known spell, but my knowledge of magic is fairly limited. For all I know, they're going to change the population of Pittsburgh into frogs."
Maynard sighed slightly, perhaps not looking forward to trying to pry information from the always-obtuse elves. "Anything else?"
"Well . . ." Tinker held out the power transformer. "You could let me take this home and play with it. I can figure out the cycle on the magic output and search through my spell database for a match. It would at least start eliminating possibilities."
"Take it then."
She lifted up the markers. "I don't suppose I could have these as part of my payment?"
Was that a smile that tugged his mouth slightly sideways for one second? "You can have them." Maynard produced a business card and presented it. "This is my direct number. If you figure anything out, give me a call. It is always answered."
Of course it was—he was god of Pittsburgh. There was no name on the card, only a phone number. Wow, God's private phone number.
Tinker pocketed it. "I'll let you know what I find out."
"I'll take you home."
She wasn't comfortable with the idea of God knowing where she lived, although, he certainly could find out easily enough. "I've got some shopping to do, before everything's gone. Could you just drop me at Market Square?"
3: Accidental Lolita
It wasn't until Maynard's armored limo rolled away that Tinker realized she had just stranded herself downtown.
She had taken her headset off in the trailer, and thus Windwolf had carried her into the hospice without it. Pay telephones had started disappearing from Earth cities at the turn of the century as cell phones eliminated the need for them. Luckily, Pittsburgh had moved to Elfhome before the last wave of dismantling pay phones. Supposedly to maintain the lines of communication between Shutdown and Startup, the governments of Earth heavily subsidized Pittsburgh's phone system. Thus Tinker was able to find a phone, and with her lone rumpled dollar changed into dimes at the okonomiyaki cart, could afford ten calls.
The afternoon sun had heated the plastic of the pay phone to nearly blistering. Tinker winced at the pain it lanced through her newly healed hand, and juggled the hot receiver around while she called Oilcan. He didn't pick up, which was odd. She tried his home number, but he wasn't at his condo. She didn't bother leaving a message; most likely by the time he checked his home machine, she would be someplace other than Market Square.
Oilcan wasn't at the scrap yard either. Because she'd yanked her workshop to ferry Windwolf around, her office AI was offline at the scrap yard. After a dozen rings, she hung up, and called her loft.
Her home AI Skippy answered. "Hello, this is Tinker's residence. Tinker isn't in. Please leave an audio message, video clip, or data file."
"It's me. Let me have the audio messages." She used her voice code. "Tesla titillates treacle."
"There were sixty-seven calls," Skippy reported, and started into replaying the messages. "Message one."
Sixty-seven? Who the hell is all calling me? Tinker frowned as Nathan's voice came on.
"I was wondering what happened after I left," Nathan said. "Call me. I'm worried about you."
Skippy time-stamped the message from the morning of Shutdown and gave the number. She recognized it as the pay phone at the McKees Rocks gas station; Nathan might have stopped there after checking the scrap yard. She made a mental note to call him.
"Message two," Skippy queued into the next call, which was from Oilcan.
"Hey, I got gas for the shop, tracked down a load of fresh batteries, and even managed to snag you a new clutch system for your bike. I swung past again to pick you up, but you had gone already. I'm heading out to buy food now. I don't know about you, but all I have in my cupboard is instant oatmeal and brown sugar. I'll see you tonight at Lain's."
Skippy time-stamped the call at two hours earlier, meaning Oilcan must have been on Maynard's heels in his attempt to pick her up at the hospice. The phone number was a South Hills number, so Oilcan must have gone straight out to the food warehouses.
"There are no more audio messages," Skippy reported.
"Wait, what about the other sixty-five calls?"
"No other messages were left."
The phone company's automated system hijacked the connection and demanded more money. Tinker fed two of her dimes into the coin slot. Satisfied, the phone company's AI released the line.
"Give me a report on all calls."
Nathan's was indecently early, meaning he had probably left it as he came off shift. The second call hit at the ungodly time of 5:15 a.m. The third was at 5:30 a.m., and then the calls settled into an every-half-hour event. The first thirty-eight originated from an Earth phone number with an area code that she didn't recognize, and came with no ID flag. At midnight, when Pittsburgh returned to Elfhome, the Earth phone number dropped off the list.
At six the next morning, the calls started again, only this time the phone numbers were all local pay phones at systematic half-hour intervals. They moved in a widening circle around the scrap yard, starting at the gas station on the corner. She had just missed the most recent call.
Just out of curiosity, she had Skippy compare call times for all calls, Earth-based and local. All of them listened to the full outgoing message, as if checking to make sure nothing had been changed.
The phone company's automated system hijacked the line again, demanding more money if she was going to stay on. She hung up instead, not sure what to make of the mysterious phone calls. Obviously someone, apparently from Earth, was looking for her, but who?
Perhaps Lain knew, as all of Tinker's contacts with Earth came through the xenobiologist. Tinker used her fifth dime to call the xenobiologist, and got Lain's AI.
"It's Tinker," she told Lain's simple, unnamed AI.
"Tinker," Lain's recorded voice came on. "Oilcan called early this morning. He said there's nothing to eat out at your place. We're doing the traditional summer Startup cookout here at the Observatory. I'm probably outside, so just come on up. You can spend the night if you want."
Tinker's mouth drooled at the thought. Huge and crowded as Earth was, the scientific community of Earth remained small enough that the incoming scientists knew to bring food for a social gathering, each trying to outdo the rest. Since Pittsburgh pulled in people from all across Earth, the cookout was held the day after Startup, so those coming in at the last minute wouldn't miss out on the festivities.
Getting to the Observatory, however, might be tricky. Maybe she should have taken Maynard up on the offer of a ride. While South Hills still had a light-rail public transportation system, only taxis went to Observatory Hill. She now had only five dimes to her name.
She considered her dimes, then dropped one into the coin slot and called Nathan.
He picked up on the first ring.
"Tink! What happened after I left? Where have you been? Are you okay? Where are you?"
"I—um . . ." She paused, not sure which question to answer first. The last two days' events seemed impossible to explain. "I'm fine. I'm downtown. Market Square. I'm kind of stuck. I need a ride out to the Observatory. I'm going to crash with Lain tonight."
"I'll be right there."
Which was what she had hoped he would say.
* * *
Nathan double-parked his Buick by the pay phone, twenty minutes later. "I've been worried sick about you," he called as he climbed out. "I'm sorry I had to leave you with that mess. The accident was unreal, and I was stuck there all night. By the time I got free, you had yanked your trailer and were gone."
"It's okay." She waved it away. "I had Oilcan and Lain to help me. You're here now."
"Lain! Of course." He surprised her by hugging her. What, was everyone suddenly touchy-feely? "How's your hand?"
She showed it to him, flexing it. "It got infected."
He dwarfed her left hand in his and eyed it with deep sorrow. "Oh, Tinker, I'm so sorry."
"It's fine now. They fixed it at the hospice." She wiggled her fingers in a show of health. She pulled her hand free. "I heard about your accident. You okay?"
"Veterans Bridge," she prompted, heading for his car and its air-conditioned interior.
Nathan needed more coolant in his Buick. The air-conditioner struggled against the sticky summer heat. Tinker redirected the passenger vents to blow on her and unbuttoned her shirt above and below her bra line in an attempt to cool down.
"So, what happened?" she asked.
"Mass chaos is what happened." Nathan shook his head. "Shutdown traffic is usually so bumper to bumper you don't get much more than fender benders. This crew in a Ryder truck misses their turn, and they miss it big time, getting like halfway across the Veterans Bridge before realizing that they either wanted the Fort Duquesne Bridge to the Fort Pitt tunnels, or simply to get off at the North Shore. Who knows? Either one they could have gotten to by cutting through downtown. Instead, they try to back up. Of course they can't, everything bumper to bumper for ten miles. They block traffic for like half an hour trying to bully the drivers for a couple hundred feet behind them into backing up—but those people don't have anywhere to go. Meanwhile, all the traffic in front of them clears out."
"Let me guess. Once they stop blocking traffic, everyone races across the bridge trying to get in front of the jerks."
"Oh, yeah," Nathan said. "Only the Ryder truck is still lost. He's in the left-hand lane, and realizes either he's going to end up back at the Rim and a border-patrol check, or through the Liberty Tunnel and into the South Hills."
"And they're sitting on a truckful of illegal goods, so the Rim is out."
Nathan glanced at her sharply. "How do you know they were smuggling?"
"Maynard wanted me to look over their stuff; he told me a little about the accident. I was worried about you."
"Really?" The info seemed to please him greatly. "I'm fine. I was the first unit called, but by the time I worked my way around to the accident, the EIA and most of the cops in Pittsburgh were there."
"Good. So, go on. They tried to take the Sixth Avenue exit and cut through town."
"Yeah, only they did it at the last minute and cut off a Peterbilt fully loaded with steel girders and just getting up to full speed."
"The Peterbilt tries, but he can't stop, not with the load he's carrying. He catches the Ryder in the back driver corner and rams them into the support beams for the overpass. His load comes off and crushes a minivan beside him, killing the two people inside instantly."
She recalled the flattened car. "Oh my."
"There's a pileup, cars everywhere, and of course police are called, and things start to escalate. The goons from the Ryder truck discovered that they couldn't free their driver and that their truck was totaled. They carjack a pickup truck, and unload the Ryder into it. While they're doing that, I start working my way across the Veterans Bridge, and that's when they get their guns out."
"Maynard says they shot their own driver, flung a Volkswagen off the bridge, and tried to blow things up with C-4."
Nathan nodded. "Even with the traffic snarled they managed to get away just by the sheer mess they left behind; it blocked everyone from chasing after them."
Tinker told Nathan of her run-in with the fake EIA agents.
He swore softly. "It certainly sounds like them. If I'd known there was any chance you'd get mixed up with them, I would have tracked you down yesterday."
"Ah, I dealt with them." Knowing that they had coldly killed one of their own made her encounter, in hindsight, more chilling.
Nathan shook his head. "That's my Tink."
* * *
The cookouts were held in the wooded grove next to the Observatory, handy to the dormitory kitchen. True to form, the picnic tables looked overcrowded with food, and the smoke from the charcoal grills, scented with the smell of cooking meat, drifted out into the parking lot. Oilcan's hoverbike sat on the grass beside the lot, almost as comforting a sight as Oilcan himself.
Nathan parked his Buick, and they got out.
"I'm going to have to go soon." Nathan scanned over the picnicking scientists, as if making sure none of them were the missing smugglers. "My shift starts in half an hour. Make sure Lain locks her doors tonight. If you need a ride home tomorrow, call me."
"Sure." Tinker was never sure how to take Nathan's protective streak. "Thanks for the ride."
"Any time." He turned to her with the start of a smile, which vanished with a look of surprise. "Tink!" He reached out to button the bottom of her shirt closed. "Please, try to stay decent."
"What?" She brushed away his hand and gave her middle button a slight tug. "You can't see anything important with this one done. Besides, I've got a bra on."
"I know," he said in an oddly husky voice. "It's a very sexy bra."
"You checked it out?" She would have been embarrassed except for the fact that he beat her to the blush. Weird seeing such a big guy turn red and knowing she had done it to him. Empowering. She tugged on the middle button again, flashing a bit of her bra's black lace. "Like what you saw?"
"Tink." He caught her hand with his. "Don't tease guys like that. The wrong guy will get the wrong idea."
"It's just you."
"I'll take that as a compliment." He surprised her by running his finger across her bare skin, just above the middle button—a glide of rough fingertip over the upper swell of her right breast. "And yes, I liked what I saw."
Her turn to burn. "You're just being nice." She frowned when he laughed. "What?"
"It's just you're so smart, and yet you're so naïve, innocent."
"What do you mean by that?"
He looked up at the sky for a minute, and then gave her a look like a boy caught stealing candy: guilty, but wanting so badly to get away with it. "You were just this skinny little kid until you turned about fifteen, and then, one day, I turned around and you were suddenly so drop-dead sexy."
She laughed out of total surprise. "Me?"
"You bloomed that year."
In plain English, she got breasts that year. "Well, yeah, but sexy?"
"Yes. I've been quietly obsessed with you since then."
"You've got a funny way of showing it. You've never laid a hand on me."
"You were fifteen, and I was twenty-five. I kept my hands to myself. I would bust any guy for doing what I was thinking."
"Big brother" Nathan thought she was sexy? She couldn't believe it. "Yeah, sure."
"That's always been the worst of it. You've never been aware of how sexy you are. Like the way you eat strawberries."
"What's wrong with the way I eat strawberries?"
He opened his mouth, and then thought better of explaining. "Nothing. Just forget it."
"Come on; tell me."
"You don't eat them; you make love to them. It's such a turn-on, I need a cold shower afterward."
"You get off watching me eat?"
"See!" He shook a finger at her. "You're innocent. You don't understand. And I do. I'm older, and—"
"If you say wiser, I'm going to smack you."
He held up his hands to ward off any blow. "Hey, when it comes to brains, you're clearly way ahead of me. I've never minded. This isn't about you; it's about me. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I thought I was taking advantage of a kid."
"So? I'm a legal adult now."
"Hell, you just turned eighteen and never been kissed. And you still look young enough to be sixteen. I'm twenty-eight."
Tinker studied him, trying to reevaluate the last three years. How had she missed his obsession? Certainly he spent an inordinate amount of time with her and Oilcan—but he'd also had two or three girlfriends that she could remember. "Yeah, you're twenty-eight and definitely more experienced than me. That doesn't seem fair. You get to screw around while I stay a virgin."
He kicked at a weed growing up in a crack in the parking lot's cement. "I thought if I found someone else, I'd stop having a thing for you. It really hasn't been fun, wanting you and feeling like a filthy old man at the same time."
"You know, you are always going to be ten years older than me. There's nothing I can do about it."
"I figured that when you hit nineteen, if I was still hooked on you, that was old enough."
Was he serious about this? It was weird to think he had waited three years already for her to grow up, and planned to wait another year. Certainly at fifteen she could have cared less about men, but in the last three years she had developed definite interest. Most guys she knew were like Jonnie, too slimy to consider. But Nathan Czernowski? She trusted him.
Everything inside her went suddenly, nervously aquiver. She looked at his mouth and wondered what it would be like to kiss him. "What am I supposed to do for the next eleven months? Sit and twiddle my thumbs until you feel righteous?"
He glanced at her, squinting in speculation. "You'll probably hit me if I say that would be nice."
"Yes," she growled. Eleven months of wondering would kill her. She was too used to satisfying her curiosity to wait that long. "Why don't we compromise? It would be stupid to spend the next eleven months, waiting, only to find out we can't stand each other in more than a good-friend way. We should try a date."
"You know. Go out to eat. See a movie. Go to the Faire. Date. That is, if your ego can stand being seen with me, and whatever people might think of you."
"That's really it, isn't it? You're afraid that people will think you're as nasty as the guys you bust for molesting little kids."
"Okay, yes. You look younger than you are, and anyone who doesn't know how much you've got going on upstairs will see me as some kind of pervert. And that bugs me."
"I can look older. If I put some makeup on and some nice clothes, I can look twenty." Or at least Lain said so. "Especially in a dark restaurant."
A pleased grin spread across his face. "You really want to go out to eat with me?"
"I've watched you eat. What I actually want is to find out what it's like to kiss you, but I figured I'd scare you off if I told you that."
The smile vanished to a look of such intensity it seemed to solidify the air between them, making it impossible to breathe.
Oh my, he's totally serious about being gaga about me.
With infinite slowness, he leaned down and kissed her. His big hands caught her hips, pulled her to him, and then held her tightly. Her hands were momentarily pinned between them, and then they slid up, searching for someplace to go. She'd never realized how tall he was, or imagined how solid he would feel.
He nuzzled down her neck and kissed her where her shirt gaped open, exposing the top curve of her breasts. She clung to him, feeling suddenly small in his embrace, unsure if she wanted him to stop or go on.
He stopped, though, kissing her more chastely on the cheek, and then just held her. "I think anyplace we go," he whispered huskily, "should be brightly lit, with very little privacy."
"Possibly, that would be a good idea."
"Possibly." He sighed. "I need to work tomorrow night. Want to say Friday? We could do the Faire."
"Friday at the Faire would be good."
They kissed again, and she discovered that by knowing what to expect, the experience was even more enjoyable.
She waved as he drove away, feeling slightly silly doing so. Kids waved. What she really wanted was to pull him back and explore further—only more slowly. After he was out of sight, she pressed her hand to her mouth, capturing again the warmth and pressure.
Nathan Czernowski is in love with me!
Would wonders never end?
4: Beware Elves
Wargs, Windwolf, Maynard, interdimensional smugglers, and Nathan Czernowski were all pushed out of her mind at the sight of the loaded picnic tables. The competitive spirit of the scientists had produced amazing culinary feats. On the slim excuse of alerting people to possible food allergies each dish had the maker's name and the list of ingredients. The most elaborate dishes had the name first. The very simple donations had the makers listed last.
Even Lain was not immune to the competitive nature of the cookout. Her dish of fresh strawberries, spinach, walnuts, and homemade vinaigrette managed to be simple yet elegant.
Tinker loaded her plate with Lain's salad, dill potato salad, German coleslaw, three-bean salad, a linguine salad, a tortellini salad, baked beans, a sweet bean bun, a brownie, something made with pine nuts, and a cream cheese pineapple Jell-O salad.
She found Oilcan playing grill master, trying to smoke out his forming harem. Something about being stranded on a strange world combined with Oilcan's spry, puckish good looks seemed to make her cousin irresistible as a safe elf substitute to Earth women wanting to experience Elfhome to the fullest. Oilcan dodged the more aggressive attention, especially from the married women; he tended to be very moral in that regard. Still, Oilcan liked people, clever conversation, and playful flirting, so he went through something close to juggling fire sticks to attend any party at the Observatory. Already two women hung at the edge of the smoke, laughing at his witty remarks.
"Hey." Tinker braved the smoke to eye the meat on the grill.
"Hey!" Oilcan hugged her soundly. What had happened that suddenly everyone was hugging her? The harem eyed her with slight dismay. Oilcan chose not to introduce her, probably as a tactic to get rid of the women. He edged some of the food threatening to topple over the edge back onto her plate. "Think you got enough food?"
"I haven't had food since dinner yesterday." Tinker pointed out the largest hamburger on the grill. "Can I have that one cooked to medium?"
"Okeydokey." Oilcan patted it with a spatula. Red juices welled up in the slots. "It will be done in a couple of minutes. I came back to get you, and they said you'd left with Maynard. I tried calling you. Is everything okay?"
"I left my headset in the trailer." She balanced her plate in her left hand and ate with her fingers. "Where's the forks? Have you tried Lain's salad? Boy, is it good!"
"Here you are, little savage." Oilcan handed her a dormitory fork, unknowingly echoing Windwolf. "Try the stuff with the corn, if there's any left."
"I don't think I have room for more." Still, Tinker turned to scan the picnic table for the "stuff with the corn." "What about you? I couldn't get through to you."
Oilcan looked embarrassed. "I busted my headset on Shutdown. I had taken it off after it started to rain and put it on the seat next to me."
"We sat on it?" she guessed.
"No!" He laughed. "That would have been too simple. It fell out onto the ground at the yard sometime, and it got run over. I found it pressed into the mud, but in a thousand little pieces."
"Oh, crap, Oilcan, do you know how hard it is to get those things in Pittsburgh?"
"I know. I know. I knew you would be pissed, so I tracked down another one. You'll need to integrate it into my system for me."
"What? Where'd you find it?"
He glanced to the women still hovering on the edge of their conversation and dropped into Elvish. "It was probably stolen merchandise. Someone was selling headsets out of the trunk of their car down in the Strip District. The box was beat up, like it had been dropkicked. I do not even know if the thing will work, but I only paid ten dollars for it."
Tinker pondered the possibility that the headset was part of Maynard's mystery shipment, wondering whether she was obliged to tell the EIA or not.
One of the harem women took advantage of Tinker's silence and pointed out that Tinker's burger needed to be flipped. Having recaptured Oilcan's attention, the women laughed with him as he flipped the burger and pressed it down onto the blackened grill, the dripping grease making flame leap up. Tinker ate and thought.
The Veterans Bridge crossed over the top of the Strip District; a box dropped over the edge of the bridge would land on a rooftop or street. Depending on the packing, the box and contents could survive fairly intact. Oilcan had seen all of the men dressed as EIA guards, so he would have recognized any of them; thus the person who'd sold Oilcan the headset most likely found the box. Telling Maynard would probably result in having the headsets seized and the unlucky finder questioned and possibly jailed.
The important piece of information was that the smugglers had brought a box of headsets to Elfhome. Headsets themselves were useless without some kind of service plan, but once you had air connection they could tie together anything from a home/work/user tri-base to a multiuser network like the police ran to link together their officers.
Tinker heard her name spoken and looked up.
Oilcan had lost one of his harem girls and was finally introducing her to the remaining woman. "I told you about my cousin, the mad scientist."
"I am not a mad scientist."
"Yes, you are. You like to make big machines that make lots of noise, move real fast, or reduce other objects down to little pieces."
"You're only saying that because you know I can't hit you at the moment." Tinker considered throwing food instead, and then decided it was a waste of good food.
Oilcan grinned smugly at her as if he had guessed that she would decide against throwing food.
Recognition of Tinker's matching nut-brown coloring and slight frame dawned in the woman's eyes. She put a hand over her mouth to catch a laugh. "Oh, I'm sorry, I was expecting someone—"
"Older," Tinker guessed.
"Male." The woman winced. "I, of all people, should know better." She gave an honest smile. Not only was her left ring finger unadorned, there wasn't even a slight band of pale skin—honestly single then. "Hi, I'm Ryan MacDonald. Glad to meet you."
"Glad to meet you." Tinker bobbed a slight bow over her full plate. "Sorry for butting in earlier, but life has been a little insane for the last few days."
"Speaking of which," Oilcan said, "we really left the yard wide open. I bolted two metal plates over the workshop doorway, locked up, and padlocked the gate as we went out, but we took the whole security system with us. Someone broke in during Shutdown."
"Oh, shit." Tinker tried not to think of everything scattered haphazardly through the offices. At least her most expensive equipment was in her workshop trailer. "Were we robbed?"
"No. Whoever it was broke all the way in, and then walked back out without taking anything. They might have been looking for Windwolf." Was that supposed to make her feel better? "I went over to Roach's and picked up Bruno and Pete to keep an eye on the place until you get the security system back online."
Bruno and Pete were two elfhounds, on par in size with the Foo dog wargs, bred for intelligence, courage, and loyalty.
"Oh, that's horrible," Ryan said. "They said that Pittsburgh was safe."
The cousins looked at her and after a moment of silence said in unison, "If you don't count the man-eating animals, yes."
Ryan looked startled. "Are there a lot of those?"
"The elves patrol the woods around here." Oilcan waved his spatula at the Earth scrub trees slowly being overrun by elfin forest. "But you shouldn't go into the woods without a weapon."
Tinker ate a mouthful of the Jell-O salad before adding, "And if you hear an animal moving around outside, don't leave the building you're in, even during the day. Call nine-one-one, and they'll send someone to make sure it isn't a dangerous animal."
"Don't leave doors ajar," Oilcan said. "Always shut them firmly."
Tinker considered which of the other common safety practices Ryan should know as she polished off the Jell-O salad. "Stay out of the swampy areas unless you have a xenobiologist with you who can spot the black willows and the other flesh-eating plants."
"Oh!" Oilcan waved his spatula at Ryan. "And the rivers aren't safe for swimming. The water is clean enough, but some big river sharks come up the Ohio."
"River sharks? Flesh-eating plants? You two are teasing me, right?"
"No," the cousins both said.
"There's a list of safety procedures that they usually hand out," Tinker said. "If you didn't get one, it's posted on the dorm's bulletin board. You really should read it; this isn't Earth."
Ryan glanced about the picnic grove with the red-checkered tablecloths on the picnic tables, the teams of scientists playing volleyball, and a portable stereo playing neon rock music. "Actually, things don't seem any different."
"Give it time." Oilcan cut Tinker's hamburger, peered at the center, and lifted it off the grill. "Here you go. Medium cooked."
"Are there buns?"
"Picky, picky, picky." Oilcan went off in search of a bun for her.
Ryan watched him go with a look that made Tinker view her cousin with a new eye. One had to admit he had mighty fine assets.
"Can I ask you," Ryan said hesitantly, her eyes still following Oilcan, "if your cousin has a girlfriend?"
"Look, you seem nice, but you're not staying. It might seem fun to you, to go to Elfhome and date a cute local, but it's not fair to Oilcan. Thirty days is just long enough to break his heart."
Ryan turned to consider her. "You've given this speech before."
"Every thirty days."
"Sorry," Ryan said. "They said that the elves don't socialize much with humans; I suppose it would seem like the same thing to them—here today and gone tomorrow."
Tinker winced. Did Windwolf view her the same way Oilcan saw the astronomers?
Oilcan came back with a bun lying open on a paper plate. "There. Tomato, lettuce, spicy brown mustard, chopped red onion, and real Heinz ketchup—the stuff made on Elfhome, not that new plant on the other side of the Rim on Earth."
"Oh, you know me so well it's scary." Tinker paused, considering the bun and her still overflowing plate. "Excuse me." She took the second plate. "I'm going to have to sit down to finish."
* * *
Lain slid onto the bench beside Tinker as she finished the hamburger. "How's your hand?"
"Good." Tinker licked her fingers clean and showed Lain her palm.
Lain examined it quietly, nodding at the pale scars. She closed up Tinker's hand, ending the examination, but continued to hold it. "I want to warn you about elves bearing gifts."
"Windwolf gifted me with a new garden."
Tinker looked without thought in the direction of Lain's house, but the swell of Observatory Hill was in the way. "Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"
"Yes, that is the question, isn't it?"
Tinker winced at her carefully neutral tone. "What did they do?"
"They were very considerate in putting everything they dug up into pots. And I have to say that the specimens they planted are stunning. I dare guess that I have a garden to rival the queen's now."
They'd dug up Lain's flowers? Lain's work made it almost impossible for Lain to return to Earth. In Pittsburgh, she was as much an exile as she would be on Europa. And more importantly, the garden of Earth flowers she loved was a salve for not being in space.
"Oh, Lain, I'm sorry."
Lain hid away some of the pain in her eyes. "I can't say I'm completely displeased. Much of the garden would not have survived the root damage that the truck did. It would have taken me weeks just to fill the ruts. The new plants are all extremely valuable; it would have taken me years of wheedling to get any one."
"But it's not your garden of Earth flowers."
"No," Lain admitted. "It's not."
"I'm sorry. I'm really sorry."
Lain gave her a small, sad smile that vanished away before a look of true worry. "I'm nervous about what Windwolf might gift on you."
"There's no telling what he might decide to give you."
"I doubt he'll give me anything. There's still the matter of the life debt. Windwolf said that we weren't even." Tinker choked to a halt. We drove all over Lain's flower beds . . . I told her I would go to college to make it up to her . . .
Oh, gods, he didn't replace the flowers because of what I said—or did he?
What else did I say? But she couldn't even remember exactly what she had said. The conversation was a feverish blur. Had she asked for anything for herself? Old fairy tales cautioning against badly worded wishes loomed suddenly large.
Lain watched her, worry growing.
"Can I turn it down?" Tinker asked. "Anything he might give me, if I don't like it?"
"Windwolf might not give you a chance to say no."
Tinker thought about it. What could he possibly give her that would be bad? "What do you think he might give me?"
"I'm not a superstitious woman, but our legends never have good to say about gifts from the fey."
"I'm not sure he's going to give me anything, Lain. He says we're not even."
Lain's eyes narrowed. "Did he say it in Elvish or English?"
Tinker paused to think. Windwolf had woken her up in the trailer, and they'd shouted at each other. But in what language? "English."
"Then it might not mean what you think it means, Tinker."
She thought it had been fairly straightforward, but Lain had much more experience dealing with elves. She recounted the conversation the best she could remember and ended with, "So, what do you think he means?"
"I'm not going to hazard a guess," Lain said. "But be careful around him. He meant well with my garden, but it was done in the arrogance of an adult catering to a child. He believes he knows what is better for us."
"Oh, great. I've got enough of that type of people in my life already."
"Tinker." Lain gripped her hand tightly. "I know I've pushed you into this college thing; I did it in the name of your own good. I've had a taste of my own bullying, and I'm sorry. Of all people, I should have realized that I was asking you to go alone to another world. If you don't want to go, you don't have to. I release you of all pledges."
The elves said that: I release you of all pledges. The irony of it kept Tinker from cheering. Knowing Lain, though, it might have been her reason for using the phrase. So Tinker said, "I'll think about it."
* * *
Dusk fell slowly. As the sky darkened and the stars started to peek out, the conversation turned from the world left behind, the experience of Startup, and the rustic amenities that the scientists found in the dormitories, and focused on the sky itself.
First Night was always fun; it was like watching children discover Christmas. Since it always rained during Startup—the warmer returning Earth air colliding with the chillier Elfhome climate—this was the scientists' first real sight of Elfhome's stars. Their faces were turned upward at the winking lights, and they murmured reverently, "Oh, wow!" Once Tinker's eyes adjusted, she could see the upraised hands, pointing out sights. As always, the cry of "Look at Arcturus!" went up. The elves called it the Wolf's Heart, on the shoulder of the constellation they called the First Wolf. One of the brightest stars in the sky, Arcturus was also the fastest moving; there was a fifteen-degree difference between the star of Elfhome and Earth.
"I can't believe this is the same sky we were looking at two days ago," someone close at hand said with awe. "A twenty-mile drive south, and all the constellations shift. Look at Corona Borealis! It doesn't look anything like a C anymore."
"Twenty miles south, and a side step into another dimension," another voice corrected the first speaker.
Because they would need to share the big telescopes, they all had personal telescopes set up. After minutes of fiddling, they excitedly swapped views.
"There are new stars in the star formation region of the Eagle Nebula—"
"Look at the alignment of the planets. They'll be in full conjunction on Friday."
They ohhhed, and ahhhed, and talked about constellations that up to that point had only been textbook learning.
* * *
Tinker spent the night at Lain's. Oilcan picked her up in the morning and they headed over to the scrap yard. He went over the schedule he'd planned for the day. As usual, he was spending the days after Startup doing running, tracking down supplies and goods they needed. Tinker gave him a full report on her meeting with Maynard, Lain's garden, and finally the mystery calls on her home system.
Oilcan stopped at a red light at Route 65 and looked at her sharply. "I think I should leave Bruno and Pete with you."
"Please, no. I think it will be a while before I can deal with large dogs again."
"I don't like you being alone when everything is so weird."
"The weirdness is over," Tinker asserted.
"Someone is trying real hard to find you, Tinker. They're searching the neighborhood for you. Someone tried to kill Windwolf."
"Can't be the same people." She wished he wouldn't dwell on it—it was scary enough without him talking about it. "Windwolf was attacked on Elfhome before the Shutdown, and the calls started from Earth after Shutdown."
"So? Whoever's trying to find you is still on Elfhome."
"Whoever it is has nothing to do with Windwolf being attacked." Tinker could see where this was heading, and stopped it. "I'll arm the office security system first thing. My home security system is still running. I'll be okay."
Oilcan grumped a while longer but gave in, promising to check in with her often. No doubt he'd also find a way to let Nathan know.
Tinker tried to detour the conversation. "Can you do me a favor and see if you can track down some peroxide this morning? Lain says it's best for cleaning up large amounts of blood. We need to replace all the first-aid supplies, and I need pads."
"I restocked the first-aid kit," Oilcan said. "I also got you groceries. They're at my place. But you've got to get your own female stuff."
"It's not like they bite, Oilcan, and everybody knows they're not for you."
"It's embarrassing. Besides, I didn't know what type to buy."
"I used most of them to bandage wounds. Any kind will do."
"You get your own," he stated firmly. "Do you want me to bring the rest of the stuff over to your place tonight?"
A bid to make sure she was okay. Once there, he'd probably stay late.
"Nah. I'll eat out—get a pizza and some beer. Just bring it with you tomorrow."
He looked unhappy, but he let it go at that.
* * *
Windwolf came to the scrap yard late in the morning. One moment he wasn't there, and the next he stood watching her.
She stood looking back. She had been running in tight circles all morning—not wanting him to show, eager to see him, terrified of him appearing, cautioning herself that he might not come, and as the day wore on, nearly sick with the thought that she had read more into the situation and he wasn't coming. Now that he was here, she had no clue to her heart. That tight circle just spun faster, emotions whirling too quickly to latch on to.
Pick one, idiot, she growled at herself. Happy. I'll be happy to see him. Her happiness welled up so quickly and strongly that she suspected it was the truest of her emotions. She walked out to greet him then, a smile taking control of her face and refusing to give it up. "Hi!"
Elegantly dressed in elfin splendor, he looked out of place in the grimy scrap yard of rusting broken metal and shattered glass. He seemed a creature woven out of the glitter of sunlight on the river. Behind him, and well back, were armed elves—his bodyguard.
Windwolf nodded in greeting, an inclining of the head and shoulders that stopped just short of a bow. He presented a small silk bag to her. "For you. Pavuanai wuan huliroulae."
It was High Elvish, something about talking together—at least that was what she thought pavuanai meant. She didn't recognize the word huliroulae.
Tinker eyed the bag suspiciously, thinking of Lain's garden and the xenobiologist's warning, but it didn't look dangerous. "What is it?"
"Oh." Tinker took the bag, opened it, and found indeed the golden cousin to soybeans. Genetically altered for millennia, keva beans were the elfin wonder food. Raw, roasted, fried, ground for flour, or even candied, keva beans were at the base of all celebrations. These were roasted with honey, one of her favorites. Still, this was her reward for saving his life? She noticed then that one of the guards held a fabric-wrapped bundle that looked for all the world like a present. Maybe this was a weird gift-giving appetizer. "Thanks."
Windwolf smiled as she popped one of the mild nutty beans into her mouth. "You said you would teach me horseshoes."
She laughed in surprise. "You really want to play?"
"Do you enjoy playing?"
She nodded slowly. "Yeah, it's fun."
"Then I wish to learn."
"Well, okay. Let me grab the shoes and the keys."
The keys were for the gate between the scrap yard and the small wood lot next to the scrap yard. Pittsburgh had many such pockets of wildness, places too steep to build on, full of scrub trees and wild grapevines. The lot was a series of level steps between steep drops, stairs cut into the hillside leading from level to level. There she and Oilcan had set up regulation-sized horseshoe pits.
"It's a simple game. You stand on one end, here, and throw the horseshoes at the stake. Like so." Tinker made sure she wasn't going to hit him with her swing, and tossed the horseshoe with a well-practiced underhand pitch. The horseshoe sailed the nearly forty feet and clanged against the stake in a single clear ringing note. "A ringer! That's what you're trying for." Her second shoe hit and rebounded. "But that's what normally happens."
He took the second set of horseshoes from her. He eyed the large U-shaped pieces of metal. "Are the horses on Earth really this big?"
"I don't know. I've never left Pittsburgh."
"So Elfhome is your home?"
"I suppose. I think of Pittsburgh as my home, but only when it's on Elfhome."
"That's good to know," Windwolf said.
And while she tried to decide what that meant, he copied her underhanded throw. He gracefully missed the stake by several feet. "This is harder than it appears."
"Simple doesn't necessarily mean easy," Tinker said.
They crossed the playing field to the pit to gather the shoes.
"Are you and your cousin orphans in this place?"
"Well, close. Oilcan's father is alive, but he's in prison. When he gets out, he won't be able to immigrate."
"Will Oilcan want to see his father?"
Tinker shook her head and concentrated on throwing the horseshoes. "His father killed his mother; not on purpose—he just hit her too hard in anger—but dead is dead." Not surprisingly, Tinker missed the stake. "Oilcan works hard at being the antithesis of his father. He never drinks to the point of being drunk. He doesn't yell or fight, and he'd cut off his hand before he'd hit someone he loved."
"He is a noble soul."
Tinker beamed at Windwolf, inordinately pleased that he approved of her cousin. "Yes, he is."
"My family is unusual among elves." Windwolf's horseshoe landed closer to the stake this round. "We elves do not life bond as readily as you humans, and I think sometimes it is because of the manner in which we are raised. Siblings are usually centuries apart, fully grown and moved on before the next becomes the focus of their parents' attention. We are basically a race of only children and tend to be selfish brats as a result."
"You're blowing my preconceived notion that you're a wise and patient race."
"We appear patient only because our conception of time is different. Amassing oceans of knowledge does not make you wise."
They collected horseshoes with oddly musical clangs of metal on metal.
"But your family is different?" Tinker prompted Windwolf.
"My mother loves children, so she had many, and she did not pace them centuries apart. She thought that when a child was old enough to seek out playmates on his or her own, it was time for another. Amazingly, my father put up with it, mostly. Perhaps their marriage would not have survived if we were not a noble house with wealth and Beholden." Tinker knew that Beholden were the lower castes that acted as servants to the noble caste, but she wasn't sure how it all worked. "The Beholden gave my father the distance he needed from so many children."
Given that his mother could have spent centuries raising children, Tinker blinked at the sudden image of the old woman who lived in a shoe, children bursting out at the seams. "How many kids are in your family?"
Windwolf laughed. "Only?"
"I thought maybe a hundred, or a thousand."
Windwolf laughed again. "No, no. Father would never submit to that. He finds ten an embarrassment he suffers only for Mother's sake. Most nobles do not have any children." Windwolf's voice went bitter. "There is no need for propagation when you live forever."
"Well, it keeps your population from growing quickly."
"The elfin population has only declined in the last two millennia. Between war, accidental death, and occasional suicide, we are half the number we once were."
That did put a different spin on things. "That's not good."
"Yes, so I try to tell people. I had great hope that with this new land would come a new way of seeing the world."
"The arrival of Pittsburgh was unexpected."
Tinker winced. "Sorry."
"It actually has been beneficial," Windwolf said. "Enticing people to an utter wilderness was difficult; few wanted to suffer the ocean crossing for so few comforts. Human culture, though, is attracting the young and the curious—the ones most likely to see things my way."
"Good." Tinker focused back on throwing the horseshoes. That's what she liked about the game. It encouraged a flow of conversation.
"What about you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Do you desire children?"
She missed the stake completely, only the chain-link fence keeping the horseshoe from vanishing into the weeds. "Me?"
"You. Or would you rather be childless?"
"No." She blurted out the gut reaction to the question. "It's just I've never thought about kids. Sure, someday I'd like to have one or two, maybe as many as three, but hell, I've never even—" She was going to say kissed a man, but she supposed that wasn't true anymore. "You know."
"Yes, I do know," he purred, looking far too pleased, and it put a flash of heat through her. Her and Windwolf? Like her dream? Suddenly she felt the need to sit down. As if he were reading her mind—gods, she hoped not—Windwolf indicated the battered picnic table beyond the horseshoe pit.
As she clambered up to sit on the tabletop of the picnic table, she wondered what it would be like to be with him, as they had been in her dream. "How old are you?"
"For an elf, barely adult. For a human, I am ancient. I'm two hundred and ten."
Or 11.6 times older than she was. Nathan suddenly seemed close to her age.
"Is that too old?" Windwolf asked.
"No, no, not at all." Tinker struggled for perspective. Elves were considered adults at a hundred, but until they reached a thousand, they were still young. Triples were what the elves called them, or those that could count their age in three digits. Windwolf could be compared to a man that just turned twenty; only he'd been born in the 1820s.
And she was like one of Oilcan's astronomers to him, staying only long enough to break his heart.
First Nathan and now Windwolf. Well, didn't her choice of men suck?
"Have you ever played ninepins?" Windwolf asked, breaking the silence.
"Bowling? Yeah. But only with humans."
"I am much better at ninepins."
"Tooloo says humans should never play ninepins with elves. It always ends badly for humans."
"This Tooloo is a font of misinformation. She was completely wrong about the life debt."
"The debt between us is not yours. It is mine," Windwolf said.
"How could the count be any other way?"
"During the fight with the saurus . . ."
"You saved my life. I was dazed, and you distracted the saurus by putting out its eye at great risk to yourself."
She blinked at him, stunned as the events now rearranged themselves in her mind. "But the spell you placed on me?"
"If I did not survive the rest of the fight, I wanted others to know you had acted with courage. You were to be adopted into my household and cared for."
"Oh." She didn't know what else to say.
"We looked for you after the fight, but we thought you were a boy. We asked about 'the boy,' and no one knew who we were asking about."
How could Tooloo have gotten it so wrong? Or had Tooloo been lying all this time? But why? Tinker struggled to keep faith in the crazy old half-elf; Windwolf could be lying to her now. But why would he? His version of the events certainly matched what she remembered better, and made more sense.
"I must go. There are days when, even for elves, there is not enough time." Windwolf waved the guard with the present forward, took it, and banished both guards back to the scrapyard. "Last I saw you, you were a child, and now you are an adult. I want to grasp this moment before this too slips away."
He held out the present.
The keva beans had been harmless enough, and this gift looked no larger than the last. "Is this for me?"
"If you desire it."
Why did elves make everything seem so dangerous? It was just a small fabric-wrapped bundle. "What is it?"
"I thought it best to stay with the traditional gift for the occasion."
Trust elves to have a traditional gift for saving one's life. She unwrapped it tentatively. She was glad he had told her it was a traditional gift. Certainly it wasn't what she expected. She wasn't even sure what it was. It seemed to be a metal bowl, intricately worked as one expected of an elfin work, yet it stood on three legs anchored to a disc of marble. It had quite a heft to it, and what impressed her most was that Windwolf had made it seem so lightweight. She tried not to compare it with Lain's entire garden. The child in her, though, wanted to cry, That's it?
"Do you accept?"
He smiled. It was like the sun coming out. He spoke a word in High Elvish and kissed her on the forehead. The touch of his lips seemed to sizzle on her skin.
* * *
Tinker called Lain from her scrap yard. "He brought me a bowl."
"Well, I think it's a bowl." She described it at length to Lain, who identified the gift, after some thought, as a brazier, and explained that one burned incense or charcoal in the bowl, and the legs anchored into the marble made it stable and protected whatever it was sitting on from the heat.
A brazier? "Well, it's certainly not what I expected." Tinker eyed her gift. "I'm trying to figure out what the catch is."
A click of keys came from Lain's side of the connection. " 'Braziers are a symbolic gift.' " Lain read from something. " 'Great importance is made of the wrapping of the gift, which must be extravagant, and the presentation, which must be subtle.' Yes, but what does it stand for?"
"I don't know. He just said it was traditional for the occasion."
"Not you. Barron. He released his anthropology paper on the elves this spring, but don't ever repeat that. The elves don't study themselves and certainly don't want us studying them either."
"I was never sure why we compulsively study ourselves."
"How else are we going to learn and grow?"
"If the elves don't study themselves, does that mean they don't change?"
"Possibly. We certainly haven't been able to pry any information out to indicate that they have." There was a pause, and Lain murmured softly, skimming the info in front of her. "Tinker, what did you talk about with Windwolf?"
"I'm not sure. You know how it is to talk to them. It's worse than talking to you. Why?"
"The brazier is a customary gift for what Barron only terms as 'delicate arrangements.' I don't know what the hell that's supposed to mean. Apparently, accepting the gift implies agreement to the arrangements."
Tinker yelped, as the only delicate arrangement that sprang to mind was sex. "W-w-we didn't talk about any arrangements. At least not that I can remember. Doesn't this Barron list anything?"
"He says that this information was told to him in passing, and that when pressed, the elves stated that it wasn't a ritual that would occur between elf and human."
Tinker made a rude sound of negation. "Maybe Barron has it completely wrong."
"What did you talk about?"
"Horseshoes. Oilcan. His family." Tinker glanced in the mirror and yipped in surprise at her reflection.
"What the—" A triangle of blue marked where Windwolf had kissed her on her forehead. The spot wouldn't rub off, even with spit. "He marked me—somehow—after I accepted."
There was a long silence from Lain's side, and then, "I think you should come over."
* * *
Tinker and Oilcan had laid claim to an old parking garage between her loft and the scrap yard, thus convenient and inconvenient to them both. It easily held the flatbed, her hoverbike, and whatever miscellaneous vehicles they'd picked up and refurbished.
Tinker went round to the first bay and coded open the door. Her honey baby waited inside, gleaming red. She'd traded a custom-built Delta model hoverbike for a custom paint, detail, and chrome job at Czerneda's. Oilcan bitched that she was ripped off, because the detail job was so simple—gold pin striping—on a redshift paint job, but hell, it was perfection. She suspected that he bitched mostly because her own custom Deltas were the only serious competition she had on the racecourses, and every custom job she did chipped away at her odds of winning. Oilcan's loyalty wouldn't let him bet against her, but he liked to win.
Well, he'd have to get used to it. The Gamma models were being mass-produced by a machine shop on the South Side, kicking back a royalty to her for the design. At the moment, she was the only one who seemed able to grasp all the physics involved to make modifications. Sooner or later, someone would be able to bend his or her mind around the whole concept and beat Tinker at her own game. It was how humans worked.
She swung her leg over the saddle, thumbprinted the lock, and hit the ignition button. Ah, bliss—the rumble of a big engine between one's legs. She eased down on the throttle to activate the lift drive. Once the Delta actually lifted off of the parking studs, she retracted them and walked the Delta out of the garage. Once past the door sensors, she clicked the door shut.
She opened up the throttle. The Delta soared up and forward, the lift drive providing altitude while the spell chain provided the actual forward torque. Simple physics. Sooner or later, someone would twig to what she'd done.
* * *
Tinker set the dish of whipped cream beside her bowl of strawberries. Lain was the only person who seemed to understand the correct ratio of topping to fruit, which was three to one. "Have you found out anything more about the brazier or the mark?"
"Well, there's this." Lain put a slickie down in front of Tinker. "These are photos taken during the signing of the treaty. Look closely at the elves."
Tinker thumbed through the slickie's photos, dipping the strawberries into the whipped cream and idly licking it off. Despite the president's acting career, the humans looked positively dowdy next to the elfin delegation. It did not help that the humans kept to the stately solids of navy, black, and gray, while the royal party dressed in a brilliant riot of colors and sparkled with gems and gold. So vivid was the elvish beauty that it crossed the line of believability and became surreal, as if the images next to the drab humans were computer-generated art. It was a cheap slickie, so most of the photos were two-d, allowing no panning or rotation. The centerfold, however, was full three-d, and she rotated through the photo, zooming in on the faces of the elves.
Four of the thirty elves wore the same style of forehead marks. All four were female. Tinker frowned; the sample size was too small to use as a base for any good conclusion, but the marks certainly seemed to be a female thing only. Put there by males?
All four marks were of different colors—red, black, blue, and white—and shape. As she studied the one in blue, she recognized the female as the high-caste elf at the hospice, the one who had called her and Oilcan wood sprites. In the shadows of the parking lot, Tinker had missed the mark. What had her name been? Sparrow something or other.
Tinker dipped her current strawberry for the second time and studied the blue mark on Sparrow. Was it the same mark, or just the same color? "Do you have a mirror?"
Lain went off to her downstairs bathroom and returned with a small hand mirror. They carefully compared marks.
"No, they're not quite the same," Lain announced after several minutes.
Tinker grunted. "What do you suppose it means?"
"I don't know," Lain said. "But you seem to be in good company. This is the royal majesty herself and her court. They're the world leaders of Elfhome."
Good company or not, she didn't want to be part of it. In her book, elves made colorful neighbors but she was glad not to be one of the family. She'd seen enough of their stiff formality and causal cruelty between castes to know it would drive her nuts.
Tinker started at another familiar face. "This is Windwolf."
Lain leaned over to check the photo. "Yes, it is."
Tinker realized that despite a growing awareness that Windwolf was important in the local politics, she didn't know exactly what his title was. "This might be a silly question, but who exactly is Windwolf?"
"Lord Windwolf is the viceroy of the Westernlands."
Viceroy? Before Tinker could ask what that meant, the doorbell rang.
"Looks like I have company," Lain said, reaching for her crutch.
"What am I? Sauerkraut and kielbasa?" Tinker muttered.
"Hush, my little pierogie," Lain called back as she limped up the hallway to the front door.
Tinker considered the photo of Windwolf as Lain answered her front door. Tinker had thought him stunning the few times she had seen him, but now she knew she hadn't yet seen him at his best. The creature in the photo seemed as untouchable as a god.
Lain's visitor, in a deep raspy male voice, introduced himself as the son of her fellow crew member who had died in the training exercise that crippled Lain. "I don't know if you remember me at the memorial. I was about five at the time."
That drew Tinker out of the kitchen. Lain stood, apparently rendered speechless by the sudden appearance.
The man was in his early twenties, tall with a shock of black hair and a long sharp nose. He was in biking leathers, wore a pair of sunglasses, and had a helmet tucked under his arm.
Tinker recognized him with a start. He was the motorcyclist she and Oilcan had seen nearly hit on Shutdown Day. "I thought you might be a half-elf."
He looked at her, frowning, and the frown deepened. "No. I'm not, lady. You're mistaken."
"Tinker!" Lain admonished with a single word, then turned her attention back to the man. "I remember you. My, how you've grown, but children do that, I suppose. You were such a grieving little boy; I don't think I heard you say a single word that day."
"It was long ago. I've moved past that," he said.
"Riki was your name, wasn't it?"
He nodded. "Yes, you do remember me. I was afraid that you wouldn't."
"Your mother spoke a lot about you before the accident." Lain indicated Tinker. "This is Tinker, who is very worth knowing."
Riki turned to look at Tinker. She reflected in his sunglasses. He nodded and turned back to Lain. "I was hoping you could tell me about my mother."
"You stranded yourself on Elfhome just for that?"
"No. I'm going to be attending the University of Pittsburgh once fall classes start. I've got a grant from Caltech as part of my graduate studies. I showed up a little early so I'd have a chance to experience Elfhome fully. It would be exploring an alien world, just like my mother hoped to."
Lain clicked her tongue over what she certainly considered the folly of youth. Tinker had heard the sound often enough to recognize the thought behind it. "Pitt is a shadow of what it was; it's barely more than a community college right now. Well, there's not much to be done about that now. You're here. The question is, what is to be done with you now? Do you have a place to stay? Money enough to last?"
"I have the grant money." Riki tapped a breast pocket, making paper inside wrinkle loudly. "It's supposed to last me six months, but I've got to make it stretch to nine. I'm hoping to find a job, and a cheap place to stay."
"Housing shouldn't be too hard; it's summer—just find someplace that looks empty and squat," Lain said, and limped back to the kitchen. "Come have something to eat and drink, and we'll consider work."
Riki followed Lain, glancing around with vivid interest, pausing at the doorway of the living room to scan it fully. "It's a nice place you have here. I expected something more rustic. They talk about how backward Pittsburgh has become, cut off as it is. I half expected log cabins or something."
Lain laughed from the kitchen.
Tinker had stayed in the foyer. She picked up her helmet and called, "Lain, I'm going to go."
Lain came to the kitchen doorway. "You! Stay! Into the kitchen."
Tinker put down the helmet and obediently went into the kitchen. One didn't argue with Lain when she used that voice. "Why?"
"All the positions up here on the hill are government funded; all hiring has to be written out in triplicate and approved in advance. You have more contacts than I do down in the city."
Tinker winced. "Lain, I'm not an employment agency."
Riki regarded Tinker with what seemed slight unease. It was hard to tell with the sunglasses. "You seem too young to be anything but a high school student."
Tinker stuck her tongue out at him and got smacked in the back of the head by Lain.
"Behave." Lain filled the teakettle and set it onto the gas range. "Tinker is much more than she seems. She's probably the most intelligent person in Pittsburgh. Now if she could learn a bit of common sense and get a more rounded education . . ."
"Lain," Tinker growled. "I don't want to beat that horse right now."
"Then be nice to my guest. Offer him a job."
"I doubt if he wants to do demo work at the yard," Tinker said. "He certainly doesn't know anything about magic, and it's nearly as unlikely that he knows anything about quantum physics."
"I've got a master's degree in quantum physics," Riki said.
"Eat crow, little girl!" Lain cried, laughing at the look on Tinker's face.
Riki startled at Lain's reaction.
"You're kidding," Tinker said.
"I'm going to do my doctorate on the quantum nature of magic. No one has done research on magic in its natural state. That's why I'm studying at Pitt."
"If you want to learn about magic, you need to work with Tinker. She's the expert."
"No, I'm not; elves are."
"True, true, their whole society seems to be based on the ability to cast spells." Lain laughed, putting out cups. "But that does him no good, not as closed mouthed as they are."
"What do you mean? Anyone can cast spells."
Lain looked at her with surprise. "Tooloo has never explained why the nobles rule over the other castes?"
"I'm never sure when Tooloo is telling me the truth," Tinker said. "She's told me that nobles can feel ley lines and can cast certain spells with gestures and words instead of written patterns . . . which might be true. Certainly the spoken component of spells is merely setting up certain subtle resonance frequencies. I'm not sure about the hand gestures. Written spells follow a logic system similar to the and/or gates of computer circuitry, creating paths for energy to follow toward a desired effect. The only way I could see it working was if somehow the noble's body replaces the circuitry. . . ." She fell silent, thinking of energy following fingertips while the hands moved through the pattern of a spell. The ability to feel ley lines could result by simply bioengineering an organ like the inner ear that was sensitive to magic. How would you manipulate magic with your hands? She looked at her own oil-stained hands, the left one with its new patchwork of pink scars. With what she knew of biology, it was unlikely that they fitted new organs into their fingertips, unless it was on the tip of the bone, or perhaps their fingernails. She flexed her fingers as if typing. She supposed fingernails would work, although if one could engineer it so each finger bone had a separate function, then each finger could perform three functions instead of just the one. . . .
"Tinker. Tinker." Lain interrupted her thought process.
"It might work that way," Tinker conceded. She added, "Tooloo also tells me stories about elves making gems or frogs falling out of people's mouths when they talk, and unless you have an N-dimensional space filled with frogs, it couldn't work. Besides, what would the frogs eat? How would you deal with the heat they generated packed together like that? I suppose you could use that energy to move a frog into our dimension."
A smile spread across Riki's face. "I like how your mind works."
That startled Tinker into silence. No one had ever said that to her.
"If you hire him," Lain said, pouring tea out, "every minute he frees up, you will have for fiddling around with your inventions."
Tinker opened her mouth and shut it on a protest. She remembered the condition of the offices—her workshop still on the back of the flatbed and thoroughly splattered with blood. Suddenly the idea of having help, and thus more time, was seductive—and Lain knew it. "That's not playing fair."
"I don't like wasting time."
Tinker frowned. The words "sucker for strays" on her forehead were coming into play. "Well, I could offer part-time at minimum wage, but nothing more than that. Tooloo might have some work."
He looked at her for a minute, and finally said, "I don't know if this is rude—I don't know elf customs—but what's the mark for?"
Speaking of casting spells with just a gesture. Tinker rubbed at her forehead, wondering how exactly Windwolf had marked her. "I don't know. We were just trying to figure that out."
Lain looked troubled. "That worries me. Why don't you see Maynard about that? You should find out why Lord Windwolf marked you."
"The viceroy?" Riki asked.
Tinker got up, annoyed that this newcomer knew more about Windwolf than she did. "Look, if you want the job, show up at my scrap yard tomorrow morning. Lain can tell you how to get there. And I'll need to see your papers. I'm not getting into trouble with the EIA for hiring an illegal immigrant."
Lain gave her a look of disapproval, but Tinker clumped out. She'd had enough motherly scolding for the day.
5: Variable Substitutions
Tinker's grandfather had often told her that moving Pittsburgh to Elfhome raised the intelligence of human bureaucrats. He commonly cited the Housing Act as proof. People fleeing Elfhome registered their property with the EIA in return for displacement vouchers. The United Nations redeemed the vouchers for a house of equal value (prior to the gate of course) anywhere on Earth, doling out the Chinese Compensation money to those most affected by the gate. The EIA resold the Pittsburgh real estate for a dollar to anyone who pledged to make the home his or her permanent primary residence. The system encouraged squatters to maintain property that would otherwise stand empty. Housing, which had always been affordable and easy to find in Pittsburgh, became basically free.
Her grandfather, Oilcan, and she had lived in an old hotel looking out over the river on Neville Island. It was a four-story palace bought for a dollar.
The locks and dams that controlled the Allegheny, Monongahela, and the Ohio rivers, however, stayed mostly on Earth. Every spring, the muddy river water would creep up the steep bank and swirl into the hotel's downstairs. The basement had slowly filled with river silt, as they only pumped out the water. The first floor they shoveled out and sprayed down with fire hoses. All the wallpaper had long peeled off, leaving stained plaster behind. They left the windows open all summer to dry out the wood. When Tinker and Oilcan rode their bikes through the large empty first-floor rooms, or played street hockey using the old fireplaces as goals, they would kick up clouds of fine dust. Come fall, they would loot empty buildings for window glass, and patch the plaster anywhere the winter winds would be able to blow through.
Her grandfather had converted the second floor to the kitchen, workshop, and classroom. The third floor contained the library, away from the lower-level floods and the fourth story's dripping roof. They slept on the fourth floor, drips and all, as it was the safest place in case of flash flood.
Oilcan moved out the winter of his sixteenth birthday to Mount Washington, claiming he wasn't going to spend another spring worrying if the river would wash into their bedrooms. When their grandfather died the next year, Oilcan offered to take Tinker in with him. Nothing could make him move back to the river's edge. Nor would he let her stay at the hotel alone when she refused his offer. Showing surprising strength of character, he insisted she find someplace above the floodplain.
Tinker had scoured the hill around the scrap yard. After the high ceilings, long halls, and sprawling first floor of the hotel, everywhere else had seemed small and cramped. Finally she'd found a large loft. The living room was thirty by sixty, and the one bedroom was a roomy fourteen by twenty.
Now she went up the steps to her loft wearily, unlocked the door, mumbled her security code to her security system, and slammed the door behind her. She was at the fridge, opening the door to get a cold beer, before she realized her security system hadn't acknowledged her. She jerked around, hand still on the refrigerator door handle, and found she wasn't alone.
A woman—tall, leggy, with dark spiky hair and armed with a stocky handgun leveled at her—drifted out of the shadows to block the front door. "Durrack?"
A man appeared at the bedroom door. He quirked up one eyebrow. "Well, what do we have here?"
"She let herself in, and gave a security code," the woman said. Her taste in clothing ran to black, and very tight fitting. If she had any weapons other than the handgun, they were small, or strapped to her back. Tinker couldn't tell how lethal the handgun was. It seemed too large to be loaded with something as mundane as bullets.
"Who are you?" Tinker asked, and was somewhat pleased she didn't sound as scared and angry as she was. When was her life going to go back to normal? "What are you doing here?"
"We're going to ask the questions," the man said. "We're looking for Alexander Graham Bell. He goes by the name of Tinker. This is his residence."
He? Hell, they were confused. They had her name right, but certainly not her sex. Not that she was about to point out the error in their thinking. "And I take it that he's not here."
"No," Durrack said, closing the distance between them. "What's your name? Let me see some ID."
Tinker backed away. "Look, I don't want any trouble. My name is Lain. My ID was stolen two days ago by some big goons. I've had a really shitty week, and I haven't seen Tinker for days. Skippy, activate emergency system!"
"We turned the AI off." He checked his forward motion. "Cooperate with us, and you're not going to get hurt."
"You break into my house, wave guns at me, and expect me to turn over my boyfriend?" It was weird talking like this, keeping pronouns straight. It was like a math problem, substituting in values.
"You live here with him?" Durrack asked.
The woman made a disgusted noise. "How long have you two been together?"
What would the right answer be? A few weeks or months? It didn't seem long enough. "Three years."
Durrack and the woman exchanged dark looks. Perhaps three years was too much.
"I hate this assignment more and more," the woman muttered.
"Patience, Briggs. It's a whole new world."
"Doesn't mean I have to like it."
And while they murmured together, Tinker said lowly, "Tripwire."
Briggs jerked her head up, and then swore. "She's activated a backup defense system!"
Durrack caught Tinker under the arm and hustled her out of the house. Out on the street, he pushed her up against the wall. Not as hard as he could, but still she found herself dangling a foot from the ground.
"Look, you little twit. We've been down to your boyfriend's scrap yard, and there's blood everywhere. We've been to Mercy. We checked with all the Earth-based hospitals. He wasn't checked in at any of them. If your boyfriend is still alive, he's running on borrowed time. If someone finds him before we do, he'll end up roadkill just like his father did. Do you understand?" She didn't understand any of that, but she wanted him to let go of her, so she nodded. "Now, where is Tinker?"
Oilcan's? No, he probably wasn't home. Lain's? No, keep her out of this, whatever it was. Nathan's? He was most likely on duty. She thought of a dozen more places and rejected them. Tinker needed someplace with lots of people where, if these folks really turned out to be American agents, the U.S. government carried little weight. "He's at a hospice just beyond the Rim."
"What's he doing there?"
"Wargs attacked the scrap yard at Shutdown. They downed a high-ranking elf. Tinker took him out to the hospice after Startup."
"That was two days ago."
"Tinker was hurt. One of the wargs messed him up, and the wound got infected."
Durrack swore and took hold of her. "Come on. I'm not letting you out of my sight until I have your boyfriend under my thumb."
Tinker hunted for signs of squad cars responding to the tripwire distress call, but the police weren't showing. Pittsburgh police were spread too thin.
Their car was tucked out of sight, half a block down. A sleek late-model sedan, it looked out of place in Pittsburgh and especially in Tinker's neighborhood. It didn't need the D.C. plates to identify it as out of town. Briggs unlocked the car with a remote.
Durrack opened the back passenger door but held Tinker in check. "Search her."
Briggs moved Tinker so her hands were on the car roof and her legs were slightly spread. The woman combed fingers through Tinker's short, dark hair. The search went down the back of Tinker's neck, up under her shirt and into her bra. Durrack averted his gaze. Briggs' hands stayed impassive, but Tinker clenched her hands into fists on the car roof, until her knuckles showed white, as the search moved to her groin.
"You have no right to do this." Tinker blinked to keep tears out of her eyes. "I haven't done anything."
"Sorry, kid, them's the breaks." Durrack actually sounded like he was sorry.
Finally Briggs moved down to the less personal territory of Tinker's pants pockets. There the search slowed to a crawl. Tinker's pants had a half dozen pockets, and all of them held something. After the first handful, Briggs dumped the items onto the floor of the backseat.
"Please don't lose the nuts and bolts," Tinker said. "They're irreplaceable."
The pockets empty, and double-checked, Briggs stepped back away from Tinker. "If she kicks you with those boots, you're going to know it."
"Take them off," Durrack ordered Tinker.
Briggs sorted through the pile on the car floor, confiscating "dangerous" items: three different-sized screwdrivers, a pocket acetylene torch, and her Swiss Army knife. They went with her boots into the trunk.
"Can I have the rest of my stuff back?" Tinker asked, nearly whispering in an effort to keep from showing how much she wanted her possessions.
"Just get in. You can pick it up while we drive."
Tinker scrambled into the backseat. There was no lock switch, door handle, or com device.
Durrack slid into the passenger seat, letting Briggs drive. "Where's the hospice?"
"You cut through downtown and go up past where the Hill District used to be." Tinker stuffed away her things.
"Centre Avenue out of town. Corner of Old Center and Old Penn."
"New roads named after old roads that don't exist anymore." He programmed it into the nav system. It must have been tied to one of the few government satellites, because it actually seemed to be working.
Distantly a police siren rose, but they were already turning off her street. Tinker slumped back in the seat. If the police arrived at her place now, she wouldn't be there to be rescued.
"Who are you two, anyhow?" She contented herself with kicking the back of the front seat.
"I'm Corg Durrack. My associate is Hannah Briggs. We're with NSA."
"National Security Agency."
It just didn't make sense. What had she done to bring these guys down on her? "What do you want with Tinker? He's never been in the United States."
Durrack made a negation sound. "He was born in the United States—someplace. He would have been five when the gate first moved Pittsburgh to Elfhome."
Oh, this made sense why they didn't suspect her of being Alexander Bell. They were looking for someone nearly ten years older than her. They hadn't considered that Tinker was anything but a naturally inseminated child. Add in her male name, and they were obviously completely lost. Still, that didn't explain why they were looking.
"We want to protect Tinker," Hannah Briggs said. "He's in a lot of danger."
"So you keep on saying." It was a good line to have someone betray a loved one. "Why would anyone want to hurt Tinker? He runs a scrap yard. He keeps his nose clean. He's a good guy."
Briggs gave a flat laugh and murmured, "Yeah, right."
Durrack gave Briggs a hard look. "He's an extremely intelligent young man who apparently understands the working of the phase gate and in all possibility could build one."
Understood it, yes. Build one? She'd never considered doing that, mostly because the parts were too exotic to find as scrap in Pittsburgh. "So?"
Durrack threw her a surprised look. "Do you have any idea how rare that is?"
"People like that can be counted on one finger. No one has been able to develop a hyperphase device since Leonardo Dufae's death. The Chinese figured out how to build it off the designs they stole, but they can't change it or improve it. If they could, we wouldn't have this little weirdness called Pittsburgh. Then up pops Tinker, son of the gate's inventor, trained by the same man, and one assumes privy to any family secrets."
"Yeah. Energy equals mass times constant squared."
Durrack turned in his seat now to consider her in a silent study. They crossed the heavy McKees Rocks Bridge, all stone and steel, hopping parts of the riverbank before crossing the Ohio River proper, still choked with barges. It would be a week before river traffic returned to normal. The roads, though, were clear, and minutes later they were crossing the Allegheny River on the Fort Duquesne Bridge.
"Tinker applied to Carnegie Mellon University last Shutdown. It took them a while to put all the pieces together and notify NSA. We've blacked it out, except letting them issue an acceptance letter. Hopefully, no one else put the pieces together either."
"That Alexander Bell listed Leonardo Dufae as his father, and that according to the testing AI, he understood all the questions, even though he answered them wrong. That includes the filter questions on hyperphase that no one is supposed to be able to answer."
Shit. She hadn't considered that they would have an AI filtering the placement testing. Lain had explained that the test was just to see what courses she would need to attend: You can test out of the basics and only take advanced courses. By tracking eye movement, keystrokes, length of time per question—and correct answers changed to wrong ones—a good AI would easily have determined that she had comprehended all the questions and just chose to get them wrong. "What an idiot."
"If he meant to confuse people, he's succeeded. Why did Tinker bother to apply to Carnegie Mellon University?"
"He only applied to humor a friend. He doesn't want to leave Pittsburgh, so he tried to keep them from accepting him."
Durrack made a slight noise of discovery. "Why doesn't he want to leave?"
Tinker snorted. Durrack had said it with faint disbelief that anyone would want to stay. "Earth has nothing that interests Tinker."
Durrack's eyes narrowed, and he exchanged glances with Briggs. "What about you?"
"Me?" Tinker squeaked. Oh, please, don't pay any attention to little old me.
"Would you like to go to Earth?"
Tinker laughed. "No!"
"We can set you up at a nice house. All new furniture. Cleaning robots. Two new cars. Basically replace everything you might lose in a move. You could go to school if you wanted. Earth has malls, the net, cable television, first-class restaurants, and Disney World."
"Disney World? I'm supposed to give up my family and friends and everything I know for Disney World?"
"Offer her candy and ice cream," Hannah murmured. "At her age, that might still work."
They were coming up to the Rim. There were long-standing jokes about the slowness it took to move across the border. One joke was that the border was an event horizon of a black hole, something that you could spend a lifetime trying to reach. Another sarcastic prod was that elfin magic made any event last longer than a human lifetime, which was why they'd bioengineered themselves to be immortal.
Hannah, apparently feeling the need for privacy, slid up the sound barrier behind the front seat.
Tinker took out the digital marker that Maynard had given her from the smuggler's loot and traced a quick eavesdropping spell on the back of the seat.
" . . . so chances are, Tinker isn't going to want to come with us."
"That's a possibility," Durrack said. "I say that if we don't find the boyfriend at this hospice, we tuck the girl away for safekeeping."
"Durrack, sometimes you scare me. The Pittsburghers are still American citizens—"
"Whose willingness to live on a foreign planet makes their loyalty to the United States suspect."
"Don't feed me that line. You don't give a shit about that."
"Yes, but it looks good on a report when you bend the hell out of the rules."
"Making the girl disappear would do more than bend rules."
"Protective custody. If we've thought to use her to get to Tinker, then she's fair game to anyone looking for him. Do you want the kid in the middle of this? You want to deal with that again? I sure as hell don't."
"It isn't all black and white. There's a lot of gray out there, Durrack."
"It's not the black, white, or gray that I'm worrying about. It's the blood red. I say if Tinker is out here, we stick them both away until next Shutdown and then smuggle them out to the States."
"We should make sure they actually like one another first. She might be lying about their relationship."
More than you can guess. Tinker watched as the second car in front of them got waved through. Tinker or Tinker's lover, she was slated to disappear after the hospice search, which meant she had to get away from them at the hospice. She mostly needed to get out of the car. She considered the tactics she could try, from asking to go pee to stating that she wanted to stay in the car. Just because they'd made the one mistake on her identity didn't mean they were truly stupid. Her real name was misleading, and she didn't remember the application asking for gender or age.
She considered the hazards of being locked in the car, in case her ploy failed. Could she get out? Unlikely. Trying the reverse-psychology ploy of refusing to leave the car was too risky.
Might as well start working on the bathroom ploy. She tapped on the divider.
* * *
It was their turn through the security checkpoint.
Hannah slid down the window and handed out her NSA ID. Durrack handed his across via Hannah.
"We're looking for a human male," Hannah said in rough, slow Low Elvish. "The girl has no ID. She is our prisoner. We are responsible for her."
While they talked, Tinker pieced together a plea for help in High Elvish.
The elfin border guard glanced in the window at her. She mouthed the plea, just in case she didn't get the chance to talk to an elf at the hospice.
"Where do you seek this human male?" the elf asked Hannah, gazing intently at Tinker.
The guard went off with their papers into the guardhouse. Tinker whispered, "Come on, come on," crossing the fingers on both hands. That simple magic didn't work, if it ever really worked. The guard returned and waved them through.
Hannah drove to the hospice and parked. Tinker's stomach churned nervously as they walked in. She needed to do this quickly, because the NSA were about to find out that she had been the only human ever treated here.
She picked the brawniest-looking of the elves in the foyer as the NSA agents checked stride, apparently scanning about for an equivalent of a reception desk. She locked eyes with the elf and said quickly, "Please, help me. I am in grave danger. Wolf Who Rules . . ."
Durrack jerked her back and slapped a hand over her mouth. "What the hell did you say?"
Hannah produced her ID and was saying carefully, "This one is in our care and might be charged with crimes. She is young and foolish."
Tinker hadn't thought of what the elves might do in response to her plea. She expected demands for identification and long legal proceedings. She was stunned as the elf unsheathed his sword in a ring of metal.
Durrack reacted instantly, shoving her aside to pull his own weapon. Hannah shouted, "Drop it! Drop it!"
Tinker scrambled to one side, swearing. This wasn't what she'd planned! Still, she'd be an idiot not to take advantage of the opportunity. She darted through the door and into the maze of hallways.
What had happened to her life?
One minute it was all so sane and orderly, and now look at her! They say that the elves really couldn't curse anyone. Elves could use their magic to turn a person into a toad, cause someone to become incredibly uncoordinated, or drop one's inhibitions like a six-pack of Iron City Beer, but really rotten, everything-turns-against-you-bad luck they couldn't do.
So why did it seem that someone had cursed her?
Tinker skittered on the slick stone to round the corner; then yelped as she came face-to-face with armed men in EIA uniforms. EIA? How did they get here so fast? Were they real EIA? She tried to turn, her stocking feet went out from under her, and she went sliding directly into them. In a frictionless universe, objects in motion stay in motion.
Durrack and Briggs came around the corner, and there was sudden excited shouting. She looked up to find the EIA and the NSA pointing guns at one another.
"NSA!" Durrack shouted. "Put down your weapons!"
"EIA!" the others yelled back. "Drop it!"
Tinker edged toward the closest doorway. No one really seemed to be paying attention to her, but then, she didn't have a gun.
"This girl is in our protective custody," Briggs growled.
"Drop the guns!" the EIA or EIA look-a-likes shouted. "You're not doing anything until we see proper identification and clearance papers."
Tinker bolted through the door.
Behind her, Durrack didn't seem to notice she had fled. "This is code black!"
Nor had the EIA. "I don't give diddly what color it is. This is Elfhome!"
After thoroughly losing herself, she slid through a door and discovered she was at a dead end in an empty patient room. She could hear booted feet echoing through the halls, rapidly approaching her, cutting off other possible exits.
Hiding looked like her only course. Other than the bed, nightstand, and guest chair, the only piece of furniture was a large wardrobe. She opened the door and found that the bottom was taken up with drawers. What kind of wardrobe was this? The upper part was one tall shelf, about the size of a dress shirt. Oh well! She scrambled up onto the shelf and closed the door with her fingernails.
The pounding of her heart covered all sound until someone entered the room in long booted strides. The footsteps continued straight to the wardrobe. The door opened, and Derek Maynard studied her. Hovering over his shoulder was a locate spell.
"There are times I hate magic," Tinker sulked, remaining tucked on the top shelf.
"You are a hard girl to keep pinned down." Maynard motioned her out.
"Unfortunately, not hard enough." She reluctantly unfolded and swung down off the shelf.
Maynard reached into his pocket and produced a bright yellow rectangle. "Gum?"
"I've been told not to take candy from strangers."
He raised one eyebrow, as if saying "Get real" or "How wise" or something truly witty. Tinker supposed that was one of the benefits of keeping one's mouth shut—people made up better dialogue for you than you yourself could imagine. Then again, the trick would never work for her; she couldn't stay quiet. She scowled at him and took the offered piece.
The gum filled her mouth with sweetness, and ran counter to her banging heart.
"Juicy Fruit," She identified the brand. "They say that elves love this stuff."
"Juicy Fruit and peanut butter." Maynard unwrapped a piece for himself. "I have always wondered if it's a cultural thing or something more genetically based. Gods know there are human cultures that have weirder tastes."
She shrugged, not knowing or caring. Why were they standing there trading inane remarks? If Maynard had tracked her down, did it mean that he was going to turn her over to the NSA and correct all their misconceptions? Maynard had been studying her while making what seemed to be a deliberate show of chewing the gum. He reached out now to rub the triangular mark between her eyebrows.
"Where did this come from?"
"Windwolf." She jerked her head away. It occurred to her that if any human knew what it was, Maynard would. "What does it mean?"
"The elves run a rigid caste system, but sometimes a high-ranked elf can elevate a lower-rank elf. He marks them with a dau." Maynard tapped her forehead again. "And they become part of his caste, with all rights and privileges."
"Why'd Windwolf do it to me?"
"Why didn't you ask him at the time?"
"I didn't notice the mark until after he left. I haven't seen him since."
"Ah," Maynard murmured, and nothing more.
He had been dealing with elves too long. Maynard was nearly as obscure as they were. It seemed as if they would spend all day simply chewing gum.
"So, are you going to turn me over to the NSA?"
"Can't," Maynard said.
"Can't? Won't? Shan't?"
"By the rules of the treaty, no elf of any caste can be moved to Earth by any human agency for any reason."
"Rights and privileges?"
Well, the day was suddenly looking up, but it seemed too good to be true. Tinker tested her luck. "I don't think the NSA will see it that way."
"I don't give a fuck," Maynard said. "Lord Windwolf will not allow it, and that's all I care about. I'm walking a delicate line with the elves. I'm not going to piss the viceroy off to make two gun-happy American agents' jobs easy."
"What the hell is a viceroy?"
"You, girl, need a lesson in politics."
6: A Date Which Will
Live in Infamy
A viceroy turned out to be a very high position in the elfin government. The word viceroy was a weird smash-together of the words vice and royal, kind of like vice president, but with the idea that the president was somewhere else. In Windwolf's case, it was the queen of the elves, who lived in an area that corresponded with Europe. Windwolf apparently was the youngest elf ever appointed to be a viceroy, but Tinker got the impression it was by default. Windwolf had researched human explorations of the Americas and then led the first elfin landing in the Westernlands once he reached majority. As a colony, it hadn't rated a viceroy, but with Pittsburgh's arrival and the sudden boom in trade, Windwolf had been elevated solely because he was the principal landowner.
This made him a target both inside and outside his clan. Elders in his clan thought someone older with less radical ideas should replace him. The other clans were split—half wanted control of the trade with the humans and the rest wanted to break off contact totally. The queen, though, favored Windwolf, so he remained viceroy.
All things considered, girl genius or not, Windwolf was depressingly out of reach for a human teenager that ran a scrap yard.
Maynard tried to explain the elfin politics to Tinker while escorting her out to his limo. He was hampered by the fact that her grandfather had taught her nothing about human government and very little world geography. (No use cluttering up one's mind with things that change, as he'd put it. What she did know came from Lain, who believed in a rounded education: insects specialize, not humans.)
"It's in humans' best interest that Windwolf stay viceroy," Maynard finished. "He's an intelligent, honorable being with an open mind. It's also in our best interest to stay on his good side. Letting two minor human agents kidnap his newest family member would surely infuriate him."
"Family member?" Tinker squeaked.
"I'm keeping things simple," Maynard said cryptically. "The elfin guard at the border saw a member of Windwolf's family with two humans, and the humans claimed that person—you—as their prisoner. That's a basic violation of the treaty—I'll have to finesse things to calm the waters. If Windwolf doesn't know about this already, he will shortly. Luckily the border guard called the EIA to help extract you safely."
"You mean I did all that running around for no reason?"
Maynard slanted a look in her direction. "It did keep the NSA from learning the truth about your identity and the whereabouts of Alexander Graham Bell. And it delayed their attempts to remove you from the hospice until I had a chance to arrive. It wasn't a waste of time."
"Where are they now?" Tinker glanced out of the limo's back window at the hospice.
"They've been arrested for violating the treaty. If they're lucky, they won't be summarily executed."
"I'm not," Maynard said. "The NSA has committed a serious breach of protocol out of ignorance. They're making it worse by refusing to discuss why. Did they explain anything to you?"
She considered him. He currently was the only thing standing between her and the NSA, but that was for Windwolf's sake, not hers. She was only important because of Windwolf. She hedged. "I told you my father was murdered. The NSA think I could be in danger from the same people."
"The NSA don't usually commit two agents for thirty days to protect a little girl."
She glared at him. "I'm not a little girl; I'm a woman."
"Or a woman."
She supposed that keeping the truth from him when he was bound to discover it from the NSA agents sooner or later would only serve to annoy him. "My father was Leonardo Da Vinci Dufae."
She hadn't expected him to recognize her father's name, and was thus surprised when he did.
"Leonardo Dufae? The man who invented the hyperphase gate? Where did the name 'Bell' come from? Is that your egg mother's name?"
Tinker winced. "It's complicated. On the night Leonardo was killed, his office was ransacked and all his notes and computer equipment stolen. About a month later, someone tried to kidnap my grandfather. Grandpa always claimed it was Leonardo's murderers, who realized that what they stole off Leo wasn't complete and thought Grandpa could fill in the missing information. The government stepped in and gave Grandpa a new identity and relocated him out of Pittsburgh. When the Chinese started to build the gate, Grandpa left protective custody and disappeared totally. I'm not sure what he did during the next five years, and what names he went by, but when Pittsburgh was first transported to Elfhome, he was living here under the name of Timothy Bell."
"And to stay in Pittsburgh, he couldn't change it," Maynard guessed. The hasty peace treaty had allowed only residents listed on the census to remain after the first Shutdown, a ruling carried out by armed forces.
"Even when I was born, he was still too afraid to give me the name Dufae. He kept his inventions hidden. Lain always said he was a little loony in that regard."
"Then how did the NSA suddenly find you?"
"I applied to CMU. Since I'm basically homeschooled, and didn't want to be stuck on Earth for a month in order to take the standardized tests, Lain thought I should use my father's legacy to get in. After all these years, with Grandpa dead and all, I didn't think anyone would care who my father was."
Maynard gazed out of the window of his limo, considering what she'd told him. After a moment of silence, he said, "You said the stolen information wasn't complete."
"No. It wasn't." She'd never thought it important, but now maybe it was, and so she tried to piece it all together in her own mind. "If I had just lived with my grandfather, I probably wouldn't know the whole of this, but Oilcan lived with his mother until he was ten, so there are family things he knows that Grandpa never told me. The founder of the Dufae line, hundreds of years ago in France, was an elf. Dufae was a physician to the nobility, and was beheaded in the French Revolution; his wife and son fled to America. When my father and aunt were children, my great-great-"—she paused to count it out—"-great-aunt lived with them. She was over a century old, and she recounted stories that her great-grandmother had told her about the first Dufae.
"What made my father's work so groundbreaking was that much of it wasn't an extension of someone else's work, but was extrapolated from anecdotal information handed down through my family for generations. Apparently Dufae had traveled from Elfhome to Earth, but couldn't get back. If you believe the stories, then Dufae was proof of parallel dimensions."
"The elves had gates?"
"No, not really. It seemed to be a natural phenomenon in certain cave systems, most likely an iron ore embedded in quartz with a great deal of ambient magic present. In human legends, elves were a race that lived 'under a hill.' By all accounts, including Dufae's, elves and humans crossed back and forth between the two dimensions quite freely. Then something happened, and Dufae became stranded on Earth."
"Something happened?" Maynard echoed, puzzled. "Like the 'gates' stopped working?"
"From the stories, yes. Dufae traveled Europe, trying all the gates he knew about, and none of them worked, but he didn't know why."
Maynard frowned over this news for a minute, then turned his mind back to Tinker's father. "I'm not sure I follow. What does this Dufae have to do with Leonardo's plans being incomplete?"
She considered telling Maynard about Dufae's Codex, but decided not to. Let that remain a long-kept family secret. "Because of the great-aunt's stories about Dufae, my father started work on his theories as early as ten, writing down the tales and trying to conduct scientific analyses of them. This was the 1980s and 1990s, just as computers were becoming exponential in ability. When he upgraded to a new computer, he would only move his most recent files across and continue work from there. After Leo's death, my grandfather consolidated everything into one system, but on the night of Leo's murder, his work was spread across half a dozen machines. The thieves only took the one at his offices without realizing there were five more at home. They got information on how to build the gate, but not why it was designed the way it was in the first place."
Maynard groaned at the stupidity of the thieves. "I've seen the intelligence reports showing that the gate was definitely your father's work, but there have always been things that puzzled me about the whole thing. Most inventions have been a footrace to see who could make the breakthrough first. With the gate, your father's work came out of the blue, and it's been a scramble to work backward to see how he designed it. This explains why there were no small-scale experiments, but it leaves the biggest question."
"Why in the world did the Chinese steal the design and sink so much money into building the gate when there was no proof that it would work? It's stunning that it does work."
"Mostly works. The little problem of Pittsburgh swapped to Elfhome is because the plans were flawed, but the Chinese haven't been able to fix the problem."
Maynard turned his focus on Tinker. "NSA thinks that you can build a gate from scratch, without the design flaws of your father's."
"It's a possibility that they're seriously entertaining."
It would be safer to say no. Straight-out lie. There was the matter of the placement-test questions, but there were levels to understanding. One has to know enough to answer rote questions. The higher level was understanding to the point of creation. It was an invisible barrier that divided the likes of Newton and Einstein from the rest of the scientific world. Could a test question expose that level of understanding? Did she even have it? She thought she understood her father's theories, but she could be wrong. Certainly she'd never played with them, attempting to create or correct.
"You can," Maynard said while she wavered.
"I might." She tempered it. "There's a profound lack of parts for such items in Pittsburgh."
"And there's the matter of getting into space," Maynard quipped.
"It doesn't have to be in space. My family's stories are filled with foreboding as to what might have caused the gates to fail. My father thought that space was just the safest place to put a doorway between worlds."
"So he wasn't predicting the veil effect?"
Tinker looked out the side window, past the river to the elfin forest. "No. To be quite frank, I think he would be horrified."
* * *
She had Maynard take her to the yard, and as she hoped, Oilcan was there. Her cousin hugged her and held on—he had heard about her kidnapping. His obvious source of information, Nathan, was there, glaring at Maynard as if he were responsible for dragging her away instead of returning her.
Tinker kicked him. "Act nice. He's one of the good guys. This is Nathan Czernowski. He's a close friend of the family. Nathan, this is Derek Maynard."
"I recognize him," Nathan stated, barely civil, but extended his hand.
"Officer Czernowski." Maynard shook hands.
It struck Tinker that they were the same height and coloring. Nathan, though, was nearly twice the width, all muscle, and had a steady plainness to him, like a piece of stone.
"What the hell happened?" Nathan asked. "Your front door was wide open, your tripwire was activated, but your home system was shut down."
Tinker sighed and tried to explain, keeping the facts bare. She didn't bother to mention the NSA misgivings that her life was in danger. Maynard, however, added them in.
"I need to get back and deal with the NSA agents," Maynard finished. "There's a slim chance they'll be freed by morning, but I'll let you know before they are."
After Maynard left, Nathan hugged her, lifting her off the ground.
"Hey!" she complained, tired of being manhandled for the day.
"I was worried about you." He put her down.
"I can take care of myself," she said, more for Oilcan's sake than Nathan's.
"What's this?" Nathan rubbed the mark between her eyes.
"Oh, that." She sighed. "Windwolf has elevated me to elf status or something like that. Maynard says it's kind of like he adopted me into his family."
Nathan frowned and rubbed the mark harder. "You let him tattoo you?"
"No!" She jerked her head back. "He had the spell initialized and coded to a word and a kiss. Apparently the mark is a big deal, so it could have some authorization coding in it so someone with a temporary tattoo kit can't duplicate it."
"He kissed you?"
She had never seen jealousy on Nathan before, but still she recognized it on his face. "Oh, cut it out. It was a little peck on the forehead." She turned away from him as she recalled cuddling with Windwolf at the hospice. Had that actually happened, or was it some drug dream? "Look, it's a good thing. The NSA tried to kidnap me, and Windwolf's mark kept them from doing it."
It was hard to tell what annoyed Nathan more—that the NSA had grabbed her or that Windwolf had permanently marked her. She hadn't suspected that Nathan would react with such primal male chest beating. "He's the viceroy, Nathan, get over it!"
And even Nathan could see the unlikelihood that an elf noble would be interested in a little junkyard dog. "I'm sorry, Tink."
He turned her toward him and leaned down to kiss her, cautiously at first, and then hungrily. She was too tired and annoyed with life to enjoy it completely.
When he broke the kiss, he leaned his forehead against hers and asked huskily, "Do you want me to take you home?"
That put a thrill through her. Nathan. Her place. Her big bed. No. That was too scary a thought, despite the sudden wanting throb inside of her. The couch? Yes, she could deal with the couch, but still, the bed was frighteningly close by.
"No," she said once she swallowed down her heart. "I've got some things I want to do here," she lied. Then, because she knew Nathan wouldn't allow her to go home alone, not after today, she said, "Oilcan can take me home."
Oilcan looked struck dumb. When he realized that they were talking about him, he nodded. "Yeah! Sure!"
"Okay." Nathan stepped away reluctantly. "If you need anything, just call me."
"I will," she promised.
"See you tomorrow night." Nathan went to his squad car and drove away.
It wasn't until after he left that she realized he meant for their date.
"What the hell was that all about?" Oilcan broke the silence. "What's tomorrow night?"
"We're going to the Faire tomorrow night."
"You're dating Nathan? Since when?"
"Friday! You've got a problem with that?"
"I don't know. It just seems weird. You two kissing?" He squirmed. "It's like you're dating me."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"Well, you know Nathan's like family."
"So?" She kicked a dead headlight sitting on the ground. It sailed off to smash with crystal clarity. "You want me to date a complete stranger like . . . like"—she couldn't say Windwolf because that would hurt—"Maynard?"
"No! Well, maybe." Oilcan rubbed at the back of his neck. "I don't know. Nathan knows you're smart, but I don't think he knows how smart."
"What does that have to do with anything?" She didn't want to point out that she and Oilcan got along fine, even though they both knew she was smarter than he was.
"You're only going to get smarter. You're not happy unless you're learning something. Nathan, he's at the top of his game right now. He sees you and thinks he can handle it, but he doesn't realize things aren't going to stay the same."
"Could you at least let us get one date in before you doom the whole relationship?"
"As long as you keep in mind that it's probably not going to work out."
"Why not? You said yourself that Nathan already knows what I am."
"I don't know if Nathan has ever really listened to you. I mean, when you're talking about racing, or bowling, or horseshoes, he's listening to you. But when you talk about what's really in your soul, the real you, he's tuning you out. His eyes glaze over, and he does all sorts of fiddly things, and if you go on too long, he tries to shut you up."
He does? Embarrassingly enough, she had never noticed. She shrugged it away. If she didn't notice, it couldn't be something hugely important. "I'm going to have to date someone, sometime."
"Have you told Nathan about CMU?"
"Actually, Lain released me from that. She said I only had to go to college if I really wanted to."
"And?" Oilcan asked, as if it was still a possibility.
She opened her mouth to say no, but for some reason it came out, "I don't know!"
* * *
Nor did she know later as Oilcan dropped her off at her loft. She cleaned up the mess that the NSA agents had made of her place, trying to wrap her mind around the sudden changes in her life. Too much had hit at once. If it had just been Windwolf, or the EIA, or CMU, or the NSA, or Nathan, maybe she could have dealt with any one. She finally drew decision trees to map out her possible actions.
Windwolf yielded no branches; there was nothing for her to actually do, so she tried to delete him from her mind. Unfortunately, sometimes a mind wasn't as obedient as a piece of hardware.
Nor did the NSA tree provide actions; they were dealt with for the time being. EIA worked out to be a simple "help Maynard or annoy Maynard." While Windwolf's adoption obviously provided her with protection from the EIA, it seemed wiser to help the EIA.
Nathan broke down to the simple "go on the date or cancel." Because of her age and Nathan's reticence, neither would lead to massive changes in her life.
The tree for going to college, however, disturbed her greatly. The branch for attending splintered into multitudes of possibilities. Staying in Pittsburgh yielded unending sameness. For the first time she wondered if Lain was right; was she in danger of stagnating if she stayed in Pittsburgh?
She glanced at Nathan's tree. If she dated him, at least that was some change. She circled the "go on the date." She had promised him to try to look older. That required better clothes and makeup, of which she had neither. She made a note to get both in the morning.
* * *
Maynard called and told her that the NSA agents would be released in the morning. "Unfortunately the elves don't deal with gray very well. We either had to execute Durrack and Briggs or let them go. While killing them would keep them safely out of our hair, it was a little excessive."
Tinker made sure the door was triple bolted, and she armed her security system before going to bed. The events of the last few days combined oddly in her mind until she was dreaming of Foo dogs, crows, Riki, the NSA agents, and Windwolf all jumping through magic hula hoops. Despite the teleporting abilities of the hula hoops, the dream played out entirely at the EIA warehouse. At some point, the Foo dogs ran off with the magical toys, reducing her to tears.
"Do not cry." Windwolf produced a ring. "This works just as well. The gates can be quite small, if you understand the quantum effect of magic."
"What about the veil effect?" Tinker breathed as he slid the ring onto her oil-stained finger.
"Here it is." He placed a bridal veil on her head. The shimmering fabric was at once invisible and a glistening black caught full of stars.
Proving that she had paid attention to the handful of weddings she'd attended, Maynard married them in what seemed a fairly accurate though amazingly short ceremony.
"Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?"
"She is already mine." Windwolf parted the veil to touch the spell mark on Tinker's forehead.
"Do you take this man to be your husband?" Maynard asked.
"I really just want to mess around," Tinker said.
"Oh, okay." Maynard stepped back out of the room, saying, "You can kiss the bride."
Windwolf did more than kiss her. She was riding a wave of orgasm when her doorbell woke her. She opened her eyes, the morning sun spilling across her bed, an echo of the pleasure still washing through her. The doorbell rang again, and she stirred in her nest of rumpled white linens to find her bedside clock.
It was seven in the morning.
Who the hell was ringing her doorbell at seven in the freaking morning?
She fumbled with her spyhole display and discovered the NSA agents actually standing on her doorstep and ringing the doorbell like real people instead of breaking in.
She thumbed the display to two-way sound. "What do you want?"
Briggs located the camera and microphone first and pointed it out to Durrack while saying, "We want to talk to you, Ms. Bell."
Corg ducked slightly to look earnestly into the camera, as if trying to make eye-to-eye contact with her. In an apologetic mood, he actually had a boyish face with dark eyes and thick eyelashes. "We're sorry about yesterday; we let our concern for your safety carry us away. We really crossed the line, and we're very, very sorry. We promise it won't happen again."
"You sound like you get a lot of practice at groveling, Durrack."
Hannah laughed at her partner while he rubbed an embarrassed look off his face.
"Well, actually, being a federal agent is hard on relationships," Durrack confessed. "Chicks really dig the spy thing, but they really get pissed off when you miss their birthday because you were off saving the world."
Tinker laughed despite being annoyed at the NSA agents. "So you save the world a lot?"
"Small American slices of it, yes."
Briggs pushed Durrack impatiently aside and leaned close to the camera. "Ms. Bell, we believe you're in a great deal of danger."
Tinker sighed, resting her forehead on her nightstand. Let them in or chase them away? Neither seemed like a good idea.
"We promise to behave," Durrack added.
Yeah, right. She didn't believe them totally, but she suspected they weren't going away—at least not without talking to her face-to-face. She crawled out of bed, pulled on some clean clothes, and padded out to her front door, rubbing sleep out of her eyes. She supposed it was a good sign that they didn't rush her when she unbolted the door and swung it open.
Why was everyone suddenly coming in jumbo sizes? Both NSA agents towered over Tinker. Corg Durrack was broad-shouldered with deep chest and lean waist, giving him the proportions of a comic book hero. He fairly bristled with weapons and carried a white wax paper bag that he held out as a peace offering. "We brought donuts."
Briggs scoffed quietly at this. The female agent wore a long-sleeve shirt and pants that looked like black wet paint. Apparently the shirt doubled as a sports bra, and if she wore panties, they were thong. Still, Briggs was a stunning example of what strength training could do to the female body. As she stalked through the loft like a caged cat, the outfit showed off muscles on her long legs that Tinker didn't know women could develop.
"Do you want to start over from the top?" Tinker accepted the bag and swung up onto her countertop in an effort to keep a level playing field. "My life is in danger, oh ah, and you want to drag me back to Earth in order to lock me up in protective custody."
"Well, I'm glad you're taking this seriously." Briggs matched Tinker's sarcastic tone.
"I know all about protective custody." Tinker peered cautiously into the wax paper bag. Inside were four large coffee rolls of pure decadence. "My grandfather did some time in it, and he had choice stories to tell of the victim, rather than the criminal, being the prisoner."
Durrack sighed. "The sad truth is that we can't arrest all the bad guys."
"'Sorry, madam, I couldn't get your rapist, but I did lock up the baby girl next door just in case.'" Oops, judging by the look Durrack gave Briggs, there was only so far Tinker could push the NSA agents—or at least Briggs—and she had just hit it. "Come on; let's do a history update. Twenty-five years ago, a quarter of a century, someone killed my father. They've got their gate. They don't know that I exist, unless someone leaked the CMU information, but even then, there's no proof I can build a gate. Hell, even I don't know if I can build one. There's a big jump between knowing something well enough to answer elementary questions and being able to create a working prototype. Oilcan does as well as I do on just about any test, and can understand what I create, but he can't develop things on his own. The spark isn't there."
"But you have the spark, and anyone who puts Alexander Bell together with Tinker is going to know it too."
Tinker picked up a dog-eared copy of Scientific American off the counter. "In the last quarter century, scientists have been working feverishly to understand what Leo did. This magazine is two years old, but there's an article in here from some Norwegian who's doing field manipulation using quantum particles."
"Torbjörn Pettersen," Durrack said.
"Pardon?" Tinker said.
Durrack tapped the magazine. "The Norwegian was Torbjörn Pettersen, and he's been missing since that article hit the streets."
"Oh." She dug out the most recent issue—although the mailing lag made it the December issue and not the May one. She noted with a sudden relief that even though she paid the exorbitant subscription, it was still addressed to Timothy Bell, Neville Island, Pittsburgh on Elfhome. "What about"—she checked the table of contents—"Lisa Satterlund?"
"Dead," Briggs said simply.
Durrack expanded the single word: "Satterlund was killed during a kidnapping attempt in December."
"Marcus Shipman? Harry Russell?" Tinker named the two scientists she could remember who had published important advances in gate theory.
"Missing," Briggs said.
Durrack sighed. "Harry Russell had a GPS chip on him after a DWI arrest. We found the chip in the stomach of a catfish in St. Louis. The forensic scientists are trying to determine when he died. The thing is that, for at least four months, the chip wasn't in North America."
"You think he was here in Pittsburgh?"
"It's a possibility," Durrack allowed. "It's possible that the kidnappers just managed to block the signal while holding him in the United States. It seems more likely that they brought him to Elfhome."
"To kill him and dump his body into the river?"
"These people use excessive force," Briggs snapped. "His death was probably accidental."
"How he died isn't as important as the fact that you're still in peril," Durrack said. "At the moment, we have an advantage. You're a complete blank: no fingerprints, no retina scans. The other side is going to be looking for a guy about to hit middle age. With just a name change, you could vanish into the general populace. Hell, you could go to MIT or Caltech and live in the dorms. That's assuming you want to attend college. If you don't, we could set you up with a lab."
"Like I want to turn my life over to you." Tinker shook her head as her stomach growled. "I have a life here. There's my cousin, and all my friends. Besides, I thought you couldn't take me off Elfhome since technically I'm an elf now."
"We can't take you off, but you can request permission to leave," Briggs said. "Elves have traveled to Earth in the past, but they usually only stay thirty days, until the next transfer. They don't like living without magic."
"Neither do I," Tinker said, and gave in to the temptation of the donuts, taking out one of the still-warm pastries. "There's lots of cool possibilities with magic I haven't explored yet. If I go back to Earth, I'd lose that ability."
"The U.S. government would be willing to make it worth your while," Durrack said. "Everything we offered before and then some. A house. Someone to cook and clean so all you have to do is invent. A fully equipped lab. A law firm to file your patents."
"What does the government get out of this?" Tinker unrolled the spiral coffee roll, tearing off bite-sized pieces. "I know there's a price hidden in there somewhere."
"The U.S. gets insurance that the Chinese don't get a land-based gate first."
"Why does the U.S. want a gate?"
"Part of it is that they're used to being the ones with the new toy, and it annoys them to no end that the Chinese have something that they don't. But there's also a fear of what a land-based gate can and can't do. What if it lets you travel through time, or to several dimensions? If the Chinese get it first, they're not going to share information any more than they've shared details on the gate."
"I'm not going to leave my cousin," Tinker said.
"He could come with you," Durrack said. "We set him up a new identity. He could pick out a name nicer than Orville or Oilcan. He could go to college too. I hear he's an intelligent young man—it seems a waste for him to spend his life as a tow truck driver when he's got the smarts to be anything he wants. It could be a great opportunity for him."
Durrack would say anything to manipulate her, but it didn't make it any less true. While Oilcan occasionally stated that Earth had been too big and crowded, he complained about the lack of people their own age and temperament. He hovered around the Observatory, drawn to the women postdocs, but was never able to do more than watch them come and go.
The NSA agents waited for her response.
"Let me talk to my cousin. See what he says."
"We can take you over to his place."
"Oh, stop pushing," Tinker said. "I'm going to take a shower, and then go shopping for clothes. I've got a date tonight." And Nathan wasn't going to be happy about any possibility of her leaving town; his whole family clung to Pittsburgh, refusing to leave. "And I've got lots of hard decisions to make. So just go away; leave me alone to figure out what I want in life."
* * *
Tinker took the well-worn path down through the steep hillside orchard, carefully avoiding the beehives, to Tooloo's store at the bottom of the hill. The store itself was a rambling set of rooms filled with unlikely items, many ancient beyond belief. One section was secondhand clothes, where Tinker often found shirts, pants, and winter coats. Some of the clothes were elfin formal wear that Tinker drooled over from time to time but never found any reason to buy. Even secondhand they were pricey.
There was an odd collection of general goods, but the main focus of the store was food—often the rarest items to find in Pittsburgh. In an area behind the store, Tooloo had an extensive garden and various outbuildings: a barn, a henhouse, and a dove coop. She had fresh milk, butter, eggs, freshwater fish, and doves all year. During the summer, she also sold honey, fruit, and vegetables.
Tooloo herself seemed to be an eclectic collection. Locals referred to her as a half-breed, left over from the last time elves visited Earth. Tooloo certainly had the elfin ears, spoke fluent Low and High Elvish, and could be counted on as having in-depth knowledge on matters arcane. Unlike any full elf, she looked old, a face filled with wrinkles and silver hair that reached her ankles. Her elfin silks were faded and nearly threadbare, and she wore battered high-top tennis shoes.
Whereas Lain was a known quantity, comforting in her familiarity, Tooloo refused to be known. Asked her favorite color, it would be different each time. Her birthday ranged the year, if she would admit to having one. Even her name was unknown, Tooloo being only a nickname. In eighteen years, Tinker had never heard Tooloo mention anything about her own parentage.
If Tinker's grandfather was the source of Tinker's scientific thinking, and Lain the source of all common sense, then Tooloo was her font of superstition. Despite everything, Tinker found herself believing a found penny meant good luck, spilt salt required a pinch thrown over the shoulder to ward off bad luck, and that she should never give an elf her true name.
Thinking about what she'd say to Oilcan about the NSA proposal and her date with Nathan, Tinker wasn't prepared for Tooloo's reaction to recent events.
"You little monkey!" Tooloo swept out of the back room that served as her home, shaking a finger at Tinker. "You've seen Windwolf again, haven't you? I told you to stay away from him."
Tinker turned her back so she didn't have to look at the scolding finger. "You've told me lies."
"No, I haven't. Only bad will come of this. He'll swallow you up, and nothing will be left."
"You said he marked me with a life debt." And as Tinker said it, she realized that Tooloo had told the truth, only the half-elf had twisted it somehow. "You didn't tell me that he was in debt to me."
"It's a curse, either way." Tooloo came to rub the mark between Tinker's eyebrows. "Oh, he's got his hands on you now. The end begins."
"What do you mean?"
"What I've said all along—but then you've never listened. You come asking again and again for the same story and go away not listening despite how many different ways I tell you."
"It can't be the same and different at the same time."
"Windwolf is dangerous to you," Tooloo used the scolding finger again. "Is that simple enough for you? I've tried to keep you hidden all these years from him, but he's found you now, and marked you as his."
Tinker realized suddenly that as one of the few people in Pittsburgh who spoke High Elvish, Tooloo would have certainly been the one asked about Tinker's identity after the saurus attack. "I don't understand."
"Obviously." Tooloo snorted and moved off to rearrange stock.
From years of dealing with Tooloo, Tinker recognized that the conversation had come to an impasse. She changed the subject to the reason she was at the store. "I have a date with Nathan Czernowski. We're going to the Faire."
"Ah, what is with you and fire?"
"What does that mean?"
"It's dangerous to offer a man something he wants but that can't be his."
"Why can't it be his?"
Tooloo caught her chin. "When you look at Czernowski, do you see your heart's desire?"
"You know your heart so little? I don't think so. You do this to satisfy that little monkey brain of yours. Curiosity is a beast best starved."
"Nathan wouldn't hurt me."
"If only the same could be said of you."
Tinker stomped to the clothes, trying to puzzle that warning out. Was it something in the water that made older women impossible to understand?
* * *
At Tooloo's she found an elfin jacket. Or at least, on an elf it was a jacket. On her it was a duster, coming down nearly to her ankles. The sleeves were slightly long, but she could fold them back. A mottled gold silk, it had a purple iris hand painted on the back. She fell in love with it but could find nothing to complement it, so she took her hoverbike into Pittsburgh in search of an older self.
* * *
Kaufmann's was a Pittsburgh tradition, the oldest department store located downtown. It had withstood flood, suburbia, the invasion of foreign department stores, and being transported into the fey realms.
"I need some clothes to make me look more mature," she told the saleswoman in an area marked "Women's," who pointed her firmly toward "Petites." She found a push-up bra that made the most of her chest, a clingy black slip dress, and high-heeled shoes.
"I need a cut that makes me look older," she told the hairstylist, who eyed her hacked hair with slight dismay.
"Did you tattoo yourself, sweetheart?" the stylist asked, gingerly touching Windwolf's mark on Tinker's forehead.
"Umm, ah, it's a long story." Remembering Nathan's reaction to the mark, Tinker raked her hair forward with her fingers. "Is there any way I can cover this with my bangs?"
"What bangs?" The stylist found the longest lock and pulled it forward to show that it fell short of the mark. "Sweetheart, at this point all you can do is wear it proudly."
In the end, the stylist could do little more than even out the length of her hair and then rub a gel into it so it stood up in little spikes. "It's retro chic," the stylist chanted. "Very elegant."
The makeover woman eyed Windwolf's mark and pronounced it extremely cool.
"Is there anything that will cover it up?"
The woman laughed again. "Not without an inch or two of concealer. Why would you want to? It becomes you; it makes you very exotic looking."
"The guy I'm dating tonight doesn't like it."
The woman swabbed the mark with cleanser and shook her head. "He better learn to like it; it's there to stay."
"Can you make me look older then, like I was in my twenties?"
"Why does every woman under twenty want to look over it, and every other woman in the world wants to look under it?" She resoaked the cotton ball, took Tinker's face in one hand, and started to clean her face gently. "Men, that's why. Honey, don't be in a rush to change for a man. You might make him happy, but most likely only at the cost of making yourself miserable. . . . You've got wonderful skin," she cooed.
"I've got freckles."
The makeup woman tsked. "Here's the secret, honey; you've got what men want. You're young, and pretty, and nicely padded in all the right places. You might be saying, 'Oh, my hair isn't down to my ankles, I have freckles, and my ears aren't pointed,' but men see the chest, the hips, the butt, and the pretty face—in that order—and little else. You can have any man in this city, so take your time and be picky. Make him work to get you."
Perched on a bar stool, Tinker spent nearly two hours and nearly a hundred dollars learning the arcane skill of applying makeup and dealing with men.
To some degree, she managed to achieve looking older than her real self. How much older, she wasn't sure, but she felt a little wiser in the ways of the world. She detoured on her way back to her bike for condoms and a can of mace for "protection, just in case of any emergencies."
It wasn't until then that she remembered Riki.
* * *
Someone had been busy while she was gone. Her workshop trailer was back into place, square and level as if it had never been moved. All the various power links were reconnected, and the air conditioner was even back in its slot. Someone had also gathered up all the blood-soaked bandages into a plastic garbage bag and then scrubbed the floor and worktable clean of blood until the air smelled sweetly of peroxide.
She would have suspected Oilcan of the progress, except that the flatbed was missing and Riki's motorcycle sat next to the office door. When she found the offices empty, she wandered through the scrap yard, wondering where the grad student was. Had he gone with Oilcan on some errand, or just taken a walk?
Finally something drew her eye toward the crane, and she found him at last, perched on the boom, sixty feet straight up. Still dressed in the black leather pants and jacket of yesterday, he sat on the end of the boom, a black dot on the blue sky.
"What the hell?" Tink scrambled up the ladder to the crane's cage. What was he doing out there? Was he planning on jumping? How had he even gotten out there? She leaned out the window and saw that with the boom level, it was basically a straight walk out from the cage.
"Riki? Riki?" she called in a low pitch, trying to get his attention without startling him.
He glanced over his shoulder at her, the wind ruffling his black hair. "Oh, there you are."
"Sorry that I was late. I got busy and forgot about you." She winced. Maybe that wasn't the right thing to say at a time like now.
"Your cousin was here." Riki stood up and casually picked his way back along the narrow boom. He had her datapad with him, and it caught the sun and reflected it in blazes of sheer white. Blackness and brilliance, he moved through seemingly open sky. "Oilcan called Lain, and she let him know I was legit."
She drew back from the window, gripping the operator's chair. Just watching him made her suddenly afraid of falling. "What the hell are you doing out there?"
"I have a thing about heights." He leaned in the window. Unlike yesterday, he seemed relaxed and pleased, a lazy smile on his face. "They clear my head. I think better when I'm high up."
"Get in here; you're making me nervous."
He laughed and swung his long thin legs in and sat framed in the window. "Sorry. I forget how much it bugs people. The sky was too perfect, though."
She looked out the other window. The sky was a stunning deep blue, with massive stray clouds dotting it, huge and fluffy as lost sheep; only when you gazed at them, you saw how complex they were, with lines so crisp they were surreal. A cool wind scented with the endless elfin forest just beyond the Rim moved through the blueness, herding the sheep. It was the kind of sky she had sat and stared at as a child. "Yeah, it's perfect." When she turned back to him, he was watching her, head cocked to one side. "What?"
"Just that you gave that thought before you passed judgment."
"Thanks. I think."
He held out her datapad. "I was reading over your notes. They're brilliant."
She blushed as she snatched it back. "I really didn't mean for other people to see them." She glanced down at the pad. He had her theory for magic's waveform pulled up. In the scratch space, he'd worked through her equations, double-checking her work. "You followed this?"
"Mostly." He held out his hand for the pad.
She reluctantly surrendered it back.
He closed her documents and enlarged the scratch space, clearing out his work. "If I'm understanding this right, the multiple universes can be represented by a stack of paper." He drew several parallel lines. "Earth is at the bottom of the stack, and Elfhome is somewhere higher up." He labeled two of the lines appropriately. "Now magic is coming through the entire stack as a waveform." He drew a series of waves through the stack. "Since both the stack and the waveform are uniform, the point where the wave intersects the individual universe is constant; it always hits Earth at N and Elfhome at N+1."
"In a nutshell, yes." Tinker looked at him in surprise. She had tried to explain her theory several times, but never using this model. It seemed so clear and simple. Of course, one of the reasons it was easy to understand was that Riki had ignored the fact that the universes weren't stacked like paper, but were overlapping in a manner that boggled the mind. To reach out and touch a point meant that your finger would almost be touching a zillion identical points across countless dimensions, separated only by that weird sideways step that made it another reality. Of course, only in the nearby realities were you touching that same spot. Farther away you were touching another position, and farther away, like on Elfhome, you never existed because at some extremely distant time life took a different path and elves came about instead of humans.
"This is what I don't follow." Riki pulled up her notes again, scrolled through them, and found what he was looking for. "I came here to see if I could wrap my brain around it."
"It's not fully formed." She sighed unhappily at it. "I hate it when there are things in the universe that I don't understand."
"It looks like you're trying to figure out how to reach other dimensions."
"Well, the real question is: Why do we always return to the same Elfhome? At least, we seem to. All indications are that we return to the exact dimension."
"Well, the gate generates the same field."
"Consider all the universal changes. We start on Earth, which is spinning with the gate in orbit over China, so the veil effect has to travel through the Earth's core. Then the planet is slowly wobbling through the precession of equinoxes. We've got the Moon's effect on Earth, and then the Earth moving around the Sun, which is moving around the center of the Milky Way galaxy.
"We're talking about numerous vectors that we're traveling in at any one time. That Pittsburgh returns to the same Elfhome, again and again, indicates something other than just dumb luck."
Riki grasped what she was talking about. "Like we're dealing with a universal constant. If you can travel from one dimension to a second dimension once, you'll always be able to?"
"Yeah, some commonality between the two dimensions."
"So how do you make a gate to a third dimension?"
"A third dimension?"
"Well, with countless dimensions available, why only travel to just one?"
"Two seems to be plenty for us to handle right now."
"Well, surely there are more than just two dimensions with the same commonality. You'd expect something more like a string of pearls, linked together on a silk thread."
"Oh, that's elegant." Tinker gazed out at the perfect sky, but she was looking at a strand of planets strung together in a black universe. Earth. Elfhome. Worlds unknown. "But what's the thread?"
"The gate traverses the thread."
"Do you understand how the gate works?"
"Oh, not you too!"
"All of a sudden, that's all anyone seems to care about," Tinker snapped. "Gates and babies."
"Babies?" Riki cocked his head at her. "What did you do to your hair? I like it that way."
She frowned at him. Her hair? She put a hand to her hair, touched the gelled tips and suddenly recalled Nathan's date. "Oh, no, what time is it?"
Riki tugged up his leather jacket's sleeve to show his watch. It read 4:38.
"Oh shit, I'm going to be late!"
"Where are you going?"
"On a date! To the Faire! Hey, you should go. It's Midsummer Eve's Faire tonight, so it's extra special. The Faire grounds are out just beyond the Rim." She leaned out the window but the Hill blocked any sign of the Faire. She pointed out the Hill, explaining that the Faire grounds lay behind it. "Just ask anyone for directions. On any old map, its off of where Centre Avenue used to be."
"Will there be a lot of humans there?"
"Yeah, sure, don't worry; you won't stand out."
"Okay then, I'll be there."
* * *
There was a note tacked on her front door. By the style of paper—thick, creamy, handmade linen—and the elegant script, she guessed that it was from Windwolf. A single piece of paper trifolded, the note was sealed shut with a wafer of wax and a spell that would notify the writer that the note had been opened, and perhaps by whom. The outside had her name written so fancy that she didn't recognize it at first:
The inside gleamed softly as she unfolded, a second spell being triggered, but it faded before she could tell what it did. Unfortunately the writing was in a language that she could only guess to be High Elvish.
She considered driving to Tooloo's to get it translated, but the old half-elf would probably only lie to her. Maynard? She glanced at the clock—after five. Nathan would be here within an hour, which didn't give her time to go downtown and back. If she took it with her to the Faire, though, surely someone would be able to read it to her.
Nathan knocked at exactly six o'clock, and looked slightly dazed when she opened the door. "Wow, you look wonderful."
"Thanks!" She stepped out onto the sloop, armed her security system, and locked the door. Her outfit had no pockets, and it had taken an hour to pare things-to-be-carried down to a single key and Windwolf's note; she stood a moment, unsure what to do with the key. The note was fairly simple to carry, but she couldn't hold the key all night. Her bra presented a natural pocket, so she tucked the key under her breast. Would it stay there? She jiggled a moment. Yes. "Are we going to eat first? I forgot to eat all day."
Embarrassingly enough, Nathan had watched the whole key thing and now stammered, "Y-y-yeah, I've made reservations at one of the Rim's enclaves, Poppymeadow."
She tried to ignore the burn on her face. "I didn't think you liked elfin food."
"Well, it's like eating at my mom's; you get what's being served, and if you don't like it, they still make you eat it."
"They do not."
"Okay, they make you pay for it, and they don't give out doggie bags."
He wasn't being logical. "So why are we going?"
"Because I know you like it."
She thought of the makeover woman's advice and nodded slowly. "Okay."
In the car, Nathan became oddly silent as he headed for the Rim.
"What do people normally talk about on dates?" Tinker asked to break the silence.
Nathan shifted uncomfortably, as if this stressed that he was older and more experienced than she was. "Well, normally you get to know each other. Where you're from, who your parents are, if you have brothers and sisters. You know. Background info."
"We know all that."
"Yeah," Nathan said unhappily. "Common interests and if nothing else, the weather."
Common interests? Bowling? That made her think of Windwolf. No, no, not a good idea.
"It sure was hot this Shutdown." She started the inane conversation about the weather.
* * *
As the steelworkers had at one time divided themselves into richly ethnic neighborhoods, so did the current inhabitants. The UN workers, which made up the bulk of the EIA, lived within downtown's triangle of land, using the rivers to shield them on two sides against packs of wargs, the occasional saurus, and other Elfhome creatures with big mouths and sharp teeth. On the South Side, sheltered less so by the Monongahela River and the bulk of Mount Washington, was a set of Americans whose expertise was the freight trains that did the East Coast run. Mixed in with them were the oil workers who kept a steady supply of natural gas flowing throughout the region, supplied by gas wells long since tapped on Earth. On the sliver of the North Side remaining, a Chinatown had grown up, part of the treaty with China when their gate triggered the whole mess. Native Pittsburghers were sprinkled everywhere, refusing to move despite everything.
Lastly, in Oakland, were the elves.
The elfin businesses sat just beyond the part of old Oakland that had been razed by the Rim. The southern side of the street was graveled parking lots with large warning signs that the lot fell into the Rim's influence during Shutdown and Startup. The northern side of the street was elfin enclaves, half a block wide, high-walled and gated, built firmly on Elfhome. Once through the gates, one was into lush private gardens filled with exotic flowers, songbirds, and glowing cousins to fireflies.
Since it was Midsummer Eve, the traffic was heavy for Pittsburgh, and Nathan had to cruise the parking lot for several minutes to find a space. Most of the crowd, however, were heading several blocks to the east where the Earth street ended abruptly in the Faire grounds.
There was a group of mostly elves waiting to be seated as Tinker and Nathan came down the garden path of the Poppymeadow enclave. A female elf with long silvery hair that nearly reached her ankles glanced toward Tinker. Her eyes went wide in surprised recognition. "Tinker ze domi!"
Tinker startled; of the handful of elves she knew, this wasn't one. She glanced behind her to see if maybe an elf noble named Tinker was standing behind her. The garden path was empty.
The other waiting diners turned, saw Tinker, and bowed low, murmuring, "Tinker ze domi!"
She didn't recognize any of them. To cover her confusion, Tinker bobbed a shallow bow to the crowd and gave a semi-informal greeting. "Nasadae!"
The domo of Poppymeadow pushed through the diners, bowed low, and gushed out High Elvish faster than Tinker could hope to follow.
"Please, please, Taunte," she begged him to use the low tongue.
"You honor me!" the domo cried, taking hold of her hands. "Come. Come. You must have the finest seat in the house."
He guided the bewildered Tinker through the waiting diners, into the public eating areas, and to an elegant table set into a small alcove. Nathan followed, looking as mystified as Tinker felt. "Here! Let me be the first to wish you merry!"
"Thank you, but . . ." Tinker started to ask why they were fussing over her, but the domo was already gone.
"What was that all about?" Nathan asked.
"I'm not sure," Tinker said slowly.
"What were they saying?"
"You don't speak Elvish?"
"Not really. Just enough to do a traffic stop. What did they say?"
Tinker flashed to the patrol guard who had roughed her up at the hospice on Startup. She pushed the ugly comparison away; no, Nathan wasn't like that. Wait. The hospice.
"Um, they recognized me somehow, but I don't know them." Or did she? Was the silver-haired female the one who had helped with the surgery on her hand? Startup had been a blur, but that would be a whole crop of elves who would know her.
"Maybe they know you from the hoverbike racing," Nathan suggested.
Elves called her Tinker-tiki at the races, which was a friendly informal condescending address, on the order of "baby Tinker." This had been Tinker ze domi, an address of extreme politeness. More likely these were elves who knew her from the hospice. Certainly between her arrival with the flatbed at Startup, and Windwolf carrying her through the hospice yelling the next morning, and this morning's fight with the NSA, she had made herself memorable enough. All the elves at the hospice most likely knew that she had saved . . .
Realization hit her. She barely kept her hand from reaching up and touching her forehead. The elves had to be reacting to Windwolf's mark! She glanced worriedly at Nathan. If he thought this weirdness meant that Windwolf did have some claim on her . . . She winced; she didn't want to deal with a jealous Nathan again. What a mess.
The domo returned with a bottle labeled in Elvish, two drinking bowls, and a small silver dish of something white. While she was trying to decide if it was sugar or salt or something more exotic, the domo flicked it onto her, exclaiming, "Linsa tanlita lintou!" He continued in Low Elvish, saying. "May you be merry!"
What the hell? Tinker blinked in surprise, too confused even to form a reaction.
The domo pushed one of the small drinking bowls into her hands, saying, "Praise be to the gods."
She at least knew how to react to that. "Praise be," she said, and drank the wine. What was in the glass was clear, sweet as candy, and burned the whole way down. While she gasped for breath, the domo vanished again.
"You okay?" Nathan asked, and she nodded. "What did he throw on you?"
"I think it was salt."
"I don't know." Nor could she guess. What had the domo said? Linsa and lintou were both forms of the same word—purity. Tanlita was the word tanta meaning "will make" in its female form. Pure into purity? Purity into cleanliness?
The food began to arrive on tiny delicate hand-painted dishes. At an enclave, you ate what you were served. Tinker usually liked it because there were no choices to be made, and you weren't stuck with a large portion of something that was only so-so, or in envy of what another person ordered. Sure, you never knew what you were about to be served, or sometimes had already eaten, but it made the entire meal an adventure.
She could really do without adventure and mystery in her life right about now.
Like most businesses in Pittsburgh, the enclaves relied heavily on local produce to supplement the supplies brought in during Shutdown. Thus the dishes appearing before Tinker and Nathan featured woodland mushrooms, walnuts, trout, venison, hare, keva beans, and raspberries. Luckily the dishes came with built-in conversation: What do you suppose this is? Oh, this is good. Is there more? Are you going to eat that?
It made it easy for Tinker to ponder what the domo meant by "wish you merry." Had she translated that right? Merry what? Merry dinner? Merry Midsummer's Eve? Merry Christmas? Why did languages have to be so vague? This is why she loved math!
During the third round of dishes, the other diners started to appear at the table. They would slip up, eye Nathan doubtfully as he grew more and more surly, then smile warmly at Tinker and press something into her hand, saying, "I wish you merry!" The first was the silver-haired female, with a flower plucked from the enclave garden, which seemed innocent enough. It wasn't until the second diner pressed a silver dime into Tinker's hands that she realized she should have refused the flower. Now she couldn't refuse following gifts without grave insult, something you didn't do with elves. So she smiled and accepted the dime and prayed that Nathan wouldn't blow a gasket. Flowers, coins, note paper folded into packets containing salt, and a small cage of slender vines woven into a cage holding a firefly followed.
"What's with the bug?" Nathan asked.
"I don't know." She winced as she realized that she was whining. "It is kind of cute, in a weird kind of way."
"Why are they doing this?"
"If I told you, you'd get all bent out of shape, and I don't want to deal with that."
He frowned at her and pushed his latest dish away. "Look, why don't we just go to the Faire? I don't feel like eating any more."
The domo saved her from having to abandon all the gifts behind. He came forward with a basket while Nathan went off to settle up the bill.
Under all the gifts, she found Windwolf's note. "Please, can you read this—and translate it to low tongue for me?"
"Yes, certainly." He glanced over the note. "It is from Wolf Who Rules. He—" a pause as the domo worked through translation from formal to informal "—will see you at the Faire."
"What is it you say: I wish you merry?" she asked awkwardly. "Merry what?"
"Life. I wish you a merry life. May all good things come to you."
That seemed harmless enough. Nathan appeared, waiting, so she didn't ask about the salt or the gifts.
They stopped at the Buick and dropped off the basket. Night had fallen, and the Faire had awakened a gleam of multicolored lights and the beat of exotic music. There by the car, they seemed to be in their own envelope of space-time. Nathan pulled her close, kissing her while slipping his hands under her silk duster and running his hands down the back of her dress. For a little while, it was very nice; his strong warm body holding her, the smell of his musky cologne, and the excitement of kissing in the open darkness. It felt similar to when she raced her bike fast down Observatory Hill, exhilarated by the speed, heart leaping to her throat every time she slid out of control toward the edge of the tree-lined road.
At some point, though, Nathan realized that the duster shielded his hands from any chance passersby, and he slipped them down and then back up, this time under her dress. He straightened slightly, pulling her off her feet, at the same time kissing down her neck to nuzzle into her breasts.
"Nathan." It was getting too scary, and she was a little angry that he was taking it so fast, out in the open, as if he wanted to be seen, so that everyone would think that she belonged to him. It was as if this was his way of marking her.
"No one's here." He was strong enough that he could support her easily with one hand. Their joint focus became his free hand, rough fingertips on her inner thigh, exploring higher.
"Nathan!" she hissed, wriggling in his hold. "Someone might come. Put me down."
"We could get into the car," he groaned into her hair.
Into the car and what? Did he think the car afforded shadows deep enough to disguise what he wanted to do? Or in the car, they could go to someplace more appropriate? His place? Her place?
"No." She squirmed more, tempted now to use elbows, knees, and the practically sharpened tip of her shoes. "I want to go to the Faire."
He gave a long-suffering sigh. "Are you sure?"
"All right." He set her back onto her feet. "Let's go to the Faire."
* * *
The first booth beyond the gate was a portable shrine to Redoeya; she paused to clap and bow to the statue and drop a dime into his silver-strewn hands. She considered, eyes closed, hands clasped. What was it that she wanted? In earlier years she had prayed for things as simple as winning something from one of the booths. Searching her heart, she found only conflicting desires. Finally she prayed simply: May I figure out what it is I want in life.
"Why do you do that?" Nathan had hung back, looking a mix of annoyed and bewildered.
"I always do that." She headed for the sweet bun stands as Faire custom number two; one needed to get them fresh and hot. "Tooloo said that if Grandpa wasn't going to put me in the protection of human gods, then she'd see me protected by the elfin ones."
He made a face.
"Oh, I was fairly sure you weren't Catholic, but I expected you to be at least Christian."
Nathan bought sweet buns for both of them, and they drifted on, pulled by the tidal force of moving bodies.
There was more of everything at the Faire than she'd ever seen before. Another row had been added to the basic grid to accommodate the additional booths. Despite the extra space, more people strolled through the aisles: elves dressed in human fashions, humans dressed in elfin fashion, parents with infants, couples of mixed races, and most surprisingly of all, armed guards of both races. Tinker had never seen on-duty guards at the Faire before. She wasn't sure if the tension she felt came from the armed presence, or her own sudden unease with Nathan.
"I can't believe there are armed guards here," she said to Nathan as they passed the third guard, her dark EIA uniform and flat black gun a black hole for attention.
"The viceroy was nearly murdered twice," Nathan said. "And then there's the whole thing with the smuggling ring. With this many people in one place, it's the smart thing to do."
"I don't like it."
"You wouldn't have ended up tangling with that saurus if there'd been more than Windwolf and his bodyguard at the Faire."
Tinker flashed to that day, the saurus standing with a foot pinning the lower half of Windwolf's bodyguard to the ground and his upper half in its mouth. In an image that haunted her nightmares, the saurus pulled upward, stretching the guard's body obscenely long before shaking its head, tearing the male in half. She shuddered. "Let's not talk about that."
But once called up, she couldn't stop thinking about the day. Strange how she couldn't recall Windwolf's location until he was yelling in her face to run, and how, even now, she didn't remember him as wounded, only angry.
In a sudden rewrite of history that was almost dizzying, she realized that Windwolf had lost a friend that day, not only torn to shreds but also eaten. How long had they known each other? A hundred years? Poor Windwolf! No wonder he had been so angry.
"Guess." Nathan interrupted her thoughts.
"So guess what they named the baby."
Baby? She glanced around and spotted a human woman showing off her baby to curious elves. She had always thought it odd that elves seemed fascinated by babies, but considering what Windwolf had said, a young adult elf may have never seen an infant in his or her life. She had to admit there was something intriguing about the miniaturization of a being that babies represented, but they were, on a whole, too fragile for her to deal with. She supposed that if someday she had "kids" she would have to deal with "babies"—an utterly frightening thought.
Nathan was still waiting for her to guess the baby's name and was growing impatient.
"I don't know the mother. Who is she?"
"What?" A frown quirked at the corner of Nathan's mouth as he scanned the brightly dressed crowd. "No. Not her," he said, spotting the baby being passed around the knot of adults. "My sister's baby. Guess what they called my niece."
Oh, yes, his sister Ginny lived in Bethel Park. She had been waiting for Shutdown to go to Earth in order to have her second child, but the baby came a week early, and she delivered at Mercy Hospital. When Tinker had talked to Nathan before Shutdown his sister hadn't named the baby yet.
"Oh. Um. After you?" Was there a female version of "Nathan"?
"No. Mercy. Mercy Anne."
Yuk! Tinker tried to keep her face neutral and made polite noises. Luckily they'd collided with the mass of people listening to the musicians onstage at the edge of the Faire ground. She didn't recognize the group's name, but they were a common mixed-race band, blending the raw American rock beat and guitars with traditional elfin instruments and melodies. They featured an olianuni, and an obvious master playing it, his mallets a blur as he hammered. The guitars snarled around the rich deep bell-like melody beat out by the olianuni player. The lead singer was human, growling out a song about the shortness of human life and the reckless abandonment in which the race embraced its fate. In a high pure counter, the elfin backup singer chanted out the thousand blessings of patience.
"Want to dance?" Tinker shouted to Nathan, bobbing in place to the beat of the music.
"Actually, I was working my way to something. Can we find someplace quieter to talk?"
"Okay." Still moving with the beat of the song, she threaded her way through the crowd, trusting him to find a way to follow.
"You know"—he caught up with her beside a fishing booth, where people were trying to fish brightly gleaming pesantiki out of a pool with small paper nets—"if you let me go first, I'd open up a path for you to follow."
"Then all I could see would be your back. You can see over me. Here, let's sit."
The next booth down was the okonomiyaki cart that usually sat in Market Square. Side benches folded down from it, and there were banners hanging down from the bamboo awning to give the deception of privacy.
"You're still hungry?" Nathan asked.
"I didn't get to eat a lot at the enclave." She felt a little guilty. Enclaves charged a set price that was rather steep. She held up the bag of silver dimes. "Let me pay."
"No, I'll pay." Nathan thumbed out some coins to the Asian man on the other side of the griddle.
They ordered their toppings, and the chef started to mix up the eggs, water, flour, and cabbage for the pancake.
"The family across the street from my sister decided to emigrate back to the States, and they signed over their house to the EIA. They had a nice place: a four-bedroom Cape Cod with a two-car garage, and a natural-gas furnace with a wood burner backup system."
"Your point being?"
"Well, it got me thinking," Nathan said. "The house would be a nice starter place for you and me."
"What?" Her cry startled the chef.
"It's a nice place, well maintained. We could nab it now and move in later."
She could only stare at him in surprise.
"We put up curtains," Nathan said. "Buy a few pieces of furniture, and no one would know the difference. It needs sprucing up, so we take our time painting and such."
"You want to live together?"
Nathan took her hand. "I want to marry you."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa. What happened to waiting until I'm nineteen? I thought this was just a date."
"I don't mean right away. I don't want to rush you."
"I don't know—talking about marriage on a first date sounds like rushing."
Nathan winced. "Sorry, I suppose it is. It's just that this house is so perfect. My brother-in-law took me through the place. The rooms are large and sunny, the woodwork is all natural, there's this marvelous stone fireplace in the living room, and there's a level backyard for kids."
Her face must have reflected her shock. He laughed.
"It's only eleven months until you're nineteen. In less than two years you'll be twenty." Nathan sounded like he was trying to convince himself. "We've got to look ahead. Sure there are lots of houses out there. Most of them have been standing empty for years; the pipes and windows are broken and roofs need to be replaced. This place is cherry."
"Nathan, I really meant it when I said we should date to see if we liked one another as more than friends. I don't know if I want to marry you."
There was a moment of hurt hidden quickly away. "I'm sorry, Tink; I shouldn't be pushing. I'm the one, after all, who wanted to wait until you're nineteen."
"Yeah." Tinker shook her head vigorously and then looked down, embarrassed to be suddenly so eager to wait. "Is this about the mark? You're rushing because Windwolf made me part of his family?"
"That has nothing to do with it," Nathan said, so surlily that she figured it had everything to do with it.
"Oh, come on, Nathan, he's the viceroy. He's rich and powerful and could have any woman, elf or human, that he wants."
"Look at me!"
"Not when you compare me to high-caste elf females. You've seen them; everyone on the street stops and stares until they're out of sight."
"Maybe he has a thing for human women," Nathan said.
The possibility that Windwolf might like human women made her insides go weird, like someone had dropped them through hyperspace to some point billions of miles from where she stood. She tried to root herself back to reality and ignore the possible "delicate arrangements" that the brazier might indicate. "I saved his life, twice now. He feels indebted to me. I'm an orphan. He's an elf; he's nearly twelve times my age. He's probably just acting like a father figure to me."
"This has nothing to do with Windwolf." Nathan reached out and took her hand. "It's just made me think, that's all. You're a legal adult. There's no real reason to wait."
Having just compared herself to elfin females, Tinker felt a stab of sympathy and guilt for Nathan. How could he compete for her attention when just the idea of Windwolf kept making her feel all goofy? Nathan's interest in her had been intriguing until he started to talk about marriage. All of Windwolf, from his thoughts to his interest, did weird things to her emotions.
Nathan was waiting for an answer, and she didn't know what to say. She scrambled for something, and came up with, "I've got to go pee."
Nathan let go of her hand, and she fled. Why did he have to go all serious on her? Why couldn't he just take it slow and let her get used to the idea? And what was that scene at the parking lot? Was he going to try that again the moment they were alone in his car? Did he think they were going to have sex tonight?
Suddenly she just wanted to be home in her own bed, alone.
She headed for the Faire entrance, but her tight skirt and high heels were making it difficult to run away. And how was she going to get home? Like a fool, she hadn't brought money enough for a taxi. She could call Oilcan, but how would he react? He might think something worse had happened between her and Nathan—and that would be bad.
She hit a patch of soft dirt, and her heels sunk deep, making her trip. Hands caught her before she fell, righting her.
"Thank y—oh." Her words dried in her mouth as she realized it was Windwolf holding her lightly.
What was it about him that inspired so many emotions all at once? She peered up at the viceroy for all of the Westernlands. Gosh, what did she even call him? Your Majesty? All she managed was a faint, "Hey."
"I am glad to see with my own eyes," Windwolf said as quietly, "that you are well."
"I'm okay." She balanced against him while she took off her shoes. High heels in dirt being mistake number ten or eleven for her tonight. "Maynard took care of me."
"Ah, good." Windwolf relieved her of her shoes, handing them off to one of his guards. "Come with me. My car is waiting."
"Great!" She took a step forward and then stopped. "Oh, wait. I told Nathan I was just going to—um—going to the rest room. He'd worry if I just disappeared." He'd also probably call out a manhunt for her, and that might get the NSA involved.
"Describe this Nathan. I will send someone with a message."
Oh, that was tempting. Whatever had caused her to bolt suddenly—it wasn't quite fear, she told herself, just huge anxiety—receded in Windwolf's presence. "No." She held his hand tightly, drawing strength. "I should go back and tell him myself." Tell Nathan what, she wasn't sure. Oh, gods, what a mess. "It would be proper."
Windwolf bowed his head, and they started to retrace her route. Now, what was she going to say? Nathan, I'm going home with Windwolf. No. Windwolf is taking me home. No. Windwolf is dropping me at my loft. That sounded innocent enough. Nathan was going to ask why. Because—because—because you're scaring the shit out of me. "Oh, be real, this is Nathan after all."
"Pardon?" Windwolf leaned closer to hear her mumbled comment.
"Nothing. I'm just trying out apologies."
The crowd had been parting like waves when Nathan appeared before them, a rock to smash up against.
"What's going on here?" Nathan stared at Tinker's right hand holding Windwolf's.
Tinker hadn't even been aware that she still held tight to Windwolf. She fought the urge to snatch her hand free. She wasn't doing anything wrong. "I—I—I need to go home. Windwolf is dropping me at my loft."
"I'll take you home." Nathan took her left hand.
"Nathan!" she whined. Why did he have to be so dense? "Things went too fast tonight. I just want to go home."
"So I'll take you home." Nathan gave her hand a gentle tug.
Windwolf stepped in front of Tinker and caught Nathan's wrist. "No. She is coming with me."
"Look, you stay out of this." Nathan dropped into cop mode, and his voice went hard. "This is between me and her. Elves have no say in this."
"You did not listen to her. She is saying no. Now let her go."
The two males locked angry gazes at one another, ignoring her completely, while each holding on to one of her hands. She felt like a bone between two dogs.
"Nathan!" She tried pulling free of him. "Look, I just need some time to think about things. Give me time."
Nathan finally looked at her, and there was a world of pain in his eyes. "I'm sorry if things went too fast. Just don't go away with him."
Things went too fast? No, you went too fast! But she didn't say it aloud because she'd used the phrase first: It bothered her that he didn't own up to his actions, though. "Please, Nathan, let me go."
Nathan glanced hard at Windwolf, but then sighed and dropped her hand.
"I'll see you later," she promised. "We'll talk. Okay?"
"Yeah. We'll talk."
Having done the proper thing, she fled with Windwolf.
Windwolf's car was a silver Rolls-Royce. Buttery-soft leather covered the seats. The privacy shield between the front and back sections turned opaque. The door shut, enclosing them in a womb of darkness, and Tinker discovered that the barriers between her and Windwolf remained down. Despite the couch-sized backseat, Windwolf sat close beside her, their bodies touching in the dark.
"You look lovely," Windwolf murmured into her ear.
She breathed in his warm scent, of sandalwood and leather. "How did you find me?"
"I had notes delivered to every place you might be today. You opened one and triggered the tracking spell on it. I would have found you anywhere tonight."
He cradled her left hand in his. "I would have come for you sooner, but there was much to prepare." He bowed his head over her hand, and kissed her palm, soft as butterflies alighting. "I wish there was more time, but that is something that you, as a human, do not have. Just yesterday, it seems, you were a child. I lost that chance to protect you. Now that I have found you, and come to know you, I do not wish to lose you again."
He ran his tongue feather light over the pulse point on her wrist, just as he had done at the hospice. Gods, it felt even better when she was fully awake.
Her fingers curved and touched the supple pearl of his ear lobe. She found herself exploring the alien beauty of his ear, so different from her own. "You don't mind me touching you?"
"Tonight it is you, not the saijin," he said huskily.
She took that as permission to explore. No stubble marred the line of his jaw, as elves did not have facial hair. He kissed her fingers as she glided them over his full mouth. In the strong column of his neck, she found his pulse just over his high shirt collar. Hard muscles played under the warm silk. By touch she found the structure of his shoulders, the solidness of bone. She came to the line of his buttons, and he undid them before her curious fingers. His skin under the shirt was soft and smooth as the silk, sculptured into taunt muscles.
"Do you lift weights?" she whispered as he shifted them, lifting up her knee as he settled back against the seat, pulling her after him. In one graceful motion, she found herself straddling his lap, facing him.
"It is the sword play, it is hard work."
Her exploration peeled back his shirt, laying bare his upper torso. The cloth lay draped across his back and over his forearms. His nipples were dark coins and his abdomen a stack of well-defined muscles. His shirttails were still tucked into his pants; white silk cut off by black suede. Her dress had ridden up where she straddled Windwolf, and they pressed together with anatomical correctness, only leather and silk separating them.
What was she doing? She just bolted from Nathan, afraid of going too fast, and here she was, stripping the clothes off of Windwolf.
But being with Nathan had been like losing the brakes on a big truck—careening out of control. He had scared her. He picked her up, and overwhelmed her with his strength. What's more, there had been none of this gentle exploration; Nathan had zeroed in on her private zones, ignoring the tiny erotic places that Windwolf exploited. Windwolf had yet to touch her beyond her arms and back.
If she had gone home with Nathan, what they would have had was sex.
What she was doing with Windwolf—it felt like making love. She rested her hand on his chest, and felt the beat of his heart, and knew that she trusted him. She leaned forward and kissed him tentatively. He opened his mouth to her, and he tasted of plums.
"Can the driver see us?" she whispered, her heart hammering in her chest at her own boldness.
"No. Nor can he hear. We are in our own private space here."
"Make love to me. I want you to be my first."
"Gladly." He touched her cheek. "But not here. We're nearly at the lodge."
Lodge? The landscape beyond the windows was dark, and she suddenly realized that they hadn't gone through downtown, that they weren't heading for her loft. Pittsburgh was far behind them, and they traveled now through the primal forests of Elfhome.
"Where are we going?"
"When I'm in Pittsburgh, I use this hunting lodge." Windwolf looked out into the passing darkness. "It was the only structure here before Pittsburgh arrived. I've had it enlarged, but it is not very convenient. We're just arriving."
She got the impression of the forest growing only slightly less dense before the Rolls came to a stop. For a moment she was annoyed that they hadn't gone to her place, and then she thought of all the dirty dishes piled in her kitchen sink, and her dirty clothes strewn on her bedroom floor. Okay, so Windwolf's place would be classier than hers.
"Come." Windwolf slid out from under her. "There is not much time. We must hurry."
The driver opened their door. Windwolf got out without bothering to button his shirt.
She scrambled after him, puzzled and frustrated. She thought things were working up to them making love. "Why are we hurrying?"
"There are times when a spell is more likely to succeed than others." Windwolf took her hand and led her through a row of tall trees, branches interwoven, their pale bark gleaming in the candlelight. Moss-covered boulders lurked like giants in the shadows beyond the trees. "It has to do with the alignment of stars and planets, the Sun and Moon, the nature of the magic. A blessing should be done at noon, when the Moon is full and in the day's sky. A curse should be done at night, after the set of the new Moon, when none of the planets are on the horizon."
Windwolf chose a path down into a steep ravine, across a stream on an arched wooden bridge, and up steps cut into living rock. "Sometimes there is leeway. An optimal effect comes when the conditions are right, but still, the spell can be cast even if the time is wrong. A blessing can be placed at night, but it will not be as strong."
"Perhaps it has to do with gravity." Where were they going?
On the summit sat a lone structure; an open shelter with fairy silk hung from the eaves. It glowed softly like a Chinese lantern, surrounded by dark, silent forest. Tinker paused, glancing back the way they'd come, and found they'd climbed up above the treetops. Pittsburgh was nowhere to be seen on the night horizon. The moon was rising, bright as a spotlight, already washing out the brilliance of Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, and Venus' conjunction.
"This spell should be done now." Windwolf kissed her brow, his breath warm on her face. "The conditions will never be this perfect again, not in a human's lifetime."
"Come," he urged her to the shelter.
One of the silk panels had been tied back, and looking inside, she recognized the building for what it was.
One heard of such places, where elves did powerful spells. Secluded away from anything that could affect a spell, the sites rested on the intersection of strong ley lines, tapping directly into an incredible amount of power. Those ley lines were permanently carved into a floor of white marble. White to show the tracings of a spell. Stone to act as a natural insulator. The marble sat on limestone bedrock, and the wooden shelter was constructed with no nails, containing not a single scrap of metal.
"Wow!" Tinker whispered.
A massively complex spell was inked out onto the shelter's stone floor. Even without knowing the spell, Tinker recognized it as a major enchantment. She studied the design, trying to find any components she knew. She could pick out that they built in an error-testing loop, and a slight blur on the tracings indicated that they had done a debugging run already.
"Take this off." Windwolf slid her jacket off her shoulders. "There is metal woven into it."
Tinker shuddered at the thought of wearing metal near an active spell. She stepped out of her high heels, balancing with one hand on Windwolf's arm; her shoes might have a steel shank worked into them. Jacket and high heels went onto a wooden table beside them, well outside the shelter. Tinker fished through her bra until she found the key to her loft. The key joined the others on the table.
"So, what is this?" Tinker asked. "I thought we were going to make love."
"We will." He kissed a line up her bare shoulder to the nape of her neck.
"Oh, good." She reached for him and found his shirt still unbuttoned, all that wonderful, warm skin to explore.
He unzipped her dress and eased it off her, murmuring, "This too must go."
She pressed against him, using him as a shield against prying eyes. "What if someone comes?"
"No one will come." He held her close as he dropped her dress onto the table. "They know we wish privacy. You have more metal on. Once we remove it, the curtains will shield us."
She glanced downward at her bra and panties. "More metal? Where?"
"This." He indicated the bra's wire under her breasts and then the tiny hooks clasping the fabric tight.
"Remove my bra?" Yes, Einstein, you have to take off your clothes to make love. She swallowed down the jolt of fear, and, turning her back to him, she fumbled with the hooks.
"Let me." Windwolf undid the clasps—his knuckles brushing her back—and her bra went loose. She trapped the fabric to her chest, as the straps slid down over her shoulders, making her feel suddenly naked.
"Do not be afraid." He kissed her on her spine. "Nothing will happen that you do not allow."
You want this. You want him. Stop being a coward. She tossed her bra toward the table and turned to face Windwolf.
Amazingly, a moment later, in his loose hold, skin touching skin, she no longer knew why she'd been so scared. It seemed that the more nerve endings were involved, the better kissing became.
"Much as I wish there was more time, we must start." Windwolf stepped away from her, voice husky, and unbuttoned his pants.
Tinker turned away from him, blushing furiously. She had just gotten used to the concept of being half-naked in front of him. Despite being raised by men, she had never seen a male nude outside of Lain's anatomy books. "What's the rush?"
"The spell must start while the moon is high."
The spell? She'd forgotten all about the mysterious design inked out onto the white marble. "Wha-wha-what exactly—"
He eased her back to settle against him, only the thin silk of her panties separating them. Naked and aroused, he felt like a shaft of polished wood. Awareness of him forced the air out of her lungs.
"We are at a branching." He held her, letting her grow accustomed to his presence. "To the left, every path leads to death. No matter which way you go, you will die."
"Yes, you." He nibbled lightly on her ear lobe. "And I do not wish to lose you. You have become very dear to me."
"I'm going to die?"
"If we do this spell, no. It is the path on the right, which leads to life. I wish there was more time for you to decide, but the full moon rises, and the planets align tonight. This is the perfect time, which will quickly pass."
She huddled in his arms, stunned by her mortality. She was going to die? Her stay at the hospice must have revealed something. She shuddered, remembering how quickly her grandfather died once he fell ill.
"Trust me, my little, savage Tink." He kissed her neck, finding some pleasure zone that she didn't know existed.
Trust him? Wasn't that the line that men always used? But she did trust him, perhaps more than she knew, perhaps more than she should.
"Shall we do the spell?" Windwolf asked.
She nodded her head, mute with shock.
He hooked his thumbs into the band of her panties and slid them down. With gentle pressure, he pushed her out across the spell to its center. She could feel the power shimmering through the spell tracing through her bare feet, the marble warm with resistance-generated heat.
"This isn't exactly what I expected when I asked you to make love to me."
"I will make it good for you." He stopped her at the center of the stone, the spell radiating out around them. "And because of tonight, there will be other times, at our leisure."
He pulled her close, his right hand following the curve of her body, slipping down to caress her with shocking intimacy. He was at once hard as stone, and soft as petals. She could do nothing more than squirm in his grasp as he gently touched her. Electric shocks of pleasure shot through her with every caress.
She felt like a rag doll in his arms. He handled her with his incredible elfin strength. She seemed to weigh nothing. She had no form, bent supplely to give him access to her pleasure points. He lit a golden ember of sexual pleasure in her, and then stoked it to a molten heat. He would not let her touch him, returning her hands to her own body until she realized that all of her focus must remain on herself.
As she started to moan, he spoke a word of power, activating the spell. The outer shell of the spell took form and rose up to rotate clockwise. When her first tremors of impending release hit her, changing her moans to cries of joy, he spoke a second word. A second and third shell shimmered into being, canting up to spin counterclockwise at 45- and 135-degree angles. The magic grew dense, a visible shimmer.
Windwolf muffled her then with his mouth, and shifted himself so that he moved now between her parted legs, a hardness sliding through her wetness. She wanted him with a sudden wanton desperation. She wanted him inside of her, wanted to be taken. The force of it frightened her, and if she had been less a captive, she would have wriggled away, fled her own desires. He held her in his iron grasp, muffling anything she might have said, so she could neither plead with him to stop nor urge him on.
When she trembled on the peak, he slid into her to her maidenhead.
She bucked and cried out at the intrusion, the sense of being filled spilling her over the edge into release.
He lifted his mouth, spoke a word, and muffled her again.
The fourth shell rose, and it reflected that moment back at her, intensifying it, and then reflecting the next level back. She barely noticed the pain as he broke through and thrust into complete union. She was aware only of the golden tide of pleasure. He spent himself, uncoupled, and then turned her in his arms. Cautiously, he released her, touching her briefly on the mouth to remind her of silence. She clasped her hand over her mouth, unable to keep silent in any other way.
The pleasure continued, rolling like the tide, over and over her, each wave stronger than the last. Her skin gleamed with its essence, and she drifted in mid-air, suspended by magic.
He dipped his fingers into her, and then traced symbols on her skin, dropping words of power like stones.
"Nesfa." Seed. "Nota." Blood. "Kira." Mirror. "Kirat." Reflect. "Dashavat." Transform.
He stepped away from her, made a motion, and leaped out of the shell. Turning her head, she saw him land at the part in the curtain. He gazed into her eyes, raised his hand, and spoke the final word.
Her universe became brilliant, blissful oblivion.
* * *
The elfin ceiling was quite amazing. Arched somewhere high above her, it had been dark when she awoke, but phased slowly to a pale rose color like the morning sky would as the sun crept to the horizon. After that, it blushed slowly to a pale white, then deepened into a delicate blue.
She felt hollow, and fragile, an eggshell, broken and empty, the life released and flown away. Her mind seemed to come online as gradually as the ceiling. In a calm, detached way she reasoned out that the ceiling looked odd because it was unknown, and then guessed it was the one at Windwolf's hunting lodge, and finally figured out what she was doing under it. Oh yeah, we made love. So that's sex? Oh, hoo-chee mama! I definitely want to do that again.
Windwolf said there would be other times. That thought made her squirm with delighted anticipation. She lolled in a nest of soft, white linens recalling all the sensations of being with him, the feel of his hard muscles, strong hands, and warm mouth. She tried not to think how pissed Nathan would be at what she'd done—and failed. She'd bullied him into a date, dropped him in public, and went off to make love to another male. And the worst thing about it, everyone else seemed to see it coming but her, so she was going to get the "young and inexperienced" speech from everyone.
Groping about, she found a pillow and screamed into it. Oh, why did Nathan have to be such a jealous butthead? If he hadn't started talking about marriage and kids, she wouldn't have gone off with Windwolf—or would she? Certainly it had been Windwolf she had been having kinky dreams about and the one that made her heart do silly things.
But Nathan would be the one waiting for her back at the scrap yard. She groaned but forced herself to sit up. While Oilcan could run the business short-term, and now had Riki to help, she still had to get back to work. Between saving Windwolf, her stay at the hospice, the NSA's kidnapping, and a day wasted getting ready for Nathan's aborted date she'd lost four days out of the week already.
Tinker crawled from the bed. Her clothes, cleaned, pressed, and folded, sat at the foot of the bed. Something was odd about her body, but she couldn't figure out what. Everything looked the same. Her underwear, at least, fit comfortably. For some reason her dress seemed stiff and uncomfortable. No matter, she'd need to change before heading to the yard. Her house key had been strung on a silk cord; she slipped it over her head, and it lay ice cold on her chest.
The stone floor was warm underfoot, so she carried her high heels to the door and slid it open. The hallway beyond opened directly to woods idealized; surely no random lot of trees could be so beautiful without careful, invisible work.
There was an elf in the hall too, of the heavily armed guard variety. His hair and eyes were black as engine grease, and he had a build that imparted a sense of sturdiness, which was rare in elves.
"Tinker ze domi," he said in careful Low Elvish, and bowed deeply to her, which creeped her out. "Domou is not here. He and Lifted Sparrow By Wind were summoned away. He left word that you were to be given anything you wanted."
"Who? Windwolf?" And getting no reaction, Tinker struggled the full mouthful of Elvish that was Windwolf's real name. "Windwolf?"
"Yes. Windwolf." Obviously the elf had never used Windwolf's English name. He pronounced it as if he didn't speak English, or didn't recognize the two words that made up Windwolf's name. "Windwolf is not here."
"I want to go home."
"Do-do-domi," the elf stammered out, "Aum Renau is very far away."
Huh? "I want to go to Pittsburgh." She tried again, slower. "Pitsubaug."
He looked to his right and left, seemingly seeking someone to translate. Surely her Low Elvish wasn't that bad. "Pittsburgh? Now?"
He considered her for a silent minute, a foot taller and a foot wider than she, and then bowed again. "As you wish, domi."
* * *
She'd missed quite a bit during the trip north while making out with Windwolf in the Rolls' backseat. They traveled half an hour just on elfin roads cut through dense forest until they reached the Rim, coming out near what was left of Sewickley. They went directly to the scrap yard gate, and from there she gave directions to her loft.
"Stop here," Tinker said as they pulled up to her building. She got out, and then put out a hand to block the elf, who showed every sign of following her into her loft. She knew her nerves wouldn't take someone underfoot. "Um, thanks for the ride. Let Windwolf know I got home safe."
"I'm not sure if—"
"I want to be left alone."
The elf nodded, and closed the door.
* * *
There were messages from Nathan on her home system, the scrap yard's line, and at her workshop. She let them play while she showered, piloting on automatic. The hollow feeling persisted, and it was hard to concentrate, as if her thoughts wanted to float around the empty space.
What had Windwolf done to her? What had been wrong with her? She hadn't felt sick.
There was a banging at her door, and Nathan's voice. She wrapped a towel around her and went to answer the door.
The Rolls was still at the curb when she opened the door. Nathan took in that she was naked except for the towel, and pushed into her loft. By the smell of him, he'd been at a bar; there was beer on his breath, and smoke clinging to his clothes.
"Where in the world have you been? You've been gone for three days." He roved the loft like a SWAT team looking for snipers.
"Three days?" No wonder she felt empty and dull-witted. When was the last time she'd eaten?
"I tagged my later messages so I'd be notified when you picked them—" He had turned to her and froze. "Oh, God, what did he do to you?"
"A major enchantment of some sort," she said, toweling her hair. "I'm starved. Want to go out for something to eat?"
He closed on her, staring. "Why did you let him do this to you?"
"I don't want to argue about this right now. I'm hungry. Let's just go get something to eat."
He caught her wrist as she started to turn. "You don't want to talk about it? Jesus Christ, Tink. I thought we had a future together and you pull this."
She was missing something here. Something visible, that he was staring at with dismay. She yanked her hand free and rushed to the bathroom. The mirror she had ignored earlier was partially fogged, but there was enough to show her what Nathan saw. For several minutes, she could only stare in silent shock. Nathan came to the bathroom door, filling up the frame.
It was her in the mirror—but it wasn't. It was an elf that looked like her. Her damp brown hair. Elf-shaped eyes—that slightly almond-shaped, almost Asian look. Had her eyes always been that color? They were brown, but hers couldn't have been that vivid. Right? Those brown eyes widened on a fearful thought, and she pushed her hair back.
"All the gods in heaven!" she swore. "I'm going to kill him!"
"He didn't tell you that he was going to change you? He just took you out to the woods and changed you?"
"Yes!" Tinker answered without thinking, and then caught the dangerously hard look on his face. "No. No. He didn't. He asked me, but I didn't understand. You know how he is. How they all are. I didn't understand."
"What did he say?" Nathan asked.
"He said I was going to die, and that he cared too much about me to let that happen, so if I let him do the spell, then I wouldn't . . ." She wouldn't die, because elves were immortal. "Damn him. Why couldn't he say it in plain English?"
"So you're," he stumbled on the words, sounding physically sick, "you're immortal?"
"I don't know. I think that was what he was trying to do. He wasn't there when I woke up, so I just came home."
"It's taken three days for the spell to run?"
Three days. Three days to work through her entire body and transform every cell into elf. Tinker stared intently at herself. Her skin had the creamy perfection of elves. Her nose—not even being an elf fixed that. Her lips seemed fuller, a red of subtle lipstick. "I can't believe he did this! I'm not human anymore! Of course I was going to die. All humans die!" She noticed that her teeth had that unreal look of elves and Hollywood actors. She grimaced, pulling back her lips to bare teeth and gums to examine them closer. "I think even my one filling is gone. It was one of those white poly-cement ones. It was this tooth, I think."
She stared now at her fingers. All her fingernails were long and hard like she'd had them done at a salon. They seemed longer and more graceful. Were they? Would she be able to do the fine work that she was used to with a stranger's hands? Her hands started to tremble, and she found she was shaking all over.
Nathan's officer training took over. He guided her out of the bathroom, saying, "Why don't you sit down? I'll get you something to drink. You've had a shock."
A bark of laughter slipped out and threatened to explode into something longer, completely uncontrolled. She clasped her hand over her mouth, those delicate elfin hands over those full, cherry red lips. Oh gods, she wasn't human anymore. The bastard had turned her into an elf without even asking.
Nathan got two beers from the fridge, opened them, and came back. He handed her one. "I didn't think it was possible to turn a human into an elf."
"They can change a little Shih-Tzu into something the size of a pony, why not a human into an elf?" She took a large drink and nearly choked on the taste. "What the hell? This beer is bad."
He took it and handed her the one he had been drinking. She took a drink and choked it down. "This one is bad too."
"It tasted okay." He took it back and sipped it cautiously. "Tink, it's not the beer. It's fine. It must be you. The change did something to your taste."
He gave her back her original beer and finished his own. She tried to drink the vile-tasting stuff, but after the second swallow, handed it to him, saying, "I can't drink it."
So he drank it also. "What was the spell like? Did it hurt? What do you remember? Can he undo it?"
She flopped back, pressing hands to eyes. What a mess! There was no way she could tell him everything Windwolf had done. What she had let Windwolf do. What she had enjoyed having Windwolf do to her. "He had a big enchantment room set up with the spell inscribed and everything. I remember him activating it, but nothing afterward until I woke up about two hours ago."
"So he could have raped you while you were unconscious and you won't know."
She turned and kicked him, partly because he focused on sex, partly because Windwolf had gotten into her without having to rape her. "I would know."
Nathan put down the empty beer bottle next to his first, leaned over, and pulled open her towel.
"Nathan!" She tried to keep the towel closed. "What do you think you're doing?"
"I want to see what you look like now."
"No!" Surprisingly, a blush can start at the tips of one's toes and go all the way up. At least, it can when you're an elf.
"Let me see!" He pulled away the towel.
"Nathan!" she cried, trying to tug the towel out of his hands, but it was like trying to move a mountain. Then the mountain moved of its own will, lowering itself to kiss her bared skin. When Windwolf had kissed her in the same way, it had been like plugging straight into a 220 line. This hurt in a way that had only a little to do with bruising flesh. "Nathan! Don't! Stop!"
He did, only to kiss his way up her body. "Don't you see, Tink?" He supported himself with one hand, his other undoing his pants. "There's no reason to wait now. There's no getting older for you."
He was up against her, hard as steel, large as the rest of him. His weight was on her thighs and hips and chest, pinning her down so she couldn't even kick at him.
"You're going to look this way for the rest of my life." He moved, seeking her entrance. "But the beauty of it is that with you being an elf, no one will think anything of you being young."
"Get the hell off me!" She got her hands to his face, thumbs pressing in warning at the edges of his eyes. "I said no! You of all people should understand that no is no."
"I love you, Tink."
"Then get off me. We're not doing this, not now, not this way. Be nice, and there's still a chance for us. Force me, and I'll press charges."
He stilled, hurt and guilt warring for control of his face. "Tink."
Was it a plea for forgiveness, or permission to continue? She couldn't tell, and it was rendered moot by a sword blade suddenly appearing at Nathan's neck.
"Naetanyau!" The elf from the Rolls growled, pressing the sword tip until it cut Nathan's skin and Nathan's blood dripped onto Tinker's breasts. "Batya!"
Nathan jerked back, shoving Tinker up and over the back of the couch like a rag doll as he moved. While she found herself deposited behind the sofa, Nathan tumbled back, coming up with his pistol. "Put down the weapon!"
"What the hell are you doing?" she shouted at the elf in Low Elvish. "I told you to leave me alone!"
Both males moved toward her, and checked as it brought them closer together.
"Put down the weapon!" Nathan commanded again.
"Ze domou ani said that I was to watch over you," the elf said to Tinker in Low Elvish. "This man was forcing himself on you. I couldn't allow that."
"Put down the weapon!" Nathan cocked his pistol. "Drop it or I'll shoot!"
And he would. Tinker edged between the men, facing Nathan, holding out her hand in warding. "Nathan! Nathan! Don't. He's just protecting me. He thought you were going to rape me."
Nathan flinched at that. "Tell him to put the sword away."
God, what was the word for policeman? "He's—he's a law enforcer," she said to the elf. "Put the sword away, or he'll kill you." That just got a look of stubbornness from him. "I command you to put your sword away."
That got a startled look. The elf obeyed grudgingly.
"Put your gun away, Nathan."
"Who the hell is he?"
"He works for Windwolf. Put the gun away."