The sun hung low in the sky, trapped between steel-gray lake and great flat sheets of slate-dark cloud. Waves rolled slowly toward the shore, choppy ripples that captured the glint of sunlight and flung it skyward in painfully brilliant diamond sparkles. Pickering stood half-way down his sand dune, the distant whisper of the waters ensorcelling his thoughts.
A gleam of light, lower than the sun above the horizon, caught his attention. The gleam crossed below the clouds, brighter by the moment. Odd, thought Pickering. Like a meteor, but too slow, too complex in the trail structure.
The pastel trail, a small child’s crayon sketch of a comet, vanished. At the core were dark specks, now falling freely. People, recognized Pickering, those are people. Four splashed into the lake. A fifth skittered above its surface to land at water’s edge. From beneath the waves came the feeblest of light, beryl and pink and orange. Suddenly five people were standing on the beach.
How? Pickering asked himself. There were no parachutes, no hang gliders. Just people, deposited on the shore as if descended from Heaven. Pickering ran down the dune, raincoat billowing behind him. Now that he could see them clearly, the five on the shore were obviously children, fallen into a glacier-fed lake on a chill Second of April. The air temperature was in the fifties, but the water must be near to freezing. Thoughts of rescue blossomed in his mind.
Three of the arrivals stood facing him. Pickering focused on the fourth, who lay on her stomach, gasping for breath. A fifth held the fourth’s shoulders. The fourth was clearly not choking, just gasping for breath. The oldest child was eleven or scarcely twelve; others were a year or two younger. Four wore tailored jumpsuits, brightly colored, no two the same, with obvious pockets, fine trim work, and piping on collars and cuffs. To Pickering’s eyes someone had put taste into the colors and trim, not like the usual run of modern children’s clothing. The fifth, tallest, wore a simpler gray jogging suit and long hooded cloak; a large duffel bag was slung across her back. Modern clothing was sometimes obscure; still, two boys, three girls. Hair color ranged from platinum white --- the girl in grey --- through black with a patch of white at the forelock --- the kneeling girl.
Pickering smiled.”I,” he announced, “am Alexander von Pickering. But if you’re friends of Victoria, Alex will do.” A long moment’s hesitation answered. The children slwoly smiled back.
“Victoria?” the younger of the two boys answered quizzically, brushing with one hand his sand-dusted orange and yellow jumpsuit. “Oh. Hi! I’m Star. This is my sister Aurora.” He gestured at the kneeling girl. When she stood, Aurora was of a height with her brother Star; they shared high cheekbones, a long, narrow face, and wiry build. Aurora’s clothing was black, intricately laced with silver thread. Pickering recognized the pattern running from neck to waist: it was a slight modification of the dollar’s pyramid, eye, and radiants.
“Star. Aurora.” He reached forward to meet tentative handclasps. Star was shivering, ever so slightly; his twin sister showed no sign of discomfort.
“This is Cloud.” Star introduced the older boy. For someone Cloud’s age, the handshake was remarkably firm. Cloud’s waterlogged jumpsuit was sky blue. An oversize soggy feather draped over a bright-blue beret. Given the name, Pickering realized that the white trim on arms, legs, and cuffs could be cirrus, while the chest emblem was a well-delineated cumulonimbus. Pickering tugged at his memories, not finding a manufacturer’s logo to match the foot- tall thunderhead. His lack of recognition proved little. He had spent the past decade trying to deduce the nature of one product, heavily advertised without being explicitly identified, never progressing beyond the conclusion that the Times would not countenance the illicit purveyance of underdressed young persons of indeterminate gender.
“This is my big sister Comet.” Star gestured at the girl on the ground.
Comet struggled to rise, Aurora steadying her, forcing herself slowly to her knees and then to her feet. She cleared copper-blonde curls from hazel-green eyes. Her face was almost gray. The front of her kelly-green coverall was caked with sand, through which peeked the gold-embroidered comet of her asserted name. The comet’s head rose almost to her neckline, while the tail swept down across ribcage and waist. “Charmed, I’m sure,” Pickering beamed. Comet might or might not be the oldest of the lot; she was certainly the shyest. Only after a pause did a smile cross her lips to wrinkle her eyes.
There were moments of silence. Star made no effort to introduce the third girl in the party. Tense looks passed back and forth. Cloud pointedly looked away, lips tight-clenched. Comet’s eyes were still a bit glazed. Aurora, decided Pickering, was too busy supporting her older sister to say anything.
The girl in gray finally spoke for herself. “Mr. von Pickering? I’m Eclipse.” Her voice was soft. Large steel-gray eyes evaluated Pickering; she offered him her hand. Tooled on the back of her glove was a motif repeated on collar tabs, tunic, and ankle-high boots: the outline of a sun and corona, superposed across much of which was an off-center disc.
“Alex, you really don’t believe people fly. Do you?” asked Eclipse. Long fingers brushed silver-white falls of hair back from her ears.
“Of course not, however much I love reading fairy tales. Are you offering to show me?” The jovial grin was a challenge. The events over the lake, he told himself, were some trick with metallic aerosols and optical back projection. Flying inside his home would require props she couldn’t possibly have hidden in advance. How would she dodge his challenge?
Eclipse hesitated. “Why not? I’m not uncloaking my public persona. You saw my garb, know who I am. The Eclipse. The ceiling’s a bit low. It’s bad manners to leave footprints on a ceiling.”
“I suppose it would be,” he answered gravely. “You may use my den.” He pivoted, one finger beckoning.
* * * *
The library rose cathedral-like from ground floor through two mezzanines to a great arching roof. Pickering marched nonchalantly to the room’s center. Eclipse stopped at the entrance, lips moving from gap to slight purse to enchanted smile.
“One observes,” opened Pickering, pointing as he spoke, “that the central roof beam meets diagonal risers at the window surface, say thirty-five feet in the air. Perhaps three feet below is a horizontal joiner.” Eclipse nodded. “And there, at the right end of the joiner, sticking out where every single guest sees it, is a pencil, abandoned by window cleaners. I’m not paying a day fee to remove one pencil. Its presence yet offends. For someone who flies, it would be a trivial matter to fetch it, but ...” He shrugged.
“I’ll get it for you.” She was standing behind Pickering. He realized that the position of her voice was rising, from significantly below his own ears to well above. A glance over his shoulder revealed Eclipse, already seven feet in the air, toes dangling slightly. A faint blue glow flickered near her shoulders.
Pickering swallowed. “Young lady, the New Yorker cartoon runs `That’s impossible. Stop it right now.’ The instruction is not literal. I’d rather you land first. You’d find it a bit of a drop elsewise.” Eclipse, having reached the pencil, obliging headed groundward, not quite pausing in her descent to perform a graceful triple-and-a-half somersault, at last coming eye-to-eye with Pickering. He, however, stood firmly on oak parquetry, while she hovered upside-down, hair streaming toward the carpet, feet a good nine feet removed from the nearest solid surface. Gravely, an impish smile not quite suppressed, she handed Pickering his pencil. He accepted, then impulsively tugged at her wrist. She resisted; Pickering recognized a gymnast’s strength in her fingers. If she had stood on a solid surface, she could have held her position no more firmly. He released; her landing was a reverse pike half-somersault with half twist, ending on the floor facing him.
... Days of blue skies and nights of clear, cold starlight had been replaced by dank clouds and a driving rain. Eclipse slipped into sweatshirt, corduroys, sneakers, and mottled gray poncho, accepting that legs and feet were going to get soaked. Her walk on the beach, now a nightly habit, was shorter than most.
Her return to Pickering’s home brought one surprise after another. The garden was faintly illuminated, a trail of pinlights marking the path around Pickering’s maze. Other lights shone in the breakfast room. The kitchen door was slightly ajar.
Pickering sat at his breakfast room table. A dish of cookies and a steaming carafe waited on the sideboard. “I thought you might like some herbal tea,” he explained. “Nothing to keep you awake. Or do your gifts keep you warm?”
“I’ve taken pictures on Pluto, standing in methane snow, and not been chilled.” Her defensiveness faded. “No. I’m only warm if I use them. Elsewise I get as cold as anyone else. I was trying to get away from my gifts, not be their slave.”
Pickering poured her a mug of tea and set it in front of her. His hand brushed her cheek. “Would your pride be offended if I gave you a blanket? This was a raw night for a walk, even if you leave no footprints on my kitchen tile.”
“Screens,” she explained. “I pushed the water off my shoes before I came inside.” Pickering held the blanket, gently folding it above her.
She stiffened. “I’m not used to people doing things for me. Not kind things. Not any more.” She looked determinedly into the mug, briefly hiding her face. “I suppose you wouldn’t know about that.”
“There is no difficulty,” answered a sympathetic Pickering. “None at all.” Encountering no resistance, he finally draped her shoulders in the soft fabric.
Eclipse found herself at the verge of tears, sharp and hot as blood from a slashed artery, not knowing why. She clutched for her pants pocket, snatched out her handkerchief, and tried to pretend to blow her nose, almost masking her crying.
April 10: Waging Peace Through Superior Firepower
Cloud gestured. The further wall of the Men’s Store cracked at a dozen seams, gray concrete dust eddying across the room. A further gesture set up new clouds of dust, sending racks of suits and sport jackets spilling onto the carpet. Row after row of cinder block crumbled, burying good fabric in a sea of gray. Something emerged from the haze. Cloud stopped in his footsteps, gaping in astonishment at the creature in front of him. What was it? Surely nothing like that had walked the world before the change. Was it a giant spider bred with a man, the cross being a creature the height of a horse, but twice as wide? The head was human, on a human neck; the skin, where not covered by polished-blue strap-on armor, was slate gray. Eight limbs, jointed like human arms but dangling vertically from the torso, came in four pairs; the forward-most two waved large-caliber automatic weapons.
Customers screamed in terror. Others stood paralyzed with astonishment. The creature began shooting, systematically killing everyone in its path.
*CLOUD!* shouted Aurora. *The LEMURIAN. It’s right in the room with you! Can’t you see it?*
*No problem,* said Cloud nonchalantly. He reached within, summoning the full scope of his gifts. Opaque cloud flooded the salesroom. Deafening crashes marked a pair of lightning bolts, one after the next striking the creature’s armor. The creature fired randomly, lashing out against a foe it could no longer see. Once and again, single rounds hit Cloud, stinging despite the protections of his gifts. He shifted aim, targeting the guns, which detonated with a satisfying staccatto crackle of exploding ammunition. The creature bellowed in agony; its armor, heated by grounding currents, glowed orange-red. Around it the store burst into flames, a dismal hiss marking the unsuccessful effort of the Mall’s sprinkler system to compete with Cloud’s energy bursts. Cloud redoubled his efforts, lightning rumbling in a near-continuous roar. The creature fell to its elbows, thrashing convulsively, and collapsed in death.
Across the Mall, Eclipse shot down a hallway, a trajectory near the ceiling allowing her to dodge fleeing salesmen. She winced while she scanned the rooms ahead. There was the Lemurian, right where Aurora had indicated. The walls were concrete brick, but the Lemurian’s outline blocked her scan. A defense screen! Pickering’s assurance that his world knew nothing of energy defenses rang hollow, or he was less knowledgeable than he thought.
A doorway was not in sight. Grimly, she brought arms across her face in an X- block, enhanced screens and flight field, and rammed the wall in front of her. Cranking down her levels, quickly, hurt. She had expected a few ungifteds with guns, not full-scale combat. The shock of collision ran up her arms, jarring shoulders and rattling teeth. Fragments of cinder block, shards of concrete filling, and pieces of tie rod sailed in all directions.
The Lemurian, concentration entirely engaged in fighting Aurora, looked confusedly up from its desk. To Eclipse he appeared human, lacking the deformities characteristic of a dedicated Racemaster. A shapeless beige coverall failed to hide heavy body armor. Body screens were marginally visible as edges within which dust-laden air turned crystal clear.
Eclipse felt delicate pressure against her mindscreens. Telehypnosis, she recognized, something to persuade her to relax her defenses. Very skillfully done, likely effective against unprepared targets. Her counterplay was more grossly physical. She changed course, altering her flight across the room. The Lemurian began to duck; she rolled sideways so her body screen brushed against his. She rebounded sideways, sending him sprawling. A half roll and more power to her flight field let her follow his trajectory, bouncing him into a steel pillar. The building shook. The Lemurian leaned against the pillar, lips slack, eyes unfocussed. She grabbed for his chest. If his screens weren’t protecting him against impact, a few trips through nearby walls, him leading the way, might do wonders to rectify his ethics.
Body armor exploded in a flare of pyrotechnics. Eclipse found herself holding a six-foot column of flaming magnesium, metal burning brilliantly in the near ultraviolet. Her screens soared to higher and higher power, protecting hands and face from eye-searing light and heat. The demand on her gifts left her staggered, arms and legs shaking like the branches of an alder in a gale. Each reinforcement of her defenses, each step deeper in level, taxed her personal strength. Suddenly she’d taken many unplanned steps with virtually no separation between them. She fought off an attack of nausea.
*I think it’s dead, Eclipse,* noted a shaky Aurora. *All its mind wentaway.*
A clanging gong; a violet flash. Eclipse was outside, hovering above the pasture beyond the mall. The ground below was an empty field, grass not fully green. She shook her head. Brilliant worms of light crawled across a narrowing field of vision. She pushed away from her former opponent, allowing the incandescent mass to fall harmlessly to earth. Now what? she asked herself. She hurt inside. She’d done too much, too fast, calling on too many different powers without a proper warmup first. It didn’t matter. Star needed her help. Star was in real trouble, with a line of caissons --- where had those come from? --- crawling across the tarmac. She had to help him. She reached inside, calling the gift that let her alter the metric of space until there and here became one and the same.
Nothing. No all-consuming cerulean waterfall. No cascade of metallic song. Nothing. Vision faded to a reddish haze. Time to bail out, came a terminal coherent thought. Bail out or seriously hurt yourself.
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