Noon on the third day. If this didn't work, we were all screwed.
It was drizzling slightly. I stood with with Mad Montee and his crew, at the band shell in Central Park. Jo was flying high above, monitoring the sky situation. Her voice crackled and hissed over the cheap walkie-talkie. "I'm getting as close as I can," she said, "but I can't get too close before I feel like I want to dive-bomb a car. I'll keep flying as best I can, though. You bring the noise. Over."
"I copy. Land if it gets too bad. I'm going to need you in case we have to run the backup plan. Enjoy the show in the meantime. Over."
said a small voice that vibrated in my bones,
it's time to raise the roof, everyone. Step outside, everyone. Yes, everyone. Anyone who can leave their work, get outside. Brokers, shopkeepers, clerks, butchers, stackers, trackers, hackers, bailiffs, bondsmen, bouncers, bartenders, public defenders, and anyone else whose profession I didn't mention. Grab your coat and get outside. Leave your car where it is. Leave your motorcycle where it is. Make your way to the bandshell in Central Park, if you can get there. If you can't, don't worry. The music is coming to you.
The people gathered before us, each of them walking slowly, looking around in confusion. Within a few minutes, they had filled the space in front of the band shell, spilling out to the walkway on either side, and beyond. When you get 8 million people out on the street, they're going to fill up the space.
And I knew they were all out, because a strange sound fell across the city.
A lack of sound, really. Which is, effectively, pretty damn loud in a place like New York. A big void that my ears, trained since birth to accept a certain background level of cacophony, were desperate to fill. It's why New Yorkers find it so hard to live in the countryside. It's so quiet that you start to get paranoid, even if you know there's no danger.
And now that quiet had come to the city itself. There was no honking of horns, no roar of traffic. Just the murmur of millions of voices, and the trod of many feet.
It almost certainly meant that the economic activity of one of the world's leading financial centers had just come to a screeching halt. There were probably bankers in Shanghai making desperate calls to secretaries, federal people wondering if it was time to scramble the jets, twitchy people grabbing their guns and slamming shut the doors of their private bunkers. But eh, small price to pay when you're dealing with with an extra-universal invasion.
Either everyone in front of us had decided the same, or they had just been out here at the right time. But who comes to Central Park on a drizzly March morning?
One person, a middle-aged woman, her hair already wet from the rain, broke the silence as she addressed us on stage. "What's the big idea?" She said. "Who called us out here? Who are you? Why do you have amps? The band shell is supposed to be for classical music. Do you even have a permit for this?"
I grabbed the microphone. "Who cares?" I said. "Not much matters when the world is ending. Look up, everyone. See there?" I pointed to the grey dome of cloud cover, which as rent by purple-blue streaks. Black ribbons of gas were drifting down towards us, inch by inch, the way a sumer cloud drifts lazily across the sky. Only more evil. "You're all going to help me test a hunch. If it works, we can all have a drink and toast our survival. If it doesn't work, well, we're going out in style! Hit it!"
The twang of a banjo sounded over the speakers as thunder rumbled. I handed the mike to Montee.
I'm a sailor peg, and I've lost my leg, climbing up the top sails, I lost my leg...
The people in the crowd were tapping their feet and nodding their heads, but too few of them were dancing. That didn't seem right at all. This was prime dance music! I jumped off the stage and skipped into the crowd, and kicked up my feet as the music played. Maybe if they saw a dork like me dancing, they wouldn't find it embarassing. Ah, there it was. They were following my lead, as best they could. Jumping up and down to the beat, or shuffling along, or stomping their feet and clapping their hands.
It had stopped drizzling, and the ground was dry. But as the music ended, it started to rain, a little harder this time.
I looked up. The black ribbons were still there. No closer, as far as I could see form this angle, but still there. Damn.
I scampered back at the stage. "We need another song," I said to Montee. "Play 'going out in style.' Maybe it's wild enough to work."
"Woah, hold on a sec," said Montee. "I've done one Irish song for you, and that's enough. Give me a chance to do something I like. And dance up here with me this time."
"What did you have in mind?"
Montee turned to his sound crew. "Alright, people, let's play some Boney M!"
Thunder rumbled as a fast drumbeat sounded from the speakers. Something that sounded like a banjo cut in, and then the lyrics started.
There lived a certain man, in Russia long ago, he was big and strong and his eyes a flaming glow...
This time the crowd was dancing without my help. Not that it stopped me from shaking my hips up on stage. And Montee was dancing along with me.
But what of the rest of the city? I hadn't seen how they reacted to the previous song. Maybe they were still awkward. But how was I going to find out? It's not as though I could tell from here -- unless I could use Shaman powers. What had Jo said, so long ago? That I might somehow become the city. I'd been too busy becoming a rat to remember that, but if what I did in Down New York worked here...I relaxed my dance a bit, gave myself time to catch my breath, and breathed in as deeply as I could.
The crowd in front of the band shell smelled...golden. Not the metal gold, but summer gold. Afternoon gold. Good-times gold, you know the feeling. Like you've had the absolute best day and even if everything turns to crap tomorrow, you'll always remember your friends and this moment, even though Zach threw up outside the park, but he laughed, and you laughed, and you all went home and slept soundly. Soul Gold. And most of the rest of the people in the park smelled the same. And al across the city. SOme red, here adn there. Probabl angry about being called out for a stupid dance party. But on the whole, the peoplewere happier than they had been. For a little while. Grey was creeping in at the edges as the music ended.
"Montee," I said, "How are you feeling?"
"I lost the voices in my head when we started playing, but now I want to go and jump down a manhole. And look!" He pointed upward. "The things in the sky are getting closer!"
I looked up to the many black ribbons, close enough now that I could see them moving more quickly than I'd imagined.
"Come in, Jo," I said to the walkie-talkie. "What's the situation up there? Over."
"Can't you just use a cell phone?" said Montee.
"What fun is that?"
"It's no longer up there," said Jo over the walkie-talkie. "I had to land before I decided to dive-bomb a rooftop. But Pat, the last song you played, the black ribbons were following the beat. They were twitching in time. I think they liked the song. You've got to pick something more defiant. Over."
Now hang on a second. Extra-universal beings weren't supposed to LIKE the music. They weren't supposed to comprehend it. It was supposed to be completely repellent. That was why Erich Zann had been able to hold them back, assuming that was what he had been doing. Were these not Erich-Zann type monsters?
Was I dealing with a situation I hadn't prepared for well after all?
Fortunately, I had come up with contingencies. "Listen up, Jo," I said. "It's time for the backup plan. It's time to scatter some salt. I need you to get flying again, as best you can. Whip up the wind. Over."
"Pat, I'm starting to have doubts about Plan B. Over."
"Hey! This is not a time for doubt! Doubt is the little voices in your head, the same ones telling you to fly into a building. We have to believe we can do this! Over."
"No, Pat, that's not what I'm talking about. I'm sure scattering road salt to teleport everyone to Right New York all at once would work. But it's not fair to the people of the city. You have to let them keep helping you. Go for plan C. I like plan C. Over."
"Jo, they're going to get killed if they stay here!"
"Who's the one full of doubt now? You have to believe that the people, the city, can help you. They ARE the city. They are YOUR city. You've made some disastrous mistakes recently, but right now, you have the chance to be the champion of 8 million people. Let them be there for you. Go for plan C. Over."
Dammit. Plan C didn't go beyond "buy all the time so you can think of something." But Oh, no, Jo wanted this to be the kind of thing a Shaman would do.
What Shaman stuff had I done so far? Let's see...lead the people, check. Get the music going, check. Meet the gods...not completed.
And the one I was going to pursue was someone who nobody had caught or spoken to in the past hundred and eighty-five years.
First time for everything, I suppose.
"Hey, Montee," I said, "I need you to do one last song."
"What song is that?"
I stuck to fingers in my mouth and whistled.
The crowd parted with shouts of "Oh good God!" and "Are they coming here?" as a large grey ungulate, vaguely resembling a horse, trotted towards the stage. It had a grey coat, a green mane, red eyes, and one grey horn coming form the center of its forehead. It trotted to the stage, where I could mount it easily.
"I was thinking "You're gonna go far, Kid," by The Offspring. What do you think?"
"I think I'd like to know what the hell you're doing on that thing's back."
"There's someone I have to chase. Someone who's never been caught before." I stroked the unicorn's mane. "I figure this beast will help me significantly."
"Cool. Are you gonna blow that horn to start the chase? Like a fox hunt?"
"Please. The Shofar is an instrument of summoning the people to atone, not a hunting call."
"Fine. Anyway, I don't like your music suggestion. It's not...participatory. You know? I heard your friend say something about "let the people back you up" and I think the people ought to have the chance to sing along. And I want to Rap. So."
"Well, you're going the distance, right?"
I frowned. "Yeah..."
"You're going for speed."
"That is correct."
"You're not alone in your time of need."
"What do you -- "
I led the unicorn onto Broadway and faced south. A mass of parked cars and people milling about, pointing up at the sky, and laughing. Well, some of them were laughing at any rate. Some of them were shivering and crocuhing in fear. I had the feeling that the laughter was more like "ha ha er're all going to die" than "isn't life grand."
Strange how few of them had wandered back inside yet. Then again, the black ribbons were so close at this point that they probably thought the world was ending anyway. People tend to go outside for that kind of event. It's a thing.
There were big loudspeakers every 200 feet along the street. From them sounded Montee's voice. "All right, I need all y'all to listen to me. Pat's gonna be wooshing through the city. Don't worry, she won't run into you. Just keep singing along with me, alright? You'll get the chorus after you hear it the first time. But first, I'd like to adress Pat. Hey, Pat. This is a chase, isn't it? Have some fun and blow that damn horn of yours. Maybe that's your call to atone, or something. Blow it loud, Pat. Come on."
He wasn't going to hear me if I didn't, but okay. I lifted the horn to my lips and blew.
A soft murmuring arose from below me, and above me, and to the sides. Not in the tones of English, or any language I knew.
An incredibly tall, thin lady clad in shining white appeared before me. I could just see the road behind her, through her snow-white face and silver hair.
"I, uh...didn't actually mean to summon you," I said. "Let me take a wild guess, you're the Lady of the Lonely Road?"
"And if these...things from the sky come down and reach the road, you're in as much trouble as the rest of us, right?"
She shook her head.
What? Dammit. Some people just don't see the urgency of a situation. "I'm just trying to go fast here," I said. "Can't you lend me a little of your power?"
She strode up to me, and put her cold, cold fingers on my shoulder. Seek the Ailanthus, she said.
"Oh. Oh great. Just what I need, to be obliterated. Can't you give me any more hints than that?"
You'll need a lot of help to touch the Ailanthus. No more hints. Bye.
Great. What did all that mean? Oh, and here was Montee on the speakers again. "This is it, everyone. The last roll of the dice here. I trust you're all eager for a few more songs? Then sing with me. Hit it!"
Well, that was my cue. I gave the unicorn a light kick, and as he started forward the scene blurred and became grey, and there was only me, my mount, the path ahead, and the goal. No other concerns. This is the New York Minute. Get your stuff and get moving, 'cause the city moves at speed and isn't gonna wait for you. You've got a New York Minute to get where you're going. I'd called it the Speed Walk before. But only because I could walk so fast that running seemed pointless. Dangerous, even. I might overshoot the whole city. Especially since I was now mounted on a steed that, within the space of the New York Minute, was passing between the cars at a rate of about 50 per second. And then faster. Everything became a grey motion blur. Except for Times Square ahead. That was a bright green and pink blur. Nothing was going to surpress the color of Times Square, not even the world I moved through. Whoops, there it went. On to the Empire State building. A tall mass of grey sped by. Maybe that was it.
I wasn't even going close to the speed of sound, so the music from the speakers reached my ears. She's going the distance, she's going for speed, she's not alone (not alone) in her time (in her time) of need...
Down broadway we sped, the Unicorn and I, hoping to stumble upon a lone figure who, in this space, would be the only one on the road to look as solid as me. The Bike Messenger. The one who could never be caught, and never stop, if he ever did, everything would stop. Maybe. How can anyone know, if they've never caught him? That's why I'd told Jo this Plan C was a wild gamble at best. But hey, if I managed to go fast enough to catch the guy, maybe I'd be moving at relativistic speeds and I'd travel forward in time and skip the whole mess of the city being erased by a cosmic horror. No, no depressive thoughts! not now! Jeesh! I had a certiain quarry to flush.
From a thicket of a zillion streets. How was I supposed to even find him? Didn't hunters usually have spotters? I had Jo. And the walkie-talkie. Maybe the New York Minute would let me make outgoing calls. "This is Pat," I said, "Come in, Jo. Do you read me? Are you still flying? I need you to look for the one bike messenger who's still moving."
Because she's striving, and driving, and hugging the turns, and thinking of someone for whom she still burns...
Nice touch, Montee.
The crowd had picked up on the chorus now. And when I say "crowd", I mean "everyone in Manhattan." They could probably hear us in Boston. She's going the distance, she's going for speed, she's not alone (not alone) in her time (in her time) of need...
"This is Jo," said the walkie-talkie. "I copy. Your target is...heading north on Broadway. Typical pace for a bike messenger, but he's managing to weave through everyone and hop over people and I haven't seen him slow down. It's him alright. Over."
"North. Right. Over and out." North. Dammit. I wheeled the unicorn around as best I could -- which was not very, considering our speed. In the wide, wide arc of a safe 100 mile-per-hour U-turn, we passed right through dozens of offices and restaurants, the people inside having no time to wonder what had caused all their papers to go flying. Whoops. We wound up on Park Avenue South, heading north. I angled northwest for broadway and we passed through another set of blocks. Hopefully nobody had been carrying a big pot full of lobsters. I'd heard a crash and a scream at one point, but there was no time to apologize now. Back to broadway. Hello, Greely square, goodbye. Hello, Times Square, goodbye. Hello, mysteriously solid bicycle messenger who kept ahead of me no matter my pace. I kicked the unicorn into going faster. No closer to the bike messenger, though we were getting pretty far north by now. Was I going to chase him into the Bronx? Or out of the city? This was more of a chase than a hunt, really. Hunters worked in teams and cut people off from all sides. Like wolves. I was more like a cheetah in this case. Minus the success rate. I kicked the unicorn once more. But it wouldn't go faster. There's a limit to the strength of beasts, even magical ones, and I couldn't ask this unicorn to give its life for me.
I let the unicorn slow to a pace where we could see the things we were passing by.
There. Glowing through the grey space of the new York Minute was an Ailanthus tree. But not blue, this time, oh no. Red.
Maybe that meant it was safe to touch? Like wavelength of light? I leapt off the Unicorn's back, hit the pavement, and rolled. Right towards the tree.
Fortunately I managed to stop just in time, because if I'd hit that tree unprepared...well, you know how when you're at an electricity substation and you get too close to one of the machines, you can practically feel the power in the air? This was kind of like that. Combined with someone leaving an oven door open while it was set on "clean." I was probably going to fry just standing there. Might as well, really. I was too scared of the tree to make this work. The city hated me, after all I'd done. That's why I was leaving, if I survived -- God Dammit, what was I saying?
I looked up. The black ribbons were getting closer.
Time to ask the city for one LAST favor. I blew a mighty blast on my Shofar.
A little translucent head popped out of a brick.
"Gather every one of your fellows," I said. "The big ones, the small ones. Tell them to come to me. Tell them I need their power now. Go!"
The little head disappeared. I turned to the road, and stomped twice. "As for you," I said, "I need you to slow down that bike messenger if you can. Add potholes or something."
Sorry, kid. He neer lets himself stop. I'm not going to tear myself up trying. You honestly think you're going to catch him?
I heard a rustling behind me. Masses of little green blobs with stumpy legs and wide black eyes stared up at me from the sidewalk. Pastel orange, pale green, translucent yellow, all hopping up and down and squeaking.
"Alright," I said, "I need you all to jam your way into my head. Then we're gonna touch that tree. are you all up for it? I'll try to find some way to pay you."
World ending. Price is useless right now. Brace yourself.
A hundred little blobs flew at my head, and suddenly the world was made of bright blue and hot pink and violet and orange and...a blackening sky. And the tree was still glowing red. Could I do it? Could I survive the tree? Of course not. I was putting these poor creatures in danger. I should just give up now and accept oblivion.
That's not your voice, human. There's another voice in there and it's not yours. Come on, now. We believe in you.
I stepped forward, the heat of the tree still a massive force. No pain this time, though. I touched the trunk.
In that instant, my ears were filled with all the noise of the city at once, all the rumbling and worrying and grumbling and yowling and screaming and laughter and blather and as it all meshed into white noise, and past my eyes flashed a million visions of the city, all the lone cooks in apartment kitchens and stray dogs and rats and soaring birds and rushing subway trains and burning buildings and construction workers and cranes and container ships and crying children and it all turned into a blur, like a movie, only it was a single animation of someone's face and there were tears running down their cheeks and then the smell hit me not bad but strong very strong like 8 million people had forgotten to bathe today combined with the contents of millions of trash cans and millions of apples and persimmons and pears and thousands of filets of salmon and it smelled like life, all the life, and upon my shoulders settled the weight of the whole city, all two hundred million tons and what was I suposed to do with all this? I was going to be crushed by it, I knew it, and that was going to happen within the next five seconds if i didn't think of something. So I breathed in, as deeply as I could, and tried to take it all in. I felt the weight of the city in my bones and my muscles. But there was still too much weight. I was too small. I could not become the city, not all of it. It would be like overfilling a water balloon, I was going to burst any second now --
Someone's hand grabbed mine. A familiar hand. The weight lessened.
The vision faded.
I looked to my right. There beside me me was Jo, wearing a red cloak. Her eyes were glowing blue. And holding her hand was my mother, and holding her hand was my father, and there was Marina, and Martin, and Grandma King, all holding hands, all of them with eyes glowing blue.
"I -- how did you find me?"
"Who else goes around blowing a shofar?" said my mother. "And then there was a noise like a thousand people screaming while sirens and truck horns blared, so we figured you'd be there."
"You didn't have to -- "
"No time," said Marina. "It's time for the hunt. Time for us to be a pack of wolves. You chase him, and wear him down. We'll be waiting on Fifth Avenue for him to come by. When he does, we'll surround him and cut off his escape so he has to keep going forward. You hit him from that direction. Got it?"
Marina leapt to the roofs, and my family rushed off.
Jo had not responded yet, nor risen.
"Earth to Jo. Come in, Jo." I knelt beside her. She had a pulse. Still breathing. Still warm. No signs of physical injury. I picked her up. Light as a feather, but rapidly growing heavier.
She opened her eyes. "Oh hey," she said, "Did anyone tell you your eyes are glowing blue?"
"So are yours. You saved me, but what happened?"
"I think the entire city tried to stuff itself into my head. I think I would have exploded if Ms. King hadn't grabbed my hand. And she probably would have exploded if not for your father. And you know, I have the feeling that if your grandmother hadn't been at the end of the chain, something bad might have happened. Anyway, ow." She rubbed her temples. "Going to be a bit of a headache tomorrow, or today, as a matter of fact, right now, but hey. We've got a bike messenger to catch. Come on. Hold my hand and I'll lend you my power, and maybe we'll finally catch that twerp."
We ran forward and moved into the New York Minute.
With the strength our New York city in our bones, with our breath the roar of mighty engines, we sped forward. Combined with the New York Minute, we were putting top-end supercars to shame. But still, not fast enough to outrun the music. Montee was singing the lyrics again.
She's fat and she don't run too fast...
But she's faster than me.
That was more like it.
Today at the show we saw her, going out on the street.
At this speed, finding the Bike Messenger was easy. All we had to do was look for the single solid point in a field of translucent grey. We spotted him within a few seconds. The hard part wasn't even catching up to him, at least up to a certain distance that he kept ahead of us. No, what was tricky was making sharp turns to stop from running right out of the city. Having Jo beside me helped because we could hold hands and use centrifugal force to swing into a new direction quickly. Then one of us could drag the other along until we were running even again. No matter what hairpin turn Bike Boy made, we could match him. But we couldn't match his speed.
Jo dropped behind me. For a second, I thought she was going to quit, but then I heard a thunderous noise, and her hands grabbed my armpits and hoisted me into the air as we shot forward even faster. As we made a wide turn, I noticed that Jo's cloak had become a set of bright red jet wings, complete with ailerons.
And the distance to the Bike Messenger was closing, inch by inch.
He finally turned his head to look behind him. Maybe he hadn't done that in a long time, who knew? His eyes grew wide when he saw us, and he began to pedal faster. And he started to lose us.
This was our top speed unless I could think of something. How were we going to catch up to this jerk?
Say, hadn't Neptune promised three rolls of thunder? And I had only heard two so far. Time to invoke number three.
"Upward, Jo!" I said. "Climb! We want to be the highest thing in the city!"
Jo banked sharply upward, and we shot towards the black sky. "Someone promised thunder and lightning!" I yelled. "Three thunderclaps! We only got two! Oh, Neptune's a cheapskate! A penny-pincher! A welcher! Lightning strike me down if I ever do business with him ag --"
You never SEE the lightning before it hits you. Or during. You only notice that you're suddenly sprawled on the ground and twitching. At least, that's how it works for most people. New York City -- that is to say, the two of us -- can take a few hits. Especially if you've been preparing to absorb the blast. Instead of being knocked out of the sky, we had, for a few seconds, a measurable fraction of the speed of light itself. Jo dived towards the city. I pointed towards fifth avenue, upon which Bike Boy was heading south. Slowly. Everything was moving slowly compared to us, now, even Bike Boy. Mom and the others were behind him, almost beside him, so he couldn't turn around and escape that way. We hit the street level going north, and within half a heartbeat we were right in his face. Jo banked upward just in time for us to buzz him.
He screamed, swerved, and fell.
And everything stopped.