Low chicago, p.35
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       Low Chicago, p.35
 

         Part #25 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin

  “There’s one in the bathroom in the rear of the hut,” the Crystal Lady said, but before Nighthawk and Croyd could take more than a step toward it there was a sudden whooshing sound and as a small shoulder-launched rocket blew through the wall of the hut and destroyed the rear half of it in an explosive blast that hurled them all to the floor.

  “We’re under attack!” Squidface shouted the obvious. He was the first to regain his feet and he lumbered to the front door, which, remarkably, was still latched shut. The moment he burst outside he started firing.

  Croyd pulled himself to his knees. “You okay?” he asked Nighthawk, who could hardly hear him through the ringing pulsating in his ears.

  “Yeah,” Nighthawk said, pulling himself upright and shaking his head to stop the buzzing sound throbbing through it. “Go—I’ll catch up.”

  “Right.” Croyd stood, looked around, and chose to exit through the hole punched in the metallic side of the Quonset hut by the rocket that’d taken out the building’s rear.

  Nighthawk went to follow him, then stopped, shaking his head again to try to clear it. The Crystal Lady was draped over her desk, unmoving. He went to her side, and pulled her up. His right hand came away sticky, coated with blood. He looked at her side and saw a large chunk of jagged metal protruding from it. She groaned. Her eyes fluttered open, blue as the afternoon sky, and looked into his.

  Nighthawk pulled her to him. There was little else he could do but hold her.

  “Sorry,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do.”

  She nodded. Her lips moved. He bent lower to hear her. “Get away,” she managed to whisper. “Fix it. Stop … it…”

  Nighthawk nodded. “We will. There is one thing. If you want. I can take away your pain.”

  She couldn’t move, but her eyes told him what she wanted. Nighthawk unwrapped the rag he’d twisted around his left hand, and reached out, caressing her cheek in merciful benediction. She sighed, and her eyes closed.

  After a moment he looked up and saw that he was surrounded by men with guns, all pointed right at him. “Get up,” one of them said in a hard voice. “You’re under arrest on the charge of having impure genes.”

  The Chicago House of Corrections, Nighthawk knew, had been built in 1871. It looked every moment of its hundred-plus years of age. It loomed like a rambling, gray Gothic monster in the middle of a ninety-six-acre plot at Twenty-sixth Street and California, right next to the Cook County Jail, which had been built in the relatively modern date of 1929, but was clearly out of the neo-penal school of architecture rather than any that aspired to a sense of grace or dignity.

  Nighthawk soon learned that Camp Nixon, as the Joker Resistance referred to it, was the colloquial name for the facility in which those deemed to have impure genes were confined. Further information gleaned from conversation with his fellow prisoners filled in the horrific history of this alternate reality. President Spiro Agnew had transferred J. Edgar Hoover from his position as head of the FBI to become the first superintendent of Camp Nixon when it initially opened, with agents from the bureau acting as the shock troops that eventually evolved into the Purity Police. They removed all the felons—the murders, the rapists, the embezzlers, the drug dealers, the assault artists—from the two jails, either placing them in other state prisons or simply freeing them when they’d run out of room, and replaced them with obvious and not so obvious jokers, deuces, and a few aces with minimal powers.

  Hoover ran the place like a concentration camp until he dropped dead of a heart attack early in 1972, some saying while he was personally interrogating some poor joker. Others say he wasn’t interrogating the joker, but was indulging in some other heated physical activity that proved too much for his overworked heart. In any case, George G. Battle, a special assistant to President Agnew, was then appointed superintendent of the camp and, Nighthawk was told, conditions immediately became even worse.

  They were still terrible. When Nighthawk was captured he was booked and fingerprinted. He gave his name as “James Brown,” which aroused no trace of suspicion or even interest from the obviously bored guard taking the information. He then had blood drawn, which would be tested for the wild card virus. The test would be his trial, the analysis of his blood his jury, the Wild Card Containment Laws his judge, with a positive result a life sentence of confinement in either Camp Nixon or one of the other detention centers being constructed around the United States.

  Then, in the company of a score of other new internees—men, women, and children included—he was ordered to strip naked, his clothes and possessions were taken away, and he was subjected to delousing delivered by a high-pressure water hose. Grim-faced, he dried himself off with the two oversized but inadequate paper towels he was issued, and dressed in a scratchy, much too large jumpsuit. A pair of too small shoes completed his uniform.

  Nighthawk was then assigned a place in an eight-by-ten-foot cell meant to house four inmates. There were already eight living in it, males ranging in age from eight to eighty. Since his blood hadn’t been analyzed yet, it was considered a holding cell.

  “How long have you been waiting?” Nighthawk asked the oldest-looking inmate, an emaciated old man who was stick thin and, although Caucasian, had an unhealthy gray pallor that indicated ill health.

  “About six months,” the old man said. “Funny thing is, I ain’t a joker. I’d know if I was. I’m just skinny.” He shook his head. “My brother was a joker, though. They took me along when they grabbed him up.”

  “How’s your brother?” Nighthawk asked quietly.

  “Dead,” the old man said flatly.

  The hours in the cell passed like centuries. As one of the newcomers, Nighthawk didn’t have mattress privileges, just an old blanket of dubious cleanliness left behind by a previous inmate who’d unfortunately just been found guilty and been removed to the “hard house,” where, the inmates told him, you really had a tough time. Nighthawk couldn’t imagine it.

  For one of the few times in his long life, Nighthawk fell into true despair. He’d failed, he thought. There was no way out of this and with the mission resting alone on Croyd, there was little chance for success. The weight of his failure was crushing, but the worst thing was not his personal suffering, but the pain he saw all around him, on the hopeless faces of the men he was jailed with, on the utter despair in the face of the young boy who sat alone pressed into the corner, his arms wrapped around his knees.

  The cell block marched out for dinner at five o’clock, back in at six. The food was about as bad as you’d expect, though Nighthawk saved some of it for the old man, who was too ill to rise from his iron slab of a bed to attend the meal. The oldster managed to choke down some of the square of desiccated cake. He thanked Nighthawk wanly. Nighthawk sat with his back against the wall without the doubtlessly vermin-ridden blanket. He closed his eyes. His brain raced fruitlessly, circling back always to an overpowering sense of hopelessness. He felt like a wolf caught in a steel net from which there was no escape.

  Sometime after they turned off the lights he fell asleep, and after a while he dreamed. Either that or he was having a vision. A vision of a tall, thin black man. He was perhaps of mixed race because his skin was a dark golden color and his eyes were almond shaped. He flew through the night sky unsupported by artificial means and his face had an expression of vengeful wrath. He was following a trail of light and was approaching quickly through the dark sky.

  Nighthawk’s eyes flew open and he knew that he was awake. Of course, he thought, and for the first time since his arrival in this gray fortress of concrete and iron he felt hope.

  With his mind’s eye he watched the man approach the House of Corrections, flying over the wire-topped fence that surrounded it. He hovered before a window, gestured, and blobs of pure energy the size of softballs crashed into the casement, shattering glass and iron bars alike. The window exploded inward and he entered the structure, landing in a darkened hallway.

  John Nighthawk! he heard the m
an call out in his mind and knew, then, that he was coming for him.

  Here! he shouted silently.

  I can track your aura, the voice replied calmly in his head. I’ll be with you in a moment.

  Nighthawk got up and went to the locked cell door. He grabbed the bars and looked down the dark corridor. He could hear shouts and shots ringing in the distance, but could see nothing. He felt strange, as if enveloped in amber. Everything stopped, even his brain, and when he blinked a man was standing before the bars to his cell. It was the one he’d seen in his vision, heard in his head. “Step back,” he ordered. His voice was rich and deep.

  Power blasted from his fingertips and the cell’s lock just shattered.

  “John Nighthawk, I presume,” he said. “Come on, we have to go.” He whirled as armed guards entered the corridor, running toward them, guns firing. He gestured. You could feel more than see it, but a protective barrier sprang up and the bullets ricocheted away, screaming through the corridor. He pushed outward and the barrier itself shot down the corridor, slamming into the armed guards, knocking them about like tenpins.

  Nighthawk joined him in the corridor and glanced back over his shoulder to the men staring at them from the cell, a mixture of hope and awe on their faces.

  “We have to leave them,” his rescuer said. “It’s the only way they’ll be safe. But—I’ll be back,” he added in a voice full of promise, “and next time I won’t come alone.”

  He looked up at the ceiling and blobs of solidified energy shot from his hands, punching a hole right through it, exposing the night sky. “Come on!”

  He threw an arm around Nighthawk’s shoulder. Nighthawk responded, and together they rose into the air, exited through the hole he’d blasted through the ceiling, and flew off quick and low, zagging like bats pursuing unseen moths.

  “Thanks, Fortunato,” Nighthawk said, the air whipping across his face and snatching his words away as he said them.

  Fortunato glanced at him momentarily, but renewed his concentration on threading their flight through tall buildings, sticking to the shadows as much as possible. “You know me?”

  “We’ve met under different circumstances,” Nighthawk said. He didn’t mention that it was at Fortunato’s death. “In another time line.”

  “Uh-huh,” Fortunato said. “Squidface called me. I wouldn’t believe it from someone else, but he’s a solid dude. Knew him well when he first got back from ’Nam. I trust what he has to say, and he said you and the Sleeper can fix this shit. So I got in touch with this guy I know goes by the name of the Mechanic. He flew us here in a small plane below the radar, barely above the treetops.” Fortunato shook his head. “Best job of flying by the seat of the pants I ever saw. Almost like he was part of the plane. Anyway—he wanted to come along on this visit to Camp Nixon, but I figured speed and stealth was our best chance so he’s waiting on me at this little field he landed us in out of town. We’ll wait for nightfall again, then take off back for New York.”

  “Thanks,” Nighthawk said, “and luck. We’ll get this done.”

  “I know you’re straight,” Fortunato replied, “because my Crenson is asleep right now back at New York, crashed out at my pad. And your Crenson—I know he’s the Sleeper, too, because I looked into his mind. Two Sleepers. Alternate time lines. Motherfucker.”

  “This one’s got to be stopped,” said Nighthawk. “Snuffed out before it happens.”

  “And the other one—the one you’re from—is better?” Fortunato asked.

  “It’s not perfect,” Nighthawk said, “but it’d be hard to be worse.”

  Fortunato nodded. They flew on in silence for a bit. Then he said, “Things are tough here, and with the Crystal Lady dead … it’ll only get tougher.…”

  “We’ll fix it, I promise.”

  “I’m holding you to it, brother,” he said. He angled to the ground and they landed lightly, in familiar territory.

  “Jesus Christ, John,” Croyd said, coming out of the darkness cast by the standing wall of a shattered building. “He did it! He got you out!”

  “Of course,” Fortunato said. “But it damn near burned me out. I better go rejuvenate my powers before I head back to the city. Got my own war to fight there.”

  “Take care, and thanks again,” Nighthawk said. “I owe you more than I can say.”

  Fortunato smiled, and vanished into the darkness.

  Nighthawk turned to Croyd. “Let’s go get that bitch Lilith,” he said.

  The Fortune Films lot looked different in 1968 from the version they’d left behind in 1975.

  It had a tranquil air, a restful sense of a place where much had been done and now all was slumbering, but ready to awaken if anyone would care to put it to use. The buildings were shuttered and quiet, but they weren’t burned out and shot up. The streets and alleys within the warren of buildings, from the great soundstages to the offices and warehouses, were devoid of trash and, thankfully, bullet holes.

  Nighthawk took a deep breath and there was a scent of a warm summer morning freshness in the air, almost as if he could sense a promise of future possibilities. It would be terrible, he thought, to lose all this to the wanton destruction of the possible future that lurked just a few years ahead.

  “John—” Croyd was kneeling before a large cardboard box that was sitting against the aluminum wall of the storage shed they’d use to reflect his time-traveling energy upon themselves. “John, look at this.”

  Nighthawk stood above the box, peering down.

  “I’m freaking out here, John,” Croyd said. “Someone’s still trailing us.”

  It was, Nighthawk admitted, kind of spooky.

  “Do you think it’s another time traveler?” Croyd asked, his voice rising a little. “Who could it be? What do they want?”

  “I have no idea,” Nighthawk said, “but apparently they want to help us.”

  “So far,” Croyd said darkly, and emptied out the contents of the box.

  It contained, like the anonymous care packages they’d received earlier, two complete outfits, pants, shirts, shoes, and all accoutrements, that perfectly fit the two of them. Both pairs of pants had folding cash stashed in a front pocket. Among his clothes, Croyd found a Baggie of pills along with an unopened pint bottle of tequila to help wash them down.

  “Come to poppa!” he exclaimed, shaking a handful of pills onto his palm and reaching for the bottle. He broke the seal, tossed the pills down his throat, and took a healthy swig.

  Nighthawk thought that watching someone who looked like Donald Meek popping amphetamines and guzzling tequila was more than a little disturbing. “Careful with that,” he warned.

  “Hey, man, you’re talking to a pro from Dover.” Croyd offered the bottle to Nighthawk, who shook his head.

  “Not on an empty stomach.”

  “Hell, man,” Croyd said, his earlier anxiety entirely forgotten, “then let’s get dressed and go grab some breakfast.” He took another swipe from the bottle. “Is there anywhere to get decent huevos rancheros in this town?”

  Lincoln Park was a madhouse.

  Bands of roving students were everywhere, along with roving bands of armed cops all too ready to confront them. Skirmishes were breaking out every now and again, but nothing serious had gone down. Yet.

  Nighthawk inhaled a deep lungful of the Lincoln Park air. Pot, patchouli, and the scent of unwashed bodies. Yes. He was back in the sixties.

  As if to confirm this, as he and Croyd strolled through the park they turned a corner and suddenly came upon the Turtle—or rather, his shell. It hovered a foot or two above the ground, and hippie chicks were crawling all over it, painting peace symbols on it and decking it with flowers. “Ah, man,” Croyd said.

  Nighthawk knew what he meant. Although he had mixed feelings about the sixties—and really, you could say that about any decade—it had been a heady time. There was something in the air, and it wasn’t just pot smoke and patchouli. Mainly it was a feeling of possibilities, of things
that could be. Perhaps some of those dreams eventually were shattered or simply never came to fruition, but at least people generally gave a damn. Some of them, anyway.

  And the Turtle epitomized those days. Nighthawk had never sought out the spotlight. He was more comfortable in the shadows. But the Turtle was a symbol of the shining hope of the sixties. It made him sick to his stomach to think that if they failed in their mission he’d be executed by the government within the next three years.

  Nighthawk suddenly remembered something that the Crystal Lady had told them about the events that’d happened in Lincoln Park that night. “The Turtle’s the key.” He jabbed Croyd in the side with his elbow, to pry his attention away from the hippie chicks swarming the Turtle’s shell, some of whom had decided to go shirtless in the warmth of the summer day. “Remember, Chrysalis—the Crystal Lady—told us that the Turtle had airlifted that wounded ace to the hospital. So, we stick with the Turtle…”

  “… and we find Lilith,” Croyd finished. “That’s fine with me.”

  The day eventually turned tedious as even the thrill of the occasional topless hippie chick soon faded. But the tedium was punctuated by the occasional thrust and counterthrust of demonstrator-police confrontations. As the day slowly turned to evening, the confrontations became more frequent and more violent.

  When the sun set and darkness arrived, the police tried to clear the park to enforce a nighttime curfew, but they were thwarted by the actions of the Turtle, much to the cheers and amusement of the gathered demonstrators. In a way, it became almost easier to keep track of the Turtle despite his quick and sometimes erratic movements above the park, because his spotlights shone like beacons as he tirelessly patrolled the skies.

 
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