Low chicago, p.38
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       Low Chicago, p.38
 

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

  “We’ll see you at the tent.”

  Natya watched the pair of them walk away—and then frowned. Was that Holmes walking behind them? She got up quickly and began to follow them, but the crowds grew more pressing as they headed toward the edge of the Isle. By the time she caught up, they were all out of sight—Kamilah, Rania, and Holmes, if he’d been there at all. Had he been watching them, following them? Unnerving thought—and why would he? He could see Kamilah openly enough. Unless he derived some secret pleasure from knowing she couldn’t see him, a strange intimacy she hadn’t actually granted.

  Natya resolved to keep a closer eye on them.

  But June slipped to July, and Holmes seemed to behave well enough. For a time Natya stayed close to them, a third wheel, but Kamilah started urging her to go, enjoy the fair, and finally it grew too awkward not to take the hint. There was certainly plenty to see, from the splendid to the ridiculous. Pennsylvania had brought the actual Liberty Bell, and California presented a statue of a medieval knight made entirely of prunes. Natya heard Woodrow Wilson lecture, and was lucky enough to be present when Buffalo Bill, in his gleaming silver-and-white costume, bowed his horse to Susan B. Anthony. She stood up, and the crowd went wild; for a brief, shining moment, Natya was caught up in their excitement.

  The Horticultural Building held eight astonishing greenhouses and a massive dome, an explosion of color and scent. But in the end, Natya’s favorite part of the fair was the colossal Ferris Wheel, which had finally opened to the public in late June. At first, even she was a bit too nervous to ride it—she had ridden others before, of course, but this one had been the first of its kind. Perhaps all the kinks hadn’t quite been worked out? But Natya didn’t remember ever hearing anything about Ferris Wheel tragedies at the fair, so in the end, she decided to take her chances.

  The cars were large, holding sixty passengers and an attendant, and designed with forty revolving chairs. At night, it was lit, and looked quite splendid, but Natya preferred riding by day, when the White City spread out below her, and Lake Michigan and Chicago beyond. She could stare out at the clouds and imagine herself in her own time and place, as if at any moment, a plane might fly by, on its way to touch down safely at O’Hare.

  Riding the Ferris Wheel quickly became one of her great pleasures, and she tried to do so daily, even though it meant waiting in long lines. For the most part, people were patient about the wait, and relatively calm once aboard the car.

  But not always. On one of her rides, a man entered with his wife, and seemed to be enjoying himself until the wheel started its upper revolution. Then he started to complain, loudly. “I feel ill. I am most unwell. You must stop this contrivance, and allow me to depart!”

  The attendant endeavored to explain that there was no way to stop the wheel, but the man paid no attention. The rest of the car joined in, to no avail, as he grew more and more agitated. He began to pace excitedly up and down the car, shouting, in the process unnerving many of the women, driving them before him, back and forth. Then he began to jump on the sides of the car repeatedly, and actually managed to bend the safety bars. Natya was tempted to knock him out at that—he was risking everyone in the car. But the attendant began to grapple with him, and for a moment, it looked like he’d regain control. A few other men helped, attempting to hold the wild man, but he threw them off easily and made for the locked door. He shook it violently, and succeeded in breaking some of the glass, but couldn’t force it open.

  Luckily the car had now finished its descent, and the man began to calm; the men let go of him. Natya bit her lip, knowing what was coming. The wheel always made two full revolutions before it stopped, and sure enough, once it began to rise again, the man’s frenzy returned. He begged the attendants, “Please, please—for God’s sake, hold me down!”

  Enough was enough. Natya would use her powers if she must, no matter what the consequences to herself. But she remembered when her daughter, Isai, would work herself into a hysterical toddler fit. Taking the child into a dark room and holding her close would usually calm her. There was no way to make the car dark, of course, not without using her powers—but she could darken the world for one man alone.

  Natya unbuckled her skirt at the back, stepped out of it, and threw it over the man’s head. He calmed immediately. She wrapped her arms around him and the skirt, holding it down, while they finished going up, and slowly, so slowly, came down. Finally, they were reaching the low point where they would disembark; she pulled back her skirt and buckled it back on. A low, grateful chorus of “well dones” and “good jobs” followed her out—along with, of course, quite a lot of scandalized muttering and shocked stares.

  It was Natya’s favorite day on the Ferris Wheel.

  In late July, Natya met a man, as she jiggled to the end of her set. Re-met him? It was hard to know, with time travel, what the right verbs should be. When she first saw the small man at the forefront of the crowd, very dark-skinned, with wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, she felt a shock of recognition rush through her. She’d studied his file along with the others when given this assignment; she’d last seen him months ago, in that room at the Palmer House where all this began. John Nighthawk—come to take her home? She should be thrilled, shouldn’t she?

  He said nothing to her—turned and started making his way out of the tent. Natya made quick excuses and slipped out as well, feeling panic claw at her throat when she thought she’d lost him—but then the crowds parted, and through the gap, she saw him, walking away. She ran up to him, still in her skimpy dance outfit, so inappropriate for these public streets, but who gave a damn? Not her. Natya put her hand on his shoulder, saying in a voice gone high and sharp, “John?”

  He turned, blinking up at her. “Excuse me, miss. Do I know you?”

  Natya wanted to say yes, but he so clearly didn’t. For a moment, nothing made sense—was she losing her mind? The people, the sights and sounds of the fair, spun dizzily around her. Then the details of his file snapped into memory. John Nighthawk, born in 1852—he’d lived through this time, would be forty-one years old now. Eventually his ace would make him practically immortal, letting him suck the life and years from others. But the virus wouldn’t be released till 1946—there were no aces in the world right now, none but her.

  John was just an ordinary man, but for a moment, she wanted to spill her secrets to him anyway. Natya could tell him everything, and John would believe none of it. Would he want his fearsome power? Would he love it, the way she had once loved hers? Together they could warn the world, so that when the Takisians came, everything might be different. Spare all those thousands who died when their card turned. Was that the right thing to do?

  Too much responsibility for her; she’d just fuck it up if she tried. Natya shook her head. “No, no. We’ve never met, I’m sorry. I thought you were someone I knew.”

  “Well, my name is John. You got that part right.” He smiled at her, a low, sweet smile that made something catch, low in her body. “And I would like to know you better, miss. Can I buy you a drink?”

  And maybe it was the smile, or maybe it was the way his dark skin reminded her of Michael’s, though otherwise the two men looked nothing alike. Whatever the reason, Natya took him back to her crooked room that night, and for a few brief, feverish hours, lost herself in him.

  John Nighthawk worked as a Pullman porter, as it turned out. He left on an early morning train, leaving her with a kiss, taking a little bit of hope with him.

  The second week of August—summer was running away, and the end of the fair was fast approaching. The dancers wearily removed their costumes at close of shift, wiping themselves down with thin towels and changing into street clothes. Kamilah gathered Rania into her arms. “Ah, such a good girl, waiting so patiently for Mommy. Yes, that is a beautiful picture, and that one too, and that one. Well done! We’ll have an extra-special treat tonight, shall we? A wonderful dinner to celebrate all your lovely art.”

  “Something special?”
Natya asked, as she peeled herself out of the skimpy costume. It itched; that was the worst thing about it. Beaded fringe, translucent hose, embellished blouse that was really closer to a bra. And the white-heeled shoes they had to wear—ugh.

  “Dr. Holmes—Henry—has invited us to the hotel for dinner.” She hesitated. “He has invited us before, many times, but I did not think it was appropriate, especially with Rania. But we have been seeing each other for four months now, and he is having a small dinner party, and wanted us to meet his friends. If we are to be engaged, I think it is fine. And it’s a hotel, after all—it’s not as if we were going to a private home.”

  “Are you engaged?” Natya said, one eyebrow raising as if of its own volition. She didn’t mean to sound skeptical.

  Kamilah blushed. “Not yet, not officially. He is getting a ring made; Henry wants to wait until it’s ready. But I have already told him that I will say yes. With the fair ending in two months, I do not want to look for work again; it is time for me to settle down and be a wife.”

  Well, that seemed definite enough. “Congratulations, Kamilah. I’m very happy for you.”

  She smiled widely. “This will be good for all of us, Natya. Henry has many fine friends; once I am married, perhaps we can help all of you find other work when the fair closes. Or better yet, husbands!” Kamilah laughed, giving Natya a quick hug, and then turned to usher Rania out of the tent.

  Natya watched her go, frowning. There was no good reason to be worried—Kamilah had been seeing Holmes for months, after all, and he’d always treated her well, from what Natya could see. Her friend was very happy. And yet—something about the whole situation still felt off.

  Natya slipped out the tent flap and followed them, staying to the shadows and using illusion for concealment when she needed to. That wasn’t very often—Kamilah wasn’t worried about being followed, after all, and didn’t tend to look behind her, except when Rania lagged a bit. It wasn’t long before they had left the fairground, and then they made their way westward from Jackson Park.

  The walk was long enough that the little girl started to complain, and Kamilah slung her up on her shouders for the last mile. Finally they were at Holmes’s World’s Fair Hotel, a handsome three-story corner building. Kamilah entered with an air of ownership, as if she were already thinking about how she might redo the carpet and change the drapes.

  Natya hesitated for a moment, not sure how best to proceed. She couldn’t exactly barge in on Holmes and Kamilah. But she couldn’t just go to her room and go to sleep either, not with worry gnawing at her stomach.

  In the end, she waited in the shadows, outside, for two hours, getting colder and hungrier by the minute. Finally, Kamilah and Rania came out, with Holmes beside them, calling a hansom cab to take them home. Everything looked entirely normal, and Natya felt like a tired fool.

  What did she think she was doing here, anyway? Playing detective? That was Michael’s job, not hers. After leaving home, she’d trained for a few months to work with SCARE, but it wasn’t as if she were some kind of super-agent ace, either. Natya had power they wanted, but she didn’t even trust what they wanted it for. Working for them had seemed the best thing on offer, once she’d blown up her life in New York. But that didn’t mean she was any good at it.

  Isai was five now, had started kindergarten and would be in first grade soon. Although what was soon, now that Natya was here in 1893? Her family was stuck in the future forever, frozen in the moment when she’d betrayed them.

  Natya had been so young during the riots. Five years old in ’83, when the Black July riots swallowed Colombo, and thugs went door-to-door armed with government voter rolls, dragging Tamils out, putting tires around their necks, and setting them on fire. She’d stayed with her parents and younger siblings in a neighbor’s house, hidden in a stinking toilet, and prayed for Ariyasiri, the big brother she’d adored. Ari had been at a friend’s home that night, and before the night was over, they would learn that he, and his friend, and his friend’s parents were all gone. She couldn’t help him, couldn’t do anything for him, and that had haunted her for almost three decades.

  So when Natya’s little brother got into trouble, got in with the wrong crowd and did terrible things, when Sandip came to her, broken and bleeding and begging for help, what was she supposed to do? Turn her back on him? Fail yet another brother? And of course, Michael was right, she should have trusted her boyfriend, trusted that he would do everything he could to protect her brother from the consequences of his actions. But instead, she had helped Sandip hide, even knowing that he had information Michael needed, information that might save lives.

  A mistake, a terrible mistake. Natya had chosen family over integrity, and over her true loves as well. Michael, who went out into a dangerous city every day, risking his life to keep the rest of them safe. Minal, who had dragged herself out of a bad situation, taken the card the disease had dealt, and turned her life around. They loved her, they made mad, passionate love to her, they wanted to marry her. They had loved Kavitha Kandiah, but that woman was gone. Only Natya the ace was left.

  Natya walked. Walked and walked, past homeless men and drunks, using the shadows and her power to conceal her, until finally she reached the lake. She was freezing, but the shore was deserted, so there was no one to see her, no one to care when she started to dance.

  Women’s clothes in this era were too binding. She stripped them off, layer after layer, until she wore only a long one-piece undergarment. Finally, she could move freely, and under cover of night, Natya began to dance. She danced all day, of course, at the fair, but that was work. This was art, this was what she was built for. There was nowhere she could perform here; her art, even without the wild card power, would bewilder the locals. Don’t frighten the horses!

  Or worse, what if they liked it, loved her melding of classic Indian bharata natyam and European ballet? What if that style became all the rage, and she changed the history of dance forever? Ruining not just the lives of her family, but possibly the entire world, not knowing what the consequences would be. Every step Natya took seemed a step on the road to disaster, and as the power spilled out of her, she found herself shaping it into a staircase. Step by step, leading out into the lake, climbing up, into the stars. But oh, she was tired. She had danced all day, walked miles to get here, and now, the energy that had once seemed inexhaustible was finally running out.

  It would be easy to stop. Natya knew what would happen then—without her movement to fuel the power, the staircase would last only a few moments before dissolving, sending her deep into the cold waters of Lake Michigan. August wasn’t icy, certainly, but cold enough. Natya climbed, and counted the steps of her lost loves, spelling out their names in the hardened air. Sixteen letters and sixteen steps, and then she stopped and spun, around and around and around, building a tower that climbed up …

  … and then, because she was not quite ready to die, Natya started down again. Step after weary step, back toward the lakeshore and the empty, futile life she had, stuck here in the past, afraid to make a move that might change anything that mattered. But in her exhaustion and misery, she had misjudged her strength. The staircase winked out, yards from the shore, and Natya plunged through the air, into the chilly depths.

  As it turned out, there was strength left in Natya after all. Dancing was impossible, under the waves, but frantic thrashing served as well, drawing power from her burning core. The water wanted her to give in, to surrender and sink, but instead she fought for every inch and every breath. The battle couldn’t have taken more than a few minutes, but it felt endless, air bubbling out of her lips as she flew upward, power sending Natya shooting out of the water, to land gasping on the rocky shore. Time enough to reconsider everything she’d thought she knew. She had gotten everything, everything, wrong.

  Natya found a corner of a park to curl up in, behind some sheltering bushes, and fell into the deepest sleep she’d experienced in months. She woke a few hours after dawn. Ther
e was just time to go back to the hotel—Natya cleaned up, dressed, went down to the fair to work her shift. A conviction burned within her that she had to investigate Holmes properly, but she also had to keep eating, which meant keeping her job as long as it lasted. Just two more months until the end of the fair; Natya had a few months’ worth of living expenses saved up, but soon she’d have to seriously think about what she would do if she was stuck in this century for good.

  Dance, if possible, dance for real. If it changed the course of history—so be it. Maybe she would warn the world about the Takisians, too, when the time came. Natya couldn’t keep living her life this way, afraid of taking any steps for fear of taking the wrong ones; that wasn’t really living. If she’d learned anything last night in the cold waters of Lake Michigan, it was that she desperately wanted to live.

  “Are you seeing Henry today?” Natya asked the question casually, as the women applied their day’s makeup, carefully drawing dramatic eyes with thick kohl.

  “Yes,” Kamilah said, “we’re going there for dinner tonight, just the two of us.”

  “That sounds nice,” Natya said. It sounded terrible; it meant she needed to move fast.

  The day’s work seemed to fly by, and when it ended, all the wonders of the fair couldn’t have kept her from H. H. Holmes’s hotel. Just a few miles west, and Natya practically ran it, arriving a little before dinnertime, when the street was bustling.

  Her stomach growled fiercely—she’d expended masses of energy, and would need more. Natya stuffed down a cheese sandwich from a horse-drawn wagon, the food tasting like sawdust in her mouth. As soon as it was all down, she headed inside, spinning a forcefield to shield herself from view. If Natya were seen, people might want to talk to her, might remember her later. Tonight, she needed to be invisible.

 
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