Book 1 of the Elfhome Series.
Inventor, girl genius Tinker lives in a near-future Pittsburgh which now exists mostly in the land of the elves. She runs her salvage business, pays her taxes, and tries to keep the local ambient level of magic down with gadgets of her own design. When a pack of wargs chase an Elven noble into her scrap yard, life as she knows it takes a serious detour. Tinker finds herself taking on the Elfin court, the NSA, the Elfin Interdimensional Agency, technology smugglers and a college-minded Xenobiologist as she tries to stay focused on what’s really important – her first date. Armed with an intelligence the size of a planet, steel toed boots, and a junk yard dog attitude, Tinker is ready to kick butt to get her first kiss.
2003 Sapphire Award Winner
Oh, man, this book is so good. A light, clever, sexy SF-fantasy-romance that’s just a whole lot of fun to read. Right up there with the best of the “scientific magic” books, and a clear “A” rating…” — SF Site
Excerpt from Chapter 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.
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 yuntz 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, 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 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 northeast, the colors gleamed brilliantly. They paled as the Rim arched 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 southwest, 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 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-boggling 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 of 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 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 advantages 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, circuit-like pattern of a spell. That gleaming, rune-covered shell hung in midair, 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 the 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, re-forming 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 important, 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 squared-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 a 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 floodflights 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 said had 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 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 tom 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 acceleration 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 blue 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 look 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 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 it came from never seeing the real thing in action.
The tough ones, though, survived. Perhaps more despite her care, she recognized 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 him 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 link the sink’s energy to a healing spell, though.
“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 left 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 hertz cycle, hooked leads through a converter box, and taped the power cords into 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, 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 the 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, and it’s Shutdown Day. 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 down 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’ mouth and the all-so-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 though 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 with 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 up. 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 has 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 sulking 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 suppose’d 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 sleep; 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 her childhood, Tooloo took odd perversion 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 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 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. Where 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 ninety 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 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 is the way conversation’s 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 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 an tengu.”
“I am not an 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 first 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 did 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 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 the 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 download while we’re on Earth. These Foo dogs–they have fangs, like a cat?”
“These puncture wounds must be made by the fangs. This is crushing damage by 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-aide 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 off of Lain’s sunporch. Lain found her nearly asleep and tapped a printout to her cheek. 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!” She 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 close, it had medusalike 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-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 beginning 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 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 reoccurring “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 its 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. 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. 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, before forming useable runoff.
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 time, which is unfortunately common for us humans.” Tinker tried to squeeze his hand in 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 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.”