Story Excerpts

The Spires

by Alec Nevala-Lee 

I.

In the English Mechanic, September 10, 1897, a correspondent to the Weekly Times and Echo is quoted. . . . Early in June 1897, he had seen a city pictured in the sky of Alaska. “Not one of us could form the remotest idea in what part of the world this settlement could be. Some guessed Toronto, others Montreal, and one of us even suggested Peking. . . . It is evident that it must be the reflection of some place built by the hand of man.” According to this correspondent, the “mirage” did not look like one of the cities named, but like “some immense city of the past.”

—Charles Fort, New Lands

*   *   *

Bill Lawson studied the silent city. The photograph in his hands was the size of a postcard, creased at the corners and brittle with age. It depicted a cascade of roofs and chimneys emerging from what appeared to be a fogbank, its upper half obscured by clouds, with something like the spire of a church faintly visible in the distance. After examining the picture for another moment, he returned it to the man on the other side of the desk. “What about it?”

The photo went back into the valise. “Have you ever heard of a prospector called Dick Willoughby?”

“Sure. An old sourdough. Before my time. Willoughby Island is named after him.”

“That’s right.” The visitor, who had introduced himself as Sam Russell, was in his late forties, with handsome features and eyes that looked as if they had been transplanted there from the sockets of a much older man. “He claimed that every year in Glacier Bay, between June and July, a city appeared in the sky to the northwest, above the Fairweather range. He went back three times to get a picture of it. Finally, he came up with this photo. He sold copies of it to tourists.”

Lawson checked to see if Russell was joking, but the older man kept a straight face. “It looks fake to me.”

“Oh, it is.” Russell grinned. “It’s a picture of Bristol in England. Either Willoughby was deliberately lying, or somebody sold him a plate of the city and convinced him that it was taken here in Alaska. I’m inclined to think that he was a victim of a hoax. But that’s interesting in itself. It means he thought that this picture resembled whatever he saw in the sky. You see?”

Lawson decided to ignore the question. “So why are you showing it to me?”

“I want you to fly me to Willoughby Island, so I can take a look for myself.”

Lawson paused before responding. He prided himself on being a decent judge of character, but Russell was hard to pin down. The coat that he had hung by the door was rumpled but expensive, like his traveling case, and the bundle by his feet included a surveyor’s tripod and a camera. He certainly didn’t resemble the hunters or prospectors who tended to come through Juneau these days, the flow of whom had slowed to a trickle in the depths of the Great Depression.

It occurred to Lawson that the other man might be toying with him. People from the outside often assumed that the locals were simple folk, when the opposite was more likely to be the case. Seeing himself through Russell’s eyes, he was aware that he didn’t cut an impressive figure, with his untucked shirttail, oily jacket, and busted nose, and he felt a twinge of resentment at being mistaken for a rube. “I wonder if you’re having a laugh at my expense.”

“Not at all. I just want to be clear about what I’m doing. It seemed better to tell you the most ridiculous version now, so there won’t be any confusion later. But I’m serious. I’ve spoken to other eyewitnesses, and I have good reason to believe that Willoughby did see something in the sky. Even if it’s only an optical phenomenon, it’s worth investigating.” Russell glanced at his watch. “But I should come to the point. I’m interested in doing research on Willoughby Island, and I’m willing to pay cash up front. I’ve been told that the flight shouldn’t take more than forty minutes, which means I’ll be back in time to buy you dinner.”

Lawson remembered that Russell had mentioned arriving from Seattle the night before. “You came a long way for a day trip.”

“There may be a second stop. Or even a third. I’ll tell you once I know more.”

Lawson paused again. Two dueling impulses were at war in his mind, and he finally yielded to caution. “Sorry. I can’t fly you into Glacier Bay. Nobody can. Maybe no one explained it to you, but it’s a national park. I could cut you a deal on a sightseeing trip. But we can’t land.”

Russell absorbed the news without any visible reaction. “It has to be on the ground.”

“Then you can take a boat up there. There are plenty of fisherman on the docks who might agree to it.”

“That won’t work. It took longer for me to get here than I hoped, and I’m at the end of my available window. I can’t waste any time. If you won’t take me, I’ll find someone who will.”

Lawson heard the unspoken implication. There were several other pilots in town who would welcome the charter, legal or not, and the plain fact, which was written on his face, was that he needed the money. He wondered if Russell could sense his desperation, and he found that he didn’t want to give the other man the satisfaction, even if they never met again. “You expect to see a city in the sky?”

“Not really,” Russell said. “But I want the chance. It would mean a great deal to me. And to my wife.”

Lawson was about to respond when he saw a figure outlined against the window that faced the street. A moment later, the door opened, and a woman entered the office. As the two men rose, Russell introduced her. “This is my wife, Cora. She’ll be coming, too. If we can reach an agreement.”

The woman did not sit down. She wasn’t pretty, exactly, but she had red hair, green eyes, and a face that would be hard to forget. Lawson saw that she was much younger than her husband, probably no more than thirty, and as he looked at her, he found that he had come to a decision.

Taking a seat again, Lawson began to play with the cord of the window shade behind his desk. “If we’re doing this, it has to be done right. There can’t be any record. I won’t put it down on the flight plan.”

A satisfied look began to spread across Russell’s face. “What do you have in mind?”

Lawson let go of the cord. Opening a drawer, he fished out a stained topographical map, which he unrolled across the desk. Willoughby Island was an oval the size of the palm of his hand, nestled like a turtle in the blue ribbon of Glacier Bay. “Where were you hoping to land?” READ MORE

 

Lab B-15

by Nick Wolven

The young man was sitting outside the parking garage, and right away Jerry thought that was weird. This was the Arizona desert, middle of summer. People didn’t sit outside. They especially didn’t sit outside ugly parking garages, on strips of hot concrete, with no grass in sight.

The boy was Arvin Taylor, one of the lab techs from the day shift. Not a person Jerry saw often, though technically one of his employees. He ought to be working, not lazing around outdoors.

“Arvin.” Jerry pulled up, rolled down the window. “What are you—?”

But Arvin was already hurrying toward the car.

“Doctor Emery.” All the techs addressed Jerry as “Doctor.” It was something he insisted on. None of this Joe-John-Jane stuff, everyone on a first-name basis, like they were Mouseketeers or flight attendants. With the work they were doing, they couldn’t afford to be casual.

Arvin bent down, peering in the window, squinting in the sun. He was dressed professionally but cheaply: Dockers, button shirt.

The boy must have been sitting outside for hours. His shirt was soaked with sweat. He looked woozy, sunstruck.

“I’m glad I caught you, Doctor Emery.”

“How long have you been out here, Arvin?”

“It’s really important.” The young man’s eyes slid sideways, feverish. Jerry worried he might pass out. “I have to tell you . . .”

And that was it. Arvin’s mouth hung open, tongue moving vaguely.

Jerry put a hand on the gearshift, a gentle reminder. He had work to do, places to be. “I’m due in the office. If I’m not mistaken, you’re supposed to be there, too. Doesn’t your shift go till six?”

Arvin wasn’t listening. His eyes had assumed a peculiar cast, half daft, half frantic, like a circuit inside him had failed to connect. “It’s about . . . Lab B–15.”

Jerry set his teeth. Lab B–15 was one of their experiment rooms. Lot of pricey equipment in Lab B–15.

Not to mention the subjects themselves.

Subjects. That’s what they called them: subjects. The word always made Jerry wince.

“Arvin, if anyone has been mucking around with the stuff in the labs—”

Arvin’s face was pained. Like a child about to cry.

“Is it Anand?” Jerry’s tone was stern. “Has he been fiddling with the environmental controls again? Because I’ve told him and told him—”

Arvin backed away. His hands were clawed, not quite forming fists. His eyes might have been tearing up—at this distance, Jerry found it hard to say.

“Please, Doctor Emery. Please check.”

“Arvin. I hope you understand how unprofessional this is. Arvin! Are you having some kind of breakdown?”

But the young tech was already far from the car, shaking his head, stumbling backward across the crushed stone that filled the curbs around the garage entrance. Now he looked up, staring into the distance, upper lip drawn into a snarl against the glare of the southwestern sun.

Like a paranoid schizophrenic, Jerry thought. Like someone terrified of everything, of nothing. Of the world.

Jerry checked over his shoulder. Nothing there but the road curving into town, rocks and scrub, the suburbs of Phoenix at the desert’s edge.

By the time he looked back, Arvin was gone, vanished into the garage, or into the blinding sunlight.

*   *   *

It bothered Jerry, as he drove up the ramp, circled the garage levels, and parked on the top deck by the building entrance.

Frankly, it bothered him a lot.

He crossed under the pavilion of solar panels. At the coping, Jerry stood gnawing a knuckle. Below were the arabesques of housing parks, roads curling into cul-de-sacs lined with mini-mansions. The highway ran out, into the desert, ending here at a low hill rising from seas of solar farms. Atop stood a glittering cluster of glass buildings.

The Baxter-Clade Medical Center was funded with big donor money. It focused, consequently, on big-donor interests. Late-life therapies. Antiaging boondoggles. Artificial organs. A sample platter of rare cancers.

The center was ostentatiously eco-friendly. Most of it lay below ground for better temperature regulation. That was where the riskier institutes were located. Research teams toiled on top-dollar projects, out of sight, literally underground, flush with tech-guru cash.

The thing about rich donors was that they lived a long time. As a result, they tended to develop rare ailments. They also fell prey to freakish obsessions.

Baxter-Clade catered to both.

One of the labs on Jerry’s floor was working on treatments for Gorham-Stout disease—or, as it was evocatively called, “vanishing bone disease.” An affliction with only a few hundred reported cases, it was poorly understood. One of those cases, however, was the son of a hedge fund manager. Hence, research proceeded apace.

Another group did blood rejuvenation, cloning cells from youthful donors. There were teams working on weird voodoo with DNA, stuff even Jerry didn’t understand. Then there was the cryo team. They got all the press.

Rich folks who came to the clinic saw little of this work. They stopped in for their transfusions, their biopsies, their nouveau froufrou therapies. Receptionists guided them to the upper floors, with big windows and attractive rock gardens. They didn’t see what went on in the basement, the teams of researchers on their three sublevels, the doors labeled with names like In-Trans, Telomeric Initiatives, The Morgenstern Institute for Advanced Longevity. It was all a big warren of bare walls and offices. Rooms were labeled by number. Office A–7, Kitchenette K–1.

Lab B–15.

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