Illumination 9.7: Winding Threads

Getting Jehane to Mexico City wasn’t as quick or easy as anybody hoped, and neither Seth nor Ajax were allowed to go with her. Kwan went instead.

“This isn’t the time for anybody with a dodgy record to be climbing on an international flight,” Kwan said as he checked through some papers at the Texas portal.

“They’ve got better things to worry about,” protested Ajax.

“You don’t think they’d be looking for anybody they can connect to the previous event in Detroit? You and Seth were both highly visible.”

“You were there, too! And Jehane should be as recognizable as Hatherly.”

Kwan quirked a smile. “And if we were going through Asia, I’d be concerned. As for Jehane…” he looked at where Jehane sat quietly, staring at her hands. Some of the other girls had done their best to transform her from the quiet, unaffected schoolgirl into something else, with all the magic makeup and nice clothing and a haircut could conjure, but none of that could change her body language. She was frightened of anchoring the new gate, Ajax knew, and Elian wasn’t making it any easier on her with his hesitant assurances that it would probably be safe.

Kwan sighed. “Well, she’s a girl. She wasn’t fighting. And we have no choice if we want to open a portal to Mexico City. Don’t be pests; you’ll get to be useful once the portal is reactivated.”

And then they left. And Ajax and Seth waited. And waited.

“Shouldn’t they be there already?” Ajax demanded the next morning, as Jake re-emerged from the portal with his tablet.

“If they hadn’t run into complications, like the city dealing with a catastrophe straight out of a sci-fi movie, that would be true. Have you downloaded the news update, Elian?”

“Yes. Processing it now.”

Jake tapped on his tablet then passed it to Seth. “They’ve photographed Hatherly and Tainter. Nobody’s officially talking about them yet but the bloggers are making their own connections. The monsters and the portal itself is still the major story— alien invasion— but the parallel narrative of another terrorist attack is slowly growing.”

“It’s both,” Ajax pointed out. “The wildlife and the gate are alien.”

“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” said Seth, scanning the tablet screen.

Ajax ignored him. “Are they evacuating the city?”

Jake shook his head. “Mexico City is way too big and way too important to the global economy to just abandon. And the portal opened up in a poor hospital, in a less prosperous side of town. The military is working on barricading the colonia in question. They’re having some trouble getting near the gate itself, which I suppose we must be grateful for.”

Elian said quietly, “If somebody can get near the gate— I’ve been working on something. A gizmo. I might be able to shut the gate down remotely, but the device has to interact with the Tower Effa ghost, which is currently contained within the virtual space of the portal itself. I think.”

Jake nodded, took back his tablet from Seth, and made a note on it.

“No sign of anybody else from Hatherly’s crew?” asked Ajax.

Jake shook his head, and Seth grinned. “But I bet Natalie took advantage of the confusion to get away, or else why would we be even having this chat? The gate isn’t what everybody’s been telling us he’d do.”

“I wonder what her state of mind is, though,” said Jake soberly.

“We’ll have to find her and see,” said Ajax grimly. “Jehane seemed to break through to Malachi just by talking to him.”

“Not just talking,” said Seth, and sniggered. “It’d better be you that goes after her.” Something in his voice made Ajax look at Seth, past the sneer to the turmoil underneath.

“I don’t think so,” he said slowly. “I like Natalie a lot,” and that’s the understatement of the year but it’s her brother and dad, “but I barely know her. Not like you do, anyhow. I know her name; you’ve known her since before names mattered, eh? You’re going to be able to find her and remind her of… everything. I’m just going to remind her of an asshole who’s made mistakes.”

Seth shrugged. “If you say so. If you’re not just saying that because you’re afraid of confronting her.”

Ajax raised his eyebrows. “I’m not. Are you?”

Seth looked away. “A little.” He met Jake’s gaze, scowled, and looked at the floor.

“Good. You’re her little brother. You probably should be.” Ajax clapped him on the shoulder. “I can try taking Elian’s gizmo to the gate. All that potentials gotta be worth something.”

Jake said, “We need to find Hatherly and his device. Figure out some way to take him down.”

“Snipers,” said Ajax firmly. “Any of the Prowlers specialize in long-range sniping?”

“It’s not something patrolling the land beyond usually calls for…”

“Well, the military will have them.” Ajax sighed.

The Texas gate activated behind Jake, and Jolie stepped through, waving her cellphone. “They’re in place, Elian!”

After a pause, Elian said, “All right. I’m looking for her now. And… I’ve found her.” The tension in Elian’s voice sharpened. “I’ve got to move it off center, blind. And hope it doesn’t end up in the ground or the sky. I’ve been thinking about what must have happened to the person Tower Effa targeted.”

“So has Jehane, apparently,” said Ajax.

“Yeah, but she was just guessing. Lailoken wasn’t the first person the original ghost tried to contact.”

Soothingly, Seth said, “Doesn’t matter if it’s in the ground or the sky. That’s just an inconvenience.”

Elian paused again. “All right,” he repeated. “Starting the process. Augh! She’s moving! She’s not supposed to move!” Jolie, wide-eyed, ran through the Texas gate again, fumbling with her phone.

Elian muttered, “It’s too late. It’s already forming.” With a shuddering groan, a new portal opened up beside the Texas one. “She wasn’t supposed to move— I don’t know—”

Jake bent over the pile of gate equipment assembled previously. “Come on, boys, help me get this stuff through. We can see if —” and he vanished through the shimmering field. Seth darted after him, snatching up a bundle of metallic struts.

Ajax moved more slowly. “Elian, you’re letting the others know, right?”

“They’re on their way,” he said dully.

Ajax hesitated, then nodded and picked up a packaged tent and stepped through the portal.

He emerged into blinding sunlight, and almost tripped over the bundle of struts that Seth had abandoned in the middle of an old street. Ajax looked around carefully, and only when he didn’t see the signs of anything horrific in his immediate vicinity did he raise his gaze to figure out where Seth and Jake had gone.

“Out of the road,” called Jake, from behind him. But Seth was across the street, holding onto Jehane’s arm as she climbed a high fence. An enormous, brilliantly red bird sat atop a fence post.

Ajax looked behind him. Kwan and Jake were fumbling with the gear he’d brought through. It looked like they’d originally planned for the gate to be in the shelter of a battered veranda on an old apartment building, not in the middle of the street. Another Council member stepped through right behind Ajax, and Ajax made a decision. Jogging over to Seth and Jehane, he called, “What’s going on?”

“It’s his,” said Jehane, slapping at Seth’s hand. “Let me go.” Then she seemed to change her mind and put one foot on Seth’s shoulder to hoist herself higher. Startled, he let go of her arm and grabbed onto her leg instead. But she was still unsteady, until Ajax moved forward and braced her other leg. Thus boosted, Jehane reached up her fingers to the bird.

The crested head ducked, a fringe of feathers under the beak coiling out to wrap around Jehane’s outstretched fingers. “You,” it said, in a light, musical voice, and released her fingers. “He wanted me to find you.”

“Yes,” Jehane breathed.

“He wished you to know that the girl, the Wishing Star, she has escaped the Ashlander. She moves through the dead city, only thinking of battle and escape. She hides from the name she knew before. The Ashlander seeks her. He hasn’t given up on her, but he might. He might at any time. He has everything he needs but her.”

“Where is your maker?” demanded Jehane.

The bird turned its head to one side. “He is lost. He tries to change, and change again, but the way he tries to fill the void only takes him further away.”

“Lost…” Jehane echoed. “But you know where he is, right? Can you take me to him?”

“Jehane!” said Ajax, and tugged on her leg. She grabbed at the fence with both hands, clinging to it.

“What did you think I was going to do if I survived the gate-making?” she cried. “I came here for him. We’re all here to save who we can, and I came here for him.” She kicked at Ajax’s hand, and pulled her other leg away from Seth.

Ajax said, “You have no idea what you’re walking into.”

Seth held up his hands. “Don’t, man. She’s tough. And she’s a big girl. She’s got a giant weapon and everything.” He watched Jehane climb the fence, smiling faintly.

“It’s not the wildlife I’m worried about. It’s the monsters on two legs,” Ajax muttered. But Seth was right. The only way he could help Jehane achieve her goal right now was to let her go. She reached the top of the fence and dropped down on the other side. The giant bird fluttered down ahead of her, leading her away, and she followed without a single glance back.

Raising his eyes beyond the immediate to look at her path, Ajax finally saw the Tower Effa gate looming in the distance. It was enormous, but only partially visible behind a nearby building: a panel of blackness that seemed to move and swirl like a stormcloud. “Wow.”

“Yeah. Bird’s not heading straight towards it, though,” said Seth. “Of course, Kwan is going to kill us.”

Ajax glanced at the emergence point being constructed in the middle of the road. It didn’t seem like a road that got a lot of car traffic, at least. But there wasn’t going to be much chance of hiding it, even with the tent they’d brought along.

“Let’s go help get the gateway together, and then we can get started on our own tasks. Me to that monster gate, and you… you to find Natalie.”

“Wishing Star, eh?” said Seth, and his smile turned into a frown. “Yeah.”

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