It’s Fiction Friday!
Our current novel is DINOCALYPSE NOW by powerhouse author Chuck Wendig. We’ll be posting a new installment every Friday until you’ve got the whole book — but if you’re feeling impatient, use the FICTIONFRIDAY coupon code when checking out on our online store to get our fiction titles at 25% OFF.
New York City
Jet Black fell.
The wind whistled around him, the cold breath of the city a cutting edge. Windows whipped by as he plummeted, his jet pack sparking and hissing, crumpled like a soup can in a lion’s mouth—the illusion completed by the series of very real bite marks perforating the metal.
He felt dizzy. No, it was worse than that. He felt empty—like a hollowed out pumpkin.
Beneath him, the crowd gathered, now looking like little more than colored pins stuck in corkboard—but as he tumbled end over end through the air, jet pack boosters bursting with loud ragged coughs of worthless flame, the little people got bigger and bigger.
Soon, he would crash amongst them. Into them. On them.
Thoughts escaped him like slippery snakes and what the assassin did to him—did to his mind—left him lost and confused.
But one word—a name—continued to rise up out of the fog:
He was going to crash in the middle of all those people, into all those supporters and dissenters of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but worst of all, he was going to fall in front of Sally Slick. That was the heck of it.
He wanted to impress her.
The heroes of the Century Club caught wind of the assassination attempt on FDR’s life just this morning, but that’s how these things always went: life did not afford the hero easy answers or comfortable timelines. Everything was always by the scrape of the teeth, by one’s chinniest of chin hairs—most heroes not only expected it, but learned to thrive on it.
The campaign scheduled Roosevelt to speak outside the brand spanking new Empire State Building, a shining spire of metal and glass and human ingenuity that was like an extension of man’s own reach, reaching for the stars and the heavens beyond. There, Roosevelt planned to outline the tenets of his Second New Deal, bolstered as he was by a supportive Congress.
The message came in scrawled on a ratty slip of fabric—
The President is going to die.
They mobilized fast. Jet, Sally Slick, Mack Silver, and the Grey Ghost—more than enough of a team to take down any cold-blooded assassin.
Little time remained, affording them no chance to scope out the place beforehand. The President had already arrived, had already wheeled himself onto the dais flanked as he was by Eleanor and all his supporters in their dark suits and broad-brimmed hats, shuffling papers in his lap as he was wont to do.
Sally said she’d stick to the stage. Mack would canvass the crowd. Ghost planned to check the tunnels beneath.
Jet’s job? To go up. Observation deck of the Empire State. Mack said it would afford him a powerful vantage point over the crowd—somehow, Mack appointed himself de facto leader of their little squad, even though Jet had been there longer and Mack was always in and out, sometimes disappearing in his plane for months.
To Jet, it felt like—well, it felt like dismissal. Up top, he wasn’t going to be able to see squat. Just people like ants and cars like little bricks and once again he’d be out of the action and set aside like a child, a child who might accidentally knock over somebody’s coffee cup or spill a saucer of milk. Great. Wonderful.
But hey, he was a team player. He did what he had to do.
So he took to the skies as FDR began to speak and he did a steady orbit around the circumference of the building, rising in slow spirals as he ascended. The building was a marvelous feat of architecture—6500 windows, each a glimpse into another world. Or would be, if most of the building were occupied. Way Jet heard it, the building couldn’t fill its offices. Lingering effects of the busted economy. Not a lot of desire and so the building sat mostly empty.
So there Jet was, flying circles around the building, gazing into empty office after empty office and—
A dark shape, just a shadow, behind one of the windows.
Time to get a closer look.
Jet pivoted his hips, cocked the wings of his jet pack just so, and hovered there in front of the window, peering past the bright gray reflection of the city and sun.
He planted his hands against the glass and eased his way alongside the building, the way a swimmer might pull himself along the edge of a pool.
In another window, a tall shape—black suit, broad-brim hat.
Jet’s heart leapt in his chest like a snake-bit stallion. Could this be the assassin?
He pulled his wrist radio to his mouth, prepared to tune to Sally’s frequency and—yelling over the din of his portable jet engine, an engine that should burn his legs to crispy cinder-black matchsticks but didn’t thanks to Sally’s own ingenious suit design—tell her about what he’s seeing. But a little voice inside him gave him pause.
You don’t know what you’re looking at, pal, Jet thought. Could be anything or anyone. Janitor. Sales agent. One of the Secret Service men keeping an eye on the place.
A trickier voice chimed in, too:
And if this is the assassin, then you can handle it. It’s just one killer. Finally you can show them why you belong on this team. You can show Sally why you matter.
Mack would just kick in the window. That’s how he was: act now, think—and often apologize—later. Damn the consequences. Jet was a good boy. Not the type to break windows (well, there was that one time with the first jet booster prototype, blew out all the barn and farmhouse windows in a five mile radius, but he still says that was Sally’s fault).
He’d go in from the top down. Hit the observation deck. Use a door.
Jet pushed away from the building—and gunned it straight up.
To the 86th floor!
Jet’s boots—padded with shock absorbers so, according to Sally, he didn’t shatter his spine every time he came in for a hard landing—thudded against the observation deck, the city splayed out around him.
He found the door, and shouldered it open.
And came face to face with the man in black.
Pale flesh. Dark-lensed glasses in the shadow of a broad-brimmed hat.
But it was his grin that was the most troubling. A wide, shark’s grin with yellowed needle teeth—teeth plainly not human! —stitched from corner to corner.
Those teeth opened. A slow, gassy hiss emitted.
Then they snapped shut.
Jet moved fast: backpedaling as two .45 pistols descended from spring-loaded arm-holsters and leapt into his grip fast as firesparks.
But where Jet moved fast, his opponent did not—the assassin took a slow and measured step forward, that needle-mouthed grin never wavering.
Guns up. Jet bracing for anything.
“Stop right there, assassin,” Jet commanded.
But the man took another step.
Hissing. Pink tongue playing against razor teeth.
“Fine,” Jet said. “You want to play it that way? I can play it that way.”
Thumbs cocked dual pistols.
But before he could do anything to subdue the malefactor, a sharp pain shot through his forehead like a railroad tie blasting clean through his cerebral cortex—
Ghostly waves, like ripples from a pond after a pebble struck the surface, radiated from the man in the black suit, dissipating as they reached Jet.
A pulsing, booming voice erupted suddenly inside Jet’s head.
YOU ARE WEAK, the voice said.
“No,” Jet said, struggling against the voice. He tried to squeeze the triggers—
DROP YOUR WEAPONS, FOR THEY ARE AS INEFFECTIVE AS YOU.
He tried to say something, but his word came out a strangled squawk.
GIVE UP. GIVE IN. SAY GOODBYE.
A warm flare, soft and comfortable, lit bright inside Jet’s mind—the light and heat became a doorway and he saw a way out, saw a way to leave this place and to shed his weakness the way a snake sheds his skin, and for a moment he smelled heady rains and the lush greenhouse odor of a sodden jungle and it all became so clear, so easy.
Give up. Give in. Say goodbye?
Sally wouldn’t want him to give up. That wasn’t the Centurion way. He’d never earn her respect if he just curled up like a kicked dog.
Fight back. Break free.
Jet staggered backward, one shuffling step at a time. The razor-grinned man continued to match Jet’s every movement, approaching in perfect tandem.
His muscles burned. Every effort set his body and mind on fire. He managed to raise one of the guns but then it felt like a puppet string tugged hard on his hand and his fingers shot open—the weapon clattered to the deck, with his second gun following seconds later.
Backward, backward, ever backward.
His heel struck something. His jetpack clanged against the fence of the deck.
Fight back. Break free.
It was like moving a boulder with just a pinky finger.
Like crawling up a mountain on your belly.
Like pulling the moon to earth with naught but a ratty fraying rope.
But somehow, he exerted the will.
Jet grabbed the fence behind him and spun around with a grunt, then braced himself and triggered the jet engine’s boosters—two hot plumes of flame shot out like fire from a dragon’s nose. The man shrieked, flailing. Yes. Yes!
That voice, again. Thunder in his mind, rumbling:
YOU HAVE MADE A TERRIBLE MISTAKE.
Jet looked over his shoulder.
Turns out, ‘cold-blooded assassin’ was more accurate than he ever imagined.
The man’s face—his human face—was gone, dissipated like the illusion it was. Left in his place was a reptilian thing, a smashed saurian rictus with leathery red flesh and foul green eyes—two knife-slash nose-slits sniffed the air above that same horrible needle-tooth maw.
The monster shrieked.
Jet clambered up the fence—
But jaws closed hard around his jetpack. The saurian shriek gave way to the crunch of metal and the snapping of sparks. Jet hit the boosters one more time, again bathing the beast in the flames of his jetpack. This time, the pack was pointed to the floor—
The momentum lifted Jet above the fence and over the edge of the building.
And then the engines died with a sputtering cough and a rattle-clang.
Jet Black fell.
“What was our hope in 1932?” FDR asked the gathered crowd, his hands gripping hard the sides of his shortened podium. He leaned forward in the chair and told them: “Above all things, the American people wanted peace. Peace of mind instead of a gnawing fear.”
The crowd applauded. Sally stayed off to the side but couldn’t help feeling taken in by the President’s words: she looked forward to a world that didn’t need the likes of her and the other Centurions, a world that had not forgotten the Great War and its cousin, the Great Depression, but instead had moved past them and instead found greatness in better things.
“Americans sought to escape personal terror. They looked for the peace one feels when they have security in their home, safety in their savings, permanence in their jobs.”
Feeling the power of his words drawing her in, Sally steeled herself: Eyes peeled, remember why you’re here! You can agree with him later, but for now he needs our protection. She spied a glimpse of a leather aviator’s cap moving through the crowd:
Mack Silver, refusing to take the damn thing off even though they stood firmly on the ground and were nowhere near the sky. Admit it, she thought, you like it.
You like him.
She quieted that voice with a mental kick.
FDR continued: “…Americans sought peace with other nations and peoples in this time of upheaval, this time of dread unrest. This nation will not fall again toward…”
He continued speaking, but for Sally, the voice was lost.
Because there, in the sky, she saw something. A glint, a tiny dark figure against the endless windows of the Empire State Building, the body turning end over end—
She spied the wings. The suit. The goggles.
Jet was in trouble.
Good thing Sally knew things about Jet Black’s jetpack that Jet himself didn’t even know. This wasn’t the first time he’d fallen from the sky like a meteor rocketing to earth—last time she did an upgrade on his equipment, she tucked away a parachute in a secret compartment. A parachute that would release with the hit of a single button, a button on a small radio box that Sally happened to carry for times just like this.
She reached for her leather belt, around which hung an array of critical Sally Slick tools—spanner, ball peen hammer, sonic emitter, net gun—and found the box. She moved to quickly unclip it and extend the two pairs of antenna—
Behind her, a footstep.
And a terrible, terrible hiss.
She wheeled in time to see one of the men in dark suits emerge from the line of FDR’s on-stage supporters.
Sally caught a flash of sharp teeth.
Then her mind seized and she found inside her a warm light and the smell of verdant rainforest. Jet…
GO TOWARD THE LIGHT.
The box dropped from her hand.
Vile thing, the ground. Mack hated it. Hated stomping around on the—well, which was it? The fundament? The firmament? Whatever you called it, he despised it. On the ground he always felt as good as a boat anchor stuck in the sucking mud. Nothing like soaring up there in the skies in Lucy, his heavily-modified Boeing 314 clipper, with the always-escaping horizon providing proof that adventure waited in the distance—
Jet had the right idea. At least, about that.
It was worse here in the crowd. Shoulders and elbows and feet. Mack wasn’t claustrophobic, but he felt like he might soon be if he didn’t get out of this throng.
Sally: so wide-eyed to hear the President speak. Blah blah blah, leaders of nations, proud men, blah blah blah. Just figureheads yapping. Give Mack the tribal chief of a Micronesian cargo cult any day of the week.
She was—well, she was pretty enough. Eyes had that certain twinkle, that go-get-‘em gleam, that sparkle of sticktoitiveness. Sally Slick was the strongest and cleverest woman Mack knew. Hell, she was stronger and smarter than just about anybody he knew, man or woman.
Why didn’t he go after her, then? That was it exactly. Too strong. Too smart. Mack liked them… softer, sweeter, and more apt to put up with his nonsense. Just easier that way. A woman should feel more comfortable in an evening gown than a pair of dusty overalls.
On the stage, his and Sally’s eyes met—
Still, those eyes did twinkle, sparkle, gleam…
She looked up, suddenly. A panicked tilt of the head like a spooked animal.
He moved to follow her gaze, but someone bumped into him. Hard.
“Hey, watch it, Pally!”
Another body shouldered against him from the other direction.
Mack turned, fingers curling into rock-hard fists.
“Push me again and you’re gonna get a taste of—”
Wide eyes. Razor teeth.
BREATHE DEEP AND SURRENDER.
Mack’s breath caught in his chest—he smelled something like tilled earth and heard the rustle of leaves inside the cavern of his mind.
His jaw went slack, his eyes rolled toward the back of his head.
Sally felt the tidal pull on her own consciousness, drawing her mind deeper and deeper toward that rainforest smell, toward the warm radiating light.
But the crowd knew something was going on, now—they started to murmur and yell, to wake up to the fracas, and it was just enough to pull her back.
Sally dropped to one knee. Her hand darted to the stage, feeling around until it found the box—
But again her body seized! Rigid against the psychic assault, her muscles frozen in place.
The assassin stood above her. Grin stretching too wide, teeth like knitting needles. A terrible thought struck her: they’re not going after Roosevelt, they’re coming after us.
But as that struck her, something else struck her assailant:
A mic stand. The stand and microphone—a Volu-Tone mic, square as a brick and just as heavy—cracked the attacker in the side of the head. As the assassin stumbled sideways, Sally caught a deep breath and saw Roosevelt himself sitting there in his chair, wielding the microphone stand as if it were a baseball bat and this was Yankee Stadium.
“Sometimes,” FDR said, “on the road to peace you have to break a few heads.”
Sally smiled, swooned, but then realized—
Jet was falling.
Only a few more seconds and that’d be it for him and the crowd.
Sally grabbed the box, stabbed the button and—
Jet heard a pang of metal behind him; his body jerked hard as a silken parachute blasted out from its secret back panel and caught air with the heads of the crowd staring up at him from less than a hundred feet beneath him.
He waved his hands wildly about—”Clear the way! I’m coming in hard!”
The crowd parted, opening a circle, and Jet’s boots pounded the asphalt. He tucked into a low roll and was already up again, popping the buckles on his pack and letting it thunk against the street. Already the crowd had come alive, not yet caught in the full grip of panic but still hovering about, curiosity still holding them fast.
Jet caught sight of Mack Silver, with his eyes unfocused and mouth hanging agape, caught in the grip of two more assassins—they dragged him through the crowd, heels scraping against pavement.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Jet said, sliding through the agitated crowd and coming up behind the two interlopers—just as they turned to hiss at him he grabbed the side of each of their heads and slammed them together. As he did, their costumes—costumes that weren’t real, masks that were just illusions, projections putting forth a false human face—fell away like running water…
Revealing their snarling saurian features.
The one opened its toothy maw and screeched at Jet—
A screech cut short as Mack’s fist fired up from underneath like a breaching whale.
The second of the pair lunged—not with a pair of human hands but rather, a trio of gleaming, black claws—and Jet narrowly ducked out of the way and used the creature’s momentum to further fling the beast into the crowd.
Mack grabbed Jet in a headlock, kissed him on the top of his helmet. “Thanks, kid.”
“We’re the same age,” Jet said, squirming from his grip.
“Sure, sure, I’m just more mature,” Mack said with a wink. “C’mon, Flyboy. Time to regroup. Let’s find Sally and Ghost.”
She could barely find her voice long enough to say thank you before the Secret Service men were already whisking Roosevelt away, wheeling him to the street and into a car and peeling rubber before disappearing.
At Sally’s feet, her attacker curled up on his side.
But his face was gone. Replaced by a foul reptilian visage. A clear membranous lid slid open and closed over the creature’s eyes, jaw working like the mouth of an oxygen-starved fish. A slow wheeze like the leak in a tire whispered from his puckered scale lips.
He was coming to.
Then: a shadow fell over her.
Sally whipped around, threw a hard fist—
Which Mack caught like a fastball. Even he seemed surprised by its speed and power.
“Whoa, Slick, pull back the reins,” he said. “You’re gonna work up a froth.”
“This wasn’t an attack on the President,” she said.
“What?” Jet asked.
“Nah,” Mack added. “She’s right. It was an attack on us.”
Jet seemed to consider this. “A trap.”
The other two nodded, and in unison said: “A trap.”
Beneath them, the saurian stirred.
“We need to find Ghost and get to Lucy,” Mack said. “And fast.”