Fiction Friday: Beyond Dinocalypse – Truth and Illusion

Beyond Dinocalypse

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TRUTH AND ILLUSION
A story of Charles Carlin,
“The Great Carlini”


1935

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Manhattan

Charles Carlin—the Great Carlini—stood in the center of the Cistern Collection, a room that housed one of the world’s most precious collections of unusual and inexplicable artifacts collected by one Tobias Cistern, wealthy steel magnate, antiquities dealer, and utter shut-in. His collection was home to the Anchorite Puzzle Box, the Scimitar of Hylia, a frieze depicting the courtship of the Hyperborean Goddess Silpathia, the Clockwork Pony of Krong, and so on, and so forth.

And now, it was all missing.

“It… it was all here,” said Albert Edgar Putman—aka Putt, the museum’s collection director. “I came in. I began turning on all the lights. I called out for our night watchman, Teddy Brigham. He didn’t show so I turned back around—and while I was still in the room, everything just… disappeared. Poof! Like they never existed. As if one minute they were present before me and the next all that was left was…”

He handed Carlin a linen handkerchief. White. Pressed. Clean.

Smelled of apples and honey.

In the center of the handkerchief: a mark of lipstick. The color of a cracked-open pomegranate. Lush. Full.

Carlin’s heart swooned. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth despite his best efforts—she had her hooks in him, all right.

“You’re smirking,” Putt said.

“I know who did this,” Carlin said. “You came to the right person. I’m all too familiar with the work of Nadya Saunders.”

“The daughter of… Zardok?”

“Indeed, old Putt, indeed. She’s the one who stole your precious Cistern Collection. And I aim to get it back.”


2000

The Century Club Subterranean Chapter House, Central Park, Manhattan

It was then he knew they were doomed.

An odd feeling, that. Charles Carlin had long been the optimistic sort—never a scrap he couldn’t escape, never an illusion that failed him, but this was no illusion. The artifice had collapsed; the effect was proven to be just a dream. The world had been taken. He had put his trust in people who took that trust and pulled the rug out from under it—the lady in the box was truly sawn in half, the card picked from the deck was always the wrong one, the top hat was home only to dead doves and deceased rabbits tumbling out onto the floor.

All his illusions were swept aside when the psychosaurs found them.

Sally Slick had gone. So had her friends from the past: Jet Black, the Professor, Amelia Stone, Benjamin Hu. Mack had abandoned them. The Walking Mind was gone.

The psychosaurs came faster than anybody ever expected.

They charged through the tunnels like army ants—crawling, shrieking, pouncing. The psychic wave crashed against the breakers of their minds, crushing them in the drowning surge, and Carlin’s mind was a sudden flight not of doves but cruel, cruel blackbirds, squawking doubt and doom in his ears: You’ll never see her again, the world has moved on, you failed, all an illusion ALL AN ILLUSION

He’d been patient. He’d been smart. Or so he thought.

He’d been stupid, is what he’d been.

Benjamin Hu had recently proven that it only took one man to make a difference and here Carlin had forgotten that, having chosen to place his lots in with this rag-tag crew. And now, the telepathic fist squeezing his psyche, saurian claws digging into his cloak, his back on the ground as they dragged him away—

But then it all changed on a dime.

He heard gruff grunts and crass ululations—

The crack of a rifle.

The whisper of a ghost girl through the walls.

And like that, the telepathic rope around his mind went slack.

And then was gone.

A psychosaur rushed him—Carlini found his bearings fast, dipping into each sleeve with pinched fingers and whipping his hands out in a quick-draw:

Two razor-sharp stainless steel playing cards ripped through the psychosaur’s neck—thwip thwip—and black blood jetted against the stone walls of the subterranean headquarters and the beast fell backward. Carlin mounted the beast, rescued two of his playing cards, and felt a renewed surge:

The show goes on.


1985

Near the Koloa Chapter House, Kauai, Hawaii

The sea reached for him, then retreated. Again and again. Lapping higher and higher on Charles Carlin’s bare feet—those feet sinking deeper and deeper into the sand.

The line where the sky meets the ocean looked like a hot lance of fire.

“I think our time here is about done,” said Sally Slick, coming up behind him.

“Mm,” he said, not turning around. “Shame, in a way.”

“Is it?” she asked. “I never got the feeling you cared for it here.”

He gave her a small smile. “I do like it. Though the beach and sun, sand and surf… it’s not really my thing. I prefer the city. And adventure. This is too peaceful.” It hadn’t been peaceful, of course. They had to reclaim the island. From the dinosaurs. From the psychosaurs. They’d made it safe and sane and some of them talked about staying here forever. Making this their new permanent home. Take some of the other Hawaiian islands back, colonize, rebuild, let this be the reconstructed cradle of man.

Charles didn’t like that idea.

He wanted to go home.

Even though home was… well.

“You’re thinking about her,” Sally said.

“I am.”

“You think she’s still there.”

“She may be. I don’t know.”

“We’re going back.”

He spun. The surf sucked at his feet. “I’m sorry. Going back where?”

“Where do you think? New York.”

The grin would not be contained. “That’s good. That’s very good.”

“But I don’t want you caught up in your own crusade,” she said, lancing his bubble with a steely gaze. “This can be personal only in the deepest chambers of your heart. This is about mankind. About all the people, not just one.”

“Right.” He sighed. “I understand.”

“We must do whatever it takes. Sacrifice is our bread and butter now.”

“Of course.”

She approached closer—not too close, for she was always the distant type, standing just at the margins, as if getting too close was a curse, like she might catch something (some joked that she was afraid to catch compassion, but then they shut up real fast just in case she heard them).

“I need your help with something.”

“Oh?” he asked. “What can I possibly help with?”

“I need a new weapon,” she said. “Guns aren’t my thing. And ammunition is at a premium. I want something to replace the…” Her hand fell to her hip, then clenched suddenly in a fist. “I want something new.”

“Why are you asking me?”

“I like your playing cards. Stainless steel. Razor sharp. Classy.”

He smiled. “I used to use a boomerang in one of my acts. I always wondered if we could make it thin enough and sharp enough, yet still return to the hand. Interested?”


1935

Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan

The warehouse smelled of dust and mold and rust. Dim dark lay pinned by spears of light in which hovered slow-moving motes.

Charles had gotten the address from a fence down at the Bowery—a skeevy no-good cheat named Donny Dapper, the name an irony since he wore dirty rags and had wild hair like he’d tongue-kissed an electric eel. Donny was a poppy-head, an opium smoker always happy to kick the gong. Charles lured him out of a local hookah-house in Chinatown, made it seem like he had a couple so-called “oyster fruits” to sell: pearls. A string of sweet pearls that’d help Donny feed his habit. Charles laid the pearls out on a table. Donny reached for them: they popped in his hand and little puffs of swimmy green smoke rose from inside—a little bit of knockout gas.

Donny woke up an hour later suspended over a tank of water. The tank was from one of Charles’ old gigs—straitjacket, chains, no keys, into the tank, daring escape. He told Donny he knew how to escape. But Donny didn’t know the trick, and unless he told him where the goods were, Charles would drop him in the drink and let him drown.

“At least you’re not in a straitjacket,” Charles said with a wink.

Donny wasn’t a dummy. He knew not to give it up easy.

Charles dunked him.

The door slammed shut above Donny’s head. Choom.

Donny’s face lit up in shock. His hair drifted like seaweed. Dirty hands pawed at the smeary glass, thump thump squeak thump.

He tried to get himself free. But panic was going to kill him. That was really all it took to escape the containment: a small plate at the bottom of the box revealed a key made of glass, a key you could not see in the water, a key that Charles lifted with his toes and used to unlock the chain around the padlock—then, dislocate a shoulder to slide out of the straightjacket, then hit a second pressure plate to open the top door of the box and climb out just in the nick of time.

Panic was the magician’s enemy, of course. Most solutions were simple as long as you could keep your cool.

Donny’s cool was cracked like an egg.

He would die in there, of course, unless Charles did something. He climbed up the ladder on the side of the box as Donny thrashed around like a spasming octopus—taking his sweet time, of course, no need to rush—and then he climbed to the top and cranked open the door, reached in and grabbed a hank of Donny’s hair—

Then lifted him out.

Charles gave him a winning smile.

“Ready to talk now, or back in the tank?”

I’ll talk I’ll talk I’ll talk—“ Donny said, spluttering, coughing, eyes pinched in fear. Donny had heard tell of the missing Cistern Collection. Who hadn’t? And Donny, despite being a poppy-loving dodo-bird, knew people who knew people and had a line on where the goods were stashed. Criminal types always loved to talk about robbing other criminals—though they never did unless they had a death wish, because you never knew if the score belonged to a far bigger fish than you.

That led Charles to this warehouse.

Steel shelves stacked high.

Already he saw what he was looking for.

There: the Bronze Age Aegis of Thonodox. Over there, the clockwork bust of the Selracc Automaton. Dangling from a hook, the Scimitar of Hylia.

The Cistern Collection.

All neatly stacked on shelves.

So easy.

Which meant this was a trap.

Shadows emerged in a circle around him. Long-legged stilt-men. Legless freaks on wooden dollies brandishing straight razors. A couple clowns with teeth filed to points. Zardok’s crew. Carnies and circus mutants.

Up above, footsteps on a high shelf.

A whiff of apples and honey.

“Charlie,” Nadya said. Daughter of Zardok.

“Nadya,” he said, giving her a faint twist of a smile.

“I thought you’d have seen this trap from a mile away.”

“I thought you liked me more than this.”

“I do. I really do.” For a moment, she sounded sincere—not her strong suit, but it tickled him just the same. “But my father… he has other plans for you.”

The circus freaks and carny thugs crept closer.

“So this is his doing, then?” Charles asked.

She shrugged. “I am my father’s daughter.”

Then the shadows leapt.


2000

The Century Club Subterranean Chapter House, Central Park, Manhattan

Charles rolled the top hat off his head, down his shoulders and into his left hand—all at the same time, his right hand plunged into it and withdrew a collapsible cane that served as a telescoping baton.

He lashed it across the face of an onrushing psychosaur.

Shattered teeth ricocheted off the wall.

Hat rolled back up the shoulders, returning it to his head.

As the creature fell, Carlin flicked two steel playing cards over the limp body, slicing the throats of two more saurian invaders.

The Great Carlini ran.

Everywhere he turned, the Centurions were fighting back. Neanderthals using rocks to smash psychosaur heads. A young greasemonkey kid—couldn’t have been more than 16, 17 years old—cracked one psychosaur in the leg and, as it fell, a teen girl with her hair bound in a dirty handkerchief pounced with a pair of screwdrivers. Lily-Belle the ghost reached through walls and smashed saurian heads into rock. Tara Shepersky made short work of lizard faces with the jagged toothy tip of her ice axe. Then—

Around the bend: a yell. Colin. The Aussie Digger.

Charles and Colin didn’t much get along—they had different ways of doing things, of seeing the world. But they were allies in this fight just the same and Colin was in danger—

He was pinned against the wall, invisible telekinetic hands holding him there as a trio of psychosaurs ganged up on him, claws out, tongues licking across needle teeth—

Two more cards thrown—thwip thwip.

One swipe of the baton—whack.

Blood gurgled from two opened throats.

The third’s head was collapsed like a dented can.

Colin skidded to his feet, gasping.

“They’re…” Colin coughed. “They’re gonna keep coming, mate.”

“I know,” Carlin said. “They have a taste for us, now.”

“We’ve got to move. Get on the run.”

Nadya.

“No!” Charles said. “I have a different plan.”

Then he told Colin, and the Aussie Digger smiled a mean smile.


1995

The Century Club Subterranean Chapter House, Central Park, Manhattan

The voice boomed in his mind: MY ILLUSIONS ARE FAR MORE COMPLETE.

They looked up through the massive pit that led down into the Century Club chapter house beneath Central Park—an emergency entrance, if not an exit. They had tunnels coming into the chapter house from multiple angles, but this one was key if they were ever to get people down here from the park fast. Or, better yet, if they ever needed to stage an invasion. He’d seen Sally Slick’s plans. Jet-wings, he thought. Could work. She needed Jet Black to return to use his as a pattern—and that was something she took on faith more than Charles could. But then she said she had “inside information,” whatever that meant.

Charles sniffed. “My illusions are far more interesting.”

MIRRORS. THAT IS YOUR SOLUTION? MIRRORS.

“We can make the hole look like the lake that it once was. A little smoke and mirrors makes it look like the surface of water—with your telepathic powers, that will complete the illusion.”

FINE. DO WE EVEN HAVE MIRRORS?

“Some from the scrapyard. Plus, burnished tin or polished hubcaps will do the trick in a pinch.”

CRASS.

“But effective.”

WELL-PLAYED, “GREAT CARLINI.”

Even in telepathy, the Walking Mind’s dismissiveness was keenly felt—a greasy slathering of sarcasm that coated everything.

“I am—or was, at least—one of the best.”

He grinned.


1935

Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan

The first clown swung a Louisville slugger—

And it connected with open air.

Carlin’s cloak dropped to the ground, for he was no longer in it. A thin micro-filament cable carried him up with astonishing speed and he dropped next to Nadya with a flourish of his black jacket.

“Helluva trick,” she said, smirking. “How’d you do it?”

“A magician never tells.”

Suddenly, she was gone—no trick, not this time. Instead she bounded from shelf-top to shelf-top toward the front of the warehouse.

Nadya was always fast. But she’d gotten faster.

It almost made him swoon.

But for now: the chase was on. He took his own leap forward—

Just as the shelves in her wake began to collapse. A series of giant skeletal steel dominoes crashing one after the next.

He lost his footing—fell forward, catching the next shelf and hauling himself up just before the other would’ve pinned (and crushed) his legs. Again and again he scrabbled to find purchase as the shelves fell beneath him until the end—

Charles looked up, saw Nadya crash through the front window.

And then the momentum of the final shelf falling flung him through the window, too—a baseball hurled through empty space.


2000

The Century Club Subterranean Chapter House, Central Park, Manhattan

“I don’t know that I’m ready for this,” Colin said.

Charles looked over the room full of jet-wings. He sucked in a deep breath, stepped under one and hoisted it up on his shoulders. It was lighter than he imagined: he assumed it would be some heavy contraption whose value was only when flying high—but then again, didn’t Jet Black fight with his strapped to his back? Capably so?

The others that Colin had chosen—including Tara, a couple of the workshop greasemonkeys who helped construct these jet-wings, as well as a few of those rescued from the Empire State Building—stood around with great trepidation. As if the jet-wings may somehow spring up and bite. Didn’t help that in the background they still heard the sounds of the fracas.

“I’m ready,” Charles said to them all. “I used to wing-walk, you know. Out of the plane, walk on the wing. I’ve even leapt from one plane to another. Once you’re up there, it’ll feel like the easiest thing in the world.”

“Let’s do it,” Colin barked suddenly, and began distributing guns—couple revolvers, a few M1911s, a Tommy gun. A few folks got grenades, too. He put a grenade in Charles’ hand. “The great equalizer.”

Charles nodded. They shook hands.

Then everyone began to step into the jet-wings.


1935

Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan

She gave a helluva chase. She always did. Like the temple run in Bolivia. Or across the girders up on the Empire State Building. Or through the Chiang Mai labyrinth. It always ended the same way, these chases: he caught her. Or she let him catch her. And then they spent the night together and before the sun rose, she fled him anew before popping back up a year or so later.

One night he hoped she’d choose to stay.

He hoped that was this time.

He’d fallen out of the window and into traffic—a Ford Model-A almost careened into him but he sprung up, ran across the hood and leapt back down to the road. There, ahead, a glimpse of her darting into an alleyway. This is how it always was: a glimpse, a dash, a daring chase. Like she got off on it. Like he did, too.

Into the alley. Up a fire escape. Across rooftops. Feet pounding on tarpaper. Leaping over the canyons between buildings until finally there were no more buildings left to leap.

There. At the edge. She spun heel-to-toe and flashed him a smile that shone like the sun caught in a beveled mirror’s edge.

“Caught me,” she said.

“As always,” he answered.

He stepped toward her.

“One day maybe you won’t catch me,” she said.

“One day maybe I won’t have to.”

But then, somewhere: a sound. People yelling. A car horn honking followed by a crash. Off in the distance he saw shapes in the sky.

Flying shapes.

Winged things. And behind them: the black shapes of looming dirigibles. Oh, no. No, no, no. Something was wrong. Something was amiss. Not now, not now.

She turned and looked.

And that was the last time he saw her face.

The thing shrieked, launching upward—a Pterosaur with splayed claws on leathery wings, and on its back was a rider. An inhuman creature with black orb eyes and a mouth full of crooked needle teeth, a lizard-like monstrosity that shrieked and bellowed—

The wave of psychic energy swept over him—

Doubt dragged him down, crushed him under a boot—

You are weak, give in, succumb, you’ve lost her already, you never had her, all your life was a great illusion

He smelled the jungle. Felt the damp hot rainforest breath on his brow—he tried to find his hands, his arms, any part of him that he could control, that he could use to reach out and stop her—

But Nadya leaned forward like a tilting tower.

And she fell off the edge of the roof.

No!


1985

Near the Koloa Chapter House, Kauai, Hawaii

Swish swish swish

The razor boomerang cut through the branch.

A coconut dropped to the beach sand with a plop.

Charles applauded. Sally Slick took a bow, the boomerang already back in her hand—it called to mind a falcon returning to the falconer’s wrist.

“Looks like it’s well-balanced,” he said.

“It feels natural,” she responded. “And it flies true. You have a gift.”

“It’s not the gift I expected, creating weapons like that. I have other gifts, you know. Greater plans in mind.”

“Your magic? We’ll find use for it.”

“It seems useless now.”

She laughed. “We all feel useless now. We’ll find our feet again.”

He watched her. “How’s the eye?”

Sally fidgeted with the eyepatch as she went over and claimed the fallen coconut. She used the boomerang to pop a hole in the side so she could lift it to her mouth and drink. She offered it to Charles and then said: “It’s fine. It itches. Mack says it’s saucy. Like I’m some kind of pirate.” She harrumphed but then laughed. “A saucy pirate. That’s not the gift I expected.”

“How are things with you and Mack?”

“Fine.” But she bristled. Enough to change the subject, it seemed. “And how are you? Still dreaming about…”

“Nadya.”

“Ah. Yes. Zardok’s daughter.” She took the coconut back and, before drinking, eyed him up. “She’s still alive, you think?”

“I think so. She fell off the roof but then…” He clapped his hands together. “A second flying monster caught air just beneath her. It rose in the sky and had her in its claws.”

“I remember that day.”

“As do I.”

“How’d you get free, by the way? So few heroes managed.”

“They came for me, then. The psychosaurs. I could already feel my mind retreating from my body, like they were… trying to take my psyche and stash it somewhere very far away. I smelled the jungle. I felt the heat. But when they reached for me they triggered one of my tricks.”

“Oh?”

“Indeed. Sent a cloud of acrid smoke up—it was enough to sting their bulging black bug-eyes and they lost their telepathic grip on me. I was able to flee to the river, which wasn’t far.”

“See?” she said. “Your magic may be of use to you yet.”


2000

The Chrysler Building, Manhattan

The grenade pin hit the ground with a ping.

The grenade itself bumped and bounded like a tumbling rock before thudding into the cracking electro-spire at the center.

In the moment before it exploded, Charles realized just how lucky they were. Most of the psychosaurs were descending upon the chapter house—and with the jet-wings moving fast and furious, they had an opportunity that wouldn’t have been given if things had been kept the same. Colin “dug” a hole in the side of the fungus outside the skyscraper—not with a shovel but with a stick of dynamite. The others—wobbly, unstable, uncertain, but aloft just the same—flew in through the gap.

The grenades let free.

And then:

Boom.

A lightshow like Carlin wished he could have on stage with him sometime—fingers of lightning like the hands of the gods reaching up and down and all around, the searing white burned into the dark of his retinas.

And then when it was all clear, he saw the fungus drying up. Hell, he heard it—crackling like the ice of a lake underneath a heavy boot.

His eyesight finally returned.

And then he saw her.

He called for her—

“Nadya!”

He swept her up and pulled her close—she was sallow-cheeked and filthy, her hands worked to calluses. But her eyes still shone and sparkled and her mouth still did that funny thing where it turned into a tiny wry smile, and he swore, he swore he could smell honey and apples.

“Helluva trick,” she said, woozy. “How did you do it?”

He held her close and whispered in her ear: “A magician never tells.”


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