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The Big Meow: Chapter One
Four-thirty on a Sunday morning is about the closest the City that Never Sleeps ever gets to dozing off. Midtown Manhattan, in particular, is quieter then than at almost any other time except when it’s snowed. But there was little chance of that happening today. It was the third of June, and though New York’s wizards can do unusual things with their weather when the need arises, right now the busiest group of them had far more important business on their minds.
The light at the corner of Eighth Avenue and West Thirty-first Street changed from red to green, without any other visible result: no cars were waiting to move on either side of the intersection. In fact, nothing at all could be seen between Eighth and the River but various parked cars – not a single pedestrian, not even a stray dog. The only thing moving down that way, down at the far end of Thirty-first, was the Hudson River – seeming to slide slowly with the inward tide from the Great South Bay just now swinging, and the surface of the water gone the color and texture of tarnished beaten pewter in the predawn twilight.
Sitting at the corner of Eighth and Thirty-first, watching the river, watching the paling sky, was a small black cat. To human observers, city cats often look furtive or nervous: but this one sat there like she owned the street. This morning, she did. The most senior worldgating technician on the East Coast of North America let out a long breath and turned her attention away from the placid slow roll of the river, looking uptown along Eighth.
The brash blue-white glare of the spots and the sheets of matte-mirror Mylar up there made Rhiow blink once again. Up at the Thirty-fourth end of the block, the intersection of the two big multi-lane streets was cordoned off with metal parade railings and pre-incident tape. Inside the cordon, and outside, many ehhif (or humans, as they called themselves) ran about doing inexplicable things with cables and props and big chunky pieces of equipment…or seeming to. Outside the cordon, endless more thick black cables ran into the cordoned area from many high-sided plain white trucks parked all around the “shooting” area, up and down Eighth Avenue and into side streets made shadowy by contrast with the fierce lights at the intersection. Off to one side, leaning against one of the corner buildings, was the lone, stay-up-all-night, club-buzzed rep from the Mayor’s-office Film Board people, half asleep…which was all to the best, as it decreased to near-zero the chance that she might possibly recognize for what it was the quite extensive wizardry taking place right under her nose.
They had spent the better part of an hour, now, setting up the “shot.” The poor Film Board lady leaned in her dark blue autumn-season car coat – for the mornings had been cool – against the corner of the office building at the corner of Eighth and Thirty-second, blinking and bleary, without the slightest idea of what the “director” and the “producer” and all the “crew” were agitating about: the thing that was apparently not quite right, not quite ready. Ehhif ran back and forth with clipboards, consulted with one another, or seemed to consult; dragged cables around, repositioned cameras and wheeled carts full of computer equipment…or what looked like cameras and carts and equipment.
Rhiow, watching this performance from down the road, put her whiskers forward in amusement. Well? she said to Urruah. When?
About two minutes. You know how unpredictable these things are when you cut them loose.
We both know. You’re just disappointed there are no oh’ra singers in the area.
An annoyed hiss came down the connection to her. Urruah spent a lot of time hanging around with the backstage toms over at the Met, and had recently been torn between anguish and a sort of perverse delight when a great and seriously overweight Italian tenor had become involved in an incident involving a malfunctioning worldgate and a large number of giant saurians. His protests at having to patch that portion of reality so that an oversized terror lizard had not eaten the tenor in question were specious…but not as much so as they might have been, as from a Person-tom’s point of view, the tenor in question was in himself a whole vast sheaf of wasted opportunities. No tom could really understand how you could do anything to yourself (like get fat) that made you potentially less of a singer, and potentially less popular with the shes.
Later for that, was all Urruah said: and Rhiow put her whiskers even further forward at his tone, for he was a professional, that one, through and through. When there was a wizardry in hand, nothing could put him off the hunt until what he wanted was in his claws. After that, it would be all food, song and queens: but not a moment sooner.
One minute now. Is he in place? she heard Urruah say to someone else in the connection.
Ready to go, said an excited younger voice. He wants to know, isn’t he supposed to eat something?
Oh, come on, he read the script breakdown with the rest of us! Rhiow said. He knows what he’s supposed to do.
But he says dawn makes him hungry…!
Oh sweet Iau in a trashcan, Rhiow thought. Arhu, she said “aloud”, tell your buddy — excuse me; tell my honored Elder Brother the most excellent World-Senior for the Downside Ophidians — that he should have eaten before he left. And tell him not to get confused! It’s only wizards here, right now, and the cops and the Film Board lady. But if some street person or clubber coming home wanders in and he gets into his part too much, he could have to disgorge suddenly.
There was a moment’s silence. Seconded to her through Arhu’s mind came the voice: If that happens, you shall take me to the deli afterwards to compensate, and there shall be a great deal of pastrami bestowed upon me.
And a great deal of hot sauce, Arhu said.
Rhiow let out a long, long breath. If there had been corruption going on among the wizards under her supervision, these last few weeks, it’d have been Urruah’s fault. Ethnic food, popular culture, ffhilm– that strange twenty-four-frames-per-second artform so beloved of human beings – all these things had been dragged into the present project by Rhiow’s senior project engineer; and Rhiow had been torn between disciplining him, which could have been problematic, and letting him get the job done without destroying half of Manhattan.
Discipline later, she thought. Urruah, she thought, tell your protégés to shut up and concentrate. They can both have a whole cow’s worth of pastrami later if this goes according to plan. Time check…
Rhiow sat there on the corner, breathed in, breathed out. From behind her, away across the island and across the East River, the light of a clear New York dawn grew slowly; ice-blue and haze-blurred up high, soft as cold water on the eyes, the peach of the eastern side of the sky starting only slowly to show across the Hudson’s sliding sheen. Few other eyes were turned that way. Indeed, humans were almost entirely absent from this scenario…this being why she and her team had chosen it.
“Her team”, of course, being a relative term. The arguments about the logistics alone of the worldgate move had seemed to go on for ages. “Why bother moving the thing at all?” the most senior of the Penn techs had demanded. That was Jath, always contentious, never happy to say “yes” at any moment when he could find an excuse to say “no”. Spending time around him always made Rhiow think that, on the off chance it might improve his mood, maybe there was something to the ehhif drive to get all stray toms neutered. Terrible thought, shame on me… “Rhiow, seriously, why should we bother? The ehhif have just spent umpty billion dollars on improving the miserable poor Penn they’ve got: Amtrak won’t move its stock over there after this. Nobody’s going to be running any significant rail stock over into that building except New Jersey Transit. Why are we being so traditionalist about this? The gates belong in the major railhead on this side of the Island. That means the Penn we’ve got now. Not this Moynihan thing, it’s a nice idea, they mean well, but the gates are rooted on this side, you know how gates are when they get used to the way things have been for a long time…”
It’s not just gates, Rhiow had thought, and then put her ears back just a little: for she’d heard this argument once every three days since the present project had started to become a reality. Jath’s father had been a gate tech, as he would tell you endlessly, and so had his father and his father and his father before him: and when they’d been running things and the old Penn station had been here…. And off he would go, singing the same old song — and Urruah, dear staid Urruah, had finally lost his temper two weeks ago and sat down and actually started washing his sth’uw at Ffrihh during one of these perorations. There had been the inevitable reaction – a lot of hissing and tom-posturing, and very nearly some ears shredded, for Urruah was getting tired of having it thrown into his whiskers that he somehow had been allowed to work with the premier worldgates in New York, the complex that had the most senior area primacy, and nonetheless lived in a Dumpster – as if the two states of existence were somehow mutually exclusive.
Rhiow had finally managed to calm the wrangle down, for even Jath had had to admit that there was no point in trying to derail the project at this late date. The Powers that Be had approved it, the most senior wizards working in North America had already put their pawprints on Rhiow’s master timetable, and the concrete parts of the plan now had to be allowed to go forward before the ehhif builders and architects put any more of the new Penn Station in place. There was already too much infrastructure underground that could interfere with the hyperstring structure of the gate-sheaf when it was being moved; that had been the thinking behind Urruah’s solution from the start…
Jath, she said silently, how is it down there? Are you ready?
I don’t know, the answer came back, sounding dubious as always. It looks kind of frayed around the edges: I’m not sure the string structure is going to wind in tightly enough for what we’re planning. I’m thinking we shouldn’t let it up until we have a little more time to assess the power superstructure –
The superstructure is fine, came another voice, younger and sounding extremely impatient. Rhiow let out another breath, as the speaker had good reason. It’s just as fine as it was yesterday when you pronounced it fine, and the day before that. Just get on with it, Jath!
Siff’hah, Rhiow said. She tried not to sound too stern, because she agreed with what the youngster was saying: but at the same time, she needed her to be a little less forthright just now with a wizard who was very much her senior, and whose nerves were in worse shreds than anyone else’s. Hw’aa, she said to Jath’s most senior colleague, how’s it seem to you?
Stable enough, Hw’aa said. Even though he was older than Jath, Hw’aa had for some time now been the counterbalance in the Penn team to Jath’s conservatism; there were few new things that Hw’aa wasn’t willing to try. We’re ready to pull the gate’s roots up. Twenty seconds…
Good. Hunt’s luck to you, cousin –
Luck to you too, Rhiow.
She looked down the street to where the ehhif had mostly stopped running around, and where crowds of people were standing off to the sides of the street now, as if getting ready to see a shot start. Rhiow watched this almost absently, just being glad for the moment that Hw’aa was on site to keep Jath focused and reassured, and that she was herself dealing well enough with the tension not to get caught up in another team’s infighting. My own team’s infighting is bad enough… And there was always the temptation to simply win any given fight by throwing her weight around in her position as the most senior technician working this particular part of the world. But Rhiow knew better. I will meet idiots today, went one version of her after-waking meditation, and one of them will probably be me. Iau Hau’hai, Queen of Life and of Making Things Work, grant me of Your courtesy the courage to shred that idiot’s ears when I meet her, and then get on with work…for being right is nothing next to having things be right…
Fifteen seconds. Want oversight? said Urruah’s more voice in her ear.
“Just a quick look,” Rhiow said. “As long as you’re sure you can spare me the concentration – ”
No problem. Everyone knows what to do. I’m just making sure the timetable goes off by the numbers, now…
And overlaid on the slowly brightening morning around her, she got a glimpse of the darkness under the streets – the track-cavern at the “old Penn” end, the west portal of the old North River tracks, and the bright stringing of the structure of the “ganged” Penn Station worldgate – two gates combined for the moment into one – shining in the darkness where it hung over the steel of the rails. These would be the gate complex’s last few moments in its old position, parked at the end of northern platform of Penn’s Track Twenty. Now the worldgate blazed unnaturally bright in that dark air, an irregularly-shaped, rippling warp and weft of blue and green and golden threads of light, pulled for the moment into full real-world visibility, its diagnostic mode. On one side of it, Jath, and Hw’aa on the other, were reared up with claws and teeth sunk into the gateweave, pulling the gate into the right configuration for the dangerous work that was going to follow. At least there were no trains due down those tracks for another forty minutes: the ehhifs’ Sunday schedule had left the joint worldgating teams some time to troubleshoot anything that might go wrong with the separation of the gate from its power sources, rooted down into the ancient Manhattan of the Downside. But it wasn’t the separation itself that was most of the problem. It was keeping the gate live while it was cut away from its roots, and then moving it without damaging anything else, or itself –
Five. Four. Hw’aa, let it go. Jath, claws out – !
Hw’aa threw his brown tabby-striped self backwards, letting go the strings he’d been holding apart. As he did, gray Jath swept his claws through the near-invisible catenary strings that were all that now remained of the worldgate’s connection to the main power structures in the Downside, severing them. The gate-weft collapsed in on itself in midair, burning in a bright and alarmed-looking jumble of colors – wavering and wobbling in even Urruah’s view as the structure of space bent and twisted slightly around the deranging gate. Off to one side, a small Person-shape began to glow bright where she sat, white patches blazing, even the dark ones seeming to acquire extra depth, a darkness with power moving underneath it: and a shell of the same dark-and-light-patched fire appeared out of the air and clamped itself down around the collapsing, contracting ball of burning hyperstrings –
Busy now, Urruah said, and the imagery vanished. Rhiow looked down the street and saw a tall dark-haired ehhif in a parka and baseball cap and headphones nodding as he picked up the cue. He looked into his “camera” and gestured at another ehhif. “Lights!”
All the film lights surrounding the cordoned-off intersection burst into full ferocious fire, painting the buildings all around with long black equipment-shadows.