Read an Excerpt
By Wen Spencer
Baen Books ISBN: 0-7434-7165-2
Chapter One Life Debt
The wargs chased the elf over Pittsburgh Scrap and Salvage's tall chain-link fence shortly after the hyperphase gate powered down.
Tinker had been high up in the crane tower, shuffling cars around the dark sprawling maze of her scrap yard, trying to make room for the influx of wrecks Shutdown Day always brought in. Her cousin, Oilcan, was out with the flatbed wrecker, clearing their third call of the night, and it wasn't Shutdown proper yet.
Normally, clearing space was an interesting puzzle game, played on a gigantic scale. Move this stripped car to the crusher. Consolidate two piles of engine blocks. Lightly place a new acquisition onto the tower of to-be-stripped vehicles. She had waited until too late, though, tinkering in her workshop with her newest invention. Shuffling the scrap around at night was proving nearly impossible. Starting with the crane's usual clumsy handling-its ancient fishing pole design and manual controls often translated the lightest tap into a several-foot movement of the large electromagnet strung off the boom-she also had to factor in the distorted shadows thrown by the crane's twin floodlights, the deep pools of darkness, and the urge to rush, since Shutdown was quickly approaching.
Worse yet, the powerful electromagnet was accumulating a dangerous level of magic. A strong ley line ran through the scrap yard, so using the crane always attracted some amount of magic. She had invented a siphon to drain off the power to a storage unit also of her own design. The prolonged periods of running the crane were overwhelming the siphon's capacity. Even with taking short breaks with the magnet turned off, the accumulated magic writhed a deep purple about the disc and boom.
At ten minutes to midnight, she gave up and shut down the electromagnet. The electric company changed over from the local Pittsburgh power grid to the national grid to protect Pittsburgh's limited resources from the spike in usage that Shutdown brought. She had no reason to risk dropping a car sixty feet onto something valuable because some yutz flipped a switch early.
So she sat and waited for Shutdown, idly kicking her steel-tipped boots against the side of the crane's control booth. Her scrap yard sat on a hill overlooking the Ohio River. From the crane, she could see the barges choking the waterway, the West End Bridge snarled with traffic, and ten or more miles of rolling hills in all directions. She also had an unobstructed view of the full Elfhome moon, rising up through the veil effect on the Eastern horizon. The distortion came from the hyperphase lightly holding its kidnapping victim, a fifty-mile-diameter chunk of Earth complete with parts of downtown Pittsburgh, prisoner in the foreign dimension of Elfhome. The veil shimmered like heat waves over the pale moon face, nearly identical to that of Earth's own moon. Ribbons of red and blue danced in the sky along the Rim's curve, the collision of realities mimicking the borealis effect. Where the Rim cut through the heart of Pittsburgh, just a few miles southeast, the colors gleamed brilliantly. They paled as the Rim arced off, defining the displaced land mass. Beyond the Rim, the dark forest of Elfhome joined the night sky, black meeting black, the blaze of stars the only indication where the first ended and the second began.
So much beauty! Part of her hated going back to Earth, even for a day. Pittsburgh, however, needed the influx of goods that Shutdown Day brought; the North American counterpart of Elfhome was lightly populated and couldn't support a city of sixty thousand humans.
Off in the west, somewhere near the idle airport, a firework streaked skyward and boomed into bright flowers of color-the advent of Shutdown providing the grounded airplane crews with an excuse to party. Another firework followed.
Between the whistle and thunder of the fireworks, the impatient hum of distant traffic, the echoing blare of tugboat horns, the shushing of the siphon still draining magic off the electromagnet, and the thumping of her boots, she nearly didn't hear the wargs approaching. A howl rose, harsh and wild, from somewhere toward the airport. She stilled her foot, then reached out with an oil-stained finger to snap off the siphon. The shushing died away, and the large disc at the end of the crane boom started to gleam violet again.
In a moment of relative silence, she heard a full pack in voice, their prey in sight. While the elfin rangers killed the packs of wargs that strayed too close to Pittsburgh, one heard their howling echoing up the river valleys quite often. This sound was deeper, though, than any wargs she'd heard before, closer to the deep-chest roar of a saurus. As she tried to judge how close the wargs were-and more important, if they were heading in her direction-St. Paul started to ring midnight.
"Oh no, not now," she whispered as the church bells drowned out the hoarse baying. Impatiently, she counted out the peals. Ten. Eleven. Twelve.
In another dimension infinitesimally close and mind-bogglingly far, the Chinese powered down their hyperphase gate in geosynchronous orbit, and yanked Pittsburgh back off the world of Elfhome. Returning to Earth reminded Tinker of being on the edge of sleep and having a sensation of falling so real that she would jerk back awake, flat in bed so she couldn't actually have fallen anywhere. The gate turned off, the universe went black and fell away, and then, snap, she was sitting in the crane's operating chair, eyes wide open, and nothing had moved.
But everything had changed.
A hush came with Shutdown. The world went silent and held its breath. All the city lights were out; the Pittsburgh power grid shut down. The aurora dancing along the Rim dissipated, replaced by the horizon-hugging gleam of light pollution, as if a million bonfires had been lit. A storm wind whispered through the silent darkness, stirred up as the weather fronts coming across Ohio collided with the returning Pittsburgh air. On the wind came a haze that smudged what had been crystalline sky.
"Oh, goddamn it. You would think that after twenty years they would figure out a saner way of doing this. Let's get the power back on! Come on."
The wargs took voice again, only a block away and closing fast.
Was she safe in the crane? If the oncoming menace had been a saurus, she'd say she was safe on the high tower, for while the saurus was a nightmarish cousin of the dinosaur, it was a natural creature. Apparently designed as weapons of mass destruction in some ancient magical war, wargs were far more than pony-sized wolves; it was quite possible they could climb.
But could she make it to her workshop trailer, the walls and windows reinforced against such a possible attack?
Tinker dug into the big side pocket of her carpenter pants, took out her night goggles, and pulled them on. In the green wash of the goggles' vision, she then saw the elf. He was coming at her over the burned-out booster rockets, dead cars, and obsolete computers. Behind him, the wargs checked at the high chain-link fence of the scrap yard. She got the impression of five or six of the huge, wolflike creatures as they milled there, probably balking more at the metal content of the fence than at its twelve-foot height or the additional three-foot razor-wire crown. Magic and metal didn't mix. Even as she whispered, "Just leave! Give up!" the first warg backed up, took a running start at the fence, and leaped it, clearing it by an easy three or four feet.
"Oh, shit!" Tinker yanked on her gloves, swung out of the open control cage, and slid down the ladder.
"Sparks?" she whispered, hoping the backup power had kicked in on her computer network. "Is the phone online?"
"No, Boss," came the reply on her headset, the AI annoyingly chipper.
Her fuel cell batteries kept her computer system operational. Unfortunately, the phone company wasn't as reliable. That her security programs needed a dial tone to call the police was a weakness she'd have to fix, but until then, she was screwed. Shit, they could build a hyperphase gate in geostationary orbit and put a man in the seas of Europa, but they couldn't get the damn phones to work on Shutdown Day!
"Sparks, open a channel to the wrecker."
"Oilcan? Can you hear me? Oilcan?" Damn, her cousin was out of the wrecker's cab. She paused, waiting to see if he would answer, then gave up. "Sparks, at two-minute intervals repeat following message: 'Oilcan, this is Tinker. I've got trouble. Big trouble. Get back here. Bring cops. Send cops. I'll probably need an ambulance too. Get me help! Hurry.' End message."
She landed at the foot of the ladder. A noise to her left made her look up. The elf was on one of the tarp-covered shuttle booster rockets, pausing to draw his long thin sword, apparently deciding to stop and fight. Six to one-it would be more a slaughter than a fight. That fact alone would normally make her sick.
Worse, though, she recognized the elf: Windwolf. She didn't know him in any personal sense. Their interaction had been limited to an ironically similar situation five years ago. A saurus had broken out of its cage during the Mayday Faire, chewing its way through the frightened crowd. In a moment of childish stupidity, she'd attacked it, wielding a tire iron. She had nearly gotten herself killed. A furious Windwolf had saved her and cast a spell on her, placing a life debt on her essence, linking her fate with his. If her actions got him killed, she would die too.
Or at least, that's what Tooloo said the spell would do.
Sane logic made her question the old half-elf. Why would Windwolf save her only to doom her? But Windwolf was an elf noble-thus one of the arrogant domana caste-and one had to keep in mind that elves were alien creatures, despite their human appearance. Just look at loony old Tooloo.
And according to crazy Tooloo, the life debt had never been canceled.
Of all the elves in Pittsburgh, why did it have to be Windwolf?
"Oh, Tinker, you're screwed with all capital letters," she muttered to herself.
Her scrap yard ran six city blocks, a virtual maze of exotic junk. She had the advantage of knowing the yard intimately. The first warg charged across the top of a PAT bus sitting next to the booster rockets. The polymer roof dimpled under its weight; the beast left hubcap-sized footprints in its wake. Windwolf swung his sword, catching the huge creature in its midsection. Tinker flinched, expecting blood and viscera; despite their magical origin, wargs were living creatures.
Along the savage cut, however, there was a crackling brilliance like electrical discharge. For a second, the warg's body flashed from solid flesh to the violet, intricate, circuitlike pattern of a spell. That gleaming, rune-covered shell hung in mid-air, outlining the mass of the warg. She could recognize various subsections: expansion, increase vector, artificial inertia. Inside the artificial construct hung a small dark mass-an animal acting like the hand inside of a puppet. She couldn't identify the controlling beast, shrouded as it was by the shifting lines of spell, but it looked only slightly larger than a house cat.
What the hell?
Then the spell vanished back to illusionary flesh, reforming the appearance of a great dog. The monster rammed Windwolf in a collision of bodies, and they went tumbling down off the rocket.
These creatures weren't wargs, nor were they totally real. They weren't flesh-and-blood animals, at least not on the surface. Someone had done a weird illusionary enhancement, something along the lines of a solid hologram. If she disrupted the spell, the monsters should be reduced back to the much smaller, and hopefully less dangerous, animal providing the intelligence and movement to the construct.
And she had to try something quick, before the pseudo-warg killed Windwolf.
She ran twenty feet to a pile of sucker poles brought in last year from a well salvage job. They were fifteen feet long, but only two inches thick, making them light but awkward. More importantly, they were at hand. She snatched one up, worked her hands down it until she had a stiff spear of five feet fed out in front of her, and then ran toward the fight.
The monster had Windwolf pinned to the ground. Up close, there was no mistaking the weird-looking thing for a standard wolfish warg. While equally massive, the vaguely doglike creature was square-jawed and pug-nosed with a mane and stub tail of thick, short, curly hair. The monster dog had Windwolf by the shoulder and was shaking him hard. The elf had lost his sword and was trying to draw his dagger.
Tinker put all her speed and weight into punching the pole tip through the dog's chest. She hoped that even if the pole failed to penetrate, she might be able to knock the monster back off of Windwolf. As she closed, she wondered at the wisdom of her plan. The thing was huge. She never could remember that she was a small person; she had unconsciously used Windwolf as a scale, and had forgotten that he was nearly a foot taller than she.
This is going to hurt me more than it, she thought, and slammed the pole home.
Amazingly, there was only a moment of resistance, as if she had struck true flesh, and then the spell parted under the solid metal, and the pole sank up to her clenched hands. The beast shifted form, back to the gleaming spell. Both the spell form and the creature within reeled in pain; luckily someone had been careless in the sensory feedback limit. She reached down the pole, grabbed hold at the eight-foot mark, and shoved hard. The pole speared through the massive spell form, bursting out through the heavily muscled back, near the rear haunch.
The dog shrieked, breath blasting hot over her, smelling of smoke and sandalwood. It lifted a front foot to bat at her. She saw-too late to react-that the paw had five-inch claws. Before it could hit her, though, Windwolf's legs scissored around her waist, and she found herself airborne, sailing toward the side of the booster rocket.
I was right. This is going to hurt.
But then Windwolf plucked her out of the air on his way up to the top of the rocket. The crane's floodlights snapped on-the transfer of Pittsburgh to the national power grid apparently now complete-and spotlighted them where they landed. Beyond the fence, the rest of the city lights flickered on.
"Fool," Windwolf growled, dropping her to her feet. "It would have killed you."
They were nearly the exact words he had said during their battle with the saurus. Were they fated to replay this drama again and again? If so, his next words would be for her to leave.
Excerpted from Tinker by Wen Spencer Excerpted by permission.
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