This is an excerpt from a novelette taken from the Alternative History collection “Engines of Night” by J P Catton, Volume 1 in the “Dimensions Unknown” series.
NYPD Lieutenant Luke Cambridge reached out of the car window, slapped the magnetically mounted signal light onto the roof of the car, and gunned the motor. The ’74 Buick shot down Columbus Avenue, headlights and howling siren shattering the night.
“Hey Lootenant,” Detective Ray Carlini called from the back. “Why ain’t we goin’ down Fifth Avenue?”
Cambridge peered ahead, his hands on the wheel. He had to be even more alert than ever; with the electricity out across the whole of Manhattan, there were no streetlights. Trash, broken glass, boxes of all sizes had been strewn across the road, and Cambridge was constantly watching for anyone who might run out in front of the car.
“Got reports that a couple of Over-Heroes are slugging it out with someone on that side of Central Park,” Cambridge said, his eyes not leaving the road. “Sounds like the Starfish going up against Black Mamba again. We can’t go through Yorkville so we’re gonna cut down Columbus Avenue, then hang a left at West 34th Street.”
“Yeah, well, I kinda figure the Empire State is too big to miss, Luke,” said Detective Levitt, from the front passenger seat. “So let’s do the job and get out, I got places to be.”
Luke glanced at his second-in-command. “What’s eating you, Gene?”
“You know my ma and pa run an antique shop over on the East Side. I’m getting worried.”
“They got guns?”
“You bet they have. I took my old man out last year and bought one for him. Got a Smith and Wesson.”
“Nice gun,” Gonzalez said from the back of the car, sitting next to Carlini. “But you ask me, you oughta get him a shotgun. Hoods don’t argue with a shotgun.”
Reni Gonzalez knew what he was talking about. The stocky Peurto Rican’s father had been a gunsmith in St. Louis, and the son had worked in the family shop before joining the force.
“Yeah, well,” Levitt said. “I’ll tell him next time. We always got room for more guns.”
“They’ll be okay,” Cambridge said. “Your pa’s a good man, he knows how to keep cool when we got shit like this going on.”
“Keep cool?” Carlini wound the car window down even further. “I sure wish we could.”
Middle of July, 1977; the worst heatwave for years. New York City had stewed, locked down under storm clouds, a storm that now blotted out the moon and threatened to unleash its inner fury.
“Nobody knows what’s gonna happen tonight, all bets are off,” Carlini said. “Every man’s gotta stand up and protect his own property. May be some crazy hophead outside lookin’ for some cash from the till, lookin’ to lift some free sneakers, it’s just the luck of the draw.”
“Luck ain’t got nothin’ to do with it,” answered Gonzalez. “You ask any three-footed rabbit about luck and see where it gets you. If you got the most guns in the neighborhood, you don’t need luck.”
“Come on guys, knock it off.” Levitt took off his trilby hat, produced a big handkerchief and mopped his brow with it, smoothing back his locks of graying hair. “You’re not making me feel any easier. Dammit! I wasn’t expecting this shit on a hot summer night.”
“Nobody was, Gene,” said Cambridge. “Nobody was.”
The Empire State loomed up ahead. It should have been a ground-to-sky Modernist canvas, a geometric neon grid of colors flashing and winking in the night; but like all the Manhattan skyscrapers tonight the majestic lines of its bulk were simple, somber line drawings in the ebony black void of the sky.
“A Ten-Seventy One,” muttered Levitt irritably, fanning himself with his handkerchief. “We got ourselves a goddamn Ten-Seventy One.”
Ten-Seventy One; the NYPD code for a city-wide emergency. What every cop hoped he would never live to hear.
Carlini leant forward in his seat. “What was it like back in ’65, Lootenant?”
They had reached the turnoff into West 34th Street. Cambridge saw his own frown in the windshield glass. “Things were different,” he said.
November, 1965. The first major electrical blackout that New York City had suffered. Yeah, things had been different all right, Cambridge thought. JFK had been voted back in for a second term. Talks with the Soviets had reached some major concessions. Crime rates were still going down thanks to the Over-Heroes, and E.A.G.L.E. operations in Vietnam had rooted out the worst of the rebels. The UN-supervised construction of Moonbase One was on schedule.
All of that was before the assassinations of Luther King, Johnson, Dylan. Before the explosion that took Philadelphia off the map.
“Things were more peaceful,” Cambridge said. “People co-operated. To tell you the truth, with the lights out, most people had a ball.”
“Makes you wonder what happened,” said Levitt.
“They tried to turn the USA into Utopia, but they turned it into a crock of shit. That’s what happened,” said Carlini.
In ‘65 he’d moved into a new house in Brooklyn with Pam and their son Melvin; Rick hadn’t been born yet. When the lights failed they thought a fuse had blown, until he heard the neighbors out in the street talking to each other. They’d felt nervous at first – being the only black family in that particular block – but they’d gone outside, and the whole street got together with candles, chairs, tables, barbeque grills and cooler boxes full of beer to have an impromptu sidewalk party.
Watching the Over-Heroes light up the sky, dazzling like fireworks, their capes fluttering like flags in the wind. Soldier Blue. Overman. The Future Five. Gauntlet. Giant-Killer. The Morrigan. Things had been simpler then. The public had expected them to watch over the city like modern day gods.
Now here he was, in another blackout, with a cold hard feeling in his gut that told him there would be no party tonight.
Movement up ahead. Dark, running figures bolted out of a doorway on the left and ran across the road. Cambridge swerved the car, pumped the horn and quickly looked back; the open doorway was a jewelry store. Just been looted.
“Go back and bust them?”
“No time,” snarled Cambridge. “That was a priority call we got from the Chief.”
As they approached the concourse in front of the skyscraper’s main entrance, Cambridge saw the flashing red lights of patrol cars, fire trucks and ambulances forming a cordon across the street. The Buick screeched to a halt and the four cops bundled out. The second car stopped right behind them, and Rizzo, Scarfe, Broadhurst and Cochese got out to join the rest of their squad.
“Hey, Cochese,” said Carlini, “what’s up with your necktie? It looks like you’ve barfed.”
Cochese looked down at the wide kipper of swirling paisley patterns over his gut. “Birthday present from the wife.”
“Her next birthday, you get her a dog and a white stick.”
“Listen up,” said Cambridge. “Scarfe and Cochese, you stay here and secure the perimeter, make sure no reporters get through.”
“Can’t hear you Lootenant, that tie’s too loud.”
“Screw you, Carlini!”
“Okay, guys, knock it off. We got a long night ahead.”
Cambridge jogged up the stone steps to the lobby, his leather jacket flapping in the hot breeze.The Empire State Building reared above him. He knew it well; he’d been here a few times as a kid, and after starting a family, he and Pam had taken Melvin twice. Promised to take Rick when he was old enough.
Now, the jewel in Manhattan’s crown was dark and silent, as somber as a cursed tower in a horror story
The eight cops switched on their flashlights as they entered the lobby, and waved the beams of light ahead to take in the situation. In the strange half-light, the atrium that rose three floors to the high tiled ceiling looked more like an Art Deco cathedral. In front of them, past the ticket office and the velvet rope railings and the glass case containing the scale model of the building, Cambridge and his men saw a small group of figures near the unmoving escalators, standing and sitting and talking in low, echoing voices.
“Hey.” A uniformed figure strode towards them, a helmet under his arm, boots ringing on the marble floor. Cambridge held up the flashlight to see a man in a fire-fighter’s uniform, and recognized his short blond hair and piercing blue eyes. “Hey, can you get that flashlight out of my eyes?”
Cambridge swung the beam away and introduced him and his men.
“O’Hallorhan, Captain of Ladder 36 Unit,” the fireman said.
“So what’s the situation, Captain?”
“The situation is, we don’t know what the situation is. All the elevators are out of action, and we have at least a dozen people trapped inside some of the cars. There were about fifty tourists still on the two observation decks when the power cut off. Some of them are walking down, but some of them aren’t – they don’t feel healthy enough to handle it, and they’d rather stay put ‘till the power comes back on.”
When it comes back on, said a little voice in Cambridge’s head, and how long’s that gonna be?
“That’s bad enough, but there’s something else,” continued O’Hallorhan. “Something weird. The civilians who walked down from the observation decks so far said they saw smoke in the stairwells – but none of the fire alarms or sprinklers have gone off, and nobody’s seen any flames, from inside the building or outside. I sent a crew of five men up the east staircase to take a look.”
“What did they say?” asked Cambridge.
There was an elusive, worried look in O’Hallorhan’s eyes. “They haven’t reported back yet. I’ve tried getting through on the radio, but there’s nothing but static.”
“Goddamn storm coming up,” muttered Carlini.
“You sure you’re not jerkin’ my chain?” Cambridge said.
O’Hallorhan studied Cambridge’s face. “Sure, I’m jerkin’ your chain. The whole city’s out of power and I’ve got nothing better to do than stand here and make up fairy stories.”
“Okay, okay. I’m on it.”
Levitt got into a discussion with O’Hallorhan about the technical aspects of opening the elevator cars, and Cambridge swung his flashlight beam around the lobby, taking stock. The scared voices of the rubes who’d already been rescued, their footsteps, everything echoed and played tricks with the ears. The shields and plaques on the wall glittered metallically like the cogs of a giant machine.
The walkie-talkie clipped to his jacket crackled into life.
“Luke, do you copy?” It was Captain Sullivan’s voice, fighting to be heard over waves of static hissing and spitting. “Luke, are you on site?”
“No, chief, I’m sitting at home with my thumb up my ass.”
“Copy that, wise guy. There’s things I’ve got to tell you.”
“Chief, I got a bad feeling about this.”
The noise was either a cough or more static. “Since when have you ever had a good feeling?”
“But Chief, this is something the Fire Service can handle, not Homicide. We’ve got a city going crazy and with all due respect, there are other places we need to be right now.”
“Negative, Luke. Shut up and listen. I’ve had a call from the Mayor’s office. E.A.G.L.E is sending an incident squad and I’m ordering you to assist in forensic and other scientific observation. They have declared a Code Resurgam situation. Repeat: Resurgam. ETA ten minutes from now … have reports from other …”
“What the hell you talking about?” Cambridge yelled, but it was too late. Sullivan’s words had dissolved in static. He lifted his flashlight, and illuminated the faces of the other three cops, watching him.
“What’s goin’ on, Lootenant?”
“E.A.G.L.E are sending in a team and we’re supposed to fetch and carry for them.”
“Bullshit! Like hell we are.”
“Gene,” said Cambridge, “you ever heard of a Code Resurgam?”
“Means diddly squat to me.”
“Means nothing to me, too.”
“What the hell’s goin’ on, Lootenant?”
Cambridge didn’t answer, but turned back to look at the oblong of chiaroscuro sky framed in the open doorway. As he watched, a fork of jagged lightning danced for a split-second above the city, then was gone.
“Resurgam …” he whispered.
They arrived by flying saucer ten minutes later.
From the ramp leading out of the shining silver torus they stepped into the main lobby, their boot steps echoing on the marble. Cambridge stared in shock. When the Chief had said they were sending an ‘incident squad’, he hadn’t expected the heavy hitters.
There were three of them. Soldier Blue looked around her with a face unreadable through the half-mask, her red lips tight beneath the shielded eyes. Her statuesque form was sheathed in the familiar red, white and blue costume, made of God knows what kind of indestructible fabric, and in her right hand she held her trademark torch. The torch flickered not with fire but with a red, ghostly light that had never been put out in thirty years.
Beside her walked a giant in shining green armor; Gauntlet. He moved in smooth, precise movements, his head enclosed in a helmet that bore the stylized, minimal depiction of eyes, nose and mouth embossed on to the metal. His suit hummed with power that made the hair on Cambridge’s arms prickle with static.
The third member of the group had no costume or mask, but wore a black jumpsuit with the E.A.G.L.E crest on one shoulder, next to the holster with its futuristic looking ray pistol. He clenched the stub of a cheroot cigar between his teeth, and looked around him with shrewd grey eyes. This was Max Jankowitz, the Executive Director of E.A.G.L.E – Executive Action Group (Law Enforcement) – himself.
Cambridge studied them carefully as the cops in his squad muttered behind him. Jeez, he thought, how old were these people? They’d fought in World War Two, and Cambridge had seen them on TV since he was a kid back in the Fifties. They still looked younger than him. There were rumors that Jankowitz and Soldier Blue were involved in something called the ‘Over-Soldier Program’ back in the early days of the War, but whatever loopy juice they took to keep them young, it sure wasn’t available to the public.
Gauntlet was another mystery. He looked like a robot, but it was common knowledge there was a man inside, working the suit; he was officially known as an employee of Stone Industries and served as the corporation’s security chief. His identity was a strictly guarded secret.
These guys almost never have contact with the public, Cambridge thought, they’re usually hidden away in the giant pyramid-shaped Tetra-City, headquarters of E.A.G.L.E., floating out in Hudson Bay. What were they doing here?
“Who’s in charge?” asked Jankowitz, his deep, gruff voice echoing off the lobby’s marble.
Cambridge stepped forward. Jankowitz held out his hand and the Lieutenant tentatively shook it. He felt warm, firm flesh though the glove. This was Jankowitz’s real hand, Cambridge thought with relief, not the bionic arm that he’d been fitted with after a battle with the Bend Sinister.
You don’t remember me, Cambridge thought bitterly. We shook hands once before, after the Over-Human tests, but I was just a kid to you. Another rookie cop who hadn’t made the grade
Cambridge introduced himself and the team, and Jankowitz nodded quietly. He took the cheroot out of his mouth and spoke in a deep, throaty rumble. “You’ve been given instructions?”
“Something’s causing havoc with transmissions. We can’t get through to HQ on walkie-talkies or the car radio.”
Jankowitz nodded again.
Cambridge couldn’t take his eyes off the two Over-Heroes standing in front of him in the lobby. He’d seen them before – from a distance, soaring through the skyscraper canyons, and on stage at open-air public celebration services. Never before so close. Soldier Blue’s expression beneath the cowl was almost as unreadable as Gauntlet’s metal mask.
“E.A.G.L.E has declared a Code Resurgam,” Soldier Blue said in a voice of steel and honey, “which means a situation that requires full deployment of Over-Human resources. We released a statement to the media shortly before, saying that a series of lightning strikes at around 8:37 pm knocked out a tower carrying conductors between substations at Buchanan and Millwood. That led to a power surge that caused the other substations to overload and fail, cutting off power to most of Manhattan.”
Jankowitz clicked open a Zippo lighter and relit his cheroot. “The problem is, gentlemen, none of that is true. There were no lightning strikes and the substations are working normally.”
For a second, the men stood in the lobby, perfectly silent.
“Whaddaya mean, working normally?” asked Carlini.
“The electricity is being generated, but it’s being diverted. New York City consumes six thousand megawatts on an average summer night, and that power is being siphoned off and used for something else.”
“Used for what?” said Levitt.
“We don’t know.”
An electronic buzz signaled that Gauntlet was about to speak. “A TRANSMISSION FROM THE FUTURE FIVE LED TO SPECULATION THAT THE ENERGY IS BEING CONVERTED INTO MATTER.”
Cambridge and Levitt glanced at each other.
Jankowitz unclipped a futuristic-looking gadget from his belt and held it up. “The E.A.G.L.E sensors have found traces of a highly unusual radiation signature at several sites; Wall Street, the Rockefeller Center, and here – the Empire State.”
“Radiation?” asked Gonzalez. “You mean like someone’s got an atomic bomb?”
“THERE IS NO EVIDENCE TO SUGGEST A POTENTIAL EXPLOSION,” buzzed Gauntlet.
“Nevertheless, we’re not taking any chances,” Jankowitz continued. “We’re assuming overall charge of the investigation, and we’d like to ask the NYPD for any assistance we require.”
“What kind of assistance?” said Cambridge.
“S.O.P. Get in, assess the situation, respond within set parameters.”
“But this time, there are no set parameters,” Cambridge said.
Jankowitz scowled. “Except the ones I’m setting now.”
“Hey look,” Carlini interrupted. “The whole of New York is having a party while we’re standing here, like it’s Looters Night Out. We’ve got neighborhoods to protect – can’t ya get some of your Over-friends to help out?”
“All E.A.G.L.E operatives have their assigned duties,” Jankowitz said grimly. “As for the Future Five, they’re fighting the Tyrant King in Central Park. He’s taking advantage of the blackout to open up a hole into the Mole Kingdom under Manhattan. The Morrigan should be here, but there was a crisis in Tir Na Nog, and she went back a couple of days ago to reclaim the throne.”
“What about Bohemiath?” Gonzalez asked from the back.
Jankowitz snorted with impatience. “Aw, nobody knows what side the big red brute’s fighting on these days. He turns up, he’ll start smashing your patrol cars as soon as look at them.”
“So it’s us,” Cambridge said, glaring at Carlini.
“This is a matter of national security,” continued Jankowitz, “so let me disabuse you of a few notions right now. The NYPD – “
It was almost impossible to stop the Director of E.A.G.L.E when he was sounding off, but the loud, booming explosion in the lobby achieved it.
Cambridge spun around in shock, seeing the other cops react in the same way; Jankowitz, Gauntlet and Soldier Blue did not even flinch. The crash and bang of tortured metal peaked, accompanied by screams of fear and alarm. It sounded like a bomb had gone off. He ran through the lobby towards the corridors holding dozens of elevator shafts, the others behind him, past huddled groups of bystanders looking around in horror. “Christ!” he muttered.
“What is it?’ asked Gonzalez, in a tone that suggested he really didn’t want to know.
As he turned into the corridor, it really did look as if a bomb had detonated in the east reception area. A ruin of twisted wreckage lay outside the door to one of the elevators, wreathed in guttering grey smoke. Blackened chunks of metal, wood and plastic were scattered across the tiled floor.
A uniformed figure standing near the wreckage swung round, and Cambridge saw the Fire Chief had got there first. “What happened?” he called.
“Cable must have snapped,” said O’Hallorhan. “The elevator car fell maybe fifty floors.”
“Any casualties? Anyone inside?”
O’Hallorhan closed his eyes and nodded. “Yeah.”
Cambridge waved away the smoke and leaned in for a closer look. He’d seen a lot of violent death and gruesome crime scenes in his career, and this was as bad as he expected. There had been maybe half-a-dozen passengers trapped in the elevator, and now they were just a heap of arms, legs, ripped clothes, burst shopping bags, bloodied faces and dead, staring eyes.
“Madre de Dios,” whispered Gonzalez, the other two cops right beside him.
Cambridge leaned in closer. The corpse closest to the door was almost intact – a young man in a business suit, his face smeared with blood. “What the hell’s that on his hands and jacket?” the Lieutenant said.
The corpse’s hands and lower body were covered in some sort of grey gunk – not blood, not dust – something like machine oil but the wrong color. It was clear, almost transparent, and glittered as the cops turned their flashlights on it. It reminded Cambridge, for one crazy moment, of the stranded jellyfish he’d seen occasionally on the beaches at Coney Island.
“Stand aside.” Jankowitz shouldered his way past, the gadget in his bionic hand again. He held it out over the young man’s body, and it bleeped and clicked excitedly. He grunted, put the device away, and turned back to Gauntlet and Soldier Blue. At a brief move of Jankowitz’s hand, all three of them began to walk away.
“Hey!” called Carlini, “you gonna tell us what’s goin’ on, or should we just go screw ourselves?”
Jankowitz halted and turned back. “Boy, you are really startin’ to piss me off. We’re gonna go up top in the helisaucer to take a look. I suggest you use the stairs and clear the civilians from the area – unless, of course, you’re inclined to refuse.”
Cambridge looked at Carlini and glared. “Shut your mouth, Carlini, for once. We got a job to do.”
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