Clanging engine bells blended with the hubbub of goodbyes, and rolling baggage carts noisily provided a chorus to the warm night air's oily smells of asphalt and greased bearings. The train station ambience stayed with him up the steel steps leading onto the car vestibule until Wilson opened the surprisingly heavy door into the dimly lit passenger car, then let it close behind him with a thud. The silence was immediate.
There was something to boarding the night train that made him think of changing worlds, being temporarily forgiven all humiliations in his past, a holiday from the embarrassment of himself.
No sound reached him now beyond the whirring of overhead electric fans, an incessant background reminding him of nothing so much as ever present insects buzzing in the air, on the ground, in the trees, in the tent, around your ears, that were a constant of his in-country Viet Nam days.
The smell was everywhere. It was the mustiness of old curtains in older theaters, faint, comforting, anxious to be drawn back, eager for the performance.
The worn, stiff carpet muffled his footfalls as Wilson searched the plush seats for one without a slumping, rumpled sleeper. Another existence this was, he thought, a chance to begin again among strangers who would be strangers again soon enough. A chance to live an authentic life for a day or so, to experiment anew with first impressions, no past, no future. Already, 'outside the train' had ceased to exist in the darkness.
The eternal now, like billowing smoke, entered the coach with him and extinguished any reality save this sealed zephyr.
Rebecca shifted slightly in her seat as she half-heartedly listened to her niece singing Bella Marie' at the front of the night club. She was an amazing talent, but her talent was, indeed, less than her aunt's. Rebecca couldn't bring herself to sing again, and as she listened to the rich tones of her niece's soprano voice, she regretted it. It wasn't as though she couldn't sing again. The talent was there - always would be - but the simple power that she had once had over a crowd, that ability to simply hold sway, was gone. She ran her hands over her skirt, smoothing the navy silk skirt.
Even her taste in clothes had changed in these last few sullen years. She used to dress fashionably, with care and with the colors that brought out her beauty. Now she had to bring herself to even brush her hair. As she watched the flame of the candle flicker on the round table at which she sat, she wished that the flame would simply burn her up - perhaps then she would be free from the despair that dogged her so persistently.
As Wilson's eyes acclimated to the dim passenger car, what seemed to be the last empty seat became visible. Near the window and across a small white haired man, oriental from the looks of him. Wilson began working his way past the old gentleman's extended legs, when the car lurched as the departing steam engine snapped out the slack between the car couplings, one at a time. Unprepared for the jolt, Wilson fell back and onto the old man. Or rather through him.
Gasping first in aggravation for falling, then in astonishment for plummeting right through the unsolid apparition, then in horror at the icy coldness of the seat beneath, Wilson recoiled and slammed his back against the window. He stood frozen, uncomprehending, remotely aware of the lights streaming past as the train gathered speed, visible through the windows, and increasingly, the sides of the car itself. Eventually, he composed himself enough to gingerly reach out and touch the old man, only to see his fingers disappear into what would have been a shoulder.
A similar examination of some of the other passengers revealed they, too, were not of earthly substance. By this time, lights were streaking from front to rear, clearly visible through the ceiling and floor of the passenger car. I have to get out, he thought, as he headed for the heavy outer door.
The handle turned easily in his grasp. He pulled the door open and stepped out into the vestibule to a riotous phantasm of swirling, multiplexing light spears of every imaginable color. Behind him, the heavy door closed and the train pulled away into a blinding maelstrom.
Wilson turned to watch the receding apparition even as a buzzing, semiconscious river of numbness overtook him. It wasn't that he ever lost consciousness, exactly, but more that he refused to believe what he saw until the diaphonous blur crystalized into perfect geometric two-dimensional forms, resembling bricks, which is what they were. The front of the night club consisted of such. But the people on the sidewalk....
As Rebecca sat, letting the music drift over her and wash her soul with its intensity, she became aware of a chill. At first she turned to see if perhaps some inattentive or drunken playboy had left the heavy glass doors to the balcony ajar. Satisfied that this wasn't the case, she turned around and once again faced the lighted stage.
Again she felt the icy wind going across her shoulders. This time she felt a prickling of annoyance, and she pulled up the lacy scarf around her back. She should have known not to wear this thin shirt, but it was the only one she had that wasn't completely threadbare.
Suddenly the wind in the nightclub picked up. It was freezing and it was strong enough to lift her heavy dark hair from her shoulders. She looked around in amazement, expecting to see angry looks on the faces of the other patrons. Instead, she saw people who were wholly engrossed in the sweet voice of her beautiful niece, Annabella.
Finally, chilled to the bone, she stood up and walked across the room to the waiter who sat in the corner, half-asleep. "Excuse me, sir, but is there a door open?", she said, trying not to sound too haughty. Her cultured accent could sound harsh, but she tried to temper it, at least for now. However, when the waiter gave no sign of waking up, she raised her voice.
"Sir!", she said loudly. Still no sign of a reply. "Wake up, boy!", she said, and reached out a hand to shake him awake. When she touched his shoulder, however, she felt nothing but the icy chill of the air where warm human flesh should have been.
Annabella McKee shrieked with laughter and leaned way, way out on her pink and green stallion.
"Get back, get back, doofus! You'll fall and die for sure," shouted her father, barely audible over the calliope. The angled mirrors around the ornate carousel center reflected back shards of blond hair, white Mary Janes gripping tiny stirrups on the most wonderful wooden horse at the fair, a daddy torn between letting a tomboy rapscallion exult in perfect freedom and intruding on her ecstasy for safety's sake.
Wilson McKee and Annabella hadn't really turned loose since Rachel died. But now that Rebecca, Rachel's sister, had come to help with Annabella until Wilson could get his life back together, there was laughter in the house again. Sometimes, even, there was singing. But never like it used to be. Rebecca wasn't sure she wanted there to be. A lifetime, it seemed, of torch singing, climbing the ladder, paying the dues, learning the ropes, came to little when Jack left her.
Jack Aikman was a producer for Capitol records with an eye for talent who took Rebecca under his wing, dropping her when the next best thing came along. A few years of depression, booze, and recriminations from those Rebecca stepped on on her way up left her a career of ashes and regret. Maybe Rachel was the lucky one, she sometimes thought. The worst thing that can happen to you is to die, and Rachel has got that out of the way already. But Annabella... Annabella has something in her voice. Something very strange.
As the years passed, Annabella grew to think of her aunt as her mother. Wilson moved into the international division of Lamdox Limited, a job that took him away from home for much longer absences than he wanted, leaving him burdened with knowledge that he was shirking the part of his life that actually mattered for the part that merely kept him busy.
Sooner or later, it had to happen, and it did.
Annabella had a love of ruins. She liked nothing better than prowling around old houses abandoned since the Dust Bowl, reading the yellowed, grimy newspapers pasted to grey, warped boards, the wallpaper of poverty. It was inevitable she would find the long empty remains of Albacore Native Church, over a hundred years deserted.
Jack Aikman smiled as he reclined backwards in his soft leather chair. He had just gotten off the phone with Guy Rawley, the newest and hottest singing sensation on the West Coast. He swung around and faced the glass wall behind his desk that gave him a spectacular panorama view of L.A., and he thought about how far he had come since Rebbeca.
The thought of her made him frown, and that in turn made him angry. It seemed that nothing he could do would take away her voice from inside him, that beautiful voice that he had made famous for so brief a time. She was like a ghost, haunting his dreams and making every other voice that he heard seem second-rate.
His buisiness sense, however, told him that Guy Rawley was just what he needed. Guy was extremely good-looking, moderately talented, and, most of all, he could sell. That's what Jack needed. Just one more voice that would sell. These days when he looked in the mirror, he no longer saw the Jack Aikman that could have any woman at a party - he saw the Jack Aikman that had kicked Rebbeca out when she had gotten too old, too boring, too staid.
He couldn't bring himself to like that Jack very much.
"Dresda!", he called to his secretary, and when she walked into the office she was taken aback by the look on his face. "I don't want to be disturbed for a bit."
"All right, Mr. Aikman," she said, and retreated.
Jack picked up the phone and slowly dialed the last number that he had for Rebecca. He wanted to see if she was as miserable as he was. He hoped so.
Albacore Native Church stood a dwarfed sentinel over barren land, overwhelmed between unending horizons, lone terminus of long dead roads since reclaimed by the ragged tundra.
Annabella McKee had hoped to find someone here, someone to give her a cool drink before she headed back to the dirt road. But as she approached the ruined, grey, steepled frame building, it became obvious no one had been here for years. As she walked into the church courtyard, it struck Annabella as odd to not see any gravestones or crosses. Apparently no one spent eternity here. No one belonged. What kind of church shunned their dead?
Inside, the sanctuary had been gutted. Decades of trash littered the broad hall, stirring like leaves as Annabella walked about, seeing only dim outlines of where surely wondrous icons had once....her toe bumped onto something of gravity, of weight. Bending down, the girl retrieved a pebbled-surface book, an orphan overlooked at the great leaving. She opened what appeared to be a hymnal, marvelling at the strange words.
HaKorei l'mafrei'a' Lo Yatza
K'riat Sh'ma l'mafrei'a', Lo
V'hayu haD'varim ha'Eleh
Turei Aven a'yikra Shezo
Just saying the words aloud was melodious; they begged to be sung. Annabella's unsteady soprano swam the rafter cross ties, permeated the hall with peals of unfamiliar words. Had her eyes been off the book pages, she'd have thrilled to see what she would have taken as fireflies swarming outside the peaked window frames.
Uvish'arekha beite'kha mezuzot....
Soft tufts of white light streamed from the sanctum porch. The twin bell towers, long empty, took on a glow rivalling the setting sun, before bursting into flame.
Sheets of pearlesence formed and disintegrated, shimmering ribbons collapsed in beds of glittering coals. A cool river of numbness swelled, drowning Annabella in dazzling, sparkling euphoria. I've really got to get home, she marvelled, as the church receded in a fireball. When the aurora crystallized out, she was standing shakily before her own bed.
When Annabella crawled out of bed late the next morning, she was amazed by the change simply in the way she felt. The night before, when she had crawled beneath the cool linen sheets and fallen fast asleep, she had been a tired and lonely girl. Now, this morning, as she slid her feet into the satin slippers beside her bed, she felt mysteriously aged, as though she were a thousand year old woman inhabiting the body of a child.
She looked from side to side, wondering if by some chance she had managed to hold on to the mysterious book from which the sacred words that held such power had come. She searched untill she finally found the small hymnal, and she reached out her hand to touch it. She hesitated, then took it in her hand. It was small, rough, and hardly significant looking in the morning light. She carefully thumbed through the pages, marveling at the strange writing. Once again, she felt the incredible urge to sing, but remembering the night's events, she slid the book into the small hold inside her window seat. She'd come back to it after breakfast.
At breakfast, Wilson noticed something different about his little girl. She was far away, lost in a world of her own making. Annabella had always been a precocious child, imaginitive and tender, but her attitude today was simply that of someone who wasn't present.
"Annabella? Are you all right?", Wilson asked quietly.
"Oh, Daddy, I'm fine. Just tired. I didn't sleep well last night." It was an answer meant to placate her father, and they both realized it. Wilson let it slide, for now.
At that moment she lifted her arm to pass him the butter dish, and he saw something...something odd on her arm. Was it a bruise? It didn't seem to be. It was reddish-purple, and it had something...what was that? There - in the middle? A black mark? He had no time to investigate further, for down came her arm.
Wilson was troubled for the rest of the day.
The black backdrop of the night club stage absorbed any stray reflection that didn't model the face of the girl behind the microphone. The front riser key light stabbed out of the cat walk and stopped Annabella's irises down to pin points, rendering the audience practically invisible to her. But she knew Rebecca was out there and she knew her efforts to bring her father here were successful. How could they not be? The Song never failed.
As her father had once noticed, Singing the Song took a physical toll on Annabella. Limiting the damage to places no one could see was getting more difficult everytime she Sang. But the end was near. Her body only needed to hold out a little more. The transition was coming; the Song almost done.
At first, she didn't understand what the Song was doing. But over time, and with practice, each bit of knowledge gained provided the basis for the next until Annabella felt she knew and understood almost everything there was to know. The Pentadimension was key. It was Singing the Song that initially teased, then opened the Pentadimension to her. The infinity of parallel universes was shown to be a manifestation of the one Pentadimension, and tapping into that gave her discretion to choose any reality she desired, and most recently to manipulate it.
But the Song was not free. Its power came from the very force that collapsed the probability wave of the Universe; the agent whose measurement determined wave/particle; the localized embodiment of universal consciousness; the human mind. The Song was mentality.
Annabella found that mentality was best tapped when humans could be 'parked' interdimensionally, rendering them unable to harm themselves and freeing up the cognitive power pool. In order to make her final leap, to become what she could only conceive of as The Goddess, Annabelle expanded her pool from the human detritus no one would miss to everyone her mind could encompass, with the exception of her father and her aunt. Someone had to watch the transition.
"Welcome to my show, Daddy. Shall I sing you a song?"
Annabella raised the book and opened it to the last page. As she began entoning the lyrical passages, it all became so clear. From quantum foaming to the Great Attractor, everything was simple, interconnected, visible. Her mind peered back to the First Moment and forward to The Coldness.
Praetor Imperatus, the Albacore Native of olden days himself, watched the silent globe that was Annabelle McKee flash into a galactic-sized supernova then shatter into nothingness. He smiled and picked up the small pebble surfaced book embossed Volume II.