This is Chapter 20 of Nica of Los Angeles, the first novel in the FRAMES series.
As we headed for the Connector, Anwyl made us hold hands and as a loose human triangle we shoved our way through the Largo crowd. This did not make friends. Otherwise, we were ignored. No one wondered why a trio headed for the solo bathroom, and no one saw us leave the Frame, which I knew had happened when the bar sounds damped, then muted.
We took four steps through a narrow dank tunnel, then the temperature dropped thirty degrees and clammy walls mushroomed around us. I knew this Frame. The Cobra had dragged me into it last night and, returning now, I wanted to do two things: shriek and run. Fortunately, Anwyl kept us moving forward. The walls dropped away as we went through another tunnel, longer, broader, and brighter. One hundred nine steps later, Anwyl loosened his grip on my hand and I slipped. I grabbed at a tree with a slick trunk, which made me slide further. Every surface here was covered with a soft lichen that pulsed with pearly light. I clutched Anwyl’s arm with both my forearms and this kept my sliding under control as we advanced. It sounded like Hernandez stayed upright; I heard him slip-walk behind me. Another tunnel, and we were on a flat sandy plain where Anwyl released our hands.
Through all the Connectors, we had bumped and shouldered refugees who pushed to go in the opposite direction – to get away from our destination. We paused at the top of an incline and the refugees flowed around us. “Turn back, fools!” one whispered. I shrugged it off because I knew Anwyl would.
A Connector is a corridor unlike any of the Frames it connects and when we exited our last Connector, I recognized my surroundings again. We were in a Frame configured (as Hernandez would say) like home. We stood on a subtle hill looking west to where Olympic Boulevard slides down toward the ocean. We were about a mile southwest of the Largo, heading toward Venice Beach. This Frame was only superficially similar to home, I soon realized. The landforms were recognizable, and in silhouette – if I squinted – the buildings were about the same, but they were empty shells without walls or roofs: skeletal edifices that felt more cemetery than construction zone. People flowed along the streets and through the buildings. The flow coagulated as they waited to enter the Connector we had just exited. I saw other bottlenecks in the flow of people and pointed to one.
“Are they waiting to use another Connector over there?”
“Where does that one go?” Such a look he gave me. I didn’t want to hear the insult that went with that look, so I answered myself, “It goes to another Frame. Duh. Got that part. I mean – oh, never mind.”
We stood at our vantage point, watching the flow. Anwyl explained that this Frame is a hub of Connectors. From here, Travelers can go in all directions, and that is just what they did as we watched.
“We must determine their direction of origin,” Anwyl instructed. Because they reminded me of refugees, I was not surprised he thought these Travelers came from a single location. We watched. There were so many eddies and whirlpools of activity, it was not clear which Connector was the source of the refugees.
Among the refugees I spotted other Travelers who seemed to be making routine trips. They would emerge from a Connector and be surprised to encounter a crowd headed the opposite way; and they showed more frustration than fear as they shoved their way through the crowd to reach another Connector. Overall, the flow of refugees slowed as we observed. Bottlenecks and ill-formed lines were everywhere, as Travelers waited to leave this hub. Amazingly, no arguments broke out, despite the fear-filled haste.
“I suppose asking somebody is out of the question,” I said, at the same moment Hernandez pointed to our far right.
“No one waits to enter that Connector.” As we watched, one of the non-refugees tried to do so, but a refugee grabbed his arm and said something that made both turn and flee.
“Quickly,” Anwyl loped down the hill toward the Connector that had no entry line.
Quickly was relative in these crowds. We jogged a shortcut through a dilapidated building shell that had no refugees inside; I could only hope it was sturdier than it looked. There was a reason the crowds avoided this structure. The steel girders were lacy with holes as though infested with iron moths.
“Does anyone live in this Frame?”
“No. It is a dead Frame.”
And then we were out from under the building and in too much commotion to talk.
Here at the bottom of the incline, it was hard to get bearings. I wasn’t sure where our target Connector was and maybe Anwyl wasn’t, either. He stopped to evaluate the refugee flow. I touched his arm and pointed to Hernandez, who pushed through the crowd with conviction. He knew the way. Anwyl bared his teeth in respect and we followed Hernandez.
As we advanced, the crowds thinned and became distinct as individuals. There were some who could not pass for human. One had body hair that looked like fur – wouldn’t that be a treat to never mind let’s maintain our PG rating – a walk that used all fours, and sightless eyes with long erect whiskers for navigation. Holy mother of Mister Rogers, did that one have a third eye? Frigging awesome! Many of the non-humans lugged bags and rucksacks and had the air of disoriented tourists.
We spotted the Connector that Hernandez had identified back yonder. Sure enough, nobody lined up to enter it. With this visual confirmation of our target, our pace quickened, until a hand with seven digits grabbed Anwyl’s arm.
“Turn back, friend! Foul death lies ahead!”
Anwyl tapped the hand to thank and dismiss. The warner stood a moment, perhaps to say more, then doubled his speed away.
Our last few hundred steps, we passed no one. Everybody else had gotten the hell out of this Dodge. Without slacking pace, Anwyl grabbed our hands and in our loose human triangle we entered the Connector. Now we would see what everyone fled.
The walls squished in an intestinal way and I stumbled more than once in soft muck that lined this Connector. It smelled like third grade when the Halloween haunted house did too good a job. It smelled like fear. Adrenaline. Undesired bodily emissions.
And then we were through the Connector to a Frame of horrors.
I recognized the area. It was called Ocean Park in my Frame, but this was Ocean Park before gentrification and during genocide. The congested streets were the same as in my Frame, but here the streets were packed with corpses. And body parts. And the occasional barely-living soul, dragging itself toward the Connector because that is where it was headed before it sustained fatal injury. I understood that compulsion. I wanted to expend my last breaths elsewhere, too.
The air smelled of ocean salts and blood. From the main thoroughfare, Lincoln Boulevard, came sounds of death and battle. Anwyl headed that way, which pulled us with him, which made him stop. “Stay here,” he told us, but he didn’t let go of our hands. “Come -” he began again, and took a step back toward the Connector. Then shadows covered us.
“Stay inside us,” Monk greeted us.
“At all times,” Miles added. Hernandez and I climbed to cling to girders deep inside Miles, while Anwyl strode forward to climb Monk. As the Towers translated toward the battle, they elevated several feet above the ground to avoid bodies.
We stopped at an intersection and watched the carnage evolve. The slaughter of the remaining refugees. Some refugees still carried bags of belongings, now hoisted for futile protection. Most had dropped everything and huddled under whatever cover they could find – storefronts, building entries, parking structures, corpses.
At that time, it was the worst thing I had ever seen.
Most of the death came from above, from thousands of birds with stiff backs and wings that were layered and rippling. I thought they were birds, anyway, until light reflected on a dust jacket. These weren’t birds; they were books.
The killer books sliced through the air, spines up, propelled by slowly flapping covers. Under each of them a black rain fell; their pages riffled and shed letters that had a delicate look and a deadly touch. The letters were all edges and the edges were unthinkably sharp. Some of them stretched to the size of razor blades as they fell, others remained tiny and fell as a deadly black dust. The letters impaled themselves into concrete sidewalks. They sliced long curls of metal from a railing. They slid through flesh and bone so cleanly that the victims kept running a few steps before falling into pieces. Occasionally, a picture slid from a large-format book and became a free-flying guillotine blade.
Those who managed to outrun a book did not get far. They would trip over a pile of body parts or slip in a pool of blood, then futilely regain balance as the slow-moving book caught up to them.
Some books approached us. Monk vibrated and lightning cracked at his peak. The closest books exploded in flaming ashes. Most of their letters melted, hitting the ground in congealed lumps; some letters shot sideways, slicing through other books and more refugees.
A quintet of books hovered beyond Miles, pacing us just outside the zone where they would explode. I recognized their dust jackets. Los Angeles City Library. “Those are the books that Anya made me leave on the stairs!” I yelled to Anwyl.
He watched them hover at my eye level. “They have attached to you. They seek to do your bidding.”
Lose Twenty Pounds of Worry in Twenty Days made a sweet little chirp. That this murderous beast could be cute! It was Pixar from hell. “No!” I said without thinking. “Stop it!”
Lose Twenty Pounds made a dip like a bow and veered away, plunging into a knot of other books. It killed three books before it was itself destroyed, sliced to pieces by dust cover edges. I hadn’t intended to send it on a suicide mission.
Anwyl said, “Do not dispatch the others.”
At the same time, Hernandez pointed and told Miles, “You can get to them before the books do.”
Them meant two young boys, crouched beside the body of a woman. Lose Twenty Pounds had killed her killer before it reached her kids. Miles translated over to them and Hernandez jumped down to boost the boys up to safety on Miles’ frame. They didn’t understand to hold on, fell back to the ground, and crawled to their mother. Hernandez grabbed them again and I showed them how to cling and brace themselves. When we all had a good grip on the Towers, they moved out. The refugee children did not cry or fuss, instead watched their mother recede from view.
I studied the boys clinging to the Towers and got hit with a big dose of amazement, a brief tonic for the horror. The children looked human but had a spectacular advantage. Their bones could bend. Their legs and arms were stiff enough that they could climb and run. Yet now, for a better grip on Miles, their legs and arms wrapped around girders such that elbows touched wrists, ankles touched knees. I poked Hernandez to show him. “Gumby people,” I whispered, and we shared an amazed grin before he resumed scanning the ground for more survivors.
That rescue was the only good news. The books dispersed as we moved deeper into the killing field, but that wasn’t to avoid us. They were running out of victims.
Anwyl produced two nets, which he cast to catch some books. He suspended these just outside the Towers’ protective burn zone, tethered with a net of threads as sticky as spider webbing. The captives flailed and tangled themselves trying to escape. One of the captive books dropped text, which sliced through the netting. However, before the books could fly through the hole, the net healed itself. The captive books gave up their struggle and hulked on the bottom of the nets, dust covers glinting.
The library self-help books continued to pace us as we translated to the Santa Monica Pier, where the merry-go-round spun, empty. In this Frame, the pier’s wooden pilings dropped into an alien ocean. The water sparkled as though it suspended a billion needles; and it was as blue as only a July afternoon can make it – however, it was not afternoon, it was long past dark. At the far end of the pier, a few remaining refugees jumped off the pier to escape a hail of text. They hit the water, stood suspended on the surface for an instant, registered shock, and sank rapidly without trace. The water remained glassy and undisturbed by their passage.
More refugees ran to the edge of the pier and Anwyl shouted, “Stop! Do not jump!”
“But they’ll die if they don’t jump!” I said. We could not get there in time to incinerate the books that menaced them.
“A rapid death is not the worst fate,” Monk replied.
Miles said, “Whatever happens, whatever it takes, never go in that water.”
“You convinced me,” I assured them.
Incinerating books as we approached, we got to the pier in time to save another dozen Gumby people. The survivors climbed deep inside Miles and Monk, yet the remaining books kept up their attack. Some dived too close and burned, others flapped circles around the Towers, until one of the captive books issued a multi-syllable squawk. At this, the free books flew up and shot away, a meteor shower in reverse. My four minions, the self-help library books, continued to flap just outside the incineration zone, as close to me as they could get. The same captive book issued another squawk and my minions launched into the stratosphere. At a third squawk, Anwyl swore and grabbed at the nets, but he reacted too late to prevent what the book’s third order from being carried out. The captive books rose from the bottom of the nets and jetted toward us, which pushed the nets and the captives into the incineration zone. They burst into flaming ash. No prisoners.
“Why did they do that? And why did you capture them?”
“We would test them to learn their allegiance.” Anwyl glared at the book ashes as he pulled in his nets.
“You mean who sent them here to kill these folks.”
“That is correct. These soldiers died to preserve that secret.” Anwyl folded up the nets and they disappeared inside his tunic.
“Maybe you can use their weapons to identify them?” I pointed to text and photos embedded in the sidewalk.
The Towers rumbled, Hernandez looked up from ministrations to a refugee, and Anwyl gave me a funny stare.
“I mean, maybe the text has DNA that will identify the books.”
“Such a test might yield information. That is a good idea, Nica.”
“Don’t act so surprised!”
The Towers chuckled, Hernandez twitched a smile, and Anwyl dropped to the ground. He filled a pouch with text of various fonts and sizes.
We retraced our steps to transfer the surviving refugees across the killing field to our Connector. We learned their story en route. It took me a while to realize the Gumby people spoke English to us – they had that thick an accent, a Slavic drawl like Russian immigrants who had settled in Mississippi.
Their Frame was sparsely populated and survived through the earnings of its subsistence farmers, master crafts folk, and a modest tourist industry. Recently, men came to offer surprisingly large quantities of money to buy most of their land. The natives would retain their homes, only. Most residents accepted the offer. The refugees here today were the minority who had declined the offer, because the deal required them to relocate for one year so that the buyers could renovate and build more easily. The relocation Frame was completely isolated. Most Frames have many Connectors, but the relocation Frame has only a single Connector, the one that connects to their home Frame. The buyers planned to close that Connector during much of the remodel, which made the relocation sound like imprisonment.
The holdouts who declined the offer could not stay at home – life would be too hard with so few people, and inconvenient during the remodeling. So they decided it was time to move closer to a center of civilization. The men who purchased their Frame gave them generous relocation funds and the émigrés left their Frame with the intent to roam until they found another Frame they liked. However, as soon as they entered this Connector hub, their adventure became a pogrom, when the books appeared, intent on killing all.
The survivors didn’t know the identities of the men who had bought their Frame. The buyers paid well and said they intended to convert the Frame to a playland with resorts, to make it a recreational Frame with broad tourist appeal. Previous visitors had been limited to those seeking a rustic getaway. The buyers said they wanted to keep the development secret for one year, until it was ready for business. But these survivors had mistrusted the men and this attack confirmed their suspicions that the developers hid their real intent all along. Who would murder thousands as a business development plan?
Apparently they were unfamiliar with corporate America.
Whatever the purchasers’ secret plan had been, surely it would be exposed now. If the Towers had not appeared, all these refugees would be dead. But the Towers had appeared, and now there were hundreds of witnesses who had managed to flee through Connectors. Surely the purchasers must abandon their plan and hide.
“Disagree,” I said. “Witnesses are a complication that might make them move faster instead of run away. Whatever their real plan was, it was slated to come to fruition in a year. Maybe they will speed up the implementation instead of scrapping the plan.”
Again I earned surprised approval.
“Well reasoned, Nica,” Anwyl said.
“Our haste grows,” Monk added.
We had reached the Connector that would lead the refugees to the Largo, one of the first of many Connectors they would walk. Miles gave them instructions to reach a safe Frame where they could rest. The survivors vowed perpetual servitude to all of us, then with the orphans in tow, they moved into the Connector that would take them to my Frame and beyond.
“Know that you are in grave danger. Try to remain alive, as your survival is important to all the free Frames.” Anwyl’s parting words underscored the refugees’ risk and his limited people skills. The few survivors who were not now crippled by fear led the others into the Connector.
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