ladyfirestarter: (this is serious)
Kate Welker is calling ahead to the airport to arrange tickets, and to make sure there'll be a skycap on hand with a wheelchair.

Eric's driving. Charlie's sharing the passenger seat with Susannah.

"...So we got a call from Tet about an hour and a half ago, saying Rose had regained consciousness and she was saying you were in a place called Milliways."
ladyfirestarter: (Tet Corporation)
"...This is Charlie McGee, go ahead."
ladyfirestarter: (clutching head)
They all feel it at the same time, roughly five in the afternoon -- evening, this close to the turn of the winter.

At first it's no more than flickers, vague premonitions of danger too attenuated to tell them anything beyond something's wrong. It goes through the campus like ripples chasing one another through a field of grain, until everyone's slightly on edge, staff and kids alike, without being certain why.

It doesn't stop there, though, because enough of them have grown up with these premonitions and learned to trust them. Fred Towne exchanges a glance over his desk with Charlie McGee; Mark Bell says a worried word to Laura Towne; Eric VanAllsburg and Kate Welker come together to speak to Ted Brautigan. And abruptly the good-mind is linked and building rapidly, the ripples in the field reversing direction and converging on one spot like pupils contracting, and they can see --

(vans garage men gunfire glass blood SUSANNAH --)




The phone call to the Tet Corporation goes out at 5:23pm.
ladyfirestarter: (listening)
Charlie turns away from the little kitchenette's counter, and carries the two mugs of cocoa over to the couch.

"So you think it's helping, then? Cumulatively?"
ladyfirestarter: (home)
It's the same hallway as the last time he came through. The drawings have changed; one of them is a careful pencil sketch of two hands in repose, fingers halfway overlapping.

Charlie stands aside to let him pass, studying him carefully as he crosses the threshold.
ladyfirestarter: (we touch)
On a street corner in Chicago, two figures stop walking to catch their breath.

It's not that walking is so very exhausting; it's that both of them are laughing hard.
ladyfirestarter: (firestarter)
The fire is everywhere.

Men with crowns of fire, running, falling, screaming; horses screaming, hooves battering at wooden stall walls -- it's all curiously distant somehow, abstract.

Lines of flame radiate outward from her feet, from her hands, spreading over the grass, over the pebbled walks, through the air itself. She stands at the center of a web of fire, slowly widening over the grounds.

The good-mind pulses wildly in the air, its message beating at her, CHARLIE STOP IT STOP IT RIGHT NOW, but the fire's stronger than the good-mind. It's stronger than anything. Including her. She can direct where it goes, but she can't make it stop. Except by sending it where it can't survive.

Or by pulling it back in.

-- You think you want to keep doing this? Rainbird asks, sitting on the edge of the hayloft with the pistol in his lap.

She turns slowly to look at the tall brick tower, the kids' dorm, across the smoking lawn. It wavers slightly in the shimmering heat, darkens to black glass.

He holds out his empty hand to her, and fire wreathes around it. -- Come on. Show it who's boss, right?

-- Right, she breathes.

-- Good kid.

She takes a step forward, upward, keeping her gaze fixed on his approving grin, his steady eyes behind the spill of his unruly dark hair. And as the fire swells and billows around her, buoying her upward like water, she is aware of heat but no pain.
ladyfirestarter: (we touch)
About half of the fourteenth floor of the Dolphin Hotel -- it's the thirteenth floor, of course, but numbered 14 -- is closed for renovations.

Charlie's room is on the ninth floor.

She holds open the door of room 928, slipping the card-key back into her pocket.
ladyfirestarter: (Tet Corporation)
Every so often, Charlie's called to the home office in New York. She tries to arrange a day or two extra before and after the scheduled meeting, just to walk around and see the city.

The desert has become her heart's home, but ... once or twice a year she starts to sicken for the sight of skyscrapers and yellow cabs, the way some people sicken for mountains or the sea.

It's a brisk day in early September, cool and breezy, ideal for walking.
ladyfirestarter: (we touch)
Her hair changes color as the sun rises. Prometheus wouldn't have thought of that on his own, but after the hours of sitting alone in the darkness, he slipped through the bedroom door and sat with her. Tonight, at least, she was a restless sleeper: if she'd been under the covers, they'd be all in twists. The temperature in the room spiked suddenly, just before 4 AM. He stretched out beside her, and pressed one arm around her waist. The firething thrashed -- he could feel it racing with her heartbeat -- but she didn't wake, and eventually the threat subsided.

The seven o'clock shade of her hair is his favorite yet. He decides this while pushing back a number of other, less pleasant prospects, like how to bring this firestarting to heel and how to keep it from hurting Charlie and when he's going to have to wake her up. That he doesn't know when she has to be back in Taos frustrates him: she looked so worn thin last night, he wants to give her every minute he can. But she's also devoted to her kids. So, he hazards a guess. Because the worst that can come of waking her up needlessly is that she can go back to sleep.

He rolls a little closer, and runs one hand over her arm. "Hey."

She opens her eyes, blinks at him, and sits up rapidly. "-- what time is it?"

-----

It's still another hour before Charlie has to get home. They sit at the little table in the kitchenette, drinking coffee and talking, for most of that hour. (Coffee's nearly the only thing in the house; Prometheus makes a mental note that he should really start keeping this place better stocked.)

If there were nightmares, Charlie's not talking about them. The conversation is comfortable, perhaps pointedly so. She talks about some of the older kids learning to swim this summer, and he tells a story about the first time he set foot on a sailboat. He asks about how soon the fall comes to Taos, and she wonders aloud about how much they'll need to restock on warmer clothes.

She's the one who notices the time and stands up from the table, but she's also the one who holds him back for a moment on the threshold before he opens the door.

The kiss is warm and heartfelt, and brief.

-----

The Bar is quiet as they pass through: mostly people are intent on breakfast, or recovering from hangovers. The sunlight is the same, though, and it has the same effect.

See you soon, he says as she opens the door again, this time leading back to Taos.

Charlie glances back at him and smiles as the door closes behind her, and a moment later warmth ripples over him, along with her voice: Yes.
ladyfirestarter: (home)
March 7, 2007
12:45pm


When they get back to the hotel, room 1108 is empty.

It's Bev who finds the note they left for Sera telling her where they've gone, and the quick scribbled addendum at the bottom -- still exhausted. can't think straight yet. heading home. see you back at Milliways. The second half of that rather proves the first half, as Fire evidently forgot they can't get back to Milliways from here without her.

Bev's disappointed, and a little angry -- and a little scared, about whether the time-holding-still that happens at Milliways will still work here. And about what she'll tell her parents if it doesn't.

But there's nothing for it, since Fire doesn't answer Charlie's attempt to summon her this time. And it's not as though they're trapped here, really.

It's just going to take longer to get to the door. )
March 7, 2007
11:42am


Almost everyone thought the woman and the girl were mother and daughter.


For the second time in a week, Charlie stands looking at the little sculpture of the turtle at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. This time she has company.

The note is gone, Charlie notices absently, but some wag has pasted a series of stickers along the length of the nearby walk, in the style of the old Burma Shave ads: SEE THE TURTLE / OF ENORMOUS GIRTH / ON HIS SHELL / HE HOLDS THE EARTH.

"It's from a book," is all she says to Bev's quizzical glance at her when she smiles at the rhyme.
March 6, 2007
2:08pm


The small eternity they spent in room 1408 apparently only lasted about two hours.

It's nearly unbelievable how little damage there has been to the rest of the hotel. Even the rest of the floor, aside from waterlogging and a lingering smell of bitter unpleasant smoke, has escaped any serious harm.

They take the elevator down to room 1108 and rest there, well into the afternoon. Bev dozes fitfully on Charlie's bed. Fire sleeps like a dead thing on the second bed, drained beyond exhaustion. Charlie sits on the bed beside her for a time, holding the blackened hand in hers; the char

(char - charyou - Charlie)

is slowly flaking away, revealing golden-rosy new skin underneath.

When the room phone rings at about three, Bev starts up with a gasp, but Fire doesn't even stir.

"Ms. McGee?" It's Goodwin's voice, sounding oddly strained. "Could I ask you to come up to the fourteenth floor, please?"

* * *

She doesn't expect the crowd... )
ladyfirestarter: (in the dark)
March 6, 2007
11:58am


It's time.

The fourteenth floor -- the thirteenth floor, numbered fourteen in a futile attempt to avert bad luck -- has been completely cleared of all guests. Goodwin has quietly passed instructions among the staff. There are no more preparations to be made.

Charlie stands in front of the elevator doors, lowers her head, focuses her attention, and reaches. It's different, but still it's very like calling the fire -- and isn't that exactly what she's doing?

Come. Come now.
March 5, 2007
3:30pm


Tomorrow. At high noon. It's such a cliché, but sometimes a cliché is the only appropriate response to the situation.

The afternoon air is damp and cool, but not bitingly cold, when Charlie steps out the door of the Dolphin Hotel and heads for the corner. Down Fifth Avenue one block to the bus stop on East 60th, take the M3 four stops to 47th, and then walk east. Madison, Park, Lexington, Third ... and Second.

Even from here, she can already hear the singing.

She turns aside on her way to the Tet building to look at the turtle sculpture in the park across the street, and notes with amusement that someone has left a folded piece of paper under the turtle's left front foot, the carved claws punched carefully through to anchor it. The impulse to look at what it says is irresistible, and she doesn't really try very hard to resist it.

Scrawled in green pen across the page are the words Son, you did real good. It's not for her, then. That's fine. Someone else's story, briefly crossing through her own.

In the lobby, she nods to the doorman and walks directly up to the little shrine in the middle of the floor. The Garden of the Beam.

If the sound of the good-mind at Taos is a hum, the sound of the rose is a thousand church choirs singing together. Her hands close lightly around the velvet rope that marks off the garden's boundary, and she stands there, eyes half closed, letting the song pour over her.

She doesn't need to look at the plaque to know what it says: GOOD OVER EVIL, THIS IS EVER THE WILL OF GOD. And the song of the rose says the same thing.

(One of the voices in the choral multitude is her father's.)

For close to fifteen minutes she stands there, and no one disturbs her. It's a common enough sight here, no doubt; she is not the first (nor, probably, the hundredth) to stand before the rose in a moment of doubt or fear or desperation, seeking clarity, seeking strength, seeking hope. Seeking all three.

She's going to need it.
ladyfirestarter: (in the dark)
March 2, 2007
9:30 am


She leaves a message with the front desk for Goodwin, and another on his voice mail. Nothing too elaborate, just her name and a reminder of the last time she called, and a reiteration of her request to speak to him for her research if he has any time over the next twelve days. A tour won't be necessary, she assures him. Just an interview. If it's convenient.

It's possible that he hears what she doesn't say: that the sooner he gives her what she wants, the sooner she'll go away.

The front desk calls up with a message for her, shortly after noon on Friday. Will Saturday morning do for an interview? He'll be in. That'll be fine, she tells them, and please thank Mr. Goodwin for me?

Saturday morning. That was fast, she muses ruefully; he must really want her out of here.

Well, all right. That gives her the rest of today to look around a little on her own.

-----
1:40 pm

1404.

1406.

1410.

1412 - wait.

Charlie turns and scans back along the hallway... )

-----
March 3, 2007
10:30 am


"But there was a room 1408 at one point, wasn't there? )"
March 1, 2007
11:30pm EST


It's raining hard as the cab from the airport pulls to a halt in front of the hotel on 61st Street. A cheerful recorded voice reminds Charlie to take all her belongings with her as she pays the cabbie and steps out onto the sidewalk, ducking hurriedly under the awning with its stylized logo of a leaping dolphin.

She's exhausted, between the flight and the keyed-up tension of the past several days and the lateness of the hour, but not too much to note small details of the small, smart lobby -- the revolving door, the overstuffed chairs, the mezzanine level visible from the front door, the elegant suit the woman behind the counter is wearing. All of it whispers this is the right place.

Her room's ready -- nonsmoking, yes, thank you. Room 1108. The coincidence isn't even unnerving anymore; it feels like a puzzle piece fitting neatly into place. Especially when she notices, idly, what 11 and 08 add up to.

She takes the keycard, thanks the receptionist again, heads for the elevator towing her wheeled suitcase. Checks her watch, in the elevator, and resigns herself to staying awake for at least another half-hour.

It's enough time to unpack, and to take a quick shower; she's sitting on the bed in her bathrobe, brushing her wet hair, when the closet door opens quietly. A distant-sounding babble of cheerful noise comes into the room, followed by a red-haired woman and a faint smell of something burning.

Charlie looks up at Fire, and smiles.
ladyfirestarter: (home)
She's packed and ready to go by ten; Eric's scheduled to drive her to the airport at twelve.

An hour to walk around the grounds and say goodbye to the kids. As usual, she can't be sure which of them was the first to pick up the object of her mission; what one of them finds out tends to spread. A few of them hug her -- Avi practically clings. Sarai gives her a long indecipherable look and says She's walking into the labyrinth, in a tone that somehow combines unease and approval. Arbalest, who almost never speaks out loud, hands her a sketch; it's a study of Charlie herself, her face from several angles. Ethan won't look at her, but mutters zhū nín hăo yùn as she's leaving the room.

Half an hour for an informal staff meeting in Main. Ted, Irene, Fred and Laura Towne, Kate Welker, Eric VanAllsburg, all the others -- even Mark Bell, fidgeting slightly but paying attention as well as his permanently five-year-old mind allows. You all know I'm leaving on assignment, she tells them. I'm not getting any twitches, but precog's not my strongest talent. If any of you feel anything, any warning, now's the time to tell me.

Nobody does.

They're not a ka-tet, this group; there is no overwhelming sense of wholeness to them, no bond tighter than family. They're connected by nothing more than the mutual decision to go in company for a while. But they're a team, and a good one.

They wish her luck as the meeting breaks up, and Eric helps carry her suitcase down the stairs and out to the car, and it's time to get going.



At the airport, while waiting for her flight to board, she wanders through the newsstand-bookseller nearest her gate and scans the shelves idly for the new releases and bestsellers. There's a row of books, unfamiliar cover art under familiar names --

A man with a ponytail and a battered denim jacket nearly bumps into her as he rounds the corner of the bookshelf. "Oh, 'scuse me," he says without quite looking at her, and reaches past her to snag a book at just below her own eye level.

The art on the cover is a wooden chair engulfed in flames, and the title is Firestarter.

Bemused, she watches the man head back to the counter, pay for his airplane reading and an overpriced bag of toffee peanuts, and amble off down the wide hallway.

Oddly, what she's finding herself remembering is something Armin Cochrane wrote in that spate of emails from the Board: We're observers, not protagonists. Let's stay clear.

Charlie's mouth curls in a smile of grim amusement. Speak for yourself, Armin.

Twenty minutes till her flight leaves. They'll be boarding anytime now.
Date: February 19, 2007
From: "Charlene R. McGee" <charlie.mcgee@tetcorp.com>
To: "Michael John Copeland" <michael.copeland@tetcorp.com>
Subject: Just call me Pandora )
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