The music in the elevator is an old, jazz standard on clarinet and sounds like it was recorded inside a tin can. When gravity finally stops trying to push me into my shoes, the doors roll open. I tug on my necktie, but it’s as tight as it will go.
I step out trailing rainwater from my coat and hat, leaving wet footprints in the carpet. The foyer looks like it was ripped right off the front of a countryside mansion and transplanted here, three hundred stories above the streets of Amber City. The giant, wooden double-doors in front of me belong on a castle– not inside the guts of a skyscraper. Emblazoned across them in gold is the word, Harland.
The doors swing open, splitting Harland between the r and l. Through them steps a straight-backed little man with white hair, in a perfectly pressed tuxedo with peaked lapels.
“Mr. Tarelli, I presume.” The little man’s voice echoes through the cavernous hall like an opera singer.
“That’s me,” I say. Mine sounds less like an opera singer and more like train wheels.
He waits for me to join him at the door before offering to take my coat and hat. I hand them over, and he accepts them with a professional flourish.
“Mr. Harland awaits your arrival in the observatory,” he says.
“Uh-huh. I didn’t catch your name.”
“You smoke, Hennessey?”
“Right this way, Sir.”
Following Hennessey over the threshold, the big doors shut behind us, and I’m suddenly in the kind of place I’ve only ever imagined. The grand hall has onyx marble floors. Overhanging balconies protrude from the walls. My face is probably priceless as Hennessey leads me to a wide center stairway with ornate, ironwood banisters. The hallway at the top has carpet the color of blood, and I pass beneath the painted gazes of a dozen larger-than-life portraits of men and women I feel like I should know.
We reach another set of big, wooden doors. Hennessey opens them and bids me step inside. It’s very dark in there.
“Just through here, Mr. Tarelli,” Hennessey prods.
I reach up to tip my hat– forgetting that he’s currently holding it. When my hand touches nothing but bald scalp, I just tug on my earlobe awkwardly and nod at him as I enter. The doors shut behind me with a boom.
I stand there for a second, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness. The room is every bit the size of the grand hall, but it lacks all the opulence and pomp. The only furnishings I can see are a small dining table and chairs nearby.
Light is coming from the far wall, which I take at first to be a giant viewscreen. Upon closer examination, I realize that the entire wall is transparent. The entirety of Amber City is laid out before and below like a sprawling, living, moving picture– obscured slightly by the blurring of bucketfuls of rainwater snaking over its surface. The sun has only just gone down, and in its waning influence, black clouds can be seen over the city skyline, crackling with electrical energy from somewhere within their globular anatomies.
“I trust you found the place alright?” squeaks a voice.
The skeletal framework of a balcony runs along the midsection of the window-wall, connected to the floor by the switchbacks of a rampway. Atop the balcony, at center stage, a man sits in a chair.
“Hard to miss,” I say.
“There’s drink and smokes on the table.”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
At the table, I find a wooden box of cigars, and I open it. They smell good. I put the box back down without taking one. Beside it sit some glasses and a bottle. I pour myself a glass and take a drink. I don’t recognize the brand, but it’s got the uncommon aftertaste I’ve come to associate with good, expensive scotch. After a couple of sweet gulps my glass is empty so I refill it, aborting yet another honest attempt to quit drinking. You can’t blame me. It’s not every day a guy is called on to visit with Rutherford Harland in person. And here I am in his home, just hours after the murder of his only son.
One last try at tightening my tie, and I cross the room toward the window-wall.
I ascend the ramp with footfalls that clank loudly and ring across the room. For the life of me, I don’t know how someone could stand to live in a place that echoes all the time. The ramp makes a switchback, and then I’m at the top, with him.
He’s over ninety years old. A little bit of colorless hair still clings for dear life to the back of his head, and a thin, white mustache droops from his upper lip. He’d be taller than me, standing, but it’s been a long time since he’s done that. Slumped in the metal frame of a wheelchair, a woolen blanket over his lap, Rutherford Harland casts an unassuming character for one of the most powerful men on the planet Jannix.
He turns his gaze away from the city to look me over with his brown, red-rimmed eyes.
“Jack Tarelli,” he says. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“Likewise,” I say. “Beautiful place you’ve got here.”
“I’m glad you think so. Rarely do I get the chance to entertain guests anymore… The view?”
“It’s very lovely.”
It’s far more than that. Not even from an airship viewport have I ever seen Amber quite like this. Through the haze of rain, the city is rolled out before me like a map of impossible proportions. The skyscrapers are towers of radiance. The streets are rivers of flowing light, and the headlamps of gridlocked airships, hovering along their exact, geometric paths, create spider-webbing, synthetic constellations in the night sky.
“Dreadful night,” Harland says. “Is the rain very cold?”
“A little… Nothing a stiff drink can’t cure.”
“I despise the rain,” Harland says. “That’s the problem with Jannix. Seems like it never stops raining on this planet.”
I smile. I’m afraid weather does not rank high among the problems with Jannix in my book, but I keep my mouth shut about it. He’s right, anyway. It does rain too much.
“About your son, Mr. Harland…” I say. “For what it’s worth, I’d like to offer my condolences.”
Rutherford Harland averts his eyes, turning back to stare out into the night again, hands folded in his lap.
“Thank you,” he says, and after what seems like a long time, adds, “You’ll have to forgive my poor manners. People tend to think that the lack of social graces in elderly persons is due to a general decay of self-awareness. The truth is, I just find it increasingly difficult to give a damn anymore… You spend your whole life thinking it’ll never happen to you… How old are you, Jack? Fifty? Fifty-five?”
“Fifty-four, but who’s counting?”
“Who’s counting, indeed… Everyone who has ever lived has died, and yet we all still think ourselves immortal. We always think we are the exception. These days, every time that sun sets, I can’t help but wonder if I’ll ever see it again.”
I slurp down the last of my drink, leaning against the balcony railing and looking out on the city. It’s a dizzying sight. I feel like I’m hanging over a precipice. The last of the brown dwarf sun’s light has faded away completely, leaving behind a black canvas dotted with a billion pinpricks of white light.
Harland’s not alone in his anxieties. Night falls hard on Jannix. With a synodic day of sixteen standard days, night lasts one hundred and forty-five hours here; almost an entire week without sunlight. It’s enough to make any man wonder if he’ll see another dawn.
“Help yourself to another glass,” Harland says.
“I’d better not.”
“Come now. You’re young. Have another.”
A little chuckle escapes my lips. “Been a long time since anyone called me young.”
“Everything in life is a matter of perspective, Jack… Take my son, for instance. One moment, the pride of the Harland family name, on the cusp of inheriting my business empire. The next, dead on some factory floor in East Amber… You know why I asked you here tonight.”
My lips are dry, and I wish I’d left something in my glass to wet them.
“You want me to find out who killed your son,” I answer.
Harland’s reflection against the window is like the face that looks back at you from a puddle in the street. His hands aren’t folded in his lap anymore. They’re clutching the arms of his wheelchair like talons. His knobby knuckles are white.
Shadows fall over Amber City. Another long night has begun.
– from The Night Also Rises