Sunday, November 12, 2006

1932, 11. The World Unmade

“The Eaters of Kroatoan,” Jef said quietly. “They’re coming back, Tom.”

“They’re a myth, Jef,” Tom replied, subtly flexing the muscles in his shoulder, probing for weaknesses in the grip of the metal man who dangled him high above the ground. No good; the steel fingers clamped immovably around him. “Superstition from ancient tribes. Probably a metaphor for some--”

“I saw them,” Jef said, as calmly as if he’d been talking about the weather. “I saw them in my room.”

“You actually did it,” Tom said, wonder commingling with horror in his voice. From the corner of his eye he saw Gaunt slowly stirring in the other metal man’s grasp. “You broke through the fabric of spacetime. You bettered Satel’s design.”

“I thought he should be here,” Jef said, turning back to gaze down at the Well, where his armada of mechanical men seemed to be nearing completion of their work on the giant steel ring encircling the pit. “He deserved to see that his ideas worked. Everyone’s always picking on him, aren’t they? I read it in Scientific American -- they’re calling him a fraud. I thought I was doing something nice for him, Tom, I really did.”

“And when he ran for the Well...” Tom began, pieces clicking together in his head.

“I... I couldn’t see anyone else fall in,” Jef said. “I just couldn’t, Tom. And I can fix him, I promise I can. I read a book on it, and I’ve got some ideas for reconnecting the tendons...”

“And what about his assistants?” Tom asked, steel rising in his voice. For a second he was back in the Lookout, breathing through the gasmask, surrounded by death; with iron willpower, he forced the image from his mind. “What about Lasso, Jef? And Shida, and Nosh, and Danny?”

“I did them a favor!” Jef screamed in his high child’s voice, whirling back to face Tom. Behind his glasses his eyes were red and gummy with tears. “You don’t know what’s coming, Tom. You didn’t see it. And that’s why you can’t understand what I have to do.”

“Jef, we heard about your folks,” Ruby said, her voice soothing and genuinely sympathetic. “I’m so sorry, kiddo. But even if you’re right, if Tom’s right -- if these things came from some other dimension -- it could have just been an accident. Maybe they don’t know what we are. Maybe they didn’t know they could hurt us.”

“They know what we are,” Jef said, his quivering voice echoing and redoubling across the vast chamber. “They ate Scout, Ruby. He was nothing to them -- less than dust. And I had to watch them suck the marrow out of his bones. And then Ma came in...”

Jef sniffled loudly, smeared grubby fingers hard against his eyes to wipe away the tears. “I hear them in my dreams every night, laughing from their-- from the clusters of eyes...” He put a hand gingerly to the fresh network of dark red, scabbed-over scars crisscrossing the whole of his shaven scalp. “I think I figured out enough of their language to make the right signs -- I can’t... I can’t keep them out of my brain, but I can keep them from knowing what I’m doing. But I still hear them.”

“Lad,” Hark said, his loud, clear voice ringing out through the chamber, “I’ve fought many a monster in my time. Human or otherwise. Whatever these creatures are, there’s a way to beat them. We can help you find it.”

“The Eaters of Kroatoan!” Jef shouted again, suddenly manic. “The greatest civilization ever to rise on the North American continent, masters of principles we still can’t even fathom. Devoured with hardly a trace. And now they’re hungry again, the ones that ate Kroatoan. It was a snack to them. Now I think they want the whole meal.”

Tom cast an appraising glance at Gaunt, his eyes asking a silent question of the dark man. Beneath his wrappings, the eyes of the vengeful magician -- no stranger himself to madness -- flickered in grim, somber affirmation. The boy’s insane.

“I knew it was you, Jef,” Tom said. “The blast patterns on the walls of Satel’s lab, and in Sinn’s vault. I recognized them as the work of your Electroplasmic Ray. And the dust -- the same strange magnetic dust from here at the Well,” he added, nodding down at the fine, gritty black dust scattered across the stone of the chamber floor. “You needed Sinn’s money, didn’t you?”

“No one will miss him,” Jef replied. “He was a bad man, Tom. You told me so yourself. And I needed to pay the Twelve Celestial Signs, and Wicked West. I knew you’d be coming to stop me. And boy, you should have heard Miss West laugh when I finally got her on the radiophone. I guess boys are okay by her, long as they don’t grow up.”

“She killed my daddy, Jef,” Ruby said, disbelief and sadness in her voice. “And you gave her Sinn’s blood money, stolen from honest hardworking people like your folks. How could you do that?”

“I know you want to find her,” Jef said. “I brought her right to you. I did you a favor, Ruby. Did you get her this time?”

“Next time,” Ruby said, shaking her head, a distance in her eyes.

Jef laughed, like Ruby’d just told the funniest joke. He laughed until he bent double, hands on his knees, sides shaking.

“Oh, Ruby,” he said when he’d finally calmed. “There’s no next time. The Eaters are coming, and it’s all gonna be fire and blood. Whole nations turned inside out to pick at their bones. I hear them singing hunger-songs across the gap between worlds, Ruby. They know where we are now. I told them -- that’s why they let me live. They say I can be the last one alive.” His face fell, puckered in terror and renewed tears. “I’m scared. I’m so scared. I say my prayers and all I hear is them.”

“Jef,” Tom said quietly, firmly. “Jef, what’s impossible? Come on, say it.”

Jef’s fingers tightened around the baseball, grimy nails picking reflexively at the stitching. For a moment he couldn’t meet Tom’s gaze, mind seemingly preoccupied with equations or strange horrors or the looping corridors of the madness into which he’d retreated.

“Jef,” Tom repeated. “Come on. What’s impossible?”

“Impossible’s just an excuse,” Jef muttered. “And you’re right, Tom. You’re always right, and you’re never scared, and I’m so sorry about your friends. I didn’t want them to get eaten, and it didn’t hurt them any, I promise, I’d never do that to them.”

“Why don’t you let us down, Jef?” Tom coaxed. “You can help up fix up the plane, and we’ll all fly out of here, and we can talk the whole way back. You don’t have to be scared. We’ll find a way to lick these guys -- give them indigestion, big time.”

Jef brightened, smiling, eager to show off. “Oh, but I did, Tom! I figured it out all on my own!” He pointed to the needle and the iron ring surrounding the Well. “It had to be here, ‘cause the magnetic fields are just right -- all the funny ores in these rocks and stuff. I was thinking about it for Villefort -- I still feel just awful about him, Tom, and I know you said I shouldn’t, but I still do -- how I could fix things up so he never jumped. Now I just have to do it a bit bigger.”

“How much bigger?” Hark asked, uneasily.

“I worked it all out,” Jef said, digging scraps of paper out of his pockets, letting them flutter to the dirt around him as he searched for the right one. “I did the calculations -- well, they’re here somewhere. I have to smooth things out a bit, in time, I mean. I have to make some changes.”

“Jef,” Tom warned, “it can’t possibly work.” This was a lie, and Tom felt guilty saying it, even though he desperately wished it was the truth. “Say you do create a standing wave in spacetime -- that’s what you’re trying to do here, right?”

“Right, right!” Jef said, smiling. “Don’t want another hole. Especially not one this big.”

“And you’re going to hit that wave with concentrated energy pulses from the needle, aren’t you?” Tom said, his brain working furiously. He’d grasped the rough ideas of the project before, but now all the terrible pieces were coming together. “And these pulses, they’re going to move backwards in time?”

“Yes, backwards!” Jef told him, delighted, practically dancing in place with nervous excitement. “Because, when you think of it, they can’t go forward, because the future doesn’t exist yet. I’m gonna jangle up the atoms all the way back -- maybe thousands of years, I think. Just a little, maybe an atom here or there, so it’s not like we’ll all turn out with fish heads or something, but enough. It’s not exact, of course, but you know, that’s science.”

“You wish to change history?” Gaunt rumbled, out of nowhere. He hung completely still in the mechanical man’s grip, evincing none of the struggles of his comrades.

“Exactly! Keep myself or anyone from letting the Eaters in!” Jef exulted. “I’ve got it all figured out, Tom! It doesn’t matter what I did, all your friends -- it’ll never have happened. Everything’ll be better, Tom! Your parents -- maybe they never took you on that trip! Maybe in the better world they’re still alive to be proud of you.”

He pointed in turn to each of Tom’s companions. “Hark, think of it! Maybe your folks don’t get swept away on that island, and you get to grow up all fancy in England! Ruby, maybe in the better world your dad’s waiting for you, ‘cause there never was a Wicked West! And you, Mister Gaunt, I’ve seen the way you look at Miss Violet! Maybe whatever it was hurt you so bad never happened!”

“And maybe you were never born, Jef,” Tom said, quietly and steadily. “Who knows what you’ll do someday. You’ve got greatness in you, more than me, more than any of us. Ever since I met you, Jef, I’ve been counting on you. I’m like the Indian scouts, Jef -- I can find the signposts to the World Yet to Be, map out all the trails. But Jef, someone’s got to build it after. And that’s you.”

Jef looked up at Tom with wide, sad eyes. He shook his head slowly, back and forth. “I don’t want to be me anymore, Tom,” he said. “I want to be someone else, with a Ma and Pa still breathing. It hurts too much to be me now.”

Below them, the steel circle sprang to life, humming and crackling with electricity. The robots around its periphery retreated to stand like silent sentinels and watch as the air above the Well began to ripple and glow, blue-green sparks dancing across its surface.

“So it’s too late?” Tom shouted over the roar of the machinery below. Jef just nodded, not looking up at him, picking at the baseball.

“So be it,” Gaunt said, and did something curious and crackling with the bones of his imprisoned arm. He dropped out of his coat, tuxedo jacket and trousers fluttering as he fell to the ground, and rolled as he hit solid stone. When he came up, there were pistols in his hands, trained up at the mechanical man as it bent down and raised its hand. The energies of Jef’s Electroplasmic Ray began to flower, eye-searingly bright, in its outstretched palm.

Gaunt put two bullets square through its electric eye. The metal man wavered, emitting a mechanical screech of protesting circuits, and released Ruby. Gaunt was there to catch her, and together they whirled out of the way just in time as the robot toppled with a thunderous crash and began to slide heavy and clanking down the long stone staircase.

Tom turned at the sudden sound of shattering glass, and saw that Hark had swung himself up and around to plunge one of his stone knives into this steel captor’s electric eye. He wriggled free as its grip slackened, and as the mechanical man tottered backward and plunged off the edge of the stone outcropping, Hark leaped with powerful muscles across to the metal giant holding Tom. He landed on its shoulders, stabbed stone knives into either side of its head, showering Tom with sparks and bits of glass. Tom felt himself falling and landed hard, rolling. Coming up dazed. From somewhere far above, he heard Hark shout, “Move it, old chap!” Metal screeched and groaned above him, and Tom scrambled to safety as the last of their steel captors crashed lifeless to the ground behind him, Hark astride its shoulders with his blades raised in primal triumph.

“Now that’s satisfying sport,” the Lord of the Lost World grinned.

A shout from Ruby drew Tom’s eyes to the edge of the outcropping. The dark form of Mister Gaunt was advancing upon Jef, who sat peacefully in the black magnetic dust, looking up at the silver pistols gleaming in Gaunt’s gloved hands.

“Gaunt, no!” Tom shouted, breaking into a run, Hark at his side. Ruby was already at Gaunt’s elbow, trying to tug him away, but Gaunt stalked onward, inexorable.

“You have taken life,” Gaunt hissed at Jef. “You have consorted with the wicked. Forgive me, child, but Hell awaits.”

“Would you?” Jef looked up at him, pleading. “Oh, would you please? I think I’m already there.”

Gaunt took a step back, and his gun hands visibly trembled. As Tom reached his side, he saw something frightening and unfamiliar in Gaunt’s eyes. Pity.

“Come on, Gaunt,” Tom pleaded. “There’s no time. If we’re going to stop this, I need you with us, now.”

Gaunt just made a noise in the back of his throat and turned away. “What must we do?”

“You and Hark keep the robots off us,” Tom shouted over the growing roar of the strange energies lashing across the surface of the Well. “Ruby, you’re with me! Go!” As one, they scrambled over the fallen bodies of the metal men, and dashed down the stairs toward the edge of the Well.

Jefferson Edison Franklin, age 12, sat weeping at the edge of precipice, the lights of unearthly energies dancing reflected in his glasses, and waited for the world to end.

The mechanical men began advancing, as one force, before they’d even reached the bottom of the stairs. They lifted their hands, palms out, and the sizzling beams of Jef’s Electroplasmic Ray burst forth.

Gaunt and Hark forked off to either side, Gaunt clutching his pistols, Hark running low to the ground with his knives, as a blast boiled the stone floor between them. Tom and Ruby ducked as another beam scorched just over their heads, cutting a glowing molten scar into the rock face beyond.

Gaunt opened fire with his pistols, ducking and whirling as the deadly beams lanced all around him. He began to laugh.

Hark leapt, swung from one of the robots’ stiff metal limbs, and vaulted up into the air, knives poised to plunge into the thing’s head.

Through the chaos, Tom and Ruby ran, ducking through the lumbering legs of the mechanical men, toward the base of the steel parabola that held the needle suspended over the heart of the Well. There was a ladder built into the side of it, and without a word, Tom all but flung Ruby up onto it, and clambered after her.

The air rang with the screeching bursts of energy from the mechanical men’s ray beams, and the searing, shimmering harmonies of the rippling bright vortex of the Well, as Tom and Ruby climbed ever higher. Here and there, they could pick out bits of Gaunt’s mad, exultant laughter, or Hark’s cries of savage triumph, from the battle below.

The ladder arched up to a dizzying height, until Tom and Ruby stood perilously atop it, the wild rippling surface of the Well below, and the cylindrical top of the needle-like device just before them. With Ruby’s help, Tom ripped free an access panel from the surface of the needle; they watched it spiral into the roaring energies below, and boil to nothingness in a split-second flash.

“We’ve got to shut it down!” Tom shouted, barely audible above the surrounding din. Below, a robot stumbled backward, falling into the surface of the Well, erupting into steam and fire.

He reached in to tear out wires, any wires, whichever first came to hand. And then a whine just within the range of hearing rose to ear-splitting intensity, and the entire mechanism thrummed, and blue-white electricity began to surge and congregate at the tip of the needle, inches above the surface of the Well.

The entire mechanism groaned and shuddered under unimaginable stresses, and Tom felt himself thrown off balance. He tumbled into space, momentarily consumed by the sickening sensation of a world with no solid ground. A hand reached out and grasped his own.

Ruby, lying full on her stomach, held Tom dangling by one hand far above the Well.

“I’m slipping, Tom!” Ruby screamed, desperation etched in her face. She stretched out another hand. “Grab on! Please, Tom!”

Tom reached up, his finger tips cruelly brushing hers. Just another few centimeters could save him from certain death.

And then a bolt of energy lanced from the tip of the needle down into the surface of the Well, and it was simply too late.

In the split-second before the world turned into white, dissolving light, Tom Morrow realized he had the solution that would save them all.

Unfortunately, it was the solution to entirely the wrong problem.

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