Friday, November 10, 2006

1932, 9. The Mastermind Revealed

“Are you even remotely sure this will work?” Hark asked.

Tom stood at the edge of the white room, taking slow, deep breaths. His hands shook loosely at his sides, like a gunfighter preparing to draw.

“Nope,” Tom said, keeping his gaze intently on the grid lines spanning the floor of the deadly chamber. “So stand back. If it works, I’ll wait for you to follow me.”

Hark, Ruby, and Gaunt withdrew from the doorway, flattening themselves against the doors to either side.

“Don’t do anything stupid, Tom,” Ruby said, by way of wishing him luck.

“How would I ever have any fun?” Tom said, and took one big step onto the white square just inside the doorway.

And then, as the panels around him began to revolve, revealing their deadly workings, Tom took a quick leap to the left, into the momentary gap created by the revolving square of floor, and plunged into the darkness below.

A brace of pneumatically powered spikes hissed inward from either side, neatly skewering the space where Tom had stood. From the square just beyond, an automatic Gatling gun spat blazing rounds through the doorway and into the gloom of the chamber of stone machinery. After a few seconds, the firing stops, the machinery sank back, and the squares revolved once more to leave the floor bare.

Gaunt, Hark, and Ruby slowly peered around the empty doorway, at the blank white square where Tom had stood.

“Ten bucks says he lived,” Ruby said at last.

“Too easy,” Gaunt replied.

Tom had let himself go limp as he fell through the floor, the Morrow Personal Immobilizer and its ammo tank hugged against his chest, and tucked into a roll when his feet hit solid stone far beneath. His momentum had carried him an uncertain distance across the ground, and in the dark, he lay on his back and took a dizzy moment to catch his breath and make sure he’d broken or sprained nothing. Wherever he was, it was warm and humid, heat rising from the floor. Tom guessed geothermal vents. The air was close, but clean, and Tom smelled oil and ozone.

Having left his Chemoluminous Rod above with Ruby, he carefully fished a spare from inside his jacket, twisted its central portion with a snap to commingle the luminous chemicals within, and shook it to activate them.

In the rising green glow of the rod, Tom saw a gleaming nest of blades take shape from the darkness directly above him.

His heart leapt for a moment, until he realized he was staring up at one of the inert death-machines mounted to the underside of the panels above. His guess had been correct.

Nearby machinery stirred, jerking to life with mechanical swiftness. Shafts of light cut through the darkness about seven feet from Tom, around where he’d landed, as the floor panels flipped over once more. Tom saw Hark, Ruby in his arms, drop through the opening and land effortlessly in a crouch.

“Move!” Tom called. “The machines’ll come back down on top of you!”

Hark unceremoniously shoved Ruby to the side, into one of the narrow but navigable gaps between the upside-down forest of lethal machinery. He just managed to roll to safety himself as the panel directly above him flipped back over again, spikes plunging downward to dangle in their ready position.

Silence descended upon the crowded chamber once again. Tom scooted out beneath the machine above him and got up on one knee, holding up the rod to cast a faint light across Hark and Ruby a few feet away.

“Everyone all right?” he called.

“Bit of a rough landing there, your Lordship,” Ruby said, sitting up and brushing herself off.

“Terribly sorry,” Hark shrugged. “Couldn’t be helped.”

“You were right, Tom,” Ruby said. “If there are machines under the floor...”

“... there’s got to be a way to maintain them,” Tom finished. “Proper maintenance is the key to any truly effective deathtrap, I’ve come to think. Is Gaunt still above?”

“No,” a familiar voice echoed, and Gaunt stepped into the circle of slight cast by Tom’s rod.

“I didn’t see you fall,” Tom said, impressed.

“Precisely,” Gaunt replied. “Where to from here?”

“Well,” Tom said, as Hark and Ruby made their way cautiously through the machines to join him, “the opposite door was thatway, and if there’s a maintenance door into this room, it’s probably coming from the Well at the other side.” He slung the Immobilizer’s harness around his shoulders and checked the device to make sure it remained in working order. “Care to have a look?”

Slowly, gingerly, the four companions crossed the chamber in small steps. All around them, saws and knives and weapons of modern war hung like sleeping bats. Sweat began to trickle down Tom’s forehead in the heat; through his boots, through the floor, he could feel once more the thrum of vast machines rumbling from the chamber beyond.

“Tom,” Ruby said slowly, “engineer to engineer -- why isn’t this space booby-trapped like the room above?”

“Well,” Tom replied, “it’d be pretty silly for anyone to want to kill off their own henchmen in the course of routine maintenance --”

“Phineas Shaade,” Hark and Gaunt said dryly, almost simultaneously.

“And look how much trouble he had finding good help,” Tom continued. “Of course, I guess he could set it up so that the security system only worked if you entered the room through some means other than the door, but you’d have to be one heck of a thinker for the possibly to even occur to you that--”

All around them, the workings of death sprang to sudden life, automated chambers loading with fresh rounds, blades retracting with crisp, cutting sounds in readiness to strike.

“Oh, right,” Tom said softly, in the instant before all Hell broke loose. “Should have given him more credit.”

All four hurled themselves to the floor as a nightmare of mechanized slaughter erupted above them. Tom felt the hot blast of a flamethrower scorch the air inches above his back, searing the Morrow Personal Immobilizer’s storage tank; he’d just managed to hit the release straps before a knife blade scissored down, punctured the tank with a hiss, and lifted it off his back and into the killing field above.

“Crawl!” Tom shouted over the din. Inch by inch, clinging to the floor for their very lives, the companions made their way through a sizzling, slicing gauntlet of murder. Hot shell casings and bits of molten metal rained down above them as the machines worked their deadly arts on one another.

As Tom at last reached the flat, featureless stone wall on the far side of the chamber, the sounds of the killing machinery had begun to sputter and die. Powerful blades bit into machine gun nests, which spat punishing barrages into flamethrowers, which melted the blades in turn with roiling blasts of blazing kerosene. As the others reached him, the last of the machines finally fell silent.

“Well,” Tom breathed at last, “that wasn’t--”

“Don’t say it!” Ruby shouted, but it was too late. From the darkness there came a twang of snapping metal, and a whistling, and an errant, half-metal blade streaked out of the gloom and embedded itself two inches into the stone just above Tom’s head.

“Right,” Tom said at last. “I stand corrected.”

“Fond as I am,” Hark chimed in, “of crawling through dark, enclosed spaces filled with things that wish to reduce me to bits and viscera, might I suggest we find that door you spoke of?”

“Here,” Gaunt said, suddenly standing a few feet away against the wall, grunting as he turned a steel wheel to unlock a metal hatch. It swung open on well-oiled hinges, and a breath of cool air drifted through. “Let’s not wait around, shall we?”

They emerged into a tall, narrow passageway of stone, and Gaunt wasted no time resealing the steel door behind them. Small fires guttered in the mouths of carved rock faces along the walls.

“Look familiar?” Ruby said. “These are the ceremonial chambers under the Well. Villefort had me locked up down here while he was planning his little ritual.”

“How did you get out, anyway?” Tom asked as the group carefully advanced among the cool, moisture-dripping walls. “I still can’t figure it out.”

“Give me a place to stand...” Ruby quoted. “That’s your only clue.”

“Leverage, huh?” Tom mused. “One of these days...”

“Engineers,” Hark sighed to himself. At his side, Gaunt coughed meaningfully. “Present company excluded,” Hark added quickly, and Gaunt nodded. Hark sniffed the air, cocked his head, shifted his weight.

“What is it?” Ruby asked, turning back.

“Someone’s nearby,” Hark said. “Been here a few days, I’d imagine. I smell -- well, it’s nothing pleasant. A prisoner.”

Tom met Hark’s gaze. “Satel?” he said, and the Lord of the Lost World nodded. “Alive, thank heaven. Though in what state, I couldn’t say.”

“Let’s find out,” Tom said. “Lead the way.”

Hark, his sensitive, jungle-trained nose flaring almost imperceptibly, following invisible trails of commingled scents, led them through the twisting maze of passages, stopping at last at a thick stone door, featureless save for a circular jade lock with an octagonal keyhole, and a small slit just big enough to see through.

“Dr. Satel,” Tom called softly through the door. “Arlos, it’s Tom Morrow. We’ve come to save you.”

Chains clanked somewhere inside, and Tom heard a slow, painful shuffling of feet against stone. A face within loomed into the light cast by Tom’s Chemoluminous Rod, and for a moment, Tom started back. It was a visage so haggard, so frightened and strained, that at first he didn’t recognize it.

“Yes, it’s me,” Dr. Arlos Satel said softly, sadly. “Hello, Tom. You have perhaps brought my favorite tea-cakes from Nagel’s?”

“Sorry, Doctor,” Tom said, pressing a hand against the cold, unyielding stone of the cell door. “No room for them this trip. Sit tight and we’ll get you out.”

“No time,” Satel said, urgency rising in his voice. “Tom, you must listen. He’s gone mad, Tom, absolutely mad. He’s no longer anyone you knew. He’ll kill you in a heartbeat -- I saw him kill Reinhard, Sullivan -- all my assistants. Just because there wasn’t room for them on the plane.”

“I’ve got to believe I can reach him,” Tom said, his jaw set with determination. “Look, give me a few minutes -- I cracked one of these jade clockwork locks the last time I was here, and--”

“Will you listen for once?” Satel cried. “There’s no time! Even now he prepares the machine. I swear to you, Tom, I never imagined it could be put to such purpose. What he proposes to do -- it’s beyond the bounds of reason.”

“Which is why we need you out of there and helping us,” Tom said, but the ragged doctor only shook his head, tangles of unwashed hair falling into his eyes.

“I’d only slow you down in my... condition,” Satel said softly. “It would be no good for one of you to carry me.”

“What do you mean?” Tom asked, heart slowly sinking.

“When he told me of his designs...” Satel began, and then stopped, swallowing hard. “The second time I broke free and tried to throw myself into the Well, he... he had my hamstrings cut.”

Even Gaunt was left silent and shocked. Tom heard a cracking sound, and looked down to see his own fist clenching so tightly that his knuckles popped.

“We’ll come back for you,” Tom vowed, and behind him, his companions nodded grimly.

“If any of us are left to come back to -- or for,” Satel replied, and laughed without mirth. “Go, Tom. End of the corridor, two lefts, a right, and straight ahead to the second left. Stop him. Godspeed to you.”

The doctor’s hand, fingernails filthy and ragged, crawled spiderlike through the gap in the door, and Tom closed his own hand over it for a moment. Then he joined his friends in a dead run down the corridor, following the dcotor’s directions.

They led to a stone ladder, narrow rungs ascending some twelve feet up to a round metal grating. Strange, rippling blue light filtered down through the grating. In silence, Tom led the climb up the ladder, the dust of ancient empires grinding softly beneath his fingers and boots.

He had nearly reached the top, Hark, Gaunt, and Ruby behind him, when he froze in place, holding up a hand for silence. Something loud and metal clanged closer, up above the grate. Tom held his breath, flattening himself against the ladder, as the clanging noise grew louder. A shadow fell across the grate, and the clanging stopped. Tom waited for endless seconds.

At length, the clanging resumed, growing more steadily more distant. Tom exhaled, reliefed.

Something from above tore the grating off with a sudden shriek of metal. Before Tom could move, unbreakable steel fingers had plunged into the tunnel and seized around his shoulder. He was yanked roughly upward, stomach lurching, his shoulder scraping against the stone edges of the tunnel, and found himself dangling ten feet off the ground, eye to electric eye with time cold, impassive face of a hulking robot.

“GREETINGS-TOM-MORROW,” it clicked in staticky, prerecorded syllables. Tom looked around and saw two more metal men surrounding the shaft up from the dungeons, their right hands outstretched toward it, strange nimbuses of electrical fire coruscating from their palms.

“PLEASE-COME-UP-AND-SURRENDER-OR-WE-WILL-FIRE,” the robot recited. Slowly, grudgingly, Hark and Ruby hauled themselves up from the tunnel and were promptly whisked off their feet to hang painfully in the metal men’s grips.

The robots waited a few more seconds, looking down at the grating.


With a hiss of pure, spine-tingling hatred, Gaunt emerged from the tunnel. The robot holding Ruby reached down with its spare hand, snatched Gaunt up, and then proceeded to shake him. Sharp and glittering and dangerous things fell from his coat and clattered on the stone floor.

“I don’t know how those got there,” Gaunt rasped.

“RESPONSE-IRRELEVANT,” the robot holding him said. As one, the three robots executed a crisp turn and stomped off across the vast, echoing chamber hewn from the heart of a mountain, to the jutting stone promontory that overlooked the beckoning pit, a quarter-mile in circumference, at its center. The Well of Aeons Lost, the people who’d built this place had called it; the pit where the ancient and terrible gods who scarred the furthest murky reaches of their tribal memory had supposedly gone, tiring of their rule over the world of men, to sleep away the centuries.

Around the periphery of the pit, a dangling Tom saw other robots hard at work, making the final adjustments to a vast metal ring, bristling with wires and tubes, that completely encircled the Well. Above it, rising on a gleaming steel parabola to point straight down at the black, depthless heart of the pit, a twenty-foot needle of sleek, fluted metal descended to a point. Tom checked the construction against his memory of the plans Satel had sent him, all those long days before, in the pneumatic tube at the Lookout, and knew that what he saw boded nothing good.

The robots trundled Tom and his friends up the long, rough stone steps to the height of the outcropping, where a single small figure stood, overlooking the busy activity below. He tossed something lightly up from one hand, then caught it, again and again. A baseball.

The figure turned. He wore a dusty white shirt, streaked with something dark and brownish-red, and well-worn denim overalls, and red tennis shoes, the laces untied. Above the wide round spectacles that magnified his thoughtful blue eyes, his head was shaved down to a fine nub of sandy blonde stubble, and his scalp was livid with dark red scars, freshly carved in strange lines and patterns that covered the entire top and sides of his skull.

He was no more than twelve years old.

“Hello, Tom,” he said softly, and tossed up the baseball, and caught it again.

“Hello, Jef,” Tom replied. “I see you’ve been busy.”

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