Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Unbreakable Door, The Impossible Key

“You sure you wan’ to do this?” Agent 492 asked, her elbow resting on the seatback, her brow furrowed with maternal concern.

“I don’t think we have a choice,” Trip said, risking a quick glance back through his passenger’s side window. “Here they come.”

The two black-coated men who had stood sentinel outside the entrance to 919 North Michigan -- as Trip had half expecred, half-dreaded they would -- had locked eerie gray eyes onto their cab as it made a leisurely pass by the front doors, just another particle in the daily flow of traffic. Now, as one, they were gliding out into the flow of traffic in steady, determined steps, seemingly unnoticed by the passing traffic. They moved through the spaces between the passing cars as if they knew exactly where each gap would be, and with traffic thick and choked from some snarl back down Michigan, the black-coated men were swiftly gaining on the cab.

Trip cast a nervous look at Sully, who exhaled, flicking the cap of her lighter off and on, and winked at him. “Trust me,” she said. “I know from magic.”

“All right,” Agent 492 sighed, her shoulders rising and falling like a mountain range. She scooped up the radio on the dashboard and thumbed the switch. “Agent 270, Agent 531, is you ready?”

Voices crackled across the airwaves in affirmation. Sully put one hand on the door latch and, surprisingly, found the other meshed in Trip’s. His palm was sweating, even more than hers, and his fingers were slender and calloused. Piano hands, she thought.

“Go wit’ God, you two, and if you ever need a cab--” 492 began.

“We’ll call,” Trip said, grinning nervously. The black-coated men were a carlength away, fingers dipping into their sleeves.

A gap in traffic opened, and 492’s cab raced forward, swooping into a new lane. A second cab appeared in the next lane over, driving up from behind it, and from the opposite side of the double yellow line, a third cab pulled forward, drawing even with 492’s cab.

Both rear doors of 492’s cab opened, and the rear doors of 531 and 270’s cabs as well. For the briefest of moments, the ceaseless gray gaze of the pursuing black-coated men was blocked by the jostling traffic and the yellow wings of the open doors.

Then the doors slammed shut, and traffic cleared for a moment, and the cabs sped off in three different directions; one north, one south, and one veering west. The two black-coated men paused, exchanged a chill and silent glance, and began to sprint through the moving traffic in opposite directions, pursuing two of the three cabs.

All of which were, in fact, currently unoccupied, save for their drivers.

Clinging side by side to the utility ladder as the traffic thrummed inches above their heads, Trip and Sully gave one last tug at the underside of the manhole cover. It screeched into place, and they were alone in the semidarkness, hearts hammering and arms aching.

“I didn’t think that would work,” Trip said, flexing his free arm, the memory of team-lifting the manhole cover still fresh. “Ow.”

“Like I said,” Sully sighed, slowly rotating one shoulder, already feeling the impending ache, “magic.”

They began to descend the ladder, Trip first, then Sully. “Correct me if I’m wrong,” Sully said, “but... uh... shouldn’t it stink to high heaven down here? Being the sewers and all?”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” said Trip, risking a deep breath. The air was close, and humid, but surprisingly non-rancid. It smelled curiously verdant -- alive, even. Like a greenhouse. “And have you noticed the light?”

“That’s not your flashlight?” Sully called down, concern in her voice.

“Never took it out of my pocket,” Trip said, amid the soft grey-white glow that increasingly filtered into the shaft they descended from the opening not far below.

Trip reached the bottom rung of the ladder, took a deep breath, and dropped the last few feet into the access shaft below. His shoes splashed in a few inches of stagnant water, but again, the expected stench was nowhere to be found. “There’s a tunnel,” Trip called up. “Maybe five feet high, looks like it leads to the main line. Watch your head.”

Sully reached the bottom of the ladder, grimacing as the disquietingly warm water surged up around her boots -- doing the leather no favors, for certain -- and ducked slightly, feeling her hair bristle softly against the concrete ceiling of the tunnel. Ahead, she could see Trip silhouetted by the same soft, strange light, and when she emerged into the main sewer line--

“Holy crap,” Sully said, forgetting to stand up.

“Something like that,” Trip replied, equally awestruck.

It could be recognized, by its general outlines and structure if nothing else, as a conventional sewer tunnel -- the product of doggedly rational society. But the brick and concrete walls were now veined by glowing lines and blooms of strange, radiant white crystals that cast an eerie glow on the surroundings. What should have been reeking, stagnant muck around their ankles was only mildly cloudy, silt-filled water, feeding a sprawling, patchy carpet of leafy green plants that stretched the entire visible length of the tunnels in both directions.

“I’ve heard of things like this,” Trip breathed quietly, bending down to touch one soft, waxy leaf of the tangled plants. “Wetland plants as natural water filtration systems. But never in a city sewer system. I don’t recognize any of these things.”

“Forget the plants,” Sully said, gingerly reaching out to touch one of the masses of crystals spiking forth from the tunnel wall. It seemed to hum beneath her fingers, a sound that resonated up through her bones and into her skull, and she yanked her hand away quickly. “What the hell is this stuff? Did your grandpop write about anything like this?”

“Not so far,” Trip said, standing and shifting his backpack around to dig through it for his grandfather’s journal. Since this morning, it had sprouted a few new stickers scattered around the cover -- Samarkand, Outer Mongolia, Mozambique, and Brazil -- and several months’ worth of mundane observations and workplace sketches had given way to accounts of Tom Morrow and the Special Science Division’s battle with Dr. Wendell Wattson, the Living Dynamo, and their thwarting of the League of Iniquity’s plot to blackmail the President. Trip flipped to one of the newer entries, a crude map of the underground access tunnels Tom Morrow had constructed to and from the basement of 919 North Michigan.

“We’re, what, just south of the Drake, near Lakeshore, right?” Tom asked, consulting his grandfather’s hand-sketched tunnel map by the crystals’ odd glow. He looked up at Sully, who shrugged emphatically. “Oh, right -- not your city.”

“If we were in L.A...” Sully sighed, and the corner of Trip’s mouth quirked in a smile.

“Okay,” he said, letting his hand drift momentarily in the air before pointing out a direction. “I think the entrance is back this way.”

“Lead on, MacDuff,” Sully said, uneasily jerking one boot from a tangle of vines. “Long as we’re going somewhere. I could swear this stuff is moving.”

They set off together down the tunnel, illuminated by the weird crystal-light, the sound of their splashing feet and the lapping water echoing up and down the passageways.

“So tell me something,” Sully said at last, dodging an outcropping of crystal breakthing through the concrete ceiling of the tunnel. Trip lifted his head from the journal and looked at her quizzically.

“Tell you what?” he asked.

“Something about yourself,” Sully replied. “I just really need something to make me forget I’m, you know, in a sewer. How’d you get into the making-stuff business?”

“I guess it’d be Trish’s fault,” Trip said after a few seconds’ pause. “My big sister. Patricia. You have any siblings?”

“Only child,” Sully sighed.

“Lucky you,” Trip smiled. “Oh, man, she gave me all kinds of hell. I was born when she was five, so I was like this eternal tagalong embarassment, her bookworm little brother always breaking into her slumber parties.”

“So why’s it her fault?” Sully asked him, and Trip’s face grew still and quiet for a moment.

“She died,” he said. “She was coming home from theater practice one night -- she was the lead in Our Town -- and it was raining. The best the police could figure, her brakes failed, and she hit a wet patch of road and went into a tree. By the time the ambulance got there...” Trip fell silent.

“I’m sorry,” Sully told him, because she knew of nothing else to say.

“It was weird,” Trip began again, suddenly, speaking quickly, as if each word were another giant step placing him farther from the memory. “My dad was always on the road, and suddenly he became Mr. Stay-at-Home, wanting to spend more time with us. My mom just started cooking and didn’t stop for about a month; I think we had to give some to the food bank after she filled up the neighbors’ freezers. And me -- I was just barely into middle school, and I couldn’t understand why it had to happen. I still don’t -- in a metaphysical sense, I mean.” He paused, exhaled, shaking his head slowly.

“So I started reading about it,” Trip said. He didn’t look at her, Sully noticed. His gaze stayed fixed ahead, as if he were seeing the diagrams in his mind. “About accidents, and brakes -- how they work, why the ones on Trish’s car had failed. And eventually, I -- this is silly, I admit -- I wrote the car company and sent them a diagram for better brakes.”

“And?” Sully said, after several seconds of silence.

“And they, uh, they actually used it,” Trip said. “Sent me a check for five hundred bucks. I think they kept it quiet, because they didn’t want the papers hearing that some twelve-year-old kid had done it. But I checked the statistics, and every model year after, brake failures went down.” Sully watched a calm smile alight on Trip’s face for a moment, then vanish.

“So that was it,” Trip said. “I got bitten by the bug. In high school, my grandpa got me an internship at Bell Labs -- not with him, just making copies and stuff, but eventually I got to work on wiring for switching systems. I did Army ROTC to pay for college at Cornell, and went active duty when I graduated -- you know, see the world, stuff like that.”

“Did you?” Sully asked. So far, in working with OMG, she’d seen a great many suburban shopping malls, most of the great cities of the United States, and once, briefly, Canada. She’d had high hopes for a European tour, provided the man famed for his death-defying feats would ever get over crippling his terror of air travel.

“Sort of,” Trip smiled. “Hang a right up here. I saw the inside of tanks in Turkey, the inside of helicopters in Croatia, the inside of more tanks in Alabama... So I got out when my commitment was up, used the GI Bill for grad school in mechanical engineering, and did some effects work with a friend of mine for a while. He left to join one of the big houses after a few years, and I went freelance, doing industrial design and stuff.”

“And robot magicians,” Sully noted.

“And robot magicians,” Trip added. “Which is way more fun, I should say, than the fake severed arm they had me design for Death House 2.”

“Oh, God, I saw that,” Sully grimaced, remembering video night on OMG’s tour bus. “Is that the one that was all wriggling and flailing and--” Trip just nodded emphatically. “Well, it grossed me the hell out,” she offered.

“Another satisfied customer,” Trip laughed. “Okay, it should be another left, and then-- oh. Wow.”

The tunnel had suddenly opened into a vast room that hummed with the motion of generators and motors somewhere nearby. Concrete stairs led up to a single elevator shaft that rose through the ceiling; in glossy bronze above the elevator doors, the letters 919 gleamed faintly in the half-light from a ring of industrial bulbs on the railing surrounding the ascending shaft.

“Your grandpa had style,” Sully said, letting out a low whistle.

“Can’t believe it was him,” Trip replied. “The Tom Morrow I knew never even got his socks to match.”

They climbed the steps to find a call button set into the wall of the elevator tube, next to the glossy, tightly sealed doors. Trip shrugged and pressed the button, then took a quick hop back as long-unused cables sang and snapped somewhere inside the tube, and counterweights creaked to life. After a minute or so of mechanical groaning, the doors peeled themselves open, revealing the smooth, reflective silver walls of the car within.

“Ladies first?” Trip offered. Sully smirked.

“Thanks loads,” she said, and stepped cautiously into the car. “Huh. There’s only one button,” she noted, studying the panel as Trip joined her.

“At least it’s not complicated,” Trip said, and pushed the button. The doors slid shut, the car lurched, and Trip and Sully’s stomachs registered a sudden but measured upward motion.

The trip took nearly a minute, which passed mostly in silence as Trip and Sully waited, nervous, expectant.

“What if those creepy Needlemen are up there waiting for us?” Sully asked as the car finally began to slow.

“Press the button again,” Trip replied. The car creaked to a halt. The doors slid open.

The anteroom was empty, spotlessly white, and though the air smelled musty and uncirculated, it was free of dust or cobwebs. Trip briefly noted a second elevator door beside the one from which they emerged -- part of the building’s regular system, he supposed -- before his attention was fixed on the huge circular door that faced them.

It could only be a door -- and yet it was completely smooth, featureless, almost perfectly reflective. There was no handle, no keyhole, nothing. An impenetrable wall of steel.

“Hello?” Trip called. Nothing. “Open sesame?”

Sully knocked on the door. “Cold,” she said. “And it feels thick. I don’t suppose your grandpa packed you a key?”

Trip fished out the cigar box and laid out the contents on the smooth, marble-tiled floor of the antechamber. “It can’t be this,” Trip said, holding up the gyroscope, and peering from it to the door. “There’s no interface -- no place to put it. And I’m guessing the black dust is out, too.”

“Damn,” Sully sighed, paging through the pulp magazine. “It talks about Tom Morrow using his ‘secret key’ to open the ‘unbreakable door,’ but it doesn’t say what the thing is.”

Trip picked up one of the tuning forks and struck it against the marble floor. It made a high, chiming resonance, but nothing happened. He tried the other, and a lower tone echoed and reverberated through the room.

The door didn’t budge.

“Wait,” Sully said, a light coming into her eyes. She picked up both tuning forks at once, cast a quick wish-me-luck glance at Trip, and struck them both against the floor.

The two notes rang out simultaneously, mingling -- forming a chord, with a third note seeming to appear in the harmony between the two. And with the clack of tumblers and the grinding of powerful gears, the blank silver door unsealed and slowly swung open.

“You’re good,” Trip said, impressed, and he and Sully packed the artifacts back into the cigar box.

“You’re just now noticing,” Sully shot back, but she was smiling as she said it.

Trip shouldered his backpack, pulled the door wider, and he and Sully stepped slowly into the chamber beyond--

Trip heard Sully yelp, and a sudden crash. Then something moved near him, very quickly, and the world spun itself until Trip was lying on the floor with a very sharp, very cold blade pressed against his throat. A face loomed into his vision -- a young man, disheveled, vaguely aristocratic, and apparently very unhappy.

“Right,” his captor said. “I have a very large knife at your throat, and I’m not entirely certain I know how to use it. Which, upon reflection, is probably rather worse for you than for me. Start talking.”

“Hello,” Trip said, and tried not to swallow.

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