From behind the vast, circular steel door to Tom Morrow’s Lookout, the sounds of mortal combat echoed.
Ruby Gale and Harker Windham listened, ears all but pressed to the cold metal surface of the door, to the scuffles and grunts and impacts of fist and foot on flesh and bone seeping through from far side of the door. At his workbench in the center of the room, seemingly oblivious to his friends or the calamity just outside, Tom Morrow sketched a design in his battered, leatherbound journal. His green eyes were narrowed, his brow set in unbending concentration.
From beyond the door, Hark and Ruby heard a final thud, a series of low, wet gurgles, and then, for a moment, silence. Something heavy squeaked and dragged against the anteroom’s floors, and then elevator doors dinged and rumbled open. There were more awkward scufflings and thumpings; the elevator doors slid shut, hesitantly, with a few false starts; and the elevator car could be heard descending away into the shaft.
On the opposite side of the door, someone cleared his ragged, scarred throat in familiar annoyance.
Without even looking up, Tom nodded, and Hark and Ruby turned the latch to the unbreakable door. It swung wide, revealing Mister Gaunt, brushing off the sleeves of his smoke-reeking coat.
“Thanks for the help,” he rasped, fingering a newly opened knife-gash in one sleeve.
Tom’s head lifted, fixing Gaunt with a cool green stare. “There’s been enough death in here today.”
“But the anteroom is fine, apparently.” Gaunt shot back, pushing the door shut behind him.
“I thought we were meant to leave our work at home for this one,” Hark said lightly, grinning. The deep brown suit he wore was impeccably tailored to the dimensions of his muscular frame, yet it seemed slightly, subtly wrong for him nonetheless.
“The League of Disrepute is regrettably persistent,” Gaunt rasped. “He followed me through the sewers.”
Ruby rolled her eyes in sympathy. “I remember one time, I flew all the way back from San Francisco with one of those guys tucked up in the wheel well. Musta been half-froze by the time we landed, but I get out of the plane, and sure enough, there he is trying to put a dagger in me.”
“You did put him in the secret elevator, right?” Tom asked, and Gaunt sighed.
“How many times must I apologize?” Gaunt said. “Besides, that was last year.”
“The Tenants’ Association has a long memory,” Tom shrugged, “and they really didn’t appreciate a laundry cart full of dead Thugees rolling through the lobby in the middle of the Society Matron’s meeting.”
“I’d suggest you cultivate fewer enemies, but...” Hark began, and Gaunt spat out a knowing, contemptuous laugh.
“I’m... sorry about your people, Morrow,” the magician said, his voice turning somber. “They were kind to me, and to Miss Sullivan besides. She tells me this is urgent.”
“Tal Xan Sherat,” Tom said. “The Sanctum of Sleeping Gods in the Himalayas. Ruby, Lasso, and I went there the summer before last.”
Hark nodded. “Nasty business, I heard.”
“We’ve got to go back,” Tom said. “Satel’s gone, and the dust I found in what’s left of his lab matches the black magnetic soil Lasso collected near the Well of Aeons Lost.”
“Okay, so whoever took Satel was there,” Ruby offered. “But how do we know he still is? I mean, no offense -- you need wings, I’m your girl. But we had a hard enough time getting in and out of there in one piece the first time. I’m not exactly looking forward to a second trip.”
“I called Parkersville,” Tom told them quietly. “Jef went missing a couple of months back. His folks are... the sheriff had to think a bit before he settled on ‘dead,’ which tells me something. He said they found something in Jef’s notes -- his latest project. From what the sherriff said, it looked an awful lot like this.” He unfolded the diagrams Satel had sent him and handed them to Ruby, who frowned, and passed them along to Hark and Gaunt.
“Some kind of electrical ring,” Hark mused. “I shouldn’t be surprised, knowing Satel. The man’s positively mad about voltage.”
“It’s more than that,” Tom replied darkly. “Satel was trying to create an extremely focused field of energy -- wear the fabric of space-time thin enough to study its elemental properties. Trying to see the building blocks of the universe.”
“So?” Gaunt rumbled.
“So Satel’s device --” Tom began, and then stopped. The fine hairs on the backs of his hands and the nape of his neck were prickling. The air had suddenly filled with the heavy, pregnant scent of ozone, precursor of storms.
Hark’s eyes narrowed in concentration. “Tom,” he said, “have you any machinery active at present?”
Tom opened his mouth to speak, shut it suddenly, opened it again. “The Looking Glass,” he said softly.
The blue light was spilling out of the laboratory door, casting strange, rippling shadows on the walls. The four edged slowly into the room as the device hummed and crackled, sparks corsucating around the edges, weaving a web of undulating radiance at its center.
“Tom,” Ruby said softly, “what the hell is that thing supposed to do?”
“Absolutely nothing,” Tom said. “It was a just a crazy notion Danny and I had about...”
“About what?” Hark asked cautiously.
“About time travel,” Tom sighed.
Gaunt moved almost imperceptibly, and there were guns in his hands, hammers cocked, aimed at the widening web of light. “At least when I broke the laws of physics,” Gaunt growled, “I was only pretending.”
“How did you activate it?” Ruby asked Tom, as the light intensified to eye-searing brightness.
“I didn’t!” Tom said, beginning to shout over the rising whine of the coils. “There’s no way to activate it from this end! It uses the alignment of the Earth’s magnetic field to connect a single point in space at two different points in time, measuring the decay of a small quantity of harmless isotope to determine the distance in time! But it can only be activated from the future -- and then only theoretically!”
“How theoretical is that?” Ruby asked, and pointed to the portal. There, amidst the almost overwhelming glow of the open portal, was a human hand, stretching through.
Gaunt raised his guns, but Tom flung an arm out to smack them down. “Wait!” Tom shouted. “The ring!”
The hand wore a silver-and-amber signet ring -- exactly like the one Tom had received from the Order of St. Fiacre.
Before anyone could stop him, Tom charged toward the device, seizing the protruding hand with both of his own. And with a single, swift jerk, Tom pulled an entire person through the Looking Glass to land in a heap on the floor of his lab.
Tom Morrow looked down on the floor, and for an instant, saw himself staring back. Then details resolved themselves; this him was more slender, with a different nose, and eyes a thoughtful brown instead of unearthly green.
“Grandpa?” the young man on the floor said, and Tom, Hark, Gaunt, and Ruby all looked at one another in an instant of commingled horror and amazement.
“Hey!” barked a voice from the Looking Glass, a young woman’s. “Get the hell away... from...”
The four adventurers cast their eyes once more toward the portal, where two young women and a nervous-looking man had emerged, standing stock-still, gawking at the assembled group.
“Excuse me, young man,” Harker Windham said at length, in a cold and even tone. “Might I ask how it is you’ve got my sacred knives in your hands?”
“Um,” said the Tom-looking one on the floor. “This is going to take a great deal of explaining.”
“No foolin’,” Ruby Gale said, turning back from the railing of the balcony to look at her granddaughter. “I married Lemondrop?”
Nora tried to stifle a laugh, but it leaked out around the edges as a snort. “You called him ‘Lemondrop’?”
“Everybody called him that,” Ruby smiled. “OK, maybe not those stuffed shirts at the firm he was clerkin’ at, but everyone who counted. Hell, he was an undercard at the Tunney-Dempsey fight at Soldier Field.”
“And now?” Nora asked. Ruby turned away again, back to the skyline. Her hands were crossed over the railing, and Nora saw engine grease smudges shining against her skin.
“He works,” Ruby said, pointing hazily at some point southward, in the Loop. “Hell, I don’t know where he works. Started up his own firm a couple years back, though, so he’s doing good I guess.” She drew in a deep breath and let out slow. “Got himself a nice little fiancee, too. They sent me a Christmas card.”
“I’m... I’m sorry,” Nora told her. “This is so weird. In my memory you’re a sweet old lady baking cookies and pinching my brother on the ear for running in the house.”
“My daddy -- your great-granddaddy, I guess -- used to laugh at me,” Ruby grinned. “Said young people couldn’t see any further forward than the ends of their noses. We all think we’re gonna be young forever. Maybe not young, but... you know. Just like this.”
Nora joined her at the railing, trying to fit the strange geography of this city of the past into the map she kept in her head. There was the Tribune Tower, and the Wrigley Building, but the absence of the looming John Hancock building just a block away was almost palpable.
“So what do you see in your future?” Nora asked, and Ruby chuckled.
“Well, I sure as hell didn’t see you,” and they both snorted in amusement, then paused, then did so again, at the discovery that they shared a laugh.
“I don’t know,” Ruby said. “Hell, I can’t see any further than the horizon anymore. I got myself locked into this damn blood feud with Wicked West, and I’m not gonna give her the pleasure of winning.” She smiled ruefully. “You know, it’s almost a comfort she’s out there? So many kinds of evil in this world you can’t do nothin’ to. Can’t shoot ‘em, can’t hit ‘em. At least she’s real. Tangible, you know?”
Nora realized that she did understand, better than she’d thought she would, and she nodded.
“So what about you?” Ruby asked at length. “What you doin’ with your life, alternate-future granddaughter of mine?”
“Not what I should be,” Nora sighed. “I wanted to fix planes -- went to school for it and everything, and what is that grin for?” Ruby, poorly concealing a burst of familial pride, motioned for her to continue. “Anyway, I wanted to fix planes, but the economy, you know. So now I’m helping to figure out... uh... how they crash. NTSB.”
This drew a blank look from Ruby, and Nora’s memory caught up to her. “Forget it,” she said. “Not gonna exist for another few decades, anyway. But, yeah, it’s an all right job. Quiet. Lots of paperwork. Way better than having crazy people in helicopters try to kill my ass, that’s for sure.”
“So it’s better in the future?” Ruby asked, quietly. “For us, I mean. People like us.”
It took Nora a moment to catch on, and then she smiled, slowly, distantly. “It’s not perfect,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s ever gonna be. But it’s better, yeah. Little bit better all the time.”
“Little bit better all the time,” Ruby repeated. “Hell, I think that’ll do. For a start.” She smiled widely, and Nora saw traces of her own smile, of the lines around her own eyes, in that face.
“So come on, Grandma,” she said jokingly. “We got, what, another hour or so before that doohickey in there’s supposed to burn out?Teach me something grandmotherly.”
“It sure ain’t gonna be baking cookies,” Ruby laughed. “Something grandmotherly, huh? All right. Sounds like you could do with this.” She drew a six-shot revolver from the holster inside her battered flight jacket, checked it, cocked it, and handed it carefully to Nora. “You know how to use one of these things?”
“I can’t feel my legs,” Rafe Windham said, from the floor. “In fact, I’m not terribly sure I have legs at all anymore.”
“Oh, that?” Harker Windham replied, not so much offering his apparent grandson a hand up as lifting him bodily from the floor. “It goes quickly. I think I struck a nerve cluster.”
“And there they are,” Rafe said, looking down.
“You held on to the knives this time,” Hark told him, nodding at the blades in Rafe’s hands. “That’s progress. Otherwise, I’m disappointed. Living in an alternate universe has made you weak.”
“Has not,” Rafe retorted, knowing immediately that this was, at least in part, a big fat lie.
“Where I come from,” Hark sighed, pausing to unbutton the cuffs of his dress shirt and roll them up to his sleeves, “you would probably have been left out in the jungle at birth, as an offering to the Great Reptile.” He caught the shocked look on Rafe’s face and grinned. “Just larking with you. Come on, now. Again.”
Rafe sighed, squared his shoulders, and let the knives in his hands guide him forward through space, at his grandfather.
Hark seemingly melted to one side, effortlessly, and seized Rafe’s attacking wrist in a powerful grip. “Right about here’s where I’d do something painful to you,” he said. “Likely involving twisting or some such.”
“I think I saw you move that time,” Rafe offered.
“Right,” Harker nodded, and released his grip, then stepped back and squared off once more with Rafe. “Progress, then. Again.”
Rafe started to move -- Hark could read it in the slight twitch of his shoulders. Then he stopped. Crossed the blades in front of himself, defensively. Waited.
“Now that?” Hark grinned. “That’s progress. Never attack unless you’ve absolutely no choice. Let the enemy come to you. Like so.”
He lashed out a fist, working years of muscle memory dating back to his long afternoons of training on the stone courts of the island. Rafe dodged -- clumsily, and only just, but it counted -- and struck back, catching a glancing blow with the butt of one of the knives off Hark’s shoulder.
“Good! Almost felt that one!” Hark said. He ducked under a wide swing from Rafe, leapt up and backward, and landed in a crouch on the work table in the center of the room. With a quick motion, he picked up a newspaper lying half-open on the table and flung it flapping pigeon-winged into Rafe’s face.
“That’s another lesson!” Hark crowed as Rafe too-slowly swatted the paper out of his face. “Use your environment! Don’t just rely on what’s in your hands -- the world is full of weapons waiting for a clever man to use them. I could’ve killed you twice just then.”
Rafe swung again, and Hark leapt, somersaulting through the air, to land just behind Rafe. He was all set to swing a leg and knock Rafe’s legs out from under him --
The cold edge of the knife sat under his chin, the point resting lightly against Hark’s adam’s apple. He looked up the length of the knife and locked eyes with Rafe.
“You let me win that one,” Rafe said, deadly serious, and withdrew the blade. Hark rose slowly, chuckling.
“Have to keep your confidence up somehow,” Hark said. “But no, you did well. I could have gotten out of that in at least four -- no, wait, five, definitely five ways. But still.”
“Not bad for a wastrel down the wrong branch of the family tree,” Rafe grinned, wiping small beads of sweat from his brow with the back of one hand.
“Oh, you’re not so bad,” Hark said, fishing a handkerchief from the breast pocket of the jacket he’d neatly folded over a chair, and dabbing at the perspiration on his own forehead. “Truth be told, I rather envy you. I’ve got no one left to disappoint but myself, and that seems to take all the fun out of it.”
Hark turned the chair around and seated himself in it, his posture straight and crisp. Rafe, slouching at first as he took a seat opposite, found himself almost unconsciously sitting straighter himself.
“There was a girl,” Hark said, his eyes refocusing momentarily to the distant country of the past. “On the island where I was born. She had the loveliest eyes -- like a cloudy sky, just before a storm. I think I loved her, like no one before or since. But I had to leave. I had... responsibilities. To my family name, to the world, I thought. Still do. But sometimes...”
“She’s still there, right?” Rafe said. “It’s not too late. You could go back.”
“Isolated population,” Rafe sighed. “Living on an island for, oh, centuries and centuries on end. My parents were lucky they didn’t bring some cough or sneeze that would have wiped them all out. I could go back, but who knows what I’d take with me? And even if we were... if we could be together, I couldn’t stay there. I’d have to bring her back with me. And God knows how she’d even adapt. No. I couldn’t do it to her, and I need to be here.” He nodded at the blades Rafe cradled loosely in his hands. “Ours, you may gather, is a dangerous world, in need of men of courage.”
“And yet?” Rafe prompted, and Hark sighed again.
“And yet,” Hark sighed. “I wish I had your luxury -- turning my back on responsibility, saying, to Hell with it. Doing what I pleased.”
“There was a girl,” Rafe told him. “No island beauty, but my God, you could hear her laugh clear across the dining hall. She had this, this funny way of reading, where she’d kind of rabbit up her nose and tuck her feet up under her. And she loved Laurel and Hardy, which, I assure you, is increasingly rare in my day and age. And I failed her.”
Hark leaned forward, concern newly written on his face. “Was she hurt?”
“Only emotionally,” Rafe sighed. “It wasn’t some fantastical enemy. It was me. I did something... terribly, terribly stupid, and selfish. I did it of my own free will. And it well and truly broke her heart. And even if I could somehow get her to forgive me, take me back -- I’d still know I didn’t deserve it.”
Rafe looked up at his grandfather, this impossibly young face, the same face across the table in his dream. Saw his own eyes, the line of his jaw, perhaps some aspects of the nose, staring back at him.
“I guess I’m saying I could have done with a bit of your responsibility,” Rafe said. “Not to sew a button on it or anything. But you should be proud. Even in my world, you were someone extraordinary. Thus far, I seem to have only been extraordinarily lucky.”
“Lucky isn’t bad,” Hark chuckled. “Lucky can be useful. Come on. I left my pocketwatch at the hotel, but I’m fairly certain we’ve enough time for me to humiliate you in a few more go-rounds. Might even learn something in the process.”
“Goody,” Rafe sighed, and stood up, ready to be knocked down again, and again, again.
They stood at opposite sides of the room, casting eerie shadows that stretched and flickered on the walls in the pulsing light of the Looking Glass, neither seeming to know what to say.
Sully leaned against one wall, eyes roving the strange shelves full of half-assembled gadgets and impossibly clunky, crude equipment. Mister Gaunt stood stock-still in the far corner, hands in the pockets of his long black coat, and she could feel his unsettling eyes boring right through her.
“So,” she said at length. “You got a smoke?”
One of Gaunt’s hands emerged from his pocket, empty; then, with a flick of his wrist, there was a silver cigarette case in his hand, snapping open to reveal slim, neatly rolled white cylinders.
“Oh, thank God,” Sully sighed, and crossed the room to him. “Civilization.”
“They’re slims,” Gaunt rumbled hestiantly, in a voice Sully could feel in her back teeth. “I keep them for... a friend.”
“You don’t smoke?” Sully said, clenching a single slender cigarette in her teeth as she flicked open her silver lighter. She saw Gaunt flinch, almost imperceptibly, when the flame flowed liquid up to surround the tip of the cigarette, and felt bad without entirely knowing why. She sucked pure cancer deep into her lungs and felt almost obscenely good, and horribly guilty.
“I’ve had... enough smoke in my lungs,” Gaunt replied, and then chuckled, a sound that suggested gravel being shaken in a coffee can. “Besides. Morrow says it’s unhealthful. Ceaselessly.”
“He’s not wrong,” Sully sighed, blowing a thin stream of smoke out between pursed lips, and watching it disperse in the air. “And yet...”
“Bad habits,” Gaunt said, and nodded. The indigo ribbons encircling his head rustled softly. “I have some familiarity with them myself, I suppose.” He moved his hand again and the cigarette case vanished, replaced by a ragged-edged silver dollar. As Sully watched, he proceeded to walk the coin across his gloved knuckles, back and forth.
“I could never quite get that part,” Sully said, as Gaunt flipped the coin deftly between his pinky and ring fingers. “I mean, I can do it, but not that smoothly. Drives me crazy.”
“You know coin tricks?” the tattered man asked, a ember of curiosity lighting in the black coals of his eyes.
“I know a little,” Sully nodded, brushing a lank of hair away from her face. “I’m not good enough to go professional, but my grandfather taught me some, and I learned a little more from some of his old books. He always told me he never saw anyone work a coin better than you.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Gaunt said, turning his eyes away.
“Got any advice?” Sully ventured, taking out a quarter and proceeding to walk it over her own knuckles.
“You’re asking me... to show you a magic trick?” Gaunt asked. He tilted his head quizzically, the folds of his indigo wrappings suggesting upraised eyebrows.
“You’re a magician, right?” Sully nodded, taking another drag off the cigarette. For such a little thing, it packed more of a kick than she was used to. “Nobody ever asks you to show them tricks?”
“Not in quite some time,” the magician told her. “Generally, they beg me for their lives. Or attempt to take mine.”
“So you work, what, birthday parties?” Sully offered, risking a smile. Gaunt’s eyes narrowed, catlike, and she unconsciously took a half-step back.
“Hold out your hand,” he said, and she did. And he showed her, patiently, for a good five minutes, demonstrating with his own silver dollar. He was a good teacher, Sully found to her surprise; not quite like her grandfather, who, for all his kindness, sometimes stumbled with his explanations or struggled to make them simple enough. Gaunt spoke simply, and deftly, with the sparse accuracy of a knife-thrower. And as he explained, she caught him stealing glances at her face from time to time.
“You are named Sullivan,” he said, when she’d gotten the coin running fluidly across her knuckles, finally feeling the same confidence with the trick that she’d seen in OMG’s own performance of it so many times before.
“Yeah, after my great-grandma. Her maiden name,” Sully said. “My mom always liked it. Said she wanted to have a connection to the family. But everyone calls me Sully.”
“Zully?” Gaunt said quickly, his eyes flicking sharply to hers, and Sully flinched. Gaunt saw this, and took a slow step backward.
“My apologies,” he said. “I knew a woman once...”
“Your... first wife?” Sully offered, slowly. “Grandpa told me some stories he said he’d heard from you.”
“What happened to her?” Gaunt asked. “My -- my first wife?”
“I’m not sure,” Sully said. “There was some kind of accident... he said she was your assistant, and a trick went wrong at a show you did in Los Angeles. Something about bad flash powder.” She saw Gaunt put a hand out to steady himself on a nearby workbench.
“Two stops more...” she heard him say quietly, and when her eyes met his, probing, he waved off the unspoken question. “You said first wife. I married again?”
“Violet Sullivan,” Sully said. “Her, we had pictures of. Some kind of heiress from here in Chicago. You were out of the business when she met you, and she, I dunno, she coaxed you back in. Gave you a stake to go out on tour again. Apparently, there was some big to-do with her family about it; they didn’t much like you, but Grandpa said she didn’t care. Which, you know, was lucky for him.”
“Was he an only child, your grandfather?” Gaunt asked softly. Sully nodded, savoring the last few glowing centimeters of the cigarette, before responding.
“Yeah,” she said. “Ryan Gant. Good Irish name, right? ‘Course, when he went into the magic business, he called himself Cormac the Conjuror.”
“And you?” Gaunt rattled. “Did you follow him to the stage? Are there -- are there even stages? Morrow says we’ll be on the moon by your era. That always sounded to me like a world with little need for magic.”
“I, uh, I wasn’t good enough,” Sully said. “I studied it some, like I said, but I just don’t have the gift, I think. Watered down the bloodline too much, maybe. My mom wound up marrying an accountant, and I’m really not seeing a lot of magic in that line of work.”
“But you have... gainful employment?” Gaunt asked, casting an uncertain eye at her boots, her stockings, her jacket. It took Sully a moment to get this, and then she didn’t know whether to smirk or hit him, the latter of which seemed like a fairly bad idea.
“I manage a magician,” Sully said. “Set up his appearances, take care of the licensing, that sort of thing. He’s good. Dumb as two bricks, but he’s got the gift. You sound like you would have loved the last trick we did.”
She told him about the “disappearing skyscraper” trick, having to fudge a few facts here and there to get around little things like the Internet for a man born only a few years after powered flight. He would nod, appreciatively, even chuckle here and there.
“I don’t think about magic much,” he said when she’d finished. “It’s no longer a luxury I can afford. Mine has not been -- is not a kind life. The things I now make vanish... they don’t tend to reappear.”
“Are you happy?” Sully asked, and knew it was a stupid question the moment it left her lips. Gaunt made a short, bitter, mirthless sort of laugh.
“In all the worst ways,” he told her, ice scraping ice in his voice, and Sully felt a chill run down her back. “Mine is not a face you would wish to see smiling out from photographs. If I could smile, I mean. So I’m left with... bad habits. Like I said.”
Sully took the cigarette from her lips, stubbed it to ask on the workbench, and flicked it into a waste bin. She sized him up, this strange, dangerous, smoke-reeking mummy of a man with who she supposedly shared kinship, and for all the unease he provoked in her, she felt an equal measure of... not pity. That was too unkind a word.
“For what it’s worth,” Sully told him, “I think you were really happy in my world. My grandpa loved you. Said you were a great dad, even for someone who spent so much time on the road. I don’t remember it, but my mom told me once you got to see me, a couple weeks after they brought me home from the hospital. Said you started singing old Irish drinking songs to me whenever I’d start crying, and that’d shut me up.”
“And Miss--” Gaunt began, and stopped. He turned his ribbon-shrouded face away from her “And my wife. We were happy?”
“I think so,” Sully said softly. “You, uh, you died a couple days after she did. In your sleep, just like her. My grandpa liked to say you knew when to get off the stage.”
She heard Gaunt exhale slowly, in a tortured wheeze, and saw his shoulders shake just one, just a little. Things hidden somewhere in his coat chimed and rattled ominously. When he turned back to her, his eyes were softer than she’d ever seen them, and his voice even thicker.
“I would like,” he said, and seemed to choke on the words, and sounded them out again, one syllable at a time. “If you would tell me more about your life... about your family... I would like that very much.”
“So I figure it’s like air pressure. Whenever you’ve got an area of high air pressure adjacent to a low-pressure area--”
“It creates a vacuum.”
“-- it creates a vacuum, exactly, and the high-pressure air gets sucked into the low-pressure area until it all equalizes. Now, and this is just theory, what if time’s like air? What if it accumulates as it goes on? Gets more and more densely packed together, like air molecules. Now, if you can somehow connect two points in space at a single point in time, you’re naturally going to move from an area of higher pressure to lower pressure. Beef stew?”
“I, uh, I think Sully’s a vegetarian,” Trip Morrow said in the midst of the Lookout’s fully stocked pantry, both hands occupied by a clanking canvas sack rapidly filling with clanking containers of patented, vacuum-sealed, nutrionally balanced Morrowmeals.
“Presbyterian?” Tom Morrow called down, from halfway up the sliding ladder that ran on rails around the semicircular chamber. “What’s that got to do with it?”
Trip blinked. “Vegetarian. Uh, in my time, there are people who only--”
“Kidding,” Tom laughed. “I’ve known a few Buddhists in my time. I think I’ve got some beans and rice for her, then. Take the beef stew. It’s based on my aunt’s recipe.” He snatched a fat cannister from the shelf and chucked it in an effortless spiral into the sack in Trip’s outstretched hands.
“You could feed an army with this stuff,” Trip marveled, his eyes roving across shelf after shelf of neat, brightly labeled cans.
“That was kind of the point,” Tom said, sliding down the rails of the ladder on the sides of his feet to land smartly on the floor. “I’ve eaten my share of army tuck, and I figured Uncle Sam’s boys might appreciate stuff that tastes better than their boots. Plus, you know, I get hungry, too.”
“You sure I’m not taking too much?” Trip asked, despite the looming shelves. Tom shook his head, and for a moment, the elder Morrow’s smile faltered at its corners.
“I... I don’t think I’ll have as many dinner guests for a while,” Tom said. “Present company to the contrary.”
“I’m sorry,” Trip said. “I-- sorry, I’m kind of a compulsive reader. I saw those telegram slips you were sending. To their families. I didn’t -- you never seemed to know any of them in my world, so I don’t know what they were like. But it must have been hard.”
Tom just nodded, and for a moment, a great gulf of darkness seemed to swell in his eyes. Trip watched him visibly force it back, and settle into a look of deliberate calm. “They were good people,” Tom said. “Good friends. I guess I’m glad you folks showed up. Kind of reminds me how life goes on. Anyway, if you’re gonna be holing up from these Needlemen for a while, better safe than sorry when it comes to food. I think I’ve got a camp stove around here somewhere, too.”
“You like camping?” Trip asked, and Tom chuckled.
“I wouldn’t say I like it,” he said, “but last time I checked, there wasn’t a four-star hotel in the Valley of Kings. Or a one-star, for that matter. Why?”
“You -- my grandpa, he and my dad and I used to go camping in the summers,” Trip said. “Just the three of us. He really seemed to love it. I remember how he’d go on and on about this leaf or that bird. Guess it was more of a change for him.”
Tom’s face grew still, his eyes thoughtful. “I’m not around anymore in your time, am I?”
Trip couldn’t meet his gaze. “No,” Trip said. “You, uh... you died. Just a few days ago, really. I hadn’t... we weren’t close or anything, not especially. I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” Tom said gently. “Are you pulling my leg? You’re from, what, 2000? 2003, tops?”
“Something like that,” Trip said. Having seen any number of time travel movies, he’d been hedging his bets with regard to specific future details -- just to make sure he didn’t return to a world of Nazis or dinosaurs or anything.
“The World Yet to Come,” Tom sighed, seating himself on a crateful of Morrowmeal canned ham and biscuits. “I’ve been dreaming of it all my life. To think I might actually have a fighting chance of living to see that.”
“It’s actually--” Trip began, and trailed off. He thought of his conflict-riddled, smog-choked, self-absorbed world, fraying itself to bits for nothing, and tried to match it to the golden dream-spires he could practically see rising from his ancestor’s imagination.
“Don’t tell me,” Tom said. “Give me the luxury of pretending it’s not all set in stone already. I want to see how it turns out for myself.”
“Can I ask you a question?” Trip said, setting down the bag with a series of nearly musical rattles from within. “All this. The secret headquarters, the science lab... why? Why aren’t you at a university somewhere, or working for some company?”
“Well, for one,” Tom grinned, “because I’d be bored stiff faster than you can say Jack Robinson. And for another... what was my life like? In your world, I mean?”
Trip paused for a moment, rummaging through dusty bins of memory. “Um,” he said. “Your parents ran a bookstore, in Boston. I remember you saying they were going to go to Europe, but then the war broke out, and they decided it wasn’t safe. You grew up in Boston, went to Harvard, got a job at Bell straight out of college... the rest is history. Figuratively speaking.”
“My parents took that trip,” Tom said quietly. “And me with them. And... it wasn’t safe.” He ran a thumb under the strap of one suspender, pensively.
“There were 200 other people on our ocean liner when it went down, Trip. And of all those people, I’m the only one who lived. Not because I was smart, or brave, or strong. I was just lucky. Right place, right time. That’s all. Does that seem fair to you?”
“I guess not,” Trip said, thinking of rainy streets, and bad brakes, and Trish.
“It’s not enough for me,” Tom said. “One life. One ordinary life. I know it should be, but it’s not. All those people on that ship, my mom, my pop... they all got cheated somehow. They should’ve had more.”
“So it’s... what?” Trip said. “Guilt?”
Tom thought on this for a moment, looked up, and smiled at his descendant. “Come on,” he said. “I want to show you something.”
They passed the door to the firing range on the way out of the pantry, pistol fire cracking from within, and made their way down the narrow corridor and out into the main chamber of the lookout. Harker and Rafe Windham were locked in some sort of genial death struggle on the work table, straining red-faced for control of one of the stone knives.
“Easy on the furniture, Hark,” Tom said as they passed by.
“I’m good for it,” the Lord of the Lost World chuckled, through clenched teeth.
“For the fruit bowl, sure,” Tom laughed. “But I’d like to see you replace the Crystal Skull.”
Trip caught Rafe’s wide-eyed stare as the Windham heir wrestled for the blade, and Rafe mouthed: Help. Trip could do nothing but shrug and keep following Tom.
They passed into the hallway on the far side of the room, the same one Trip had first explored not more than an hour before, and nearly eight decades into the future. The weird light of the Looking Glass rippled out from the lab and down the walls of the hallway, undulating like jellyfish, and as Tom approached the sealed door Trip had tried and failed to open before, Trip heard Sully’s laughter ring out, startling and lovely, from within the lab. It was an arresting sound, honest and unguarded, and for a few moments, Trip didn’t even realize that Tom was talking.
“-- got it set up so it only recognizes the unique chemical signature of my blood,” Tom said, sticking a fingertip into the slot Trip had previously tried on the thick metal door. “It’s great for privacy. And I wanted there to be... I dunno. A price. A reminder.” He withdrew his fingertip and showed it to Trip; a fat red globe of blood pearled at the center of it, as if it had been freshly pinpricked. “Plus, it makes sure I don’t spend too much time moping in here,” Tom continued. “I mean, it hurts.”
The door swung open slowly, and yellow-gold illumination bloomed within. Trip followed Tom inside, and let the door close.
The room was still and silent, no windows, no light save for the golden glow coming up through vents on the floor. There was a bench set into one otherwise blank wall. On the opposite side, tiny lights winked on, one by one, illuminating two ten-by-ten grids of clear glass boxes, each big enough to fit comfortably in one hand. Each box contained a different object: A comb, a pocketwatch, a brace of leaden toy soldiers. Most were full, though a scattered few remained empty and dark.
“Genevive Coxswain,” Tom said quietly, reverently, pointing toward an elegant silver hairbrush. “Seventeen years old, and heading to make her coming-out to polite society on the Continent. I think I remember seeing her on board. Oh, she was pretty.”
“Dougal Malloy,” he continued, pointing to a small, wooden-framed daguerrotype of a young boy with a startlingly grave stare. “He was one of the stevedores. His mother gave me that.”
“What is this place?” Trip breathed, and in the half-light, Tom smiled once more at him.
“This is my Room of Remembrance,” he said. “This is why I do it, Trip. Who I do it for.”
“All the people on the ship,” Trip said, the pieces clicking together in his mind. “You tracked them down.”
“I didn’t want to forget them,” Tom said. His voice had the hushed, slow quality that seems to descend in the presence of holy ground. “Who I was living for. I wanted to make sure I’d remember what they deserved.”
“It’s not guilt,” Trip said, studying a tiny, handmade rag doll in one case. “Is it?” Tom shook his head.
“It’s love,” Tom said. “The world’s just too big. There’s too much goodness in it. Too much wonder. I do this because I love it all, Trip, and I don’t want to miss any of it.” He rested one hand against a particular box, containing a rusted-out harmonica. “I can’t afford to. I owe them too much living.”
Trip looked down at the bag in his hands, the cans inside. He thought of the terror he’d experienced over the past few days, the panic and confusion and dread. He thought of hiding away in the empty rooms that had once been his grandfather’s, wondering when the men in black coats would come for him, hoping that it would all just pass. So he could get back to his small and ordinary and, he now realized, painfully limited life.
“We’re not going to need this much,” he told Tom. “I mean, I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong--”
“You’re sure,” Tom said. “You could be holed up a while, and it sounds like whoever’s after you means business.”
“They absolutely do,” Trip said, and smiled, and for the first time consciously felt his face curve to match the contours of his grandfather’s own grin. “So we’ll rest up. Get our strength back. But then we’re going to find them, and whatever they’re trying to do, we’re going to stop them. Whatever it takes.” He found himself laughing a little, maybe because he was scared. Maybe be cause he thought he should be, and found that he wasn’t.
“What’s so funny?” Tom asked. Trip shook his head.
“Everything, I guess. A couple days ago, I would have thought all of this was impossible,” Trip Morrow said. “Now it just seems like it’s going to be fun.”
Tom Morrow nodded, and clapped a hand on Trip’s shoulder. “Let me tell you something about ‘impossible’...” he said.
The Looking Glass shuddered and smoked, and burned out. The coruscating light vanished, leaving Tom Morrow’s lab somehow plainer and poorer for its absence.
“Not a moment too soon,” Ruby Gale sighed. Somewhere, on the other side of that strange light, was a granddaugher she might never have. And, perhaps, a better world waiting.
“It worked,” Tom said quietly, patting the still-warm frame of the device. “You see that, Danny? We did it after all.”
“You all right, Gaunt?” Harker Windham asked, all refined concern.
“Something in my eye,” Mister Gaunt rumbled, but he kept his face turned away for a few seconds more.
“Tom,” Ruby said gently. “Look, I don’t want to rain on your triumph of science here. And that was ... I think ‘amazing’ doesn’t begin to describe it. But if you’re right about Jef, and what he’s planning, seeing those kids? That’s bad news all around.”
“I’m refuse to believe that,” Tom said. “I know what you’re thinking, but there are lots of ways--”
“She’s right, Tom,” Hark joined in. “Even I can see that. If that’s how events are destined to play out, if those are truly our descendants--”
Gaunt finished the thought, and even more than usual, his voice sent a chill through all who heard it. “We lose,” he said.
And then the portal sizzled shut in a last shower of sparks, and the room was still and dark again, and all around them, Trip and Sully and Nora and Rafe could hear the drumming of torrential summer rain on the roof and walls and windows. And each, in his or her own way, felt strangely bereft, and strangely complete, all at the same time.
“So,” Rafe said at last, as their eyes all adjusted to the dimness, and the smudgy, garish afterimages of the Looking Glass light swam away and faded from their vision, “any bets on just how badly we’ve altered the present?”
“Planet of the apes,” Sully offered.
“I’ll see your apes and raise you dinosaurs,” Nora said.
“Anybody else hungry?” Trip offered. “We’re gonna need our strength. We have work to do.”
“Ah, yes,” Rafe sighed. “Sinister conspiracies to topple, worlds to save. I’m sure my four-and-a-half credits of Greek literature will work wonders. I mean, honestly, they’ve got needle things that can apparenty rewrite time and space. And I’ve got--” he hoisted the obsidian blades -- “really big knives.”
“Notting Hill’s got a point,” Sully said. “I mean, go team and all, and I for one am kind of psyched to discover that alternate-reality great-grandpa was fifteen kinds of hellacious badass. But this isn’t the Rotary Club we’re up against. At least, I’m assuming.”
“And I haven’t heard anybody mention the big, obvious, nasty point in all this,” Nora added. “You talked to them, right? Any of them seem like the settle-down-and-raise-kids type? And if Trip-- sorry, Tom Morrow’s right, and somebody back in their world messed with time itself -- God, I can’t believe how Star Trek that sounds -- what happens when we change it back? What happens to us?”
“I don’t know,” Trip said at last. “But we’ve seen how the Needlemen work. We’ve seen them hurt people, kill people, just for trying to help us. You can do what you want, but I’m not just going to accept that. Not while I’ve got a chance to stop it.”
“Great speech,” Sully sighed, “but if you’re going to pull this off -- and I say this as a professional sort-of-magician -- you’re gonna need one hell of an ace up your sleeve.”
Trip grinned, and fished around in the backpack he’d left on the floor when he’d first been pulled through the Looking Glass. He came up with his grandfather’s journal, now all but covered in exotic, colorful stamps from distant locales. With his keylight for illumination, he paged quickly through it, looking for a particular date. Then he whooped with sudden delight, and held the page up for the others to see.
“I think we have our ace,” Trip said.
There, in the latest new entry to appear in place of the old, in Tom Morrow’s careful, neat handwriting, they saw schematics, and diagrams, and two prominent words.
Next: The finer points of ray gun assembly; Trip and Sully get even better acquainted; the party is well and truly crashed.