Saturday, June 16, 2007

Behold the Misery Engine!

Centuries upon centuries ago, as humans reckon time, fire fell from the sky. And everything changed.

The immense, flaming ball of interplanetary debris punched though this flimsy atmosphere, the sound of its own descent trailing somewhere far behind it, and smashed a hole in what is now the Yucatan peninsula.

The Earth burned. Towering walls of soil and dust splashed upon impact into the highest tiers of the stratosphere, turning away the sun, as if shamed by the planet’s disfigurement. And in the night and the cold that followed, the reptile kings of the planet’s food chain shivered and wasted into fascinating clusters of bone. (There were, of course, a few fortunate exceptions.)

In the center of the crater, untouched amid the shimmers of searing air and toxic vapor, a spiky cluster of golden crystal glowed. Probed. Shifted its dazzling snowflake structure, with a sound like the scattering of broken glass. It sank new spars of itself deep into the traumatized, blackened ground, and pulled itself beneath the soil.

In the millennia that followed, it quietly spread.

Had enough of Kroatoan civilization survived to pass on its creation myth, it would have gone something like this: In the beginning, there was darkness, and humans were as animals. We groped across the surface of this world, bounded by the narrow perimeters of our own fears, concerned only with food and survival.

One of these sad, blunted creatures, scavenging in the jungles of what is now Mexico, was swallowed by the great mouth of the Earth. He fell a far distance, terrified, lost in darkness. And as he screamed and cowered there, so far from the world he knew, a song curled its way up through the winding maze of channels and slipped gently into his mind.

The man-creature felt a new world of sensation slowly begin to unfurl itself inside the head he scarcely acknowledged has his own — colors, scents, visions, ideas no human being had ever dreamed before, all opening like a flower in spring. But only so far. And once he’d tasted even the tiniest melody of this, the man-creature wanted more.

He followed the song, blind eyes and stumbling feet guided by the bright music unfurling itself in his head. And after a time, heading down, down, ever down, his eyes began to perceive the faint borders of things, outlined in radiant gold. The light intensifed, the song growing louder in his head. The man-creature was now consumed, overwhelmed, nearly drowned in a flood of thoughts that had nothing to do with meat or predators or procreation, thoughts that might no longer have even been his own.

At last, he reached the Cathedral Cavern, and collapsed, a whole chorus bursting in his brain.

The cave was filled with vast and slanting spires of coruscating golden crystals, big as ten men, or bigger. And all of them sang to him, ten million voices but the same song.

It is possible that the creature that got to its feet, after a time, was no longer entirely the same one who had first stumbled into the cave. He picked up a loose clump of the singing golden crystals that seemed to be waiting for him on the jagged, prickly floor of the cavern. And then he turned with sure, ceaseless steps, and carried it all the way back to the surface. To spread the crystals’ light, its seductive song of expanding intellect, to others. To colonize.

The Empire of Kroatoan was born.

In time, it grew to mirror the entire subterranean reach of the crystal network, stretching from outposts in the near-polar southern tip of South America to the vast northern capital city on the site of present-day Chicago. Led by crystal compasses, a fleet of Kroatoan even sailed in boats that skimmed just above the waves to a tiny island off the Western coast of South America. It was a chunk of land long broken away in some ancient tectonic shift, nestled at its secret heart with golden light and song. Wherever the crystals called, the Kroatoan spread.

Rebuilt, accelerated by the shimmering voice of the crystals, the people who would become the Kroatoan elite took up their crude tools and carved out advancements centuries beyond their time. They began with weapons — beams of searing, crystal-focused heat, to ensure all the food they could possibly need. Then the beams were turned to conquest, and neighboring tribes became armies of cowering slaves. Those slaves, in turn, hauled and chiseled and mortared the rock that built great spreading cities. And in those cities, newer and more wonderful discoveries blossomed. The crystals could be harnessed for light, for heat, for some strange, invisible motive force that made craft move under their own power. They could be shaped to bring distant stars leaping forth to the human eye. The crystals made all things possible, it seemed.

Civilization came early to Kroatoan. But it came with a price. The crystals hungered.

Certain lesser civilizations, the ragged, diminished remnants that lingered on after the terrible end of Kroatoan, believed the heart to be the center of a person’s life force. And with sadder, cruder versions of the black stone knives first devised by the Kroatoan, atop stone pyramids built in a child’s imitation of half-remembered Kroatoan majesty, they would cut out these hearts and dedicate them, still beating, to their god the Sun.

The Kroatoan would have found no end of amusement in this. Oh, the heart was useful, and certainly quite pyrotechnic when removed. But any sensible society would have already figured out that the brain was the seat of all man’s thoughts and impulses.

And far more delicious, besides.

The tender, savory meat of the brain, the Kroatoan knew, radiated waves with each electrical pulse of thought. Faint, all but undetectible by crude human means. But the crystals read these waves with ease, and were nourished by certain spectra of them. They glowed brighter, grew faster, sang louder and with greater exultation, when in the presence of human despair.

The Kroatoan were happy to oblige them.

Even at its utmost height, there were scarcely more than a quarter of a million full citizens in the whole of the Empire. The rest of its population, outnumbering their captors five to one, were slaves, swallowed by the spreading arms of the Empire to sacrifice their muscle and sweat and blood and bone to its greater glory. And when they could no longer haul stone, or prepare food, or bear shipments of goods and messages — or, sometimes, when their cruel masters simply felt like it — they were put to savage, horrific ends. And in their screams and blood and suffering, the crystals rejoiced.

The sacrifice-scientists of Kroatoan began to note curious side effects to the crystals’ grisly joy. Their light intensified. The flow of energy they produced increased, dramatically. Some varieties of crystal, the learned citizens found, could even absorb this excess energy, store it, harness it.

By this time, some of the more radical elements of the Kroatoan hierarchy had begun to speculate that other worlds beyond their own might yet exist; not only beyond the thin envelope of gases that shrouded their planet, but in realms invisible even the mightiest telescopes. The whole of their available landmass was rapidly falling under their dominion, and only their most daring thinkers had the vaguest idea that the endless seas stretching away to either side of their empire might contain other lands. The elders of Kroatoan, driven by the echo of crystalsong in the far depths of their brains, craved more territory to conquer.

Stone was quarried, cut, hauled, stacked, carved. The bones of the thousands who died in the effort were boiled, ground, made into mortar to seal together and consecrate the effort. The construction of the Great Arena a century before, though far grander in scale, paled in complexity to the new circular structure that rose behind it in the depths of the Winter City. The Misery Engine.

On the day of its consecration, the echoes of the doomed and dying so filled the cavernous reaches of the Winter City that the proctors carrying out the executions had to stuff their ears with cotton, or go deaf.

The bodies jammed the sluice canals that carried waste away to the Winter City’s great undergound swamp. The specially bred leechvines, usually lethargic to the point of immobility, swarmed over this torrent of nourishment with a speed and avidity never before recorded by Kroatoan naturalists. At least one proctor who fell into this writhing mass of hungry green and dead flesh was pulled out pale and drained and lifeless, and promptly thrown back in.

And when the prison pens of the Winter City were emptied, and the canals filled — sometimes to the height of a low house, or greater — the cream of Kroatoan society descended in their rattling, skeletal finery to encircle the Misery Engine. As the high sacrifice-scientists made ready the altar-controls, a phalanx of the empire’s finest Crystal Guards massed at the base of the rising stone rings, ready to march beyond the borders of their existence to campaigns unknown.

With an exultant cry, the sacrifice-scientists entered the seven key symbols on the altar-controls. The crystal spires ringing the engine erupted with blinding radiance, as the accumulated misery of thousands of lost lives flooded into them all at once. In a slow, millstone grind of rock upon rock, the concentric rings of the Misery Engine began to turn. Energy flowed up from the depths of it, to writhe and shimmer like a pool at its center.

The Empire of Kroatoan’s finest minds watched, behind inch-thick black quartz goggles, as reality itself crackled and yielded and yawned wide before them.

They were unafraid.

They were unprepared.

“They were delicious,” Operator Grin added, and sucked a dangling strand of drool back into the corner of one mouth.

Operator Vore turned slowly, the round lenses of his spectacles focusing his glare of annoyance to laser intensity. His strangely dressed comrade just stared into space, strange tongue swishing inside an unfamiliar mouth, trying to get the last bits of Maximillian out of his teeth.

“Can I finish?” Vore asked, in a way that wasn’t even remotely a question. “I’sdd like to finish now.” He swiveled his head in a too-neat motion back to Trip and Rafe, looking up from the bottom of the stone staircase, and rolled his eyes theatrically. As if to say, I can’t take this mismatched cannibal horror from another dimension anywhere.

“We sucked their civilization dry, down to the very marrow of its bones,” Vore continued briskly, as one might lecture on geology. “Oh, you should have heard the colony-mind squeal as we pulled it from its crystal husks and sucked it down like — like —” He snapped his fingers, or tried to, in imitation of something he might have once seen a real person do, in a way that showed only a rudimentary understanding of the act and its significance. “Oh, what are their names, the animals, they have shells, you like to crack them open and eat them—”

“Turtles?” volunteered Grin hopefully, gesturing with Maximillian’s needle, its tip still gummy with his saliva.

With an effort, Vore ignored him, and moved on. “We were younger then, you must understand. Time works differently where we’re from. We needed sustenance to grow. The Empire wasn’t much, but it sufficed.”

“You’re the Eaters of Kroatoan,” Trip said quietly, trying to keep the quaver out of his voice. Even in the staid, scientific language of his grandfather’s journals, the words had always carried an aura of holocaust, and a dark tinge of fear.

“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” Rafe hissed sidelong, through clenched teeth. “What with their talk of eating, and Kroatoan, and, you know, eating Kroatoan.” Sarcasm was a favorite resort of his in nearly every stressful situation. And in this case, as all his senses screamed at him about the sheer wrongness of the two figures on the raised altar, their strange commingled sent of burnt plastic and rotting flesh, the unnatural precision of their movements, it was all he had left save paralyzing, instinctual terror.

To Trip and Rafe’s mutual and considerable surprise, both Vore and Grin snorted with unconcealed amusement.

“Whoo,” Vore breathed, dabbing at his mouth with a deeply stained handkerchief plucked from one pocket of his overcoat. “I’m sorry, there’s — I’m dealing with an unfamiliar sensation here, like something within me wants to shake itself. Laughter. Yes. That’s it.”

“Good,” Grin added, looking relieved. He glanced down at his sagging stomach, sprawling out from beneath the valiant, insufficient hem of his T-shirt. “For a moment I thought he was trying to get back out.”

“It’s just,” Vore began, and then snickered again, and clamped the handkerchief to his mouth as if trying to hold it in. “Oh. My. There it was again. You referred to us as ‘Eaters.’ Plural.”

“There are two of you,” Trip noted, reluctantly. The destroyers of civilization were apparently having grammar trouble. “You kind of have to be plural.”

“In your meatsacks—” Grin began, and Vore stepped forward to cut him off.

“Bodies,” Vore corrected. Grin sulked.

“In your bodies,” Vore continued, “There are… how do I put this in sufficiently simple terms… a great many tiny rooms, yes? Each its own organism, of sorts, all cooperating?”

“Cells?” Rafe offered, testing the limits of everything he remembered from any biology class he’d ever taken.

“Yes! Ha. Little prisons,” Vore nodded, smiling perhaps a bit wider than the human mouth was ever designed to smile. “There is but one Eater of Kroatoan, as you so unimaginatively refer to us. And we Operators… we are its individual cells.”

“Can’t fit the whole thing through at once,” Grin chimed in. He spread his arms wide, as if pantomiming to very stupid children. “Greeeeeeat big us.” He compressed the space between his hands to mere millimeters. “Liiiiiiittle tiny holes.”

“Which is why we need you,” Vore added. “To make the holes bigger.”

Trip and Rafe looked at each other, profound bafflement quickly overtaking fear.

“I’m sorry,” Rafe ventured, shaking his head confusedly. “Did you just — did you just ask us to destroy the entire world?”

“Not the entire world,” Vore hastily added, in soothing lawyer’s tones. “We’d leave you both. I mean, I assume you’re a breeding pair, right? And one — no, no, I’ll be generous — two other living species. Go ahead, pick them.”

“Why do you even need us?” Trip asked. “You’ve got human bodies — at least, I’m assuming they’re human. The controls are right there. What’s stopping you?”

Vore and Grin grew very quiet, and something surprisingly like unease flashed across both of their faces.

“There are… certain rules to the arrangement,” Vore said at last, crushing the sodden folds of his hankerchief in a nervous, compulsive movement of his hand. “Governing bodies whose dictates must, must, must be followed.”

“It screams and it screams and we can still hear it,” Grin said quietly, eyes on his shoes. “Even after we’ve forgotten what it did.”

“It is quite forbidden,” Vore said, more forcefully than he probably intended to, “to take by force. Yes. That is the Fifty-Sixth Law. To breach the branes from our side. But! The Laws say nothing of concealment, cajolement. And if some careless strain of particularly fortunate monkey, poking at things it can’t possibly understand, should open a hole for us to get through, well, we can hardly be faulted for doing what comes naturally.”

“Num num num num,” Grin added, as if this were an eminently logical summation.

There followed a long silence, during which Trip and Rafe glanced first at each other, then at the Operators on the altar — their eyes wide and expectant, their smiles the phony, frozen variety one uses to persuade children — then back at each other.

“No thanks,” Trip told the Operators, then turned with Rafe to head back down the staircase.

Vore screeched, a keening, jagged sound that sliced through the two men’s brains and froze them in their tracks.

“Listen, listen, listen you paramecium!” the Operator snarled, face turning slightly more purple than the bounds of human anatomy would seem to permit. There was another sound, another voice, underlying his last three words, a bone-rattling growl that seemed to surround him like a looming shadow. “The holes through which we passed are growing. Your sad little thread of time is fraying itself to nothingness. We will break through, and our hunger will not spare you. The time of our multiplication is near, and we need your sustenance.”

“We’re going to be a mommy-daddy,” Grin gurgled, mildly.

“That’s great,” Trip shrugged. “Still. No.”

“Do not shun our mercy,” Vore spat, flecks of gelatinous saliva dancing forth from his lips to sizzle and smoke against the stone at his feet. “There are six billion of you swarming across the surface of this rock. You were just the most convenient.”

Trip stopped, shoulders square, and when he glanced back over his shoulder at the Operators, his eyes were hard and determined.

“I really don’t think so,” Trip said. “Go ahead. Name someone else who could have gotten past the booby traps. Survived the dinosaurs. Even known about this city in the first place. You need us. You always have.”

“It must be so terribly galling,” Rafe added. “All your great big plans dependent on a few miserable specks like us. Well, this paramecium has one word for you: Starve.”

The color slowly drained from Operator Vore’s face. His mouth compressed into a thin, bloodless line. Then, abruptly, he began to smile.

“Perhaps,” he said, a larger, more terrible shape once again rising behind his words. “But not today.” And his smile grew wider, and wider still.

Trip raised the Multipurpose Rifle, focused the sonic beam to maximum concentration, and fired at the altar.

A punch of pure rippling force shuddered through the air, splashing against the round, undulating figure of Operator Grin, as he flung himself in the path of the shot. The strange little shape of a man smashed against the stone and flopped, seemingly boneless, to the floor of the platform.

Vore paused, purple light already seething and spilling out from his grotesquely distended mouth, as Grin’s body lolled and flailed before the stone altar. Slowly, with a hideous scraping of gristle and shattered bone, the Operator got to something resembling his feet.

“Look at this,” Grin whined, his head dangling unnaturally from his neck, watching his elbow bend in ways the body was not designed for. “I think you broke it.”

Trip raised his rifle for another shot, and with a screech, sizzling tendrils of purple light burst forth from Vore’s mouth. Rafe tackled Trip to the stone floor of the central pit as Vore’s appendages raked and sizzled across the stone mouth of the stairway just behind them, collapsing the rock overhead in a growling, gravelly tumult.

A cloud of dust rolled forth from the ruined, chaotic pile of ancient stone. They were trapped in the Misery Engine with the Operators.

“On the whole,” Rafe shouted to Trip, gritting his teeth against the deafening shriek of Vore’s unnatural rage, “I rather think we shouldn’t have taunted them!”

Grin joined in now, horror in harmony, the whole of the Operators’ fleshy disguises lit from within by brain-searing purple light. The human shapes they wore began to bulge and distend as things unimaginable writhed furiously just underneath.

The sound, the light, knifed straight through Trip’s head as he struggled to rise. He faltered, muscles seizing, hands trembling, trying to raise the Rifle for one more shot. He could feel strange, horrible tentacles of thought winding their way into his mind, seizing around the amygdala, the lizard-brain center of pure animal fear.

Cower, ape, came the Operators’ words inside his skull. Fear makes you more delicious.

The Operators’ song of madness intensified, blotting out Trip’s vision, consuming his hearing, swarming over his thoughts. He was alone, helpless, cowering in the dark. He was prey.
Trip, halfway to standing, sank back to his knees. The Rifle clattered from his helpless hands. He pitched forward to the cold, loveless stone, eyes screwed tight, hands over his ears, in agony.

The steaming bright tentacles slithering forth from Vore’s mouth traced acid trails down the zigzag of the stone steps, across the empty floor, toward Trip. One began to curl keening around his outstretched arm…

Stone struck on stone, sparks flashing, and Vore howled and jerked the tentacle back. Most of it obeyed. The rest withered and died where it lay, a black stone knife marking the point of its severance.

Blood vessels bursting in the delicate whites of his eyes, his whole body shaking with the effort, Rafe Windham had stretched an arm out from the floor where he lay and cut Trip free. He turned now, hair falling in his face, and fixed burning, savage eyes on the tentacled horrors at the top of the stairs.

Bracing both hands against the stone-tiled ground, Rafe began to rise.

The Operators turned the full force of their mind-melting scream on him, the sound enough to make every veneer of civilization peel off from a human consciousness and blow away like tin siding in a hurricane. It might turn any man to a mindless animal.

Unless that man could accept, even embrace, his own savage nature.

Rafe shuddered, reeled, as the Operators’ assault hit him full force. Then he pushed back against it with the whole of his body and will. From low in his throat, a growl of combat rose, and he planted one foot upon the earth. Then the other. He held both knives tightly at his sides. And he stood straight.

In his mind there was no terrible color to burn the eyes, no shrieking that seemed to come from within one’s bones. There was only the cool velvet night of the jungle, and the stinking, primal breath of something large and hungry behind the dark, spurring him forward, refusing to let him fall.

Rafe put one foot on the stone staircase.

The Operators’ tendrils lunged for him, to snap and break and squeeze him down their gaping gullets. His blades flashed, moving as if of their own volition, and jellied hunks of dead alien meat flopped wriggling against the stone and began to corrode. Vore and Grin squealed anew in pain and strange, sudden fear.

In the dark underbrush of Rafe’s mind, the face of the painted warrior, the one who’d given him his knives, slid forth from the night into moonlight. “Civilized and savage,” he mouthed from the dark, silent lips forming the words. “A foot in both worlds.”

Rafe climbed the stairs, one excruciating step at a time.

The Operators’ mutilated tentacles reached down into the platform upon which they stood, wrenching forth slabs of stone and hurling them whistling down at Rafe’s head. He dodged, ducked, never wavered, and his bloodshot eyes never left the Operators.

Vore and Grin puppet-walked backward now, half-emptied bodies wobbling on jellied legs, tendrils uluating and undulating in distress, as Rafe reached the top of the stairs and faced them across the altar.

“Something about how they’ve been blessed,” the painted warrior said, and distantly Rafe felt the blades cool and certain in his hands.

Cornered, filled with unfamiliar surges of the terror they’d so often created in others, Vore and Grin charged forward, shrieking. Their rubbery deflated arms and stubby, half-healing tentacles plunged toward Rafe.

The vast beast over his shoulder hissed in breath and roared, a sound to shake the trees down to their roots. And Rafe roared too, plunging each of his knives deeply up and into the Operators’ chests. They doubled over, sagged against him, and for all their weight he did not tremble. He just stood there, breathing in short, sharp bursts, as their song died away and the purple arms by which they fed shriveled back into their sagging mouths.

Vore’s face contorted in pain and confusion, lips working, trying to sound out the explanation of his own end. At last, he simply said: “Ow.”

Grin looked at him thoughtfully, and nodded. “I wholeheartedly concur,” he said.

And they died, like salted slugs, retreating into vile, fast-decaying bags of skin and hair, and gouts of purplish fire. Maximillian’s Needle slipped from the sagging remains of Grin’s hand and pinged and rattled down the stone staircase.

Rafe shook both arms, sloughing off the Operators’ remains. They curled and bubbled into nothingness on the altar, leaving stained patches against the stone. In the jungle of his mind, the moon went out, and then the stars, one by one. The sounds moving in the trees padded away, until it was only him, and the hot breath of the beast behind him.

Rest, it rumbled, and extinguished like a match.

Rafe sagged for a moment against the altar, knees deserting him, and slowly slid down the face of it, and was mostly still.

Consciousness crawled back over Trip Morrow like a fleet of ants. He opened his eyes to a vast kingdom of gray, slanting away to some far, blurry distance. Then he felt rough rock against his cheek, and straightened his glasses, and found himself once more in the vast and echoing well of the Misery Engine.

Something cool and metallic brushed against his fingers, and he grasped it, and sat up slowly. It was not, as he expected, the Multipurpose Rifle — it lay a foot or two distant from where his outstretched arm had fallen — but a long, slender taper of pointed gray metal, stained somewhat at the tip. Maximillian’s Needle.

Trip slid it thoughtfully into his belt, shook the last, horrible echoes of the Operators’ screams from the inside of his skull, and got his bearings. The spires of crystal ringing the high carved rock walls around him still cast shafts of light into the subterranean gloom above, and the steps, now pockmarked with gaps of missing block, still led up to the strange stone altar that presided over the rising rings at the center of the pit. He saw no Vore, no Grin — just the edge of a human-like shape lying at the base of the altar, just beyond the rise of the stairs.

Standing up so quickly made him dizzy, especially with the weight of the pack on his back. Racing stumbling up the treacherous stairs didn’t help. Halfway up, something crunched and bent beneath the sole of his shoe; Vore’s gold-rimmed spectacles.

When Trip made it to the top of the altar, it took all his concentration not to stumble full out next to Rafe’s prone form. Instead, he kneeled down and checked for a pulse in Rafe’s neck.

He felt nothing.

Then his panic receded, and he remembered where the carotid artery actually was, and checked there. A jungle drum of circulation thumped in steady cadence, sounding an all-clear, and for the first time, Trip noticed the slow, steady rise and fall of Rafe’s respiration. When he rolled his companion over, he saw the flicker of swift, furtive motion beneath Rafe’s eyelids. Dreaming.

Trip sat down at the top of the steps and caught his breath, unshouldering the straps of his backpack. He shucked off his jacket and draped it over Rafe, shivering slightly as the damp chill of the cavern seeped in through his shirtsleeves. Then he looked down at the shattered, blocked mouth of the staircase that had brought him and Rafe into the Misery Engine, and the smooth, high walls of stone around the remainder of its periphery, and began to assess their options.

Trip dug into his pack, coming up with the nearly empty cigar box and his grandfather’s journal. The latter was all but covered now with strange, colorful stamps from exotic lands, and paging through it quickly, Trip saw nothing but sober, thoughtful recountings of battles with sky pirates and sea monsters and the animate statues of ancient tombs. He felt a pang of sadness to see the words of the man he’d known, the accounts of fishing trips and small, patient breakthroughs in the lab, completely overwritten by a tide of unfamiliar history. For the first time, he truly felt his grandfather’s absence, like the ache of a phantom limb.
As he thumbed through the yellowed pages of the journal, one entry toward the end caught his eye. It was a diagram, sketched in his grandfather’s sure, steady hand, of the altar against which he sat.

Malvolio Sinn discovered the Winter City in September 1930, while tunneling beneath Chicago in an attempt to breach the vaults of Barclays Bank. His criminal mind, hard and sharp as diamond, quickly appreciated the possibilities provided by the focused energies of the Misery Engine. Centuries of murder, heartbreak, catastrophic fire and corruption above had all seeped down to restore power to its matrix of now-mindless, still-hungry crystals. Sinn found a way to transfer that energy back into waves of pure human misery, and broadcast them to the surface.

It started when a pair of housewives, out for their afternoon shopping at the butcher’s, nearly beat one another to death over the last cut of pork loin. By nightfall, the police and fire departments were approaching their breaking point, and entire neighborhoods hefted bats and clubs and chains to make war with their bitter enemies living three streets away.

All this hatred, anger, and pure despair fed back into the humming crystals far beneath the earth, creating an endless loop of escalating disaster. And in the ceaseless night of the Winter City, Malvolio Sinn exulted to the distant roars of albino beasts, and dreamed of marching up to take dominion over a city that had levelled itself for conquest.

Tom Morrow and his team, fighting off their own private demons, plotted the epicenter of the escalating violence and, based on seismic readings Lasso had charted, launched an expedition into the hidden underworld. In single combat at the heart of the Misery Engine, a weary, half-murder-mad Tom had defeated Sinn and shut down the Engine, restoring Chicago to its usual semblance of peace.

Afterward, Tom and his friends had spent a week down in the darkness, racing to catalog all the wonders of the Winter City, before the mayor’s deadline to seal Sinn’s original tunnel with concrete and close off the wondrous, perilous subterreanean realm forever.

Now, standing at the edge of the altar, Trip saw its workings carefully outlined in the diagram in the journal before him. He examined the grid of symbol-labeled stone squares on the altar’s face, and the crystal levers beside them. Carefully, one eye on the instructions in his grandfather’s journal, Trip withdrew the heavy stone key whose turning activated the Engine; in a hollow channel within it, something rattled. He slid a series of smooth, cylindrical black rocks into his palm, and felt each exert its own invisible magnetic pull on the metal band of his wristwatch.

Trip read on, in the chill silence and the steady soft light of the crystals, paging past Tom Morrow’s entries on the Winter City, reading of adventures wilder still. He came to the very last entry in the volume, one of those specifically addressed to him, and carefully studied the pasted-in scraps of crumpled schematics from the lab of Arlos Satel.

His grandfather had written him a postscript, in large, hasty letters; three words at the bottom of the last page, underlined emphatically. Trip read them with puzzlement, and considerable interest.

Then he paged back to the altar diagram, making sure he’d really seen what he thought he had. He pushed his glasses further up his nose, and grinned.

Replacing the stone key in the console, he gripped the first and third of the three crystal levers, and slid them slowly upward.

Absolutely nothing happened. For all of five seconds, anyway.

Then the platform hummed beneath his feet, and the brightness of the crystals in the surrounding walls intensified. With a low, steady rumble, the entire complex began to rise into the air, rotating upward on a carved column of spiraling stone descending far into the earth below. Trip looked upward, and saw the rock ceiling of the Winter City approaching with troubling speed. The crystals flared, blinding bright, filling Trip’s vision with dancing blotches of ultraviolet color. Beams of energy lanced upward, converging into a single point; a drill of pure, focused light.

The rock above began to hiss and evaporate as the light splashed against it. A tunnel, woven by the spinning beams, dissolved itself into the bedrock. The platform spun steadily upward and upward.

Trip knelt beside the altar, trying to shield himself and the still-unconscious Rafe, as chunks of rock and earth rained down from the ceiling, and the rumbling of the platform intensified to nearly deafening levels. The beams of energy made quick work of the stony ceiling; utility pipes began to appear through the earth above, and sizzled away, severed, in a flash of light. Some small, wonder-impervious part of Trip’s mind hoped he wouldn’t eventually be billed for that.

Veins of sunlight began to break through the soil above, and the beams flickered and weakened at last. The light of day blazed in from above, full and dazzling, as the platform slowed and shuddered to a stop, the central pit and the engine itself continuing to rise until they cleared their surrounding walls.

Trip sat at the apex of the altar, shirtsleeves ruffled by a fresh, sweet breeze of open air, listening to the distant sounds of traffic. He looked up, and saw a familiar green-and-white scoreboard, flanked on either side by rows of bleachers, with rooftops just beyond. In a moment, he knew his precise address: 1060 West Addison.

The Misery Engine sat directly beneath Wrigley Field, a perfect fit within the borders its spreading grass-and-dirt diamond. A great many new hypotheses regarding win-loss records and the fortunes of sporting teams arose unbidden in Trip’s mind.

Beside him, Rafe stirred, mumbled something about a pair of argyles, and sank back into sleep.

Trip picked his way carefully down the steps, leaving his pack and journal next to Rafe on the altar platform, and gingerly hefted the Multipurpose Rifle from where it had fallen on the stone below. He stared up into the rows upon rows of bleachers, and wondered where the groundskeepers and security guards were, and how he would ever begin to explain this.

Applause reached his ears, a steady clap from a single pair of hands. He circled the rising stone perimeter of the engine to the home team dugout. A tall, reedy man in a white suit and a broad Panama hat strode out from its shadows onto the slim border of grass remaining on the field, clapping one last time before letting his hands fall casually to his sides. In her black coat and broad-brimmed hat, Valencia Stitch swept out just behind him, quiet, deferent. Trip couldn’t quite read the expression on her face.

The man in the Panama hat lifted his head, revealing a lean and handsome face of uncertain age. He wore thick, old-fashioned glasses, one lens entirely opaque, and a broad, unforced, oddly comforting smile. A silver needle gleamed from the lapel of his suit.

He reached into the pocket of his suit jacket, pulled forth a round whitish object, and hucked it easily underhand to Trip, who nearly fumbled it. It was a baseball, scuffed and yellowing, its stitches beginning to fray.

“I always liked the game,” the man in the Panama hat said, in a calm, easy Midwestern voice. He stuck out a slim, calloused hand for Trip to shake as he crossed from the grass to the stone platform of the Misery Engine.

“Pleased to meet you, son,” the man in the Panama hat said. “I’m Jefferson Edison Franklin. Most folks call me Jef.”

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