Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Gathering Storm

Valencia Stitch had a headache. An old, familiar throb just behind her left eye. It brought back decades-old memories, and a slow, curdling dread in the pit of her stomach. The headache, she had learned, meant her employer was displeased.

“Pull yourself together, Sharp,” she said. “Are you certain they were Operators?”

“They ate Jenkins,” the man with the eyepatch said quietly. He wasn’t looking at her, or her finely appointed wooden desk. By now, he would have ceased to find it even remotely remarkable that this room, like the many that surrounded it, had no windows. He seemed to be tracing the loops and whorls of Mrs. Stitch’s entirely tasteful wallpaper with his remaining eye. The cup of tea he had drunk nearly down to its dregs rattled gently on its saucer, owing to the shaking of his hand. “They ate Hollowell. And McMartin. And... I can’t remember her name, the new girl. Ate them.”

This was decidedly not good. Not the sudden deficit of manpower; Mrs. Stitch was nothing if not thorough in her staffing, and blessed with abundant Needlemen to replace those fallen. But the presence of actual, confirmed Operators -- for the first time since the Burning Night of Cardefax in 1919 -- was the last thing Mrs. Stitch needed to hear. For one thing, it meant that the dimensional gaps were widening -- that, despite the best efforts of her dedicated agents to keep things sewn up, time itself was continuing to unravel. And letting things in through the gaps that most assuredly should not be there.

For another, it meant that with all likelihood, Mrs. Stitch’s manpower deficits would likely accelerate, and soon.

“Do you think they’re in concert with the Morrow or Gaunt Heirs?” Mrs. Stitch asked Sharp, snapping her fingers to divert his attention from her wallpaper. He was terribly distracted, but then, he’d been smashed by his own automobile only a few days back, and perhaps he hadn’t been entirely put back together properly.

Sharp shook his head slowly. “They seemed as surprised as we were.”

“Then perhaps,” Mrs. Stitch offered, allowing herself a brief and luxuriant morsel of hope, “they’ve solved our problem for us? They do have... appetites, these Operators.”

“I don’t think so,” Sharp said quietly. “I think they’re here to speed things along.”

These were the times, Mrs. Stitch thought as the pain behind her left eye momentarily spiked, that liquor on the premises might, in fact, be entirely desirable.

The door to Mrs. Stitch’s office opened, accompanied by a heavy aroma of jet fuel and burnt rubber. Maximillian strode in; from the wisps of smoke still trailing from the edges of his long black coat, Mrs. Stitch judged that he had been on fire in the not-too-distant past.

“Give me good news,” she said.

Maximillian merely narrowed his cold gray eyes.

Mrs. Stitch sighed. Preventing the end of all life on Earth was an even more thankless task than she had imagined.

Thunder struck the anvil of the lake, and rolled across in reverberating booms toward the skyscrapers. The wind picked up, urgent, accelerating, and the sky began to shade itself to gray. Above the water, the thick line of clouds slowly congealed from gray to nearly black, illuminated from within by sporadic flashes of burgeoning lightning.

And inside the roiling mass of growing storm clouds, the fabric of reality hummed, then sizzled. A blinding blue-white line wrote itself sideways across the turbulent air. And something came through.

Time had weathered the Jolly Roger emblems painted on the towering sides of the Zeppelin, and frayed the nest of cables connecting its gondola-slung underbelly. No light or movement could be seen within the great airship’s compartments. But the bristling thickets of electromagnetic harpoons and crackling Tesla guns showed no sign of disrepair.

The Faithless broke through the storm clouds just head of the first heavy barrages of machine-gun rain, accompanied by another echoing growl of thunder, and made for the buildings ahead.

And deep within the heart of the terrible craft, in a room cobwebbed with cables and hoses and tubes through which strange fluids pulsed, a dry chuckle of satisfaction could be heard above the rising thrum of engines. Electric lights along the skin of the blimp flared to life, and the great ship’s hangar bay doors, sprinkling showers of rust, slowly ground open.

In response, the apes began to screech their song of war.

“I really can’t apologize enough,” Rafe said, nervously toying with the stone knives in his hands -- and then noticing, and ceasing, rather pointedly.

Trip fingered the thin stinging line on the skin of his neck and shrugged. “It’s okay. Understandable.”

“No, no, really,” Rafe insisted. “I feel terrible.”

“Is he always like this?” Sully asked Nora. The two of them had camped out by one wall of the empty room on the top floor of 919 North Michigan. Nora just sighed.

Sully wanted a cigarette. Desperately. She flicked the cap of her lighter off, and on, and off again, to quiet her fingers.

“What were you going to be doing today?” Sully asked Nora, staring out through the wide windows at the storm clouds rolling in toward the city. Thunder had begun to peal distantly.

“What day is it again?” Nora asked. Sully opened her mouth, realized she didn’t know herself, and laughed dryly.

“Guess I’d be doing laundry,” Nora sighed. “Got quarters and everything.”

“I’d be, I dunno, making money,” Sully said. “You see the papers or anything? OMG’s vanishing skyscraper stunt. What’s the reaction on that?”

“Do I look like I’ve had time to read the papers?” Nora smirked. “Hell. I’ve barely had time to eat.”

“Shit,” Sully said. “I bet we killed. I bet we absolutely killed. Probably got agents on the phone right now, leaving messages, and Sally’s gonna try to answer them, and Sally’s a sweet girl, but she couldn’t negotiate free cheese from the government.”

“Not to interrupt,” Trip called from across the room, where he’d been knocking randomly against the walls, “but does anyone else want to go exploring?” There were several frosted-glass doors leading off the main chamber the four now occupied, and a narrow, dim hallway.

“All in favor of sitting down for fifteen minutes in celebration of the fact that no one’s trying to kill us for reasons we barely understand, raise your hand,” Sully called out.

Nora immediately put her hand up. Rafe, somewhat sheepishly, followed suit.

Sully raised one hand with a flick of her wrist. “Democracy sucks, chief.” Trip rolled his eyes at her and started trying each of the doors.

They were locked, and peering through the rippling surface of the frosted glass yielded only frustratingly tantalizing outlines of forms within. Trip tried the hallway, switching on his keychain light as the gloom deepened.

There was another door here, different from the rest -- solid steel, cold and thick as the circular vault door that had led into the main chamber. It had no latch, no knob, no lock -- just a finger-sized indentation at roughly eye level. Trip stuck his finger in it, warily, but nothing happened. He shrugged and continued around the corner, particles of dust dancing in the beam of his light.

The hallway widened into a room -- some kind of workshop. Unlike the main chamber, this room was not empty; coils of wire and strange, half-assembled gadgets, coated in a thick layer of dust and cobwebs, sat on the various workbenches, casting strange, dancing shadows under Trip’s light. There was an old-fashioned phone mounted on the wall -- Trip tried it, and heard only a great gulf of silence in the receiver -- and row after row of tiny bins mounted high up on the walls, accessible by a sliding ladder on rails.

And, in the corner, something about the size and shape of a door, covered in a while sheet.

Trip unveiled it with a single tug, sneezing amid the fog of dust that arose. It was a rectangle of upright metal, tall and wide enough for a person to pass through, its frame coiled and strung with great tangled nests of wires. Protruding from one side of the frame, there was a sort of shelf, with a semispherical cradle -- waiting, it seemed, for some control device or key.

At first, Trip thought it was the ringing in his ears amid the thick, enclosing silence. But no -- when he leaned his head closer to the device, slowly, he heard it. A low, steady, electrical buzz. He reached out cautiously, expecting a shock, and touched the device. It hummed beneath his fingertips. Trip played the beam of his light across the floor at the base of the device, and saw electrical cables, python-thick, uncoiling from the base of the device into large circular sockets in the wall.

Within his backpack, something rattled and shook.

Trip took a moment to very deliberately not jump out of his skin. Then, once he had convinced his heart that it did not, in fact, want to claw itself free from his rib cage, he unslung the pack, gingerly set it down, and opened it.

Something was moving and clattering inside the cigar box.

Trip set the box down on the floor and opened the lid. The gyroscope he’d seen earlier wobbled, lurched itself upright, and began to spin.

Trip picked it up carefully, the arrested spin of the scope stinging his fingers, and felt the gyroscope humming in his hand. The closer he brought it to the metal archway, the more strongly it began to resonate. He looked again at the cradle extending from the device. It was just the right size and shape.

He placed the gyroscope in the cradle, and it began to spin, slowly at first, then faster, until it was only a blur. Sparks erupted in cascades from the coils on the side of the device, and Trip stepped back as blue veins of electricity began to dance around it.

“Guys?” Trip shouted. “Sully?”

The electricity turned inward, congregating at a central point within the empty metal frame, and began to stitch itself into a web. The web widened, and shimmered. And then the edges of space itself seemed to peel back, like a blossoming flower, and the metal frame was completely filled with a coruscating wall of remarkable blue-white light.

“I think you need to see this!” Trip called out.

He stepped forward, slowly, stretching one hand toward the wall of light. He felt neither heat nor cold, nor the prickling of electrical current. One finger brushed the surface of the undulating light, and Trip reflexively jerked his hand back. But it hadn’t hurt; it had felt like water.

Trip put his hand forward again, up to the light, and then through it. He could feel the odd, liquid sensation shimmering around his wrist and hand, but the tips of his fingers felt normal -- touching nothing but air.

“Holy shit,” he heard Sully say, and turned to find her, Nora, and Rafe in the doorway, gaping at the light from the portal.

“I know,” Trip said, turning to her, grinning with the thrill of discovery. “Isn’t it amazing?”

And then something on the other side of the portal seized his hand tightly, and yanked, and before he could say another word, Trip was pulled bodily into the web of light.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Terrors at the Tower's Top

The Sears Tower was no longer Earth’s tallest building, its lofty claim long usurped by a wave of pretenders from Far Eastern nations hungry to prove themselves. But in a pinch, it would do.

It was a clear autumn day, the light yellow and knife-sharp, the sky painfully pristine blue save for a line of dark clouds building and boiling out above the lake. Had anyone with binoculars or a long enough lens cared to, they could have looked to the very top of the Sears Tower and seen two men standing atop it, without safety harnesses or any other visible precautions, gazing from its precipice across the expanse of the city in the curious, indifferent manner of tourists.

“It’s rude to suck your teeth,” Operator Vore sighed, without looking at his comrade.

“Oh,” Operator Grin said, poking stubby fingers beneath the brim of his hunter’s cap to scratch at an itchy place on his scalp. “Is that what they’re called?” He resumed sucking at his teeth for a few moments, a wet, dental sound, and then casually spat a thin stream of something purplish-red over the side of the building.

Twelve stories below, the wind caught it and blew it back against the glass of the building. Where it hit the window, it sizzled and smoked for more than a minute.

“Funny what that guy in the hat said,” Operator Grin observed. “About how we couldn’t come up here.”

Operator Vore nodded. “And yet, here, we are. I attribute it to a failure of imagination on his part.”

Operator Grin chuckled, and picked a splinter of human bone out from his teeth, hissing and sizzling corrosively, and flicked it away. “He also said, ‘No, no, don’t eat me.’”

“And yet...” Operator Vore began, and nodded once again. “It’s come a long way, hasn’t it? The city, I mean. Even the Kroatan would be impressed.”

“I like that one,” Operator Grin said, pointing at a blood-red skyscraper just a few blocks away. “On account of the color.”

“I like to picture it all on fire,” Operator Vore replied, and smiled thinly.

I am large, Walt Whitman wrote. I contain multitudes. Had he ever encountered Operators Vore and Grin -- at least in the brief seconds before Operator Grin was licking his grimy fingers and hacking up cottony tufts of white beard, catlike -- he would have realized just how accurate that particular statement was.

If you could put either Operator inside an MRI machine, or even an X-ray, two outcomes would result.

For one, a glance at the results would drive you completely and irrevocably insane.

For another, in the brief instants before your every neural connection audibly shorted out from an onslaught of information that the human brain was simply not designed to process, you might have been able to make a simple observation: They were larger on the inside than on the outside.

Yes, the shapes they wore were indisputably human -- had, indeed, once been human, prior to circumstances best not imagined. (Suffice to say that, at some point in the recent past, two otherwise ordinary and anonymous members of the human race had each had an extremely bad, and unexpectedly abbreviated, day.) But the strange life that now boiled and undulated inside each animate bag of skin, hair, and teeth was as far from human imagining as possible, and half again more.

“Invisible jet,” Grin said, punching Vore in the upper shoulder. Vore’s lips pursed, and his eyelids half-descended in annoyance.

“Where?” Vore asked, squinting in the direction of Grin’s outstretched finger. “Oh, I see it. Fascinating. You think that’s the other ones?”

“Look,” Grin replied. “If I close one eye and make my picking-up-or-pointing things go like this, it looks like I’m crushing it. Crushy crushy crushy!”

“I don’t know why I talk to you,” Vore sighed.

“I think it has something to do with your tongue,” Grin said. “And your -- whaddyoucallem -- teeth, maybe.”

Vore sighed again. This was going to be a very long assignment.

Thunder rumbled, distant and digestive, from the black armada of building thunderheads to the east. A new wind swept over the city, and Vore breathed it in, sampling it with organs that were not, in the strictest sense, a nose or lungs. He smiled once more, showing teeth.

“Oho,” he said. “That’s new. I think we’re about to have company.”

“Crushy,” Grin said, in elongated chewing-gum syllables, squinting at the distant invisible plane, pinching at nothingness. “Crushy crushy.”

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.