Wednesday, July 04, 2007

1932: The Pit, The Peril, and the Promise

“You and Hark keep the robots off us,” Tom Morrow shouted over the growing roar of the strange energies lashing across the surface of the Well. “Ruby, you’re with me! Go!” As one, they scrambled over the fallen bodies of the metal men, and dashed down the stairs toward the edge of the Well.

Jefferson Edison Franklin, age 12, sat weeping at the edge of precipice, the lights of unearthly energies dancing reflected in his glasses, and waited for the world to end.

The mechanical men began advancing, as one force, before they’d even reached the bottom of the stairs. They lifted their hands, palms out, and the sizzling beams of Jef’s Electroplasmic Ray burst forth.

Mister Gaunt and Harker Windham forked off to either side, Gaunt clutching his pistols, Hark running low to the ground with his knives, as a blast boiled the stone floor between them. Tom and Ruby Gale ducked as another beam scorched just over their heads, cutting a glowing molten scar into the rock face beyond.

Gaunt opened fire with his pistols, ducking and whirling as the deadly beams lanced all around him. He began to laugh.

Hark leapt, swung from one of the robots’ stiff metal limbs, and vaulted up into the air, knives poised to plunge into the thing’s head.

Through the chaos, Tom and Ruby ran, ducking through the lumbering legs of the mechanical men, toward the base of the steel parabola that held the needle suspended over the heart of the Well. There was a ladder built into the side of it, and without a word, Tom all but flung Ruby up onto it, and clambered after her.

Then he stopped, just a few feet up, looking down at the undulating waves of light rippling in the heart of Jef’s device. A strange feeling of deja vu stole over him. He’d seen that light before, mere days before — shimmering across the surface of his own Looking Glass.

“Tom!” Ruby shouted from above him. “No time to dawdle! We’ve got to shut this thing down, remember?”

Tom looked up at her, his green eyes all but glowing with inspiration, and grinned. “No we don’t!” he called back, and slid down the ladder to the ground.

By the time Ruby scrambled down to join him, he was crouched by the periphery of the great metal ring, straining to pry open an access hatch on the side of it. Baffled, Ruby helped him peel the panel loose; behind them, the ground shook as another metal man came crashing down, accompanied by a salvo of Gaunt’s triumphant cackling.

“What the hell are we doing, Tom?” Ruby asked, as Tom’s deft fingers hunted through bales of twisted wire and thick rubber-coated power conduits in the guts of the machine.

“We’re giving this thing more juice!” Tom hollered back. “Grab hold of that loose cable and plug it into the circuit junction there!”

“More juice?” Ruby asked, even as she followed Tom’s instructions. The cable snapped into place in a flare of sparks, and when Tom did likewise with a third cable, feeding into the same junction, the noise and light of the machine intensified.”

“Trust me!” Tom smiled, and held out a hand. “And run!”

Together, they dashed away from the vast, crackling metal ring, as the light grew ever brighter. At the center of the Well, space itself crackled and split, and a strange not-light came seeping through. And something large and fast approaching sang out.

No, not sang. Screamed.

Ruby hauled Tom back at the last moment, as one of the last metal men thundered down into the magnetic dust before them, one arm missing, its head smashed and trailing blue firefly sparks. Hark perched on its neck, only slightly the worse for wear, and tugged his stone knives out of the thing’s head.

“Nice work,” Tom laughed, scrambling up onto and across the creaking torso of the mechanical man, Ruby close behind. “We’re gonna need some cover here in a second. Where’s Gaunt?”

Hark began to answer, but across the cavern, the last of Jef’s mechanical man suddenly bloomed into fire, falling in a clanking shamble of components to the rocky ground. Again, Gaunt’s eerie laughter echoed through the cavern, audible even over the rising roar of Jef’s mighty machine.

“Having his fun, I’d say,” Hark shrugged. “Wait, what was that about cover?”

Tom and Ruby both grabbed him by the arms and dragged him down the opposite side of the fallen metal man, as the pool of un-light at the Well’s center spread further.

The unearthly screaming intensified — not in their ears, Tom realized, but in their minds. The first shifting, rippling hint of some terrible creature showed itself through the hole torn between worlds, and even Tom, who’d trained himself to think in ten dimensions, found his mind instinctually filling with a wave of awe and terror.

The creature burst forth all at once, wounded, panicked. Hungry multi-facted extensions of itself sprawled forth as it twined itself up around the needle extending down into the heart of the pit. On the rocky ledge high above the Well, Jefferson Edison Franklin sobbed, curling into a ball in the black dust as his nightmares once more took solid form.

Then a whine rose from the vast needle poised above the pit. Blue-white electricity began to crackle along the length of it, congregating at the tip.

In his mind, Tom sensed the creature’s confusion, and fear — and, too late, its horrible understanding.

Then the needle pulsed, and energies nearly beyond human imagining blasted down into the grisly flesh of the Eater, permeating its every cell, cooking it from the inside out. Its scream died from Tom’s mind in an instant, and he flung himself back behind the hull of the fallen metal giant, shielding his eyes.

For a few long seconds, the Eater of Kroatoan glowed charcoal-red, bits of it flaking off and sizzling to ash even as it thrashed about. Then the light of the needle died away, and the brittle, blackened shell of the demolished beast cracked and collapsed in on itself. Its lifeless husk sank back into the dwindling circle of un-light from which it had came, never again to feed.

Jef watched it sink with wide, tear-stained eyes. The singing in his mind was gone. And then he began to scream.

“Give them back!” he roared, sobbing, all but tumbling forward down the steep face of the rock. “Ma and Pa and Scout! You spit them out! You give them back to me!” The black dust mingled with the tears streaming down his cheeks as he raced toward the metal ring encircling the well.

The thought occurred to Tom, Ruby, and Hark simultaneously, and they shook off the spots still dancing before their eyes and dashed forward, shouting warnings to Jef. But they were too far away, and he was closing fast on the rim of the pit.

“I want them all back, damn you!” Jef screamed at the dead creature, as it slipped further back across the shrinking border between worlds.

Gaunt appeared from a roiling cloud of black dust, coat swirling behind him, just at the boy’s heels. His gloved hands stretched forth, trying to snatch at Jef’s arm, haul him back, save him.

Jef leapt for the metal rim of the Well, clambering up. Gaunt dove for him and missed, crashing to the dusty ground.

For a long, terrible moment, Jef stood at the edge of the Well, watching the last withered appendage of the beast shrivel away toward the un-light. He turned his head as Tom shouted one last pleading warning, and the eyes with which he returned Tom’s gaze were no longer a child’s.

With a scream of pure inhuman fury, Jef leapt out, clung to the charred remnant of the beast’s last tendril, and pounded at it again and again with tiny, bloodied fists. Then the last of the creature, and Jef with it, sank into the dwindling circle of un-light. It sealed shut, and the energies rippling across the surface of the Well unraveled themselves thread by thread. And in the Well of Aeons Lost, all was still and silent.

Tom, Hark, and Ruby made their way slowly, shaken, to where Gaunt stood by the edge of the Well, brushing dust from the sleeves of his coat, and coughing dryly. As they approached, he silently held up the object clutched in his left hand, and let it fall to the ground. It was Jef’s right shoe, plucked from his foot as Gaunt fell.

“Almost,” Gaunt said softly, each syllable weighted in lead.

“Are you all right?” Tom asked him. “That thing, the sight of it — has it— are you—?”

Gaunt shrugged. “I’ve seen worse,” he rasped, and left it at that.

“We should get Satel,” Ruby said at last, her voice still a little shaky. She wasn’t looking at anyone in particular; just staring up at the needle poised over the empty pit, now stained and scored with rust-red, corroded tracks.

“Agreed,” Hark chimed in, briskly, as if changing the subject. “Tom, I can carry him if you and Gaunt keep a lookout. I hate to think there may be a few traps we missed on the way in.”

Tom just nodded, staring thoughtfully at the empty black void of the well. He thought of the light, and the Looking Glass, and the notes he’d left for his grandson in the journal safely back at the Lookout. That young man he’d met only days before, from some far and wondrous future — did he still exist now? Would he ever?

“I’ll catch up with you in a second,” Tom said, as his companions set off for the grating through which they’d entered the Well. He stooped and swept up a handful of black magnetic dust in his palm.

Better safe than sorry, Tom thought, smiling. He drew a small glass vial forth from his shirt pocket, and carefully sealed a trickle of the dust inside.

Through the cavern of ice, off the frost-rimed statues of strange and ancient gods, the sounds of hammering, and the sizzling splash of an acetylene torch, echoed into the darkness.

Ruby lifted her welder’s mask, exhaled a soft white cloud of breath, and studied the cooling seam of the frame she’d assembled for the Cyclone’s missing wing. Not quite the original, she decided, but not too shabby for the circumstances.

“Hark,” she called over, “I’m gonna need another panel from the metal men. Maybe four foot square?”

Hark, clad once more in his long fur-lined leather coat, set down his hammer on the steel plate he’d been flattening out, and dug through the pile of finished squares at his heels, hefting the thick metal with unforced ease. “Here we are,” he grinned brightly, scraping one loose from the middle of the stack, and hefted it on one shoulder across the icy ground to Ruby.

Together, they lowered it into place on the framework, Ruby making minute adjustments here and there. At last, she nodded. “I think we’ve got a rivet gun the crash kit,” she mused to Hark. “You mind checking in the back of the plane?”

“Can it wait?” Hark asked, wiping sweat from his brow. “I think poor Satel’s fallen to sleep again, and I’d rather not disturb him for now.”

Ruby sighed and shrugged, twisting off the flow of gas to the torch, and setting it carefully down on an intersection in the metal joints. She slid carefully off the skeletal wing, the plane rocking only slightly on freshly repaired landing gear, and peeled off her welding gloves to rub her hands together.

“Another day, do you think?” Hark asked, gesturing at the plane.

“Maybe less,” Ruby smiled. “All the crashes I’ve been in, I’m starting to think I could fix this poor bird up with my eyes shut. Not that I don’t appreciate the help.”

“And when we return to civilization?” Hark asked. “What then?”

“You mean, besides a hot bath and a steak the size of my head?” Ruby chuckled. “I thought I’d stick around town for a while. The Cyclone’s gonna need an overhaul anyway, and I’ve been thinking of improvements anyway. Plus, what with all Tom’s lost…” She stopped, hesitating, then spoke again. “He could probably use a few more friends around, for a while at least.”

“And?” Hark asked expectantly. Ruby scowled.

“And what, Your Lordship?” she said, lifting the welder’s mask off her head.

“It’s not all smell and sound with me, you know,” Hark grinned. “I’m quite good at reading those subtle facial cues that tell me when someone’s, say, not telling me the entire truth.”

“God, you give me a pain,” Ruby snorted, but there was a smile creeping around the edges of her mouth. “All right, all right, maybe I thought I’d go look up old Lemondrop.”

“The solicitor?” Hark asked. “I thought you’d said he was engaged.”

“Engaged ain’t married,” Ruby shrugged. “I got a granddaughter from the future who says we tie the knot. I figure that puts me in the ballpark, at least.”

“And is that what you want,” Hark probed, “or are you just trying to fulfill some sense of inevitability?”

Ruby looked over toward the edge of the ice, where a lone figure stood, wrapped in a long, dark coat.
“Can’t build a life on revenge,” Ruby said softly. “Not a good one, anyway. I figure, I spend all my time chasing Wicked West around, one way or another that’ll mean she wins in the end.”

“Attagirl,” Hark nodded, smiling. “Get in there and fight for him, then.”

“And what about you, huh?” Ruby smirked, poking a finger at the Lord of the Lost World. “I can’t remember the last time I heard about you taking a night on the town. You don’t get a social life, well, between that and the loincloth, I’d say people are going to start talking.”

Hark ducked his head with uncommon sheepishness. “Well,” he said, with no small hesitance, “in truth I’ve been getting some rather stridently amorous letters from a lovely anthropologist I met in Africa last year — I did tell you about the Mummy Pirates of the Nile, right?”

Ruby snapped her fingers, trying to jog her memory. “Right, right, Amanda something.”

“Amelia,” Hark corrected, perhaps a touch too quickly. “Dr. Amelia Sandsworth. Of the London Sandsworths. She’s, ah, she’ll be in New York, it seems. Curating some exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. I’m told I’ll require eveningwear. Chalmsworth says he knows a tailor…”

“Bring her flowers,” Ruby teased. “Nothing carnivorous.”

“Yes, yes,” Hark fussed, “I’m not completely ignorant as to how these, these rituals are conducted.”

“Geez, listen to you two!” Tom chuckled, ducking under the fuselage of the plane. His hands were black with engine grease. “Glad I don’t have to worry about any of that nonsense.”

“Really?” Ruby asked, quirking one bemused brow at him. “Cause I hear different from Jenny Wright, Tom.”

“If you string that poor girl along too much longer,” Hark scolded, “I fear she’ll demand either a ring or your head on a plate.”

“I’m working on it,” Tom blushed. “The former, I mean. Uh, anyway, your new engine’s looking good. I might even be able to tweak the fuel efficiency a bit, if I can shape the piston right.”

“Just make it work, Tom,” Ruby warned, a good-natured edge to her voice. “We can save the improvements for later.”

“Sure, sure,” Tom sighed, grease-smeared palms raised in surrender. He glanced over at the dark figure standing on the precipice of the ice ledge, and concern seeped into his features. “I could use a second opinion on the engine,” he said, nodding in that direction.

“Good luck,” Hark sighed. “I rather doubt he’s in a chatty mood.”

“Is he ever?” Tom offered with a quick, hopeful grin, and crunched his boots across the ice.

Gaunt stood staring into the abyss as Tom approached. The magician didn’t look back — just produced a handkerchief and handed it casually to Tom.

“For your hands,” Gaunt rumbled.

“Thanks,” Tom said, wiping off the grease. “Gum? I’ve got a few sticks left…”

Gaunt gave no response. He lifted his head to peer at the distant, shadow-shrouded shapes of the ancient statues lining the cavern walls.

“Once, they were worshipped,” he said, in a soft, serrated voice. “Surrounded by life. They were believed in. Now look at them. No different than the rest of us. All alone in the end.”

“I’ve been thinking on something,” Tom said gently, “ever since I met you. Tossing around ideas, talking to some friends, writing letters. If you… if you could go back to the world, would you? Could you give it up?”

The indigo-bound head shook slowly, side to side, in a rough whisper of tattered silk. “The question is moot,” Gaunt said. “I’ve long accepted that.”

“I’ve been corresponding with a Dr. Graftmann in Vienna,” Tom said. “About new methods of surgery. Maybe even a way to, well, to regrow new skin.”

Gaunt turned, and between the wrappings that covered his face, there was some strange glimmer in his eyes. “You have been working on this … for me?”

“For you, and everyone else who needs it,” Tom nodded. “It’s all theory now, I’ll admit. But in five years, I think — in five years I could make it fact. I know I can.”

“My work,” Gaunt said, quickly. “I swore to the Devil himself, Morrow. I— I couldn’t—”

“Five years,” Tom replied. “You could get a lot done in five years. Three thousand, seven hundred and twenty-two divided by five… That’s 744 a year, give or take. Something like 62 a month. I hate to say this, but I think Chicago can provide.”

“You’ve never liked my methods,” Gaunt rasped, the smallest quaver in his voice. “Why would you do me this — this kindness?” He sounded out the world as if it were foreign to his tongue.

“I may not like the way you operate,” Tom nodded, “but I’ve never doubted what side you were on. And I’ve never doubted that deep down in whatever bit of smoke and mirrors you’ve got for a heart, you really do this for the same reasons I do.”

Gaunt was silent for a long time. “Miss Sullivan,” he said at last. “Say nothing of this to her. Please. I — I think she has … hopes. I would not wish…”

“I’m not in the business of dashing hopes,” Tom said, with quiet resolve. “But I understand.”

Gaunt exhaled, and started to chuckle, and then stopped, as if testing the sound of it. He laughed again, a bit louder now, and for once, even in the midst of this palace of ice, the sound sent no shivers racing down Tom’s spine.

“I’ve always envied what you had, Morrow,” Gaunt said. “You and so many others.”

“And what’s that?” Tom asked, curious as ever.

“A future,” Gaunt whispered in a plume of breath. He gazed down the distant tunnel of ice before him, to the tiny square of blue-tingued sunlight at its farthest end. “A World Yet to Be.”

“You want to see yours?” Tom smiled, and Gaunt nodded slowly.

“Very much,” the magician said, as if concluding a prayer.

“Then come on,” Tom said. “I could use your help with this engine. We’ve got a plane to catch.”

And if, somewhere in the endless dark between worlds, a small boy with one shoe missing and an old man in a stained white suit were to meet … what, then, might they have to talk about?

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