My knees began to quiver and then buckle. My shoulders bent under an invisible weight. Straight as plumb bobs, my arms were hanging at my sides. My hands could no longer grip the flashlight, and it clattered to the floor at my feet. It bounced silently on the glassy surface, for now there was no sound whatsoever, not even the flutter of my eardrums or the thud of my own heart.
Abruptly, all returned to normal.
The pressure lifted in an instant.
I heard myself gasping for air. Bobby was gasping, too.
He had dropped his flashlight but had managed to hold tight to the shotgun.
“Shit!” he said explosively.
“What was that?”
“Ever happen before?”
“Yeah,” I said, reveling in the ease with which I could draw cool, deep breaths.
Though our flashlights were at rest on the floor, an increasing number of Roman candles and pinwheels and serpents and sparklers and spirals of light spread across the floor and up the walls.
“This place isn’t shut down,” Bobby said.
“But it is. You saw.”
“Nothing’s what it seems in Wyvern,” he said, quoting me.
“Every room we passed, every hallway—stripped, abandoned.”
“What about the two floors above this?”
“Just bare rooms.”
“And there’s nothing below?”
“Not that I’ve found.”
We picked up our flashlights, and as the beams moved across the floors and walls, the flamboyant eruptions of light in the deep glassy surface multiplied threefold, fourfold: a dazzling profusion of fiery blooms. We might have been in a Fourth of July extravaganza, suspended from a hot-air balloon, with barrages of rockets bursting around us, whiz-bangs and cracker bonbons and fountains and fizgigs, but all silent, all marvelous glistering light and no bang, yet so reminiscent of Independence Day displays that you could almost smell the saltpeter and the sulfur and the charcoal, almost hear a stirring John Philip Sousa march, almost taste hot dogs with mustard and chopped onions.
Bobby said “Something’s still happening.”
He studied the ceaselessly changing and increasingly colorful patterns of light as though they held a meaning as explicit as that in a paragraph of prose on a printed page, if only he could learn to read them.
Although I doubted that the astonishingly luminous refractive bursts were casting off any more UV rays than the flashlight beams that produced them, I was not accustomed to such brightness. Radiant whorls and drizzles and rivulets streamed across my exposed face and hands, a storm of scintillant tattoos, and even if this rain of light was washing a little death into me, the spectacle was irresistible, exhilarating. My heart was racing, powered partly by fear but mostly by wonder.
Then I saw the door.
I was turning, so enthralled by the carnival of light around me that my gaze traveled past the door, distracted by the pyrotechnics, before I realized what I had seen. Massive, five feet in diameter, of matte-finish steel, surrounded by a polished-steel architrave: It was similar to what you would expect to see at the entrance to a bank vault, and no doubt it established an airtight seal.
Startled, I swung back toward the door—but it was gone. Through a pandemonium of gazelle-quick lights and pursuing shadows, I saw that the circular hole in the wall was as it had been when we entered through it: open, with a dark concrete tunnel beyond, leading to what had once been an airlock.
I took a couple of steps toward the opening before I realized that Bobby was speaking to me. As I turned toward him, I glimpsed the door again, this time from the corner of my eye. But when I looked directly at the damn thing, it wasn’t there.
“What’s happening?” I asked nervously.
Bobby had extinguished his flashlight. He pointed at mine. “Douse it.”
I did as he asked.
The fireworks in the glassy surface of the room should have at once vanished into absolute darkness. Instead, colorful star shells and chrysanthemums and glittering pinwheels continued to arise within this magical material, swarmed around the chamber, casting off a farrago of lights and shadows, and then faded away as new eruptions replaced them.
“It’s running by itself,” Bobby said.
“The room, the machine, the process, whatever it is.”
“It can’t be running by itself,” I insisted, in full-on denial of what was happening around me.
“The beam energy?” he wondered.
“The flashlight beams?”
“Can you be any more obscure?”
“Way more, bro. But I mean, that’s what must’ve powered it up. The energy in the flashlight beams.”
I shook my head. “Doesn’t make sense. That’s almost no energy at all.”
“This stuff soaked in the light,” he insisted, sliding one foot back and forth on the radiant floor, “spun it into more power, used what it absorbed to generate more energy.”
“That’s not science.”
“I’ve heard worse on Star Trek.”
“Science or sorcery, it’s real.”
Even if what Bobby said was true—and obviously there was at least some truth in it—the phenomenon was not perpetually self-sustaining. The number of bright eruptions began to decline, as did both the richness of the colors and the intensity of the lights.
My mouth had gone so dry that I needed to work up some saliva before I could say, “Why didn’t this happen before?”
“Were you ever here with two flashlights?”
“I’m a one-flashlight guy.”
“So maybe there’s a critical mass, a critical amount of energy input, needed to start it.”
“Critical mass is two lousy flashlights?”
“Bobby Einstein.” With my concern not in the least allayed by the subsidence of the light show, I looked toward the exit. “Did you see that door?”
“Totally massive vault, like a blast door in a nuclear-missile silo.”
“Are you feeling that beer?”
“It was there and not there.”
“This isn’t a haunted house, bro.”
“Maybe it’s a haunted laboratory.”
I was surprised that the word haunted felt so right and true, resonating loudly in the tuning fork of instinct. This wasn’t the requisite decaying house of many gables and creaking floorboards and inexplicable cold drafts, but I sensed unseen presences nonetheless, malevolent spirits pressing against an invisible membrane between my world and theirs, the air of expectancy preceding the imminent materialization of a hateful and violent entity.
“The door was there and not there,” I insisted.
“It’s almost a Zen koan. What’s the sound of one hand clapping? Where does a door lead if it’s there and not there?”
“I don’t think we have time for meditation just now.”
Indeed, I was overcome by the feeling that time was running out for us, that a cosmic clock was rapidly ticking toward the stop point. This premonition was so powerful that I almost bolted for the exit.
All that kept me in the egg room was the certainty that Bobby would not follow me if I left. He was not interested in politics or the great cultural and social issues of our times, and nothing could rouse him from his pleasant life of sun and surf except a friend in need. He didn’t trust those he called people with a plan, those who believed they knew how to make a better world, which seemed always to involve telling other people what they should do and how they should think. But the cry of a friend would bring him instantly to the barricades, and once committed to the cause—in this case, to finding Jimmy Wing and good Orson—he would neither surrender nor retreat.
Likewise, I could never leave a friend behind. Our convictions and our friends are all we have to get us through times of trouble. Friends are the only things from this damaged world that we can hope to see in the next; friends and loved ones are the very light that brightens the Hereafter.
“Idiot,” I said.
“Asshole,” Bobby said.
“I wasn’t talking to you.”
“I’m the only one here.”
“I was calling myself an idiot. For not getting out of here.”
“Oh. Then I retract the as**ole remark.”
Bobby switched on his flashlight, and immediately the silent fireworks dazzled across the lining of the egg room. They didn’t well up slowly but began at the peak of intensity that they had previously achieved by degrees.
“Turn on your light,” Bobby said.
“Are we really dumb enough to do this?”
“Way more than dumb enough.”
“This place has nothing to do with Jimmy and Orson,” I said.
“How do you know?”
“They’re not here.”
“But something here may help us find them.”
“We can’t help them if we’re dead.”
“Be a good idiot and turn on your light.”
“This is nuts.”
“Fear nothing, bro. Carpe noctem.”
“Damn,” I said, hung with my own noose.
I switched on my flashlight.
A riot of fiery lights erupted within the translucent walls around us, and it was easy to imagine that we were in the canyons of a great city stricken by insurrection, bomb throwers and arsonists on every side, blazing rioters ignited by their own torches and now running in terror through the night, cyclones of tempestuous fire whirling along avenues where the pavement was as molten as lava, tall buildings with orange flames seething from the high windows, smoldering chunks of parapets and cornices and ledges trailing comet tails of sparks as they crashed into the streets.
Yet at the same time, with the slightest shift of perspective, it was also possible to see this panoramic cataclysm not primarily as a series of bright eruptions but as a shadow show, because for every Molotov-cocktail flash, for every roiling mass of hot napalm, for every luminous trail that reminded me of tracer bullets, there was a dark shape in motion, begging interpretation as do the faces and figures in clouds. Ebony capes billowed, black robes swirled, sable serpents coiled and struck, shadows swooped like angry ravens, flocks of crows dived and soared overhead and underfoot, armies of charred skeletons marched with a relentless scissoring of sharp black bones, midnight cats crouched and pounced, sinuous whips of darkness lashed through the balefires, and iron-black blades slashed.
In this pandemonium of light and darkness, wholly encapsulated by a chaos of spinning flames and tumbling shadows, I was becoming increasingly disoriented. Though I stood still, with my feet widely planted for balance, I felt as if I were moving, twirling like poor Dorothy aboard the Kansas-to-Oz Express. Forward, behind, right, left, up, down—all rapidly became more difficult to define.
Again, from the corner of my eye, I glimpsed the door. When I looked more directly, it was still there, formidable and gleaming.
“I see it.”
“Not a real door,” he concluded.
“You said the place wasn’t haunted.”
The storm of light and shadow gained velocity. It seemed to be escalating toward an ominous crescendo.
I was afraid that the furious motion, the increasingly spiky and disturbing patterns in the walls, foretold an onrushing event that would translate all this energy into sudden violence. This ovoid room was so strange that I was unable to imagine the nature of the threat rushing at us, couldn’t guess even the direction from which it might come. For once, my three-hundred-ring imagination failed me.
The vault door was hinged on this side; therefore, it would swing inward. There was no lock wheel to disengage the ring of thick bolts that were currently seated in holes around the jamb, so the door could be opened only from the short tunnel between this room and the airlock, from the other side, which meant we were trapped here.
No. Not trapped.
Striving to resist a surging claustrophobia, I assured myself that the door wasn’t real. Bobby was right: It was a hallucination, an illusion, a mirage.
My perception of the egg room as a haunted place grew harder to shake off. The luminous forms raging through the walls suddenly seemed to be tortured spirits in a dervish dance of anguish, frantic to escape damnation, as though all around me were windows with views of Hell.
As my heart pumped nearly hard enough to blow out my carotid arteries, I told myself that I was seeing the egg room not as it was at this moment but as it had been before the industrious gnomes of Wyvern had stripped it—and the entire facility around it—to the bare concrete. The massive vault door had been here then; but it was not here now, even though I could see it. The door had been dismantled, hauled away, salvaged, melted down, and recast into soup ladles, pinballs, and orthodontic braces. Now it was purely apparitional, and I could walk through it as easily as I had walked through the spiderweb at the top of the porch steps of the bungalow in Dead Town.
Not intending to leave, wishing merely to test the mirage hypothesis, I headed toward the exit. In two steps, I was reeling. I almost collapsed, facedown, in a free fall that would have broken my nose and cracked enough teeth to make a dentist smile. Regaining my balance at the penultimate moment, I spread my legs wide and planted my feet hard against the floor, as though trying to make the rubber soles of my shoes grip as firmly as a squid’s suckers.
The room was not moving, even if it felt like a ship wallowing in rough seas. The movement was a subjective perception, a symptom of my increasing disorientation.
Staring at the vault door in a futile attempt to will it out of existence, trying to decide whether I should drop to my knees and crawl, I registered an odd detail of its design. The door was suspended on one long barrel hinge that must have been eight or ten inches in diameter. The knuckles of the barrel, which would move around the center pin—the pintle—when the door was pushed open or drawn shut, were exposed in most hinges, but not in this one. The knuckles were covered by a solid length of armoring steel, and the head of the pintle was recessed in this shield, as though to hamper anyone who might try to get through the locked door from this side by prying or hammering at the elements of the hinge. If the door could have swung outward, they would not have put the hinge inside the egg room, but because the walls were five feet thick, the door at this end of the entry tunnel could only swing inward. This ovoid chamber and the adjoining airlock might have been designed to contain a greater number of atmospheres of pressure and possible biological contaminants; but all evidence supported the conclusion that it had also been constructed with the intention, at least under certain circumstances, of imprisoning someone.
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