As he opened the door, the first spook must have registered us in his peripheral vision. He swung toward us, as though he had seen ghosts.
He took a couple steps in our direction but then halted, maybe because he noticed our guns.
He shouted. His words weren’t clear, but he wasn’t suggesting a tour and complimentary lunch in the cafeteria.
Anyway, he wasn’t calling to us but to the pair of phantasms strolling toward the turn in the corridor. They spun around and gaped at us as though they were stunned sailors gazing at the ghost ship Marie Celeste gliding silently past in a light fog.
We had spooked them as much as they had spooked us.
The one in the suit evidently wasn’t merely a well-tailored scientist or a project bureaucrat, and certainly not a Jehovah’s Witness pushing Watchtower magazine in a tough territory, because he drew a handgun from a holster under his jacket.
I reminded myself that ghosts couldn’t hurt us unless we gave them power by feeding them with our fear—and then I wondered if this rule applied to haunts packing heat. I wished that I could remember the name of the comic book in which I’d chanced upon this wisdom, because if the information had been in Tales from the Crypt, it might be true, but if it was from an issue of Donald Duck adventures, then I was screwed.
Instead of opening fire on us, the armed apparition pushed past his two phantom friends and disappeared through the door that the one in jeans had opened.
He was probably running for a telephone, to call security. We were about to be crunched, swept up, bagged, and put out for garbage collection.
Around us, the corridor rippled, and things changed.
The white ceramic floor tiles quickly faded beneath us, leaving us standing on bare concrete, although I felt nothing move underfoot. Here and there along the hall, patches of tile remained, the edges not sharply defined, feathering into the concrete, as though these were widely scattered puddles of time past that hadn’t yet evaporated from the floor of time present.
The rooms opening along the inner wall of the corridor no longer had doors.
Shadows swarmed as the fluorescent panels began to disappear from the ceiling. Yet, in an irregular pattern, a few fixtures remained, brightening widely separated sections of the corridor.
I took off my sunglasses and pocketed them as the grease-pencil scheduling chart dissolved from the wall. The bulletin board still hung unchanged.
One of the wheeled carts faded away before my eyes. The other cart remained, though a few of the odd instruments racked on it were becoming transparent.
The ghost in blue jeans and the ghost in a lab coat really looked like spirits now, mere ectoplasmic entities that had congealed out of a white mist. They started hesitantly toward us, then began to run, perhaps because we were fading from their view just as they were disappearing from ours. They covered only half the ground between us before they vanished.
The suit with the gun returned to the hallway from the office, having raved to security about Vikings in jumpsuits and invading cats, but he was now the weakest of revenants, a shimmering wraith. As he raised his weapon, he departed time present without a trace.
The throbbing electronic noise was less than half as loud as it had been at full power, but like some of the lights and floor tiles, it didn’t fade altogether.
None of us was relieved by this reprieve. Instead, as the past receded into the past where it belonged, we were seized by a greater urgency.
Mr. Mungojerrie was dead right: This place was coming apart. The residual effect of the Mystery Train was gathering power, feeding on itself, extending beyond the egg room, rapidly seeping throughout the structure. The ultimate effect was unknowable but sure to be catastrophic.
I could hear a clock ticking. This wasn’t the timepiece in Captain Hook’s omnivorous crocodile, either, but the reliable clock of instinct telling me that we were on a short countdown to destruction.
With the ghosts gone, the cat sprang into action, padding to the nearby elevator shaft.
“Down,” Roosevelt translated. “Mungojerrie says we have to go farther down.”
“There’s nothing below this floor,” I said, as we all gathered at the elevator. “We’re on the lowest level.”
The cat fixed its luminous green eyes on me, and Roosevelt said, “No, there’re three levels beneath this one. They required an even higher security clearance than these floors, so they were concealed.”
During my explorations, I’d never thought to look into the shaft to see if it served hidden realms that couldn’t be accessed by the stairs.
Roosevelt said, “The lower levels can be approached…from some other building on the base, through a tunnel. Or by this elevator. The steps don’t go down as far.”
This development posed a problem, because the elevator shaft wasn’t empty. We couldn’t simply climb down the service ladder and go where Mungojerrie directed. Like the scattered floor tiles, like the few remaining fluorescent panels, and like the softer but still ominous electronic hum that throbbed through the building, the past maintained tenacious control of the elevator. A pair of stainless-steel sliding doors covered the shaft, and most likely a cab waited beyond them.
“We’ll be quashed if we hang around here,” Bobby predicted, reaching out to press the elevator call button.
“Wait!” I cautioned, stopping his hand before he could do the deed.
Doogie said, “Bobster’s right, Chris. Sometimes fortune favors the foolhardy.”
I shook my head. “What if we get in the elevator, and when the doors close, the damn thing just totally vanishes under us like the floor tiles did?”
“Then we fall to the bottom of the shaft,” Sasha guessed, but that prospect didn’t seem to give her pause.
“Some of us might break our ankles,” Doogie predicted. “Not all of us, necessarily. It’s probably only about forty feet or so, a mean drop but survivable.”
Bobby, a Road Runner cartoon freak, said, “Bro, we could have ourselves a full-on Wile E. Coyote moment.”
“We’ve got to move,” Roosevelt warned, and Mungojerrie scratched impatiently at the stainless-steel doors, which remained stubbornly solid.
Bobby pressed the call button.
The elevator whined toward us. With the oscillating electronic hum continuing to pulse through the building, I couldn’t determine whether the cab was descending or ascending.
The corridor rippled.
The floor tiles began to reappear under my feet.
The elevator doors slowly, slowly slid open.
Fluorescent panels reappeared on the corridor ceiling, and I narrowed my eyes against the glare.
The cab was full of muddy red light, which probably meant the interior of the shaft occupied a different point in time from the place—or places—that we occupied. There were passengers, a lot of them.
We stepped back from the door, expecting the crowd in the elevator to give us trouble.
In the corridor, the throbbing sound grew louder.
I could discern several blurry, distorted, maroon figures inside the cab, but I couldn’t see who or what they were.
A gunshot cracked, then another.
We were under fire not from the elevator but from the end of the corridor where, earlier, the sonofabitch in the suit had drawn down on us with a handgun.
Bobby took a bullet. Something peppered my face. Bobby rocked backward, the shotgun flying out of his hands. He was still dropping as if in slow motion when I realized that hot blood had sprayed my face. Bobby’s blood. Jesus, God. Even as I was swiveling toward the source of the gunfire, I discharged my shotgun and immediately chambered another shell.
Instead of the guy in the dark suit, there were two guards we had never seen before. Uniforms, but not army. No service that I recognized. Project cops. Mystery Train security. Too far away to be anything other than annoyed by my shotgun fire.
Another piece of the past had solidified around us, and Doogie triggered the Uzi as Bobby hit the floor and bounced. The machine pistol settled the dispute totally and abruptly.
Sickened, I looked away from the two dead guards.
The elevator doors had closed before anyone stepped out of the crowded cab.
The gunfire was sure to draw more security.
Bobby lay on his back. Blood was spattered on the white ceramic tile around him. Too much blood.
Sasha stooped at his left side. I knelt at his right.
She said, “Hit once.”
“Got biffed,” Bobby said, biffed meaning smacked hard by a wave.
“Hang in there,” I said.
“Totally thrashed,” he said, and coughed.
“Not totally,” I insisted, more terrified than I had ever been before, but determined not to show it.
Sasha unbuttoned the Hawaiian shirt, hooked her fingers in the bullet-punctured material of Bobby’s black pullover, and ripped the sweater to expose the wound in his left shoulder. The hole was too low in the shoulder, too far to the right, something you would have to call a chest wound, not a shoulder wound, if you were going to be honest, which I was by God not going to be.
“Shoulder wound,” I told him.
The throbbing electronic sound dwindled, the ceramic tiles faded under Bobby, taking the spatters of blood with them, and the overhead fluorescent panels began to vanish, though not all of them. Time past was surrendering to time present again, entering another cycle, which might give us a minute or two before more uniformed abbs with guns showed up.
Rich blood, so deeply red that it was almost black, welled out of the wound. We could do nothing to stop this type of bleeding. Neither a tourniquet nor a compress would help. Neither would hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol, Neosporin, and gauze bandages, even if we’d had any of those things.
“Woofy,” he said.
The pain had washed away his perpetual tan, leaving him not white but jaundice-yellow. He looked bad.
The hallway had fewer lingering fluorescents and the oscillating hum was quieter than during the previous cycle.
I was afraid the past was going to fade entirely out of the present, leaving us with an empty elevator shaft. I wasn’t confident that we could carry Bobby up six flights of stairs without causing him further damage.
Getting to my feet, I glanced at Doogie, whose solemn expression infuriated me, because Bobby was going to be all right, damn it.
Mungojerrie scratched at the elevator doors again.
Roosevelt was either doing as the cat wished or following my own track of reasoning, because he repeatedly jammed his thumb against the call button.
The indicator board above the doors showed only four floors—G, B-1, B-2, and B-3—though we knew there were seven. The cab was supposedly up at the first level, G for ground, which was the hangar above this subterranean facility.
“Come on, come on,” Roosevelt muttered.
Bobby tried to lift his head to reconnoiter, but Sasha gently pressed him back, with one hand on his forehead.
He might go into shock. Ideally, his head should be lower than the rest of him, but we didn’t have any means to elevate his legs and lower body. Shock kills as surely as bullets. His lips were slightly blue. Wasn’t that an early symptom of shock?
The cab was at B-1, the first basement under the hangar floor. We were on B-3.
Mungojerrie was staring at me as if to say, I warned you.
“Cats don’t know shit,” I told him angrily.
Surprisingly, Bobby laughed. It was a weak laugh, but it was a laugh nonetheless. Could he be dying or even slipping into shock if he were laughing? Maybe everything would be okay.
Just call me Pollyanna Huckleberry Holly Golightly Snow.
The elevator reached B-2, one floor above us.
I raised the shotgun, in case passengers were in the elevator, as there evidently had been before.
Already, the pulsing hum of the egg room engines—or whatever infernal machines made the noise—grew louder.
“Better hurry,” Doogie said, because if the wrong moment of the past flowed into the present again, it might wash some angry, armed men with it.
The elevator whined to a stop at B-3, our floor.
The corridor around me grew steadily brighter.
As the elevator doors began to slide open, I expected to see the murky red light in the cab, and then I was suddenly afraid I’d be confronted with that impossible vista of stars and cold black space I’d seen beyond the stairwell door.
The elevator cab was just an elevator cab. Empty.
“Move!” Doogie urged.
Roosevelt and Sasha already had Bobby on his feet, virtually carrying him between them, while trying to minimize the strain on his left shoulder.
I held the elevator door, and as they took Bobby past me, his face twisted with agony. If he had been about to scream with pain, he repressed it and instead said, “Carpe cerevisi.”
“Beer later,” I promised.
“Beer now, party boy,” he wheezed.
Slipping off his backpack, Doogie followed us into the big elevator, which could probably carry fifteen passengers. The cab briefly swayed and jiggled as it adjusted to his weight, and we all tried not to step on Mungojerrie.
“Up and out,” I said.
“Down,” Bobby disagreed.
The control panel had no buttons for the three floors that were supposedly below us. An unlabeled slot for a magnetic card indicated how someone with the proper security clearance could reprogram the existing control buttons to gain access to lower realms. We didn’t have a card.
“There’s no way to get farther down,” I said.
“Always a way,” Doogie demurred, rummaging in his backpack.
The corridor was bright. The loud throbbing sound grew louder.
The elevator doors rolled shut, but we didn’t go anywhere, and when I reached toward the G button, Doogie slapped my hand as though I were a child reaching for a cookie without having asked permission.
“This is nuts,” I said.
“Radically,” Bobby agreed.
He sagged against the back wall of the cab, supported by Sasha and Roosevelt. He was gray now.
I said, “Bro, you don’t have to be a hero.”
“Yeah, I do.”
“No, you don’t!”
“If I’m Kahuna, I can’t be a chickenshit.”
“You aren’t Kahuna.”
“King of the surf,” he said. When he coughed this time, blood bubbled on his lips.
Desperate, I said to Sasha, “We’re getting him up and out of here, right now.”
A crack and then a creak sounded behind me. Doogie had picked the lock on the control panel and had swung the cover aside, exposing the wiring. “What floor?” he asked.
“Mungojerrie says all the way down,” Roosevelt advised.
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