“Do you remember me?”
I nodded. Armbands touched something on his headset.
“Good. I want you to understand everything perfectly in your last moments.”
I palmed the pepper spray, more to stave off complete helplessness than because I expected to do anything useful with it. Sem and I both kept stealing glances at the stairs below us, gauging the distance we would have to run if we made a break for it. Seeing as he promptly followed our eyes with his nozzle, we could maybe have been subtler.
The nozzle shot a jet of fine particles with the same fire-extinguisher hiss we had just heard, and the lower stairs began to crumble. He swept it steadily up and towards us, forcing us to step back as we ran out of room to stand. It was at least a three-story drop to the pile of rubble below us, assuming he intended to leave us intact enough to feel it.
Would it be better to jump now? If the fall didn’t kill us, we’d be crippled and still at his mercy. Either way, I didn’t think I could do it.
I lost what composure I had left and fired the pepper spray from my hip.
This time I could see clearly that the spray itself didn’t reach him. Nevertheless, he hollered and staggered, one of his knees buckling. His weapon jerked upward, now aimed at the wall above the stairs. He dropped to the roof, letting go of the weapon to clutch at his leg with his good arm.
As we squeezed ourselves onto the last few intact steps, the section of wall that had been hit followed after the collapsing stairs, leaving a hole wide enough and (theoretically) close enough for us to jump to. Something lingered in the air and wafted toward us, something that burned the eyes and throat and tingled on the skin.
It wouldn’t take Armbands long to realize that I hadn’t injured him. I prodded Sem to jump, but she hesitated, groaning in spurts of terror and fatigue. Whatever exercise she got from caretaking hadn’t prepared her for a day like today. And it was a dicey jump even for someone in better shape: a shallow angle, an irregular hole with a section of floor blocking part of it, and an unknown drop on the other side.
“He’s getting back up, come on!”
She crouched, leaped, banged herself up badly on the hole’s rough edges and tumbled out of sight, but she made it through.
Armbands steadied himself on one knee, taking aim again.
I backed up the little that I could and threw myself at the opening. My feet caught on the edge and I fell the full height of the dark passage inside like a rag doll, landing painfully on my side next to Sem.
I half limped, half crawled away from the outer wall as more of it began collapsing along with pieces of ceiling and floor. But Sem wasn’t following. She struggled to get up, half stunned from the fall. Just as I was helping her to her feet, the bottom of the wall fell out, leaving us exposed to the ongoing assault from Armbands’s spray gun of death. I pulled her out of the way, but her scream told me I was an instant too slow.
We stumbled through a few rooms and side passages at random until we were out of the danger zone. As soon as we stopped, I saw that the right arm and shoulder of her dress were gone, with a startling amount of blood where they used to be. I won’t go into detail, but if you choose to imagine an arm and shoulder with half the skin missing, you won’t be far off.
The first archway we found with a curtain, we tore it down and did our best to wrap the wound with it, with a lot of gritting teeth and muffled groans. She composed herself when it was done, covered in sweat and considerably paler, but with the pain keeping her alert.
“Susan, that hurts.”
“I thought you said Susan.”
She looked annoyed. “I apologize, but I think we have bigger concerns than propriety of language.”
“Never mind then. What do we do?”
“He called the others to him. If we get back to the panel I can see where they are now.”
She steered us by a different path back to the security panel by the kitchen, where she leaned against the wall and tried to catch her breath while she examined it. “The other two are moving away from Analytics. He spoke to them, did you see?”
“So they have some sort of radios. I mean, walkie-talkies. I mean…they’re communicating at a distance.”
“Like your light device?”
It took me longer to parse this than it should have. The flashlight radio was made for listening to remote transmissions. “You think…?”
“It’s possible. We can’t know until we retrieve it.”
“Kir’s closer. He can get it.”
“He hasn’t moved from the room he’s in.”
“I bet he’s just being careful. He’s really good at sneaking; he spent all that time around dangerous people at Camp Outlook. He can take care of himself.”
“If you say so…” She wasn’t convinced.
As I tried to make some sense of what she was reading in the symbols on the grid, I reached tentatively for any latent connections. It was becoming a reflex after all the times I’d done it in the archives. There was something there, different from the knowledge base but similar in kind. “Let me try something.”
The security system was built on connections between all parts of the Institute. It was a rush of information as before, but this time it was tied to physical locations, some of which were already familiar to me. With a little adjustment, I was able to jump from one item to the next without getting overwhelmed:
The rooms and buildings I had already seen and explored —
The other sections of campus that Sem’s diligence had preserved —
Armbands, getting lost in the Finality wing as he tried to track us down, but still too close —
A woman, making her way through the Apprehension gallery toward Armbands, and by extension us —
A man moving in the opposite direction, for what purpose I couldn’t tell —
Around him, a growing web of tenuous connections to the lost sections, decaying and barely intelligible —
Tied to them all, the consuming rent, from which I had to pull myself away —
Esther’s backpack sitting undisturbed in the Analytics chambers —
Kir, motionless in one of the rooms near Analytics. My heart sped up. “Oh man, they got Kir, he’s not moving. Would he still show up if he…”
“I don’t think so?”
“’Cause he’s super not moving.”
“I know, Reid. We need to stay calm.” This was purely aspirational; she was no calmer than I was.
Non-calmness aside, having this kind of awareness was boosting my confidence. I kept exploring. “There are a couple exits we could get to. And I think I have a straight shot to where I left the backpack. As long as I can keep track of where everyone is, we can avoid them. Could we lose them in the loop? Or the caves?”
“After we find Kir?”
“Right. Yeah, of course. After that. I just got distracted.” I wasn’t ignoring him, I told myself to try and fight back a wave of shame. “Is there a map of this place anywhere? Maybe that could work for me the same way as the panel, but portable.”
“I don’t see why not. There must be one around, let me think. I haven’t needed one for ages…”
While she was thinking, I looked over at the stove. “If we had to, do you think we could use Zhuas to defend ourselves?”
“Fire? There are libraries here, Reid!”
If she had turned a fraction of the indignation in that statement on Armbands, he would have shrunk two sizes and developed a crippling fear of academia on the spot. But I convinced her to bring Zhuas along just in case, in a specialized ceramic-looking container that fit into her satchel. Despite the ring of air holes in the vessel, she didn’t seem concerned for the bag’s other contents.
Her breathing grew heavier and her pace slower as we made our way toward Analytics. Rather than the obvious path, we took a narrow, winding corridor on the floor above it. Once we were close, I descended a tight spiral staircase while she remained behind to look for a map she thought she remembered seeing nearby.
The coast seemed clear when I reached the bottom. I ran through the familiar grid of chambers to the analyzer at the back, retrieved the backpack, and got out the flashlight radio. There was only the usual static when I switched it on, but when I concentrated on the idea of signals it cut out abruptly and I heard:
“ — that he’s impulsive. Stop underestimating the risk.” A woman’s voice, calm and assertive.
“I do listen.” A young man projecting confidence. “You said he had barely any training.”
“Exactly. Why do you think Flack asked me not to let you out of my sight when you were just starting out?”
“He’s not getting out of our sight now. I’ve got the layout. They’re on level two. Backtrack to where we split up and I’ll give you directions from there.”
“Keep me informed of your progress too. We may not need it, but — ”
“I know, Neery, I know.” I could almost hear his eyes rolling. “Can you believe no one ever told us about this place? It’s incredible, even without the anomaly.”
“Yes I can. They all think it’s haunted or something. So much the better for us, right?”
“They know where we are now!” I blurted when I ran into Sem just outside the chambers. She was leaning shakily against a pillar and there was a sparse trail of blood down the corridor where she had just been.
“Kir’s gone,” she said, wide-eyed. “The room he was supposed to be in is empty.”
“Well that’s — is that good news? Does that mean he’s alive?”
“That depends, you’ll have to check again. Here.” She handed me a faded map. “This is…the best I could find upstairs.”
My hunch was right. Having gotten a feel for the security connections throughout the campus, I could access them using the map as well. Kir was the first thing I found. “He’s moving! He’s moving, he’s alive!”
But the excitement was brief. The second thing I found was Armbands, who was now on the right track and moving toward us at an alarming rate.
Before I could locate anyone else, I was disrupted, much as I’d been before in the Cognition tower. This time I recognized the source of the break as the man in the lost part of campus. “Ah! I lost it, he changed something again.”
A single tremor shook the hallway, accompanied by a rumble suggesting that it had done the same to the entire building. Some dust sifted down from the ceiling.
“Don’t distract me!” snapped the young man on the radio with a hint of panic.
The woman, Neery: “You all right? You said you could handle this.”
“I can, it’s just — working with a sink this size takes concentration.”
Sem’s already strained face contorted with fury. The pleasant scholar-caretaker disappeared. “Susan!” she swore again.
“Donna,” I concurred, trying to get into the spirit. “What just happened?”
“The brute with…the dissolving weapon was one thing,” she breathed, “but this man is tapping into the rent…for power, compromising the whole framework. He can’t be allowed…Where is he?” Though resolute, her voice was getting weak.
“He’s in one of those areas that are barely there anymore. I don’t know how to get to him.”
“Show me approximately?” I traced a rough area on the map.
“If you help me…I’ll find a way.” She rifled through the backpack. “What else is in here that…we could use? We have all your absorbers — ”
“Not mine — ”
“ — they must be good for something. You don’t need your…locator while you have the map. May I?” I nodded and she stuffed the locator as far into her satchel as it would go.
Going toward the enemy struck me as the worst possible plan. “There’s gotta be some way I can mess him up like he was doing to me. You said he was tapping into the rent. If I did the same thing, could I— ”
“Don’t you dare!” She clutched my arm so hard I thought her nails might break skin. “Reckless, thoughtless child! Do you…want to destroy it even faster?”
“Ow! Okay, okay, sorry! I thought you were already using it for your security traps and things.”
“Before everyone else…left me, some of the practical ones set up…the security measures. They do exploit the rent’s influence, but in a controlled manner. Not these people.”
“Please let me go, that hurts.”
She released me, swayed, and almost fell. When I put an arm around her to keep her upright, I felt that the wrapping on her wound was soaked through. Outrage would only keep her going for so much longer.
“We need to go, we need to get Kir and get you out of here.”
“I won’t leave.” She pulled away from me and limped on ahead with her good hand on the wall for support.
“What are you going to do? You won’t last ten seconds against them like that.”
“Since you just…met me I forgive you for not understanding this, but I would…rather die than let this place collapse any further.”
“I respect that, but I would rather live!” My voice was breaking. “I don’t believe that stuff you were saying about freedom! I want to live!”
“Then do what you must. Your easiest course would be to surrender…I’m sure they want you alive.”
She said all this without stopping or looking at me. I had no retort for her; she was right. It made total sense according to my priorities. Yet admitting that to myself felt like a backhand to the face.
I had fantasized about being a hero in the past. Who hasn’t? We’ve all heard the news stories of the ordinary guy who proved what he was made of when things went wrong, saved a bunch of people, maybe even stomped a bad guy. I’d thought Sure, that could be me, if I got the right opportunity. My opportunity had arrived, and I’d shown what I was made of. Two of the handful of friends I had in this slice of reality were in danger, and my first thought had been for my own skin. My skin and my things, which weren’t even mine.
I understood with a new kind of clarity why I would never earn the same kind of trust Esther enjoyed.
The quiet seconds that followed, filled only by Sem’s footsteps shuffling away from me, were some of the longest of my life up to that point. I let her shuffle a good ten paces before I cinched up the backpack straps and marched around in front of her.
“I’m not leaving you,” I said, “either of you.”
I hadn’t been paying close attention to the radio, but now I heard the young man say, “You want to contain him, one of these lost rooms should do it — here, ‘Contingency archive room’. Looks like the easiest to move.”
“Where are they now?”
“Two halls away from you, up one level, and moving slowly.”
“Then you should have time to pick me up and shift over to them.”
“Definitely. They won’t get far.”
“Do you know what they’re talking about?” I asked Sem.
She nodded, her eyes closed as she slumped against the wall. “They’re about to trap us. In a disconnected room. You might…be able to avoid it on your own, but I doubt I can.”
“What did the, the whosimawhatsit archive room use to connect to? Anything intact, anything I can access?” She didn’t respond.
“Patience…It used to connect to one of the…Find the Attribution archives…”
“Got it. I don’t know how to stop them from trapping us, but could I reconnect it? Could I make a way out?”
“Places…can remember what they were made for…for a long time.”
I used the map to locate the archive room she was talking about. It was on the verge of deteriorating, but remained integrated enough with the rest of the Institute that we could theoretically escape through it. I hoped.
Also, we were about to have angry, macho company.
“We can’t keep going this way, the big guy’s almost on top of us!” Not that it mattered which way we went as long as he kept getting directions from the guy tracking us. We were by a junction between corridors and the entrance to a room, leaving us four different, seemingly useless options. “Is there anywhere we could block him or slow him down?”
“Not unless…we make a barricade…”
“Would it have killed you people to invest in some doors?”
Armbands rendered our discussion moot by appearing at the other end of the corridor. As he strode toward us, my vision distorted and everything went totally black. I could see light on the other side of a window, but inside nothing was visible.
Sem pulled me by the arm, and together we fumbled our way into the nearby room. “Shhh,” she said once we were away from the entrance.
“Are you doing this?” I whispered. She put her hand in mine and I felt a plastic cylinder, one of the “absorbers” she’d taken from the backpack. “Absorbed…light. Told you they…were versatile.”
There was another archway across the room from us, and like the window, there was light on the other side. A silhouette came into view, a man who looked in bad shape, possibly wounded like Sem, supporting himself against the arch.
I took four steps toward him before everything changed.
The arch vanished, the sound of my footsteps carried differently, and everything smelled like dust and decay. I was also hit with a feeling I hated to say I was getting used to, from getting stuck in a maintenance closet to exploring the local cursed abyss. A nearly incoherent sense of not quite being anywhere.
Sem stopped absorbing the light, revealing that we were in a different, much longer room, dark, dingy, and falling apart. It was dominated by rows of shelves, some closely packed, some spread out, some at odd angles to each other, many others fallen over and smashed. It looked like they’d been designed to move on a system of rails, connected to one another by cables. Dust covered everything and hung in the air, lit up in inconsistent rays by a row of windows near the ceiling. Every time I looked at a new window I saw something different outside.
“Reid!” Sem cried as loudly as she could, which wasn’t very. I turned around to see Armbands’s bulk filling the arch we had just come through.
I backed away, holding out the pepper spray at arm’s length. His only reaction was to narrow his eyes and extend his own sprayer in similar fashion as he stalked toward me. A pathetically one-sided standoff.
“Please, try it again. See who ends up hurting worse this time.”
“Look dude, you can have the Walkman. You want depression that bad, be my guest.”
“If you’re going to beg, brat, you should be on your knees.”
No sense of humor on this guy. I should have known.
“Did you think the skirts of an old woman would protect you as well as the rag of a parasite?”
“Watch your words,” said a voice from the other end of the room, the same man’s voice I’d been hearing on the radio. I made the mistake of looking toward the voice, and Armbands lunged, knocked the canister out of my hand, and slammed me up against a shelf with the sprayer nozzle jammed into my stomach.
“I don’t fear any of you,” he said in reply to the voice. “I fear nothing even in the real world. You two are nothing. He is nothing! Weaklings, tricksters.” He spat in my face.
“No man, woman, or child walks this land who has disrespected me,” he went on, addressing me. I got the impression he had rehearsed at least part of what he was saying. “And you threaten me with toys? Until today, you’ve never known what pain is. In the wastelands, where cowards like you would be — ”
“And that’s enough of that,” said the woman who materialized from the shadows next to him. Something shiny and pointed slid out of her sleeve and she jabbed him in the back with it. He convulsed, then flopped to the floor as if she’d yanked his batteries.
I stayed pressed against the shelf, thrown for a complete loop, wondering if I had just watched a man die.
Neery gave Armbands a disgusted look. “Bugsen,” she called across the room. “I told you we didn’t need this meat slab.”
“I thought an extra hand couldn’t hurt.”
“And that’s why you’re still the fresh-burned. Also, what were you thinking, letting him have the stripper?” She pulled the tank off his back and hefted it. “Aaah, he must have blown half the tank. Locals!”
She was on the short side, athletic, with quick movements. Her clothing wasn’t from Var: the long-sleeved shirt and pants looked machine-made, reminding me of something from an outdoor supply company. Her small backpack and the holsters on her belt completed the look. She had thick glasses and auburn hair tied back enough to keep it out of her face. Some of it moved aside when she shook her head, and I saw that one of her ears was missing.
I couldn’t get as close a look at Bugsen, a lanky guy sitting hunched at what must have been the most intact desk in the place. He looked to be somewhere in his twenties, with messy silvery hair and what might have been some thin facial hair. His equipment was scattered around him on the desk, surrounded by papers, none of it recognizable.
I didn’t take the time to look any closer. As Neery stooped to remove Armbands’s headset, I bolted toward Sem, who was leaning on one of the fallen sets of shelves. Just as I reached her and began dragging her toward the exit, I heard two bangs in succession and Neery saying, “No, that’s perfect, stay right there.” A pair of projectiles embedded in the side of the shelf behind us, immediately pulling us to themselves like magnets. When I tried to pry loose the thing digging into my back, my hand simply stuck to it.
Neery was aiming a blocky device at us with a grip like a pistol. “Stay focused, Bugsen,” she called when the room trembled a bit.
“I’ve got it. The less shooting the better, though.”
“Let’s keep it simple, you two,” she said to us. “This place is under our control now. We— ”
“This Institute…and its knowledge…belong to all who — ”
“Save it, lady. You don’t have the breath or the blood for speech-making just now. You can even stay here if you don’t make trouble. You’re useful. And as your luck would have it, Reid, you’re even more useful.”
“How do you know my name? Who do you work for?”
They scoffed almost in unison. “We work for ourselves,” she replied. “Only way to live.”
Sem nudged me and whispered “Eyes closed.”
“Now, I know nobody wants today getting any messier than it already has —”
I closed my eyes just as Sem dropped the light-absorber, which lit up like a silent flash grenade as soon as she released it. Neery gave a cry and recoiled away from us, and at the same time Sem’s elbow jabbed me as she strained to reach behind her back. A second later she was reaching behind mine and the force pinning me to the embedded object dissipated.
We were free, but Neery was recovering quickly from the flash. I pulled Sem around to the other side of the collapsed shelves, giving us some cover before we could get shot with anything else. She was holding two more absorbers, both of which she handed to me. As soon as she relinquished them, they stuck our hands together and jerked them toward my torso, making me punch myself in the stomach. She’d used them to take the attractive force from Neery’s projectiles.
Just like she had been doing with the light. It took me a few tries to get them under control. I took a couple more from the bag, the barest sketch of a plan forming in my head.
If I could get close enough to Neery and Bugsen without getting shot, I might be able to pin them with the two attractors. Doing Sem’s light-absorbing trick again might buy me the chance. What else could I absorb?
I took out Zhuas’s container from the satchel. Despite Sem shaking her head feebly at me, I opened it and carefully reached in with one of the unused absorbers. Again, it took several tries to get the knack, but I got it to take in some of the flames. I stopped when the fire creature’s color began to dim and the plastic got uncomfortably hot.
Maybe if I could use the fire to take out Bugsen’s setup at the desk, it would prevent or at least delay him from regaining control. Sem might hate me for it, but there was no better place to start a fire than a disconnected room. With the two of them unable to follow us, I would reconnect this room to the other archive, run for the exit with Sem, and break the connection as soon as we were out. Maybe, best case scenario, they would be the ones trapped.
It was too many maybes and mights, but it was something.
Neery was being more cautious now. “You’ve made this an interesting trip for us, Reid,” she said, still on the other side, “and I can’t blame you for it. Fun’s over though.”
“We’re isolated now,” Bugsen added. “Nobody’s going anywhere until you make up your mind.”
Either they were bluffing or they really weren’t aware of the potential to reconnect the room. I was keeping the connection fixed in my mind, but Bugsen would surely notice as soon as I tried to activate it.
“Make up my mind?”
“You agree to come with us, under restraint for everyone’s safety,” said Neery. “If you cooperate, there’s probably still time to save your friend. If you stay cooperative, we might even be able to track down that sister you’re looking for.”
Like hell you’re getting me and Esther both.
I left Sem where she lay and moved toward Bugsen’s end of the room, staying out of sight behind fallen shelves.
“If you choose to keep making trouble, we can stay here as long as we need to. Metega here is going to wake up eventually, and then he can do as he pleases with you. We’ll make sure he leaves you alive.”
So Armbands had a real name. I had gotten used to the nickname by now, though.
“You help me find my sister, you let Sem live and stop wrecking her home, and I come quietly. That’s the deal?”
“That’s the deal.” Neery moved closer to my voice.
“I can’t take any more of this,” I said honestly. “I’ll do it.” Less honest.
“Slide your bag over, hold up your hands, and come to me slowly.”
I released the attractors just enough to stick them and the other two absorbers to the back of my hands, then stepped into the open. I slid the backpack across the floor and raised my hands palms out, hoping she would take my trembling for nervousness about being captured.
“NO!” The shout came from the far end of the room, and it came in Kir’s voice.
He had made it into the room before it was isolated, undetected by anyone. Maybe Bugsen had been too focused on me to notice him.
He sprang at Bugsen from behind a junk pile, brandishing a sturdy length of wood from some piece of ruined furniture. Neery spun toward them but only had time to yell, “Don’t — ” before he swung it into the man’s head with an awful crack.
As Bugsen keeled over with Kir on top of him, that incoherent aspect of the room shifted. Neery gripped the closest shelf and braced herself. I realized she was now frightened not only for her partner, but for herself. Considering how unfazed she’d been by everything else so far, it occurred to me that I should be following her example.
We moved. Or rather, we arrived.
The windows all went dark. Any books remaining on the shelves toppled off. I lost my balance and crashed to the floor like I’d been spinning around a baseball bat. The walls trembled and things fell from the ceiling. For a moment I felt like I was in freefall, and my entire field of vision curved until I could see both behind and in front of me.
Space snapped back to normal with a lurch, leaving everyone except Neery prone. Thinking this chaos might be our chance to escape, I probed the room’s connections and came up empty. They’d all been broken the second Bugsen was knocked out. All but one.
The wall where we had entered buckled and burst outward, taking nearly half the room with it. What was left opened onto the edge of the rent.
Rows of shelves fell, tearing their tracks out of the floor and cables out of the ceiling. Amid the gusts of air and dust kicked up by the collapse, I saw the unconscious Metega go tumbling into the mist and disappear. I forgot about him an instant later when the floor fell out from under Sem, dropping her out of sight.
I got up and reeled closer to the edge, shouting for her. We were above the broken staircase that hung over the pit, now with even more of its steps broken off by the falling debris. She was lying motionless on the bottom landing.
Neery ran to check on her fallen partner, and I followed, scooping up the backpack when I reached it. She was the only obstacle left. I’d lost three of the absorbers when I fell — the fire one was already starting a small blaze in one of the junk piles — but I still had one attractor.
She was bending over Bugsen’s desk when she heard my approach and looked up. Thinking I was in range, I threw the attractor as hard as I could. Before it could cross half the distance to her, it swerved onto the side of a shelf.
A moving shelf.
A shelf that, along with several others, was being dragged toward the edge by the cables linking it to a group that had just toppled over. It passed by me just close enough for the attractor to catch me and drag me along with it, faster and faster across the room until the room ran out. I was flung outward violently enough that the force pinning me relinquished its hold and left me for gravity to sort out.
The sky and the pit spun around me and I caught sight of the stairs, I was falling toward them, I was saved. But why wasn’t I falling faster, I was falling wrong, things were wrong in this place, would I overshoot —
I hit the steps, bouncing and rolling and bruising as I tried to slow myself, to get a grip, but things were still wrong, no traction. Sem at the bottom, still conscious, trying to raise herself, coming toward me too fast, throwing up an arm, terrified —
Collision. We slid too far, one last desperate clutching at the railing, the uncooperative stone, then down, down together, one last look up at the stairs before they receded into the mist, the mist consuming everything.
10. Hollow Glen