Dazed from…whatever spacetime rupture does to the brain, it took me a second to resume panicking. The library was in disarray in front of us, books and scrolls knocked off shelves, furniture askew, and protruding bits of several occupants visible behind the cover they’d taken. I could hear others asking if it was safe to come out, if it was over. We got up unsteadily from the puddle we were sprawled in and saw a kerchiefed head poke around a shelf — the woman Caerd had called Abrien.
“They came through!”
The ornately carved double door behind us moved freely now, but as I feared, it no longer opened onto a school hallway. We were looking at a dimly lit, spacious room lined with display cases and pictures. But with Abrien rallying the others to pursuit behind us, we didn’t have time to be taken aback. We dashed through it and out the opposite door into a sort of rotunda with rooms and passages at all points of the compass.
Of the many decorative wall hangings around the room, the standout was the one directly opposite us. It was larger and newer-looking than the rest, with a much simpler design:
Some fifteen-odd people were passing through, most of them in the standard business attire I’d already seen, but a few wearing strikingly different, possibly ethnic outfits. Any remaining hope of an inconspicuous escape vanished as they all turned to see us come barreling out, backpedal, and swerve into the least populous hallway. All of them were too surprised to react except for one who seemed to recognize me from earlier and raised a shout.
Even without knowing the state of modern architecture in this domain, the place looked old. The stone floor was worn down in spots, and some of the carvings on columns and lintels had seen better days. The series of wall reliefs we were running past showed a succession of regal-looking dudes with various degrees of pomposity and such a range of clothing styles that they must have spanned a healthy slice of history.
Voices escalated behind us, followed shortly by sounds of pursuit. I worked the talisman out of my pocket, slowing myself down and losing ground to Nik in order to check it. It still pulled strongly in a consistent direction.
After we turned into a smaller, branching passage, Nik hesitated. “What?” I asked.
“Shh! Let me think!” A yell in all but volume.
His pause gave me just enough time to open the backpack and grab a handful of absorbers, remembering how useful they’d been at the Institute. The pursuing feet had almost caught up to us when he made up his mind and took the leftmost of the three branches.
The few people we encountered looked startled, some yelling at us, most just getting out of our way. We passed one of the wall-mounted speaker boxes long enough to hear, “…eight or nine in appearance. Do not engage if you see them, notify security immediately. Clear all common areas…”
Nik halted when we came to a room at the junction of four corridors, seemingly at a loss. He vacillated between all directions as running echoes converged on us from each. They surrounded us moments later, all wearing similar uniforms: some with different colors or insignia, some with brimless caps, but all distinguished by a pair of broad yellow stripes down their jackets. Most held baton-like weapons while others had restraints ready for us.
“Surrender,” said one of them. “You’re being detained for hostile invasion of this domain and this facility. Cooperate and you won’t be harmed.”
I selected one of the absorbers in my hand and whispered, “Could you get us out of here in the dark?”
“I think.” Nik seized me by the backpack straps from behind, just off to one side. “Run when I say.”
“On your knees!” Four of the Yellowjackets advanced on us.
I activated the absorber to its fullest and everything went black. I lurched forward like a nervous racer jumping the gun, but Nik held me back for an agonizing two seconds. As the room filled with confused voices and movement, he shoved me hard to the right. “Go!”
We zigzagged ponderously, like drunken contestants in the worst kind of blindfolded team exercise, and it was all I could do to keep my feet untangled while being dragged from side to side and trying to run forward. I bounced off a wall, was nearly clotheslined by someone’s arm, and then we were sprinting in a straight line with the uproar behind us.
“You okay? Can you keep this up?” he asked.
“Yeah, just please don’t let me — oof — ” I tripped on a raised threshold and sent us both stumbling. Dim light returned for a moment as I lost concentration, giving us a heavily distorted view of a wide pillared room where people were milling around in dismay with their arms outstretched. I turned the lights out again and we continued swerving around unseen obstacles and corners. More warnings blared from the occasional wall speaker.
We took one more turn, banged into a door, and fumbled it open. Warped rectangles of light appeared at the edge of my vision once inside, growing in in size and intensity until I recognized them as windows. More of the room gradually became visible despite my continued use of the absorber. “Must be running out of juice.” So these things had a limit. I relinquished the light to a room with broad windows framing a sun at either afternoon or midmorning. The other three walls were covered with maps in a variety of styles, and the only other thing in the room was a large contraption at its center.
It was a topographical map built into a tabletop like I’d seen in museums, except it was eight maps in one. Four metal rods connected its corners to the ceiling. Mounted between these were seven boards of the same dimensions as the table, all suspended at different heights by a set of thin cables, each displaying different geography. Nik gave one a push and it slid smoothly downward with a faint sound of pulleys and counterweights from above.
“Think we can get out the wind…ohhhh.” Where I’d hoped to see at most a one-story drop to ground level from the windows, there was no level ground whatsoever. This place was built either into the side of, or on top of, a cliff. We were in a mountain range. The cliff itself looked like it might be climbable, but we were at least four stories above it.
“Well, that ain’t the way out, unless there’s a rope or a bunch of sheets in here.”
Nik was still investigating the maps, letting the snakes roam like behemoths over the miniature plateaus and valleys. In addition to the corner rods keeping them aligned, a scattering of thinner rods vertically intersected all eight, which turned out to be movable in the horizontal plane. He pushed and pulled one around, watching it slide effortlessly through the stack of seemingly solid boards, tapping and probing with his fingers in its wake. “How is it doing that? There’s no holes, just these little ring-collar things around the…”
“Yeah, crazy.” It was hard for me to get interested in or even think about anything besides escaping or finding Esther. I was sore, soaked, frightened, and above all exhausted; my brain felt like it was pickled in battery acid. Coming up with a plan would take all the mental energy I had, maybe more. I sat against the wall below the windows and looked through the backpack again. “If I can keep the lights out, could you find us a way out of here?”
He facepalmed and visibly resisted slamming down the map he was looking at. “How are you still not getting this? All I can do is avoid them, remember? I have no clue where I’m going except that it’s safe! How long can we keep that up, running around dodging people in the dark?”
“You relax. You’re supposed to be the expert.”
“It’s my first time here too. I’m brainstorming.” I held out the talisman, which pointed downward and to my two o’clock. “We don’t know the way out, but maybe we could find our way to Esther with this.”
“Won’t they be guarding her more closely now?”
“Maybe you could find a way around the guards.”
“Maybe that’s not how it works. Sensing trouble doesn’t do you any good if you go toward the trouble! Let me see that.” He sat next to me and I handed him the talisman, which hung limp the moment he took it. “Aaand it only works for you. Terrific.” He took the transparent case with the mystery object from school out of his pocket. “Hey…Look at this.”
“Am I losing my mind or did that use to be bigger? Not a rhetorical question.”
“Probably and definitely.”
Where before there had been an octagonal prism with eight sections, there was now only one section rattling around the box like a puzzle piece for a toddler learning shapes. I could see slots and projections on either side which had locked it to the adjacent pieces.
“How? You didn’t open the box, did you?”
“Does it even open?” He pulled at it, searched for some kind of seam. “What can those scissors do here?”
“Cut stuff, I guess? I haven’t tried.”
As soon as he pried at the box with the tip of the scissors, it broke in half neatly and so suddenly that he dropped both.
After a second of startled silence, we “whoa’d” in perfect unison. He examined the octagon piece while I picked up the scissors in awe. “Jinx… Aaaughh, idiot! Why did I never think of that? Had them on me this whole time…” I got up, faced the window, and dragged the tip of one blade along the glass. The entire pane cracked down the middle. Our faces cracked with the age-old grin of schoolboys endowed with destructive power.
“Try something else!”
I tested the scissors on the edge of the table, and with a report that made us both jump, a fault line appeared in the map, continuing through the rest of the table down to the floor.
The thought that someone probably heard that cut our giggling short. We scooped up the snakes, and after checking the corridor, darted across it and through an inconspicuous door into darkness. I released a little of the light I’d absorbed and saw we were in what looked like a service passageway.
The sound of another announcement reached us from outside: “…all Sphon levels, remain in your work area and secure all entrances. If you lose visibility, call us with your location…”
“So they’re locking down. And they’re onto my Dumbledore trick.”
“You understood that.”
“Most of it, yeah, did you catch anything?”
“No. I got a few things people said earlier, just some words and phrases.”
“But hey, who says locks can stop us now? Let’s see if this works on metal.” There was a pipe running along the back wall near the floor. When I took the scissors and closed it on the pipe’s circumference, I barely had to squeeze before there was a loud ringing snap that stung my hand, and a jet of water hit me full in the face. The section upstream from the break sagged, gushing water that quickly flooded the floor. Recoiling, I dropped the absorber and got punched in the retinas by the burst of light, adding blindness to renewed wetness.
“Ow! Haha! Okay then!” Only Nik’s insistence that we had to move stopped me from holding the all-cleaving scissors aloft with a supervillain laugh. We splashed our way along the passage in darkness until we heard voices ahead of and behind us, at which Nik took the first door we came to.
Instead of more antique stone hallways, we emerged into what felt like an utterly different building and era. The walls, ceiling, and floor were made up of uniform dark slabs, each with two rows of indentations down its height. There were recessed lights at intervals and no ornamentation to be seen. From somewhere nearby came a muffled mechanical rumble.
The next corner we turned brought us to an opening, with no barrier of any kind, on the edge of a cavernous space. It called to mind the lobbies of certain brutalist corporate or government buildings I’d seen, minus almost any standard architectural features. On our immediate right was a monumental wall of the same stone or composite slabs, its monotony broken up by a handful of stark ledges and openings with no apparent order to their placement. Across the chamber from us, the walls were a mixture of natural rock and similar sections of slab, with a few boxy structures cantilevered out improbably over the open space. Most of the ledges, and swathes of the chamber floor far below us, were littered with equipment and cordoned off like a construction site. At ground level chunks of the great wall to our right were missing, giving the appearance of an unfinished puzzle.
When I stood on the very edge to get a better look, the wall came to life. Horizontal blocks slid out of it one after the other, a staircase unfolding in front of us until it reached one of the ledges below.
“We’ve got to go down eventually, right?” I said.
“Well, we can’t stay here.”
As we reached the landing, a squad of Yellowjackets entered on the ground floor and spotted us instantly. A cry went up, the usual orders not to move and calls to alert their comrades. I looked back to see if anyone had caught up to us at the top of the stairs, only to see the first of the steps retracting into the wall. We had no choice but to stay on our perch and watch our avenue of retreat disappear.
Drawn by the noise below, two more Yellowjackets appeared on a ledge ahead of and slightly above us, accompanied by two men in standard outfits. One of these appeared to be in the middle of an argument with them, a bespectacled man around average Earth height, making him one of the shorter people we’d seen so far, with an aggressive but subtly lopsided stance.
The younger of the civilians hung back, taking everything in with keen dispassionate eyes. The man with the glasses, meanwhile, reacted to us with a new kind of shock — not the “who let these random kids into my evil fortress” surprise, but something more like horrified recognition. I felt as if our presence personally offended him.
It only showed for an instant. He pushed down the arm of the Yellowjacket next to him, who had just aimed a thin-barreled weapon I very much hoped was a tranquilizer gun at us.
“Not out here, they might fall. Better get them inside first. Leave it to me.” His companion watched him dart away out of sight before following more calmly, while the Yellowjackets conferred with each other too quietly for me to hear.
The squad on the ground floor had activated another set of stairs, this one ascending toward us. Nearby on the opposite side of our ledge, vertical wall slabs were shifting to create a new opening, while more ledges slid out forming a path to it. Nik jumped to the nearest one as soon as there was room on it for him.
“Didn’t you hear him? They want us to go that way!”
“I didn’t hear and I don’t care.”
“Let’s think about this.”
“Better think fast.”
The Yellowjackets were already climbing the new stairs as the last step slid into place at my feet. I gripped the scissors in my right hand, got close to the wall, and ran toward them.
“Wha — Reid!”
I stopped a short way down, bent over, and stabbed the step below me where it joined the wall. The entire slab broke off and plummeted spinning to the floor with a smash that was well worth the stinging shock to my hand. I whooped, stepped up, and repeated, stooping and stabbing my way swiftly back to the top. Soon the entire section of stairs was lying in fragments atop some construction equipment that I hoped would be a huge pain to replace.
“Hurry!” Nik was waiting for me at the opening, three ledges away. The time I thought I had bought us proved fleeting as the ledge I was standing on began to retract. Seeing no other choice, I crossed over and followed him inside. The wall closed behind us.
The interior was more of the same uniform slab construction, with the rumbling behind the walls now slightly more prominent. We didn’t see anyone, only crates and furniture stacked as if for an interrupted move. But after several twists and turns, Nik abruptly stopped and began backtracking, muttering, “Nope, not there.”
Backtracking only led to confusion, however. Where there had been a three-way junction before, the hall now simply turned a corner. “Wait, we didn’t come this way…”
“Yeah we did.”
“Look at this! No we didn’t!”
“We totally did! My sense of direction is — ”
“Doesn’t matter. This way.”
I followed him in the only direction left to us, but in short order it led us to a dead end. “Uh, Nik…?”
“It doesn’t make sense, this way felt fine…”
While he was looking for hidden doors or some other way out, neither of us noticed the walls descending behind us until they had almost reached the floor. Before we could react, we were sealed in a narrow chamber.
“They got us, I told you, you walked right into it!”
The rumbling intensified and our enclosure began to move sideways. The pressure on my ears jumped painfully, like descending in an airplane all at once. Nik dropped the octagon he was holding with a clatter. Once we came to a stop and popped our ears, he recovered the piece and inspected it in confusion.
“It moved,” he said. “It moved in my hand and…wait, this is a different piece.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Look, it’s a different color. Different markings.” I had never taken a close look at the markings engraved on the thing, but it was definitely a darker shade of blue than before.
“Let me try something.” I poked the wall next to me with the scissors and stood back. The slab I had touched cracked lengthwise but didn’t budge. I tried a crosswise cut and gave one of the resulting pieces a shove, but they were wedged in place and difficult to move even a few inches.
“Think we’ll be okay if I try the floor?” Nik nodded. The floor slab I split shifted noticeably, and a few kicks was all it took to dislodge its loose half, which fell seven or eight feet into a dimly lit space below us. Sounds of clanking and whirring came from the hole.
Nik swung himself through the opening, and a moment later I heard a subdued, astonished whistle. Once I followed, it was immediately apparent why.
We were in a forest of narrow girders and cogwheels, holding in place hundreds of identical slabs above and below us: some parked in neat stacks; many arranged into walls, floors, and ceilings; others being conveyed up, down, and sideways by the cogs, rack and pinion style. Some of their placements made sense to my unmechanical mind; others looked like they shouldn’t have been physically possible. We happened to be standing on one of several slabs parked haphazardly under the room we’d just left.
“Come on,” said Nik. “Someone’s bound to come looking for us up there soon.” He walked out on an adjacent girder, steadied himself on one of the uprights, and jumped his way down three lower slabs. When I caught up to him, he pointed to a short line of them moving toward us at a brisk pace. “You good to catch a ride?”
It was like long jumping onto a moving walkway, except the consequence for falling was far worse than getting run over by some lady’s roll-aboard suitcase. I lost my balance on landing, but thankfully fell sideways instead of forward. I rolled away from the edge and stayed sitting as we were carried along.
Once out in the open, I thought I could make out a floor far below us in the low light, but not a ceiling. An enclosed network of rooms branched around us in all directions, with supports and random blocks sticking out of them. Glaringly absent, however, was the exterior of the nearby halls we had just been blundering through. I didn’t have energy to spend on wondering about that. Nik for his part lay on his back like he’d been steamrolled, glazed eyes staring up into the shifting architectural jungle gym, and it was obvious he’d hit his weirdness limit for the day. Night. Whatever state we were in relative to Pacific Standard Time. My watch hadn’t reset when I passed through the door, I noted. It now showed almost noon on January first. Almost midnight on April eleventh?
Maybe I should start writing this down somewhere. Eleven days on Var…starting the clock for wherever we are now…
“Hey, do you think there’s someplace in here we can lay low for a bit?”
“There better be,” he groaned.
“I think I see a catwalk down there.”
We were able to jump to a packed cluster of wall slabs, pick our way across the top, and clamber down an upright girder to reach the catwalk. No one was around, but that might not last, and it was hard to find anywhere we didn’t feel exposed from multiple angles. Still, getting our feet on something that wasn’t liable to slide out from under them was progress.
The closest thing to stable shelter we found was on an out-of-the-way platform where some spare parts were being stockpiled. We crawled into the partially covered space behind a stack of girders and tried to find semi-comfortable positions.
“You’re sure this is safe?”
“For the last time!”
“Just saying. I mean, what happened to your Spidey-sense back there?”
“Hey, get off my back.” He let the snakes out of their jacket pockets for some fresh air. “It’s not as strong here, I have to get used to it. If that doesn’t please you, see how far you get without me.”
“I’m just not used to you freezing up.”
“How do you know standing still wasn’t the safest thing to do? What if every direction is trouble? Love to see you make that decision.”
“You know, I didn’t make you come. You could have gone home.”
“No I couldn’t.”
“This is hard for me too! We’re in the same boat.”
“Oh, stuff a bag of gym socks in that. You had to what, outrun the Blob on your first day? I’m here outrunning a whole security force in their own base and looking out for you. And you’re somehow not captured yet, so again, get off my back.”
I can confidently say we would have kept this bickering up for much longer if not for an aggressive onset of yawning. “I’m gonna pass out if I keep sitting here,” I said.
“One of us should keep watch. I could keep awake for a little longer. You get a nap, then we’ll switch.”
“Wake me up in like half an hour.”
My last sleep had been two domains ago. I was out before I could hear a reply.