[Original Novel] Down in the Steam Tunnels, Part 4


Previous parts: 1, 2, 3

I don’t know when the curiosity consumed me. Just that it was now firmly in the driver’s seat and would not allow me to retreat as any sane person would. Instead, I called out again, then put my ear up against the gap, waiting for any reply.

Instead, a hot breath in my ear. This time I did recoil. Nothing visible through the gap except darkness. Over the sound of my pounding heart, I heard the metallic screech recede into the distance. Accompanied by the sound of hurried limping, one foot dragging behind the other.

What was that? Wandering those tunnels, peering out at me through the gap? What the fuck could still be in there? With all other avenues of investigation closed to me, although it frustrated me that he’d succeeded in arousing my curiosity, I returned to professor Travigan.

“Knew you’d be back. Knew it!” he cackled maddeningly. I’d played right into his hands, but could see no other possible direction left to go in. He could get me into those tunnels, and seemed to possess an understanding of their nature I would not find in any book, article or documentary.

“Orgonic null reactor’s still going strong, isn’t it?” I hung my coat on the rack inside the doorway and took a seat before his tremendous polished oak desk. “I just want you to know”, I sternly began, “that I don’t believe a word that’s come out of your mouth since we’ve met. I’m all too familiar with your type.”

He scoffed. “I very much doubt that. Even by my own standards I’m a rather unusual person.” As if to underscore the statement, he withdrew one of the syringes full of black syrup, rolled up his sleeve, then proceeded to inject himself with it. I gaped.

“Oh, this? Never you mind. Just a little something to keep me going.” Drugs certainly would explain a great deal about this guy. “Seems like half the campus is on uppers of some kind” I muttered. He puzzled over that before I spotted a flash of recognition.

“Yes, I suppose you could say that’s what it is. I’d certainly not be…up and about, were I to skip a dose. Zachary sees to it that I don’t forget.” As I studied his wrinkled face, I began to notice something off about his skin. Entirely without color. I could understand why he was pale if he spent all his time holed up in here, but not even his tear ducts or lips were pink.

“Can you get me into the steam tunnels?” I’d wasted enough time indulging his eccentricity. Time to get down to business. He raised his eyebrows. “Is that all you need? Of course. We can go right now if you like.” What? Too easy, I thought. Not like him to be so straightforward. There’s gonna be some kind of ridiculous-

“We’ll go by subway.” Ah, there it is. “You’re confused. There’s no subway that links up with the steam tunnels.” A wry little smile crept over his face. “You’re certain about that, are you? Absolutely, one hundred percent?” I mulled that over, wondering what he could possibly be getting at.

“If you mean in a philosophical sense. I suppose not. I haven’t personally checked, so technically, there exists some infinitesimal possibility that without my knowledge, a subway station was constructed there.” I imagined I felt some distant vibration, and wondered at the source.

He clapped. “Very good!. And are you absolutely, positively certain that the subway in question does not have a stop in the basement of this building?” Had I been drinking milk I would’ve done a spit take.

“Come on now. What’s your game?” He only doubled down. “Can you honestly say, with no caveats, that it is absolutely impossible for there to be a subway station beneath us right now?”

I agonized over how to answer in a defensible way, but finally gave up and rolled with it just to see where it was leading. “No, I guess not. I haven’t been down there to look, so I guess there’s a remote possibility that-” I was cut off by a sudden earthquake.

Or what I mistook for one, anyway. The curios and various glass labware on the shelves rattled as did the entire building around me. “Excellent!” professor Travigan exclaimed. “We’ll use that one.”

“That one”? He hurried me down the stairs to the basement where, to my absolute astonishment, there actually was a subway station. Not one like I’d ever used, though. All of it decorative tiles, polished brass and oak paneling. Stylistically resembling professor Travigan’s office, and the house itself for that matter.

The train itself consisted of a single car with no obvious motor. The exterior was as elaborately decorated as the station, every polished metal surface imprinted with reliefs depicting scenes from mythology. “How? How is this down here? I didn’t think you were serious. When was this built? It must’ve cost a fortune.”

I staggered about, taking it all in, still struggling to believe it was real. The inside was like a Victorian livingroom with plush leather seating, oil lamps and even floral wallpaper. “How can this exist?” I demanded. Professor Travigan, content to hang back and watch in amusement during all of this, shrugged. “You weren’t sure that it didn’t. That’s good enough.”

As if that explained any of it. Zachary descended the stairs behind us, seemingly irate. “We’re going right now? Seriously? Maury is on. They’ve got a guy with a cotton phobia, Maury’s gonna come out wearing a cotton monster costume. Then when he runs backstage, they’ve covered every surface in cotton balls. That’s must see TV!”

Professor Travigan beckoned to him from within the train car. “No time like the present, m’boy! Whatever ‘present’ means, of course. You can resume viewing your frivolous picture radio programs upon our return.”

The two really are a matched set. While taking my seat in the train, I wondered if eccentric little old weirdos like professor Travigan are just what hippies like Zach eventually turn into.

The door slid shut with a solid, reverberating ‘kerchunk’. Zachary turned levers at the corners to tightly seal the door shut, though I couldn’t imagine why such measures were necessary for a simple train ride. “He should really be blindfolded for this”, Zach called out from the rear as he completed preparations. Who, me?

“No need. I’ve vetted him thoroughly enough by now to know that his skepticism is ironclad. There is nothing he could see or hear, I feel, that would diminish his negation potential.” Listen to them, talking about me like I’m not even here.

I felt some odd tension around Zachary. Couldn’t determine the nature of it. Not that I felt threatened, but that the way he speaks about pseudoscience and every other manner of transparent fraud as if I were the idiot for not buying into it makes me desperately want to punch him.

The professor is the same way. Worse, even. I just can’t stay mad at a feeble little pensioner. Who now hobbled excitedly about the train car, lighting the lamps, although they seemed to be included only for decoration. Electric lights lining recessed parts of the ceiling already did a serviceable job of illuminating the interior.

“You know”, the professor warbled as he began firing up whatever sort of engine propels this hulk, “skepticism and credulity are also antipodes. They react just as energetically as any other set of opposites. We just don’t commonly think of it that way because to us, that reaction looks like simple argument. But as ever, it’s really the equalization of a built up differential.”

I glanced over at Zach. Taking bong rips while reading a worn paperback titled “The Cosmic Serpent”. Rang true enough. I’ve learned to get along professionally with these kinds of people, but the way they carry on believing in the most absurd things truthfully does irritate me in the worst way.

Professor Travigan carefully slid the weighty throttle on the brass console before him, and the train lurched forward. “With that, we are off!” I smiled. He’s crazy as a shithouse fly, but his excitement is contagious. Across from me, Zachary continued taking hits from what I now recognized was a bong shaped like the head of Skeletor, from the old He-Man cartoon.

There was no motor sound I could discern. Whatever propelled us was not steam, and perhaps not electric unless especially silent. Nonetheless, we were moving. I resolved to figure out how it all worked at some point. Just another elaborate trick of course.

Stay Tuned for Part 5!

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