[Original Novel] Down in the Steam Tunnels, Part 5

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Previous parts: 1, 2, 3, 4

“Tell me something about yourself” Zach plied, through a growing cloud of fragrant smoke. “Were you always like this? Can’t believe in anything that doesn’t agree with what you already know?” I took exception to that. I’m entirely able to integrate new knowledge, providing it wasn’t obviously some sort of magician’s stunt.

“I dunno. I guess I was never much fun to tell ghost stories to. I remember my first camping trip as a boy scout. We’d gathered around the fire, savoring its warmth and light with the mysterious, dark woods at our backs. Following a particularly spooky tale, they began daring each other to make the dash through the woods back to the van, to get some sodas from the cooler.”

Zach did seem to be listening, although on account of the weed, he was no longer properly sitting in the chair but had instead assumed its shape like a soft putty. “Then suddenly they looked up and there I was with the sodas. Amazed, all of them. As if I’d actually done something brave.”

He began to softly chuckle. Each laugh barely escaping his lips before trailing off into the next one. Something like “ehmmhemehehhemehe”. How much was getting through to him in this state? “Anyway, one of them pointed out I’d brought my knife with me. As if to prove I was not so brave after all. “Ghosts aren’t real”, I told them. “But wolves are.”

He was really a good deal less irritating like this. Much of the tension now gone, and apparently with a ways yet to go until we reached our destination, I continued to share memories from my childhood.

“I remember this one time my sister set up an owl statue to scare me. It was on the porch outside my bedroom window. You could make its head turn with an included remote. Only, I didn’t know it was anything but a normal statue. So while I lay trying to get to sleep, I noticed its head was in a different position. I thought, surely I imagined it. But then, slowly, it turned to look at me.”

Zach now appeared enraptured. Still the weed at work, presumably. “I immediately got up, walked outside and picked up the statue to inspect it. Once I turned it over I found the little door in the bottom for the batteries and the jig was up.

Really disappointed my sister, she’d blown her allowance on the prank. When she asked why it didn’t scare me, I answered “A living statue is impossible.” She was cross with me for the rest of the week, as if I’d done something wrong.”

“Hold on” Zach murmured. “I’m gonna need to bring out the big guns for this.” He stashed his bong in a cabinet under the seat, and from the same cabinet withdrew a helmet with a pair of bongs, one mounted to either side. Their outputs led to a medical respirator style mask by a pair of flexible transparent tubes. “Alright, fool. Proceed.”

He’s really got the world’s most punchable face. I doubted that was a real thing until recently. “I get that many want to believe in the fantastical. It’s a normal impulse. But it’s unfair to dump on people who are just wired such that they can’t humor that sort of thing. I don’t mean them any harm, I wish they’d just-”

Zachary tugged at the window cover behind him. It retracted, and I found myself at an abrupt loss for words. The scenery outside was the void of space. An unfamiliar green gas giant loomed large, with a pink nebula behind it. I just boggled, struggling to string words together but failing.

“Almost like you don’t have it all figured out” he suggested, muffled by the mask. With great effort he pulled himself to his feet and headed up to the front to speak with the professor. 3D screen, I thought. Has to be. There’s still gravity, after all. What a cheap trick! But the clarity is amazing. It’s just like looking out a window.

Zachary returned and slumped back into the plush, beautifully hand carved seat. “You don’t believe that shit either, do you.” He gestured to the window behind him. I shook my head. “That’s impressive, though. The train works like a motion simulator ride, doesn’t it? Hydraulics underneath. I bet we’re still in that station now.”

He issued a disgusted sigh, plumes of wispy weed smoke billowing out the edges of the mask, then pulled the shade back down. After a time, I grew restless. “How much longer until we get there?” The professor called back “It will continue until you decide it’s gone on for an implausibly long time.” So I did. Just like that, the train stopped.

Yet when the door slid open, no steam tunnels. We were underground, certainly, but in some sort of busy subterranean town. Across the street were all manner of businesses advertising their wares with antiquated electrical signs, seemingly competing to see whose sign could blink more obnoxiously than the rest.

“Mortimer McGraw’s Quality Coffins, for sleep or libidinal purposes”. Come again? Another advertised pocket sewing kits with included surgical implements. For what possible purpose? A never ending throng of men and women dressed like they were reenacting the early 20th century milled down either side of the street, perusing the various strange wares.

I motioned as if to step out and explore. “Not so fast, lad.” The Professor raised an arm to block the way. “I’m afraid they do not welcome warmbloods here. You and Zachary stay behind. I’ll return with what I came for shortly.” I still felt dumbstruck that we weren’t really in his basement all along. The number of sensible explanations for all of this was rapidly dwindling.

So, I stayed. But continued to gawk. A boy selling newspapers cried out the headlines in an effort to entice passersby. “Chaos continues on surface! Freshly risen mobbing the streets and invading homes, body count now in the thousands!” I felt a tremor. The lights flickered and dust fell from the ceiling.

“The omission of the memory serum was to blame” a stately looking fellow in a top hat and tweed vest whispered to his companion just a dozen or so feet from me. The other nodded and grunted in affirmation.

“They’re saying that whatever scheming rogue set this calamity into motion disconnected that hose first. So the risen would remember where they were before. It’s no wonder they’re in such a disquieted state. If you ask me, they’re the real victims.”

If he could see me or the train, he gave no indication of it. Soon enough, professor Travigan returned, wheeling along some sort of rectangular mass concealed beneath a sheet. On a hand truck, I assumed. “What is this place?” I demanded. “None of your concern. Shut the door.” Put out somewhat, I obeyed, securing the corners of it with the levers I’d seen Zachary use before me.

“What’s under the sheet?” I asked next. I imagined I’d heard it whimper as the two loaded it onto the train. “A perceptor. Standard practice to bring one along on a job like this, I had the good doctor assemble one for me in advance. Only way to fully reveal projections.” As ever, he rattled off all of that as if I was supposed to know what it meant. I objected that I didn’t.

“It’s as I told you before, lad. The universe exists due to an act of separation. But that imbalance is slowly equalizing. Eventually it will finish. There will be nothing but cold, dead debris. Until the next separation, that is! Of course, the next one always destroys everything left over from the last, in the course of recycling it. Or it did, until something discovered how to survive the process.”

I recalled something about a cycle of creation and destruction at the core of Hindu beliefs about cosmology. He borrowed so casually from such a wide range of traditions it was impossible to keep track of them all.

“Hides in the cracks. Subtle, subversive. The wave of destruction passes right over ’em. Waiting, planning, riding it all out in the very holographic substrate from which our universe is projected.”

He completed preparations, then twisted a few knobs and once again slid the throttle. The train surged forward, hopefully this time headed for the steam tunnels. “But, trillions of years pass between cycles. It is no conventional being which can endure such extended stretches of cold, dark silence. How can I possibly quantify for you the intensity of their thirst for the return of life, color, light and sound? For fresh experience?”

I could offer no answer, as to me this was just yet more schizo babble. But I nevertheless humored him as the last stop had satisfied me that this was at least a real train, so we might yet wind up where I wanted to.

Stay Tuned for Part 6!

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