[Original Novel] Down in the Steam Tunnels, Part 6

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Previous parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

“So many sacrifices. To exist in that form, and in that place. It is not so far removed from death. Strangelife, pataphysicists call it. Something which does not metabolize. Which has no eyes, but can see. No brain, yet it thinks. Schemes. Craves. Having converted themselves irreversibly, paying the steep price to survive the purges, they cannot return here for any length of time. Unless they create, or hjiack, biological vessels.”

I puzzled over the prior stop as he rambled on. What was that place? Some sort of secret society for alumni, I suspected. Accessible by this train. If the only other stop is in the steam tunnels it might help explain the taboo against exploring them. My brain chugged away, processing everything I’d seen so far into a digestible narrative. Because the alternative was unthinkable.

Just as I wondered how the second leg of the trip could possibly take so long, given that the house we departed from is a scant few blocks from the university, we arrived. “Really, they’re negative life”. Travigan just kept on talking the entire time. I felt sort of guilty for ignoring most of it.

“When the imbalance which animates you fully equalizes, like a robot with a dead battery, you de-animate. Infusion with Orgone can delay that while you’re still alive, but what use is it to administer medicine to the dead? Rather, an infusion of…the other stuff…creates the same sort of imbalance which animates your body, but in the other direction. Negative, not positive. Strangelife. If you can’t beat ’em, join em!” he laughed. “Then defeat them from the inside.”

“And a hearty ooga booga to you as well” I wanted to reply. But as the door slid open I discovered he’d really been as good as his word, so I held my tongue. At last, I was inside the steam tunnels. Enduring an old man’s senile fantasies now seemed like a trivial price. Zachary unloaded the great rectangular mass covered by the sheet, then pulled it away.

I seized up, and nearly ran. It looked very much like a hospital bed, but propped upright with large rubberized wheels at the bottom so it could be pushed about. Strapped tightly to it at the wrists, elbows, chest, neck, forehead, waist, knees and ankles was an emaciated, bald stranger.

“Who is that!” I blurted out. Travigan assured me he’d volunteered for this. He did look calm, now that I studied his face. “That doesn’t really answer the question. Who is this guy? What’s that thing he’s strapped to?”

More than just a bed, there were all manner of machines bolted to the back that I recognized as relating to life support. Tubes and wires from them snaked around to the front of the bed, then into the man’s chest through various healed over incisions.

“This is fucked up” I stammered. “I didn’t know you’d do something like this.” Neither Zachary nor the old man seemed the least bit apologetic. “Once you understand what’s waiting for us in those tunnels, you’ll be glad we brought a perceptor. Only someone on the verge of death can see them clearly.”

I tried to guess from the hiss and throb of the various machines what function each performed. A respirator, the most obvious. But also the most compact dialysis machine I’d ever seen, an external mechanism for pumping blood, a reservoir of beige nutritional goo periodically deposited intravenously into his stomach, and so on.

“They really have to be right on the edge”, Zach explained. “None of their organs can be functional except for the brain. The organs aren’t dead, just prevented from operating conventionally. The machine does it all instead. Runs on batteries. Needless to say we shouldn’t fuck around, as he’ll die if they run out before we can get him back to the train.”

Psychopaths. On top of being fantasists. I was rapidly reevaluating what sort of company I’d isolated myself with, deep underground. If I’d known all of this would result from asking for Travigan’s help, I would’ve just used a set of bolt cutters to remove those chains from the doors.

A gentle wind rushed past. Like the inhalation of a giant, whose esophagus we now stood in. The distant echo of dripping water barely audible over the groan of flexing pipes, and periodic bursts of steam.

Wiping my forehead, I realized I’d begun to sweat. “This is it”, I thought. “This is what you came for.” Yet, I couldn’t force myself to move. My body vetoed any effort to enter the all consuming darkness before me.

“Don’t tell me you’re afraid, after those stories you told me on the way” Zach quipped, nonchalantly rolling the unexpected fourth member of our party down the corridor. I shed my jacket, wary of overheating, and followed. Couldn’t let that new age dipshit show me up.

“Don’t you need permits for this?” I asked, gesturing to the fellow strapped to the rolling bed. Zach scoffed. “Permits? We’re not just an institute, we’re THE institute. If you have to ask which one, you’re not in the loop. And if you’re out of the loop, you’re liable to ask silly questions like whether we have need of permits.”

That settled it as far as he was concerned. Though as usual, he’d not actually explained anything. I was beginning to sense a recurring theme. Cryptic for the sake of being cryptic. Fetishization of ritual, pomp, tradition, ceremony and embellishment of all kinds.

Was there anything of substance behind it all? Or was it turtles all the way down? Faintly lit by the lights from the bed’s machinery, I could see the professor reach out to a switch on the wall, and toggle it. I heard the distant rumble of a generator starting up.

In stages, the lights began to turn on, until I could finally see more than a few feet ahead. Dim, flickering, plainly in need of replacement bulbs. “If you think the light makes us safe, you’re mistaken. They’re attracted to places like this regardless. Desolate, bleak, featureless places which evolution programmed us to find creepy. Now you know why.”

It all really did look the same. The more we explored, the more lost I felt. “They’re moving the corridors around us so that we go in circles. Make no mistake about it. This is why they choose places with lots of repeating features. One easy way to temporarily defeat that is to split up. But of course, that’s what they want, and why they do it.”

So we stuck together, and continued to explore. Now and again, a jet of blistering hot steam would blast forth from a pipe fitting in front of or behind us. Condensation dripped continuously down every wall, and upon placing my hand against one, I realized I could feel the distant vibration of the generators.

The man strapped to the bed began to squirm. He couldn’t talk, apparently a good deal more of his body was disabled than I’d realized, but he could weakly wriggle in his restraints and emit an anxious sound from deep in his throat.

“He’s spotted one.” Heironimus peered at a cathode ray tube mounted to the rear of the bed. It displayed something like you’d expect from sonar. “Sure enough. Dead ahead, perhaps twenty feet. Focus!” The man stared, eyes wide, pupils dilated, beads of sweat rolling down his face.

I scanned the corridor ahead of us, searching the spot that he seemed to be looking at so intently. Initially I saw nothing. But as he continued to stare, something began fading into view. “He’s got it pinned! Full materialization soon, if he can keep hold of it.” Sure enough, the small, frail looking form began to grow more distinct.

Appeared for all the world like the delicate, ghostly skeleton of a little old man curled up in one of the shadowed parts of the ceiling. Except with a bulbous, malformed skull and disproportionately large eye sockets.

As I watched, it began to stir. It did not move conventionally. Similar to rotoscoping, except that it sort of flowed, or morphed, from one frame to the next. I shouldn’t be watching this, I thought. Shouldn’t be here. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, but something deep in my gut begged me to run.

I’ve never listened to that voice before. I’m not about to start, either. “This is a projection, alright” I explained. “What you’ve done is to hide a small digital projector someplace. Among the pipes, maybe. It’s casting a white animated figure against a black background onto the thick water vapor around us. Textbook Scooby Doo bullshit.”

The creature flickered, faded, then disappeared. Heironimus slapped me on the back. “Nicely done, boy! You’re worth your weight in Atlantium, you know. But you’ve not killed it, just driven it off. To truly destroy the things, you must accept that you’re seeing them.

But then, dwell exhaustively on the reasons why an immaterial creature is a physical impossibility, until you convince yourself of it so powerfully that it becomes true. That’s negation.”

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