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

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

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. . Travigan just kept on talking the entire time. I felt sort of guilty for ignoring most of it.

he laughed.

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.

I blurted out. Travigan assured me he’d volunteered for this. He did look calm, now that I studied his face.

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.

I stammered. Neither Zachary nor the old man seemed the least bit apologetic.

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.

, Zach explained.

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. , I thought. Yet, I couldn’t force myself to move. My body vetoed any effort to enter the all consuming darkness before me.

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.

I asked, gesturing to the fellow strapped to the rolling bed. Zach scoffed.

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.

It all really did look the same. The more we explored, the more lost I felt.

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.

Heironimus peered at a cathode ray tube mounted to the rear of the bed. It displayed something like you’d expect from sonar. 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. 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. I explained.

The creature flickered, faded, then disappeared. Heironimus slapped me on the back.

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