I saw Molly as a low, running copper streak up ahead and realized with horror that John was following her. I heard more shots and saw two of the mannequin men fall, ragged holes in their backs. My guts turned to liquid and my hands tightened around the bulky rifle, feeling sweat and sticky blood on the trigger. We reached a wall and I saw wide stairs leading to a double door made of brushed steel, like a bank vault. A closed bank vault.
I heard shouts and clanging and saw people on the catwalk overhead, saw white suits circling around us in the crowd and heard orders shouted from every direction. A booming voice emerged from a public address system, announcing things in a throaty language that sounded like Hebrew. I suddenly knew how that woodchuck felt.
I pulled up the rifle, found a little switch next to the handle and flipped it, hoping it would make the other barrel work. I raised it to my shoulder.
So freaking dark . . .
I tried to get a fix through the glowing green sights. I felt hands on me. I squeezed the trigger and the gun roared, fire erupting, the barrel jumping like a jackhammer. I lost control of it almost immediately, the gun pushing my shoulder back until I was shooting straight up. In three seconds I was clicking an empty gun, night-blinded, smelling gunpowder. I heard a thump-thump-thump and realized it was bodies falling off the catwalk above.
Hands on me again, the worker clones or what ever they were, grabbing my jacket and pulling my hair. The gun was ripped from my hands and I heard a whoosh, a sound suspiciously like a gun being swung through the air. A bomb went off in my skull. Lights flared in front of my eyes and I went down hard. I heard barking and growling, felt Molly thrashing around near me. I almost went out. I heard John’s voice, shouting in the bedlam.
“GENTLEMEN, I WOULD LIKE TO PROPOSE A TOAST!”
And then, the whole world was on fire.
Heat and light and horrible, inhuman shrieks. I got on my hands and knees and saw John hosing everything down, a fountain of orange light glaring in the darkness, a crowd of dark limbs flailing in a pool of flame. A hand grabbed me again from the crowd, its sleeve on fire—
—and I kicked at it, got free. From beside me, John frantically pumped the gun, and again flame poured forth with a sound like rushing wind. Suddenly I was being pulled up to my feet, pulled backward, pulled to the spot where the metal door had been. It was apparently open now because we kept going, into another space, a small area that felt like a corridor.
I heard the heavy clang of the door closing, and suddenly a light flickered on. It was John who had hold of me, a fist full of my jacket in his hand. He spun toward the door and we saw a thin man standing there, next to a metal box on the wall with a series of red buttons.
It was Robert North. He looked us over, then said, simply, “Incredible.”
We were alone in a hallway, an orchestra of sounds from the other side of the steel door. Molly looked that direction and growled. North stepped away from us and strode down the corridor. We followed. I put my hand to my aching skull, pulled away bloody fingers. John took his hand off me and said, “Can you walk?”
North led us through one doorway, then another. We finally emerged into an enormous round chamber with steps that led down to a platform, the place set up not unlike a basketball stadium. At the heart of the room where center court would be, there were maybe a dozen tall arches arranged in two concentric circles. It reminded me of Stonehenge. Around the room were beds and examination tables, but nobody was on them. On the floor, on a small platform, sat the fat bag, the exact one from Amy’s bathroom (“44.42 kg” on the side), and not far from that sat the lifeless, copper-haired dummy I had seen appear on Amy’s couch. North led us out of the Stonehenge room, barely glancing at it, and out another door. We went down another hall and into another large, domed room. This one had a cylinder of black glass in the center that rose all the way up to the ceiling.
North closed the door behind us, another sliding double door with metal a foot thick. I saw there were no other exits from the room and what ever comfort I had felt from escaping the mob had vanished. This was the end of the line.
North said, “I have a thousand questions to ask but no time to ask them.”
I said, “We have to get back! To ground level, to the mall. Amy is . . .”
He turned, like he couldn’t hear me, and walked toward the cylinder. I glanced around and saw that the walls, like all of the walls here, seemed to be made of glass-smooth stone. The door and the controls for the door all seemed to have been added later, the wiring in metal conduits on the exterior of the wall. I wondered again where exactly this place was. Were we still on Earth?
I ran up behind North, said, “Get us outta here. Get us out and tell us where would be the best place to put a bomb.”
John said, “Yeah, the dog is rigged to blow.”
John shook the pink plastic tank of flamethrower fuel on his hip, found it empty. He blew out the lighter at the barrel of the toy, then dropped it all to the floor. I noticed the barrel had partially melted.
North said, “I do not think you fully appreciate what this is.”
I nodded toward North and said to John, “This is the guy, the one who I saw in my truck that night.”
John said, “Okay. Can he explain what the fuck this place is? And what they’re making out there?”
I waved my hand with impatience and said, “He can tell us all about that shit after we’re outta here and after we’ve gotten to Amy. And after we blow this place to Hell. But before those assholes come rushing through that door.”
North said, “I believe Amy is safe. And I assure you, the men outside cannot get in here. I know this facility very well.”
“How do you know about Amy?” I asked. “You’re a part of this? You work for these people?”
North said, “I was born here. And as for what they’re doing out there, well, they’re doing the same thing all thinking creatures do, from the moment they come to life. Trying to change the world as they see fit.”
He looked at the black column.
“What do you think you’re looking at there?”
John said, “You’re gonna be looking at my fist, and then Dave’s dick, if you don’t—”
“Take a moment and try to understand what you’ve seen,” North said. “You will not be angry once you understand. Your anger clouds you.” North glanced around the room. “I was born here, as I said. One month ago. Do you understand?”
I was trying to think up a new threat of violence for North and then I saw John’s eyes go wide. I turned on the black column and saw activity there in the darkness. Swirling shapes pouring through it. Streaks of light. Life.
North said, “Imagine a garment, woven from a single thread. And imagine that after forming that garment, that same continuing thread was used to weave another garment similar to the first. So you have a thread that is simultaneously part of two garments, but at some point the thread stops being part of one garment and becomes part of the other.”
John waved his hand impatiently and said, “Who gives a shit?”
North gestured toward the column.
“This is the thread.”
I said, “Good. John, pry the bomb from Molly’s colon and blow this fucker.”
North said, “The key to saving your friend, Amy, is through there.”
I said, “You want us to go through? What’s in there? Hell? Is that what happened, this thing opened up and a bunch of you monstrous fuckers came crawling in? That’s why we’ve got so much weird shit in this town?”
“No man has traveled through this portal. Though they have tried it.”
“Then what the fuck are you talking about?” I screamed.
John glanced at Molly and said, “Shit the bomb, Molly.”
North said, “No, the only ones who can travel back and forth are the dark men.”
John said, “Blacks? Is that why there aren’t any in [Undisclosed]? They get sucked in?”
This threw North. He recovered and said, “No, the dark men are the ones who lived but have been torn from their bodies, through death and, well, other circumstances you would not understand. They come from all worlds with sentient thought. They are unrestricted by matter and as such, can exist in one dimension and then the next, in one time and then the next, and then, in none at all. They exist in numbers greater than you can imagine, a dark ocean that flows between worlds. And as more thinking beings are born and die, the ranks of the dark men swell like the waters of a flooding river.”
“Okay!” said John. “Then let’s blow it up then.” He leaned down and grabbed Molly by the shoulders. “We need you to shit the bomb, Molly. Shit it! Shit the bomb!”
She didn’t even try.
John said, “Fuck it. Let’s light the dog on fire.”
North said, “You cannot destroy it. If you could, your universe would vanish into it.”
I looked at him, then spun on Molly. “Shit it, Molly! NOW! SHIT IT!”
North seemed to be losing patience and he said, “Through that passage is the only way to save Amy Sullivan.”
I turned on him. “Are you finally getting to the part where you tell us how to do that?”
“You must pass through.”
“You just said—”
“There is a reason why you have drawn so much interest, Mr. Wong. The ones who run this facility, and others, have devoted more time and resources than you can imagine to developing an ability to pass from one side to the next. You and John here apparently can. And we do not know why.”
I said, “I know why. But I’m sure not telling you.”
North said, “If you do not go in, where will you go?”
He had a point. And we had come this far. I looked at the column and said, “Fine. How do we get in?”
“Just decide that you want to get in and you will.”
I reached out a hand and touched the surface, like cut onyx. Close to it I thought I could see color in the blackness, blue with streaks of white. The column felt as solid as stone, but then suddenly I saw my fingers push into it, like it was made of warm wax. My hand vanished up to the wrist and then elbow and then I changed my mind, tried to pull back and realized I had no chance of doing it short of cutting off my arm. I turned to John to tell him to find something sharp, but at that moment blackness fell over my vision.