For a guy who at one point just wanted to be a medic, Doc found himself tumbling down the rabbit hole into a world of violent crime and weird-ass science. As bizarre as things had gotten, nothing could have prepared him for his return to Mine 3, far below the surface of the Nek.
I LOVE WHAT YOU’VE DONE WITH THE PLACE
Mine 3, The Nekropolis, Brimstone
As the elevator cleared the shaft and descended into the huge cavern, Ed said dryly. “As you can see, we’ve made some improvements.”
I blinked several times, wondering if the image would suddenly give way to a more conservative reality. Ed had told me that the Xi’An made a lot of progress remodeling the lower levels of Mine 3. But this was… words escaped me.
When I first saw this place it was little more than the original mine hub; a house-sized room carved out of the rock several hundred meters below ground. The floor had been littered with portable workstations, cobbled together in a spider web of cables. The ‘science experiment’ plunked in the center was little more than a spherical Faraday cage; curved emitters that struggled to maintain a tiny scale model of the thermoplasmic event. Pretty much a melon-sized plasma ball. The whole thing was dark and damp, held together with duct tape and baling wire.
But this… “How did you…” I waved my hand in the direction of the sphere. “How did all this happen?”
Ed shrugged. “Don’t ask me, it came out of your head.” He gave me a sidelong glance and saw my confusion, then added. “Not the one you’re wearing, dumbshit, the one on the workbench.”
“Oh, yeah,” I muttered, still soaking it all in. I’d been in air traffic control centers with less equipment. This wasn’t a mine anymore, it might as well have been the heart of an Arc Reactor.
A huge shimmering globe dominated the center of the room. It looked like glass, maybe five meters across, filled with a persistent thermoplasmic reaction. Unlike the first experiment I’d seen, this wasn’t some spindly ball of energy. This was robust, burning with a steady writhing fire.
I pointed at the globe. “That thing won’t break, will it?”
For a moment Ed’s eyes flared wide, as if the possibility had not been considered. “Fuck, I hope not. Shit that’d likely kill all of us.” He paused to watch the color drain from my face, sucking the lit end of the cig to a bright orange glow. Then he scowled and shook his head. “We’re not stupid Doc; it’s a force field, not glass.”
Not that I felt comfortable around a living reminder of the worst night in my life to begin with, but the answer just prompted more concerns. “Well what if we lose power? What if the field comes unglued?” I pointed at the pulsing reaction, my tone rising in pitch. “Can that shit get out???”
“Of course it can,” Ed growled, impatience in his voice as he flicked the spent butt and fished in his pockets for another. He lit it, took a drag and finally added “This shit won’t work if you don’t let it out.”
I don’t smoke, but I sure as hell had a sudden urge to drink. All I had to swallow was the spit in my throat and that suddenly ran dry.
“All right,” I muttered without a shred of confidence, “let’s get this over with.” A line from an old movie played in the back of my brain. I should have taken the blue pill…
Despite my discomfort, Ed forced something of a grin clenched on the cig. His eyes had one of those multi-Ed color changes going on, the blue tone burning bright. He slapped me on the back, a hard smack that rattled my teeth. “That’s the spirit,” he chortled, then strode off towards a prominent control panel. “Not like any of us is gonna live forever anyway.”
I really do need to kill him. The thought came unbidden. It’s not like I’d ever kill Ed for real. Hurt him maybe, but I draw the line at killing friends. So far anyway. Keeping a wary eye on the shimmering globe, I trotted after him.
I must have been standing at the wide console for a minute or so before I realized that the nearest lab-coated technician was Kuang. No fancy robes, he looked like any other turtle-nerd in the room. The sudden recognition threw me into another momentary blink-fest before I stumbled for a greeting. He waved off the formalities and went nose-down in a tablet, offering only a brief nod to acknowledge my presence. Like everybody else scattered around the room, Kuang was all business as he said “Increasing power to thirty-five percent.”
“So what’s gonna happen?” I prodded Ed.
“We’re gonna tear off a scab.” Ed’s attention was already focused on the globe but he reached out and picked a pair of goggles off a rack. “Here,” he said, shoving a pair in my direction, “put these on.”
I slipped them on, more of an electronic scuba-mask than anything. The full-face front lens was not transparent at all, instead some sort of prismatic sensor panel. In darkness my fingers fumbled over the outside of the apparatus until I felt a hand take hold and depress something that clicked. With a sharp soft whine the room appeared like an out-of-whack 3D x-ray. My ability to see through objects ebbed and flowed, people around me drifting from silhouettes to walking skeletons with belt buckles, eyeglasses, a stainless steel hip joint…
A hand squeezed my shoulder; it was Ed. His skeleton was wearing goggles like mine but good god, what was going on behind them? For a moment I thought his brain was on fire. Then it hit me; the fireworks going on inside his skull was the rest of the Eds.
“Mind your own fucking business,” he growled none too nicely, a brusque hand rotating my head back towards the globe. “Look over there and tell me what you see.”
The light inside the globe was amplified a hundred-fold; I could see waves of energy pulsing out to bash against the inner surface of the force field. It looked less a force of nature than it did a living thing; angry, beating at the walls of its cage. A really bad taste bubbled up the back of my throat.
My rapt fixation on the globe began to subside and my mental camera pulled back, expanding my awareness of the room. Lab-coats moved to and fro, two of them walking towards the —
My heart seized in my chest. A massive forked rope of energy, vague and indistinct, extended out from the globe, out through the wall of the cavern. My breath caught in my throat, eyes darting to see a second leak, a third; wavering patterns of light that reached out from the same focal point. A figure stood next to one, some woman with a backpack. Even in the bizarre transparency I could see the fear etched into her face. One of the twisting arms wavered down from above her.
“LOOK OUT!” I shouted, tearing the goggles from my head. The light show, at least any of it reaching outside the globe, disappeared. So did the woman. Save for the hum of electronics, the room fell silent. Goggled faces turned in my direction.
“Xīn lái de jiāhuo!” Ed said loudly, punctuated with a dismissive wave. The herd of nerds turned back to their work. Ed on the other hand looked at me intently. “Tell me exactly what you saw.”
“That fucking thing is leaking,” I began, discovering how hard my heart was hammering. “It’s like, spreading, all around…” I fumbled the description, words giving over to big hand gestures.
Ed nodded, his own gesture a rapid roll of ‘move along’. “What else?”
My eyes darted back and forth, confusion rising in the midst of alarm. Where the hell did she go?
“A woman,” I muttered, stepping up on a crate for a better vantage point. “Middle age, shoulder-length hair, had a backpack.”
Ed closed his eyes for a moment. I could see that rapid-eye movement behind his lids, the REM-sleep reflex that happens when he taps the collective Ed-pool. The eyes snapped open, freakishly bright. “Dierdra.” He looked at Kuang, “that’s a fourth for her.” Kuang nodded, as if the comment had some deeper meaning.
I stared at Ed, wondring if I had taken an elevator into a mineshaft or into the Twilight Zone. Irritation started to compete with the other emotions running amuck in my brain, but I was remarkably calm when I asked “You gonna explain this to me?”
Ed peeled off his goggles. “Yeah, sorry ‘bout that. It was important to get a natural reaction without planting suggestions in your mind.” He motioned me to a chair and, truth be told, I was glad to flop into it. I wanted that drink even more.
“First off, it isn’t leaking.” Ed led off with what was, for me at least, the bottom line. “What you saw outside the globe are tears in space-time left behind by the original event. Call ‘em scars in the fabric of our reality.”
I’d be lying if I said I understood half of what that implied, but I nodded and listened.
“They are benign, for the most part, but they can tell us a lot about what happened that night, about where things went.”
“Went?” My mind grappled with the word. Shit got fucked all to hell but not a lot went anywhere.
Ed glanced upwards for a moment. Maybe he was considering his next comment, maybe he was getting whispers from another Ed, I never really understood how that worked either. Whatever transpired, he looked back at me and continued.
“A whole lot moved, in both directions, just not the way you’d normally think of movement. Let go of the idea of objects and imagine instead that half of the atoms in an object swapped places with atoms on the other side. Random replacement of the little lego blocks that everything is made of. So what was living flesh a moment ago is now some marbled swirl of flesh, petrified wood and volcanic glass. Same basic shape, only the composition is utterly different.”
It sounded vaguely logical, and that fact on its own scared me, but the whole idea raised a million new questions that I sputtered in a jumble. “But the woman? Where did– and you said ‘swapped.’ Swapped with what?”
Ed gave me a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “Easy there cowboy, you’ll sprain something. Now you are asking the big questions, like ‘what’s behind door number 1’. And just about…” he glanced up at an overhead console where a chrono burned above a matching countdown timer, “six days from now, we’re gonna kick that door open and find out.”