TyGently's Third Law Sandbox
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« Intermission ||

When the apocalypse comes, society collapses, and cable television is no longer available, there tend to be three types of people.

First, there are those who have been preparing for this their entire lives. They look out across the desolate, destroyed landscape, whisper something self-congratulatory, and then retreat into meticulously engineered bunkers filled with creature comforts and all the canned beans one can eat.

Second, there are those who have been preparing for this their entire lives. They look out across the desolate, destroyed landscape, jump for joy, and then don their bondage gear, fuel up their diesel motorcycles, and start raising hell.

Finally, there are people like Casey, sitting in pitch-blackness with a dead flashlight.

"Um," he whispered. "It's gone out again."

"Yeah, I can see that." Someone snapped their fingers, and then those fingers caught fire. The faint light revealed the face of Adam Rowe. "Is it the batteries?"

"I'm guessing it's the batteries, yeah." Casey knelt on the sidewalk. His heel crunched a piece of glass against the concrete, and he cringed. He fiddled the battery casing off and examined it as best he could in the fingerlight. The batteries seemed to be arranged correctly. Of course, if they weren't the flashlight wouldn't have worked in the first place, so Casey wasn't sure what exactly he was hoping to accomplish by performing this autopsy.

A hand clapped down on his shoulder. Vera Garcia was behind him, peering down at the flashlight. "See anything interesting?" she chirped.

Casey shook his head. "Nope. Just bad batteries. Why doesn't Eustace have one of those hand-crank flashlights, anyways?"

Adam crouched in front of Casey, making it an official huddle. "Does my dad seem like the kind of guy who owns a hand-crank flashlight?"

Casey raised an eyebrow. "Is that a distinct category?"

"I pegged him for it," Vera pitched in. "In my experience, there are three types of people-"

Beep, beep, beep. Monotone blares interrupted Vera's budding nugget of wisdom. Adam fumbled for his belt radio with his injured arm, then held it aloft in non-flaming fingers.

A voice came from the tinny speaker. "Attention, all residents of Three Portlands. This is an emergency broadcast, from Special Agent Robin Thorne, of the FBI's Unusual Incidents Unit, Three Portlands Office."

Adam rolled his eyes. The radio continued undeterred. "All those with the capability to do so should relocate to the city centre. An area of refuge has been established in Three Portlands Plaza. We have food, shelter, water, and the armaments to protect you from looters and wildlife. The outskirts of the city are not safe."

Casey was acutely reminded of his place in the world, not just metaphorically but also literally, kneeling on the ground in a pitch-black street, completely unaware of anything that might be lurking outside of the modest fingerlight radius. He shivered.

Thorne neglected to comment on that, either. "Additionally, as we have been receiving reports of temporal disturbances, I am noting the current time: 10:30 AM Three Portlands Time, August 31st, 2024. Thorne out."

Adam nodded as the radio faded to static. "I'm glad they specified that this was Three Portlands. I was starting to fear we were in Cleveland. Now that would have been worth a broadcast."

Casey twisted his mouth. "Are the updates really that bad?"

Adam threw up his hands as best he could with one in a sling and the other on fire. "They're not updates! They're all the same! In three weeks they've barely changed the words!"

"Well, they do also state the time now."

"Great! That'll save all the people who lost their watches when the city imploded."

"I don't mean to interject," Vera interjected, "but the sky seems to be coming back."

Adam blew out his fingerflame, but stayed visible. The darkness was lifting at last.

The light returned to Three Portlands the way it returns to a movie theatre once the credits stop rolling: sheepishly, as if embarrassed by the popcorn-strewn wasteland it had become over the course of the film.

From the street, almost the entirety of Three Portlands' bowl-like curvature was visible. The formerly neat concentric streets that marked the city's rings were warped, great mismatches in the roads covering the city like scar tissue. Entire neighbourhoods were obscured by thick, red clouds: strawberry smog silently consuming the city, punctuated by the sparks of raging fires. The visible districts fared no better, their paths lined by toppled buildings and uprooted bedrock. The swirling sky flashed angrily with reds and purples. A condo floating high above their heads was caught in an eddy and spun idly.

Adam shook his head. "I swear, it gets worse every time I see it."

"Likely because it's getting worse," Vera explained.

Casey glanced at his surroundings. The bombed-out art galleries that flanked them seemed abandoned, for now. "Can we get our bearings, please? Before it gets dark again."

"Good idea." Vera reached into the bag slung round her shoulder. From it, she produced a folded pamphlet that fanned out into a roughly octagonal map. She held it in front of her face for a moment, then peered over to look at the cityscape spread before them.

"That," she pointed into the distance, "is the Docks District, correct?"

The district was diametrically opposed to the group but still visible. The dry canals that defined the area were filled with glowing white fog, and were even wider than the last time they'd glimpsed the landmark. More branches were springing from the ruts, hairline fractures in the city's foundation.

Vera traced her finger on the map, down from the Docks District to Three Portlands Plaza. The plaza was barely visible beneath a cloud of smoke that still lingered from the fire that had nearly consumed it almost three weeks ago. If one squinted, they could just make out the clusters of tents that had popped up around it. At least some people were heeding the warning of the FBI-in-exile. Some people.

Bearings firmly attained, Vera extrapolated to their intended destination. "Then, we should only be two blocks corewards and about 30 degrees clockwise, give or take, from the building. Assuming it hasn't moved since we last saw it."

Casey peered over her shoulder. "How far away are we, then?"

She shrugged. "If the roads ahead are as bad as the roads behind us, it could take a few hours."

Casey sighed and slotted his broken flashlight back into his belt. "We've been moving for two days. We can handle a few more hours."

The trio set off down the hill.

Two days and several miles earlier, they were gathered in the kitchen of Eustace Rowe.

A dragging growl filled the cluttered, dimly-lit room. It rose in pitch until it became a frustrated yell.

Eustace cast his helmet across the room. The steel dome careened toward the table, halting in midair at the last inch. It levitated to its place atop the kitchen counter, resting on the tubes that connected it to the organic supercomputer lurking in the corner like an abandoned vending machine.

A grimace pulled the man's wrinkled face taut. "God damn it," he grumbled. "It's not working."

There was a pause. From where he sat across table Casey spoke up. "The creepy brain computer isn't working?"

Eustace shook his head. "Hevel should be working fine. I have been feeding him nothing but the best meats. He should be able to open a Way with his ventricles closed." He paced around the room in a square.

Casey raised his hand. "Can we not anthropomorphize the organ computer?"

Vera looked up from the knife she was casually sharpening against the counter. "I have to agree with Casey on this one."

Eustace sneered. "Oh, I bet that was hard for you."

The room was quiet for a moment. Vera squinted at him, and he sighed. "Sorry, sorry. Not productive. It's just so frustrating." He sat down at the table and buried his head in his hands.

Vera raised her eyebrow at Casey, who shrugged. Eustace rose again from the seat. "The Mayor is dead. It's barely been three weeks, and half the city is already rubble. And the greatest wizard in Three Portlands-" he punctuated each word by smacking the table with his fists "-can't even open a Way to escape."

Casey glanced about the kitchen, searching for a solution buried beneath a pile of dishes. "Well, where are you having trouble?"

"The Mayor kept Three Portlands anchored to the Ancestor Portlands on Earth," Eustace lectured. "Without the connections, we're adrift. Any conventional Way has to bridge the ever-widening gap, which I've been doing easily. But once the tunnel gets to Earth, it's not finding purchase. Something's blocking me. Preventing anyone from escaping Three Portlands."

Adam frowned. "Whoever's behind this wants to make sure there are no survivors, and they've got the technical know-how to guarantee we all go down with the ship."

Eustace went on. "I just need something capable of penetrating the barrier. Like a-" he paused and raised his head, eyes bright with a new clarity. "Like a drill. I have an idea." He stood up, raising his arms straight out in front of him. Blue and purple sparks flew from his fingertips, coalescing into the image of a spoked wheel — a scale model of Three Portlands.

"I've been monitoring this city since the Mayor died. Keeping an eye out for magical activity associated with Ways, teleportation, and the like. Normally there's too much going on to get a clear picture, but now that everyone's dying, the data is much easier to parse." Staggered flashes of light lit up parts of the map. "Most of the activity is in discrete bursts. Probably wizards defending themselves or robbing liquor stores. You get it."

"Those are the two wizard activities," Vera pitched in.

Eustace sneered at her before continuing. "This pattern has been fairly constant, with one exception. There is one place in the city that has been emitting constant, low-level readings, the kind that might represent a Way used to run internet cables to Earth. But unlike every other cable system in Three Portlands, it's still going." A single pillar of light shot up, close to the centre of the wheel and about ninety degrees counterclockwise from Eustace's home.

He pointed to the glowing pillar. "That is the Three Portlands headquarters of Oneiroi Incorporated. I don't know what they're doing in there, but they're still online, and if they can keep a pinhole out of Portlands going… well, if we take their tech, graft it onto Hevel, and put it under the control of a powerful wizard, we might have a shot at opening a portal out of here."

Adam twisted his mouth. "That's a long trip to take on foot, especially now. And once we get there, how do we get into the building? If their cable is still up, security might be up too."

Eustace shrugged. "Maybe you'll run into a helpful employee. Or someone you know will be there."

Adam squinted at him. "Dad, does this plan rely on the essential goodness of random strangers to save all of our lives?"

The old man threw his hands up. "I don't know, okay? I can't tell you. We're too far off the tracks now." He frowned, looking down at his wrinkled hands, knotted together on the table. "I know that you were right back then. About the Mayor being in danger, and all that. And I know that maybe, if I had listened, if we had acted sooner, the Mayor might have been saved. And we wouldn't be in this mess. But I didn't, and we are. So I'm doing the best I can. I guess that will have to be enough."

"Yeah," Casey said, squeezing the pockets of his jacket until his knuckles turned white. "I guess so."

"Wait, dad still doesn't know?"

Adam sat atop a dislodged trolley door, now half-embedded in the partially melted asphalt of the intersection. In his good hand, he had a cheese sandwich. They had originally brought along some canned fruit as a morale booster for the trip, but after two days on the road the cans had abruptly corroded, leaving nothing but a slurry of fruit and rust that had deeply stained the bottom of Vera's duffel bag. Thankfully, she had insisted on bringing backup sandwiches.

Casey chewed on his own lunch blankly, leaning against the undercarriage of the overturned cablecar that blocked off half the street. "There wasn't really a good time to tell him. I can't just walk up and say, 'Hey, so, turns out we were supposed to try and warn the Mayor, and turns out we may have actually let the assassin in. So it's actually all our fault.'"

Adam shrugged, speaking around a mouthful of wonderbread. "Not all our fault." He swallowed. "We can't beat ourselves up for not predicting the future. We can't keep things from each other, either."

The food tasted blander with each bite. Casey spat a mouthful onto the mushy pavement. "I don't know what he'd do if he found out. Right now, for the first time ever, he's actually being nice to me — or at least, he's trying. I've never seen him try before."

Adam frowned. "Because he thinks it's his fault. We can't play guilt roulette."

There was a metallic thud. Vera plopped herself down on the edge of the cablecar's side, gripping a pair of binoculars in her lap. Her legs dangled next to Casey's head. "I see a lot of secrets in my line of work. The longer one keeps them, the more dangerous they are when they get out. Maintaining the lie is only a good idea if you reveal it when the target is at their most vulnerable, distracting them with your betrayal while you drive the knife between their ribs." She made a stabbing motion in the air, then froze and slowly lowered her hands. "But that probably doesn't apply in this instance."

Casey nodded. "Hopefully." He tucked the remains of his sandwich away in a plastic bag.

Adam grabbed Casey's hand, squeezing it a little. "I know you've been through a lot. We all have. If I could just pretend that I had no part in any of this, I would. But sometimes driving things into the light is the only way to-"

A loud revving broke the silence. It reverberated across the buildings, echoed across the street behind them. Adam groaned. "Ugh, I was going somewhere with that."

Casey let go of his hand. "Are those engines?"

Vera held her binoculars to her face. "Looks like bikes."

Adam grimaced. "Not a good sign. We should hide." He clambered to the front end of the wrecked cablecar, slipped under the railings, and crouched inside, where the roof had warped enough to reveal an eyeline. He whispered, "Vera?" There was a series of soft thuds above them. Vera swung down through an inverted window and knelt across from the two. She patted the duffel bag slung around her back. "Not a trace left behind."

Adam nodded. "That's good. Stay put." He turned around and peered through the jagged crack in the metal.

There were bikes, alright. Three riders sped straight down the road. From what Adam could tell, it was a man and a woman, each equipped with an ugly pastel jacket that likely shielded them from compliments more than dirt or injury. Their motorbikes were decorated with bags and attachments, homemade modifications for vehicles that were decidedly homebrew.

They skidded to a stop, barely flanking the cablecar on their jury-rigged bikes. The woman yelled out, "Where's the signal, Davis?"

The gangly man on the left grabbed a small metal device off his belt. "Should be here. Unless this thing's acting up, which I ain't gonna rule out just yet." Davis' bike punctuated the statement with a sputtering cough and a stream of green exhaust. "Ach, shit." He hopped off, and let the bike clatter onto its side.

The heavy-set woman crossed her arms, unamused. "Stop screwing around and search the area. If there's no loot here, it's your ass, Davis."

Davis clipped the device back onto his belt, then retrieved a small pistol from his pocket. "Sure, sure. I'm betting there's at least two stragglers here, maybe more." He gradually raised his voice. "And if you can hear me, know that this'll be much easier if you just come out! For both of us. Mostly me, though." He left his bike behind and bounded toward the intersection, gun at the ready.

Strands of possibilities raced through Adam's mind. Two people, at least one armed. He'd have the element of surprise, but it wouldn't be an easy victory. Especially with that gaping wound on his arm slowing him down. No, better to go with something else. Something subtle.

That was just fine. His father had once told Adam he excelled at subtle magic. Of course in that context it had been cruel sarcasm, but now was not the time to be worried about such technicalities.

He shed mundane concerns from his mind and blinked away the fire and smoke covering Three Portlands. The physical world was lost, and the spiritual world came alive. The brightness of the realm stung Adam's eyes, and he flinched. The air was positively teeming with spirits, sparkling with a sheer density of death greater than Adam had observed in years. They were fresh. Recent additions. They trembled with the traumatic history of the crumbling city's past few weeks. Like the living, they were trapped in Three Portlands, unable to reach their final peace outside the orphaned pocket dimension.

Their power seeped into Adam, and he shuddered. He hadn't expected such a raw outpouring of energy. Such outpourings are rarely subtle, let alone quiet, and one inopportune gasp could give away the trio's location. The wound on his arm glowed red hot.

Adam bit down on his lip. The countless dead were trying to force their way into him, soak his mind and use his voice as their own. Clenching his eyes shut did nothing to block the blinding onslaught. His body was burning up.

He felt hands firmly clasp his shoulders. He forced his eyes open, and there was Casey, staring silently at Adam, imploring him to come down. Something to focus on. The energy left his body like hot steam, leaving him shaking, but silent once more. The bikers outside were none the wiser.

Beep, beep, beep. Adam's eyes went wide. Special Agent Thorne's voice blared from his belt radio. "Attention, all residents of Three Portlands—"

He snatched it from its clip and tossed it against the wall, where it shattered into silent shards.

"Hrh?" Davis turned his attention from the half-collapsed buildings to the cablecar. He cocked his gun pointedly. The woman smiled cruelly. "Let's make this easy. Come on out and this can be real amicable."

Before Davis could take another step, a siren rang out, loud enough to make him cover his ears. A distorted, booming voice followed.


The one-eyed woman dropped the megaphone into her backpack, then gave the trio a mock salute. "My name's Darcy. Darcy Dale."

"I'm Casey Malik."

"Adam Rowe."

"I am Vera K. Garcia, and it is a pleasure to meet you."

Darcy bowed to each in turn. "What does the K stand for?"

Vera tilted her head. "What an odd question."

"Oh, of course," Darcy said. "I'll ask again when we're inside. Follow me." She had already made strides away from the intersection.

"Wait, wait," Casey called. "Inside where?"

She glanced over her shoulder. "Oneiroi Incorporated. I work there."

Adam rubbed his temples. "God damn it."

Across the tram tracks and past a rusted rickshaw was a grid of dark steel and blue glass, an angular building that stuck out like a sore thumb around the decrepit but rustic offerings of the neighbourhood. Within the building was the hub of mind alteration, psychic surgery, and dream therapy that was Oneiroi Incorporated's Three Portlands HQ. Despite everything that had transpired, it looked no worse for the wear, and the giant, floating sign out front still gleamed:


"So that's it," Adam sighed. "We're finally here."

"Yup," Darcy replied. "Let me show you inside." The front doors slid open as she approached, and shut tightly behind them. The first thing they noticed was the air: the outside was muggy and stifling, but the climate inside was cool and controlled, as if nothing had ever gone wrong. The dimly-lit lobby was modern and refined: waiting benches sat in front of cold electric fireplaces, and a long front desk wrapped around the back, topped with iridescent marble. There wasn't another living being in sight.

Darcy didn't slow down, unlocking a subtle inset door behind the desk. "Stay close." They obliged. The door led into a long maintenance corridor. Metallic pipes snaked back and forth on the ceiling. The hallway branched, occasionally, but Darcy knew where she was going.

Vera attempted small talk. "What do you do here, Darcy?"

"I'm a technician," she replied, not looking back. "Mostly, they pay me to make sure the pipes are intact, and everything gets where it needs to go."

"What's in the pipes?" Vera craned her neck to get a better look at the crisscrossing tubes.

"Oh, we're not allowed to know that. Probably something freaky." Darcy half-turned to face them, walking backward now. "Oneiroi has always been a tad eccentric, you know?"

"Tubes of unknown fluids do sound like a hallmark of eccentricity."

She smiled warmly. "You get it. Most of the facility runs itself, totally off the grid, so we've had a bit of a skeleton crew in past weeks, figuratively. Now it's just me and my friends here. Those clankers back there have been scrounging around these parts for days, but they can't get in here."

Casey matched her stride, a worried look crossing his face. "Why hide here, though? Why not go to the camp in town centre?"

"Oh, I wouldn't go there. For one, the police want me for totally bogus reasons. Second, it's a beehive out there."

Questions abounded in Casey's head. "A beehive? Of what? Bees? And did you say you're wanted by the police?"

She smiled sadly. "It's a long story, but I feel like you know it already." Before Casey could launch another salvo, the steel door behind her slid open.

It led into a cramped control room lined by glimmering panels, with a plastic table set up in the middle. Around it sat two people, a man and a woman. The first was tall and blond haired, and the second wore a dirty blouse and black-rimmed glasses.

The Chaos Insurgency's Agent Troy and Redzone Security's Samantha Romain looked up at Adam and Casey, frozen in the doorway.

"Shit", all four said in unison.

Six tired and dirty people sat around a table. Scattered pages covered the surface, detailing concepts, places, and people of interest.

Samantha clapped her hands together. "First thing's first. I think we would all agree that we should let bygones be bygones. No good will come of bickering about whatever little things happened in the past."

Adam murmured, "You did try to have me killed over a business dispute."

"Sounds like someone's building a dam to stop the water from going under the bridge," she chastised.

"You can't just do that to metaphors," Adam protested.

Troy spoke up. "I won't make any fuss. Hell, I don't even remember what Casey and I got so mad about. Because afterwards, he emptied a can of amnestics in my face."

"How do you know it was me if you can't remember?"

"Because you left your phone behind, genius. Nice taste in ringtones, by the way."

"Oh," Casey said. In all the commotion, it had never occurred to him that he had misplaced it.

Samantha pounded the table. "The hatchet is buried, people. It is buried so deep that you will never find it. Let's move on."

Mumbled affirmations filled the room.

"Now," she said pointedly. "Time to take stock. Agent Troy, would you care to clue them in?"

He sighed and walked to the mess of screens and displays. He tapped one until it came online, flashing with an overhead map of Three Portlands. A glowing red dot appeared at the position of Oneiroi Inc HQ, and a large mass of red pulsed inside the city centre. The rest of the map was empty. "This is what I've been working on since our little run-in. Without memory of the past day and most of my data lost, I resumed my plan. The next morning, I succeeded in intercepting another mind-controlled murderer at the scene of the crime."

Darcy raised her hand sheepishly. Casey stared, slack-jawed. He had more questions than could fill the air, so he asked just one. "What happened?"

She looked at her feet. "You know how it is. One second you're enjoying an afternoon stroll, and the next thing you know, you're stabbing a police officer with a knife you didn't even know you had. I hid in a dumpster for two hours before Troy came to fish me out."

Troy nodded. "Miss Dale had access to Oneiroi Inc, and by extension some of the best tech in the predictive industry. The byzantine hallways and thin staff made it a perfect hiding place. Using Miss Dale's brain scans and some ingenuity, I hooked this up: a radar for all the memes in Three Portlands with a construction similar to the worm's. We had a map of potential time-bombs all across the city."

Darcy perked up. "That's how we met Samantha!"

Samantha gave a forced smile. "Business was going poorly, and my bodyguard tried to murder me. Needless to say, they are not my bodyguard anymore."

Adam sneered at her. "Now you know how it feels."

She sighed. "Yes, yes, I feel a great kinship to you. I'm glad we could bond.

[make this more natural]

Adam turned his gaze back to Samantha. "Where did you get that bodyguard, anyway? Big, mute, eyeless, and brainwashed. I'm guessing they weren't your average Redzone employee."

"We had a few outside contractors. They offered manpower, no questions asked, in exchange for getting involved in some special projects of particular interest to them. I'm not one of the higher-ups, I'm just very good at my job."

Adam raised an eyebrow. "Special projects like the pocket dimension you made me investigate last year?"

She scoffed. "Don't be so full of yourself. Not everything revolves around your wacky misadventures."

Troy looked up from his screen. "You received an anonymous employee, and then they tried to kill you with the same memetic worm these two had? That contractor must have been a normalcy org, Sam. This is all connected."

She rolled her eyes. "Well, you point me to a normalcy org that deals solely in people without eyes." An uncomfortable silence filled the air.

Samantha spoke again. "The point is, these two helped me escape. And now I'm here with you lovely people." Her eyes passed over the trio, then lingered on Vera. "Wait, you look familiar."

Casey glanced at Vera. "You get around a lot for someone who's never been to Three Portlands before."

Vera shrugged. "Got one of those faces."

"You were in Oregon, by the Chipotle," Samantha continued. "Did she ever tell you she was traipsing around Portland covered in bronze paint, spying on people?

Casey frowned. "I never really had cause to ask what she was or wasn't covered in."

Adam peered at Vera. "Is that true?"

"Well, I wasn't spying on people," Vera explained, "I was just spying in general. It was untargeted espionage, a victimless crime."

"We're getting off track," Troy interjected from across the room, perhaps annoyed that no-one was looking at his gadgets. "We were doing data analysis. The signals were everywhere, there were dozens of them, if not hundreds. We concluded that the conspiracy had to go all the way to the top. We were going to contact the Mayor, but the city went to shit first."

Casey furrowed his brow. "We met the Mayor. It was a trap. The conspirators used the opening to destroy the Mayor." In his head, something started to click together.

Agent Troy groaned. "Of course. God knows how many people were preparing to stumble into that trap. Failsafes upon failsafes. It was inevitable. And now we're trapped, with no exit in sight."

"Well," Adam cut in. "Here's the thing about that."

The group scurried down the hallway. Darcy wheeled a loud wheeled dolly through the corridor; Troy clutched a bundle of papers to his chest. The hallway grew wider, and they came to a stop. The walls of the corridor ahead were covered in bizarre metal plates and clustered wiring. Past those was a large vault door.

Darcy stopped short of the weird walls, and the others followed suit. "If anywhere is gonna have a giant wormhole machine, it's going to be here. No-one goes in here, not least because the security system can annihilate any soul that tries it."

Troy glanced at Adam. "You said you found a Way coming from this building, right?"

He shook his head. "Not me, exactly. My father, Eustace Rowe, found it. It might need some modification, but if we can get it to him, he seems confident."

"Eustace Rowe," Troy repeated, slowly. "The recluse?" He flipped through his papers.

"The very same," said Adam. "Everyone step back." They did. Casey stood behind him, looking on with intense worry.

Adam freed his injured arm from the sling, which he dropped to the ground. The angry red slash down his forearm looked as if it had been made mere days ago, not weeks. He flexed his arm, and it crackled with painful energy.

The dead of Three Portlands were everywhere, if one knew how to look. And Adam couldn't stop himself from looking, locking eyes with every passing spectre. He knew them, and they knew him. He grit his teeth and raised his arms to the ceiling. A ribbon of sparks emerged from his wound, drawing from his blood to conduct the souls that surrounded him.

The dozens of sulfurous spectres formed moving sheets of translucent ectoplasm, directed down the hall. They sparked as they entered the security field, its attempted annihilation conflicting with the concentrated soul matter in its path. The last transmitter was occluded as yet more ghosts slid between the gears of the vault door, creating a colossal crack.

As the vault swung open, Adam barked, "Go, go!" He broke into a sprint. The door crashed into the wall and shook the building, knocking the spirit shields off-balance. Threads of shaped intelligence unwove themselves behind the six as they scurried past.

Adam reached the vault first, gripping the first handhold for support. He felt like an ice sculpture on a warm summer day. He teetered off balance, tilting into Casey's arms.

Casey blinked. The vault was dim, lit only by red emergency lights and the dim glow of numerous screens showing pure pink. It was near-circular, and every inch of wall space up to the roof was occupied by panels, multicolored screens, and immense grids of unlabeled switches. In the center there was a pylon, as tall as he was and about as wide. Hovering over its tapered peak was a pinprick of light that ever-so-slightly distorted the space around it. "Darcy," he said, "what is this place?"

She had wheeled in the dolly as much as she could. "Not sure, to be quite honest. All the net traffic in the building goes through here. I assumed it was a database, maybe a supercomputer. This isn't that."

Adam straightened himself, shaking as he left Casey's grasp. He rasped, "Just need a minute. That the machine?" He jabbed a thumb at the central pylon as he leaned against the gaping doorway.

Troy brought his face close to the floating pinprick. "It's something. Darcy, Vera, check out the controls."

They nodded. Vera set her bag on the floor and circled the room, scanning the console for anything that might have been designed for a human operator rather than whatever super-dimensional entity this setup would accommodate. Her gaze settled on six adjacent displays in one side of the pylon, each showing a complex number. Darcy leaned in. "Co-ordinates. If that pinprick is the Way, this is where it's going. But that's just… nowhere."

"Not nowhere," Casey said. "It's going to the Outside, isn't it?"

A snap came from across the room. Samantha was lighting a cigarette. "I suppose they aren't getting cable television from the space between universes." She paused to take a drag. "Sorry, can't exactly step out for this."

Darcy leaned, running her fingers over a set of buttons beneath the screens. "I'm going to try adjusting them. Keep an eye on it."

There was a deflating beep, and the pinprick flickered. The screens changed shade, from pink to maroon. Casey blinked. "It's a live feed. We're staring out of the Way. Why do they have a tiny portal to the Outside?" He stared at the pinhole, and for a moment had the acute sense that something was staring back at him. "Perhaps it's best not to ask."

Troy paid no mind. "Can you point it at Earth, Darcy?"

She mumbled affirmatively. A few more button presses, and the maroon faded to static. Slowly, the static coalesced into an image. It was the inside of a large white tent, seen through a fisheye lens. Concerned murmurs emanated from the pinhole, too distorted to decipher.

Troy gasped. "That's it."

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