End of this chapter.
There was no one watching his cards, no one watching the gamma, no one watching anyone’s totems. They had twenty-one Possesseds left and they all needed to be out capturing during the night and recuperating during the day. Quarantine was simply a lower priority; considering the world was ending, it didn’t matter if by some small chance a totem broke and a Possessed here and there went mad. It was a very small chance anyway.
Keep telling yourself that, Bryan thought as he passed empty rooms, each with a pile of totems on them. Laity’s, still in the hospital, and Rudd’s, on psychiatric leave, and Demasi’s, who had a complete meltdown last month, all unguarded.
And his cards. And his card.
He walked up to it and stared it down. The demon in it was watching him, looking him over calmly. Bryan felt a pull in him towards it, towards its warmth and vivacity, the things he no longer had. And it was pulled towards him.
We’ve already come close.
Bryan stood away from the card, and reached out his hand to rest two fingertips on it.
Does anything pass through the gates going from this Earth to the other one?
It didn’t answer at first. It was considering the question, its implications, how answering would benefit it.
Of course, it finally spoke.
Like what? Or who?
Rats, mice, insects, homeless people. Now the last causes an enormous uproar.
People go there?
The Eternals rip each other to bits to get at them.
How often does this happen? How likely is someone to get through if they enter the gate from this side?
You assumed the gate is unstable throughout.
But it’s not. It’s stable if you enter it here.
How stable then?
From there, one travels from a point to a vast array of destinations. From here, it’s the other way around. But the traveler can still fall off the path.
So it’s risky, but possible. How possible?
How would I know? I’ve only gone one way.
Bryan was already starting to feel sick, sore, and he knew the demon was leeching into him even as he kept his distance. He could feel it roiling around in his head. His eyes hurt as everything took on a faint green tinge.
You know all this, Bryan thought at the thing. You claim to not know more? Bullshit.
I have seen the construct of the passage as I came through it. It has a beauty and an ugliness in its mathematical asymmetry, a holdover from how it began.
And Bryan could see it, vaguely, in his mind. Like a half-remembered dream. It was beautiful, but also hideous, cold, mechanical and lifeless.
How did it begin?
With a theory. With a machine. It flung the people who made it 2,000 years back and 2,000 worlds over. I have seen them. They are the oldest.
And Bryan could see them, tearing the other Eternals to ribbons to get at a pigeon, their eyes filled with hunger – starvation – and endless suffering.
But clearly there are no machines now.
No, the machines have fallen away. They use the demons now.
Bryan was about to ask how it knew all that, but he already knew, that it was in the chants to build the gates, to gather the demons. It was a blueprint.
Why these places? Surely there weren’t machines in every large city.
You have your totems. They have theirs.
What totems? What are they?
Lodestones. Steel and screws and circuit boards they have kept together as they have kept their bodies together.
What are they?
He was burning up, his head pounding, his muscles tense. He knew the gamma was stretching this out, to be with him, in him. But damned if a part of him didn’t want it in him. He wanted to tear the card and let it out, let it enter him fully and they would be complete.
Pieces of the machine, from all those ages ago.
Without them, would the gates function?
Surely they need them. Or why would they have kept them all this time, while everything else turned to dust? These items have memories themselves, of the machine they once were. They direct us into the gate.
Then…we need only destroy those totems. Damn you for not saying so.
There is a much easier way to stop them.
Bryan knew what was coming, and should have let go of the card, but he didn’t want to leave, though it hurt every part of him to stay. How?
Let me in. It would take one word to close the gates.
Liar. How could one word stop them? Thousands of them have been working for thousands of years to structure all those gates.
And still their stability hangs on a thread. One command will force the program closed, will sever that thread.
It made so much sense, what it said. Bryan couldn’t really tell anyway through the pounding in his head and heart. But it made sense. And it would be so much easier.
He was pushed back, losing contact with the card and the demon. He cried out as he fell to the floor, unable to find his balance. When he looked up, he saw a brilliant green figure. But he couldn’t consume it, not as he was.
“Why did you…” he snarled.
“It was consuming you,” Harper said. “It might have escaped the card.”
Oh why couldn’t it have? Why did she have to snap that connection? He was empty again, nothing again. He wouldn’t have to care anymore, about this planet or these people. He could just be one.
He was in so much pain he couldn’t stand. He hung his head, and the glow of a billion dust mites traversing the carpet was fading. He did care. He had to care. He wasn’t Eternal; he was human.
“You’re right,” he said, only partly to Harper.
His cell rang, causing Harper to jump, but Bryan only noticed it on the third ring. He picked it up with a weak “Ivers.”
“Sir,” came a voice he didn’t recognize, “this is Darzi down at the hospital. Mr. Cantrell is requesting you – ”
“Requesting nothing,” interrupted a voice in the background. “Give me that.” There was some shuffling, and then Cantrell’s raspy voice was clear, or as clear as it could get. “I’m telling you to get over here. I want some explanations for what the hell you think you’re doing, Ivers.”