Part Seventeen: Haruspex Analytics, Also Not
Phyllis, Michelle, and Simon huddle around the door separating the stairwell from the rest of the floor. Everything is quiet—Phyllis resists the urge to tag too quiet to the end of that thought—and the few sounds they hear echo louder than they should.
The door itself is not your typical stairwell door, made of heavy windowless reinforced steel and sporting a complex electronic lock surrounding the l-shaped handle. A thumbprint, shining bright blue in the dim light, is set into the grip.
“Has anyone ever been on this floor before?” Simon is whispering; in the silence it sounds like a shout. Michelle flinches, drawing away, and Phyllis has to force herself not to do the same. She shakes her head.
“I didn’t even know it was here until I saw that floor plan,” Phyllis says.
“I think we’re stuck.” Michelle’s voice trembles as she forces it to be loud enough. “I don’t think we’re going to get that to open.”
Simon nods in agreement. “Stuck.” He’s still whispering but his voice is tighter and sharper. He’s trying to fight back panic.
“No.” Phyllis keeps her voice firm and steady. “There’s no going back now. Simon, how much time do we have until they turn the power back on?”
Simon stares at her dumbly, blinks, then forces himself to focus. He pulls out his phone and stares at the display. “Five minutes.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Michelle says, pointing at the door. “It’s still on. It obviously has an independent power supply.”
“Obviously,” Phyllis agrees. “But there aren’t any eyes and ears. That means I don’t have to be quiet about this.”
Phyllis’ go-bag is essentially an oversized purse. She catches all kinds of hell about that from her co-workers, but the whole point is that she can carry it in public and nobody thinks twice about it. Unlike her actual purse, her go-bag is very organized. She draws out a small square wrapped in cloth and unwraps it quickly.
Michelle and Simon exchange nervous glances.
“Is that what I think it is?” Simon asks.
“Probably,” Phyllis says, holding it up.
Michelle shakes her head. “You carry a shaped charge in your purse?”
“I’m not going to carry it in the open,” Phyllis says. “Besides, it’s not primed.” She studies the door for a moment, then places the charge an inch away from the opening edge. It bonds to the wall instantly. She pushes her thumb through the surface, and a moment later the entire charge lights up red and begins blinking rapidly.
“Now it’s primed,” Phyllis says. “We should probably head back up the stairs a bit.”
The three of them move quickly up the stairs until the door disappears from view.
“I can’t believe you—”
Simon doesn’t get a chance to finish his sentence. A small but vigorous explosion booms beneath them, burning smoke rushing up the stairs past them.
Phyllis coughs, waving her hand in front of her face in a vain attempt to disperse the haze as she returns to the now-charred stairwell. The steel door still stands. The wall next to the door, however, has been blown to pieces, creating a gap large enough for any of them to step through sideways. She nods in satisfaction.
“Let’s go,” she says.
“Wait!” Simon doesn’t bother to whisper at this point. “What if somebody heard that?”
“They’ll think it’s coming from the roof,” Phyllis says. “Come on, we have to get to the other side.”
With that she steps into the floor proper.
They stand in a long hallway, floor covered in a thick red carpet, walls gleaming white, drop tiles and florescent light panels set in the ceiling. The proportions of the hallway are wrong—the hallway is too wide, the walls are too tall, and they seem to curve in ever so slightly, putting all the angles off kilter. The smell of smoke fades rapidly as the whisper of unseen ventilation disperses the product of Phyllis’ shaped charge. The other side of the steel door, also undamaged from the explosion, has a crash bar instead of an l-handle.
I guess they only want to keep people out? Or they have other ways of keeping people in… It’s an unpleasant notion. Phyllis pushes it aside.
Michelle steps through the narrow gap in the wall and looks around. “How’d you know the wall would blow? If I were putting in a door like that I’d make sure the walls were reinforced steel, too.”
“So would I,” Phyllis says. “But the door was obviously added later. They had to work with what was already here, so they framed it with steel and relied on monitoring to tell them if somebody tried to pull a stunt like this. Only right now, monitoring has a lot of holes in it, and for the next four minutes or so, one of those holes is right here.”
“Let’s be gone before that hole gets filled in,” Simon says.
“Agreed,” Phyllis says. “Michelle?”
Michelle pulls out her smartphone, bringing up a map on her screen. She pinches at the image, expanding it, and scrolls around until she locates their position. She points.
“Let’s start moving,” Phyllis urges, and they head down the hall at a brisk pace. “Clock is ticking…”
A full minute passes in silence, their feet making soft fwit fwit fwit noises as they brush over the unusually thick carpet. Phyllis can see their destination: another reinforced steel door with a crash bar.
Phyllis quickens her pace to a light jog. They have about three minutes until the cameras on this floor reconnect with the Labyrinth, and she doesn’t want to be here when it happens.
“We’re not getting any closer.” Simon’s voice is dead calm—a sure sign that he’s just on the verge of breaking… not that she can blame him.
“Just chalk it up to magic and keep moving,” Phyllis says. “If it gets too close to time, we’ll duck into a side office and figure out a way to hide until the next brownout.”
“What side office?” Michelle snarls. “There aren’t any fucking doors.”
That makes Phyllis stop in her tracks. She’s so focused on the exit, she hasn’t been paying attention to her surroundings, and Michelle is right. There aren’t any doors. It’s an impossibly long hallway with strange angles, and no doors at all.
“This… floor…” Simon’s voice is still dead calm, but he’s stumbling over his words. “It can’t even fit in the building. And it’s… just a hallway? Phyllis. We don’t have enough time to figure this out.”
“We gotta make the time, Simon, or we aren’t getting out of this building alive.” It’s a risk, piling that on top of the emotional load he’s already trying to carry, but compared to the strangeness of this floor it’s a direct, relatable problem. She can see him focus on that, discarding everything else. He stares down the hall for a second, then turns to Michelle.
“The walls bend in, just a little. Do you see it?”
Michelle frowns and turns her head sideways, one eye disappearing underneath her hoodie as the other squints.
“Yeah. I think so.” She runs one hand up and down the wall to her right. “I think it’s an illusion. It feels straight when I touch it.”
Simon nods, placing his hand against the wall, and starts walking toward the emergency exit. After ten paces he stops. “Door.”
Phyllis squints. “I don’t see anything.”
“It’s part of the illusion.” Simon traces a door-shaped square along the wall, and for a moment the surface ripples like water. “The image is bending in, so it covers the door. I think that’s what’s happening.”
“Mystery solved,” Phyllis says. “Now I think we have just enough time to—”
Down the hall they hear the very distinct ding of an elevator, followed by the sound of a door sliding open. Simon’s eyes widen in shock.
“Shit.” Michelle places her hand against the wall, tracing over part of the region where Simon claimed to find a door. Her hand closes on something and she pushes. A crack appears in the wall, opening to reveal a space beyond. Michelle shoulders Simon, who stumbles into the room, then slips in behind him. “Come on!”
Phyllis follows, immediately closing the door behind her and placing her ear against it.
“Phyllis…” Michelle’s voice catches slightly.
“Shhh. They’re coming this way.” Phyllis closes her eyes, trying to focus only on sound.
Multiple footsteps, all muffled by the carpet, but there are enough to register as a crowd. Phyllis hears voices as well, growing louder and more distinct as they draw near.
“…think you should let me take care of this,” one of the voices is saying. It’s a rough, older voice, obviously a native of the city.
“Absolutely not.” Phyllis tenses at the all-too-recognizable voice of the Chairman. “You have had two opportunities to deal with your animus toward that one already, and you failed both times.”
“Not because of him.” The rough voice turns sulky and defensive.
“Irrelevant, and I will hear no more of it. We are moving to the next phase now. You are needed for that. There is little time for anything else.”
“…Yes sir.” The rough-voiced man chokes out the words reluctantly, laced with bitterness.
“Why are we here?” That’s a German accent. Richter? If so, that means the rough-voiced man is probably Plague. Phyllis grips the doorframe as a wave of what she hopes is psycho-somatic nausea washes over her.
“We need an alternate point of exit,” the Chairman says. “A room has been prepared for us. I regret this experience will be… unpleasant. It should not, however, be fatal.”
“Fatal?” A calm voice, with just an edge of concern. Phyllis recognizes it instantly, and her lip curls in disgust.
“It will be fine, Jason.” That is Mara Ioannou. “It will be unpleasant, nothing more. That said…” she hesitates. “What of our guest?”
“Our guest…” Suddenly the Chairman sounds weary. He sighs. “The resources we will need to expend to keep him in check will be… prohibitive. I fear we will be forced to leave him behind.” Phyllis is surprised by the amount of regret in the Chairman’s voice. Who is he talking about?
“I should, at least, say farewell…”
Footsteps close in on the door, and the door handle begins to turn.
“No,” the Chairman says. The handle stops turning. “We don’t have the time.”
The handle returns to its original position. Seconds pass, then something clicks on the other side of the hall, and the footsteps move off carpet, onto stone. The door clicks a second time as it swings shut. The hallway is silent once again.
Phyllis lets out the breath she didn’t realize she was holding, and allows herself to relax a little.
“We’re going to miss our window,” she says. “But at least they didn’t come in here.”
“Phyllis.” Michelle’s voice is low and gentle, as if she were trying to soothe a wild animal. “Turn around.”
That brief moment of relaxation fades as Phyllis opens her eyes, turns, and takes in the room for the first time.
It is, to all appearances, a small Victorian parlor. Bookcases line two of the walls; a small fireplace, fire cracking merrily in the hearth, sits just to the left of the door. The final wall is taken up with a large, thick-paned window, curtains open to the scene of a small cliff overlooking a long, sandy beach. The sound of surf crashing against the shore, and gulls crying in the distance, mix together with the crackling fire to create a calm, soothing environment. Two chairs, one set on each side of the window, are divided by a small table supporting an elaborate tea set. Neither of the chairs quite fit with the rest of the Victorian décor, but they look comfortable.
Sitting in the chair furthest from the fireplace is an older man, perhaps in mid-sixties, refined and elegant, with thinning, snow-white hair. He stares out the window, his expression a mixture of contentment and hopelessness. He doesn’t appear to have noticed them.
Simon glances at Michelle and Phyllis, looking for direction. Michelle pulls at the drawstrings of her hoodie, disappearing behind the hood as it closes over her face. Phyllis stares at the old man, thinking furiously. Finally she speaks.
The man’s gaze moves from the window to her, focusing for a moment into something impossibly sharp and calculating, then soften as his gaze starts to drift back.
The eyes sharpen again, soften again, but this time they stay on her.
“Who…” the man’s voice is dry and cracked, the voice of a man lost in the desert, dying of thirst. “Who are you?”
Phyllis glances at her companions. Simon is gaping at her in bewilderment. Michelle is still turtled in her hoodie. Her resolve firms.
“My name is Phyllis Tanner,” she says. “And these are my friends. We’re leaving. We thought you might like to leave with us.”
LaFleur—she’s positive that’s who he is—furrows his brow, as though the concept were foreign to him. “Leave?”
“That’s right,” Phyllis says. “Leave. I think your friends are here. I think you might want to help them.”
At the word friend, LaFleur’s gaze focuses even further. “Jack. Jack is my friend.”
“OK,” Phyllis says. “Jack. Good. Let’s go look for him. Let’s go find your friend.”
LaFleur nods slowly. He blinks, once, and his gaze drifts away from her again—but this time, it’s as if he’s taking in his surroundings for the first time in a very long while.
“How?” The question is so plaintive, so utterly lost, it almost sounds like it was asked by a child.
Phyllis takes a deep breath. “Well,” she says, “I think we start by getting you out of that chair.” She extends her hand. “Come on. Let me help you up.”
His gaze focuses on her hand, sharpening again. Slowly he extends his own hand to grasp hers. The grip is faint at first, his hand feeble, but as it closes on hers, strength returns.
“Yes,” he says, a spark of life returning to his voice. “I think… I think I would very much appreciate your help.”
Phyllis nods, pulling up. LaFleur rises to his feet, brushing against the table slightly as he rises. The tea set rattles, tea spilling out of a cup set carelessly on the table’s edge.
LaFleur sways slightly, and Phyllis steps forward, allowing him go grab her shoulder for support. He’s shorter than she is, Phyllis realizes, and for a moment he looks so frail she’s afraid he’ll collapse into her arms. The moment passes, his balance returns, and all fragility falls away. He lets go of her shoulder, squeezes her hand once, and then lets go, standing on his own.
“Thank you,” he says. His back straightens, and while he’s still shorter than Phyllis he suddenly seems like the tallest person in the room. “Thank you very much.”