Within and Without [Part 2]

A dying last breath undoes the past half-century

A dying last breath undoes the past half-century in a grapple betwixt psychology and loyalty, curiosity and peril, possibility and morality, throwing Liam’s world into disarray, as he moves to destroy the one place he had sworn never to enter

Part 1

Liam put down the letter and took a moment to just breathe and process all this information. He turned to the walls of books and marvelled at the sheer amount of knowledge they possessed. The world hailed Mr Device as one of the greatest minds of their time – firms and figures scrambled after the opportunity to finance his projects, everyone fawned all over him (advances he gladly reciprocated until Kora came along), he naturally commanded the respect of every room he walked into – and Liam shared their reverence, but this was beyond anything he could have imagined.

Liam stayed transfixed for a moment, in wonder of the power that lay before him, and for a moment considered letting it live on. He considered taking it upon himself to not only preserve Mr Device’s findings, but the cipher and machine too. He could make sure they didn’t fall into the wrong hands. He could keep them in his own and influence the world from behind the scenes.

He let himself explore the thought, but he knew it wasn’t possible. Sooner or later, word would get out. Mr Device’s standing command of study solitude would eventually hold less and less weight and someone or the other would eventually come down here. The secret would be out, and the damage would be done.

Liam shook off his awe, refocusing on the job he was tasked with. First, he set about finding the cipher. The books seemed to be arranged sequentially, so Liam wondered over to the initial section. Each spine was calligraphed beautifully in golden ink with the start and end dates and volume number. There was, of course, no book clearly marked cipher though, so Liam guessed it would have to be the one without a title; a quick look inside confirmed this. He set it aside, deciding to burn it after having taken care of the machine.

He stalked nervously towards the fireplace, as if something – a protector of sorts for the machine – would leap out from the fireplace. Liam knew that Mr Device would have warned him had that been the case, but he couldn’t help but be a tad weary as he approached. Something like that – it had to have protection, right?

He had recommended Liam make sure it was safe before finding the concealed lever, but he saw no need to – the fireplace hadn’t been lit for several days at that point. When his outstretched hand slid along the fireplace wall though, Liam retracted it with a sharp cry, more startled than hurt from the burn. He didn’t understand where the heat came from but wasn’t going to take another look bare-handed. He dipped into his coat pocket and brought out the gloves he kept on his person during the winter.

Hands now gloved, he scaled the concealed upper wall of the fireplace once again. He fumbled about for a few moments, grateful for the gloves not only against the heat, but against the un-sanded wall too, before finally finding the lever. His hand trembled on it for a moment as he wavered slightly before pulling it down and quickly stepping back, not sure of what to expect.

A long, rather cinematic hiss ensued as the fireplace dislodged itself slightly and began to rotate about its centre. Liam waited with bated breath, his curiosity rising with each second, waiting for the turnstile to stop spinning and for the moment of truth to be ushered in.

To his surprise, the fireplace only spun around halfway, stopping abruptly with half of it jutting out, into the study, and the other half pointing a way forward into the dark. A small light shone ablaze, apparently having lit itself, revealing a downward staircase so long, Liam couldn’t see the end. He took it as a sign to continue forward.

He reached into his pocket for his phone to illuminate his way, but that ultimately proved unnecessary. As he descended, fixtures further down the corridor illuminated, intricately carved sconces guiding him forward.

The lights afforded Liam a sparse field of view with only the next few steps in sight; instead, he realised, they were there to light the wall. Fifty-odd feet or so in, the bare walls burst with life, adorned with some of the most famous artwork in psychological history. Despite the seriousness of the situation, the sobriety of the past few days, and the gravity of what he was doing, Liam laughed. Mr Device may have been private, but that didn’t stop him from having a flair for the dramatic.

Liam recognised a lot of them, art having been a shared hobby. He wondered if Mr Device had known all along, on some level, that he would one day charge Liam with destroying his work, and had subliminally dotted the route with links to their shared past.

The makeshift gallery opened with Gravity by M.C. Escher, made using a startling combination of lithography and watercolour depicting a star polyhedron, an overlapping, endless cycle of harsh angles. Trapezoidal slits were made into the faces, brightly coloured limbs straining and clawing their way out of their prison, desperate to gain control. Gazing upon the pain each limb carried, taut with strength and tension, Liam began to better understand why Mr Device feared his creation.

The gallery continued into some of Escher’s other work – the woodcut Rind and wood-printed Möbius Strip II amongst others – before giving way to Marc Chagall’s The Flying Carriage. The modernist’s oil on canvas showed a surrealist mashup focusing on a farm at the end of the world with space as its backdrop, into which a boy was being pulled by a horse-drawn cart. Liam could see no link to Mr Device’s work, but thought he knew why this painting was here. He had met Mr Device during his time as an assistant to the director of the Guggenheim, the present-day home of the painting, who had insisted Liam personally give Mr Device the tour on account of his influence. Liam’s world had consisted of little other than his job and his modest flat at the time and he certainly wasn’t concerned with self-righteous people showing up out of the blue and expecting special treatment. He smiled to himself; how wrong he had been. Mr Device turned out to be a wonderfully sweet man whose knowledge rivalled that of even the director himself. He had handed Liam his card at the end of that very meeting, saying he was looking for an assistant and earnestly wanted Liam to take the job. Liam debated the choice, but they met soon after, and he hadn’t looked back since.

He moved through the rest of the paintings faster, the recollection of his old friend coming too soon to be a sweet memory, stinging instead, while the wound was still fresh. He noted works by Dali, Rembrandt, O’Keeffe, Monet, and more, until he reached a clearing and the narrow tunnel gave way to a vast room, twice as large as the study.

The walls here were lined with sconces, casting dancing lights across the expanse. The left-side wall was dominated by a large whiteboard set into the structure, with smudges that were likely impossible to erase smeared across it, and stacks of apparently unused journals, identical to those in the study, dominated the back of the room. Mr Device had planned to continue his work, Liam realised, estimating there were at least as many books here as in the study, if not more. The right-hand wall was covered almost in its entirety with yellow florescent post-its, Mr Device’s chosen medium for a to-do list. They were all covered with bright green ticks, all except one at the very centre. It had only one word: DESTROY.

The object of this post-it sat at the centre of the room, exuding an aura of importance, as if it knew of the power it held. Liam hadn’t known what to expect from the machine, but he was sure he wouldn’t understand the slightest bit. Attempting to digest the mesh of interloping thick metal tubes, dauting nets, and haunting spires, he realised he was wrong.

To his immense surprise, Liam found himself with an instant understanding of everything sprawled out before him. It was as if a tiny voice was whispering, almost inaudibly, right in his ear, explaining every new feature his eyes took in. As he moved closer, attempting to find a weak link, self-destruct, or something else that would pull the whole thing apart in one fell swoop, the whispering intensified, hurriedly explaining each new detail that came into view.

At the very centre, cushioned in a nest of metal, was a glass vial with a grey gas swirling around inside. The whispering stopped abruptly the moment Liam saw it. He wasn’t sure how, but he was suddenly very sure that the vial needed to be destroyed. Take care of that, he told himself, and the machine would be useless.

Carefully, he reached into the machine, winding between the various tubes until his hand closed around the vial. It was hot to the touch, almost too hot to bear, but Liam found himself unwilling to let go. He took it out and held it with both hands, staring at it and wondering why the whispering answers had stopped on perhaps the most intriguing part.

He stared at it intently, willing it to tell him something. As if in response, the vial shattered; the glass fell to the floor, splintering on impact, but the grey gas hovered in place. Liam stared at it, transfixed, and it almost felt like it was staring right back. Neither moved.

Then, the gas lurched upwards, absorbing itself into Liam’s body. Hundreds of thousands of images rushed through his mind, each one morphing into the next too quickly for Liam to process. His eyes rolled back into his head, with only murky whites now visible, and his hands remained outstretched, frozen with the rest of his body. He stopped breathing, his heart stopped beating, and his brain began to shut down. Liam stayed upright throughout.

Then the images stopped, his breathing returned, and his heart began sending blood around his body. His brain began to reactivate, and his eyes blinked back into place.

His mind was suddenly hit with another onslaught of images, but they were slower this time. Gentler. Each idea took its time to manifest and develop, to take hold in Liam’s brain, clicking into place with perfection. They seemed to swim through him, dipping and diving, decades worth of knowledge finding and filling his memory, and when they were done, Liam came to a realisation with greater certainty than he had ever felt before. He sent a single thought through his body, following the same path the newfound knowledge had taken moments ago.

‘Hello, Mr Device.’

More To Read:

For more upcoming stories, check out this post, where I tease 5 speculative and gothic stories.

Blanket Fort is a weekly, alternative publication of short fiction and essays, for those who love folklore, magical realism, the weird and wonderful. For starters, try “Grimm Everlasting,” a surreal tale about an ill-advised house party with supernatural guests, or “Usurper,” a thriller in the vein of true crime about a woman who just can’t take it anymore.

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