Disclaimer: In no way do I claim ownersh…oh, good Lord, do you really need to hear it again?!
Leela threw aside the sewer entrance cover with a force far exceeding a woman’s strength, gasping for air as if she had been smothered.
“Thank the Lord for fresh air!” she cried dramatically as she climbed up onto the sidewalk. She crawled along the concrete and collapsed onto her back, her chest heaving.
Teresa emerged behind her, following Leela’s example, followed closely by Sean, Bolt, and then Tim. As soon as they were all standing, Leela grabbed Tim by the collar and held him up six inches above the ground.
“Put me through that hell hole again and I’ll reach up your ass and pull your intestines inside out!” Her voice trembled with anger. For a moment Tim thought she meant it.
Leela put him down and the teens all looked around. They were inside a dark alley, which didn’t smell any better than the sewer they’d just been in, though the fumes were considerably less powerful. At the end of the alley they could hear the sounds of car horns and rushing traffic. The buildings on both sides were made of crumbling brick and had metal and wooden beams sticking out at odd angles. A couple of owls hooted about beside a trash can. Leela thought the place looked familiar.
Stepping toward the end of the alley, she immediately recognized where they were. They were standing beside the abandoned house outside the school campus. It was here that she and Tim had worked together to fight Santa, and where their relationship had grown just a little bit more. It seemed like those days were a lifetime away, when they were barely aware of how they’d felt, and what they’d been working up to.
Teresa followed Leela. “You mean we only went a few feet?” she cried. “We were down there forever!”
“Bad situations can feel that way,” Sean commented. “Kinda like how time flies when you’re having fun.”
“Don’t worry,” Bolt said. “We just needed the sewer to get out of school. We can get to the Central Bureaucracy with the tubes.”
In five minutes the five students were deposited on the sidewalk somewhere in central Manhattan, with Bolt leading the way. They walked on for three blocks until they found the end of the line.
It contained several hundred people, stretching across a footbridge from the building ten blocks away. Even from a distance, the Central Bureaucracy was a monolithic wonder. A single block of grey, it glinted in the sunlight, but not blindingly so. It was impossible to tell what it was made of. It towered over the New New Yorkers at one hundred stories high. The shadows it cast covered at least half the city, and the air itself seemed to take on a hushed solemnity at the need for concentration in such a place. It was as if merely approaching the Central Bureaucracy were the same as entering a library, and all noise of traffic and people decreased immediately. The whole scene sent shivers up Leela’s spine.
“How in hell are we going to get in?” Tim complained. “This is one hell of a long line.”
“Don’t worry,” Bolt answered calmly. “I’ve got a plan.”
As Bolt led them across the footbridge that spanned over a few streets, Leela thought that Bolt was abnormally prepared for something he was barely a part of. How could he know what to do when they were barely planning anything at all? Did he know more than they did? And if he did, was that good or bad?
Up close, the Central Bureaucracy looked even more intimidating. But Bolt was not looking at this. In fact, he was looking away from the building, at a group of trucks gathered around the corner from the entrance. They were delivery trucks from the UBS Company, and several of the workers were wheeling in filing cabinets on hover dollies.
“That’s how we’re getting in.” Bolt said proudly.
“We’re going to disguise ourselves as UBS workers?” Leela aksed.
Sean laughed. “U-BS.”
Tim laughed, and Leela resisted the urge. The thought of sharing a laugh with her ex-boyfriend didn’t sit well with her. Not now.
Together, the adolescents hurried over and joined in with the workers, being careful to look like they weren’t about to break into a government organization headquarters. They paired off and pushed in a few hover dollies. The side entrance was wide, and allowed them in easily. They found themselves in a large storage room, about the size of the ones in the backs of supermarkets. A few more workers deposited their filing cabinets against a wall and pushed their dollies back out the door, leaving the kids alone. They pushed their dollies aside and ran for the door at the other end of the room. The hallway beyond was long and empty, with dim lights in the ceiling. Bolt led them down the hall at a quick pace. As she ran, Leela knew that it was too convenient to find a delivery to blend in with right when they needed to. Something smelled fishy about this.
Finally, the hallway emptied out into the Entrance Hall. It was a much bigger hall than the one they had just used. It had an extremely high ceiling, with filing cabinets in the walls at regular intervals. Between the groups of filing cabinets were high Roman-style arches, which opened up into yet more hallways, lined with thousands of filing cabinets. What these cabinets contained was beyond anyone’s guess, since the labels on them were strangely encoded; nothing but numbers with lots of decimal spaces. There were two levels upon which to walk to get to filing cabinets. Ladders allowed easy access to those that were too high to reach. There were computer screens in a few places with lights overhead. The place looked more to Leela like a library than ever, now.
And then there were the tubes. Even in the Entrance Hall, there had to be miles and miles of them, coming out of the floor, curving around corners, crisscrossing over walls, and disappearing down hallways to be lost within the endless maze. Canisters zoomed past with a small whoosh of air. It occurred to Leela how similar these were to the tubes that had brought her to this place. Could this have been the origin of her home’s public transportation system?
The kids spoke in unison. “Wow.”
There was a brief pause in which they all thought for a moment.
“So…now what?” Sean aksed.
No one had an answer, and they all looked at Tim.
“Now we have to find out who’s involved with the smugglers in Old New York, gather some sort of physical evidence against them, and then go to the police.”
“And how are we supposed to do that?”
Tim paused. “I’ve already said that the Central Bureaucracy acts as a middle man for all the canisters that get sent through the tubes. All we have to do is find one of those black canisters and follow it.”
“And assuming there’s a black canister here at all,” Leela said skeptically, “how are we supposed to find it in this God-awful regulation hell-hole?”
Tim had no answer. Leela rolled her eye in disgust. After getting them into so much trouble and saying it was time for them to do things themselves, he still had no idea what to do! She sat down to think, and the others followed suit.
“We can’t sit here for long.” Bolt said. “They’ll have noticed that we left the dollies in the storage room by now, and there are cameras and monitors in here.”
Bolt pointed at the ceiling nearby. He was right. There were cameras scanning sections of the cabinets in the walls. Leela couldn’t tell if they were sitting in a blind spot or not.
“Okay,” Leela said. “I think it’s best if we at least get moving. We don’t want to stay in one place too long if we’re not welcome here, and those cameras don’t give people second chances.”
“So we just walk around until we find something?” Tim said.
“I can’t imagine how you’d have a problem with it since that was the best you could think of.” Leela retorted. “At the very least we’ll be able to find some sort of guide that can get us somewhere.”
Tim didn’t say anything.
The five kids set off into the depths of the Central Bureaucracy, with Leela in the lead. They exited the Entrance Hall through the door at the end. The room beyond was just as labyrinthine as the one they had left behind. There were rows upon rows of stacks upon stacks of filing cabinets, with the occasional computer appearing beneath the soft glow of a lamp.
And everywhere there were those tubes. They zigged and zagged throughout the entire complex, giving Leela the scariest feeling of being caught in a spider’s web. And then it occurred to her: were they caught in a trap? How were they going to get out? How deep were they into this mess?
Leela was pulled out of her reverie when Tim grabbed her arm. Almost instinctively, she wrenched it away, as if being touched by him would give her sonic diarrhea.
“This had better be good,” Leela said sternly.
Tim pointed down one of the rows. They could see someone down there. It was too dark to make out any of the details, but the light of one of the lamps glinting off the man’s Bureaucrat badge told Leela that this was someone they did not want to meet.
Immediately they all ducked into one of the rows of files and watched him from across the hall. He was typing very fast at one of the computers. Even with the light of the lamp above and the glow of the screen, his face remained in shadow. Leela got that shivering sensation that had become so familiar in this place.
After a while the man finished whatever he was doing and left in the other direction. Leela held an arm out to keep the others from moving. Eventually the man’s footsteps died away completely. Leela led the way over to the computer they’d seen the man using. The touch screen was blank, but with a single touch Leela had brought up the main page of the Central Bureaucracy’s supercomputer. The screen said: Please Enter Bureaucratic License Number.
“What’s that?” Sean aksed.
“It’s the number that’s assigned to each Bureaucrat when their license is issued.” Tim answered matter-of-factly. Everyone stared at him. “I haven’t forgotten what I learned in Skinner’s office.”
“So what do we do?” Leela aksed as she looked at the screen.
“We need a Bureaucrat’s badge and a Bureaucrat pistol.”
It was Bolt who answered. “Did you look over at the entrance when we snuck in?”
Leela nodded, but the others didn’t.
“The guy was letting people in by sticking a pistol-thingy into the wall and opening the door.”
Leela groaned. “Where are we supposed to get one of those?” she complained.
“We can’t.” Bolt said. “There’s no way we can get our hands on one of those things.”
“Can’t we just type in the license number manually?” Teresa aksed.
“There’s no keyboard.” Leela said.
As if waiting for Leela to say it, the screen automatically brought up a virtual keyboard at her request.
“Okay, that’s convenient,” Tim said. “Now we just need the license number.”
“Can’t you remember Skinner’s?”
“He was a fake Bureaucrat,” Tim said. “Even though he had forged a license, it would have been destroyed when I exposed him.”
“For once I regret your gallantry,” Sean said.
“Just put it in there anyway,” Leela said hotly.
Tim pushed Leela out of the way and focused, his fingers hovering over the screen for a moment. Slowly he pulled the combination out of his memories of the files he’d stolen, and typed the numbers and letters into the computer.
The students gaped in wonder. They had gotten in!
“I don’t get it.” Tim said. “How can Skinner’s license be valid?”
“Who cares?” Leela said cheerfully as she shoved Tim out of the way. “We’re in, aren’t we?”
Tim scowled but looked over her shoulder with the others as she began to search the Central Bureaucracy’s files.
The home page looked simple and plain. There were links to stuff like recent developments in how things were filed, news updates, and recruitment requirements. Leela didn’t know what to look for.
“Okay,” Tim said. “We’re looking for the Bureaucrat that contacted Brunswick yesterday. Go to the list of licensed Bureaucrats.”
Leela clicked on the link. Above the impossibly long list was a number. There are exactly 2,354,637,647,209,090 licensed Bureaucrats in the Milky Way Galaxy, it said.
“Narrow the search down to the ones in New New York.” Tim persisted.
Leela grudgingly obeyed. The number shrank down to 5,000,000.
Everyone sighed. This wasn’t getting any easier. Even Tim looked defeated.
“This person contacts d- I mean, Brunswick on a regular basis, right?” Bolt aksed.
“I guess so,” Tim said. “If they’re smuggling together, they’ll need to contact each other a lot to stay updated on stuff.”
“Then why not try someone in the education system? I mean, Brunswick is a principal.”
Leela nodded thoughtfully as she typed.
The number shrank down to 1,000.
The others groaned as Leela began to scroll down through the list. She figured that it wasn’t going to get any better than this. If they were going to find this guy, they had to at least get started. But as she went on and on through the list, she became bored and just scrolled on through, without really reading anything. Suddenly she stopped. If she’d seen what she thought she’d seen, they were in more trouble than ever. She scrolled back up and found it, her worst fears confirmed.
“Guys! Look at this!”
The others, who had started leaning against the walls and looking in the filing cabinets, gathered round and peered at the name on the screen: Skinner, Silas.
“This can’t be!” Tim gasped. “I had him arrested! I saw the cops drag him away! How can he still be a licensed Bureaucrat?!”
Tim actually looked like he was going to panic. His eyes were wide with fear at the thought of being confronted with his old nemesis, the man he had betrayed to prison. If Skinner was still free, it was certain that he wouldn’t hesitate to kill Tim.
Tim pushed Leela forcefully out of the way and started typing furiously, desperate for any scrap of information that could help him. However, Leela wasn’t in the mood to submit to Tim, and tried to take back her place of honor in front of the computer. The two wrestled over the keyboard, trying to push each other out of the way and hitting keys as they did.
A strange noise from the computer made them both stop. The screen had lit up with a 3-D image of the inside of the Central Bureaucracy! Whatever Tim and Leela had done, it had worked to their advantage.
An icon appeared that said: Please type in desired location.
Tim immediately typed in the name Silas Skinner and hit Search.
“What are you doing?” Leela demanded. “I thought we were looking for the smugglers.”
“If we’re dealing with illegal activity, Skinner’s the best place to start. Plus, I have to know. I have to know why he’s here.”
Leela would have objected if he hadn’t looked so frightfully desperate.
The animation rotated once and then zoomed in carefully on an office close to the center of the building a few floors up.
“Okay!” Tim said excitedly and determinedly. “Let’s go!”
He ran back into the main hallway and looked around. There was nothing but filing cabinets. The others followed him.
“And just how do you plan on getting there?” Leela aksed. “We’re barely even past the gates and you’re going off like you’re on some Indiana Jones archaeology dig.”
Tim turned toward her, a look of disgust on his face. “There has to be a way up.” He said. “This is one of the biggest buildings in the city. And Skinner is inside it with us. We have to find him.”
Before Leela could poke any holes in his logic Bolt stepped forward. “There should be some stairs around here, at least to get us up to the second level of these filing cabinets.”
That seemed to release their building animosity, at least for the moment. Having a plan in mind seemed to push aside their anger.
The kids set off further down the main hallway again. As they went through another small door at the end of the room, leading them into a third identical room, Leela spotted a narrow spiral staircase to their right. She and the others quickly ascended to the floor above. Once there, no one felt as if they’d made any progress. They’d gone up to another floor. So what? It was exactly like the one below them. They could even still see the first floor.
As they walked along the rows of filing cabinets beside the main hallway, Leela trailed her hand along the railing in thought. Nothing seemed to make any sense in this place. Despite all the filing cabinets, this place seemed utterly disorganized, as if nothing had its own place. Probably to confuse people who thought they were smart enough to break in. But there had to be some way onward. There was no way these rows of filing cabinets could go on forever. They had to run into something at some point, right?
As if obeying her thoughts, the Central Bureaucracy revealed a door to her, at the end of one of the rows of cabinets.
“Guys, look!” Leela cried, pointing. “There’s a way out!”
The others ran for the door, but Leela stayed still a moment, surprised at how rejoiced and relieved she’d felt. Had she been that afraid and desperate to find a way out of there? Had she felt trapped in this place? She pushed her feelings aside and filed through the door with the others.
A small hallway led to a much larger one, going off left and right before disappearing around corners at the ends. There were several doors with names painted on the doors. The place kind of reminded Leela of the tunnels beneath Maddick’s.
“Okay,” Tim said. “We need to get to the thirteenth floor. Does anyone see an elevator?”
“There’s one down there,” Sean said, pointing. They all hurried towards it, once again grateful that something was making sense. Though no one had said a word, they all knew deep down that something about this place was very wrong, indeed. It was as if something was waiting around every corner to swallow them up.
The elevator took them up to the thirteenth floor where they stepped out into what looked like a cross between a library and an office building. There were office doors at regular intervals, but between them, instead of walls, were shelves filled with books and files and records. The lights were dim, and canister tubes still filled every empty space.
“Okay,” Tim said as he concentrated. “Skinner’s office is on the other side of the building. Office number 219.”
They set off down the hall to the left and rounded a corner, Tim leading them every step of the way. He kept looking at the names and numbers on the doors, making sure they were going in the right direction.
It took the kids an hour to get to the other side of the Central Bureaucracy. Their feet were hurting, but Tim absolutely refused to stop when he finally saw the number 219 on the door in front of him. The shelves beside the door were empty. Tim bolted inside.
It was similar to the office Skinner had had at Maddick’s. There were a few filing cabinets, pictures and plaques on the wall, and an ornate desk with a nameplate on it. There were stacks of paper and files on most of the surfaces and a half-empty wastebakset beside the desk. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. But as Tim knew, nothing about Skinner was ordinary. He immediately set about looking through the piles of papers.
“Um, what are you looking for?” Leela aksed.
“What do you think?” Tim said irritably. “I’m looking for anything that would suggest smuggling activity.”
“Then let’s find it and get the hell out of here.” Sean said. It was all too clear that he didn’t want to be in here any longer than he had to, and the others agreed.
A few minutes of searching yielded no results, until Teresa gasped and pulled a manila folder out of one of the filing cabinets.
“Tim,” she whispered, “it’s got your name on it!”
Tim, who had been examining a collection of rubber stamps in one of the desk drawers, snatched the folder out of her grip and looked at it with wide eyes. It said: Timothy Dawson. Tim opened it; it was empty.
“Why would Skinner have a folder about me?!” Tim aksed. He looked like he was going to have a fit. “What does he want with me? Does he know who my parents were?”
Tim began tearing through piles like a madman, accomplishing nothing but making a mess. He was breathing heavily and sweating.
“Who the hell is he?!” Tim shouted. “Why is he doing this?!”
Leela ran up to him and smacked him in the face. Almost immediately Tim calmed down.
“Don’t do this to yourself, Tim,” Leela said as she stared at the floor. “You need to keep your act together if you want to get out of here.”
“I can’t leave here, Leela. Not until I know what’s going on.”
Suddenly a canister dropped out of the tube and into the In bin on a nearby table. It was black. Leela approached it cautiously and opened it.
The letter inside read: You cannot escape.
And then the alarm went off.
Everyone looked around the office frantically, panic building up inside them. They were caught! The alarm’s booming siren pushed painfully against their eardrums, as if trying to hinder them from thinking straight. It seemed to be working, but not enough. Leela pushed the door open and beckoned the others out, and they obediently followed.
Out in the hall the noise was louder, but there was a distinct sound of men and women shouting and running towards them. Leela grabbed the first hand she felt and started pulling its owner down the hallway to the left. The others followed her. Leela had no idea where she was going, but she knew she had to keep running. The footsteps drew closer. Up ahead, Leela saw people’s shadows dancing along the walls. She ducked into a door on her right. Whoever she had brought with her slammed the door shut and they were plunged into darkness. Outside they could hear men and women shouting things like: “Get them!” and “Freeze!” Then Leela heard the sounds of Bureaucrats getting beaten up. Tim was fighting his way through. Tim’s battle cries began to die away as his fighting proceeded down the hallway. Soon Leela couldn’t hear anything. Then the lights came on.
Sean was standing next to the door with his finger on the light switch, Teresa sitting on the floor next to him. They must have run in some kind of hand-link chain. At least Tim wasn’t there, Leela thought. She looked around. They were in another office, very similar to Skinner’s.
“Are you guys okay?” Leela aksed.
“I think so,” Sean and Teresa said in unison.
“So what do we do now?” Sean aksed after a pause.
Leela approached the door and put an ear against it. “I suppose,” she said thoughtfully, “our best bet is to wait until the coast is clear and then find Tim and Bolt. Finding the smugglers will have to wait.”
“How do we find out where they went?” Teresa aksed as she tried to regain her breath.
“The security booth,” Leela said. “There’re cameras all over the place, so there must be a place where we can view them all at once. If we find that, we’ll find them.”
Leela looked back at her friends. It was just the three of them, now. Being separated from the others made Leela realize they hadn’t thought things through properly at all. Now they were in way over their heads. More than they had been when they’d gone into those tunnels. She took a deep breath to calm herself down.
“Are you guys ready?” she aksed.
The others stood behind her as she held her finger over the ‘Open’ button next to the door. They nodded.
Leela pushed the button.
Tim struggled to keep himself from grunting in pain. He couldn’t believe what he was doing. Even when he’d planned on breaking in to the Central Bureaucracy, he could not have foreseen that he would end up crammed inside the ceiling next to another guy. But now, here he was, holding his breath inside a five-inch thick space with no light, wondering what part of Bolt was digging in to his back, waiting for the guards beneath him to leave.
“Do you even know what this is about?” a tall guard below aksed the other.
“Maybe it’s another drill.” The other said as he spit-shined his Bureaucrat badge.
Bolt shifted inside the ceiling, causing what turned out to be his shoe to dig further in to Tim’s back. At the same time, a wire that had been just an inch away from Tim’s nose finally struck him, the exposed metal shocking him. He grunted.
“What was that?!” the tall guard said.
Tim knew they were boned. He immediately slammed his fists down on the ceiling panel and dropped down on top of the guards. In a matter of seconds they were unconscious, their noses bleeding and their eyes black.
Bolt dropped down next to Tim. “Nice job.” He said.
Tim didn’t look any happier, even after being freed from his prison. “Why’d you have to hide us up in the ceiling?” he complained. “The broom closet would have at least been comfortable.”
“That’s the first place they’d look.” Bolt replied as he started to search the guards’ pockets.
“I don’t even know how you got us up there,” Tim commented in surprise as he looked up at the ceiling. It was several feet above his head.
“Quick thinking is what gets you out of tight situations,” Bolt said.
“Guess that’s how I got us out of there, too,” Tim said as he looked at Bolt interestedly. He was starting to sound a lot like Tim.
“Got it!” Bolt exclaimed. “Look at this.”
He held out his hands. He was holding the guards’ Bureaucrat badges and pistols!
Tim took a set in his hands. “That’s brilliant, Bolt!”
Bolt looked smug. “We’ll wear these so we can blend in.”
“But we’re barely even seventeen yet.” Tim said. “How can we possibly impersonate Bureaucrats?”
“Not Bureaucrats,” Bolt said knowingly. “Bureaucratic Interns.”
“The Central Bureaucracy offers an internship program to high school kids who want to be Bureaucrats when they grow up.”
Tim couldn’t hold the question back any longer. “How do you know all this? First you break us in with the delivery trucks, then you go on with the internship stuff. Where does it all come from?”
“My dad works here.” Bolt said simply.
“Oh.” Tim said. It seemed so simple now. For a moment Bolt had seemed suspicious.
Together the two of them stored the unconscious guards in the ceiling. They were careful to replace the ceiling panel. It would be a while before anyone found them.
As Tim was straightening his badge, he aksed Bolt: “So what now? We’ve got disguises, but we need to know what to do next.”
Bolt paused for a moment. “We need to find the others, but we also need to find the smugglers. We ran for quite a while, so I have no idea where they are.”
“Yeah, and jumping all those stairs wasn’t easy on my ankles. What floor are we on, by the way?”
“I didn’t count. Anyway, I say we walk around and check things out. They may try to find us while they look for the smugglers, so I say we do the same. We’ll hit two owls with one loogie.”
Tim pondered this for a minute. Would Leela try to do both at once or one and then the other? And if so, which first? At this thought, Tim realized that he hadn’t known Leela as well as he thought. First she goes off and gets all impulsive trying to find adventure, and now he was realizing that he couldn’t measure or predict Leela’s movements. He didn’t know who she was anymore. With a heavy heart, Tim came to the bitter realization that his first real relationship with a girl was in the toilet. He felt terrible.
“Okay then,” he said gloomily to Bolt. “Let’s go.”
Leela led the way down the hall, Sean and Teresa close in tow. They were all extremely nervous. When they had exited the office they’d expected there to be tighter security around Skinner’s office, or at least a few guards. There had been two guards patrolling the hallway. It had taken Leela a full ten minutes to finish them off. They were almost as well trained as her. Almost.
The elevator door closed behind them as they hurried on.
Leela approached first computer screen she found. The only thing that made sense was to go back to the main hall and search on the computer again. There seemed to be no other way to find the security booth. The instant she turned it on the screen aksed someone called Walter Saget, Bureaucrat Intern 154, if he wanted to log off. Leela’s face lit up. Someone had used the computer, enabling her to view the Bureaucracy’s files just as Tim had done earlier. She felt relieved, since Tim hadn’t told her what Skinner’s ID number had been.
Not that he would, Leela thought feeling crestfallen. She had plenty of reasons to be mad at Tim, but she really did hate that their relationship had ended. Perhaps after this was all over they could…
“Leela?” Sean aksed. “You still with us?”
Leela realized that she’d been staring at the computer screen in thought, her hands hovering above the keyboard. She logged on as Walter Saget.
To Leela’s great surprise, a map of the Central Bureaucracy was displayed on the screen, the security booth highlighted on the north end of the building five floors up. What had Walter Saget been doing? If she and the others went to the security booth, would he be there, too? Leela noticed that the Employee Lounge was right next to security. In fact, the only entrance to the security booth was in the lounge.
Leela sighed. This just wasn’t going to get any easier.
She calculated their route and set off down the hallway, avoiding security cameras as she went.
Tim scanned every screen in front of his eyes. Why they were black and white he did not know, but it made it all the harder to view them. It looked like a static storm. And there were a lot of screens. The security booth was dome shaped. All along the walls were holographic screens that hovered in midair an inch apart, broadcasting every image in real-time down to the very last detail. Mixed together, however, none of it made sense. Tim felt like he was getting a headache.
After finishing all the screens, Tim and Bolt approached one of the control panels below the screens and hit a button. The screens vanished and were soon replaced with new holographs. One more floor down.
They had started on the thirteenth floor. Tim had figured it would be the best place to start. Unfortunately, they only found a pile of guards. It was part of Leela’s trail, no doubt, but it didn’t tell them where she and the others were.
Tim had then suggested checking the main hallway. Though he had recently developed doubts about how well he knew Leela, he was quite certain that the first thing she’d do would be to find a computer and try to find any information possible. Since the main hallway was familiar to them, it seemed logical. Nothing there, either.
Now they were just stuck perusing every floor. This was easier said than done, since there was no indication in the security booth as to how many floors there were. The chance that they would be at this for hours seemed high.
After fifteen more unsuccessful minutes Tim hit the floor button in anger. He hit it until he suddenly arrived at an arrangement of screens that didn’t make sense; there were three of them.
“Wait!” Bolt cried, holding up a hand. “Hold that one.”
Tim watched on in curiosity as Bolt approached the screens. He followed.
Bolt was looking at a screen that was almost completely black. There were a few odd gray shapes, and something that seemed to be moving back and forth. The image was very blurry. Perhaps there was dust on the camera.
“What’s that?” Tim aksed.
“I’ve heard things from my dad.” Bolt said. He sounded exhilarated. “An old part of the Bureaucracy that no one knows about. He said it was only a rumor, but if this is it, then this is where the smugglers could be meeting. In some secret room!”
Tim was both excited and frightened. He was glad to be making progress, but he’d had enough secret rooms to last him a lifetime. Not to mention confronting Skinner, again.
“So where is it?” Tim aksed.
“I don’t know,” Bolt replied, his excitement gone.
Tim sighed. This was getting him nowhere. He looked at the other screens. One depicted nothing but canister tubes. There were so many of them they filled the entire screen. The other showed nothing but static; the camera had been shut off.
“These other cameras don’t look very helpful, either.” Bolt said as he saw where Tim was looking.
Tim sighed again. “Well, Bolt, it looks as if we’re boned.”
He leaned back against one of the control panels, and accidentally flipped a switch up. The control panel slid away behind him, and with a girlish squeal he fell through a hole in the wall.
Bolt approached the opening. “Well, you may be boned, but I just found us a way forward!” he said, laughing.
He jumped in. There was a set of stairs that led down into the darkness. The light from the security booth showed Tim lying at the bottom.
Bolt hurried to the bottom. Tim stood up and massaged his ass.
The boys looked around. The light from upstairs was feeble, but it was enough for Tim to see that the room he now stood in was quite small. The ceiling was barely high enough to allow him to stand. Even now he realized that Bolt was stooping. It was about twelve feet from wall to wall. Everything seemed to be made of concrete, and behind him was some enormous machine. Tim approached it cautiously. It was long and tubular, except for a part of it in the middle that was bulkier. Tim touched it; it was made of metal, cold and dusty. Part of it was covered with buttons.
Just as Tim was examining a few of the buttons, the panel in the security booth slid back into place, plunging them into total darkness.
“NO!” Tim shouted. He ran at the door and ran into Bolt. He scrambled up the stairs and thrust himself against the metal back of the panel with all his might.
“Tim, stop!” Bolt said. “It won’t do any good.”
“No! I have to get out of here! I’ve got to find Leela! I have to get her out of here!”
In a moment, lights came to life inside the room. The buttons on the machine lit up in different colors. The rest of the machine filled itself with light, revealing what it was: a tube! It was an enormous glass canister tube, wide enough to fit three full-grown men. The light was inside the glass itself, and Tim could see floodlights at both ends of the tube, just beyond the wall.
“How did you do that?!” Tim cried.
Bolt shrugged. “Just lucky, I guess.”
The light was so blinding Tim had to hold his hand up to his eyes for a minute. He touched his eyes and realized that he’d been tearing up. He’d finally adjusted to the light when he heard a whirring coming from the left side of the room.
A large canister came rushing up inside the tube, stopping at the section in the middle. The metal cover on top opened up, and a small set of stairs came out underneath. The canister opened up, waiting for them to climb inside.
“Looks like this is our way out.” Bolt said.
Tim turned his back. “Forget it. I am not going to be trapped in another confined place with you.”
“It’s the only way out, Tim.” Bolt said. “It’ll be easier to find Leela.”
Tim started. Bolt was right.
Silently fuming, Tim climbed the stairs and got into the canister and lay down. Bolt got in and lay down next to him. Tim had never felt more freaked out in his life. But as uncomfortable as he was then, it was nothing compared to what came next.
The canister zoomed away, flying at fifty miles an hour.
Leela exited the stairway into the hall. Despite her growing anxiety from being in this place, she was getting bored at seeing these hallways; there seemed to be no end to them!
Sean followed her, and then Teresa. They headed off to the left. The lounge should have been at the end of the hallway, through which they would find the security booth.
As the three of them ran onward, Leela felt her discomfort growing and growing, clenching her stomach tight and making her start to sweat. Why was she getting this weird feeling of dread? Was it because she had barely spoken to the others at all? Were they mad at her? Or was it something to do with the Bureaucracy?
Leela turned left and came face to face with a door at the end of a short hallway. The sign on the door said: Employee Lounge. They had made it.
Leela stood rooted to the spot, her hands frozen at her sides. For some reason, her body did not want her to push the button to open the door. She stood there, her friends waiting impatiently behind her. Eventually Teresa nudged her forward, and she regained control of herself. She pushed the button.
Everyone inside turned and saw them. People who’d been eating lunch, or reading through piles of forms looked up at them and instantly recognized them for who they were.
Then the alarm went off.
“Damnit!” Leela shouted.
The three spun around and ran down the hall as fast as they could. The blaring wail of the alarm seemed to follow them on their heels as they ran, their arms pumping and their lungs aching.
“Nice going, Leela!” Teresa shouted.
“What the hell did I do?!”
“You opened the stupid door and set off the alarm!”
They all jumped down a flight of stairs and then another.
“Oh really?!” Leela shouted back. “And I suppose the people inside had nothing to do with it?!”
Sean groaned in exhaustion. “For God’s sake, Leela, why did you ever go into those damn tunnels?!”
“Don’t you dare blame this on me!” Leela shouted as they exited the staircases onto a different floor.
“Then whose fault is it?!”
Leela couldn’t answer, and instead gave a false yelp of fear and ran ahead of the others.
Leela skidded to a halt outside an elevator door, and the others bumped into her. She wedged her fingers between the sliding doors and put every minute of her martial arts training into forcing them open.
Inside the elevator were the metal cables that supported the elevator, which Leela prayed was above them. On the left was exactly what Leela was looking for: a ladder, built right into a depression in the side of the shaft. Leela jumped into the elevator shaft and grabbed onto one of the rungs and was soon followed by her reluctant friends. Together they began the long descent into the maddening darkness below.
The canister came to an abrupt halt, giving Tim and Bolt a slight shove towards the end. The first thing they noticed was that the canister was standing on end. They could feel gravity going down towards their feet. What was strange about it was that they’d gone straight up just a bit earlier. Where were they?
Tim pushed the door open and gazed out in wonder at his new environment. It was like a jungle gym outside. There were no floors or walls or anything. All that existed was a twisted array of canister tubes. They zigzagged and crisscrossed from all sides and directions, coming together and twisting around each other in a way that would have confused M.C. Escher himself. There was only darkness beyond.
Tim took a step out of the canister and nearly fell. Bolt grabbed the back of his shirt and pulled him back into the canister.
“Are you crazy?! Look where we are!” Bolt cried. “We’re completely suspended in midair!”
Tim stuck his head out the door and looked around. Ten feet below the bottom of the canister was the opening of the tube they’d been in. Above was an identical opening. They were trapped in a kind of limbo between the openings, like a speed-through in the tube system in New New York. Tim found it odd that such a place existed.
“So what do we do?” Tim aksed. “Either we go on or we get out here.”
“Remember the weird screens in the security booth?”
Tim gasped. “The one with all the tubes! This is the room!”
“I think we ought to check it out. Maybe we’ll find something important.”
Tim suddenly felt anxious. “Wait. You mean we have to go out there?”
“Don’t worry,” Bolt said. “We’ll just grab on to the tubes like monkey bars.”
With that he jumped out of the canister and immediately began climbing between the tubes. Though Bolt made it look easy, Tim knew that jumping wide gaps or squeezing between tubes would not be easy at all. It all looked so complex.
Tim jumped out, too. Grabbing onto the nearest tube, he swung his legs up and hooked them around another. His torso was hoisted up and he sat up straight. He regained his feet and started again, weaving his way around every obstacle, while keeping close to Bolt.
After a few minutes Tim could feel his muscles burning. This was work for a gymnast, not a martial artist! Why did he have to be put through such tortures?
Still, he thought as he swung around a tube like a lamp post, I’m doing pretty well for my first time. If only Leela could see me, now!
At the thought of Leela Tim lost his grip and fell a few feet before he grabbed onto a tube. He sighed as he pulled himself up. He was never going to feel any better as long as he and Leela were separated.
Bolt dropped down onto a row of three consecutive tubes in front of him.
“You okay, dude?”
Tim looked downcast. “I’ll be fine.”
“Well, come on ahead. I think I’ve found something.”
Tim followed Bolt closely, traveling in a downward direction that curved slightly to the left. Having to think about moving in three directions gave Tim a headache. His headache, however, was quickly forgotten in the intensity of what he saw next.
All the tubes ended. Here, at the center of the chamber, there was a great empty sphere a hundred feet across, with all the tubes’ openings pointing inward. The ends of the tubes twisted around, pointing at different positions on the sphere, and firing canisters into the openings of other tubes. The canisters shot through the sphere like insects, forever darting between each other without making a single crash. Every ejection was perfectly synchronized with the collections, sender and recipient tubes in perfect balance.
Tim stood atop one of the tubes, his jaw hanging down. He was in total shock. In all his life he never could have imagined that something like this could have existed. Such a notion seemed utterly ridiculous; and yet here it was, an impossible truth, right before his eyes.
“It’s incredible!” Tim breathed. “IT’S AMAZING!!”
His voice echoed triumphantly between the tubes, reverberating off every surface and filling the entire room with his victorious happiness.
“Bolt, don’t you know what this is?!” Tim said turning to his companion. “This is where all the canisters come to before they’re sent off to other Bureaucrats! This is the middle man!”
“I had thought I’d found something at least noteworthy,” Bolt said calmly, “but not as significant as this. This could be very valuable to us at some point.”
At some point, Tim thought. Bolt didn’t realize it, but he’d just made a good point. Finding this didn’t get them any closer to finding Leela, or catching the smugglers. They were still as screwed as ever.
Tim was so frustrated he slammed his fist against one of the tubes. The tube shook so violently that Bolt, who had been standing on that tube, lost his balance and fell. With a scream of fright Bolt reached out a hand, and Tim caught it just in time. Bolt’s weight pulled Tim down into a crouch on top of his tube. Both were breathing heavily, but were relieved that they had both escaped death.
The still shaking tube shot a canister out of its opening, and all hell broke loose. With the vibrations coursing through it, the tube shot the canister out in the wrong direction. The canister collided with another one in midair, and the two went spiraling off in different directions. Soon every tube was shaking, every canister ricocheting off some surface, wreaking mayhem throughout the entire chamber.
Bolt and Tim’s fear mounted higher and higher as they waited for the inevitable. A canister shot over Tim’s head and rebounded off a tube, slamming straight into Tim’s ass. With Bolt weighing him forward, there was no way he could hold his balance.
They fell for a long way.
The elevator doors were forced apart with deft force. Leela grunted in exhaustion and climbed out of the elevator shaft. She extended a hand and helped Sean and Teresa out as well. They had gotten as far down as the elevator shaft would take them, although Leela doubted that they were on the ground floor. You could never tell in this place.
“For the last time, guys,” Leela said. “This is not my fault. I’m not the one who brought us here!”
Teresa flexed her fingers. They hurt from gripping the ladder so much. “Look Leela. Usually I don’t like picking fights, especially not with my friends, but everything that’s happened this week comes right down to you being all impulsive and trying to ‘have fun.’”
Leela took a step back as Teresa advanced on her, a finger pointed at her chest. “You put us all at risk by bringing us down into those tunnels, and now we’re trapped in a crazy building with smugglers that want to kill us. Tim said we should come here ourselves because we couldn’t trust anyone. He used logic; you didn’t.”
Leela stared dumbfounded at Teresa. Never before had she seen such a ferocious outburst from her friend. She’d been right: her friends were mad at her! And what was worse was that Teresa was right. She’d been such a fool. Because of her own selfishness, she’d endangered the lives of the first friends she ever had. Leela sank to her knees in shame.
Teresa gaped at Leela, and then at Sean. He looked as astonished as she felt. Teresa had nearly pushed Leela to tears! It was an uncomfortable moment, indeed.
Sean walked up to Leela and knelt down on one knee, a comforting hand on her shoulder. When Leela looked up at him through a watery eye, she saw a warm smile on his face.
“Okay,” he said calmly. “So you made a mistake, Leela. There’s no denying that. But that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the line for you. We’re not out of the woods yet. No matter how bad you mess up, it’s never too late to make it right again.”
Sean’s smile widened. Leela’s mouth hung open. Sean’s words had awakened a spark within her she’d almost forgotten. He was right. It was never too late! She could make things right again with Tim! She could get them out of here! Leela felt warmth spread from her heart at this new inspiration. Sean is pretty cool, Leela thought. Despite his bad grades, there’s a greater depth in him I never noticed before.
Leela stood up, both physically and mentally. Nothing would stand in her way, now, and she was done with being impulsive!
“So where the hell are we?” Teresa aksed.
Leela snapped out of her moment and looked around. The room they were in was huge. The ceiling towered over them at ten stories high. There were even clouds near the domed roof. The room was circular, and widened with each new level all the way to the top. The walls were lined with filing cabinets, and cardboard boxes were stacked everywhere. What was most surprising however, was the enormous mountain of canisters in the middle of the room. Tubes came in from all directions to deposit yet more canisters into the pile. About fifty yards away from the pile was a circle of desks that went all the way around the room.
“Damn.” Sean said.
Leela approached one of the desks curiously. One look at the file on top told her that the desk’s owner worked for the Red Bull company. It appeared that they needed a new marketing strategy.
A few feet away Sean was snickering as he wrote in one of the files on another desk.
“What are you doing?” Leela demanded.
Sean looked up. “This guy works for Mom’s Friendly Robot Company. They need new facilities for building robots.”
“So what are you making them do?!”
“I’m telling them to make an assembly line for Bending Units in Tijuana, Mexico!” Sean said gleefully.
Leela found Sean’s gag to be very amusing, but she had to be her own voice of reason, now.
“Don’t you think they’ll notice that someone’s been messing around?” Leela aksed as she stared longingly at the form before her.
“Not if I mail it for them.” Sean said.
“And how are you going to do that?” Teresa aksed with her arms crossed.
Before Sean could answer a nearby door slid open and Leela’s face lit up.
Tim and Bolt fell through an infinite darkness. At least it looked infinite; at one point Tim’s finger grazed against the wall and got a bit of the skin scraped off. At first it was just like any other fall: downward and fast. But soon Tim began to notice that the sensation was going away; he was slowing down! There seemed to be a strong draft of cold wind blowing straight upward, kind of like what would come straight up out of a cave. The wind was so fierce that it was pushing against his fall!
“You feel that?!” Bolt hollered over the roar of the wind.
“Yeah!” Tim called back. “We’re slowing down. Maybe if it gets strong enough we’ll be able to land safely?!”
“It’s either that or we die!”
Tim grimaced. A minute ticked by and the ferocity of the wind grew exponentially, whipping Tim’s hair back and making his cheeks balloon. He was slowing down a great deal. Soon he was falling so slowly he could see individual stone blocks in the wall, moving up past him in unison as he traveled deeper and deeper into the Central Bureaucracy.
Tim was starting to feel bored when he finally stopped. The wind was so strong and cold it stung his face. He was hovering above a narrow hallway made of rough-hewn stones held together with crumbling mortar. What was strangest was that even though he and Bolt were above the ceiling, they could see down into the hallway. Maybe the ceiling was a two-way mirror?
Tim looked around for something to grab onto, or anything that could help him. Apart from Bolt, he saw nothing around him but darkness and stones. Tim rocked himself back and forth atop the gusts, feeling his inertia pull him in different directions. He rolled over onto his back. At least the wind didn’t sting his face anymore.
Suddenly Tim was struck with an idea. With a few pumps of his arms, he hoisted himself into a midair standing position. With his weight directed straight downward at a single point, the wind could no longer support him; he dropped into the hallway.
The first thing that caught his attention was the mist. It was thin and wispy, like the steam that came out of a glass soda bottle when the lid was popped off, and it swirled around his arms and legs and neck like there were snakes living inside it. He felt like he was caught inside a cold sauna.
The second thing that caught his attention was Bolt dropping out of nowhere on top of his head. They landed in a crumpled and painful heap on the floor.
Tim stood up feeling wobbly. Falling for so long had made him dizzy. He dusted himself off and took a closer look around. The hallway was long and narrow, and made of stone.
The ceiling, he noticed, was not visible. All that existed was silent blackness. He couldn’t even hear the rushing wind anymore. The air was completely still.
“What is this place?” Tim whispered to Bolt. For some reason, speaking normally felt dangerous.
“I don’t know,” Bolt replied. “Looks like a dungeon.”
“It’s creepy in here.”
Tim felt his nerves acting up. Even the tiniest breath felt like a dead giveaway to their whereabouts. He felt like there were eyes watching him from every angle. Quickly he spun around to try and locate them. He clutched his chest hard, trying desperately to suppress his rapid heartbeat. He could barely keep his panic down.
This was a bad place.
He could feel it.
In fact, he could feel it on the back of his neck, hot and wet and smelly.
Tim turned around and gazed in horror at the terrible monster before him, its foul breath invading his nostrils. He screamed…and ran.
Tim could feel Bolt behind him as he flew down the hallway, his feet cutting a path through the mist. There was a roar behind him and lights flashed all around. Tim screamed even louder and quickened his pace. Bolt was hollering, too.
Tim saw a door up ahead, the light of the room beyond peeking through the crack near the floor. He slammed into it and pushed the button without a second’s hesitation.
What he saw caused him even greater shock than the monster.
“TIM!!” Everyone shouted.
Tim stumbled out into the circular room and Bolt crashed into him from behind. They quickly shut the door, but before either of them could calm down they were tackled by Sean, Leela and Teresa.
“Guys?!” Tim cried. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Leela smacked him upside the head. “Oh that’s just great.” She complained. “We go through hell twice to find you and this is how you greet us?”
“Hey, I’ve been through hell plenty of times, too,” Tim said. “Finding you wasn’t a cakewalk in the tea park either. Have you ever fallen for a mile and not gotten hurt?!”
“What are you talking about?”
“Guys!” Sean shouted.
Everyone looked at Sean. He stood between the two parties, a stern look on his face.
“I know you’re all ‘happy’ to see each other, but could someone please tell me how to address one of these damn canisters?!”
Everyone’s faces fell and they fumed silently.
“I’ll get it.” Bolt said.
Bolt took the canister from Sean, wrote on the side with a pen, and put it in a tube. Tiny microsensors in the glass read the ink writing and calculated the path, and the canister was zooming away.
Leela eyed Bolt suspiciously. “How did you know how to do that?” She aksed.
“His dad works here.” Tim answered.
“Oh. Well in that case, can you help me with this one over here?” She directed Bolt over to the desk with the Red Bull file.
While Bolt wrote the address of the Red Bull company on the canister, Leela wrote a few things on the form, changing the name from Red Bull to Red Minotaur.
Tim was tapping his foot impatiently when they were finished. “Now that we’re done pranking companies can we focus on what to do next?” he aksed. “We’re still trapped in this hell hole of a Bureaucracy, and we can’t go back to school until we’ve exposed those smugglers.”
“How can you still think of that at a time like this?!” Leela demanded. “We’re lost! We have to get out of here!”
“And go where, Leela?! Where are we supposed to go with people trying to kill us? We can’t go back to school or they’ll get us for sure!”
“I’m afraid it’s too late for that.” Said a sinister voice from behind.
The five kids spun around to be confronted with a handful of muscular guards. Despite their surprise at finally coming into contact with humans again, Tim and Leela both took fighting stances and sprang into action. Tim took on three men at a time, working his way around them to keep them confused. Leela focused on breaking the others’ balance. Unfortunately they stood no chance. The ex-lovers were quickly subdued, their arms being gripped painfully in the guards’ massive fists. Sean, Teresa and Bolt surrendered immediately.
The guards’ leader stood before them with a stern look on his face, though Tim could see a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
“You punks are coming with us,” the leader said. “Number 1.0 wants to speak with you. After you sign these forms, of course.”
“Number 1.0?” Sean questioned as he obediently put his name down on the paper.
“Oh boy,” Bolt said thoughtfully.
The kids were escorted across the room and around the mountain of canisters, to an elevator. They were trembling in fear as they were forced inside. They’d been caught. Their game was up. What would happen to them now? Would they go to Juvie? Would they be forced apart and never see each other again?
Tim and Leela reached for each other’s hands in unison and their fingers intertwined.
The elevator reached the top of the chamber. Tim didn’t know how high up they were, but it was high enough for there to be clouds. The guards pushed them to the left and they began walking. Tim’s stomach was clenched so tight it hurt. His palms were sweaty and his mind was racing. He’d never been so scared in all his life. He could see his life flashing before his eyes, starting with the assault that had killed his parents.
The group came to a stop in front of a booth. It looked like a cubicle that had had one of the walls removed. In place of the fourth wall was a large desk that had the number 1.0 written on a golden shield. It was a magnificent desk, and behind it was a tall chair that had its back to them. Tim stared hard at the chair, fear flooding his entire system. He did not want that chair to turn around. Somehow he knew that confronting the person in that seat would be one of the worst experiences of his life.
An elderly hand emerged from behind the chair and waved the guards away. They left, leaving the kids huddled alone facing the chair.
The chair turned around, and everyone gasped in absolute terror.
It was Brunswick!
“You’re speechless, I see,” Brunswick said. “An admirable trait in a teenager.”
“What the hell is this, Brunswick?!” Tim demanded.
“I thought it would be obvious, Tim. I am Number 1.0. I have been for ten years, now.”
“Then why are you trying to kill us?!”
“You know too much. You found my secondary business. I mean, sure, Bureaucracy pays well, but it’s not just as fun. Breaking the rules kicks ass. Just aks Leela. She’ll tell you everything you need to know about getting a kick out of doing bad things.”
Leela hung her head in shame.
“Although I suppose I should thank you guys.” Brunswick continued.
Leela looked up. “Why?”
“I was having a hard time getting into the smuggling business. I had nowhere to hide the stuff. But then you went and had your little adventure with Santa Clause. You probably didn’t notice it, but you did a lot more damage to that furnace than you thought; enough to blow a hole in the wall and allow me to find the fallout shelter.”
Tim’s jaw dropped, his heart collapsing upon itself. It was his fault. The whole thing was his fault.
“Everything was going great,” Brunswick continued. “But then something else happened.”
Tim didn’t want him to continue, but he had to aks. “What?”
“There were certain extenuating circumstances,” purred a wicked voice from behind.
Fear freezing every nerve in his body, Tim turned around the others to face the ledge that opened into the chamber below.
There stood Skinner.
Everyone looked at Tim. “No,” he said. “No. It can’t be. It’s impossible. You can’t be here! I saw you! You were arrested! The police took you away! You can’t be here!”
Skinner grinned, showing every one of his teeth. “They don’t call me Lazarus for nothing.”
“You’re supposed to be in JAIL!!”
“You really don’t get it, do you?” Brunswick said. “The Bureaucracy has a man in every business in the galaxy. Do you think the police are an exception? They don’t arrest someone unless I say so! Emergencies are only emergencies if I want them to be!”
“You bastard!” Tim growled. “You tyrant! You gutter-spawned smudge of hell!”
“Ouch,” Brunswick mocked. “That hurt.”
Skinner walked around and leaned against Brunswick’s desk. “You can’t blame him, though, can you? He was never really good at letting other people tell him what to do.”
The two men laughed like hyenas.
Tim looked closely at the two monsters before him. The way they were laughing put them in a different light, somehow. They looked similar. They had identical smiles, matching rows of teeth. His eyes widened in horror.
“You guys are related!” Tim practically shouted.
Brunswick and Skinner both stopped laughing. They looked impressed with Tim.
“Not bad, Tim,” Brunswick said. “I knew you were smart, but this takes the cake. Don’t let old Joshua’s height here fool you. He may be taller than me, but he’s always been the runt of the litter.”
Skinner punched Brunswick on the arm and chuckled. “That’s big brother David. Always reminding everyone of how important he is.”
As they were kidding around with each other, Brunswick and Skinner looked practically harmless.
“Didn’t someone say something about extenuating circumstances?” Leela aksed.
“Well, that’s simple, Leela,” said a voice to the right. “My mission came first.”
Everyone looked over to see one of the last people they wanted to see: Ivan!
“Ugh! I should have known.” Tim growled.
“What mission?” Leela demanded.
With his hands in his pockets, Ivan strolled over to the desk and leaned against the shiny wooden surface.
“You know, Tim, Leela,” he said in a lustful voice. “I once went into your room while you slept.”
Tim and Leela gasped.
“The temptation to wake you was unbearable.” Ivan leaned back, his shoulders stretching and a longing look in his wicked smiling eyes. “The way I would reach out to stir you awake, and hold myself back ever so slightly. Every time one of you stirred, if it was just a flicker of an eye, I felt a curdling desire to wake you. Night after night I watched you together. And then when I was about to finally touch you and wake you up, I realized something wonderful.”
Ivan clenched his fists, his smile widening in pleasure. Tim was disgusted.
“I realized that Leela had become impulsive. And I knew how to fulfill my mission.”
Leela was trembling with rage, the urge to lunge out and kill Ivan getting stronger by the minute. “You’re sick!” she snarled. “You’re evil!”
“Anyone who would jump into bed with their boyfriend when they weren’t ready had to be impulsive,” Ivan continued. “So instead of waking you, I did something better. I whispered to you. ‘Go to the furnace.’ I said. ‘You want adventure. You will find it. Go to the furnace. Go to the furnace.’ And you heard me, Leela. You could hear me, and you obeyed. That very same day, you obeyed my orders. You went to the boiler room, and you went into the furnace. And I closed the door.”
Leela screamed and lunged forward. Tim and Teresa grabbed her arms and held her back. Leela looked like she was about to go completely mental. What was worse, Tim noticed, was that she looked like he had when he’d fought Santa.
“I returned later on in a mask. I wore elevated shoes to hide my identity. I led you out and hit you in the head. From there it was all up to you and Tim. I knew you would be impulsive enough to go back. I also knew that Tim, who loved you so much, would never want you to get hurt, as I had demonstrated. It was the voice of impulse against the voice of reason. It was only a matter of time before things got out of control. Seriously, Leela, you should have listened to Tim. You really don’t know how lucky you were to have someone care about you so much.”
Leela stopped struggling against her friends’ restraints. She looked up into Tim’s face, apologetic tears brimming in her eye.
“Of course, things got a little too far out of control.” Ivan went on. “You found the smugglers, and then you came here. Even I couldn’t maintain complete control over the situation.”
“WHY!?!” Leela shouted. “Why are you doing this, Ivan?! Why? What did we ever do?! Why us?”
“I’ve already given my answer, Leela. Your friends all know it. I told them that day in the back room, when they exposed me. I said to them: ‘It’s the bad things in life that make us who we are.’ Don’t you understand what that means?”
No one answered.
“Don’t you ever consider what it is that makes you different from others? Tim is an orphan who can’t remember half his life. Sean is ashamed of his entire family. And you, Leela, have no family. You all have different tragedies to tell. It’s these things that have brought you here to this spot.”
Tim was gazing at Ivan with bare shock. He was right!
“Leela,” Ivan said. “Where do you think you’ll be in ten years? Who will you be? I am creating who you will be. It’s the bad things that make us who we are, and it’s the bad things that make us who we will be. I am here to make you who you will be in the future. I am going to make you what you are meant to be! That is my mission! I will shape your destiny!!”
Ivan’s voice rang throughout the empty chamber, his words penetrating everything, working their way into the fearful hearts of his audience. They were all struck with terror at what Ivan was saying. All but one.
“A little too dramatic, I think,” Bolt said.
“You think so?” Ivan aksed. “I was thinking of doing an evil laugh, too.”
“Ha! Don’t even go there.”
Bolt stepped forward and joined the men at the desk.
“Bolt!” Sean shouted. “How could you?! I thought you were one of us!”
“I knew it!” Leela said. “You knew too much for this to be real. You’re the one who brought us here!”
“And yet you still followed!” Bolt remarked with a smile that was characteristically maniacal. “Shows how much you know!”
“I can’t believe any of this!” Teresa said in a shrill voice. “How could this happen! Why?”
“I already told you.” Ivan said.
“How can you possibly be getting these people to answer to you, Ivan?” Tim said, glaring at the men clustered around the horrible boy. “You’re a runt! A friggin’ midget! Why would these guys listen to you?!”
“They don’t.” Ivan answered. “They listen to the Beholder.”
“Thanks for the introduction, Master,” a gravelly voice commented from behind Tim.
He spun around and looked out over the railing. Hovering over the bottomless chamber was the monster he’d met in the stone corridor. It was red and scaly and disgusting. Slivers of drool dripped from between its glinting fangs. Its eyestalks hung limp on its wide body, like a platter of dead snakes. The gaze of its single eye pierced Tim with an icy stare that gazed into his very soul, sifting through overlapping memories and fears, dissecting him like a lab rat. It was a monstrous creature, the embodiment of evil.
“Each of Beholder’s eyestalks has a different power,” Ivan explained as the small crowd watched the monster. “One dose of the obedience eye and these gentlemen are under my complete control. Of course, I couldn’t have gotten Beholder to cooperate either, without the help of our mutual friend, and the supplier of my smuggling scheme.”
Ivan indicated to his left, where Professor Farnsworth came stumbling out of the shadows. Leela gasped at the state of him. His clothes were disheveled, sweat running in steady trickles down his neck. He fell to his knees, clawing at the ground to continue moving aimlessly onward. His breathing was ragged, filled with whimpers of fear and exhaustion.
“I told him I was a friend of his so-called nephew, and had him whip me up a computer chip which is installed in Beholder’s nervous system. One order disobeyed and his ass is history.”
The Professor looked up at Ivan. “WHERE AM I?!” he shouted. “THIS ISN’T THE WASHROOM! YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO TAKE ME THERE! WHAT’S HAPPENING?!”
The Professor stood and reached for Ivan, begging for a bit of merciful assistance.
“Get away from me you piece of-!” Ivan kicked the old man in the stomach and sent him to the floor, shattering many of his bones.
“OW! MY COLOSTOMY!!”
“You’ll never get away with this!” Tim shouted. “We’ll expose you all! One way or another you’ll all be behind bars!”
The menacing group laughed.
“And how exactly are you going to do that Timothy?” Skinner aksed.
Tim reached into his pocket and pulled out his Dictaphone. He dramatically hit the Stop button.
“I’ll turn this in to the proper authorities. I’m sure Supreme Court would love to hear what you gentlemen have told me.”
For a moment the others looked hopeful. Could they still come out of this alive? Could they really win?
“I don’t think you will.” Skinner said calmly. He held up a stack of papers. “Don’t you want to know what was in that folder you found in my office?”
Tim’s jaw dropped as he considered what it would mean for him to look at that file.
“Haven’t you ever wondered what your life was like with your parents? All of your memories can come back, Ivan tells me, if you just see their faces. That could happen if you get rid of that tape.”
Tim held the recording in his extended hand, his entire body frozen. Was he going to agree to this vile man’s terms? Would he abandon justice for his own wishes? Did he really want to know his parents that badly?
Tim slid the Dictaphone into his pocket.
“Joshua Lazarus?” Tim said. “Do you remember when you attacked me in the archway a month ago?”
Skinner looked confused and angry. “I did no such thing!” he said.
Tim laughed. “Of course you didn’t. Then I suppose you don’t remember the souvenir I received from you that day, either.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Tim growled deeply in his throat, rage and disgust and revenge boiling up inside him.
“Let me demonstrate,” he said softly.
Tim brought his hand out of his pocket. Clasped in his fist was the knife! The very knife he had been attacked with, that he had taken from his assailant as his memories had returned. The knife he had kept with him all this time, knowing he would need it. It was the knife he had taken with him to the Central Bureaucracy to fight the smugglers he had now found.
Tim pushed his friends out of the way.
With a shout, Tim lunged at Skinner with the knife!
Skinner blocked him and the two wrestled with the blade in the air.
Ivan lunged at Tim.
The Beholder went berserk, its eyestalks lighting up and sending beams of light everywhere.
Leela felt one of the beams hit her.
Another beam hit Bolt.
Another beam hit Skinner, Tim and Ivan. In a brilliant flash of green light, they were gone.
It was a curious sensation that Tim was feeling. There was a hard buzzing all around. It felt like the tingling feeling he got when one of his limbs fell asleep. But this kind was different; there was so much that it bordered on pain. He thought he could feel his bones bending in different directions, but he couldn’t tell. There was no feeling in this place, wherever that was.
Then there was pain in his knees, ankles and hands. He fell down hard on the concrete sidewalk, his vision daring to fade. With a weakening force, he pulled the images in front of his eyes together. He winced. Every muscle in his body ached, and he had a splitting headache. Soon colors became shapes, and shapes became forms. He could see again. What he saw was not pleasing at all: Skinner and Ivan.
Tim’s enemies were kneeling on the ground beside him, massaging aches in their bodies and moaning painfully. Their journey had not been easy either. Journey to where, though? Tim sat up and looked around. They were on a sidewalk, presumably somewhere in New New York.
It was nighttime. What? That couldn’t be right. When Tim had been in the Central Bureaucracy it had been midday at least! They’d gone inside and the sun was still up. Then they’d done a ton of crazy things, and then Ivan and Skinner showed up, and--!
Tim gasped. The Beholder! They’d been hit with one of the eye beams! What had it done to them? Where was he? And why did Ivan and Skinner have to be here with him?
Then he remembered the knife in his hand. He checked to make sure it was still there. His fist was still rigidly clenching the handle, blade out.
The next thing Tim noticed was the crowd. He and his traveling companions had fallen out of nowhere and landed on the sidewalk in the middle of the night. There were people standing all around, gazing in wonder and shock at the appearance of these strangers. Tim could hear whispers, and he was aware that almost the entire crowd had their eyes on his knife. He stowed it away immediately.
Ivan stood up and ran away without even looking around.
“Hey, Ivan!” Tim shouted after the boy. “What the hell are you doing?!”
Skinner stopped a nearby pedestrian and aksed them a question. Whatever the answer was, it surprised him, and it made him very happy. Tim felt terrified. What had Skinner just learned that he liked so much?
Tim was suddenly left all alone as Skinner took off and hurried down a dark alley. Tim had to follow him. Whatever was going on, Skinner wanted to do something bad. He had to stop him.
Tim chased the evil man through the dark passage in haste. All noise from the street had disappeared. He dodged between trash cans and fire escapes and tons of other debris. He began to lose his breath. Skinner rounded the corner of a large building. Tim pulled his knife back out, the same one he’d salvaged from his encounter with the masked man. He had to be prepared.
Just as Tim rounded the corner to further pursue Skinner, he felt a large fist slam into his solar plexus. All wind was blown out of him and he flew back five feet. The knife fell out of his hand.
Skinner grabbed the knife and ran down the alley toward the street. Tim looked up from the ground where he lay and saw people on the sidewalk. Horror struck at Tim’s heart as he realized the familiarity of the situation. If this was really what he thought it was…
He got up and ran.
Skinner reached around the edge of the alley and grabbed someone. A little boy. His parents followed. Tim’s parents.
Tim froze in his steps for a moment. He was right. He’d come back in time. This was the night his parents would die!
“Not this time!” Tim growled. He ran towards Skinner, his face twisted in rage.
Skinner held the knife Tim had provided up to the little boy’s throat. Little Tim whimpered in fear.
“It’s been a long time, Mara,” Skinner said to the woman.
“Don’t hurt him!” Tim’s mother cried.
Tim’s father threw his wallet past Skinner. Skinner followed it with his eyes, giving the brave man enough time to pull his son out of his hands.
“RUN!!” he shouted.
Tim ran faster and faster down the alley, determined to stop Skinner. His father and Skinner faced off against each other, poised for battle. Tim ran into Skinner’s back, and the knife was plunged into his father’s stomach.
Tim saw it happen.
Time stopped, and all sound disappeared from the world. His father spat blood across the asphalt, his legs giving way beneath him. He fell to the ground. Tim fell to his knees beside the father he’d never known. His hands were trembling, his heart turning to ice. He gazed into the man’s fading eyes.
“Dad?” Tim whispered.
His father looked up at him and smiled. “Don’t worry, Tim.” He said. “Everything is—“
He closed his eyes.
Skinner chuckled. “One down.”
Skinner rounded on Tim’s mother, who was clutching her son in fear further down the alley. She started shrieking in fear as he advanced. Tim tried to catch up with him. His mother pushed Little Tim out of the way.
“Save my baby!” She shouted.
The little boy ran at Tim. Tim pushed his young self aside. He fell down and hit his head hard. He slowly fell unconscious.
Tim ran towards Skinner. He knew he wasn’t fast enough. His surroundings were stretching before his eyes, as if to push him further and further from his quarry. He stretched a hand out.
Skinner slit her throat. She fell. So did Tim.
Skinner cackled wildly and ran away. “I’ve done it!!!”
Tim pushed himself up. His hands had scraped. Tears were running down his face. It was over, he realized. It had happened, and there was nothing he could have done to stop it. The only reason he was here was because this had happened. It was all his fault.
Tim knelt down crying. “Why,” he whimpered, “WHY DID I KEEP THAT GODDAMN KNIFE!!!”
Snow began to fall. Each flake that alighted on the lifeless bodies of Tim’s mother and father deepened the cold abyss in which life now stood. They were gone. That was it. Just…gone.
For a long time Tim stayed there, watching everything at once, knowing deeply in his heart that nothing could change, not even his pain. All was lost.
The beam hit Leela in the chest like a battering ram. She fell backward.
Bolt crumpled in a heap at the foot of the desk.
Tim was gone.
Leela looked around frantically, panicking where she stood. Tim was gone! The first person to love her and he was gone! What had she done?!
Now it was just her, Teresa, Sean, Bolt and Brunswick all alone with the Beholder looking on. “Oops,” he said.
“What do we do now?” Teresa whimpered.
Sean was trembling on the ground. He was breathing heavily. The commotion had set off his nerves.
All of them were wondering what had happened to their best friend. They were so distressed they could barely think straight. It was as if all sense in the world had disappeared with Tim.
“He’s gone,” Leela practically whispered. “He’s just gone. That’s it. There’s nothing we can do. I’ve driven Tim to his death.”
Teresa put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Don’t talk like that, Leela” she said. “You couldn’t have done anything.”
“Oh, this is sweet,” Brunswick said disgusted. “Why don’t we start braiding each other’s hair while we’re at it?”
“Shut up you prick!” Sean rasped at him. “My best friend is gone because of you!”
“Me? I didn’t do anything. You’re the ones that came here.”
“It’s my fault, Sean!” Leela shouted. “I forced him into bringing us here!”
“No it’s not! You didn’t force him to do anything!” Sean shouted back. “It was completely out of your hands!”
Leela fell to the floor in pain. Her arms were burning, like her very bones were on fire, blistering her flesh from the inside out. She clutched her arms tight, and her nails dug deeply into the skin. Her elbows twisted and stretched. Spikes thrust their way out of her arms, twisting around and cutting Leela’s fingers.
Teresa and Sean rushed to her aid, feeling completely helpless. All they could do was watch, unable to do a single damn thing.
And then the pain was gone. All at once it disappeared. The protrusions on her elbows worked with her arms as though she’d had them her entire life. They curled forward slightly, and when Leela touched them they felt like giant fingernails. The Beholder had given her some kind of strange talons!
“Cool,” Ivan said.
Everyone turned in perplexed shock to see Ivan standing before them, as young and evil as ever. Beside him stood Skinner. But Skinner looked different. His blondish hair had gone completely grey, and there were several deep wrinkles in his forehead. He’d aged!
“What are you doing here?” Leela shouted at them.
“We just thought we’d come to say hi,” Skinner said calmly. His voice was deeper.
“What happened to Tim?” Sean demanded. “What have you done with him?!”
“Beats me,” Ivan commented. “I haven’t seen him since I ran off all those years ago.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means we went back in time,” Tim said from behind.
Tim’s friends rejoiced at his return, but none so much as Leela, who ran up and threw her arms around him and hugged him so tight she almost strangled him.
Tim didn’t take his eyes off Skinner. The others backed away slightly as he advanced toward his parents’ killer.
“It was you, wasn’t it?” he said smoothly. “You didn’t freeze yourself like I did, so you were around this whole time, even since before the beginning. You were the one who attacked me, and you deliberately left the knife for me to take. You planned everything.”
Skinner smiled. “Yes.”
“I’m going to kill you.”
“No you won’t. You know what will happen if you do.”
“You’re right.” Tim said. “I do. So there’s nothing stopping me. I will do whatever it takes to kill you.”
Tim advanced on Skinner, who smiled.
“That’s all very well,” Skinner said, “but how do you plan on doing that, when I’ve got the upper hand?”
He reached into his pocket and withdrew the stiletto knife. He still had it! It didn’t stop Tim, though. He didn’t even falter. He just kept walking.
“Tim,” Sean said nervously, “don’t do it. You can’t be serious.”
“This man ruined my life, Sean. It’s his fault that all of this has happened.”
“Is it, Tim?” Skinner aksed stealthily. “Is it really? Was I the one who brought you here? Was I the one who frightened the Beholder and sent us back in time? Was I the one who brought the knife to that night? No, Tim. It’s you. You are the one responsible for—!”
Tim lunged at Skinner. Skinner tried to stab Tim, but he dodged and spun around his arm.
Leela and Teresa and Sean shouted at both of them to stop. Ivan pulled Bolt out of the way.
Skinner swung the knife sideways. Tim ducked and punched Skinner in the nuts. Skinner grimaced in pain. Tim made a grab for the knife. Skinner grabbed hold of his wrist and pushed him away.
Tim backed up into the desk. He groped around behind his back as Skinner came at him with the knife yet again. He threw Brunswick’s nameplate at Skinner’s face and hit him in the eye. It bled.
Brunswick scrambled over the desk and ran away.
Skinner flattened Tim on the top of the desk, the knife held aloft by Tim’s resilient arms. Tim refused to lose this fight. He had resolved to finish this years ago.
Tim’s elbow hit a button on the desk. The desk moved out of the wall toward the edge of the floor, where the railing had gone down. A motor started. The desk was an airplane!
Tim punched Skinner in the face. He got enough room to slide out from under him and get up on the desk. The desk went over the edge, and Skinner dangled over it as they flew off, his arms barely holding on.
They dove down and swung around. The desk was out of control, flying all around the chamber, even brushing over the top of the pile of canisters.
Tim stood up. He could barely keep his balance. He walked over to Skinner and looked down into his face, which showed no fear. Tim placed a foot on Skinner’s forearm and crushed it. Skinner slid back until he was hanging by his hands, one still clutching the knife.
Tim smiled. “They call you Lazarus, don’t they?! Let’s see you come back after this!”
Tim crushed Skinner’s hands. He fell. Tim crouched down and looked below him as the desk swooped between tubes. Had he done it? He couldn’t see him.
Skinner’s hand grabbed Tim from behind and pulled him around to face him.
“I came back!” He shouted. “Now what?!”
“Now you die!”
Skinner stabbed at Tim. Tim grabbed Skinner’s arm and bent his elbow. His hand turned back on him, and he stabbed himself.
Skinner’s face went pale, his face frozen in terror. He had lost. He was dying, the metal of the knife twisting and slicing against his insides.
Tim wrenched the knife out of Skinner’s gut and let his adversary fall.
Skinner’s body lay atop the canisters as Tim grabbed the controls and stopped the plane in midair. He maneuvered down and looked closely at what he had done. The man wasn’t sick, and he wasn’t sleeping. He was dead.
Ivan looked over the edge of the railing in sputtering fear and anguish. He looked like he could cry. He was trembling with rage. Tears streamed down his face as Tim looked him in the eyes.
“You bastard!” Ivan cried. “You killed my father!”
Tim’s face was frozen when he went back to face his friends. They were equally frozen. No one knew what to say. Tim wasn’t Tim anymore. He wasn’t the same man who had kissed Leela all those times, or had fun with Sean and Teresa. He was no longer a simple high school junior. Tim was a murderer.
The journey home had never been so long. Tim, Leela, Sean and Teresa all walked in silence, retracing each step they had taken, as if hoping that they could undo everything that had happened if they went back to the beginning. But they all knew that they would never be the same again. All the way back to Brooklyn they walked, down through the sewer, into the tunnels, to the furnace, through the Keg, and finally back to the concrete courtyard.
The sun was setting, and birds were chirping off in the distance. Students could be heard going about their lives. It had been mere hours ago that they had last been here with them, yet if felt like it had been years. They had traveled hundreds of miles across time and space to find themselves in a world they were no longer a part of. They did not belong here, anymore.
Tim stood in front of the stone fountain, gazing up at the cloudless sky. He felt empty inside, and yet somehow torn in two. He could feel his companions’ eyes on him.
A tear crawled out of his eye.
Tim threw up on the ground. His eyes rolled in his head and he collapsed in a messy heap, bile spurting out between his lips. He fell unconscious.
“He’s not breathing!”
“I’m not getting a pulse!”
Author’s Note: A devastating blow has been dealt to Leela and her friends. Truths that were once hidden have been unearthed, and now Tim has to pay the price. With so much left undone, will they ever make it through this mess alive?