Big Echo

Critical SF

 Seven Rooms and the Key

by John Shirley

Kolt and The Box hovered about fifty yards over a craggy, lichen-splashed bluff. Kolt was a man, while The Box was a shiny gray-green talking box--the AI who had transported Kolt here.  They had just arrived at the quantum splinter some called Coil: a plane of the Between where things are what they seem, but seem to be less than they are; where straight lines are soon revealed as nooses.

Floating side by side, Kolt and the Box gazed at the structure crowning the high end of a ravine cutting the bluff. The structure was shaped like a giant nautilus shell; it stood on a rocky shelf, slightly embedded at its smaller, more tightly spiraled end; its opening was poised like an enormous tuba bell over the converging cliffs.

“There it is,” said The Box.  “The Coil House. Though of course it’s not a house--and while it has not so many chambers as a nautilus, the overall effect inside is the same.”

The Coil House was lit from within by a dull glow, pale in the dusk. Kolt reckoned the nautilus-shaped construction to be a little bigger than an earthly three-story house. 

“Looks like a house, of sorts, to me,” said Kolt. A balcony with wide glass doors closed off the opening of the nautilus, near the curved, scaly, roof. “It...houses things.” The Box did not elaborate, except to say, “And of course, it encompasses the Lightning Axis you’re seeking. If the report is true.”

“If?” Kolt scowled. “InterDimensional Travel seemed quite definite that there’s an unclaimed Lightning Axis in there.”

“There is a fairly reliable report.”  After a moment The Box added, “I trust your travel agent back at IDT mentioned that this is a dangerous place--in an altogether dangerous dimension...?”

“Oh yes. It was mentioned. It is well known.”

A soft, damp breeze flowed over Kolt; on the bluff below, a flock of eyeless black birds called out raucously with such rhythmic insistence they seemed to convey some specific cryptic message. The leafless trees shivered like ganglia, quivering with the bird call.  Through the narrow black-stone ravine below the trees flowed a glittering stream of water--it flowed uphill toward the Coil House, mocking physics all the way to a notch under the Coil House. It was as if the giant nautilus were sucking the water upward.

It was a primeval landscape, altogether, and the Coil House was somehow without any temporal reference, at least from Kolt’s point of view. In Kolt’s home dimension, standard Earth, it was 2089. Here, it was, perhaps, a hundred thousand years earlier or a hundred thousand years later...

 Even at this distance Kolt could feel the crackle in the air about the Coil House; a living electromagnetic flux.

Kolt looked at his guide, found himself gazing at his own image, a dark, slightly warped reflection in a polished square: Kolt was white-faced, long-faced; he was gray-eyed, cold-eyed. His pouting lips were dyed stylishly black; his hair was hidden in the shiny dark-red deflection wrap that covered his head like a tight fitting cowl; he wore a black cling-suit. He was a compact man, thin, leanly muscular, and normally he was confident.

“You seem reluctant to enter the house,” The Box observed. “Would you like to return to your basal dimension?”

“No. I’m just...not quite ready. Give me a moment.”

Kolt adjusted his breathing, his heartbeat. He was thinking of a remark his advisor had made. “An Acquisitor at the Coil occasionally returns--but it’s only a partial return. One must leave behind some of oneself--a toll charge.”

The Box said, “Whether or not you proceed, we now require the remainder of your payment.”

Kolt grunted. He touched his face, pressed a stud in the cheekbone, sub-vocalized a group of numbers, his implant authorizing payment in life-force units.

“Payment received,” said The Box. “Only a ten-point-one allotment? You travel frugally.”

“Just be prepared to transport me home, if the need comes,” said Kolt.

He used his implanted chip to direct the graviton field, and descended at a sliding angle. As he went, he heard a chip message transmitted from The Box. “Free advice. Do not make the mistake of assuming that what you see in the Coil House is hallucination.”

Kolt alighted on the balcony, which seemed made of seashell essences.

 He floated slowly toward the opaque double doors--and they opened for him, swinging inward. He was still at low-gravitation, and a strong vacuuming current of air drew him into the building.

The suction ceased; the doors closed firmly behind him. Kolt’s feet settled onto the floor. He controlled the instant inner gush of fear rising up in him. I’ve got the plasma wand for protection...And I’m smarter than this thing. I have visited many splinter worlds, and have faced much. In addition, I have the IDT protection field. (“87% probability of survival strongly averred! A Must for the Prepared InterDimensional Traveler!”)

The room was poorly lit by a diffuse glow from no particular source. The shelves lining the side walls were crowded with dourly painted bric-a-brac; some of it appeared to be chipped antique curios, so battered as to be not quite identifiable. Was that a shepherdess and a lamb? Or was it a long haired butcher and a skinned pig? And were those eyeless black birds, on the lower shelf; did they move, and call out?

The opposite wall, of pearlescent material like the floors and ceiling, was slanted like the inner hull of a ship; it angled halfway between vertical and horizontal. In it was a door, which followed the slant of the wall. “How awkward,” Kolt muttered.

The door opened, and a man stood in the way--without falling, despite the slant of the floor he was coming from.

The man standing on the slanted floor beyond was wide-faced, red-lipped, expression jovial, dressed in a loud red and blue checkered suit and a red bowtie. In a moment, the colors of the suit changed; now they were green and yellow. A moment later they were orange and purple.

IDT had not been able--or willing--to brief Kolt on everything he might encounter here, but he knew this as an Unman, not alive unto himself. A thin umbilicus extended from the Unman’s back to disappear into the walls of the room behind him. He was an outgrowth of the house. His china-blue eyes moved under transparent nictitating membranes.

“And how can we be of service?” the Unman asked in a pleasant voice, bending the cupid’s bow of his lips in an utterly artificial smirk. He stepped into the shelf room but remained angled according to the perspective of the room he’d just left, like a boxing dummy poised before the upswing. The Unman waved a pudgy, nail-less hand at the shelves. “Have you found something you liked?”

With his peripheral vision Kolt noticed the ambiguous objects on the shelves moving. Kolt turned to look at the curios purely to draw the Unman’s attention from himself.

 The Unman followed Kolt’s gaze.

“Yes, that one’s nice, sir,” the Unman began Unctuously. “Especially if you’ve got a young one at home.” He chuckled. “Some of them were Young Ones at Home...once.”

While the man’s face was averted, Kolt reached into an upper fold of his cling-suit, drew out the little plasma wand. Kolt told his chip to open a gap in his protective field to allow the plasma wand’s blast, and with a peevish humming sound, a bolt of livid blue-white energy engulfed the Unman’s head, spun it about, the spinning compressing it till it burst:  a kind of halo of glutinous yellow and gray spread out, spattering the frame of the door, filling the room with an acrid smell.

The Unman wobbled, headless. Then the headless body put its fists on its hips and shifted to stand flat on the floor.

Kolt stepped back a little, and closed the gap in his protective field.

Thereupon the Unman’s jacket opened down the front, of its own accord, revealing a mouth on his smooth, nipple-free chest. It was the same as the mouth that had graced the face of the Unman--but much larger. The mouth frowned, and said, “I’m afraid that violence is simply not acceptable legal tender here. If you’d like to buy something you’ll have to provide cold, hard lifeforce currency. If you would proffer a Purchasing Card, sir, we can proceed. I can also accept DNA samples.”

Kolt  shuddered at the thought of DNA samples--his religion opposed them.

He speculated that this first room was a trap for tourist-minded Seekers, rather than Acquisitors--a tourist trap to confuse, to trap, via consumer reflexes. The Unman would trick them into lowering their protection fields.

Kolt wondered where the room’s teeth were located.

He bowed slightly, tucked the plasma wand away, and while his hand was hidden, he tapped the thin little 3D printer, sending it instructions from his implant. It quickly extruded an apparent “card”.

He opened a gap in his protective field, tossed the card through at the Unman--the Unman snatched at the card and Kolt threw himself flat. As the Unman melted back into the walls of the room beyond, the gray, subtly writhing curios on the shelves grew, extended instantaneously, lengthening as if squeezed from tubes, wrapping around one another, snapping, tearing, at the space Kolt had occupied a second earlier. Kolt shuddered: coming from every side, enwrapping him, they’d have held him in place until his field ran through its power. Then they’d have crushed him and fed the house.

Kolt scrambled under whipping, mockingly ambiguous shapes; he reached the door, threw himself at the entrance, gaining the next room just as the door swung closed. Moving rapidly in the low gravity he flew through headfirst, rolled, got to his feet--blinked in confusion to see a number of people at a cocktail party standing about, assiduously ignoring him. The “men” were wearing tuxedos, the “women” wore gowns, all in styles egregiously outdated.

Except for the umbilici attached to their backs, the Unpeople seemed perfectly Earth-normal. They were fashionably grave, murmuring to one another with grim wryness over varicolored cocktail glasses.

Would they attack him? He put his hand on the plasma weapon once more--if he drew it into view, he might prompt some untoward response from the room.

He must press onward.

Heart drumming, Kolt slipped gently through the murmuring crowd, stepping over the occasional umbilicus as he moved toward the door opposite. Knobless and pearly, ten or twelve steps away, the door was at a forty-five degree angle from the floor he walked on. Quietly, their voices getting gradually louder, the chattering Unpeople edged closer to Kolt, never looking at him, or speaking to him. He made out a few words, the occasional phrase in their murmuring, here and there: “Metatarsal...ebullient...corpuscle...compendium of ferment...laughable...raging rash, my dear...Invidious...psychically repellent...delicious, my sweet, sweet friend...”  There was nothing in their cocktail glasses, he noticed.

He was a few steps from the door when an Unwoman reached through the hole in his IDT protective field--the gap he’d forgotten to close after tossing the card--and, without looking at him, without ceasing to murmur to the man she spoke to, she tore the protection field’s transmission unit from his sash.

His shield shimmered and was gone.

“Fuck!” he blurted, and, rushing on, drew out the plasma wand. A sizzling pain made itself known at his right shoulder.

He twisted away, and glanced at the wound. A chubby lady socialite--like the Unman from the first room but in a tight iridescent gown--had torn a piece of his cling-suit away, along with a strip of skin. She gnawed at the wet red strip of Kolt as if it were a party canapé off a tray, and sipped her absent cocktail. Grinding his teeth, Kolt pushed through the tightening  crowd around the door, and someone else he didn’t see clearly reached out as he passed--without looking at him, never looking at him--flicked their sharp fingers at his thigh and more cloth came away, along with a nub of flesh. He yelped and shouldered onward, the throng closing round him, many of them taking samples of Kolt--none so much as glancing at him as they reached his way, as if he were carried on a tray by a waiter. He snarled and twitched and cursed and wrenched away, then activated the wand, slapping at it at snatching hands, so that fingers shriveled into boneless sockets and arms withdrew like the limbs of startled spiders.

Kolt reached the door and tapped it in a memorized pattern. The door slid aside.

He ducked through. The Unparty was shut behind him; the room he was in was suddenly quiet. He was gasping, bleeding from a dozen small wounds. The walls in this smaller room were clustered with folded black things like restless gloves. They began to shuffle, to rustle; they burst out at him, leathery hands, with webs between the fingers, flying at his face, sucking with lamprey mouths. He stumbled through, slashing with his plasma wand, and reached the fourth room.

Where Kolt fought a boa of greasy smoke, a serpentine thing made only of rippling inexorability; he almost lost consciousness as it condensed, tightening gelatinously around his throat. He freed himself with a technique he had learned from an AI who idolized Houdini.

In the next room, an Unwoman resembling his gorgeous sister Zenz, whom he’d always secretly desired, tried to lure him into its arms. She was nude, pale as a ghost, her nipples and labia pink as newborn mice. She whispered huskily to him of coupling and endless delight.How would this semblance kill him once she had her hands on him?

Worse--the monstrous exposure of it. The Coil House had reached into his mind, and found an avenue for psychological attack. The intrusion, the degradation of it...And--a sibling. Sharing DNA...He was Kolt of the Quissic Kolts--they were more than tightly knit. They were DNA devotees; every room in the family manse had a holographic shrine to the family DNA in it.  Family sanctity was innate, engraved on the soul of a Quissic Kolt.

 But Kolt wept as he drew essence of shade from his pouch and draped her in it, so he could bear to destroy her with plasma bursts. The semblance burned apart, wailing, “Why do you hurt me so, brother my love?”

In the sixth room he paused to catch his breath, to calm himself. It was a small room; he had to stoop under the ceiling. There was a door just ten feet away, at the top of the upslanting floor. He decided that the thing waiting by the door wouldn’t attack at once. It was speaking to him in soft, familiar tones, but he blocked the words from his mind.

Wounds throbbing, Kolt sighed and climbed up the floor--and was unable to prevent himself from seeing the thing that crept along there. It was a woman’s head, moving across the floor like a snail. It inched its way along, gradually turning so it was half facing him...

Kolt whimpered. It was his mother’s head. Her bodiless head, crawling...

He was not merely Kolt. He was a Quissic Kolt...

This wasn’t fair.  It was his mother’s face, Felicia Kolt’s face, replicated  with every mole and seam. He knew it was a physical object, no hallucination. If he touched it, it would feel like a human head. Her head.

 First, Zerz--and then his mother. The profoundest demeaning of a Quissic: His mother’s head, with her silvery braided hair, its glimmering blue sheen. But the expression was demented; the lips slathered, the eyes rolled. Mindless as a snail, Mother’s head was dragging itself with its chin, thrusting its jaw out to pull itself along with an ugly waggling motion. It gibbered softly, unintelligibly, its tone plaintive as it tugged its way to a dessert plate on the floor; on the bone-china plate were two narrow wedges, slices of the Quissic Fruit pie his mother printed out for him--except his nose told him the filling was excrement. And she darted her tongue to lap at it, sucking the brown paste, muttering miserably, licking at the sticky wedges...

“Ungh,” Kolt burst out, covering his eyes. The attacks on his family struck past his training, punched through his sophistication.

Suddenly he wanted to give up, let it destroy him--the pain from his wounds, his psychic exhaustion, and a subliminal urgency from the Coil House itself: Give up. Find Release.

Why not? The walls would close in; the digestion would begin. It would lap up his consciousness as well as his body. Then it would be over.

Like a Venus fly trap, the Coil House drew travelers from the basal world, and looked for ways to lower them, to make them pliable, edible, absorbable. But it did contain something of value, a lure to draw people in...

You’re in the sixth room, he told himself. One more to go before you can break through to the axis, the spine of the house.

Kolt turned to his training; he found his inner node of attention, dragged his mind from identification with the image of his mother’s crawling, demented head. He turned instead to his goal.

Only two other Acquisitors possessed a Coil House axis: the spine of Coil House conveyed the possibility of inter-dimensional travel without using The Box, or an agency; he would need only will, the axis and a sufficiency of energy...

Kolt reached into his pouch, found he had another Essence of Shade, and blotted the crawling head from sight. He scrambled quickly past it, and opened the door into the seventh room.

The seventh room was only as big as a double closet. The four walls were mirrors. He saw no farther door. Somewhere, beyond one of these walls, was the Coil House axis, a battery for IAMton energy, refined lifeforce, the atomic particle of consciousness itself. The Coil House had soaked up the lifeforce of the hundreds of Seekers and Acquisitors.

Kolt moved half a step farther in, and the light increased--he saw his reflections in the four walls; an infinite array of Kolts. No door, only mirrors. How was he to get through to whatever chamber contained the axis? Was there a trigger hidden in the glass?

He reached out and touched a mirror experimentally, pressing his fingers to his reflection’s face.

The mirror was soft to the touch. The glass, the image, was pliable under his fingers, warping at his touch--and the mirror image of his face collapsed under his fingers. His own face crumpled along with it; Kolt’s actual face was crumpled in exactly the way the mirror reflection was, conforming to the warpage in the soft glass. His corporeal face was flattened by finger marks, painlessly, as if his flesh had become clay for unseen fingers. He had been too long under the house’s quantum-uncertainty influence--a kind of dimensional sympathetic magic was in the air. In changing the mirror he had crushed his own jaw so that his mouth was fused shut, his nose had flattened, the nostrils shut off, and he couldn’t breathe. He touched his own face and confirmed it--his face really had been crushed out of shape, flattened.  

Struggling for breath, Kolt clutched at his throat in panic. He forced himself to calmness and reached out to the mirror, thinking to smooth it down. But it had already returned to smoothness. And the only image it would return was of the semblance he had now: grotesquely crushed, flattened. By his own fingers.

He contacted his implant chip and quickly sorted through options; there was an app he’d brought along as a decoy. It might be used...

Starting to feel dizzy from lack of oxygen, he activated a holographic image of Kolt, a solid-appearing copy of his normal self, standing between him and the mirror.

His proper image restored, Kolt’s own physical face re-formed again, and his mouth and nose were instantly repaired. He sucked in a long breath of air, and made the hologram vanish. And then the floor too, vanished beneath him.

He fell--but reflexively prompted a graviton current, and so bobbed up again to float in place. Hovering, Kolt looked down to see rushing water about five yards below, the stream that flowed uphill to the Coil House was plunging down into a pit, from which exhaled an  all-embracing icy cold breath smelling of rank musk. The cold waterfall hissed at him as it slipped into blackness, and a mist rose to make his feet and hands tingle. It was not another room of the Coil House, down there, he knew that instinctively; it was death.

Kolt looked again at the reflected mirrors, slightly blurred by mist rising from below, and thought it would be disastrous to try his plasma wand on the glass. But there was one intuitively plangent possibility. He consulted his apps again, found an image of a door, and projected it. The hologram of the door hung in the air, was reflected in the glass, and then solidified, in keeping with the dimensional transfiguration at work in the room.

Kolt reached out, grabbed the doorknob, turned it, and the door opened. It was dark, beyond.

 But he had no other route, now. He drifted through the door...

And Kolt found himself in the outside world. Groaning, he landed on a span of rock, and looked around, reverberating with an exquisite cognitive dissonance...

He was standing on the edge of the precipice, outside the house, listening to the tinkling mockery of the impertinent creek.

 Swaying, his wounds aching, his hands trembled as he fought an impulse to switch off his graviton control and fling himself to his death in the abyss. The Coil House’s influence still pushed at him, urging self-murder. Were Kolt to throw himself off the cliff, he would still end up feeding the house...

He turned numbly to face the Coil House. The door he had created was gone, as he’d known it would be. The curved pearly outer walls would be impervious. No use wasting plasma energy trying to blast them open.

Kolt could see the place at the tight center of the nautilus spiral, near the stony embedding, where the house’s entrails would be: indeed, where the house’s spine, the lightning axis would be. But the only access was through the seven rooms--so it was said. And at the seventh he’d somehow been led to take the wrong door.

It was dark out here; assertively moonless. The birds had quieted but something else was making a long low plaintive sound, to which something else responded with idiot laughter, as if to say, no use pleading.

Kolt took a deep breath, and gathered his inner, most secret self together. Then he walked--stumbled, really--over to the curved wall of the Coil House. He reached out, ran the tips of his fingers over the shell. It was cold to the touch but vibrated with unearthly life.

Was that the axis he felt, vibrating within the Coil House? If someone gained the axis, the house always grew a new one, or so IDT claimed.

“One option you have,” said The Box, startling him as it soared down to hover to his left, “is start over again. Go back to the first room, via the balcony. Of course, the house will have changed its traps, having learned...”

Kolt dropped his hands from the wall, and glared morosely at The Box. Start over? A psychic exhaustion weighed him down. He wanted only to sleep--but he could feel the nightmares stored up, waiting to spring at him from his subconscious. The seven chambers of the subconscious...

He frowned. He nodded to himself, feeling a sudden inspiration; and with it, a wellspring of energy.

Kolt turned to the wall again, placed his hands on it, and froze where he stood. But from the back of his head projected a beam of whirling multicolored light--an image of Kolt, stepping up to the back of Kolt’s original statue-still body. The projection emanated another light, that encompassed the original, coating the true Kolt in holography. Here, where the quantum uncertainty field, shaped by the Coil House’s living electromagnetic emanation, made imagery into fact.

A small door opened at the base of the original Kolt’s head. Within was the upper tip of Kolt’s spine, the cervical vertebrae, exposed. Kolt’s projected double reached in, and extracted the top two vertebra. The bone unlocked neatly from its place. The ghostly, holographic Kolt, now relatively physical, carried out Kolt’s transmitted bidding: it took the tiny piece of spinal bone, which was vaguely key-shaped, to the center of the spiral; he pressed it into a tiny slot at the very center of the spiral. He turned the key, there came a metaphysical click--and it was done. The projection then extracted the key--and the Coil House trembled. The projection returned to the frozen Kolt, and replaced the vertebra. The tiny door at the base of Kolt’s skull shut as the projected Kolt became one with the corporeal Kolt.

Animated again, Kolt levitated to a safe distance to watch the house begin to uncoil. The Box joined him.

The Coil House unraveled like a broken mainspring ; it became soft, falling inward like a broken soufflé, then collapsed onto its side to ooze stained-glass chaos from shattered doorways...

“I’ll be damned,” The Box said. “That’s not how it was accomplished by the others. But if you could do it that way, why didn’t you do that at the start?”
“I didn’t know to, till the nautilus turned me inside out. The knowledge was locked inside me and the key had to be created...”

The house had become a small hill of steaming convolutions, grey and writhing, all the shell-hardness gone from it. A fierce blue glow came from the midst of the heap. Kolt hovered over the blue glow, reached down, and then levitated triumphantly, holding the Coil House axis aloft like a fiery scepter.

He grinned and the axis flared in obedience to his mental command--teleporting him to another world. More specifically, he was sent to the comfort of Quissic Station, an orbital mansion circling old Earth.

The Box remained for a moment, watching an old woman’s head crawling like a snail from the steaming detritus. The head was muttering to itself.

“I’ll be damned,” said The Box again, as it whirled...and was gone.