There went Officer Gruffly striding down the hall, pushing the werewolf shark Jaw through with him. The open, sunny lobby became claustrophobic, not because the walls drew their arms in or the windows self-shuttered, but because the people seemed to have multiplied.
“Out of the way!” said Gruffly in vain, but the pedestrian cluster, heedless and tactless, continued moving at seven steps a minute. “Crrripes…this shortcut’s not gonna work, then.”
Back to the aquarium, Jaw presumed; the officer had not said. It would either be the aquarium, some surgeon’s desk, or the underground prison. The veteran could think of nothing likelier or worse.
“Let’s go back,” said Gruffly as he rotated Jaw toward whence they’d come, like he was a hairified shopping cart…but the crowd had filled in behind them, and there was no budging. He bemoaned it with a groan.
“Well, officer, if you hold on a little tighter, I can make us both intangible and run us right through this mess,” said Jaw, boy scout-like.
“And just drag yourself to prison?”
“Yes, sir,” he said, right chipper.
“With me at your whim.”
“Yes, sir, if you like, sir.”
Gruffly turned his nose up, even relaxing his grip by one degree. “Yeah, right.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Jaw—and he faded into ether. The too-kind officer’s hand dropped; he felt nothing beneath it but his own startled pant-leg!
Now it was the invisible, intangible, immaculate Jaw striding proud through the crowd, knowing not where he was going nor how to get there, but of perfect knowledge concerning his wits, and Drac’s hopes, and those wayfinding ways of the soldier—that forced journeyman! He disguised his faintly garbage odor by keeping himself within the crowd, which cloaked him like so much chatty foliage, its scents blending with his. In his head he kept a natural compass, and the rudiments of building layout were established in that well-trained mind.
Tracing the path of the crowd, he found a massy hall of blue walls, plush carpets, and self-evident popular appeal. The sign on the arched entryway (which Jaw passed under in no time flat) introduced this lair as the Brown House’s Supreme World History Museum—the one, the only!
Despite the circumstances, Jaw could not suppress an inward thrill. How long had he lacked deeper knowledge of world events…how continually, how naggingly he had hungered for it! Though part of him knew without a doubt that amongst true stories and valiant artifacts would also be sprinkled the sourest propaganda, he craved it, even the lies, like a sweet! He could not simply walk on by. He walked to the exhibits with the odd swing of a boomerang—which at first seems erratic, but was fated by design.
Placards, placards…oh the placards he read! For the first time in twenty-odd years, those eyes divined the history of the Sassafras Moon Expedition of 2149, and found an educatory wonder in the white-green moon rock cradled in its case. Those eyes darted gaily on, buoyed by the spirits of a wonderstruck crowd. They fell upon a document so old that even they knew it well: the Declaration of Independence, which severed America’s union with England. Next to it, and just as pristine, was the Declaration of Co-Dependence, in which all countries decided, “Well, might as well have one government.”
Moving down a near-endless hall, feeling heady and lithe with knowledge, Jaw skimmed, like the timestream’s stone, all the tales of the changing American flag.
After a long and tutelary traipse, the corridor came to a stop. He had reached a giant patchwork of hundreds of flags from around the globe, and as if this were the end of history, its placard gave a suitably rousing, happily-ever-after message to the quiltlike beast. Though the tapestry was eighty feet long, it still contained so many sections as to be illegible, even up close. Jaw basked in the marvel, the mystery—the world-spanning tyranny—of this the first copy of the World flag!
He stood there for many minutes. The one-way passage and its abrupt halt, the ocean of werewolves making their awkward U-turns, and the majesty of the overlarge flag…they all conspired to instill a sense of dull finality in him. As if he should have had a beer in hand, and a beach chair behind, and a pair of shades through which to lazily take this scene in. He did not want to move…he stood on the verge of forgetting just what he had come to the Brown House for.
Hypnotizing flag—and saving skitter of a strange force in the neighboring vent! That little vent in the wall, just above the floor and nearly hidden by the corner of the flagmalgam, produced a little symphony of scratches, sounds of mechanical malfunction…or of struggle. Jaw’s ears pivoted to the ground, and in a flash he had run to it, begun to look down in it. It was too dark, however, darker than a foxhole.
‘Twas a cathole, in fact, as he learned when he faded most ghostlike down through the floor, and poked his transparent head through the ventilation wall. ‘Twas a cat in them pipes, her limbs striving to bolt themselves to the sides in imitation of the beef-arms of an action hero.
And when he looked at her, he felt some measure of horror…not a horror that compared to a battlefield loss, but a different one, equal, almost, to what the soldier feels when his cover has been blown. No—when his cover was never a cover at all! When his cover was a joke! When the enemy had seen him from first to last!
For the black cat, with quivering limbs, was staring right into his eyes!
“AAH!” Jaw did not shout; he did not even whisper such a thing. Instead he told her, with false composure, “A cat in the doghouse…imagine that! I like it. Now, what are you doing trying to get into that crowded museum up there?”
Was that a twitch of recognition in her face? A receptive sign that she knew the English language?
She dropped down instantly—let go of the walls, and plopped onto a vent floor several feet down. It sounded like it hurt. Then again, cats have soft paws.
Had the cat never truly seen Jaw at all? Had that voice from nowhere spooked her so deeply that she dropped out of sight, forced to re-navigate these chambers? Jaw hoped not. He chose not to worry about it.
To a trespasser, the vents of the Brown House were twisted and cruel as the knots of a rat king. The werewolf-shark, feeling free and easy, decided to follow them almost on a whim, to see where they might take him (the answer was, unfortunately, that they might take him to thousands of irrelevant locations and a couple of good ones).
And the cat, deterred from her earlier path by the words of a secret ally, decided to change course and go low…very, very low.
She had escaped from a temporary holding room, slipped out of a trap when their guards were down. They had not hurt her, but they had certainly incapacitated her. Peanut butter—hang that peanut butter!—still grabbed her gob, for those officers had, with their kitchen utensils, forcibly reapplied it.
Now Trials rolled gradually from “floor” to “floor,” not knowing what lie at the bottom, only feeling that the very top and the very base should alike be important, and that the latter would take less effort to reach.
She would arrive in the prison by and by, but not with any speed.
Exchanging the museum for the prison, of course, was not such a life-saving bargain as initially assumed, for pandemonium was fast overtaking that prison. Had it begun with the dinosaurs’ kicking torment of Adam? With the eyeball, now crushed, that had burrowed through rock, evidently to scry The Terminating Robot’s golden secrets? Or had it begun, if I may humor you, with the water line break which Helen had dismissed as “nothing?”
These three actions cannot be separated. If you have guessed by now that Adam’s tendril, on its way to the warden, had stopped to drill a hole in a water-pipe, then you have sussed out Step One of Adam’s prison puzzle, and, I daresay, deserve a substantial reward.
Adam’s groan did not stop the velociraptors’ kicking; in fact, it had the opposite effect. They were happy to hear him lurch from pain to outright agony…and they wanted more. The kicks intensified, and he crumbled, falling forward, at last, apart from the wall. They could see the papyrus tendril going from his neck-nape to a puny hole in the stone, but just for one instant before it slithered weakly back to him. What remained were the bruises, now becoming blood.
A pool was forming, below Adam and below clawed feet. Not one of blood, not purely. It was blood and water, for the hole behind them was trickling like a wellspring—and then streaming!
The raptors looked at each other. They flicked their tongues, which I believe was their equivalent of a shrug. The kicking continued and was merely enlivened by this change—the kick-fest became a splash-fest.
Intermittently, Adam cried out. No cry was so strong as the one spawned by the juicing of his eye. And had the velociraptors been more clever, they would have heard, in the cries that did leave him, a secret smile.
A recent kick in the stomach got him to upchuck blood.
“Yes,” he moaned, blood dripping down his lower jaw. Finally, a return to Adam’s first friend: the word. “You let your victim lead you to your doom? What cooperative foes you are!” An honest-to-goodness, covered-in-bloodness laugh escaped him then. “Look around you, you lizardlings unmindful—look and think: should you not call a janitor?”
A dozen tongue-flicks were exchanged. The four raptors stepped back to observe the prison. They need not have looked to know the damages, for the proof was at their feet, and above them to their kneecaps, and sloshing all about them.
Water was clearly leaking in from more holes than one. The whole prison had attained notable inches of the wet stuff, and through it the slightest pinkish tint, from Adam’s own blood, was spreading.
The prisoners had been griping about it in the background for a while now, scowling at their soggy clothes. So too had been griping The Terminating Robot, issuing commands from his box high above, and knocking out oil cans in hot rage. But Adam was pleased as punch—as diluted vampire punch.
He hollered now through a reddish-purple throat, his voice scraping through his throat like a wild sweep up a massacred piano! “My fellow inmates!” he boomed. “Will you take a crazy risk? Will you bend to the water and offer your tongues?”
The echo traveled. A thousand prison murmurs answered the prison call.
“He wants us to lick that?”
“Don’t mind if I do,” said the old man with the convenient spoon, and he shoveled a morsel into his mouth. His pupils dilated, and his guts curdled! He yelped, and began to scrape the metallic flavor off his palate!
But then the flavor settled, bringing with it a taste of superpower. Yea, he wretched, but then he knew the powers of the wretched—of the vampire! Adam had raised his Blood Vampire Concentration!
With a mighty splash and a delirious laugh, the old man leaped to his feet. “Screeee!” he cried; I guess such a cry was among the many calls of the vampire. “You scalawag, Adam, you gave me th’ treatment! An’ now,” he added as he turned to the dinos with a bear-wrestling pose, “have at ye!”
He catapulted himself into the guards with a spunk not remembered since age four-and-twenty. With a terrifying pugilistic fervor, he latched onto one guard, who wavered and swung in a panic. He raised the spoon high—ready to stab it like a dagger!
“Sir, please,” said Adam, almost submerged in water that bloomed with red, his voice rasping and tremulous, “do not waste your time…break the bars, and make your escape…”
In the distance, a man who might have been a little bit psycho said, “Woah—old man’s got moves!”
His remark had been remarkably loud. It carried a verve of excitement throughout that prison, and not ten seconds passed before every prisoner on that flooding first floor was cupping hands, bending to the pinkening water, and sipping, happily, for to gain that vampire edge.
Bars were bent, broken, tossed aside; stones in the cells were pounded, ripped out, tossed for sheer joy; rampaging and newly vigorous swimmers breaststroked, their finish line the returning angels Outside and Free Life! Even a weak vampire could bend a metal bar—even twenty weak vampires, assembled in unruly dogpile, could trounce a troupe of velociraptors!
Whether they could take on armored guards was another question, and Adam did not care to stay for the answer. How would he leave in his present ragged state? With faith, effort, and the help of a cat who, a quarter-mile away and from five hundred feet up, had just fallen from a ventilation shaft to the prison’s tidal waters.
And perhaps if The Terminating Robot met him face-to-face, such a rival would serve as incentive to leave all the faster.