But the doors did reopen, and the centaurs spilled into a long, narrow basement hallway, the wolfmen bouncing and prancing around them like dogs. Van der Wals and Ellen and her husband were waiting for them under the flickering fluorescent lights.
"This way," said van der Wals, his pistol aimed squarely at Steven's chest. "All of you will follow instructions exactly from this point or he dies and she dies," he said, pointing at Kim-na.
"Just be good and follow orders and you'll all go home happy and healthy and human," said Ellen. "This is too important for anyone to screw it up. This has to be done, Cait. The world needs it. I'll kill any of you myself if I have to."
The centaurs said nothing. Ellen turned smartly and started down the hallway, snapping her fingers for her husband to follow. Van der Wals waved his gun, and the centaurs started forward.
After what seemed like an interminable walk, they turned right at a tee and went through a pair of white double doors. These doors had once been securely locked, but they now swung freely, their thick windows shattered, their handles still burned black from ancient gunfire, one handle dangling from a thin cable. They passed through the doors and continued down a darker hallway, the wolfmen snarling behind them, and at its end they met another pair of windowed doors, these emblazoned with warning signs and a large yellow radiation symbol and a burned sign reading "AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY." The windows shone yellow-white from lights within, darkly silhouetting their captors.
Van der Wals pushed the doors open and led them inside.
* * *
They emerged onto a raised steel platform near one end of a long, wide, beige-walled, windowless room. Twenty metal stairs descended to a stage three steps above the black tiled floor, and behind the stage, a sealed black double-door likely opened to more stairs. On the stage a few desks and chairs had been haphazardly scattered, but the focus of the room stood opposite the stage on the far wall, a large silver-and-black sphere perhaps ten feet tall, with a raised circular platform in front of it, and a small, elegant white computer terminal off to one side. A wide, shallow white dish hung over the platform, pointing downward, but otherwise the platform was unremarkable, just a raised segment of beige flooring. Other computer terminals and gray office furniture stood in the long walk between the stage and the platform, and perhaps they had once been neatly arrayed, but now they were bullet-ridden and had been ushered into piles to make a wide avenue from the stage to the sphere. There were a few dried blood splatters on the floors and the walls and the desks, and old whiteboards hung at odd angles, still adorned with numbers and complex diagrams scribed by souls long since gone. Wolfmen circled in the aisle between the office furniture, and human guards stood on the stage in black uniforms, armed with black rifles. There were two more men beside the giant sphere, one polishing it, the other tapping at its computer console. The glowing cage holding Camberley sat not far from his creation, but Caitlyn could no longer see enough of her father to tell his expression.
The room was lit brilliantly by overhead halogen lights, but despite the brilliance, the room felt cold and dead: In its first life, this likely had been a sports locker, a place celebrating the pursuit of the body; in its second, this had been a research lab, a place celebrating the pursuit of the mind; but in its third, this had become a tomb, a place celebrating failure and death, a place that long ago should have been sealed, buried, and forgotten.
Ellen and her husband descended the stairs and stood triumphantly on the stage, looking up at them.
Van der Wals turned to Caitlyn. "Come now, don't dawdle," he said. "Down you go."
One of the wolfmen nudged at her hindquarters, and she awkwardly clomped down the steps to the stage and then the three steps more to the hard tile floor. Steven and Kim-na followed not far behind, a wolfman trailing each of them. Some of the wolfmen pushed the centaurs out to the middle of the room and began circling about them. Other wolfmen stood guarding van der Wals. He petted one on the head.
"First, I must ask again: Would any of you care for a drink?" he asked, walking over to one of the desks and pulling out a bottle. "A glass of champagne to celebrate? This is true champagne, brought from the heart of the French coun "
"I told you before: Get bent," said Caitlyn.
"Is your sister always this polite?" said van der Wals, glancing at Ellen.
"Cait, be nice," she said. Her eyes seemed yellowish and had dark rings. She looked like she hadn't slept in weeks and seemed jittery and nervous as if she'd overcome the insomnia with a few gallons too much coffee.
"Ellen, dear, I'd very much appreciate if you'd take your sister over to Command now," said van der Wals.
"Of course," said Ellen, smiling at him. She turned back to Caitlyn. "You heard him," she snarled. "Move."
Caitlyn, Steven, and Kim-na began to walk toward the machine.
"Command!" said van der Wals from the stage. "A truly astounding machine, the Constant Manipulation Device, C-M-D, or Command as your father nicknamed it. He was truly brilliant! A device powerful enough to destroy a world or create it, to make kings of paupers and paupers of kings. And with it we will reshape this world as it ought to have been."
He sipped his champagne as Caitlyn and Ellen approached the console. Nothing needed to be done: At once the screen lit up with a jumble of numbers and words and symbols, and the man standing in front of it startled and began typing at its console vigorously.
"Ah, true to the father's clues, the daughters are indeed the key!" said van der Wals.
"Stop," said Camberley weakly. "You can't start it up again. You can't." But no-one paid him any heed.
The lights flickered and the silvery parts of the sphere glowed and something in the distance hummed. The sphere, seemingly assembled from irregular pieces of a silver-and-black jigsaw puzzle, shuddered and came to life. Through rectangular cracks and gaps in its side they could see something black-and-copper-colored start to spin. The machine was powering up.
"Please stop," said Camberley again. "You don't know what you're doing."
"No," said van der Wals. "My brother didn't know what he was doing. I know quite well what I'm doing."
"Yo' brother?" said Kim-na.
"Jan was always rather headstrong," he replied. "As soon as I told him what you were working on here, he insisted on taking it immediately rather than winning it by more diplomatic means. I really had no idea he'd hire a goon squad and attack from the river."
"That that was your brother?" said Steven.
"Yes, I probably oughtn't to have told Jan about it in the first place. He was always impatient, and perhaps the Change is a little bit my fault for telling him of some amazing papers I'd just had stolen." He glared at Camberley in the cage. "But really, did you have to break the entire world just to save your own skin? Such cowardice does not fit a mind so great.
"But no matter," he continued. "All will be made right soon." He sipped his drink again.
"And then you'll be king of the universe?" said Steven.
"Of course not," said van der Wals. "Why would I want to be a king? I've no taste for royalty or dynasties or any of that rot. I've never cared for having responsibility. Authority, of course, but no man desires responsibility."
The machine began to hum louder. Between the gaps in the sphere's sides, they could see the interior shapes spinning faster and faster.
"Gentlemen, how fares Command?" said van der Wals.
"Forty-three percent, sir!" said the man hunched over the machine's control panel.
"Excellent!" van der Wals replied. "It will be functional in but a moment. At seven-oh-five in the morning, on a clear July day, the world shall be remade at the very site of its unmaking. Ms. Stockwell, even if your sister will not, will you join me in a toast?" He held out a glass, and she grinned and strode smugly away from the centaurs toward the stage where van der Wals and her husband still stood.
Caitlyn trembled beside Steven, clinging onto his arm. The sound of the whirring machine behind her was getting louder. A gentle wind had picked up in the room, and loose papers began to flutter and inch along the floor.
Almost before Caitlyn knew what was happening, there was a flash of light from Kim-na's direction and a loud crack!
"That's enough!" cried Kim-na.
When Caitlyn's eyes focused, she saw a little silver pistol in the Asian girl's hand, its barrel smoking. Kim-na had pulled it from her shirt. Van der Wals crumpled to the floor, his leg bleeding. Before Caitlyn even knew what had happened, Kim-na had fired another shot at a wolfman, who collapsed, and had launched her deadly hind hooves at another, crushing its head.
"Stop stop that girl!" shouted van der Wals, and the Human Society guards and wolfmen rushed toward Kim-na. She whirled around, kicking two more wolfmen with her hooves and killing one instantly, but there were too many of them: They rushed her, clawing at her body. One used her backpack's strap as a foothold but slipped, tearing it from her back and sending it careening across the floor. The wolfman bit at her shoulder to keep from falling as she spun about once more, but with another loud crack she froze and collapsed. One of the Human Society guards lowered his rifle as a random scrap of paper flew past him on the wind of the machine.
The wolfmen leaped off the injured centaur.
Steven darted over and knelt beside her. "Kim !" The wolfmen growled at him, but did not touch him.
"Filthy, filthy monsters," said Ellen, fuming at Kim-na from the stage. "How dare you how dare you interrupt this!? How dare you hurt William!?"
Ellen's eyes started glowing, a bright unearthly green, and her hair started to lift and whip about in the wind.
"And you!" she said, glaring at Caitlyn. "I've gone so easy on you because you were my sister, but you're a monster too now, aren't you? Just like her! Just like him! You've accepted it! You've accepted them! No you like it, don't you!? You like being a monster! You want everybody to be monsters like you!"
Ellen screamed, a howl that terrified even the remaining wolfmen, who shrank to the floor, their tails between their legs. Sickly green light poured from her eyes and mouth. She wobbled, and grabbed at her husband's shoulder for balance.
"I can't trust any of you! Not even my own sister!"
"Ellen, calm down," said van der Wals weakly.
Her husband began to grow, his skin turning gray-green. Ellen started to wobble forward, one awkward step at a time, lighting up everything around her in green light.
"I'll stop you all!" cried Ellen. "All you freaks and mutants! I'll make the world normal again, and make you normal again, and you'll thank me!" She screamed again, howling, and her husband's body grew larger, towering over them.
"The world will be normal again! Do you hear me!? Normal!" she cried, stumbling down the steps of the stage, unable to see where she was going through the brilliant green light pouring from her.
"It's time, Caity," said a soft voice nearby.
Caitlyn turned. Her father was standing not far from her inside the cage.
The thing that was once Ellen's husband roared in pain as its body morphed and twisted.
"It's time. Pick up the girl's backpack."
It had skidded across the floor, and was resting a mere few feet from her hooves. Caitlyn stared at it, then bent down and picked it up.
"Open the outer pocket. There's a small chip inside. I put it there before we left the library," said Camberley.
The monstrous humanoid that was once Ellen's husband had stopped growing. It swung its giant fist into the wall, knocking loose the cinder-blocks. It roared and spun about, striking at anything it could reach.
"Ellen, stop!" said van der Wals, struggling to his feet.
"Van der Wals!" cried Steven from the floor. "All that M you've been feeding her! It's been building up for years, and now she's overdosing! We have to get out of here!"
"There's a port on the underside of Command's console," said Camberley. "Plug in the chip."
The monster continued to spin about, screaming in pain, attacking anything that moved. Suddenly it hit the slumping, stumbling figure of Ellen herself, and she flew from the stage, skidded across the floor, and lay unconscious in the middle of the room.
"It's out of control!" cried Steven, dragging Kim-na away from that end of the room as best he could.
Van der Wals noticed Caitlyn out of the corner of his eye.
The giant monster whirled about, striking a desk. It flew across the room, barely clearing Kim-na's head.
"Cait Caitlyn," said van der Wals, walking toward her, holding his bleeding leg with one hand. "What do you think you're doing? Don't don't touch that!"
Caitlyn bent down again and pressed the chip into the underside of the console.
The monster screamed, and pounded its fists into an old bookcase. Ragged old dusty books flew out from it and scattered on the floor.
"Caitlyn, you don't don't know what you're playing with," said van der Wals, inching down the steps of the stage, as far from the enraged monster as he could get. "That machine broke the world. It's not a toy. And it's mine. Step step back from it immediately."
Suddenly the whirling monster's fist hit something soft.
Van der Wals's body flew backward into the wall. His eyes went wide. And then the monster's fist crushed him flat. Blood spluttered from his mouth.
The fist pulled back, and the remnants of William van der Wals's body fell to the ground dead, a look of surprise permanently emblazoned on his crushed face.
The remaining men and wolfmen raced toward the monster, firing guns and striking at it with teeth and claws, but one by one, it crushed or tossed each of them aside. One of the guards fired his gun at the monster and missed, and the bullet ricocheted off the wall and struck Steven in the leg. He groaned in pain and collapsed beside Kim-na.
"Steven!" cried Caitlyn.
All at once the machine began to whir faster, emitting a loud whine. The monster paused, screamed again, and held its ears.
"Caitlyn! Listen!" cried Camberley.
"Daddy?" said Caitlyn, standing as close to him as she could.
"I spent the last two years making that chip," said her father. "It's the answer."
The machine's whine subsided as it grew even faster, and the monster blinked. It roared again, and started to attack the wolfman that was biting its left leg.
"This world must be fixed," said Camberley. "Five years ago, I made a mistake, the worst anyone could make. But I can't fix it myself. I knew that a long time ago."
He knelt down in the cage so that his face was only a few inches from hers. Suddenly the machine went quiet, and the room almost seemed to stand still. A wolfman biting at the monster seemed almost to have frozen beside it.
"The machine is nearly primed," said Camberley. "I studied the Change, and I learned the machine was fully functional when we used it, save for a few programming bugs. This chip fixes those bugs, and it changes ownership. The machine will follow your commands now, and yours alone. I couldn't stop van der Wals from reassembling it, but I could take away his prize. I could read the world and make the chip and get both you and the chip here. But I used up all of my energy to reach this point. It was worth it for this chance: You can fix the world, Caity. You have to do it."
There was a loud explosion, and suddenly the machine went silent, save for a whistle of air as the ball within it continued to spin. The monster at the end of the room seemed to be fighting its attackers in slow motion.
"The generators have just fused," said Camberley. "And I made sure they'll never work again."
"Daddy, I I can't do "
"You're an artist, and you're a good girl, and you're a lot like me. You're a creator, a maker of beautiful things. I've seen your artwork, ever since you were little. I have faith in you. That's why I picked you for this. You'll do what's right, what the world needs. I know you will. You can't fix everything. You can use the machine ten, eleven, maybe even thirteen times before the inductors run out of power. That's not a lot. But it's enough."
"My fate was sealed a long time ago. My time and my opportunity is done. This world isn't mine any more. Take care of your mother, and take care of your sister, and know that I will always love all three of you no matter what or where I am." He leaned forward through the cage and seemed to pass right through it, and his gentle brush against her forehead was surely a kiss.
His last words, barely audible, floated down to her: "It's your world now, Caity. Make a wish."
The monster roared again, and Caity took a deep breath.