by Michael Wyst
“What do you mean, I’m coming with you?” she snapped. “I’m overwhelmed enough as it is. Are you not aware of what I just went through by the woods?”
“I am aware of it,” Jack replied flatly, “and I think you’ve proven yourself brave enough for now. Braver than I ever thought, anyway.”
She rolled her eyes. The sweat and dirt were still fresh along her eyelids, and the blurry golden lights of Pops’s shop, once a comforting distraction, now felt like her heaviest weight yet. “I don’t believe this—”
“Young lady, listen to me,” chimed in Pops to her building tears, “I know this is all a bit much for you, even after all the beatings you’ve taken with my training…” Maverick stifled a snort, despite himself. “…but I don’t think you realize just how fateful this all is. Peter Wallace’s own blood, right here, right in front of us. I sensed something in you from the moment I saw you, and you’ve proven me right. You’ve proven us all right. We may not like our circumstances, but if we just plow ahead and be decent with one another—our friends, if you like—then that’s all we can really do. That’s all anyone can do…”
She sniffed hard, so much so that even Jack seemed to be given pause. Without waiting too many seconds, however, he marched forward and linked his arm with hers. “C’mon, we’ve got unfinished business, my dear, in the truest sense of the word. And now that you’ve shown your true strengths, both here and elsewhere, you can be shown the Detour, which almost no one in these parts knows how to access.”
Oh great. Sounds like another nightmare hallway like that first trip I took with Mav and Mosh…
He must have heard her thoughts because he assured her not to worry, and that she deserved this “honorary” method of exiting the Shadows. Maverick and Pops both acted a little uneasy at Jack’s charming persuasion, but it was enough to draw Alexis away, her and Jack vanishing so swiftly that they caused a ripple in some dusty quilts right by the shop entrance. Maverick shifted his hands in his pockets, while Pops fiddled with some mechanisms on the sides of his wheels. “You think the lass’ll make it through, old man?” Maverick asked in the humid silence.
Pops did not respond, and Maverick let the question go.
“All right, now what do you see here?”
Alexis stared before them in the barely-lit corner of old brick walls, in a small space Jack had led her into next to his chamber; the surface directly in front of them had three large paintings and nothing else, save small lanterns and torches. When she stepped closer to view them, they came into startlingly better detail.
“What the hell…” she murmured.
The painting on the left was a square-framed, blurry painting of Reason, done in earth-toned charcoal. She was staring at the viewer with a neutral expression, her hands folded on her lap. The painting’s background looked rumpled and cluttered, like the interior of Reason’s tent. The middle painting had a horizontal rectangular frame, and was done in watercolours; it was an idyllic landscape—a place in the Golden Tracks?Alexis thought—made with soft pastels, so bright and clean-looking even with its gold frame, it seemed far too out-of-place to be in this underworld, let alone this narrow corner. Finally, the right-hand painting was another square-framed piece, slightly larger than the Reason portrait, and had been created with shimmering primary-colour oils like red and green; it showed a very abstract pattern of criss-crossing lines and geometric shapes, swirling around a glow in the centre.
“What are these?” she spat without meaning to, because outside of this awkward rushing context, she was in fact quite impressed and soothed by these paintings.
“All done by Reason, as you may’ve guessed, with her little arty inclinations,” said Jack, “Step ahead and touch her self-portrait there, on the left. Don’t be shy like everyone else is who sees it. You’ll see something not many people are meant to see.”
A terrible spasm ran up and down her back at this statement, but Alexis did as she was told, and placed a curious hand on the roughly-smudged surface of Reason’s picture. “Keep going,” she heard Jack say, a more metallic edge in his tone.
She pushed the portrait, and gasped hard, for the portrait suddenly moved back with a smooth drone, which led the middle, Golden Tracks picture to make a slow rotation forty-five degrees to the right. Following that, the abstract picture on the right opened up like a door—and revealed a large shining combination lock against a steel surface. “Oh, gimme a break!” she half-laughed, half-coughed.
“Now, now—you’ve been trained in these sorts of ways by Pops for the past few weeks. Let’s see if any of that instinct proves true,” he stated. His arms were folded behind his back, the door behind them deathly shut and locked, like it was never a door at all but simply a wall through which they happened to float.
“Okay…” She cleared her throat and, wiping some excess hair strands and threads off her clothing, stepped up to the lock and began spinning the combination wheel obsessively around. Her mind stormed with all possible numerical mixes and patterns from Pops’s advice: which numbers were more commonly-used than others; which number patterns corresponded to addresses in the city; which numbers related to important dates, ages and so on…all of this mental exhaustion felt like it took half an hour, when it really took about five minutes.
“Giving up, are we?” she heard him purr from behind, a fiery motivation if ever she’d heard one. With that, she pinpointed a few more three-number patterns that Pops had recommended to her. (The lock only went from 1 to 10, and was the type of obscure brand that only accepted three-number entries, according to her training memories.)
“C’mon now! The Tracks’ll have gone from Golden to Silver to Rusted by the time we’ve gotten our tails outta here!” Jack exclaimed, before pausing to wipe some dust off his shoulders, an expression of deep-seated blankness across his weathered face. She’s in fact quicker than I thought. My God, we’ve got a Wallace in our ranks. About damned time we have a ray of hope in this land…
Less than ten seconds after his cry, she channelled all her anger and might through her mind and hands, and like magic the device was unlocked—and she had already forgotten the combination she entered! “Oh my God, it worked,” she whispered.
The surface opened up like a door, revealing a small rope tied in a noose. She pulled it immediately; in her mind, there was no other way to react to this object. It was like she knew exactly how to treat everything from here on in.
The pulling of the noose triggered the rough, mechanized ascent of the entire room, to her terror and delight. She marvelled at the old planks, cables and electrical boxes that ever so slowly dragged past them on their brief trip. “Oh my God!” she cried again, “What’s happening?! How were you able to do this?!”
“What? It’s just a primitive elevator. It’s not like we spend all our time mopin’ about down here,” quipped Jack.
The ascent of the room revealed, gradually, a new and doorless room before them—almost identical to the one they were in now, only stretching farther ahead, a vague brown wall at its end. “I can’t believe this,” she huffed to herself, “Cannot believe this. Haven’t you guys ever heard of a simple exit door—”
“Why, this is our exit,” he told her, “But due to the lockdown, we can’t take many chances in our departures. This way is one of the very, very few that will lead you to an unsupervised corner of the outside world, where you can explore and infiltrate to your heart’s desire…”
“And making your way back in?”
“We have a few other passages for that. That’s the other thing: you don’t want paths like these to be overly used, in-and-out, in-and-out all the time. Talk spreads, people find out. That’s why it looks like barely a soul’s been through here.”
“I see.” She actually ran to the massive brown wall ahead, which had a strange straw texture, almost like a bag. Yet it still felt very thick and impenetrable.
A-ha! She didn’t even give it a second thought, popped out her switchblade and took a long hard slice of the fabric, jumping out of the hole’s way at the same time in case of attack. Many threads, moths and a few flies exploded out from the gap, while Jack simply stood there behind her, utterly unaffected and bored. “Good,” was all he could say, “Your instincts remain fresh.”
She darted back in front of the gap, fast spreading it just to take a peek at what was exposed: a stale-looking plastic-glass wall. “No problem,” she shrugged, and yanked out a small rock from one of her pockets. She stood far back and whipped the rock at the wall as hard as she could. To her surprise, the wall broke easily and quickly along its centre, and revealed at last a dark cold space with a cobwebbed door farther ahead, its blank exit light unmistakable. “See? We do have exits ’round here,” chuckled Jack, in a rare display of genuine amusement.
Alexis ran through without any self-consciousness, a child again—but not before a couple of big shadowy guards jumped down from greasy bars at either side of her and borderline pounced on her.
“AH—!” She jerked left, jerked right, and made automatic assumptions about body language and weaknesses, even in enemies she had yet to meet or know; Jack watched her duck, roll and dance her way around these comical masked buffoons, knocking their heads together, kicking them in the shins, throwing them against the wall, biting them, and using her knife and other accessories as distractions and/or attacks. Jack stepped even closer to this threshold, and after a couple of more painful groans, the guards were exhausted and therefore, more easily broken: Alexis took gleeful advantage of the situation, her spirits and confidence higher than ever before, and kicked and bashed the guards in a rage, their bodies plopping motionless but alive to the hard ground.
Jack nodded when approaching her. “You did good, girl. You two—not so good.” He pointed to the moaning guards at his feet. “I suppose you boys really do need a vacation while two other chaps replace you in this sector. Take it easy…” At last, he took her by the hand, her chest expanding and contracting and her eyes aglow, and unlocked the exit door for her. She opened it to intoxicating fresh air and outdoor lights.
“You’ve proven your worth tonight,” he said, “but if that Detour was just another test, think of the Tracks as the most final examination of your life.”