It was well after midnight when the knock came at my door. I had been told that it would happen hours earlier, but I had known that it wouldn’t be that early. Nothing about this project ever seemed to stay on schedule.
I opened my eyes and pushed my chair out from the desk. I probably could have gotten some sleep while I was waiting. That likely would have been the smart thing to do. My body was used to only resting for short periods of time, though, and I wouldn’t have been able to drift off even if I had wanted to.
Opening the door, I found Peter Lewis standing on the other side. I had expected as much. He had been acting as a go-between for myself and his employer since the beginning. No, I mentally corrected myself. ‘Employer’ wasn’t really the right term. I wasn’t sure what actually was, but it definitely wasn’t employer.
“Good evening, Mr. Morwood,” Lewis said politely. “We’re ready to begin.”
I nodded at him without answering and began to step through the doorway.
“You’ll want to bring your… protection with you,” Lewis pointed out before I could do so.
I silently cursed. I hadn’t been staying at the Alden Hall for very long, and I wasn’t yet accustomed to the rules that came with doing so. Going back around my desk, I opened the top right drawer and took out a small silver amulet. I put the chain around my neck and slipped the amulet under my shirt. Certain protections had been set up inside of my office to keep it safe, but because of the nature of the project it wasn’t possible to do so for the rest of the house.
With that done, I followed Lewis out of the office and into the hallway. The sounds of moaning and screaming immediately assaulted my ears. I gritted my teeth as I tried to ignore it. The noise was a constant presence in Alden Hall. There was a reason why I paid all of my staff over double their standard salaries for the time they spent in the building.
We passed a pair of security guards before descending the stairs leading down to the first floor. Both of the men were wearing earpieces designed to cut down on the level of sound that entered their ears. Normally I frowned on anything that reduced the effectiveness of my security staff. They were the best available, and since I compensated them as such I expected them to live up to their reputations. I made an exception here, though. No matter how long someone stayed at Alden Hall, they didn’t get used to the screaming. It was too unnatural to adapt to it.
“Remind me,” Lewis asked as we reached the bottom of the stairs. “Have you been down to see the machine yet?”
“No,” I told him, raising my voice to be heard over a particularly loud shriek. “I’ve been given updates, but I’ve never actually seen it.”
“I see. Would you like me to give you a general overview of it?”
“That won’t be necessary. I’d rather see it for myself and hear about it from the horse’s mouth.”
Directly in front of us was the front door. We turned left to go down a side hallway, then made a second turn to go deeper into the mansion. At the end of the hall was a stone staircase that led down into a large chamber. It had once been the wine cellar, but during the heavy modifications to the structure and grounds it had been emptied out. On one wall now stood a bank of elevators. We crossed over to one and Lewis swiped a keycard through a reader next to it. The door slid open and we stepped inside.
The elevator shook slightly as it began to descend. It continued down for quite some time; even though I had seen and approved the plans, I don’t think that I had realized just how far down below ground level the construction had gone. I had suffered from mild claustrophobia in my youth, and although I hadn’t been affected by it in years I felt the first pangs of it creeping in.
I began to notice an odd sound the further that we went. It was steady and rhythmic, and at first I mistook it for my own pulse. As it grew louder, however, I realized that it was coming from outside of the elevator. I thought about asking Lewis about it, but I kept the question to myself as I reminded myself that my questions were best saved for the person I was going to meet.
After what seemed like an eternity, the elevator stopped and the door opened. We stepped out into another hallway. This one was different from the ones on the upper levels, however. Instead of being made of exquisitely-shaped wood, it was instead constructed of metal. Iron, according to the blueprints. Long fluorescent lights lined the ceiling. The thumping noise was even louder here.
Lewis didn’t seem to notice as he led us through the tunnel. He had spent the majority of his time in the lower levels, of course, so it was only natural that he was unphased by the surroundings. He effortlessly led us through a series of twists and turns, not pausing when we passed guards but still nodding at them politely.
We came to a four-way intersection and stopped.
“I can either take you to see the machine first, or I can take you to his office,” Lewis told me. “Which would you prefer?”
“Take me to him,” I answered immediately. “I want him to walk me through everything step-by-step.”
Without another word, Lewis turned down the left corridor and continued on. There were no guards down this passage, and the overhead lights were dimmed to the point that it was difficult to see. In addition to the constant pounding, I began to detect a new sound. This one I recognized: high amounts of electricity running through power lines. The humming was unmistakable.
We came to a door that simply didn’t belong in the metal hallway. It was large and wooden, carved from thick oak and adorned with dozens of symbols that I didn’t recognize. Lewis stepped aside to allow me to pass by him. We had arrived at our destination, and it was clear that he wouldn’t be joining me inside.
I turned the silver doorknob and entered. The room inside was dark, and even after passing through the dim corridor it took my eyes a few moments to adjust. The only source of light was a series of computer monitors on the far side of the room. At first I thought that there had been some sort of mistake, and that I was alone.
I sensed more than heard the movement near the computers. I wasn’t alone. There was someone, or something, in the darkness. The large presence felt like it was both in front of me and looming over me at the same time. I stared in the direction of the room’s occupant, but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t see him.
That had always been the case. Although we had worked together for years, I had never been able to get a good look at him. Even during the early stages of our partnership, he had remained covered or spoken through an intermediary.
He leaned in towards the computer monitors, and I was able to make out a small part of his face. It was a wide grin, one so impossibly wide that it spread back into the darkness. His large teeth were on full display, as were the blood-red gums that housed them. Bandages were wrapped around the flesh above the lips; because of the shadows I couldn’t tell how far up his face they went.
“Guten tag, Herr Morwood,” the creature that was once a man said with a German accent, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Good evening, Mr. Gangly,” I answered politely as I tried to hide the sudden fear I was feeling. “I was told that we’re ready to get this show on the road.”
“We are indeed. It has been… challenging, but the preparations are finally complete and I am ready to begin.”
“Excellent. I have to admit, I’ve been curious about what you’ve been doing down here.”
His grin grew wider, if that was even possible. “Perhaps you have been wondering if all the money you’ve been spending has been put to good use.”
I heard a warning bell go off in the back of my head. “No, I haven’t been worried about that. I’m confident that you’ve been upholding our agreement. I just haven’t been privy to the building of this machine of yours, so I’m naturally curious about it.”
“Ah, I see.” Gangly was silent for a moment. “Well, then, please allow me to show you the fruits of my labor and your finances, Herr Morwood.”
There was a soft click, and the wall to my right began to rise up. I turned just in time to see it disappear completely into the ceiling. It was actually a window looking down on a huge chamber a few stories below the office. With one glance back towards the scientist, I moved closer to the window and peered out.
I nearly threw up, only managing to keep my composure at the last possible moment. The entire chamber was covered in what could only be raw flesh that had been stretched out over the walls, floor, and ceiling. Patterns of blue veins were everywhere, and they pulsed as fluid flowed through them.
Human bodies were trapped in the flesh. The skin grew over their arms and legs, and parts of their faces and chests were covered as well. None of them appeared to be alive.
In the center of the room was a rounded object. The same veins that grew in the skin ran from the flesh and into the sides of the object, and a series of black cables stretched out of the back and out of view below where I was standing. It was the Fatum Machina, and Gangly had managed to make it into even more of an abomination than it already was.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Gangly said from behind me, an odd note in his voice. “I call it the Cadaver Machina.”
“The Cadaver Machina,” I repeated slowly. “The Corpse Machine.”
“Indeed. Would you like to know how it works?”
“No,” I replied, swallowing hard. “Tell me anyway.”
“As you know,” he began, “when you first acquired the Fatum Machina, I had great difficulty working out how to get it to do what we need it to. It is designed to open doorways to places throughout this universe and the connecting multiverse, but we needed it to do more than that. We needed it to be able to pierce through reality itself, to create a gateway into the Underlayers.”
I nodded slowly. The Underlayers were realities that had existed long before our own, but had been abandoned by the being that had created them when they had been deemed imperfect. Figuring out how to gain access to them was… complex, to say the least.
“I was convinced that the Fatum Machina was still the key to doing this despite its limitations,” Gangly continued. “I knew that if I could just make adjustments, essentially reprogram it, I would be able to open that gateway. No matter what I tried, however, I was unsuccessful. The machinery of the Fatum Machina refused to be reconfigured.”
“Refused?” I asked. “You’re talking like it’s alive.”
“It is, in a sense. Not only is it mechanical, but there is an organic component to it as well.”
“You’re referring to the skull the machinery is attached to. The one that supposedly belonged to Adam, the first man.”
Gangly let out a hiss that I recognized as his way of laughing. “It’s a good story, but I doubt that the donor of that skull was someone from a myth. It is, however, from someone with tremendous power. When I realized that the Fatum Machina operates as both a mechanical and a biological machine, I knew what was needed.”
“And that was?”
“It was biological. It simply needed more… biology.”
I looked out at the grotesque flesh-covered surfaces and shuddered.
“I had already researched the repurposing of human organs for other uses,” he told me. “Specifically the heart. It is quite the machine, controlling the flow of blood throughout the body as it works to provide the other organs with what they need. I was able to use my findings from those old studies here.”
“In what way?” I asked, not really wanting to know the answer.
“The full answer to that is quite technical, but the end result is that I have constructed a highly advanced computer system using biological parts.”
I turned away from the window and looked towards him. “Biological parts. You mean parts from human bodies.”
Another hissing laugh. “Indeed. All harvested from the living to ensure they are in working order. Do you… disapprove?”
“As long as it works, I don’t care where you get your materials from.”
“That is good, because I will require more as this project continues. That is the downside of working with organic parts. In this case, however, it is an unavoidable cost of business.”
I stop myself from shuddering. When I had engaged Gangly’s services, I had known the type of person that I was getting into bed with. I might not have known the specifics, but I hadn’t been under any illusions that his methods wouldn’t have consequences.
“Miles upon miles of veins act as wires,” he said. “Hundreds of hearts stand in for circuits. You must have heard them beating on your way here. Lungs, kidneys, intestines… they’ve all been repurposed. The system is then converted into digital information through a large bank of heavily modified human brains. Once converted, it is filtered into the computers in my office.”
“It seems impossible,” I admitted.
“And yet here it is, being presented to you. I assure you, Herr Morwood, this is quite real. Once I understood the workings of the Fatum Machine, everything else fell into place. Although I will admit that the power source for such a machine eluded me for some time.”
“What do you mean?”
“What we are requiring the device to do is far beyond the limits of what its power is capable of. Think of the Fatum Machina as, say, a drill. Small, precise, and capable of doing one thing very well. What we need is for it to be more like a jackhammer. It has to have the power to break through all of reality. Nothing of this world produces that much energy.”
Something in my mind clicked into place. “That’s what you’re using the mansion for.”
There was a brief pause, and I knew that I had surprised him. I allowed myself a small smile. It was good to remind him not to underestimate me from time to time.
“Impressive, Herr Morwood,” Gangly said, the ghastly grin never slipping. “That is indeed the case. I assume that means you’ve worked out how Alden Manor provides this needed power supply?”
The smile on my face disappeared. I wasn’t the only one reminding the other of their place. He had known that I wouldn’t have an answer to his question before he asked it. I remained silent.
“Ah, I see,” he said. “Well then, I shall explain it to you. While there is no power source in this world strong enough to provide the energy required by the Cadaver Machina, we luckily have access to a second world of sorts. Spirits exude large amounts of psychokinetic energy when they manifest. Past experimentation has shown me how to harness this energy.”
“How?” I asked grudgingly.
“While I appreciate your scientific curiosity, I’m afraid that you wouldn’t understand the process even if I explained it. I believe it’s enough to say that I have the required knowledge and to leave it at that.”
His statement was meant to be bait, but I refused to take it. As he often did, he was testing me.
“You’re right, of course,” I said, deciding to stroke his ego this time. “I assume that process is why you had me purchase so many haunted objects.”
“Exactly,” Gangly confirmed. “Each of those objects is tied to a restless spirit. By bringing them under the same roof and stimulating them with a strong electromagnetic field, it causes high amounts of psychokinetic energy to build up so that it can be collected. In essence it’s trading electricity, a power source incompatible with the Cadaver Machina, for psychokinetic energy, one that is compatible.”
“And everything, the machine, the modifications, the power source… it’s all ready?”
“It is.” His grin somehow grew even broader. “Shall I show you?”
I took a deep breath. “Do it.”
I heard him type on a keyboard. The typing was rapid and yet light, as if he was pressing each key as delicately as possible.
As I watched through the window, the room below began to move. The skin covering all the surfaces started to slowly pulse. I had a mental image of lungs expanding and contracting, which probably wasn’t too far from the truth.
The lights in the chamber dimmed as the floor started to shake. I glanced over at Gangly, but he had pulled away from the monitors and I couldn’t see him anymore. I returned my attention to the lower chamber just in time to see the Fatum Machina begin to glow.
I had seen the device used a number of times before this. Whenever it was operating, the eyes of the skull would glow with an unnatural light while the gears in the mechanical components turned. That wasn’t what was happening now. Instead, the light was coming from every part of the device. It was so bright that I wasn’t able to look directly at it for more than a few seconds.
“The Cadaver Machina will open a gateway in ten seconds,” Gangly said from the shadows. “Five seconds. One.”
The light coming from the Fatum Machina was extinguished. For a moment I wondered what had gone wrong, but then I felt it. The best way that I can describe it is if a large invisible weight had been pressed down on me. A massive headache spiked behind my right eye, and my ears popped.
“Successful breach,” Gangly said in a satisfied tone.
A large black rectangle appeared in front of the Fatum Machina. Normally when it opened a doorway the location it led to could be seen through the tear in space. This time, though, there was only darkness.
“It appears that visual contact isn’t possible,” Gangly said. “No matter. I shall send through a probe to gather data.”
A door in the chamber opened, and a small robot rolled in on treads. It looked like one of the remote-controlled machines used by bomb disposal units. This one had a series of instruments attached to the sides and top. Without stopping, it headed towards the black portal and went through it.
“The probe works completely independently,” Gangly told me. “While communication through the gateway is not possible, it will gather as much information as possible within ten minutes and return on its own.”
“How deep in the Underlayers does this gateway lead?” I asked.
“I do not know. That is part of what the probe is seeking to determine. If it is able to, I can use that information to open more precise gateways to specific locations within the Underlayers with the Cadaver Machina. This initial breach was forced to be much more random.”
I blinked. “Wait, so you don’t know where this gateway goes to?”
“No.” He hiss-laughed. “Exciting, is it not?”
Before I could reply, there was a flurry of motion in the lower chamber. Something came rocketing out of the portal and smashed hard into one of the skin-covered walls. It was the probe that had been sent through, or more accurately what was left of it.
Faster than I could process what was happening, a child stepped through the gateway and into the chamber. It was a girl of maybe fourteen or fifteen, dressed in a simple black dress and matching shoes. Her brown hair was shoulder-length. Her skin was extremely pale. She looked around the room emotionlessly.
“How fascinating,” Gangly said quietly. “Our first contact with a being from another reality.”
“Maybe you should get security in there,” I said slowly. “She’s probably the one that did that to the probe.”
“A wise precaution.”
The door in the chamber opened, and a group of heavily-armed guards in body armor entered. They pointed their weapons at the girl and waited. She turned her attention to them and simply stared back.
“Tell them to make contact, Herr Lewis,” Gangly instructed into a hidden microphone.
A few seconds later the guard in the middle of the group took a few steps forward. He lowered his rifle so that it wasn’t pointing directly at the girl, but he kept it in position to immediately use it if necessary. Although he was facing away from me, I could tell that he was speaking to her.
When he had finished, a long moment passed where nothing happened. Something felt off about this entire interaction, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. The girl ended up answering that question for me.
With no warning, her head split open down the middle. There was no blood as the two flaps fell to the side, but a thick brown substance dripped down out the floor.
From inside the girl’s neck emerged a black tree. That’s the best way that I can describe it. It looked like a leafless tree with black bark and crooked limbs. It quickly grew to roughly two feet tall before stopping and twisting from side to side.
The guards seemed stunned by what they were seeing. None of them opened fire, which was either due to fear or was a testament to their training.
Suddenly, a number of the tree limbs lashed out, quickly growing longer as they approached the guard that had spoken to the girl. Before he could react, the limbs punched right through his body armor and into his body. He convulsed violently before falling lifelessly to the floor.
The other guards opened fire. Their bullets tore into the girl’s body, shredding clothing and skin. More bark was exposed. The weapons didn’t seem to harm the tree itself, though, and each time it struck back another of the guards was impaled on its limbs.
As I watched, the first guard got back to his feet awkwardly. He reached up and removed his helmet. I gasped. Black twigs were growing out of his eyes and mouth. He stumbled forward and grabbed one of the remaining guards before throwing him to the floor.
“Fascinating,” Gangly whispered. “The creature appears to plant new versions of itself in its victims. The growth rate is incredible.”
“We have to stop that thing,” I snapped. “Now. If it gets out into the world…”
“I see your point. Do not worry, Herr Morwood, I have certain contingencies in place.”
While the fight continued, the gateway closed as the Cadaver Machina was shut down. The platform holding the Fatum Machina lowered down into the floor and disappeared from sight as a metal plate slid into place over it. The two guards that hadn’t yet been killed or infested rushed out of the chamber, and the door slammed shut behind them.
The panel that had been covering the window when I had first come into the office slid back down into place.
“What’s happening?” I demanded.
“I have initiated an incineration sequence,” Gangly explained. “Everything living in that chamber will be reduced to ash.”
“The Fatum Machina-”
“It will not be damaged. The room that it is stored in when not in use is perhaps the most secure room in the world. The flames and heat will not reach it. Ah, there, it is finished.”
The panel raised back up. The flesh on the floor and walls was charred black and burned off in most places. Both the guards and the visitor from the Underlayers were nothing more than dark outlines on the ground.
“I believe that I can salvage the information collected by the probe,” Gangly said. “It is designed to withstand highly dangerous conditions. The organic components of the Cadaver Machina can be replaced. After all, there are always more humans to harvest.”
I stared at that hideous grin, the teeth once again illuminated by the computer monitors, as I noticed the joy in his whispery voice.
“All in all, I’d say this test was a complete success,” he declared. “Wouldn’t you agree?”