Weekly Illustrated Fiction Series:
No Dragons Press: A HIGH FANTASY Adventure
by Maggie Gibbs
Illustrations by Emily Ruf
Chapter Nine: Addie Visits the Lab
When I kill the engine just down the block from the No Dragons Press building, it’s close to midnight. I still haven’t figured out what Tristan thinks I might be right about, and I don’t see anyone else wandering around, so I click the radio back on to hear the end of that Toto song about the rains in Africa, the one it’s impossible to stop listening to until it’s over, and do my best to will my heart to stop pounding in double-time, my hands to stop shaking. To convince myself this is just another day at the office, even though it’s nighttime.
To see if I’ve been followed after all.
When nothing happens, I prove the impossible by cutting off the music a few swirly choruses early. There is literally nothing I want more than to see what Tristan has been doing all this time.
I cross the darkened street, the sidewalk, and then the unkempt yard with silent steps, trying, probably unsuccessfully, to walk in a way that does not mark me as a burglar (not that there’s anyone around to be suspicious). The windows are dark, too, and for a second I’m convinced that everyone’s already left—got tired of waiting for me, or the men in uniform have come and taken everybody away. But I find no signs of forced entry when I approach, and as I slip inside the building, nothing looks amiss.
Until I notice something I’ve never seen before.
There is a crack of light along the bottom of the door to Tristan’s basement.
And Tristan’s hand-drawn Do Not Enter sign is gone.
I knock, quietly, but there’s no response. So I do what anyone would do: I let myself in, descend a few steps, and look around.
A large chalk circle marks off roughly the center of the room, surrounded by over a dozen folding chairs facing inward. I recognize them from the utility closet near the loading dock, which I’d poked around in a few times out of curiosity. The chairs are so tightly arranged they appear to be touching; some are shoved up onto their neighbors. Each chair contains some piece of equipment: a guitar monitor with its innards ripped out, a car battery, a large metal coil, and a few things I can’t identify: a radio-looking thing that looks like it was pulled off an ancient submarine, something like a giant metal bong with straps. Many of these machines are plugged in—to the wall, to the floor, to each other—and a low ambient hum simmers up toward me in a sibilant drone.
In the very center of the circle, seated on another chair and tinkering with the end of a wire, is Tristan.
Stacked neatly in the utility closet, the chairs had been inert, innocuous. Here in this ominous metal conclave, bearing their strange mechanical cargo, they look dangerous. It’s as if they’re about to close in on Tristan, ready to claw at him, pull him apart, eat him alive. He is blithely unaware of this imminent menace, focusing hard on his wire.
I thought I’d thoroughly prepared myself. I thought I was high enough for this. But it turns out that “high enough for this” doesn’t actually exist, because there is absolutely no preparing for this.
“Tristan,” I call when I regain my breath, my voice booming in the empty space. But Tristan doesn’t respond. He is much closer to the whirring equipment, and it must be very loud in the center of it all, so I try again.
This time he swivels his head up to face me, and when he smiles, I think of a flower turning toward the sun. “Hey. I’m glad you’re here.” Then he gives me an impatient gesture. “Quick, come here.”
I start down the stairs, looking around in wonder at the part-office, part-garage, part-laboratory Tristan has built in the basement of No Dragons Press. I inspect a table as I pass: a digital scale, a laptop that looks to be Duc’s, and a Bunsen burner, brown liquid bubbling over a blue flame.
What the hell, I would very much like to know, is Tristan doing? I’m not sure whether to be amused or alarmed. I’m sure he’ll tell me in his own time, and in his own cryptic way. But I’m really starting to hope that sooner, rather than later, he’ll tell me if all this shit is dangerous.
I give the table with the flame a wide berth—it is my policy to limit unnecessary contact with things that can injure me—and move toward the circle of chairs. But I’m suddenly hesitant to cross this mechanical line of demarcation between reality and Tristan’s mad science fair project, so I come to a stop near the chair with the gutted amplifier.
“So . . . what are you doing in there?” I say. I pat the amp gingerly on one of its safe-looking surfaces. No one explodes.
Tristan turns to rest the wire carefully on the chair he’d been sitting on, then straightens and looks at me, his pale face lit from several angles. Awash in blue-white light, he doesn’t look gaunt, he looks ethereal.
“This is where I can hear it best,” he says.
“Hear it,” I echo, somewhere between bemused and dumbfounded.
His lips curve in a peaceful smile. “The pattern.”
A sudden involuntary shiver ripples through me.
But Tristan doesn’t notice; he has his head cocked like a dog, listening to the drone surrounding him. He looks like a child. Then he turns to face me, smiling that weirdly placid smile. “I could see it before, most of it—the pattern—but I didn’t know where to overlay it, so the framework was empty and the equations were meaningless. But you solved the puzzle.”
Some scholars, scientists—whatever it is that Tristan fancies himself—wouldn’t have appreciated someone else solving their great puzzle, their baby. But Tristan isn’t just neutral about my involvement, he’s practically joyous.
He says it warmly, without a hint of rancor, beaming at me. And I’m very glad he’s not upset with me for stealing his thunder.
It’s just that I have no idea what he’s talking about.
“Tristan,” I say, but he’s back in his posture of canine attentiveness. This time his eyes are closed.
“Tristan,” I say firmly, in the voice Duc uses to bring him back to earth. “What puzzle?”
He looks at me again, and his eyes are hard and bright as they lock onto mine. “The multiverse.”
I blink, thinking back to our little spat over magic flying dinosaurs, and try to remember if I’d said anything particularly poignant. Nothing. I don’t even think I said anything particularly logical.
“Uh-huh.” I point to the table containing the glass cauldron, dark contents bubbling away. “And that?”
He follows my gaze, then launches himself out of his seat. “Oh, crap!” he says, leaping nimbly over the narrow space between two chairs and rushing over to the burner. He takes the glass tube off its stand with a pair of oversized forceps and sniffs it dubiously. “Definitely burned, but it might still be OK.”
I am mystified. “What is it?” I ask.
“Chocolate,” he says, fishing an old Styrofoam take-out mug off a shelf behind him and pouring. He blows delicately across the surface, takes a sip, grimaces, and sets it down. He gives me a doubtful look. “Are you OK?”
I cough, turning to hide my face. “Yes, I’m sorry, I just have a little something . . . something in my . . .”
And then I’m saved from a certain, unavoidable case of giggles by a commotion from the doorway, and Nate and Duc appear at the top of the stairs, their faces round and pale in the light of Tristan’s contraption, like blue moonlight. Has the glow gotten brighter?
Tristan straightens again, burned beverage forgotten. “Good, you’re here. I’ll only have to explain this once.”
What Tristan explains, as he rushes back and forth moving equipment around, plugging in wires and unplugging other wires and I swear to God plugging some wires into themselves, is that he had come back here after our drinks the other night to find another submission from Democritus waiting. He’d had multiple universes on the brain—thanks to me, I guess—and with this new perspective, he saw the patterns he’d been trying to extract from the submissions in a new light. Or something.
At a gesture from Tristan, we all turn. I hadn’t noticed them at first, but below the stairwell, the chalkboard, the giant pinboard next to it, and the entire rest of the wall are covered in diagrams, drawings, and equations. What looks like all of Democritus’s submissions have been printed out and taped to the rest of the wall, page by page, highlights and margin notes covering each one. And, connecting bits of one to pieces of another, endlessly crisscrossing lines of twine and colored string.
I think again of a detective sitcom, this time in the context of serial killers.
What Tristan has discovered, as best as I can understand, is how to open a gate, a portal of some kind. The blueprint is out there for anyone to put together, apparently, but without a frame of reference, it is an empty, meaningless metric.
I blink. It’s been long enough now for me to have caught on if I was ever going to, but Tristan explaining something is rarely the same as the other person understanding it, and that’s just when he’s ordering a pizza. And I know it isn’t just me, because this time even Duc is frowning at Tristan.
But Tristan is grinning widely—at me. “Magic dinosaurs.”
Then, he giggles.
While I turn to exchange questioning looks with Duc and Nate, Tristan darts across the basement and begins to rummage around the cluttered table. When it’s clear none of us has any answers, I turn back to Tristan—to find him staggering back toward the circle, a large mound of metal in his hands.
I hold up a finger. “Tristan, wait. Whoah. What are you doing? What did you discover?”
Tristan stops moving with a snap, as if I’ve physically restrained his limbs. The thing in his hands looks kind of like an oversized car battery. Maybe a boat battery? Definitely trending toward alarmed at this point.
“The portal,” he says, giving me a patient look, then he moves around me and over to the strange assortment of wired-together objects. With a final wistful gaze toward his burned chocolate, Tristan sets the cell down carefully, then begins connecting it to yet another piece of gear with yet another wire.
So, what—with the right configuration of magnetic and electronic fields interacting with each other, he can create a portal to a new . . . what? Universe? Dimension? State of matter, namely carbon, after we’re all electrocuted?
But Tristan has an almost euphoric glow about him, like he’s the happiest he’s ever been in his life. Looking again at his wall of calculations, his lips move silently, reverently, as if in prayer. Not for the first time, I wonder just how smart the guy really is.
I walk up next to him and place my hand gently but firmly on his forearm, casting my gaze up to the intricate, elegant chaos on the walls. “What is it, Tristan? What am I looking at?”
Even as he turns his head toward me, his eyes remain on his calculations for a moment before settling on my face. They are calm, radiant, otherworldly. He looks positively serene.
“I think it’s a map.”