In the otherland, Katy stood up from the engine and sighed. She wasn't sure if it had worked, or what it would do if it had- a piece of equally-sized paper had emerged from the other end, each with a string of meaningless English phrases written on them. Her message was out. That was all she could do.
She brushed nonexistent dust from her knees and left the museum, to find Simon waiting by the plants outside.
“So, that engine thing… was also the thing you were working on Foundation?”
She nodded. “For the last three weeks. Day and night.”
“Why do you think it was there?”
Katy shrugged. “In that room? I'm not sure. Maybe it's supposed to be there and it got lost in the real world.”
“What does it do?” Simon frowned, and Katy explained the strange machine to him. “Maybe someone put it there,” he shrugged, when she was done.
The woman tapped her fingers on her hip, and thought. “What about the other buildings? There are seven of them, right?”
“Counting the last one- the final gate, you said you didn't want to go there yet- yes. We've seen three.”
“Yeah.” She looked down, then up the line of buildings. “What's in the next one?”
Simon told her. They paced through the sand, and Katy opened the door at the porch of a long, low house. Ahead, a wooden walkway was bordered with a railing, extending into a region of land far larger then the confines of the house should have allowed.
The landscape beyond the rail was apocalyptic: vegetation charred, black earth oozing puddles of bleachy white mud like school glue, to which clung dust. Above them, the roof was a high arch, dulled with age and threatening steam-clouds that swarmed the wooden beams. Away, far back, the earth was discoloured in spots: blue and red and green, moldy patches.
Here a bone stuck out of the mud, there a deep hole from which a rotting tire on an axle hung. It was the perfect end-of-days. Katy felt an instinctive repulsion to it, although she could not say whether that was actually how she felt or how she was supposed to feel.
Simon obviously felt the same, and they hurried out before too much time passed. As they went out the door, Katy swore she could hear singing from behind them.
The fifth pleiad was a giant wall, and stepping in, they were greeted by a massive human face carved in stone. There was a sound of rocks grinding nearby. Next to the human face, there was another, and another, and when she turned to look down the wall there were a million heads carved in granite. “The living and the dead,” Simon noted. “Wait, watch this.”
He turned to face the wall. “Ghandi,” he spoke clearly to it. Far above them, a square face block slid to fill an empty spot, then another, and another, forming a winding chain of moving faces above them.
“So this is like one of those puzzles I had as a kid with a picture of a frog in the middle, and you slide the plastic tiles…”
Simon grinned. Before too long, the large smooth face of a recognizable Indian man dropped down in front of them.
Katy stared. “Stephen Hawking.” As she spoke, she could see similar blocks sliding with empty spaces a long ways down. The new face, too, sunk into place.
“Not particularly useful,” Simon shrugged, “But kind of cool, right?” Katy nodded.
“Rebecca Knight.” Her sister's face moved from far to the left to join the others. Katy just grinned.
Eventually they got bored of watching the monolithic heads slide, and left for the last house she had any urge to visit. Simon just shrugged when she mentioned it. “Sixth building is kind of boring. I mean, it's pleasant, don't get me wrong.”
“So, other then the last house… Is this it?”
“Here? Sort of. Not really. There are a few little installations- if you walk up the river for a ways, for instance, it forms a little pool, and there are always people fishing there.”
“Fishing?” In the gray river, she wondered? “What do they catch?”
“I don't think I've ever seen one catch anything.”
Fishing in the river of life, thought Katy. It struck her as a terribly human thing to do.
The sixth pleiad was a garden, caged in gates of iron and an open roof that looked up to an orange sky. The garden was grown over, and Simon pointed out a path curving past a palmy tree. They meandered, Katy kicking at a creeping white flower with a whorl of petals. It fractured convincingly. There were many plants that Knight never quite recognized, but no people, and few other creatures- at one point, a fat bird with huge wings flapped overhead. She didn't look up.
“You seem distracted,” Simon noted.
“What? No, it's-” She sighed. “That engine. Why's it there?”
“You know you can't do anything about it now.”
“Yeah.” She looked up and waited for the bird to come back- it didn't. She couldn't say why, but she didn't tell Simon about the little slips of paper she had fed into the engine. Didn't want to tell him about the one last mystery she felt she needed to solve before the gate of the last house opened.
It was, undoubtedly, an obsession now. But he didn't mind- the senior staff he had known were always obsessed.
Five new messages had come through the Engine in the last three days. Five. And he suspected, strongly, that they were related. They had the same sort of polite, scientific curiosity that made him think it was intentional- though still interspersed with static-y lines and smudge and random characters in different typefaces. Sometimes words: FALL was a common one, as were BLANK and WHEN. The last one that came through was in all bold type: MEET YOU AT THE END
The next experiment they were due to try was shapes, and besides, nothing meaningful was coming through anymore. The first circle input became an egg; then a star became an egg with small stick figures nearby; then a charcoal sketch of a landscape became an egg towered over by indistinct humans.
It was not obsession, Otis thought, if it was something really important.
He stalked the halls of Site 43 and was bothered by no one, reports sent to his office on time without delay or imprecision. The staff had realized that he was the site director for good, not Katy, and it was on their heads if they couldn't keep up.
He hung a picture of a city skyline in his office, with a little light, so that it was there into the night. Johanna knocked on his door one evening and he let her in.
“Sir?” She asked him. “The thing you wanted me to do.”
“Is it possible?”
She slid a closed, faux alligator-skin folder at him, which he did not open. He looked at her. “Well?”
“It's, um… I think it will. But it'll take a lot of blood. And it might not go as planned, there's a high chance of failure. I couldn't get any good leads.”
“So what's this?” He shook the folder
“Don't get me wrong. That's how to do it.”
Dawn, such as it was in the sunless, cloudy otherland, found Katy in the back room of the museum again. She drank from a carton of red juice with one hand, watching the engine run. A stack of three-by-eight inch slips of paper sat next to her. Simon was wandering somewhere else. She sighed, and scribbled a picture of stars and a little landscape on a slip and pushed it in. As expected, a similar sheet of paper fed out the other end. She read it immediately.
It was pencilled neatly:
LOOK BEHIND YOU