Root: Part IV, Chapter 10
Having reached Mount Rushmore visitor center at long last, Hasta and crew hunt for the elusive that will lead them to their goal Bus. But another of their foes has other plans.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Hasta approached her reflection. In the pearly but murky light, with the mist so close around, her image appeared to float in limbo. She raised her right hand. It was a measure of all the weirdness she’d experienced that she was almost startled when the Hasta in the black smoked glass did the same.
She stopped before the wide row of doors. Flanking her in the glass, the gray forms of Ivan and Juan resolved themselves from the mist, then Frida and Kylie. Bobby’s reflection appeared beside Frida, and LaVell’s beside Kylie. LaVell looked terrified and lost, but at least he wasn’t dressed in those stupid pajamas anymore. Ivan had used a stats window to help him transform his clothes into a black T-shirt and blue jeans. On his feet he wore a pair of workboots they’d snatched from the hardware store in Belvidere. He still walked gingerly on his damaged feet.
Hasta’s heart swelled at the sight of her unlikely companions, all in a row. She looked up. A line of deco-style steel letters above the doors read:
MOUNT RUSHMORE NATIONAL MONUMENT VISITOR CENTER
She couldn’t believe they’d made it this far.
“I still don’t see any bus,” said Ivan.
Hasta looked up at him beside her. He seemed even more haggard than the rest of the crew, but his back remained straight even as he swayed on his feet. After the melee at the hardware store, they’d finally managed to wake him up. One more jump, courtesy of Juan, Frida, and Kylie, had brought them to a street in the town of Keystone called, ominously enough, Holy Terror Trail. From there it was only a short drive to the national monument. The debate about whether or not to leave the still unconscious Elaine in the van while the rest of them went inside had been cut short when Moses took up station over her and refused to let anyone remove her from the vehicle. They’d left him there in the parking lot with the van’s side door open, standing guard over her supine form.
“Maybe the bus is on the mountain,” Hasta said. “In any case, I don’t think we have time to stand around waiting for it.”
“I don’t think so either,” Frida said, pointing to something printed in small gold letters on the door nearest her.
Now Hasta saw that the same thing was printed on every door, though she was sure the words hadn’t been there a moment ago:
CLOSING PERMANENTLY IN APPROXIMATELY 15 MINUTES
Come in while you still can
Hasta blinked, and the 15 changed to a 14. “We’d better get inside,” she said.
The visitor center’s foyer was filled with all the things Hasta would have expected—information desks, racks of pamphlets, display cases with rocks and chisels, black-and-white photographs, and signs announcing tour times. Everything, in fact, except tourists. The expectant hush inside seemed to swallow the clacking of their footsteps, a feeling only made worse by the glass wall that dominated the far side of the space. It should have offered a spectacular view of Mount Rushmore, but looked out only on gray mist.
A sign on a gold stanchion read:
← GRAND VIEW TERRACE
← PRESIDENTIAL TRAIL
“That sounds like the ticket,” Hasta said. Her words dropped away without an echo. “This way.”
Down a short hallway and to the right, Hasta pushed through another set of glass doors. She emerged onto a broad flagstone plaza. About a hundred feet square, the plaza was surrounded by columns strangely reminiscent of the giant pillars from the dreamworld, though these were topped by heavy lintel stones. The air felt colder and more humid here than it had out front. The fog hemmed them in.
Hasta inched out onto the plaza, feeling terribly exposed. Bobby held the door for the others. LaVell stuck close to Juan, his eyes red. He still didn’t understand quite where they were or why, and he hadn’t tried very hard to figure it out.
“What now?” asked Frida. She’d been growing more and more ill since she’d started helping out with the flipping, but she was really hanging in there. Hasta was impressed.
Kylie was studying a map she’d picked up in the foyer. “The Presidential Trail’s that way,” she said, pointing straight across the plaza. “Looks it takes you about as close to the faces as you can get.”
“I guess that’s the place to go,” Hasta said, turning in a slow circle. She had thought there’d be a more obvious indication of where to go or what to do once they arrived here. That there wasn’t struck her as ominous. “Vishnu said I’d petition Brahman here, but that I’d approach him by bus.”
“Brahman? Vishnu?” said LaVell, his voice hesitant and squeaky. “Hasta, those are Hindu idols.”
“Gods,” Ivan said, sidling up to Hasta.
LaVell shook his head. “I really don’t want to be here. This is blasphemy.”
“You love America, don’t you?” Juan said, tugging him out onto the plaza.
“This plaza reminds me,” Ivan said, quietly so only Hasta could hear. “When I was dreaming, I’m pretty sure I saw the guy who possessed LaVell.”
Hasta arched an eyebrow at him. “Juan said the daemon at the hardware store cast him out.”
“Something sure happened.” Ivan nodded toward the stone columns. “The guy flew through the air like a ping-pong ball and got sucked up into one of those huge pillars.”
“Weird,” she said twitchily. She motioned to the rest of the group, strung out all the way back to the doors. “Come on, everyone—stick together. Let’s hit the Presidential Trail.”
She waited until the others had caught up with her and Ivan, then started toward the far side of the plaza, where a railing indicated the top of a staircase.
Between one step and the next, the flagstones beneath their feet vanished, and they fell.
Cries of shock and pain filled the air. A.A. knew he shouldn’t, but he capered up the staircase from where he’d been hiding and onto the plaza.
Fog was leaching around the visitor center, already obscuring it from view. He danced to the edge of the fifty-square-foot pit that now occupied the center of the plaza. Twenty feet down, he was delighted to see, he’d caught seven of the little bounders. He shook his fists as most of them tried to pick themselves up from the flagstones. One of them, some blond kid, wasn’t moving, and the wailing, traitorous Bobby Kimball appeared to have broken a leg.
“I really don’t want to kill you,” he called down to them, “but if you think I’m going to let you onto the Bus, you’re crazy. I’ve worked too hard and gone through too much.”
The little Indian girl sprang up, eyes fierce, and shook a fist at him. An invisible hand snatched at A.A.’s shoulder, tipping him toward the pit. He rocked back but his heels slid across the slick flagstone and slipped over the lip.
“Mr. Sunshine, you coward!” she screamed. The name was like nails on a chalkboard. “You’re too spineless to kill us outright, but you’re fine letting the whole world die!”
A.A. flung himself backward and twisted his body. His legs pedaled empty air as his gut slammed the edge of the pit. That invisible hand dragged at the back of his belt. Slipping backward and down, scrabbling for purchase on the stones, A.A. threw his right hand forward, using the grip gesture to snatch at a stone pillar twenty feet away. He caught it and immediately stopped moving, though it felt like his pants were going to rip right off his body.
The children below were shouting for blood.
Right arm straining, A.A. lifted his left hand from its death grip on the stone floor and snatched at another pillar. Bit by bit he fought the girl below, dragging himself hand over hand through empty air and away from the pit.
“You’re persistent, I’ll give you that!” A.A. shouted as he scrambled to the plaza’s margin. He sat with his back against a pillar, breathing hard, and pushed his glasses up his nose. He’d found the pair in the visitor center’s lost-and-found and adjusted the focal length of the lenses until he could see through them reasonably well. But the prescription still wasn’t quite right, and they were giving him a headache. “I won’t underestimate you again, I promise!”
“Underestimate this!” called out one of the boys. A semicircular chunk of stone vanished from the lip of the pit, as if a giant had taken a bite.
A.A. glanced over to the head of the staircase, ten feet away. Across the plaza, the mist had reached the edge of the pit. Tendrils were beginning to slip down inside it.
The end. It was coming. It was going to be a close thing, but if he could just keep the kids in the pit another minute or two, he could make it to the Bus unmolested.
He fingered open a property window for the plaza. “You know, I’m really very proud of you all,” he said loudly as he clicked quickly through to the blueprints. “Even the ones of you I haven’t gotten to meet yet. You’ve been far better as students than I ever could have anticipated.”
This was the page he’d used to instantiate the pit in the first place. He double-clicked the diagram to pop the plans up in 3-D, then clicked the two farthest bottom corners of the pit and dragged them lower on the diagram. “I’m just sorry you can’t all join me in the next iteration of the world.”
Startled cries and grunts arose from the pit.
For good measure A.A. cranked up the local gravity. √
To be continued…