Chad, Will, Jill, and Camille all stepped into the lounge from the maze and were overcome by the shift in scenery. Going from the forced creepy quiet of the various scenes into the red lighting and thumping bass of the new environment was like slipping from a sunny beach into a nearly frozen icy pool. They adjusted in short order, and set about searching for their comrades.
The group had made good time through the labyrinth after their initial confusion at Camille’s appearance in place of Rich, though they’d found themselves stumped enough times to place their exit sometime after Rich had sent the others into their own minds. Chad spotted his teammate almost immediately, walking over to the table and motioning to the others to join him. As Chad grew nearer he noticed the stiff way in which Nick, Mary, and Alice sat. They blinked and breathed but did little else. To someone who hadn’t worked with Rich before they might have been mistaken for bored listeners. Chad knew better; he’d seen that posture in too many conquered opponents to mistake it for anything else.
“You sealed them.”
“Not even a hello? I’m a little hurt,” Rich replied.
“Why would you do that?”
“Nick was questioning the validity of my power, so it seemed a live demonstration was in order.”
“In the middle of a crowded room, with countless witnesses, any of whom might have seen what happened and put it all together.” Chad’s tone left no uncertainty that he was unhappy, and much as Rich liked to rib his captain, he realized he needed to get a handle on this situation soon. Chad was a nice guy, but he didn’t tolerate any activities that might put their secret, and therefore their standing in the HCP, at risk.
“I’ve kept them looking natural, don’t worry,” Rich assured him. “I can let them out if you want.”
“Go slow and do it gently,” Chad instructed him. “The last thing we need is one of them freaking out and drawing more attention to us.”
“Understood,” Rich said obediently. He meant it too. Chad was the one person against whom Rich had no ace in the hole. Everyone else it was just a matter of catching their eye, but for some reason when it came to the blonde captain, Rich’s mind mojo was utterly ineffective. He began the effort of pulling the frozen folks out from their delusions. He could have done it in a series of seconds, but if Chad wanted gentle it would take a bit of time. Oh well, it wasn’t like it made any difference to the people he’d sealed. They were still in their own heads, blissfully killing time doing nothing important.
* * *
This wasn’t just a door, this was a battered vault. The entry was blocked by a circular steel front several inches thick. The walls around it had been blasted and chiseled away, leaving it slightly ajar. A multitude of chains were strewed across it, each one severed and now hanging limply. The rubble from countless guards littered the ground around Mary and Gerry’s feet, some of their stone faces still twisted in the agony of their destruction. Cameras, lasers, bombs, and other defenses of the sort filled the area, all rendered useless if not outright obliterated.
“I don’t understand,” Mary said. “Did you do this?”
“No, Nick did.”
“Then who set the defenses to begin with?”
“That was Nick, too,” Gerry told her.
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Doesn’t it? Haven’t you ever had a thought or an idea you tried to bury away, yet in moments of weakness would come floundering up because some piece of you was unwilling to let it go?”
Mary didn’t say anything to that. She couldn’t imagine what an appropriate response would be.
“I told you before, humans are multifaceted. Even Nick. Part of him wants to destroy this room and purge it from his head. There’s another part that refuses to let it stay forgotten.”
“Which part are you?”
Gerry turned and smiled at her. “If it were up to me, I’d set an explosive charge in this bastard and never look back.”
Mary nodded. If Gerry was the part of Nick that wanted to connect to the world and he abhorred this place so vehemently then it likely meant what lay within was part of what made Nick so, well, Nickish.
“How long until he gets here?”
“Once you step inside I imagine it won’t be more than a few minutes.”
Mary cocked an eyebrow. “You want me to go in?”
“It’s the only way to draw him here.”
“Something this guarded, it sort of seems like I don’t have the right to see it.”
“Mary, this is something Nick has never even talked about with the real Gerry. It’s a secret he holds closer than any other, even though clutching it so tightly is burning him away from the inside. If he never shares the burden with someone else, I’m afraid eventually he’ll be nothing but a charred and empty husk.”
“I thought you wanted to destroy this room.”
“I do. Letting it out is the next best option.”
Mary opened her mouth then closed it. She was, ultimately, arguing with a piece of Nick about what was best for Nick. At the end of the day, she had to defer to his expertise over her own. Besides, it would be a lie to say her curiosity wasn’t piqued. Instead of objecting, she took a tentative step forward and placed her hand on the door. It was cold, like someone had dipped the steel in liquid nitrogen before fastening it in place. Mary looked back at Gerry, who nodded his encouragement. She pulled the door farther open, noticing she could only make out shadows inside. With a tentative gulp she stepped across the threshold.
The first thing she observed was that she couldn’t see outside anymore. It was just a half-circle of bright light to her back, so intense that nothing was discernible. The second thing she noticed was that her eyes had instantly adjusted and she could make out the room now, or at least parts of it. There were still spots of inky blackness dotting the small landscape, but the rest had become clear. Mary was shocked by what she saw. Of all the things she might have imagined lurked in the lair of Nick’s inner secret, this one would never have occurred to her.
Mary was standing in a church. The carpet was a dark maroon, the pews a faded wooden color, and a large cross hung over the pulpit. There were no stained glass windows, or any windows for that matter. The entire structure seemed to be lit by candles along the walls, as well as a large cluster of them at the front. There was something else up there, too, but it was in one of the dark spots Mary’s eyes couldn’t penetrate. Overall the place was peaceful, quiet save for the soft sizzle of burning wicks.
Mary cocked her head. That wasn’t entirely true. There was another noise in the room, so soft she’d nearly missed it. Mary began walking forward and the noise grew louder. In a pew only a few rows away from the front she found a sandy-haired boy huddled in a ball on the ground. His face was tucked into his knees, muffling his sobs as he rocked slowly back and forth. He didn’t have the sunglasses or the attitude, but Mary made an intuitive leap.
The boy looked up in surprise. His face was splotched and his nose was runny. It was evident he’d been crying for a very, very long time.
“Go away.” His voice was weak and cracked, but there a surprising fierceness to it.
“Nick, it’s okay. I’m your friend.”
“I know. Now go away. I don’t want to hurt you, too.” His voice cracked on the word “you” and a fresh dousing of tears sprang forth.
Mary crouched down and reached out to comfort him, but the boy slapped her hand back.
“What do you mean ‘you, too’?”
Nick reburied his face in his knees, but he pointed over his head toward the pulpit. Mary stood up slowly. For the first time she noticed that this Nick was wearing a small black suit. She turned forward. Even being only a few feet away, she still couldn’t see what was set in the center. She took careful, awkward steps as she advanced. A church. Candles. A young boy in a black suit. Mary wondered why it had taken her so long to understand.
She was at a funeral.
When she was inches away the darkness dissipated. Sitting before her were a pair of closed brown coffins. There were pictures mounted on each one; the right casket evidently contained a once pretty girl with chestnut hair and the left bore a tall gangly man with a thick set of spectacles. She barely noticed any of that, however; it was only in memory she would discover those details. What dominated her attention was what lay behind the coffins. It was a twisted, mangled pile of steaming black metal that might have once been a car. It looked as though it had been tossed through an industrial shredder, decimated by an angry god. There was something familiar about it, but Mary couldn’t figure out what.
“What on earth happened?” Mary wasn’t able to imagine the sort of accident that could have caused this level of damage.
The whimpering behind her redoubled, but Mary heard a word being choked out. She walked back to the weeping boy and crouched down once more. “I’m sorry, Nick, I couldn’t hear you. What did you say?”
Mary felt an icicle shoot from her heart directly into her spine. “I’m sorry?”
“Me... I happened.” Nick’s voice was cutting through the rasping sobs that even his knees could no longer muffle. “I killed them. I killed my mom and dad.”
Mary opened her mouth to respond, but before the words could get out a pair of strong hands from behind wrapped themselves around her neck and began to squeeze.