I am someplace strange.
My skin sloughs and spreads before me, settling in every direction. I have the unmistakable sense of history and beauty lying unseen beneath it, grand foundations of flesh and bone.
And then the veins begin to flow, thorny, bulging veins, rippling and dividing into streets and passageways, and when they break the surface of my skin, they burst upwards, blooming with spines.
I feel proud; rapturous; yet to be satisfied, urging myself on, as the network of thorny spires spreads and grows, rising up until a single great tower of barbed magnificence cuts through my surface, rising up and up, unstoppably, to new heights, never ceasing, always expanding-
And when I wake up, I’m so very disappointed still to be here. Still to be myself. In a rented hotel room in a grubby European city whose identity I shall not mention even to you, my love.
The English papers don’t mention Mrs Ward. Or a gas leak. Or mysterious burrowing tunnels in the side of a tenement block.
I can’t think that’s a good sign.
I have dyed my hair, changed my clothes, carefully stowed my personal documentation somewhere it cannot be found.
Perhaps at the end of all this, I’ll be able to get it back.
Today may well be the first step towards that.
Today I have an appointment with Professor John Henley. Formerly of the Orion Building Concern. Currently of - as far as I can tell - nowhere in particular.
We have something in common, then.
It’s a bad cafe.
Tourists are squatting in the chairs all around us, faces buried in their oversized paper maps, hollering at the serving staff in English. Carly Simon is playing, a little too loudly, on the radio. Screens on either side of the crowded room are showing the football.
I sip a coconut mocha and try to arrange my face into a suitable expression for a post-graduate student and admirer of avant-garde architectural theory who’s meeting one of her heroes.
I suspect I may just be pursing my lips, but Professor Henley doesn’t seem to notice.
“Have you heard of the Bridge on Pope Lick Creek?” he asks me.
I tell him I haven’t.
“Built for the industrial railroad in Louisville, Kentucky,” he says. “And over time, back in the 1970s, the story begins to spread amongst the local townsfolk that there’s something lurking beneath it. Some kind of creature, a feral beast. And if you go up onto the bridge, and lean over the edge, the thing will reach up out of the darkness and drag you down.”
I pretend to scribble shorthand in my notebook.
“So then the bridge’s infamy grows,” Professor Henley says. He seems to be enjoying himself. “And then one day a tourist goes up on the bridge, leans over too far trying to see the monster, and - splat. Which, of course, encourages more visitors. More deaths.
“So the local authorities put up barbed wire fences, which makes the bridge seem even more impressively frightening, and forces visitors to sneak up in the dark, when you can barely see your own feet in front of you. Splat. Splat. It becomes a rite of passage for each new generation of children to sneak up onto the bridge at night, drinking cans of lager, dancing and fooling around to demonstrate their courage. Splat. Splat. Splat.
“An endless loop of death and an ever-widening circle of impact.”
He sits back. The cafe is bustling, and loud. I have no doubt that he intends me to lean forward, forcing me to pay close attention.
“Aside from irony,” he says, “what do we have here, once we eliminate the human element? In the purest sense, we have built a bridge that traps and destroys human beings. If we only stop considering it as a passive object, its methods are the same as any predator. It hunts in darkness. It uses a lure - narrative, the most enticing bait of all to members of our species.”
“The question that fascinates me is; has the bridge gone wrong somewhere, deviating from its original purpose, or was the death loop always there, in the blueprints themselves? Its height, its proportions, the sinister look of its frame against the sky and trees, just the right amount of shadow beneath it to tantalise us and stimulate the imagination...”
Professor Henley is white-haired now, his eyes sunken and a little vague, his hands twitchy beneath black leather gloves. He does not drink coffee, but gratefully accepts a large slice of chocolate cake.
There’s no sign that he recognises me. I suppose there’s no reason why he would.
“I read about this in your book,” I prompt him. “Hostile architecture.”
“I find it fascinating and appalling,” Professor Henley says, “that we apply that term exclusively to spaces that oppress rough sleepers. The homeless are our canaries in the coalmine of exterior landscape, because they have no escape from it - unlike the rest of us. We can retreat into the private spaces of our homes and our heads, after all.”
He takes a bite of his chocolate cake.
“Could someone create such a space?” I ask him, as if it’s just occurred to me. “Deliberately, I mean.”
He chews on his cake, licking his lips.
“It would be abhorrent,” he says, lying with grace and simplicity. “But academically speaking...possible. The problem is that we’ve yet to properly identify the causes. What might result in something like the Pope Lick Bridge entering its death loop, for example-”
“I’m not talking about the bridge,” I tell him, softly. “I’m talking about something much bigger, and much more monstrous, than that.”
He falls silent. I lean forward, keeping my gaze fixed on his.
“A little village called Banwell,” I continue. “Up in the Scottish Highlands, custom-built by Orion, just a few short years ago. A place where families, and their children, were sent in to die. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you, you son of a bitch?”
Professor Henley gapes at me in absolute silence for a moment. The chocolate cake hangs loose, melting off the edges of his fork.
“Who’ve you been talking to?” he asks, weakly, at last.
“You, Professor,” I tell him, and as he rises my hand lunges out to grab him by the wrist, pinning him to the table, my fingers gripping just tightly enough to let him know I can get rougher if I need to.
With my free hand - just for fun - I lift my jacket to one side, just enough so he can see the handgun that’s stowed away there.
“Tell me about Eskew,” I say - and all at once, he stops struggling.
The lightbulb flickers, and we step into a room that’s a pure chaos of papers. Torrents of stacks, piled high on the desk, propping up the bed, teetering on the edge of the windowsill.
Blueprints. And street maps.
Hundreds upon hundreds of street maps.
“I collect cities,” Professor Henley says, awkwardly. “Topography, historical maps, Just about everywhere you can name. Where are you from, my dear?”
“I’m Somali,” I tell him. “But I grew up in New York.”
“I don’t like New York,” he says, absent-mindedly. “It’s the grid system. Block after block, no opportunity for streets to twist and travellers to get lost. A chokehold on the spirit of the city. Chaos is an essential part of architecture, wouldn’t you say?”
“Did you learn this at Orion, Professor?” I ask him. “Was this all part of your induction training - how to win favour with your captor? Because I really don’t feel like we’re bonding right now.”
He stares at me for a moment, and something in him seems to sag.
“Banwell was a mistake,” he says, quietly. “We got carried away. We were trying to recreate something we’d only heard about in whispers, something we really didn’t have any hope of understanding.”
“Eskew,” I repeat. The word hangs between us in the silence.
Professor Henley gives me a small, unhappy smile.
“If you’re hoping I can tell you what it is,” he says, “I’m afraid you’re quite mistaken. I’ve never been there, I’ve never seen it. All I have is guesswork and speculation.”
I remove the moth-eaten sketchbook from my satchel, and hand it to him.
He gives me an odd look, before opening it up.
David’s drawings. Spiky, scribbled maps of winding streets with incomprehensible names. Outlines of gothic spires and steeples.
Even upside-down, they make an odd kind of sense; the streets and rooftops flow into one another like veins or roots, like a tapestry telling a story of concrete, glass and stone.
“Just tell me what you do know,” I say. “I’ll fill in the rest.”
Professor Henley nods, weakly.
“I’ll get the tapes,” he says.
I’m watching security footage. Someone’s house. A lawn, stretching out for acres until the grass comes to a halt against dark and twisted woods.
Two children, two little girls, are dancing clockwise around a thick, gnarling oak, stood alone in the centre of the lawn.
There’s no sound, but you can imagine they’re singing as they play - Round and Round the Mulberry Bush, or similar.
As they dance into the shade, their bodies become simple silhouettes, dark prancing mannequins, before emerging again into the light.
Tireless and devoted to their game as all such children, they repeat the pattern, over and over again.
Slumped in the musky-armchair of the Professor’s cluttered lounge, I begin to feel a little like dozing.
And then the two girls turn back away from us, vanishing behind the swollen trunk of the tree - and a second later, one girl comes back around the other side.
I sit bolt upright.
The girl stumbles, and turns. She looks back, confused. Totters back around to the hidden side of the tree, searching for her sister.
I can’t see her expression, but I can imagine that she’s giggling, imagining that this is some new game of hide-and-seek.
A moment later, she turns back towards the house, her mouth open, her eyes screwed up, bawling in silence - and we see a tall man, dashing out over the lawn, limbs moving at frantic speed, as if somehow he’s sensed that something has gone very wrong here.
The tape freezes, mid-motion.
“That was in 1993,” Professor Henley says. He sounds hoarse - sentimental, for a man who experiments on foreign-born women and children. “The first real, verifiable evidence of a crossing point that we could find. We’d been searching, of course, but this was the first real confirmation we had, the first hint of something real.
“The little girl, poor thing, was never found - but in her sketches and doodles, we found drawings much like those in your notebook.”
“Crossing points,” I repeat. “Crossing points to where?”
The hairs on my arm are prickling. Like thorns, flowering up through the pores of my skin.
“There are places in this world,” Professor Henley says, slowly, “that go wrong. I’ve said as much to you already. Houses with basement doors that lead to nowhere. Staircases with too many flights. Villages that drive their own inhabitants mad.”
“A great deal of my work with Orion involved finding these places - even trying to recreate their tricks myself. Attempting to measure them. To solve their riddles.”
“What I began to suspect was that many of these places were not isolated aberrations of architecture...but rather leading to somewhere else.”
He gets up. Loads another tape into the machine.
“In time,” he continues, “we attempted to enter these crossing points ourselves. Our efforts, I’m sorry to say, were less than successful - and often somewhat gruesome. You may want to be prepared for this.”
I sit, my arms folded in stony silence, and watch.
This one’s in colour.
Men in flak jackets and thick black helmets are gathered around an ordinary-looking closet door set into a chipped plaster wall. There’s almost a comically absurd number of them, packed into the tiny room, bumping anxiously into one another.
Someone offscreen shouts, go, go, go, and the armoured man nearest to the closet door tears it open. The men run in, ducking in order to enter, one after the other.
Thirteen of them, at my count, slipping into the tiny cupboard, like a procession of clowns. Like a magic trick.
The last man lets go of the doorhandle, and ducks inside- and as if to complete the trick, the door swings gently to a close behind him.
There’s a long silence.
Someone offscreen is asking,
“Alpha Team, do you read me?”
First calmly. Then less calmly.
Finally, a figure in an absurd orange hazard suit waddles gingerly forward. Its hand closes on the handle, and tugs the cupboard door open.
Something topples out, a tide of shiny, rattling black insects cascading around the figure’s knees and feet, making them flinch.
Flak helmets. A pile of identical, empty flak helmets, their straps still tight.
Nothing else is visible. There’s simply no trace of the men.
The man in the hazard suit turns to the camera.
“What the hell?” he says, distantly.
He leans into the cupboard, hand outstretched as if to touch its interior for himself - and then freezes.
And then something begins to winnow through the back of the hazard suit, working its way through the microscopic mesh of the cloth and out from the impenetrable plastic seams.
Impossibly thin strands, pink and white and red, emerging from the frozen figure’s bent back, twisting out of the arms and legs and mask of the suit, spiralling gently in the air before settling in a contented heap across the carpet.
It’s as if the man has taken a step backwards, forcing his body violently, through the mesh of his own hazard suit, which takes a moment before beginning to sag and deflate, folding up onto the carpet as if to make it quite clear that no, there is no longer anyone inside.
Professor Henley pauses the tape.
“The cupboard was incinerated afterwards,” he says. “In case you were wondering.”
I gesture towards the frozen screen.
“The others,” I reply. “The tactical team. You think they made it through?”
Professor Henley sits heavily into the armchair beside me.
“At first we thought it was taunting us,” he says. “We thought perhaps you needed to be marked before you could enter. As if you needed to be invited in.” He shrugs, a little sulkily, and adds. “Over time, Orion became more convinced that the reactions we were seeing were simply random. That was when they began to lose faith in my methods.”
“Has anyone ever made it out?” I ask.
He gestures, slowly, towards the pile of fleshy strands still occupying the television screen.
“If they have,” he replies, “we haven’t heard about them...or they’ve come back in a form that we’d no longer recognise as human.”
“And Orion,” I prompt. “Are they still working on this? Still trying to get in?”
Professor Henley chuckles, weakly. He raises a hand to pinch his temple.
“No,” he says. “No, they’re not.”
The third tape is something else.
The timestamp in the bottom right-hand corner tells me it took place on 14th April - 2016.
This was just last year.
The camera is focused on a wooden door-frame, stood in the very centre of a blank, white laboratory floor.
It’s cheap balsa, made from a kit, unpainted.
The doorknob already has some faded, bloody fingerprints upon it.
I feel a sudden shiver of uncertainty. Of dread.
Professor Henley has abandoned his armchair; he stands in the threshold behind me, his fingers tapping at the skirting, as if he’s getting ready to flee.
A figure steps forward. It’s wearing the now-familiar yellow hazard suit, but it’s also been equipped with something else. A long, extended mechanical arm, with a claw on the end of it.
Voices can be heard from all around. The room is, audibly, crowded.
Someone from offscreen yells at the figure to be careful. He nods, turns back to the door - and extends the claw until it closes around the knob.
There’s a moment of silence.
And the door swings open.
The door is already open.
Perhaps the door is already open.
Perhaps those screams have always been ringing out.
Perhaps those deep, dark scores in the concrete floor, lines leading towards the open threshold, were there from the very beginning, and the room was always dark, and the shattered glass of the lightbulbs scattered across the floor, and the walls warped and twisted, folding in on themselves beneath a roof that’s collapsed and bright white-hot with electrical fires.
The doorway lies, broken, upon the floor.
The voices can no longer be heard.
There’s something else instead. The gentle, inviting patter of rain.
It takes me a moment to realise that the film has ended, and the rain is no longer rain, but static.
“We thought we could recreate our own crossing point,” Professor Henley says, softly, from behind me. “Use existing materials, and reassemble them under laboratory conditions. Take control of it that way. Clearly...we were mistaken.”
I turn in my chair.
“What happened to them?” I ask.
Professor Henley shakes his head. His rheumy eyes are filled with guilt, and pain.
“As far as we know, they were carried through,” he says hoarsely. “We had to abandon the entire office afterwards. What was left behind, in the corridors, in the crawlspaces...made neither architectural nor anatomical sense.”
“And after that,” I ask, “I imagine Orion gave up on their tests?”
“Not quite,” Professor Henley says. He smiles unhappily. “Not quite. Management was keen to continue at first, write the whole thing off as a gas leak, start testing again. But then when employees in their new office began reporting strange occurrences...lifts that kept stopping at floors that no longer existed, indecipherable emails from departments that had been destroyed in the blast...I think that spooked them.
“They terminated my contract in September of last year. A pity. There I had support, funding resources. While here…”
He trails off, leaving the sentence unfinished. There’s a strange, excitable expression on his face.
Slowly, I get to my feet.
I have a sudden, thrilling, premonition.
“There’s a crossing point here in the city,” I say. “There is, isn’t there, Professor? That’s why you’re hiding out here. You’re still trying to find a way in.”
He nods, fervently.
“It’s here,” he tells me, and a slow, ecstatic, exhausted smile spreads across his face. “Oh, believe me, my dear girl. It’s here.”
And so tonight, I’m sleeping on the floor of a man I despise. A corporate stooge, a coward...and in his own indirect, academic way, a mass murderer.
He’s also quite possibly the only person in this world who believes what I’ve seen - and who can offer me any kind of solution to this madness.
Tomorrow...well, tomorrow we’ll see what he has to show me.
Be with you again soon.