Beginning: Möbius rose
The pharmacorp, its assets liquidated in a stream of corrupted bits, had abandoned its poisoned chalice to the government. Proud boasts of the museum's impenetrability to thieves now rang hollow and bitter. With strenuous effort, the Picassos, Warhols, Shahroudis, and Sturms had been removed, but the alarm systems that thought they were still there could not be defused. From what I had read, the legal intricacies of the conglomerate's bankruptcy case still rending its way through the courts made demolition impossible, and entirely unable to shut down the building or make any use of it, the authorities had walled it off. Empty and untouchable, it flapped its wings obliviously.
I stood before a tall chain link fence, bristling with loops of barbed wire and plastered with signs proclaiming danger to trespassers. Too bad. I made a circuit of the building, looking for any entrance she might have taken, but the way remained barred. Returning to where I had begun, I sighed and turned away from the building. Where else could she have approached from? I moved to take off my backpack so I could sit down to think. In the process my eyes roamed over a subway entrance. Judson-Greene. Of course. The stop certainly must have connected to the building at some point. I descended into the fluorescent glow of the urban cavern.
No trains ran at this time of night, and the ticket gates were locked behind automatic grates. Lucky for me. I found a public terminal, jacked in, and did my magic. It took some time, but after a few weeks of intensive hacking I was in true form. A solitary grate over the last ticket gate groaned and coiled itself upward. I set a delay on the maintenance signal for the terminal, wiped its data, crashed it, then unplugged. For all that work, jumping the turnstile was a distinct pleasure.
Switching my flashlight on, I walked slowly across the empty platform. Sure enough, at its end there was an entrance blocked with chainlink fence, the sign above reading, "Welcome to the Aittakallio Museum of Modern Art" in a pretentiously grave font. My hopes sank as the beam danced over the barrier. No breaks. Not even a gate. I didn't need to check to know cutting through it with just a link-splitter would be impossible.
But perhaps I could try something defter. The twin entrances to the station bathrooms lay near the gate. I ducked into the leftmost doorway, the women's. The automatic light flickered on anemically. I let out a minor disgusted grunt at the reek of vinegar and stale urine. But sure enough, my conjecture proved true. The wall of the bathroom and that of the blocked hallway were one and the same. Moving to the back, I spotted exactly what I was looking for: an air-duct grate. I held my hand before it. A slight breeze. I dropped my backpack and slipped out a screwdriver. Wrenching the rusty bolts off took more effort than I really felt like spending at two a.m., but eventually I pulled the grate away with a godawful racket. There was a faint hum from deep within the duct. While she may not have taken this way, I would. I pushed in my backpack before me and wriggled after it.
As soon as I crossed the threshold of the duct, my flashlight began to flicker erratically. Hesitating a moment before letting a certain pride override the disturbed shiver shooting through my limbs, I turned it off and crawled onward. As long as I kept a straight path, I could always go backwards again. Each time a palm of my hand touched the metal, a ticklish sensation spread through it. Five or six repetitions of this and I balled them up in my shirtsleeves, but relaxed a little. Electrostatic charge along the surface of the duct to keep the dust moving. Totally reasonable. Considering the effect it had on my flashlight, I worried for my laptop, but it was shielded to a certain degree. I crawled for a time before I found another grate. Awkwardly, I reoriented myself feet first toward it, curled my knees up, and gave it a heavy kick. The metal didn't even shake. I frowned, then tried again. My legs thrust into thin air. The panel had slid away with a soft swish, opening onto the corridor beyond. I sighed and shoved myself out of the duct, trying not to think too hard about it.
Total darkness. I switched my flashlight to lamp-mode and glanced around. There was the blocked entrance, some twenty feet away. And stairs behind a series of glass doors about fifty feet ahead. I stared at the open grate, willing it to give me a reason to cram my ass right back into that duct and wait for Naomi outside. Sure enough, it swooshed closed. I gave it a kick. It opened again. A little more confident, I took off my backpack and sat down, pulling out my laptop to check if it was KO'd from the trip through the ventilation system. It booted up without difficulty. I logged in. As the operating system loaded, the lights above, along the entire hallway, suddenly flickered on. Slowly, with squinted eyes dilated by hitherto darkness, I looked around. No one. With a hasty glance over the file directories and system daemons, I confirmed that nothing was amiss, shut down, and snapped the laptop closed. The lights flickered off.
"Any more horror movie moments and I'm getting the fuck out of here," I murmured with irritation to the indifferent ceiling before hopping to my feet and cramming my laptop away. I completed the walk of the hallway and mounted the stairs. As I climbed, the ribbed vaults of glass sweeping above the main exhibition hall came into view, diffusing the cavernous space with a dull glow of star and moonlight. I suddenly recalled a visit to a cathedral when I was very young, the stream of multicolored lights from the stained-glass rose set high above the altar casting their patterns across the aisle. I had thought that if I stood amidst those lights, closed my eyes, and concentrated hard enough, I could hear the wingbeats of angels. Probably something silly my mother had told me, but I couldn't shake the feelings of reverence. I gazed upward at the soft points of light scattered across the sky. Metal wings carved arcs through the air, silently.
"Naomi?" I whispered. Feeling childish, I forced my voice a little louder. "Naomi? You there?" In the absence of reply, a faint buzzing caught my attention. Near the information desk, a robotic cleaner was diligently sweeping back and forth over one spot. My boots clunking too loudly across the lobby floor, I approached the robot, set down my backpack, and looked closer. It had scraped a hole in the marble. As it backed up for another run, just another scrub in a decade of scrubs, I grabbed hold of its top and held on for a moment. There was brief resistance, then nothing. I let go. Whirring softly, the robot turned itself around and zipped toward an open compartment in the wall, a little grate shicking closed behind it. I grinned.
With a crack, the hall filled with light. I tripped over my own feet in surprise, crashing to the floor. "Shit shit shit shit shit..." I hissed like a mantra, scrambling to my feet and breaking into a sprint across the lobby. At this time of night, in this decayed neighborhood, there would be no better way to get the attention of the entire city than turning on every light in a gigantic glass building that no one had entered for ten years. I had to get out. Maybe hide in the public bathrooms until the subways started running again, maybe something else, but I couldn't stay here. I nearly tumbled down the stairs in my haste, grabbing the railing and taking the steps four at a time until I reached the bottom. I was halfway into the air duct before I realized I had left my backpack sitting beside the information desk. With my laptop.
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