The sky blazed bronze-white, constellations picked out in actinic sparks. Just south of zenith, the sun was a perfect circle of perfect white, surrounded by writhing filaments of gold. Around the horizon, the city skyline lurked dark and angular behind a dingy haze of discarded dreams and spoiled longings.

Gan tucked the inhaler into his jacket pocket and set off through the geometric metal of the parking lot, cane twirling nervously in his left hand. The sea- green mirror of the tower receded before him so that his stride lengthened and quickened until he was nearly running, heedless of the mask-faced mannikins in pin-striped suits eddying around him. Then it was upon him like a pouncing dragon, filling up half the world, and he stopped so suddenly that one of the puppets bounced off his back. Lost in the labyrinth of brass-edged green scales looming above him, he barely noticed the impact, nor the empty music-box tinkle of the puppet as it swerved away into the shadowed maw of the building. Glass doors flashed like fangs in the darkness, and the tower swallowed Gan as well.

The lobby was a box of mirrors, nothing except what visitors brought into it. Gan watched himself walking upside down inside the floor, a tall white man with long white hair, wearing a neat white suit and a narrow white hat. The color of purity for half the world; the color of death for the other half. Fitting.

The half-dressed ivory doll at the mirrored desk tinkled at him when he spoke, tilting forward to show sculpted cleavage and waving at the elevators with a stylized hand. The doll in the elevator wore a blue policewoman's uniform and a Japanese sword, but was otherwise the same at the bottom floor. By the fifth floor, her skin was dark as old blood. By the tenth, her uniform cap balanced on a crest of black spikes. Fifteen, and coals glared in the devil-mask of its face. Gan edged to the far side of the elevator, cane spinning back and forth, back and forth. Seventeen, and Gan stepped back to the precise center though the monster clasped its swordhilt with steel talons. His watch showed eleven minutes elapsed, and already it was breaking down, mere expectation or outright hallucination infecting the true sight. The inhaler dragged at his jacket, heavy as a loaded gun. One left.

Twentieth floor, and the doors opened with a hiss, or perhaps it was the monster that hissed. Gan tipped his hat politely regardless, and stepped out into a mirrorbox bright and hollow as the one below. The doll at the desk was, so far as he could tell, identical to the one in the lobby, save that the wave of her hand directed him to a row of chairs pale and organically curved as mushrooms. He perched carefully on the edge of one, cane across his knees, and watched the entanglement of gears on the wall jerk forward one tooth at a time.

Nineteen minutes, and if he looked just to the left of the desk doll, she resolved into a smiling young woman in a navy-blue skirtsuit. His fingers sank into the arm of his chair, leaving five neat holes in the tough fabric, but he dared not use the last dose too soon, even though coming completely down could leave him dangerously disoriented.

Twenty-one minutes, and the young woman chimed at him and gestured toward the wall behind her, the glint of her wedding ring leaving a bright streak on his vision. The inhaler coughed for him, expanding vapor cold on his tongue, expanding sight hot on his eyes. He tipped his hat to the faceless doll as the iron-bound timber gate groaned open, and passed through clutching his cane like a sword.

The two walls opposite him were black glass, showing the skyline black on black, with no trace of sun. In that corner was a desk of white bone, and rising from behind that desk, a horror of rotting flesh and crumbling bone, held together by a network of veins still full and pulsing with stolen life.

Gan's heart leapt like a pennon catching the wind, and the black walls fell away as the dead thing stepped forward with one hand extended, leaving him flying free as a bullet. He shook the corpse's hand, and as it withdrew, he thrust his cane through its throbbing heart. The false ferrule broke away, letting the sharpened tip pierce through and through, and dust poured over his hand as a bare skeleton fell lifeless to the stone floor.


This file was last modified at 1635 on 22Jun99 by trip@idiom.com.