WFGC Hotel Online Anthology: The Machine

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Accomplishment is a big word. Not just the number of letters required to spell it, but also the number of actions required to reach it. To accomplish something, in Martin Graine’s eyes, means putting up a supreme effort. Therefore, you do not accomplish making a cup of coffee or checking your mail. You may do these things, and succeed, but they are not items of accomplishment. It’s too strong a word.

No. Accomplishment takes time. Martin was extraordinarily proud of his hotel. He owned it. Built it from the ground up. The original building took twenty-eight years to complete. So many bodies used to lace together timber, glass, concrete, and metal. So many telling him the tens of thousands in debt he’d given himself, at the age of seventy-one, was a fool’s errand. He’d been sure they were right. But, when he opened those expensive front doors for the first time in 1968, he knew the truth.

He’d accomplished something great.

The Great Depression ended some years before, technically if not officially. Only the most mediocre families were experiencing its lingering effects in 1969. America was on the rise. Because of this, Graine’s hotel saw millions of visitors within its foundational years. Graine’s debts turned into profit, allowing Martin a rare accomplishment: nigh complete freedom. The American Dream lived, and it was his.

Martin Graine spent his money, used his freedom, but not without the wisdom of years. Rather than buy a house, he furnished the uppermost floor of the hotel and called it home. He got a nice car, but not one to race. Hired a chauffeur and a chef, but cleaned up after himself. Made sure his daughter went to college, and his ex-wife would never have to work again. He had the attention of powerful men throughout the world; and they all wanted some of his admittedly limited time.

He kept an open ear to the first hundred men he spoke too, but soon became bored of their limited scopes and dreary plans for freedom. Mostly, he noted, because he’d already reached the level they wanted to reach. Quickly he learned to use the word no. It became his opening line and his closer. Many a man left his hotel angry at his snubs. He did not care. He didn’t have to.

Instead, the men he listened to were those who had esoteric ideas. Those who wanted to build churches, or have a backer in order for them to search out some evangelical mystery. Over time, fewer of these men were looking for God. Some searched for nirvana, others merely wanted an excuse to get high. Martin shoveled out money for most of these men because ultimately, what they wanted was simple: a chance at freedom. Who was he to deny them?

Underneath his philanthropy, a darker motive lurked. Martin was now an old man in his early nineties. His health faded along with his weight. He had more money than he could spend, surely he could find a way to live longer. Right? But the years counted swift and fell behind him.

The hotel continued strong. Martin was beginning to realize it would live and breathe long after he had gone. He also saw that one day, his name may no longer be associated with his greatest creation. This caused him immense pain. He’d put his life into the hotel, to lose it in any capacity felt unacceptable. Death though, ended all things, and none of his explorers brought anything to him which could stop his unequivocal end.

He found himself spending more and more time in the lower reaches of the hotel with the many stored artifacts his philanthropy produced. He would stare at one for hours, begging internally for an answer. Never did they offer one, or even a consoling word. They were, after all, just things.

His prayers did little, he just couldn’t hear God anymore. How had he believed in such a creature in his younger years? All knowing? Seeing everything? Caring? No. If there was a God, he watched you age and laughed at your incontinence. At your ineffective attempts to beleaguer a system set up against you. And he certainly didn’t care how much any of it hurt.

It was during one of these sessions that Martin noticed he wasn’t alone. In a moment of clarity, understanding of God opened up in his mind, an epiphany which settled his soul and quieted the angrier spirits within him.

Yet in the quiet, he heard whispers. They surrounded him like ghosts humming in the early moments of twilight. When they converged as a physical thing out of that twilight, it was a man of many years Martin’s junior who stepped out.

Despite the aging face, the man was dapper. Proper. His black suit melded with the shadows cast by machinery Martin himself hardly understood. A smile remained plastered on the newcomer’s face, even as he spoke. The hint of an old London accent surprised Martin.

“Good day to you, Mr. Graine. Strange time to be down to the nethers.”

Martin shivered. The words didn’t seem spoken, more like they were rippling out from the man, striking his flesh. Each syllable crawled along his arms and face toward his ears.

“I uh, suppose it is. Mr.?”

“You may call me Kel. Full name Kellufer DeStrange. And I’ve something you migh’nt be interested in. If I may be up front however, tis’nt a free proposal.”

“I’m not interested. I don’t do business with men who give me false names.”

“Hmm. You caught me to the name. But you do want what I have to offer. Shall I take due time to explain my deal? Would you listen, or wave me off like the other sack-skins you deal with?”

The stench of fear wafted up from Martin, and he wondered if his dreadful companion cared. He disliked this man. Never before had he been afraid inside his own building. His creation. His stamp on the world. How dare this popper take that away from him? He needed to put up a show of strength, even if every muscle screamed to run.

“I need to know your name before I listen to a word more.”

The stranger lowered his head. Martin wasn’t sure if he was showing annoyance, or acquiescing. Seconds passed before he raised his head back up. The wolf grin remained, but a hint of respect shined in his eyes.

“Right then. I am Miles Baker. And I may save your life, but it will cost you nigh everything.”

“My life is over. I have done what I am going to do. My hotel is my legacy, until it too falls by the winds of time. Nobody gets to be immortal, Mr. Baker.”

“That’s just it, yeah? We were taught from birth that death is the only logical outcome. Then we try to fight as it nears. Then, we come to terms. Accept the story as it’s told. We stop asking questions. Might I ask you something: do you believe I’m of the world as you know it?”

Martin put thought into his answer. About the creepy-crawlers from the man’s voice. How he formed out of, essentially, solidified whispers. Men did not do this, no. These were abilities left to angels…or demons.

“No. No, I am led to believe you are not born of this world. What are you? Demon? That’s my guess. I shouldn’t be talking to you, that much is clear. You cloud my mind with hope of the impossible.”

“Are you so short-sighted? You have given men the money of kings to search for answers beyond what logic dictates. I needn’t have your money, but I do require your soul. The Machine demands it.”

“So you are a demon.”

“Fine. I’m a demon. In my world, I am not. I’m called an engineer. In others, a sorcerer. In still others, I am named a god. In all of them, I haven’t but done the same thing I wish to do here.”

“Which is?”

“Save the world. And you are in a place and point that match my own goals.”

“Speak plainly, demon, or leave.”

Fear-sweat poured from Martin’s face as he said the words. Any moment the figure calling itself Baker would sprout claws and wings and eradicate Martin Graine from the earth, leaving little more than blood and bits of bone, surely. But he hoped keeping the creature talking would allow him an avenue of escape.

“I built The Machine by accident. As a Guardian, my job was to search for new truths to mathematics and/or magic, and create tools for the higher members of society. One equation kept slipping my fingers for years. My Pandora’s Box. Have you one, here? Some haven’t yet discovered it.”

“The story of Pandora’s Box is well known, but it is merely a parable.”

“Right,” Baker grunted, “a parable. When I touched that elusive equation, I found myself transported. At first I thought I was merely portaled to the past of my world. Turns out, much of the plant life never existed in my world. Ever.”

“What do you mean, touched an equation?”

“A man of your stature, Mr. Graine, surely knows the touch of something very few people have even dreamt.”

Martin nodded, “Freedom. I know freedom like few others.”

“Yes! Exactly. I hold knowledge few, if any, ever held. Maybe your God holds it. I don’t know. When I touch that knowledge, it takes me to somewhere else. I call it ‘Slipping.’ More like hopping, really. Right, you don’t care. What you do care about is this: the equation led to the creation of The Machine, which was built to house every possible world within it. Now, that comes with a lot of power, holding such a machine. Powerful people, the most powerful people, will come for it. I need to hide it.”

Martin tried to take stock of the story Baker told. An equation, a machine, and innumerable worlds in one place? It seemed impossible. Yet, he found himself not ready to be rid of the popper just yet. But one question made all of Baker’s claims ridiculous.

“All of that, and you think it will be safe in a hotel? I can promise you, it will be found. Probably by accident.”

“No. I don’t wish to hide it in your hotel, Mr. Graine. I want to have your hotel part of The Machine. In doing so, it will have infinite spaces throughout every realm to hide itself. Which means, of course, your hotel becomes part of every single instance of every single world. And don’t worry, the machine will fill in its creation and backstory. Here’s the big reveal though.”

Martin furrowed his brow at Baker, “There’s more?”

“So much more. I’m chasing my own ghosts. You’ve put yours to bed. You’re free, as you spoke it. I’d have you to watch over these instances, run the hotels, so to speak.”

“Mr. Baker, as you can plainly see, I am nearing death. Five years, were I a lucky man.”

“Not if you enter The Machine. Your body is old, but your soul is still wide and deep as the ocean. The Machine would place you at the center nexus of all worlds, and rebuild the hotel around you, but in all worlds. I cannot promise the décor would remain the same, or even work the same as it does in your world. But it would be there, and you would always be there watching over it. Your one expectation from me being keeping all the powerful beings from finding The Machine. You, and your hotel, would live forever, everywhere.”

Martin rubbed his hands slowly, unconsciously. He licked his lips. The deal was on the table. Leaving it there meant accepting the cycle of life and death. Taking the deal required a supreme amount of trust on Martin’s part, something he’d been in short supply of these past years. But, it also meant a chance to see beyond the veil. A chance to accomplish one last thing: immortality. He’d nearly made up his mind when a thought propelled him to ask Baker a question.

“If I say yes. If I do this…I lose all the freedom I’ve built up throughout my life. Isn’t that right? I’m stuck, in the hotel, in countless worlds, but I won’t be able to explore those worlds? That’s why you don’t do it, isn’t it?”

Baker looked like he was about to reject the idea, but nodded instead.

“Yes. That would be true. Your position as a ward would prevent you from seeing…everything. I refuse to be stuck. I honestly believe this would give you what you want. Isn’t losing a little freedom worth it to see your hotel in every possible timeline, every world, and you be at the center of it?”

“I want to say yes. I have a lot of pride thanks to this hotel. But it stands as a testimony to something larger. That freedom I have? It goes beyond money. I get to say no, or yes, to whomever I wish. And I don’t have to come up with an excuse either way. I escaped a system men created to control those below them. Re-entering servitude is not an accomplishment. Rather, it’s a failure.”

“Tell me,” Baker asked, “What are you doing with that freedom now? Do you really use it outside of the hotel? This is where you’ve spent the latter part of your life. This is where you make those yes-or-no decisions. Always in the hotel. Your place. Your power. It’s all centered here. And while you may lose the ability to leave if you say yes, you must realize that you don’t leave now. This is not a criticism. I’m merely stating a fact. Taking my offer allows you to continue doing what you’ve always done, from where you’ve always done it. What do you say, Mr. Graine?”

“No.”

Martin stared deep into Miles’ eyes. No hint of uncertainty exuded from the older man’s frame. A slight shudder visibly shook through Miles. Martin offered him a warm smile.

“I’m afraid that isn’t going to work for me,” Miles softly replied.

Martin saw a flash of silver as pain bit into his left side and tore upward till it hit bone. He managed to remain standing for mere moments before dropping heavily to his knees. They cracked violently, but the resounding thud sounded soft in the quiet. Martin barely noticed these things. Heat roared in his ears as blood cooled in his hands.

“Why? I was nearly dead already,” Martin rasped.

“Time is a touchable resource innit, and I’m not rich enough to be giving it away,” Miles kneeled down next to Martin, “but I cannot kill you. If that holds any meaning to you in your afterlife.”

Miles stood. Martin’s head shot up to look at him, and caught a slight tilt of the chin not aimed towards him. Martin tried to turn his head in the direction of Miles’ nod, but pain flared into his side and forced him to stare at the ground, little more than the wounded animal he’d become.

Two seconds later, a gunshot went off and a thump landed between his right ear and eye. His pain disappeared. Moments after that, Martin fell over. Miles checked the old man’s pulse. He stayed until it dissipated. Time for a new plan. Whispers surrounded him, solidified into smoke, and when it disappeared, he too was gone.

********

The Hotel bustled with people moving through their personal hells and heavens. Of course Rebecca hoped the majority found their heaven here, but she knew all about putting on a false smile in public. Her father died forty-four years ago and she still cried in the office that used to be his. When she discovered he’d left the Hotel to her, she almost sold the building. Forty plus years later, despite the pain, imagining doing so seemed impossible.

Walking through the halls, Rebecca noticed the strange familiars. The Goat, which came out of room 107 one day chewing a cigar, and never left. The strange bellhop with no name strutted by, a smile plastered on his face underneath the undeniably fake mustache and a top hat. She wondered what his next disguise would be. Phoebe the Maid’s curvy silhouette shadowed the inside of another room, her smile lit up the room when she turned and waved. Rebecca threw a timid hand up in return. Shuffling forward, Rebecca was forced to dodge the colorful, if unwashed, ponytail that is Veronica Nowak. If anybody held more social reservations than Rebecca, it would be the younger girl brushing past her now. The biggest surprise today turned out to be a pizza-delivery boy with dark mangy hair covered with a hat which spelled out Milo’s Sicilian Pizzeria. He looked to be hunting for someone, but not for delivering a pizza to them.

Her office door stood cracked opened. Whispers reached out to her, caressing the hairs raising on the back of her neck. Only one person held the capability to scare her beyond reason…and she made a deal with him shortly after taking over control of the Hotel. Switching from a shuffle to bustling, Rebecca headed directly into her office.

The whispers rushed by her as she did, the feeling changing from a caress to a slick crawl over her skin. Somehow, they felt stronger than when she first met Miles Baker.

He lay sprawled on her father’s desk, a tan trench coat covering a slate-colored suit. Rebecca gasped. The man on her desk was certainly Miles Baker, but years younger than he had been forty years ago. Shaking her head, Rebecca stormed up to him and slammed her hand next to his right ear.

“Stop disrespecting my father’s desk.”

A slow, southern drawl came out of his smiling face, “Aw c’mon now. Ain’t no way to greet an old friend, is it? Besides, this ain’t your father’s desk no more.”

“Off. Now.”

Miles drew up to a sitting position and put his hands up in mock apology, “Okay, alright. But hey, there’s a few things we need to work out.”

“No.”

“Rebecca. I warned you the deal would have to be re-signed. Time’s come, an’ I don’t have a lot of it.”

Miles drew an envelope out from inside his coat and extended his arm to Rebecca. She tore the yellow folder from his grasp, all but spitting as she did. He wasn’t lying. He’d come fifteen years ago warning that the day would come. She’d huffed at him then, but knew damn well she’d have to pithy up or lose the Hotel completely. The proof, it seemed, was in the wording of the contract she signed originally. Of course, fifteen years ago, he’d been much nicer about it all.

“What happened to you Mr. Baker? Last time we met, you were a full forty years or more aged.”

“Aw, the timestream is a wild ride. It does funny things when you slip through it sometimes. Guess I just got lucky.”

The whispers, she noted, grew in loudness.

“Yes, you did. Meanwhile, I get older. When does my immortality kick in?”

“What? Regretting your choice already? Your father made a bad decision once.”

Rebecca long suspected Miles Baker killed her father, but never before had it been so explicitly stated. She stared hard at the man before her. No, not man, demon, she reminded herself.

“You told me he refused your offer. I wish to God he hadn’t. I wish he could still be here. But he was far more proud of his accomplishment than I could ever understand. How could this damn Hotel be more important to him than seeing his children grow up? Not that you care, this is a rhetorical question. I don’t require your snide interjections.”

Picking up her letter opener, she sliced open the envelope in one practiced motion. Looking over the papers, she nodded and clucked in her throat at random intervals. When she finished reading, Baker moved as though he’d read her mind. Picking up the letter opener again, she cut her index finger with another precise swipe. Blood swelled up to the small cut. It welled on the tip, but did not overflow. She leaned over the contract.

Whispers crawled over her skin, even felt as though they were picking at her hair this time. Looking up, she watches the whispers coalesce into smoke, and from the smoke, a man appeared. The whispers die ddown as the smoke dissipates, and a duplicate Miles Baker stepped out.

A strong London accent flowed from his mouth, “Don’t sign that contract, Ms. Graine.”

The well of blood on the tip of her finger finally decided to go over and created a small river, down to her knuckle. A single drop splashed on papers below her, and young Miles Baker snatched them up.

“Too late old man. A deal in blood is a deal.”

“Hmm. Innit though? Ms. Graine, you may think to have made a deal with the devil, but this posh only pretends. Mr. Garrus, you know well that lying about details such as your true name turns a contract void. Give it to me, thank you.”

Fear ran across the younger man’s eyes, behind rage. Shaking, the younger man passed over the contract, then darted his gaze over to Rebecca. A snarl bent his lips and nose, “I am you, asshole,” then he ran out of the office.

Rebecca moved to push a button under her desk for security, but the remaining Miles gently laid a hand over hers.

“They willn’t find him, I’m afraid. He’s not the devil, but clever? That he is.”

“And you?”

“I’m dangerous. And the man you made a deal with. A forever deal. An infinitum deal. There’s nothing to sign for me ever again.”

“Then why am I aging?”

“Because you wish to, m’dear. When you decide to stop, you shall. It was in the contract. I caught wind of my lesser part in the stream, The Machine picked up on him. Even so, I barely caught him in time. You would do well to be more careful in your long, illustrious future.”

Miles Baker tore the bloodstained contract into bits. Despite his own age, he seemed overly capable, Rebecca noted. The torn bits snowed down from his hands into the wastebasket, seemingly held in partial suspension as they fell. Surely though, her imagination played tricks on her. Right?

“So the blood, the contract, it’s not a problem?” she asks.

“No. You are the original model, so long as you sign nothing, he cannit fool any other version of you across time and space. Which is why you must remain vigilant. Forty years without any major slip-ups, you’re doing a fine job, Ms. Graine.”

“Did…”

“Go ahead, ask.”

“You killed my father, didn’t you?”

“I had to, Ms. Graine.”

“Why?”

“He refused my offer. The Machine needed the Hotel. The Hotel’s original owner refused. That necessitated a new owner quickly. You proved much more lenient in its usage. I was not surprised. Somebody creates something beautiful, and they are wary of giving, or even sharing, that creation’s fundamental rights of existence with anybody. However, when the rights of that creation move to someone else, in this case inherited, the second generation owner does not feel that pull nearly so strongly.”

“You used me.”

“Yes. I did. Did you not receive benefit?”

“Yes, but it seems to me I should have known about my father’s wishes, and fate, beforehand.”

“You should have asked. I bid thee adieu, Ms. Graine. Time waits on no man.”

The whispers, and the smoke, rose up and engulfed Miles Baker. In mere moments, he was gone. Rebecca frowned. Her appreciation for surprise visits filled, she murmured a prayer not to see Mr. Baker for at least another forty years. Four centuries would prove even better.

Rebecca sighed and sat in her father’s chair. From here, she could best feel the infinite versions of herself, and most easily watch over the infinite versions of the Hotel. And sometimes, in some versions of reality, she sat not in the chair, but in her father’s lap as he whispered in her ear the secrets to freedom.

 

Did You Enjoy This Story?

Please consider reading more stories from authors I collaborated with over the past two months. Several authors (19!) came together to make this blog-hop/anthology happen. To find a complete list of our stories, visit the official WFGC blog here. And, normally I don’t ask, but please share this story or the list with your friends and followers, our authors put in a lot of extra work on a tight deadline to bring these stories to you!

Photo-Story Challenge: Alice’s Revenge

 

Alice leans against the wall, pain sprouting from her elbow where she smacked against the wall. Looking down, she sees a whelp turning black and blue just below her elbow. Maybe it’s just a shadow, she tells herself. Fighting back tears and a curse, she stares back into the living room where Dwayne is already playing some stupid game. How can he do that? Ignore the loud impact and put on that headset that takes him away from her?

Looking at the back of his head, Alice can still see his face in her mind. His not quite even mustache, hazel eyes, grizzled beard…and anger squelching all of his beautiful features into a tight knot which never loosens. She sees the near empty beer bottle on his computer desk and remembers when it was a bottle of soda, before the accident.

She remembers falling in love. Like so many girls, she used her heart instead of her head when Dwayne asked her out. A nerdy boy, his glasses made his eyes look huge as he stuttered through his proposal to take her to a movie. Nancy, her bestie at the time, laughed at him. The two girls would never have so heated a fight than that day, all because of a boy. This boy. Dwayne. Alice accepted his proposal, and delighted in the grin which took up his entire face. Before the movie ended, Alice would kiss this cute, nerdy boy. She enjoyed forcing him to endure an intimate moment in a public, though dark, space. Surprising herself, she found the taste of his lips intoxicating. She wanted to kiss those lips forever; and so Alice and Dwayne became “a thing.”

Photo-Story Challenge, Alice's Revenge, jamesnealbooks, james neal,

All this came before the anger. Alice and Dwayne only got three years together before the accident that shattered his left leg and the lower half of his right one. Alice thought she’d lost him when she got the call from the hospital. When she arrived, she got the news that he survived, but might never walk again.

Worse, he’d just gotten a promotion as a head architect, with his own team, a week prior. A week later, his company let him go, saying the decision was regrettable, but necessary.

Dwayne spent a long time in recovery and rehabilitation. When he got to come home, the two of them had to get used to living with each other again. Dwayne’s sodas became beers, and that ugly knot of anger soon settled permanently into his face. Life is supposed to get better after the hospital. It didn’t.

The two of them argue, a lot. Sometimes, things fly. Once, fists. Alice let Dwayne know that if that ever happened again, even once, he’d never see her again. He’d be alone. It’s the meanest thing she’s ever said to him; but she meant it. Since then, he spends his time on the computer, headset on, lost in whatever world lets him escape his personal hell. Alice goes to work, makes dinner, and sleeps. There is no romance. No intimacy. At least, not with each other. He romances his games, and she romances the relationships on her TV shows.

When they do talk, the conversation is short and curt. Like strangers side-stepping on the street, they both move past each other with as little friction as possible. She’s terrified of making a wrong move.

Today, she made the wrong move.

Standing up, light hits her arm and she can see there’s no shadow on her elbow. This bruise is gonna need ice. Looking towards Dwayne, she decides he’s due for an apology. Of sorts. Wincing at the throbbing in her arm, she steps up to his chair and taps him on the shoulder.

“What?” he asks with dismissiveness.

“That hurt.”

“What did?”

“Slamming into the wall, jerk!”

Dwayne turns away from the screen. It feels like the first time in ages he’s looked at her with anything but disdain.

“Why did you slam into the wall?”

“Does it matter? I want you to get me some ice. Sit with me on the couch. Make it better.”

She puts on her best pout, and thinks just maybe that knot of anger in his face loosens a bit.

“Is that all? Lemme see that.”

Dwayne is careful not to let his wheelchair smack her legs as he turns to face her. Gentle hands cradle her arm as he looks over the damage. A whistle escapes his pursed lips, making his beard wiggle. Gingerly, he kisses her bruise.

“How?” he asks.

“I was trying not to smack your chair on my way to the bathroom, and somehow managed to trip on one of your cords. It’s so stupid, but I couldn’t get my balance back and flew all the way through the doorway into the other wall.”

He laughs. A full, hearty laugh that contains no hint of meanness. Alice giggles back at him, enjoying the various movements of his body and the metallic clicks of his wheelchair complaining. Dwayne puts his arms around her, and she lets him. He’s so warm. So loveable. Her cute nerdy boy is happy, and so is she.

“I tell you what. If I go get stuff to make that feel better, are you willing to help me onto the couch? That’s still really hard on me, even with the metal poles in my legs. We’ll chill there for the night. You can even make me watch one of those silly shows you like.”

“Yes. I can get your bony butt on the couch.”

“Hey honey?”

“What my love?”

“Next time, just ask. You shouldn’t have to fly into walls to get my attention. I’m sorry I let myself get caught up in my stupid crap.”

“I know it’s a process, but I hate feeling we’re avoiding each other. It gets lonely.”

“You shouldn’t ever be lonely.”

“No, I shouldn’t mister. You’d best be remembering that from now on.”

She smiles wider, no longer fighting back her tears. She lets them spill, and leans into Dwayne’s palms to make sure he can catch them.

On Dwayne’s computer screen, red flashes demand his agency. Ignored, his character falls over, dead.