Jack and the Black Door


Jack smiled down at the large crowd milling restlessly in front of him. It was a full house, and full houses never failed to put him in a good mood. And with the entry fee they were charging for tonight’s exhibit? Judging from the body count here, his cut alone would be at least a couple grand. His grin widened.

“Look this way, ladies and gents! Here before you tonight is the sight of a lifetime, the likes of which you’ll never see on television or the World Wide Web!” He paused for an instant, scanning over the audience. Cameras were prohibited, of course, but it wasn’t uncommon for some brat to whip out a phone and start recording anyway. Finding none, he cleared his throat and continued.

“No sirree, folks! Dying breed though we may be, us here at the T’rrific Traveling Troupe take great pride in bringing you wonders, items most unique and exotic, right here in the good ol’ real world, sans smoke, mirror, and Photoshop alike! What you are about to witness is no fakery or so-called ‘post-processing’, but a genuine miracle, an anomaly that spits in the face of the very laws of science!”

He gestured toward the display on his right. A curtain was draped atop a large, angular object sitting on a raised wooden platform--cordoned off from the onlookers, naturally. As the mob eyed the display curiously, he grabbed the curtain and yanked it off dramatically, revealing a makeshift scaffolding of greenish, chemical-treated planks built around a pair of doors.

The door on the left was entirely unremarkable. The door on the right was a perfect jet black, absorbing the warm ambient light in the tent without any visible gloss or texture. Unfamiliar white symbols lined its perimeter, its glassy knob set squarely in the center rather than off to either side.

“Here before you are two doors. As you sharp-witted folks have likely gathered, one is an ordinary wooden affair, but the other is something much, much different! To prove no tomfoolery is afoot here, however, my lovely assis--” He caught on his words. “Ahem, that is, my assistant Christina will open the more familiar of the two.”

He grumbled under his breath as Christina, dressed in a modestly long but nevertheless sequin-studded gown, opened the left door. These progressive rookies were something of a pain--all of this outcry about “misogyny” and “oppression” just for calling a dame lovely. Wasn’t that supposed to be a compliment? Still, while he’d ended up conceding on that one, no amount of left-wing pressure could make him claim the new dresses were better than those leotards the ladies used to wear. He’d loved those things.

The left door stood ajar, the far side of the tent visible through its empty frame. Christina walked through the opening, then circled back around to the front of the structure.

“No monkey business, see?” He gave a reassuring smile, then flourished his arm, pointing toward the ramshackle frame. “Now, without further ado! The mysterious black door!”

As Christina reached for the knob, Jack felt his stomach drop. It wasn’t just the nagging impression that there was something weird about the door, even though he was sure of that fact--the troupe leader had been ecstatic when going over this show with him, and that was pretty much the only time he’d ever seen the old man excited about anything. No, there was something else, a bad feeling from deep in his innards telling him this thing should stay shut.

He’d not had the chance to talk with the guys who’d dug it up, nor had he opened it himself before the exhibit, nor had his boss mentioned what was so interesting about it. Come to think of it, he didn’t know the first thing about it. For the first time in years, he was as much in the dark as the audience was. His eyes followed Christina’s hand closely, his apprehensive expression matching those of the onlookers below.

She opened the door.

The doorway was empty, showing the back of the tent like its mundane neighbor.

Relief washed over him, though the feeling in his gut continued to smolder. He pushed it from his mind, however, as the annoyed and disappointed murmurings of the audience reached him. He needed damage control, and fast.

“Take a good, hard look there, folks. While it looks normal enough with a passing glance, a man with a keener eye can--” Gasps and excited mutters filled the air, cutting him short. Christina took several steps back, eyes wide, her hand rising to cover her mouth. Despite himself, he leaned over to get a better view.

A liquid as dark as the door poured down the face of some invisible surface in the frame. It rapidly covered the surface, forming an opaque black rectangle. After a moment, the inky curtain faded to reveal a sprawling room built out of some sort of green stone. Heat flooded out of the opening, distorting the air as it pooled in the conical ceiling above.

Jack forced his eyes away from the doorway and swallowed the lump in his throat.

“Y-You’ve seen it here, ladies and germs! A dazzling display demonstrating dauntless disdain for the theories of Newton and Einstein!” He caught Christina’s attention and jerked his thumb across his throat. She nodded, hesitating for a second, then pushed the door shut, flashing a bright--if fragile--smile at the awestruck crowd.

He spotted a man at the edge of the assembly speaking into a walkie-talkie, his demeanor distinctly unperturbed compared to the people standing nearby. The man locked eyes with him as a number of large figures in dark suits stepped into the tent and brusquely began directing the mob outside. Jack stood frozen in place as the man circled the commotion and stopped in front of him.

“Mr. Jackson Richards, I presume? I’m Agent Shirley with the FBI. Come with me, please.”

“What--” The agent held up a hand, silencing him.

“Please, don’t make this difficult for the both of us. I don’t want to arrest you, but you’ll leave me no choice if you don’t cooperate.”

They exchanged glares for a moment.

“...Fine.” Not like he had a choice. Maybe at least these spooks could tell him something about what the hell he’d just seen.

The suited enforcers had already cleared out the attendees, and as he and Shirley exited the tent he saw them begin working to unbolt the black door from its framing. Several unmarked SUVs and sedans dotted the informal parking lot directly outside, a few with their engines still running and warning lights flashing.

While following his captor toward one of the sedans, he saw many of his coworkers, Christina included, being likewise escorted into the other vehicles. Bystanders gawked and held their phones aloft to immortalize the scene before being shooed away by the enforcers.

The agent went to enter the driver’s seat of the sedan, then stopped suddenly and glanced back at him with an attempt at an amicable expression.

“Want to ride shotgun?”

Jack blinked in surprise, then nodded and clambered into the passenger seat. He peered out at the surrounding lot while the agent drove the car back to the highway. For a reason he couldn’t seem to place, the grassy field seemed less occupied than usual, despite it still being clustered full of cars from tonight’s turnout.

Then it hit him: The troupe leader’s colossal pick-up truck was missing from its reserved spot. That was strange; he’d just spoken to him earlier that evening, and he knew Alex wasn’t one to head home early on a busy night like this. Not that it hadn’t been a good idea to scram before the show ended today, considering how things went down, but it’s not like the old man could’ve predicted this.

“Mr. Richards.” He snapped out of his reverie, turning to face his chauffeur.

“What’s that, now?”

“What do you know about that black door?” Shirley stared forward at the road, making no attempt at eye contact while speaking.

“T’be honest, I was hoping you’d be able to tell me about it. All they told me was tonight’s feature was a weird door, and the main attraction was opening it. I don’t know where they found it, how it works, or anything.” He scratched the back of his head. “I can at least tell you I wasn’t lying when I called it the real deal. It wasn’t special effects. But I wager you already knew that, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about it right now.”

“Indeed. Who was it that briefed you about this evening’s performance?”

“That’d be Alex, the troupe leader. He was real worked up about it, too. Never seen him act like that before. He’s pretty calm most of the time, y’know?” While he was at it, should he bring up the missing truck? He doubted such a small detail mattered.

“I see.” The agent picked up his walkie-talkie. “Dispatch, this is Agent Shirley speaking. We’ve recovered the artifact, but Alexander Phillips is still at large at this time. Do you have his home address on file?” A static-scorched affirmative burbled out at him. “Good. In that case, we’ll need another unit sent out to his residence. I’m presently returning to base with one Jack Richardson. I should arrive in--” His eyes dropped to the dashboard, then rose back to the road. “--ten minutes’ time. Over and out.”

So they were after the troupe leader. Had that unusual excitement and early disappearance been a tell after all? What had he been scheming with this door business? He pondered a moment further until a different question pulled the emergency brake on his train of thought.

“Say, agent. Since the boss is who you want, why’re you bringing me in? Like I told you, I don’t anything about this, nor do the lion’s share of my coworkers for that matter.”

Shirley was silent for a moment.

“You’ll be briefed on that matter following our arrival at headquarters.”

“...So that’s how it is, huh? Fine.” He sat back in his seat, noticing with slight alarm that they were driving at over one hundred miles per hour. “Aren’t you worried you’ll get pulled over?”

“I don’t anticipate that that will be an issue.”

Several minutes of tense silence followed, during which Jack stared out at the countryside blurring past them. Before long, they turned left onto a small side road, with a fenced-off complex of gray and white buildings visible roughly a mile ahead.

“I take it that’s your headquarters?”

His driver shot him an impatient look.

“What do you think?”

They rolled to a stop at a booth next to the gate of the fence. Shirley wordlessly handed an ID card to the bored-looking man in the booth, who inspected the card for a second, nodded, then flipped a switch, opening the gate.

They pulled into the mostly empty lot of one of the larger buildings, parking in front of a solitary metal side-door. As he stepped out into the nighttime air, Jack noted that the illumination from the many lamps and fixtures set around them was a deep violet, encircling the complex in a wash of purple that felt curiously warm against his skin.

“That’s a queer color for streetlights, isn’t it?”

“...Come this way, Mr. Richards.”

He accompanied the agent through the side-door, which opened into a long, antiseptic hallway. They wound at a brisk pace through corridor branch after corridor branch, passing dozens of rooms and clumps of people who Jack could only assume were more agents--with some scientists, too, judging from the lab coats a few of them wore. At length, Shirley stopped in front of a room and held the door open, eying him expectantly.

“Please wait here for a few minutes. Another operative will arrive shortly to explain your situation.” He pulled the door shut and strode off, his footsteps echoing away down the hall. Jack sighed through his nose as he took in his new surroundings.

A desk sat in the middle of the room, flanked on either side by a cheap folding chair. The floor and walls--just like the rest of the building he’d seen so far--were uniform patterns of white tiling and white cinderblock, respectively. The grid of clean florescent lights set into the drop-tile ceiling let out a quiet, continual drone.

He took the chair on the far side of the desk facing the entrance. If he was going to be interrogated, he at least wanted to see the interrogator as soon as they came in and look them right in the eyes. A minute or so after sitting down, a woman in a lab coat stepped into the room. Unfazed by his steely glare, she closed the door, taking the seat opposite him. She opened the binder she was carrying, glanced down at the first page, then met his stare.

“You’re Jackson Richards, yes?”

“That’s right. And you are?”

“My name is Samantha. I--”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re here to interrogate me--or no, they call it ‘debriefing’ these days, don’t they?” To his surprise, she chuckled at his sarcasm.

“The administration does, in fact, prefer the term ‘debrief’ nowadays, not that anyone else cares. Regardless, you’re wrong about why I’m here. As you’ve presumably already been told, I’m here to explain your current circumstances.”

“And just what circumstances are those?”

“It’s simple, though I doubt you’ll like it. You’re going to be a member of the expeditionary group designated to investigate the recovered anomalous gateway.”

“Beg your pardon?” He scooted forward in his seat.

“In other words, you’re part of the team that’ll be going through the door to see where it leads.”

He locked up for a moment as her statement sunk in.

“You’re damn right I don’t like it! What in God’s name would make me agree to that?”

“If you want to think of it as a choice, let me rephrase it for you.” Her expression hardened. “You have two options here, Richards. Either you will join the expeditionary group, or you will be terminated.”


Jack fell back in his chair. Terminated? Had he heard that right? His hearing these days wasn’t very good--he must’ve just misunderstood what she said.

“Sorry, I don’t think I caught th--”

“You will cooperate with us, or you will be killed. As the cliché goes, you know too much. Normally, we’d give you an amnestic and send you on your way, but they’ve been shown to be unreliable at best for subjects past their forties, and--” He leapt to his feet, jabbing a finger at her.

“This is insane! You can’t just kill me! The government has to obey its own laws just like everyone else does!” At this, Samantha chuckled again, this time without humor.

“Let me guess: You think we’re the FBI?”

“It’s what I’ve heard.”

“Shirley brought you in, didn’t he?” She sighed. “I can’t believe he’s still horsing around with that fake badge even after the brass got onto him about it. Anyway, we’re not the FBI, or any agency of the US Government. With that said, we do cooperate with them from time to time, and our specialized utility to them means they’ll turn a blind eye to our goings-on, including the occasional loss of life.”

His eyes darted toward the exit.

“Don’t bother, it’s locked. Look, Jack, we’re trying to be reasonable here. People are resources, and we don’t like tossing out perfectly good resources when we can avoid it. We can’t just let you leave with knowledge of that anomaly--we’ve tried NDAs in the past, but all it takes is a little intimidation or alcohol for someone to break one of those--but we can have you assist our staff with experiments rather than snuffing you out.”

“So that’s it, huh? I’m either a lab rat or a stiff?”

“That’s the idea. For what it’s worth, if you work with us for long enough and do a good job at it, there’s a chance you’ll get promoted to an agent position. I’d say that’s a much better career path than being a carny into your twilight years.”

He folded his arms, mulling it over. Yet again, it’s not like he had a choice, though for all of their coercion he wondered if they weren’t bluffing. Then again, she did have a point. Attendance at the troupe’s productions had been dropping for years, and it’s not like the show could go on now with all of the performers and workers in custody.

“...Alright, I’ll do it. But I’m not going in there alone, and I want some kind of weapon or protection, too.”

“I’m glad you’re being sensible about this, Jack. Don’t worry, we won’t send you in alone and helpless. It’s an experiment, not a suicide mission.” She smiled politely as she rose from her chair. “Regardless, it won’t be ready until tomorrow, since we’re still waiting for the object to arrive on-site. You’ll be staying in our living quarters until the preparations are complete.” She fished out a densely-populated keyring from one of her coat pockets and approached the exit, then turned back toward him. “Oh, one last thing: The experiment is code-named ‘Operation Conrad’, so keep an ear out for that name in the PA broadcasts.”

She unlocked the door and stepped out into the hallway with Jack in tow. A man in a black suit holding an odd, boxy rifle was leaning against the wall beside the door frame. At the sight of Samantha, the man stood bolt upright.

“Ed here will show you to your room. Won’t you, Ed?” She gave him a girlish grin.

“ ’Course I will, doc.” He gave a shy smile back in response, his cheeks flushing. He shot Jack a distrustful glance, then abruptly broke into a power-walk down the hallway leading deeper into the building. Jack hurried to keep up.

After snaking through even more white passageways and descending by elevator to the lowest basement floor he’d ever seen in a building, he found himself in a tiny, windowless cell with scarcely more than a cot, a sink, a toilet, and a trash can. At the sound of the door slamming shut and locking behind him, his energy drained away all at once.

He kicked off his shoes and collapsed onto the lumpy mattress, staring up at the unfamiliar ceiling. His thoughts drifted to Christina and his other younger coworkers. It didn’t really matter too much what happened to him--he was old, and in rocky shape even for his age, not to mention his lack of any living relatives--but those kids deserved better than to end up like this. Then again, hadn’t that scientist said something about giving amnesia to people under forty? If they could forget about what had happened, maybe they’d be let off the hook after all. Relieved, he drifted off to sleep.


“Yo, Jack! How’d you sleep?”

The sudden voice startled him out of his staring contest with his tray of breakfast. He lifted his head to find Christina seated across from him.

They were in a large dining hall on the same floor as the living quarters. Several other workers trudged among the buffet aisles or sat at the benched tables nursing mugs of coffee. Despite the general sluggish atmosphere, however, she glowed with excitement.

“Christina, what in God’s name are you doing here?”

“Uh, I’m getting some breakfast? That experiment’s today, you know, so we ought to eat hearty or we’ll end up having to explore on an empty stom--”

“No, not that. I meant why are you still here in this prison?”

“Prison?” She blinked and tilted her head. “What are you talking about? I’m here because I want to be here. This is so much more exciting a career opportunity than anything I would’ve gotten from finishing that degree in finance!” She beamed at him, oblivious to his confused concern. “For real, though, do you know how boring those finance classes were?”

“Back up for a second. You want to be these people’s lab rat? And anyway I thought they would’ve just kicked you out after wiping your memories or something.”

“Oh, right, that. I think they were planning on doing that, but I...” She fidgeted, then blushed. “Well, I kind of begged them to let me work here.” She reddened further at his blatant astonishment. “Come on, don’t look at me like that! These people use science to figure out how supernatural stuff works! Who wouldn’t want to work at a cool place like this?” She cleared her throat. “Anywho, it took some convincing, but they eventually let me take this competency qualifier exam they have. And wouldn’t you know it, I did well enough to become a junior agent! See?” She passed him an ID card bearing her name and photo.

“This is....”

“I know, that picture sucks, doesn’t it? That’s just a temporary card, though. Helping with this upcoming experiment involving that black door is also part of the qualification process, so I’ll be getting an official one after we finish.” Recollection lit up her features. “Oh, let me see your ID! How’d your picture turn out? It couldn’t be worse than mine.”

“They didn’t give me an ID.”


He explained the proposition that they’d presented to him, her face sobering as she listened.

“Shit, Jack, I’m sorry. I didn’t know about their memory-wiping drugs not working on older people, so I figured you were here because you wanted to be, too.” She thought it over briefly. “Hey, if our experiment goes well, do you think they’ll let you go?”

“I doubt it. Even if they did, it’s not like I really have anywhere to go. After what went down last night, the troupe’s pretty much finished. Plus, I overheard one of those agents talking, and it sounded like they’re after the troupe leader now.”

Her eyes widened in disbelief.

“Seriously? Mr. Phillips was always so nice, though! Why would they be after him?”

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

They puzzled in silence. After a moment, the PA system sputtered to life, jarring them from their concentration.

“All personnel assigned to Operation Conrad, please report to Testing Chamber 17-B at this time. Repeat, all personnel assigned to...”

“Hey, that’s us!” Christina chugged the remainder of her milk carton, then rose from the table, tray in hands. “Come on, Jack, let’s hurry!”

They dropped off their trays at the dish return counter and set off toward the testing chamber, Christina cheerily humming a song to herself, Jack filled with a nameless dread.


The door sat in the center of the chamber, its unnatural shade of black throwing it in sharp contrast against the blinding white of the walls. A prefabricated plastic frame held it upright, with support beams connected to the floor and ceiling. Four security cameras ensconced in the upper corners of the room stared motionlessly toward it.

“Jack, Christina. Good morning to you both.” Samantha nodded at the pair as they arrived. “I imagine this experiment doesn’t need much explanation due to its simplicity, but I’ll go over the details once more nonetheless. Once we begin, the door will be opened and you two will go through the resulting gateway. You’ll both be wearing two-way radio communication earpieces which we here at Control--” She gestured toward the small group of scientists hovering around a computer terminal and several other pieces of equipment. “--will use to relay orders to you, as well as for you to report any developments to us. In addition, you will wear a video camera, Jack, along with a harness attached to a reel of data cabling in order to enable real-time visuals of the current situation.”

“What? Why me?”

“Christina declined when we asked her to do it, and, since she outranks you, the duty was delegated to you instead.”

“Who’s the assistant now, hmm?” Christina stuck her tongue out at him playfully. He rolled his eyes as one of the technicians fitted the harness on his chest while another strapped the camera mount around his forehead.

“Wait a minute.” He held up a hand. “You told me we wouldn’t be helpless for this, but you’re about to send us in unarmed. What about our safety?”

“A very good question, Jack. To ensure your security, the two of you will be joined by a test model of the Incendiary-Combatant Enemy-Repelling Robot series--ICERR for short.” She cleared her throat. “ICERR, activate!”

The blocky mass of metal, wiring, and fiberglass in the far corner of the room shuddered to life, crawling with surprising speed on its six spindly legs to stand in front of Samantha. Jack and Christina gawked at the softly thrumming machine with unmasked amazement.

“The ICERR series are programmed to detect and eliminate hostile targets automatically by means of directional energy projections. The most impressive aspect of them, of course, is their self-contained power source that fuels both their weapons systems and their operation in general, as it utilizes an interior chamber of practically absolute non-conductivity to--”

“Hey, Sammy, you’re rambling again!” The doctor’s ears turned red as the other scientists laughed goodnaturedly.

“Ah, eheh, my apologies.” She scratched the back of her head bashfully, then made eye contact with Jack. “To summarize, it suffices to say that no expense has been spared to ensure your safety.”

He glanced down at the robot uneasily. That thing picked out what to attack on its own? What if it glitched up and attacked him or Christina? Then again, with the resources this place had, maybe they were able to make it smart enough so that couldn’t happen. Technology always managed to astound and scare him at the same time.

“Come on, Samantha, we can talk about all this stuff later. Let’s start the experiment already!” Christina flipped her hair impatiently.

“Very well then. ICERR, protect Christina Hollister and Jackson Richards!” She watched the machine scamper into position behind the two, then nodded to one of the other scientists, who hit a few keys on the computer terminal and gave her a thumbs-up.

As she reached for the knob, Jack felt his stomach sink again. Why couldn’t everyone just leave well enough alone and let the damn thing stay shut? What did it matter to these eggheads where it led?

She opened the door.

Like before, the frame stood empty for a moment, then filled with darkness and revealed the green chamber beyond. Vents in the floor and ceiling activated in response to the heat billowing into the room, the upper shunting it out while the lower pumped in cold air. Christina and Jack traded respectively thrilled and anxious expressions, then proceeded forward across the door’s threshold.


The rectangular antechamber before them appeared to be constructed from massive slabs of light green ceramic. The air, thick and blurry with heat, quickly robbed them of their breath. Jack stared in bafflement at the brilliantly-glowing white orbs that were embedded in pairs along the walls on either side of them.

“I’ve never seen lights like these before.”

“I would be surprised if you had.” Samantha’s voice crackled in through his earpiece. “It isn’t any sort of conventional electrical light fixture, I can tell you that much.”

“So then, if they aren’t electric, then what are they?” Curiosity and slight apprehension colored Christina’s voice.

“I’d like to know the answer to that question myself. For now, advance to the next room.”

The circular aperture in the wall ahead of them opened into the side of a vertical cylindrical stairwell, with stairs spiraling both upward and downward from the doorway’s landing. By Samantha’s instruction, they trekked down the descending path, beads of perspiration beginning to form on their foreheads. The flight of steps ended after a short distance at another rounded door frame. The smooth wall of sandstone obstructing the entrance, however, deterred their progress.

“They made a room, then sealed it off with solid rock?”

“I guess so?” She shrugged.

“That doesn’t make a lick of sense.” He knocked on the obstruction. “Yeah, there’s definitely a room on the other side, sounds like. This place sure is strange.”

“You can say that again.”

“This place sure is strange.” He smirked as she rolled her eyes.

They turned and ascended back up past their entry point to arrive at an unblocked room. Inside, a battered desk faced the door, its chair unoccupied. Documents littered the desk’s surface, and chalkboards packed with notes and diagrams spanned the other three walls of the office.

“Jack, can you get a closer view of those chalkboards with your camera?”

“Yeah, one sec.”

“Also, Christina, please collect those papers from the desk and hold on to them.”

“Roger that!”

Several quiet moments passed as they went about their respective tasks, the ICERR standing sentry directly outside the entrance while they worked. After panning his camera across the last of the boards, Jack rubbed the stray droplets of sweat out of his irritated eyes. He wasn’t sure if he could take much more of this heat, especially without any water. Sure, it wasn’t like those scientists could’ve known it’d be this hot in here, but sending them in without any supplies at all?

“Hey, Jack.” Christina’s unusually hushed voice woke him from his reverie.

“What’s that, now?”

“Come take a look at this.” He walked over to her, taking the sheet from her outstretched hand. “Check out the name at the bottom of the page.”

He scanned the body of the text--something about the completion of the technical designs for some project he’d never heard of--then froze over as he read the signature, his train of thought screeching to a halt.

“...Alexander Phillips? No, that can’t be right.” He squinted and held the document closer to his eyes. He’d read the name correctly. For that matter, the sloppy, half-cursive half-manuscript handwriting was unmistakable.

“The... troupe leader?” Incredulous, he stared back up at Christina, who nodded solemnly. “But that’s impossible! Based on what this says, he--”

“Christina. Jack.” Samantha’s buzzing voice cut him off. “We will discuss this matter at length upon your return, but for the time being I want you to continue your exploration up to the next unblocked room. After that, you need to withdraw back through the door to the testing chamber, as it won’t be much longer at this rate before you become severely dehydrated or incur a heat stroke.”

They slogged further up the stairwell, his mind still reeling from their discovery. He’d never asked much about his boss’s past--it’d always felt like Alex didn’t want to talk about it whenever the subject had come up--but could the old man really have been involved with something like all this? It did explain how he’d known about the door in the first place. But, then again, the facts didn’t add up: If he was behind this door business, why would he want to reveal it to the public, and at their carnival’s side-show of all places?

His head began to ache.

The staircase, rather than leveling out at another landing, came to an abrupt end after carrying them up onto the floor of an immense space. The ceiling sat far overhead, easily several hundred feet above them. The walls adjacent to the corner at which they’d entered stretched off to a similar distance. Despite its mammoth size, however, the space lay empty, devoid of everything save its intruders.

“Wow....” Christina took a few steps forward, her gaze wandering. “I’m impressed by how whoever owns this place was able to make such a big room using nothing but these humongous ceramic tiles--seriously, you’d need a fleet of cranes or something to assemble these things in any reasonable time span--but how could anyone put an enclosed room this large to good use?” She turned questioningly toward Jack only to find him lost in thought. After a second, he snapped back to reality and shrugged in response.

“Maybe they were going to build something big?”

“That could be it... but if that’s true, why is there nothing here? I mean, surely you’d need tools and supplies and stuff to build something large enough to fill this room, right? Plus, now that I think about it, how would they even get whatever they’d build out of here? The passageway that brought us here was just barely wide enough for the two of us, and I don’t see any other ways out.”

“Good points. But don’t call me Shirley.” He snickered at her annoyed groan.

“Whenever you’re done cracking outdated jokes, we should probably head back to--”

A muffled, thunderous noise echoed up from the stairwell. They both fell silent, trading wary expressions before hurrying back to the stairs. As they strained to listen, another two sounds identical to the first met their ears, followed by a tumultuous rumbling reminiscent of an earthquake or landslide.

“What the devil was that? Samantha, did you hear that noise?”

“Affirmative, Jack. Furthermore, it seemed to originate from the bottommost doorway which you visited earlier--the one that was blocked off with a layer of stone, namely.”