It wasn’t the safest place, or the warmest, or the one that stirred the most memories. Those were all spoken for.

But, nonetheless, it was my place.

I sat in the gazebo swing, watching tiny clouds of rust thrown up as the long-still chains moved–as silently as when they were new and freshly oiled. The early autumn sun came in streamers through the trees above and the gaps in the old wooden roof, illuminating a ballet of dust motes that swirled around me.

As a youngster, I’d never been able to understand Dad’s fascination with the gazebo–the long summer afternoons he spent building it, painting it, lovingly planting the trees that now dwarfed it. It had been many things for me growing up: a rocket ship, a fortress, a pirate schooner. But never just a gazebo in the furthest corner of our yard.

It wasn’t until he was gone that I got a better sense of the place. When the time came to clean out his things, Mom had let me do it–too many memories, she said–and I’d found a picture of Dad with his parents. He couldn’t have been more than four or five, and they were posing together on an old gazebo, the very twin of the one I now sat in.

They’d had to sell that house when things had gotten rough after the war, but Dad had seen to it that I had the chance for the same lazy summer memories that he did.

Preston’s writing grew more elaborate as the pages wore on, even as his handwriting declined in quality.

I have finally begun to approach this with the correct conceptual framework. Dragons are merely the visible part of a greater–one might say inconceivable–organism. Like an anglerfish’s lure, they represent the barest part of a whole, but the only one we can comprehend. As for the larger organism…words like ‘magic’ and ‘pandimensional’ scarcely do the concept justice. My head aches as I think about it.

A variety of diagrams followed with intersecting parabolas and terms I couldn’t pretend to understand–then again, it’s possible that Preston, in his madness, had made them up. He reverted to prose some pages later:

As projections they have no inherent form. They’re no more giant lizards than I am. But you can see how such a monstrous visage would have proven useful, give the revulsion that people greet reptiles with even today. Primitive man could easily be frightened by such, or coerced into obedience, but the rise of nations and creeds that could seek to shun or slay such ‘monsters’ explains why such forms are rarely encountered.

It also explains why they’ve never been found. If a diver could see only an anglerfish’s lure through a cloudy sea, they’d perceive only a worm and go mad trying to locate it on the ocean floor. But if the lure could be anything it wanted to be, unbound by the laws of physics…the implications stagger me.

All night I’d felt the beginnings of a panic attack…that lightness of head and tightness of chest, that feeling of being closed in no matter how wide-open the space, that sudden spasm of dread for things that shouldn’t be fearful.

Television didn’t help. I trembled too much to write. Pacing only made things worse. On the theory that fresh air might do the trick, I strolled all of five feet outside my front door to watch the cooling remnants of the sunset and watch Venus rise. It didn’t have the intended effect, especially not when one of the neighbors brought their unleashed rat-dog by. Having tiny, ceaselessly aggressive creatures about one’s ankles is only slightly less relaxing than the stoned twentysomething behind it who insists the squealing monster is friendly.

It wasn’t always like that. The last panic attack I could remember was at summer camp when I was fourteen; a violent tornadic storm blew in and I was convinced we were all going to die. We well might have too–a nearby housing development was ravaged by the twister that only brushed us. Compared to that, my house in the PM was a picture of safety and stability.

Maybe that’s what the rising bile in my throat was trying to tell me. It may be that, for the first time in my comfortable life, I felt suffocated by the very atmosphere I’d long sought to cultivate.

Harry would have found something sinister or otherwise remarkable in what he saw; then again, Harry was the sort of man for whom a tattered Bazooka Joe comic could and often did hold a mystical status as a stegotext for a nationwide conspiracy.

From what I could see, the reality was almost painfully mundane. For all its fearsome reputation among conspiracy theorists, the Chalice and Cross society seemed little more than a secretive country club. They’d kept meticulous records, thoroughly indexed, of initiations, events, members, and dues. Three men who later became President of the United States were on the rolls, as the crazies were so quick to note, but two appeared to have dropped out shortly after initiation. A smattering of other luminaries filled the membership rolls, but most were not even members in good standing at the time of graduation–and I, for one, had grave doubts that an organization would orchestrate the appointment of a Supreme Court justice when he owed the Crossmen $250 in back membership dues!

In fact, the only thing of note was a ledger that appeared to be written in some kind of cipher. It was too brief to contain any of the things the one-world-government crazies like Harry would have expected; in fact, I was able to take a high resolution digital photograph of each page using the rig the university archivist had set up for me. Most ciphers rely on the reader not being able to decode them at their leisure; I was about to do just that.

I’d just finished taking the final shot when I heard footsteps. Not an archivist, either, but someone very keen on remaining unnoticed as they approached.

You know, when I was little, one of my favorite games was ‘time travel.’ I’d get together with my brothers, of my friends, and we’d go up into the old hayloft of the barn. That was our time machine—it was cleverly disguised, of course. I’d push some knots in the wood—buttons—and make some noises, and then declare that we were two hours in the future.

We’d go exploring, and the idea that we were somehow out of phase gave loafing around the same old places a new sheen. My parents were good sports about it, feeding the hungry time travelers juice and cookies. When they asked why we chrononauts weren’t running into ourselves, I’d always say that we simply hadn’t gotten back yet—we’d gone two hours into the future, and our trip lasted two hours, so it all worked out perfectly as far as I was concerned.

After all, how much can a lazy summer afternoon change in two hours? The shadows get a little longer, the air a little cooler, but what’s that to a kid who’s been running all day? I think I secretly wished it was that simple, and in many ways it was; we kids believed in an innocent sort of way that we were in the future, and one had only to look as far as Uncle Walt to see someone stuck in the past.

Sometimes the game was interplanetary travel to a planet that was, by an astonishing coincidence, just like ours. That was even more exciting; my eyes tear up with nostalgia when I think of our journeys to Htrae. Would that it were that easy. Even then, deep down, I knew I’d never make it into space for real—eyesight too bad, expenses to great.

Still, that was the last time I felt anything like this—like things were malleable, like there was a world waiting to be explored in every dandelion’s shadow or twinkling point of light.

In those days, clockwork automata like the Mechanical Turk were all the rage. And while many, like the Turk itself, were elaborate hoaxes, many automata were quite real and capable of a range of action and motion astounding to many in the modern day (who consider our forebears to be stupid and backward to a man).

It’s said that the finest of the Renaissance automata came from the Vienna workshop of one Conrad Hutzdorf. Hutzdorf created elaborate machines capable of simulated motion when wound, figures with an internal asbestos bellows which would “smoke” before delighted patrons, and even–based on a request from the Emperor himself–a mechanical nightingale like the one in the stories, whose chirps were produced by panpipes concealed in its base.

Hutzdorf maintained no apprentices as befit expect a craftsman of his station; those few who worked with him made only specific parts to order. Many speculated on the reasoning for this, but Hutzdorf maintained that he preferred to do the work himself, and his patrons did not seem to mind the 6-8 months needed to create each piece.

The craftsman disappeared around 1779-1780 when his workshop was gutted by fire. No body was ever discovered, nor was a cause for the blaze determined, which gave rise to wild speculation in alehouses and parlors throughout town. The most prevalent of them had a patron brashly breaking into Hutzdorf’s workshop after having a commission refused, only to find the craftsman with his chest opened and making adjustments to his own clockwork mechanism! Enraged, the clockwork Hutzdorf reputedly set the fire that wiped him from history and fled elsewhere.

Stuff and nonsense, of course, but an interesting piece of historical background for the Hutzdorf piece that was to appear at our auction house in Philadelphia.

Once they had properly tied me up and set me in a chair–not to mention making unambiguous gestures with their weapons–I was willing to listen to the Elrinists’ demands. “What’s it called?”

The lead Elrinist withdrew a piece of paper from his pocket and reverently unfolded it. “Dirk Chiseler and the Gilded Alchemist of the Sargasso Sea,” he said. “Parts I-XIV, in Astounding Tales magazine. July 7, 1938 thru January 17th 1939.”

I stared at him, thunderstruck.

“Well, do you have it in the archive or don’t you?” he cried. “It’s on the list on your website.”

“Well…” I said, examining the instruments of pain, both blunt and explosive, the Elrinists carried. “Let me get this straight. You want a run of a lousy pulp adventure story from a half-rate magazine?”

“It is the only copy in existence,” the head Elrinist said. “We seek it for the wisdom it carries, delivered from our Mission Commander’s mind before he began his great work. Surrender it to us…or die.”

The deadly seriousness in his voice was too much, and I couldn’t restrain my laughter any longer.

My office hours tended to attract three kinds of students:

First was the OCD Overachiever. You know the type: straight-A’s since they’ve been getting grades, always going the extra mile to ensure the streak remains unbroken. OCD Overachievers would usually stop by to prove how Committed and Dependable they were, and to establish a rapport with me so I would be less likely to grade them harshly. If I wanted smoke blown up my ass, I’d have been at home with a pack of cigarettes and a short length of hose; nevertheless, they were something of an ego boost.

Next was the Needy Wheedler. They typically needed my signature on something or other, usually something from the athletic department or one of the variety of student offices that managed academic probation or at-risk students. Needy Wheedlers had to get my signature to play polo against State, or to avoid expulsion, or something along those lines. They’d get very nervous if I didn’t sign the forms immidiately, even more so if I began asking questions or musing about what the criteria for judgment were. As long as my John Hancock was on that all-important slip of paper at the end, they didn’t paricularly care–which could be kind of fun as I led them through roundabout conversations and red herrings to claim their prize.

Finally, and most commonly, was the Desperate Bargainer. They typically showed up after a major assignment or test, desperate to dredge up some extra credit or other way to stave off imminent failure. Often, I’d never seen them in class before the assignment was due, and then they were in my office, trying to be my best friend or telling a sob story about how success in my class was the only thing keeping their family off the street and paying for little Jimmy’s insulin.

Macy was a Desperate Bargainer, one of the most desperate I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t until later that I realized what exactly it was underlaying it all.

Mack was the kind of person who always walked around in a cloud of cigar smoke–as if the other business he was involved in wasn’t enough, he loved to clench death-sticks between those fat lips of his and give people cancer. I sometimes wondered if he even really smoked at all, or if he just pulled out a cigar, as big around as his fingers and just as brown and weathered, to impress people. A cigar says power, money, influence. A cigar says ‘I’m the kind of guy you don’t screw with–you default on one of my loans, I break your kneecaps and shove this stogie in your crotch.’

None of that would bother me, of course, if I hadn’t been trying to kick the habit myself. Cigars and cigarettes aren’t the same, as any smoke snob will tell you, but that aroma was enough to make me reach for my empty breast pocket, where the cowboy-killers used to be. I rolled a stick of gum up and stuck it where a cig should have gone.

Mack laughed, dredging up a gallon of phlegm from deep inside his stout frame. “Ain’t you gonna light up?” he said. “Them Bubble Yum brand cigs, they sure pack a wallop.”

I laughed too–with Mack, you laughed when he did, whether what he said was funny or not.

“So, anyway, the old prick drops dead. Literally. Right there in his goddamn workshop. His kid found him there the next morning, at the bench, lookin’ like he was asleep.”

“Heart attack?” I asked, trying to sound interested, even though I didn’t know Karol Kazdemu from Joan of Arc. It’s always a tragedy when somebody dies–in the abstract. But if you don’t know ‘em, the most people can muster is a vague sorry feeling before they forget all about it. It doesn’t pay to dwell too much on death anyway.

“Stroke.” Mack gestured at Sunday’s Times, crumpled on his coffee table. “The obituary was very specific–I bet that was his doing.”

“Terrible tragedy,” I replied. “What’s it got to do with us?”

Mack took a fresh drag from his cigar and exhaled, filling the room anew with that sweet, dusky smell. My mouth tightened; God, I wanted a cigarette.

“For most people, yeah, stroke’s a terrible tragedy all right. But not Karol. For him, a stroke means he weaseled his way out of payin’ me back.”

The veneer was cast aside almost instantly, and I saw Cela’s bright eyes harden to slate gray.

“You insolent pup!” she shrieked. Wreathes of white-hot fire burst from her fingertips, blazing a path across the room towards me.

My sword stuck in its scabbard as I tried to pull it free, forcing a quick duck and roll that left the bench I’d been sitting on a smoldering cinder.

“Don’t do this!” I cried.

“You had your chance to be sensible,” hissed Cela. “Now you’ll see how the Crimson Order swats down troublesome flies!” Her hands were ablaze again, directing rivulets of living flame toward me as everything flammable in the manse’s anteroom began to blacken and curl.

Finally, the stubborn blade was loosed, and I held it in front of me, cruciform-style, with the point on the ground.

“How quaint! The little boy thinks he can scratch the grown-up with his toy!”

Cela’s cackle turned to sputtering rage as she saw my blade do its work, sucking up the energies she’d unleashed as they approached. It glowed and sparked but remained cool to the touch.

“A saugendolch!” she exclaimed. “Clever, perhaps, but not clever enough!”

The support beams above began to twist and crack apart.