Written in 2009.
Portal to the Holo-World
by Andi Hagen
In the safelight’s emerald glow, all the metal fixtures look molded out of translucent plastic. Blurry and fake in the dim lighting, the room itself could be a hologram. Behind a brick wall, a compressor hums. Its muffled rumble cancels all other noise. The basement is beyond quiet. It is muted. The air is still and cold, although amidst all the stainless steel instruments and glinting glass, the chill might be psychosomatic. The room is what Willy imagines the belly of a submarine is like. He loves the holography laboratory at Valley Forest College. He loved it as a student and he still loves it in his full time position as a laboratory technician.
The door to his locker squeaks open and Willy gingerly removes his model. A castle, only eight inches tall, made of polymer clay, wire, and cardboard. He is amazed that it is a product of his own hands. Evil and majestic, the fortress has twelve layers of stone battlements with twisting mazes sandwiched between them. Jutting from the top like antennas are two spiraling towers. Fissures and holes pock the crumbling stonework. Embedded shards of sanded glass make dozens of windows, all sealed tight with a mesh of iron bars. And—his favorite detail—on the tower’s cliff-like balcony stands the Ghoul Sorcerer Mortash and his beastly assistant Yargath.
In scale with the castle, Willy sculpted Mortash and Yargath from two uncoated aspirin, whittling with a scalpel and sewing needle. It had taken weeks and many failures. Hunchbacked Mortash, trailing the fringe of his tattered robe with a skull helmet and soaring crown on his head, is a portrait of villainy and power. Willy does not have the finesse to carve all the details he wanted: the dried centipedes hemmed into Mortash’s cuffs—his teeth, rotted away and replaced with knuckle bones and hardened fish eyes—fingernails so long that they curve into brittle spirals, each etched with a different scene of devastation.
Mortash’s assistant Yargath required no less diligence. A humanoid reptile with gnarled patches of fur twisting from rips in his scaled hide and a long flaccid tail, disintegrating from being dragged behind him. He is nude aside from a belt of glossy fur with a massive engraved buckle of two kissing hags. Willy was unable to etch the net of snarling scars covering Yargath’s chest and arms without losing some of the depth in his musculature, but still, the figure is quite intricate.
Willy places the castle on the metal table top, behind the plate holder. He pictures himself in the midst of the maze, gazing up at the tower where Mortash looms, just a speck of shadow from this vantage point, radiating an aura of menace. Willy is setting up the table on autopilot. Assisting students and faculty during the day and shooting his own work at night, Willy’s hands have thousands of holograms worth of experience. He positions the laser and the beam splitter, tweaks the adjustment ring on the diffusion filter and clamps it down, figures the playback angle, tilts of the plate holder, and calculates the exposure length: five and half seconds.
Turning the safelight down, the dimness becomes like the green gloom of a pine forest. Willy removes one of the glass holographic plates from the box in his locker and fits it into the holder. His eyes sweep over the table once more. All set. Now it is time to wait. Everything must be perfectly still during the exposure. The dust in the air, the table, his model, and the plate all need time to settle. His eyes flick to the clock. Dropping onto a stool, he leans back against the wall.
This will be Willy’s best hologram. Since his last year of graduate school he has been making images of heroes and villains in dioramic landscapes, all in the same fantasy world—Klurth, he named it. There are recurring characters, some with developed histories. Gnarlod is a barbarian warrior from a race of gilled men. His arms were pulled off during a torture session and now he seeks vengeance, wielding a double-headed axe clamped between his teeth. Larchon is an intelligent tusked ape and the land’s most powerful shaman. He wears an enchanted ring that allows him to shrink infinitely, even to the size of subatomic particle. Or Darmoth, an undead warlord who grafts parts of his slain enemies to himself. He possesses hundreds of arms, legs, and heads like a living spider web of bone and flesh.
But Mortash, Yargath, and the castle are entirely new. Willy did not even start with preliminary sketches. Sitting at his workbench, he just felt them out, cutting and carving, smashing them apart and restarting several times. An entity had possessed him, telling him exactly how the models should be. All the mistakes were the fault of his hands.
Willy slides from the stool. Enough time has passed. Flipping the laser’s remote switch, there is a click and the castle is washed in a noisy spot of ruby radiance.
Above the planet, a meteorite arcs through space. Unable to penetrate the atmosphere, it skips along the edge, growing molten and eventually shattering. In its core, a deep space element undiscovered on Earth implodes in a pinpoint of churning color. Rays of radiation flash through the atmosphere. Outside of Mexico City an entire field of corn turns to black sludge and oozes into the soil. In Anderson, Indiana a rusted station wagon, up on cinder blocks and dead for years, chokes to life and is engulfed in a pillar of flame. In Boulder, Colorado, a pregnant woman gives birth to conjoined quadruplets, all of which begin chatting immediately to one another after their first breath.
The glow of the laser starts to waver, bending into wobbling spirals. Erupting from the laser’s lens is a spray of sparks accompanied by a searing flash shot through with speckles of blackness. The spots expand, seeping outward until Willy is engulfed in a void. As the dark haze fades from eyes, he knows that something is wrong. His skin is chilly and damp and he smells the pungent tang of mold. He is not in the lab anymore. On all sides are walls of cracked stone dappled with moss and rust-colored streaks. In the middle of the chamber, hovering in the air is a rectangle, like a window. Green safelight and red laser light trickle through. He is looking through it into the lab where two shadows stalk amongst the metal tables: the hunchbacked Mortash and the monstrous bulk of his assistant Yargath. Hand outstretched, Willy splashes through the pools of water on the floor, stumbling over debris. His grasping fingers pass through the glimmering afterimage. The window has vanished, shrunk into nothing.
With the glow gone, the room—a cell—is much dimmer. A gray ghosting from underneath the ragged fringe of a wooden door provides the only illumination. While Willy did not build this chamber specifically in his model, he knows it is part of Mortash’s castle. He is in Klurth and Mortash is in Willy’s world. But how? Mortash’s sorcery? It must be. Why else would Willy be stuck in the dungeon? The prospect is as grim as it is confusing. He assumed that he created Klurth, but could Klurth have always existed? Was the castle crafted from Willy’s imagination or was Mortash influencing him to make it all along? What a nightmare! Willy is trapped in a strange world and his own world will soon be in the grip of a diabolic sorcerer!
Willy jerks the handle of the cell door. Locked. Breaking off a splinter of wood from the door, Willy jams it into the keyhole, twisting it furiously. The primitive pick snaps off inside. Willy blows in the hole, knocking the broken piece loose and fishing it out. First, he has to get out of the castle. Then he must find Barvnal the White Mask and get his help. Maybe with Barvnal’s enchantments Willy can get back to his own world. Farfetched as it may be, it is the only idea he has. However, before that, he must travel through the Reklanon Marsh and avoid the tribe of carnivorous humanoid fungus that resides there. With a clatter, the lock finally opens. And, of course, escape this castle alive…