They sat in a council of war in one of the break rooms in Hell. It was significant to note that the rooms were not all alike: the level of undrinkable coffee in the pot was not the same, and the arrangement of the crap in the vending machines varied. It meant that they had not simply been walking in a circle. It did lead open the possibility that this awful office building might be infinite in extent.
“You’re sure that you detected no evidence of a doorway out in any of the thousands of doors we passed?” Dr. Ransom asked the capybara.
“At first, my impulse, like yours, was simply to walk out of the building, and not pay attention to the environment. Even then I would have noticed. Not a twinge,” Capoeira said.
“It did occur to me that this place might be a great nexus of countless realities, and that we simply lack the abilities to open the doorways,” Terence mused.
“Built by a power with a horribly perverse sense of décor,” countered the capybara. “No, this is a trap.”
“But why?” Jeanette asked, trying not to whine. She knew that why was not something that would either get the job done or boost their courage, but she had to ask it. “Who would build a trap like this?”
“Perhaps the a same power that exiled us Jeanette. That’s why I started this voyage in the first place--to find out what was going so wrong.”
“But maybe that means,” Terence said as smoothly as possible to keep Jeanette’s feelings from being bruised, “that we should try breaking in to one of the offices. We may find some clues there. Like, among other things, why this vast place is empty except for us.”
“Agreed.” They got up.
Jeanette remembered her father telling her that there were no useless scientific experiments, and that a negative result could be as important as a positive one. It wasn’t much to hold on to, but it was something.
They stood in front of one of the identical doors, and her father went “Huh.”
“Huh what?” The capybara asked.
“This door is locked, like all the others except for the bathrooms. But there’s no keyhole, nor anything that would serve as one.” He crouched down to look at the latch, the plate, and the narrow gap next to it. He smiled.
“Okay, you’re smiling, and I demand to know why,” said the big rodent irritably.
"Just something I read in college--that all the doors in Hell are locked from the inside. Too bad that’s working against us here.”
“Very clever,” said the capybara sullenly. “Do you mind if I don’t borrow it?”
Terence got up. “But from what I see, the lock fits in with the sturdy-but-cheap ethic we’ve seen all over this place. If I’m right, we may be in luck.”
He pulled his wallet out of his pants pocket and extracted a credit card. “This won’t work if there’s a deadbolt, but it didn’t look like it from my inspection. Nor is there a plate blocking the gap. As I said, cheap.”
Angling the card carefully, he swiped down and pulled at the latch. The door opened. “Something else I learned in college.”
The room was dark, but Terence hunted for the light switch and threw it. The lights flickered on in the manner of all ancient fluorescents. The office was interesting in a dreary, negative way: Gray desk, gray padded chair on casters, file cabinets of a slightly different gray. The most interesting things were an inbox and outbox tray made of heavy wire, and in them were sheets of paper.
Jeanette picked them up. They were not in any alphabet she knew--but there were so many different characters she thought this must be Chinese. She saw that the papers were ruled vertically, like the papers in anime. Terence looked over her shoulder, and she said, “Chinese?” to him.
“It looks different, but that may be the way they’re written. But I’m no expert: what’s alien to me just may be kanji I’ve never encountered before. It does explain the lack of a typewriter, though. Senhor Capoeira?”
“We do have some ideogram systems: Gypsic and Hannity. This doesn’t look like either of them, but the same caveats apply.”
Terence went over and opened the unlocked file cabinets: the drawers were full of papers with similar writings. They seemed to be organized by color. He flipped through them, but there were no diagrams or even tables.
“Testimony of a dreadful life, I would say. The desk drawers contain only pencils and pens of the cheapest sort.”
“And locked from the inside. On the one hand, dreadful; on the other, might there be another way out?” Terence said.
“Let’s look at some more offices, assuming your magic plastic key works.” Answered the capybara.
They went through at least twenty offices that were almost all identical. Jeanette had thought to take along some of the papers, which confirmed that the papers were not simple duplicates. But that seemed all the more dreadful. She thought of the inhabitants of the offices, whoever they were, scribbling day in day out, producing only paper.
Then, though, they found something.
In the umpty-umpth office, there was something else on the desk. It was a stand-up frame like the one Dada had at work. That one contained pictures of her and Mom. The one here, though, had had the pictures burned out of them: there were thin charred edges still in the slots.
“There has to be something here,” she said, and started moving around the room, running her hands over the walls and down by the baseboards. Her father and the capybara watched her furious search in silence.
One of her gloves caught on something for a second. She went back to the point. She couldn’t feel anything herself, but the gloves tugged whenever they crossed the tiny patch. There was nothing to see either--until she found, couple of inches away, a tiny piece of ash. She could have dropped it from handling the frame, but she didn’t think so.
She put her palms, one over the other, on the patch and pushed. Nothing happened.
“Help me!” She called out, and the two of them joined her, pushing against the wall. Still, nothing happened.
This has to be it! This has to be the way out of Hell! It was far too small for a picture of the Decision Tree, but maybe it was enough. It had to be!
It had to be what? She asked herself. Maybe just not totally complete despair. Was that enough?
Make a wish, she said to herself. Or maybe it wasn’t her.
Home, she thought, and then quailed. Maybe that was too much--or maybe that wasn’t what she really wanted.
A good place. Make this a way to a good place. I could use a good place.
She fell forward.