Paragon and I made our way through the tangled maze of old basement corridors under the hospital. In some places, walls had collapsed and dirt and stones had spilled into the hallway. Paragon thought we were coming closer, however, to the place where the dimensional portal was.
"It’s definitely a woman. She’s on her hands and knees and seems to be scrubbing the floor. If she’s a cleaning lady, she must know where we are."
Paragon also tried to get a word in.
"We didn’t want to insult you, ma'am, and..."
I tried to think of something positive to say.
"But it really does look pretty clean around here. That must make you feel proud."
The lady scrubbed vigorously at the uneven floor, which must have been difficult to make as clean as she liked.
"When people just walk around all over the floor, your job is never done, but that's how it always goes. No respect for others' work. People only think of themselves! I wonder how it would look like if it wasn’t for me, but is there any appreciation for all my extra effort? Oh no! Ingratitude is all I ever get! You have to learn not to expect anything or you’ll just be disappointed!"
The angry cleaning woman twisted her rag into the bucket with the underhand grip that she had learned put les strain on her wrist.
"But fortunately I don’t owe anything to anybody. If you just stick to yourself you won’t be in debt to other people or to society. Then nobody can criticize you!"
She looked up and saw that we were continuing on our way along the bleak corridor. She watched us go while she wiped the almost clean floor again with a second rag.
"You‘re running off just like that and you’re not even saying good-bye? Well, it figures! People just can’t stand to hear the truth!"
"Who was she?"
We now came to an accumulation of old hospital equipment in a huge pile blocking our path. There were gurneys and wheelchairs, old surgical instruments and cans of salve, along with large, transparent glass jars containing deformed limbs, surgically removed tissues and tumors, and even babies born prematurely or with deformed bodies.
I wasn’t happy about the idea of having to touch the large glass jars with old dead body parts inside.
"Do we have to?"
We began to move the equipment and crates that blocked the way ahead. The pile had been there for a long time and the cardboard boxes were damp and soft from the humid air.
It was too late. A box tore and spilled moldy packets of plasters, bandages, salves, swabs, and cotton wool on the floor. Some mice had made a nest out of the cotton wool packs, and they fled in wild confusion when we dropped everything on the floor.
"Good thing it wasn’t iodine or chloroform. It would have put you to sleep and you might have been lying here for a long time before I could wake you up again."
There were also boxes of old hospital equipment that hadn’t been used for many decades. I guessed it was a complete mobile field hospital dating back to the war, and everyone had probably forgotten all about it. Nowadays no one would use that old and obsolete equipment again.
Paragon sounded pleased.
"I think we’re there."
The place seemed to match his map. There was a padlock on an old wooden door like you might find in the basement of an apartment building. The padlock was rusty but it still held. When we pulled on the door, the whole latch came loose from the frame because the wood was rotten. Opening the door the rest of the way, we stepped inside what seemed to have been a small storage closet at one time, now mostly empty. The dust had not been disturbed in many years.
"If this is a dimensional portal, couldn’t anybody who came along use it?"
Paragon took a ring of keys out of his overalls and looked through them.
"It would be this one."
The control box seemed to be a small metal container, no bigger than a matchbox on a shelf. You’d never notice it looking around the room, or if you did, you wouldn’t realize how important it was. There was a small hole in one side of the little box, and with some difficulty, as though it didn’t quite fit, Paragon inserted the key in the box. When he turned it, however, the end of the key broke off.
"Drat and double drat! The control box is completely rusted inside!”
It was one of those obvious observations that were quite unnecessary and just rubbed salt in the wound. Paragon grunted fiercely and began to take the box apart with a screwdriver he had taken from the breast pocket of his overalls.
"I should have known! Earthly mechanisms are corroded by the constant moisture seeping up from the floor here. The portal technology is stable enough otherwise, but what good does that do if you’re forced to build it into some earthly stuff to hide it?"
I thought of some children I’d read about who had once found a portal inside an old wardrobe. They were able to use it several times without it being closed, but Paragon probably didn’t know anything about that.
"What's that?" I asked
I had my doubts. Even if my objections were justified, it still wouldn’t matter if I died trying to get everything cleared up. But I didn’t have a choice. I just had to hope this crazy freight elevator wouldn’t completely destroy me. The kids in the wardrobe had managed to cross back and forth several times without any problems but was their portal a different design than this one?
"Maybe you should have turned the key in the opposite direction?"
Paragon shook his head vigorously. He had a hard time putting up with me doubting everything he did.
"No, no! What I did was absolutely right. It's the first thing you learn when you take the ‘Basic Operation of Transcendental Equipment’ course in night school."
Then everything shook slightly for a moment. Some dust fell from the horizontal beams at the top of the room's side walls.
"I think we’ve moved now. Let’s take a look around."
Paragon pushed on the door we had come through. It didn‘t budge. He tried again, this time a little more forcefully.
"I thought so. We’re stuck between two floors and there isn’t even an alarm button so we can call for help. It’s all a hopeless mess, Mr. Paragon! You’d think ‘soul patrol’ or whatever you do was a very responsible line of work, but nothing in the whole system works right. It's really a shame."
I felt genuinely disappointed, and I didn’t hesitate to say so.
"This whole mess needs to be cleared up since everything seems to be falling apart. If I get the opportunity to complain about it, I certainly won’t hold back. Remember that, Paragon! Somebody has to be told, even right up at the top of the system! And who’s up there, by the way? Is it the old man with a long beard people call God?"
Paragon had sat down in a corner of the storeroom. He looked tired.
"It isn't that easy to explain. Things are more complicated than that. Besides the mere question of who could possibly call himself God, everything is part of a much larger universal system so vast that no one can really get an overall view of it. You can picture the ruling authority or the real center of power as a kind of cosmic cohesiveness striving towards a universal harmony or balance. If there’s any deviation from this state of equilibrium, the overlying system will try to counteract it and bring the universe back in the direction of harmony. That’s probably the overall guiding force you‘re thinking of, if you want to put it that way."
While we had been talking, I had leaned against the door, and I could feel it open slightly. A faint gleam of light shone through the crack and it looked as though there was something on the other side blocking the door.
"Paragon!” I exclaimed, “I made the door move! Come and have a look! Isn’t that a sack or something?"
Paragon jumped up when he heard that. He directed his head lamp at the slight crack between the door and the frame.
"Coarsely woven burlap… it seems to be a sack of potatoes. Well, at least we won’t starve."
By working together, we pushed the door open enough that Paragon could get his small feet through the opening. He kicked against the potato sack and moved it slightly so he could reach out and grab the top portion. Now he could tilt the bag to the side so we could open the door enough that he could get through. Then he dragged the bag away so I could get out, too.