This is the third part of my fortnightly serial. If you missed Part 2, you can read it here.

Part 3: Anchor

Janet slumped against the wall, eyes fixed on the gaping hole had replaced most of the lobby floor. She was vaguely aware of people crammed against the other walls, but she could not look away from the bottomless depth at her feet. “What the hell is going on?”

“Stay there and shut it. I don’t need any more interruptions.” Hela closed her eyes and stretched out her arms, palms down. For a moment nothing happened. Then thin strands of white, red and gold stretch from the edges of the hole. They criss-crossed until the hole was covered in thin webbing, which thickened and grew until all that could be seen was the lobby floor – white marble, red and gold carpet.

Janet stood on shaky legs. “Did you do that?” She stretched out a foot and set it on solid ground where there had been nothing before.

Hela nodded to the receptionist, still sitting at the counter, staring at the screen in front of her. It seemed she had not moved from the time Janet had seen her at the start of the night. “It’s safe, Felicia,” Hela said.

Felicia nodded without taking her eyes off the computer screen. “I’ve opened the front doors and notified the guests.”

Hela turned to Janet. “Did you drop something down there?”

Janet stared at the floor. Don’t freak out don’t freak out don’t freak out. “Um. A plate. I was trying to deliver it to the penthouse guest. You said he was fussy.”

“So you decided to wander around until you found the right room?”

“Well, the penthouse is at the top, right? I thought I’d take the lift. Only there wasn’t a lift, and then there wasn’t a kitchen…” It sounded ridiculous. But no more so than the lobby floor disappearing. What the hell was going on? Was she dreaming?

“It’s not a dream,” said Hela. “I’m going to have to tell Mr. Smith what’s happened. And what you did.”

“I suppose he won’t take this well?”

“No,” said Smith, from behind them. “I won’t. May I see the both of you in my office?”

They followed him to his office. It was a longer and twistier route than the one Janet had taken before.

“Was that a Category 3 Portal?” Smith asked Hela as they walked.

“Category 4 Abyss, redirected. Lucky Felicia noticed it coming and got almost everyone out of the way.”

Janet ignored their talk and concentrated on her own theories. Some kind of prank show? This could be the part where they revealed the hidden cameras. But surely there was no way to fake what she had seen. 

“It’s no prank,” said Smith, as he gestured them into his office.

Janet glared at him. Had he read her mind? After what she had seen, it could be possible. ”Then can you finally tell me what’s going on? I think I’ve earned it.”

“Do you really? You disobeyed a direct order, lost a plate of food ordered for one of our better guests, and interrupted a delicate process. Do you really think that earns you anything, other than perhaps a good kicking out?”

Janet gulped.

Hela broke in. “She was trying to be helpful.”

“I was expecting inquisitiveness. I was not expecting this much trouble.”

“It would be more trouble finding someone else. She’s seen what she’s seen — give her a few more days. It can’t hurt.”

“Every hour hurts. Still, I take your point.” He turned his gaze on Janet. “Very well. Our secret. The world you know is not the only one in existence.”

“Ooo-kay.” Janet wasn’t sure what she had been expecting, but it wasn’t that. “You mean aliens?”

“Other worlds, not other planets. This hotel has doorways that open into two of them, and works as a bridge between them. We keep the doorways. We let the people through, we let them stay if they need a place to stay. That is our business. Whether other people from your world come to stay matters very little to us.”

“So that hole in the lobby floor was a doorway?”

“No,” said Hela, “that was a mistake. You see, most worlds tend to magic or they tend to science. Your world, obviously, is based in science, in immutable laws of reality. Himmeria and Durridel are based in the laws of magic. Hearts and minds have far more power over matter than they do here.”

“We are the balancing point,” said Smith. “The meeting place. We need to keep the worlds in balance with this one or the walls fail. Maintaining that balance — a balance between magic and science — is a delicate thing. We need certain things to be in place. One of those things is you.”

“Me?”

“Not you specifically,” said Smith. “Anyone from your world would do.”

“Wait a second. None of you are from Earth? Are you even human?”

“Not the Earth you know,” said Hela. “And we’re people, even if we aren’t quite the same species as you.”

“And what do you want me for?”

“One of the problems with a magic system is that there aren’t reasons for everything, not reasons you would accept. All you need to know is that we need someone from your world to feel like they belong here, like they have a connection to this place. That keeps the place stable, grounded. In essence, you would work as our anchor.”

“When I applied, I thought this was just going to be a summer job.”

“We wouldn’t expect you to work full time after this summer. A shift a week would be enough. It’s not about how much time you spend here, it’s about how well you fit.”

Smith shifted a few papers on his desk. “The problem is that since Sylvia retired in April we haven’t been able to hold onto anybody for very long. So things have been slipping, as you can see.”

“Wouldn’t people be tripping over themselves to work here?”

“Some people can’t deal with magic. Who was the first person we tried?”

“Thomas.” Hela sighed. “He was fine, right up to when we told him what was going on.”

“We never saw him again.”

“Yeah, but that was one person.”

Hela shrugged. “Some had the nerve to resign to our faces. Young Alex would have worked out well if he hadn’t received that scholarship.”

“Internship.”

“Whatever.” Hela turned to Janet. “He went off to America.”

“He chose America over other worlds?”

“Well, it makes sense. You won’t actually ever get to see other worlds if you work here. But that wasn’t the only problem we had.”

“No,” said Smith. “We also had problems with people who were a little too eager to investigate. The worst was a girl we had who tried to get into Himmeria. She may have been under the impression it was your ‘Heaven’.”

“Did she get through?”

Hela snickered. “She opened a new portal and let through a herd of sitheri — a kind of ice dragon. Cleanup was an absolute nightmare, I can tell you that.”

“So you see, Miss Ling, hearing that you went off against orders and nearly fell into another world yourself does not fill me with confidence. We don’t need anything of that order happening here.”

“I didn’t cause what was happening in the lobby! What was that, anyway? Someone else trying to open a portal?”

“Complete accident,” said Hela. “Reality in this place is deteriorating faster than ever. That means unexpected portals will appear, and also that the architecture of the hotel is in flux. That’s why you couldn’t find the lift or the kitchen before.”

“Are there ways to stop things from moving around?”

“Short term? There are some spells we can use to tie things together, but they take a good amount of concentration. In the long term—“

Smith coughed. “You didn’t cause the new portal in the lobby, but you interrupted Hela when she was trying to fix it. You could have fallen into another world, which would have killed you. You see why I worry you might cause further trouble.”

“That was different. I didn’t know what was going on. I was only trying to help.” Janet wondered why she was arguing so hard for this. Did she even want to stay? It wasn’t safe here. She remembered Angela’s warning. Promise me you’ll be careful.

“If you want to walk out, I won’t stop you. In fact, if you don’t feel like you can deal with this, you should walk away. Then we can get onto finding someone else with all haste.”

She had known there was something unusual about this place. That was why she had gone for the job. Now she’d discovered something weirder than even Angela could imagine, and she was thinking of leaving? No way. ”I want to stay,” said Janet. “And you should want me to stay as well. It sounds like you need me. What would happen if you couldn’t find anyone? The hotel stops existing?”

“Possibly. Possibly it would be worse.”

“Well, I don’t want that any more than you do. You get rid of me, you’ll need to find someone else and go through this whole process again. But I can do this. I can fit in here.” 

“She has a point,” Hela added. “Who would you even get to replace her?”

Smith scowled. “Fine. But be warned. We’re going to be very specific about where you can work, and what you can work on. You take one step outside the instructions we give you, you’re out and we take our chances with whoever comes next.” He sighed. “You should go home. There’s nothing left for you to do here. I’ll see you tomorrow night.”

Janet considered asking if she could work the rest of her shift. However, one look at Smith’s expression told her that she’d done enough pushing for one day. She stood. “Maybe someone could show me to the front door? I’m not sure if I know the way out anymore.”

“At least you’re learning. Hela, show her out.”

The way to the exit had not changed. “Thanks for sticking up for me back there,” said Janet.

“I suppose it was partly my fault you did what you did, with my talk of going out of your way to help. Don’t do anything like that again, though. See you tomorrow.”

“Right. Until tomorrow.” Janet pushed through the front doors and into the night.

Want to keep reading? Part 4 is here.