Part 1

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Rebecca Collins stood in line with the other physicists, marveling at the stars that glittered on the portal. It was hard to believe such tiny constellations had been contained, imbued within mahogany—destined to flicker like trapped fireflies until their eventual extinction. Then what next? Another constellation fitted in like a new light bulb? No wonder many newspapers were calling it The House of Horrors—one could lose one's mind in the permutations even before the front steps had been breached. 

She tried to remember again what the guide book had said, the protocols of behaviour and the questions expected from her university. It all seemed very simple: fall in line with the other academics, join the tour, ask questions, be marveled. She expected some surprises but it remained to be seen whether the effects would be the intended ones.

She had a distaste for magic. From the moment the department had picked her as their representative, she knew she must be strong and resolute against the Leadership's attempts to intimidate her. Everything was ephemeral, she told herself—even a universe disguised as an amusement park. 

Her bad luck began when a young bespectacled girl leached on to her at the airport. Before Rebecca had a chance to step out of the airplane, Kalita O'Leary, from Dover University, was intrusively shaking her hand and dispensing advice. From the terminal ride to the House of Change's site, Rebecca endured the girl's incessant chatter:

'It was difficult for me to make this decision,' Kalita said as they fell in line with the rest of the crowd.  'When the invitation arrived, my department had to choose between myself and my dear friend Wendy. And the matter, in the end, came down to Wendy's parents being struck down with ozone cancer and desperately needing her attention. So, here I was, winning the chance of a lifetime because of someone else's misfortune. I had a friend at university whose parents were in an almost identical situation...'

On and on she prattled until Rebecca was composing sub-atomic equations in her mind to drown out the belligerent voice.

Once the bus reached its final stop, the weary travellers took a few minutes to snap photos of the looming House of Change over the Yorkshire Moors before joining the line up. The slow-moving line snaking up the hill only added to Rebecca's suspicion that it was going to be a bad day.  Although the line up was made up of hundreds of academics, the reception hall accomodated no more than thirty people. Rebecca supposed that such a house would have endless rooms to receive all of them. As discreetly as possible, she squeezed herself between Kalita and a garlic-smelling septuagenarian from Edinburgh.

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