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Highly conscious of the phrase “sheep for the slaughter”, Septimus and Jaq step through the open doorway, over the door’s wide metal tracks, into the hallway on the other side.
Jaq goes right for the statue. The light in here is low, but not missing. Most of it is the sodium lights from the first room, spilling in. The statue shines slightly in the light, despite a thin collection of dust.
The statue’s face isn’t familiar. This woman was neither president nor celebrity. It’s average human height, on a small dais, leaving Jaq about a foot shorter. The coat has no markings, but the dais has a placard on it. She kneels to read the curiously small text, but it simply says “OUR FOUNDER”, with no name.
Septimus checks out the doors that lead off to left and right. They aren’t heavy blast doors - just wooden ones, on swinging hinges.
“Two options,” he says, looking at the signs over the doors, in three languages - Russian, English, and French. “Orientation, and Entry.”
“I’d say so.”
They take the left door. Inside there’s a switch on the wall - a normal lightswitch, not one of the heavy, lab-equipment style ones they’ve already seen. More sodium lights, these mostly intact. The hall is long, with framed photos on either side. Another pair of double wooden doors stand at the end. Jaq isn’t sure, but that might be a soft strip of light coming from under them.
“The place wasn’t left in a hurry,” Septimus thinks out loud. “They turned off the lights when they went. The house was just about cleared of stuff - except those files.”
“I don’t think those skeletons would agree with you.”
“Those were blast doors. Maybe there was an attack, they were told to evacuate, didn’t have the key to get in here, couldn’t get back upstairs?”
“Maybe,”Jaq says without commitment. She stops and looks at a photograph. A group of people wearing white clothes, dressed for heat. They’re all outside, lined up, smiling. One is holding a ball - probably a volleyball, but it’s hard to tell.
“This hallway is for show, not function. They’re showing off what a fun time you’ll have here. Nice wood panelling, photos of fun activities.”
“That woman,” Septimus says, behind her. “The statue woman. She’s in most of these.”
“Looks like the sixties” is Jaq’s answer.
They reach the room at the end. Rows of chairs face a projection screen on one side of the room. The projector is at the other end. A stack of film reels stand next to it, each labeled with a language. Jaq finds the one labeled with English, and they spend a hilarious ten minutes trying to make the projector work without breaking it or ripping the film strip.
Once it’s finally set up, they flick off the lights.
The voice is of a cheerful man, speaking very precisely. Not one letter of his narration is to be missed. The first visual is a black background, with a white circular grid in the center. Over this, in heavier white lettering, is that phrase again: R8.36.
“Welcome to Region eight, station thirty-six! You’re here because your superiors think you have what it takes to join in a special project to help us understand the world we inherited.”
The footage changes to a drawn map of Earth, divided into ten strips. It looks like a time zone map, but it doesn’t line up with one. One of the strips highlights, roughly in the middle of Asia, near but not touching Australia.
“Operatsiya Vodyrazum is divided into ten regions, and your site is one of fifty in Region 8!”
The audio was clearly made for all of region eight, but the footage is tailored to this one. A square appears in the Indian ocean, probably a hundred miles southwest of Australia. The square grabs that piece of ocean, and expands, fading to a black and white - the whole film is in grayscale - helicopter shot of the island.
“Operatsiya Vodyrazum is the brainchild of Professor Kuda Zloveschiy.”
The film switches to footage of the same woman in the photos, the same woman presented as a dour statue at the entry. She’s smiling, talking to men in lab coats, faces unseen.
“On a journey in the arctic, Professor Zloveschiy discovered something exceptionally strange - a temple carved straight from the ice, in a valley that should have been long buried by wind and snow. The curious geography of the area, however, had prevented that - leaving this temple open to face the world.”
Photographs of arctic exploration. Equipment, scientists, a few soldiers with guns. A wall of ice with a hexagonal opening used as a doorway. The wall is carved with runes of darker ice than surroundings.
“Core samples dated the ice of this temple to an age exceeding two hundred thousand years - meaning that the temple predated human life by an incredibly long time! The interior of the temple was mostly destroyed by cave-ins, but Professor Zloveschiy and her team discovered many writing samples.
“These samples were returned to Professor Zloveschiy’s home in Scotland, and, over several years, translated. They showed a wealth of information about a time long before human understanding.”
The footage changes to a painting of the cosmos.
“What does this have to do with you, soldier? We need brain-power! You have shown remarkable talents in terms of problem-solving and creativity, and now it’s time to turn you over to a new task. Your precise jobs will be assigned in the next part of your orientation, and are unique to each station, but you’ll be joining up with people like you from all over the world, from all sort of armies, to work on creating a better tomorrow!”
The screen fades to the beginning image - the globe. But instead of “R8.36”, the message is a long string of letters and numbers with no clear pattern.
Jaq closes the telescope—she watched the whole thing with it—and sighs.
“I may be none the wiser,” she says without gusto, “but I dare say I’m better informed.”
“It told us a little.”
“It told us there are a load of these stations, all over. This is probably a big facility.”
“What do you think the odds are that that temple was related to the things Curson was talking about?”
“This whole thing is called Operatsiya Vodyrazum. I’d call that a sure thing.”
As if on purpose, when Septimus says “Vodyrazum”, a clicking sound comes out of the ceiling. Panels pop open, and nozzles slide out of the panel. They begin to hiss, as if pushing some gas into the room.
Jaq and Septimus run to the doors, but the locks click into place, sealing the room. Septimus kicks at the doors, both of them trying not to breathe.
Then, Jaq realizes--
“Wait, Sep, calm down.” He keeps kicking, so she grabs his shoulder and pushes, making him turn to face the nozzles.
“I think they’re just pushing air. Or they’re empty. We’re still standing, there’s no smell.”
Jaq pulls the glass, and looks at the projector. She laughs, just a little, and passes the glass to Sep. Through it, mechanisms glow under the projector. He can only barely make them out, but there’s a clear process to it.
“The film finishes,” he says, “triggering a timer. Probably enough time for whoever’s doing the training to do a little speech, or put on their mask. Then, all the soldiers get gassed.”
“Lot of work for an execution, so it’s probably sleeping gas.”
“Lot of work for that, too, if this room is usually full. Maybe something to make them…” He searches for a word. “Pliant.”
“What say we check out more of the station?”
Going back the other way, the lighting in the next hall is less reliable. Only a couple of the sodiums shed any light, and half of those are intermittent.
The hallway is shorter, with two doors. One, on the same side of the room as the statue, is labeled “Offices”; the other, right at the end of the hall, is “Processing”.
“Choose your poison, muscles.”
Septimus considers the two doors. The office door is a single-width metal one, with a narrow window of reinforced glass, like in a public school. The other is a set of double doors that are unsecured - they simply hang free.
“Path of least resistance?”
Jaq nods. “For the sake of simplicity, let’s say this way is north,” then points to the office door. “So we’re heading east.”
They push on.
The processing room is about the same size as orientation, but the chairs are arranged in back-to-back rows. This room is more for containment than for use.
“Make them docile by gassing them in the other room,” Jaq suggests, “then set them here a spell.”
The chairs are metal, the floor is sheet vinyl. Two more doors head north.
Through those doors are small examination rooms. Cold and sterile. Mostly the tools look like they’re for physicals, but Septimus points out that each room has a set of knives, too, of various sizes. There are also forms - questionnaires, apparently.
Septimus reads through them.
“It isn’t, like, job interview stuff. It’s like an IQ test, but different.”
“Well, this question. ‘How many planets?’ Not even how many in the solar system, just...how many? And it isn’t multiple choice.””
“Okay, strange. I grant you that.”
“Looks like each question has a point value. You add them up, and the ground pounder you’re interviewing gets tossed in one group - A or B.”
“I thought they were supposed to have already been sorted. Elite units or some such.”
“Different kinds of elite, probably. In any organization - anything from a revolution to a government - you need two kinds of fighters. You need foot soldiers, yeah, but you also need the thinkers.”
“Generals and infantry.”
“Not even that. More like comparing a fencer to a bouncer. They’re both fighters, but their methods are totally different.”
“Okay. I get it - so everybody that came down here was elite. But some were berserkers, some were ballet dancers.”
“Exactly. Third metaphor’s the charm.”
“This seems like a lot of exposition without us finding what we need.”
“We won’t know what we need until we find it.”
“Sure. Right into the maw of the beast.”
They go forward.
After the examination rooms, the path forks again. Group A heads north, Group B heads to the east, then down a set of stairs.
Problem is, the roof has caved in - there’s no hall, and no stairs. Stone, wood, and metal fill the spaces. Jaq tries looking through the seeing glass, but there’s nothing. They spend a few minutes poking at rubble, trying to gauge the depth of the collapse, but it’s hopeless.
“Backward to go forward, then?”
“Oh boy,” Jaq says. “Abandoned offices. I hope there are no ghosts filing paperwork.”
When they open the office door, a haze of dust rises in the room, disrupted by the sudden exchange of air. The lights within are already on, but flickering. Their light on the dust makes for a warm glow.
Inside the door is a short hallway of wood and glass, with offices on either side. Beyond, the hall opens into a full room. The light shows rows of metal desks, but from this end they can’t tell what’s on those desks.
Stepping into the hallway, they’re assaulted by smell. The rest of this place has been sterile - or, if not sterile, at least neutral. It hasn’t smelled of bleach, but it hasn’t smelled of anything else, either. But this room has an air of dust and decay. Rotten eggs and molded protein.
They split up, each checking one side of the hallway offices. They have glass windows, obscured by dust. More propaganda posters decorate the walls of these offices. One that stands out to Septimus shows a forest of trees casting shadows. In the shadows, faded but visible, are soldiers in some old uniforms, certainly not the twentieth century. Maybe the seventeenth.
Each office has a metal desk that holds a typewriter. There’s a trash can, an inbox and outbox. A metal chair with a high back. One of the offices has a cushion on the chair.
Stepping out of the last office, Jaq - now close to the opening to the larger room - hears something. A soft shuffling, like a movement of paper on paper.
When Septimus returns to the hall, Jaq holds a finger over her mouth and points to her ear. Septimus listens for a moment before his eyes show recognition. He nods, and draws his pistol. Jaq lifts the luger she acquired (easier than the rifle, with her broken arm) and they walk into the room.
The desks are mostly empty. They aren’t single desks - each is two desks together, to make an L shape. One side of each has a typewriter, the other is open desk - for reading, or writing on.
One is not.
Against the wall to the left - West - is a painting of a cityscape, lit from above by a series of lights. They flash on, then plunge that half of the room into dark. A few seconds pass, the lights flash again.
Off, and on.
The flashes, in brief flares of intensity, reveal the third figure in the room. It was once a man, based on the clothing: a dull, faded suit and necktie. The suit is loose, and under it the skin hangs like sackcloth draped over a frame.
The face hangs, too. No muscles remain to support it. Just skin over bone. The nose lays dropped, the whole face sitting an inch or two below where it should. The eyes show only bone, and hang under a large, lumped brain that sits on top of the figure’s head, with two tentacles stretching down along the arms.
The shape is mottled pink and gray, though the pink areas are softer than they have been on the other such brains they’ve encountered. Arms dangle from the shape, and two tentacles run along the shoulders to the hands.
One hand is holding down a form. The other is wrapped around the small stub of a pencil. The human under the vodyrazum holds the pencil like a child who hasn’t learned to write.
It lifts hand from paper, and leans over to a metal waste basket beside the desk. It drops the pencil into the garbage, then draws another from inside the desk. This pencil is fresh, so the man(?) uses a desk-mounted pencil sharpener.
Then, he(?) reaches for another sheet of paper - but his(?) inbox is empty.
Septimus and Jaq watch the figure stand, guns trained on the wretch, but not ready to fire. It walks to a door near its desk. It opens the door and disappears into an office beyond. The thing moves without muscles for animation. It creaks, bone shifting against bone. Firewood wrapped in old leather.
Septimus and Jaq look at each other.
And keep looking.
Neither is sure what the hell to do.
After a long moment, Jaq’s curiosity draws her forward. She walks over to the man(?)’s desk, and looks at the stacks of paper. Some are set on the desk, but more piles are all around the desk, nearly obscuring it. A few are leaned up against the cityscape painting and are taller than she is.
Every one of them is the same form. The fields are in Russian, but the writing is in English. Jaq reads one sheet, tries not to think about what’s written, and passes it to Septimus as she looks at the desk. A nameplate reads “MARK PRITCHARD”.
Septimus steps forward with as little noise as possible. His boots make a little sound on the carpet, but the fabric is mostly intact.
He takes the sheet that Jaq’s holding out, and takes a look.
The form is fairly dull - some kind of patient intake. But every field has been filled in, all in the same handwriting, with four words.
“I Love You, Susan.”
Septimus starts to say something when the door to the office opens, and Mark Pritchard emerges, carrying a stack of papers in hand.
Mark stands in the doorway a moment. Its head moves side to side, taking in Jaq and Septimus.
It drops the paper, and opens its jaw to scream. But this gruesome puppetry comes across only as a movement of the skin, and the scream that comes is not from the mouth, but from the beak at the front of the brain. It’s a high squeal, piercing.
Then it runs at Jaq.
The thing—Mark Pritchard—vaults over his desk and lands on Jaq, knocking her to the ground. She manages to fire one shot at the thing. Pritchard’s suit ripples and a hole is torn in it, but there’s no other response. As the man/creature falls on top of her, the vodyrazum slams into her face, and Jaq’s nose breaks. She tastes blood.
Jaq’s back hits the floor and she groans, then cries out when the elbow of her broken arm hits ground. The vodyrazum’s tentacles peel away from Pritchard’s arms, and begin whipping about, seeking her hands. Pritchard’s hands, which have more strength than she ever would have guessed, grab her gun and throw it across the room.
The tentacles wrap around her wrists, and force them to the floor. She kicks, but the thing is strong - decades old, with nothing to feed on but Mark Pritchard, but this walking necrosis is stronger than should be possible.
Septimus fires several shots into Pritchard’s side, but there’s no response. So, he fires into the vodyrazum proper.
The beak opens and closes - Pritchard’s jaw shifting in unison - and a word comes out of both of them: “khozyain”.
Pritchard moves to grab for her face. He grabs her mouth and nose, and presses - she screams out in pain at the force applied to her already fucked cartilage.
A part of her brain screams for air, but she has to shut that part down. She can’t breathe, or she’ll get blood in her lungs. The thing isn’t even bothering to choke her, the blood will do that just fine. Pritchard simply has to hold her mouth shut and she’ll die.
Son of a drunken monkey’s dung! she thinks.
Her eyes threaten to shut, but before they do, white light rips through the room. Not the dirty yellow of the sodiums, but a brilliant radiance, ripping through the brain itself, as if the thing has been torn apart by the hand of God.
The beak, and the remains of the man below it, scream out in pain. The tentacles slacken, and Mark Pritchard sits back, wailing in agony. The vodyrazum’s arms and tentacles ripple as it dies.
Jaq breathes heavily through her mouth, gets to hands and knees, crawls away, not waiting for it to get a second wind.
Safely away, she turns and looks.
Septimus is standing there, the sword in his hands. It’s not just reflecting light, but producing it.
Jaq spits blood on the floor.