Chapter Seven: The Exposition Machines

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Curson’s head is finally beginning to clear. The farther he walks from the ruined buildings, and that blessed bell, the more he’s able to relax. The tension of his heart is fading, and the ring in his head is thinning.

Consecrated ground.

Curson doesn’t come across blessed sites often. One of the benefits of having settled in the Capitano islands is that for the most part everyone keeps to themselves, including the religious.

The edges of the island, now that the rain has ceased, are buried in mist. His head still ringing, Curson finds a large rock to sit on. This place reminds him of Ireland, but it doesn’t feel like Ireland. Is that a failure of knowledge, or a quirk of this place?

A sound. Something moving across the loose rocks that mingle with dirt and grass. He looks forward, and back. If there is a person, he should already know that, but this place, this situation have clouded his view, and that’s a deep problem.

This whole thing is - what’s the right word?

Unsettling.

The sound is close - he looks at the ground, and finds a slender strip of red, scuttling about, not too far away. It looks like a letter Y, a fork at one end, followed by a long trail. It has three pairs of short legs, and two pairs of wings.

The serpent, which has two heads, looks up at Curson with both of them, waiting for some acknowledgement.

“Valac?” Curson asks.

The serpent nods in unison with itself.

Curson stands, and the creature skitters away, toward the waterline.

The flash of red stays just far enough ahead to strain visibility. It never goes too far, but doesn’t slow down. The path descends to the waterline, then along the shore into a man-made cave. Offshore, towers of rain-slick stone glisten in occasional streaks of lightning. The same kinds of towers that brought down the plane. Amid them is a hulking gray shape, listing against two of the columns. It looks to have been there a long while.

A deep hole is carved into the the island, worked into the shape of a private port-slash-airstrip. Iron braces are placed every few dozen feet along the stone ceiling, which looks slick with condensation.

Running down one half of the cave is an airstrip in good repair. A few bumps or potholes, but no great degradation. At the distant end are a half-dozen ruined planes.

The other half is water. Dead boats float there, tethered to small docks. Some are simple sailboats, other are (slightly) larger, sturdier metal vessels with motors.

By the time he reaches the end of the airstrip, the mist has receded. Stacks of storage containers are strewn across the pavement. An observation tower, built against one wall, is leaning dangerously to the side, its base wounded by corrosion.

The airplanes scattered here are clearly not in working condition. Some are taken apart, one lays in total ruins up against the wall at the end, near metal doors. Guessing by the scorch marks on the strip, and the shadows of human forms within, that landing was not quite successful.

One of the planes, however, is in much finer condition. Two engines are built into the wings, which span around fifty feet. The craft is painted black with red highlights.

Sitting on the wing is a child. A white boy wearing a powder blue coat, with a mass of blonde curls. Folded on the boy’s back, but too large to be contained by his small form, are a pair of white, feathery wings.

When Curson and the serpent reach the plane, the serpent jumps a small jump, and begins to beat its wings furiously. It flies up to the boy, though its path wanders. Curson can’t tell if the movement is clumsy or exploratory.

The serpent lands in the boy’s lap, snuggles up, and the boy begins to pet it behind the front pair of wings. The serpent purrs.

“I wasn’t sure what kind of vessel your pet owned” the boy says. His voice is deep, like a large man vocalizing from a tremendous chest. “I hope this is close enough.”

“Near enough. You’re not here to take me back, then.”

“Certainly I am not the one they would send to bring you back.”

“Still not over it?”

“You killed my dragon.”

“You killed my dog.”

“You-”

“Why are you here, Valac?”

“War has begun.”

“There is always war.”

“Not in Hell.”

This makes Curson pause. Wars do not come to Hell, and they do not start there. For all their reputation, and despite the number of demons infatuated with the tools of war, Hell is a peaceful place.

Well, largely.

“What war?”

“Amdusias got greedy.”

“As has always been the case.”

“They declared themself king of the parliamentary spheres, and brought war on Abaddon.”

“What of Lucier?”

“Silence from Dis. No word has been sent, no action taken.”

Curson greets the news of silence with his own. Lucier, as the leader, has always been a fair king, even allowing two of the spheres - Abaddon and al-Nar - to abandon monarchy and establish parliaments, admittedly with the clear knowledge that they still serve Lucier. Lucier is, largely a hands-off ruler.

But Lucier has always stepped in before any strife turned to civil war. Stopped the fighting, and established a harmony among the spheres.

“Is it ended?”

“No. Belial is intervening. Most of us expected it to go swiftly, but the battle rages. Abaddon is razed. Millions of demons sent Outside. And still no word from Dis.”

“Razed?” Curson sits, cross-legged on the floor. “What of Ishiogo?”

“Untouched, so far. But the war rages, and the effects are already felt. The harmony has been disrupted. Have your powers been waning?”

“Yes.” No point in hiding it. “My knowledge is meant to be infinite, save when blocked by another demon. But I am going blind. This island, in particular, I can barely tell it’s here. Being reduced to eyes and ears is unsettling.”

“Aye. The vision of all demons has been limited, though that is not because of the harmonic disruption. It is, quite directly, Amdusias’ doing. That is why I’m here.”

Curson looks up, and notes what Valac said when he first arrived.

“Yes. The airplane. Why did you bring me an airplane?”

“To aid in his war, Amdusias has stolen the knowledge of summoning the vodyrazum, and hidden that knowledge from all demonia. But you, and your pets, are already investigating them.”

“So you’re here to encourage me to continue?”

“We believe that following the path you’re on will allow us to banish the vodyrazum from Hell.”

“So the entire point of you coming here is--”

“Is to tell you to keep doing what you’re already doing. But moreover, to help you understand the stakes. And to give you this.”

Valac draws a coin from his pocket, and throws it to Curson. The coin is metal, but the material is unfamiliar to Curson. Both sides are carved with the sigil of Belial.

“Should things become dire, give a gift to the coin, and summon a familiar. But be sparing. Even Belial has weakened, his power drawn off by the war, and reduced by the spheres’ disharmony.”

“So you’ve come here not just to tell me to keep doing what I’m already doing, but also to give me an ability I already possess? I’ve plenty of experience summoning familiars, Valac.”

“Not as good as Belial.”

That bit is indisputable. Curson pockets the coin, then looks back to Valac - but the boy with the wings is gone. Such is the way of demons. Curson stands and explores the hangar.

“Can you breathe? Through the nose I mean.”

Jaq is sitting at Mark Pritchard’s desk, leaning over it so blood doesn’t flow down her throat. The taste of blood is not new to Jaq, but she prefers it not to be her own, and this rather a lot of it.

She pulls the scrap of cloth away from her nose. It’s a bit of Sep’s T-shirt. He ripped off the sleeve before Jaq could do so with her own.

She inhales, winces, exhales.

“Technically, yes. But ow.”

“Fair enough.”

The vodyrazum on the floor gurgles. Septimus and Jaq look at it again. The thing has a blade-shaped hole in the side, but is still trying to move. Its tentacles are stuck to the carpet, pulling at it weakly. Now that the beast is no longer using Mark Pritchard as a host, the strength is gone. Muscles tense inside the rope-like tentacles, then fail again. The beak gnaws at air.

Septimus turns back to Jaq’s nose.

“It doesn’t look out of shape. Still bleeding?”

She touches a finger to her nostril, and winces again. WHen the finger pulls away, there’s a dusting of blood, but the red isn’t shining.

“Stopped. Or, stopping. You said you just found that sword?”

“Yeah, upstairs.”

“So, secret facility being run by a Russian scientist, tied to the impossible brains that have all of Hell up in a tizzy, and upstairs there just happens to be a magic blade that can harm the brains, which is nice, because guns are useless.”

“Thanks, Captain Exposition. I was there.”

“Shut up,” Jaq says, and stands.

“Whoa whoa, you need to sit and rest.”

“No,” is all Jaq says. She steps around the desk and goes to the vodyrazum on the ground.

“It said a word to me. Cozy...something.”

“Khozyain. It means host.”

“So it wanted to drop Mark Pritchard, and get a blonde upgrade. Try stabbing it. I want to see if this blade of yours can kill it, or just wound it.”

“I’m not sure killing it--” he starts to object, but the look Jaq gives him is enough to tell him ‘now is a bad time’. “You do it,” he says, and holds out the sword.

“Fine,” she says, and reaches for it. But when her hand touches the leather-wrapped grip, the blade of the sword flashes orange, and burns with heat. Jaq and Sep both pull their hands away, leaving the sword to drop to the ground. The sound is muffled by the carpet, but still seems decisive - as if the blade were set down, rather than dropped.

“Okay,” Jaq says, uncertainly.

Septimus picks up the sword with no trouble. Below it, the carpet is a singed, black silhouette of the blade.

“Maybe you’re not allowed to use it.”

“Why do you get the magic sword and I get a kalashnikov taken off a dead lobster?”

“Maybe it likes black guys.”

“I can’t tell if that was a sincere thought or you’re just being difficult, but I vote we move on to the next room.”

“You should really sit for a minute, let your nose rest. If it’s not out of place, you’ll heal up fine, but—”

“No,” she says, and goes to the next room, taking the leftmost of three doors along the north wall.

Of the three doors, the two on the sides turn out to be useless. One has suffered a cave in a few feet away from the door. The other is a supply closet - it was from this room that Mark Pritchard had gotten his pencils and papers. Guessing at the stock here, Pritchard could have kept working on those forms until the sky fell.

The third is an office. Septimus goes in first, while Jaq is checking out the supply closet, but she follows soon.

This office is the nice one - the boss worked here. A grand wooden desk, and a painting of some long gone general, arms folded and looking down. Septimus thinks the general looks pensive. To Jaq, she just seems bored. Both of them notice that she has a small resemblance to the woman that apparently founded the place, Kuda Zloveschiy.

It’s here than Jaq finds the tapes, while Septimus looks through the bookshelves that line the room.

“There’s a projector on this bookcase.”

“Which, and this is just a wild guess, is probably paired with these.” Jaq lifts a box onto the desk. It isn’t very large, but holds about two dozen reels of film, each in a metal canister.

“Film. They’re all labeled, English and Russian.”

Each takes a handful of the small canisters, and look at the labels.

“Dealer’s choice. I’ve got oh-one: introduction.”

“Other end: forty-three. Cessation of operations.”

“Ominous. This one just says ‘fire’.”

“‘Natural disaster’, and…” she trails off, trying to read the faded writing on the next one. “Ooh, fun. ‘Mutiny.’”

“Shall we fire up the projector?”

“You know, I think that might be wise.”

01 - Introduction.

Kuda Zloveschiy is centered in the frame, sitting behind a wooden desk. Behind her are windows that show a London skyline. There’s rain, but the microphone only barely picks it up.

“Hello,” she says. Her accent is Russian, but not very thick, like she’s been trained away from it by circumstance. “Congratulations on your promotion, and welcome to Operation Vodyrazum, a multinational, privately funded project aimed at helping the world be a better place. As the new Section Head of your site, you are entitled to much information that is vital to the future of the Operation.

“Tapes one through ten explore the origin of the project. Tape eleven gives an overview of your site’s responsibilities within the project. This information is supplemented in the documents you will receive once you’ve gotten established in your assignment. The remainder of the tapes provide instructions about how to handle emergencies that occur with the project. The final tape, forty-three, indicates your own responsibilities when the project ends.

“For now, welcome.”

 

02 - Operational Beginnings through 08 - First Contact Attempts.

These tapes are degraded beyond the point of functionality.

 

09 - Contact made.

Zloveschiy sits at the same desk. Her hair has been let down, and she has a cigarette in one hand. She’s leaning back in the desk, clearly having been recording for some hours.

“After the second year of failed attempts,” she says, “my backers were ready to pull the plug. Frankly, I couldn’t blame them. In their eyes, all I had done was show them a tablet from the arctic, with some ritual of conjuration written on it. My failures meant they had no reason to believe the tablet was even real. Even Umbra, the only financiers who truly believed in the supernatural, were starting not to answer my calls.

“Inspiration came on Bonfire Night. The images of burning straw men made me realize that the simple leap had to be made. We had determined that the sacrificial matter had to be organic, and that it had to be burned, but nothing we tried seemed to move the spell forward.

“I hypothesized that perhaps the organic matter had to be not just animal, but human.

“I will spare you the details, but I obtained, through certain connections in Broadleaf House, fresh human ashes, no more than a few hours old. I would have preferred more fresh material, but it would suffice.

“That night, this operation was born. I summoned the first of them, the vodyrazum. That’s what they call themselves - perhaps a happy coincidence, but the word is a compound of two Russian ones. Broken down, it translates as ‘water mind’. This follows, as they seem to prefer aquatic environments.

“Thorough observations are available in your Work Instruction manual.”

 

10 - Arguments for Continuation

Tape degraded.

 

11 - Your Site’s Mission

A new day. The Professor is wearing a different outfit, and the rain has stopped.

“Region…” she pauses, and consults a paper on the desk in front of her. “Region eight.

“Region eight is tasked with providing the raw materiel for the summoning of the vodyrazum. Eventually, our war will begin, and we will need soldiers.

“As such, region eight takes all recruits and divides them into two types, based on mental faculties. This is not a test of intelligence, it is a test of compatibility. Potential sacrifices are asked a series of questions. A high score indicates that the subject has a mind compatible with the vodryazum. These subjects will act as hosts for the smaller of the vodyrazum. Subjects scoring eighty or lower are moved to the sklep.”

She pauses, noticing something behind the camera. A person speaking, perhaps.

“Apologies. Subjects scoring eighty percent or lower are moved to the, uh” - she looks back at the person behind the camera - “the charnel house. These subjects are incinerated, the ashes are collected and preserved, and sent to processing houses. Details are in your Work Instructions.”

 

12 - Flood through 42 - Acts of War.

Tapes degraded or irrelevant.

 

43 - Cessation of Operations.

Another new day. She sits behind the desk, with a fresh smile. The rain is back, but she doesn’t seem to mind.

“In the end,” she says, “the project will end. This could happen for any number of reasons. But one day, when you wake up, you will check the numbers station, and you will hear those magic words: ‘Come Home’.

“When the project is complete, you will abandon your site, transporting all vital workers and materiel to Site Prime. Details of travel are in your work instruction.

“One day, we will all meet at Site Prime. I look forward to it.

“Proshchay.”

She mimes holding a glass, and makes a toast.

“It’s all here,” Jaq says, reading from a fat binder that was in the desk. “Like she said. Directions for everything. Itemized lists to tell you what to bring and what not to.”

“So, is there a way out?”

“Somewhere under the island there’s a hangar that doubles as a pier.”

“How do we get there?”

“That’s here too,” she says, flipping to another section of the binder. “It caught my eye. Here we go. There’s a major freight elevator, but it’s stuck in the section of the complex that was caved in.”

“Great, so, we get to climb back up and just walk the island perimeter?”

“Each of the bosses on the project had their own secret exits. For smoke breaks, I assume. The book says the switch is in the bookshelf, but it doesn’t say exactly which.”

They each go for one of the bookshelves. A few statues, and various decorations are also present on the shelves, but they start with the books. Septimus pulls each one almost totally off the shelf. Then, when it doesn’t do anything, he replaces.

Jaq is just ripping books off of the shelves.

They each freeze when a low concussion ripples through the room, each assuming they found the switch. There’s no secret door or moving furniture, though, so they keep searching.

The floor shakes again, though.

“Did you feel—”

“Definitely not.”

But they stop moving, and look at each other, then around. The room shakes again. The motion is coming from the office room on the other side of the door.

Footsteps. Heavy-duty industrial-grade footsteps. And each is getting stronger.

They close in on the door, Septimus drawing the sword and holding it in front of him.

“Do me a favor,” Jaq says, stepping in front to get to the door. “Don’t hit me with that sword.”

She steps through the door and Septimus follows. They raise their weapons and split, covering the room as quickly as they can, keeping their eyes on the hall. Septimus moves to lean on the wall near the door, to jump whatever’s approaching. Jaq waits near the middle of the room.

The figure - moderate height, human-shaped - walks through the far door and between the offices. When she steps out into the the light, Septimus and Jaq are both prepared to attack.

But, and this is to their credit, neither of them immediately strike the walking statue wearing a suit of armor.

“Who are you?” asks the statue of Kuda Zloveschiy.