The Born Storyteller
Writer | Editor | Writing Coach
The Siren Stopped in Twin Lakes
© Isabella Bailey 2019
All rights reserved.
CONTENT WARNING: THE FOLLOWING STORY CONTAINS STRONG LANGUAGE AND SCENES OF VIOLENCE. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION.
Just outside Fairplay, Colorado
I was supposed to have the day off.
That was the first thought to go through Bryan Gilbert’s mind when his phone lit up on the bedside table, its shrill alert tone fracturing the fog of sleep and dragging him, kicking and screaming, into the morning.
The second was, It’d better not be another plumbing problem. I just fixed the damn sump pump.
He fumbled for his phone, wiping the sleep crust out of his eyes, and read the message. It was from Stout. How soon can you get down here? We’ve got a situation.
Not a plumbing problem, then. Whatever it was, it wasn’t good; that much was obvious by virtue of the hour alone. Gilbert tapped out a response—Just woke up, give me an hour or two—before flinging away the blankets and hauling himself into a sitting position.
Stout’s reply came a moment later, again heralded by that ear-splitting whistle that made him want to chuck his phone across the room. Not good enough. Need to come ASAP. Matheson already on the way. Major shit, can’t say more. There was a brief pause, followed by another message: It’s a cleanup thing.
A cleanup thing.
In the years that Gilbert had been a janitor at the Rocky Mountain Tactical Research Institute, those were, ironically, three words he’d started to think he would never have to hear.
“It’s just an extra precaution, really,” the recruiter had told him when he was first interviewing for the job. “Sort of a failsafe. To protect the Department, you know? Jeez, that makes it sound really sleazy,” she’d added, fixing him with those big doe eyes and a smile that wormed its way into his chest. “Look, it’s above board, okay? But as long as places like this exist, there’ll always be investigative journalists sniffing around. If something does happen, we just wanna keep the busybodies away, you understand?”
Gilbert had smiled back and nodded, saying that yes, he understood perfectly. He didn’t bother to wonder just what kind of something she meant, or why anything that happened at the RMTRI would warrant an investigation in the first place. That had all seemed secondary at the time. He’d broken out the old rose-colored specs that day, sidetracked by the cushy salary, full benefits, and employer-sponsored apartment with a great view of the Rockies. And as uneventful weeks became uneventful months, maybe he had gotten a little too comfortable. He’d never bothered to think much about how easy his work was for what he was making, or how little he really knew about the kind of research that went on in large portions of the facility.
Gilbert stood up, flipped on the light, and plucked his uniform out of the haphazard pile of dirty clothes in the corner of the room. No obvious stains, and it passed the sniff test. Good enough. He changed, zipping his substantial paunch into his coveralls like a sausage into a casing, and glanced out the window with weary eyes. The first amber light was already illuminating the world outside, throwing the Mosquito Range into sharp relief. Today was going to be a hot one.
U.S. Highway 24, Lake County, Colorado
By the time Gilbert passed through the town of Granite, the sun had risen all the way and was beating relentlessly down on him through the windows of his Altima. The idea of the return trip in this thing after it had been baking in the heat for hours wasn’t something he relished, but then again, neither was any of this.
As he was wont to do during these long commutes, he found himself thinking too much. While normally it was about something trivial, like whether he’d made a fool of himself in front of the cute barista at Corpus Coffee, today it was the job.
It was never the job.
The last time he’d had to slog over to the facility during the daytime was months ago, and that had been for a routine emergency drill. Now his mind spun with questions: Who else had been called in? Did he really remember all the different protocols? Above all, what was it that needed cleaning up in the first place?
If you asked the average Twin Lakes resident what went on all day up in that big building in the foothills, they probably would have shrugged and said something about government-backed weapons development. As far as Gilbert could tell, this was correct. They—the ever-elusive they, those faceless people in high places—were always trying to make things more intuitive, more automated, more accurate, more deadly. Wasn’t that reason enough for them to want to be left alone in their top-secret laboratory, away from society’s prying eyes? He wasn’t under any illusions that the government’s activities were all, as the oh-so-charming recruiter had put it, “above board”. So why shouldn’t this be anything more than some lab technician getting taken out by a malfunctioning assault rifle, or a nosy reporter who got a little too gung ho—clean up the evidence, dispose of the remains, and be home before dinner?
As he veered west, Gilbert found himself thinking back to a conversation he’d had with Powell, one of one of the other crewmen, during his first night on the job. This was just after he’d been shooed away from the door to Lower Level 1 by an uppity researcher who couldn’t have been that long out of grad school. Gilbert had returned to the equipment closet, tail between his legs, trash bag still in hand, and asked Powell how the hell he was supposed to change the garbage downstairs if they weren’t letting the cleaning crew in.
“You’re not,” Powell had replied from where he was leaning against a stack of crates. “Only senior crewmen are allowed down there.”
“That’s a bit much, isn’t it?” Gilbert asked. “What do they think we’re gonna do? Steal something?”
“I don’t think they’re worried about theft,” said Powell. “I think it’s just too dangerous.”
Gilbert frowned, unsatisfied, as he stripped off his gloves. “What are they even working on down there?”
“We’re not supposed to know,” his colleague replied. After a moment’s hesitation, Powell straightened up. “I’ve heard rumors, though.”
“What kinds of rumors?”
Powell stole a glance at the door. “Crazy shit,” he replied. “Brain stuff. I heard a guy ended up down there by mistake once, and when he came out, he couldn’t remember his own name.”
“Right. Sure. So, what, like MKUltra or something?”
“Like MKUltra on steroids.”
The seriousness with which Powell said this had been almost comical, prompting a snort from Gilbert. He imagined every place like this had its share of stories—a friend of a friend said they were cloning people in the basement of Los Alamos!—and they were likely all a crock of shit. It was never something that exciting in real life.
As the newness of the job had worn off, along with the glamor of telling people he worked at a high-security government laboratory, Gilbert had managed to put his curiosity out of his mind. Don’t ask, don’t tell, and all that. He was getting paid regardless; all the better if he didn’t have as many bathrooms to clean. The other kind of cleaning had begun to seem like such a remote possibility that he was even starting to feel like he’d gotten away with something. Now, however, he found himself wondering again, this time with more than a touch of unease.
A burst of music from the passenger seat nearly made him jump out of his skin. His phone was ringing, Lloyd Stout’s name flashing on the screen. Gilbert swore and pulled over, putting his hazards on. What a ball-breaker. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he fumbled his phone to his ear. “This is Gilbert.”
“Gilbert.” There was a distinct edge to the janitorial supervisor’s voice. “What’s going on?”
“I could ask you the same thing.” He winced even as the words came out. Don’t sass this guy, for the love of god. “I’m on my way to the facility, like you asked.” And I still have no clue why you called me in.
“Right.” Stout cleared his throat. “Yes. How far out are you?”
“Maybe fifteen minutes, give or take,” answered Gilbert. When Stout didn’t reply, he pressed on, shifting in his seat. “I wasn’t supposed to come in today, so—”
“Yes, well,” Stout interrupted, “that’s why I’m calling. You can turn around. The situation is under control.”
“What do you…” Gilbert faltered, swallowed, and tried again. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. You want us to go home?”
“Yes, that’s right. You can go on home.”
“Matheson too?” He truly didn’t want to imagine what kind of mood his colleague would be in when he found out he’d been dragged out of bed for nothing.
There was a long pause. “Yes.”
Gilbert pressed his lips together. His gut was urging him to end the call and do as he was told. If he turned around now, he could be back in time to beat the rush at Lou’s Diner, and he wouldn’t have to deal with another second of Stout’s hot air. His head, however—perhaps the same part that had been ruminating the entire way up here—drowned it out, and Gilbert listened. “I’m sorry, sir,” he began, hoping he sounded more at ease than he felt, “I’m a little confused. What happened at the facility?”
He was expecting Stout to pull rank, mention security clearance, and tell him to eff off. Instead, his supervisor replied, “There was a small incident — a containment issue. The day shift is taking care of it. No need for you to…” His voice gave way to silence.
For a moment Gilbert wondered if the line had gone dead. “Sir?”
It was another second before Stout responded, sounding somehow far away. “Yes?”
“No need for us to…?”
“Actually,” Stout said slowly, “on second thought, I think maybe you guys should come in. We may need you after all.”
Way to go, genius. “I… Okay.”
“Let me know when you get here.”
Stout hung up without waiting for a reply, leaving Gilbert frowning at his phone. He put it down and eased his car back onto the road, telling himself it was all fine as he switched on the radio and began to mindlessly cycle between stations. His stomach felt suddenly tight.
There had been something he didn’t like in Stout’s tone. He’d never cared for the man, but the one thing his superior had always been was decisive, on the ball to a fault. Why start second-guessing now? And if the onsite cleaning crew was already taking care of the problem, then why summon the night shift in the first place?
A small incident.
A containment issue.
Gilbert turned off the radio.
Rocky Mountain Tactical Research Institute, Main Entrance
He was sweating when he entered the Twin Lakes Wilderness Area, doing twenty in the Altima as he bounced along the washboard roads and wishing, not for the first time, that he hadn’t decided to wait to have his tires changed. The Institute was a squat gray building in a leveled-out lot off one of the side roads. It stood beyond several hundred yards’ worth of RESTRICTED AREA signs, which were so choked by the dense foliage that the words were hard to make out.
Usually the front gate opened for him automatically, but the bar remained lowered when Gilbert approached. He jiggled the fob they’d given him on his first day, but the barrier still didn’t lift. Another try—nothing.
Mopping his brow with his sleeve, Gilbert pulled up to the guard station and rolled his window down. “Hello?” he called, leaning out into the July morning. “Anyone there?”
A breeze stirred the hot air, making the trees shudder and rustle their leaves. A bird shrieked. There was no response from the guard station.
Maybe this made sense, he told himself. Maybe the guard was in the facility, helping sort out whatever had happened.
But why leave his post?
Gilbert pulled over, shut off the engine, and hauled himself out of the car. He gave the guard station window a halfhearted tap as he approached, not expecting much. No reply came, and a glance inside yielded nothing of interest. Just an empty booth.
Bracing himself for the sound of blaring alarms, Gilbert squatted—no small feat for a man his size—and limboed under the barrier.
Where was everyone? After an accident in this place, he would have expected a lot full of armored trucks, Department vehicles, and maybe even a helicopter or two for good measure. Instead, there was only a handful of cars, alongside a pair of menacing black vans belonging to the onsite security team.
As he approached, the door of a nearby pickup truck swung open and Henry Matheson, who had been on the janitorial crew approximately since dinosaurs roamed the earth, stepped out. “He arrives at last,” he proclaimed, clapping Gilbert on the shoulder with a bony hand. “Took you long enough.”
“I was sound asleep two hours ago,” Gilbert fired back. “This wasn’t exactly how I planned on spending my day off.”
“Yeah, cry me a river,” his coworker said, but there was a half-smile on his face. Gilbert had always liked Matheson. A genuine, no-bullshit kind of guy. Despite his seniority, he never acted like anything other than what he was: just another crewman.
“Where is everyone?” Gilbert asked, the tension in his gut easing slightly.
“Stout said he was bringing in a few others to help with the cleanup,” Matheson replied. “As for everyone else, your guess is as good as mine.”
“Who else is coming?”
“Ridley and Davidson should be on their way, if they’re not here already… although why they’d go in without waiting for us, I have no idea.” He pulled his walkie-talkie from his utility belt. “Matheson for Stout. What’s your twenty?”
Gilbert shifted nervously where he stood, his eyes drifting back over to the empty guard station. The tension was back in full force.
Matheson exhaled loudly. “Matheson for Stout. Do you copy?”
A moment passed before their supervisor’s garbled voice broke the silence. “Stout for Matheson. I copy.”
“I’ve got Gilbert with me, but Ridley and Davidson aren’t here. Please advise.”
Another long pause. “Start without them,” Stout replied at last. “Do a sweep of the ground floor. Clean up where you can, and then report to Lower Level 2. It’s a real mess down here.”
Unable to hold his tongue anymore, Gilbert groped for his own radio. “Gilbert for Stout. I’m not supposed to go down there.”
For a few sweet seconds, he actually dared to hope Stout would send him away. His heart sank when his supervisor’s reply came through: “Consider yourself authorized.”
“Roger that,” Matheson interrupted before he could protest. “We’re on our way.” Pocketing his radio, he raised an eyebrow at Gilbert. “Nice try.”
“Can you blame me?” Gilbert asked as they approached the entrance, his voice thin with anxiety. “It must be bad if he’s willing to let me go downstairs.”
“Hey, take it easy,” Matheson said, coming to a stop before the front doors. “The Department guys have already been called in, so don’t go getting all twitchy on me now. We’re just here to clear mop up.”
Gilbert sucked in a breath. “Right.”
Matheson swiped his key card, tried the door handle, and swiped again.
“Did he call you while you were on your way here?” Gilbert asked after a moment's hesitation.
“Stout?” Matheson frowned down at the keypad. “No. Why?”
“I was like fifteen minutes out when I heard from him,” Gilbert explained. “He said to forget it and go home, but then he changed his mind.”
Matheson looked up from his pocket, where he was digging for his keys. “Really?”
“I didn’t hear a peep from him,” said Matheson. “You’d think he would have called me first…” He trailed off, his eyes narrowing. Another warm breeze rippled through the clearing, tugging at their clothes and ruffling their hair.
Gilbert scuffed his boot against the gravel. “Matheson?”
His superior shook himself. “Sorry. Just thinking. Let’s go.” He pulled his keys from his pocket and jammed one into the manual lock below the keypad. “Millions of dollars in funding and they can’t even get a working keycard system,” he muttered, shoving the door open, and the two men stepped into the facility.
Rocky Mountain Tactical Research Institute, Ground Floor
Reception was empty. Matheson flipped the light switch to no avail. “Guess that explains the door,” he said. “The power’s out. We’re gonna have to check the fuse box.”
Gilbert took a doubtful glance around the room. “It looks pretty clean. Maybe the others already came through.”
Matheson grunted. “They could at least be bothered to meet us up here. Idiots.” He frowned. “And where the hell is Kendra?” Leaning over the reception desk, he called into the break room just beyond. “Hello?”
“Empty,” Gilbert observed, peering over his supervisor’s shoulder. There was no one in the lounge, although a whiff of French roast told him the coffee on the counter had been brewed recently. “Maybe they sent her home.”
Matheson turned away, but Gilbert lingered, his eyes slipping down to the reception desk. One of the drawers was open, rows upon rows of documents jutting out. Next to the keyboard sat a manila folder, a sticky note pasted to the front. The words “Call Allied re...” were scrawled on it, the writing abruptly trailing off. Gilbert looked back up at Matheson, who was staring into the main hallway. “This whole thing feels off.”
“You don’t say,” Matheson replied, and stepped away from the doorway.
There was a body at the end of the hall.
Gilbert’s hand flew to his mouth. “Matheson…”
His colleague approached the corpse, leaving Gilbert to trail along behind him on legs that felt like jelly. It was Kendra, although with her head twisted nearly all the way around, one could be forgiven for not immediately recognizing her. Her limbs were splayed out, and upon leaning down, Gilbert noticed blood caked under her fingernails. He staggered back, his mouth opening and closing. A low moan escaped him, his gorge rising.
Matheson stood up. “Easy, Gilbert, easy,” he said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Just take a breath. We’re going to handle this.”
“We… We need to get out of here,” stammered Gilbert. “Kendra—what the hell happened? Where’s security? I can’t...”
He tried to back up further, but Matheson’s grip tightened. “Just take a breath,” he repeated. “Don’t look.”
“Let me go,” Gilbert protested, his ears ringing as panic seized him. “We need to get out of here. Whoever did this—”
“Gilbert, you need to relax.”
“Like hell!” Gilbert retorted, wrenching free and stumbling back a step. The empty guard station was flashing in his mind like a neon sign. “We need to leave. Call the cops, wait for the Department—”
“Stop.” Matheson positioned himself in front of Gilbert, grabbing his shoulders again. His watery gray eyes didn’t reveal much, but he continued to speak in a low, urgent voice. “We can’t call the cops. Do you understand?”
His throat thick with fear, Gilbert shook his head.
“Why do you think this place has private security?” Matheson persisted. “Bryan, listen to me. We can’t call the cops because they can’t know about what’s happening here.”
With his view of the body obstructed, Gilbert's thoughts began to straighten out, but not by much. “Huh?”
“Our job isn’t fixing doors and scrubbing toilets, okay?” Matheson raised his voice, and something in his tone—a flash of genuine fear buried beneath the frustration—made Gilbert shut up. “That’s what they say our job is! But you know that's not the real reason we're here. We're here to clean up after them when stuff like this happens, so that no one outside ever finds out what they’re doing.”
“I know that,” Gilbert snapped, "but I didn’t sign up for—”
“Yes. You. Did.” He was practically shaking Gilbert’s shoulders. “We all did. We sold our souls to these guys, and now they’ve come to collect. Do you get that?”
Gilbert swallowed, his eyes still wide. He felt like a little kid, on the morning of a test he hadn’t studied for. “Yes.”
Matheson leaned in close enough for Gilbert to smell the cigarettes on his breath. "And what do you think will happen to us if we go blabbing to the cops about anything we see in this place? What do you think will happen if we do anything except clean up?”
Gilbert was unable to respond.
All those NDAs. The background checks. The apartment and the car. The wealth of information they had on him, on his family, his friends, his friends’ friends…
His mouth fell open. The penny had finally dropped, all the way from the top of Mount Elbert, it seemed.
“They’ll clean us up,” Matheson finished, relinquishing his grip on Gilbert’s shoulders. “That’s what will happen.” He returned to Kendra, leaving Gilbert to watch him, shoulders slumped.
“That can’t be…”
“Legal?” Matheson snorted but didn't turn around. “They said the same thing about GITMO.”
Gilbert fell silent, his breath coming in low bursts and his blood freezing in his veins. Was this how a mouse felt, cheese in hand, in the moment before the trap snapped shut?
“What should we do about…?” he asked, gesturing weakly at the corpse.
Matheson spared the former receptionist a last glance and then rounded the corner, heading in the direction of the supply closet. Feeling disconnected from his body, Gilbert drifted after him. He was afraid of what awaited them, but the next corridor was empty, as quiet and sterile as if there weren’t a dead woman lying less than a hundred feet away.
The closet was cramped, but it contained everything they needed. Enzyme solution, brushes, gloves, aprons, towels, and plastic sheeting were all neatly lined up on the shelves, tucked away behind a mountain of trash bags and toilet paper rolls. After loading their supplies onto a cart, the two janitors returned to the body and got to work without further fanfare.
Silence pressed in on them from every angle as they spread a tarp on the floor and set Kendra’s body down on top of it. Gilbert’s movements were rote, mechanical, the motions filtering back to him from crisis training drills that now seemed ages away. He was afraid to examine the corpse too closely, but he found himself looking anyway, wondering how deeply she must have scratched in order to have drawn blood. It came as a relief when they rolled up the tarp like a carpet, putting it on the cart and wheeling it off to the twin chutes by the side entrance. The one on the left was marked GARBAGE, and the one on the right was marked INCINERATOR. Grunting, Matheson pulled open the latter, and they wordlessly relinquished the body, watching as it disappeared into darkness. All that was left now was to scrub the scene, which they accomplished in silence, the smell of industrial cleaner stinging their nostrils.
Gilbert couldn’t think of anything to say as they snaked their way around the ground floor, trudging past darkened offices, their footsteps echoing obscenely on the linoleum. Most of the doors stood ajar, revealing papers scattered across desks, chairs that had been pulled out, and filing cabinets that hadn't been closed. A burst of bubbles rising from a water cooler by the bathrooms made him jump, but otherwise, the place was quiet. Deathly so.
They found two more bodies near the conference room, as well as one caught between the elevator doors, and gave them the same treatment they had given Kendra. Wrap, jettison, clean. Rinse and repeat. These other corpses were equally mangled, already growing stiff in the stagnant air, and Gilbert was huffing and puffing by the time they had wrangled them all into the chute. All the while, the thought of the Department hung over him like a shroud.
Their next stop was the electrical room, where Matheson pulled open a metal panel, examined a row of circuit breakers, and tripped a few of them. Nothing. “Shit,” he muttered, running a hand through his thinning hair. “Looks like we’re taking the stairs.”
“The others...” began Gilbert.
Matheson waved him off. “You heard Stout. They’re not our problem. This floor might as well be abandoned.” He shut the panel and sidestepped around Gilbert, taking a disinterested look at his watch as he exited the room. “I’m more worried about the Department, if I’m being honest.” He pursed his lips, that same queer expression he’d worn outside returning to his face. “Whatever happened must’ve gone down in the basement.”
“Maybe they’ll tell us more once we’re down there,” Gilbert suggested, not sure whether he believed it.
"Yeah," Matheson agreed. "Maybe." He slowed as they approached the door to the stairwell, which was plastered with a glaring AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY notice. “Yeah,” he agreed at last. “Maybe.” He flicked on his radio. “Matheson for Stout. Ground floor is clear. We’re proceeding to the lower levels.”
Squaring his shoulders, the older janitor unlocked the door, throwing it open and stepping through without checking to see if his overweight underling was following.
Gilbert watched his colleague disappear into the darkened stairwell, a cold, hard lump of fear forming in the pit of his stomach. The doorway loomed before him like a gaping maw, and his mind kept returning to Kendra. There was no shaking the image of her sprawled on the floor, her bloody hands testament to the last desperate fight she’d put up before having her neck twisted like an empty tin can.
Squeezing his eyes shut, Gilbert brought an unsteady hand up to the back of his neck. He didn’t want to go down there. He didn’t want to follow this story any further than he already had. Fantasies of sleep, booze, and busty waitresses had long since fled his mind. He just wanted to get as far away from this place as he could, to start driving and not stop until he reached the Pacific.
You know it’s too late for that, came a voice in his head, cynical and pragmatic. You heard Matheson. It was too late for that the minute you walked through the front door today. Hell, it was probably too late for that the minute you took the job. That 401(k) still sound like a sweet deal, Bryan?
He opened his eyes. The sound of Matheson’s footsteps was receding, and would soon be eaten by the silence of the building. Sucking in a breath, he looked down the hallway toward the row of large windows against the far wall. The morning sun was streaming through with enthusiasm, throwing a glare so bright that it made his eyes water.
Gilbert dragged his gaze away, unable to shake the feeling that this would be the last light he would see for a very long time, and followed Matheson into the basement.
Rocky Mountain Tactical Research Institute, Lower Level 1
He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting when Matheson, barely more than a silhouette in the blackness of the stairwell, pulled open the downstairs door. Bodies everywhere? Blood spattered on the walls? An armed shooter lurking in the doorway? The ten seconds or so he’d had to catch up with his supervisor had been enough to conjure up plenty of horrendous scenarios.
He was so caught up in his nerves, bracing himself for some creepy-crawler to come springing out of the shadows, that it took him several seconds to register that he could see again. Matheson had switched on his flashlight.
“You know what I just realized?” he said, not looking at Gilbert as they started forward.
HIs colleague nodded down at the floor. “No emergency lighting.”
“Did they forget to turn it on?”
“It turns on automatically,” the other janitor replied, his voice deafening in the silence of the hallway. “If it’s out, that means the batteries are dead. They’re supposed to run for at least ninety minutes.”
“So whatever happened here happened more than ninety minutes ago.”
And still nobody around. Empty vans in the parking lot. Gilbert pressed his lips together and continued forward.
Even with limited light, it was clear they were getting into the Serious Business section of the facility. Where upstairs there had been offices, drinking fountains, and conference rooms, here he could make out more of what Powell might have referred to as “crazy shit”. Shooting galleries. Darkrooms. Chambers jammed with equipment he couldn’t identify if his life depended on it.
“Have you ever been down here before?” he asked Matheson as they approached the end of the hall.
“A few times.”
Gilbert was halfway to asking him what he knew about what they did down here, but thought better of it at the last second. He wasn’t sure he really wanted to know.
“This section’s clear,” Matheson announced as they reached the intersection. “The others must’ve—”
In that instant he was pulled around the corner.
His flashlight flew out of his hand and clattered to the floor, its beam thrashing around wildly as it spun on the linoleum. A split second later, there came a grunt of pain. Gilbert cried out, his heart plunging to his gut as he rounded the corner. Before him, two figures were grappling, cloaked in darkness. Indistinct shouts reverberated through the corridor.
“Get off!” That was Matheson.
Another voice responded, one that Gilbert recognized even through his panic. “Where the fuck did you come from, huh? This floor is clear, so where the fuck did you come from?”
“Davidson, stop! What are you doing?!”
“Shut your mouth! Just shut your mouth and go down!”
“Gilbert, the flashlight,” Matheson cried. There was another grunt, and the distinct thud of something—maybe a body—hitting a hard surface.
Realizing he’d been frozen in place, Gilbert lunged forward and scrambled for the torch. Adrenaline was making him shake, and he almost fumbled it as he raised it, pointing the beam in the direction of the commotion. Just ahead of him, Anthony Davidson was slamming Matheson repeatedly against the wall. Matheson had his hands up in an attempt to shove him off, but he was no match for Davidson, who played basketball on his days off and could always be counted on to carry the heavy equipment.
“Let him go!” Gilbert yelled, feeling stupid. It was all he could manage.
Davidson ignored him, thrashing Matheson’s shoulders until his head snapped back and forth like a rag doll’s. “You think you know what you’re doing, huh?” he demanded. “You think you’re going to stomp around here with your flashlights and your mops after all the shit you’ve caused? This is your fault, goddamn it!”
No longer thinking, Gilbert charged him, slamming into them both. Matheson teetered to the side, looking dazed, his legs tangling underneath him.
Davidson stumbled, and Gilbert had enough time to be hopeful… until his fellow crewman abruptly turned and threw a haymaker. It caught Gilbert in the cheek, sending him reeling back as a bolt of pain shot through his skull. He raised his hands, disoriented, almost dropping the flashlight again.
Davidson advanced on him, winding up for another blow, when blood blossomed above the collar of his jumpsuit, gushing out in a dark deluge.
It all happened in the space of an instant: Matheson pulling the blade of his multi-tool free of Davidson’s neck, sending scarlet droplets raining down in a fine mist. Davidson letting out a strangled noise and swatting weakly at his attacker. Gilbert sucking in a breath, ready to scream.
Matheson drew back and then struck again, aiming for the spot just above Davidson’s collarbone. Another stab, below the bottom of his ear. He was still unsteady on his feet after the battering he’d taken, but that didn’t matter. It was over.
Blood bubbled from Davidson’s mouth. He made a couple of harsh clicking sounds in his throat before finally dropping to the floor, where he continued to gurgle and thrash. Gilbert stared down at him, feeling ill, and despite having just witnessed one coworker stab another, all he could think was, God, I wish he would stop moving.
Only the sound of Matheson groaning was enough to make him drag his gaze away from the man dying on the floor. He turned to see his colleague rubbing the back of his head, his brows furrowed and his face drawn in pain.
“You stabbed him.”
Matheson didn’t take his eyes off Davidson. “Yeah,” he replied after a long moment. He brought his hand up to sweep a few stray gray hairs out of his face, leaving a smear of blood on his forehead. It was almost comical.
Gilbert slumped to the floor, letting his head hang between his knees. Black spots danced around the edges of his vision, threatening to close in on him as the adrenaline wore off. The front of his coveralls was still spattered with Davidson’s blood, and he willed himself not to look down. “Matheson, I don’t… I don’t feel so good.”
“Me neither,” replied the other janitor. He was still breathing hard, and when Gilbert looked up he saw that he was staring up at the ceiling, multi-tool still clutched in his hand.
Gilbert swallowed. “I thought he hadn’t arrived yet,” he said, feeling somehow detached from himself.
Matheson didn’t respond right away, but his grip on the blade tightened. “He must have gone in ahead of us.”
“He attacked you,” said Gilbert, closing his eyes, his ears ringing. Drawing a breath, he focused on the throbbing in his cheek where he’d been decked and willed himself not to pass out. “Why? Why would he do that?”
“I could make a guess,” Matheson responded, “but I won’t.”
Gilbert opened his eyes. The darkness was beginning to recede.
“Why?” he asked, still breathing hard. “Do you know something about what’s going on here?”
Matheson shook his head, waving him off with a hand still soaked in blood. Moving like a man in a trance, he closed his multi-tool and put it back in his pocket. Then he strode over to Gilbert and extended a hand, which Gilbert noticed wasn’t entirely steady.
He shook his head. “I don’t think I can get up.”
“Would you rather wait here for someone else to come beat the shit out of us?”
Gilbert stole a longing look in the direction of the exit, consumed by a desperation the likes of which he’d never experienced before. Those hundred or so yards might as well have been a thousand miles. What would he do if he left? What could he do? Hightail it south, to see if he could beat the Department to the border? Head back to Fairplay and wait for the suits to come knocking? Because they would—oh, yes, they would, and he didn’t want to have to answer their questions when they did.
His throat paper-dry, his skin slick with sweat, Gilbert straightened. After a moment, he took hold of Matheson’s arm and stood. At some point Davidson had stopped making noise, and he had that to be thankful for, at least. Small favors, and all that. “What do we do?” he asked, passing back the flashlight.
Matheson eyed him. “You know already.”
The equipment closet was waiting for them, along with its arsenal of tools and chemicals. Although the door stood open, no one was inside. As they dragged another supply cart out into the hallway, Gilbert had to wonder how long ago Davidson had passed through before losing it. Hours? Minutes?
Did it even bear thinking about?
Davidson's body took more effort to lift than Kendra's, and they were both winded by the time they maneuvered it into the chute. The tarp leaked blood along the way, and Gilbert had to switch on his own torch as they followed the crimson trail back to its origin. They eradicated it with methodical precision, erasing all traces of their former coworker with nothing but time and a bucket of bleach. Only afterwards did the reality of what they'd just done fall on Gilbert, and he came to a stop, his stomach clenching.
"We have to keep moving."
“Come on,” Gilbert protested, a runnel of sweat making its slow way down his temple as hysteria threatened to set in once more. “You killed Davidson, man—we just dumped his body! What the hell was wrong with him? What the hell was wrong with you?”
“Gilbert, we need to go.”
“No. Not until you tell me what the fuck is going on in this place.” Although he was slouching, he managed to fix his coworker with an adamant stare.
Matheson raised his hands. “Look, I barely even… I’m cleanup, just like you.”
Gilbert shook his head, and for a moment the ringing came back. He pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes shut. “That’s bullshit. You’ve been down here before. You might not know everything, but you sure as hell know more than I do, and I’m not moving until you tell me what all this is.”
Matheson sighed, thought for a moment, and gave Gilbert a weak look. “How about we walk and talk? That sound good to you?”
Gilbert nodded, biting the inside of his cheek. They resumed their journey down the corridor, neither man entirely steady on his feet. The smell of death hung in the air around them, acrid and sweet, and it was growing stronger the deeper they went.
“Do you know what they study in this place?” Matheson asked, massaging the back of his head. The fact that he wasn’t concussed was a miracle in itself.
Matheson nodded. “Right.” He paused, sweeping his flashlight beam in a wary arc. “But not just guns and grenades.”
“What other kinds of weapons are there?”
Matheson’s voice was low and dangerous as they rounded the next corner. “Living weapons.”
Gilbert stared at him. “Like assassins? Special ops, something like that?”
They stopped outside an open door, through which they could see a heap of corpses, already wrapped and stacked in neat rows along either wall. Some were dressed in body armor, some in lab coats, some in janitorial uniforms. Gilbert even recognized a few of them.
“Good god,” he muttered. Whether he was in shock or just getting used to the sight of dead bodies (not great either way), he didn’t grow as faint this time, although the nausea had returned with a vengeance. “Did Davidson do all this?”
Matheson shook his head. “The day shift would have.” His brows pulled together. “Still doesn’t explain what happened to Ridley, though.”
Gilbert switched on his radio. “Gilbert for Stout.”
There were a few moments of dead air, but Stout’s reply never crackled through.
“Gilbert for Stout?” He turned to Matheson, who was hesitating. “He’s not answering.”
Matheson grunted and grabbed his walkie-talkie. “Matheson for Stout. Do you copy?”
Again, silence. It seemed to push in on them from every angle, more oppressive than ever. There were secrets in that silence, Gilbert could feel it.
It was becoming abundantly clear that, despite Stout’s earlier insistence, the situation was not, in fact, under control.
Matheson was staring at his radio, his lips pressed into a thin line, and for a moment—just a moment, mind you—he glanced over his own shoulder, toward the way out.
They got to work, busy bees with buckets of bleach, rolling the bodies to the chute and dumping them down one by one. Most of their work had already been done for them, but the carnage left behind after they cleared away the corpses made the hallway look like a warzone. Gilbert supposed it was. Neither man spoke, and perhaps that was just as well. A kind of somber understanding had settled between them, along with the knowledge that giving voice to their thoughts might send them to a place from which there was no returning.
As they went, they got close enough to see the bodies’ heads poking haphazardly out of the tarps. The corpses decked out in tactical gear were ambiguous enough, but the scientists…
“They’re all women,” Gilbert observed as they pushed the last corpse down the hatch.
Matheson grunted, turning to take in the remaining carnage, a Jackson Pollock rendered in blood. It wasn’t until they had scrubbed it all clean that he finally spoke. “Do you believe in the supernatural?” he asked, turning to Gilbert as they wheeled the cart onward. “Precognition? Telekinesis? Anything like that?”
Gilbert snorted, but he was already casting back to that conversation with Powell, which now seemed so very long ago.
Like MKUltra on steroids.
“Do you?” he asked.
Matheson didn’t reply. “In the late seventies, during the Cold War,” he said slowly, deliberately, like he was explaining to a crazy person (or perhaps to a sane person), “the U.S. military launched a research program into paranormal warfare. What you’re looking at is a holdover from that project.”
“Paranormal, like… what? Psychic powers?” He swallowed. “Mind control?”
“You name it. It started with mind control, yeah. Through the years they’ve looked into ESP, resurrection, extraterrestrials...” He glanced back down the empty hallway. “If it was rumored to exist, and it could maybe be used to take down the Ruskies, you can bet your ass they’ve dumped money into researching it.”
“That’s…” Gilbert raked a hand through his hair. “That’s ridiculous.” He snorted, looking away. “You can’t be serious.”
Matheson shrugged. “You asked me to tell you what I know.”
“So what is this, then? Some kind of experiment gone wrong?”
“What do you mean, ‘maybe’?”
“The last I heard about what they were doing down here,” Matheson replied, “was that they were researching folklore.”
“Yeah, like Bigfoot.”
Under other circumstances, Gilbert would have laughed at the absurdity of what they were discussing, but for some reason, he didn’t feel like laughing now. “And what did they find?” he asked, not sure if he really wanted to know the answer.
They picked up the pace, and as he moved his flashlight Gilbert could see more viscera splattered on the floor, forming a lumpy burgundy trail that rounded the corner and disappeared out of sight. Doggedly they followed it, their mops whisking quietly back and forth along the tiles. “Do you know anything about Greek mythology?” asked Matheson, his foot sliding on a smear of something unidentifiable.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Gilbert replied, putting a fist up to his mouth as he wiped it away.
“Well, do you?” Matheson pressed as they passed the entrance to another laboratory.
“Only what they taught us in school,” answered Gilbert, “but that was a long…”
He trailed off. An enormous silver cylinder lay across the hallway, having crashed through one of the adjacent windows. It was leaning against the far wall, jamming up the corridor. Shards of broken glass were scattered around it, twinkling like diamonds in the light of their torches.
“Great,” Matheson muttered, pulling a face.
“Can’t we move it?”
“It’s an autoclave. I don’t think we’ll be able to.”
Gilbert nodded cluelessly, already praying this meant they would have to go back—So sorry, guys, really wanted to keep this party going but the way was blocked, shit, what can you do—but he let the thought go when Matheson turned to face the lab entrance.
“Maybe there’s another way through,” he was saying. “I think this one is in the middle of the floor.” Grabbing the supply cart, he retreated to the laboratory door and pulled it open, sending glass fragments skittering across the linoleum. Gilbert followed, only for his colleague to stop abruptly in front of him, his mop clattering to the floor.
Gilbert nearly plowed into him, wobbling on his meaty legs, and it took him a moment to process what he was seeing.
In the center of the room was what looked like an enormous swimming pool, at least thirty feet deep, its water tranquil and crystalline. He’d heard of NASA training astronauts using similar setups, although why they had one here was anyone’s guess. They’d very nearly walked right into it in the darkness, but that wasn’t why Matheson had frozen.
On the far side of the room stood two figures, so still that they might have been statues. One of them wore a standard-issue RMTRI security uniform, while the other was dressed in a jumpsuit that was all too familiar. This latter was holding a gun to the security guard’s head.
“Ridley?” Matheson exclaimed. “What in God’s name are you doing?”
So this was where he’d gotten off to.
“Ridley, don’t,” Matheson said again, and Gilbert didn’t miss the quiver that had crept into his voice. “Drop the gun.”
There was a moment in which Gilbert wasn’t even sure Ridley had heard him, but then he looked slowly in their direction, his neck moving like a joint on a rusty hinge. “No,” he said at last, his tone flat and distant. “No, I don’t think I will.”
“Hey, listen. Take it easy,” said Gilbert, his voice tremulous. He hadn’t worked with the guy much, but he knew out of character when he heard it. “What’s going on?”
“I’ll tell you what’s going on,” replied Ridley, still in that same dead voice. “You’re here now, so I’m going to shoot him.” His eyes returned to the security guard, who stood with his arms at his sides, a stupefied expression on his face. He made no move to get his gun back.
“Ridley, no!” Gilbert protested. “Why?” Maybe it was a useless question, given what he had already seen, but he couldn’t help trying to cling to some semblance of logic.
“You should have left old things alone,” Ridley told them, taking the safety off the pistol with an ease that was uncanny. “This could have been prevented. Two more deaths. Just remember that.”
“Stop it!” Matheson yelled. “Get her out of your head!”
Gilbert looked from Ridley to Matheson, his heart racing. Time seemed to distort, his surroundings narrowing to a pinpoint before him. The soft splashing of the pool water was deafening to his ears. A second stretched by, and then, as easily as you might turn off a lightswitch, Ridley pulled the trigger.
A thunderous crack tore through the air like an explosion, making him spring back. The guard’s body fell to the floor. From across the room, Ridley continued to stare at them, his face devoid of all emotion. “She’s waiting for you,” he said. A moment later he turned the gun on himself and pulled the trigger. A second report echoed through the room and Ridley fell into the pool, a red patch blooming in the water around him. And that was it.
There was no stopping it this time. Gilbert doubled over and threw up his breakfast. Matheson didn’t appear much better off, putting his hands on his thighs and letting his head hang forward as the air rushed from his mouth. The sound of the gunshots still seemed to reverberate from every angle.
Gilbert continued to hack and splutter, battling to maintain consciousness. Waking up in his apartment this morning felt like a lifetime ago. He wiped the sweat from his face as his retching finally subsided, focusing on the quiet lapping of the water, and dropped to his knees.
Matheson took a seat next to him a moment later, his eyes closed. In the low light, Gilbert could make out a patch of Davidson’s blood on the sleeve of his jumpsuit.
“Are you okay?” Matheson croaked.
“Just peachy,” answered Gilbert, still breathing hard.
Matheson sighed and shook his head.
For a moment they were quiet, either unable or unwilling to speak. Gilbert looked down at his feet. It was either that or risk having to see the carnage again. “What about Greek mythology?” he asked finally.
“Greek mythology. You asked me if I knew anything about Greek mythology.”
His coworker was silent, wiping his mouth.
“What did you say to Ridley?” Gilbert persisted. “What did you mean when you told him to get her out of his head?”
Matheson held up a hand, looking ill.
Witnessing the first cracks in his colleague’s composure frightened Gilbert more than he could express. “Matheson,” he pressed, his voice rising, “who is she?”
“The ancient Greeks,” Matheson said at last, staring down at his flashlight, “called them sirens.”
Matheson nodded. “The myths say,” he continued, his words stilted, “that they sang a song no man could resist. They would sit on their islands, singing to nearby sailors and luring them in. Their ships would crash on the rocks, and the crews were never seen again.”
“And that’s what they’re working on here?” Gilbert demanded. “Are you saying they’ve been studying these things?”
“One, I think,” said Matheson. He had never looked so old. “Just one. Mind control—that’s what started all this.” He threw his arms up in frustration. His flashlight beam glanced off the surface of the pool. “I knew this was gonna end badly. As if moving the place all the way up here and staffing the labs with women would make it any safer. Bet they weren’t banking on one of them… Well, swinging the other way.” He turned to Gilbert, jabbing the air with an accusatory finger. His eyes were bloodshot. “Someone didn’t do their homework. I’d bet my life. She got through to one of them. And now you and I get to sweep it all under the rug.”
Gilbert rubbed the back of his neck. Slowly but surely, his breath was coming back to him. “You seriously think this was a… a siren? A real one, like in the myths? Or something else? Hypnosis? Pheromones?”
“I’ve been here ever since the Department first started hooking little kids up to brain monitors and taking pictures of crop circles,” Matheson said, still staring at him. “Most of it’s bullshit. But some of it… Look, I’m not saying it’s real. I’m saying it’s possible.” He shrugged, shaking his head. “And that’s all I know.”
“Fuck,” said Gilbert. It was all he could manage. He put his hands to his temples, leaning forward and drawing his knees up to his chest. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.”
“Yeah,” agreed Matheson. “Fuck is right.”
Rocky Mountain Tactical Research Institute, Lower Level 2
They didn't speak much as they navigated the labyrinth of rooms and corridors. Matheson had been right: another door, past the scene of the murder-suicide, had led them onward into the depths, and they made it to the stairs without further incident. Their luck, such as it was, ended there.
Bodies. Bodies everywhere. On the floor. Propped up against the walls. Sprawled across the stairs. Some men, some women, all dead. Some of them had been shot, others had been bludgeoned, and a few had had their necks broken like Kendra’s. What looked like most of the daytime cleanup crew was scattered throughout the stairwell, with the majority choked up against the doorway to the stairwell. They had been trying to get out.
They picked their way through the corpses, and only the promise of the Department kept Gilbert from turning tail and running, that basic human drive for survival overshadowing damned near everything. The bleakness of their situation wasn't lost on him: Get lost in this maze of a building, be hunted down by the Department, or face whatever horrors lurked in the farthest reaches of the facility. Three shitty options. Take your pick, Bryan.
The fact that they had seemingly arrived here after the massacre—the main event, if you will—did nothing to dampen the pall of horror that had settled over him. As they stepped over the last of the corpses in the stairwell, all he could hope was that if he ever saw daylight again, it would be with all his body parts intact.
Matheson had taken his multi-tool back out, and when the steel door scraped open, Gilbert was already bracing himself for some new madman to spring out. Instead, there was only silence, the entrance to the facility’s lowest level yawning open in front of them. The two men shared a look. Matheson’s fire seemed to be on the verge of going out—not that Gilbert was faring much better himself.
After a moment's consideration, the older man took the lead, moving with a kind of exhausted conviction, and together they walked through the doorway. Looking warily around, Gilbert immediately noticed two things. The first was that they were in a long hallway, stretching so far into the distance that the threads of light from their flashlights narrowed into pinpricks against a wall that seemed about twenty miles away. The second was that, apart from a single reinforced door all the way at the end, there was nothing else here. No equipment closet. No garbage shoot. No other doorways, no corridors branching away into the darkness, not even any laboratory equipment. The only sign that something had happened beyond the stairwell was a set of bloody footprints mottling the pristine linoleum floor. They led away from where they stood and off into the shadows.
“Stout?” Gilbert rasped, his eyes not leaving the footprints. Not even he was sure whether he was truly calling out for their supervisor, or whether he was asking Matheson a question as dreadful as it was obvious.
Matheson shook his head. “He must be down here.”
“What about…” Gilbert swallowed. “Her?”
“We’ll see.” Matheson reached for his walkie-talkie, no doubt to try to raise Stout again, only to pause. A moment later, he let his hand fall limply to his side. Gilbert couldn’t blame him.
Schrodinger’s supervisor, he thought, barking out a dry laugh. As long as that door stayed shut, they could keep on pretending that he was okay, that he hadn’t gone off the radar and left them holding the bag. The situation was, for lack of a more elegant term, FUBAR, and there was little they could do now but press onward, woefully unequipped for what they had taken on. He was pretty sure Matheson knew it, too, but people behaved in strange ways when they were up against the inexplicable.
Follow orders. Hang on to what you understand.
“They’re dry,” Matheson said suddenly, pointing down at the burgundy shoe marks.
“Is it too much to hope that means she left already?”
The other janitor snorted, but there wasn’t much humor in it. “Tell you what: If she’s gone, I’ll buy you lunch.”
“And if she’s not?”
Matheson didn't reply. He didn’t have to.
The stagnant air pressed in on them as they headed for the doorway, raising goosebumps on their arms and making sweat bloom on the backs of their necks. In the silence of the darkened corridor, Gilbert could almost swear he felt the place moving. Something about being this far down, he supposed, had him conjuring up imaginary ghosts… or maybe real ones.
It wasn't long before they arrived at the solitary door, which looked like it was equipped with every type of locking mechanism known to man. Not that that mattered, Gilbert saw; it stood a couple of inches ajar. “Convenient,” he remarked.
Matheson nodded. “Like they wanted someone to follow them.”
“Are we that someone?” Gilbert asked, afraid to know the answer.
“I’d almost rather get snuffed by some government spook,” Matheson said, taking a ragged breath. "Almost.”
He pushed the door open.
Surprise, surprise, thought Gilbert. Another dark room. At least this time we—
And then their flashlights fell on the scene. In the middle of the room was an examination table: the kind with straps, like you might see in a defunct asylum, mercifully empty, with an array of monitors and instruments clustered around it. The place smelled like blood and iodine. Plastic tarps hanging from the ceiling shifted gently in the stale air. There were other things, too: electron microscopes, centrifuges, containers marked Sharps, Tetracaine 1%, and Live Tissue Samples. What might have once been an audio recording system had been smashed to pieces and strewn around the room, nothing remaining on the counter except a cracked computer monitor and a tangle of wires.
The footprints stopped in the far corner, where Lloyd Stout’s body lay, his mouth frozen agape at some unseen terror. A permanent marker protruded from his eye like a crooked nail, blood running down his face in rivulets. His whole body was covered in the stuff, in fact. Gilbert guessed it didn’t all belong to him. As much of an asshole as the guy had been, he couldn’t help but feel a pang of sympathy for him in whatever part of his mind hadn’t been fully pervaded by a cloud of fear.
“Damn it," Matheson said as they stared down at the corpse, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I thought maybe…” He sighed, turning away. “I don’t know what I thought.”
“Now what?” asked Gilbert.
But Matheson’s eyes were already drifting to the far wall. “Look,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper.
The entire cement surface was covered with black markings.
No, not markings. Writing, stretching from the ceiling to the floor like graffiti. Gilbert took a step closer, squinting to make out the words. It was practically chicken scratch, the last feverish declaration of a man not long for this world.
A mistake this was a mistake we made a mistake
I know that now
The things we did to Her we deserve this
I can hear the screams
The white coats are the real monsters
“Did she make him write this?” Gilbert asked, turning back to Stout’s body.
Matheson just shook his head, his mouth hanging open. “Christ, what were they doing down here?”
“You don’t know?”
“Not the specifics, no. Whatever it was…” Matheson trailed off, looking around the room, which Gilbert was now realizing reminded him a bit of an execution chamber.
“It was ugly,” Gilbert finished for him.
Matheson swallowed. “We need to get started.”
“What the hell else are we supposed to do? We’re still alive, aren’t we?” He pointed at Stout. “With him gone, there’s no one else to give us orders. So we do what we can until the rest of the Department shows up.”
Gilbert’s eyes narrowed. A new possibility, as cold and damning as anything they had seen so far, was taking root in his mind, and as much as he wished he could banish it, there was no casting it off. “When will that be?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” Matheson asked, his brow furrowing.
“How long does it take to get from Denver to Twin Lakes?” asked Gilbert, unable to disguise the quiver in his voice.
Matheson checked his watch. “A couple of hours, give or take." His brow furrowed. “You’d think they’d be here by now."
“Matheson, I know this is probably stating the obvious, but I don’t want to stay here.”
His colleague gave him a withering look. “Thanks for the update, Gilbert.”
Gilbert ran a hand through his hair. “Look, just tell me this: When Stout called you in, did he say anything about the Department?”
“He said he was about to make a call to the Denver office,” replied Matheson.
Gilbert felt cold fingers close around his stomach. “And did he?"
“Did he make that call?”
“How should I know?” retorted Matheson. “That was the last time I talked to him.” He rounded on Gilbert, his eyes glinting like coins in the dim light. “Did he say anything to you?” he demanded, his voice rising, not entirely steady. Yes, he was catching on. “You said he called you while you were on your way up.”
Gilbert shook his head. “I already told you, he told me to fuck off and then reconsidered. That’s the only reason I’m here right now.” The fingers tightened a little more. “Matheson,” he began, afraid of the words even as they came out of his mouth, “is it possible that—”
“No,” Matheson snapped, his shoulders tensing. The expression on his face brought to mind the image of a cornered animal. “Don’t say it. Don’t you dare say it.”
“I’m just saying—”
“Gilbert, shut the hell up. I’m warning you.”
Gilbert bristled and pressed onward. “Where’s the Department, Matheson? Huh? Stout called you… when, six? Five thirty? So where are they?” He advanced on his supervisor. “Stout sounded off when I talked to him, did I tell you that? Off, like he wasn’t himself.” He hesitated, boiling with fear masquerading as anger. “Like he was fishing for information.”
Gilbert bulldozed over him. “You said yourself it was weird that he called me. And now we find him down here with a pen jammed in his eye.”
“Bryan,” Matheson said, his growing desperation unmistakable, “please.” He raised his hands. “Security's here. They—”
“Yeah, they are,” Gilbert agreed, nodding. “The on-site team. You know what I think?”
Matheson didn’t reply. He was staring at him with eyes that looked half-mad.
“I don’t think Stout ever got through to the Department,” Gilbert said. “I think he got through to us, and that was when she got him. Matheson...” He grabbed the other man’s bony shoulders, feeling him flinch. “We weren’t cleaning up for the Department. We were cleaning up for her. That’s why there weren’t more cars in the parking lot. The rest of the Department isn’t here because they don’t know.” Things were all falling into place now, the last remaining pieces of some hideous jigsaw puzzle. “And security’s all dead, which means…”
Matheson dropped his gaze to the floor. “Which means we’re the only other loose ends.”
Gilbert felt like his legs were going to give out. It all made sense now: why Stout had changed his mind about sending them home, why the emergency lights had gone out, why the specialists still hadn’t arrived. His mind returned, unbidden, to the image of Ridley turning his gun on himself. “Matheson,” he said, staring at his supervisor, any momentary bravado receding into the distance, “I don’t want to die.”
“Most of them don’t,” came a voice from behind them.
They whirled around, flashlight beams tearing jagged paths through the air.
Standing in the doorway to the hall was a girl. She looked about nineteen, not ugly but a far cry from beautiful, a skinny little thing with unkempt, mousy hair. Her hospital-style gown was filthy, as were her bare feet, and she stared at the two men with a mixture of curiosity and contempt. Gilbert had time to register other things, too: track marks along her arms, angry weals stretching from the corners of her mouth, bruises on her wrists from countless hours spent strapped to a table. And a dusting of freckles on her nose.
Freckles, he thought, and was unable to stop the hysterical laughter that bubbled up in his throat. She has freckles. He clamped a hand over his mouth, but the giggling didn’t subside. All this over a girl who looked like his freshman year homecoming date.
Matheson didn’t share his mirth. “Why are you doing this?” he demanded, but the fear in his voice was unmistakable.
A moment passed, and Gilbert wondered if she'd even heard. “Do you know how long I’ve been here?” the girl asked them finally. “Do you know how many hours they’ve spent cutting me open and sewing me up again? How many days I’ve spent wishing I was dead?”
Matheson shook his head. “No,” he replied, his voice breaking.
“Neither do I,” said the girl, and then she opened her mouth.
Matheson's eyes went wide and he lunged for her, only making it a couple steps before crying out and doubling over, and there was no question as to why.
The sound was like a waking nightmare. Gilbert clapped his hands over his ears, wincing and staggering back, but it was no use. It felt like every cell in his body was vibrating. Every muscle fiber and nerve ending was suddenly a live wire. Talons poked at his mind, foreign and razor-sharp, picking apart every thought and emotion even as he tried desperately to shut them out. The sensory overload was enough to make him want to scream, and he was pretty sure he did, although he couldn't hear anything over the grating, shrieking current that had set his mind ablaze. He couldn't even be sure what was real anymore. The agony blocked out everything else.
Matheson was screaming too, his mouth agape in a twisted mask of horror. The claws in Gilbert's head dug in further, and just when he thought he'd die if he had to hear this alien song any longer, he felt something snap inside him like a torn ligament. The next thing he knew, his mind was being flung down a dim tunnel, the light fading until it was nothing more than a flickering point in the distance.
Better buckle up. You're about to find out what it's like to hand the wheel over to someone else.
That was the last coherent thought Bryan Gilbert had before he lost himself completely.
It could have been thirty seconds since She sang her song, or it could have been thirty years. Time had ceased to have meaning, as had virtually everything else. What were once ambitions, fears, memories, talents—the sum of a person—were now nothing more than the vaguest, most clinical of notions, crushed under the enormous presence of Her.
The man who had once been Gilbert watched with indifference as the man who had once been Matheson lifted his multi-tool, bringing the blade across his throat in one fluid stroke. Blood poured out in a sheet, and he sank to his knees, looking almost poetic as he cast his eyes up to Her, veneration on his face. Then he collapsed on the ground and ceased to move.
The man who had once been Gilbert looked away from the scene, neither sad nor disgusted, and addressed Her. The words came out flat and rusty, like the exhausted squeals of a derelict machine. “What do I do?”
She padded over to him, looking up into his face as if searching for something only She could possibly recognize. At last She nodded, liking what She saw. “You can start by taking me away from this place.”
Take Her away, yes. Away from the pain inflicted by these men who scrabbled in the dark, away from those who sought to understand what was beyond them, away from their questions and instruments and agendas. The nightmare was almost over. It would be hard going for a while on the rugged mountain roads, but the car didn’t matter much anymore. They would manage. Oh yes, they would manage just fine.
They made it all the way to Reno before she was finished with him.
© Isabella Bailey 2019
All rights reserved.