Today was a filing day, as far as Riven could tell.
Kiryu Labs processed a cache of anomalous items every week. Generally, said anomalous items usually came accompanied by some basic safety instructions garnered from the simple preliminary tests. “Basic” could be considered a misnomer to a new associate, but after about three months of processing the objects, instructions such as “do not handle without lead gloves” or “potential memetic hazard, immediately report any urges to break into song and dance” and “sword talks when its handle is grasped” became steadily less and less surprising.
Researcher Riven Mercer, head assistant to Dr. Mark Kiryu and effective babysitter of the Labs when Mark was out on business/working on his external department projects/on vacation leave to bother his little sister, kept the hard copies of the documents containing these basic instructions in a heavy-duty storage cabinet in the lab office. The instructions were organized chronologically in neat folders, until the documentation would be needed by other departments. Usually the information would be digitized by then, but the anomalous object labs were always picky about never destroying tangible files that might be useful down the line.
There was one special folder, considerably thinner than the rest. It held the scribbled handwritten notes that came in when Kiryu Labs was given not an object, but a location to investigate. So when noontime came and Riven spotted the memo on his desk reading “New assignment, all-nighter, researcher-agent/2-man team, museum” he raised an eyebrow and rushed to claim the sofa in the spare sitting room (nap space was hard to find in a lab) by dumping his laptop, lab coat, extra blanket from the cupboard, and squishy office chair pillow onto it. He then immediately went to raid the lab’s supply cabinets to pack a light backpack.
He hadn't gone on an overnight assignment in months.
It was reported that the museum had visitors daily during the first few months it was open. It was different from other such places, so was said, because it only opened after dark. Something about sunlight not being of the right quality to properly accentuate the best qualities of the crystal. Most people believed what they were told, agreeing that the interior lighting was like nothing they’d ever seen before. Subtle in all the right ways, to the point of other-worldliness, they said. You could lose your worries looking at the shining stones, they said. If you didn’t watch yourself you’d find that you’d linger for hours.
About a year or so later, people reported hearing voices emanating from the delicate crystal vessels on display. And the fewer visitors crossed the threshold, the more disembodied voices were heard from within. Some people started returning the crystal bird figurines they’d purchased from the museum’s tiny gift shop. The prices hadn’t been exorbitant, but that wasn’t the main reason no one stuck around to ask for refunds.
According to the brief background Riven read while en route, Foundation personnel successfully managed to convince visitors that the rumors were unfounded, but there were still plenty of theories about the artifacts actually stealing voices. And it didn’t help that the curator seemed insane when the visitors started to thin out. Talked to the walls, they said. Talked to the crystal things. Talked to the disembodied voices. Then the museum abruptly closed its doors and no one heard from the man since.
Riven had glanced at the dwindling sunlight outside the car window and grimaced at how easy it was for the Foundation to forge the paperwork to take over ownership of the place. At least the prelim sweeps were done—no living organisms detected in the building or on surrounding premises.
The museum itself turned out to be rather charming. Two stories, sizable but not grandiose, perched at the top of a hill surrounded by forest, it was rather out of the way from the city streets but actually not that long of a drive away from the Foundation site. The dirt pathway was rough and unworn, as there were very few vehicles that ever went directly to the building. Visitors parked at the foot of the hill and went up the scenic tree and bush-lined trails on foot. No maintenance was carried out because oddly, the museum’s collection wasn’t put together over a period of time. It just showed up, along with the curator, who apparently owned the place and opened it to the public one day. No reservations, no tickets, it was a come-as-you-may word-of-mouth sort of place, hidden like a castle up in the fortress of trees.
There was a nice view of the ocean in the distance, though one would need to cross a mile or so of forest before hitting the beach. The sea breezes didn’t reach the hill tonight.
He didn’t really need the jacket he brought with him, Riven thought to himself. The night wasn’t that chilly… although, he added silently, I can't say the same about that agent they sent along.
Aside from his daunting stare, Agent Tai Yang Shen was a nondescript man. His was a face that you could look at, pin a quick insignificant personality to, and then promptly forget. Today’s black collared jacket, thin cotton gloves, half-rim glasses, and trendy messenger bag might have suggested a self-reserved college student, not an undercover agent for a shadowy paranormal organization—but that was probably the point, Riven decided. The average person might expect that messenger bag to be filled with notebooks and old receipts for coffee; what was actually inside was probably the mission brief, a Foundation-issue anti-memetics kit and maybe an intermediate chemistry/first aid emergency pouch cobbled together from what experience dictated would be used most. And all sorts of other knickknacks besides, since Mark had mentioned something about Agent Shen being good with knives.
Riven hadn’t heard much else about Shen, admittedly. The Chinese agent had been recruited from an American university following some high-profile field work, and Kiryu Labs nabbed him for background investigations of the item caches. Apparently the man had gotten bumped up to Level-3 and Agent status after an overseas assignment in China dealing with some bloody-minded ghost with a thing for numbers.
“Ready to proceed?” Shen asked, causing Riven to jump a bit. He couldn’t help it, he hadn’t gone to a museum in ages, and Kiryu Labs out-of-site business without Mark was a rarity. He was starting to miss Mark’s easygoing, if sometimes-aggravating, “everything is ooookay” demeanor, really…
“Researcher?” Shen questioned again, opening his messenger bag and rifling through it as if looking for something.
“Yeah, I’m good to go, Agent She—”
“Just titles now. We are in a confirmed auditory cognitohazard zone. No intelligent beings noted yet, but it’s best to say little about ourselves. Wear this.” Shen handed Riven what looked like a wireless headset, with some sort of strange gadgetry perched on top like blunted cat ears.
“New-issue adjustment processes all incoming sound through anti-cognitohazard filters.” Shen continued when Riven looked at the headset as if unsure if it would catch fire in his hands. “You don’t need to understand the details to use it. Put it on.”
Other knickknacks indeed. It’s hard to keep up with all the new Foundation tech these days. Riven slipped on the headset and adjusted the microphone piece. It was sturdy, and a rather comfy fit over the ears, actually.
“This too.” Shen held out a watch. At least, it looked like a watch—the display seemed more like a digital compass. Riven put it on without comment, adjusting the strap to fit his wrist. Meanwhile, Agent Shen had extracted his own headset/watch gear.
“It’s linked to the headset. The screen will change displays when you encounter non-ambient noises, giving you a direction and distance from source in meters.” At the sound of the agent’s voice, the compass needle swiveled to point at Shen, and a little number “0.7” blinked up at Riven.
“…I think… I think I hear music. Classical. Soft, very soft, though. Can barely hear it.” Riven wrinkled his forehead, as if in deep thought. He adjusted the headset slightly.
Shen didn’t seem ruffled, or at least his voice in Riven’s ears didn’t sound like it was. “That's the anti-cognitohazard filter. Meant to be minimally invasive. We wear these; we give up our sense of hearing to the machines.”
Riven just nodded mutely.
It had taken all of five minutes for Shen to run some “just in case” scans using equipment from his messenger bag, and to adjust his gear to some esoteric specifications. Riven had fidgeted the entire time, feeling rather out of his depth. He’d still felt uneasy when they ignored the prim “closed” sign and entered the museum through unlocked doors.
Maybe it had something to do with all the window drapes being drawn. It was a precaution so people wouldn’t see the lights inside and get suspicious, the brief had noted. Riven wondered why the display lights couldn’t have just been turned off. Wouldn’t subtle flashlights have made more sense?
“So why are we actually going into the museum ourselves? Isn’t it the items that are anomalous, not the place itself?” Riven was still trying to get used to hearing his voice processed through the filter.
“Tried to take samples. Artifacts did nothing when taken out, or when put back. Some of them started to deform. As if melting. Patina seemed to be spreading to nearby things, and we had to dispose of the ones taken to the labs.” Shen’s voice was clipped as the two walked through a hallway that would lead to the main exhibit rooms.
“Why send us, though? The most experience I have with antiques is maybe two art history classes in college. Those were years ago.” Riven craned his neck to look at a set of elegant swan-shaped perfume bottles. The museum’s lighting twinkled over the multifaceted rock crystal surfaces.
Shen made a noncommittal noise as he unhooked some sort of Swiss-knife-like tool from his belt. “Researcher and agent. We’re qualified, and we’re expendable. It’s the best combination, really.” The agent looked pointedly at the case displaying a clear quartz snake with several circle-shaped depressions in its back.
“Candle-holder?” Riven hazarded a guess. Shen shook his head, motioned for quiet, and approached the case. Riven trailed warily behind. He reached into his backpack and pulled out a notepad and ballpoint pen.
The platform light illuminating the display case (what was that about, Riven thought, there are no light switches or wires anywhere!) seemed to flicker brighter as the two approached.
“Snake… like hydra …supposed to have seven heads… always seven?”
Blinking several times, Riven could’ve sworn the crystal animal in front of him vibrated slightly when the noise began. He chanced a look at Shen, but the agent’s gaze was pointedly fixed on the snake. It was probably important to listen. Was the bit about the hydra important? Something related to an ongoing investigation?
“Remember that… vase thing with… Theseus? And … minotaur? I thought …it was a unicorn.”
It certainly didn’t sound important… Adjusting the headset slightly, Riven noticed that the voices were somewhat warped, even without the classical anti-cog-haz filter in the background. He felt like he was eavesdropping on someone real, just several paces away. He wrote that down.
“…terrible. Why did you… art history class anyway? …Slacker.”
Riven had to fake a cough to muffle his incredulous laugh. He’d been expecting some sort of arcane ritual or demonic chanting. Shen remained unmoved and said nothing.
The effect was anomalous enough, but what they were hearing sounded like a spat between two high school students. Typical of a lazy afternoon spent at an art museum, one would think. Close your eyes and you’d be able to imagine the not-so-happy couple bickering about grades while you were trying to focus on the artwork.
With a nod of his head, Shen indicated that they should move on.
“It’s … bird! Polly want… cracker! Polly want a cracker! …Squaawk!” The sound of children laughing, of little feet smacking against the polished floors. Riven looked behind him a few times, each time expecting to see a horde of little ghost children or maybe human-animal hybrids cavorting through the room. You never really knew what to expect, with anomalous places.
He and the agent had been circling the carved jade phoenix for the past ten minutes or so, listening. The sculpture was magnificent, really, Riven thought. But he kept the opinion to himself, since Agent Shen seemed all too focused on recording snippets of seemingly inconsequential sounds, and tapping away on his cell phone. He’d done the same routine for the carved jewel beetle collection and the crystal deer fruitbowl-thing. Record noise with headset, and stare at phone. What could be so interesting about Foundation gear when there were anomalous crystals to look at?
Honestly, we’re in an anomalous museum. Even if it wasn’t anomalous, the place is interesting enough to warrant looking at the pieces and not your phone, right? You can look at your phone whenever you want… Riven leaned a little closer to examine the phoenix’s intelligent-looking, if empty, eyes. The light around the piece gleamed brighter, as if excited.
“Squaawk! Braawwwk! Brawk.” More childish laughter, but more reserved. As if the nonexistent children had noticed there was someone else in the room. Riven stepped back a bit and glanced at his mission buddy.
Agent Shen was looking at his phone again and rubbing his eyes.
“Getting bored already?” Riven grinned. He was actually starting to enjoy the museum a bit, given that he hadn’t needed to break out any of the emergency supplies now feeling like rather useless weight in his backpack. “It’s barely been half an hour, and we haven’t even seen the top floor yet.”
To Riven’s surprise, Shen replied amicably, “You’re right. Let’s go see the most famous piece in the collection.”
“Are you sure it’s worthwhile to see this? The brief didn’t say anything about breaking and entering.” Riven’s incredulous whisper echoed through the upstairs antechamber. He should’ve known it wasn’t a regular Swiss knife the agent had been carrying.
“We’re not.” Shen’s soft reply barely drowned out the sound of gently rhythmic metallic clicking.
“You’re picking the lock to the room.”
“I know. Keep watch.” Even through the headset Shen sounded annoyed.
Keep watch, he says. Keep watch for what? Stupid stick-in-the-mud no appreciation for art—that noise. Is that footsteps. What was that noise. Riven’s sour mood evaporated instantly when he realized he may have been hearing something approaching. Footsteps? Those sounded like footsteps.
He contemplated asking Shen if he heard those too, but didn’t want to distract the agent. The sooner that door was open and Shen could watch his own back, the better. Besides, Riven realized, he couldn't even see anything that would be making the sounds. And the filter gear would've blocked anything harmful to hear…
Those were definitely footsteps. Riven glanced at the sound-locator thing. Two numbers, 1.6 and 2.3. Two compass needles, neither moving. Something was here.
…or, Riven amended, it sounded like something was here. Maybe the ghosts here liked looking at the place? There were two large murals on the walls, both lit faintly with the ubiquitous display lights. They provided some visitor information about the history of the museum. Maybe a map or something, he didn’t really look. Were those footsteps getting closer?
“Door’s open. See anything?” Shen’s calm, placid tone snapped Riven’s concentration like scissor blades on a guitar string—it was almost comical in retrospect. Twang.
“No. Nothing. Didn't see anything. But I could’ve sworn I’d have a heart attack,” Riven managed to stammer out, as he relaxed visibly when the heavy double doors began to budge. It must have been only a minute or so, but it felt like hours. “Didn’t know what to expect.”
Shen chuckled dryly. It sounded like static having a choking fit. “Don’t use a mirror to look around corners if you don’t want to see anything following you.” The agent slotted the lockpick tool back onto his belt, and there was a faint click of blade against case. “You use the mirror because you do expect to be followed, and you want to see what is after you…”
The rightmost door opened smoothly inwards.
“…before it sees you.”
Oh god it’s a crystal dragon, Riven thought. It’s lovely. Look at that workmanship on the wings. So intricate. Wish I could look at it a bit longer. Wait, is this an anomalous effect? Shit.
The entire thing couldn’t have been more than half a meter tall, but the lighting was spectacular. The soft white glow cast an ethereal sheen to the rock crystal, and as they crept closer it brightened to a moonlight-like shimmer. The dragon’s four limbs were crouched in a fighter’s pose, wings outspread and fangs bared in a challenge. Or perhaps some sort of savage welcome? Riven scrambled to take notes.
“People think they’re gone once they leave the museum. That’s not true. They’ve only left when no one remembers. I remember. You remember. They’re still here, really.”
Riven jumped slightly, and thought his headset was malfunctioning. The voice he was hearing was clearer than anything else he’d heard so far, clearer than even his accomplice’s voice. Speaking of which—Shen was tapping the case the dragon was in, as if trying to ascertain how the light worked. It flickered every time the glass was touched, but there didn’t seem to be any motion-sensing machinery near the case at all.
“Everyone leaves a little of themselves behind, wherever they go. Memories carried by people who don’t know them, might not even see them, but feel the ripples of their actions.”
Shen was tapping on his phone again. Riven rolled his eyes, and focused on the dragon. This place wasn’t so bad, really. And that smooth, velvety tenor voice was easy on the ears.
“After you experience enough of it, the loneliness isn’t so bad. You coax it into your life a little bit at a time, and someday you’ll start to greet it like an old friend. Don’t worry about me. I still remember you.”
“Researcher. Researcher Mercer. Hey. Hey. Snap out of it. Riven. Riven, time to go.”
“…What?” Riven snapped out of a daze he hadn’t realized he’d entered.
“Time to go,” Shen repeated, holding out Riven’s notepad. When had he dropped it? “Now.”
“This museum… whatever it is, whoever it is, loved the person that voice belonged to. I’m sure of it. We’ve encountered similar things before, in objects.” Riven had to lengthen his stride to keep up with the agent’s quick movement down the stairs.
“We don’t know if that voice actually belonged to a person. We don’t know if a building, even an anomalous one, is capable of ‘love’. Save conjecture for the lab.” Shen’s shoes skidded a bit on the tiled floor, and he seemed relieved to see the front doors.
“I’m pretty sure there’s decent evidence if we go back—” Riven attempted again.
The agent sighed. “We don’t know. Maybe we will sometime. But not now.”
Riven shook his head. “I really don’t think this place is dangerous. That’s why I'm on this assignment, right? To give my report as a researcher on the observations I made. ”
“Look outside.” Shen’s voice was flat, devoid of any indicative affect.
Riven, slightly fuming, made a show of striding to the nearest set of heavy window drapes and dragging them open. To his surprise, the glow of early morning’s light suffused the room.
“It’s dawn. Already? But we arrived here…”
“Just after sundown.” Shen was checking his bag.
“But it felt like…”
“Only an hour. The time difference happened when we looked at the displays.” Shen took off the half-rimmed glasses, and tucked them into his jacket. “Who knows what tricks this place plays on the other senses?”
“These places are dangerous, Researcher. We can’t trust them.” Shen patted the cell phone on his belt, which coincidentally buzzed once, as if in agreement. “Our team is here to collect us. Time to leave.”
“I still can’t believe I didn’t notice.” Riven grumbled into his mug of tea three hours later.
“They make these pairs on purpose, Riven. They wanted someone with a researcher’s curiosity and eye for detail, while accompanied by an agent given more information to monitor the scenario.” Agent Shen was sitting on a swivel chair peeling an apple with a pocket knife. “The team before us was a containment specialist and a D-class.”
“They sent in other teams?” Riven glanced up. Just how much “need-to-know” information was kept from him?
“They usually send in a few, for questionable anomalous locations. But I think we’ll be the last exploration team. The cog-haz department will take over for now.” Shen started to slice the apple. He was making rabbit shapes. “Right now, we need to file the report, get tested for residual cognitohazard effects, and then you go back to your lab and I go back to the field. The file is out of our hands now.”
“I see.” Riven took another sip of tea. It was weird talking to an agent in the lab’s sitting room. “Uh… hey. I’m sorry if I came off as unprofessional. I must have seemed like a little kid in there.” When was the last time I was so excited about anything? So excited I didn’t notice the time passing, or the effects of the lights, or the strangeness of the sounds. The agent probably thinks I’m a fool for getting so caught up with the artifacts.
Agent Shen shrugged. “They wanted you to go in with a blank slate. More genuine reaction. You focus on observing some things, while I keep track of others. Fuller report.” He paused in his apple peeling, and frowned a bit when the slice didn’t carve evenly. He shrugged when he noticed Riven staring. “I’m better with turnips.”
There was a resulting silence that could be considered comfortable. Riven still felt like he had much more to say, though Shen looked perfectly happy to resume carving the apple into little rabbits without a word.
The lack of noise got to Riven. And frankly, he was curious. “Hey, Tai?”
“Yeah?” The agent flicked a bit of apple skin off the knife’s blade.
Riven couldn’t help but ask. “What was your favorite thing from the museum?”
Shen grinned, and for once it didn’t look like it took an effort. There was a hint of wistfulness in the expression. “The phoenix. Did I ever tell you I minored in Art History?”