The Mausoleum at Ipperwash
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rating: +44+x

The Mausoleum at Ipperwash


Asterisk43.png

2002

8 September

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


Delfina Ibanez had always enjoyed her very own esoteric materials suit. This was no mark of distinction among the Chairs and Chiefs of Site-43, each with suits tailored to their various heights and weights, but most FNGs had to choose from the common stock. Not Ibanez. Plenty of Foundation folks were short, and plenty were round, but apparently before she'd showed up none had been quite so short and round as she was. The route to her present post as Chief of Security and Containment had involved donning this custom job often enough to get a feel for what it lacked in mobility and flexibility, and she'd driven Dr. Bremmel up his polycarbonate walls and down again with demands for alterations and additions. When two besuited individuals approached the sealed tomb of Acroamatic Abatement Facility AAF-D, therefore, they were both quite comfortable in their second skins.

IbanezSuit.jpg

Noè Nascimbeni's was older than she was.

They were standing in the foreshortened airlock approach now, having just left a gaggle of nervous techs and agents behind the sealed bulkhead. Nobody knew what they were about to unleash, so it was best to keep it as many removes from the rest of the Site as was possible. When they opened the vault door, the filtration systems would whir to life and start sifting the air for esoteric elements. Ibanez suspected it would be months before the approach was considered clean, the doors retracted and active air and pedestrian circulation restored.

If we even bother. AAF-D is probably toast, just like ev—

She cleared her throat at a volume above that of her own thoughts, and examined their surroundings.

If you've ever watched a housecat path through an environment, you know they see routes where none should exist. Site-43 is mapped onto centuries of winding and wandering cat-paths, and this has produced some remarkable corridor cloverleafs. The approach to AAF-D features the most complex example, with tributaries from Habitation and Sustenance, Archives and Revision, Janitorial and Maintenance, the main sector of Security and Containment, and Replication Studies, not to mention the service elevator from Applied Occultism above. This single piece of architecture is the reason why Incident AAFD-I-117 saw Noè Nascimbeni, Reuben Wirth, Janet Gwilherm, Stewart Radcliffe, Ana Mukami, David Markey and William Wettle converging from such disparate points of origin.

Junctions at Site-43 generally mean bulkhead doors; the approach is littered with them, and on September 8 it was truncated into a series of makeshift airlocks. The danger of a materials breach had been well understood from Day 1, though the appropriate countermeasures never needed activation until Day 1941.

— Blank, Lines in a Muddle

There was very little damage visible on this side: some orange ooze trailing up to the door, and a few black scuffs which Nascimbeni apparently knew something about but had refused, point blank, to discuss. His temperament was melancholic at the best of times, and this was clearly the worst time he'd had in years — perhaps ever. One glance at what she could see of his face, from her low angle, told him not to rely on his veteran eyes today. That was a shame; nobody knew the Sorcery Sewer like the Chief of J&M.

He looks like he's lost three of his best friends.


Asterisk43.png

Annual Psychological Reviews: 2001

Subject: Delfina M. Ibanez (Chief, Security and Containment Section, Site-43)

Officer of Record: Dr. Nhung Ngo (clinical psychiatrist, Psychology and Parapsychology Section, Site-43)


Dr. Ngo: You know a thing or two about loss, Chief Ibanez.

Chief Ibanez: Oh, for fuck's… is that why we're doing this in the saloon?

Dr. Ngo: You signed the forms. You knew perf—

Chief Ibanez: You want a sob story, read my damn file.

Dr. Ngo: This is mandatory counselling; you signed those forms, too.

Chief Ibanez: You think I read everything I sign? I'm not Wettle. <She sighs.> Fine, get us started and I'll pre-game.

Dr. Ngo: Whatever works for you.

<Audio event consistent with steel chair legs on a concrete floor.>

Dr. Ngo: So, as far as my security clearance gets me, I can't find any record of there ever having been a younger security chief anywhere in the Foundation.

Chief Ibanez: Me either.

<Audio event consistent with a popping cork.>

Dr. Ngo: There's nothing particularly controversial about recruiting young academics; plenty of Sites help PhD candidates finish their degrees with a fun new flourish, and we've got scouts at every university in the entire world.

Chief Ibanez: I, however, was scouted by the Director of Site-43, his near-immortal self.

<Audio event consistent with liquid being poured into a glass.>

Dr. Ngo: Dr. Scout had a reputation for robbing cradles to fill up his underground lair.

Chief Ibanez: Seen that quote H&R's got framed in the main office?

Dr. Ngo: "A sharp mind is a sharp mind, no matter the vintage of its frame." Meaning minds over matter.

Chief Ibanez: But security? In security, the frame is what matters. Jesus Christ, this shit is bad.

Dr. Ngo: Yes, in security, experience over raw talent is the rule unless you're merely in the market for meat shields.

Chief Ibanez: Don't knock meat shields. They're trained to knock back.

Dr. Ngo: The point is, a woman with no formal forces training who was less than a quarter-century old would never be allowed near a command position in Security and Containment.

Chief Ibanez: Fuck no.

Dr. Ngo: How could she have gotten so much experience in so little time, and what kind of person would that make her?

<Silence on recording.>

Chief Ibanez: Oh, you're done? Because I'll be well into the next bottle before I take my turn.

<Extraneous audio excised.>

Chief Ibanez: I grew up in… Zevala. Argentina. When I was sixteen—

Dr. Ngo: Hold up, please. We should tackle the full context.

Chief Ibanez: Tackle you, you little <inaudible>.

Dr. Ngo: I wouldn't advise it. Your family situation…?

Chief Ibanez: Four brothers and a sister. You wanted to know how I learned to fight so young? There's your answer.

Dr. Ngo: What did you do in Zevala?

Chief Ibanez: Wasn't much to do. Mountains on one side, sea on the other. Spent most of my time at the docks, where the smugglers were.

Dr. Ngo: What did they smuggle?

Chief Ibanez: Electronics, going out, and miracles coming back. Blue flowers, so blue they were still blue in the dark…

<Chief Ibanez hiccoughs.>

Chief Ibanez: …used to sing for them. One song, one flower. Went well with my hair… used to be real long. Real shiny.

Dr. Ngo: It's still very shiny. What were the flowers for?

Chief Ibanez: Pharma… medicine. In the States. Sold 'em to the States. Dunno what for.

Dr. Ngo: What else did they smuggle?

Chief Ibanez: Salted animal carc… carcasses. For the medicine markets. Caesar Penguin flipper extract makes your fingers and toes grow back, they said.

Dr. Ngo: What's a Caesar penguin?

Chief Ibanez: Never could get a straight answer, but I'll tell you this: they had the wrong number of flippin' flippers.

<Chief Ibanez laughs.>

Chief Ibanez: Four-winged cormorant meat could cure… cancer, probably? It's always cancer, isn't it.

<Chief Ibanez hiccoughs.>

Chief Ibanez: If it weren't for the smugglers… whole rest of the world might've just as well not existed. Only proof I had there was something else out there… until it came looking…

<Silence on recording.>

Dr. Ngo: Did you ever find out where the smugglers were smuggling from?

<Silence on recording.>

Dr. Ngo: Chief? Did you ev—

Chief Ibanez: No, and I never will, because as I tried to tell you at the start, when I was sixteen the Chaos Insurgency bombed us into the fucking ground.


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Nascimbeni gave the panel beside the vault door a look Ibanez might have reserved for a hardened criminal.

There was an atmospheric report monitor beside the door release, and the old tech examined the readout for one long minute. The AAF-D overflow system consisted of five hundred and nineteen non-discriminatory, magnetic oscillation vacuum pumps which could draw any and all gaseous, liquid or particulate matter out of its abundant nooks and crannies and into an anachronic sump within a telekill sinkhole some three hundred metres below the third sublevel. Assuming the system hadn't been too badly damaged, and assuming the agents really had activated it, it would have pulled most of the breached material out of their path.

"Siphons worked," he finally declared. "F-D is clear." His voice was flat, even accounting for the modulation of their suit comms.

"Of things you can measure," Ibanez noted. "Who knows what happened when all that happy horseshit smashed together? Odds are there's stuff floating around in there that nobody's ever seen before, much less figured out how to count."

"Odds are," he repeated wearily. This was the reasoning behind their minimalist search party: the Site's maintenance expert and its most accomplished survivor, with no redshirts to get in the way.


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Dr. Ngo: You were the only survivor of your village.

Chief Ibanez: Not at first.

Dr. Ngo: You've consistently claimed that you don't remember most of what went on down there, but if that were the case, I find it difficult to imagine Scout would've been so quick to recruit you.

Chief Ibanez: I remember enough. I remember living in burned-out shacks, I remember foraging for scraps, I remember hiding in woodland hovels and digging out dugouts with my bare fuckin' hands. I remember stealing supplies from the bastards, and watching.

Dr. Ngo: Watching…? The bast—

Chief Ibanez: The fucking Insurgency. I thought… I thought someone was bound to come looking. Come see why we'd… see what happened.

Dr. Ngo: And rescue you.

Chief Ibanez: Grew up hearing about the Malvinas. You know the Malvinas?

Dr. Ngo: The Falklands?

Chief Ibanez: That uppity bitch Thatcher had to make a big show, and we sailed out to meet her. Argentina didn't take shit from nobody. So where the fuck was the army? And where the fuck was the UN? How could we get invaded without anybody noticing?

Dr. Ngo: But nobody was coming.

Chief Ibanez: Nobody was coming, because they didn't even know we existed. Not the UN. Not the state. Not even the Foundation, until they noticed the thaum-bombs.

Dr. Ngo: Zevala was an enclave. Anomalous.

Chief Ibanez: Apparently. And then it wasn't anything at all. Skippers finally showed up in '95, a year after… a year after. I showed them the way. Don't ask me to explain, you can damn well look it up. And they came down like the heavy hammer of almighty God on the insurgents, and the port turned… what colour is port?

Dr. Ngo: I think it's red? Or it can be red, anyway.

Chief Ibanez: Then the water in the port turned the colour of port, and it washed away everything that was left.

Dr. Ngo: And the Foundation detained you.

Chief Ibanez: Imprisoned, more like. At Site-34, wherever the fuck that is. Spent another damn year there before Scout showed up, one-way glasses, grey suit, grey fedora, grey skin, death just barely warmed over. Asked me a few things.

Dr. Ngo: Like what?

Chief Ibanez: How I did what I did, at Zevala, and if I could do it again.

Dr. Ngo: What did you do? What did you tell him?

Chief Ibanez: Things that intrigued him, and things he wanted to hear.

Dr. Ngo: You hold your liquor very well, chief.

Chief Ibanez: Scout put me to the test. Put me to all the tests. Training. One more year at 34, and I was into the part of the personnel class alphabet where you get your human rights back. Came to 43, joined S&C. Chief a few years later, and I've held that pretty well too, don't mind saying.

Dr. Ngo: It can't have been easy, taking up that post as such a young woman.

Chief Ibanez: Maybe not easy, but I'd call it fun. Old-timers tried to stir up shit, and I slapped them down. New-timers never take me seriously, so I give 'em something to look at in the bathroom mirror. And five minutes with me on the target range shuts them right the hell up.

Dr. Ngo: I've seen your scores. Most S&C personnel need to go through a lot of stuff they'd rather forget to get that good.

Chief Ibanez: Yeah, well.

Dr. Ngo: How are your relationships? Friends, lovers, that sort of thing.

<Chief Ibanez hiccoughs.>

Dr. Ngo: Stop stalling, you're not half as drunk as that.

Chief Ibanez: I'm not stalling, I'm clueing you in to the fact that I'm not gonna answer.

Dr. Ngo: With trauma like yours, it's important to have confidants. Healing is a life-long process.

Chief Ibanez: Minding your business ought to be, too.

Dr. Ngo: You can't keep everyone at arm's length forever.

Chief Ibanez: Ask those guards with the mirrors what happens when you get within arm's reach.

Dr. Ngo: Your agents report that you're very irritable, and put the boot in readily.

IbanezGrin.jpg

Chief Ibanez: They're lucky I don't twist it on the way up their asses.

Dr. Ngo: Do you want to know why they think you're so difficult?

<Silence on recording.>

Dr. Ngo: They think it was growing up with four brothers, and one sister.

Chief Ibanez: Sure. That's close enough.


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They shared a grim nod, and Ibanez cleared her throat. "Control? You read?"

"Loud and clear, glottal sounds inclusive." The reedy voice belonged to Adrijan Zlatá, expert occultist and middle-aged paper-pusher. One experienced member of staff was required to oversee all investigations from Operations Control in Administration and Oversight, the Site's managerial hub, and as Zlatá was the highest-ranked Applied Occultist not presently dead or indisposed, he'd been tapped for the job. "Proceed at your discretion, Chiefs."

"Ready?" Nascimbeni asked, not sounding like he much cared.

"Ready," she replied, sounding like she was. She wasn't.

"Here's hoping." He tapped a few buttons on the panel. There was still some reason to hope; there were safety suits at regular intervals within AAF-D, there were boltholes, there were possibilities. Their party of two would be imminently collapsing those waveforms.

Nascimbeni finished his keystrokes, then reached in and pulled out a shiny red handle on a grease-slick shaft. He twisted to the right, then pressed it back in. A low tone sounded, and he responded with the ease of rote remembrance: "Nascimbeni aleph eleven kei Juliett tendentious."

A high-pitched squeal signalled the exchange of gases equalizing pressure between the halls of the living and the dead. An entirely superfluous valve handle spun with dizzying speed, and the heavy door slid open.

Ibanez shouted.


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2001 Personnel Review

Subject: Ana Mukami (agent, Security and Containment Section, Site-43)

Officer of Record: Noor Zaman (specialist, Hiring and Regulation Section, Site-43)


Chief Ibanez: I shout at her oh, at least once per month.

Specialist Zaman: What about?

Chief Ibanez: Every damn thing. Mukami… well, she's a sharpshooter, right? She's got a custom Fabrique Nationale FN Five-seveN, and you know that's a fancy-ass gun because of the truly shit-eating name — if I wrote it down for you, you'd see this astounding little crime against proper capitalization — so it's low-recoil, high accuracy, armour-piercing and sound-suppressed. We've got practice data that says she can reliably headshot any humanoid target in the gun's rated range. She's also got a Crow-Bremmel Ts7 tranquilizer pistol effective within seventy metres, sights adjusted for projectile dropoff, and an Accuracy International AW50 rifle for taking out materiel targets at longer—

Specialist Zaman: Chief. What do you shout at her about?

Chief Ibanez: Okay, well here's the deal with all that data. She's a high-value combat asset, right? She's the kind of agent you stick in everybody's favourite deployment region: the rear. She can hit anything from anywhere, and the only person I'd be happier watching my back is a second me. So is there any reason, any reason at all, that I should find her wandering into the line of fire herself? This is our sticking point.

Specialist Zaman: She disobeys orders?

Chief Ibanez: No, she just executes them in ways I… do not intend. If I'm not perfectly specific about what I want, she pulls a Mukami. Okay, so: why would a woman with a tranquilizer gun, hiding in a blind twenty feet up a tree, with an absolutely impeccable drop on some wayward Indian Agents in our precious interdiction zone, fucking hop down and have a chat with them?

Mukami.jpg

Specialist Zaman: A chat?

Chief Ibanez: You should hear the mic recording. She name dropped… no, name carpet bombed every single person in their chains of command, implying she could lay waste to their careers with a few well-placed words, just rapid-fire before they even really processed that this woman was up in their faces.

Specialist Zaman: And?

Chief Ibanez: And it fucking worked, of course. Sent them scurrying into the bush with their tails between their legs. Do you know how hard it is to tell someone why they were wrong to be right? I asked her why she didn't just tranq the fuckers, per protocol, per common sense, and she says… I don't know, some bullshit.

Agent Mukami: I said "It's easier to explain things to conscious people than it is to explain unconscious people."

Specialist Zaman: Some bullshit?

Chief Ibanez: I don't remember. Details don't matter. The next month I catch her leaving that perfect, beautiful, stupid-expensive sniper rifle in a parked van so she can confab with a bunch of trespassing RCMP, instead of shooting the damn antenna off their hummer so we can mug and amnesticize them.

Agent Mukami: "Talk is cheap. Amnestics aren't."

Specialist Zaman: And that worked, too? She must have a way with words.

Chief Ibanez: I wish she'd put that on her résumé, so I could've tossed it and saved myself the headache. Remember the near-breach last week?

Specialist Zaman: I remember the paperwork.

Chief Ibanez: A humanoid loose and hungry. What's the textbook-preferred solution to that? One between the eyes, and a second to make sure. This wasn't even an SCP, just some Nexus nonsense, one quick form filled out and nobody asks follow-ups. What's she do instead?

Specialist Zaman: Talks to it.

Chief Ibanez: Fucking talks to it.

Specialist Zaman: And her explanation?

Chief Ibanez: Do I look like Bartlett's Quotations to you?

Agent Mukami: "I thought we were in this to keep everyone safe, not just ourselves." She really doesn't remember?

Specialist Zaman: Alright, sorry. Do you consider this a discipline problem?

Chief Ibanez: No! I don't have discipline problems, Noor. I'd consider this a career choice problem, except that she's so damn good at what she supposedly does… it's just, she can't be bothered to do it half the time, and all the time it turns out she's right.

<Chief Ibanez sighs.>

Chief Ibanez: I've thought about sending her to Admin instead, since she'd rather shoot off her mouth than her weapons and she never misses the mark either way, but…

Specialist Zaman: But she's too useful where she is.

Chief Ibanez: I like people to be useful in ways I can control. But that's the problem with this job, right? We're already in a perpetual state of un-control, so I guess… having one more random element, one on our side, isn't such a bad thing.

<Silence on recording.>

Chief Ibanez: Pisses me right the fuck off, though.

Specialist Zaman: Sounds like. Would it be worthwhile to try and find a replacement for her?

Chief Ibanez: That's the worst part. I'd just end up with another sharpshooter, and you know what the problem with that is?

Specialist Zaman: What?

Chief Ibanez: All sharpshooters are troubleshooters.

Specialist Zaman: I guess perception is one of those virtues you can't really turn off.

Chief Ibanez: And it's omnidirectional. Snipers have to take so much shit into account, they literally require a second brain to process everything. How do you tell someone to stop playing four-dimensional chess?


Asterisk43.png

It was a complex shout. She was certainly surprised; she was more than a little afraid, though it was mostly sympathetic fear. Primarily she was affronted by what she saw.

Ana Mukami was standing in the airlock when the outer door rolled into its hidden recess. The rush of air sent her tumbling over the lip of the slot, but Ibanez caught a glimpse of her expression in the instant before she struck the slimy floor.

Nothing on Earth could scare a rictus like that onto her.

MukamiDead.jpg

Mukami struck the tiles with a dry slap, just narrowly avoiding the amber trail stretching into the airlock and interrupted by the inner door. She was two-dimensional, a cutout woman otherwise correct in every detail. The obverse showed her back, muscles taut with panic beneath the uniform jacket.

"What the fuck." Ibanez stumbled back. "What the fuck."

The silence on the limin was broken only by their breathing, until the tardy airlock fluorescents sprang to life with a solenoid snap and the air exchangers began their steady rattle.

Death rattle.

They both stared at the next door, still shut tight. She couldn't look down, so instead she looked up, up at Nascimbeni's sad brown eyes. Mukami, she suddenly remembered, had been quite taken with those eyes. She'd joked about seducing the Chief at the next Christmas party, see if she couldn't dispel some of that lingering melancholy. His wife had left him years ago, you're stalling, and while his techs — particularly Ambrogi, his deputy — were not unlike children to him, the toll was still visible in his heavy eyelids and deep periorbital puffiness.

Yes, he could probably have used the distraction.

He could definitely use it now. But of course, as always, Mukami had been all talk.

Site-43 didn't have Christmas parties.

Now it didn't have Mukami, either.

"Is she dead?" His voice was full of tender ache.

"She'd better be." Ibanez clenched her jaw and knelt beside the wafer-thin corpse. Her glove-blunted fingers probed the paper — she dismissed a sudden urge to dismantle her suit and check for a pulse with bare fingers — and gingerly searched for purchase. Mukami's remains were flush with the floor. Ibanez finally pressed down with all four fingers and thumb, and slid the woman with the gentle laugh along the tiles and out of their way. She carefully avoided the slime; she didn't know what she'd do if the paper became stained with orange.

By the time she stood back up, the hissing had ceased. The next step was clear, as the air might still not be. Nascimbeni was watching her carefully.

She nodded.

His suit was equipped with two back-mounted tanks. One carried breathing gas, and the other was full of abatement solution. He reached over his shoulder, found the valve he wanted by muscle memory, and cranked it one quarter-turn clockwise before unhooking the spray nozzle from his belt. He pointed it into the airlock, and when he pulled the trigger a blast of chalky fluid exploded outward, matte white in the ghastly yellow glow from overhead.

"Oh," he said. "That's not good."

Abatement solution was nine parts paraspectral to one part ectoplasmic, for coverage. Outside of a Mataxas Cage, it was supposed to be totally invisible; it only bleached into the visible spectrum in thaumically-charged environments. If they could still see it, AAF-D was still hot with mystery mess — undetectable mystery mess, to make a bad situation much, much worse. If the air in the airlock was this badly befouled, what would it be like deep within, where the real magic had happened? The fluid was already sizzling before it met the steel slat floor, turning black, then blue, then bursting into tiny rough splotches of flame before disappearing entirely. Nascimbeni painted the airlock white for a few moments more, waving the wand with a practiced hand… and the flow finally ceased. Ibanez at first thought he'd already used up his whole tank somehow… but no, she could still hear the hiss, and a pattering on the floor. The way forward really was open, now.

"Well," he sighed as he released the trigger, "about point zero zero one percent of F-D is… theoretically… safe." He stepped hesitantly inside — actually rocking back a little at the threshold, and for a moment she was afraid he'd fall over — and found the panel that had been Mukami's last post. "It'll only get worse from here."

"Proceed with caution," Zlatá provided unhelpfully. He might have been reading his lines from a manual.

"Noè," she breathed. "Look."

They watched as a crabbed, cramped, unseen hand chewed a statement into the inner door, bubbling white against the dark brushed steel:

I AM A CATALYST FOR MASTER-STROKES AND FOLLIES

"Good for fuckin' you," she growled.


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The inner door ground open with a shudder, and a biological crunching sound. When fully retracted, it continued to vibrate in its frame. The lettering bled in the dark, streaking the metal with glossy grey.

They didn't see any of that.

What they saw instead was a chaotic jumble of shattered pipes and broken machinery, much of it phased together, all of it the wrong shape or size or colour, with perhaps a dozen standee Mukamis quivering in the midst. They seemed positioned to make commentary on the wreckage, gazing in gape-mouthed horror at each blown-out conduit or overturned equipment cart. Their expressions were all slightly different, as though the agent had been transformed into a frame-by-frame record of her own death…

"Christ," Ibanez breathed. That's exactly what it is.

Nascimbeni raised his nozzle again, and fired. The fluid was again immediately visible; if anything, it took longer to fade out than it had before.

"Vacuum effect," he muttered. "Opening the airlock pulled it towards us. Should b—"

The spray had reached the first Mukami, and it had suddenly sprung to life. In the space of a few seconds it audibly completed its silent scream, an unearthly howl of agony, then shuddered in place as it disintegrated under the white deluge. Nascimbeni released his trigger, and gaped — even beneath the face mask, the gape was unmistakable — at the spreading puddle of pulp.

Once again they were lost for words or actions for nearly a minute. This time Zlatá broke the silence: "Are they… still alive?"

Nascimbeni shook his head, as distinct from a general shakiness which was worsening by the second. "It's just… another phenomenon. These aren't her. She's gone."

He held up the nozzle to where he could see it, weighed it in his hands, and his face sagged even further as he lowered it again.

"Gone already."

"We can't keep spraying, though," Ibanez protested. "If there's a chance—"

"There's no chance," said Zlatá. "You have to keep spraying. You don't know how far the suits will protect you, and you need to keep moving."

Nascimbeni visibly pulled himself together. "That's right. The others… might still be alive." Each word sounded like an individual chore.

She wanted to suggest picking up each instance of Mukami's remains and stacking them somewhere safe. She wanted to suggest Nascimbeni try clearing a path around them.

With a sudden burst of sympathetic exhaustion, however, she settled for saying nothing at all.

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It was hard to get a grip on the strange fate of AAF-D, what with the missing techs and agents and the progressive annihilation of a small army of shrieking Mukamis to consider instead, but she couldn't help stopping every few paces to take in the chaos nonetheless. The polymethyl acrylate floors were varyingly discoloured and sometimes distextured, crosshatched or checkerboarded or speckled with the patterns of radiation on film stock; they were meant to be wholly resistant to chips, cracks and absorption, but the specs hadn't taken the full force of a magic hurricane into account. The fans in the walls and ceilings were running lower and slower, thrumming like the memory of a migraine, and one vent was blowing a constant stream of neon green confetti. There were ashes in the air, too, which clicked and clacked as they tumbled, and Ibanez knew what they were: recondite material, remnants of the thaumic flush. Nascimbeni kept a fine mist in front of them at all times, choking out the oxygen and bringing the cinders low. They flamed out in the white fog with strobing flashes of black light, counterpointing the Morse Code flickering in the fluorescents.

Ibanez knew Morse Code. IN DEEPEST DARK I OPE THE HOODS AND FIRMLY PORTALS SHUTTER STOP IN DEEPEST DARK I OPE THE HOODS AND FIRMLY PORTALS SHUTTER STOP IN DEEPEST DARK…

The esomat suits were thaumically warded and sealed, but recondite material obeyed no physical laws. When she watched closely, she could see the thin black flecks soaring up through the brindled floor like it wasn't even there, swirling in eddies of miraculously still-recycled air, boiling out of the distant sump in a deadly thaumonuclear bloom. She didn't want to know what thoughts she'd think if one of them sailed right through her face mask and embedded itself into her brain. For all she knew, she'd start reliving Mukami's final moments.

Or the moments after.

"What is that?"

She looked past the infinite assortment of things worth commenting upon to where Nascimbeni was now pointing. There was a thin yellow cord winding through the wrack, beginning halfway down the airlock approach and disappearing through a distant door. It looped back through, via a side passage — some of the bulkheads had snapped shut after the flush, and the cord was wedged between the jamb and lock stile — enough times to get untidily knotted up with itself. Ibanez had assumed it was a long length of electrical cable, but on reflection it did seem far too long. "You don't know?"

"Nothing I've seen before." And it he'd never seen it before, it wasn't supposed to be here.

She bent to pick it up. It was spongy, and she had the immediate impression that she was holding someone's shrunken intestinal tract. She girded her stomach and looked closer, abrading the surface between the fingers of her glove.

The material was definitely biological. She gradually worked it apart, and…

She had a strong stomach, so she didn't throw up, but she did have to stagger back and squat-lean against the wall.


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2001 Personnel Review

Subject: Janet Gwilherm (agent, Security and Containment Section, Site-43)

Officer of Record: Noor Zaman (specialist, Hiring and Regulation Section, Site-43)


Specialist Zaman: Any complaints about Janet Gwilherm?

Chief Ibanez: Oh, Janet. Janet and her fucking hair.

Specialist Zaman: Beg pardon?

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Chief Ibanez: It's regulation, can you believe that? I've measured. Rule of thumb in S&C is that when it hits your shoulders, you need to cut it, but Janet's got linebacker shoulders so we had to get out the ruler to check. It's not half as long as it looks, because it's such a stupid mess.

Specialist Zaman: This is what you want to put in her official review for the year?

Chief Ibanez: That hair gets everywhere, and there's really nothing I can do about it short of holding her down and shaving it myself — which is to say, there's nothing I can do about it, because she could probably take me on in a fair fight.

Specialist Zaman: Do you engage in fair fights?

Chief Ibanez: No. Never. But don't change the subject! This shit on her head, it gets in her eyes, it gets in her mouth, it even gets caught on her lapel badges. It's ludicrous.

Specialist Zaman: And?

Chief Ibanez: And it's great. Devil-may-care copper fuckin' mop. Goes right over the waterfall of abjectly horrible, and bobs back up on Style River. Like she's just breezing through life looking casually terrific, like she just plain doesn't give a shit but the world takes up the slack. And it's copper. I don't even know where you'd get honest-to-god copper hair from, unless it's out of a bottle.

Specialist Zaman: I could really use an orientation towards the point of this tangent.

Chief Ibanez: Fine: if Gwilherm looked like shit, my life would be a whole lot easier. She's almost there, don't get me wrong: she's plain and rangy, looks ten years older than she really is, and if it wasn't for that damn orange hair I wouldn't have to spend so much time babysitting Radcliffe.

Specialist Zaman: Sorry, are we doing Radcliffe? I thought we were doing Gwilherm.

Chief Ibanez: Six versus half-a-dozen, and boy could I double entendre you right now to boot. So, Gwilherm's in "Random Walks," right?

Specialist Zaman: The stationary taskforce that patrols the Site.

Chief Ibanez: Right, Gamma-43. McInnis wanted a random element to the defences, and they're it. They literally just walk around wherever they feel like, no set schedule. Gwilherm loves to walk — it's how she got hired — so she was a quick fit.

Specialist Zaman: It's how she got hired?

Chief Ibanez: Worked at that big gallery in Toronto, remember? The one with the dinosaurs.

Specialist Zaman: The Royal Ontario Museum?

Chief Ibanez: Sure. Worked graveyard as security, used to walk around all night checking out the exhibits and checking the locks. Not big on sitting, probably because it's a longer drop for her than it is for me.

Specialist Zaman: Right, you spend a lot of time sitting.

Chief Ibanez: More than Gwilherm. Woman walks even when there's nowhere needs going. And when Radcliffe first showed up, she walked even more.

Specialist Zaman: She doesn't like Radcliffe?

Chief Ibanez: She doesn't like most people — we've got that in common — but that wasn't the problem. Problem was, Radcliffe liked her. Liked her hair, mostly, I think, 'cuz what else is there really.

Specialist Zaman: So, they were involved.

<Chief Ibanez scoffs.>

Chief Ibanez: She thought it was a great joke, ping-ponging between encouraging him and yanking the rug out from under. We had him assigned to the duty desk while he was training, so they only met in the bullpen. I don't like the bullpen — too much shit-shooting, never any real shooting — so I didn't know it, but they were doing this dumbass little dance for weeks. I spent one day in there, looking over the test results for the FNGs, and… do you like hearing the same thing twice?

Specialist Zaman: I work in HR. Doesn't faze me.

Chief Ibanez: Well, it fazes me plenty. The two of them going at it all day, apparently every day? I wasn't having that. Told them to knock it off. And you know what happened next?

Specialist Zaman: Radcliffe asked to be—

Chief Ibanez: —assigned to "Random Walks," ayup. I shot him down, because Radcliffe… you've seen Radcliffe. He's a wall of beef. Six foot four; I can't see his eyes when he looks up, with his chin in the way. Wide as a truck, fit as a fiddle, natural-born bouncer. Obvious strategic asset. I wanted to deploy that muscle wherever I needed it, and instead it wanted on stroller duty.

Specialist Zaman: But he ended up on the taskforce anyway.

Chief Ibanez: Yeah, because your boss called me into his office and gave me shit.

Specialist Zaman: Gennady Styles gave you shit? He's a trained diplomat.

Chief Ibanez: Okay, he gave me shit diplomatically. Told me I was mistreating Janet, because — get this — she had low self-esteem. Bullying Radcliffe was the only thing perked her up. Load of garbage, ask me.

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Specialist Zaman: Does sound questionable. But you listened anyway?

Chief Ibanez: Already told you, don't like hearing shit twice. Styles is an HR lifer, he knows the only way to get anything done is to pester, pester, pester. Wasn't gonna be pestered every day over something this trivial, so I said fine! Fine. Let Radcliffe wear out his running shoes. Let the two of them practice… asymmetrical warfare, on each other, if that's what they both want.

Specialist Zaman: And that solved the issue?

Chief Ibanez: No, the issue solved itself. Never should've listened to Styles.

Specialist Zaman: Why do you say that?

Chief Ibanez: First few days, I got complaints from every Section in the Site. Gwilherm and Radcliffe, carrying on like wet cats. I started asking if Keter Duty was a real thing, and if I could nominate more than one person for it. And then… it stopped.

Specialist Zaman: What changed?

Chief Ibanez: I figured that out late one night when I heard something coming from the S&C cafeteria. We basically don't use it; bullpen's more sociable, for anyone who likes that sort of shit, and anyway it's tucked so far up the Section's ass that it's claustrophobic — even by our standards. So it's almost always empty, especially on the late shift.

Specialist Zaman: But not this time.

Chief Ibanez: No, not this time. And you know what? I'm never gonna eat in there again, after what I saw.

Specialist Zaman: Ah.

Chief Ibanez: Yeah.

Specialist Zaman: So, uh…

Chief Ibanez: Yeah. Radcliffe comes up to me the next day, big broad face beet red, with relationship forms. Gwilherm signed Mukami's name, though, and that set all three of them off, and…

<Silence on recording.>

Specialist Zaman: And?

Chief Ibanez: Lost my temper. Guess I never reset my shut-the-fuck-up-o-meter on the two of them. I told them to hand in their walking shoes, and check out their combat vests. Figured the breach responders could use a vacation rotation.

Specialist Zaman: And that's where we are now?

Chief Ibanez: That's where we're at now. They called bullshit on it, said they were just screwing around, and I told them I knew damn well how much screwing they'd been doing on my dime. Told them…

Specialist Zaman: What?

Chief Ibanez: Might've said I hope we actually get a containment breach, something to screw 'em right into the ground.

Specialist Zaman: Wow. Surprised I didn't get a report on that.

Chief Ibanez: They knew I was joking.

Specialist Zaman: Did they?

Chief Ibanez: Sure. Of course.

Specialist Zaman: If you say so. What're you gonna do with them?

Chief Ibanez: Bah, dunno yet. Probably give 'em a month to cool down, then put 'em back on walking duty.

Specialist Zaman: Shall we set a specific date for that? Something I can put in the file?

Chief Ibanez: Whatever.

Specialist Zaman: Does October the first work for you?

Chief Ibanez: Can't come soon enough. I'm sick of seeing their sad fuckin' faces when I walk past the 'pen.

<Silence on recording.>

Chief Ibanez: Like a couple of cows, waiting for the butcher.


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Ibanez held up the single strand of hair she'd managed to prise out of the endless rope of human remains.

It was orange.

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