Halls of the Dead

Halls of the Dead



8 September

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada

Ibanez released the organic rope which had almost certainly once been Janet Gwilherm. It hit the floor panels with a wet, squishy sound that Nascimbeni heard quite clearly, esomat suit or no. A force barely identifiable as his own free will impelled him forward, and extended his hand. Glassy-eyed behind her face shield, she wrapped one glove around his and allowed herself to be hauled back up.

There was nothing to say. He raised the nozzle again, and returned to carving out a path. The rope recoiled from the spray, like a snake curling on mid-day sand, and the paper people melted with identical wails of mutual despair.

This is my life now.

The abortive trek resumed.

After a few dozen unsteady steps, they turned their first corner. Every intersection in AAF-D could be bulkhead sealed, and was supposed to be during emergencies, but as the breach had played merry havoc with the electrics that had only occurred sporadically. It was probably just as well; esoteric ecosystems, like gases, expanded to fill their containers. Nascimbeni wouldn't have liked to encounter a new, distinct anomalous environment behind each of the dozen doors between them and their destination.

…okay, maybe more than a dozen.

"Shit," he said.


The hall leading directly to the monitoring station was… gone. Simply gone. Undifferentiated black space, into which crumbling concrete and sparks rained down, had replaced the floor and support structure. Even the bedrock below was absent.

They didn't get close enough to see if the chasm ever terminated, or if its emptiness stretched on forever; they wordlessly agreed not to find out the hard way how far the surviving load-bearing members extended.

They were going to need a detour.


His original plan had seemed sound, in the relative comfort of his office. Their business was with the third sublevel; the thaumic flush would have rendered the lower refinery floors entirely uninhabitable, and therefore unsurvivable. Sewers with few points of ingress, they made vanishingly unlikely hiding places. From the airlock they would proceed past the equipment lockup, turn northward at the Cavern (where cognitohazardous materials underwent progressive reorientation to, and synchronization with, the parameters of baseline reality in a series of suspended canisters of thaumically-heated semioplasma) and make their way past the mass/energy separation chamber which connected to Archives and Revision (where disintegrated documents were purged of their spectral residue). From there it was just a quick dog-leg along the platonic outflow conduits to the monitoring station, the target Nascimbeni had set for Gwilherm and Radcliffe. Despite the miasma still choking the facility and gradually dissolving the finish on every exposed surface — his boots came away from the floor panels coated in a metal-flecked ooze, as if in response to the thought — it still seemed likely that the overflow system had been triggered, and the worst of the worst drawn down into the Pit. Their task completed, they would have either headed farther north, hoping the subway system was still open, or bunkered down where they were, hoping the whirlwind would pass them by, or charged back to the airlock, hoping Nascimbeni would let them out if they pounded hard enough (assuming sound could even penetrate the thick steel vault door), or searched the branching corridors for panic rooms and stray esomat suits. The simple red line he'd etched onto the map, taped to the arm of his own suit, represented the best-case scenario for picking them up no matter which option they'd chosen.

Well, so much for that.

"Into the labs, then?" Ibanez was eyeing the nearest door.

In addition to the ducts and pipelines coating every stretch of wall, AAF-D features vast sewer lines carrying every variety of esoteric sludge both to and from an eccentric set of terminal processing plants. Along these are arrayed all manner of workshops and laboratories, one for every sort of test the master abaters can dream up, with enough access points and unique machinery or observation stations to put Main Engineering on the starship Enterprise to shame.

The conduits run beneath central access halls, which one might in a fit of cynicism describe as 'hominid inflow and outflow'.

— Blank, Lines in a Muddle

"Guess so." Nascimbeni sighed, and held the map up to his faceplate while he fished a blunt-ended marker out of his arm pouch. He could have amended their path with his eyes closed, so well did he know these crosshatched corridors.


He wished he could conduct the entire search, already doubling in length, with his eyes closed.

He closed his eyes, clutched the trigger again, and daydreamed of better days.



2 March

"You all know the Boss." Romolo Ambrogi had one elbow on the podium, leaning conspiratorially towards his seated audience. "He's the one who worries, because we're too careless. He's the guy who gets shit done, because we're all too lazy." Ambrogi waggled his eyebrows at Dave Markey, who pretended not to notice. Nascimbeni considered nudging him, but decided against it; Markey might try to claim a rib injury later. "He's our collective Portrait of Dorian Gray — see those lines on his forehead? Those are ours! We'd all be prunes by now if he wasn't bearing the brunt of it."

The AAF-D monitoring room erupted with laughter. It wasn't that clever a joke, of course, and the reference went over many of their heads, but the audience was mostly made up of J&M techs who Ambrogi had fortified well beforehand. He hadn't wanted to leave the laughs to chance.

"So, it's high time we thanked him for his service, and I know just the way." Nascimbeni's Deputy Chief grinned at him. "All of us in J&M know the Boss loves to tell stories, right?"

Markey piped up, and he piped up loud. "We love it too!" This time Nascimbeni did nudge him. Deep in his cups, the old jobsworth failed to feel it.

Ambrogi pointed at Markey, still grinning. "Only 'cuz we get to down tools while he talks!"

The laughter this time was more genuine. Nascimbeni twisted in his orange Bakelite chair and offered an obligingly blistering scowl to each and everyone, while Ambrogi and Markey performed a long-distance high-five.

"Seriously, though," and then Ambrogi nearly fell over as the lectern — borrowed from Archives and Revision, because neither the janitors nor the abaters were big on giving speeches — rolled forward under his weight. It jolted to a stop when it caught on a cluster of separated tile grouting. "Whoops! But yeah, I think it's time I put my encyclopedic knowledge of the Boss' life to good use."

"No…" Nascimbeni groaned, to a chorus of guffaws.

"Oh, were you saving it up for your autobiography? Too bad, we're doing this." Ambrogi drummed with meaningless dramatic energy, then cleared his throat. "Ahemhem. Noè Nascimbeni came out of Italy in 1966 with a dream: to own his own construction company. His father had an old war buddy — hey, what side of the war did the mother country fight on, again?"

Nascimbeni scowled, while Markey crowed: "Which war? Seven Years'? Hundred Years'?" It got a few laughs, but only a few. It would've played much better to Blank's crowd.

"Anyway, that old war buddy owed Noè's dad a favour, and he lived in Toronto's Little Italy. Noè didn't know a damn thing about Canada, but he did know he needed a steady job, so he was Toronto-bound by default. When he got there, though, he found out his father's friend wasn't keen on bankrolling construction. He said…" A manic grin broke across Ambrogi's black beard. "Actually, Boss, you tell them what he said. Everybody pipe down, shouting quotations is embarrassing."

More laughter, then accommodating silence. Nascimbeni put on his best exaggerated Italian accent — which was very good, since he was in fact already Italian — and recited from fond memory: "'Why you want to tap asphalt all your life? You know how many Italians there are in construction in this country? Practically everybody. You want people calling you Noè Nascimbeni, or Gino Digaditchi?'"

That won some genuine belly laughs. He waited for them to subside before adding the stinger: "'You let them think of you as a punchline, you never be anything more'."

Contemplative silence, broken by a sudden hiccough from Markey.

The Deputy Chief clapped. "Brilliant. Well, little Noè definitely wanted to be something more, so he took a page out of old Ambrogi's book. Oh, sorry, did I not…?" He slapped his forehead, nearly dislodging his J&M ballcap. "The old war buddy was a guy named Lazzaro Ambrogi. I think I know that guy."

This laughter had a distinctly polite edge; Ambrogi had just delivered what the kids called a 'dad joke'. Nascimbeni quite liked it.

"Ambrogi was in the plumbing business," his namesake continued, "and he told baby Noè that there weren't any stereotypes about Italians and plumbers." He held up his hands at the ensuing commotion. "Hey, I told you, this was 1966. So Ambrogi apprentices the kid, teaches him the trade, even buys him his first set of tools. Invites him into his house, feeds him, gives him a place to sleep…"

"…never pays me a red cent…" Nascimbeni grumbled. He was getting into the mood.

Ambrogi nodded eagerly. "All that good stuff. They whittle out a successful firm in Little Italy, which was getting less and less Italian by the minute, then head on up north to Corso Italia to buy a pretty little postwar townhouse block. That's where Ambrogi's son is born, a precocious little squirt—"

"Little shit, more like," Nascimbeni snorted. Markey nudged him in the ribs as the room exploded.

Ambrogi gamely continued, talking over the interruption. "—named Romolo, and a more beautiful baby you never did see—"

"Head like a pumpkin."

Another collective thunderclap. Nascimbeni was turning this roast around; he glanced at the streaming, smiling faces encircling him, and felt a rush of pride. "Brain like a pumpkin," he added, waggling his own eyebrows.


Ambrogi spread his hands in mock outrage. "Alright, who's telling this story? And it's about to get interesting. Noè gets picked up by the SCP Foundation, oooooo…"

On cue, the audience echoed him: "Ooooo."

"…in 1971, when one of his neighbours summoned a basement dragon."

Nascimbeni swore he heard a spit take behind the confused giggles.

"I'm serious! A withered, seven-headed dragon. Old peasant trick, you know the type. Turns out there were some vandals in the neighbourhood, and somebody knew a bit of the old folklore, wanted revenge. Vivian Scout, hallowed be his name," and Ambrogi actually affected a posture of prayer for a moment, "sent MTF Rho-43—"

"HOME INVADERS!" Markey bellowed. Nascimbeni mimed cleaning out his Markey-facing ear canal.

"Yeah, "Home Invaders," that's right, to tame the wild beast. And what do they find? It's already been tamed. It's comatose in young Noè's basement… man, wow, can I just say, the phrase 'young Noè' is really throwing me for a loop every time."

Nascimbeni harrumphed. "You'll get old some day too, squirt."

"Never happen, I refuse. But yeah, turns out young Noè knew his mythology too. Dragons get a powerful thirst, so he dumped his wife's antihistamines into the water tank, and the dumb thing doped itself."

Markey tried to stand up, and failed. He still managed to blurt out "So that's where you learned how to moonshine, Romo!"

The crowd liked that one a lot, for obvious reasons. Ambrogi affected confusion. "No idea what you're talking about." He pointed. "Don't know this man, never met him. Now, everyone else in the townhouses? Including dear old mom and dad? They get the amnesticize-and-release treatment. Quick-thinking Noè? He gets a job offer. Moves to Grand Bend, and in no time at all he's the star of Site-43's most glamourous Section."

"All hail the Mighty Mops!" Sergey Vanchev called from somewhere in the middle rows, to appreciative applause. Nascimbeni joined in.

"By '87 he was the Chief, and he started overhauling the whole kit and kaboodle. Every inch of plumbing, esoteric or otherwise." Nascimbeni glanced at the back of the room, to see how the non-technicians were handling this workaday history lesson. McInnis looked placidly fascinated, as he always did when others were talking. Deering had never showed up, which was no surprise; he never did, when his brother was around. Zlatá was actually asleep, which Nascimbeni found legitimately impressive. "Whether it's a thaumic flush or a bog-standard dump," Ambrogi continued, "you have this here man to thank when it doesn't come back gushing over your toes. Acroamatic Abatement was a plumber's playground, and he spent countless happy hours drafting better and more efficient schematics. He brought me on a few years back—"

"The dark ages," said Paul Nicolescu. He'd obviously meant to shout it, but chickened out after opening his mouth. Vanchev slapped him on the back; the younger tech winced, then glared.

"—and through the power of hard work and raw brainpower," Ambrogi continued—

Nascimbeni turned back around just in time for Markey to shout in his face: "And nepotism!"

He shouted back, in Markey's ear: "And nepotism!"

Markey fell out of his chair, to boisterous general approval.

"—and screw you guys," Ambrogi didn't even miss a beat, "I became Deputy Chief. Together we designed AAF-D, the world's most modern abatement facility, and the shit's all rolled downhill ever since. So here's to us, via you, Boss, Uncle Noè, the most Super of Marios: thirty years long service! Looking forward to the big six-oh."

"I'll have replaced you by then!" Nascimbeni shouted, then tried to roll Markey over with one boot. It ended up taking both boots; Markey had some heft. He was already out like a light.

"Love you too, unc," Ambrogi replied softly.



8 September

"You should've delegated this."

Nascimbeni had to torso-twist awkwardly in the esomat suit to stare at her. "What?"

"This." Ibanez gestured at the contorted hall, floor tiles humped up as though some enormous worm had wriggled its way where they were going, wall tiles manifesting a constantly-shifting alphabetscape which only settled on specific gibberish when the abatement mist struck them. "You've got a Deputy Chief, you've been awake for over a day, and you've already been explosed… exposed to some of this shit — without a suit, I should add."

He grunted. "Could say some of the same about you. And Ambrogi's topside, with his girlfriend. Nobody else senior enough to handle it, what with Markey…"

The letters on the wall morphed into visiting his girlfriend. They ignored it. "Those are lovely excuses. The real reason is, though, that you're personally invested — and that's never a good reason, in our line."

He turned away from her again. "I know the line. I'm objective."

She snorted. "Right. My agents are just agents, Noè, but your techs are fa—"

He snorted back at her, louder. "You might be short, but that's all you've got in common with Ngo. Don't psychoanalyze, especially not right now."

"Yes." They both jumped as Zlatá's voice cut in. "Please maintain your focus."

"Roger, Control." Nascimbeni saw Ibanez's cheeks moving, and knew she had mouthed fuck off. "Seriously though, I bet if I asked you could tell me… Phil Deering's second-favourite childhood pet."

"He didn't have any pets, his mother was… allergic…" Nascimbeni rotated back into glaring range.



9 February

"So, Deering." Noor Zaman waved the next personnel file. "Philip Eugene."

Nascimbeni nodded. "Good kid."

Zaman laughed, leaning back in his chair and putting his feet up on the desk. He'd slipped his shoes off an hour ago. "You think they're all good kids, Chief."


"Well, they are." Nascimbeni picked at a stray splash of abatement fluid which had stained his black undershirt; he'd endured some truly filthy ribbing from the boys about it earlier. His vest was on Zaman's office couch, along with his cap. Personnel review was nobody's idea of fast-paced fun.

"Well, let's try a little criticality for a change." Nascimbeni wondered if Zaman knew what that term meant in AcroAbate circles. "He can't improve on generic compliments alone."

"Fine." Nascimbeni didn't have to rack his brain very hard. "Ambition. Kid hasn't got any."

The handsome H&R clerk's dark brown eyes widened. "Are J&M techs generally ambitious?"

"No, not really, but Phil has no ambition. Never takes extra shifts, never goes for advanced training, never gladhands — lord knows I wish I didn't have to, mind you — and Christ, he doesn't even date." Nascimbeni stared at the framed portrait of Abu Dhabi which hung on Zaman's otherwise featureless, Mediterranean chalk blue wall. At Site-43, eye-level photographs and paintings too often stood in for windows. "He's like a freshman at college, half-botching his work, un-botching it at length, then sloping off to the dorms for mild amusements and bed." It was all true; he still felt guilty saying it out loud, as though he were betraying some sacred trust, shaking skeletons out of the family closet or something.

Or something.

"Meanwhile," Zaman remarked mildly, "his brother is the Chief of Applied Occultism." It was often necessary for personnel with lower security clearance levels to remind their betters that they possessed this information. Dougall Deering's identity was strictly need-to-know.

"Phil never talks about that."

"Well, I wish it was a mutual silence." This time Zaman's tone wasn't half so mild.

Nascimbeni leaned forward in his chair. "Oh?"

The clerk seemed to hesitate for a moment, before inhaling deeply. "I don't think this is sensitive, so: Dr. Deering will not stop bothering me for status updates on Philip."

Nascimbeni laughed out loud in relief. "Wow, I thought it was just me. He's interfered half a dozen times already."

"Oh yeah?" Zaman's expression shifted from caution to curiousity. "Interfered how?"

"Let's see." Nascimbeni had to spin the wheels a bit for this one; they used to spin faster, he was sure of it. "Last year Phil came to my office, asking about Site-246. 'I hear there's an opening in the Draintrap, think they'd take me?' You know how often people ask if they can transfer to 246? How often people willingly go to work on a lakebed?"

"Never," said Zaman. "It's a punishment detail."

"Damn near. But this kid, he wanted an even lower-key assignment than mopping floors underground." Nascimbeni's head was already wagging in paternalistic disappointment. "Kid's ambition is so low, he'd rather sink than swim."

"Mopping's a steady job, though, in the Superior Sieve."

Nascimbeni acknowledged the point, and the pun, with a nod. "So I try to pass it on, and guess what? Dougall Damn Deering vetoes me. 'He can do better. He's going to do better'. That's what he says."

Zaman grimaced. "No wonder Philip doesn't talk about him."

"Well, that, and he doesn't even know his brother lives here." Nobody who knew both Deerings was best pleased about keeping that secret for one of them, not least because they were never told why they should have to, and also not least because Dougall wasn't nearly endearing enough for anyone to gladly suffer an onus of silence on his behalf. "Now, it's not that I want to lose the kid — I still say he's a good one — but Jesus Christ, let him run or ruin his own damn life. The month after that, I try promoting him to temporary shift lead. Same thing happens: 'He asks for authority, or he doesn't get it. No freebies'." Nascimbeni's Deering impression was an unflattering, nasal hectoring. "Doesn't even tell me, he goes through McInnis instead."

"Ouch. But then didn't he recommend—"

"Yeah!" Nascimbeni almost leaned right out of his chair. "Yeah, oh yeah, he definitely did. Moonlight Maria."

Zaman looked uncertain. "I only know about that vaguely."

"Well don't worry about it, personnel review qualifies you. If someone says different, tell them to shoot me instead." He settled into story mode, relaxing his shoulders and lowering his voice. "In July of this year, I had to train up seventeen eggheads as qualified techs. Seventeen! Never had a batch that big before, for any reason. I was supposed to show them the ropes in F-D, then ship 'em back to Austria where they were working on Moonlight Maria. SCPA 98533, a retrofitted B-52."

"What were we doing with a Stratofortress?" Zaman's opposite wall had a framed photo of a Lockheed Ventura; he was one of Harold Blank's least favourite people to talk to, an amateur military history enthusiast.

"Dunno." He really didn't. "The AcroAbate Group was in charge — this was at Area-21, right — and everybody has their own theory. It's a bit of a worry when the Gunkers start dicking around with a strategic bomber."

"No kidding." Zaman actually looked worried. "And Dr. Deering told you to send his brother."

"Yeah. These eggheads, they were all-in on the project, super smart and eager, and I guess Dougall got a sniff, figured it was a Big Deal, something special, high-prestige as tech stuff goes. Maybe an O5's pet project." He stopped to consider his own brainwave for a moment; the O5 Council only rarely intervened in the Foundation's day-to-day. Should I even be telling this story? Bah, I'm too old to give a shit. He continued. "Dougall pulls the strings, shifts his weight, and off goes Phil as an 'understudy'. Coffee gopher, more like."

"I'm imagining a lot of spilled coffee." Philip Deering was not the least clumsy member of Nascimbeni's staff. "What then?"

"Well, he was only there three weeks. On July 25th…"

He suddenly found he couldn't complete the sentence. Zaman's worry became alarm. "Chief? You alright?"

Nascimbeni waved him off, but it didn't take. "Chief? Shit, are you okay?" The clerk stood up. "Is it a memetic geas or something? Preventing you from spea—"

"No," Nascimbeni choked out. He rubbed his face vigorously. "Just haven't… haven't thought about this for a while, is all. Sit down." He gestured. "Sit down."

Zaman sat down.

"The thing is, I only knew these kids for a month, right?" He felt ridiculous. He examined the books in Zaman's bookcase, row after row of administrative manuals with uninspired titles, giving the kid a chance to hide his reaction to this unexpected breakdown. "I guess I'm a soft touch."

"You should see your personnel review."

Nascimbeni looked back at Zaman; the other man was smiling. "Yeah, I'll bet. Alright, so… on July 25th, Moonlight Maria blew up in its hangar. Took Area-21 nine days to disinfect the place — and we're talking the supposed experts, here. Whatever was in that thing, it was nasty. The flight crew, seven scientists, all seventeen kids… I mean, the eggheads, the ones I trained… and maybe even someone from Overwatch, rumour says, all dead. Only one who lived was Phil Deering."

Zaman whistled. "That's… wow. Okay. How?"

"At first, naturally, they thought it was sabotage." He frowned; he couldn't help but take umbrage on Phil's behalf. "Internal Affairs came down on him like a sack of lead, Dougall all the while insisting his angelic little brother couldn't be an Insurgency traitor. Of course they thought it was the Insurgency."

"Of course." That was the logical first guess whenever something blew up for no reason.

"When the truth finally came out… well, it didn't surprise me." Nascimbeni clutched the armrests of his chair. "Phil missed the test flight because he'd had to run back to his apartment, double-checking some sim data. Pointless stuff, not remotely important, because that's all they trusted him with. Seventeen of the most expensive trainees I ever trained, near-geniuses all, every one of them better at the crazy shit they did than he is at swinging a mop. So they decided to leave without him."

He clicked his tongue. He checked his watch. He shifted in his chair. Zaman waited patiently, and Nascimbeni finally got the last words out: "That was the difference between them dying, and him not."

The clerk nodded. "I think I see where this is going."

"Didn't think I was going anywhere with it." A light suddenly dawned. "Oh, okay, you mean that insane memo from McInnis."

"Yeah. 'Under no circumstances is Philip Deering ever to advance past the rank of technician, by order of the O5 Council'."

"Bonkers, even by our standards," Nascimbeni spat. "They know it wasn't his fault, but everyone else is in the ground, so who can they blame? Dougall stopped even trying to help him after that."

"Mm. Come to think of it, he hasn't been badgering me either anymore." Zaman looked a bit sad.

"Might be for the best." He wasn't sure he believed it. "Might be what the kid wants. Of course, he can't stop second-guessing now, running every test twice, checking and re-checking… inefficient, damned aggravating, but I can't really blame him… or praise him, if it comes to that." This, too, felt insufficiently generous, but he couldn't bring himself to rephrase.


"Probably never make it past technician even without the black spot," Zaman mused.

Nascimbeni stood up and stretched, to avoid getting angry for no reason. "Probably die of old age down here, mop in hand." The simple act of standing made the blood run to his head, and he suddenly sat back down again. "Then again, so will I."



8 September

He winced at the memory, even as he faced the very real possibility that he was about to die sans mop in AAF-D surrounded by labels bearing legends like DIALECTICAL DEMATERIALIZATION and ECTOENTROPIC ANODENSITY MATRICES and SINUSOIDAL DEPLANARATION. He didn't know what any of them meant, but given the time he knew he could fix whatever lay broken behind each door… and today that didn't fill him with pride, but an unaccountable feeling of remorse.

There certainly were a lot of doors, though.

They turned a corner. "How much fu—" Ibanez asked, then breathed "—cking…?"

The Acroamatic Abatement Section of Site-43 employs fifty-seven people, researchers mostly, in addition to the handful of J&M techs who mind machinery at all hours. They don't run triple shifts, as so much of their work is efficiently automated; after quitting time, therefore, the place becomes an enormous empty labyrinth of pipe-lined switchbacks, cul-de-sacs and blind alleys. Few sectors of the Site boast more quiet, out-of-the-way nooks and niches away from prying electronic eyes than our four multi-storey refinery complexes. It's simply impossible to cover every angle within those warrens of cables, conduits and chambers, and most long-term staff host a suite of salacious suppositions about this fact — or, in many cases, firsthand experience. It's well-known in urban planning circles that single-use districts, particularly industrial ones, attract behaviour of ill repute in the off hours.

Administration and Oversight has declined to comment. AcroAbate, after all, is already an object lesson in the perennial need for safety valves. That steam won't let itself off!

— Blank, Lines in a Muddle

Nascimbeni had considered the rumours about AAF-D to be nothing more than that, but the walls ahead supplied mute testimony to their veracity. His eyes widened as he took it all in: both sides of the corridor were plastered — literally plastered, the paste melting and reforming to simulate motion — with cavorting photorealistic figures in various stages of undress, a mural of courting and coitus. He recognized more than a few of the life-sized faces, including…

He snuck a glance at Ibanez. She looked as mortified as a pair of disembodied eyes could look.

"Uh," he offered.


"Report," Zlatá demanded.

"Uh," Nascimbeni repeated. He frowned. He pointed. "Hey, isn't he—"

She gestured sharply at his equipment. "Use the damn hose already." He could see by the way her brows knotted that she only belatedly realized how that sounded.

As he doused the orgy with the white spray, he had to admit that under any other circumstances this would have been at least a little bit funny.

He was thankful that these figures, at least, didn't scream as they melted. Intent on their business, they gyrated 'til the end.


The path Nascimbeni had originally plotted for searching AAF-D had involved seven separate corridors and six junctions, each potentially sealed. Their detour upped the junction number to a whopping eleven, though the bulkhead count remained the same. They didn't encounter any further stretches of simply absent space — or, as the case may have been, complicatedly present space — but they did pass through three distinct new biomes of esoteric unpleasantness. Near the Synchronization/Reorientation labs they found a dry orange moss filling the halls floor to ceiling; the abatement spray parted it like the Red Sea, and it remained retracted so long as the white drops glistened on each withered clump of fibres. Once it dried up again behind them, the way was shut. Nascimbeni noted grimly that they were now operating on a progress limit, since they'd need at least a little fluid to get back through.

The Paraspectral Grounding sector gave them both a nasty shock — though not the nastiest it was capable of delivering. It was a blur of translucent colour almost too fast to track with the naked eye, but when they allowed themselves to de-focus they could make out enough discrete snatches of comprehensible imagery to identify individual human specimens crossing and re-crossing the pavement. The place was packed, packed and stacked, with thousands of humanoid spectres tracking over and into and through each other. He thought he spied J&M orange; she thought she recognized some form of indigenous dress. Nascimbeni almost suggested they alter their route again… but then he remembered the depressing sum total of Phil Deering's life accomplishments, and resolved not to let that be an epitaph. He forged on, and blushing behind her faceplate, Ibanez pushed past him to lead through the incorporeal crush.


Unlike the moss, the ghosts didn't part for them even under alabaster assault. Unlike the moss, being merely a trick of the light, they didn't need to.

He almost tripped on the Gwilherm-rope three times. The once-omnipresent Mukamis were entirely absent, though that state of affairs was temporary. He'd long since lost count of them.

The final stretch before the final turn was also the longest, and easily the most curious. Curious because he wouldn't have expected much anomalous activity here at all, on the edge of the facility where most of the rooms contained only supplies or machinery; curious because he knew for an absolute fact that they kept passing through the same doors, crossing the same floors, brushing briskly past the same windows over and over in what should have been a straight shot. He knew this facility like the back of his hand, he knew he wasn't mistaken. The views behind each window did change between iterations, however…

He saw a fire burning upside-down as though it were right-side-up. He saw stainless steel panels rusting away to orange dust, and orange dust forming into six-armed shapes with backswept brows and empty orbits. He saw a bathroom door bulging outward, the first few tendrils of crimson creeping charlie worming into the artificial light. The stalks were covered in hundreds… thousands… perhaps millions of tiny eyes, which tracked to follow their march. But out in the passageway the spatial recursion was the only problem, and as if in recognition of their dauntless push — Ibanez didn't even glance at the windows, though admittedly her point of view was closer to the ground — it finally consented to end.

In something really, truly quite special.


Nascimbeni didn't know what a fractal was.

He could identify one on sight, of course — anyone over Clearance Level 2 could — but he had no idea what the point of the things might be, or what they might mean. He was seeing one now, however, in a very practical form, and decided (not wholly incorrectly) that they must have something to do with chaos.

The last segment of hall before the monitoring room was warped. Most walls at Site-43 were precast concrete panels overlaid with tiles — manufactured in bulk via massive kilns adjunct to the geothermal vents — or plaster. They were therefore quite modular, and whatever forces had been unleashed on this end of the facility had taken cruel advantage. Every panel was subtly or catastrophically rotated away from every other in a small-scale impression of a fractal pattern, the tiles smashed into dust an inch thick on the… floor? There wasn't so much a floor as there was a low point to the architectural gibberish where the floor had once been.

Little purple flowers were growing in the tile dust soil, blown by an imperceptible breeze.

By the end of the corridor, where the monitoring station sat, the fractal had finally resolved itself. It had, unfortunately, reached entirely the wrong conclusion.

"Good thing we didn't try the subway," Ibanez muttered.

The access portals to AAF-D's Inter-Sectional Subway System station were on the ceiling. The long tunnels leading there from here were hidden behind what had once been the hallway's floor; this entire block had been violently wrenched one quarter-turn clockwise. Where the floor had been, the long monitoring room window yawned open.

The glass, unsurprisingly, was broken, the Gwilherm-rope descending into it in long curly coils, and the sills and shards were slick with blood.

Just blood. Nothing stranger. The simplicity and poignancy of that human evidence…

"No," said Nascimbeni. He felt like vomiting. "No, no, no, no."

"Hey." Ibanez reached out to steady him; she was two-thirds his height, but had one hell of a centre of gravity. "I'll check it out. You just take it easy."

He nodded weakly, and searched for a promising piece of shifted structure to rest against. She reached for the rappelling wire attached to her suit belt — you attended enough of the Foundation's special brand of shitshow, you got used to spatial anomalies — and cast about for something to clip onto.

He pointed from his seat of ruins. "Fire extinguisher mount. Rated for twice your weight."

She scoffed as she attached the caribiner to the empty metal bracket. "My weight is classified."

It was a quip, but it was probably also true.


AAF-D has the strangest staffing profile of the Site's many sectors. Almost all of the 'important' work — the stuff which headlines the year-end reports which find their way onto the desks of the O5s, or at least their proxies — gets done by the AcroAbate techs and docs, sequestered in their dozens of little labs along the orphic flow lines or recondite material transfer pipes which feed the huge, automated heavy lifters in the neutralization process. But the AA folks toiling away behind closed doors (Romolo Ambrogi has nicknamed them 'Antisocials Anonymous') are vastly outnumbered by the J&M techs who keep the abatement train running to schedule. During working hours there are more of Chief Nascimbeni's people in here than there are in his Section's own mammoth sector, where the Site's power is produced, its water purified and its non-anomalous waste processed. Since AAF-D is the most modern and efficient of the refineries, it pulls the most weight, needs the most monitoring, and therefore acts as the de facto mustering point for any techs who find themselves between tasks with no obvious next step. When they want to shoot the shit, trade gossip or bitch a bit, as working stiffs the world over consider their sacred right for several minutes on every hour, like as not they'll be found doing it in the monitoring room.

— Blank, Lines in a Muddle

At least this happened after working hours. It wasn't much consolation.

Nascimbeni studiously ignored the empty window in Ibanez's absence. It was stupid, it was embarrassing — or rather it would have been, had there been anyone there to witness his recalcitrance — but he wanted to remember the place as it had been, as it never would be again.

Not that he'd have that luxury for long. He had no illusions about space management in an underground facility. The tunnels surrounding the Site might be functionally endless, but it would take divine intervention to convince the Joint Chairs and Chiefs to abandon this much extant superstructure. No, he was going to have to make that descent himself at some point in the coming days, and see how his happy world had been quite literally turned on its head.

Until then, he could focus on the good times.



21 August

"You're a god-damn moron, Vanchev, you know that?"

Sergey Vanchev laughed in his Deputy Chief's face. "Don't tell me you've never considered it."


Ambrogi shook his head ruefully. "If anyone finds out…"

"You're the master at not being found out," Markey observed. "Maybe you should lend our friend here a hand."

"You're the expert at skiving," Ambrogi shot back. "If you weren't so opposed to 'lending a hand', I'm sure you could teach Dopey how to hide his indiscretions."

Markey guffawed. "My skiving is up-front. It's honest. I do it right out in the open, where everyone can see. Mockery is the price I pay."

Vanchev spread his hands wide. "Well, that's why I told you all! So I could pay the humiliation toll."

"We all know he did it just to get a lock on Employee of the Month," Nicolescu groused. "Gotta buy the egghead vote."

"Gosh, Deering will be so upset." Vanchev smirked. "I'm sure he was gonna get it this time!" This was an inside joke; Philip Deering was never shortlisted for said award, despite being the only J&M tech who actually wanted it. Just about everyone else already had one, lovingly framed, in their junk drawers.

"Where precisely did you do this?" Ambrogi asked. He was leaning on the main monitoring console, as he always did. Everyone had their own customary station in the control room: Nascimbeni at his desk; Nicolescu in the corner, slumped over the back of an office chair; Markey lying on the floor ("sacral nerve injury," he straight up lied if anyone asked); Vanchev on a chair in the centre of the ratty old tiles, swivelling to face each speaker in turn. He customarily acted as the moderator in their vicious little debates, as this flattered his sense of self-importance, but there was nothing moderate in what he was admitting to today.

"We did it in Countersynthetic Reversion," Vanchev grinned. "Most romantic room in the Sorcery Sewer."

They all waited. They knew they wouldn't have to ask.

"Can't have metal, plastics, glass or ceramics in there. All the fixtures are made of wood."

"Like your head," Ambrogi added.

Vanchev glared at him. "You just screwed up my comedic timing. I should screw your girlfriend next."

Ambrogi scoffed. "You're not her type. Alright, I'll set you up again: what kind of wood is it, Mr. Vanchev?" His voice raised an octave at the end in mock interest.

Vanchev narrowed his eyes impishly. "Heartwood. Awwwwww."



8 September

Weeks later, Nascimbeni could still hear the groans in his head. He could also hear Romolo Ambrogi's parting shot, as he headed out on inspection patrol: "We're all real proud of you, Dopey. First JM to graduate from fuckin' the dog to fuckin' the doc."

They'd all liked that much better. Sitting alone in this monument to indifferent maintenance, however, Nascimbeni found precious little amusing about the joke…

He heard Ibanez scrambling back up the wire, and walked to the window to help her out. He still couldn't bring himself to gaze long into the abyss; he was considerably more afraid of what he'd see down there, what she had undoubtedly already seen, than he'd been of the gaping maw back at the outset of their expedition. A brief lunge into the black to tug her harness up and help her clear the sill, though, that at least he could manage.

He didn't ask what she'd found; he found he couldn't.

She told him anyway. "No Deering."

He cursed, then paused. "Gwilherm? Radcliffe?"

She shook her head. "Just the rope." Her face was ashen. "But they definitely tripped the overflow system."

He nodded. "Okay. Okay." He exhaled, forcefully, and stalked back the way they'd come.

She tucked the harness away in its flap and scrambled to catch him. "Where are you going? We can't just give up!"

He spun with a speed that surprised even him, in his vintage garb and vintage frame of such limited mobility. One gloved finger waving accusingly above her upturned nose, he snapped: "I'm not giving up. I'm not going to give up. I'm going to find someone, and I'm going to find them alive. There's one sure spot where they could've missed all this bullshit: the concentration cell. Until I crack that open, and see that it's empty…"

He chose to leave it open-ended, a yawning portal to a better ending, and they began retracing their steps in urgent silence.


This second journey was half as long as the first had been, though it involved a lot more dodging through labs and workshops to circumvent the vanished central hall. Ibanez's suit had a marker of its own, and he borrowed it to hastily scribble the final leg on his arm-map.


The first door on the way was completely missing, a bare stretch of wall where it should have been, and it only reappeared when he sprayed the offending panel. Whatever the room beyond had once been, it was now a translucent crystalline maze capturing light from the empty, sparking sockets on the ceiling and painting a dizzying refraction across their vinyl suit layers.

He felt his lining growing warmer where the light landed, and hurried Ibanez along.

The next three rooms offered, in order: the complete absence of sound, so oppressive he imagined for an instant that he'd lost the ability to hear his own thoughts; a perfect recreation of the S&C bullpen, complete with Ibanez leaning on one wall and laughing at Mukami's funny story about silly Willie Wettle — all three agents turned to point at her as she left the room, eyes set dead ahead; and possibly worst of all, absolutely nothing but neatly-arrayed scientific equipment in a tidy little lab beyond the third door, not a single sign of damage evident.

AAF-D might have been holding back the best for last, however, like a deep breath before the plunge.

The concentration cell is the most vital piece of containment apparatus in any AcroAbate sector. The 1990s AAF-D design employed thaumatoarchitectural theory to arrange every component of waste and energy transfer in precisely the correct alignment to create a sort of nexus of occult activity in a specific three-metre-square space, which was then filled with an oriykalkos-infused concrete paste shell and fitted with orphic anti-shielding. The effect is this: any invisible leakage from the pipes and conduits, any buildup of esoteric potential in the atmosphere of AAF-D is drawn naturally into the concentration cell, where thorough and regular paraspectral washing can burn it all away. It has the thickest vault door in the entire Acroamatic Abatement Section, and is nestled in the only natural bedrock walls to be found within the superstructural boundaries. It contains a fresh supply of abatement fluid, and its own Mataxas Cage, and perhaps most crucially, the overflow system bypasses it completely. If someone in an esomat suit with a full tank of white gunk walks into that room during a full flush and screws the valve door shut, they stand an even chance of surviving whatever oddities come next.


— Blank, Lines in a Muddle

Which would have made it a bit of bad news to see that the door was widely ajar, had that revelation not been pre-empted by the sight of the shrivelled cadaver in an S&C uniform which knelt, arms outstretched, twisted countenance exposed to the flickering sky amidst a desert of fine-ground tile. A dozen Mukamis were clustered around it, the whole comprising a tableau of gape-mouthed terror. There was no sign of musculature or fat, just a general tightening around what had once been and likely was no longer a skeletal structure. The skin was jaundiced, elephantine, and ribbed with unnatural cracks and ridges.

It was, in fact, tree bark.


"It has to be Radcliffe." Ibanez's voice was entirely bereft of emotion, and he instantly hated her for it. All three agents were dead, and the cell door was wide open… it didn't make any sense, but he found he could almost blame the other Chief for the unfairness of it all just because she'd been the first to acknowledge it.

He wasn't about to attempt a closer examination of the tree-husk or the human cable which spun about its knees in a vile parody of an embrace before resuming its race 'round each corner and across each corridor thrice over, so the final determination would have to wait. He knew he had to do his due diligence, and also that the dimensions of their search had just become thoroughly unmanageable; after he poked his head into the cell, to confirm what they already knew, they were going to have to check every other room in AAF-D for Wirth and Dee—

"JESUS FUCK." Ibanez's esomat booties gave way, and she slid backward on the tiles. Nascimbeni caught her, hands under her armpits, and deftly placed her back on her feet before letting go. She shook him off violently, and just barely restrained herself from punching the shattered pipes which ran the length of the corridor. "FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK."




Something in the way he shouted made her stop. She turned to look at him, then turned to look where he was pointing.

At the puddle of prismatic water she'd somehow missed in the middle of the tiles, had trod on, had nearly gone for a bath in.

She followed his finger up, to the ceiling, where the slate blocks were stippled with more colour-banded fluid. It drip-dropped down to the spreading pool, splashing and rippling as water so naturally did, then bounced back up to rejoin the overhead liquid marbling as water most definitely did not.

When she looked back down at Nascimbeni, he was trying to say something. She recognized enough of the first strangled syllable to nod, silently permitting him not to speak the thing they both knew to be true.


On closer inspection, probably-Radcliffe's S&C uniform was completely soaked through with Markey's chromatic remains.


Nascimbeni had gone the whole of his thirty-year career with the SCP Foundation without ever suffering a workplace accident of any kind. He'd seen them happen, of course, he'd seen others badly and bizarrely injured, but he'd gotten away Scot free every time. Much of it was skill, most of it was caution, and some of it was undoubtedly luck.

He nevertheless knew more about workplace injuries than almost anyone else at Site-43 because of the man who knew it all, the Yin to his record's Yang, David Markey. Markey had been a tech for fifteen years now, and he was never going to be anything else because his body just wasn't in it.


"Hey," Nascimbeni had said just last week. "I thought you were going to re-grout the monitoring room tiles."

"Oh," Markey had replied, smiling his pudgy smile, "I can't. Prepatellar bursitis."

"What," Nascimbeni had replied, "the hell is that."

"Fluid sac swelling in the knee," the tech had replied. "Too much kneeling when we laid down those extra tracks in '91. You remember."

Nascimbeni did remember. He remembered an awful lot of kneeling in 1991, since subway stations used even more tiles than the rest of admittedly tile-happy Site-43. He couldn't seem to remember Markey doing any of the kneeling, though.

He'd also discovered, after a visit to Dr. LeClair, that 'Prepatellar bursitis' was more commonly known as 'Housemaid's Knee'. He'd decided that lording that fact over Markey was worth not getting the grout done that week.

Nascimbeni could have easily written a book of similar vignettes. Could Markey please come help hand truck these barrels of processed thaumic pulp? "Herniated disc, boss, you know that. Got it last year bailing all that Jesus milk out of TT." Nobody at Theology and Teleology had ever been able to satisfactorily explain what had caused the dairy deluge, fifty simultaneously split casks of it, but it had been an ungodly awful task to clean it all up. Had Markey been on shift that day? Nascimbeni couldn't recall. "Oh, come on, I don't joke about religion! I remember we were mopping so long, it started to curdle. Stank to high heaven." That much, at least, checked out. Nascimbeni got someone else to haul the de-magicked slurry away.

Could Markey please show Deering how to properly mop the floor? He could not, regrettably, due to his lateral epicondylitis. (Nascimbeni never could extract a workplace-related excuse for how the man had contracted tennis elbow.) Could he run the lunch order over to H&S? He couldn't actually run at all, no, not since acquiring shin splints from ferrying messages between Sections during the comms blackout of '95. Nascimbeni was sure Markey had been stuck topside during that particular crisis, even remembered getting a hula girl statuette from him after his impromptu Hawaiian vacation, but somehow he'd never quite bothered to make his way down to A&R and have them pull the duty roster register so he could check. It was simpler to take the loss, with Markey. Could he at least patrol the wetworks and check for leaks? Not with this Achilles tendonitis. Man the duty desk? "Runner's knee." Check under the consoles for dropped tools? "Jumper's knee." Handle the paperwork for the new hires? "RSI."

Nonetheless, nobody was better than Markey at the things Markey liked doing. He liked repairing computers, and there was no end of those at 43. He enjoyed plastering walls, and AAF-D was wall-to-wall plaster. He was an expert electrician. And if you put enough drinks in him — he'd mysteriously managed to avoid any conditions impinging on his alcohol consumption — he'd be happy to share the secret to his long and restful tenure: "Get so good at the things you enjoy that you can't be replaced, by spending as little time as possible doing the things you don't enjoy." The first time Nascimbeni had heard that, he'd threatened to deviate Markey's septum. He hadn't, though, because chronic nosebleeds would just let him beg off any job requiring an esomat suit.

He'd meant the threat affectionately, anyway. No honest working man could fail to respect a little clever skiving. Markey's was as clever as it got, and Nascimbeni was as honest as they came.


Markey was dead. Mukami was dead. Gwilherm and Radcliffe were dead. Wirth was dead too, if they were being honest with themselves; he wanted to be dishonest, because some small part of him wondered if a younger, clearer-minded Noè Nascimbeni could have seen the warning signs, read the clues correctly, and saved the painfully-young researcher's life.

He wondered where Deering had gotten to. He wondered where Deering had died. He wond—

"Holy shit."

In the midst of his morbid musing, he'd missed Ibanez slouching over to the concentration cell. She was standing in the doorway now, looking down at whatever was lying on the floor within. He became aware of an insistent low buzzing in the air, which his practiced ear immediately identified as an active Mataxas Cage, and even with his mind half-absent he was able to propel himself those last few stumbling steps to the ultimate revelation of their pointless little trip.

Not so pointless, actually.


"Holy fucking shit," he corrected her.


It was an awkward procession out of AAF-D. Nascimbeni held Deering's torso up by the armpits, while Ibanez draped his esomat booties over her shoulders; the height difference between the two Chiefs would not admit of any alternate configurations. She had therefore also shouldered the paraspectral tank and sprayer, and painted their path back to relative reality with a painful awareness of just how light that tank was getting. They both breathed easier once past the wall of moss, which had blueshifted to lemon yellow in the interim and was now trilling a tantalizing half-remembered melody which echoed throughout the tiled tunnels. Deering, for his part, was sleeping soundly the whole way.

Once they left the refinery and its myriad unhappy mysteries behind them, it took another twenty minutes with a makeshift counterplutonic shower in the sealed-off approach to sufficiently clean their esomat suits for extraction. A quick check of the panel confirmed that there was still nothing measurably wrong with the internal atmosphere, and since the entirety of the Site had been fully exposed to whatever immeasurable emissions might have escaped from AAF-D before Nascimbeni had sealed the door, well, there seemed little point in splitting hairs. When Ibanez radioed to the other side, recited her code phrase and demanded release, the agents on duty assented. They dragged the unconscious and unimaginably lucky tech to his reward — most likely, the most comprehensive debriefing and quarantine of his life — while the two of them finally broke from their labours.

Nascimbeni had felt the burden light, though Deering had presented an undeniably dead weight. He felt positively buoyant, in fact. It was wrong, it was callous, and it was very, very human: he set this single rescue against all the death and destruction they'd just witnessed, and he willed it to be enough, and so for the moment, enough it was.

Until Ibanez placed a hand on his shoulder. It was quite the long reach for her, and the abnormality of the gesture filled him with cold dread.

"Noè," she said.

He didn't turn to look at her. "He'll be alright," he breathed. He ordered his heart to stop hammering. His heart hammered on, heedless.

"Noè," she repeated. "I need to tell you something."

"It can wait," he said. He hated how it sounded; it sounded like he was begging. He was begging. He reached up to unfasten the clasps of his hard hat.

She squeezed his shoulder. "I did find someone in the control room. Someone who wasn't supposed to be there."

He dropped the hat, and the aborted echo in the circumscribed space mocked his sudden shortness of breath.


Nascimbeni had found his calling at Site-43, and he'd never forgotten the debt he owed to Lazzaro Ambrogi. He partially repaid the favour in 1993 by hiring Ambrogi the younger, who quickly became Nascimbeni's favoured pupil.


Romolo picked up new skills like nobody's business; a quick study with a sharp and attentive mind, he was an endless font of earthy wisdom. "A watched pipe never breaks," "Welding now saves mopping later," and "Don't be too nosy — every monitoring point is a point of failure" were among his repertoire of ready aphorisms. Nascimbeni ignored the strange configuration of pipes Ambrogi set up at the back of AAF-D on his personal time, because the steady supply of what was colloquially known as 'Ambrogia' gave the techs something to look forward to after their long shifts.

Phil Deering liked to call Nascimbeni 'Mario sans moustache'. That the whole Section wore monogrammed caps didn't hurt the comparison, but Nascimbeni really looked much more like Luigi; he'd managed, by sheer luck, to avoid being sullied by the eventual invention of an Italian plumber stereotype. Ambrogi was a better candidate for Mario, not least because his boundless reserve of energy often manifested in literal bounds. While the other techs, notably Dave Markey, tended to go about their business with the conservation of energy in mind, Ambrogi tended to leap before he looked. When the local arcade in Grand Bend picked up a Donkey Kong machine in 1986, Nascimbeni started joking that the 'JM' on Ambrogi's cap stood for 'Jumpman'. It wasn't a complaint; when Nascimbeni said "Jump!" Ambrogi didn't stop to ask silly questions about height. He was already in midair.

Next to Nascimbeni, the Deputy Chief was probably the single least-expendable technician at Site-43.


It didn't make sense. It didn't make any sense. Ambrogi was far, far away from this endless sequence of chambers of horrors. He was visiting his girlfriend in Grand Bend. There was nothing he could have been doing in AAF-D, no reason for him to lie on the duty roster and sneak into a waste processing plant. Not to shoot the shit with Markey — they were friends, but they weren't close; not to catch up on paperwork — Ambrogi had a way with a wrench, but not with words, and he left the bureaucracy to his boss; certainly not to check on his precious still, which of course he knew Nascimbeni knew about, because…


Visiting his girlfriend.

He stared at the scrap of uniform Ibanez had brought up from the rotated control room, the bloody grey piece of fabric with the name 'Ambrogi' emblazoned in raised black braid.

He didn't notice the hope dissipate.

He didn't feel the despair creeping back in.

Like Mukami, Gwilherm and Radcliffe, like Markey and Ambrogi, almost certainly like Wirth and Del Olmo, and until he woke up, definitely like Philip E. Deering, Noè Nascimbeni felt nothing at all.

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