...and Knock 'Em Down
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rating: +40+x

October 15th

"How does a man manage to hide in the ventilation system for two days?" Something that looked like Director Nina Weiss observed the sleeping form of Alice Carol. "Wasn't this site designed specifically so that humans can't crawl through the vents?"

"The architecture's shifted to suit the needs of the Narrative." Something that looked like Johnathan West stroked his beard. "He's being protected, for the time being."

"Fantastic." Nina frowned down at the woman. "We need to wake her up. If she can be turned against Tofflemire, he doesn't stand a chance."

"That's going to be easier said than done, ma'am." West looked at her medical chart. "Liao's been giving her enough sedative that she may not wake up until December."

"This is a massive paranormal research organization. Surely we have something that can forcibly expel sedatives from the human body."

"I'll check the database," West nodded. "Phones are going to go back up today."

"Yes, but with all but… what, two people in the site converted, and the bunker sealed off, how are they going to get any message out?"

West chuckled. "You have a point, Director Weiss. Still, I'd watch your tongue— this place loves it when you tempt fate."

Robert Tofflemire chewed on an energy bar, being careful to collect all of the crumbs in the wrapper and eat the rest of them. He'd been living in Site-87's air ducts for the last two days, something that should be impossible— he'd seen these first-hand when they were installing them back in 2014, after mistletoe had pulled them out of the ceiling on two different floors. They weren't wide enough for two rats to crawl next to side-by-side, and yet, here he was.

"Okay," A voice in his headpiece said. Somehow, Pryce— the real one— and the rest of the task force were still alive, and were giving him recon. "You're going to need to climb up again. You should be over the infirmary in about ten minutes."

Robert swallowed as he crawled over a grate, watching Sinclair and Reynolds talking with one another. He saw movement under the back of Reynold's shirt, movement that Sinclair both lacked and didn't seem to notice. Everyone who was a… Contradiction had something on their back. He had noticed it, so he knew who to eliminate when the time came. Not that he was complaining, but he wondered why they hadn't gotten Sinclair yet.

He didn't talk back into his headset, for fear of those below him hearing his crawling. He swore he caught Sinclair looking straight up at him as his foot scraped against the metal, but it was apparently a false alarm.

An upwards turn in the vents was up ahead. He crawled his way there, squatted, and began climbing up some conveniently-placed handrails.

Sinclair frowned at the air vent, before turning back to her tablet. "So, I was thinking that now that we have the internet back we can… move on from the whole business with Tristan." She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue, and palmed it against the wall behind her. "Sorry. Just… I miss him."

"I know, Kat. I was there when it happened. I still don't understand why Tofflemire did it."

"I don't think any of us will." She pulled up an image on her tablet. "We found some more of Pickman's private collection last month— some Sumerian texts pertaining to the Sea Peoples and their rituals." She pulled up an image of a tablet with an Eye of Horus imprinted on it. "Maybe we can do something about that tonight? Alone?"

"Over mead?" Monty smiled.

"Why the hell not? I think the ritual requires wine in any case." She leaned up and kissed Monty on the cheek. "7:00 okay? I know you have a meeting with Weiss for most of the day."

"She and the investigation team are still trying grilling myself and Mattings." Reynolds rolled his shoulders, leaning in to return the kiss, before walking down the hall. "Farewell, Kat!"

"Bye, Monty." Katherine looked down at the Egyptian tablet on her screen and frowned. 'Sumerian text' indeed. The mage flipped through her tablet, landing on her playlist. She had few doubts about what she had to do, but one question. "Oh, Monty?" She called after him.

"Hmm?" He turned around to face Katherine.

"Ink Spots or Talking Heads? My cousin's birthday is coming up, and he's a huge music nerd."

"Never much cared for Ink Spots. I'd go with Talking Heads."

"Thanks, hon." Sinclair waved him off, turning and walking the other way. She saw lines of blue sparks on the walls, briefly. Tablet held close to her, she got out her phone.

"Melbourne, it's me. Meet me in the intercom booth on Sublevel 6."

"We're doing it?"

"Yeah. And I got the perfect soundtrack."

With a clang whose volume made Robert cringe, the vent cover above Alice's room in the infirmary fell onto the floor. If they didn't know where he was going before, they knew now. He drooped from the vents and looked around; there, third bed from the end. The privacy covers were pulled over it, and he could see Alice's sleeping form within.

He pulled an Epipen from his hip pouch. Robert had never been more glad that he had allergies. It was quick and dirty, but the jolt of adrenaline would wake her up, and he needed all the help he could get.

Robert bounded to the farthest bed, and pulled aside the privacy curtain. He nearly dropped the pen once he saw what was there— a mannequin. An actual, clothing store mannequin. "What the hell…"

The lights in the room flashed on, and he founded a dozen firearms trained at him, all from things that looked like his teammates. Something that looked like Ruby Williams stepped forward, putting herself between Robert and a very awake Alice Carol.

"You certainly have a flair for the dramatic," Robert snarked, holding up his hands.

"Bob? Is it true?" Alice sat up higher in her bed. "Did— did you kill Tristan?"

"Of course I didn't!" Robert sighed. "This isn't Sigma-10. Everyone here is some kind of… clone, ganger, something. Contradiction. They're not real."

"He's had some kind of psychotic break," the not-Ruby explained. "Robert, we can help you, but you need to stand down. We'll place you in the brig, and once this is over—"

Robert looked around the room. Faces he'd recognized, people he'd known for years, all stood with their rifles trained on him. He saw the cluster of laser dots aimed at his center of mass.

"Funny. Peace offerings aren't usually made with a dozen barrels pointed at someone's chest."

Ruby sighed, and put up her hand, signalling for the guns to be aimed away from Tofflemire. "We want to help you. We really do."

Robert realized he didn't have any plan. Alice had been comatose for half a month, and anything he could have used to prove that these people were doppelgangers— like the fake Ewell's fully intact set of ten fingers— were useless to him.

Robert Tofflemire was, in a word, screwed. "Can I… talk to my partner? Please?" He stepped forward. "Alice, this— this isn't Sigma-10, these aren't your friends—"

Alice squeezed her sheets with one hand. "Bob. You've killed at least three people. I don't want to believe you did it, but… I've seen the video. Tristan, Hastings, February… They were your friends." She wiped her eyes. "Why'd you do it, Bob?"

He began to speak, voice cracking. "I— it's my fault. I dragged you down that stupid pit. What I saw down there, it… it did this to you, and now it's taken away… everyone here." He rubbed his eyes. "We've failed. And it's my fault."

Alice shook her head. "I didn't know that you could do such… awful things, Bob. I can't believe I went to China with you— it's a miracle you didn't… I don't know."

Robert looked up at her, eyes wet. He caught onto what she was saying— 'going to China' with 'Bob'. She never called him Bob, and there was no way she could have remembered the hole to China, not with all of the amnestics they had given her. There was no movement on her back. In his gut, he knew this was the real Alison Carol.

She knows.

"I never meant to hurt you," he shut his eyes.

"I know." Alice clutched something beneath her bedsheets. "But you've hurt others. The Pit Sloth isn't real— this is all just normal October anomalies, Bob. Nothing more."

God, you're good at bullshitting. Robert suppressed a wink and a grin, keeping his hands up.

"We can help," Blake Williams, Ruby's twin brother, affirmed. "Just… tell us what we need to do, Robert."

He looked at Blake, then at Ruby, then pointed his head at the ground. "All right. I'll… go quietly."

"That's a good sport." Ruby stepped forward.

"One condition: Blake takes off his helmet."

The Williamses blinked at one another. Blake shrugged, and removed his helmet, stepping away from Alice. The agent in the hospital bed saw that at the base of his skull, where a patch of dried Sarkic amber should be, was just hair and skin.

That was all she needed. From beneath the covers, she drew a 9mm pistol, and took aim at Blake's medulla. One shot was all that was needed to make the fake Ruby an only child.

"Bl—" Ruby began to scream, but Robert was already on her, relieving her of her assault rifle, knocking her unconscious with a blow to the temple, and aiming it at the rest of his friends.

"For a bunch of body snatchers, you are really bad at the whole copying people thing." Robert looked down at his chest, and saw the cluster of dots on it again. "Alice… I… really am sorry."

"This ain't your fault." She fanned her pistol, trying to keep her eyes on as many of the task force members as possible. "For what it's worth? I remember. All of it— falling down the pit, Jackson Sloth, the hole to China."

"So I gathered." It wasn't worth much, but Robert nodded. "Are we gonna Butch Cassidy this?"

"Only if you're the Sundance Kid." Alice smirked and took aim at the face of Nicholas Ewell. Large, furred pairs of arms began to burst from the backs of each of the task force members. They cocked their firearms—

Only for the intercoms to blast to life with a loud burst of static. The sound of it made Alice and Bob, the only real creatures in the room, squeeze their triggers and fire wildly. Half a dozen members of the fake task force were knocked down, even if their body armor held.

Then, the static stopped. The voice of memeticist Ryan Melbourne came on the intercoms. "For those of you just tuning in, that was Project MacReady, an original score by myself. If you could hear that, congratulations, you're human. The rest of you…"

Robert could almost hear the manic grin in Katherine Sinclair's voice. "I'd like to thank Montgomery Reynolds for requesting this song. Taking us to the top of the hour, it's Burning Down the House Immolation Remix by the Talking Heads."

Alice pulled Robert closer. "Whatever you do, don't move."

Robert looked confused— and then he felt the heat. As Burning Down the House came over the intercoms, he heard Sinclair's voice chanting in some language he could barely hear over the song. The intent, and the effect, was clear.

Fire engulfed the room, white and blue hot flames. The Contradictions didn't even have time to scream before their flesh melted off of their bones, and their remains were cremated. Several low, loud roars emerged from their remains, only to be silenced by the heat of the flames.

He looked at Alice's bed— there were carvings in its frame. Bright, blue runes glowed in the plastic, everywhere from the handles to the television monitor attached to the bed. That was the only reason they weren't being immolated.

The song ended abruptly in the middle of the second chorus. Every physical structure in the site was fine— but he doubted any of those Contradictions still lived. And what about down in the barracks?

Melbourne's voice echoed over the audio. "Assuming anyone's alive, meet us at the entrance to the barracks. We got work to do."

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