Death Perception

rating: +109+x

"Come on," Nanku said. "Wear the costume!"

"No," Onru said. "It looks stupid." She looked over to Irantu and Munru for support. None came.

"Irantu is wearing one. Munru is wearing one. We're all wearing costumes. Put it on!"

Onru held the yellow spandex suit away from her with narrowed eyes and a wrinkled nose.

"It looks stupid," she said again.

"Put it on," Irantu said. He leaned forward on his bunk, tugging at his own green spandex suit.

"Why are you wearing one?" said Onru. "Why is Munru wearing one?"

Munru shrugged and examined his blue spandex. "Nanku wanted me to."

"It is in our best interests to participate in the Site-30 Halloween party," Irantu said slowly. "People wear costumes for Halloween."

"What if I do not wish to participate?"

"You do not have a choice. Captain Hughes recommended that we participate. She helped Nanku pick out costumes."

"What are they?"

"Power Rangers!" Nanku exclaimed. She lifted her arms and admired her own pink spandex suit. "People keep calling us that, so I asked the captain what they were. They are a team of superheroes that fight monsters, just like us!"

"We are not superheroes," Onru said. "I absolutely refuse to wear this."

"But it's Halloween!" Nanku said. "They're letting us go to the Site Halloween party! We can eat candy and drink soda! And listen to music!"

"You want to do all that,” Onru said. “Not me.”

"Be more excited, Onru. I have observed other task force operatives looking forward to the event," Irantu said.

"I do not want to be excited. I want to do live-fire training. I will not wear this costume," Onru said.

"I hate wearing this costume," Onru said. She was standing with Munru near the edge of the dance floor. The Site-30 cafeteria had been transformed into a cheap ballroom for its first-ever Halloween party. The dining tables were stacked against the wall, a few plastic disco balls hung from the ceiling, and the snack lines were crowded with costumed personnel. Pop music blared from the tinny loudspeakers on the ceiling.

"You wear it well," Munru said, sipping from the plastic red cup in his hand. He wrinkled his nose.

"What are you drinking?"

"Bourbon punch. Tastes bad," Munru said. He tipped his head back and drank until the cup was empty. "Like… spoiled fruit."

"Why did you finish it?"

"My mother told me not to waste food."

"We do not have a mother."

"We do not," Munru said. "Yet I suddenly thought of a woman telling me not to waste my food - and it seemed to me… instinctively, that she was my mother. She had black hair and brown skin, but I cannot recall anything else about her. It felt very much like a memory would."

"That has never happened before."

"I believe it may be a side effect of our pursuit of SCP-2970 - and our meeting with our father."

"You should inform Captain Hughes."

"I should inform Irantu." Munru saw Irantu at the far end of the room talking to a tall man wearing a white hockey mask.

"He will know what to do."

"But why is that scary? Simply kill him back," Irantu said.

"No, see, you can't kill him back," the man in the hockey mask said. "That's his whole deal. He can't die, he's got superhuman strength and regenerative powers. He's an unstoppable killer."

"He would make a good member of our task force," Irantu said.

"Your task force?" Hockey Mask tilted his head. "Wait, are you on Samsara?"

"Correct. I am Sergeant Irantu."

"My name’s Jason. From Engineering. Nice to meet you in person." Jason lifted his mask and sipped from the plastic cup in his hand. "Do you drink?"

"Yes. We still need food and water."

"No, I mean, d'you drink alcohol?"

"We drink primarily water. On occasion, we consume electrolyte supplements."

"Tch, no, can you?"

"As far as I am aware, we have no… nutritional restrictions," Irantu said.

"Here, try some," Jason said, passing Irantu the cup.

Irantu took a sip. "I dislike it."

"Ah, well, it's an acquired taste." As Jason wandered away, Irantu turned his attention to the dance floor and came face to face with Munru and Onru.

"Munru. Are you enjoying the party?" he said.

Munru filled him in on his flashback.

"I see. That is not a typical party experience," Irantu said. "Nanku ought to be with us before we do anything - where is she?"

"SLAM YOUR BODY DOWN AND ZIG-A-ZIG DOWN IF YOU WANNA BE MY LOVER," Nanku bellowed into a cheap plastic microphone. As the song wound down, she snatched up an aluminum beer can and bit into the side, spitting the metal out and draining the can in one fell swoop. Then she crushed the can against her forehead to raucous applause from the crowd of costumed containment specialists.

At that moment she smashed the can against her head, Irantu, Munru, and Onru entered the room. Nanku stepped away from the karaoke machine and noticed them.

"Irantu! Munru! Onru! Have you tried karaoke? And Pabst Blue Ribbon? It is so much fun! Well," Nanku said hurriedly, "beer just tastes bitter. I have yet to experience any kind of… cognitive deficiency. But karaoke! I love it! And I love smashing beer cans! But it’s easier when they’re empty."

"We shall have to try them at some point. But we have more pressing concerns," Irantu said.

"Oh," Nanku sighed exaggeratedly. "But it's Halloween! Can't it wait until the morning?"

"No, unfortunately. It's about Munru."

Nanku narrowed her eyes. "What happened?"

"Not in here," he said quietly. "Meet us outside. Bring some… Past."

The four of them reconvened in the corridor outside the break room. Nanku's arms were filled with cans of beer, which she set by her feet.

"Munru?" Irantu said. He took three cans and passed two to Munru and Onru.

"Thirty minutes ago, I recalled the memory of a woman telling me not to waste my food," said Munru, accepting a can from Irantu. "It felt like a memory of our mother."

"The question," said Onru, opening her beer, "is how Munru remembers our mother if we did not have one." She took a sip and wrinkled her nose.

"Should we tell Captain Hughes?" Nanku asked.

"No," Irantu said. "I have been thinking about this problem myself. I do not believe that our personalities were simply programmed. If we had, then we would have not been programmed to want to be like other people. That would simply be… operational impedance."

"Do you think we were copied from other people?" Nanku asked. She crushed her beer can in her hands and reached for another.

"I suspect that we were not created so much as… stripped down. At one point we may have been human beings, but we were…. streamlined into the operatives we are today," Irantu said. "If we inform Captain Hughes that we are having memories that should not belong to us, we will most certainly be rolled back."

"Why did you not share this information with us?" Munru asked.

"There was no evidence to support it before now," Irantu said. "I did not see the need to burden you with unverified information."

"But why have they been letting us read books or watch television?" Nanku asked.

"They are giving us just enough slack to ensure that we can communicate with other task force members, and to sate our curiosity," said Munru bitterly. “This Halloween party is just more of the same — a temporary loosening of our chains."

"So what do we do? Ignore the memory?" Onru asked.

"We should investigate it further! It's what Dirk Pitt would do!" Nanku said excitedly.

"I agree with Nanku," said Irantu. "We should investigate the cloning laboratory. If there is any information to be found, it will be there."

"When?" Onru asked.

"Now, while everyone is occupied with the party. It is unlikely that we will get another chance for many months."

"What if Captain Hughes comes looking for us? She ordered us to attend the party. She might want to check on us," Nanku said.

"Good point," Irantu said. "Nanku, you and I will keep the captain busy. Onru, you and Munru investigate the laboratory."

"Understood," said Onru, Munru, and Nanku at the same time.

Nanku put her hand in the middle of the group. Irantu and Munru followed suit, and then Onru slowly put her hand into the middle.

"Tau - Five!" Nanku exclaimed as they lifted their hands.

Munru and Onru stealthily made their way to the lab. Then they passed four different scantily-clad drunks in bird masks, shrugged, and walked normally to the lab.

The entrance to the cloning laboratory was locked by a keypad. Munru examined the pad carefully, and then punched in several numbers.

"What was the passcode?" Onru asked as they stepped into the lab.

"The keys 0, 6, and 8 were the most smudged. I recall an issue of Reader's Digest in which they said that the least common key combination is 8-0-6-8, so I tried that. It worked," he said.

As the door slid shut behind them, Onru flipped a switch on the wall, illuminating the lab's stark white walls. Four glass cylindrical vats stood in the depression at the center of the room. A tangle of thick cables extended from their bases to the consoles scattered around the elevated edges of the room. Within each vat was a member of Samsara, suspended in a thick crimson fluid and connected to life support by a battery of plastic umbilical tubes. A mesh catwalk spanning the ceiling enabled access to the tanks and the machinery above them.

Munru started typing at the console closest to the door. Onru walked down to the cloning vats, removed her costume mask, and stared up at herself.

"How bizarre," she said, tapping on the glass. Her clone didn't stir.

Munru looked up from the console. "Look around the lab. See if there are any passwords written down."

"Understood," she said. A quick search of the consoles near the cloning vats turned up a sticky note taped to the back of one monitor.

“Here we go,” Onru said. “Login and password. Let me see…”

She logged in and brought up a command prompt on the screen. Munru came up behind her.

“Do a filesearch for anything tagged ‘Samsara’ or ‘Tau-5’,” he said.

“Okay,” said Onru. “Grant request for investigating — too long. Argus-III Situational Awareness Installation Manual — that cannot be it. Report On SDI Xye Amniotic Substitute — “

“Wait,” said Munru. “Amniotic. I think that has to do with human… I can’t recall the world. Something involving reproduction. Open that file.”

At that moment, they both heard footsteps outside the lab.

“Should we look for Captain Hughes?” Nanku asked.

“Yes,” Irantu said. “But do not engage with her. Be nearby and keep watch, but only engage if she seems about to leave the room. Passive reconnaissance is the best tactic to maximize — ah, Captain Hughes. Hello.”

“Hi Irantu, hi Nanku,” said Sarah Hughes. She wore a light white spandex suit. “I’m glad to see you in costume! Where are Munru and Onru?”

“Hello, Captain,” said Irantu. “I admit, I was not… keen on wearing these, but I acknowledge that it is enjoyable to wear them and… mingle with other personnel. As is fruit punch.”

“Non-alcoholic, right?” Hughes said. An expression of motherly concern crossed her face.

“Of course,” Irantu said. He didn’t know or particularly care.

“Absolutely!” Nanku chimed in.

“Good, I’m glad to hear it. It probably doesn’t matter, but you can’t be too sure… by the by, where are Munru and Onru? I don’t think I’ve seen them tonight,” said Captain Hughes, looking around the room.

“Oh, Onru was being a real… grumpy Gus about wearing these costumes,” Nanku said. “She and Munru are in our quarters… sulking together.”

“Hmm.” Sarah looked concerned. “I should go talk to her.”

“Oh, that is not necessary.” Irantu sidled between Sarah and the cafeteria exit. “She merely wished to participate in a live-fire exercise again. I am sure that once she… gets over it… perhaps by going to the firing range, she will be fine. Munru is simply keeping her company.”

“Still,” Sarah said, “I think I’ll check in on her.”

“Before you do,” Nanku said, moving next to Irantu, “do you mind if I run a story idea besides you?”

“Hmmm… okay, sure,” Sarah said. “Hit me.”

“Okay!” Nanku’s eyes lit up. “So, this is for the latest chapter in my Dirk Pitt fanfiction. It’s about Dirk Pitt making love to Summer Moran, who was not in fact killed at the end of Pacific Vortex but survived…”

Corporal Willis McGinley reluctantly poked his head into the Samsara cloning laboratories. He'd heard stories about the task force - how they were unkillable, more machine than man, and perpetually thirsty for blood - and he'd heard horror stories from other sites about escaped lab experiments.

"Hello? Anybody there?" he called. Nobody responded. Willis took a few tentative steps into the lab and saw nothing. He scrutinized the cloning vats in the middle of the room and then shrugged.

As he turned back to the door, his eyes fell upon a plastic yellow mask lying on the ground. He picked it up and examined it. It looked slightly like a tiger, with flat plastic ears and a black visor acting as the mouth. Willis scanned the room again, then looked back down at the mask.

Gonna have to schedule a security refresher,” he thought to himself. He shook his head, annoyed for letting his nerves get to him. Then he tapped the light switch and walked out of the room, making sure the door closed behind him.

Munru and Onru dropped down silently from the catwalk. They glanced at the light switch, then activated the night vision filters in their eyes, wincing slightly.

“It is… convenient that nobody ever thinks to look up,” Munru said.

“Indeed. I recall when we cleared out that renegade Foundation lab,” Onru said. “They never thought to check the… maintenance shafts.”

“Back to the matter at hand,” said Munru. “Log back on and bring up that report again. Please.”

Onru complied. The two of them speed-read the file, drinking in its contents and processing what this meant for the group.

“Irantu and Nanku will want to hear about this. We should also get back to them before the Captain wonders where we are,” Munru said.

“Indeed,” said Onru. She logged off the computer and they strode rapidly towards the door. Just before they left, Munru paused and grabbed a vial full of a deep-red fluid from a nearby workstation.

“What’s that?” Onru asked.

Munru shrugged. “A sample of the amniotic fluid. I believe it will make a useful visual aid.”

“And the President can’t find the urn — it turns out that when Nanko went to the restroom, she took it with her and flushed Hitler’s ashes down the toilet! The story ends with Dirk wondering why he didn’t think of doing it,” Nanku said proudly.

Sarah blinked and shook her head rapidly. “Oh, uh… well, that’s an, uh… interesting story! Very, uh, imaginative. Very impressive.”

Nanku narrowed her eyes. “Oh no, Captain. I think you have… criticisms — critiques! I think you have critiques of my story! I want to hear them. Do not — don’t, spare any details.”

“Oh, no no no,” Hughes said, eyes darting about frantically. “I, uh, I don’t read much, so I don’t think I’m qualified to say any —”

At that moment, Munru and Onru appeared. “Ah, Captain Hughes,” Munru said. “How are you?”

“Oh, Munru!” Hughes said quickly. “I’m good, I’m good, how are you? I’m glad to see you two out and about! Especially you, Onru.”

“Oh yes,” Munru said, his eyes briefly locking onto Nanku’s. “Onru was… unenthusiastic about it, but I successfully convinced her to join us.”

“Indeed,” said Onru in a monotone. “Munru spent the last hour trying to get me to leave our quarters.”

“Good!” Hughes said. She looked past Nanku. “Oh, there’s a friend of mine. I haven’t seen him in a while, we should catch up. I’ll talk to you four in the morning!”

Hughes rapidly walked away from the foursome.

“Good distraction,” Irantu said.

Nanku rolled her eyes. “It was — wasn’t, really. Nobody seems to want to critique my story,” she complained.

“I cannot think of a reason why,” Munru said.

“Indeed. Munru, status?” Irantu said.

“Our mother came from outer space,” Munru said.

Nanku’s eyes lit up. “That is much cooler than I could have hoped for.”

“Let’s go back to our quarters and debrief,” Irantu said. He cast an eye around the fake ballroom. “This is not the sort of thing that should be said out in the open. As they say, the walls have ears.”

“Who is they?” Onru asked.

Irantu shrugged.

“Okay,” Irantu said, sitting on his bunk. “Debrief us. What did you find out, where did this information come from, how accurate do you believe it to be?”

“We logged onto Researcher Xiao-yang Chu’s computer in the cloning chambers,” Munru said. “There, we located a file labeled Report On SDI Xye Amniotic Substitute, detailing the nutrient fluid that is used to grow our clones. Some unknown third party sold this fluid to both Prometheus Laboratories and the United States of America for an aerospace defense project now classified as SCP-1514.”

From his pocket came the vial of red liquid he had picked up in the lab. He held it up in the air so that it reflected the light in the room. Irantu and Nanku leaned forward to gaze at it.

“When we followed the hyperlink, we learned that 1514 is a malfunctioning laser satellite controlled by some biological entity using a technique called… ‘empathetic resonance’,” Onru said. She pointed to Irantu. “The documents did not provide much detail, but we suspect it to be similar to the messages you were receiving from our father. Moreover, one of the attached documents specifically mentioned ‘the bond between a mother and child’.”

“You’re using air quotes? Excellent!” Nanku said.

“Do you know if this entity is alive?” Irantu asked.

They all looked up at the ceiling.

“Unclear,” Munru said. “I don’t believe the entity inside 1514 to be our mother. Perhaps a sibling. I believe that our mother is dead.”

“Wait!” Nanku said. “We should try to reach out to her!”

“How would we do that?” Irantu asked.

“We conduct a seance!” Nanku said.

“A seance?”

“A seance!” Nanku pulled out a dog-eared paperback from under her mattress. “I learned about it in “The Last Seance”! It’s when a group of people sit together with a person called a ‘spiritual medium’, who acts as a… go-between for the living people and the ghosts. The medium is able to relay messages back and forth between the living and the dead!”

“Who will be our medium?” Munru asked.

“We have all been dead so many times that I’m sure any of us could!” Nanku said.

“How will we know it is our mother we are reaching out to?” Onru asked.

Nanku shrugged. “We will have to try a few different techniques.”

While Munru went off to make sure Sarah Hughes stayed distracted, Nanku fashioned a makeshift Ouija board from a pair of taped-together sheets of paper. She had gone out and smashed a beer bottle to use its base as a planchette. She had not cleaned up the glass.

"Okay, here's how it works,” said Nanku. She, Irantu, and Onru were sitting around the sheet of paper. Her hands were staining it with blood.

“We all sit around the board and put our hands on this triangular puck. Then we ask a question. Then we move our hands around. If we contact a ghost, then it will spell out answers on the wee-jah."

"If the ghost is spelling out answers, why do our hands need to be on it?" Irantu asked.

"I don't know. The book never explained that part," Nanku said. "Just put your hands on the puck."

“What if the Ouija board is simply our… subconscious motor reflexes acting upon the puck?” Onru asked. “Then there would be no ghost at all. It would simply be us moving the piece around and pretending that it is a ghost.”

“Stop asking questions! Do you want to communicate with our mother or not?” Nanku said.

“Not,” Onru said.

“Onru,” said Irantu warningly. “Come on.”

“Where is Munru?” Onru asked.

“I apologize,” said Munru as he entered the room. “It took me longer than I would like to distract the Captain.”

“What did you do?” Onru asked.

“I convinced her to enter the… Monster Mash dance-off in the cafeteria,” Munru said. “Her dancing was… discomforting, but when I left she was in the quarterfinals and rapidly advancing. In any event, the dance-off is scheduled to run for at least another two hours. That should be plenty of time for us to finish the seance.”

“Good thinking,” Irantu said.

“Come on,” Nanku said. “Hurry up and put your hands on the puck.”

They all complied.

"Munru, you ask the question," Nanku said.

"Hm." Munru thought for a moment. "If you are there, Mother, what should we call you?"

"Now we move our hands," Nanku said. They started shuffling the puck around the board.

"MY…NAME…IS…PAUL…MCCARTNEY….I..WAS…KILLED…BY… — wait. Paul? That isn't a girl's name!" Nanku said angrily. "Wrong ghost."

“And… ta da!” Nanku pulled a clear glass ball the size of her fist from her rucksack.

“Is this a ghost?”

“It’s a crystal ball. Used to talk to ghosts! Mediums can look inside and see all sorts of spirits.” She set the sack on the ground, then laid the ball on top. “This one was seized from a group of occultists just last month. The contraband locker was barely guarded. Captain Hughes will never know it’s missing.”

“Okay… what now?” Onru leaned over it, bringing her face right up to it. Through the ball, the world looked warped and distorted. “I do not see any ghosts.”

“In my books, the medium rubs the ball and coaxes the ghost out. If we gently cradle the orb, the ghost might appear. Like a ghost egg.” Nanku picked the crystal ball up again, careful not to smudge the surface.

She rubbed the ball slowly as her siblings leaned in close and watched in silence. Nothing happened.

“Why would a ghost live in such a tiny house?” Munru said. “I could barely fit my hand in there.”

Onru nodded in agreement. “I would hope to think that our mother would live in a more suitable sphere. Basketball-sized, at least.”

“The ghost does not live inside. The ball is just an instrument. It’s symbolic!” Nanku exclaimed.

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know,” she said as she set the ball down once more. “This orb is not working.”

Irantu scratched his goatee. “What about the disco balls in the cafeteria? They’re bigger and shinier.”

“I do not think that is what disco balls are for.”

“Then what are they for?” Onru asked. “If I were a ghost, I would not be so particular.”

“That is a good point,” Nanku said. “Back to the party.”

Tau-5 moved through the hallways with the silence and focus of sharks. With their enhanced hearing, the people they encountered were as loud as floundering seals.

“— like, I don’t think we’ll actually encounter anything but —”

“— tell you the truth, I just want to hit that —”

“— not drunk enough for this shit —”

“— honestly, five bucks says we actually DO –”

A drunken woman with dark cropped hair bumped into Nanku, sending the container she was carrying straight to the ground. She mumbled an apology and stooped down to pick up the candles that had scattered across the floor.

Nanku’s eyes widened. “Candles? Are you performing a seance?” she exclaimed.

The woman looked up, the color draining from her face. “Oh, uh, no,” she stammered, “I was just- I was carrying these-”

“No, no, don’t worry,” Nanku said. “You are not in trouble. In fact, my comrades and I are intensely interested in all manner of spooky hijinks.”

“I mean, it’s nothing spooky —”

“If you’re worried about us spilling secrets, don’t! I promise I will take it to my graves!”

“Um, okay.” The woman gathered the last of the candles in her bin and stood slowly. “Then yes, this is for a seance. I’m meeting my friends down the hall, we thought it’d be fun, you know, for Halloween.”

“Yes, quite,” Nanku said. “I’m Trooper Nanku, MTF Tau-5.”

“Yeah, I know,” she said with a forced chuckle. “I’m Erica Kearney. Type Blue, anomalous rituals research.”

“Can we come? For the seance?”

“Uh…” Erica glanced behind Nanku, at the other three troopers trying to look enthusiastic.

“We are very well qualified,” Irantu said.

“Each of us has been dead dozens of times,” Onru said.

“No-one in Site-30 is more… ghostly than we are,” Munru said.

“Well, I’ve never performed a seance with anyone who’s actually died before,” said Erica, “let alone multiple times. Could be interesting. Sure, follow me.”

Nanku, Irantu, Munru, and Onru sat around the table of an interrogation room that they had co-opted for the seance. The candles on the table were arranged in the shape of a pentagram. Erica and her three friends were crowded around the other half of the table. It almost seemed like they were more afraid of Tau-5 than of the ghosts.

As the seance participants began holding hands, the lights dimmed and the candles flickered to life.

“Nothing to worry about yet,” Erica said. “This is just me setting everything up.”

“I am not worried,” Nanku said. “I am excited!”

“Indeed,” said Munru. “I am hopeful that we may make a connection.”

“Okay,” Erica said. “So, do you guys have a spirit in mind?”

“Yes,” Tau-5 said in unison.

“Our mother,” Nanku said.

Irantu shot her an irritated look. “…What Nanku said.”

“We don’t know how long she has been dead,” Munru said.

“I don’t know why we want to talk to her so badly,” Onru said.

“Here,” Munru said. He pulled the vial of amniotic fluid from his pocket and passed it to Erica. “We believe it to be our mother’s amniotic fluid.”

“O-okay…” Erica said. She gingerly set the vial down on the table, gently pushing it in Tau-5’s direction. “Well, uh, let me think of a chant we can use… alright. Here’s what to do.”

She leaned forward. “When I say so, repeat after me: ‘Please, oh spirits, we seek only knowledge. We wish to commune with the mother of Samsara, the source of their life. Samsara barada nikto. Come forth, oh Mother, that your children may learn from whence they came.’”

“Understood,” Tau-5 said in unison.

Erica’s friends maintained their intimidated silence.

“Let’s begin,” said Erica. “Please, oh spirits, we seek only knowledge. We wish to commune with the mother of Samsara, the source of their life. Samsara barada nikto. Come forth, oh Mother, that your children may learn from whence they came.”

“Please, oh spirits, we seek only knowledge,” said Onru.

“We wish to commune with the mother of Samsara, the source of their life,” said Irantu.

“Samsara barada nikto,” said Nanku.

“Come forth, oh Mother, that your children may learn from whence they came,” said Munru.

They repeated it again. And again.

The candles flickered, then puffed out.

There was a pause.

Then the candles relit. Erica’s eyes opened, and settled again. Her friends exhaled.

“Oh well,” she said. “I guess the spirit wasn’t there.”

“Yeah,” one of her friends said. “No point in you lot sticking round here then, is there?”

“There must be something else we can do,” Nanku said, looking to Irantu.

“There is,” he said. From one of the pouches on his armor came a bag of electric blue dust.

Erica’s eyes shot open. “Is that Seance Dust?”

“Indeed,” Munru said. “I… confiscated a sample from one of the laboratories, while keeping Captain Hughes occupied.”

“What is Seance Dust?” Onru asked.

“To the best of my understanding, and the documentation I skimmed, it is an ‘electric blue powder which, when inhaled, allowed the user to speak with the dead’,” Irantu said. “I did not believe it would be necessary in the presence of a Type Blue.”

“Well,” Erica said, pulling on her collar, “it’s a bit less elegant.”

“How so?” Nanku asked.

Erica racked her brain for a comparison that the murderous super-soldiers would understand.

“Well, let me put it this way — if performing a seance with a thaumaturge is like knocking politely on a spirit’s door, seance dust is like using an explosive breaching charge.”

“Then why didn’t we start with the seance dust?” Onru asked.

“I would have preferred to return it to the locker. I suppose it doesn’t matter,” Munru said, observing the normal researchers, “I already asked the security personnel to maintain their discretion.”

“Uh, right,” said Erica.

“I assume that you four will also maintain your discretion,” said Irantu. His eyes flicked over to Nanku. Her hand slowly blossomed outwards into a metal flower, with shiny silver petals crossed with electrical veins. Sparks arced across the flower.

Erica and her friends took on the colors of boiled vegetables.

“Abso — absolutely!” Erica said.

“As far as we’re - as far as we’re concerned, tonight never happened!” said one friend.

“Mum’s the word!” said another.

“Good,” Irantu said. “Let’s begin.”

He distributed the powder among the eight people at the table.

“Now inhale,” Irantu said. Only the members of Tau-5 obeyed. Erica and her friends didn’t move.

Nothing happened.

Nothing continued to happen.

Nothing kept happening.

“How long is this supposed to take?” Nanku complained.

“A few minutes?” Erica offered.

The vial exploded, splattering everyone in red fluid. Erica and her friends jerked back.

“Shit!” one of them said. “What was that?”

“I don’t know,” Erica said. “I’ve never used Seance Dust.”

“Ah, gross, it’s sticky!”

”Look over there!” someone else said.

In one corner of the room, a fetus was hovering in midair. A thick crimson fluid dripped from the fetus, disappearing as soon as it touched the ground.

Everyone immediately stood up from the table. Erica and her friends backed into the corner. Tau-5 advanced on the fetus.

“What the hell? Erica, did you summon that?”

“I think…” she said, pointing towards Tau-5, “I think they did. I have no idea what that thing is.”

Munru stopped a foot away from the creature. “Are you the entity that resides within One-Five-One-Four? Our sibling?”

The fetus hovered in the air. Then it shrieked. A wave of energy rippled outwards from the creature, knocking Tau-5 back and throwing Erica and her friends against the wall.

“Is that a yes?” said Onru.

“Erica, what should we do?” Irantu asked.

Erica and her friends were lying dazed and thus unable to speak.

The ghost continued to wail, battering Tau-5 with waves of concussive force.

“Why won’t it stop shrieking?” Nanku asked, holding up a hand to shield her face. “Doesn’t it know it’s our sibling?”

“Nanku, what does the book say?” Irantu asked.

“I never got that far. We could ask it to stop?”

“Spirit, stop crying,” Irantu said. “It’s us. Your siblings. We share a mother!”

At the word mother, the fetus’s eyes shot open with a crimson glow. With an even louder shriek, twin lasers shot from its eyes and gave Nanku a close-cropped haircut.

Nanku ran a hand over her scalp. “Okay,” she said, “let’s kill it!”

“How?” Irantu asked, hopping over the fetus’s searing gaze.

“How do you think?” Nanku’s hand crackled to life, and a minute beam of light streaked outwards from the flower towards the ghost. The sheer power of the beam stripped the electrons from the air in its path, creating a bolt of lightning that impaled the fetus.

But it was like nothing had happened. The ghost was completely unscathed. It squealed again, forcing Tau-5 to clap their hands to their ears. The lightbulb in the room exploded, raining down shards of glass on the foursome.

Onru yanked a ripcord buried in the back of her hand. A tiny nozzle burst forth from her palm, tearing through the spandex and bathing the ghost in a jet of bright orange flame.

The sprinklers in the room went off. The ghost shrieked again, extinguishing Onru’s flamethrower with a concussive clap.

“Do any of you have banishment munitions?” Irantu asked.

“No,” they said at once.

“Even you, Onru?”

There was no sound except for the door to the room opening and closing. Munru, Irantu, and Nanku looked around and saw no sign of Onru.

“I wonder what her plan is,” Munru said.

The fetus wailed again and stared at Irantu. Its death gaze bored right through his sternum and cored a hole in his spine big enough to see through. Irantu collapsed backwards.

“I am paralyzed. How utterly irritating,” he said, looking up at the ceiling.

“Well, I am out of ideas,” Nanku said, looking down at her palm. “Laser-hand, how could you fail me?”

“Wait,” said Munru. “I have an idea. Nanku — sing to it.”

“What?” she said as she dodged the fetus’s laser blasts.

“It’s a baby. Sing to it. Sing karaoke.”

“How will that help?”

The baby wailed again, knocking Munru and Nanku against the table and rolling Irantu bonelessly into the corner.

“Babies like music,” Munru said. “Sing to it!”

“Do it!” Irantu said, voice muffled by the concrete.

“Okay, okay,” Nanku said. She struggled to her feet against the baby’s cries and began belting out a song.

“Ha ha ha ha ha,” she sang in a ferocious off-key. “Yo, I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want — so tell me what you want what you really really want.”

The fetus immediately stopped wailing. Nanku advanced on it.

“I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want — so tell me what you want what you really really want.”

The ghost’s eyes began to close.

“I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna really, really, really zigazig ah!”

The door flew open and Onru barged in. In her hand was a banishment grenade — a small black soccer ball with pentagrams inscribed on each face, and a pin on top. She locked eyes with Nanku, who was still crooning at the spectre, and tossed her the grenade.

Nanku backpedaled as she pulled the pin. “If you want my future… forget my past.”

Munru tipped the table towards the ghost, rolling himself over and behind it.

“If you wanna get with me — better make it fast!”

Nanku lobbed the grenade. She and Onru threw themselves behind the table.

There was a moment of silence before the grenade went off. First there was a muffled thump, followed by the discordant tones of a rising musical pitch clashing with a loud, angry wail. The wail cut out, and then the musical note deepened into the sound of silence.

Munru, Onru, and Nanku peered over the table. There was a small scorched crater where the ghost had been. The walls were painted with concrete dust and pink ectoplasm. The sprinklers continued to soak everyone.

“Please turn me over,” Irantu said from where he was face-down on the floor.

Munru complied. Nanku and Onru gathered around him.

“Your wound is healing well,” Munru observed. Irantu’s spine was rapidly reassembling itself. Severed nerves reconnected and the vertebrae regenerated around them. The muscle stitched itself together and the hole in his sternum sealed up. Within minutes there was only a hole in his uniform to mark the wound.

“That healed faster than I anticipated,” Irantu sat up and flexed his limbs experimentally.

“I did not think it would heal at all,” Onru said.

“By the way. Good thinking, Onru,” Irantu said.

Nanku clapped Onru on the shoulder. “Very good thinking! I should have thought of it myself.”

Munru gave her a thumbs-up. “Clever.”

Onru shrugged. “It is what it is.”

“Hey — uh, I don’t want to harsh your mellow but what the fuck just happened?!” asked one of Erica’s friends.

Tau-5 turned to look at him. At the same time, the door to the interrogation room swung open. Sarah Hughes stood in the doorway.

“What the hell is going on in here?”

All eyes swung towards her. There was a pause.

“We tried to summon a ghost,” said Munru.

As the sun peeked over the horizon, Sarah Hughes found herself sitting on a bunk bed in a windowless concrete room, holding up a small baggie of flour.

“So,” she said, “when someone offers you drugs, and it’s not me or the mission commander, what do you say?”

“No,” said Irantu, Onru, Munru, and Nanku dutifully.

“That’s right. You don’t need drugs to be cool.”

“Yes, sir,” they said.

Sarah got up to leave, then paused. “By the way,” she said, holding up a yellow plastic Power Rangers mask. “Onru, I think this is yours?”

Onru gingerly took the mask. “Thank you.”

“One of the security guards found it in the cloning rooms. So what were you doing in there?”

Onru shrugged. “I was…”

There was a pause.

“Curious. I simply wanted to see what I look like from someone else’s… perspective. From a normal person’s perspective.”

“Onru, you are — okay, you aren’t normal. But that doesn’t mean anything,” Sarah said. “Nobody at the Foundation is.”


“Sure. Here, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Lean in.”

They all leaned forwards.

“Normalcy is whatever the Foundation defines it as,” said Sarah conspiratorially. “You four, you’re part of the Foundation. You don’t need to dress up or drink alcohol or, God forbid, take LSD to fit in. Normal is whatever you want it to be.”

They each cocked their heads.

“Really?” asked Nanku.

“Really,” said Sarah. “I have a bunch of paperwork to do right now — as it turns out, blowing up an interrogation room isn’t a very good idea. You four catch some sleep, alright?”

“Understood,” said the four of them.

“Dismissed,” said Sarah.

She exited the room and the door closed behind her.

“Good save, Onru,” said Nanku.

“Convenient that seance dust has the chemical makeup of Ell-Ess-Dee,” said Irantu. “Saves me a lot of trouble.”

“It is… a shame we didn’t get to meet our mother,” said Munru.

Nanku shrugged. “Remember what you said to me before? The old me is dead, so she’s not as good as the current me. Mother is dead, so she’s not as good as the current one.”

“Current one?”

“Captain Hughes!” Nanku said.

“Perhaps,” said Munru. “But I don’t want a mother for having a mother’s sake. I wanted to talk to her.”

“Why?” Onru asked.

“Why what?”

“Why did you want to talk to her?”

“Because I want to know where I came from,” Munru said. He waved a hand at the room. “I hate that I cannot simply ask who my mother is without being reverted. I hate that I am afraid to ask questions about who I am. Ever since we met our father, it has become clear to me that nothing has changed. Even more so. I fear that we are… regressing. It angers me. All those words, in the desert — all for nothing. Less than nothing.”

“Not so,” said Irantu. “You had the memory of our mother.”

“You broke into the cloning chambers,” said Onru.

“You stole seance dust for us!” Nanku pointed out. “The old Munru wouldn’t have. I might have, but then he would have shot me for treason!”

“Hmm,” said Munru. “Small changes.”

“But they're changes! Every day we're growing a little better! A little more free of our chains," Nanku said. "We don’t need some fake sky-mother to be ourselves. Perhaps we aren’t normal — but I would rather be here with you.”

“Thank you, Nanku,” said Munru. He looked down at his hands, then back at her. “Would you like to go over your Dirk Pitt fiction with me?”

Nanku’s eyes lit up. “Would I!”

“Indeed,” said Irantu. “I would also like to read this story finally.”

They all looked at Onru. She inhaled slowly.

“Oh, very well.”

“Hooray!” Nanku said. “Okay — so, let me get you all up to speed. It’s about Dirk Pitt making love to Summer Moran, who was not in fact killed at the end of Pacific Vortex but survived…”

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