Spiral the Drain
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rating: +17+x

Squidface is free. The world is filling with an ocean of black oil. Far below the surface, in the basement of a doomed Site-19, two people sort through a billion worlds in a desperate bid to escape.


"Hit it again."

There was a moment of silence. A brief pause, then chaos.

Through the graphene-reinforced glass, the view turned outward, then inward, folding in on itself. The entire room went dark, save for a few buttons and the pitifully dim emergency lighting of the Site-19 Extradimensional Testing Lab. Not a moment later, a blinding fluorescence emerged, followed by a fusillade of free radicals bouncing off the shielded observation deck and back as the space within warped and distorted. As the machine stabilized, an impatient, dark-haired woman flipped manically through a small booklet, head darting from the pages, to the screen in front of her, then back again. After a moment, the woman spoke, her eyes trained downward at the machine and the book resting on its surface.

"Alright, we're looking at, uh, shit. D-USUSAS2-G. Dee-dash-you-ess-"

"What, you don't remember the codes you designed? Isn't this what you do for a living?"

"You remember your fucking codes, Campbell!" The woman snapped, still not looking up, "Oh, that's right, you don't have any. Don't you have some papers to push? Dee-dash-you-ess-you-ess-"

Outside the room, the sounds of gunfire emanated, cut short abruptly by some unknown force from the halls beyond the sealed chamber doors. Somewhere, past the airlock and the secondary shielding was the extinction of all life as they knew it—the End of Everything. Annihilation at the hands of an intangible malevolence, whose true configuration escaped them. It wasn't even designated, for that matter. The item was in Special Containment over at the one of the Anomalous Objects warehouses on the Site-19 campus. Low level anomalies—color-changing tennis balls, mugs that filled themselves with grapefruit juice, that sort of thing. It constantly leaked a black sludge that would fill its containment area, and this required daily cleanup. No one wanted to deal with it, so management made D-Class scrub the chamber and rarely looked back on the thing since. And now, it bled freely down the stairwells, through the corridors and ventilation ducts of the subterranean facility, an ever-growing river of putrid slime. As it did, it changed those around it, subtracting their consciousness and adding their bodies to the Whole.

"Dimensional, Unstable, Stationary, Unaided-" Dr. Amber Lombardi, Head of Extradimensional Affairs for Site-19, paused, losing her train of thought for a moment as the entire room shook. They were thirty floors down. Thirty floors beneath the surface of a doomed planet and they were all going to die—that is, if she couldn't commit a little treason first.

"Unstable, no go, hit it again." Lombardi was determined to throw away her entire career for a double feature, which is just a cute phrase some operatives used for a Foundation-funded second chance at living. It's a big no-no, unless you know someone who has enough clout to sign off on it and just so happens to want you around enough to do so. Thus, treason it is. Twenty-five years of service, spiraling the drain. The entire culmination of her life's work, possibly the greatest technological achievement in all of Foundation history, was sitting right in front of her. And now, she was using it to leave Site-19—And all of Earth—forever, in what should be called the greatest ironic twist of fate ever to grace a sentient being.

Of course, Overwatch would never forgive such a transgression, regardless of whatever letter is in front of the K in this scenario. She was expected to go down with her ship, her ship being a small segment of a giant, already-buried coffin made of concrete and steel. Instead, she chose to sidestep the chain of command and potentially compromise the Foundation's integrity using unauthorized, unpatrolled roads through the multiverse that were paved by her own hands—well, not exactly her own hands anymore. Dr. Lombardi raised her head from the monitor for the first time in a long while and peered across the chamber at the only other human who had a chance of escaping this madness.

That human, Sr. Researcher Aberdeen Campbell, was just as screwed if they didn't make this work, whether it be death at the hands of unspeakable horror or salaried firing squad. She was a desk clerk who, through strange and terrible happenstance, had Level Four Clearance that she hadn't needed nor used in years—until today, and never again. She and Lombardi were in this together now, equal partners in crime—only this was the first time Aberdeen had ever been in this department, the first time she'd laid eyes on a machine this complex, and, in the ways that counted, the first time she'd experienced the anomalous. That last part was showing the most; her face was pale, eyes wide with a look of absolute terror seared into her. While Lombardi sat in front of a screen on the expansive console labelled OUTPUT CONFIGURATION:, she had delegated her cohort to lever duty, because anyone can pull a lever. And pull it she did.

Another darkness bathed the room, and another flash of light replaced it. The inner chamber turned on a gradient into a deep red, with the center of the accelerator rapidly transitioning from a dim, shimmering bokeh into dead brush and shale. The interior was now the exterior, and the screen updated once more.

"S-SSUPAH1-G. Spacial, Stable, Stationary, Unaided, Personal Area, Hazardous—no, no, we have to try again!"

A muffled slam drowned out her voice as a large body was thrown against the outer doors. The two looked up, for an instant, then caught themselves. They didn't have an instant to spare.

There are infinite worlds, endless whens and wheres. Yet, there was but very little time to get there.

With her hand on the lever, Campbell pushed forward once more and felt the cool metal retract back on its own. At the same time, the dual-spin singularities within the core of the machine rearranged themselves in another of a million-billion combinations. Their topology was the key to this transaction—two rotating black holes that could point to anywhere, anytime. The electromagnetic barriers that held them in place fended off most radiation that leaked from the two meshed rips in space-time, feeding the runoff into power sinks that made the device indefinitely self-sustaining. Of course, that didn't stop the Gateway from shaving minutes off their lives every time they reconfigured the manifold at its heart, and without actual coordinates, all they could do was randomize the drive and hope for the best.

Shadows and lights danced again. Inside, the view turned into black, speckled with points of white light. The center of the chamber became deep space, sensors indicating massive strain of force with warning lights and alarms—depressurization. The machine graced their ears with the sounds of bending metal.

"Oh—fuck, no, again. Flip it. Flip it now!"

Aberdeen flipped it again. And again. And again. All the while, the Idea crept forth, claiming minds like a child picking flowers in a field. As it did, it assumed form, first imperceptible, then slowly gaining opacity, ridges and corners, solidifying within the confines of three measly dimensions. The endless halls of Site-19, the Hub, ever so cherished, were filling with pools of dark, viscous tar. There, it would remain, perfectly preserved. The remnants of the dead would be lost to oceans of oily black.

Not long after, the whole world would drown.





TWELVE HOURS EARLIER


"Researcher Campbell. Campbell. Campbell. Aberdeen!"

A woman in a white coat raised her head with a speed that could have induced whiplash, having been jolted awake by another form that stood aside her desk. In front of her, mounds of paperwork littered the area. She had been drooling on a grant request from RAISA for fifteen-thousand red ballpoint pens. This is what her life had become.

She glanced up, clearing the grogginess and last residuum of sleep from her eyes, to see Site-19 Director H. Wyatt with a concerned look on his face and hands on his sides. He was gruff man, a natural consequence of carrying the weight of Site-19 for decades. This coarse nature beguiled those around him into curt disinterest, despite being rather benign, all things considered. Campbell didn't dislike the man, but she also didn't care for him enough to learn what the "H" stood for.

"Sorry, Director Wyatt. They have me on all sorts of meds after my transfer from zero-one, still can't think straight. No medical leave though. Them's the breaks."

"Alright, well, if you need to sleep, do it in the lounge. It gives a bad impression to sleep at your desk."

"Yes, of course."

The Director was gone as soon as he had appeared. Turning back to look at her desk, Sr. Researcher Aberdeen Campbell let out an exasperated sigh and contemplated the downward spiral of her life for the umpteenth time. A few years ago, she had been assigned to the archives over at Zero-One, which was not a fun job to have, to say the least. It was probably the most boring place in Foundation ownership. Almost anomalously uninteresting, but not quite. That kind of bland, and this wasn't any better.

Site-01 had been going through a major change of structure at the time, with many thousands of hard-copy documents in deep storage that hadn't yet been transferred onto the servers, Aberdeen had spent nearly all her time working meticulously, with little payoff, just like she did now, but without the extra time to pass out for an afternoon nap.

Even though all she remembered was life in a Foundation rube cube, Campbell was positive it wasn't always like this. She knew, deep down, that there was more to her story than mountains of cellulose and ink, with a bad case of carpal tunnel on the side. She had been reassigned to the archives after having been exposed to some sort of antimeme. Something she had been studying before, when she worked over at Information and Data Analysis. That's what they tell her, anyway. They also told her she had done a good job at it, not that it really mattered at this point.

That period of her life felt like a blur of confusion and headaches. It was a blur of confusion and headaches. Before that it was—Let's just say her memory doesn't get any better going back. Antimemes were some of the worst things that never technically existed.

Aberdeen furrowed her brow, then drew a slow breath. Pushing herself away from her responsibilities, the young woman decided on a much-needed caffeine boost, probably in the form of now lukewarm coffee. Meandering out of her cubicle block and into the halls beyond, the humble researcher thought about the many times she had been in this exact place, tracing a path she knew by heart through the mostly-Euclidean hallways of Site-19, adrift in a sea of strangers.

In her own little world, mind wandering, free from the confines of the less-than-savory parts of her life, Aberdeen found herself off guard at one of Nineteen's many connecting pathways. She traveled directly into the oncoming path of a stranger with a brisk stride, an older woman, whose thoughts were also elsewhere. Since there were no traffic lights in any of the four-way intersections of the complex, who was at fault could not be known.

The two collided in a show of scattered documents and apologies. Campbell didn't recognize the dark-haired woman, but she seemed as though she was in a little too much of a hurry. Then again, like traffic lights, no speed limits existed in Site-19 either.

"So sorry, I was distracted-" Aberdeen began, bending down to pick up the papers. Before she could, the stranger grabbed her wrist.

"It's fine, but, please. Let me." The middle-aged woman, short but possessing an air of authority, scrambled to grab the documents. As she did, Campbell was able to make out some of the contents, and her eyes widened.

"Is that-?"

The stranger cut her off with a sharp look and a hush, looking around briefly before turning back and speaking again.

"Please, have a little tact. What is your clearance level, young woman?"

Taken aback, slightly offended, Aberdeen retorted with one of the few things she had left from her previous work experience. "Four. Don't tell me, you're an oh-five. Or did they make level four-point-five just for you?"

The woman rolled her eyes, then glanced around once more. This time, she didn't wait to make eye contact again to speak.

"Yes, Site-19 just got its first Class-A wormhole generator—it's beautiful. And I'm not just saying that because I built it. Amber Lombardi, head of Extradimensional Affairs. No, not that Lombardi."

"Abby—er—Aberdeen Campbell, clerical jockey, pleased to meet you." She wasn't sure of another Lombardi, but the comment came off like something this one had to explain relatively often.

"Clerical?" The woman raised an eyebrow. "How does a desk worker like you, no offense, get L4 clearance?"

Campbell was offended. "I used to do a lot more than push papers. I'd share the details but they're a bit hazy," she retorted, motioning to her head.

"Don't tell me, antimemetics? Don't they have drugs for that now?"

Aberdeen thought of the little orange pills. "Mnestics. Yes. Some of them have been shown to aid in memory restoration. I've been on Class-X for years now. This wasn't your typical antimeme, according to my debrief, but they insist I keep trying. Sometimes I'll get flashes of things, like scenes from a film where you can't make out what the characters look like or why they matter to the story—" She paused. Lombardi was looking at her like she had two heads more than the Foundation was used to.

"Ah, sorry, sorry. You probably don't want to hear my life story."

Amber's eyes softened. "It's not that. I'm just—I'm sorry. That must be so hard."

"I'm getting through it. Listen, I was on my way for a cup of coffee, you want one?"

The woman shook her head. "Thank you, but I really should get over to Extradimensional. They're expecting a presentation on the new gateway, and this print job has lasted much longer than originally anticipated."

"I'll leave you to it, then." Campbell waved a good-bye and left to complete her journey to the break room, abandoning Lombardi to her business.

Amber continued down the hall to the row of the frequently congested staff elevators, opting not to take the quiet stairwells as some might; her stop was all the way down, and thirty floors on foot was draining just to think about.

She waited in the queue for one to arrive that was mostly empty, checking her watch in regular intervals while envisioning a Site-19 with no foot traffic, where employees walked through portals to any floor and were never late to meetings.

The elevator was never completely empty, which was the dream scenario; typically she'd get a few prying eyes or strange looks whenever she'd insert her keycard and press the button for floor -38.

It came with the territory. Everyone wants to know about Extradimensional, no one wants to actually work there. No one except Lombardi, who had spent the better part of her life learning the math and physics of spacetime as she knew it, and the rest learning things they didn't teach you outside the walls of the Foundation—extradimensional thaumaturgy, which was not even magic, just a little-understood piece of consensus reality the Administration deemed too powerful for the masses. And they were right, of course.

The wall made a tone as another elevator car reached Dr. Lombardi's floor, and, to her surprise, she found it completely empty. A moment of harmonious bliss filled her mind as she boarded and authorized the destination, holding "-38" while also pressing the "door close" button at the same time. It was a trick she'd never got to use before, and the woman wasn't about to pass up an opportunity such as this.

A voice intruded from outside the doors, where a stranger in the halls she'd came from sprinted towards Amber and her newfound chamber of solitude.

"Hey! Hold the elevator please!"

She looked at the closing doors, and then to the button to open them, then at her watch. She opted against it, and when the opening had reduced to a gap several centimeters across, Lombardi looked up and accidentally made brief eye contact with the man. The doors sealed just a moment later and started to move, her concern about the awkwardness fading.

She sighed and enjoyed the silence for the first and only time, the elevator ignoring the called floors below as it descended directly to Hell. Amber looked down at the photo on the documents in her hands and smiled to herself, thinking, Maybe things will be alright after all.






"Your turn, mate."

D-8102 grabbed the mop from his cellmate with a dejected glare.

"You know I hate you, right?"

D-0914 smirked and leaned back against the featureless wall behind him.

"Yeah, yeah. You hate all of us, and I don't really like you either. Still." His eyes motioned to the floor.

"Alright, alright."

D-8102 dunked the mop head into a wheeled bucket of gray-brown water and stabbed at the floor like it owed him money, trying to clear the clogged drain at the center of the cramped chamber. Sometimes you wished you could live another life, sometimes you wished you were dead. D-8102 was feeling a mix of both. He could barely make out his reflection in the puddle of black ooze, and he didn't recognize the bits of the man he did see, clad in orange, toiling endlessly until that unknown day where he gets gassed like the rest of them. Or so they say. He hadn't been around enough long enough to know if the sweet release of death via neurotoxin is actually something he got to look forward to.

"Squidface leaving you be?"

D-8102 paused his task and wiped his brow, contemplating.

"Not really. Why do you care?"

"I don't. Small talk."

The monstrous asshole affectionately termed "Squidface" existed solely as a lingering presence. The two could feel it in the air and hear it in the soft, indeterminate whispers that danced around their eardrums. It was nothing new to D-0914, who had been assigned to the task of lamp cleanup two weeks prior—practically an eternity. D-8102, on the other hand, was fresh out the pen. For your first interaction with the Unusual, ol' Squiddy was a bum rap.

Sure, there were plenty of worse things, things that would turn you into spaghetti but keep you ticking, things that dissolved you, slowly, over a period of a thousand years. Yet, something about that lamp was just rotten, and it wasn't just the rancid sludge it wept through nonexistent eyes. It was the persistence that really got to the two, and it got to everyone eventually. Not being able to shut it up or ask the lab goons for help made it all the worse. Sure, there were your fellow D's who would tell you that you were doing something honorable, making up for the shit you've done or some other altruistic bullshit. While it might be true, there was something particularly awful about quietly losing your mind and not being able to tell anyone.

D-8102 absentmindedly prodded the mop against the floor, listless. He looked over at the lamp, then away when it got to be too loud. He felt the otherworldly presence it was linked to, a being of terror and madness and black oil. He felt the hairs on his neck stand and pushed the presence away as best as anyone could.

"Hey, fucking watch where you're mopping—" D-0914 chastised him, his white shoes now covered in a sticky, dark paste. Attempting to wipe it off, he struggled to free his footwear from the tar. He pulled, and it gave way, but the man had over-calculated, throwing himself off balance. The prisoner fell, grabbing at the the nearby nightstand for balance. It caught him, and he began to right himself, but stopped, looking up in shock as the lamp tumbled from its place.

Transfixed, the two watched, almost in slow motion, as the lamp hit the ground, shattering, plunging the room into complete darkness, then silence. The whispers had stopped.

And then the laughing began.


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