To Clean out a Night...
rating: +29+x

… I fell in love.
I heard about it
(bit-by-bit, bit-by-bit)
I heard about it
(bit-by-bit, bit-by-bit)
I heard about it, no
(bit-by-bit, bit-by-bit)

Bon Iver - "666 ʇ", 22, A Million

This is my third exorcism. Charlie's hands are on the dials of the kit, steady, rippled with veins, unflinching. I'm opposite him across the table, tracing out the stencilled dotted lines on the baking paper, trying to concentrate - or not to concentrate - on the thing in the jar.

The humming in the air is not from the apparatus but from my lips as I vocalise my control mantra. The content is less important than the intonation; syllables must be low, soft and clear; the sigil lines can only modulate the thing in the jar so much without the conscious direction of human will, best applied through extension of human voice.

"Ur … aher … evan," I chant, "Olibi … thy name … "

A wincing. The thing in the jar convulses, luminscent coral green tissue-paper flicker-flap unveiling, and a spark flies from the baking paper. "Fuck!", I go, and I try to refocus, to bring the pattern in - but then the mantra is already broken and my hands go on without me and the circuit is complete before it is complete - in a flash the thing in the jar dissolves prematurely into a million field lines, rippling and exploding into the leads like a spectral miscarriage. Immediately Charlie wrenches the dials down and yanks the wires from the jar. The energy in the jar dissipates into the room, and I smell the all-too-familiar tang of botched discharge - burnt metal and ash and lemons.

Charlie hands me a fresh sheet of baking paper. "Again."

The AAFM is an old model, salvaged from one of the earlier failed prototypes, its only saving grace being that it fits on the kitchen table. The full ones are the size of small fridges, suspended around head level from thin wires, self-discharging and self-cycling. For the training kit, each botched exorcism necessitates a manual discharge instead. So while I replace the sheet and wipe away the ash, Charlie busies himself with sparking the thaum capacitors, disconnecting them from their cigar-shaped plugs and tapping each sharply by the rear on the edge of the table. Each makes a sound like a dropped penny as the invisible energies escape (invisible to the naked eye, but with the goggles, there would have been the distinctively clear silver-aurora puff of neutral thaumic discharge). He lays them out in a row on the table when he's done, and one by one fits them back into the kit, click-click-click. Then he dabs the conductive gel onto the pads and sticks them back onto the jar, three on each side, with an extra squeeze to make sure the suction holds.

Re-rendering the ghost is easier. Charlie flips two switches on the side of the kit corresponding to the training presets and the jar glows back to life from the pads inwards, shadow-flicker thaumic energies mimicking standard-issue Type-A ectoplasm to a tee. If I touched the jar now, I would feel an almost imperceptible coolness; they say your breath formed smoke in the heart of the house. Charlie places his hands back on the dials, tweaking the amperages and voltages and casperages ever so slightly, and the thing in the jar shifts into focus, a floating, swirling, neon-green hankerchief. Charlie arches his thick brows at me to continue.

I take a deep breath, and put pencil to paper again. Like before, I follow the trace with my mind, taking in the edges of the energies, sensing the ineffable butterfly-stain pattern through my fingertips and breath and spine, visualising the thing in the jar in its full Technicolour ARI glory - but at the same time, not really visualising, in same way one sees dim stars in the night sky, or the tip of one's nose. This time, something catches that hadn't before, and in the sweet sweet moment of clarity that follows (Charlie calls this "the flow") the sigil connects and connects at the same time doubling over loop-the-loop and shazam! The thing in the jar disappears into a perfect silent harmony under the destructive interference of the traced-and-tailored sigil. Success!

Unfortunately, I seem to have lost the ability to move. The flow is done, spent through, but it sticks to me like seaweed, holding my nerves in place and I find myself frozen in a brief awkward catatonia. Help, I mouth. Charlie grins and carefully removes the pencil from my trembling hand. Thirty seconds later when I'm composed, he pats me on the cheek and hands me the pencil again.

"Good job, Mol," he drawls. "Now, one more time."

We share a drink on the rooftop. The moor stretches before us; the only landmarks here are the hills, and the hut, and the house. The view of the last has been blocked off behind us by a blue striped tarp draped between two of the comms antenna. Duct-taped onto the tarp is a laminated notice, handwritten in green marker: RULE #1.


And then, in smaller caps: THE JOB IS DONE. SILENCE IS GOLDEN.

Kenny Rogers wafts from the radio, his voice layered with static. We've got tonight, he coughs. Don't think about tomorrow. It's okay, because none of us are.

I'm cross-legged on the floor with a shandygaff. The chairs are for the vets. Jo prefers to stand, gazing at the sunset; black hair cropped close, a face worn so smooth you can barely tell she's forty-five, she surveys the horizon through her horn-rimmed spectacles with bottle in hand. This is her land, her eminent domain: no one disturbs Mother Jo on the rooftop. Downstairs, she is all smiles and band-aids and apologetic chop-chop efficiency; up here, she is queen.

Jorge is Colombian, and isn't drinking either. He only touches the proper stuff, the fire-water which lies snug in a smuggled crate at the bottom of the pantry. Anything less would be a travesty. Jorge's alcoholic habits are the stuff of myth, held with all the power of a haughty demigod - that is, sparingly, but in magnificent quantities. I've seen him down a quart of fire-water in a night. We kept him away from the sigils the next day, in case the sparks set his skin alight. That same man now lounges easily on the deckchair beside me with pink lemonade in his cup holder and my knitting needles in his hands, piecing together something with orange leaves around the edges. I think he fancied me, once, when I first arrived -though Jo and the rigours of the job soon took care of that.

There's Rao, pensive in his armchair, dust already gathering on his beard. He looks to be a hundred, turning a thousand, but Jo swears he's only fifty-three. Woman's intuition, she claims. Rao drinks the same as Jo, but in sips so sparing and small you could hardly tell he's moved at all. He stares into the sun, fingers tightly gripped on the edge of his chair, and his mind is a million light years away. Jo tells me that behind the vacant gaze is implacability itself, that the man has the mind of a mountain, and I do not disbelieve her when I look into his eyes. Hell hath no fury to scathe him. Recreation fazes him not. But he's part of the family, and family means tradition, so he's here with us too - if only in form, and not in soul.

And old Charlie Carrington, the legend, slouched like a lion in the silver chair behind us, the mage from Mississippi, cigarillo clamped hard between his teeth billowing smoke and dreams and more, the blue tarp framing his great shaggy gray mane from behind, a tapestry fit for a vagabond king. He says he was born with Rao in same batch as the ECRG's first mystics, made a whole man anew from sigils and psychotropics in the bowels of Site-20. At least there's much more of him left than Rao, and he's a better teacher to boot. In his head is every cantrip, pattern, chant and spell known to the Foundation's repertoire, and a few more beyond that. Most are of his own invention. Everything we know, we learnt from him. And - thanks be to God - he's here with us, still.

The new guy, however, isn't here. Jorge figures that he's probably writing and rewriting his notes in his room. Jo simply rolls her eyes. I think he's new, and a stickler - and leagues above our pay grade too, going by the fresh new boots and hiking gear Jo found him in when he arrived, scowling at the mud on his knees. I think he'll settle in, given the time.

Charlie reckons he's not here because Foundation protocol forbids him from drinking on the job. Technically, it forbids us too. But first day here, first thing you learn: you're one of us now. You're ECRG - you're the kooks and the cranks and the madmen, the twitchy witches with the toys. And out here, on the moor, with the nearest site a whole half-day and a world away by battered white National Parks van, you start to appreciate any company, any company at all, because the kooks and the cranks and the madmen are what you got. So it's the hut, now, not Provisional Site-2696, and, more importantly, it's also home. So balls to operational protocol, and it's drinks on the roof till sundown.

Training again. The image is the key, Charlie says. Creating the image is one thing but the picturing of it - the holding of it in your head - that's where the magic happens. Magic, in its purest form, lines of field visible to Kirlian transistor coils and third eyes alike. That's all it boils down to: lines of field. In most cases, the baseline human has no need for the techniques of meditation and visualisation and channeling. But Charlie and Jo and Rao and Jorge and I do not work with most cases. Our case is the house on the moor - the house numbered SCP-2696 - our case is holding the lady within, and the lady within must never be let to leave.

My image is the screen. One year ago to the day, Charlie showed me my first aetheric resonance image in a dusty theatre at the bottom of Site-88. It was salvaged technology, piano-sized beige plastic carapace and multicoloured wires and dials, and it had been set up with a jet-black dish blossoming from the top, pointing straight above.

"Watch very carefully," he said, turning the machine on. In front of me, a television screen flares, and in the darkened room I squint and see numerous floating shadows, teal and white and grey, floating in the deep. "Footsteps of souls," I marveled. I moved my hand over the jet-black receiver. The display rippled with white like the froth of lakeside waves.

The method is such: first, I clear my mind. Then, I dredge this scene from memory and expand the screen until it fills my vision. On the screen I see myself and project field lines onto the image of myself, mapping the curves half by guesswork and half by rule-of-thumb. The colours I choose are teal and white, and once the curves are set in their polarity then I can begin channeling.

Of course, the curves aren't real. Channeling is not a process of conjuration or sorcery. What it is are a set of techniques created to amplify, strengthen, and manipulate the effects of thaumic phenomena. Jo says that somewhere within the Foundation's ranks are true practitioners of the craft, real wizards and witches, Type-Blues, their existence closely guarded by security clearance and pain of death. I don't disbelieve her, but it doesn't give me any less reason to practice. There's always something romantic of the idea of having a fighting chance against the unknown. Besides, the aptitude for channeling itself is also a closely-guarded secret, and fewer than five qualify for Theta-77 training a year. Therein lies our grim unspoken creed: if not us, then who?

So when the lady awakens and the alarm rings and the meters flare it's time for us to rig up and go, with patterns etched on placards by the hundreds in every vest pocket and sleeve. Some are mechanics' tools; others are workings, to dispel and defend; more are sigil batteries, to fuel the workings; most comprise the sinks and dissipators and aether recyclers just to make sure Charlie and Jo and Rao and Jorge don't explode into smoke the moment they subvocalise their words of power. When the lady in the house awakens we need every advantage we can engineer. Push her back, beyond the doorway, buy enough time for a machine to be repaired or a working to be cast to seal her away for another season or more.

A dozen exorcisms in and I think I've gotten the hang of banishing the thing in the jar. Fifty more and I might not even need the baking paper any more. On the job, Charlie subvocalises, subgestures, pictures workings resolving into spells and fights the monsters with his mind. That's the goal - once I can do that with the thing in the jar, he says, then I might remotely be prepared to survive.

Last night, I emptied the jar in two minutes flat, flow unbreaking from start to end. A new personal best - Charlie was proud. Small goals, small wins. And for now that is enough.

June fifth, midnight-thirty. My first breach event. Much to Charlie's chagrin, I'd barely only mastered subvocalising my workings, and only two at a time, so I'd have been useless in any regard. That's how I find myself crammed into the control center - really a three-by-two metre space in the basement of the hut lined to the brim with video screens and oscilloscopes and readouts and dials, all connected to a monstrous bundle of thaumically-shielded TV wires winding all the way upwards to the roof.

The new guy is squeezed in next to me tight against my shoulder, all one-point-five metres of twitchy bones and contained precision and inexplicably still dressed in immaculate lab attire, white coat and laced shoes and all - it's three in the morning, for Christ's sake! And how?

I don't rightly know how the monitoring setup works, myself. That's what the new guy is for, with angry black cables flowing out of the headset fixed onto his face like a vise, his fingers flying across the dials, conjuring images onto the screens in dizzying false-colour flashes - 1, 2, 3, switch; 1, 2, 3, switch. I ask him what's going on. He ignores me, hitting a series of switches on my left, then switches something on his headset, letting it unfold and slide up above his forehead.

"Right now, that is team A," he intones, pointing at the largest screen in the center, where dull green figures crouch against a maelstrom of rainbow. I recognise the silhouettes: Charlie in the front, with his shaggy mane tied up in a ponytail behind his helmet, clad head to toe in protective plating etched with the ninety-nine names of God, barely legible in the flickering. Jorge, further behind, hunching under the weight of his toolbox. Both men are trembling. White light blazes from both of their hands, snaking upwards to hot spots at their armpits, waist, and thighs - no doubt from their overclocked sigil batteries. Ahead of them hangs a Mark-IV AAFM, cloaked in its own flickering light, pale yellow sparks arcing ominously across its symmetrical geodesic shell.

"Carrington, Vasquez - device ell-oh-one is just down the hall. I've amplified oh-two and twelve to compensate. Expect heavy turbulence." The new guy flicks another switch, showing the shadow of the empty stairwell. "Simos, Rao - no sign of dash-one. Stand by."

I gulp. "How bad is it?"

The new guy taps a dial twice, and the big screen flashes to another pattern - this time recognisable as a 2-D ARad render overlaid onto the floor plan of the house. Multicoloured field lines emanate from the center, dissolving at the edges into spikes of deep violet that crash into each other, and fade mutually into black.

At one corner of the first floor, however, the rainbow escapes, propagating into starbursts of yellow that arc across the screen, looping around and bursting into the violet, staining it an ugly brown. "HF leak," he mutters. "Thaum capacitor cycling loss in ell-oh-one. Symmetry is broken in three places. They can fix it, but they do not have long." His right hand gestures to another screen, where a waveform shivers taut like breaking thread.

"Is there … something I can do here?"

"No." He brings his headset back down, and flips the left switches again in a different pattern. The screens flicker back to the psychedelic overlays, field patterns and projections, 1-2-3 switch, 1-2-3 switch - but I notice the feed of Charlie and Jorge at my corner of the setup, their shadows striding into the storm.

"Thanks," I whisper, even though I know he can't hear me through his torrent of thaumic data.

As if in response, the comms crackle again, from Charlie: "It's no problem, doc." Then, shortly later: "I see it. We're going in."

"Oh-two and twelve at maximum," reports the new guy. My screen flares to white. Five seconds of silence. Then, crackling, in Jo's voice this time - and I swear I can taste the fear beneath her calm.

"Charles," she breathes, "she's here."

And the screens explode into fireworks.

In the blizzard forming on the screen in front of me, I see Charlie raise his right hand, his left hand clenching Jorge's. The interference grows worse, threatening to blot out the feed entirely, and before it goes out I can see that both of them are screaming.

The new guy swivels into action. His hands fly over the controls, flickering between screens reflexively now, and his headset starts going off like a Geiger counter in heat - clack-clack-clack-CLACK - no doubt cycling through the massive wave of data flooding the ARIs. I smell burnt metal and lemons. The feeds are cycling faster now, flickering from spectrum to spectrum, far too fast for my eyes to register.

Abruptly, the new guy speaks - with preternatural calm, from a million miles away - "Redirecting thaumic gradient. Team B, fire on target position." From somewhere, I hear the roar of whirring discs and crackling sparks as more than two hundred field modifiers strain under the astronomical load.

He caps off his concerto with a final flourish of tweaks and flicks, ending (almost as an afterthought) with an arpeggio over the left switches once again. The rainbow storm on the main screen ceases, and switches to a dull brown shadow-show.

I can barely make out the front door of the house - but the feed's been dimmed, exceedingly so, like watching a sandstorm through sunglasses. The double doors have been thrown wide open, and in the light that emerges I see two figures - Rao and Jo - flickering like dead leaves in a campfire.

Jo's down into a staggered high kneel, body hunched over, hands clenched into tight fists. Rao stands tall against the storm, feet at an angle, his right hand held out in front of him, open palm facing the doorway. Faint light streams from Jo's hands; it forms rivulets of field lines that blow backwards into the wind - then bend, weakly at first, then strongly, into a steady trickle against the flow, straight into the shoulder of Rao's right arm.

And in front of them, something coming down the stairs, something with the head of a woman and the body of a shade, fractal brilliance peeking over the threshold, burning pure white even through the new guy's filtered feed. I see her two eyes open like magnesium flares, see the terrible mouth gape vast, vast with unmodulated ARad, and Jo is instantly thrown onto her haunches, nearly breaking her connection with Rao. Rao, on the other hand, looks to all the world like a man encountering a slight breeze. His hand remains outstretched, poised, ready.

Jo is yelling something I can't hear. From the way her jaw moves, it looks a lot like the word: "NOW."

The lady stumbles towards the open door, bleeding madness and light.

Rao shakes. His body rocks back on its heels.

And the entire screen rends inwards as the combined energies of the house are channeled into the layers and layers of workings running parallel in Jo's head, sparking her scalp tattoos, blistering along her aura until Rao himself roars into action, transforming before my eyes into a phoenix, a waterfall, ten thousand points of light that blast from his fingertips into the open door of the house, striking the lady straight in the center of mass. The beam blossoms upon impact as the field overcompensates, rebounding excess discharge into silvery sparks that spread across the screen like a spiderweb.

On another screen, the blizzard clears to a mere storm, and now Jorge is running, running, with Charlie backpedalling close behind, arms outstretched to defend against the burning backlash, hands reflexively spelling out defensive workings in strokes of white. Jorge reaches the device with his toolbox half-open and wrenches something out of the bottom with his bare hands. It hits the ground in a shower of green firecracker sparks and merges with the flow. Oblivious to the supernova around him, Jorge retrieves a fist-sized cylinder from his toolbox and slides it into the bottom of the field modifier with the precision of a ballerina. He twists, and it clicks into place. On the main screen, Rao expends a last burst of aetheric energy against the lady, toppling it back across the threshold. He collapses into a heap.

Almost instantly, something pops. The new guy reaches forward with both arms and twists two large dials counterclockwise back to zero. On the main screen, the brilliance fades to black as Jo crawls to Rao and cradles his body. Jorge drops to his knees, gasping for breath in a cloud of sparks. Charlie, his armpits smoking, staggers over to Jorge and pulls a cord on the side of his vest, discharging the overloaded sigil batteries in a puff of silver steam. He then does the same for himself, first on his left side, then his right. He turns to the camera and gives a weak smile. "All good up there?"

"Return to site for debrief," is the only thing the new guy says through the comms. He slides himself away from the console. With shaking hands, he peels away the tethers from his face.

"Are you okay?" I venture.

"I'm fine," he replies, and this time his voice is soft and high like a child's.

"I didn't know you could - run the hardware like that. That was amazing."

He doesn't reply. I hesitate a little, then place a hand on his shoulder. "Thank you."

"What for?"

"For - for doing whatever it was you did."

He brushes away my palm and staggers to his feet. "It's my job. I did what I'm supposed to." He squeezes past me and, with his still-shaking hands, hoists himself out of the basement, one step at a time.

In the evening of my first day Jorge slides the tape into the VCR and hits the play button with his thumb. The screen flickers to life – a white wall, pantry stool, clock on the wall. It’s six in the morning. Hands adjust the camera, then the woman sits in front of it, jacket tied around her waist, tank top baring aged tattoos on wrinkled skin. Her long grey hair sweeps down to her waist; she sweeps it aside her face, sits feet astride across the stool, and begins. "My name is Masa Zupan," she growls, "and if you’re watching this, I’m already dead."

There is stillness for a few seconds. Then something happens - the screen flickers - the light changes - and now Masa is doubling over in a low, throaty laugh. "Yeah, I can’t do this. Take two, take two."

The screen buzzes, and Masa is seated again, this time with her hair tied up. "Look. You there, seeing this now. This is me. My name is Masa Zupan. I am sixty-two this year. I am a witch. I made a mistake, and now I am dead."

"I’m sure you miss me. The lot of you. But I guess you’re playing this for a reason. If you’re watching this, I’ve gone down fighting with curses on my lips and dead ghost between my teeth. Or I slipped and fell in the bathroom. It could go either way. Regardless, I’m dead and gone. And I just want you to know that I am glad to be rid of you. Yes, every single one."

Jorge smiles. "She was a real sweetheart."

The figure on the screen leans in. She breaks into a sly grin. "And between us all, I can think of no others that I would rather have served with. Theta seventy-seven – here’s to us, my friends. Here’s to the duty and the job. And till we meet again."

The video jumps.

Now, leaning back again, palms on her knees. "To whoever’s coming in after me. You’ve got a lot to pick up. We come in here, some of us born with the gift, others taught. But we’re all in here for a reason. Reason being there’s no one like us in the whole damn Foundation who can run the job like we do. You’re going to see some shit, my friend. You’re going to loathe it. You’re going to go down screaming and try’na claw your eyes out, and when you’re done, you’re jolly well going to get back up and continue. Because you’re one of us now – the best of the best. So damn well act like it."

Masa pauses, ruminating.

"Y’know," she continues, "I used to tell Charlie, back when we were new – I told him, us all better be going to hell when we die. Y’know why?" She winks, and brings the camera close.

"Because the devils will never know what hit them," whispers Jorge, along with the woman on the screen. He reaches up and pauses the tape just before it reaches the end. Masa’s face hangs in the frame, wry grin baring yellowed teeth, raw fire burning behind fierce blue eyes.

"How long ago?" I ask.

"Six months before you. Replacements here don’t come easy."

"So how … "

Jorge swallows. "A part of the wall had collapsed, and we were going to fix it. She did nothing wrong. Clara just did something we hadn’t seen before. Charles couldn’t shield her in time. Got the rest of us out safely, though. I asked how he did it, but he said it’d fry my brain to even try."

"I see." I stare at the woman on the screen. I try to imagine what she was like when she was alive. I try to imagine what she would have been like in her final moments. Would she have been lucid, in the heart of the house? Would the fire still have burned even then, in the madness and the cold?

"So … do you all have a tape?" I ask.

"Charles and Jo have tapes. I don’t know what to put on mine yet. And Rao isn’t going to leave one – he’d probably rise from the dead, and come back with his last words himself!" He enunciates that last sentence for dramatic effect.

"Nope, that doesn't work," I laugh. "You just sound scared that it might come true."

He rests his head in his hands in mock preponderance. "That it might, that it might."

I lean in with him. In front of us, Masa's face continues to burn. I reach for the set and turn off the screen.

"So … will I have a tape, too?"

Now it's Jorge's turn to laugh. "Ha! Ha!" He throws his head back in a loud guffaw, baring his yellow teeth. "Not today, chica. Maybe next time. But you don't know what you're asking for."

He smooths his hair down, composing himself.

"Trust me. You really don't."

Charlie comes in with Jorge and Rao around his shoulders, with Jo trailing behind. He's a mess now, with his undone hair hanging down his face drenched with sweat. A trail of dried blood cakes his upper lip from his nose. "The truck's still loaded," is all he says to me. He lets Jorge and Rao down onto the floor unceremoniously, then collapses between them himself.

Jo enters last, dumping the discharged ward vests into the center of the room, then points towards the armoury. "Cleanse tags, six-pack, now." I nod, and fetch them for her as fast as I can. I throw them and she catches it, popping the first one out of its blister pack and unrolling it to its full length. She bites one end between her teeth and squeezes, coughing out excess thaumic energy that stains the rest of the tag dark brown. I pass the remainder to Charlie, who shambles up and onto the couch, biting two tags at once. With each of his coughs, I feel the air in the room become a little warmer.

I move to do the same to Jorge. It's harder when he's unconscious, so I pinch the end and feed it between his lips. The working takes hold and slowly, the colour returns to his face.

"Where's the new guy?" asks Charlie. There's tiredness in his voice, but also a wary concern.

I shrug. "He went back to his room as soon as he was done. I didn't think he'd have much left to do anything else."

"You know, he almost died," Jo says, kneeling down to administer a tag to Rao. The first one flushes black almost instantly, with an audible hiss; she yanks it out and puts a fresh one in its stead.

"Who, the new guy?" I ask.

Charlie raises a finger. "She means Rao."

"I know the tags look like shit, but he'll hold fine. It's Jorge that took the brunt of it," says Jo.

"I thought Jorge looked fine," I say.

"He didn't vent the batteries in time," groans Charlie from the couch. "Damn fool could've drained his aura flat if I hadn't got to him in time."

Jo tugs the second tag free from Rao's lips. It, too, has been drenched pitch black. She gives him a third. This time, the stain bleeds a healthier-looking deep brown. "Well, it's only his third breach," she sighs. "You aren't him, Charles. He isn't us yet."

"He'll have to be us anytime soon, Jo. There's only a couple more times we can keep doing this until we, you know." He lifts two fingers into a scissor shape, then cuts them across his forehead. Foundation tactical hand signal: cognitohazard, mind-affecting.

Jo rolls her eyes. "Don't be so dramatic. So when's Molly going to be good enough, hm? Didn't you say you'd have her ready by May?"

I raise my hand in protest. "Hey, I'm still here. And I've been practising. Don't drag me into this."

Charlie smirks. "She's right. Leave the kid out of this." A sudden fit of coughing seizes him, throwing his head back. "Anyway, it's partially my fault as well. I should've casted the 102's to run remotely and focused on point defense."

"Point defense? In that mess?" Jo chuckles. "You didn't burn out an entire class-four in vain just so you could show off."

"I swear it worked in the Christmas breach of '68. Cleaner discharge, too."

Jo shakes her head and smiles at me. "Maybe one day you'll be like him. Though I dearly hope not." She plucks the last tag out of Rao's mouth and crumples it up with the other used ones. "Come help me move him to his bunk."

"Yes, ma'am."

"And Charles, when you're done moping you go right on and move Jorge back to his. Make sure to check for those burns."

"Fine, fine." Charlie pinches the bridge of his nose and snorts into his used tag, clearing out the last of the congealed blood. "Just make sure someone clears out the truck before we go to sleep."

Jo doesn't reply. She picks up Rao's body from below his armpits and motions me towards his feet. Together, we hoist him to his room and place him down on his cot. He is somehow much lighter than I imagined, even considering his meager frame.

"He's right, you know," whispers Jo to me, once we are out of Charlie's sight. The door is ajar, casting yellow light in a narrow strip over Rao's cot.

"About what?" I ask. I reach over and rearrange Rao's legs so that they lie evenly on the cot, then drape the thin yellow blanket over them.

"This job. Between the three of us, I mean. Each time we go out to put her back in, it takes years off our lives. And we don't have many of them left. You know that, don't you?"

"Is that why he's here?" I ask.

"Doctor Lim?" Jo's voice drops ten degrees.

"You've listened to him."

"Well, we did and we do. He's a professional, and knows what he's doing."

"Why doesn't he talk to us? He's only a month newer than I am. Why him and not me?"

Jo averts my gaze. "I think, over the years - it's something we've found - when you have a group of diverse people who need to work together - it's hard to find the strength to trust sometimes, especially when the world hangs in the balance. It's a gradual process."

I shrug. "I don't see you making more the effort to bring him into the loop, either. He's just - there. And you still listen to him and everything, but he's still just this - guy."

In the light of the door, Jo's face looks far older than I remember. Eyes, tired lines. "It's not an easy job, Molly," she mutters. "Some people adapt better than others. We take what we can, and that's the best we can do. You take first shift, okay?"

I accept the diversion. "Sure thing, ma'am. I'll see you in the morning."

She smiles. The door closes slowly behind her.

From inside the hut, it's impossible to tell when day breaks. The hut's a standard-Foundation-issue end-of-the-world concrete bunker - windows are a luxury that safety cannot afford. Even now, waking up starts a kind of panic in me that I shouldn't have stayed as long as I did - that it's too late, somehow, and the world has gone up in flames and dust without me.

That morning, a dreamless sleep.

I wake up on the couch. I don't know how long I've slept. have no memory of sleeping there, but I assume from the way I'm dressed that I must have passed out during my watch. The ventilation's shot, and a quick walk around shows that I'm alone, with the exception of Rao, still as a stone, lying face-up in his bunk. The door next to his remains locked (and silent - Jo must have finally found the peace for sleep) so I loop around the back of the armoury and take the stairs up to the roof.

I smell coffee as I poke my head through the hatch. It's Jorge, picnic mat and all, looking none the worse for wear after last night's run. But I can see the cracks: his hands move just a little too slowly, stirring the coffee in his mug, and his eyes are lined with red rings. Jorge's injuries are more evident. His shirt is off, and trails of grayed skin peek from under the bandages on the sides of his chest.

"Buns?" he asks, holding up a half-filled plastic lunchbox. It's the last of the supplies from the week's drop - pineapple jelly rolls that Jo called in from a friend back in Site-20.

I laugh. "Taking Jo's treats? I see it's a special occasion."

"Being alive is a special occasion," he says, moving over to make room for me on the mat. I sit and stretch my legs out, leaning on my elbows.

"Where's Mum and Dad?" I ask.

"I think they went for a walk. The truck's not downstairs."

"Huh." I take a bun from the lunchbox and nibble it. "Any idea why?"

"Nope. Probably felt they needed some air. It's not every morning that's like this."

He's right - it's warm, almost pleasantly so, or at least as warm as it can be on the moors - and there's not a hint of clouds in the sky. The last dregs of morning fog hang over the horizon, motionless. I bask and take in the rare sunshine. "Last night treat you alright?" I ask.

"Eh. It's been worse. I swear Charlie had it worse than I did. I don't know how he does it and still has the nerves left to drive us all back. There's no way he didn't pull a muscle in his head last night keeping all of his spells in order."

"Oh?" I recall Charlie on the basement feed, hands braced against the aether, field lines curling around him like water.

Jorge seems to read my mind. "You couldn't see him up close," he chuckles. "Old man was damn near speaking two words at once, if it's even a thing possible. Fuck!"

"Well, Charlie said you almost died."

"Yeah? Okay."

"You don't seem very worried about it."

Jorge doesn't respond. He finishes the rest of his breakfast in silence. The lunchbox empties. At length, he gets up and tips back his mug, letting the remainder of the brown sludge drip onto his tongue.

"Worry's a difficult word to put together. You were at the consoles with the new guy last night - were you worried that the world was going to end?"

"Sure, but not really. The threat was immediate, and it's over. But they tell me you can't take much more hits like this."

"No one can, chica," he shakes his head sadly. "No one can."

I lean my head back and rest it against Jorge's lap. We watch the sun rise over the moor, feel its warmth seep into damp concrete. The fog is thinner now, spreading up over the ground, and upon seeing it obscure our view I try to sweep it away with my palm. Jorge chuckles.

And yet the fog does not lift. Even as the sun rises, it clings to the edge of the water, then climbs onto the bushes and into the jagged tops of trees. Still, stubborn and unyielding.

As much as we watch, it remains.

Jo and Charlie come back a little while later. I hear them before I see them, the truck's characteristic put-put chugging in from the long road beyond the woods, and I have the garage open before they arrive.

Charlie is holding something wet and small by the neck. "A rabbit," explains Jo. I nod. Can't blame him for having a diversion here and there, after all. There isn't much else to do here.

We have things to do. In the pantry, I hear the spreading of a plastic sheet. While I dust down the armoury shelves I hear Charlie prepare the carcass, a low humming tune on his lips. The sound of slicing, of pocketknife digging into meat. Running water. Soon, the buzz of the induction cooker.

Meanwhile, I run through our stock of sigils - workings, batteries, and sinks - looking out for the black spots signalling impurity, the white spots signalling discharge, the smeared ink signalling water damage. I skim through the blank tags just to check if they're there, as well as the accompanying stash of emergency Sharpies. I check the lights. I count the tools, categorically, in the five plastic-shell toolboxes. I test their clips, make sure that they stay fast.

I dig into the cupboard and bring out old sigil vests into the garage, where I spray them down with a hose. Jo, in sweatpants and work shirt, helps me hang them up to dry. She tells me she will put them back later. In the hut, I ding the alarms, yelling "Test!" before I do, and "Clear!" when I'm done.

Busywork, prayer beads for the mind. In the pantry, Charlie continues to cook the rabbit - bubbling of sauce in pan. Sizzle and pop. All is well.

By noon, he is done. I hear scraping of cutlery, footsteps to the armoury. He catches me with my hands wrapped in wiring. "You hungry, kid?"

I take the offered fork in my mouth and taste. Peppered, stringy meat sticks to my teeth in chunks, and I cough in surprise. Charlie treats my reaction with some concern. "I hope it's not that bad. I don't do this often enough."

He motions casually to the apparatus in my hands. "If you're thinking of practice, it's alright. We can continue tomorrow."

Lunch is the remainder of the rabbit stew and a sandwich. I sit at the pantry and make a second, smaller one for dinner; note with some concern that bread and cheese is running low. First the bread, then the ham, peeled from the pre-sliced puck between layers of waxpaper in the fridge. Lettuce from the Tupperware, then cheese and mayo, then another ham where a bread should go. Preserving symmetry, I finish the remaining layers in the reverse order, cheese mayo lettuce hampeel bread. I crimp the edges, kneading the crusts together to catch the stray flecks.

In my mouth, the taste of rabbit lingers, persistent strips between my teeth. The smoky aftertaste of Charlie's seasonings. As I prepare it, Charlie looks back from the sink, his brows arched. There are suds in his beard, and he wipes them off with his sleeve.

I finish the sandwich. Presently, Charlie turns off the faucet and sits down in front of me. "Is something wrong, Mol?"

"It's fine." I shake my head, avoid his gaze.

"Are you shaking your head because you don't know the answer?"

I pick up the sandwich and set it down between two layers of clingfilm.

Charlie continues. "It's okay to not know. It's okay to be afraid. Last night was rough. I'm sorry."

He does not need to be sorry.

"Kid." He looks awkwardly to the side. "It's, well, hard to get used to all of this. I know it, you know it. And, hell, you're just beginning. We were scared shitless, the first time we went in there too. We're all scared in there still."

The clock behind us ticks, twelve times, thirteen.

"If you, um, ever feel like it's a little too much to bear - you don't have to talk to us, just - maybe let us know." He tries a smile. "We can work something out." Behind his brow, I can see him try very hard not to say the obvious. We need you. We need people like you. Don't leave. Stay.

"I don't think I have any intention of leaving," I say.

He muses. "Hm. Guess that works in the long run. But now, I think it's important to take care. Keep yourself grounded, alright? Just - do as you have. You're doing well. Keep on doing well - keep at it, and then maybe the fear won't seem so great any longer. Does that make sense, kid?"

I say nothing.

"From the looks of it, I'd say you should lay off practice for a while. But I'm not going to stop you if you do, or feel that it's better or something." Charlie shrugs. "Up to you, kid."

He gets up, and then leaves.

When Charlie is gone, I clean up and return to the armoury, sandwich wrapped in my jacket. Nonetheless, he sees me as I cross the common area lugging the mass of wires and cotton wool and tape to my room. He watches me, and says nothing.

I close the door. I do not need the apparatus to be switched on. In the dark, my hands trace the containment pattern in front of the wires, between the wires, looping forms - now not so much as physically reinforcement, but as a subconscious product of thought processes more felt than known. The mantras are in my throat, too, pulsing and dumb.

To do without doing is the base state. I dredge and project the memory of the screen in the darkened theatre, five thousand metres on each side, spanning beyond my vision, expanding, bigger across than I can see, blinding black and blazing static - and on it I see myself extending teal-white lines of aura, probing, neutral repose. Flowing between me and the pattern on the ground.

Gradually, I enlarge the screen and extend the lines. The screen has three sides now, three dimensions of the body's chakras, lending dimension to form. The screen, showing the ghost of me, showing the ghost of the pattern, the dissipation of the thing in the jar. The ghost of me, the pattern, the jar, again in new ways. The screen twists, rends to accomodate the new perspectives. And lo, the screen itself -

- video screens, the ones I saw last night were small and blurred and lined with fuzz. Raspy voices: SHE'S HERE -

Concentration breaks.

Silver lines wobble, bend, flare out in a million ways and break contact. I open my eyes, seeing darkness (the real one), seeing nothing, then seeing the dead machine hunched like a gargoyle watching with blind dish-eyes. Sighing, I close my eyes and begin anew.

Once again with the screen, once again with the lines, once again with the pattern and the spreading and the neutral repose, once again with the soul.

The screen stretches before me. I extrude lines to make the pattern. The pattern is the self. Its lines are my limbs, its shape is my form. Thought flows between the two, like the figure and ground, the ground and figure. Figureground - Why? Why? I feel myself overflow into the ground until the figure and ground become one, indistinguishable, yin-yang-up-down-gray.

I look down at the pattern on the screen in my mind, and it's like looking into a pool. My own eyes stare back at me and I see myself mouth, why?

The pattern stares back. Ask, and ye shall receive.

I ask the pattern, what went wrong last night?

Absolutely nothing, it tells me.

Then why am I so shaken?

It's the thought of it, really. In darkness, the mind sees what the eyes cannot. That sets everything off.

But why? It didn't involve you.

Maybe because it didn't involve me?

No, that can't be right. Charlie is right, it's fear, pure simple fear.

Awe of the spectacle. Fear of failure. Fear of lack of success. Fear of irreversible ego death within a two hundred kilometre radius. Fear of being responsible. Fear of being not responsible. Fear of fear itself.

Is that all?

Fear of loved ones dying.

Loved ones, returning, not knowing if they'll make it the next time they're needed. Tired hands on tired laps. Tired faces. Their eyes.

Understandable, hums the pattern. Let us remain in this loop for a little more, so that you can know how you are afraid.

I do.

Good. Now from inside the fear, safe from the source of fear, I want you to try again.

I try again. Probe three - breathe in! - and descend.

Third time's the charm: contact loops into silver forms on the screen in my mind. The me behind the screen deftly tweaks invisible controls, micromovements in muscles, breath control and body moulded into one singular manipulation of the lines. I trace the pattern, now more in thought than in form. Containment, concealment, diversion, protection. I loop through the patterns, one by one, flipping through channels of control mantras. The Lord's prayer. Lorem Ipsum. Billie Holiday. Mind and body move as one. Sensing, in parts, of a bigger whole.

I breathe. Repose.

Things work out fine.

I sit for what feels like hours. I hear Jorge's footsteps, sense his hesitation, his knock withheld. Deep in the trance, I try to signal. It's okay, I think. I'm alright. Soon, the footsteps go away.

I cannot remember eating the sandwich. Eventually, I fall asleep.

Our Lord in heaven, hallowed be thy name. I run along corridors whose ceilings are as high as my head. My headlamp flares, illuminating my breath, cutting into the jagged corners of the walls. But really, at this point, there's no need for light, with all the house-ness of the house — even without the goggles, I can taste the ARad leaping from the walls, feel centuries of fengshui engineering strain under the pressure of redirecting the immense energy, the terrible energy, emanating from within.

The walls scream. I leap over a pitfall lined with foam acoustic spikes, stumble under jutting inscribed beams, jettison two more of my sinks which stream out behind me in clouds of black sparks. The lady's behind me, somewhere in the dark and the screaming and the cold, and she's catching up fast. Contact means imminent death. The floor drops - I stumble - my headlamp clatters ahead of me - I see three lights staring back at me, two eyes and a mouth opening wide to deliver my perdition, my head is screaming your kingdom come, your kingdom come, inside-voice catching on the syllables as the lady screams, shattered glass filling vessels of thought overflowing, no no no no no no no NO

Dearest the shadows I live with are numberless, floats the control mantra from the depths.

Without thinking, I've triggered all seven of my defensive wards on overload, throwing the full brunt of dash-one's attack back into her. From afar, timber creaks as the architecture channels my spell into success. The lady blinks, eyes shut, temporarily blinded, and I back up on my hands, scrabbling against the uneven ground, control mantra spilling from my lips in full vocalisation now, spitting the last dregs of juice out of the wards until all that's left are fizzles of smoke from the pouches on my chest and back. The screams are softer now, but getting louder, up and up and up. I backpedal, get up, slip again, fall over my own feet. Tumbling - tumbling! Then she opens her eyes and she screams again.

I fall.

Miles below me spreads a darkness like ink. Above me, a cloud of smoke. Around is the house, or what's recognisable of its crazy jutting architecture, and as I bring myself to my bearings I realise that I do not have much of myself left to be borne.

The dream continues. Falling - then, abruptly, rising, rising now. An elevator dings. The cloud envelopes me, smiling vapour and all, and my vision becomes a false-colour sandstorm on a basement television screen. It fades, showing a face. The face of the lady.

This time, her face is a softer face, a human face, and on it are the lines that make up not only herself, but all that she has touched. At once I understand: she is a construct, as all people are, a tarball of memories and emotions clustered as a function across time and localised space. Dreaming - as it were - like I am. Probing neutral repose.

She gestures for me to seek. Now the picture is the sky. I look at the world. Space! The sensation of it, patchwork green, and falling around the hills beyond. Dark bushes, marking the edges of forest. Wind sweeps, invisible, betraying the moor's perfect stillness. Thin roads bearing the lives of other people thread through the landscape. Nothing else remains.

In equal clarity, the house itself is small, the hut smaller still. They escape the shadow of hills, crouched on the edge of plain, unassuming, plain. The dirt road is barely visible, but I know its bumps and twists and turns, on the contours of my mind, drummed into the back of my head on the old van's seat cushions, know of its transect in segments of windscreen and tree trunks, flared white by the high beams at midnight.

A strand - a root - approaching bedrock, a slumbering beast - the house itself. Built on contradiction, its architecture, paradoxical, maniacal. Internally it twists like a snake consuming itself, compacted into concentric squares of mathematical rigour. The lady knows this well, and as I squint my mind's eye I can almost see her face in the snakes, trace her eyes in the nested squares. The house - the lady - a landscape that I have known only in stories and dreams and screens alike - because, after a certain perspective, the three become one and the same, do they not?

But it is not important now, motions the lady. She gestures, and the scene shifts. As a mouse stalks the cat, folded onto the top of a slight ridge - presently, the hut and its rooms. The walls are all painted beige and white. I do not need to see to know the shape of its insides - its basement, its eyes, its bowels. A complete whole, a small beast. Here the walls are bare and the floors even and clean - because here, monsters are fought, and the mind must not wander and the spirit must not yield.

Or so they say.

Now under dark, a thin man lies awake in his work clothes. He rests on plastic folders holding questions in numbers and structure and form. The shadow of the intangible hangs over him - secrets within secrets, doors within doors - he sleeps with his head in his hands, and sighs. Perhaps one day he will have the courage to learn.

In the next room, a woman tidies by candlelight. First she arranges the items on her desk - markers, blank tags, books, picture frame - each in their proper place. Then she reaches for the calendar that hangs above, and tears off a single page. She folds the single page into quarters, placing it into the green plastic bin below her desk. Before she blows the candle out, she looks at the picture frame in which a young olive-skinned girl sits. She closes her eyes, whispers a short word, or a name. Then she returns to her bed and sleeps.

Strains of music from another room. His door is ajar. Shirtless, the younger man nurses the new wounds on his side as he strums to a beat in the dark. He climbs up and down minor scales, melodically, then chromatically. Beside him he has uncorked his secret vice for the first time in months, its acrid tang fresh on the roof of his mouth. Together the smell weaves with the music as incense before a temple - for the first time in months, he forgets where he is, and his mind is still.

A man with the countenance of a lion remains awake. He sits cross-legged with a book in his lap, eyes focused but unreading. He has seen the words too many times to do so. Besides, his mind has grown too hard. His fingers turn the pages one at a time. He relishes in the act. The light on his desk burns white and unyielding through the night. He does not sleep.

And the ancient man unmoving in his cot. He is not asleep either, for he does not need to. His thoughts are unknowable, nor does he process them except as part of a broader knowledge, a pattern, that braces - has braced - his existence - his dharma - his reason for existence. From this and his silence he derives strength. Today he is more mind than matter. But he will recover soon, and be stronger when he is needed again.

Lastly, the acolyte, tossing and turning in dreams, seeing others - seeing herself - through the lens afforded by memory. What of her, then? What of me?

I look to the lady for answers, but she thinks that I already know. She smiles a memory of a smile and disappears.

There are no further dreams.

Transcript of video log retrieved from Provisional Site-2696 ("The Hut")

Beginning of transcript.

The video shows a white wall, presumably located in the pantry of Provisional Site-2696. On a stool, spray-painted blue, sits a woman in her early twenties, with brown eyes and shaved brown hair. There is an analogue clock behind her, almost out of view; it reads 1:39. The timestamp of the video shows that it is exactly two in the morning. The date is the 1st of July, 1980.

The woman is holding the video camera close to her face. She speaks softly to the video camera, as though not wanting to be heard.

Woman: Hey, you doing okay?

Woman: Listen, I just wanted to talk this down, on the record, in case I forget.

Woman: I've been talking to the others, and coming to terms with what's happened, and I think I kind of understand.

Woman: It's the gesture of it, or the form of it. Or it's just, the language of everything, fuck. Point is, it's not so scary out there.

Woman: I don't know if this sounds cliche, but we're all each doing our own thing to survive, and, coming all together, it's something. Bigger than us, between us, whole is more than the sum of our parts, I guess. I don't know.

Woman: Okay, so I lied. It is scary out there. Yeah. And we're not always going to be able to grow back one hundred percent. But the important thing is that we can and do grow, and we try again, and we do good.

Woman: That's what we do. We keep doing good.

Woman: Now, I don't know entirely what your deal is. I don't know you, you don't know me, I'm just talking to a screen here, but what the hey. Maybe you're scared or some shit. Of us, or the monster we've got to fight. Hell, even Charlie's scared too.

Woman: Point is, we're all in this together.

Woman: And even if you don't want to be in, that's okay. We all have our levels, and we all got to find them. And I understand if you don't want to join, like, that's entirely okay.

Woman: Just wanted to let you know that, um, we'll be here if you want to. You're always welcome to join.

Woman: Does that make sense? I thought it did, in my head.

Woman: Well, that's all I came to say. See you, I guess. Molly out.

The woman reaches behind the camera and squeezes. A beep is heard. The recording then ends.

End of transcript.

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