The last thing Doc needed was a reminder of ‘that night’ – the night the sky was swallowed in a hellish vortex of energy. The night that devoured half of Brimstone. But the breadcrumbs that spilled from a frozen severed head lead a twisting path to the bottom of Mine 3, where the Xi’An were dead set on ‘tearing off the scab’ to see what lay beneath. Whatever happened, Doc had a front row seat.
IGOR, THROW THE SWITCH
Mine 3, The Nekropolis, Brimstone
Let those who search for monsters beware,
for when you look long into the abyss, the abyss looks into you.
“Zàicì wèn wǒ, nǐ jiù sǐ dìngle.” < Ask me one more time and you’re a dead man. >
His eyes burning a freakish amber, Ed shouted at me in gutteral Xi’An above the pulsing thrum, the bass so deafening that it shook the stone walls. He had been working non-stop for five days; with no time to blow off steam his personality was shifting on the fly. I wondered if, in his present state, Ed still shared my hardline aversion to killing friends, or for that matter if I was still among that group at all.
Truth be told, I knew this whole thing wasn’t safe, knew that nobody in the room had any idea what was about to happen. We were prying open places where the laws of nature had been broken. Tearing off the scab, Ed had called it. Who knew what the hell we’d find under the skin.
“Ninety percent.” Tsun barked. One of Kuang’s senior technicians, the lanky Xi’an was glued to the display, calling out power levels every few seconds. “Containment stable.”
That last part was important, at least we hoped so, and I understood now the choice of a force field over a physical shell. The idea was to open the globe and let the beast peek out, but at the first sign of trouble, raise the field and close the cage door. Given what the first thermoplasmic event did, I was a little unclear on what a good outcome might look like versus a bad one.
I squinted at the globe; the energy inside was burning so brightly that it had become pure incandescence, at least through the goggles. There were more ghosts as well, although Ed would bite my face off any time I used that term.
Myoelectric echoes, residual neural imprints. Call me old fashioned but when a see-through image of a dead guy starts wandering around, it’s a fucking ghost.
“One hundred percent.” Tsun first looked at Kuang as he yelled the words, then at Ed. I couldn’t tell if the wide-eyed expression was scientific amazement or raw terror. But the seismic shuddering now bled off of the walls and into the floor, the tremors running up my legs.
“Throw the switch.” Ed yelled at me.
I had one job… and I couldn’t help myself; it just came out. “Are you sure?”
Mayhem flared in Ed’s eyes, so I closed mine and threw the switch. I don’t really know if it did anything at all. Something in the back of my mind said it was a dummy, some meaningless widget put there so I could believe I had a part to play with no way to fuck things up. But with my help or in spite of it, the globe dissolved.
The feeling hit me before my brain registered the explosion of plasma tendrils. It was That Night all over again and puke bubbled up in the back of my throat. Fear rode the nausea, the whole mess becoming a PTSD train wreck. I grabbed the sides of the workstation, sucking for breath.
Bullwhips of energy snapped in all directions, but they really ran wild stretching up along the tears in the atmosphere. Tendrils overlapped one another, coiling thicker as they drove their way deeper into the crevices. Stray brances of light fanned out like roots seeking water.
A mob of figures staggered out of the core. At first they seemed like the same oblivious phantasms that we’d observed on numerous occasions, ghosties that gazed sightlessly as if in a fog. But these were aware; they saw the cavern, saw the equipment… saw us. Five, eight, a dozen plodded out, turning to the closest living person with a frantic wave, hands passing through coatfronts as they tried to grasp a lapel. Others just scrambled away from the light show, arms thrown high over faces etched with fear.
A stocky figure stepped through the tear and while I couldn’t see his face – even looking through the transparency of his skull – he seemed familiar. Construction worker, could have been one of the numerous factory roughnecks that worked City Center before it got hit. The ubiquitous steel-toed boots, his belt ornamented with a knife or tool. The ghost looked left, then stopped, turning to me. I saw the look on its face when we locked eyes.
“Dutch.” the name slipped from my lips, lost in the howl of noise.
Dutch, or whatever was left of him, stared at me. His eyebrows rose, head tilted in confusion, but I saw his mouth form a one-word question: “Doc?” It was all I could do to nod. Dutch took a hesitant step in my direction, then two, breaking into a run with his hands outstretched. I could see him cross the event horizon of the, oh hell, the phenomena. Thats where he disintegrated, dissolved into pixels that vanished in the air. I felt the cry ripped from my core.
The effect grew as other things continued to fall out through the widening cracks. A car bumper, the door-panel of a washing machine, a street sign. That’s when we saw the demon, or at least its ghost.
It stood taller than a man, muscled and long-limbed. Its hands were distended claws, talons that looked like they could open a throat without much effort. Eyes, deep-set in the extended skull, burned like hot coals over jaws defined by teeth and tusks.
A hand clamped on my bicep, a rough grasp that shook me on the edge of violence. I looked at Ed, his free hand pointed not at what emerged from the rift, but at the rift itself.
What had been a misshapen blob of energy had cracked open, pried apart by the tension of tendrils woven outward, tendrils that pulled at the center. I had the sense of looking down a long bending hallway, or more down a moving train where the doors between cars are propped open. What was on the other side seemed to sway erratically, connected in part to our world yet immune to one another’s physics. Consoles and workstations filled the space on the other side, equipment that looked an awful lot like the shit in this room.
More demonic forms were seated among the various stations on the far side of the swinging tunnel. These did not appear insubstantial as the ones that had previously crossed over. They looked as real as Ed or I, as concrete as someone in the next room. Despite their horrific appearance, it was pretty clear they were as shocked to see us as we were to see them.
Ed spun to face me, screaming something I couldn’t hear, jabbing a finger downward at the switch; at my switch.
I didn’t need to ask, didn’t hesitate. I punched that sucker like my life depended on it.
The containment field sprang to life, a geodesic jar of light materializing in the air. It sheared tentacles off the event, severed glowing appendages that quickly evanesced. Our ghostly visitors, human and otherwise, disintegrated as well. The bubble sealed shut, cutting the howl as well as the heat and light. The cavern room fell into silence save the beeping of machines and the lingering cries of terror and prayer.
I may have been the first to find my voice, but the question that fell from my lips was one shared by everyone in the room. “What the hell was that?”
Tsun stepped forward, looking down at a piece of debris that lay smoking on the floor. It looked like the rotor disk from a turbofan. Whatever it was, it had not faded into ether when the door closed. It was real.
Ed walked towards the globe, pacing slowly around it, eyes fixated into its depths as the reaction faded to dullness. His foot hit something on the floor that skidded with a metal scrape. He stopped, bent down and lifted what looked like a… I blinked, squinted. A sword?
It was a wicked design, a sweeping razor etched with alien runes. Ed turned the weapon slowly in his hands. When he looked up, I could see a storm in his eyes, the color shifting in real time.
“This,” he muttered, gesturing across the cavern with the blade as his numerous minds assembled the pieces. “That Night. It wasn’t an attack.” He looked up, his gaze meeting mine. “It was an experiment.”
He stepped closer and placed the sword on the console.
“That wasn’t some door to hell, it was a door into Vanduul space. They’re trying to create a wormhole.”