Nightmare Hall

20 August, 2017 — Denver Redoubt

Walt takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly as the elevator passes Level 9, and continues descending. The numbers turn red. Although the elevator is faster than what you would encounter in an office building, each level still takes longer to reach and pass through than what Walt is accustomed to. Each level consumes on the order of one hundred feet of vertical space—ten times as much as one “floor” in an office building—and there is a similar amount of solid rock between levels.

“It’s gonna be okay,” Mike says quietly. “We both know we have to do this.”

Walt nods at him but wishes he would shut up.

At last the elevator slows, and comes to a full halt. Walt looks at the level indicator and makes a wry face. The red number above the doors is 13. He looks forward, composing himself as they slide open.

The elevator opens onto a wide corridor. As they step out into it, Walt looks left and right. It certainly does not appear infinitely long like the tunnels that they’ve been working on up nearer the surface, but it’s big enough. It’s difficult to see a great distance because the corridor isn’t lit up as bright as you would expect. Conceivably they keep the lighting low all the time to save power, but Walt expects that they maintain a day/night even down here, and this is the night lighting.

It looks like there are some kind of doors or archways at both ends of the corridor, and the elevator has dropped them off equidistant from both. Walt estimates the distance at a little over a hundred yards to either of the corridor’s ends.

Mike, instead of looking around like a tourist, has walked straight ahead to the corridor’s opposite wall, where there is a map. Walt joins him belatedly, expecting to see a little label that says “You Are Here!”, with a picture of a hammer swinging down to smash that spot.

This level, apparently the lowest in the vast complex, is laid out as a sort of grid of circular areas labeled as “laboratories”. If the labs are drawn to scale with the corridors then they are something like one hundred and fifty yards in diameter. Walt surmises that there would have to be internal structure in such a broad area—for one thing, you’d never be able to support a free span anywhere near that size with an overburden of more than a third of a mile of rock—but the interior structure of the labs is not the concern of this map.

“It’s too bad it doesn’t show what’s in these,” he says to Mike, whispering in spite of the emptiness of the corridor. “I was kind of hoping to see one with a space in it large enough to work on those ships.”

“Yeah,” Mike nods. “Though God knows how they would get them from this level to where we were last night.”

“We probably haven’t seen the biggest elevators yet,” Walt replies. “And there could be exit tunnels even all the way down to this level, if they don’t mind having them come out twenty miles away. Actually, I think they might like that. Easier to conceal comings and goings.”

Indeed, if the map is drawn to correct scale, this lowest level of the complex would be a mile from east to west, and nearly half that wide.

The grid that the labs occupy is not complete: there are three columns of labs, with three in the left and right columns and five in the central column. And, confusingly, the connecting corridors do not follow anything like a regular grid pattern. Most of the circular laboratories are directly connected to two, three, or four others, but the lab at the extreme “bottom” of the complex—which, on this map, is, bizarrely, to the west—has only a single connection with another lab, just “above”, or to the east of it.

One lab in the central column clearly stands out from all others by having no fewer than eight connecting corridors radiating out from it in something like a starburst—fully twice as many as any other lab. One of its connecting corridors is the one with the red “you are here” dot. There is no graphic of a giant hammer descending, but Walt imagines that you just have to sort of assume that.

“Well,” Mike says quietly. “I guess we’re going there.” He taps the best-connected lab with a finger, glances at Walt to get his nodded agreement, and turns left to stride off toward their destination. Considering the general level of hustle that they have observed everywhere else in the complex—actually a better description would be barely-suppressed panic—it seems safest to assume that this place operates twenty-four hours a day, in which case it can’t be long until the next shift arrives. Best to move like you have a purpose.

As they set out for the goal a hundred and twenty yards ahead, Walt glances one more time at the you-are-here map. The labs are labeled with words that mean nothing to him. Probably place-names of some kind, he imagines.

The one they’re heading toward is called Tiferet.

~

Far ahead, just short of the lab entrance, two men are standing at one side of the wide hall. Both are clothed in blue hospital-like garments. One of them momentarily glances toward the sound of footsteps, and then quickly away again.

Walt slows, wanting to turn back, to find a way that’s empty.

“Excuse me!” Mike shouts at the top of his voice. Both of the blue-clad men instantly turn toward him, and Walt’s blood runs cold.

“I don’t believe that your contracts have terminated just yet,” Mike says, striding to the men. “And I don’t believe you are being paid to gossip in hallways.”

To his shame, Walt hangs back, his legs turned to ice.

The two blue-clad men look at Mike, their eyes wide. Interestingly, as soon as they get a good look at the men who have approached them, they both appear to Walt to relax, if just marginally. Are some bosses, Walt wonders, scarier than others?

“I don’t care what you’ve heard,” Mike says, his voice heavy with disdain, “the work on this level isn’t finished yet. And your job is not to talk about it.”

Mike arrives within two paces of the men, dragging Walt behind him in the gravity-like wake of his Reality Distortion Field.

“We were just—” the smaller of the two men begins, then sees the look in Mike Ross’s eyes and swallows his words.

“Yes?”

“We’re, uh, just coming off shift late, sir,” one of them says, watching Mike closely.

Mike nods perfunctorily. “Fine, but this isn’t the place to stand and chat. What should you be doing?”

“Dropping off our blues, sir, and showering up,” the first man answers immediately.

“Much better,” Mike gives the man an obviously fake smile that, in a few tenths of a second and the interplay of a few facial muscles, manages to say I’m pretending to be nice to you but I could certainly have you squashed like a bug if I feel like it. Walt blinks at him and turns away, his own expression kept carefully blank. Damn, he thinks, Mike could have really been an actor.

“We’ll just tag along,” Mike says with more false camaraderie, that sounds like what he actually said was It’s not that I don’t trust you, you understand. “We ought to be getting into blues ourselves.”

At that statement, one of the men glances up with a hint of a question, but quickly thinks better of it. Instead he nods and then both men turn and head smartly up the wide corridor.

~

The place where the technicians—or whatever they are—get their blue hospital-like clothing is a locker room much like the one, many levels above, from which Walt stole the red badges that he and Mike are now wearing. The men pull off their blue clothing and simply throw it in a chute, next to which are several large plastic containers of new sets of similar garments, folded. Underneath the blues, the men are wearing ordinary street clothes.

Walt wonders where they live when they are not on duty. It can’t be topside, or he or Mike or one of the others would have seen people like this leaving. It would also generate substantial amounts of traffic every day going into and out of places like the Front Range exit. Do these men actually live down here in the complex permanently? Glancing at Mike, Walt can see that he is noticing the same thing. Mike glances back at him briefly, ten turns toward the bins of new blues. He selects a large. Walt takes a medium, and starts pulling on the pants.

To Walt’s relief, it looks like the two men who led them here are content to have nothing more to do with them, but then one of them turns back suddenly. Walt begins to tense, but realizes instantly that this is hardly the place for the man to suddenly decide to become suspicious.

“Sir,” the man says quietly to Mike, after a furtive glance at Walt. The man licks his lips nervously, and begins speaking just above a whisper. “Sir, is it true, do you know? Are they getting ready to seal the facility? Is that why the big bosses haven’t been around?”

Mike looks at the man in a moment of indecision that he does nothing to conceal, knowing that he has established his role strongly enough in the man’s mind for his hesitation to be interpreted in that context.

It occurs to Walt that Mike is enjoying this entirely too much. He can see the wheels turning in Mike’s head. How can he not give away too much ignorance, or else pass it off as secret knowledge, but at the same time how can he gain some knowledge of his own out of this moment? That, after all, is the point.

“No one knows for sure,” he says, lowering his voice, looking at the other man to show that he is being taken into confidence as well. “But yes, I believe the time is close.” And then Mike has his inspiration. He narrows his eyes, hoping that he has guess correctly. “We just have to do our jobs,” he says slowly, “and they’ll let us bring our families in.”

The man flinches, but then nods slowly, a mixture of complex emotions on his face.

“I don’t want that anymore,” the man whispers, his gaze far away, forgetting that it can be dangerous to talk to strangers. “I’d rather be outside,” he says. “No matter what.”

~

The entrance to the lab is a bank of solid steel doors with nothing but some writing on them and a card reader next to each one. There are still no new workers in evidence. Apparently, Walt thinks, he guessed right and the period between shifts is not well staffed. Although—shouldn’t they time the shifts to overlap slightly? If it were a construction site and he were the boss, Walt would never let a site go cold this way. Doesn’t anyone need to talk about what happened on the prior shift? Even if these people are all “grunts”, shouldn’t there at least be managers around, getting things going?

In his mind’s eye, Walt sees again the expression on the face of one of the technicians that they accosted as he tells Mike that he and his partner had been working late. He knew we weren’t from this area, this part of the complex, Walt realizes, so he lied! He was watching to see if Mike believed him. Why?

Realizing that he has slowed down, Mike stops and turns back.

“You okay?” he asks quietly, concern in his eyes. “You want to stop?”

“No, no!” Walt shakes his head angrily. “I’m just thinking—”

Walt remembers the other man saying: Is that why the big bosses haven’t been around?

“Those guys weren’t working late,” Walt says suddenly, and a little too loud, to Mike. He lowers his voice. “Nobody works late around here anymore. The ‘big bosses’ haven’t been around for whatever reason. People are getting—” he waves a hand, “demoralized or something. There probably used to be people here even between shifts. Now they leave early and start late. That one guy didn’t like it anymore. Didn’t want to bring his family in.”

Mike breathes heavily. “Yeah,” he says. “He wanted to be outside ‘no matter what.’ Interesting way of putting it.” But Mike’s face says that interesting is not precisely what he’s thinking.

Mike glances at Walk, then looks more closely. “So you’re okay? Next shift is still going to show up at some point, I’m sure.”

“I’m fine!” Walt insists again. “That center place ought to be right up here.” Up ahead there is a closed door with what look like warning printed on it.

The door, when they reach it, says “Final Stage Subjects : Holding”, and it, like everything else so far, opens to the red badges. Unlike with any of the other doors they have encountered so far there is a loud thump before this one begins to move. As it slides aside, Walt notices one difference between this and the other doors. This one is four inches thick and appears to be solid steel, except for a row of holes along the right edge where, presumably, locking bolts slide through when the door is closed. Their withdrawal must have been what made the thumping sound.

~

The place smells like a chemistry lab crossed with a porta-john. The smell is so strong that Walt nearly stops walking as they enter. It’s the last thing he was expecting. From the look on his face, Mike has been surprised as well, but his glance contains a warning that Walt understands immediately. Don’t react. Don’t show any surprise. There might be someone in here.

There appears to be a hall, generous in its width though nothing like the main corridors outside, curving around the entire perimeter of the enormous lab.

The central area, at least the part that is easily visible in the half-lighting that is apparently used between shifts, is taken up by tall cabinets, desks containing computer terminals, and tables supporting various instruments. Walt thinks he recognizes an electron microscope, but there are other devices equally complex that he can’t begin to identify.

The floor is polished concrete, which Walt at first believes has been decoratively acid-stained in the manner of some high-end grocery stores. But as they continue cautiously forward, he realizes that what he took for a decorative wash was actually the remains of some accident that could not be completely removed from the slightly porous surface.

In fact, he realizes with a kind of settling feeling in his keyed-up mind, the stain could very well have been old blood.

~

As he and Mike begin to proceed along the slowly curving outer walkway, Walt sees that the outermost layer of the lab is composed of large rooms, or perhaps cells would be a better description. In each case the wall that faces inward toward the lab appears to be entirely made of a thick layer of glass. The first two of these rooms are empty except for over-sized steel tables anchored into the concrete floor. Walt sees small steel loops, six inches in diameter, around the perimeter of the tables that he frowns at.

A chill runs down his back as he realizes: they are wrist and ankle restraints.

In the third room they pass, the table has been partially torn from its moorings. There are starburst cracks in the thick glass. There is absolutely no question that the stains on this floor were made by blood. Except that the extent of the staining would seem to indicate something significantly larger than a man.

They are about to walk past the fifth room when something that appeared to be a shadow or a rock moves, and Walt realizes that the room is still occupied.

The thing in the corner is not a rock, because it’s breathing. Walt stops too quickly, making a tiny scuffing sound with one foot.

The thing in the corner turns its face toward them instantaneously. Faster than anything’s head should be able to move.

Walt has a moment in which fear quickly decays into a kind of relief as he convinces himself that the creature is merely some kind of dog, albeit—altered in some way to be unusually fearsome. An attack dog sculpted to inspire fear.

Then the thing blinks, and Walt sees that its eyes are those of a man.

Then it unfolds itself, rising slowly onto two feet, and becomes a nightmare.

It walks with a kind of limping motion. Walt knows at once that it has been recently injured. Punished? Changed? Its legs and arms are too long for its torso. Its fingers are too long for its hands.

The claws on the ends of its fingers could rip a man’s life away faster than that man could blink.

Walt takes a step back, in spite of his knowledge that the wall between him and this creature is three inches of something impervious. But while his mind knows that the transparent wall must be unbreakable, his body only knows that there is a horror facing him from only a few steps away.

Its skin is blue-black and slick, like that of a huge frog or lizard, but its ears are tall and pointed, upright and forward-facing like those of a jackal, an attendant upon Anubis, the god of the dead, the weigher of men’s hearts.

There is also a slight crest: a ridge that begins at the top of the hairless skull and travels back along the spine. But Walt is only peripherally aware of these details. He is transfixed by the eyes.

The eyes are those of a man.

Some small part of Walt’s mind is aware of Mike’s indrawn breath a pace behind him.

The creature touches the glass with its claws, continuing to stare into Walt’s eyes. Walt feels his heart constrict, and his organs turn to ice. His body knows that this thing would be upon him before he could raise an arm. It would open his chest with one swipe of its scalpel-tipped hands, and he would still be alive when it began to feed upon his lungs.

The barrier certainly does nothing to stop sound. The clacks of its claws upon the glass sound as though there is no barrier at all. Walt can hear the scuff of one of its feet upon the cement floor. He can hear its rapid breathing.

The thing’s mouth has two-inch exposed canine fangs that protrude downward from the sides of its dog-like snout. It opens its mouth, and hot fog appears on the glass.

“Hep me,” it whispers.

Walt stumbles backward, unaware of anything except the nightmare thing holding his gaze from behind the glass. The thing is a man, or a man’s mind in the body of a beast. They have done this to a man.

Hep me!” the things says. It cannot form the ‘l’ sound because of the shape of its snout and protruding teeth.

“Hep me! Hep me!” the creature shouts, its eyes wild, its mouth open in a snarl. With each repetition of the demand, its claws scrabble against the unyielding glass, skittering like giant black insects.

Walt feels as though his heart has stopped beating and his blood has frozen in his veins.

As Walt backs away, the thing goes wild, hurling itself at the wall, beating with its hands and claws against the unyielding barrier, its pleas becoming wordless screams of rage.

A monitor beside the enclosure begins to emit a repeating tone.

Walt feels Mike’s hand clamp down on his shoulder, pulling and rotating him, forcing him to break eye contact.

“Come on!” Mike says. “Come on, let’s go!”

Walt stumbles like a drunken man as Mike pushes him back toward the doorway they entered through. Behind them the screams of the creature in the glass room are joined by more screams. Some of the other voices are similar to its banshee shrieking. Some are more guttural.

They are still ten paces from the door when it clunks loudly, and begins to slide open.

“Don’t say anything!” Mike whispers to him. At the same time he urges Walt to a faster pace, with one hand on his shoulder and another on his arm, nearly dragging him.

The door is just open enough to show that someone on the other side is wearing the same type of blue garment that they have appropriated, when Mike starts yelling.

“Where the hell have you people been?” he shouts. “What the hell do you think you’re doing here?”

The door finishes sliding open, revealing four blue-smocked technicians, all three of them men, and all three with their mouths open in various expressions of amazement or fear, trying to divide their attention between the unfamiliar men coming toward them and the bedlam cacophony now echoing down the full length of the ward.

“Well move, god damn it!” Mike shouts. “We don’t know where everything is here! Trank them before something fucking breaks! Do your fucking jobs!

“Okay,” Walt says. “I’m okay.” he shakes himself lose from Mike’s supporting hands, but keeps walking quickly. Mike is simply retracing their route back up the main corridor. People have finally started to appear, but even now they seem sparse.

Several large electric vehicles, each carrying half a dozen armed and body-armored men, turn a corner and enter the hall a hundred yards ahead, not far from an elevator that looks similar to the one they originally used. The vehicles are beeping loudly to warn pedestrians, and people scramble out of their way. All of the other blue-clad denizens of the corridor turn to stare at the vehicles, so Walt does likewise. Although the soldiers are helmeted, Walt is able to see some of their faces as they zip past. They all appear to be perfectly, utterly calm.

A pleasantly-modulated voice issues from a speaker directly above them, nearly making Walt stumble until he realizes that the same thing is happening from scores of speakers along hundreds of yards of the corridor’s length.

“Containment breach in laboratory seven,” the woman’s voice announces as if she were discussing free ice cream. The words are so perfectly regular that the voice must be synthesized, but, if so, it’s the best one that Walt has ever heard. “Containment breach in laboratory seven. Security personnel are responding. Security personnel are responding.”

The elevator is empty when they reach it. Mike walks in instantly, hits the touchscreen for the top levels, and pulls Walt in with him. Two other people, approaching from a few paces away, stop when Mike holds up his hand and simply shakes his head.

The door closes without further incident and the elevator begins to ascend.

After a few seconds, Mike turns to Walt. Mike’s face is pallid.

“Listen,” Mike says, “we need to—”

But at that point, Walt turns to put one hand on the elevator’s side wall. He leans over and vomits. Then turns to put both hands on the wall. He stands there and spits for a while, before at last glancing back at Mike.

“Sorry,” he says. “That back there was just—” He shakes his head carefully. “Not what I was expecting, you know?”

“Yeah,” Mike says curtly. “Well.” He puts a hand on Walt’s shoulder, and Walt turns to look at him as the elevator continues to rise. They will reach the upper levels in another minute.

“Well,” Mike says. “I don’t understand everything, and I don’t want to. We’re getting the guys out tomorrow night. We talk to them during the day, and we get the hell out of here tomorrow when we go off shift. We explain as much as we can, but if it comes down to arguing, I will knock people on the head if I have to and carry them out in a bag. We get out with the money and we just go. Okay? The whole team gets out, we do not leave a man behind. Right? You with me?”

Walt nods. “Yeah,” he says hoarsely. “Yeah.”

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