“Tell me everything you remember,” I ordered Elijah. I had waited until he entered the bathroom before following and locking the door behind us. The black van was going to be here in a few hours, and my excitement was quickly being replaced with dread. I needed answers, and I needed them now.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied in a monotonous voice. Forcing myself to stare into his cloudy white eyes was harder than I expected.
“On the nights you’re picked up by the ‘shuttle service’,” I said. “I know you’ve gone four times now, and I know you weren’t just drinking. I want you to tell me what really happened.”
A euphoric smile replaced his pallid countenance. Then a frown, as though trying to remember the insubstantial details of a passing dream.
“But that’s all that happened,” he said. “The shuttle picks us up and they give us something to drink. Then I wake up in my home and it’s time to go to work again.”
“And you feel just the same as you did before?”
The frown deepened. Then his eyes stretched so wide I thought they would pop straight out of his head. For a second he seemed about to scream, but then his face reverted back into a blank slate. It all happened in such a flash that I couldn’t be sure the expression was there at all, but when he smiled again, I could sense the tension still trembling in his cheeks.
“Better than ever,” Elijah replied. “I find it invigorating.”
He continued staring me in the face while he opened his belt and dropped his pants around his ankles. I would have liked to ask him more, but I was shocked and revolted when he began to piss in the sink right beside me. I just turned around and exited the bathroom without another word. Whatever was being done in the building had seriously damaged these people, and it looked like there was only one way for me to find out the truth.
When the van arrived, my name was called alongside Wallace Thornberg. Fat guy in a bulky coat with a hat pulled low over his face – I don’t remember seeing him before today. He nodded curtly at me but kept his distance, shoving his way into the van the moment the doors slid open.
“Fransisco with the shuttle service.” The driver bounced out from his seat and held the door open for me. He was dressed in the same blue suit as the guard who had escorted me before, but this man’s eyes were perfectly clear.
I hesitated. “Where are we going?”
“You know,” the Fransisco replied. I found his tone overly familiar and my doubts redoubled.
“What happens if I don’t want to go?”
“But you do.” The driver grinned and put on a pair of headphones. After that, he didn’t speak another word for the remainder of the drive.
I climbed in and sat on one of the two benches bolted to the metal floor on either side of the van. The fat man sat across from me, arms crossed, hat pulled low over his face, looking like he was trying to disappear into himself.
“You been there before?” I asked.
“Wouldn’t remember if I did,” came the gruff reply. “You’re not supposed to be here though. You weren’t on the list.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Because I wrote the damn thing, and I didn’t want you to be,” Nathan finally looked up. He grinned to see the shock on my face. “Of course I’m not supposed to be here either, so I won’t tell if you don’t.”
Nathan did his best to explain the situation to me as we rumbled into the secluded hills. After each of his first five rounds of procedure, his memory had been wiped clean every time.
“Waking up afterward felt like I was an alien in an unfamiliar world,” he told me. “Books, songs, people I had seen a thousand times before, they all started giving me trouble like some sort of puzzle. I even tried to quit once, but the longer I went without another round, the more lost I felt. It became like an addiction, and I couldn’t live without my fix. It would have been damn irresponsible for me to keep working when I could barely tie my own shoe laces, so I requested a replacement. That’s why I wanted to keep you off the list – so we could have at least one level headed soul to keep everything running.”
“Your wife said you put a bullet in your brain.”
Nathan chuckled and slid his hat further up his head. A bandage was wrapped around his temple with a great bloody spot like a Japanese flag.
“You blame me? I didn’t think I could go on after my fifth round, and this seemed easier than having to manage without it. Next thing I know, I’m back awake and swearing like the Devil. How’s that for clearing your head? Worked like a charm too. I felt more like my old self than I had in years. Now I know they’d never let me walk after a stunt like that, so I let people keep believing I was gone.”
“What are you?” I knew he couldn’t remember what they did, but the question slipped involuntarily from my mouth.
Nathan glanced at the driver, still wearing his headphones. We were descending at a sharp angle now and must be entering the valley. Nathan moved across the van to sit beside me, speaking in a hushed tone. “I figure there are two possibilities: that they made me into something that isn’t human, or the good Lord brought me back. Either way, I figure it’s my obligation to stop them doing this to anybody else, so I switched with Wallace to throw a wrench in the cogs. Can I count on you to have my back?”
He caught me staring at the bloody bandage and slid the hat back low over his face. I nodded stiffly, although I hated the idea of committing myself to a war when I didn’t have the first idea who was in the right. It didn’t seem like people were being forced here, but if they were being manipulated with an addictive drug then that was just as bad.
The van pulled straight past the control station and stopped in the parking lot where I saw the bodies being loaded last time. The hum of drilling was omnipresent here, and my whole body vibrated like my bones were looking for a way out.
The guard handed us each a pair of headphones as we parked outside the building.
“Wear these,” he practically shouted. “It’s only going to get louder inside.”
Nathan shifted his coat awkwardly, clutching something in his pocket with one hand while he put the headphones on with the other. When he said wrench, did he mean he was smuggling some kind of weapon in here? The guard didn’t seem to be paying any attention and simply walked into the towering structure with us at his heels.
“Can you hear me okay?” Fransisco’s voice came through the headphones. I nodded, absent mindedly walking forward in awe of the gargantuan internal structure. Three, maybe four stories tall on the outside, but it must have been built down into the abyss because the balcony I was standing over dropped down further than I could see. In the distant depths I thought I could make out a faint red glow, but my eyes were repelled from the void by an instinctual terror that I could not overcome.
Endless rows of balconies marched below me into the penumbra of shadow, each containing a massive machine with cables extending downward into the pit. Each machine had a tether of wires extending from the other end which connected with a helmets being worn by a men sitting beside it. There must have been hundreds of them sitting so peacefully in repose that they might have been asleep, and hundreds more men in blue suits attending to the machines.
“What the shit?” I couldn’t believe my eyes. I took a step back toward the entrance and almost tripped as I walked into something. I turned to see the guard offering me a glass of clear liquid. Nathan was already studying a second glass in his hand.
“You’re going to take a drink and sit down at the machine,” the Fransisco said. “When you wake up none of this will have happened, but you’re going to feel so alive that you might as well be dead now.”
“Not remembering it and not happening are completely different things,” Nathan said. “But if we ain’t gonna remember, you might as well tell us what’s going on.”
The guard sighed and rolled his eyes, languidly pulling a .44 magnum handgun from his belt and playing with it in his hand. “I’ve told you every time, Nathan, and I must admit it’s getting old. And every time I’ve told you, you still took the drink, so why not just trust me and do it again?”
Nathan growled and pulled his hat off to reveal the bandage. He reached inside his coat and produced a cellphone with a prominently flashing light.
“Well maybe I’m not as easy to convince anymore,” Nathan said. “So why don’t you humor me?”
Fransisco calmly leveled the gun at Nathan’s face as Nathan lifted the cell to his ear. I took the opportunity to begin circling the guard, but then the magnum pointed my way and I froze.
“Five rounds might keep you alive, but how well do you think your friend will bounce back from a bullet in the face?” the guard asked.
“Acting manager?” Nathan spoke into the phone. His voice was different. I’d heard that voice over the phone before, but it had been from the office of the secretary of defense.
“Put the phone down or I’ll shoot,” the guard said. “I swear to God Nathan -”
“Clearance Code?” Nathan asked. “I want you to shut down the plant the moment I give the word. Are you ready?”
“You can’t,” Fransisco said. “If we have a power out, every one of these people will die.”
“Bullshit. You’re just trying to save your own ass,” Nathan spat. “Tell me what’s really going on?”
“He’s telling the truth,” I interjected. “It happened last time there was a power restriction too.”
“I don’t fucking care!” Nathan bellowed. He gripped the phone so tight his fingers turned white. “Living like this – they’re dead either way. I want an answer. Now.”
Fransisco swallowed hard. He nodded. “We’re feeding it. If we stop, it’s going to be angry.”
“What is?” Nathan asked. I caught the guard glancing over his shoulder and turned to look. Another man in a suit was holding a rifle on the opposite balcony.
“Nathan watch out!” I shouted.
“Put down the phone, Nathan,” the guard said. “You have to trust me.”
“What is down there?” Nathan shrieked.
“Nathan put it down!”
The guard beside us nodded sharply. A crack split the tumultuous sound of the drill and blood sprayed from Nathan’s face. The rifle bullet had punctured straight through the back of his skull to emerge from his mouth. He looked over his shoulder in bewilderment at the man with the rifle, his whole face splitting open as he turned his head.
Two more cracks rent the air from the handgun. Nathan was staggered to his knees. He hadn’t let go of the phone. He spat a mouthful of blood onto the floor and rattled off a rapid string of numbers. Another bullet slammed a hole straight through his forehead, but he didn’t even hesitate.
The guard lunged at Nathan, but I blocked him with my body and we both went spinning to the ground.
“Authorization granted. Shut it all down,” Nathan said.
My face went numb as the butt of the handgun slammed into my forehead. I groped the air blindly and caught hold of the guard’s suit jacket, but he ripped free and dove at Nathan. The former manager scrambled backward, screaming into the phone the whole while.
“Do you hear me? My name is James Mattis. I want the whole station offline right now.”
The four bullets in Nathan didn’t even slow him down as he scrambled away from Fransisco. I locked eyes with Nathan right as he reached the edge of the balcony.
“Did I save them? Did I do the right thing?” his voice broke with desperation into my headphones. I pulled myself up from the floor, unable to tear my eyes away from his bloody face.
“You did what you thought was right,” is all I could muster. Everyone held their breath, looking around at the lights and the humming machines.
“Connect me to the plant,” the guard screamed into his headphones. “Tell them to keep the power -”
And suddenly the silence and the darkness were all there was. Red emergency lights flashed along the walkways for a moment, but row by row they snuffed out as the backup generators were overloaded. The lights on every balcony winked out. The hum of every machine spluttered to a stop. The vibrating pressure of the drills grinded to a halt. In the absence of all other light, my eyes adjusted to see faint outlines visible from the red glare in the pit.
Fransisco roared with frustration and ripped his headphones off. He grabbed Nathan by the coat and rammed him against the railing. I leapt to Nathan’s aid, but too slow. Nathan didn’t make the least move to resist as he was tipped over the balcony to plummet into the abyss. I ran to his aid – too late. The last glimpse of him I saw was a spiral of blood raining through the air in his wake.
“What’s going to happen now?” I shouted.
The guard didn’t answer with words, but his message was clear enough. He dropped his gun and started sprinting for the door. I should have just followed him, but I couldn’t let all of this be for nothing. My feet plodded pulled me like a moth being drawn by flame until I could directly over the balcony and into the abyss.
Somewhere miles below the earth where the drills once tore through the crust emanated a baleful glow. I watched transfixed as it shifted, seeming to slide from one side of the pit to the other. I turned and ran from the building. Guards, mechanical technicians, doctors, streams of people poured from the place to fill the black vans. The men tethered to the machines were being left behind, but they couldn’t have all been dead. I saw one slide to the ground and begin to crawl, only to be trampled beneath a stampede of men in blue.
I helped the man to his feet and dragged him out of the building with me. His lips kept moving as though he were muttering something, but I couldn’t hear it over the sounds of panicked screams and thundering footfalls.
No-one seemed to notice that I didn’t have a blue suit in the mad escape. I crammed into one of the vans and huddled in the back while it roared up the valley walls. A noisy rush of speculation surrounded me, but I was incapable of joining the conversation. I don’t know if anyone else stayed to look like I did, but I couldn’t tell them what I saw. Somehow speaking it would be enough to make it real.
We were about halfway back up the valley when a deafening explosion knocked half of us from the benches to sprawl on the floor. The van bucked and heaved like a wild animal, but managed to stay upright as it roared down the road. There wasn’t a back window, so we all had to wait along the right side until the van made a turn up the switchback road before we saw it. The foundations of the building had been detonated and the entire structure slid off into the pit.
The man I had saved from the machine, haggard fellow with a long beard and eyes as white as starlight, kept muttering along the rest of the drive. He was hard to look at because of the bloody sores on his head. The “helmet” he was wearing had wires which plugged directly into his brain, and when I had torn him free I had left great patches of his scalp behind.
“It can’t die. It’s already out. It’s inside us all.”
No-one else spoke along the drive, so they all must have heard him too. We all just fixed our eyes out the window though, afraid to acknowledge what we all knew. I don’t know how many people had looked into the pit before they ran, but I’m sure enough of us knew that the the red glow wasn’t really sliding like I thought at first. It was opening, and from somewhere in the depth of the earth, I had looked into a colossal an eye staring back at me.