Alan Jacob Campbell, the man with the terrible eyes, has a plan.
He enters the front doors to the Iotech lobby, hands tucked into the pockets of his jacket, and resists the urge to feel the back of his neck. He made sure that morning that the band-aid covered the eye there, but he is still nervous about it falling off.
"Morning, Sam," he says to the security guard outside his office.
"Morning," Sam says cheerfully.
He goes inside, sits down at his cubicle, and waits.
It's a stupidly simple plan, which is why he thinks it will work. Nobody ever expects the stupidly simple plans.
After about fifteen minutes, he gets up, gets out, and heads for the restroom, escorted by the ever vigilant Sam.
The restroom is empty when he arrives, and Sam politely waits outside by the door in the lobby. Good. That means there's nobody to see him when he runs his hands along the walls, siphoning off electricity from the wires. Though he's not entirely certain what he's doing, he's confidant it will work. He's been feeling confident about a lot of things, lately.
When he's gathered as much energy as his fists can hold, he thrusts it back into the wall and sends it in the direction of the lobby, urging with his mind that it not spread, but hold together, drawing more power to it as it goes.
The lights in the restroom surge, flashing unbearably bright before returning to normal. Outside, the sounds of people talking becomes suddenly quiet, and then much, much louder. Soon after, sirens blare through the speakers on the ceilings. Not the same, high, keening siren from the day Bridges came, but the more usual whine of a fire alarm.
He washes his hands, mostly out of habit as he hasn't used the facilities.
The door opens.
"Fire," Sam says. "Everybody out. I'm to escort you to the parking lot-"
He smiles in a way he hopes is disarming. "Thanks, Sam," he says, putting his hand on the man's shoulder.
Sam has just enough time to look confused before the man with the terrible eyes tweaks a bit of electricity. He sends a little jolt down the guard's spine and Sam stiffens and falls. Alan catches him before he hits the ground and then hastily sets him down. Sam is heavy. He is also paralyzed. The man with the terrible eyes checks the man's pulse. It's steady. He smiles, relived and a little giddy. He steps over Sam and out the door.
People are hurrying out, maybe not quite a mad rush, but definitely at a brisk walk. At least nobody is shoving. The wall in the back is on fire. There are a few security guards ushering people out. He approaches one.
"There's a guy passed out in the bathroom. You should get him."
The guard doesn't question him, just nods and sends a couple people to check out the bathroom. Alan turns and moves discreetly towards the hall. He didn't want Sam on his conscience in case the fire got too out of control; he was a nice enough guy, even if he was an Iotech grunt.
There's no way he's getting up the stairs: it's packed full of people from the upper floors on their way down, so he goes to the elevator. Nobody pays him any attention.
Someone had told him once that people weren't supposed to use elevators during a fire, though he isn't sure if this was because the elevators might break, or if they automatically shut down during emergencies. In any case, he approaches the lobby's elevator and finds it working fine.
He reaches the right floor without issue and makes his way to his supervisors office, short circuiting all the cameras he comes across and enjoying the blare of the fire alarm, which has become a sort of white noise to him. He is just in time to see his supervisor leaving his office, speaking urgently into his cellphone.
"No, I don't care if the whole damn building is on fire, get down there and make sure breach precautions are still in place-"
He darts into the stairwell and his Supervisor passes him on his way to the elevator. He waits until the light above the elevator indicates his supervisor is a floor below before leaving the stairs.
His Supervisor's office is just as he remembers it; full of warm woods and earth tones, thick carpets and packed bookshelves. On his Supervisor's desk is a laptop and a manilla folder of papers. The man with the terrible eyes immediately begins rooting around, looking for anything incriminating. he looks through the folder and when that turns up nothing interesting, he digs through the desk drawers.
Some of the papers are utterly incomprehensible, but in a painfully legitimate looking way. Numbers and stocks and mergers and buyouts and other financial business jargon that makes his head spin. There are charts that mean nothing about things that mean nothing and he winds up shoving all the papers back in disgust.
The room is beginning to smell smokey. He puts everything back where he found it and takes the laptop. After a second's thought, he takes the charger, too. He tucks the laptop under his arm and, trying to look normal, he leaves the office. His head is starting to feel light. The hallway is starting to fill with smoke. He passes the elevator and takes the stairs this time instead.
Unlike the hallway, the stairwell was full of thick smoke that burns his eyes and throat. He wonders if the smoke would damage the laptop and tries to cover the computer with his coat better. Going down takes far longer than it normally would. He has to feel blindly for each step while holding onto the railing, all of which is made more difficult by the bouts of uncontrollable coughing, but eventually he makes it down.
The second he opens the door, a fireman grabs him and drags him out of the lobby. He's unceremoniously given to one of the paramedics working outside, despite his hoarse protests that he's fine. The paramedic sees him start coughing, takes one look at the soot around his nostrils and inside his lips, and immediately slaps an oxygen mask on him.
"Smoke inhalation," She says. To another paramedic, she says, "We need to get him to the hospital."
"No," he croaks, removing the mask. "I'm fine. I gotta get home." Someone tries to take the laptop from him, and he grabs it back. "Don't- don't touch it. I need it." He tries to stand, but the world spins and the next thing he knows, he's sitting on the ground, cradling his head while people are grabbing him.
They get him into an ambulance and to the hospital, and he barely has the presence of mind to make sure they keep the laptop with him.
* * * * *
The hospital is a blur and when the haze clears, it's the middle of the night. The laptop is on the bedside table next to him, and he's attached to a ventilator. His head is killing him, and his throat feels raw. His skin feels too hot, and he realizes that's probably due to the fire. He didn't remember being anywhere near the actual flames, but maybe the hot air did it.
The first thing he does is touch the back of his neck. The band-aid is still in place, and the eye is still there. He isn't sure whether or not he should be relived by this.
He sits up with some effort and removes the mask. The machine beeps loudly and he short circuits it without a thought. He stands. The hospital had taken his shirt-- he vaguely remembers being helped into a hospital gown-- but they'd thankfully left on his pants.
Quietly as he can, he takes the laptop and heads down the hallway. There are cameras, but he doesn't bother messing with them. It takes him some time searching, but eventually he finds a back exit and, though it's locked, he sends enough electricity through it to melt the lock and disable the alarm. In the parking lot, he picks a car at random, fries open the lock and starts the ignition with nothing but his bare hand.
His head and throat still hurt, and he's trying very hard to ignore how hard it is to breathe, but he pulls out of the hospital, laptop on the passenger seat, and drives home.
* * * * *
Dog has been waiting up for him. The second he enters the house, dog leaps at him, knocking him back against the wall. The beetles stream out from under the furniture and surround him while Dog nuzzles his face.
"I'm fine!" he wheezes. "I promise."
They let him up and he forces himself to feed them all before taking the laptop into his room and continuing the investigation. He hopes it was worth it; how embarrassing would it be if he'd set a building on fire for no reason?
He opens the laptop and searches through the files. There's not much there. But he finds a folder. It's encrypted, but he can nudge it the way he nudged the electricity in the walls and nudged the lock on the car door, and after a few tries, it stops asking for a password and lets him view the files. There are more folders inside, most with just numbers, or people's names, but the one that catches his eye is the first one: Project Erebus. He remembers Randall talking about it during Bridges interrogation. He clicks on it.
The screen fills with icons. Most of the files are text. He opens a dozen at once and skims over them. It's all scientific sounding stuff that he is completely unequipped to understand. There are charts with numbers that change over time. Odd equations. He closes those and moves on.
One folder marked "Void Family" has nothing but pictures. At first, the pictures look to be completely black, as though whoever it was had accidentally taken a photo of the inside of their pocket. But, after a moment, shapes define themselves in the blackness. they are no less dark than they were before, but now he can see them, and he shudders. They are the creatures. Each picture is a picture of one of the creatures.
Most of them are unfamiliar: there's one with a giant snail shell and sprawling tentacles, one that looks like a crocodile with too many legs and hundreds of eyes on long eye-stalks sprouting from its back. One that looks like a bulbous puddle on the ground. he can tell just by looking at the picture that the creature in that one is going to die soon; he can see that the tumors are bleeding, and some have ruptured and burst.
Part way through, he comes across the humanoid one that attacked him at his home, the insect-like one that sang. There are dozens of the creatures in all, each with a name at the bottom. The singing one was "Shee," the snake-like one was "Naga," the dying one was "Puddles."
He closes the folder and keeps looking.
It takes him ages to paint a picture of what happened; all the information is in pieces, all mentioned briefly in different files and scanned clippings and old photographs Simon had thought worthy enough to save.
The Void. The Void was discovered sometime in the early 1950's under what would one day become Iotech Industries. It devoured everything thrown at it and, when the baffled construction crews reported their findings to the landowner, one Mr. Simon Brandenburg--
The picture accompanying the text was old, and it has a thick white wrinkle going across the middle where someone had folded the photo it before scanning it in, but it was unquestionably of his Supervisor, standing with a group of other men in old fashioned suits. Alan stares at the screen for a moment. His Supervisor looks exactly the same as he does now, and not a year younger.
"Of course," he croaks. "Why the hell not?" And then he continues reading.
Simon Brandenburg went on a crusade trying to destroy it. Nothing the did to it had any effect; they couldn't bulldoze it, or burn it, or blow it up-- it was like a black hole without the gravitational pull. And then they started shocking it. One of the consultants Brandenburg had hired, a Malcolm Bridges, got it into his head to blast the void with several thousand volts of electricity. During the experiment, for the first time, there was a radical change in the void.
It throbbed, as though breathing, and expanded several feet in all directions, destroying the ceiling, the left wall, and part of the floor before returning to its original size. During the electric shock, two lab assistants were inadvertently taken into the void, along with a small electric generator. When the void returned to its usual size, in the place where it had been previously expanded was a small, gray brick covered with a layer of fleshy sludge.
After extensive analysis, it was determined that the brick had enough energy in it to power a small city for over a hundred years. The brick was, as far as he can tell, still being used at that very moment to power Iotech Industries itself. After that, they started throwing all kinds of things into the void to see what it would do. But it wasn't enough to just toss in a few interns (though they did), the void had to be stimulated. Only after being blasted by massive amounts of electricity would whatever process the void went through take place and things be deposited.
(There is a link here to another file labeled "Void Products: Class C Non-Sentient objects", so he checks it out of curiosity. It leads to an up to date list of things spat out of the void. There are hundreds of them.)
A pair of spectacles that looked an awful lot like the ones worn by the first lab assistant to be swallowed by the void were spat out nearly two decades after his disappearance. When they were worn, the wearer had perfect knowledge of everything to ever happen in the exact spot where they were standing. Only that spot; if they moved while wearing the glasses, they would lose all excess knowledge. The only way to “reset” it was to take the glasses off and put them on again.
The calcified skeletal remains of birds. According to the file, none of the species could be identified. In one case, the bird had four wings.
A frozen wristwatch that would change times depending on who was holding it. It took researchers months of experimenting and a few unfortunate incidents in the lab to figure out that the time it stopped at was the time of death of whoever touched it last. No date, just time.
A butcher knife that absorbed blood-- only blood. The handle was made from unidentified bone that was assumed to be humanoid.
A boxy, old model cellphone that had been tossed in, only to be spat out a moment later and changed from light gray to pitch black. None of the buttons worked save for the redial button which would call the mother of whoever was holding it. The voice that answered was always that of the caller's mother, regardless of whether or not their mother was alive or dead.
A pen that caused the writer to write only in cuneiform, headphones that only played the sound of a woman reciting seemingly random numbers, a necktie that tried to strangle whoever tried to wear it. The list just goes on. But those were only the interesting things it spat out. Most of the time it just spat out globs of bleeding meat, or useless black goop-- the non-sentient counterpart to the void creatures.
He returns to the other document.
By this point in Iotech history, it was the 1970's. The file didn't say how Brandenburg funded all the void research, but Alan got the feeling that some of those Void Products probably went missing on occasion while Brandenburg's wallet fattened up. Trouble started in the 70's when Malcolm Bridges' wife, Elaine, somehow fell into the void. The resulting void creature was the biggest as of then to date, roughly the size of a small cat. It killed two people on its way out and was never caught.
Bridges was inconsolable. The documents all labeled the incident as an accident, but Bridges swore up and down that someone had pushed her in. Elaine had found out about the void and some of the shadier experiments going on and had threatened to go public with the information. They had a falling out, and Bridges threatened to go public. Brandenburg tried to reason with him. Bridges, fearing for his safety, fled the state with his young son, Joshua.
Iotech spent the next several years searching for them, and when they finally found him, Malcolm was reported having died of natural causes soon after. His son still hadn't been located, despite there being multiple sightings of him over the years.
Good luck, Bridges, he thinks, exing out. There's nothing more of interest in that one.
He sees a folder marked "Joshua Bridges" and is about to click on it when he catches sight of a folder labeled "Bright Eyes." It could be referring to someone else, but he doubts it.
He stares. His brain can't process it. There is too much.
There are surveillance clips. Photos and videos of him leaving his house, of him asleep at the park, of him at the Chinese take-out place back before it closed down last year. More recently, there are pictures of him with the dog. Him yelling at the surveillance van in front of his house, both from the point of view of the van itself and from one that had apparently been down the street.
Pictures. Pictures of him. Pictures of his X-rays, of his blood, of him bleeding. Pictures of him cut open on a lab table, his eyes open and awake. Pictures of him, pierced through with wires.
Videos. Of him being cut open. Of him being electrocuted and injected and hurt while a cold voice says things like, "Initiating Sequence 32" and "Sequence 32 unsuccessful."
There are text files-- most are gibberish. Either they're written in some kind of code or they're so far beyond his understanding that they might at well be coded.
List of sequences, of texts, that have failed and --here cold fear claws at his chest-- succeeded. Lists of injections, only some of which say what was inside the injection (mostly long-named, multi-syllable chemicals he can't pronounce). There are notes like:
"Subject in isolation after explosive reaction to VS37. Reevaluate dosage."
"Subject shows heightened control when given double dose of VS399. Confirm results. Proposal: VS399 and VS42.A"
"Violent reaction to VS47. Subject suffered cardiac arrest. Currently recovering."
"No visible reaction to VS81."
And so on. Hundreds of them.
There's a whole section dedicated to blood sample results, complete with pictures. They're all his blood, but they're all different, depending on the dates and what they gave him before taking the sample. Sometimes he's type A, or B, or O, and sometimes he's not any of the usual blood types. Sometimes his blood is red or orange, sometimes black, sometimes simultaneously mixed and separate, like oil and water.
Charts and graphs and sequences of letters and numbers that represent things they've injected into him over the past year. And he has no memory of any of it.
The silence shatters with the ringing of the kitchen phone and his heart nearly stops. He knows immediately who's calling. Only one person ever calls him. He shoves the laptop away and goes to answer.
"Hello, Alan," says his Supervisor on the other end. "How're you feeling?"
"Fine, sir," he says, wondering is his voice is as shaky as he thinks it is.
"There was a fire earlier. I was afraid you might've been hurt. You sound hoarse."
He suppresses another fit of coughing. "No sir."
"Good, good. We had a few people go to the hospital earlier- all minor things. Light singeing, nothing big."
"Yes. Fire like that could've been terrible. So, steal any company property lately?"
"Thought so," says his Supervisor, still sounding cheerful. "You've been awfully nosy lately, haven't you?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"How did you do it? One of the mind wipes didn't take, obviously. Was that our error or is there a technique to it?"
"I don't know what you're-"
"Don't play stupid, Alan, you're a terrible liar, even over the phone. I'm assuming you know about the Erebus Project."
He's silent for a long moment before saying, "Yes."
There's a rush of air as his Supervisor sighs into the phone. "Bound to happen eventually."
"Monsters have been attacking me," he says.
"Really now." It's not a question, but he answers anyway.
"Yes. They say they're from Iotech. That Iotech made them. They said-"
He ignores him. "They said they were all one thing, one big monster, I guess, and Iotech split them up. They had like, like a hive mind and then you all made them start thinking by themselves and that's why they're crazy. They say they want to be whole again."
"What else do they say?"
"That they're afraid of dying now, but that they all need to eat each other to make themselves more whole, since Iotech won't let them get back to the big monster."
"Fascinating," his Supervisor says. "And why do they attack you? Did they say that?"
"Because I smell like them. Well, not smell, really, but I think smell was the closest word they could come up with. They thought I was like them. The last one I met was smarter, but he was still going to kill me, just to be safe."
"Come to Iotech. We can protect you."
"Why?" he says. "Why did you do this to me?"
"Not to you, for you. I'll explain it all, I promise. Once you come back to Iotech-"
"I'm not coming back."
"I'm afraid you don't have a choice in the matter, Alan. My men are already on their way. I suggest you make this easier on everyone involved and just stay put."
Alan goes to the window and separates the blinds with his fingers, peeking outside. The street is empty. "Stay here and let them kill me?"
"Collect you, Alan. Collect. We're not going to throw away our most successful void project specimen over something so trivial as a little theft."
"I'm not going," he says. "You can't make me."
"I think we can."
"Fuck you." He slams the phone back into its cradle and grabs his jacket off the counter. He can run. He can get the hell out of here and start someplace else. He opens the front door and-
-is greeted by a man with an odd looking gun standing some distance away and sharp pain in his neck.The edges of the world go black and fuzzy and when he tried to call on the electricity, he finds he can't. He falls, and the people hiding in the shrubs reach out and catch him before he hits the ground.