Now before you bite my head off, yes I know I have posted this story before. My reason for reposting is that that story has since been archived and I have sort of a massive update to it that I really wanted to add. This morning I was going through a really old hard drive and discovered a folder, the folder was named Kernie, in it, proof to validate parts of the story. So then people can, hopefully, stop accusing me of having made it up. I apologize for the awful quality of the pictures, these were taken back in 2007 with my video camera's stills feature.
I have posted the link to the pictures at the bottom. If you still remember the story, you are welcome to just skip to there.
Hi everyone, so lately I've had some requests to finally share the whole story of the homeless man I accidentally took in as a tenant and the incidents that followed. I'm just saying in advance, this is a long one, but every detail is relevant.
PLEASE NOTE: although everything I have documented is factual, the case was never solved and has likely gone cold, since this happened more than 10-years ago.
So, back in 2007, I found myself working as a bartender at a, now closed, pub in my hometown...not a job I particularly liked, but it paid the bills.
At this time, they had hired a new kitchen manager that we all simply knew as Kernie; Kernie was a pleasant enough man, mostly keeping to himself, but always stayed late to help the barman do our closing duties, so we all liked him for that.
New in town, Kernie had yet to find a place of permanent residence, and I had recently lost my tenants, so someone suggested he ask me. He was considerably older than the tenants I usually took in, but having had a streak of bad luck with tenants my own age, I thought an older man with a nice steady job, may be a shift in the right direction, so I agreed.
Kernie wasted no time and followed me home that very same night, only he wasn't alone: enter Laurence, the boyfriend of Kernie. Honestly, I hadn't even realized he was gay up to that point, but was water off my back regardless; looking back now, what really should have bothered me though was Laurence's appearance, he looked like he had been sleeping on the street (rather appropriately, as I would later find out).
So Kernie moved in, Laurence was there a lot too, and it was easy to know when due to his mobile ringtone sounding like the quacking of a duckling. Kernie had some habits that were rather noteworthy to this story, in particular: (1) he basically never closed his bedroom door...no matter what he was doing in there, it was always open and (2) although he was a very heavy smoker, he never once smoked inside the house.
So Kernie had been living there for about two weeks when I had come down with an awful case of Pinkeye, this being highly contagious, I was given leave of absence from my bartending job and therefore decided to go wait it out at my sister's for a few days - apparently, I didn't mind giving it to her (sorry sis). So the day my sister was scheduled to come to pick me up (no I couldn't drive yet), I took a casual stroll into the bar that myself and Ben, my good friend from high school, and at that time co-worker, had been building in my house, and something caught my eye: all our liquor bottles were completely empty, now those who had been frequenting my house at that time, would know that we weren't just talking about one or two bottles of brandy here, but bottles of whiskey, gin, vodka, schnapps, liqueurs, basically it was a fully stocked bar that could host a pretty big party without requiring much in the way of additions.
So I called Kernie in, asking him what he knew about this, receiving feedback that Laurence and he had been on a slight drinking binge (those were the actual words he used); that had left me both furious about the 1000s worth of stock they had drunk out, but also slightly impressed that he was actually still alive, regardless, I said that I will be dealing with this upon my return.
So I'm with my sister for a few days, and on Friday I get a call from my local Police Department, asking me if I know a Conrad Scholtz...ironically enough I didn't, they finally add that I will probably know him as Kernie and that I should probably come down to the station, as they had just arrested his boyfriend, trying to sell my camera equipment. So my sister rushes me back to home, where all my camera equipment was on display at the police station. It's on this visit that I'm informed that Laurence was actually a navy seal, who got dishonourably discharged, before turning to a life of crime and now had a rap sheet the length of the Bible. The kicker was that both he and Kernie were actually homeless men who had met at the Salvation Army.
So Laurence is in jail, and my sister drops me off at home, more or less the same time that Kernie gets home as well. Based on Kernie's account of what had happened, he had turned Laurence in himself, as he couldn't allow Laurence to do to me what he was trying to do. Although I had appreciated his sacrifice, I still told Kernie that he would have to go, having been the overall cause of all this, however, not wanting to leave the homeless man...well homeless, I gave him until the end of the month to make other arrangements.
So Monday comes, and having just completed staff meeting, I walk home to encounter, a very much free, Laurence, sitting on the sidewalk across my house, watching it. I confront Laurence as to why he's there, and he tries to apologize, before begging for money...rather out of character really, I dismissed him without giving him a sent.
Now I go back to the previous night, see I had mentioned the staff meeting for a reason, as it was at that meeting where we had gotten a rather sizeable list of liquor bottles that had gone missing from the storeroom, leaving us all suspecting each other...I, however, would not have to wait long to figure out who the real culprit was, as a few days later, I opened the garbage bin in my kitchen to see the missing bottles, all empty and starring back at me. I decided to sit on this information for the time being, although I did photograph it, just for in case I need it as evidence later. I had also called over Ben to inform him of the developments. As this was quickly becoming a detective game, we decided to enter Kernie's room to search for further evidence...nothing of vast significance in there, with one exception: two single photographs of Laurence, before he had turned into the homeless version of Lex Luther or Charles Xavier. Actually, there were several of Laurence's things still there, but as Laurence had spent a lot of time there, before the inccident, I accepted this as normal.Now I should also add that I had mentioned Laurence's release to Kernie and had told him that if I even suspected that they were still seeing each other, I would throw him out of the house myself. Only a few days would pass before this came into play: on this particular night, I had been bartending again, and Kernie had constantly been stopping by the bar to help himself to draught glasses half full of wine and half full of Coke, which he would go drink outside the restaurant. We confronted him about this, but, as he correctly pointed out, he was still a manager and we had no right to tell him what he could or could not do.
On his fourth trip, however, I had grown suspicious and decided to follow him outside, where I encountered Laurence sitting outside, sharing the half Coke/ half wine concoctions with Kernie. This pissed me off, so the next day I returned to the restaurant with my photographic evidence, that I handed over to the General Manager, who was also kind of a friend of mine. Although I hadn't physically seen it, I had heard the confrontation through the office door when he fired Kernie. Kernie left, obviously upset, and apparently had no idea that I had been the one who had turned him in.
So we had closed early that night and I was walking home, going past the high school, I saw Kernie coming from the opposite direction...he walked past me, literally only saying two words "I'm scared", before disappearing into the darkness - that would be the last time that I would ever physically lay my eyes on Conrad Scholtz.
So we reach the final week before Kernie's eviction was to take place; Ben had come to stay with me for that duration, as we both wanted to monitor the situation and make sure that nothing else happens. It was in this week that Kernie's behaviour suddenly changed: he was constantly smoking in his room and his door was closed 24/7, in fact neither Ben nor I had caught so much as a peak of him in that entire last week, which we hadn't thought much of at that time.
So the day of Kernie's eviction comes around, Ben had gone home for a few hours and I finally hear Kernie's bedroom door open, someone walks out of the room, opens the front door and leaves. I follow him outside, but somehow he had already completely disappeared, what was left though was his house keys, indicating that he obviously wasn't planning to come back. I took a look at the keys, noticing something strange: although the correct keys were all on the key chain there were also several that weren't mine, why would he leave me the wrong keys? I remember myself thinking as I walked into his room.
His room was a shock, not because of the state it was in (the two had broken his bed in an act of wild monkey sex, but I had known about that already...as I said, he never closed his damn door), but more that he had literally left almost all of his belongings behind, with one exception...you guessed it, the two photos of Laurence. Upon further investigation, I suddenly realized that all traces of Laurence ever being there had completely vanished, with all of Kernie's stuff left behind.
There was one thing of Laurence left behind though...his duckling ringtone, which it turned out hadn't been so much a ringtone as an actual duckling, which now strolled around casually in the vacant bedroom (we named him Neville). So Ben returns and gets updated about the developments, both of us thinking the way he left was rather weird, of course, the whole thing had been weird. It was only when I asked the infamous question that this all became a conspiracy theory, "did you ever actually see Kernie in this last week?" It was to our shock that we realized that neither of us had, suddenly putting puzzle pieces together: the changing habits, Neville the duck, the wrong keys, only Laurence's stuff being gone...it was to great discomfort that we both asked the question, "who had really been living in our house this last week?".
During the next few days, Ben and I went on a mission, searching the town, crawling into drainpipes, trying to find any trace of Kernie's whereabouts, but they all added up to nothing, Conrad Scholtz had simply vanished off the face of the Earth. That wasn't the case with Laurence though, no he was still around, having made some new homeless friends, we encountered him several times begging on the streets. I asked him every time, "Where's Kernie, Laurence?" but he just acted like he had never heard of him.
The last time I would see Laurence was across from work, attempting to break into a car, I had called the police on him and they had arrived rather quickly, arresting him on the spot, while he was being led away by the police, I shouted after him one last time, "Where is Kernie, Laurence?" but he just ignored me and let the cops drag him away. The next day I filed a police report, reporting Kernie as a missing person and suggesting that Laurence may know something about it, but nothing ever came of it...so Lawrence, I don't know if you did something to Kernie or not, but if you did, let's not meet again. https://imgur.com/a/nxdCcug
I thought I had been prepared for any of several possible reactions from my colleague after I confronted him with my questions about this secretive build site
in the middle of the wilderness, and that I knew he was a monster in hiding. Instead, he did one I hadn't considered: he studiously ignored me, though sometimes with low-level hostility.
I was no better off, and I was still at this site and still feeling like I was watching a nightmare unfold in slow motion. I strictly banned all coffee from my days, tried to get enough sleep, and tried harder to bury myself in work. Still, I remained frazzled from constant low-level anxiety and nightmares.
I think it was four or five days after confronting Marcus that I got a "pager call" in the evening. It's not exactly a pager, but this little thing I have to wear for shit-work calls. I was hunched over another mistake I must have made in Leapfrog that was giving me weird numbers for the third time, and when I finally realised I was getting buzzed, I jumped like a cat. My hands were shaking as I held it and peered at the cheap TN LCD screen.
"Exploration 0700 SEC"
This was what the "find a leak" type calls were called, but the "SEC" (report to security) raised the little hairs on my skin, because I knew this was probably about the fluid AJ and I had seen and gagged on when we visited sublevel 1. People were still talking about it. Nobody knew what it was, although I had the feeling nobody had bothered to test it either. I mean, we had a whole damn chemistry lab right here. The saying goes something like, nothing can hide from mass spectrometry.
But this call meant I had to go back underneath that building. No. No way. I didn't think I could do that again. I stared at that little screen and couldn't stop shivering.
"Hey, you okay?" Rushana, who'd been working next to me, stood looking concerned. I jumped again. I'd forgotten where I was, and that she was there, but recovered enough to reassure her that everything was fine.
"You don't look fine. You look sick," she insisted.
I nodded after a moment. "Yeah, I just got notified of an appointment scheduled for tomorrow. I won't be in." I always felt bad leaving work unfinished for these Westie-related things, especially the times where, due to sticking to a human form for around two months straight, I couldn't hold it back anymore. I had to set up "medical leave" for those periods and wait out the two or three days hidden away until I could shift back. The first time that happened to me, I flipped my shit (luckily I was at home), but now I mostly have an idea of how long I have and can schedule things as needed. I manage my condition. But with RM having me do shit-work for them now and again anyway, I don't often have those long periods of time. Instead, I was leaving work unfinished so my employer could hunt idiot leaks, lost engineers, or... monster piss.
Rushana looked at me with a really concerned look, and I realised my hands were still shaking, holding the little pager thing. I put it back in its plastic sheath and sat back down again, with my hands on my head until I noticed and set them down. Now all I could do was stare blankly at my screen. My polyline edits were nonsensical and my data didn't fit the map I'd imported... screwing up basic stuff. It was late, I was spazzing, and my brain was fried. Fuck it
, I decided, and went to bed. The next day I got up early and walked to the main building with my other badge and a backpack. It was June at the 59th parallel, and the sun was up before 4am by now, so I decided to find a place inside to shift. There was always some kind of closet somewhere.
This time I was reporting to a different area—a security desk instead of engineering and maintenance. These were the people who stayed behind when the kill team left. The guy at the desk here looked near retirement (so he must have been in his hundred-thirties), weathered medium-brown skin with a thick grey moustache and long grey ponytail, wearing an RM-branded hat. His coat said "Lembree".
When he saw me, he pointed beady black eyes on me steadily as I approached the desk. I cautiously held up my badge. He scanned it, and I could see the tattoo on his wrist. He was reali (a bit of a derogative term from an anonymous satirical short story that had appeared decades ago. Many shifters called them this instead of "De Real". It's a little like how people sometimes say "politzei" instead of "police"), which made sense but still put me on edge. He put the scanner down and just stood there staring at me, freaking me out. I didn't know what to do but stare back.
Another guy showed up to break up the staring match. "Oh, I think we're ready then." He was also in a uniform but not a De Real. He was younger and seemed... preoccupied. He only gave me a glance, which most people seem incapable of.
"What?" I signed to both of them.
"We've got more goop. It's in the basement now," the De Real guy called Lembree drawled. His voice sounded like it was carved out of Albertan rock. I think I must have automatically scrunched my nose because he gave me a look and laughed. "Oh yeah, this'll be a treat."
"We need to know if it's, ah, seeping up from the lower levels or the foundation," the other guy clarified. I learned he was Lenny, one of the maintenance leads. I silently thanked the gods it wasn't Dickwad again. "We thought it was something left over from the tunnellers, but they've been gone for two weeks and we cleaned that stuff up, and the last several days there's been more."
I rubbed my face. This was going to suck, but no worse than looking for a sewage leak. I had anticipated something like this, and kept my sandals on so I wouldn't touch that noxious stuff with bare feet.
The day went mostly how I expected it would. Lembree and Lenny brought me around to various places where that burning-invert-with-ammonia-smelling fluid seemed to be coming out of the floors and walls, and I checked if it actually was penetrating the surfaces. I mean, they could have figured this out themselves by chipping away parts of the concrete walls and looking at what was underneath. But hey, there was a cheap Westie available, so why do unnecessary property damage? It seemed to me that Lembree was sticking by me more to keep me in check than to ensure I saw everything, but I noticed the other guys we passed in hallways in the basement and sublevels seemed... positive about me. Sometimes on an Upper World-oriented site where I do search-work, I get a good rapport with the maintenance team, sometimes I don't. Most of these people at this site had never seen me before though, so I wasn't sure what was going on until we called it a day.
The stuff had seemed fresh, and definitely had been placed there (squirted there, sprayed there...) by something walking around, and was not seeping out of the walls or anything. I'd also found it in places they hadn't looked, like the old stairwells. Now the security people and the reali would have to go see if this was a monster problem. Finding monsters was above my pay grade, fortunately. I tried not to think about something spraying that stuff in the underground floors of that building. What the hell could be doing it? My brain decided I needed a reminder of the toothy open cavern of a mouth of the tunneller going after us in the elevator, and my heart skipped.
As I pulled my badge out at the end of the day to get scanned out, Lenny came up to the desk. "You pulled that guy out," he said without looking at me. I turned and looked up at him, a little surprised. He shrugged. "Everyone's on edge since he got flown out, but we know you're the one who got him upstairs." After a moment I nodded. Lembree beeped me out, still giving me a beady-eyed stare, and I scurried back to the closet, intending to grab my pack and shift back. But when I got there, the shakes started.
I just clutched my bag as a wave of nausea and shakiness went over me, and my heart started pounding. Actually, it had been beating unusually fast even when I went to get badged out, but I thought Lembree being a De Real and the badging had been making me nervous.
No matter how often I have a successful badge scan, every time I need to do it I get nervous. All I need is some incompetent baboon to have mistyped something into a computer, or some database on the other side of the planet to have a Unicode meltdown because open-sores MySQL has two goddamn utf8-looking flags and then someone is taking me aside for extra checking. I hate it. And while I'm always careful to stay in areas where I'm allowed to be, I also try not to let the reali touch me when I'm handing things to, or accepting things from them. Touch was how they controlled you.
So that's normal, but this wasn't. My heart was really pounding. Hard. Westies don't really sweat, except through the palms and feet... and mine were damp and my breathing was quick. It wasn't warm inside the building.
I darted out a door at the back of the building, where outside the sun was already dipping below the tops of the surrounding black spruce. I sat on the ground with my back against the building wall and tried to mentally calm my heart down. It was pounding so hard I worried it was going to tear itself up. The nausea and unstoppable shivering was bad too, and all I could do was put my head down and focus on breathing and not puking. Was this the slowest heart attack ever? I was even more terrified to go looking for the onsite crew doc, who probably didn't know anything about Westies anyway.
It seemed to go on for hours before my heart calmed down and the nausea seemed to fade away. I was still shaking, but at some point I felt able to go back inside and hunt down caffeine, though not well enough to shift. What just happened? I didn't really believe it was a problem with my heart, because I've heard panic attacks feel exactly like what you'd think a heart attack feels like. But if it was anxiety, why now? The day had been pretty uneventful. There were zero monsters or scares or anything. Maybe it was from being underground anyway, even though it was during the day with people and the lights on.
Unlike last time I did my caffeine hunt, now there were plenty of people wandering the halls, so people saw me going towards one of the coffee stations, but I didn't care. No, that's a lie. I just told myself I didn't care. People staring at me does bother me. In some places in the Upper World people might see Westies, but places like this and the kinds of people who work in them, even though they're Upper Worlders, rarely see shifters of any sort but one. I found an unattended break room with a coffee machine and little plastic tables with chairs, and decided to just stay there whether people came in or not. My drugs and state of mind were more important at that moment, and I was having trouble shifting back. I needed to calm down first.
I made and downed an entire pot, used the washroom, and the shakes finally seemed to have tapered off. But as I was starting on my second pot and opening a fresh pack of cigarettes, someone in the doorway said my name in a surprised tone. I jumped and looked up, feeling immediately sick again.
Marcus was half-stepped into the small room, staring at me. I froze.
Neither of us moved for a moment. Then he stepped the rest of the way in, and peeked into the hallway behind him in a way that seemed a little exaggerated. When he looked back again, I still hadn't moved.
"Well this explains some things," he said finally. I didn't reply or react. How did he know it was me? I figured this could only make things worse. Westies are seen as corporate shills, the loyal servants of powerful Families and possibly spies. I briefly wondered whether I could outrun him through the doorway and escape, if he just moved closer to the supplies counter first. I suspected he was quicker than he let on though.
When I didn't move, he gestured towards the coffee pot sitting next to me on my little break table, which was insulated so didn't reveal how full it was. "How much is left?"
In answer, I picked up the pot and moved it over to the other side of the table towards him. He grabbed a cup from the clean rack and poured it full of coffee, then took out a small glass bottle from his pocket and droppered something red into his cup. "Iron," he said as if I had asked. Iron?
He grabbed one of the plastic outdoor chairs they had stocked the breakroom with and sat down across from me in a deliberate way. Then slowly took a swallow of his coffee and leaned back, looking at me. I felt like a mouse being eyed by a hawk.
"You're working here and you don't know what's going on? You honestly don't know what happened here years ago?" he finally asked in a low voice. I shook my head.
He leaned forward. His face was blank, but his voice had dropped to an angry whisper. "I don't believe you."
I shrank back. Him believing me seemed to be in my best interest, but I wasn't sure how to do that. "They didn't tell me anything before we came here," I began signing, but he started shaking his head.
"I'm not as fluent in that as I should be. It's on my list," he said while waving a hand in my direction. I blinked at him a few times and frowned. Well, I doubted he would complain or report me if I did the other thing.
Then I'll sound like this, I sent at him. He showed a bit of surprise. I waited, but he remained silent.
So I continued. I came asking you what was going on. Nobody tells me anything.
"Bull. What are you doing here right now??" he asked.
They had me go looking for the source of that stinking fluid, I replied. They wanted to know if it was coming through the foundation. It's not.
"Are you here on this project as a Weston's shifter, or are you here as a geologist?"
I'm here for geo work, but my contract has a 30% bullshit clause in it. I frowned. Of the three places that would even give me an offer, all of them had a do-Westie-shit clause.
"How... Why is that? I've never heard of Westies doing... other work."
I sighed and gulped down the rest of my cup, poured myself some more, and then gave him the ten-sentence story of my life starting from entering the Upper World. It started out just factual, but by the end it was littered with swear words, and I can put sailors to shame.
"Hm," Marcus muttered into his coffee. "And so you applied to RM."
I applied everywhere, but turned out most of my applications and emails were blocked before anyone saw them, I replied with a mental hiss. I have to follow all these rules. I have to check myself in and out of everywhere with a sort of monster passport. I have a fucking case manager. I'm only allowed a certain amount of mixed contact with lower-world organisations. If there's mostly lower-world people on a job, then I can only take it if someone's available as a... a "minder". If I wanted a career doing what I've wanted to do for years, RM or one of the other majors in the Upper World was it. I finished my new cup, and poured more. The uncharitable thought entered my head, that the pot felt too light and he'd taken a whole cup's worth.
"Hm. And so this is why you had something to do with the kill team coming here?" This seemed important to him.
I nodded. They didn't want to waste any well-paid or valuable personnel to find a missing engineer, so they just had me do it. They didn't know that we'd almost get eaten. I let out a shaky breath and leaned my forehead into my black little hands. How did you know I was... me? I asked.
"Same smell," he said simply. I looked up at him with surprise, but he was already shaking his head. "No, sorry. Rushana pieced it together."
I started. Rushana?? Rushana knew? Doom scenarios started spinning through my head. More people I worked with learning what I was? My stomach cramped.
"Yep. She said you'd gotten some kind of message and looked ill, and matched that with what I'd told her. That you'd said engineering sent you, and she knew a Westie had pulled someone out." He waved a hand towards my feet. "She said the amount you eat and your poor choice in safe footwear were other clues." I blinked at him, then looked at my shoeless, hairy black feet with their nasty-looking claws, and tried to tuck them more out of sight. I had put my reeking, goop-bottomed sandals into a plastic bag.
I wasn't sure about the shoe thing, I admitted. I don't know much about Westies. Mostly just what's on those monster pages on the network, and what I've noticed myself.
Marcus stared. "The online network? That's your main source of knowledge??" His voice was filled with disbelief. I nodded again, and shrugged with frustration.
I don't exactly have anyone I can ask. I don't know any Westies. I've met two in total and never worked with any. I had an evaluation in some building once, to see what I could do, and that was the last time I was actually with one. I get by on, as I've said, pure luck and the benevolence of the gods.
Marcus' eyes looked at the wall while he thought about something. I was still worrying about Rushana. So Rushana knows? Did she tell Robbins, or Kish? I shook my head, feeling panic. I won't be able to work if this gets around. Everyone knows each other in this field, and this job is everything to me. Who the hell would work with this? I gestured to myself.
Marcus leaned back, nodding. "I understand that." Of course he did. "We're working together, Rushana and I, on the problems with this whole project. But it's just us. Nobody else that I know of is aware of the history of this place, except probably the project managers. Once you came asking questions, I thought you probably did as well. Thought you were fishing for what anyone on the crew might know, especially after hearing Rushana's theory."
He sounded like he didn't think so anymore, but I shook my head in denial anyway. I just have this pit in my stomach, and nightmares every night. You aren't an RM lifer, and... I figured you'd know something about monsters.
Marcus finished his cup and scrunched his face slightly.
Is the coffee that bad? I asked, though I was sure his reaction was to what I'd said.
"Well, it was just ground a half hour ago, wasn't it?" he said with his usual lack of expression. I gaped at him.
That was terrible, I told him. He responded with a large toothy fake smile. I took the pun as a good sign, though the smile looked like he'd just shoved a bird in his mouth like a cat pretending innocence. It put me on edge. Then it was suddenly gone again.
"I was also quite unhappy that the kill team was called here. They killed off so many tunnellers." He adjusted his glasses. "They may have run at you, but they don't eat people. They 'farm' a type of mushroom which makes up most of their diet."
So you do know more about them, I pressed.
He nodded. "But now that so many have been killed off, we have an actual monster problem. The cause of that smelly liquid."
I shivered. Something else? By the time I was done with this project, I was going to have heart damage from the constant fear. What now? I asked.
"Besides the fungus, tunnellers consume something which I believe has no human name. I doubt those De Real people know they even exist." He looked at me pointedly. "And these ones do hunt larger animals. They're dangerous. Not very big, but without something keeping them in check, they've been multiplying in this building and the surrounding area." He sighed. "Nobody's ever seen them before. It's as if they only exist here, and only relatively recently. The last sixty years or so."
I sat thinking about that. So... what happened here before? Why is this building here?
While I was asking this, I felt people moving around in the halls, coming towards us. I reflexively looked at the doorway.
So did Marcus. "We might want to finish this with Rushana. At the lab," he said, standing up. He rinsed his cup and walked out as two workmen walked in. I cleaned up my stuff, hit the washroom again (this time I was able to shift back, after several tries), and hurried to my lodging for clean clothes and a badge swap.
It was almost dark as I walked to the lab. This seemed important, but I was thinking about the sleep deprivation I was having recently.
When I swiped in, I found Rushana and Marcus sitting at the three-terminal spread with our current groundwater model on the screens, talking in low voices. Nobody else was there. Kish had left us the day before, having finished the main work she'd been contracted to do. I felt a bit of relief from the thought that she wouldn't get hurt by anything going wrong in this place. Robbins hadn't been around much recently. I wasn't sure why.
I realised I was feeling apprehensive. I had only cared that Marcus didn't think I was spying on behalf of RM, but it really bothered me that Rushana knew what I was.
They were both silent and looking at me as I approached them. Not all the lights were on in the lab, so most of the light was coming from the monitors, making the whole thing seem surreal. "He told you everything?" I asked Rushana. She looked so small sitting in her chair. Like me, she was about five foot nothing.
She nodded. "Yeah. Things make a lot more sense now."
"Um," I started, then tried again. "So... you're an Upper Worlder?" I asked. Meaning, not a monster. She nodded with a small smile. I glanced at Marcus.
He shrugged. "She knows I just play one on TV." I wondered how Rushana had learned that. I rolled a chair over to the station and waited. Marcus did a presenter-wave at Rushana, so she started.
"Okay. Back in the 50s and 60s, I was actually doing work on freshwater algae," she began, "and my employer back then was Julian-Daly, a company which at that time was moving from manufacturing hormones to offering protein sequencing and slowly started doing work that was more... exclusive to the Upper World."
"You used to be a biologist?" I asked. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised by that. With such long life spans, Upper World scientists had the time to completely change what they specialised in and still manage to spend decades within a subject field. I pushed down the wave of bitterness and resentment that tried to bubble up.
"Yes! It was actually my work on rivers that pulled me over to hydrology," she explained. She continued her story. "I was looking for some files in an office I was visiting, when I found something I think was maybe misfiled. Julian-Daly, which later became BioSens, had struck a deal with RM, where RM would offer this remote area and transport services, and whatever Julian-Daly developed would be for the good of both organisations." She looked at me. "From documentation that I have, it seems Julian-Daly had built more than RM was aware of."
"The sublevels," I said.
She nodded. "I also have some details of the kinds of research Julian-Daly was doing here. They became BioSens in the 60s, but the same people continued to oversee the project here."
"Which was?" I asked.
"According to the documents we've got now, they were initially looking to figure out how the De Reals reacted with monsters. The idea seemed to be, if anyone in the Upper World could detect and deal with shifted non-humans and wild monsters then the De Real families themselves would lose their power within the Council and with the public." Rushana's small face twisted. "Those cells in the sublevels? They had people in them. Humans and non-humans. Not all of them were adults."
I swore under my breath.
Rushana opened a drawer and pulled out a USB stick, and placed it into a laptop on the table. "This is an encrypted digital copy we made of the scans of papers I found." She authenticated with a key, then opened a folder on the laptop. "Here," she said, turning it towards me.
I glanced at Marcus, because I always keep track of him if he's out of my field of view, then back at the laptop, and scooted my chair towards it. I scrolled around what clearly looked like photocopies, and saw tables with IDs, sex, age, and species columns. Two tables seemed to mostly have humans, while a third had mostly non-humans. I didn't see "Weston" in any table, but they were mentioned in a paragraph underneath, as some sort of separate test group. That made sense if it was true that De Real people could sense Westies easiest. But the two human tables were a little confusing.
"Is one of these a control or something?" I asked Rushana.
"Two groups were volunteers and lived in the barracks above ground," she said. "The other group seems to have been assembled later, and were kept out of the official numbers given to RM."
I shivered. "And not volunteers, I assume."
"Not my people in any case," Marcus said, shaking his head.
"But why? What were they doing down there? Did... did they succeed?" I asked.
She shrugged. "We're not sure. The documents we do have are about the agreement between the two corporates, but only this part," she pointed at the laptop, "of any lab notes. We're trying to get access to those notes, which we know they kept." She looked back at me. "But there was some sort of falling-out, and RM closed everything down and ended their agreement with BioSens."
I thought a moment. "So the question is, now, why is RM back? Maybe it's just because they still own this land and wanted to build something here anyway."
"Maybe," Rushana said. "But they're not very open about what exactly they want to build here. In fact, they seem to be deciding what and how much they'll build based on our ground assessments." She looked up at the ceiling, thinking. "Are they planning to remove the evidence of what happened? It seems they don't know everything BioSens was doing here… Are they waiting for us to stumble into what BioSens did, like we did the sublevels? Are they aware of the new creatures in the ground here? Are we supposed to be their excuse to bring a complaint to the Council against BioSens? Like a, 'We just wanted to build here and oh my we happened to find this atrocity' kind of thing?"
"That sounds like… plots within plots." I scratched my head. "If RM was that good at planning, more of my past jobs would have gone smoother." Of the various Corporate Families, RM wasn't particularly known for pulling off complex machinations.
"Yeah," Rushana looked flustered. "I overthink things sometimes."
"Are you sure about that?" Marcus asked her. Rushana stared at him a moment, then glared at him.
"Stop," she warned.
"Sorry," he said insincerely. "I'm a horrible person." He gave her one of those creepy, toothy fake smiles.
Rushana shook her head, then looked at me. "Anyway, you might be able to help with finding some answers. I think we're looking for sick people. People, and maybe small animals, with young inside them."
I groaned. "'Young'?"
She nodded. "These creatures mature inside other animals in a mostly parasitic fashion. We know that the fluid is waste from nymphs living inside animals. It collects in various places, then leaks out. If there's so much that they're worried there's some kind of leakage from the ground, then it must be people." She shook her head. "I mean, it's not like there's moose or bear wandering around in that building."
I frowned. "But... don't people notice? How could anyone ignore, or hide, that smell?"
"It gets that smell after contact with air," Marcus said. "If there are infected people, they must be hiding it from everyone. Maybe especially because there are leftover guards from the kill team wandering around here."
People infected with some unknown monster would probably not be treated, I knew. For the safety of everyone, they'd be quickly executed, and their bodies dealt with afterwards.
I thought about that a bit. "So... could I find these people, you're asking. I have no idea," I said honestly. "I'm... my brain is kind of crippled in that way. That's why I don't do high-end locator or navigation work." My eyes wandered to the monitors. "But if I did find someone, then what?"
"Well, we have two problems," Rushana said. She held up one finger. "We need to figure out how to alert the security teams here without them realising what we already know." She pointed at me. "If you found someone infected, you could just report it to security. All they'd have to do is minimally follow up and they'd discover the problem real fast." She held up a second finger. "The other thing we need to do is find where those lab notes were kept—so far as we know, they're not digitised, and they might still be onsite here. Somewhere."
"And then?" I asked.
"Publish it," Marcus said. "Publish all of it, and make sure the Upper World news picks it up. None of the other Corporate Families will be pleased to know of two Families conspiring for more power, even though they all covertly do it, and if in the process a new dangerous monster was created... both Families will get backlash, and the security teams can focus on preventing these things from spreading." He pushed up his glasses. "Now that there are lots of hosts within touching distance, and people and supplies travelling in and out... and especially now that they're no longer held in check by predators," his voice turned into a grumble at that part, "there's the distinct possibility that this will spread." His eyes gazed unfocused at one of the monitors. "Mostly, they need to get such a hard metaphorical and public kick in the gut that it will be a long time before someone else thinks they can kidnap and experiment on sentient beings they think are expendable, just because they could get away with it."
I thought about the cells in the sublevels. About people, even kids inside those. Just locked in the dark, waiting for someone to drag them out at intervals to do painful and terrifying things to them. That was too close to my own past experiences, and my hands started shaking again. I hid them in my hoodie's kangaroo pockets.
"It's because of what happened here that we never signed any treaties with the Upper World," Marcus said softly. The smarter monster types (except Westies), the ones allowed interaction with the Upper World, agreed per group one way or another to something called the Treaty of Vladivostok. It's what keeps them off the automatic kill lists. "Our rules are, if you run across human artifacts, go another direction. If you encounter a live human, get away. If you're captured by humans and can't escape, die and destroy your body."
My eyes widened. "You can die on command??" I asked him.
He shrugged. "Sure. I mean, it's extreme, but if it's necessary…" He sighed a long sigh. "It's why I need to really be careful. Not many of my people even know shifting is possible, and humans don't know at all. I'm breaking all the rules..." he stopped.
"They'd kill you?" I asked.
"Worse." Then he blinked and shook his head. "Why am I telling you this? Um. This place is messing with my head."
I briefly wondered if that constant background low-level anxiety I'd been having wasn't because of the strange building or the encounter with the tunnel monsters, but something to do with the site itself... then immediately dismissed it. That's magical thinking.
I shook my head, confused. "So you're risking all that because some human Corporate Families had a secret prison lab here decades ago?"
"No, I was doing this before. For other reasons," he pushed his glasses up again. "And while we knew about what happened here, the Upper World does not. But Rushana stumbled across this event and wanted to, ah, fix it, I suppose?" He looked at Rushana, who was nodding.
"This is just so wrong and it can't just stay buried," she said. "It seemed he agreed with me and I thought he could help." She tilted her head. "And maybe we lucked out. Maybe you can help in some way too."
I looked down at my feet, now wearing ratty canvas shoes. I'd scrubbed my sandals in the shower with pumice soap and bleach and had left them drying. "I hope I can. I mean, I can try."
"Well, you're either part of the solution, or part of the precipitate," Marcus said with his usual lack of expression.
"I will kick you," Rushana growled at him, and he gave her another scary grin.
I rolled my eyes, then frowned, thinking how would I go looking for anything shifted, without being seen. "We need to be really careful of reali wandering around though. Hell, I was doing a job they called me there to do, and the security guy stuck to me like glue. Like he thought I'd do... I dunno what," I grumbled. I looked up and gave Marcus a glare. "Don't let them touch you. I'm serious. Maybe you avoided dealing with them all this time doing lower-world research work, but all it takes is one time and you're toast." With skin contact, De Real people could tell whether someone was a monster, and while in contact, they could heavily influence you. It's one way they hunt any of those who break the treaties.
Marcus held up an index finger. "Noted."
With that, it seemed our super-secret monster meeting was pretty much done. It was late, and we all had to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the next morning. I'd forgotten to ask Rushana or Marcus how the infection spread, or how to avoid it myself. I'd forgotten to ask a lot of things. Too much freakshow information in one period.
I wondered how I was going to go around looking for things which were poorly defined in my head. Hidden filing cabinets? Infected people? I thought a "real" Westie could probably do it, but I was malformed. Incomplete. Broken.
I crawled into bed, expecting to pass out. No, huge amounts of caffeine and nicotine do not keep me up. I have an unfortunately speedy metabolism anyway, but stimulants don't seem to help with staying awake either way. But still, I found my brain whirring, going over everything that'd happened so far. The masochistic movie reel of my mind showing me chilling experiments, people locked in concrete cells meters below the earth, where no-one could hear them scream. The huge teeth and hairless ratty face of the tunnel monster coming at me in the elevator. The thought of people walking around filled with little worms eating them from the inside.
Tomorrow was another day.