Saturday, 19 August 2017

The Ambrosial Glass


CHAPTER 1: OUT OF THE BAG

The office kitchen was very small, just a bench with a kettle, a microwave and a sink beside a fridge with a table and three chairs on the opposite wall. Most employees ate in the staffroom, so Brian wasn’t sure what the table was for, but he had seen coffee stains on it often enough to know that someone must use it. He was standing beside the sink, waiting for the kettle as it boiled, staring at the piece of paper taped to the wall above the sink:
     Don’t Be a Pig Wash up Your Cup!
It bothered him. He was trying to understand the mind of whoever wrote it. After all, pigs are known for being greedy and eating too much, so what was pig-like about dirty cups? Pigs weren’t known for leaving dishes on the sink. Perhaps they wanted to use a better insult - Don’t be an arse, wash up your cup - but thought they’d get in trouble putting up a sign with a rude word on it. The Kitchen was government-funded, they probably wouldn’t appreciate that kind of stuff posted on the walls. Then again, they’d gotten away with a lot worse.
They barely got a slap on the wrist for the mass suicide last week, and Brian was pretty sure that the hiring policy was a human rights violation. Although, it sounded exactly like bureaucracy to ignore a blood sacrifice, and fire someone over a naughty word. Besides, the sign already said “wash up your cup”, so why even preface that with an insult? Was the sign’s author so impotent frustrated, that they felt the need for petty name-calling?
Before he can unravel the message, the burbling sound of the kettle was punctuated by a click and he turns away from the sign to grab his mug. Despite (or perhaps because of) the warning, it was sitting beside the sink, unwashed. He poured in the boiled water, spooned in three heaps of cheap, powdery instant coffee and added milk. After stirring the brew, he washed the spoon and put it away, then he opened the fridge and stared blankly at the third shelf from the top. There were two water bottles and a blue cooler bag, neither of which belonged to him.
  “Where’s my lunch?” Brian said, out of sheer dumbfoundedness. He knelt down and looked on lower shelves for a clear Tupperware container with white tabs, but his makeshift lunchbox was nowhere to be found. He shut the fridge and angrily smacked his coffee mug on the bench, spilling coffee on the laminate top. “No lunch. Great. Just goddamned great.”
After fuming there for a few seconds, he picked up his coffee cup, drank the contents in three gulps, put the dirty cup beside the sink and marched out of the little kitchen. He passed through the staff lounge, past Leonard who was hunched in the corner seat, grumpily chewing on a sandwich. He headed through the corridor and across the main office with its green cubicles up to the secretary’s desk. Edith was sitting there, smiling as she wrote something in a logbook. As always she had impeccable makeup, curly hair and was two times larger than most women.
  “Edith, someone’s stolen my lunch,” said Brian.
  “Oh dear,” said Edith, her smile becoming a neutral expression. “That’s a shame.”
She turned back to the logbook. Brian cleared his throat.
  “Edith? What can we do about it?” he asked.
  “There’s a vending machine in the lobby,” said Edith, glancing up again, with a smile.
  “Edith, I’m hungry and there’s a thief in the office.”
  “I’m afraid there’s no policy on pilfered lunches, dear. We don’t have the means to find the culprit, and even so your lunch will have already been eaten. So, it’s best if you get something from downstairs.” she said with a light shrug. “If you like, I can speak to Sayeed about claiming your lunch as a business expense?”
The phone beside her started ringing.
  “One second,” she picked up the phone, “Edith speaking” . . . “He’s in the Archive at the moment, can I take a message?” she grabbed a message card and started scribbling “thank you so much, is that all?”
She hung up the phone and looked at Brian.
  “Are you busy?” she asked.
  “Why?” asked Brian.
  “I have a message for Lucas. The Oven needs help cataloguing an ongoing study.”
  “The Oven? Sure,” said Brian. She passed the card him and as Edith called for an armed guard, Brian read the note:
          From: Oven          To: Lucas          Time: 12:18          Urgent: No
          Message: Ellen Delgany has died, Oven needs assist archiving BLUE CLOUD.
After half a minute, an armed, aboriginal man with dreadlocks and wearing a bullet-proof vest joined them at the desk.
  “Escort again?” he asked, sounding bored.
  “Yeah, Jarrah. Just take Brian down to Archiving, please.”
  “Alright, come on,” says Jarrah, turning around. Brian followed him to the lift. Brian waited, nervously glancing at the gun on his escort’s belt.
  “I haven’t seen you around, much. Are you new?” asked Brian.
  “Yeah, transferred from the Sink,” said Jarrah.
  “The Sink? I haven’t heard of that. What do they do?”
  “Oh, this and that,” he said. The elevator door opened and as they stepped inside, he continued talking. “I was just patrolling the cemetery, mostly. But you should see the Sinkhole . . . phwoar, it’s enormous.”
  “You’ve seen sub-dimensionals?”
  “No, not at all, it’s actually pretty quiet. But they do some weird stuff down there,” he said, emphasizing the word ‘weird’ so it was clear he meant ‘really cool’.
  “Then, why did you transfer?” asked Brian.
  “I didn’t. They swap us around every three months. They say it’s for morale, but in reality,  the top drawer thinks guards are ‘weak-minded’.” The elevator door opens, and Jarrah leads the way out on the Basement level hallway. He walked up to a wooden door, taking a card from his vest, and swiped it over the scanner beside the door. It unlocked with a click and Jarrah stood by the door, waiting for Brian to head inside. On either side of the room were rows of filing cabinets, with metal shelves in the centre holding archive boxes. There was a balding man sitting at the desk on the far side of the room with an archive box open on the ground beside him.
  “Lucas? There’s a message for you,” said Brian, heading down to meet the man. Lucas didn’t even turn around, as he seemed completely mesmerised by what he was doing. Brian stood a metre behind him, looking over his shoulder. The man was taking small strips of post-it notes, adding reference codes, and carefully attaching them to papers within an open folder in front of him. “Uh . . . Lucas?”
  “What is it?” said Lucas, half-mindedly.
  “It’s a message for you,” said Brian.
  “Yes, I heard that. I do, in fact, have ears,” says Lucas, who sounded delighted that he had the opportunity to patronize a colleague. “What does the message say?”
  “Ellen Delgany is dead. The Oven wants help archiving Blue . . .” he glanced at the note, “Cloud.”
  “Doctor Delgany is dead?” said Lucas, finally turning around. He looked annoyed. “Show me that thing.”
Brian handed him the card, and he looked over the sentence carefully. Finally, he slammed it on the desk in a huff.
“That’s just great. Does the Oven even understand how much we have to do down here? It’s bad enough that we need babysitters, but now the Cabinet wants every index cross-referenced. Confidential files cross-referenced. Unclassified files! Do you have any idea how hard it is to cross-reference a file you’re not allowed to access?”
  “. . . well, yeah,” said Brian. Ever since last Christmas, he’d been working exclusively in archives. It was unrelenting. But, Lucas shook his head dismissively.
  “Well, the bigwigs clearly don’t. My workload is two years behind, I’m drowning in documents. I already cut Christmas holiday short. I need to contact the Oven, get this all sorted.”
Brian found it amazing how Lucas always spoke about archiving like pulling teeth. It made him wonder what had caused Lucas to be recruited by the Kitchen. How could he have witnessed some unworldly horror, yet still consider filing a form of torture?
Suddenly, Lucas stood up.
  “How long have you worked for the Kitchen, now?” asked Lucas.
  “About nine months now,” said Brian, with a shrug.
  “That’s close enough . . . it’s about time you assisted an internal operation.”
  “Me? Why me?”
  “Well, you’re an archivist. You’re qualified.”
  “I am? I thought I was an intern.”
  “No, Morrissey promoted you after the successful field op’, you’re a junior archivist. That’s why you’ve been assigned to the Archives for so many months, you didn’t realise?”
  “No. If I was promoted, why didn’t I get a pay rise?” asked Brian.
Lucas snorted, and began to chuckle. It was the first time Brian had seen him laugh. It wasn’t encouraging. He patted Brian on the back.
  “You really are that young, aren’t you? But hey, if you want more money this is how you earn it. Here, one sec.” Lucas grabbed the message card he’d dropped there, and a pen from his pocket. He scratched out the message and wrote a new one on the back, then signed it. “Take this up to Edith, she can sort you out from there.”
  “So, you’re sending me to the Oven?” said Brian, with a smile. He’d always been interested in seeing the Research and Development branch of the Kitchen. It’s where the magic happens, literally. He took the card, eagerly.
  “Oh, of course, of course . . . but while you’re inside, I need you to talk to the head record-keeper. I believe the name is Daniels.”
  “What for?”
  “Interdepartmental synergy. If they could earmark their findings over there with the reference to the documentation on our side, it would increase our productivity. All I need you to do is tell them that I want a second opinion on the . . .” Lucas wandered towards the filing cabinet by the wall, pulling it open. He expertly walked his fingers over the casefiles, stopping at a folder near the front and pulling it out far enough to read the label. “Op’ Quagmire Rust. You got that? Quagmire Rust?”
  “Uh, okay . . . why can’t you tell him yourself?”
  “I can’t tell her because management gets in the way. But please, it’ll make your and my jobs much easier.”
  “Okay, whatever,” says Brian, and he turns towards the door. Jarrah, the guard, was standing there, smirking to himself. Brian walked out the door and Jarrah closed it.
  “That guys is full of shit,” said Jarrah.
  “What’s that?”
  “I’m not furniture, kid, I can hear what you guys talk about,” says Jarrah, walking to the end of the hall.
  “I know, but I don’t get what you mean,” said Brian, following.
  “Don’t you worry. Just gossip and rumour,” he said, pressing the button for the elevator. As he did, Brian glanced at the card he’d been given. On the back, it merely said:
I’m sending Brian instead - followed by Lucas’s swirly signature.


CHAPTER 2: NO ROOM TO SWING

It was only a fifteen-minute drive from the Cabinet to the Oven, but with all the hills it was still quite a trek for Brian’s little, red Daihatsu Charade CX. It was strange, though, to be driving through suburbia past houses and shops, only to have the houses on one side replaced with a fence and barbed wire, with army trucks and signs warning of live ammunition.
The army barracks had been built in 1908, and in the same year the government had earmarked some of the land for use by the Kitchen. It was the second supernatural defence research and development facility in Australia, and this site had been chosen specifically because it was far enough away from civilians that it was deemed safe for research. It was a safety precaution to build it away from the public, similar to how nuclear power plants are kept far from people just in case there was a meltdown. However, that was almost one hundred years ago, and as the population had expanded so too had the city, and now families were living right across the road from the barracks. Sure, the facility wasn’t likely to “meltdown”, but the fallout from a supernatural accident could lead people suffering from much worse than the likes of Chernobyl or cancer; and because the Kitchen was a secret organization, nobody was allowed to know. So far, there hadn’t been any issues; at least, none that Brian had heard about. But, considering that there was a department of the Kitchen whose sole job it was to maintain the secrecy of the Kitchen and clean up their mess, that wasn’t very reassuring.

Turning into the facility, the road lead Brian right up to a checkpoint with a boom gate and a guard booth with a man in a high-visibility vest.
  “I.D.?” said the guard. Brian handed him his identification lanyard.
  “I’m just headed to the research lab,” said Brian, feeling nervous as the man read his identification, and checked the list beside him. “Ninox. That’s, uh, the nightvision research.”
  “Head on through,” said the man, handing back the card.
Brian took his card back and drove into the barracks, feeling foolish. He’d practised that interaction a dozen times along the road. Not only had he flubbed the line, but the guard didn’t even care. He drove up Lavarack Parade, turned on the roundabout and headed down another street. It was amazing how huge this barracks was, it took up more than half of the suburb and even had its own streets, but instead of houses, cars and civilians there were tanks, training facilities and marching soldiers dotted throughout the place.
Driving past the car wash and maintenance station, Brian recognized some patrolling Kitchen guards, wearing black bulletproof vests, with a holstered handgun on their hip, just like Jarrah back in the Cabinet. They marked the entrance to the Kitchen-owned portion of the barracks. Gesturing for him to come to a stop, Brian slowed to a halt and spoke to the Chinese woman who came to his window.
  “Identification,” said the woman. Once more, Brian showed his I.D. card, clipped onto a lanyard. As he held it up, she removed a heavy-looking PDA from her pocket, and tapped through the screen with the stylus.
  “And what’s your business here, Mister Lockburn?” she asked, not looking up from the device.
  “I’m here to assist in archiving Doctor Delgany’s research,” said Brian, putting his lanyard on the seat beside him again.
  “And who authorized you to do that?”
  “Lucas Trenton.”
  “Alright then,” she said, glancing at him again. “Your identification?”
  “I showed you already,” said Brian, grabbing the card.
  “First time, eh?” she said with a smirk, as he held the card out of his window again. She held the PDA right next to it. The PDA beeped twice. “Now you’re in the system. Your card can grant you access to floor minus-seven. Welcome to the Oven, Mister Lockburn, the carpark is just there on your left. Then head to building Oscar-three-eight-three.”
  “Right. Thanks,” said Brian, as she stepped back, and he drove to the carpark.
The car park surrounded a three-storey building with glass doors which had the kind of post-modern, clean architecture that he thought would make a good laboratory. However, it wasn’t where he was headed. Across the road was a squat, two-storey building that looked almost like a warehouse, which had a sign marked“O0383” stuck to the bricks.
Brian grabbed his briefcase and lanyard, and headed in a straight line across the grass towards the entrance on the other side. Stepping into the unmarked loading bay beside the building, he saw a large roller door in the centre of the building with two doors either side. Heading to the nearest door, on the right, he swiped his card and stepped inside to see the secret entrance to the Oven.
Right in front of him were three turnstiles, just in front of a conveyor belt leading up to a  full-body scanner, which looked like a hexagonal glass cell with inch-thick glass and automated glass doors on the front and rear. There were green, plastic trays stacked in front of each turnstile.
But what took up most of the room was the enormous freight elevator just in front of the roller doors. Beside the staff entry, there was a huge glass wall three-metres tall that went along the full length of the building, and behind it was a huge square platform almost fifteen metres across - the freight elevator. With black and yellow warning lines all around it, and yellow railings either side, the elevator was attached to huge cables that went up to the roof, where an enormous motor and winch system had cables and wires attached to the platform at a forty-five degree angle, as the elevator was inclined. There were two fork-lifts either side of the platform and four Kitchen guards, each wearing high-visibility gear and hardhats, waiting by the platform.
But, on Brian’s side, there was just one Kitchen guard, wearing the standard black bullet-proof vest and had a gun on their hip. With two more guards on the other side of the scanners standing in front of a set of one-way rotating security gates. There was also another glass panel hanging down from the roof, with segments cut so that it formed a barrier above the scanners , perhaps in case something with a superhuman jumping ability tried to skip the scanning process.
  “Swipe your card on the reader and step through the gate,” he said, sounding bored, and with a nasal quality as though he had a cold. “Place any belongings on the belt to be x-rayed, any loose belongings can be placed in a property tray.”
Brian did as he was told, placing his tie in a tray, as well as his lanyard after scanning it, then placed it and his briefcase on the conveyor belt.
  “Do I need to take off my belt and shoes?” asked Brian.
  “Don’t worry about that,” said the guard, clearing his throat. “But the scanner fries electronics, so remove any watches, phones or music players before stepping through.”
Brian quickly took his phone from his pocket and dropped it in the tray before it disappeared into the x-ray machine.
  “So, what if someone has a pacemaker or something?” joked Brian.
  “Sucks to be them,” says the guard with a sniff.
Brian stepped into the hexagonal cell and the door shut behind him.
  “Please, stand with both feet apart and raise your arms,” said a pre-recorded, soft, female voice. Seeing two yellow footprints printed into the carpet, Brian stood in them and did as instructed. There was a soft, mechanical whirring sound then with a hiss the door in front of him opened. He stepped out to see his belongings waiting for him on a table with rollers on the surface, under a small screen with an x-ray of his things with the word “Approved” superimposed on it.
Putting his tie back on, he was approached by one of the guards. He was holding what looked like a short antenna with a handle, with a cord leading to a box on the guard’s hip. He waved the device around him, and the speakerbox made an ethereal, low humming sound as it came close to Brian’s skin.
  “What is that?” asked Brian.
  “Wizard detector,” said the guard, in a thick rural Australian accent, collapsing the antenna and returning it to the pouch on his belt. “But you’re all good, mate. Step in the lift and we’ll send you right down.”
The guard stepped towards a thick, glass elevator door that had been built into the glass wall, unlocked the radial tumbler lock with a key on his belt and the doors opened invitingly.
Brian stepped inside. There was a simple grey carpet, but besides the glass door, there were three full-length glass windows around the elevator car, with a silver handrail for safety. He looked out as the doors behind him closed. The guard dialled a code into the panel on the wall and the car started moving down at a forty-five degree angle, following the steep rails down towards the underground facility. As he descended below the floor, he entered the dark shaft, and from the small light in the ceiling of the elevator, he could just barely see the huge support structures, cross-beams and rollers of the freight elevator, with only thin shafts of light coming in through the gaps around the huge platform. As the passenger elevator passed under the floor and out of the reach of the lights from the building above, Brian finally looked down along the elevator rails, and could see a dim, red light where the elevator would stop, a small signal in a concrete wall.
As the elevator came to a stop beside the light, and finally aligned with the outer doors, they slid apart and Brian stepped onto a white, tiled floor, and saw a bank of elevators ahead, and a circular reception desk to the side. As he approached the desk, he heard the sound of trickling water. He glanced to the centre of the room and saw a beautiful, marble fountain. Brian just snorted, thinking how lucky the Oven was to have money to spare.
This fountain was one of six similar fountains commissioned by the Kitchen in 1920’s. It was not merely an art piece, but it played an important function. The flowing water helped to purify and moisten the otherwise stagnant air of the underground facility reception. Also, the statue was designed to serve as a reminder to Oven scientists to maintain a sense of humility. Named Chains of Prometheus, the statue depicted a nude, bearded man in pain, chained by the wrists to a rock running with water, as well as an angry eagle perched atop.
In the past there had been several unfortunate instances of Oven scientists becoming egomaniacal once they realized they had the ability to literally “play god” using the magic at their disposal. Management found that a statue was more effective than the “Employees Must Not Pervert the Forces of Nature” sign in the break room.

  “I’m here to help archive Doctor Delgany’s research,” Brian said to a kind, young woman at the reception desk who had a microphone and headset on.
  “Are you Lucas Trenton?” she asked.
  “No, I’m Brian. He sent me in his place,” said Brian.
  “I see . . . yes, here you are,” she said, typing on the computer. She looked back up at Brian. “You’re assigned to office ‘Seventeen-G’. That’s on floor neg’ seven. Just head to the lift, and swipe your card before selecting your floor.”
She turned away and began working on the computer again, so Brian headed straight for the lift. A sign said he was on floor “-10”, so he pressed the down arrow.
  “Oh, crap,” he said, pressing the up arrow. “Negative numbers, stupid . . .”
The lift arrived, he stepped aboard, scanned his card and selected his floor. This lift was a regular up-and-down lift unlike before, with wooden panelling and a dark, grey carpet and it didn’t even make a sound as it moved. The first thing he noticed as the doors opened was the hectic sound of tapping keys, phones ringing and paper being folded, stapled or shredded. Brian was a little disappointed to see that he was surrounded by office desks. The area was an open plan office, with white desks arranged in rows along the dark, and a series of enclosed offices along the walls. But every single desk had someone typing away, filling out documents or using phones. If it wasn’t for the lab coats on the backs of chairs, it would have looked like the cube farm back at the Cabinet - except he did notice one person had a red crystal in a small, glass box with wires attached sitting on the desk in front of them. Brian was about to approach one of the workers, trying to decide which one looked the least busy, when he saw a sign high on the far wall which read “Section G”, so he headed down the hall and turned left to find another open office area with more scientists working away on computers, and two arguing animatedly about something involving destroying matter and energy. In the very corner of the open space was office 17-G.
Brian headed straight inside, and closing the door behind him he found himself in a thankfully quieter, small, tidy office with a desk in the corner, a bookshelf, and three chairs under the window which looked out on the open office area, with the blinds half-closed. The only decoration was a row of certificates on the wall, and a nameplate on the front of the desk, which read: “Ellen Delgany, BChem, DVSc, PhD”.
Drawing the blinds, Brian sat down at the desk in the green, leather study chair, where there was a single file waiting in the middle of the desk alongside a small digital voice recorder. The folder had “Item: Blue Cloud” and a six-digit Fridge reference number on the front. He opened the file to reveal a dozen documents waiting neatly inside.
  “They brought me all the way here for this?” said Brian, checking under the folder to make sure there weren’t any more hidden documents. He opened his briefcase, and took out the company laptop, which turned on as he opened it. Then, rolling up his sleeves, revealing the tattoo up his left arm, he began to read through the document.


CHAPTER 3: GOT THE CANARY

The Kitchen had, within its possession, many artefacts of uncertain, unusual and alien origin. One of these items, classified “Blue Cloud” was a semi-transparent crystalline spire, over four metres tall, with an equilateral triangular base, with each side less than a metre across. The spire appeared to be made out of glass, but not only was the entire obelisk too heavy for glass, but it appeared to shimmer with every colour shifting from each angle, like oil in sunlight. One side had a list of words - nine alien labels written in vertical Kleinian script, a harsh, slashing language - with space for at least two more, like some kind of honour roll or memorial. To the left of that was a form of shrine, a reverent symbol to the Crooked God. Although this being’s name was written in the Chthonian Texts as something transliterated to “U’ih’huu”, the Kitchen anglicized its name to Uyu. The symbol was the combination of a spider, octopus and goat, with bony tentacles and a horned face, the shrine depicted the being like a twenty-one legged triskelion, with each jagged tentacle spiralling in perfect symmetry. At first, scientists had been intrigued by this iconography appearing in one of the lower dimensions, but that was not the most elusive aspect of this obelisk. The third side was of the most interest to the Oven scientists. It looked like a form of mathematical puzzle, and consisted of: a fractal curve; a Fibonacci spiral; four bisecting straight lines; a perfect square; a set of irregular dots and a series of concentric circles.
The names were most likely a list of names, most likely followers, perhaps a family or a list of sacrifices. The shrine was self-explanatory, an icon to worship the Crooked God. But the puzzle, the scientists did not yet understand. It was not iconography or a prayer, it was not a map, a spell or even marginalia. It was a framed, perfectly carved piece. For this reason, Ellen Delgany had requested the artefact be brought to the Oven for study. She made it clear in her requisition order and her recorded notes; she would decrypt this puzzle. Unfortunately, it seemed, she had died before she could answer this question.

It took Brian just over an hour to finish listening to the voice recorder and enter the notes into the archiving program in the laptop, and that was just because there were forty minutes of recorded notes in Ellen Delgany’s thick, Irish accent. Saving and closing the file, Brian pick up the folder and glanced around for the shredder. Not only was there no shredder, but there wasn’t even a wastepaper basket. So, packing up his laptop and picking up the briefcase in his other hand, he headed back through the office to the lift. He glanced around for a spare shredder, but things seemed even more hectic than before. There were several people huddled around one computer displaying a video of someone cutting into a piece of fruit with a scalpel, and Brian noticed that the wired-up crystal in a glass box had turned yellow.
To escape the madness, he quickly headed into the lift and down to the reception desk again. As soon as the doors opened, and he saw no one else in the reception area, he called to the receptionist.
  “Hey, do you have a shredder?”
  “No,” says the woman, looking confused. “Why?”
  “I’ve digitized this, so we’ve gotta kill the copy,” he said, holding up the folder.
  “Well, sorry, I can’t help you,” she said, “There should be several on the office floor.”
  “Right, I’ll head back up then . . .” said Brian. He backed from the desk, when he remembered. “Oh, uh . . . I was hoping to speak to your record-keeper as well. I think she’s called Donnell?”
  “Ms Daniels?” said the receptionist. “Yeah, she’s in the Records room, down on thirteen.”
  “Do I have permission to go to thirteen?” asked Brian.
  “Of course. Storage is low security.”
  “Cool, thanks,” said Brian, heading for the lift.
Stepping out onto thirteen, it was much like the reception area with creamy walls and fluorescent lighting, but the floor was light-grey concrete. Brian followed the signs to the Records room, heading down to an unassuming, wooden door at the end of a hallway. At first, the door didn’t budge, but when he remembered to swipe his card it clicked open. The room was a perfect circle, and over a dozen metres wide, but either side of him Brian was flanked by rows of dark shelves, each filled with files held up by neatly spaced wire brackets. The shelves were spaced around the room like the spokes of a wheel, leading lengthways towards the centre, where there was a round desk, like those in reception but shorter and made of dark wood. At this desk sat a short, middle-aged Japanese lady with her black hair in a neatly cut bob, wearing perfectly circular glasses, she had a laptop beside her and was reading a piece of paper on the desk in front of her. As Brian approached the desk, he noticed that it was well lit from an old-fashioned looking lamp on the desk, but the light did not extend to the files, which were left in darkness as the fluorescent lights in the ceiling were switched off.
  “Daniels?” asked Brian, as he stood at the edge of the shelves.
  “Yes,” said the woman, not looking up from the desk, it made Brian wonder if most heads of archiving departments had a habit of not looking up from their work.
  “My name’s Brian, I’m from the Cabinet. I was hoping to talk to you about some issues we’re having in the Archives.”
  “Lucas sent you?” asked the woman, still not looking up.
  “Yeah . . .” said Brian, stepping closer to the desk “The fact is, as we’re digitizing our archives, we have to cross-reference with Oven files.”
  “No,” said the woman, “Now go away.”
  “Sorry?” said Brian.
Finally, the woman looked up. Her stare was cold and angry
  “The world does not revolve around Lucas Trenton. We are also digitizing our files, it’s company-wide. But, unlike the Cabinet, we produce documents daily - test results, translations, prototypes, observations - and most of our scientists have flat-out refused - refused! - to adopt the new system! Most of my team is wasting time writing up doctor’s notes, and printing out old papers. I’m the only one left in here, writing up the seventy-year backlog of old records. So, you want us to help cross-reference your documents on top of that?!”
  “Hey, look . . .” said Brian, nervously scratching the back of his neck, “I’m not sure about all that. All I know is that it’s impossible to cross-reference confidential documents, since you can’t reference something you can’t see. Sorry if I seemed rude. Lucas wants you to do it, he wanted me to ask you about Quagmire Dust-”
  “Quagmire Rust,” corrected Daniels, “I already know about it.”
  “Yeah, well, forget about that. Forget Lucas. Can you just give us direct access to the files?”
The woman seemed to smirk for a second, then it disappeared.
  “We can’t give you access until they’ve been classified. That’s a whole lot of unclassified documents, we don’t have the time.”
  “Let us digitize it,” said Brian. “Not all of your documents are confidential. If you could give us those documents, we can do that for you, then you’ll have more time. All you do is classify it and send it our way. So far, without those references, we’re at a standstill - I just want more access to the Oven files. Then you can complete the confidential files with the time you save.”
  “You’d digitize Oven files?” she said, looking suspicious.
  “Well, yeah . . . we’re the Cabinet. Paperwork is our job, right?”
  “It would give Lucas a whole lot more work to do . . .” said Daniels. “Then, definitely.”
  “Fantastic,” said Brian, turning. Then he turned around again. “Oh, do you have a shredder? I need to burn this file.”
  “Of course . . . what is that?” said Daniels.
  “Blue Cloud,” said Brian, holding it out, but she just stared at it.
  “That was Delgany’s last case,” she said, frowning.
  “Yeah, I know. I’m all done,” said Brian.
  “No you’re not,” said Daniels, shaking her head. “There were over twenty pages in that when I gave her this file, and Delgany is a prolific note-taker. You’re missing most of this file.”
  “This was all I was given . . .” says Brian. “Did someone lose the rest of the files?”
  “No . . . I would bet my other leg that your documents have been seized by the Stove.”
  “The Stove? Why would they have it?”
  “There must be something weird about Delgany’s death. She was young and healthy, I thought it didn’t seem right that she’d died. The Stove must think the same thing.”
  “So, you think they think she was murdered?”
  “That would be a best case scenario,” said Daniels. Brian sighed heavily.
  “Okay, where can I find the lead investigator?”
  “I don’t know. Why do you care?”
  “I hate leaving a job half-done,” said Brian, turning towards the door.
  “Good luck,” said Daniels, watching as he walked briskly through the door.

Although the Oven was working on methods of removing memories from witnesses, the process was imprecise and so only used when absolutely necessary. It often left people with little to none of their memory left and could lead to side-effects, such as seizures, narcolepsy and an inability to recognize faces. As such, the Kitchen had an unusual hiring policy.
Rather than try to silence witnesses, the acquisitions department of the Dishwasher would collect survivors, rehabilitate them, then hire them - sending them off where their services would be the most useful. Certain departments, like the Oven and the Bench, tended to scoop up university dropouts who showed promise, but nonetheless most of the staff of the Kitchen were, in fact, survivors of supernatural horror. As such, the Kitchen often had to “make do” with the people it collected. This meant that some people had unusual personalities, missing limbs, poor qualifications or (like in Brian’s case) were not the preferred age.
Brian was very young, just barely seventeen. Although he was very talented when it came to computer literacy, language and cocktail mixing, his youthful enthusiasm had been known to rub some people the wrong way. It wasn’t his fault, he had merely witnessed a cultist try to turn a friendly gathering of high school friends into a bloodied orgy. He hadn’t chosen this job, but since it gave him a future that was both scary and exciting and which he was actually kind of proud of, he was always trying to do the best he could. But when a lot of the people around you were just there because it was better than being dead or left a drooling invalid that couldn’t remember their own name, it had a tendency to get on people’s nerves


CHAPTER 4: AMONG THE PIGEONS

Brian made his way to the reception desk once more.
  “Sorry, but I'm looking for the lead detective in the Delgany murder case death investigation, uh . . .  thing. Do you know where I can find them?”
  “I don't know who the agent-in-charge is, I'm afraid. Can I ask who authorised you to speak with them?”
  “Well, nobody. I mean, Lucas Trenton, I guess . . . look, I need to get this filing done. I'm an archivist, and the files I have been authorised to archive are in their hands - Blue Cloud. I have the say-so to digitize them, but the Stove’s moved them. I just need to talk to the guy in charge, and sort this out.”
  “Hold on, I'll see what I can do . . .” she said, and she touched the microphone on her cheek  as she adjusted the screen in front of her, then spoke to someone Brian couldn't hear
“Good afternoon, this is Lilah, from nightvision . . . I'm hunting down a file, one of your teams has moved it . . . ‘Blue Cloud’ . . . Yes, Delgany, I'm . . . well, can I get the name of the agent-in-charge?”
She grabbed her microphone to muffle it
“Are you fine to go speak with them yourself?
  “Absolutely,” said Brian. She released the microphone.
  “Sure thing honey, go ahead . . . thank you,” she tapped the microphone to turn it off, then typed something on her computer before looking up.
  “Okay, I just need.your I.D.,” she said, as Brian presented it, she scanned it and continued speaking,  “Special Agent Hurvey is on level neg’ twelve. You won't be permitted past the viewing area, but this will let you down to the floor, then the agents there can take you where you need to go.”
  “Thanks, Lilah, you're a legend,” said Brian, heading to the lift.
Swiping his card, he punched “-12” and rode the lift down to the laboratory floor. The lift doors opened, and Brian found himself facing a row of lockers in a room that was much more dimly lit than the other rooms. He felt a chill as he stepped out of the lift, and saw in front of him an enormous, curved glass window, which seemed to be coloured pink. Intrigued by the glass, he moved closer and saw that the glass wasn’t pink, but was filled with some kind of pink-tinged water. And there was something floating high in the water on the far side of the tank that he couldn’t see through the metre-tall window. It looked like hanging red and blue seaweed. He walked closer and closer until he could see under the edge of the window, and gasped. Inside the tank was what looked like a giant, human brain, at least six metres across, with hanging tendrils and stingers like a jellyfish, but enormous, each was over 15 metres long. The thing was criss-crossed with huge, blue veins and the underside was covered in barnacles, but weirdest of all, the thing seemed to be pulsing, shifting and contracting slowly in the water. It was alive.
  “Don’t stare too long,” said a quiet female voice behind him, making him flinch. He spun around quickly to see two Stove agents near the middle of the room. It was a bit off-putting to see two suited and booted Stove agents in black, hooded peacoats with holstered wraith guns standing in the middle of a lab. Like seeing a bomb technician walking through a theme park in a blast suit, it gave the impression that you’d wandered into something you might not walk out of.
  “Sorry,” Brian said, walking over. “It’s my first time in the Oven. I, uh . . . what is that thing?”
  “Don’t know yet,” said the black agent with a shrug. “Came in last week.-”
  “Are you lost, kid?” interrupted the female agent.
  “No,” said Brian, clearing his throat and holding up the file in his hands. “I’m looking for Special Agent Hurvey. I need to talk to him about the Blue Cloud file. There’s been a mix-up.”
  “A ‘mix-up’?” said the black agent.
  “Yes. Apparently, this file’s been gutted, but I’ve been tasked to digitize it. I need to get it back, now.”
In response, the agent just sighed.
  “You want to deal with this one?” the black agent asked his colleague.
  “I’d rather you get curbed,” she replied.
The black agent took a radio from his combat vest.
  “Hurvey, do you read?” he said into the radio.
  “You’re kidding right?” said the female agent.
  “What?”
  “Radio won’t penetrate these walls.”
  “ . . . wait, what?”
The female agent just shook her head and walked to the thick, steel doors into the lab. Brian saw a second, curved glass window behind the other agent, this one with what looked like striped mangroves covered in glowing fruit. Between the two was a wall with a security door in between. The female agent entered a code into the panel and swiped her card, and the door slid open. At the same time an orange cog-like blockade rolled away and another set of doors on the other side opened. The agent stepped through and disappeared into the glass, metal and bright lights of the lab as the three doors sealed behind her. Brian barely got a glimpse of more specimen chambers before it closed off.
  “Acting ‘radio dumb’ . . . works every time,” said the Stove agent with a smile.
  “What are those?” said Brian, gesturing at the trees in the other glass container.
  “No idea . . .” said the agent. “Alien trees, I guess. You should probably ask an Oven tech.”
  “And, where are they?” asked Brian.
  “Upstairs. We’ve cordoned off the crime scene. There’s no testing today.”
Brian remembered how hectic it was upstairs.
  “Wait . . . Delgany died here? I didn’t know that.”
  “Oh yeah, she was right next to the artefact,” said the agent. “Then, just dropped dead.”
  “Dropped dead . . .?” Brian mumbled to himself, trying to understand. He knew, from that, that they must think the artefact killed her. But he didn’t see how was that even possible.
The sound of the security doors sliding opened interrupted his thoughts. The female agent returned, this time with a beefy, looking man in tow. He had a severely square jaw, a soul patch and a dark grey, wool, skull cap over his scalp, which looked like a short, thin beanie.
  “What’s this mix-up?” said the man in a croaky, gruff voice. “Are we missing some of the file?”
  “Actually, no, uh . . . other way. Flip it around,” said Brian. “I’m actually here to digitize the file - The Blue Cloud file - the file you’ve got.”
  “You want. The file. We have?” said the agent, slowly.
  “Yes . . . ?” said Brian, nervously.
  “So, there’s no mix-up?” said the agent.
  “No. I mean, yes! There is. I need it, and you’ve got it. I can’t do my job without it.”
  “I’m afraid we’re using it,” said the Agent, frowning. “We’ve sent for all the files relating to the alien obelisk, because it killed someone this morning. We’re investigating that.”
  “Yeah, I know, I’m not stupid,” said Brian, although the look on the agent’s face said he clearly didn’t agree. Brian sighed. “Look, I know what you guys are doing. I’m not saying that what I’m doing is more important. But, we can work together on this.”
  “You would only get in the way,” said the Agent. “We’ve secured the crime scene, you aren’t allowed past those doors.”
  “Then just give me the file,” said Brian. “Look, I have to get this done, but it’s not like you can’t use it as I have it. I’m digitizing it, that would make it even easier for you guys to use since then it would be on the database, it’s updated in real time. I write at ninety words per minute, you’ll have the information even quicker. And I mean, you’ve got the artefact, you’ve got the crime scene, you’ve got so much data to work through. I just need the content of this one file. Now, if you absolutely need it, I can even work with one of your agents, whoever has it now. I can write it up, and even work through and find information with you. Data entry is a part of my job, it makes sense that I can help, y’know?”
  “We’re dealing with a dead scientist, here!” barked the agent. “I don’t have time to play paperwork with the goddamned interns! There is sensitive information on these files which may even have caused the death of Doctor Delgany. I can’t risk putting that in your hands until we know why she died! All your doing is slowing down my investigation, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll head crying back to the Cabinet.”
  “Okay, first, I’m not an intern any more,” said Brian, getting a little angry. “I deal with sensitive information every day. That’s part of my job. Most of the files in here have information that can tear open reality or turn your blood to stone - I have experience dealing with dangerous information, I do it every day, so these files are safer in my hands than yours. Secondly, half your job requires having a cabinet rep’ join you in the field to translate these files into briefing notes for you. Yeah, I respect the Stove, I owe my life to you guys - an agent gave his life for me - I love what you guys do. But your attitude, frankly, is bullshit. I have a job to do, we all have jobs to do, I just need a little co-operation from you to get mine done. Is that really so much to ask?”
  “Look, kid,” said the agent, his face twitching as he tried to keep calm. “If you need help doing your job, ask the receptionist on the way out. Until then, get your arse out of my sight.”
Special Agent-in-Charge Hurvey turned around and marched back towards the lab. The female agent beside him entered in the code and card, and they headed through as the doors slid open.
Brian started to walk after them, but the black agent grabbed his shoulder.
  “Let it go, man,” he said. “I know how you feel, but you’re still not permitted in there.”
  “We’ll see about that,” said Brian, turning towards the Lift. He stopped and turned back. “I bet you fifty bucks, I’ll be back here to get my file before the end of the day.”
  “Hell no,” said the agent with a smirk, “I ain’t going to be involved if you want to piss off Hurvey. Besides, when you don’t come back, how would I get my money?”
Brian shrugged and headed to the elevator once more.
The Oven was underground for a few reasons. Besides avoiding prying eyes, it also gave better protection from several forms of incursion or infiltration. The many layers of dirt, as well as concrete, iron, salted earth, brick, sigils, binding seals, sand and weed matting prevented any kind of electronic, radio or psychic signal from getting in or out - including mobile phone reception - meaning you needed to surface to send a text or use WiFi.
There was a landline that could be used for emergencies, or by staff that couldn't afford the time it took to surface, and redo the security rigmarole. This connection was accessible by a row of three phone booths at the rear of the reception floor. But (as the sign beside the phone warned) for the sake of security, all phone conversations were recorded, as well as monitored by a computer. The doors were also designed to lock electronically, and in the instant that the computer detected one of the many blacklisted words or phrases, or any words in a classified language, the line was cut and the doors locked.
These signs had been put up after several of the staff who spoke English as a second language or with a regional accents had found themselves locked inside these phone booths for several hours, when the computer had mistaken their unusual pronunciation for alien words.

Brian stepped into the centre booth, closing the door behind him, and dialled the Cabinet.
  “Hello?” replied Edith, her cheery voice recognizable immediately.
  “Edith, this is Brian Lockburn. I was hoping to speak with Morrissey,”
  “Morrissey? Is there an emergency?
  “Not emergency, but I need his authority,” said Brian. “Basically, I’ve been reassigned, but I need his go-ahead.”
  “He’s a touch busy. Do you mind if I put you on hold?” asked Edith.
  “Of course,” said Brian, and he was immediately treated to soft, smooth jazz hold music. Brian found it off-putting, it sounded like cheap porno music, so he leaned into the corner of the booth with the phone resting on the shelf, so he could only just hear the crackly speaker as he waited.
After nearly ten minutes, the music stopped, and Brian heard his boss’s voice.
  “Hello, this is Morrissey.
  “Hello? I’m here. This is Brian Lockburn.”
  “Ah, Brian. In Archives now, yes? What seems to be the problem?
  “Well, sir, are you aware of Ellen Delgany’s death?”
  “Yes, I’ve been shuffling her papers. Why?
  “Well, Lucas Trenton was assigned to archive her documents, but that’s been delegated to me. I’m the one who’s digitizing her research, getting the Blue Cloud files up to date. However, that task has been postponed.”
  “No it hasn’t.” said Morrissey, matter-of-factly. “To reassign her research, we need the documents digitized.” Brian nodded, knowingly.
  “Well, sir, that’s why I’m calling. I can’t do my job whilst the Stove investigates. I can’t get my hands on the documents while the Stove has them.”
  “Just speak to the agent-in-charge, Mister Lockburn. You don’t need me to do that for you.
  “I tried, sir. Unfortunately, to be frank, the agent-in-charge is a bit of a rough customer. He lost his temper, and now is refusing to co-operate.”
There was a moment of silence before Morrissey replied.
  “I see . . . and you want me to bully him into submission, is that your angle?
  “Well, not as such, I don’t want to bully anyone . . .” lied Brian. “I just want to do my job, sir.”
  “Mister Lockburn, this is a human resources issue. And if your solution to every problem is to get the big man to throw his weight around, you’re not going to make a lot of friends in the Kitchen.
  “Yes sir, but I just-”
  “Don’t interrupt me, Brian. I’ve already made up my mind,” said Morrissey, sounding annoyed. “With Doctor Delgany gone, we need to put a rush on this. I’ll fast-track your acquisition with some top-drawer authority. But if you can’t play nice in the future, don’t expect a Hail Mary from me. You got that Mister Lockburn?
  “Yes, sir,” said Brian, grinning.
  “Give me two minutes, then you better impress me with how quickly you do your job,” said Morrissey. “Because if I have to clean up after you a second time, I’ll send you to the Dishwasher, do I make myself clear?"
  “Absolutely, sir. I won’t let you down,” said Brian.
There was a click, and Brian was left listening to the dial tone.


CHAPTER 5: MAY LOOK AT THE KING

Brian made his way to the reception area, and sat down on the cheap, green plastic chairs, resting his briefcase on his lap as he waited. After a minute, Brian overheard the receptionist speaking into her headset.
  “A few minutes ago he went to make a phone- wait, no, he’s right here. . . are you in one of the conference rooms? . . . Alright, I’ll do that for you now,” said the receptionist. She stood and called to Brian. “Mister Lockburn?”
  “Yes?” said Brian, standing up.
  “Agent Webster has asked for you to join them in the neg’ twelve viewing area.”
  “Okay. Thank you . . . so very much,” said Brian, heading to the lift.
After a short trip down, the doors opened to the laboratory viewing area.
  “You son of a bitch,” said a voice up ahead. Brian looked over and saw the black agent standing there with a smirk on his face. “Hurvey is spewin’ in there . . .”
  “Are you Webster?”
  “That’s me,” said the agent, gesturing to a crumpled pile of papers on the desk. It looked like an upturned rubbish pile. “And this is ‘Blue Cloud’.”
  “Why is it such a . . . ?”
  “‘Dumpload’?” offered Webster. “Like I said, you really pissed off Hurvey.”
  “Is he always this childish?” asked Brian, picking up a piece of paper.
  “Hey kid,” said Agent Webster, frowning as he put a firm hand on Brian’s shoulder eerily close to his neck. “Hurvey is a good guy, you hear? Yeah, he’s a real bastard at times, but he’s been through hell. He was part of ‘Operation: Doornail’, and that would mess anyone up . . .”
  “Okay . . . I’m sorry,” said Brian.
  “You don’t need to be sorry, just be respectful,” said Webster, removing his hand. “I think he was wrong to cut you off, that’s why I’m helping you. But there’s a reason I’m on his squad . . . now where do you want to start, kid?”
Brian exhaled slowly, opened his briefcase and took out the laptop.
  “I usually start by reviewing the current file, but we’re in a rush, and I already did that once today. Just give me the earliest document, and we’ll start from there.”
  “Okay . . .” said Webster, spreading out the documents a bit, and taking a page from the middle. “You realize these go further back than the nineties, right?”
It is a truth universally acknowledged that everybody dies, but not all deaths are equivalent. Most people tend to have their arteries clogged from heart disease, suffocate with lung cancer, bleed out from suicide or are crushed to a pulp in road accidents. But the death of Ellen Delgany was not so mundane.
Ellen Delgany entered the observation chamber with a perspex sheet, a clipboard and a notepad with a camera around her neck. She placed her sheets and papers as well as the camera on the table in the corner of the room, then approached the obelisk to circle around the three-sided sculpture, looking at the faces as she had done so many times before. Satisfied, she approached the table and picked up the perspex sheet. It snapped like pantomime thunder as she held it up and placed it against the face of the puzzle. Sliding a red marker pen from her lab coat, she traced the image of the fractal in the lower corner of the puzzle, a strange, curving line.
Taking it from the face of the obelisk, she held it against the concrete wall to her right.
  “There’s my dragon . . .” she said. she turned the sheet, placed it against the obelisk and traced the curve again, extending the curve. She then copied it two more times, so the fractal was four times as large, and then placed the sheet against the puzzle again. She looked at the new line, which twisted and turned around the face of the puzzle, but couldn’t see any pattern. With a sigh, she took some blue-tac from the clipboard on the desk, sticking it to the sheet, then took a picture of the image before taking the sheet off and placing it on the desk.
She glanced back at the obelisk, then gasped. She picked up the sheet again, and placed it against the second side, the list in an alien script.
  “Dear God . . .” she said and after looking over the letters circled by the fractal, she dropped the sheet on the ground, turned back and wrote a list of unearthly letters in her notepad.
Then she picked up the notepad and walked back around the artefact once more.
She glanced at the notepad then looked up at the obelisk. As she gazed at the clear, glassy face intently, the life suddenly fell from her eyes. She collapsed, like a puppet with its strings cut, as the face of the obelisk began to morph with a high-pitched ringing and cracking sound.

  “What about this?” said Webster, offering a printout of the obelisk photos to him.
  “Shh, one second . . .” said Brian, holding up a hand. “Analysis of the surface has shown . . . da dada, read that . . .  a seven-point-three millimetre, forty-five degree channel. The precision of these, as well as the lack of fractures . . . must be assumed to demonstrate not carving or growth.” Brian sighed loudly and heavily.
“Seriously, listen to this: ‘Must be assumed to demonstrate not . . .’ Who talks like that?!”
Brian dropped the page and rubbed his eyes.
  “Do you need a break?” asked Webster.
  “No, I need food. Some bastard stole my lunch, I’m running on fumes and bile.”
  “We’re past half-done,” said Agent Webster, taking a purple five-dollar note from his pocket. “Here. There’s a vending machine in the employee lounge, on minus-ten. Grab something with some carbs, then rush back and finish this.”
  “Do I owe you?” asked Brian.
  “Nah, just grab me something without while you’re there. Make sure it doesn’t have nuts.”
  “Okay,” said Brian, closing his laptop as he took the money and headed for the lift.
A short, vertical trip later, Brian walked past the reception desk where a man with an unironed business shirt was talking to the receptionist, Lilah, about an upcoming dentist appointment, and into the employee lounge at the back. The lounge was five metres wide and twice as long, with a long table with a dozen chairs in the centre, a kitchenette tucked into the far corner and a line of three vending machines beside it along the wall. There was a whiteboard and a corkboard covered in “Urgent” memos on the nearest wall, over a desk without a study chair. Also, there were four forest-green couches lined up against the other two walls, with an old scientist was asleep on the furthest one, snoring softly with his lab coat wrapped around him like a blanket.
One of the vending machines was for coffee, another just had soft drink, so Brian went up to the one with snacks and food. After a minute of staring gormlessly at the confectionery behind the glass, he decided on a bag of corn chips for himself but was left searching through the candy bars for something ‘without nuts’. He didn’t know if the agent had meant that he didn’t like nuts or that he was allergic to nuts; and so was trying to remember whether nougat was made of nuts or not.
Rather than overthink it, he decides to get two bags of corn chips, but then saw that it had a touchpad instead of a row of buttons like a drink vending machine. He was used to drinks machines, he used to live off sugar and caffeine at school, but this was just some letters and numbers. It took him a moment to realize that the shelves each had a letter, with a little alphanumerical pair for each item.
  “Huh, clever . . .” muttered Brian, inserting the note and putting in the code ‘B4’. As the coil rotated to dislodge the packet of chips from the sliding tray, he took the change from the coin slot, put it in the machine and entered the code again.
As the second bag of chips dropped to the dispensing tray with a crumple of laminated foil, Brian found himself staring at the fluorescent light reflecting in the vending machine’s glass.
  “She figured it out . . .”
Brian started running towards the lift; then remembered his food, ran back, grabbed the two chip packets from the machine and then turned around a third time to run towards the lift.
  “She solved it!” called out Brian as he jogged out of the lift, towards Agent Webster.
  “What did you solve?” he asked.
  “Not me, she - Delgany. She solved the puzzle,” said Brian. “That’s why she died, she put the pieces together.”
  “The puzzle on the glass thing?” said Webster.
  “Yeah . . . oh, uh, are you allergic to nuts or . . .?” asked Brian, holding out the chips.
  “No, I just hate getting them stuck on my teeth . . .” said Webster taking the snack, “So, why did she die?”
  “Because she solved it,” said Brian. “She unlocked the puzzle, and that made it change. It made it kill her.”
  “So, it’s like an evil rubik’s cube?”
  “No, it’s more like . . . look,” said Brian, opening his laptop and scrolling down. “She needed to unfold the dragon curl, then she needed to pair that with the nine circles, and the square in the spiral. I don’t think it’s a puzzle, it’s more like a tempting challenge. Y’know, uh . . . kinda like ‘bait’, but for smart people.”
  “So, what was the answer to the puzzle?” asked Webster, chewing on corn chips.
  “It doesn’t matter,” said Brian. “It doesn’t mean anything, it might just be ‘gotcha’ for all we know.”
  “No, I mean, if you think she solved it and that’s why she died, then how do we know she solved it? This is just a theory, isn’t it?”
  “Well, yeah,” said Brian. “But it makes sense, doesn’t it?”
  “Yeah, it makes ‘sense’,” said Webster, sitting on the desk, “but I’m a Stove Agent, and I know that a theory isn’t worth a gnat’s fart unless you can prove it. How can you prove what you’re saying?”
  “Well, what does the new puzzle look like?” asked Brian.
  “Can’t say,” said the agent, biting another chip, “they put up blackout screens around the artefact. It’s been quarantined for safety. No one can touch it, look at it or even smell it until we know why Delgany died.”
  “Then . . . well, I dunno . . .” said Brian, with a shrug.
Webster ate another mouthful of chips in silence, then put the packet on the desk.
  “Wait here, I’m gonna talk to Hurvey . . . don’t touch my chips,” he said, walking to the lab entrance. Brian opened his own packet of chips as the agent unlocked the several layers of doors and disappeared inside.
Brian just ate his late lunch as he waited, absent-mindedly scrolling through the digitized file, manually checking for spelling mistakes. A minute after he finished his chips, he heard the sound of the doors sliding away, and looked up to see Agent Webster walking in.
  “Well, you’re right . . .” he said, walking up to the desk.
  “Really?” said Brian.
  “Yeah,” said Webster, coming to stand by the reception area again. “You had the files, so they were reviewing the physical evidence. In particular a perspex sheet, and some of her research logbooks and diaries. A notebook had some strange letters on it, and we couldn’t make sense of them until they referred back to the puzzle image. So, we figured out what she did.”
  “Okay . . .” said Brian. “Wait, does that mean someone died?” asked Brian.
  “Oh, no, it’s fine,” said Webster. “It wasn’t a curse or anything. But when I told Hurvey your theory, they figured out what it all meant.”
  “So, what is it? What did they find?” asked Brian.
  “Pretty simple,” said Webster, “It was basically a prayer saying ‘make me number ten’. And wouldn’t you know it? She made the high score.”
  “The what?”
  “Yeah, sorry, dumb joke.” said Agent Webster, picking up his chip packet again. “We haven’t quite translated it yet, but there’s a tenth name added to that list on the other side of the obelisk. I’m guessing it translates to ‘Ellen Delgany’ . . .”
As Webster bit into a chip, Brian slumped back in his chair and sighed.
  “Yeesh,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “The tenth victim . . .”
  “Don’t worry about it, man,” said Webster, around a mouthful of half-chewed corn chip. “Everyone here knows this is a dangerous job. Didn’t you even spill some great speech about how even the filing can kill you? You can’t dwell on it all.”
  “No, but, she was the tenth,” says Brian. “There’s only space for eleven names on that obelisk - Delgany mentioned it several times in her notes - we don’t know what happens if it gets to eleven.”
  “Yeah, weird . . . I wonder what happens at eleven,” says Webster, idly.
  “Why?” asked Brian.
  “Y’know . . . “ he said, draining the crumbs of the packet into his mouth. “Jus’ curious.”
  “Does it matter?” said Brian. “It’s dedicated to the Crooked God, whatever it does will be horrible.”
  “Yeah, I know. I don’t want it to happen, but you can’t say you’re not curious.”
  “I am, but I still don’t want to know,” said Brian. “That’s how this thing works. It lures you in with curiosity, it gives you a question that you want to know the answer to; but, the trick is, it already knows the answer, and the answer is: you’re fucked.”
  “Yeah, well, I guess it’s true what they say about curiosity . . .” says Webster. ”Anyway, are we gonna finish this thing?” said Webster.
  “Yeah yeah, of course . . . I feel better already,” said Brian, scrolling to the bottom of the file on the computer, and he continued typing.