The question drew a prolonged sigh and an eyeroll from the woman sitting in front of the monitor. The man standing just at her shoulder frowned in response, clearly in no mood.
"No, nothing. The same as yesterday, and the day before, and-"
"Don't get smart." He cut her off sharply. "Nothing happened today or yesterday, so what? The point is, it's happened before and it can happen again."
The woman slouched in her seat, lips pressed into a thin line. She clearly wanted to argue, but wisely chose not to. He wasn't wrong and she well knew it. Instead she resumed staring at the screen in silence, eyes tracing over the shapes barely discernable on the screen. The man did the same, arms crossed and brow furrowed in worry. There wasn't much to see. A dark room, sixty square meters of steel. The depth was less evident. Waves lapped gently at the edges of the room, liquid submerging whatever lay within and keeping it hidden from view. It was for the best really, and the man fought back an unconscious shudder at the idea of the room being drained for any reason.
"A simple Non-Newtonian Fluid. The more it struggles, the harder it'll be to escape."
That's what the researchers from HQ had told him. The science of it didn't really matter to him. As long as the shit worked, he couldn't complain. So long as the liquid remained just that; a liquid, they were safe.
Well as safe as they could reasonably so long as that thing was in there. If it were up to him, it'd be destroyed. Wiped clean from existence and forgotten about forever. But that was impossible, or so the eggheads said. So he had to submit himself to sitting on his ass and watching screens all day, his finger on the trigger in the event of the slightest hint of activity. Definitely not the kind of security detail he'd imagined when he signed on. Sure the pay was good, but it was nowhere near worth the stress. Barely more than a dozen of them out in the middle of nowhere with any sort of help thousands of miles off. The first, last and only line of defense between the rest of the world and the thing they kept locked up down there.
The man felt his skin prickle uncomfortably as his thoughts strayed towards things better left ignored and he sucked in a breath. A hand reached towards its twin and he silently grasped the studded ring on his finger and began to count each individual bump. A grounding exercise, one he'd used often because even far beneath his feet under yards of earth and steel it could still get him. Just knowing it existed was enough.
"Just...keep an eye on it. " He finally mumbled, shifting awkwardly away from the monitor and shambling towards the door leading to the adjoining hallway. His partner didn't seem at all concerned with his shaky demeanor and watched him only briefly before she resumed staring boredly at the screen. Her blase attitude filled him with as much jealousy as it did irritation. Some people just weren't as affected by it, it's why they got stuck watching it. Whatever hooks it used to dig into the mind just couldn't find the right purchase on some people. The nightmares were milder, their time under was longer.
"Their deaths come sooner." A vindictive little voice inside of him said. People like her were the first in line to get thrown into the grinder because of their 'talents'. Better to be normal. Especially with an employer like theirs. More often lately, he'd been wishing that he was far below average. He'd have never been chosen if that had been the case.
The air was growing uncomfortably thick inside and he felt himself growing more and more claustrophobic with each passing second. His steps grew more hurried and he paused only briefly to throw on a parka before bursting through the door at the end of the narrow hall and out into the harsh sunlight.
Summer in Antarctica had far from ideal weather, but it was miles better than being stuck inside. The air was uncomfortably dry, but it was fresh. Below forty and moreover free from the taint of that thing. He shivered violently, in part from the harsh gusts of wind that scoured the valley and more from nerves. Barely a month into a six month stay and he was close to breaking down. Maybe it wouldn't be too soon to call the whole thing off? The Boss would be angry. But surely she'd appreciate his honesty, right? He wasn't fit for the job and shouldn't have taken it. Then again, he couldn't imagine a scenario in which she'd be happy to send a transport all the way north for one person. Even if she were to be so generous, he'd surely lose his job. And it didn't bear thinking about what would happen afterwards. He was effectively stuck.
The cold was utterly unbearable and growing more so by the second. He'd run the risk of severe frostbite unless he went back inside, but even that was preferable to submitting himself to that thing's influence again, no matter how minimal it might have been.
"I really don't get paid enough for this shit." He mumbled through chattering teeth before lurching back inside. It was a good thing they stocked plenty of alcohol on site with the rest of the supplies. He'd be needing it for the remainder of his stay. And, provided he didn't blow his own brains out, a new liver when he finally got to leave. Hopefully whatever sorry bastards they sent up next would be better suited for the task.
They were really starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel.
Allister didn't say that out loud of course. It was rude, to start. And he wasn't in the mood for a fight. Not with the people in front of him, and certainly not with Lorette who was lurking inside the building just behind him.
Well, putting them at the bottom of the barrel wasn't exactly fair. They ticked all the necessary boxes in terms of what Apex absolutely needed. Otherwise they wouldn't have been called for. But it was clear to Allister that these people weren't quite at the caliber Apex expected.
"What they don't know, they'll learn."
Lorette's words came to mind so abruptly that had Allister not known any better, he'd have thought she was communicating telepathically. Fortunately for him, that was not one of his Employer's many talents. Being at the woman's beck and call was hard enough as it was without her taking up permanent residence in his skull.
He coughed into a gloved fist, stepping further outside and wincing as a gust of autumn wind struck him. The onset of early evening in the fall was a quick affair. Low afternoon light yielded to darkness in the blink of an eye, and the cold was quick on its heels. Allister bowed at the waist slightly, holding the door further open for the people waiting outside it. They'd been kept waiting long enough.
"Good evening, I'm glad all of you could make it." He said airily, as if he hadn't spent the past several minutes staring at them somewhat critically. But that was in the past, and therefore no longer his problem.
"We do apologize for the wait. We've had a lot of people to get through today." He continued while ushering them all through the door as quickly as he could. They'd no doubt be happy to get out of the cold and happier to get things over with. He couldn't imagine how happy they'd be with the offer they'd be getting however. Most weren't at first. He could hardly blame them for it. He certainly hadn't been. But the alternatives were of a kind he, and most, weren't comfortable ignoring. The fallout was Lorette's to deal with however, and she typically did so well enough. In her own opinion anyway. Others had less than stellar reviews of her methods.
The inside of the building was as nondescript as the exterior. There wasn't much to see aside from a single hallway marked sparsely with doors. Fluorescent lights buzzed overhead as Allister led the small group down the linoleum tiled hall, only looking up for the barest of moments to eye a light that had burnt out. "I should get someone to change that." He mumbled to himself before falling back into silence until they'd presumably reached their destination. A single door, as unremarkable as its many copies stood in front of them, and he paused briefly, hand on the knob. "The Madame will be with you shortly, you may wait inside for her...." He trailed off and looked momentarily thoughtful as his eyes scanned the small gaggle of people warily.
"I should warn you all that she is somewhat eccentric. She means no harm, but the Madame has grown used to a certain method of doing things over the years. I hope that you understand." He finished somewhat lamely. Eccentric was an understatement, and he knew it. But he certainly couldn't open up with a list of the woman's foibles. It was better to let the poor fools discover that on their own.
Allister, and by extension the people with him did not have to wait long for to do so. The door swung open soundlessly, and he spent only a half second searching for the light switch before flicking it on. The room he'd set aside for them was mostly empty in that a woman sat behind a table lined with files, and in front of it several chairs meant for her visitors. She said nothing. Staring at Allister in dead silence and the man fought the urge to grit his teeth as his blood pressure spiked.
"Well it seems you won't be having much of a wait as she's already here. Hello Ma'am." Allister said tightly.
Lorette blinked once and leaned sideways almost imperceptibly to stare past Allister's shoulder. "You brought my winners. Good, we can get started."
Allister shuffled to the side and allowed room for the people behind him to pass. He gave the group a look that could only be interpreted as 'This is the shit I was talking about.' before turning his gaze back to Lorette. "Not yours yet, Madame."
Lorette only let out a noncommittal grunt in reply and Allister rolled his eyes. "I'll leave you to it then. I'll be just outside, call if you need anything." He exited the room wordlessly, leaving the hapless group alone with Lorette who continued to give them a look one would only find on the face of a Fox in a henhouse. Her gaze only broke away at the sound of her phone buzzing, and she reached into her jacket to pull it out and stare wordlessly at the screen.
'Why are you like this?' were the only words written and Lorette frowned softly. Allister just didn't get it. Most didn't. But that was everyone else's problem. She tucked her phone away and turned her gaze back to the small group. "You probably want to get this over with, don't you?" She asked of no one in particular. It didn't matter who she addressed really, the offer was the same for all of them. Their answers might vary, but that was something she could live with so long as the results were as expected. And they would be. Nikhil was never wrong.
Lorette played idly with the edge of one of the files, brow wrinkling softly as she squinted under the harsh lights.
"I apologize if I seem a bit addled. It's been a long day and the last group tried my patience more than I'd have liked. I've got a bit of a migraine you see."
She slapped the cover of one of the files softly before looking back up. "But that's not your problem. And not why you're here." She said pointedly before leaning back in her own chair to resume staring at the people situated in front of her. They were a motley group, same as the rest. But that was to be expected, and moreover it was only temporary. "Now as your future employer I've a great deal of expectations for all of you. Expectations that I have no doubt you can live up to." Lorette eyed each of them in turn, her gaze having not lost its predatory gleam.
She picked up one of the files, flipping it open to scan the pages inside and letting out an amused huff.
"Harper Brock...The good thing about shut ins is that you know they'll always be in the same place." Lorette's eyes flicked towards the rather apathetic looking woman and she grinned. "You were quite the troubled youth. Of course I'm not one to judge. In fact I like it. Troubled kids grow up to be impressive liars. I doubt I'm the only one who's banked on that skill, huh?" The question was as directionless as it was rhetorical. Lorette closed the file and tossed it back onto the table. "It's very fortunate for you Ms.Harper, that I'll benefit a great deal from your particular skillset. Otherwise there'd be no point in you being here."
She swiped up another file and flipped open the cover to read its contents. "Marshall Fletcher. Another troubled youth. Another fall from grace. But you weren't content to stay at rock bottom I see. Was it the challenge of climbing back to the top that interested you?" Lorette's gaze zeroed in on the man and she narrowed her eyes. "There's no rock bottom at Apex I'm afraid. You'll keep climbing here. Otherwise we're more than happy to fling you off the edge."
Lorette tossed the file back onto the table carelessly and eyed the final folder. "And this brings us to one Julian Byrne. And impressive resume. You're quite the little bookworm aren't you? We've got plenty of space for people like you here." She sighed and shifted a bit to lean back in her seat. "Granted, we've got a high turnover rate for people like you as well. Knowledge is power, but it can just as easily be your undoing. I hope you've got a sturdy backbone holding up that big brain of yours Mr.Byrne. I'd very much hate to see that mind of yours go to waste."
Lorette put aside the final file, and placed both hands flat onto the table top. She leaned forward, almost conspiratorially and regarded the little group with that same, unchanging, hungry look.
"Now I'll admit that what I'm about to ask of you is a lot harsher than what I ask of most. You know, I hear all those rumors. About what goes on behind the wall." She began, not feeling the need to elaborate. 'The Wall', as it was so succinctly named was about as much an urban legend itself as what supposedly went on behind it. Circling the greater part of Apex's Headquarters, the clearance one needed to see the other side of it was high. And the Officers that had that distinction were cut from a different cloth than those who remained outside.
Most people assumed that given Apex's status as an International Arms Dealer, they were merely protecting their assets along with the intel of all parties they were on contract with. That didn't stop the rumor mill from running. The conspiracies surrounding the cluster of towers that marred Arnvista's skyline were such that more than a few people had braved the application process for the explicit purpose of proving them. If any had been successful, they'd remained distressingly silent on the matter.
For her part, Lorette didn't care to either prove or disprove those theories. So long as they kept focus away from what was really happening, it was an annoyance she could tolerate.
She didn't know if her most recent acquisitions believed any of the rumors surrounding Apex. It didn't matter. None of them were true.
"What I'm going to ask you to do for me. It's worse than what you may have heard in a lot of ways. I will not lie, and I'll spare you the pretense. If you agree to what I'm offering, you're going to be putting up with the kind of shit that the pay just barely justifies." She said blandly. It was the understatement of a lifetime. But she didn't want to scare them right out of the gate. They would have plenty of time for that later.
"What I want from you is going to test you in a lot of ways. You'll become intimately aware of just how weak you really are. Mentally, spiritually, and physically. I was." She sighed, opting to stare down at her hands resting on the table. "I still am. I'm reminded every day."
Lorette squeezed her eyes shut, a sharp pain lancing across her temples in an abrupt reminder of just that. A weakness that only a mortal woman could lay claim to.
"Because, that is the price of power." Her eyes snapped back up, though she didn't seem to be staring at anyone in particular. Lorette's gaze was far away, either lost within her own thoughts or somewhere beyond even that.
"Real power. Not this silly shit the rest of the world thinks that I care about. Oh yeah the money is nice. Connections are always helpful. But that's not what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about, and what I want to give all of you is the kind of power that would let you strike the face of God if you wanted. And, if we do things right you just might be able to."
Lorette swept the files away to the edge of the table with a flourish as if they'd somehow offended her. "The application process covers the basics. I need to make sure you're fit enough to handle this. But more importantly, all of you have something else in you that can't be quantified in the number of laps you're able to run. That potential makes all of you qualified candidates for the kind of greatness we used to write stories about. Heroes, demigods. Call them whatever you want. It's the same thing here. That's what I want for you. That is what I'm offering you."
Lorewtte's eyes flickered towards the door and what enthusiasm she'd managed to draw forth dampened slightly. "Call me crazy. I don't blame you. But if I'm too crazy to deal with, you can leave now. In fact, I'd suggest it. Because once you've stared into the face of power, you'll never forget it.""We need them at the cusp of cognitive recognition. These people understand their place in the world but still choose to fight it, even if only marginally."
Nikhil's words came to mind unbidden and Lorette tried not to frown. He was right, as insufferably as always. These people were most valuable when they were uncertain and adrift. They made the best kind of lab rats in Nikhil's opinion. Lorette's only job was to place the cheese at the end of the maze.
"I'd imagine that you're skeptical" She said suddenly, and far more bluntly than she'd have liked. Lorette plowed on ahead sensing a mild shift in the uncertain tension clouding the room. It was blessedly, the kind that could be assuaged by sating their curiosity.
"Here." She began, reaching into her jacket. "Let's give you a small demonstration."
An International Arms Dealer could have been carrying anything of interest on her person. Wads of cash, a sidearm. Drugs if she were the type to partake, though Lorette very much was not. A cellphone, a planner. A myriad of ordinary and mundane things she could have pulled from the inner folds of her business jacket. But Lorette refused to be and do ordinary things for reasons no one but her would ever truly know.
The very not ordinary thing in question turned out to be a somehow completely ordinary toad. At least, what looked like one anyhow.
Lorette set the small creature onto the table, and it sat there like the bump on a log it should have been and stared at the small group with bulbous eyes.
"Anaxyrus americanus americanus.
" She began. "The Eastern American Toad. I have to say, she's pretty lifelike. Granted, I don't know a lot about toads but I can's find any fault in this one. You know a lot of them try too hard to be like the animal they're mimicking. Makes for some odd behaviors, and that catches people's attention. Which is what they don't want." Lorette lifted a hand to tap the Toad's head lightly with a finger. The small creature only let out a subdued croak in response and Lorette chuckled. She made no effort to elaborate on the 'they' in question. Words would not do them justice. Despite all efforts of Humanity, words would never do them justice. They were far beyond that.
"Yeah, she's pretty good at faking it. Because that's what this is. It's a fake."
Perhaps he'd been listening in from the other side of the door. Or perhaps years spent serving the woman had granted him a special insight concerning her sense of dramatic timing. Whatever the case, the door swung open and Allister leaned through the portal before wordlessly tossing a sword into Lorette's waiting hand.
The weapon was a simple affair. Two pounds of sharpened steel adorned with a plain grip and pommel. Any historian with a passing knowledge of blades would consider it to be of good make, but little else. It was clearly a standard issued weapon at Apex, one of many with no name or no prior attachments.
And it was also perfectly suited for executing Toads.
No sooner than it had found her hand, its twin came up to grasp the hilt and Lorette held it overhead for only a split second before cleaving downward in a fluid arc towards the hapless Toad.
Toads were in possession of only the natural defenses that God saw fit to bestow upon them and no less. Some were toxic, but for the most all Toads were content with leaping out of harm's way should the need have ever arisen. However Toads weren't exactly made with dodging swords in time. And so it seemed to all as if one of God's creatures was about to meet its untimely demise at the edge of a blade. And honorable death for any man. But a rather over intensive one for a humble amphibian.
At least, it should have been. Had the Toad Lorette was carrying in her pocket a normal creature, it would have been cleaved in two, none the wiser of the source of its demise. But the Toad was made readily apparent to be no creation of God. Or, if it were, it was a rather deranged one.
The blade struck true because Lorette's ego would allow nothing else. So in essence, she did hit the little Toad. But that was all. The blade made no sound coming in contact to what was supposedly the animal's flesh. More distressingly, neither did the Toad. It stared blankly at the people in front of it. But eyes that were once empty in the way only a dumb animal would know, were suddenly empty in the manner befit someone who's thoughts were a thousand miles away. The Sword hadn't put a scratch on it, and the Toad was bored.
Lorette grunted mildly at the recoil. Toads were a bit rubbery, and so she'd felt the expected give. But a solid and immovable object tended to come out the victor between itself and a sword. It's why shields had been invented after all.
The Toad for its part remained utterly nonplussed. It made no move to escape its assailant. Perhaps because it didn't feel the sense of danger a normal creature would have. Or perhaps it didn't care. The massive, slimy tongue shooting out of its mouth to wind around behind it and yank the sword from Lorette's hand and giving it the means to swallow the blade whole might have also been a reason. But it was becoming increasingly difficult to tell.
Lorette finally did frown, speaking to the Toad as if it wasn't a Toad. Which probably was the truth since things that were Toads didn't swallow entire swords whole.
"That's coming out of your paycheck."
The Toad's small head canted slightly downwards and it seemed to stare at the surface of the table in a manner that passed for contemplative on an Amphibian. A decision was promptly made and just as soon as it'd swallowed the damn thing, the Toad opened its mouth and vomited up the sword with an audible clang.
"Brenda, come on. We've talked about this." Allister piped up from his spot by the door. His lip curled in disgust as he stared at the sword sitting uselessly on the ground. Bathed in a brand new sheen of Toad saliva, it was obvious that the sword wouldn't be seeing any more use for a while. Allister shot a glance at Lorette and shook his head. "I'm not cleaning it up."
Lorette scoffed and rolled her eyes. "Worry about that later." She said curtly. Lorette placed both hands on the table and leaned forward, effectively looming over Brenda.
"Now we can really get down to business. That? That was power. Just a small taste of it. I can promise you that we've got it in things a lot more interesting than common Toads."
Brenda croaked loudly in a manner akin to offense and the CEO chuckled.
"I'll ask you another question." She pointed downwards, indicating the Toad still sitting there. "Who wants one?"