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Assignment - Lament

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It seemed that out of battle I escaped

Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped

Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

 

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,

Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.

Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared

With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,

Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.

And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,

By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

 

Wilfred Owen, “Strange Meeting” (ll. 1-10), 1918.

************

A new test … It must be that, the High Priest assured himself, as he traced the sound through the gaunt, echoing stone corridors of the Labyrinth. A new ordeal, devised by our Lord and Master. It is not mine to reason why. Only to suffer accordingly, and to find the pleasure in that suffering.

So far, however, he was having little luck in finding any. The sound – a shrill, repetitive, tuneful whistling; sometimes jaunty, sometimes mournful, and at all times maddeningly evocative, although for no reason he could put his finger on – seemed to taunt him with moments of close proximity, yet at every new turning it seemed to have leaped ahead of him, drawing him further along the narrow, deserted passages and into areas of the Labyrinth which even he was less than familiar with, far from the oft-frequented cloisters, seminaries, and torture chambers that now seemed curiously homely. Far from my Gash, as well. If I should require backup … but why should I? he reproached himself, picking up his pace and forcing a new confidence into his tread. I am vice-lord here, am I not? The favoured one of Leviathan. I have nothing to fear. Leviathan would not betray me … again, he mentally added, recalling that one time his god had, alas, attempted to supplant him with a new High Priest, had destroyed his physical form, and had sundered his spirit in two. I was merely lucky, in the aftermath. Had Channard not proven to be such a reckless failure as my replacement … but I failed Leviathan first, lest I forget, he reminded himself, feeling chastened. I allowed one to escape whom my Lord had set his sights upon. Kirsty … My Lord was merciful to forgive such dereliction of duty, and to allow me to resume my rank. Why I even committed it … I wanted her here as much as Leviathan himself, it not more. Yet she affected me, somehow, he reflected, straining to recall the details of the incident. She weakened my resolve. She showed me something. A picture … Yes. The man in uniform. The captain … who was … who was … and suddenly, and with a rising sense of unease, he realised why the melancholy whistling he had been chasing was so evocative, as he remembered the words it was set to: ‘ Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag … and smile, smile, smile. While there’s a Lucifer to light your–’

“Got a light, Captain Spencer?” said a voice behind him, in a West Country accent, as the whistling abruptly stopped. The High Priest swivelled on his heel, dismally failing to conceal his shock, and what he saw in looking back did not help matters in the slightest. The arched stone corridor had been replaced by the earth walls of a long, narrow ditch, bolstered by sandbags and rotting planks of wood, and edged along its top with barbed wire. The ditch was open to a black, starless sky, occasionally illuminated by signal flares and the muzzle-flashes of distant heavy guns. The floor of this trench was a swamp of well-trodden mud, human excrement, and human remains, the nauseating stench of which mingled with the faint, acrid miasma of cordite and nitrogen mustard that lingered in the air. There was no sign of life save for the man who now confronted him, not that he did much to detract from the pervasive air of death.

He was a thin, pale, boyish soldier in ill-fitting khaki battle-dress, mud-spattered puttees, and a steel helmet, with a rifle slung over his left shoulder, an unlit roll-up in his right hand, and a sad, cynical half-smile upon his face. The High Priest thought that he sensed a shade of amusement at his own expense in the expression, and although his easy confidence had deserted him, his pride had not. He reached for his belt, intending to draw one of his many blades and chastise this insolent spirit, but his hand touched only bare leather. Glancing down, he was further dismayed if not at all surprised to see that his long, ornate black robes, elaborately crafted into his flesh, had been replaced by a similar uniform to the young soldier’s: somewhat better-tailored, with the insignia befitting a junior officer, but just as drab and dirty. He could tell without touching his scalp, or even removing his peaked cap, that his ‘crown’ of ritual piercings had also vanished. The pain has gone. That constant, blissful memorial of my place and purpose. Without it, he felt lifeless, empty, and, although it was more than he cared to admit, afraid. I will not show it, though. My Lord sees fit to test or torture me with the ghosts of my past … the shame of my mortal existence. A fitting irony, perhaps, for my past dereliction. So be it, but I will not give this creature any pleasure of it.

“What means this?” he asked, with every intention of sounding imposing, though he noted with great displeasure that his voice had lost the naturally deep, sepulchral resonance of a Cenobite’s. “You seek companions in your suffering, boy? Or is it that you, whoever you are, believe you are owed some revenge against me? You will obtain none this way. These memories mean nothing to me. I have been shown a greater path, agonies more intense and sublime than any petty mortal warmonger could ever devise. I am beyond all this now. I–”

“Like hell you are … begging your pardon, sir,” replied the soldier, conceding a note of respect as he apologised, although none of fear. “What would I be wanting with revenge, though? I don’t reckon as I’ve any grievance with you , sir. As I remember, you were always one of the better ones. Leastways, you weren’t sitting nice and safe miles behind the front lines, making the plans to send us poor, patriotic bastards off to our deaths. You were there with us … though maybe I ought to be a little offended that you don’t seem to remember me, Captain. You’ve known more than your share of dead folks by now, I suppose, but I’d kind of hoped not to have been lost in the crowd.”

“It is not seemly that I should remember any of this.” Those times are past, that man is dead and gone, and good riddance. I have renounced him, even if I now have no choice but to remember him … to remember … Something else did stir in his deep memories as he consider the spectre’s face, with its strange mixture of boyish innocence and bitter resentment. An injustice. It struck me at the time, haunted me, helped to lead me down the path of pain and enlightenment. “Private … Pearce? Sam Pearce?” The soldier smiled again, as grimly as before, and nodded. “Yes, I do recall you. You died in the War.”

“Might be as your memory’s playing tricks, sir. You and me both outlasted the War, only difference being you survived for three years, while I managed all of eleven sorry minutes after the armistice before some Hun sniper who was slow on the uptake did for me. Unlike you, I didn’t exactly have much of a chance to feel guilty about surviving … though with all respect, sir, I reckon I might have dealt with it a bit better. I never asked much from life. I was happy enough with what I had. The fields, the woods, my Eleanor … I’d all that to go back to, and it would’ve set me to rights in the end. I didn’t need to go chasing after no forbidden pleasures, go messing with the occult … and so on. To each his own, I guess.”

“You dare reproach me for that? Yet here we both are,” he declared, but he could not feign any sense of triumph. For even this felt amiss to him. Why would Pearce be here? He died, stupidly and cruelly enough, but to my knowledge he never touched a Lament Configuration in his life. Furthermore, he was not even the type to. Merely a callow innocent. I do not think even the War brought out any vices in him other than making him smoke like a chimney … as did we all. He pushed back that recollection, as it was getting dangerously close to empathy, and that way lies pity, and that failing has cost me enough already. Forcing a cold, stern tone, he continued to address his late comrade: “What is it you want of me, Private, and why are you here? I cannot help you reclaim the life you were cheated of, and such mercies as this place has to offer … such mercies as I accepted would, I think, hold little appeal for you. I will take you before Leviathan if you wish it, but I think you would do better to return to whichever limbo you came from. You had courage, but desire was never your forte.”

“People can change. You of all folks should appreciate that … and I just might take you up on that offer, sir,” he answered, with a grim resolve that impressed the High Priest, even as it surprised him. Then again, who am I to prejudge? I was unpromising enough material when my Lord first took me, and one of my finest lieutenants was a mere child when he was initiated. Of course, we were both living beings at the time, but the re-creation of flesh is of no impediment to the Engineers, any more than the refashioning and the tormenting of it. If Pearce is willing to face the ordeal, there is always room for another novice in the seminary. On reflection, that would have an amusing irony. As Pearce continued to speak, however, the immediate mystery was dispelled, but only in favour of another: “There’s something I’d like to talk to your precious lord and master about, as a matter of fact. A little proposition, you might say.”

************

There was nothing particularly uplifting about any aspect of the decaying room – its walls of mould-infected wood; the thick strata of dust that coated most of its floor and furniture; its broken, rust-coasted Victorian gas lamp; and its cracked and cobwebbed windows through which the sunlight could only force a sickly ambience – but such atmospheric trivialities meant nothing to the two operators. Leave imagining things to the humans, thought Steel, wryly, as he paced the waiting room of the abandoned railway station, studying the clearly-defined footprints of the recent visitors. They do it so well … too well. There were only two, perfectly logical things that gave him cause for unease. One was the fact that he had been here before, and had not counted on ever needing to return. The other was the box.

It sat in the middle of the table amidst small heaps and ridges of disturbed dust, although its own surfaces were altogether free of dust, smooth and shining. That was by no means the only incongruous thing about it. Would it look congruous anywhere, and if so, is that anywhere I ever want to see? It was of a size to fit comfortably in one hand, but nothing else about it evoked any sense of comfort. Its body appeared to be a solid cube of dark, lacquered wood, overlaid on each surface with gold metalwork in varied geometric designs, the regularity of which was intricately disturbed with a multitude of finely-worked glyphs. From a reasonable distance, the effect was beautiful if eerie, but seen up close that effect was lost, the figures having a crude, jagged, brutal appearance like a multitude of tiny, vicious cuts that violently broke up its symmetry. Sapphire stood over it, her hands clasped tightly together beneath her chin, her posture rigid, and her deep blue eyes fixed in a stare of inhuman concentration. As ever, she was dressed appropriately to the period – the mid-1990s, by their reckoning – in a long, pastel-blue slip dress, with her hair loosely styled, while Steel wore an immaculate, single-breasted pale grey suit with narrow lapels and a thin, metallic-silver tie. In spite of their care to observe such local norms, he suspected that if any humans should walk in on the scene – mercifully unlikely as that was – they would find the operators just as incongruous and sinister as the box itself, and as ever, they’d be hopelessly wrong. If they understood the half of what they recklessly meddled with, they’d be grateful we found that thing before it caused any worse harm … not that I could call this meaningful progress.

“Well?” he asked, abruptly. His tone made no impact on Sapphire, who continued to stare impassively at the cube for some seconds before shaking her head. “What’s that supposed to mean? Come on, Sapphire, I need a spot analysis of that … that thing.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t.”

“‘Can’t?’ You haven’t even tried. If you don’t touch it, how can you– ?”

“That wouldn’t be wise,” she interrupted, turning to meet his eyes for the first time, her expression as grave and forbidding as her voice. It took Steel aback just enough that he muted his impatience, but it did not affect his resolve.

“Well, when is anything we ever do ‘wise?’ We need to know–”

“This is different, Steel. Whatever that cube is, it wants to be analysed, wants to be touched. Can’t you feel it?”

“Your field, not mine,” he conceded, as meekly as he ever got.

“Exactly … so trust me on this.”

“You make it sound alive.”

“Yes.”

“So … if you know that then you must have got something from it. Anything specific?”

“Not really,” she confessed, with a shrug. “Echoes of malevolence, desire, pain … so much pain … and pleasure,” she added, although in spite of the superficially positive ending note, her voice only seemed to darken at the insight. Steel merely frowned, dissatisfied. Oh yes, all very ominous, but not exactly useful intel. I need much more than that if I’m to actually deal with this.

“Look … that is the source of the time break, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Well, strictly speaking, we don’t know that it was a time break.”

“Alright, the ‘dimensional disturbance,’ then.”

“That sounds more accurate … and yes, it must be.”

“In which case, we need to know the details, unless you’re confident that it’s past now, that everything else here’s safe,” which would be more than I am. ‘Curses’ and ‘jinxes’ may be a naïve superstition, but if any place could convince me of them, it would be this damn railway station.

“Oh no,” answered Sapphire, slowly roving her eyes around the room. “Whatever happened, it weakened the whole corridor of space-time, at least locally. See here,” she indicated, while pointing towards an unpleasantly suggestive collection of dark patches on the floor, still slightly moist and glistening. “Someone died here, very recently … and very violently. It left an imprint,” she explained, bending down and delicately touching the largest of the stains while her eyes glowed an even more vivid shade of blue. In spite of the need for useful intel, Steel could not help but find the sight distasteful. “No, more than an imprint: a potential.”

“For what? Psychic projections?” as if this place hasn’t already had its share of ghosts.

“Worse, Steel. With enough influx of energy – if more blood was spilled here, for example – there is the potential for physical manifestation, even for further rifts. This whole area will need decontamination … of the most thorough kind.”

“Level it completely, you mean? Clear and purge the ground, fabricate replacements?” he asked, not without some sense of satisfaction at the thought. Not quite as a simple a matter as sinking the Mary Celeste, but possibly more cathartic. “Well, we can leave all that to the specialists, give them a chance to pull their weight for once. They’re not likely to do anything until we’ve conducted a full investigation, though.”

“Agreed.”

“So, if we daren’t even analyse that thing, what do we dare attempt? What wouldn’t risk causing any further damage?” Sapphire reflected on the matter for a few moments, then touched the large bloodstain again.

“This all happened no more than two hours ago,” she declared. “I could take time back that far. We could see for ourselves what happened. That might give us some insight.”

“And there’s no way that would affect the cube?”

“There are no guarantees.”

“Very comforting … Alright, lets try it, but come over here first,” he advised, while moving over to the door that led to the concourse: a position that offered a commanding view of the room and also a rapid exit, should one become advisable. The last time I asked Sapphire to play the medium here, it nearly killed her. Let’s at least not be sitting targets this time. Sapphire straightened up, walked over to his side, and turned back to face the room. Her wide-open eyes glowed vividly again, and a low-frequency rumble, almost subsonic, disturbed the still air, as if someone was trying to vibrate the decrepit building to its foundations with mere sound waves. Although that did not happen, it could not have been said that everything remained stable: though the room remained intact, its outlines seemed to blur and run, and its colours to fade and desaturate. After a few seconds, some of this haze resolved into new forms: an attractive, auburn-haired woman, seemingly in her early-to-mid forties and wearing smart, plain clothing, was sitting at the table, the box in her hands and her expression a mixture of focus and of fear. At some distance from her stood an older man in a dark trench coat, watching her and keeping her covered with a semi-automatic handgun. In spite of the weapon, his own face was no picture of composure, but rather of an anxiety and an impatience that made Steel’s recent irritation pale in comparison.

“Get a move on and solve that damn thing, will you?” the gunman ordered the woman, with a game attempt at sounding authoritative, although it did not seem to impress her very much. Looking up from her strange task, the gaze she fixed him with was at least as incredulous as it was fearful.

“You do realise this is probably pointless?” she asked him, her tone bitter and contemptuous, although weak and wavering. “By all accounts, if this thing doesn’t want me to open it, then–”

“For your sake it better had do, or … What was that?” he interrupted himself, as a quiet yet oddly resonant click emanated from the box, while the woman’s hands fumbled, coming close to dropping it in shock. She did not look at all happy or relieved at her evident progress. “You’re getting somewhere with it, aren’t you? Keep going, Miss Smith. I want to see it open.”

“You’re mad,” she declared, although her trembling fingers resumed their work.

“If I wanted a mental evaluation, I’d have brought a fucking psychiatrist with me instead of some thieving hack.”

“Fair comment, but unless my contacts are all liars then you certainly had no right to own this. Alien artefacts have been classed as government property since 1967, and this meets the definition. Frankly, considering what you had in mind for it, I think I had a duty to–”

“Screw your duty, and your fancy UNIT mates. I paid for that box fair and square, but since you were so eager to get your hands on it, you might as well save me the risk of …” He tailed off again, in deference to the fact that the room had suddenly become darker, while the box gave off a few more hollow, metallic clicks. His stance became more rigid, and his eyes darted around nervously, although he kept his gun firmly levelled. Nonetheless, the woman had taken good note of the dent in his resolve, and she tried to take advantage of that small leverage:

“You’re quite certain you want me to continue, Mr. Blackwood? If I was to reverse the motions now, I think we could both walk away from this none the–”

“Like hell we will … no pun intended. I’ve not come this far and spent damn near all I owned just to pussy out of this now. This is the best chance I’ll ever have. You’ve got five minutes to finish solving it, understood?”

“Knowing what this is,” protested the woman, “I’m not sure that a clean shot through the head wouldn’t be preferable to–”

“Happy to oblige, if that’s really where you want to take this,” hissed Blackwood, his gun-arm tensing. The journalist considered her position for a few moments, but soon enough she resumed her task with a sullen, resigned expression. “That’s better, and don’t tell me you’re not as curious as I am to see that thing open. You sure as hell didn’t get involved in this out of simple-minded patriotism. If any ordinary folks was to walk into your place and see all the weird shit you’ve been collating, they’d think you’re as mad as I am.”

“Those findings are all authorised, and purely for research purposes, not for power.”

“Whatever. Either way, I’d say being shot would be a bit of an anticlimax for you, wouldn’t it? May as well make the most of your last moments, and learn what you … Is that it?” he asked, excitedly, as the seemingly-solid box split in her hands. An irregular symmetrical pattern, almost like some Aztec amulet, rose from its uppermost surface in cross-section, until it reached a height equal to the full width of the box. It then slid a short distance along the surface at which point, impossibly, it sank bank to its original height, again leaving a solid cube with no visible recesses. As it did so, the shadows around the edges of the room deepened and shifted, occasionally striking fleeting shapes that were suggestive of dark, lurking figures and swinging chains, while the persistent, echoing metallic noises did nothing to detract from the effect. I’d call that a result, if hardly an encouraging one, thought Steel, sardonically, but the woman, having calmed from the initial surprise, merely shook her head.

“No … No, the final configuration is meant to be a different shape, according to my sources,” she explained. “This must be along the right lines, though … if you can call it that. Are you really sure you want– ?”

“Stop trying to worm out of it, and finish the damn thing,” ordered Blackwood, although his attempted commanding air now came off very badly. If it was just him solving it, he’d have backed off by now, realised Steel, but he’s not going to admit either his fear or his stupidity in front of her. She’d have done better not drawing attention to it. Nevertheless, Steel had somewhat more sympathy for the journalist. Clearly she enjoys prying into things which she shouldn’t, but at least she doesn’t do any more with them unless she has a gun at her head. A pity it doesn’t look as if this ended very well for … as I think we’re about to see the details of, he thought, as streams of blue plasma suddenly arced across the surface of the box, and the woman dropped it in shock. It fell back onto the table, one of its more elaborate facets facing the ceiling: an image like a stylised sun; sixteen panels of stamped gold, each with its own sinister abstract design, radiating outwards towards the edges of the square, while the centre was occupied by a large golden circle, plain save for four arrows and tiny, regularly-spaced markings that gave it the look of a dial or an indicator. An axis of some kind, anyway, he decided, as the box split in half again, this time along the lines dividing the ray-shaped panels, so that eight radial sections remained static while the sections in-between them slid up, twisted around forty-five degrees, then slid back down, changing the cube into an irregular shape, more like an eight-pointed cross. But how? How can it have that many moving sections and still hold any shape at all? Assuming, that is, it’s a solid object in any real sense. Perhaps … perhaps I should work out the trivialities later, he decided, as shadows in every corner and recess of the room suddenly came to life and seemed a more pressing issue.

He had been right about the chains, as many of the thinner shadows, trailing cobwebs, and even the antique hanging lamp had inexplicably mutated into an upturned forest of heavy, swinging, clanking metal chains, most of which terminated in cruel-looking hooks and blades. Compared to the new arrivals, however, these were mere Halloween decorations. There were roughly a dozen of the pale figures, as near as Steel could tell between the poor lighting of the dimensionally-shifted room and the faintly blurred, washed-out quality of Sapphire’s time-shift. Would I even want a better view of them? Their look and demeanour was somewhat militant, their postures rigid and disciplined, and their black clothing and shaven heads having a certain uniformity, but everything else about them spoke of chaos, madness, and pain. Two of them, a man and a woman, stood apart from the rest, nearer the centre of the room, and they also seemed to be distinguished as senior by their clothing: long, concealing, elaborately embossed robes in a leather-like material, as opposed to the attire of their underlings, of similar material but closer-fitting and more revealing, although ‘provocative’ was not the right word for any of them. Their cold, robotic mannerisms were off-putting enough, but far worse were the mutilations each of them bore: strangely decorative and formal in their repulsive brutality, they reminded him of the designs on the box. Their uniforms were hooked and sewn into their skins, which were themselves modified as if they were no more than garments, pieces artistically flayed off or stitched, stretched, and cauterised into elaborately distorted patterns, in some cases reducing their whole faces to inhuman, mask-like parodies.

The two senior officers, as they seemed, were both lucky enough to possess whole faces, although neither were unscathed: the woman’s neck was gashed and stretched open on a wire frame anchored in her cheeks, while the man’s bald head was methodically scarred in a criss-cross lattice, with a long silver needle driven into his skull at each intersection. In spite of the savagery of their appearance, their manner was cold and harsh, though the woman showed a little more emotion: there certainly seemed to be a flash of something like hunger or lust in her black eyes as her gaze fell upon the journalist, who still sat the table, her head bowed and her eyes averted. At a confirming nod from her fellow commander, the mutilated woman drew a small, curved, serrated knife from her belt – all of the pale creatures were well-equipped with crude, sharp instruments, none of which looked as if they might offer a quick or merciful kill – moved over to the journalist, pulled her head upright, and held the blade to her neck. Blackwood needed no such disincentives to keep his eyes open: he stood in the midst of the surreal, grotesque scene, his eyes caught between morbid fascination and sheer panic as they darted back and forth, and his gun still raised. The male commander – the one with the myriad head piercings – took a few slow, stately steps in his direction and fixed him with an inscrutable stare, as if challenging him to make some account of himself. Although, in Steel’s opinion, the human occultist was now clearly regretting that he had ever started this insane venture, Blackwood swallowed, lowered his trembling arm, and addressed the entity in as composed a tone as he could manage:

“You are … Cenobites of the Order of Leviathan? Guides to the furthermost regions of sensation?” The pierced man exchanged a brief, almost amused look with his co-commander before returning his icy stare to Blackwood, and nodding briefly. Toying with him, as he should have had the sense to realise. What is it with humans imagining they’re something greater than a mild curiosity to the multidimensional universe, if not a downright annoyance? “I have … longed to meet you, for many years. I offer you this woman as a token of my–”

“You presume to offer me what is mine already?” interrupted the lead ‘Cenobite,’ his voice proud and sombre, and his black eyes narrowing. “Some might call that an inauspicious beginning to our acquaintance.”

“There will be others, I swear it,” Blackwood hastily replied, almost stammering over the words. “As many as you want. I can get them for you, no trouble. All I ask in return–”

His proposition concluded in a piercing cry, for the very good reason that one of the many chains dangling from the ceiling had suddenly come to life, lashed out like an attacking snake, and had hooked its barbed end into his gun-arm. His weapon had barely hit the floor when another chain impaled his free arm, then others caught his legs, and then any semblance of order, never mind of restraint, went out of the window as a full-on swarm of metal serpents sank their fangs into any portion of soft tissue they could locate. Somehow, he managed to force enough coherence through his screams to plead for mercy, but it did not last for long: one of the smaller chains took the opportunity to dart inside his open mouth, hook itself to his tongue, and tear the greater part of it out. By the time the onslaught was finished, he was crucified on a whole web of chains, his skin pulled taut and bloody where they had hooked onto the exposed areas of his face and hands, and he expressed only burbling whimpers of agony as the lead Cenobite approached him with a calm and measured stride, managing to look almost spider-like in his demeanour. Certainly predatory.

What do you take me for?” asked the Cenobite, sternly and disdainfully. “A shopkeeper? A prostitute? Or simply one who finds it difficult to realise his own desires? No matter. Evidently, you have been sadly misinformed as to the nature of our operation. Allow me to educate you.”

Suddenly, and in perfect unison, the chains retracted to their original positions, and Blackwood’s body offered no resistance: within less than a second, they had reduced him to an assortment of dangling, skewered lumps of meat, the largest of them being a forearm. Miraculously, the omnidirectional shower of blood that this ‘educational’ act caused did not leave so much as a drop on either the Cenobites nor the box, although the journalist was less fortunate, as it sprayed across her face and caused her to close her eyes again and to turn away, in spite of the blade at her throat, with a gasp of shock and disgust. This drew curious, almost uncomprehending stares from those Cenobites who still possessed expressive faces, including their leader.

“Open your eyes, child,” he commanded her. In spite of the patronising, strangely ecclesiastical-sounding style of address, there was no contempt in his voice, if no warmth. The journalist obeyed, albeit hesitantly, and forced herself to return his stare, steadily though with evident nausea and dismay. “That is better. You would not wish to face your fate in ignorance.”

“Why did you look away?” asked the female commander, her voice cold, raspy, and disapproving. “If one had used and betrayed me the way he has done you, I would take pleasure in watching his death. I would take even greater pleasure in inflicting it. Do you think you are better than me?” she asked, with a dangerously playful edge, as if daring her prey to find an answer that was both honest and diplomatic. The journalist gave it her best, although her answer was less than fluid on account of both panicked improvisation and hyperventilation:

“Oh … no … Not at … all … I just … probably … you and me … see the world … a bit differently … I suppose.”

“I see cruelty, hypocrisy, flesh, hunger, and desire. What do you see?”

“Well … there’s those … and a few … other things … like love … kindness … honesty … humour, of course,” she added, resignedly, as several of the Cenobites reacted to her suggestions with hollow, mirthless laughter. That disturbance was brief, however, as their leader raised a silencing hand, and none of them hesitated to obey him. Sensing a change in the mood, the journalist took a deep breath and resumed: “Look … I should admit, I probably don’t know as much about your order as I ought to do–”

“That can be easily amended,” declared the leader, in a tone that could just as easily have been gracious magnanimity or veiled threat. “Please, continue.”

“Right … Well … as I understand it … your earthly agents sell these boxes to the people you’ve earmarked as potential recruits … or as toys,” she added, with a quick, morbidly curious glance at the bloody tatters of the late cultist, gently swinging on their chains. “I wasn’t sold it, nor did I intend to open it. If there hadn’t been a gun at my head–”

“Don’t obfuscate, child. By our law, desire is consent, and yours is valid. For all his stupidity, that arrogant fool was right about you, at least: you did desire to open the box, even as you feared to do so. At all events, you had a choice.”

“With respect, hardly a meaningful one.”

“Not so. All mortals die, but you preferred to take your chances with us, and part of you even welcomed the opportunity to learn our secrets first-hand. So you shall … but compose yourself,” he ordered, with a note of distaste, as she failed to repress silent tears of fear and despair. “You are more useful to us unharmed, at least for a time. Enough of this,” he declared, while picking the box up from the table, slowly and reverently. “It is time we were leaving. We have such sights to show you, and less time in which to do so.”

Deftly but delicately, as if he were handling some fine surgical instrument, the lead Cenobite reversed the motions of the box, stage by stage returning it to its original shape. As he made the final motion, the light suddenly returned, the gory chains and pale figures vanished in an instant, and all that was left to mark their having been there were a few bloodstains on the floor, where Blackwood had been standing just prior to his dismemberment, and the box upon the table.

Enough, Steel? asked the voice of Sapphire, telepathically. The next event of any note will be the point at which we came through that door. I can only show events as they transpired in this dimension, and they have taken her out of it.

I’ve seen enough, but what were they? Were they human?

Were possibly,” she answered, as the colour flooded back into the scene and everything came back into sharp, present-time focus. “How could they be human now, Steel? No human can survive wounds of that magnitude, however they were inflicted.”

“What, then? Were they time refractions? After-images?”

“No … They did have physical substance, but not sustained by life … not by their life, anyway. It must be an external source.”

“The Darkness,” declared Steel, with an air of inspiration, although Sapphire merely gave him a sceptical frown. “Well, why not? It makes sense.”

“Just because we’re back here? I had that entity in my head, remember?” she reminded him, not without an air of reproach. “The Darkness doesn’t operate that way. It has no use for physical servants. It feeds off the psychic energy of the resentful dead.”

“You just said those things, those ‘Cenobites’ were dead, to all intents and purposes, and I think I’d be pretty resentful if someone did that to me.”

“No, Steel. The Darkness wouldn’t expend energy sustaining them in their pseudo-life, even for the purpose of torture. It’s parasitic. It only ever takes.”

“It expended energy bringing Pearce’s ghost here, surely?”

“I doubt that. Pearce would have haunted this place with or without the Darkness. This place was the focus of his resentment, the place where he was made to feel like a hero then sent to a futile death. More likely, he attracted it here, then it used him as a magnet to attract the other ghosts. An efficient, if hardly a humane feeding cycle … and anyway, why would the Darkness want to take that poor woman hostage? It was sincere, at least. It accepted the ‘sacrifice’ you gave it,” she added, her reproachful tone deepening.

“There was no choice, you know that,” insisted Steel, firmly if uncomfortably, while averting his eyes from her. “It would never have accepted less, and we had nothing to threaten it with short of calling in the transuranics, and what damage that might have inflicted on this area, perhaps even this whole planet, I dread to think. One death is better than many. Tully died a hero.”

“Some comfort, I suppose,” she answered, without conviction. “Well, at any rate, there’s no reason to suppose the Darkness was involved this time. This place is isolated, derelict: a good venue to commit a murder, or to stage a kidnapping. I think it’s coincidence.”

“Maybe,” conceded Steel, with no more conviction. “I don’t suppose it makes any difference, since all we’ve really got to go on is this box, which we don’t even dare touch, right?”

“It would be inadvisable.”

“I’m almost tempted to freeze the thing, and have Lead pulverise it, put it out of commission for good. Except …”

“We can’t just abandon her,” said Sapphire, her gently-voiced statement lending words to his own frustrated thoughts. “This is no different from the house, and the nursery rhymes. If we tolerate outside forces breaking into this continuum and stealing whomever they please, we might as well all defect to the enemy camp.”

“There are times I could almost be tempted. Humans … They do like to create problems for themselves, don’t they?” he asked, rhetorically and irritably, while pacing around the table and fixing the box with a glare. “Prying into things any fool could see should be left well alone.”

“It wasn’t her fault, Steel. Not really. Anyway, I didn’t like the sound of what they had in store for her. It hinted at a greater agenda, and I doubt that’s something we can afford to treat with lofty indifference.”

“Good point, but how we’re going to tackle that issue when our only asset is a fatal accident waiting to–”

Quiet, interrupted her psychic voice, urgently. Someone’s approaching, coming along the footbridge … coming here.

Get behind the door, Sapphire, he ordered, while quickly and silently moving to flank the doorway from the opposite side. Their backs against the wall, they awaited the new arrival. Only a few seconds later, the door opened and a man entered: tall, grey-haired, and bearded, he looked to be at least in his sixties, but he carried himself with almost as strong and formal a bearing as the lead Cenobite had done. Thankfully, his ensemble of tweed jacket, flat cap, and public school tie did not make for quite such a threatening effect as his predecessor’s, but Steel was taking no chances: as soon as the man had stepped far enough into the room, the operator seized him by the shoulder and telekinetically immobilised his motor system.

“Whoever you are, you have my attention,” said the man, his tone somewhat slow and awkward on account of numbness, but with impressively little show of fear. Disciplined. An ex-soldier, at a guess. Whether that’s good or bad, who can say? Humans do love their wars, and we don’t exactly have good luck with soldiers when it comes to this place. We may as well hear what he’s got to say for himself, though.

“Who are you,” asked Steel, curtly, “and what are you doing here?”

“Lethbridge-Stewart’s the name,” he answered, with the same sang-froid as before, “and I’m looking for a friend of mine: a young woman, name of Smith. I don’t suppose–”

“Let him go, Steel,” said Sapphire, stepping forwards, and wearing a sad, pained expression. “He’s unarmed, he’s definitely human, and at this stage it can’t hurt us to share what information we all have, amicably. This is likely to be quite unpleasant enough as it is."