What remains of the Hive writhes in agony.
The worms are dying. They try to flee the frigid air, to burrow deeper in, into the warmth and the wetness and the soft safety of the flesh, but the cold catches them, freezes them dry and bone-brittle and dead. And they scream as they die, their high, sweet song sheared from them by the primal, overpowering shriek of their pain and anger.
Their host screams, too, and sobs, choking out keening wails through the worm corpses congealing in what could be called their throat. They cry for their children, begging them, come back, come here, come home, but to no avail.
Soon, too soon, the worms are silent, and the silence is louder than their song ever was.
And the Hive, neither home nor human now, but a hollow husk, sinks into that silence.
When she claws her way back to consciousness — or what she believes to be consciousness — she is cold. Not from any killing chill like before, but from cool, hissing air creeping over her pitted flesh, penetrating what pores she has left that aren’t simply doors for —
She remembers her worms then, how they suffered and screamed for her sake, and knows, the knowledge heavy in what is left of her stomach, that they are dead. They are dead and gone, gone from her, and she is alive — if this could be called life, without them — and alone.
It is too quiet here, and that is what convinces her that it is true. If even one of her worms were alive, she is certain she would hear them, sing their song back to them until they crawled inside her again, until their song was sung in the one voice of many mouthless things in harmony. But the silence is too heavy for her to hear.
She whimpers, then louder as the air pushes into the gap that serves as her mouth and rushes into what passes for her lungs. It burns now, filling her up with freezing fire, scraping and scratching at the tatters of what once was skin, stitching her cells back together —
She screams then, fully shattering the silence. Though it hurt to scream, to let more and more air circulate in the empty crevices and sharp corners of her body, nothing, not even her grief and pain, could hurt worse than this… regeneration, this rebirth into a wholeness and cleanness she’d shunned long ago. So she keeps screaming, and hopes without much hope that something will hear her, and know that what is being done to her is not what she wants.
“Will you stop that?”
His voice slides over her like a hand trailing up her caved-in chest, like fingers tightening around her exposed neck. Her scream dies in her throat — I have a throat? — and she lies there, utterly limp. She cannot see who is speaking, but she has a strange, strong sensation that she is being examined: like she has been pressed between glass plates and pinned to the blindingly bright diaphragm of a microscope.
And she knows then, with deepening dread, what has a hold on her.
“That’s better.” His voice is crisp and even, free of its previous irritation. “It hurts, I know, but you will hurt in far worse ways if you do not listen.”
He hardly needs to compel her to believe him. She knows what he’s saying is true.
Measured footsteps pace ever-closer to her. “Starting a ritual in the very heart of another power’s domain... I must admit, I didn’t think the Corruption had the nerve, but you certainly proved me wrong.” He tsks, and she can practically hear him shaking his head and smiling faintly, condescendingly. “Unfortunately, you didn’t quite have the numbers to pull it off, even with all your... worms.”
A sob rises in her throat — a throat, I have a throat — but she swallows it down. She knows better now. She will not give the Eye the satisfaction of seeing her cry.
“And now, here you are. Alone. Abandoned.” His voice is much closer now, much lower, almost intimate. “The Corruption may have cast you aside to die for your failure, but I am very interested in keeping you alive, Miss Prentiss.”
Miss. Prentiss. His words hiss through her skull. That was — is that —
“Me?” The whispered question croaks out before she can stop it. Her vocal cords are still thin and fraying, and they throb painfully in her new throat with the effort.
“Yes, you.” He sounds amused. “Who else but you?”
He doesn’t understand what she’s asking. No, he does; how could he not? He’s just being obtuse. Obscure. But in a way, it does answer her question.
And though it hurts to speak, she has to know: “Why?”
“Well,” he says, mock-thoughtfully, “what a good question.” He pauses, as if actually considering it. “Let’s just say that… I’m curious to see what you’ll do.”
Then he laughs, and the sound makes her torn muscles tense and clench with an overpowering urge to flee. “But, if we’re to be honest with each other, I’m much more curious about what the others will do when they find out you’re not dead.”
Sasha has no idea what’s going on.
All she knows is that when she walked back into work on Monday morning after the mandatory two-week leave Elias had given her and her coworkers after the attack on the Institute, Elias had met her at the door to the Archives and asked her to take a walk with him. Since Jon was already standing at his side, and since Tim and Martin, both hastily dropping their things off at their desks before hurrying back out the door, had presumably been told the same thing, she’d thought nothing of doing the same — even if it meant following them into a wing of the Institute that she had never seen before and wasn’t entirely sure how they’d gotten to.
Now, even though it was probably too late for such things, she’s having second thoughts.
Martin seems to be going through a similar thought process. “Did Elias say anything more about where we’re going or what we’re doing, and I just missed it?” he asks, his voice low and anxious.
“Nope,” Tim replies. “Hasn’t said anything else.”
“Oh. Good.” Then Martin frowns. “Actually… would it make sense if I said that doesn’t make me feel better? That this doesn’t feel good at all?”
“Perfect sense,” Tim says grimly. “I’m not liking this either.”
Sasha is about to nod in agreement, but her motion is interrupted by a yawn. She stifles it, and then nods as planned, but her head feels heavier, more sluggish.
Tim glances over, concerned. “Rough night?”
“Rough couple of nights,” Sasha says. “I’ve been having trouble sleeping since…” Her voice trails off, and she shrugs. “Well… you know.”
Tim snorts. “All too well.”
“Same,” Martin chimes in gloomily.
Sasha can only imagine what their nightmares are full of: tunnels and corpses and worms, thousands upon thousands of silvery, singing, screaming worms. She almost envies the simplicity of their fears, their past tangibility and terror made bearable and safe through sleep.
Behind closed eyes, she sees nothing but the skeletons of the groaning, towering shelves in Artifact Storage, shrouded in darkness — and a tall, thin, flickering figure lurking at the edges of her vision.
There is a click of a lock, and Sasha realizes then that their little party has stopped at a door, which Elias has just unlocked. As he opens the door, she can just make out the door’s one distinguishing feature: the word OBSERVATION, stenciled on the wood with peeling red paint.
Jon regards the doorway with suspicion. “What is this place?”
“I believe these laboratories were once used for extrasensory perception experiments back in the ‘50s, back when the Institute still had the budget and brainpower for that sort of thing,” Elias says. “Nowadays, of course, we’re a bit understaffed when it comes to scientists, but the facilities still come in handy from time to time.” He steps over the threshold and holds the door open from the inside. “Do come in.”
After a beat, Jon follows reluctantly, with Martin and Tim trailing behind. Sasha is the last one inside, and Elias closes and locks the door behind her. With the light from the hallway gone, there’s a brief moment of darkness before the thwick of a flipped light switch heralds the ceiling lamp turning on, bathing the interior in a musty glow.
Blinking at the sudden light, Sasha looks around and sees that the five of them are standing in a cramped observation room, with a pane of glass that is more wall than window separating it from an adjoining room that is still dark. The observation room is stark and utilitarian, with a single table and chair in the back corner and a panel of light switches by the door.
Elias flips another of the switches, and the adjoining room is lit up with a harsher fluorescent light. This room is a bit larger than the room that they are currently standing in, with wooden flooring and paneled walls studded with geometrically-cut foam. Despite the soundproofing, Sasha can still hear the droning thrum of the medical apparatus within: a hyperbaric chamber, its cylindrical glass body dominating the space.
Jon frowns. “Is there — someone in there?”
Sasha leans closer to the glass, trying to get a better look. There is someone lying in the chamber: a pale, emaciated figure in a cotton hospital gown, unmoving save for the slight rise and fall of their chest. Their dark hair is long, lank, and tangled, shrouding their face from view, but in the weird cast of the light, Sasha can see hundreds — no, thousands — of shimmering silver scars pitting the sallow skin stretched over their bare limbs.
Scars just like Jon’s and Tim’s.
Sasha claps a hand over her mouth, but her gasp still slips out.
“Ohmygod.” Martin sounds like he’s going to vomit.
Tim stares, his expression hovering somewhere between shock and disgust. “Is that —?”
“The entity formerly known as the Hive, once again known as Jane Prentiss, yes,” Elias says. His matter-of-fact, even tone is distinctly at odds with the distressing news he is delivering.
“How is she still alive?” Jon demands, rounding on Elias. “I thought the carbon dioxide —”
“It did serious damage,” Elias says, still maddeningly calm. “The new fire suppression system exterminated the worms quickly enough, and since I was under the impression that Prentiss was more worm than woman at this point, I assumed she wouldn’t be long for the world. Imagine my surprise when the ECDC came to remove her body and she started twitching.”
Jon glances back at the still-prone Prentiss, the glare on his face briefly giving way to a glimmer of fear.
“Don’t fret, Jon. She’s in a severely weakened state, and without the worms, she’s quite harmless,” Elias assures him. “The Institute’s medical professionals tell me the hyperbaric oxygen therapy is working wonders on her various skin and tissue infections; more likely than not, she’ll make a full physical recovery.”
“Is that supposed to be good news?” Martin asks incredulously.
Elias sighs. “I understand you might be upset by this, but —”
“‘Might be upset’? ‘Might be upset’?!” Tim interrupts, his voice rising. “Prentiss laid siege to the Institute and tried to kill all of us; I’m more than a little upset!” He jabs an accusatory finger at the glass. “Why is she alive and still here, and not dead or — or in worm jail, or — literally anywhere other than here?”
“First of all, there is no prison I know of who would willingly hold a felon they knew to be involved in a Section 31 case — particularly a case associated with the Institute — even without the worms to consider,” Elias says, maintaining his calm tone despite the tightness in his jaw. “And second of all, Prentiss is of far greater use to the Institute as an asset.” He looks pointedly at Jon.
An asset? Sasha is confused only for a moment before the awful realization dawns. Elias can’t mean —
“Absolutely not,” Jon snaps. “The only way Jane Prentiss is setting foot in the Archives again is over my dead body, and you know I mean it, Elias.”
“I know you do, and I respect that, Jon,” Elias says testily. “But you’re the one that’s spent months — months — reading the statements that Gertrude left behind. I should think you were at least beginning to suspect that there were ‘more things in heaven and Earth,’ so to speak… and now, you all know that to be terribly true.” He exhales, looking remarkably weary for a moment, and then he is composed once again. “As for myself, I believe that Jane Prentiss is just the start. If you can get any information from her, anything at all that might help when you and your team are investigating those statements… I think that’s worth something, don’t you?”
“Is it worth our lives?” Jon asks darkly.
“Will it be worth it when another monster comes calling and you have the knowledge to stop it?” Elias counters. “Yes. And I should think that if you refuse that knowledge, you’re certainly not assigning any sort of value to your life or to the lives of your staff.”
“I —” Jon starts angrily, but whatever retort he is about to make is cut off by a muffled thump from the other room.
Five heads slowly turn to see the source of the noise.
Jane Prentiss’ hand is pressed against the glass of the hyperbaric chamber, bony fingers splayed and twitching. Slowly, she lifts her other hand, pushing it out to the side. Her palm meets glass there, too. Her chest rises and falls rapidly as she gropes and flails, her motions becoming wilder and more desperate.
Then she starts screaming, and no soundproofing can mask the panic and pain in her ragged, hoarse cries. Jane Prentiss keeps screaming and sobbing and thrashing, hitting the glass in a frenzy of limbs and crying harder and harder with every failed strike.
Jon stares, and Sasha thinks he looks almost as horrified as she unexpectedly feels. “What the hell —”
“While the hyperbaric oxygen therapy has been effective, it has been far from painless for her.” In stark contrast, Elias looks a bit irritated. “I thought she’d gotten accustomed to the therapy, but I suppose the staff need to resume sedating her to get her through a session quietly.”
As if on cue, Jane Prentiss suddenly stills, falling silent and limp as she curls, shaking and cowering, into an almost-fetal position on her side. She rakes her trembling hands through her hair, pulling it like a curtain over her face, but not before Sasha glimpses the wet gleam of tears on her cheeks.
Elias sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Let’s continue this conversation in my office, Jon.” He casts a withering glance at the glass. “That way, we won’t be disturbed again.”
“Reckon it’s too late to hand in two weeks’ notice?” Tim asks dryly.
“You should have done it two weeks ago.” Martin is slumped over his desk, his head in his hands, and his voice, though slightly muffled, is distinctly defeated. “If any of us had any sense, we all should have.”
After Elias and Jon’s abrupt departure to continue their argument upstairs in Elias’ office, the three of them had beat as hasty of a retreat as they could back to the Archives. That had been — Sasha checks her watch — about an hour ago, and there was still no sign of Jon. And without Jon to dole out research assignments, there wasn’t anything meaningful for them to do except sit at their desks and wait.
Not that we’d feel like doing work if we had any, she thinks. If their conversation was anything to go by, Tim and Martin were about as on-edge as she was.
Tim glances over at Martin. “No offense, Martin, but I’m surprised that you of all people are still here,” he says. “I mean, this is the second worm siege you’ve lived through in a matter of months; if anyone has good reason to quit, it’s you.”
“None taken.” Martin raises his head, propping up his chin with his hands. “Honestly? I probably should have. Still should. I just…” He sighs. “I don’t know. I really can’t put a name to it.”
For what feels like the first time that day, Sasha smiles. “I might,” she says teasingly. “First name Jonathan, last name Sims?”
Martin flushes. “Maybe,” he mumbles. “Might as well be, since I don’t know what else it could be.”
“Could be me,” Tim suggests, wiggling his eyebrows.
“No, it’s not you,” Martin says immediately, then looks utterly horrified. “I — I mean,” he stammers as Sasha starts giggling, “not — not that you’re not nice or anything, Tim —”
“Of course I’m nice!” Tim says indignantly. “It’s Sasha you have to watch out for!”
“How dare you!” Sasha swats Tim’s shoulder. “Clearly Martin’s the meanest of us all.”
Martin snorts. “Okay, that distinction definitely goes to Jon.”
All three of them laugh at that, and the tension lifts, if only for a moment.
“All joking aside,” Tim says, sober once again, “Jon sure has been up in Elias’ office for a while. Are we thinking that’s a good sign or a bad one?”
“With our luck?” Martin says. “Bad.”
“I mean, you’re probably right,” Tim admits, shrugging. “Still, if things had gone sour, I would think that he’d be back sooner.”
“Maybe? Nothing makes sense any more.” Martin folds his arms back onto his desk and slumps down once again.
Sasha takes a deep breath, one that seems too loud in the sudden still. “What do you guys think?” she asks quietly, finally giving voice to what’s been eating at her since they left the observation room. “Do you think — do you think that Elias is right?”
Tim frowns. “About what?”
“About any of it,” Sasha says. “About Prentiss not being a danger anymore, about her being useful to the Archives… any of it.”
“You think Elias is… lying?” Martin asks, disbelieving.
“No! God, no, that’s not what I’m saying. I — I don’t know what it is, but something isn’t adding up.” Sasha struggles to find her next words, but what had felt so straightforward in her mind felt so strange to say. “Two weeks ago, Elias tells me — during the worm invasion, mind you — that he thought that Jon was somehow overreacting about the worms. And now, he’s saying that Prentiss is part of some larger threat that we need to prepare for? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Two weeks can do a hell of a lot to shift your perception,” Tim says wryly. “But you do have a point; maybe he does know something we don’t. Maybe he talked to Prentiss and she told him something that changed his mind.”
“Can she even talk?” Martin asks suddenly.
Tim shudders. “She certainly could when she was all wormy,” he says. “And, well… we know she still has vocal cords, at the very least.”
Sasha swallows, the memory of the horrible sounds coming from within the hyperbaric chamber echoing in her ears. But compared to what I heard when the fire suppression system was deployed… those sounds were definitely human.
She isn’t sure if that makes her feel better or worse about Jane Prentiss still being alive and under the same roof as them.
Her thoughts are rudely interrupted by the sound of the Archives door slamming open. Jon, his face set in a murderous glare, kicks the door shut and stalks past their desks to his office without a word to any of them. Wrenching open the office door with a piercing squeal of hinges, he stomps inside, yanking the door closed with a bang.
“Well,” Tim says sarcastically, “that’s a great sign.”
No sooner are the words out of his mouth than they hear a dull crack from inside, punctuated with a muffled yell, and then some quiet, disgruntled cursing.
Martin sighs and heaves himself to his feet. “I’ll get the first aid kit.”
“We have a first aid kit?” Sasha asks, surprised.
“Well, we do now.” Martin leans down to open his backpack, pulling out a plastic-sided first aid kit with the price sticker still attached. “This would have been really helpful two weeks ago, but I figured better late than never.”
The door to the Head Archivist’s office opens again. Jon stands in the doorway, one hand on the doorknob and the other hand limp at his side, the knuckles bleeding.
Martin wordlessly holds up the first aid kit.
Jon sighs heavily, then walks over to the ring of desks. “I... didn’t expect that the wall would be repaired with anything stronger than drywall and plaster,” he mutters, sitting in Martin’s vacated seat and resting his injured hand on the desk.
“Well, if there’s anything else down in the tunnels, at least they won’t break through that wall again,” Martin says, opening up the first aid kit and yanking Jon’s hand closer for a better look.
“Actually, it was Jon who broke the wall,” Sasha says. “Did Maintenance put up a new shelf when they repaired the wall, by the way?”
“No, they didn’t,” Jon says tightly. “I suppose I’ll have to put in a work order for that eventually, but I have other things to worry about right — ouch!”
“Hold that there.” Martin presses a gauze pad to Jon’s knuckles, then rummages in the first aid kit. He sighs and looks up. “Tim, I’m really sorry about this, but do you have anything in your nip drawer I can use?”
“‘Nip drawer’?” Jon echoes incredulously.
“What the hell is a ‘nip drawer,’ and why would you assume I have one?” Tim protests, his eyes darting guiltily to Jon.
“I don’t know,” Sasha says brightly. “There must be some spark about you that makes people go, ‘Why, I declare! I do believe that handsome man has a nip drawer.’”
“Could you all please stop saying ‘nip drawer’?” Jon says, with a note in his voice that almost sounds like despair.
“Come on, Tim,” Martin pleads. “The antiseptic wipes in here are tiny, and I’m going to need a bit more disinfectant than they can provide.”
Tim groans. “Fine. But nobody better tell HR about this.” He pulls open the bottom drawer of his desk, pushes aside the file folders, and retrieves a basket full of miniature alcohol bottles from the very back. “I think there’s some unflavored vodka in there, but I bet the whiskey would work, too.”
“Thanks.” Martin grabs one of them, unscrews the cap, peels off the gauze pad, pours the bottle’s contents onto the pad, and then starts dabbing at Jon’s bloody knuckles. “Jesus, Jon, hold still,” he grumbles, pinning Jon’s squirming hand to the table. “You’re getting blood all over my desk.”
“I don’t think you used the unflavored vodka,” Jon retorts through gritted teeth. “It stings.”
Sasha picks up the discarded plastic bottle and peers at the label. “Smirnoff Green Apple,” she confirms. “Well, it could be worse.”
“It’s already worse,” Jon says grimly. “Elias isn’t budging on Prentiss.”
“We figured as much.” Tim slides another vodka nip over to Martin, then picks out a whiskey nip and stashes the basket back in his desk drawer. “So, what’s the deal?” he asks, opening the bottle and taking a swig.
Jon scowls. “Less of a deal, more of an order,” he manages, tightening his jaw as Martin pours the second nip directly on his knuckles. “The good news is that Elias doesn’t think Prentiss is quite back to full health yet, so she won’t start working here until next Monday.”
“Working?” Tim repeats. “So she has an honest-to-God job here now?”
“Elias conceives of her position as more of a… freelance consulting role,” Jon says. “Basically a glorified intern, who also happens to be, for all intents and purposes, under house arrest.” He snorts. “Just as well she’s not officially on the payroll, I suppose; the Institute is already funding her treatment.”
“So Elias doesn’t plan on setting her loose on an unsuspecting public?” Martin asks, cleaning away the rest of the blood and reaching for the antibiotic ointment.
“He has that much sense, at least,” Jon remarks. “As far as I understand it, if Prentiss isn’t with us in the Archives, she’ll be kept in her cell in the laboratory wing. Either way, she’ll have someone watching her at all times for —”
“— worms?” Martin finishes. He smears the ointment over Jon’s knuckles, then starts winding a bandage around Jon’s hand.
“Yes, worms,” Jon says testily. “While Elias is confident that Prentiss is… dewormed, he was insistent that if we saw any worms or any signs of worms — in her, in the building, anywhere — that we report it to him immediately.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice.” Tim finishes off his nip.
“So... what’ll Prentiss actually be doing down here?” Sasha asks. “Did Elias elaborate on that at all?”
“He did not — oh.” Jon looks down at the bandage on his knuckles as if he is surprised to see it there. “Thank you, Martin,” he says absently before continuing. “To be honest, I’m not quite sure what Elias thinks she’ll be doing when she’s not helping out with investigations, if she even does that.” He exhales heavily. “I — I suppose I’ll figure out what she can do once I check the state of the Archives this afternoon and see what needs to be done around the place.”
“Anything we can help with?” Martin, his cheeks a little pink, hastily stows away the first aid kit in his own desk drawer.
“No, you all are going home. I don’t care that Elias only allowed for two weeks of leave; I’m giving you the rest of the day off to process, and he’s just going to have to deal with it.” Jon stands up, the legs of the chair scraping against the tile floor, and heads back to his office. “I’ll see you three tomorrow morning.”
Martin, Sasha, and Tim look at each other in momentary confusion and concern. Then Tim shrugs and starts gathering his things, and Martin follows suit, albeit a bit more reluctantly.
“Oh, Sasha, before you go —” Jon opens the door to his office, wincing slightly as he curls his injured hand around the doorknob. “Do you have a moment to talk?”
Sasha blinks, surprised. “Um, yeah. Sure.” She glances back at Tim and Martin. “What are you thinking; are you guys getting an early lunch?”
“Might as well,” Tim says, slinging his bag over one shoulder. “If anywhere nearby is serving brunch, all the better.”
“We’ll wait for you in the lobby, okay?” Martin says, zipping up his backpack. “We’ll figure out where to go in the meantime.”
“Sounds good.” Sasha stands and follows Jon into his office, pausing at the door. “Should I close this?” she asks tentatively.
“Please.” Jon drops into his desk chair, rubbing his temples.
Sasha closes the door, then takes a seat in the chair on the other side of the desk and waits, not entirely sure what Jon wants from her.
After a moment of silence, Jon sighs, then lets his hands fall to the desk and focuses on her. “I — I realize this is an inane question, given the circumstances, but… how — how are you holding up?”
Sasha chews on her lip as she thinks. “Okay, I guess?” she says, uncertain. “I mean… I wasn’t injured or anything, so… I guess that means I’m fine?”
Jon looks skeptical.
Sasha sighs. “Okay, this is going to sound really stupid,” she confesses, “but, like… the whole two weeks I was out, all I could think was: I don’t need this; I should be back at work. And I know that’s not true,” she adds quickly, “and that it’s not healthy to think of this whole ordeal in terms of — of some kind of Olympics of suffering or something like that, but… compared to you and Tim and Martin, I know I got off pretty easy. I mean, Prentiss personally tried to kill each of you; I just got one secondhand worm, and that wasn’t even in the attack on the Institute!”
She stops, suddenly aware that she is beginning to hyperventilate, and tries to slow down her breathing. Jon averts his gaze and waits.
“Sorry,” Sasha finally says. “I — I guess I’m not as okay as I thought.”
“None of us are,” Jon says bleakly. “And… regardless of what our individual experiences with Jane Prentiss might have been, I think it was a shock to all of us to see her alive again.”
“Mmh.” Once again, the screaming echoes in Sasha’s mind, and she desperately tries not to think about it.
Jon exhales heavily, then reaches across his desk for the battered tape recorder in the corner. “In any case,” he says, his usual brusque manner returning, “I — I realized this past week when putting together the incident report for the attack that I didn’t get your statement about it. I’m reluctant to trouble you for it now, given the events of this morning, but —”
“Oh! Oh, no, that’s — that’s not an issue,” Sasha stammers. “I’m sorry about that, by the way; I would have stuck around afterwards if I’d known, but the paramedics said I was fine, and you all seemed physically fine at least, so I… took off.”
Jon waves it away. “Do you still have the tape recorder, the one you took with you when you went to get help?” he asks. “Elias mentioned it in his statement, but —” He sighs irritably. “Well, Elias’ statement is currently suspect, for obvious reasons.”
“Ah… no,” Sasha says awkwardly. “I mean, I have the recorder, but not the tape itself. I think I must have accidentally hit the eject button when Elias and I were trying to get to the manual release for the fire suppression system; we were running from a lot of worms, and I… wasn’t paying attention.” She picks nervously at her nails. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Jon says tiredly. “What matters is you’re here now, and I can take your statement.” He clears his throat and then turns on the tape recorder. “Statement of Sasha James, archival assistant at the Magnus Institute, regarding the invasion by the entity —” he grimaces “— once again known as Jane Prentiss. Statement recorded direct from subject. Incident occurred twenty-ninth July, 2016.” He glances at her. “Start from after you got out of the Archives, please. Take your time.”
“Well,” Sasha begins slowly, “I don’t know whether or not you and Martin heard the fire alarm from the old file storage room, but that was me. I pulled the fire alarm to try and get everyone else out of the building, and then I ran like hell upstairs. I found Elias and I told him what was going on, and — well, once he was convinced that there were killer worms overtaking the Archives, he told me that he’d changed the fire suppression system down there to use carbon dioxide, and that there was a manual release we could pull to activate it, since there wasn’t an actual fire to set it off.
“So, we hurried back downstairs, but… well, the worms were there. They rushed at us, and I got separated from Elias. I didn’t know where the manual release was, so I — I just ran. Into Artifact Storage, of all places. That should tell you something about how bad everything had gotten.” Sasha almost laughs, but it sticks in her throat.
Jon frowns. “You used to work there, didn’t you?”
“Yeah. I stuck it out for three months as a practical researcher before I transferred. I — I try not to think about that time.” She swallows. “Anyway. Still as creepy as ever in there, but at least there were no worms.”
There was… something else, though. Something — A tall, thin, flickering figure flashes through her mind, reaching out of the dark with its too-long hands. Something wrong.
“Sasha?” Jon prompts. “Everything okay?”
“Uh, yeah. Just — just give me a moment.” Sasha takes as deep a breath as she can muster and soldiers on. What she thinks she saw in Artifact Storage isn’t important right now. “I stayed there until — until the fire suppression system deployed. I heard that — that awful scream of the worms, and once it stopped, I ran back down to the Archives to see if anyone was still down there. You and Tim were lying by the open trapdoor, but you weren’t moving — you were just lying there, the dead worms still half-inside you. But I checked, and you were both alive, so I pulled you two back to where there was more air, and then I — grabbed some tissues and started removing the worms.” She stops; Jon is beginning to look a little sick. “Are you all right?”
“Sorry,” Jon says. “Just… difficult to hear, you know.” He waves at her with his injured hand. “I’ll be fine; you can keep going.”
Sasha nods. “Anyway, Elias arrived shortly after that and brought the whole cavalry along with him: the fire brigade, the paramedics, the ECDC, everyone. I did my best to explain what had happened, and they took you and Tim away for treatment and started checking me and Elias for worms.” She frowns, remembering a new detail. “I guess that must have been when the hazmat people found that Prentiss was still alive; I remember one of them pulling Elias aside, so I was left alone with the paramedics for a bit until he came back.”
Jon scowls. “Probably.”
“Well,” Sasha continues, “the paramedics gave me a clean bill of health, and Elias had already told me he was planning on giving us two weeks leave, so I was about to get my things and go when we heard cries from the trapdoor. It was Martin, and he was shouting — something about a body. Elias and I got him to come up, and we tried to calm him down, but Martin was in pretty bad shape. All we were able to make out was that he’d found the body of the previous Head Archivist, Gertrude Robinson, down in the tunnels.
“Elias… well, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him look that stunned. He told us to stay put, and then he called the police. I stayed with Martin until the officers arrived, and then we told them everything that had happened. After that, it was Martin’s turn to get examined by the paramedics. I think you were just getting out of quarantine then — Tim was still in there, but I asked one of the paramedics, and she said he was probably fine — so I figured if everyone was okay...” She shrugs. “Well, I went home, took a hot bath with a bottle of wine, and then slept for twelve hours. And... that’s about it, really.”
Jon nods. “Right. Statement ends.” He turns the tape recorder off with a click. “Thank you for that. I’m sorry to dredge all that up again, but —”
“Well, apparently Prentiss is doing a pretty good job of dredging herself up, so…” Sasha sighs. “Anyway, it’s not your fault. And it’s not like I was going to forget about it anytime soon.”
“I don’t think any of us will.” Jon pulls out a file folder stuffed with papers and a pen from his desk drawer, then repositions the tape recorder a little closer to him. “That’s all I needed, Sasha. You can go now.” He tries to smile, but the expression is strained. “You three have a nice brunch.”
“Yeah.” Sasha stands and quickly walks to the door, opening it back up.
“Oh, and Sasha?”
Sasha turns around, already halfway out the door and ready to close it again.
“Chances are, it probably got… eaten by worms or something, but… if you happen to find that missing tape, could you give it to me?” Jon opens up the file folder, revealing a stack of forms inside, and clicks open the pen. “It’ll probably be redundant as far as the incident report is concerned, but the more corroborating information, the better.”
Sasha nods. “Yeah. I’ll keep an eye out.” Before Jon can say anything more, she slips out the door and quickly closes it behind her.
Heart pounding, Sasha walks back to her desk, grabs her tote bag, and heads for the main entrance to the Archives. As she makes her exit, she reaches inside and feels around to check that everything’s still there. Phone. Wallet. Keys. Water bottle.
She waits until the door to the Archives swings shut behind her, and then hits the eject button as she starts ascending the basement stairs. Her fingers brush around the edges of the plastic lid, then against the cool surface of the tape.
Letting out a sigh of relief — or something close to relief — Sasha quickly closes the recorder lid. Slinging her tote bag over her shoulder and anchoring it at her side with her arm, she starts to run up towards the light at the top of the stairs.