Rough hands shoved James into a chair, his face still covered in a black canvas bag. James felt certain torture would soon begin, but the chair felt softer than he expected and what he could smell of the room through the sweat-soaked bag smelled like lemon and vanilla. He held his breath, listening through the thick fabric.
“Easy there, Captain. While I appreciate your enthusiasm most of the time, was the bag entirely necessary?”
James recognized that voice. He remembered his first interview with the strange man. Vander Carlson’s voice had chilled him even then, when he wasn’t being kidnapped and threatened.
The guard answered back with the snap of a military man. “Sir, yes, sir. He put up a struggle and we were forced to restrain him.”
“Did you encourage the struggle?”
“I may have, sir.”
“Oh, just as well. You and your team are dismissed.”
“Thank you, sir.” Heavy boots shuffled out and a solid door closed behind them.
James sat stiff in the chair, still blind. He heard soft movement and then a click as the zip tie was cut from his wrists. The black bag slid off and Vander Carlson grinned at him.
“That was over the top, don’t you think?” Vander’s voice sounded older than he looked, full of wind and gravel. “Want a drink? I also have some freshly baked cookies.”
James didn’t know what to say. He’d expected torture, not refreshments. “What?”
Vander returned to his desk across from James and laid the black bag on the smooth surface as he sat.
“Here, try one. They’ve just a hint of lemon and really are quite good.” Vander slid a silver dish full of cookies over along with a bottle of water.
James eyed the cookies with suspicion. He took the water and opened it slowly, listening for the cracking noise that meant the water was safe, unopened. Though they could’ve injected it with something for all I know. He took a chance and sipped the water. Doesn’t taste weird.
“That’s better. I’m sure the bag was stuffy. Sorry about that. I asked them to bring you in and wasn’t as specific as I apparently needed to be about how.” Vander’s grin hadn’t disappeared. He’d also not taken his eyes off James since he’d sat down.
James felt uncomfortable under the gaze. He looked down. “Yeah. Not the usual way I get invited to have cookies with the boss.”
Vander laughed and it sounded genuine. “Yes, but you have been making a mess of things haven’t you? Holograms running up and down the halls. Screaming, breaking things. I have an estimate of damages here, over six hundred thousand dollars. Some very expensive vials were broken that have no set value, but are priceless. Years of research down the drain.” Vander laughed again.
James looked up. “You don’t sound too broken up about it.”
Vander met his eyes and they twinkled with mirth. “Ah, such is the way of progress. Sometimes you break a few eggs, or vials as it were.”
“So, are you going to bill me? Take it out of my salary? It’s your chip in my brain that’s malfunctioning. Maybe I should be billing you.”
“No, no. There’s nothing wrong with the chip. It’s doing its job perfectly. You, on the other hand, seem to be doing much, much more. You’re unusual, James.”
James nodded. “So I keep hearing. What happens now?”
“You go back to work, of course.”
James shook his head, stunned. “Really? Just like that? Not disappeared, sequestered, quarantined, fired, or snuffed out? I thought that’s what happened to people around here who don’t behave.”
Vander chuckled. “Scandalous and grossly exaggerated rumors. I do encourage them though. Keeps the minions in line. Let’s keep that our little secret, shall we?”
“The kidnapping at gun point will probably keep those rumors up for a while.”
“Yes, yes it will. Thank you for your cooperation, James. I want you to continue doing whatever it is you’re doing. It really is quite exciting.”
“So you want me to keep breaking into the BOCS while I’m sleeping and setting dinosaurs loose throughout the complex?”
“And anything else your mind comes up with, yes.”
“You’re really not going to do anything about this chip doing strange things in my head?”
“No. Why would I want to do that?”
“It’s freaking me out a little.”
Vander tented his fingers as he thought. “Understandable, but there’s no need to worry. The chip isn’t doing much besides offering you the connection to the BOCS programming. Your exceptional brain is what’s acting strangely, taking advantage of the neural interface in new and interesting ways. No harm is being done to your mind, I assure you. We’ve already run several diagnostics to make sure. We’d remove the chips immediately if any type of damage was suspected.”
“I can have you sit down with a physician and go over any symptoms that you might be uncomfortable with and we can work to alleviate them if you are still concerned.”
“I’d like that.”
“Good, it’s settled then. Thank you, Dr. Iverson. I’ll be checking in on you more often.”
James sat for a moment, waiting for more, but Vander turned away from him, shuffled a few visuals around his desk, and actually hummed to himself a little.
“Uh…so that’s it? I can go?” Part of James still expected men with guns to drag him away where he’d never be heard from again.
Vander pushed a holoscreen away. “Oh. You’re still here?” He smiled. “Yes. You’re free to go. Tell Dr. Reed that her work is impeccable and I am very happy with the team she’s built up for herself. Do apologize for me about the men and guns.”
James stood slowly, his hands shaking. “Um…yeah. Thank you, sir.”
Vander nodded once and then returned to his visuals.
James thought he saw a picture of the cut on his leg for a second, but then a mess of limbs that could only be a genetic disorder replaced it. Pharmaceutical company. Sometimes I forget. He slipped out into the hall and breathed the air of freedom.
“That was weird.”
Rho pulled up the energy needed to change its eyes and mind back to a lowered state, a move to conserve long term resources that the dark god needed to survive another millennia in its empty prison, but it stopped short and held the drawn energy in stasis.
Something had shifted.
The sensation flowed down mental and physical tendrils, subtle, but insistent. Rho sniffed and tasted the intangible wind that rolled off the portals. It couldn’t name the change, but something shivered through Rho’s onyx soul like shattered glass, painful to a creature so used to an unchanging world. Yet, the dark god welcomed this pain as a lover would, something new after a millennium of nothing.
Rho used the gathered energy to push its senses to their peak, the spots of light burning brilliantly as they swam in the darkness. The gray of the void lightened and Rho saw a bright light where one had not been moments earlier.
Rho recognized this portal. It had found this one ages ago, but it had never offered anything of use. Now it dribbled bits of ice and stone, larger morsels than any the god of darkness had found in at least a thousand years. Then a small, living creature fell through into Rho’s waiting web of tentacles. Somewhere near the center of the countless miles of sprawling black intertwined threads that made up the god’s body a mouth formed, grinning with sharp black metallic teeth.
The tentacles closest to this portal swelled as they touched the prizes it offered, engorged with the stone, ore, and precious liquid locked within ice and flesh. The black eyes throughout the slithering web drifted shut, but the sinister grin remained for some time longer.
Vander glanced over as James closed the door. He pulled open a file. A list of projects appeared under James’ name. The list had grown dramatically considering how short a time the man had been with them.
Vander widened the search parameters and other projects appeared under a hundred different codes and names. Some of the projects would only be visible while using Vander’s password. Don’t want my minions knowing that they’re projects too. “Visualize Penelope.”
Penny hummed into existence once again, flashing Vander a wide smile. Her dress looked a touch more modern, a dark blue-green shimmering thing that played well with her pale skin and bright eyes. Her red hair fell in soft curls over her shoulders. The computer keeps meddling, but it suits her.
“Penny, you look stunning.”
Her smiled widened. “Oh, this old thing?” She ran her hands down the side of the dress, accentuating her curves. “It’s our anniversary after all, and I wanted to make an impression.”
Vander’s mouth fell open. “I…uh…”
Her mouth puckered up, like it always had when she was angry. “You forgot, didn’t you?”
“I thought…I mean…I didn’t plan on…”
Penny laughed, sounding more like herself than the hologram programming had ever managed. She put a hand on the side of his face, her perfume rolling off her delicate wrists. “It’s a joke, love.” The dress reverted back to her usual, less revealing polka-dot number. “You have three weeks before our anniversary, and I wanted to remind you.”
Vander smiled. “That’s right. The eighteenth. It feels like it’s been years since we celebrated the last one.”
Penny’s face flickered, a small glitch in the hologram that betrayed how real she seemed, and some of the life went out of her. “It has been years. You work too much.”
Vander nodded. “I know. Penelope off.”
Penny vanished with a look of indignation that made Vander chuckle. That’s so her look. The computer has been doing some good updates.
Rho caressed the new portal over and over again, thousands of black tentacles and threads rolling over it in a tight-wound ball. Much more ice and stone had come through along with two more of the little creatures, though these had been dead before entering the void.
Rho contemplated entering the portal with its mind like it had the others, but then decided to wait until the gifts stopped coming through before scaring or killing off any unsuspecting benefactor who seemed to have begun using the portal as a garbage dump. Rho did not mind the debris. Any matter in the void was useful.
The hand on his shoulder let go and Feustis took in a ragged breath of relief. He didn’t bother glancing up. He knew his gods had vanished again. It was what they’d been doing for days now, popping in, giving comfort, saying odd things, and then disappearing again. They always showed up when he needed them.
“Water and food again.” He spoke to the boy that padded up to his side on the straw mat flooring. “Nothing fancy.”
“There is nothing fancy left, master.” The boy dabbed at Feustis’ brow with a towel. “There is plenty of fenegrawl soup.”
The idea of simple fenegrawl soup brought tears to his eyes and warmed him. “Yes, that will be perfect. Thank you.”