Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Chapter Three - 2

Valerie Odjoy brushed at the long golden curls of hair that kept falling across her face as she ran down the empty corridor leading to the elevator, heels clacking noisily on the polished white stone floor tiles. She cursed herself for wearing high-heels; it was not something she often did at work, but she needed to do something to get on Nick's good side today. And she knew how Nick liked to see the delicate knot of her slim calf muscles working inside a pair of shear dark stockings. That always turned his crank. He would often look at the cut of her long slim legs, take a slow admiring turn once around her, shake his head and say it was impossible for anyone to have legs that looked that good.

"Well, it helps to have the high heels, dummy," she muttered to herself, head thrust forward as she strode purposefully down the hall, coat and hair and briefcase a flapping tangle about her. "Bloody men! Did they really think women were born with calves like that."

She secretly doubted that Nick would be in any mood to look at her legs today, but what else could she do? Why did she ever let herself get hooked up with him in the first place.

"Christ, Val, when will you ever learn! Of course the richest guy on the planet is going to be the worst lay as well! Didn't Newton or somebody like that write a law about it. What's worse is he scares the hell out of you! The guy is positively scary, and I mean as in gives you the worst possible creeps! How the hell are you going to get out of this one alive, girl?"

Val had heard all the stories about Nick. She figured she would need all the help she could get today, and then some.

"You fucked up on the job, Val. Boy, oh boy, did you fuck up! Now that mean son-of-a-bitch is really gonna screw you. The way Nick operates, he'll be twice as hard on you."

Everyone knew the Boss was especially unkind to those close to him that let him down.

"Val, you stupid no good boss-sucking slut," she said it out loud now, "what the hell have you got yourself into this time?"

She'd come up through the less populated back of the building, thinking it would be a short-cut, but the elevator would go no further than this curious floor, its long empty halls a criss-crossed labyrinth of smoky-grey featureless walls and white tiled floors.

"Where the hell is everybody?" She had come to the conclusion that there was something decidedly creepy about this place. Val had wandered up and down the corridors, finding no doors or openings of any sort in the smooth walls until she had reached some kind of a juncture in the middle of the labyrinth. From where she now stood she could turn to see down three long hallways, one running straight ahead, the other two fanning out slightly to each side of the first. At the far end of the right hallway was an elevator, doors wide like a leering funhouse mouth, and from somewhere within the gaping opening, dim yellow lights illuminated the eerie silent interior of the waiting cage.

"Where to from here, girl?" She whispered it under her breath.

On an impulse, she turned to take the right corridor, and as she did, her right heel slipped into the crack between the stone tiles. Val's ankle went over hard, a sharp stab of pain made her pull her leg up too quickly, putting her off balance. She let out a scream as she started to stumble face first towards the floor, her flailing arms and hands grabbing onto the only purchase available - the lifeless brown stalk of a neglected potted spruce, obviously dead for some time but still standing resolutely against the wall at the entrance to the corridor. Val was spun around by the tree as she checked her fall, but her equilibrium was restored and she managed to skid to a standing halt. The plant, however, continued to tip ominously in the direction of the elevator. The big red clay pot that held it finally gave into the energy it had been forced to absorb, bringing the tree crashing down, spilling its load of dry loam and dead needles out across the floor.

Val stared in shock at the mess she had created, the clay pot now broken and strewn about on the the white stone tiles, one big pink chunk of it spinning like a three-sided saucer. Dirt and needles fanned out a dozen feet or more from where the top of the tree had ended up. The tree looked like a primitive upended coat rack, its useless root complex now pitifully exposed for anyone to see.

"Christ," she muttered, "there isn't a needle left on it! No wonder," she looked down at herself, annoyed, "most of them are stuck in me".

Her hands and arms were stinging now from the hundreds of tiny pinpricks the hardened dried needles had inflicted on her. She looked around, afraid she was in trouble, as usual, but it seemed no one had witnessed the incident.

"Thank god for that," she muttered again, then pursed her lips and shook her head resolutely. "Val, old girl, you've just got to get over this self-deprecation thing." Then she remembered the cameras overhead; the ceilings bristled with them at TAFT.

"Shit!" she exploded, her famous temper flaring instantly, easily pushing aside any attempt she might have made with herself towards a more reasonable reconcilition of the matter.

She looked up at the closest camera and waved the palms of her hands towards it.

"Doesn't anyone water the goddamn plants in this building anymore? I've got two hand-fulls of razor sharp needles embedded in me. I'm a goddamn human pin-cushion! Look, you bastards," she had taken a closer look at her hands and now pushed them even closer to the camera. "I'm fuckin' bleeding!"

"Jesus!" Val flung her briefcase and overcoat to the floor in disgust and began to brush and pull at her palms and sleeves to get the needles dislodged. She then went to work on the front of her blouse and her skirt.

"You pricks will be hearing about this from the Boss! You won't get away with this!"

She pulled out all of the needles that she could find, grabbed her coat and purse and began clacking her heels again across the floor as she made her way toward the open elevator at the end of the hallway. She threw her hair back defiantly, a red burn now smoldering beneath the strands of golden tresses. She favored her right ankle but held her head high as she stomped resolutely along.

Val had one foot inside the elevator door before the alarm shrilled in her mind. The scream caught in her throat as she threw out her left elbow against the burnished steel jam surrounding the door. With the strength that comes from panic she pushed herself back from the waiting elevator and into the corridor, throwing herself up against the wall beside it. One hand, visibly shaking, went up to clutch at her throat as she gasped for air, her face now bleached white as the tile beneath her feet.

"Jesus.... Val.... what the hell.... were you thinking?" She bit off precious chunks of air between words, her chest rising and falling sharply as she waited for the flood of panic to subside.

Val knew all too well that company employees who had access to the upper floors of TAFT's corporate headquarters needed to clear security on each floor before venturing into a new area. She cursed herself inwardly for letting herself be so damn idiotic. She should have placed her hand more carefully over the ID plate of the security reader recessed into the wall outside the elevator she had ridden up in instead of giving it her usual derisive slap. That would have deactivated all of Nick's security "arrangements" and this elevator could very well be one of them.

Nick had cooked up all sorts of nasty surprises for interlopers. Val was familiar with most of them because he liked to brag about his creations, especially about the elevators that weren't really there. They were holo-projections designed to snare the unwary; there was really nothing there at all. Just long dark shafts dropping for God knows how many floors into the the subterranean basements of the building.

"You can't tell the difference - I defy you to tell me the difference," he would raise his head and hoot, "that is until you put your foot through the door. That's where the virtual part of it ends!"

She could still hear him howl with derisive laughter.

"That's one sick boy, Val," she thought to herself, "one very sick boy."

Angry at herself, she slammed her hand against the wall then slumped down in a crouch against it for a moment to regain her composure. She was terrified of going anywhere near the thing, but what choice did she have? When she got her nerve back enough she stood up and slid her back along the wall until she was right next to the elevator. She turned and leaned towards it, the palms of her hands pressed against the wall, feet planted firmly on the floor, until she was close enough to put her head into the open door. The elevator was still there, waiting.

Val willed herself to enter the elevator, her left hand firmly grasping the jam surrounding it. She put a foot down gingerly on the dark grey carpeted floor until her mind was finally convinced by her senses that this was the real thing and would allow the rest of her to enter. She took another step. Something, not quite a voice, but an animal apprehension that still held sway over her body refused to commit all her weight to it. She pressed down and her foot disappeared into the thin grey nap of the cage floor. She stared dumbstruck at the neat dun circle describing her narrow ankle, as if she had stuck her foot into a still dark pond. But no ripples spread outwards, just a flat slate sea of short pile carpet stretching towards the dimly lit elevator walls. Val pulled her foot out almost instantly; it came back bare, her shoe no longer where it should have been.

The whole thing couldn't have taken more than a second, but it was long enough to allow the paradox that had split her understanding mind from hopelessly confounded body to drag a sympathetic curtain across her unbelieving eyes. When she came to herself again some moments later she found herself sitting bedraggled on the floor outside the elevator, coat and briefcase strewn on either side of her. She stared dumbly into the elevator's beckoning yellow interior. A cold shudder took hold of her. She pulled her knees up under herself and began to rock herself forward and back, rubbing her upper arms with her hands.

She noticed her other shoe, overturned on its side and useless now, sitting on the floor beside her. Picking it up, she forced herself to crawl across the polished stone tiles beneath her and lean into the elevator again. She held the shoe a foot or so above the elevator floor and let it go. It passed through the carpet and deck of the cage without a sound, vanishing from sight. Val let herself fall back onto her haunches again on the floor outside, still disbelieving what her mind was telling her was just a 3D engineering parlour trick.

"Christ, who knows what's real around here anymore - this place is all smoke and mirrors and mad men." She began to rub at her head with her long pale fingers until her curling golden tresses were spun in a wild array around her face.

"Wait a minute", she stopped in mid-stroke and looked up at the ID plate on the wall beside the elevator, her eyes widening. " What the hell is going on here, Val?"

She got to her feet and walked slowly towards the ID plate, her eyes never leaving the hand-shaped imprint of its active scanning area. She hesitated a moment before raising her own hand towards it again. Maybe she hadn't given the scanner at the entrance to the elevator she had taken up here enough time to properly I.D. her. Or maybe she had missed with one of her fingers. Or maybe something else. Maybe she hadn't been able to deactivate the booby traps even if she had wanted to. Her disrespectful slaps had always ID'd her properly in the past.

One at a time, from thumb to pinky, she pressed her fingers against the scanning plate, carefully matching each engraved outline of the reader's fingers with that of her own. Slowly and deliberately, she pushed her iridium blue-nailed fingertips fully down into the shallow polished depressions of the plate until she had a perfect match with the reader. Val left her hand there much longer than she knew was necessary, making sure she had given the mechanism the time to do a proper job.

Now came time for the test.

Val knew that if her security clearance was still valid the elevator would not be there. The open drop shaft would be exposed and she would know to retrace her steps and try to find another route to the next floor. She moved towards the elevator again and for some reason wasn't surprised to see the cage still as it was; its soft brassy interior inviting.

So what did it mean? Well, she knew that Nick would probably have allowed her access to the meeting room on the top floor of the building, so she would still be cleared through to there if she had gone the usual way, but he couldn't have forseen her taking this other route to get there.

"You're so unpredictable, girl!"

So she had discovered by accident that her security clearance and probably her job here were both kaput. If she didn't show up for the meeting they would probably set the alarms off and there would really be hell to pay - she'd seen security do their job here before and they took it seriously - too seriously. She looked at the elevator again and shuddered.

"Christ! Case in point!"

She had to get up to that meeting pronto if she was going to try to save her skin. It was all she could do. She could go back the way she came, but she suspected that elevator had been a one-way ride up. Anyways, she was not sure she would be able to find her way back through the maze of corridors. It came back to her now from another of Nick's conversations that this must be one of the security buffer floors that protected the ones above it. They were easy to get on to from below, but if you didn't have security clearance they held a very sinister design for those unwary enough to get caught on one. A good way to filter out employees that were too curious or didn't have the companies best interests at heart.

"Val, if you ever get out of this one, it's back to Mom's flower shop. Promise me that!" She still had to figure how to get off this floor and up to the meeting room without setting off any alarms.

"Wait a minute, girl! How come those guys that run the cameras haven't set off any alarms." She looked above her to the ceiling and saw there were no cameras anywhere within viewing range of this elevator.

"That's strange," she murmured. "Guess they don't want any witnesses. Anyways, they must think I'm still O.K. or I wouldn't have made it to here. Why wouldn't Nick have told them?" She shook her head, unable to get to the bottom of any of these new facts and turned her attention back to the more immediate problem.

Val remembered that when she first stepped into the elevator, she had placed her left foot on solid ground just inside the cage. It wasn't until she had taken her second step that her right foot had disappeared.

She stepped towards the elevator again and took up the same position beside it as she had before, her left hand again firmly grasping the metal door jam. She swung her left foot in through the door about six inches out over the floor of the elevator. She let it drop down towards the floor until it reached the point where her toe should come into contact with it. It held. She flattened her foot against the carpet and slid it forward another six inches into the cage. She caught her breath as it disappeared once again into the seemingly reliable solid surface. So, she had about a foot to work with. It occurred to her that this might still be an operational elevator after all. Maybe they had just cut a hole in the floor, the VR projector creating the illusion that all was still well and normal within.

Val stuck her head in the cage now and looked left to where the contol panel should be located. She could see the row of vertical buttons; gleaming multi-faceted emeralds inset in the polished brass of the panel plate. Above it on the narrow display screen she could read the floor number.

"Number 13! So this is where you're hiding, you little bugger!"

Like a lot of buildings, probably to satisfy superstition, the13th floor did not exist in the TAFT headquarters main building. Oh, it existed alright if you stood outside and back far enough on the asphalt of the massive encircling parking lot and counted floors from the ground up. Or if you took the switch backing concrete folds of fire stairs to the 12th landing and then looked up to the next, you would surely have proven in your own mind at least, that the next landing would be the 13th.

But it did not exist in name, in the choices of elevators stops, or on the door that led from the fire stairs to what should have been the 13th floor, no matter how carefully you counted on the way up. The 13th landing fire door had the number 14 painted boldy in big squarish red numbers in the center of it, a purely utilitarian typeface, designed to deliver truth and clarity in lettering. You could walk down one floor and see 12 painted on the door below, and no matter how carefully you climbed the stairs again and searched for some sign of the missing level, you would be confronted once again with 14 when you reached the floor above.

But here it was, after all. Val had found it, sandwiched in somehow between 12 and 14. And she was not happy at all that she had found it. They were right to hide it away like this.

"Oh Nick, you sick fucking bastard!"

This must have been one of Nick's famous little inside jokes, one of those he liked to brag about in private, one the victims of this elevator ride would never be lucky enough to enjoy for themselves. If they found this floor, and especially this elevator, they would most likely already have plummeted to their death down the long dark shaft that lay concealed within it. Down 13 unlucky levels, wishing, if anyone felt inclined to wish in those horror-filled last moments, that they had never found this floor at all.

Except for Val. Val had beaten the odds. But only because she knew about the elevators. Lucky for that. Still, it had almost gotten her as well. She looked at the glowing green strip of buttons and wondered if her luck would hold? Was there a way out of this after all? There was if the elevator could function. She reached across to the brass panel and placed her outstretched palm across it. It passed right throught and disappeared, just like her foot had done, but it came to rest on a rough surface just inches beneath. Concrete! Disappointed, she moved her hand up and down and drew it back towards herself, feeling solid concrete all the way back to the door jam.

"That's how the bastards do it. I wonder..." She stepped back out to the hallway and looked at the grey shining walls that stretched away back into the labyrinth. Val put her hand up to the wall beside the elevator and felt its smooth featureless surface. Solid. She followed it along to the ID plate. Still solid. Past the plate a foot - then two feet. With a gasp she saw her hand disappear again up to her wrist, stopped against what felt like another roughly finished concrete wall.

"Jesus, the whole things a fake!" Val began to walk back down the hall dragging her hand, seemingly cut off at the stump of her wrist, along the irregular surface beneath. It occurred to her now that the fake shaft could have originally been intended to house another elevator. A real one. Perhaps Nick's twisted mind had conceived the deadly trap after construction of the building was well on its way, a last minute architectural detail that he had demanded changed. She remembered then that the other elevators in the building all seemed to have an accompanying set of fire stairs nearby. If that was so, then there might be a door close to this elevator that would open to a set of unknown stairs, the access to which was hidden from the public in the rest of the building, or at least placed somewhere where most people didn't or couldn't visit.

Val was about twenty feet down the hallway and so far had found nothing to indicate her theory might hold true.


She had hit an obstruction. She felt cold steel and ran her hand up and down its vertical smooth surface. Another door frame? She slid her hand over it and felt a metal surface beyond, this one a flat plane that seemed to extend again down the hallway. If it was a door there should be a handle about waist high. Now she slid her whole body across its smooth surface until she came up against another protrusion. It felt like the opposite door frame. She should have found the handle by now.

"What the hell...?" Val puzzled over it for a few moments, then something else occurred to her. If they hadn't finished installing the elevator, maybe they hadn't installed the hardware for the door handles. She pushed against it, but it wouldn't budge.

"Somethings holding this damn thing. Wait a minute..."

She felt higher now, maybe they had put in a simple dead bolt to hold the door shut.


Val twisted the handle on the lock and pushed hard until the door gave way. Fresh air rushed in to fill the space behind her and made her gasp. She hesitated for a moment. From somewhere on the other side she could hear the low steady drone of a great spinning turbine, a bass chorus murmuring the resonant frequency of some immense concrete cathederal that lay just on the other side of the door. Her arms had already half way disappeared into whatever lay beyond so she put one foot forward gingerly, wary of any more traps, until it too had disappeared through the grey veil of wall that separated her from the other side. The floor felt solid and she pushed the door open further, allowing the other foot to follow along, then hesitated again. She stood bisected vertically like that for a moment, then was gone like a ghost through the wall.

"Holy cow, will you look at that!" Val stood on the other side and craned her neck upwards, her voice still echoing throughout the great chamber that she had found herself in. Far above, too distant and obscured in the low light, was the roof of the TAFT tower; below she could hear the mighty fans forcing the vast column of air up through the building's central air shaft.

"Val, old girl, we're not through yet!"

Stairs led up and down, she must decide which to take. Down led to possible escape from Nick and whatever kind of trouble she must be in to have made him cancel her security clearance. But she was only fooling herself if she really thought she could escape the clutches of TAFT's security juggernaut. Even if you got out of the building, how would you get out of the compound itself? It stretched flat out for miles in every direction, the surrounding New Mexican desert forming a security perimeter that made escape impossible. The one road out was guarded, and it was a good fifteen minute drive past that to get to the overhead freeway.

Val shook her head and sighed and moved towards the steps that led upwards to Nick and the meeting room.

"Remember that flower shop, Val." She felt numb as she put a hand on the railing and looked up at the many flights of stairs she must now climb. "If you get out of this one, that's where you're going, girl. Promise me that."

Friday, January 07, 2005

Chapter Three - 1

"You made me look bad, gentlemen."

Nicholas Michael Dimitri Apolonio III, Chief Executive Officer of the TAFT Corporation, the largest and most powerful business consolidation that had ever straddled the Earth, and now beyond that into the outer reaches of the solar system itself, was arguably the world's most powerful corporate citizen.

But today, as he stood high up in TAFT's dark glass-walled administration tower and scanned the New Mexican desert outside the perimeter of the vast research and assembly area of the company's global headquarters, he felt full of doubt. He felt something else stir deep within him as well, something that was much more profoundly disturbing than the doubt that was visiting him, but it was too distant to see clearly, and if he could have seen it and attached a name to this thing that he had never felt before - he might have called it vulnerability.

He stood with his powerful hands clapsed behind him and leaned at a seemingly impossible angle towards the glass in front of him. His head, crowned with a thick mantle of coarse black hair streaked with feathers of ridged white, tilted slightly as his unblinking dark eyes surveyed the details of his immediate empire. There were no clues available in the dusty hills beyond or in the spotless southern sky above that might provide an answer to his dilemma. And no clues to show that Nicholas Apolonio was as close as he would ever come to feeling truly human at this moment in his life. An opportunity for a great awakening of his spirit presented itself - an opportunity that in his case fear alone could provide the emotional impetus for change.

He would get over it.

Even so, it did occur to him that he felt somewhat human in his doubt, a state that was unnatural and troubling to him. But to the assembled group of scientists and managers that sat waiting uneasily in the boardroom behind him, his uncanny resemblence to a great bird of prey was alarming. He stood as if hunched over on his perch, fathomless hawk eyes searching for prey, his total being absorbed in the cruel blood sport that gave life sustenance and meaning.

For the Boss, of course, that meant winning above all else.

His remarkably deep voice rumbled on. "Some of you here today have made me look bad indeed, gentlemen."

The sound came from everywhere, evenly, then it hissed at the edges of his speech as the invisible machinery that compressed his speech gently gave way to the rising white breath of the electronic noise floor below.

Nicholas Apolonio turned slowly towards the gathered room.

The room shrank before his terrible gaze even before the mood recognition algorithms built into the VR transceivers that ringed the room went off the scale and began to alter the holo-field he presented to those gathered in front of him.

"There are, of course, those that are directly responsible. I believe they know in their hearts who they are."

His voice grew, even as the words he spoke became a whisper, more measured, the spaces between each of them now turbulent inflections of air pushing in around them like the low concussion of distant ordnance, sinking the hearts of the even the bravest in the room.

Each man in the room glanced around him. Fifty swiveling heads, brows arched quizzically or eyes narrowed, examining the others. Then, as the heads slowly stopped and returned one by one to their natural repose, each began to look inside itself, terrified that it would find within itself the flaw that had brought them all here today to confront this terrible man.

"This is a problem of quality control, or, I should say, a lack of it."

Forty-nine heads pivoted suddenly, as if all were connected and yanked at once by the same string, stopping as one to gaze at the fiftieth, which stared down at the floor in anguish. One of their number sat off to the side of the room, isolated from the rest of them, the reason now clear in the minds of the others - he would be the unlucky one that would have to pay. But who was missing from the empty chair beside him?

"In particular, the problem is one of infection, as I'm sure you must all know by now," he sneered. Nothing stayed secret to them for long. Each man in the room had his own spies planted carefully throughout the corporation. The Boss knew this, tolerated it as inevitable, but was always disgusted at their protestations of ignorance when he knew every one of those shaking heads were often as well informed as he himself.

"We are in a race, the outcome of which could determine the future of the TAFT Corporation...". He turned his gaze fully on the room, making sure that all were with him.

He paused and almost whispered. "...my company, gentlemen."

The Boss's voice took a bad turn now, the first traces of a darkening wind pushed icy little fingers of wintry air out across the room, cold knuckles of the stuff brushing against unhappy faces, all straining forward now, as if in anticipation of the storm, and hanging on every word.

"My family built this company up to what it is today over three generations," his voice was rising now, "and I...will...not...be the one to fail it - failure is not an option for me!"

The first disconcerting changes began at the corners of the room. Something nasty was beginning to crawl into the peripheries of each man's vision, that part of the eye least affected by the concious mind, the wild eye that still roamed free, in search of danger, ready to sound the alert as it had been doing through a million or more years in the service of self preservation.

"All I have asked of you is to create an implant that is serviceable, gen-tel-men ," he twisted the word now and spat it out in three short bursts, as if he couldn't suffer the flavor of the whole thing in his mouth at once. "What could be the problem, I ask myself?"

He began to move around the room now, the stalker moving amongst its prey. The fear was evident in every eye that followed him, in the soft wet defenseless palms slipping nervously across glassy tabletops. In the terrible silence. But most of all it was the room itself; the room was responding to the drama that was beginning to unfold, a "learning environment" crafted by the corporation's most talented multi-dimensional media production groups, mostly for use by military and intelligence organizations that needed to motivate individuals into providing information, this one designed specially for the Boss. The edges of the room were beginning to dissolve now, the lines that marked boundaries of floor, wall, and ceiling became featureless leaving those gathered with a disoriented sense of floating in an infinite space with no horizon.

The crackling white noise of a wall size portal snapping open behind the CEO caused the crowd to jerk in unison. A shared outburst of childlike giggles and glances about broke the dark spell for a moment.

"DOCTOR XIANG REPORTS FROM OUR SHANGHAI VOLUNTEER CLINIC!" The mighty basso profundo voice of the Boss was a low body blow. Every head snapped back to attention. The CEO stood in front of the portal, pointing upwards to the waiting towering face of Doctor Xiang. The viewing portal lent the room some semblence of proportion again, however absurd the dimensions of it, and every man there fixed his eyes on it. The giant face demanded their attention, to look away risked the vertigo of staring into boundless infinity.

"Run the report."

The doctor cleared his throat and began. He didn't look well at all. Those in the room that knew the doctor were shocked to see the once handsome face contorted, long furrows ploughing his fine wide mouth down on the sides, fearful eyes staring out at them from dark hollow pockets, the source of that fear beyond the range of the camera.

"The situation here in Shanghai has been a great disappointment to say the least," the doctor began. " We are running a mortality rate of over 25 percent in head implants and roughly 10 to 15 percent in body implants. The leading cause of death is a virulent infectious agent introduced by the chip itself, as far as we can ascertain here. We didn't suspect it until a few days ago. Who would have thought the problem could have originated there? But it is the only possible explanation. A saboteur must have infiltrated the plant. The shipping cases are arriving undisturbed here, as always. The virus seems to have been introduced to the packaging fluid that surrounds and nourishes the chip while in transit. I can't be certain, but I would look for someone in the packaging area of the plant. We feel here that the virus must be added to the fluid later, after it has been produced in the lab - the controls there are just too restrictive to allow it to pass."

The doctor paused for a moment, turning his head slightly, as if distracted by something. He began again, somewhat agitated.

"The Chinese government is becoming...impatient," Doctor Xiang's narrow eyes darted to the left like a pair of frightened bats and returned widened now by some new knowledge only he could see. He sped on.

"We can not anticipate a continuing supply of...volunteers...under the circumstances. Indeed, the project may not be able to continue in its present form."

The screen flickered, some of the content of the transmission dropping out. When the signal was reestablished, there was more of a sense of urgency in the delivery. The doctor was rushing now, his eyes taking on a more desperate quality as loud voices and a sudden crashing noise seemed to emanate from somewhere close by within the clinic. The sharp staccato of authoritative Chinese voices rang out as the doctor hurried on.

"I hadn't anticipated this. We will need all personnel evacuated by any and all means possible." Panic had seized the doctor now as the noise around him became almost deafening. He shrieked out his last words.

"The situation here has become perilous, please..."

The audio burst into a torrent of static as the picture disappeared into waves of digital noise. In the last few flickering frames of the transmission Doctor Ziang's body could be seen twisted toward the direction of the disturbance, his hands raised above his head, his strobing mouth open in a silent scream. Then the wall went blank.

Nicholas Apolonio turned the full fury of his gaze upon the man seated alone at the side of the room.

"That transmission was received just over an hour ago." The Boss's jaw was clenched in fury, rippling masseter muscles bulging along the sides of his face. "We have heard nothing since, despite our best efforts," he hissed.

The edges of the room seemed to begin a slow spin now, as if the entire conference area were staged on a giant merry-go-round. Everyone sat tensed with anticipation, guts gripped by a fine cold fear, wishing they hadn't bought the ticket for this ride. A sense of madness, full of the kind of dread that can never be remembered until visited again, lay upon each man there. Now was the time to steel oneself for the ride - now that there was no turning back.

"Mr. Folley, please present yourself here." The Boss pointed to a spot in the middle of the floor in front of him, no longer acknowledging the man with his eyes. Derek Folley rose from his seat, looking already, as he crossed the room, like the ghost he was soon to become.