“Prepare to be sanitized.”
A docile robotic voice filled the sterile silence. Looking around the chamber, he found himself alone. This was good. Very good.
“Please remove all articles of clothing for the sanitation procedure to begin.”
Alone, nerves still shaking, he did as he was told. All the while his eyes remained transfixed on the tiny airtight and bulletproof porthole in the hatch. Every motion was done on full alert in anticipation of someone passing by. In the event a single face appeared in that window he was ready to cover himself and risk being vaporized.
“Please stand with your arms away from your sides and legs separated,” a diagram of a generic human figure appeared on the console before him. It assumed the prescribed position on repeat, “Remain still throughout the sanitization process. Thank you.”
After once more confirming he was alone, he assumed the position commanded by the automated system.
A rush of cold air and a fine mist of a sterilizing substance covered his body. It hurt the most when it came in contact with open or healing wounds, but otherwise, it wasn’t a terribly uncomfortable experience. It lasted only a matter of seconds, but it was a matter of seconds in which he was completely naked. His eyes remained trained on the tiny window in the exit hatch in case anyone decided to pass by.
Luckily the agonizing moments passed almost as quickly as they should have. Once the gust of freezing air was done spreading the sterilizing mist, he immediately darted for his clothes.
“You may now dress,” the gentle, automated voice suggested, even though he was already well on his way to getting dressed.
“When you are ready, please present your Riftworks ID to the forward console to be allowed entry. If you are not a Riftworks employee, please provide your D Grade ID to the forward console for evaluation by security personnel. This may take several minutes. If you are asked to leave, please do so as this chamber is equipped with an incinerator. You will not feel anything, but you will cease to exist. Your ashes will be collected and mailed to your next of kin. Thank you.”
He was already fumbling through his pockets trying to find his keycard. He couldn’t afford to have lost it again…
“If you are a Riftworks employee and have misplaced your ID, please use the green button on the forward console to contact personnel. Your pay will be docked accordingly.”
“I didn’t lose it, you goddamn robot,” he muttered until he finally thought to check his inner coat pocket. With a sigh of relief, he withdrew the plastic card.
He managed to insert his ID into the console just as the automated system began repeating its message.
“One moment,” it interrupted itself, “Please enter your name and ID number. Do not remove your card during this process.”
“Shit,” he muttered as he typed what little he could remember of his ID number.
“Name and ID number do not match. You have three more attempts before this chamber is locked down and Security is alerted.”
Which one was wrong? His mind raced. He couldn’t take his card out to check, so he entered both sets of information again.
“Name not found in database. You have two more attempts before this chamber is locked down and Security is alerted.”
“Fuck fuck fuck…”
“When you are ready…” the message began looping again.
“SHUT UP!” he bellowed.
His mind went through every number he’d put into the system. It was all right, wasn’t it?Had it changed since the last time he got a replacement? HR would be the ones to do something like that to him… His mind raced until he finally realized what he was doing wrong. Name. Right… It took every fiber of his being to resist the urge to slam his fists against the door. Instead, biting his lip, he began entering the name the system wanted.
“I see they still haven’t fixed this,” a shadow appeared beside him.
Turning to face it, he jumped back in surprise, “Henley?!” he screamed. A very tall, lithe man with long blond hair done up in a messy bun wearing frameless glasses stood beside him as if materializing out of nowhere.
“Error. More than one entity detected in chamber. Error.”
“I-I mean… Doctor…”
Henley looked up at the speaker from which the automated voice emanated.
“She’s quite the nag isn’t she?”
“At ease, Synclaire,” Henley put a hand on the console, “Override H4-UR-3X.”
“One moment…” the voice replied, “Override authorization granted,” the forward hatch hissed as the pressure in the chamber was released.
“I’ll speak to Personnel about this ongoing issue,” Henley removed Syncalire’s ID from the console. He examined it a moment before offering it to him, “Again.”
The hatch slid open.
“Thank you for your service to the Riftworks. For the future and protection of humanity. Please exit the chamber. Have a nice day.”
Henley motioned for Synclaire to exit first. With a curt nod, he did as he was told.
“Now,” Henley stepped out behind him. His long legs carrying him in one step what took Synclaire several. The door slammed shut behind them with a hiss as the chamber pressurized. “I’ll be needing you down in Observation at around 15:00. I can’t say for certain what you’ll find, I just know I’ll need you there.”
Synclaire nodded slowly as he began making his way to his locker. Henley watched in silence as he fumbled the lock open. Removing his caddie, Synclaire reached back in for his well-worn mop and broom.
“Oh dear,” Henley sighed, “You need new equipment. This is all much too old and worn.”
“I’m not sure it’s old,” Synclaire ran his fingers over the disheveled bristles of the broom, “But definitely used.”
“I’ll speak to Procurement about obtaining new sanitary equipment.”
“I-I appreciate that, Doc… But… ya know… I’m just…” Synclaire stammered as he placed the rollers he left to dry back into the empty water bucket on the caddie.
“Now now,” Henley raised a hand, “Every person here at the Riftworks matters. You would not still be here were you too squeamish or insufficient at your duties. You are neither and that is appreciated.”
Synclaire chuckled, “Right out of the recruitment manual…”
“Of course,” Henley gave his patented narrow grin, “I wrote it.”
“I forget sometimes,” Synclaire gave a small chuckle.
“Perhaps you could assist me in constructing one less pandering?” Henley placed a hand on Synclaire’s back.
“I-I’m not exactly sure I’m the PR type… Besides, I already work triple shifts and then I have the part-time job at the Diner…”
“A side job?”Henley raised an eyebrow, “Are you not paid enough to maintain your lifestyle?”
Synclaire sighed heavily, “I-it’s uh…” he gripped the handle of his mop tightly, “Complicated…”
Henley narrowed his gaze, “Complicated as in I should be concerned about investigations? Or complicated as in personal?”
“Personal, I swear!” Synclaire raised his hands defensively.
“Personal as in… a distraction?” Henley moved closer to him.
“Only if I don’t make enough. It hasn’t been a distraction yet, though…” Synclaire laughed nervously.
Henley’s almond eyes narrowed A long drawn out silence settled between them.
“I will not allow you to be exhausted by side work. You are the only custodial technician with A-level clearance. I need you functioning. Not tired. Not distracted,” Henley pulled the caddie away from Synclaire. A low sense of frustration in his voice, “What kind of a raise would you need to compensate for the secondary job?”
“J-Jeron pays me fifteen an hour to clean for about five hours a d-day…”
“Done,” Henley’s narrow gaze turned to a soft smile, “I’ll make the amendment to your pay.” He slid the caddy back into Synclaire’s hands.
“I-Just like that?” Synclaire was left dazed.
“As I mentioned, you’re the only member of the janitorial staff with A-level clearance. I need you on call and ready whenever something restricted goes awry. And that, as you know,” Henley gave a knowing chuckle, “Is often enough.”
Synclaire gave him a curt smile as he tried to push past. His shift had started and he hadn’t even clocked into his first corridor. This would not look good on his quarterly report…
“Oh, that,” Henley laughed as if reading his mind, “I’ll be sure to adjust your schedule according to our conversation. No harm done.”
“Ah, well, thank you, Docto-”
“How many times have I told you? It’s Henley. Just call me Henley.”
Synclaire’s face flushed to an intense shade of red. Henley was the highest-ranking civilian in the facility. As far as the legend of the Riftworks goes, Henley was here before anyone else even set foot on the grounds.
“I-I c-can’t do that…” Synclaire forced a small chuckle as he once again tried to push by.
“No no,” Henley put his hands on the cart, “I insist. Please. Call me Henley.”
“Ah… Well… I-if you…”
“I do,” he gave a wide grin that revealed his unusually sharp teeth.
“Ah, well…” Synclaire searched for his words, “I suppose you can call me by my first name… if you… want…”
Henley leaned in to examine his badge.
“Not that one!” Synclaire cried out as he covered the piece of plastic, “I-I mean…”
Henley smiled softly, “Sylus, was it?”
Hearing his chosen name always filled his heart with a sense of relief granting him a moment’s ease in an otherwise judgmental world. He nodded in reply with his first genuine smile.
“Very well then, Sylus. As you were,” Henley released the cart and stepped aside.
“Thank you, sir,” Sylus smiled as he pushed past.
“Oh yes… I almost forgot,” a slender hand landed on his shoulder, “The dreams… Have they gotten any worse?”
Sylus turned to the researcher. His hands quickly released his shoulder and plunged deeply into the pockets of his lab coat.
“Same,” Sylus sighed, “Same cryptic nonsense.”
“Still can’t remember any of it?” Henley looked vaguely disappointed. Much to Sylus’ surprise, there was indeed a hint of concern on his brow.
“Other than,” he pitched his voice as low as possible and added a growl to his words, “‘I will be freed!’?”
Henley gave a short snorting laugh, “Same as always, then?”
Sylus nodded, “Believe me,” he sighed, “After Daniel, you’ll be the first to know if there are any changes.”
“Ah yes! How is the boy?” Henley leaned casually against the wall folding his arms across his chest. A light smile on his thin lips.
“Still can’t get him into any schools,” Sylus sighed, “Location location…”
“I can obtain some grade-level appropriate textbooks if you so desire,” Henley shrugged indifferently.
Sylus shook his head, “What’s the point if the world is going to end?” A low, dark laugh punctuated his words.
“Indeed,” Henley pushed himself away from the wall, “But that’s not for some time. You and your son will not see the end of y-our world and for that, you should be grateful.”
“And you?” Sylus turned to him, “Will you be around to see it?”
Henley pursed his lips as he nodded, “Now that is the question to be asking, isn’t it?” he tapped the side of his nose before making his way down the hall, “As you were, Sylus. I’ll take care of the scheduling,” he waved over his shoulder.
Sylus waved in return even though he knew it would go unseen. With a heavy sigh, he entered the first corridor on his manifesto. Every corridor had its own clearance levels and access points. Each one was divided by security barriers. Sylus ran his card through the reader for this corridor.
“Welcome, Ms. Kinkade,” the pleasant automated voice chimed as the door unlocked.
With a seething sneer, Sylus entered the long hall filled with low-level research rooms. This entire area had to be done before his first mandatory break in two hours. He hated cleaning, but it was the only thing he qualified for and he desperately needed the job. Flying all the way across the country with nothing but the clothes on his back and his son in his arms made finding work at the Riftworks an imperative. He smiled as he remembered Jeron, his boss at the diner, allowing him to use his washing machine so his clothes wouldn’t look like they were crusted with the filth of decades of sweat and tears. The blood, at least, was in spots you couldn’t easily see. Especially with a jacket on.
Sylus had a very vague understanding of the purpose of the Riftworks. What he did know was more than enough. It was a multilevel ring of a facility constructed around the supposed otherworldly gateway everyone had come to call the Rift. Most of the facility was underground. On some levels, you could look out through the cliff face into the raging Pacific. Terrifying, yet somehow awe-inspiring.
Within it’s dark, sterile halls countless experiments were performed on the unfortunate creatures that crept through the Rift. Their presence was what had solidified the portal theory. Upon its first opening, it did nothing but seep the Mist out into the world. Eventually, the creatures followed. None could escape the trap that was the Riftworks. Even those that could fly would merely slam themselves into the glass roofing in a futile attempt to escape. After they were inevitably disabled, they would be brought into the deepest, darkest sectors of the facility. Areas overseen only by Henley himself. He assured Sylus that they were monstrosities that could feel no pain even though they yelped as they were dragged away. Merely mocking mortal suffering, were his words. Sylus kept his distance as best he could. They seldom had eyes, but somehow he could tell they were in distress. Ignoring them was his only option.
Occasionally, Henley would invite him into dark sectors like Observation or Holding. He would never see what had happened, but the amount of viscera that tended to fill these rooms gave him a deeply ill feeling. Viscera isn’t something one should ever find appealing, but there was something so… brutal about it all. The first time he’d ever seen the level of destruction orchestrated in the dark sectors, he nearly collapsed. He’d expected to find surgically amputated body parts. Organs in buckets or something. Instead, he found violet fluids staining the walls. Tendrils and what could be considered organs torn to shreds and left scattered about the room. The distant yelping of the next day’s victim’s echoing through his mind as he set a mop to their kin’s entrails.
Without realizing it, he’d moved onto his next corridor. He became conscious of this only when a light dinging sound filled the hall signaling his first break period. With a heavy sigh, he docked his caddie in a side closet and made his way to the dining hall. At this hour and on this shift, he was largely alone. Some other janitors sat on the far side of the room from him. They had long stopped giving him strange looks, but they never once spoke to him. That was fine, he thought, he’d rather they ignore him than ridicule him like the once had.
Using his clearance he opened one of the central facing shutters next to the table he sat at. That was when the looks started coming. Not that he cared. He stared completely transfixed at the Rift. It was in a constant state of fluctuation; rippling in and out of itself. The edges reminded Sylus of clotted blood. It was a darker violet than the undulating center and it fluctuated with the rest of the form, but it just seemed… Viscous and disgusting. He really couldn’t place why.
Sitting in silence, drinking his water, his attention completely consumed by the Rift, he could feel himself dozing off to the rhythmic undulations of its pulsating light.
I. See. You.
The words hissed through his mind. In an instant, he was wide awake. Sucking down the last of his water, he darted out of the hall. His coworkers sneering behind him.
Who are you? Sylus forced himself to think.
Who are you? a foreign thought replied.
15:00 rolled around and without a reminder, Sylus appeared outside the Observation corridor. This was one of the deepest sectors of the facility and it took a lot of bracing before he could enter. The hall was lined with cages containing all kinds of creatures from the Rift. Henley called them spawns. They were bizarre creatures that Sylus knew he should have been afraid of yet he only felt a deep sense of forlorn pity for them.
The corridor hatch slid open without him interfacing with the console.
“Synclaire,” Henley nodded before correcting himself, “Sylus,” he smiled broadly.
“H-hey, Henley. It’s 15:00 and I’m here. Show me the disaster.”
“This way, if you please,” Henley began leading him down the hall.
The cages were far emptier than Sylus was used to seeing them. He could feel a knot forming in his stomach. Somehow, he could already imagine the carnage he was about to face.
They stood outside the main entrance to the Observation pit. Henley turned to small talk to ease the palpable tension seeping from Sylus.
“Oh don’t worry, Synclaire,” his gaze softened as he put the necessary information into the clearance panel, “They’re monstrosities. Every last one of them! And I can assure you,” he shot Sylus a wink over his shoulder, “They can feel no pain. In fact,” a loud banging sound came from the hatch unlocking, “they can’t even think!” the door slid open, “At least nothing like you and I.” Henley extended his arm into the opening inviting Sylus to enter first.
With a hard swallow and a steady nod, he did as he was told. There was a small dark walk lined with equipment drawers before they entered the blinding white light of the Observation pit. The knot in Sylus’ stomach exploded. He couldn’t help but throw up the water he’d had for lunch.
“Now, now, Sylus,” Henley patted him on the back, “No need to provide your own fluids. The hookups are along the walls, as you already know.”
Sylus groaned as he righted himself. The room was a visceral disaster. It looked as though a bomb had gone off and everything inside had been reduced to unrecognizable organic pieces.
“Played a bit with pressure today,” Henley informed him, “Silly things can’t stand high pressures without coming apart and exploding! Oh, Sylus,” Henley stepped into the room, his boot sinking into some kind of fleshy material, “The sounds they made…”
Sylus cleared his throat. Partially due to the pain of throwing up and partially because he wanted to signal Henley to leave him alone.
“Ah yes,” Henley instantly understood, “I’ll leave you to it then. I’ll go activate the incinerators. You know what to do.”
“You mind donating a pair of industrial gloves?” Sylus could barely resist the urge to throw up again. His gut was empty though so all he could do was gag.
“Of course,” Henley smiled as he opened one of the drawers in the hall and handed Sylus a pair of thick black gloves, “Feel free to incinerate them when you’re done. Along with your clothes. There should be a spare set around your size in locker 15.”
“Thank you, Henley,” Sylus sighed as he pulled a hose from the side of his caddie and connected it to one of the water access points.
“You are most welcome,” Henley turned to leave before remembering something, “OH! And, feel free to leave when you’re finished here.”
“But… My shift…?”
Henley shook his head, “This is enough for two shifts. I’ll make sure you get some overtime for this. It is a particularly intense mess.”
Sylus gave a weak smile. At least now he knew this would be the last horror he’d see today. Nothing else in the facility compared to how horrific Observation could get sometimes.
“Thank you, Henley,” Sylus smiled in earnest.
Returning the gesture, Henley left the room, closing the hatch behind him.
With yet another heavy sigh, Sylus began reorganizing his thoughts. A game. That’s what he liked to think of it. A game to clean up as quickly as he could. Tendrils and organs went in the incinerator. Dirty water was sent down the drains. Every body part was worth x points while every completely clean area was worth even more. That was it. That was how he coped with it all. His ultimate prize was being able to go home to his son. With that in mind, winning his self-imposed challenge easily became a mindless task.
Logging his caddie back into his locker, Sylus was finally free of the facility. He tried not to recall how long Observation had taken him. All he wanted now was to see his son and put some food in his belly.
Leaving was far easier than getting in. All he had to do was swipe his card and the hatch flew open.
“Have a nice day, Ms. Kinkade. Thank you for your service to the Riftworks. For the future and protection of humanity.”
Sylus could barely contain his snarl. The overly pleasant automated voice was one of the most cynical things he’d ever experienced. The hell that waited behind these doors didn’t warrant such a calm and docile greeting. It deserved a slap in the face and a punch in the gut. If you were still standing, then and only then were you a fraction of a percent ready for what was waiting within.
“Welcome to the Riftworks. Abandon your humanity at the door.” He growled until he pitched his voice up to mock the automated system, “Enjoy your day.” He snorted to himself.