Ashes 2-Vignette


On The Job

Dr. Magnusson's heels clicked against the floor as he strode down the corridor, the latest test results tucked under his arm. He walked calmly and without hurry, as only those on the brink of sprinting can. The only thing that would have given him away to an observer was the whitening of his knuckles on the hand the held the binder in place. Not that there were any observers, of course; being beneath fifty meters of steel, stone and dirt tends to have that effect. 

He continued down the featureless steel corridor, passing through the pools of turgid illumination cast by the aging lights affixed to the ceiling, until he reached his destination. A simple featureless door, the only thing that distinguished it from the others he had passed was the number 1 carved flawlessly into the surface. The doctor stopped in front of it, paused for the best part of a minute, an inscrutable expression on his face, then reached out and placed his hand flat against the door's surface.

There was a brief flash of light inside the metal, and the solid slab of stainless steel seemed to dissolve straight into the surrounding surface. The now-empty archway led into a small office, and the doctor stepped over the threshold to enter. The room was sparsely furnished, a single wooden desk inside a steel box, with a computer monitor floating above a base. Three pens sat next to an immaculate keyboard, one five degrees out of alignment with the other, and the off-white color of two pieces of perfectly-aligned-paper in the inbox nicely complimented that of the three bleached human skulls that rested against it.

Behind the desk sat a chair of the same make, and on the chair sat a man. Broad-shouldered and heavy, with a thick mane of salt-and-pepper hair and an equally-thick beard of the same shades, he put one in mind of a hibernating bear. No, Dr. Magnusson corrected himself, not hibernating; merely lying in wait. The deep set eyes gleamed with a menacing intelligence, and he was completely and utterly still, for the man known only as Ulster did nothing that he did not intend do.

Dr. Magnusson swallowed silently as his superior's eyes settled on him. "Sir," he said, managing to keep the tremor from his voice. "There have been... developments."

Ulster's stare bore into him. "From the fact the you did not lead with details, I am to assume that they are not good?" His voice was a rumbling basso that seemed to reverberate within one's bones. Dr. Magnusson had never heard him raise his voice, and he desperately hoped he would never have to.

"Not... exactly, sir." He adjusted his glasses before passing the binder to Ulster, who took it in one giant hand and began inspecting the contents. "The latest experiments gave useful results across the board, and we've achieved successful hot splices between samples Y20-43A and Y17-2B, and samples Y5-3C and Y14-21A."

He flipped to the relevant pages. "Y5? I was not aware we had any of the Y5 samples remaining."

"Neither were we, sir. We only managed to acquire it in the last few months, but every scan we've performed showed UM counts consisted with a Y5 sample."

"Interesting."

"We certainly thought so. As far as we can determine, it seems to be a standard Y5, so either we're seeing a resurgence of older UM signatures, or, much more likely, that this one is an outlier that simply managed to fly under our radar until now."

"Why did you splice it? Surely an outlier should be studied."

Magnusson gulped. "We did, sir, but like I said, it showed nothing out of the ordinary for a Y5 sample, of which we already have a wealth of data. The hot splice was really the only test we could perform on it that hadn't already been done."

"I see. Do these results indicate that Research and Development can begin working with splices?”

"Under the supervision of me or one of my subordinates, yes."

He grunted. "Inconvenient. Reasonable, but inconvenient. You will assemble a list of those capable of supervision by the end of the day."

"Yes, sir."

He put the files aside and steepled his fingers in front of him. 

"Now. What is the other news?”

Magnusson took a deep breath. No avoiding it. "Two days ago, our New Chicago storehouse was raised. They took money, and ripped the servers."

Ulster raised a single eyebrow, but said nothing.

He continued. "We arranged a strike team, but the money, and the server data, weren't with them."

"Tracers?"

"Disabled, it seems. Given the fact that they no longer had the data, we believe they were simply a proxy, bribed, tricked or blackmailed into working against us."

"Likely," Ulster agreed in a gravelly tone. "Why is it you telling me this instead of Gunnar?"

The real reason was that Gunnar, the head of Security, was owed a fairly large favor by Magnusson and had called it in, but he wasn't about to admit that. Instead, he used a plausible-sounding half-truth. "We collaborated and decided that the information could be best delivered in one report. The majority of the content pertained to my areas, and as such I took it upon myself to do so."

"I see." He leaned back in his chair. "I will speak to Gunnar about the matter." The doctor had no doubt that Ulster knew exactly why he'd actually delivered the Security Chief's report for him, but it was doubtful that he cared. One of the first things Dr. Magnusson had learned about working under the inscrutable mountain of a man was that methods and justifications fell far below results in the order of priorities. As long as the job was done, nothing else mattered.

"Was there anything else?" Ulster asked him.

And here it was, the moment he'd been putting off as long as he could. Initially, he'd considered putting it off, or even hiding if entirely, but it hadn't taken long before he'd come to his senses and realized the futility such an idea. Ulster would find out; it was impossible for him not to. And if he discovered it from someone other than his head researcher, the consequences would not be pleasant. His best option, he'd decided, was to deliver the news himself, and run damage control while he did so.

"Yes, sir," he said with as much stoicism as he could muster. Rip the bandage, Eric. "We've lost another three samples."

For a second, the only sound in the room was a single person's breathing. Then, the creaking of wood, excruciatingly loud in the silence, as Ulster leaned forward. In a manner that was completely and utterly casual, he picked up one of the skulls and held it in his hand, staring into its hollow eyes. "Which ones?" he asked without looking away. His tone was calm and placid, and there was absolutely nothing in it that betrayed the rage simmering beneath.

The doctor unconsciously took a step back. "Well, ah... two of them were old samples from storage, a Y10 and a Y14.  We believe the containment may have failed a while ago, and we only noticed at all because one of them was scheduled to be spliced. When we discovered one was missing, we updated the inventory and found the second one."

"And the third?"

"The third... the third was the Theta sample, sir."

Ulster looked up at him, meeting his gaze, and Magnusson took another step back, bumping into the door. Without breaking eye contact, he reached down and picked up the wastepaper basket from the ground in one mountainous and set it in front of him. Then he held the skull above it with both hands, and slowly, meticulously, ground it into dust.

"Dr. Magnusson," he ground out in a tone that seemed to set the walls shaking. "Explain. Now. Or I shall have to find a new head researcher."

“I-it’s the containment system, sir,” he stammered out, his heart pounding in his chest. “W-we’ve beefed it up as much as we can, more s-so for Theta, b-but it’s flawed at its core. I really don't think, sir-"

Something in Ulster's glare made him stop. For a few seconds, silence reigned in the room.

"There is nothing else that can be done?" he asked at last. His tone was laced with fury, but the murder in his eyes had receded into something closer to a severe beating.

Dr. Magnusson said a prayer of relief internally. "Nothing that we haven't already done. Uh, sir," he added belatedly.

Ulster growled. "Then it is time we upgraded our systems. Dr. Magnusson, we are switching to Project Persona, effective immediately. All stored units are to be switched over. All of them. Is that clear, doctor?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then you are dismissed." He placed the waste basket back on the ground and stood, straightening his tie. "I shall speak to Gunnar about the Chicago matter."

Eric Magnusson managed to avoid sprinting until the door had closed behind him.