Alex was sitting on the edge of the control console while Jan sat in her chair by her station, only half interested in watching the monitors in front of her. Alex fumbled with the plastic wrap around a tuna sandwich he was holding, and nodded toward the window before them.
“Where do you think they found this guy?” he asked.
The guy in in question – they didn’t know his name, for security reasons – had been interviewed by them two days prior. And like all of their ‘interviews’, his had been short and sweet.
“So you want me to stay down in a big room?”
“Yes. A vault.”
“A vault. For how long?”
“As long as you want.”
“And it pays three thousand a week, you said?”
Jan rolled her chair around the control console and peered out the window. “I don’t know where they found him. Could be anywhere, really. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re not exactly recruiting doctors or lawyers, here. These are people that are desperate for money, maybe suffering mental illness or substance abuse. They’re definitely willing to stay down here longer than your average Joe Blow. And I’d wager most of them are folks that don’t have any real ties to the surface. No real family or friends. Nobody that will say anything when they get out, because God knows they’re usually not the same after the Vault.”
Alex chuckled. “You can say that again. It’s hard to take someone seriously when they don’t have that much credibility to start with, I suppose.”
Below them lay the Vault, a room made completely of concrete. At a hundred feet by a hundred feet, it was a sprawling example of minimalism. Jan and Alex were both in a small control room that viewed out into this larger room, close to the room’s ceiling, about thirty feet above their test subject. The rest of the room was scantily furnished, outfitted with a sofa, a desk and chair, a cot for sleeping and a few other staples, all arranged in a clumsy semi-circle. This was most likely for the purposes of monitoring rather than obtaining the maximum feng shui of the space, Jan admitted.
They called the room the Vault for very good reason. Embedded in the wall opposite them, looming like a metal sentinel was a vault door. It was straightforward as far as vault doors went, but its presence alone added an air of foreboding. It was never opened, its contents never revealed, and somehow that made its mystery that much more unsettling.
Alex leaned in. “Any bets on how long he’ll last?”
Jan shook her head. The last three volunteers hadn’t lasted longer than a couple of weeks, the very last having to be physically removed after repeatedly stabbing her left hand over and over again with a ballpoint pen. There was a good chance the woman’s hand would never work properly again, but Jan was optimistic that she was no worse for wear. Relatively speaking.
Jan sighed. “Anybody’s guess. But,” she said, pointing down to the man in the large concrete room, “so far so good, right?”
Alex shook his head. “Yeah, maybe. Hopefully we don’t get another one like last time. You know how hard it is to get blood out of concrete? Those cleaners were down there for hours.”
Jan could only remain silent. She’d rather not think about that.
After a while, Alex turned to her. “So where do you think they send them? You know, after their ‘volunteer’ service is up?”
Alex harumphed. “Well, I mean it’s not like they’re just going to be dropped off at home again with a nice fat cheque in their hands. ‘Hey, thanks for the service, here’s you fifteen grand. Give us a call if you’d like to participate in a future test.’ That sort of thing. There’s no way.”
Jan, who again would rather not think about those things, simply nodded. “No, probably not. But hey, that’s above our paygrade. Right?”
“Sure, sure. Maybe that one guy just got dropped off at the hospital, right? And when they asked him why he’d ingested close to an entire paperback novel, he’ll just say it was part of an experiment. Or maybe when that other guy gouged out one of his eyes with a plastic knife, he just went home and showed his girlfriend that sweet paycheque and they both had a laugh about it.” Alex was obviously dubious.
So was Jan, but again, “It’s above our paygrade.”
Jan had been standing next to the glass, watching the man downstairs in the concrete room. Her and Alex had nicknamed the man Harley, because of the Harley-Davidson t-shirt he was wearing. To use his real name would be in direct violation of the contract they had signed.
Harley was currently sitting on the sofa with his head bowed, hands between his knees. He’d been sitting like that for the last hour. He had been mumbling something, but even the microphones could barely pick it up. Not that it mattered much. Those audio tapes would later be reviewed by their superiors, and frankly Jan didn’t care. It was above her paygrade, after all.
Alex tipped his head in the direction of the vault. “So, what do you think is in there?”
Jan rolled her eyes. Not this question again. “I truly have no clue.”
Alex paced the small control booth, and Jan knew this meant he was about to go on one of his rants. “I mean, this all can’t just be psychological, right? Like this isn’t just like some elaborate version of a deprivation tank or something. It can’t be.”
She could feel a headache coming on. “I don’t know, Alex.”
Alex continued anyway. “I’ve been thinking, maybe it’s like one of those LRAD’s or something? I’m not sure why they would hide it behind a big vault door, but maybe they’re trying to test its effectiveness behind a barrier?”
Jan was getting annoyed “What’s an LRAD?”
“A Long Range Acoustic Device. Do you remember hearing about those C.I.A. agents in Havana a few years ago? The ones that all got sick at the same time?”
Jan was barely able to suppress a groan. “Yeah. They ruled that as mass hysteria.”
Alex waved a hand, as if physically pushing the comment away. “Sure, sure. But like, what if something like that actually exists? I don’t think it’s completely out of the realm of possibility. Look at our volunteers. They certainly show signs of mental stress and anguish after a while. I mean, I get that we’re fourteen stories underground, but it’s not exactly like we’re forcing these people into solitary confinement. Four or five weeks shouldn’t cause a total mental breakdown like this.”
Jan cut him off. “Are we done here?”
Alex blinked. “Don’t you ever feel bad?”
What the hell are you talking about now? she thought.
“Bad?” she asked instead.
Alex was looking down at Harley, who hadn’t moved in a few hours now. He was still down there muttering incoherently. “I mean bad. Don’t you ever have any regrets about what we’re doing here? These people… They’re just regular people. In most cases, probably less fortunate or more vulnerable than regular people. And they’re really not prepared for any of this.”
Jan shrugged. “I didn’t go through four years in the C.I.A., two in the F.B.I. and now two stationed here to start suddenly growing a conscious.”
Alex sighed. “Let me guess. It’s above your paygrade, huh?”
Week 3 - Morning
The energy in the room was seeping with dread. Alex had been pacing again, and Jan could feel his restlessness permeate their small control booth. She had put up with it for a while, but it was beginning to drive her up the wall. The air in the Vault and their control room felt thick, full of unease. For some reason today her eyes kept being drawn to the Vault door downstairs. Had it gotten bigger, somehow? That was impossible.
Alex continued his pacing and Jan eventually broke.
“Can you please just stop walking around like that?” It was snippier than she had intended.
Alex stopped, shaking his head. “Yeah. Yeah. Sorry.”
Down in the Vault, Harley was similarly pacing. He had been talking aloud for the last half an hour, walking in circles around the perimeter of the Vault. Jan had been trying to ignore it, only half successfully. He was mumbling about crawling, or hearing crawling or something, and Jan had to use all of her restraint just not to hop on the P.A. and tell him to shut the hell up. She could feel herself losing her cool.
Next to her, Alex still seemed like he was vibrating with energy.
“Hey Jan,” he said.
It was all she could do not to not bite his head off. “Yes?”
“Do you forgive me?”
What was he rambling about now? “For pacing? Just stop doing it, is all.”
He didn’t answer immediately, and she could tell he was about to tell her something she didn’t want to hear.
“I went down there,” was all he said.
Jan closed her eyes. She didn’t need for him to clarify where he meant. “When?”
Jan held her breath for five seconds and quietly exhaled. “After hours?”
Alex shrugged. “Well, this place never really closes. But at night, yes.”
Jan was furious, but still too curious not to ask. “And?”
Alex looked awful. “It’s not a weapon. Definitely not a LRAD or anything like that. At least not in the conventional sense.”
Jan was confused. “So you saw it? How did you get in?”
Alex shook his head, as if that was just about the dumbest thing he’d ever heard. “See it? No, no. I don’t have access to open that thing. Not without clearance. But it didn’t matter. I could feel it.”
Jan didn’t answer.
Alex continued. “Like, there’s something in there. I could feel it, needling its way into my brain. Like a… Like a wave of energy or something. And it was calling me. It wanted me to open the door, Jan. Like it knew, somehow.”
Jan couldn’t help herself. “Knew?”
Alex blinked, licking his lips. “It knew that I could help it. Janice, don’t you get it? All these other people that we put down there, it’s like it knows that they’re useless. But with me…”
When he trailed off, Jan asked the only sensible thing she could think of. “What do you mean it? You keep saying ‘it’. What are you talking about?”
Alex winced, as if he was in pain. “Nothing, nothing. It’s not an ‘it’. Maybe you’re right. Maybe a radio wave transmitter. Jamming up the signals? I don’t know. Forget I said anything.”
Jan most certainly did not forget that Alex had said anything, nor could she have ignored it.
Harley didn’t make it through the afternoon. At sometime around three, he let out a guttural howl that seemed to fill the Vault with a haunting echo, then staggered toward the vault door and began smashing his head against the thick metal alloy, over and over again. By the time security had been able to get to him, Harley had managed to knock himself unconscious, covered in his own blood and twitching on the floor. Foam frothed from his mouth, the white of his eyes the only thing visible.
Jan, however, paid little attention to any of this. During all of the confusion with security and the medics, Jan saw Alex slip off somewhere out of their control room. When he returned, he seemed unnaturally calm, and Jan didn’t trust that. When she asked where he went, all he could do was shrug and say the bathroom.
So, she returned to the control room after hours and sat in the darkness, waiting. On several occasions, she had almost convinced herself that she was overthinking things and that this was all a waste of time, but in the end she held fast. In truth, that same energy she had felt earlier that day was still hanging in the air, like a static field but soaked in dread. She just bit her lip and reminded herself she needed to be patient and to stop scaring herself. Finally, around twelve-thirty, her patience paid off.
The single door that led to the Vault slowly opened, a large rectangle of light widening across the cement floor. A figure entered the room and closed the door behind them. There were a few moments of silence, then suddenly a beam of light flickered into existence. It was a flashlight, and even with the distance between them, Jan saw all she needed.
It was Alex.
Jesus. What are you doing?
Alex moved quickly, placing the flashlight on the table and carefully aiming it at the giant Vault door. The screen on his cellphone briefly lit up, casting him in a sickly pale light, and he rested it precariously next to the flashlight.
He’s trying to record this.
He stood in front of his propped-up phone. “Hey everyone. Just want to say I love you all. God forgive me.”
With nothing else to add, he turned away. He then produced something from his coat pocket that resembled a television remote and aimed it at the Vault.
Jan had to stop him. Suddenly, she didn’t care about what this might mean for their jobs, or even what secrets they might stumble upon. She didn’t want him to open the Vault; suddenly, she was sure that only death lay beyond.
She fumbled for the microphone and pressed the button. Overhead the P.A. speakers bleated, causing both her and Alex to jump. “Alex! Alex, stop!”
Alex had enough time to look up to the control booth. “Jan?”
But it was already too late. Whatever buttons or commands Alex had entered on the remote, they had worked. The Vault thumped as long silent gears and cogs sprang into life again. There was a hissing, like can of soda being opened, and Jan had enough time to think it’s pressurizing. It’s pressurizing because there are two different atmospheres.
A strong wind pushed through the Vault as its door swung open. Jan couldn’t see anything, the door blocking whatever lay within, but Alex could see, and his eyes were wide. He began yelling up to her.
“Jesus, Janice. Can you see this? It’s like… God, it goes on forever! There’s no end to it, and I think I can see movement in there. This is not manmade! This is…” but he trailed off, frowning.
Jan pressed the button on the mic again. “Alex. Come on. Let’s just close the Vault and leave.”
She didn’t want to see what was in there, didn’t want to know what had driven all of the test subjects mad. Whatever it was, she didn’t want to know, and the longer the Vault was open, the more she felt that at any moment something could finally break through, pass that barrier into their world. But the Vault door continued to open slowly, like the maw of a yawning beast.
Alex wasn’t listening though. “They’re coming closer! Jesus, there’s so many of them. I think I can even… Oh God. They’re so big. They’re enormous, Jan. They’re coming oh God how can there be so many?”
Janice did not care. She no longer wanted to be in this tiny control room that was really more like a coffin now, and she certainly did not want to be fourteen stories underground.
“Alex?” she pleaded over the speakers.
Alex was beginning to slowly back away from the Vault door, horror creeping up on his face. “Oh Janice, this is not right. They’re moving too… Janice, you need to shut this down! Lock everything up! Now! They’re coming oh God Janice lock the whole thing down! Now!”
Jan looked down at Alex. She pressed down on the speaker again.
“Alex, you need to get out! Get out of there and I’ll lock it down!”
Alex nearly screamed at her. “Do it! Now! They’re… Oh God Jan, I can’t move, you have to listen they’re in my head and they’re almost here I can’t move go now Jan!”
Jan snapped out of her trance and reached for the emergency shutdown button. She slammed it with her fist and almost immediately the emergency program kicked in. The siren blared and security lights began to sweep across the room. Above, metal shutters began lowering over the glass of the control booth. She could still see Alex through the slits in the shutter, and while it was difficult to make out, there appeared to be a pale green light emanating from the Vault now. There was also a sound, though Jan couldn’t tell if it was real or in her head. And with dawning horror, she thought It sounds like crawling.
She pressed down on the speaker. “Alex, forgive me.”
Alex did not appear to hear her, and only stood bathed in that ghastly green light. He reached one arm towards the Vault, like he was trying to swing the giant door shut. Before Janice could even blink, Alex’s arm was torn off, a broken and bloody stump left behind, the tattered remains of his coat arm fluttering, soaked in gore. Alex was screaming now, and Jan finally found her footing.
She barged out of the control room, into the lit hallways as she barged passed security guards. Some ran completely passed her, while a few tried to stop her, but she kept pushing, pushing to get as far away from the Vault as possible. Finally one forcefully grabbed her by the arm and stopped her in her tracks. He was asking her questions, and Jan kept trying to answer, but obviously he wasn’t understanding her, and it was a moment before she realized the reason why was because she too was screaming.