Sherlock's flashlight began to falter before he reached the top. Little legs tickled the back of his neck, and he wondered how many spiders a person swallowed over a lifetime.
The Russians had been up here. Coolant hoses ran along the hallway, some disappearing into a hole in the wall, others criss-crossing the ceiling in a latticework so thickly layered it blocked out the sun from the room's lone window. Doors opened to empty rooms. Trash bags leaked beneath a sign he couldn't read. Some enterprising soul had looped the hoses together with bits of shoelace, and turning off his flashlight he grabbed the nearest hose and followed it in the dark.
When the weight of the air changed, he turned on the light and was greeted by two makeshift tables made out of crates and...stone? Had the scientists been too superstitious to use materials readily available on the Machine? Microscopes were stacked on top of lab notes, the latest technology and custom-made from the look of it. Clearly American. Or maybe Chinese, he wasn't sure yet.
Sherlock leafed though the file. Despite public support, Project Pale Fire had their budget cut three times in the first year, and the scientists had to make do with butterflies in lieu of human test subjects. Though the butterflies were caged separately, some cross-breeding was to be expected, and it was remarked that if a butterfly had 51% or more DNA of a particular species, the Machine automatically tailored the insect to that specie. A Red Copper might become a Painted Lady. It might, as in the case of a butterfly scanned in a petri dish full of sheep blood, learn to grow wool. Or it might, as in the case of a Monarch scanned with an extremely rare breed of Skipperling, learn that it was alone in the world and died from lack of a mate.
You had to be careful under the microscope. You might find you've become an endangered species.
He found neither names nor dates on any of the papers under the microscopes, all of it hand-written in increasingly choppy cursive. He read notes at random.
i"Table simulation analysis yielded positive results in the males, but abnormal cell growth continues in subjects W and P."
"Only to be engaged in stage-specific catastrophe and then utilized for biosphere recapture and colonization. Extinction rates predicted at 91% +/-3 margin of error."/i
He blinked. Were they still talking about butterflies? Something moved behind him, but when he shined his flashlight he only found an old leather shoe. He returned to the papers.
i"R experiencing unregulated growth in chest cavity, but no percievable organ damage. P's hair follicles appear to have changed shape."
"Gross motor skills problematic. Lack of clocks makes it hard to track time. Increased sense of isolation. Replicating tissue and increased muscle mass has made it impossible to leave. R took one sedative every hour for ten hours and still has not slept."
"The nightmares are getting worse. P suffers loss of purpose and R finds himself identifying more and more with test subjects from the original experiment in Washington. Upping the sedatives to 135 ml."
"No changes in mental faculty. Enhanced sense of smell and night vision. W has lost use of his thumbs and woke up to find them fused into the sides of his hands." /i
The most recent paper was in a different handwriting and nigh unreadable, as if the writer had taken notes with his pen taped to one end of a yardstick. It had only two words.
The key lay taped to the last page of the file, and pulling it free he twisted it back and forth between his thumb and forefinger. Like the disc he'd discovered in the steering room, it was made of stone and classically made, a circle ridged on the inside with two prongs about as long as his hand. It didn't look like a key at all. Dean had only called it a key because "mouth with legs growing out of it" would have been too fucking scary.
He put in his coat pocket when he heard the shuffling noise again, just off to his left. A muffled panic began to creep in his guts. His flashlight died and he slapped it back to life, casting it around and resisting the urge to shout "hello?". He strained his ears, but he couldn't tell if it were the sand sliding across the Machine outside or actually right next to him. He held his breath, stayed absolutely still, until the only sound was the blood rushing through his head, but still the noise was there.
He lifted his flashlight. The noise was now coming from the other side of the table, too close to the wall for him. He would have to bend down and look.
And there, wedged between packing crates, was the leather shoe. Except it was quiet now, was just sitting there. It had never moved. Had it?
He reached over and picked it up. It was soft, and blood warm.
It was then that a low moan echoed from across the room, and his flashlight flickered once, twice, and went out altogether.
TO BE CONTINUED