The Significant Others, Part "B"
rating: +25+x

2002


5 December


5:53 PM

"You dropped something."

Phil stopped walking, the rubber soles of his workboots squeaking on the clean grey linoleum. He side-eyed the wall-mounted mirror to his right; Doug blinked its vertical eyes at him, slowly.

He looked back the way he'd come. The immaculate tiled-wall hallways stretched on seemingly to infinity, peppered with rounded office porticoes and rounded windows. He'd never seen such a tidy space outside of a laboratory.

"Fuck you," he muttered. He turned and started walking again.

He passed a second mirror; the monster popped back into his peripheral vision. "You dropped something."

He sighed. He clenched both hands into fists. He continued to walk.

"No-one else will notice. It's your responsibility."

"Fuck you," he whispered.

He passed a third mirror. "What if someone steps on it? What if they slip, and fall? A long, empty hallway, cold, hard surfaces. No-one to help. No-one to call for help."

Phil stopped walking and closed his eyes. "I didn't drop anything."

"You don't know that."

"I didn't drop anything." He forced himself to move.

A fourth mirror. "You'll never know, if you don't check."

"I checked."

"Were you paying attention? When you checked?"

He kept walking. A fifth mirror.

"You'll never know if you hurt someone."

He kept walking. Six mirrors.

"You'll always wonder."

Just keep walking. Seven.

"How can you live with yourself?"

Phil pressed his nose up against the scarified face in the eighth mirror. "How can I live with myself? How can I live with you?!"

The apparition quivered beneath the fogged glass. "What kind of man knows he can avert disaster, and chooses not to?"

"WHAT DISASTER?!"

It blinked again.

"You dropped something."


2003


14 January


5:53 PM

Four months, Phil thought, pushing the washroom door open with his foot. And no end in sight.

As he sidled up to a urinal and unzipped, he noticed Doug humming a little tune in one of the sink mirrors. The last mirror Phil had ever properly seen his own reflection in, as a matter of fact.

The song was familiar. Phil started to hum along, and felt his tension wash away into the air and the porcelain both. He sanitized his hands with a wall-mounted dispenser, zipped up his pants and walked over to the sink. By the time the water was flowing, he realized what he was humming.

He grinned.

"A capital ship for an ocean trip was the Walloping Window-Blind!"

To his complete astonishment, the apparition joined in.

"No gale that blew dismayed her crew, or troubled the captain's mind."

"The man at the wheel was taught to feel contempt for the wildest blow-ow-ow…"

They were both singing together, now, Phil's mock baritone on a bed of Doug's glottal bass. "And it often appeared, when the weather had cleared, that he'd been in his bunk below!"

Phil paused, and Doug paused with him. He was suddenly flooded with memories: lying in bed at night, his parents singing to him from an old book his father had kept from his own childhood. He could picture the illustrations. He could smell the musty pages.

He could hear his parents' voices.

He looked at the face in the mirror, and felt a lump in his throat so heavy he knew he could never swallow it.

Instead, he sang.

"THEN! Blow, ye winds, heigh-ho! A-roving I will go!"

"I'll stay no more on England's shore, so let the music play-ay-ay." It was comical. It didn't work at all. It worked perfectly.

Together they bellowed, Phil's eyes welling with tears, the washroom reverberating with their asymmetrical, raucous roar. "I'm off for the morning train! I'll cross the raging main! I'm off to my love with a boxing glove, ten thousand miles away!"

"HEY!" Phil shouted, the sound bouncing across the lino as he spread his arms wide, furious and weeping and full of life.

The washroom door swung open. A man with windswept grey hair, a stern graven countenance, a morning dress suit and a labcoat swept in.

The man opened his mouth to say something, then glanced in the mirror.


6:12 PM

Chief Nascimbeni scanned the report, nodded, and dropped it into an open desk drawer. He closed the drawer with his foot.

Phil stared at him. "That's it?"

"Yeah. That's it." Nascimbeni smiled apologetically.

Phil raised both eyebrows.

Nascimbeni sighed. "Dr. Falkirk called ahead. He told me to box your report."

"What? Why?" He paused. "…who?"

"Edwin Falkirk? The Site Director?"

Huh? "Dr. McInnis is the Site Director. Isn't he?"

"You haven't logged into 43NET today, huh."

Phil shrugged. "Guess not."

"O5 suspended Dr. McInnis. They've been looking into the AcroAbate breach, and pre-emptively blamed him just in case." He curled his lip.

"Okay… then who's Dr. Falkirk?"

"The pro-tem replacement for Dr. McInnis."

Phil waited.

Nascimbeni kicked the closed drawer. "The man you met in the washroom, and had to write a report about?"

Oh, no.

"Did you want to live forever, Philip?"

He ran a hand through his thinning hair as the left Nascimbeni's office, only dimly aware of both pairs of eyes, or whatever, on his back.


29 January


11:13 PM

He had one hell of a headache.

"How do you feel?" asked the psychologist. "Any pain?"

"I'm fine," he lied. "Is that okay?"

She seemed taken aback. "What do you mean?"

"I mean," and he was starting to get angry, "is it okay that I'm fine? Because after what just happened, I'm starting to wonder."

She pulled a pen out of her labcoat pocket. "Tell me what you think happened."

Dr. Nhung Ngo was tiny, earnest, wide-eyed and friendly. She could think circles around him, as he well knew from his annual psych reviews. She could also kick his ass into next Thursday, according to department scuttlebutt; she was an expert in a martial art he couldn't begin to spell, much less pronounce.

No, it's not, he thought.

"That's racist," said Doug.

Most importantly for Phil's present circumstances, Dr. Ngo was Senior Researcher in Psychology and Parapsychology at Site-43. She was supposedly debriefing him after an experiment had gone "wrong"; she was actually trying to shrink his head, and he wasn't really having it.

"What I think happened," he repeated. "Okay. I think Dr. Falkirk tried to kill me."

She blinked. "Okay. Go on?"

He went on. "I think he put me in a room-sized hyperbaric chamber and sucked all the oxygen out. I think he wanted to see what Doug would do, see if he'd… defend me? Decouple from me? Persist after I died? And I think he did that because I saw him press the-"

"Back up, back up. You're calling it a 'he', now?"

He paused. He didn't know what to say about that.

"And you're still calling it 'Doug'. Is that a reference to-"

"Stop changing the subject," Phil snapped. "Let's talk about why my snot monster cares more about human life than the Site Director does!"

"Dr. Falkirk isn't the Site Director anymore."

That stopped him cold. "What?"

"Am I in the mirror, Philip? Or are you?"

She pointed at Doug with her pen. "What's it saying?"

"Answer my question first."

She clipped her pen to her clipboard — everyone's got clipboards around here — and sighed. "Dr. Falkirk clawed his own eye out when your friend there manifested on it. The S&C agents who escorted you should've explained that much."

He shook his head. "They told me Doug attacked him." For a moment, he remembered Dr. Bradbury and her perfect skin. "I didn't know he… wow. Wow." He looked over his shoulder at the mirror mounted beside the door; Doug blinked at him patiently. "Is he alright?"

She didn't respond, so he looked back at her. She was pointing again. "A question for a question. What did it say?"

Phil thought about it for a moment.

"He said he'd like to see me do some mopping. Mopping calms him down."


8 September


6:06 PM

Not this kind of mopping, though.

Phil stepped onto the subway platform. He heard three tones behind him, and a recorded female voice: "Please stand clear of the doors." They were closed by the time he reached the security checkpoint, and the train was gone by the time he entered AAF-D.

The Inter-Sectional Subway System was a necessity at Site-43, as several of the Acroamatic Abatement Facilities were located far afield for safety reasons. There was talk of decommissioning the AAF-D station, however, because there was talk of decommissioning AAF-D.

Can't happen soon enough, he grumbled internally as he sloped into the suit lock-up. Can't believe they've got me doing this again.

He approached the hazmat locker, and paused. He looked around the room; the mirrors were all empty. He leaned in close, looking through the ventilation slits, and grinned. "Nice." He swung the locker open and applauded.

Doug had apparated on the faceplate of his suit.

It took him ten minutes to get into the thing, and another five to get the anti-spectral cage up and running. As he trundled it past the control room, he looked through the observation glass at the ceiling-mounted digital clock.

6:21. Jesus Christ.

"Do you know what happened at 6:21 today, last year?" he asked Doug, who was now filling the window and blocking his view of the clock.

The apparition abruptly apparated on the faceplate of Phil's suit again, peering inward at him. Phil jumped back involuntarily, but of course the ragged rictus kept pace.

"Boom," said Doug.

Phil suddenly felt butterflies in his stomach.

"Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom." There was something audible beneath Doug's sepulchral groaning, something that was getting closer, getting louder. "BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOO-"

The explosions out-boomed Doug's mocking echoes as a pipe burst beside him, coating his suit with grey-green fluid; Doug danced in the droplets, one at a time, gurning in the spray. The fluid became a thick solid, like syrup, as it ran down Phil's sleeves. It seemed to wash away the pristine white polymer surface…

"Oh," said Phil. "Oh."

There was a painting hiding under the gloss, an underpainting in his suit lining. He recognized it: The Last Judgment, by Michelangelo.

He looked up, searching for Doug; Doug was gone.

The control room was also gone.

He wheeled in place. The control room was behind him, where it had been last year. Before the renovations.

Before…

BOOM.

He froze.

BOOM.

The 2002 Overture.

BOOM.

In the control room, beneath a ceiling-mounted analogue clock, two men were arguing. They were arguing next to a pipe; Phil pressed up against the glass and pounded on it with one gloved fist. He knew the men. He knew about the pipe.

One man — Markey — ran across the room, hammering furiously at a control console. The other man — Ambrogi — stayed near the pipe, yanking a telephone receiver from the wall and dialing frantically.

The pipe burst, and a wave of… a wave rolled over Ambrogi, and he burst as well. The control room window was covered in blood. It flowed up, and down, suffusing the glass until there was no glass at all, only a rippling sanguine carpet which expanded outward towards him.

He staggered back as Doug apparated on the advancing wall of what was now a vast skein of shiny pink flesh.

Doug screamed.

"RUN."

Phil ran.


6:38 PM

Azad Banerjee squeezed his shoulder. "You're alright, buddy. You're alright."

Chief Nascimbeni was shouting instructions to the cleanup crew. There were S&C agents everywhere, a crawling black knot of late-arrival security. There were EPAU agents with kind words, blankets, stretchers and emergency amnestics.

Phil was still wearing the hazmat suit, the helmet zipped off and hanging from one shoulder. "What the fuck," he said. "What the fuck."

Doug stared up at him, upside-down in the helmet's faceplate. "What goes around, comes around."

"What's he saying?"

Phil ignored them both. "What the fuck."

Nascimbeni walked over, hands shoved into his jacket pockets. He looked… not alright, actually. Much the way Phil felt. "You holding up?"

"He's alright," said Azad.

Phil met the Chief's dark eyes. "What the fuck?" he begged.

Nascimbeni sighed heavily. "We… well. In retrospect, it makes sense… there's a lot of what Applied Occultism calls 'counter-chronological material' in AAF-D. It looks like we're going to see that breach every year."

What? He took a moment to collect his thoughts, then said "What?"

"That's what they're telling me." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder; the Chief of S&C, Delfina Ibanez, was huddled in hushed conversation with a female doctor he didn't recognize and the Site Director. Phil had seen Dr. McInnis out of his office maybe a dozen times in four years. "It's a stable time loop. Even the victims came back to life… briefly." His eyes were watering.

Phil nodded, feeling surreal. "I saw Markey," he said. "And… Ambrogi."

Nascimbeni squeezed his other shoulder. "That can't have been easy."

Phil looked down at Doug's hideous, inverted face. "It was worse for them."

"Do you think so, Philip? Do you really?"


2009


30 July


6:38 PM

"You've got it all wrong. The scars are too short, the shoulders are too rounded… don't quit your day job."

Azad looked down at the electronic sketch and shrugged. "I think it's pretty good."

A broad-faced man in a labcoat walked past their table, glancing at Banerjee's PDA. "That supposed to be Boogerman?"

Azad shook his head. "His name is Howie."

Dr. Sokolsky arched one thick brown eyebrow. "Howie? Why Howie?"

"Because nobody knows how he got here." Azad started flood-filling the sketch with grey.

Sokolsky smacked him in the back of the head, and walked away.

"Are they allowed to do that?"

Phil shrugged. "Don't ask me, my standards are different." He raised a bottle of cola to his lips. "I'm a subject in containment, remember."


13 August


7:20 AM

"Did you hear that, Philip? It wasn't just the shower."

7:48 AM

"There's a hole in that. No, not there. No, not there, Philip. No…"

8:42 AM

"Did you see a spark? What if it isn't grounded?"

9:19 AM

"Have you ever noticed that droplets of water bounce out of the bowl when you urinate? How far up your legs do you think they reach? Philip?"

10:26 AM

"Were there nuts in that, Philip? How many doorknobs did you touch before you washed your hands?"

11:12 AM

"Is that asbestos?"

12:02 PM

"You touched the zipper pull after you touched your genitals, Philip."

1:19 PM

"How many people will die if this system fails?"

2:47 PM

"Is there a good reason not to wash your face after you sneeze?"

2:55 PM

"Does carbon monoxide have a smell?"

3:11 PM

"She saw you looking, Philip."

3:57 PM

"Should you be touching that? After all the other things you've touched since you last sanitized?"

4:06 PM

"If you cared, you'd tell them to stop smoking."

4:43 PM

"Are you going to go to bed without showering, after sitting on that disgusting toilet seat? Philip?"

5:05 PM

"You spilled a few drops. You'd better get some paper towels. Quickly."

5:09 PM

"Is that mold?"

6:01 PM

"You missed a hair on your chin this morning, Philip. Everyone noticed."

6:30 PM

"You were very cruel to him, when you were children. Do you think he still remembers?"

6:50 PM

"What does the containment breach alarm sound like?"

7:44 PM

"Can you remember your mother's face, Philip? Can you remember your father's face?"

8:08 PM

"I wonder if anyone really sees you, or just the mistakes you've made."

8:54 PM

"Did you turn the tablet off before you locked it up?"

8:59 PM

"Is it too late to call her and clarify, Philip? She might have been insulted."

9:21 PM

"Aren't you forgetting something?"

9:51 PM

"Isn't that embarrassing, Philip? You haven't thought about it in years."

10:16 PM

"I wonder what that sounded like from the hallway."

11:30 PM

"Do you think he's depressed? He shouldn't be alone if he's depressed. Maybe you should call EPAU. But what if he's not depressed?"

11: 59 PM

"Wasn't it someone's birthday today?"


13 July


5:34 AM

"Good night, Philip."


2013


23 November


5:34 PM

"So, a candle-lit dinner for three, huh?" JM3208, Jessie MacCrum was short, well-rounded, red-haired and brown-eyed. She was frowning at the mirror next to his dining nook table.

"Sorry." He set down the plates of fresh cooked lobster he'd spent nearly a month begging, pleading, and bribing the kitchen staff for. "We're a package deal."

"Does it always stare at you like that?"

"No," he chuckled, setting the table. "Sometimes he roars, or screams. Occasionally he hums or sings, if you catch him on a good day. Not that anyone but me can hear it."

"It's revolting." She didn't even sound interested, which was amazing given her word choice. "Does it watch you in the bathroom? Does it watch you sleep at night?"

"Yes and yes." He pulled out her chair, and they both sat down. She was still staring at the mirror; he snapped his fingers. She blushed, and looked down at the lobster.

"She blushes well, don't you think, Philip?"

"Can't you just get rid of it?" She delicately excavated the lobster shell.

"Nope. Better minds than mine have tried."

She wrinkled her nose, swallowing a portion of dearly-bought crustacean flesh. "You should at least cover it up, then. It's disgusting."

He raised both eyebrows. "I can't cover him up. He doesn't like it." He hadn't meant to emphasize the him, but there it was.

"Who cares?"

"Literally every living thing in this Site," he said. "Like I told you at the orientation." There was an edge creeping into his tone, now, and he wasn't really trying to suppress it. "He screeches like it's the end of the world if he can't see me." He hadn't even gotten a bite in, yet.

"Wow. I've got competition, huh?"

He smiled. Things were back on track. "Being admired from afar only gets you so… far." He was muttering by the time the sentence ended, and carving up his lobster.

She laughed.

"This is your big chance," Doug growled.

Phil turned to stare at him.

"What's it saying?"

He looked back at her. "He's talking nonsense. He does that a lot."

She poked at her biscuit. "So, tell me about yourself."

"Get it right, Philip. You won't get a second shot."

"What?" said Phil.

She looked up. "I said, tell me about — you're looking at the mirror again."

It was his turn to blush. "Sorry. Yeah. Oh, uh, I dunno. Not much to say for myself, lately."

"Lately," Doug repeated. It was almost, almost, a scoff.

"Uh… technically I'm a supervisor!" He grinned. "Staff of one."

She smiled politely. "Do you have to submit reports to yourself?"

"Say the right thing," said Doug. "Make the right impression."

"Hey," she said. "I'm over here."

He forced himself to look at her. He was having trouble breathing. "Sorry."

"I think you're already at the first date limit for apologies," she said.

He nodded. "Doug's really distracting me right now."

"She's the last one, Philip. Don't fuck this up, the way you fuck everything else up."

In spite of himself, he gaped at the mirror. "Buddy," he said. "Sock it?"

Socket. He does look like a —

There were fingers on his chin. She turned his face back towards hers. "If you two would rather be alone…?"

"You'll always be alone, Philip. If you fuck this up."

His head was throbbing. His heart was pounding. His words were frantic. "Tell me… uh… what… how long have you worked…?"

She put down her fork. "I have a pretty high threshold for awkwardness," she said. "But you've crossed it about five times in the last five minutes."

"Alone," said Doug. "Always."

"What's it saying?"

"I'm so fucking sick of people asking me that."

She blinked. "What?"

"Eleven years, people are non-stop asking me 'What's he saying?' They've got me recording him, recording him, because he turns up on tape if I'm the one who hits the button. But that's not good enough! They need real-time updates. 'What's the goober monster saying, Phil?' 'What did he say, Phil?' 'What's he talking about, Phil?' He's a fucking goober monster! He's not saying anything important!"

She pushed her plate into the middle of the table. "It's not saying anything at all, at the moment. Don't look at it."

He stared at her. Her eyes bled cold fury. "Don't look at it. This is OUR date, and I'm doing you a favour. Don't look at it."

"Last chance, Philip."

"If you look at that fucking corpse monkey one more time, I'm going to walk out of here and tell everyone I saw how your bald spot looks under candlelight."

Suddenly very calm, he turned theatrically to face the mirror.


2015


1 May


5:34 PM

They blew past Identification and Technocryptography, headed for Egress Point Alpha at Grand Bend Station. The train was an automated special: two cars, two riders, no conductor, and two bulging suitcases.

Azad Banerjee was leaving Site-43.

"I'll be back from time to time," he said. "We'll be liaising with 43 for a lot of technical stuff, Dr. Lillihammer's one of the top security gurus in North America."

Phil nodded miserably, hoping the misery wasn't too obvious. "Site-01," he said. "Overwatch. I don't know how you swung it."

Azad laughed. "Might've had something to do with my sixteen years long service, you think?"

Phil stuck his tongue out.

"Yeah, sorry, should've thought that through before I said it." He picked up a backpack from the seat beside him and pulled out a PDA. "Anyway, I wanted to show you something." He pressed the power button. "Call it a going-away present."

"Here friend is fleeting," said Doug from the subway window, backgrounded by flashes of girders and railings.

Azad shuffled over to sit directly beside Phil. "Check this out." He was in the guts of 43NET, the maintenance backend; once again Phil marveled at the speed of the ISSS routers. Azad pounded out a few familiar lines of code.

.seen ABanerjee

The response came instantly:

I last saw ABanerjee at 4:49 PM in the Habitation and Sustenance Section, Inter-Sectional Subway System Station.

Phil frowned. "Is that because… they deactivated your employee ID?"

Azad shook his head, pulling a lanyard out of his jumpsuit. Phil still hadn't gotten used to the lanyards; he hadn't gotten used to the jumpsuits, either. They brought up bad memories. "Nope. ID's still good 'til midnight. I'm trusted folk." He started tapping again.

.seen PEDeering

Phil had never been a fan of his initials. Kids on the schoolyard had been.

I last saw PEDeering at 4:50 PM in the Habitation and Sustenance Section, Inter-Sectional Subway System Station.

"Here man is fleeting," said Doug.

"What the fuck?" said Phil. He glanced at the ceiling; there was a security camera. There were two security cameras; S&C didn't dick around. "How did you do that? You did that, right?"

Azad nodded. He tapped out one last line of code:

.seenDTBMH PEDeering

I last saw PEDeering at 5:38 PM in the Inter-Sectional Subway System, Car S22.

"The fuck is that command? DT…BMH? What does that stand for?"

Azad shrugged. "No clue. But here's what it does: it circumvents location spoofing in 43NET."

Phil stared at the blue text on the screen. "Location spoofing."

"Yup." Azad reached into his jumpsuit breast pocket and pulled out a slip of paper. "Instructions," he said. "In case you feel the need for some privacy. Burn it, or eat it, or whatever floats your boat, you freak." He grinned.

Phil took the paper gingerly. "How did you figure this out?"

The grin expanded. "Dr. Lillihammer is a good friend."

As Phil was about to respond, the train shuddered to a stop. "Now arriving at: Grand Bend Station. Doors will open on the left."

They did.

"Here kinsman is fleeting," said Doug.


6:04 PM

The train hurtled along the black tunnel, mindless but intent. Phil sat very still in his seat. Doug watched him wordlessly from the window; together, they listened to the screeching of the wheels on the track, the galloping of the floor panels and the squeaking of the connective accordions.

"Now arriving at: Habitation and Sustenance Station. Doors will open on the right."

Phil stood up, slowly.

"All the foundation of this world turns to waste," Doug remarked casually.


9 September


5:27 AM

He flicked on the lights and glanced at the antique alarm clock on his bedside table. 3:16 AM. He watched his reflection sigh in the mirror, and the glass of the clock face, too.

…?

He searched the mirrors on the walls, suddenly aware of his beating heart and pounding pulse. He rolled out of bed and walked to the washroom. The door was open, as it usually was; the mirror, unusually, was empty.

He walked into the kitchenette, scanning the high-gloss refrigerator, the microwave oven, the coffee maker. He opened the cutlery drawer in a half-blind panic. He opened the fridge and pulled out a plastic sleeve of cola, dropping each bottle on the ground one by one. Two of them split, and started leaking. He ignored them.

"Doug?" he said. He didn't recognize the emotion in his voice.

He ran to the washroom. Nothing on the shiny metal shower frame. Nothing on the shiny metal faucets, the shiny metal toilet lever, the shiny tiled floor. Nothing.

"…Doug?"

He stared at his own slowly blurring face in the mirror, and marveled at the sudden tightness in his chest.


5:31 AM

He clapped the lights on and glanced at the digital alarm clock on his bedside table. 5:31 AM. He stared at the apparition in the mirror, sighed, and rolled out of bed.


11:40 AM

He frowned at the tablet. "What?"

"Problem?"

Dr. Blank was leaning on the doorframe of his research lab, arms crossed. He looked… bored?

"Hey," said Phil. "Uh. I've got a work order to fix Dr. Zlatá's computer? Apparently the OS is outputting Croatian, and apparently he doesn't speak Croatian. But when I search for his office, it comes up Acroamatic Abatement. Which is…"

"Nonsense."

"Yeah, exactly. Uh. So, I do a .seen on Dr. Zlatá, and it says he's in Low-Yield Cold Storage?" He looked up. "Is 43NET having a fit today, or am… I…?"

Phil wasn't sure what to make of the look on Dr. Blank's face. "You can wipe that request. Adrijan walked into AcroAbate yesterday during the breach; scheduling fuckup. Turned him into…"

Phil suddenly realized he'd misjudged the man's expression. He also suddenly realized he recognized it.

He'd last seen it thirteen years ago, on Dr. Bradbury's last day of work.

"So… uh. Not employed here anymore, then."

Blank nodded weakly. "Yeah, he's dead. Or something worse… it's kinda hard to tell, what with… yeah. At the very least he's moved on from computer-related problems."

"How did he even get in there? The whole site's supposed to be locked down!"

Blank threw both hands up. "I don't know. His credentials were all fucked up in the system, and I guess his ID badge was set up for AcroAbate. Hiring and Regulation apparently assigned him to quarters in there, if you can believe it. Quarters in the Sorcery Sewer! Bad fucking joke."

He paused, peering at Phil. "You getting enough sleep?"

"Since when?" Phil asked, scrolling to the next task on his tablet. "2002?"


2019


9 January


11:40 AM

Phil set the panel aside and crawled beneath the console. I hate this custom shit. Ooh, look at me, I'm a scientist. I need computer-walls that look like something out of Star Trek or I can't do my job.

"Are you claustrophobic, Philip?"

There was a crawlspace behind the console, and Phil realized with a sinking feeling that the components he was meant to work on were some ten feet into it.

"Fuck you, Matt Jefferies," he muttered, and he crawled all the way in.

"I just think it's sad. H&R screws up, and poor Zlatá has to turn into lemons every year forever."

Dr. Wettle's voice. William Wettle was, in Phil's opinion, a doofus. He'd settled on that term after some consideration; anything stronger seemed mean, anything softer didn't quite capture the man's blasé emptyheadedness.

"I'm not saying it's not sad, Willie. I'm saying we can't do anything about it." That was Dr. Blank; this was Dr. Blank's office.

"Okay, but listen. Adrijan didn't die in 2002, he died in 2015! Saving him shouldn't screw up the time loop."

"We don't know that! All we know is that seven dead people come back to life every year, just in time to die again, and all of reality changes if we don't let them. We need to follow the script, year after year, or we're all fucked."

Phil froze.

"You don't think Noé wishes he could change what happened? Save his two techs? Remember what happened the one time he tried?" Blank was clearly exasperated.

"But what about Deering?"

Yeah, what about Deering?

"He doesn't have to go into the containment cell every year, get gunk sprayed on him, and pick up a new mirror monster! He's outside the loop!"

"Willie, as far as we know, if someone else went into that containment cell we'd get a Class-CK event where the mirror monster glommed onto them instead, and Phil got to live a normal life. But that's not the world we fucking live in. The world we fucking live in has an unstable time loop that makes us LARP as ourselves annually, and thirteen out of fourteen of us have learned to fucking deal with it — and seven of us, forgive the repetition, are dead."

Phil couldn't breathe, and it had nothing to do with the tight space.

"Alright, alright. It was just a thought."

"Debatable."

"Look, you won already. Wanna get lunch?"

Their arguing voices faded away, but it was some time before the tightness in Phil's chest receded enough for him to crawl back into the office.


14 February


1:56 PM

Site-43 had an uneven track record with holidays. There had never been Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan or Diwali events, the occasional civic long weekend produced the occasional desultory party, and birthdays were usually observed to some extent. Anything with fireworks was out, of course — minus the annual display in AAF-D. The closest thing to an official festivity happened every year on February 14: the orientation for January's new hires.

Azad Banerjee had once speculated that the Chairs and Chiefs simply wanted to dodge the emotional bullet that was Valentine's Day. Staring at the crop of confused, fresh-faced technicians in a cluster at the centre of the cafeteria, Phil was inclined to agree. They were a polyglot bunch, drawn as all Foundation employees were from a worldwide pool of qualified candidates. All shapes and sizes, genders, ethnicities… the only things they had in common were orange jumpsuits and technical proficiencies of one stripe or another.

The supervisors and foremen were sitting behind tables and stacks of paper, or leaning against counters, or dragging chairs into circles to organize their shifts. Phil was standing beside a mirror, waiting.

One by one, the new recruits wandered over to awkwardly greet him and his constant companion. They'd been told to do this before leaving the orientation; since 2003 Phil had been present for each and every one of these "ceremonies," for every Section, carefully explaining his teleporting pattern screamer so that nobody walked in on them in the washroom and —

"Hi! Are you Philip E. Deering?"

The face in front of him was unbelievably fresh. He couldn't imagine how he'd failed to pick her out of the crowd. She was a bit shorter than him, her hair was limp and messy, and her eyes were the size and shape of an avocado.

"That would be disgusting," said Doug. "She isn't disgusting. Not like you."

She certainly wasn't. She had sharp-edged oval lips, an elaborate bulb nose, and the most provocative eyebrows he'd ever seen. Her eyes were blue-green, and they fairly sparkled. There were freckles on her nose and cheeks. Her tee-

"What's he saying? I bet you get that a lot, sorry." She was pointing at the mirror.

Her voice was low, soothing, perhaps a little hoarse. He was fascinated. He was staring. "Uh. He says you aren't disgusting."

She laughed. He felt quite sick. "Well, tell him he's not disgusting either."

"Nobody's ever told him that before."

She beamed up at him. "Everybody should treat him better, then. He looks like he needs a friend."

"Just the one."

Her smile put on the high beams; his every muscle was suddenly restless. She stuck out one thin-fingered hand. "Fine, I'll be your friend instead. My name's Amelia."


15 April


10:12 AM

"Can he read your mind?"

Phil nodded as they rounded the corner. "Yeah, I think so. He usually knows what I'm thinking about."

"That's so cool." She looked down at her tablet; he gently steered her out of the way of two S&C agents who were stalking down the hallway like they were on a mission. "If they made him J&M Chief, you wouldn't even need to make reports every day."

"I barely need to do that now. They've taken me off every duty that requires an ounce of effort, energy or intelligence."

"Failing downward, Philip."

She poked him in the stomach. "That's what you get for hiding your gifts."

"You have no gifts," said Doug.

Amelia pointed at the mirror as it trailed away behind them, then swung the finger around to point at the next one as Doug popped into it. "He said you have no gifts, right?"

Phil raised an eyebrow. "How did you know?

"It's what you don't want him to say."

He raised the other eyebrow. "How do you know that?"

She flashed him another of her upsetting grins. "I can read your mind, too."


2 May


7:27 PM

He admired the watch. "Swiss Army?"

She nodded, excitedly. "They're supposed to be really good. Last you a good long while."

"Seems unnecessary," said Doug.

He wrapped the band around his right wrist and rotated it back and forth until the skin settled right. "Thanks," he said. It came out somewhat strangled. "I love it." His voice almost, almost caught before the last word; he would've lost his mind, if it had.

"Well, I know it's hard to keep a sense of time, underground. And you never leave, so…" She bit her lip.

He waved it off. "No, you're right, I'm a lifer." He picked up a cookie from a plate on the table. "This is the best birthday I can remember, Amelia."

"This is the only birthday you can remember, Philip."

"Let me guess," she said, pointing.

"Please don't. Just assume you're right."

"I always do!" She walked to his refrigerator; he tried not to watch.

"You might as well look, Philip. You'll never get to touch."

He pressed a fist into the mirror on the table. It fell over backward; Doug planked.

"Violent, filthy old man," the apparition hissed.

Amelia came back, holding a bottle of cola. "Wanna play Trivial Pursuit?"

He stared at her. "I don't see a board anywhere."

"Oh, screw the board." She reached into a jumpsuit pocket — she was never not wearing that jumpsuit — and withdrew a deck of cards. "I play by my own rules."


21 June


8:29 PM

"Pickle?"

He took it. "Why not."

She bit the end off hers, and talked around it. "I think you're supposed to say 'thanks, but no thanks', or something."

He nodded, biting the end off the second pickle. "But then I wouldn't have a pickle."

She snorted. "What a pickle that would be."

He glared at her. "Friends don't let friends make puns."

"She's not your friend."

He looked down at the face of his watch, which contained a face, which was watching him. She bought me this watch. Your argument is invalid.

"What're you working on today?" she mumbled, mouth full of crushed cucumber.

"They're building a new treatment tank in AAF-C. To melt down people who talk with their mouths full."

She guffawed with her mouth closed; it was a largely nasal expression. She swallowed. "Asshole."

"She's so young, Philip. Too young for you."

She picked at the packet of crackers on the table, trying to separate the plastic. "Soup's gonna be cold before I figure this out. Useless clammy hands."

He beckoned. "Gimme."

"You're old, Philip."

She handed him the packet, and he deftly tore it open.

"And she feels sorry for you."

"My hero," she said, dumping crumbs into the soup.

"You're forty-two, Philip. You'll be dead before she gives you a second look."

"You ever go out on dates?" she asked, poking at the crackers with her spoon.

"What?" he said, startled. He felt a sharp pain in his left arm, and pulled the jumpsuit sleeve up to scratch at it.

"Dates," she said. "I've never seen you with anybody." She looked up, met his eyes, and smiled sweetly. "I know all the girls in the Section, I could set you up with somebody."

"Was it fun, Philip? While it lasted?" His arm was really starting to ache.

"Not that bitch MacCrum, obviously. Somebody nice."

He opened his mouth to say something, but the air suddenly wasn't there.

"Somebody nice," she repeated, looking back down at her soup. "Just let me know what you're looking for, and I'll make it work."

He blinked. His eyes were filling with tears, which was infuriating, but he was also starting to feel hot and a little dizzy, which was… worrying.

"You're going to die alone, Philip."

"You shouldn't be alone at your age, is all." She stopped, looking up sharply with wide, worried eyes. "I didn't mean it that way! I… Phil? Are you alright?"

His entire body was tingling. He clutched at his chest. Ohhhhh, fuck.

"She's not worth it, anyway," said Doug. "Because you're not worth it."

Amelia stood bolt upright, shaking the table and spilling her soup everywhere. She slapped at the microphone on her shoulder, and shouted: "H&P to H&S Cafeteria SL4! Philip Deering's having a heart attack!"

As his vision darkened, he heard Doug's sombre voice with surprising clarity.

"Philip? Are you feeling alright?"


31 June


6:49 PM

"You should volunteer at a retirement home. You're great with old men."

"Shut up," she grunted, helping him onto the bed and laying his crutches against the bedstand. "You're not old."

It felt good to lie on his own mattress, after a week in Health and Pathology. It felt less good to have Amelia Torosyan looking down at him with an expression of concern, the look he'd seen on his mother's face when his grandfather had lain on his deathbed.

"This is how she'll remember you, Philip. When you're gone."

"You'd better take off," he said. "The Chief'll wonder where you are."

"If she remembers you at all."

Amelia shook her head. "The Chief knows where I am. Because of where I'm not." Her voice grew quieter at the end of the sentence, as though she'd recognized a misstep too late.

He looked at her quizzically. She flushed. "You should get some sleep. I'll have my radio on all night if you need anything." She sidled towards the door, rocking on her heels for a moment. "Or you just want to talk."

And she was gone.

After a while, when he was fairly certain he could take it, he reached over to the table and picked up his PDA. Amelia had turned it off, but he still had 43NET up and running within a few minutes.

43NET Bulletins
Attention, all sections: Per a request from Hiring and Regulation, we will be discontinuing the Employee of the Month Awards effective 06/31/2019. JM4414, Amelia Torosyan, will be the final recipient in recognition of her quick thinking during JM64's cardiac episode last week. [06/26/2019]

He didn't know whether to laugh or cry, so he did both.


19 July


4:47 PM

Dr. Allan McInnis was English. He always wore a simple, long-sleeved white dress shirt with black dress pants. He was gaunt, vaguely smug-looking, and his smiles rarely reached his eyes. This was the sum total of what Phil knew about him, save that he was Director of Site-43.

That final fact was the only thing which mattered to Phil at the moment.

"It's just that I have seniority," he said. The director nodded, hands clasped on top of his expensive oak desk, smiling what he probably thought was an encouraging smile. "I've been here twenty-one years, longer than anyone in the Section except Chief Nascimbeni."

"That's why I'm seeing you." McInnis leaned back in his chair. "You've done a lot for us, so I owe you at least a brief hearing."

Phil didn't like the sound of that. "You're trapped," said Doug, from the gloss of the director's desk nameplate.

"I have seniority," he repeated. "If the Chief is retiring, I don't see why I shouldn't be considered."

McInnis pursed his lips. "You mean besides the fact that you have an active anomaly dogging your footsteps twenty-four seven."

Phil nodded, not breaking eye contact. "Yes. Besides that."

This won a smaller smile; smaller, but more genuine. "You really think you can handle all that responsibility, with your… disadvantage?"

"He's hardly a disadvantage, sir. I've lived with him for nearly two decades. He's more like… a second conscience, by now. He notices things I don't. He's got a good eye for detail." He grimaced. "To the extent that he has eyes."

"Preserved in amber," said Doug. "Like a bug."

McInnis paged through the personnel file. "I don't see any commendations."

Phil felt a tightness in his throat. "No, sir. I haven't had many opportunities to prove myself, this past… little while." He suddenly felt hot; hot and embarrassed.

"Well, paperwork isn't everything." McInnis closed the file. "Maybe you'll get Employee of the Month in April, and we'll have something for your dossier."

Phil blanched. "H&R cancelled those last year. Amelia… Torosyan, got the last one."

The director glanced at his watch. "Ah. Yes. Well. We'll certainly keep your application on file."


25 August


6:01 PM

She was speaking all in a rush.

"I don't even know! I don't even know. I guess I have to requisition some filing cabinets? Or… no! He'll have filing cabinets in his office. My office! Will I get to use his filing cabinets? Do you think?"

Phil shrugged. "I'm sure he's not attached to them."

She was hopping up and down. "Oh, wow, I honestly can't believe it. This is ridiculous! Don't you think it's ridiculous?!"

He smiled in spite of himself. "No, I think you're ridiculous."

"She thinks you're ridiculous, too."

Amelia grinned at him, slyly. "Watch it, mister." Before he could respond, she lunged in close and hugged him fiercely.

By the time he came to his senses and clasped her back with both hands, she was already letting go. The look on her face was —

"Embarrassment," said Doug.

"Had to do that," she said, looking away quickly. "Won't be able to do it again, since I'm gonna be your boss."

He was grateful for her frazzled state of mind, because there was no way, simply no way, he could conjure up an appropriate response for that.


2020


7 September


Phil reached for his toothbrush… he tapped the pipe thoughtfully… her smile was the second-worst thing which had ever happened to him… the kiss seemed to go on forever…


8 September


She and Niemenin swept out of her office together… there were dark bags under her eyes… Phil picked up the envelope and opened the flap… he tried to throw the file across the room…

He grabbed his PDA from the table, and headed for the door.


6:01 PM

A few quick commands, and nobody would ever know he'd left his room. Not until it was too late.

He wasn't quite sure where he was going, but he knew he had to go somewhere. By the time he'd reached the locked door to the I-Triple-S station, however, he had something of a plan in mind.

He had keys. He used them.

"Where are we going, Philip?" The apparition glared up at him from his wristwatch, which he'd rotated to face inward. The last thing he needed was for Doug to fuck everything up by screeching.

"We're going back where it started," he said. "We're going to…" He trailed off.

There had once been two ISSS stops near Phil's quarters: one for Habitation and Sustenance, and one for AAF-D. When they'd finally decommissioned the thing in 2015, the extra station had been shuttered as well. Phil knew there would be no trains running now, with the lockdown in place; he also knew his J&M keycard would get him into AAF-D from the abandoned station, so he wouldn't have to walk through the main airlock.

Amelia would be standing there, waiting for her part in the annual drama. Chief Nascimbeni's part, really; the time loop made no allowance for the ravages of… time.

"Would it be so bad to see her again?"

He felt momentarily weak.

"What are you planning, Philip?"

He walked to the subway platform and, grimacing, sat down over the edge. It was a six-foot drop to the tracks, and he had to aim carefully. He didn't want to step on the electrified rail, even in his rubberized workboots; he didn't really want to break an ankle, either.

"Philip? What are you planning?"

The impact hit him like a planet traveling nine-point-two metres per second. He felt it all the way up and down his bones. For an instant he thought he had broken something; for ten seconds, he thought maybe he'd broken everything.

After fifteen seconds he stood shakily up, and started walking down the tunnel.


6:12 PM

It was a long, cold, dark walk, and Doug was speechless the entire time. Phil was thinking about the file; he was thinking, in particular, about Dr. Falkirk's marginal notes. The man had been obsessed, going over every experiment report, annotating the Special Containment Procedures with his doubts about Phil's significance to the anomaly — even a janitor knew you weren't supposed to do shit like that.

One phrase in particular had stuck with him. He couldn't get it out of his head.

Further experimentation is indicated.

When they reached the AAF-D platform, the apparition broke its silence.

"How do you intend to get back up?"

Phil blew out a long breath. He'd only ever used the ISSS as a rider — it had its own dedicated techs — so he didn't know where the maintenance access was. He was now at track level, six feet below the platform, and he had no clue how he was going to get up there without having another heart attack.

He heard the unmistakable click of a keycard reader from somewhere ahead.

He ran to the platform and leapt.


6:16 PM

Who? Who could it be?

He was lying on the platform, wheezing. Even with a burst of adrenaline, it was no mean feat for an out-of-shape man of forty-three to hurl himself bodily up a six-foot wall. He took a deep breath and sat up, nearly passing out immediately. He shook his head. Deep, wracking breaths.

He had to find out who that was.

"Philip? Why are we here?"

"We're here," he clambered to his feet, "because I'm at the end of my rope." He walked past the empty checkpoint to a keycard-locked door plastered with all manner of warning signs in five languages. "I'm gonna check out the containment cell, see if I've got a time clone, and get him out of the magic doppelganger factory."

You don't really mean that. Do you really mean that?

"And what if you get checked out, instead? End up as a pile of lemons?"

He clenched his jaw. "Lemons don't have nightmares. Lemons don't have to mop. Lemons don't have…" His throat caught.

"Lemons don't have loved ones?"

He stopped for a moment, then reached into the neck of his jumpsuit and pulled out the lanyard.

"If you die, what happens to her?"

He leaned forward and inserted the keycard; "Philip E. Deering." Click.

"What does she want, Philip?"

"She wants her big-chinned boyfriend, and the job she's fantastic at, and she deserves both of them." He paused. "Well, probably she deserves a better boyfriend. He's a prick."

"And you aren't? What will she think about the man who killed her best friend?"

That brought him up short. "Go on."

Silence.

He raised the watch, the watch she'd given him, up to his face. "Go on," he repeated.

"You're selfish."

He stared at it.

"You're old, Philip. Older than your flabby body. Used up, worn out, not much good for anything. For anybody. One human being in all the world loves you, and you're going to risk destroying her just because you're in a mood."

He opened his mouth to say something, but it just hung there uselessly.

"She might never have met you, if you'd never met me."

He wiped at his eyes with his jumpsuit sleeve. "You don't know that. You don't know anything. Anything I don't know."

"I always knew you were like this. Self-absorbed. Full of your own problems. You never really cared about anyone but yourself."

"Bullshit," Phil snapped. "Every other word out of your fucking ugly face is designed to guilt-trip me. I spend most of every day worried about everyone but myself!"

"If you think about people so much, Philip, why don't you understand them? Why don't you understand them at all, Philip? Why don't you understand her?"

"THIS ISN'T ABOUT HER!" He felt ridiculous, shouting at his own wrist. "You can't just live for other people! There has to be something in it for YOU." He punched the tiled wall, hard, with the palm of his other hand. "For me."

"There's always something, Philip."

He blinked. "There's always something. Sure. But is there always enough?"

"There's always enough, Philip. You just refuse to reach out for it. That was in the file."

He stared at the two-faced watch for a moment more, then slumped down against the wall beside the door. "I don't know," he said, pulling his knees to his chest. "I don't know. The file also said they were actively encouraging people to… ask me out. What if… what if that's why she…"

He unstrapped the watch and laid it on his knee.

"Objectify her, Philip. Alienate her agency. Don't ask her how she feels, assume. Don't ask her what she wants, assume. Don't look too close, don't press too hard, assume the worst and piss away your sad, pointless existence. Just like you always have. Because you're afraid."

They examined each other in the dim fluorescence for what felt like an eternity.

"I notice you're not making a case for yourself, here, buddy."

Doug blinked. "You are the case for myself, Philip."

For a moment, he wanted to smash the watch against the wall. For a moment, he wanted to cry.

On the third moment, he swiped the watch off his knee and stood up. "Fuck whoever's in there. They've got access, they know what they're doing. Maybe they're trying to get their own… mirror… monster…"


"Most of us spend our entire lives wondering what makes us special," said Niemenin, "but you've got an all-day, every-day reminder right here. What more could a man ask for?"


"Oh, no," Phil breathed. He turned and yanked open the door.


6:19 PM

AAF-D was silent as a tomb. There was a musty scent; the facility had been decommissioned for five years, and even with atmospheric systems set to compensate for the absence of human attention or alien effluence there was a lot of dust and a lot of very stale air.

Phil reattached the watch and took out his PDA. The apparition immediately popped into view. "Fuck off, Doug. We've only got two minutes to find him, if I'm right."

"You've only got two minutes regardless." Doug disappeared from the screen.

Phil called up the command line.

.seen NNiemenin

I last saw NNiemenin at 5:58 in the Habitation and Sustenance Section, Room 415.

"Bullshit. Fucking computer people." He typed again:

.seenDTBMH NNiemenin

I last saw NNiemenin at 6:20 in Acroamatic Abatement Facility AAF-D, concentration cell.

"Of course," he breathed. "The fucking idiot." He started running.

The world changed.

The copper pipes were alive with painted colour. The floor tiles, the ceiling tiles, the wall panels, the lighting, everything was different. Someone had snapped their fingers, or wiggled their magic noses, and poof! the past had overridden the present entirely. He was in Acroamatic Abatement circa 2002 again, again.

He wasn't going to freeze up, this time.

As he rounded a tight corner, he nearly plowed into an olive-skinned man in an old-style J&M uniform. "Hey, Phil!" said Ambrogi, cheerfully. "You're looking tired today."

Phil didn't have time to lose his mind, or even to stop running, so instead he said "Hey, Romolo! Have a nice day!" and kept moving. Ambrogi ducked into the control room.

He had only the vaguest idea of where he was going, now; he knew where Niemenin had been in 2020, but it took some serious mental arithmetic to work out what that corresponded to in faux-2002.

"You don't know what you're doing, Philip."

"I do, actually," he wheezed. He wasn't used to running; he hadn't had much cause to keep in shape, so he hadn't. "Niemenin was in the refitted concentration cell. He thought he could take my place, get himself a free mirror monster from the time loop." He shook his head; if that was really what was happening, he had some serious questions for the man. "But the cell was moved in 2011, so he's in the wrong place. Too smart for his own good. I'll bet he's already completely los-"

BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM

He looked at his watch.

Doug blinked back at him.

"6:22, Philip. You'd better hurry."


6:22 PM

He saw Ana Mukami, one of the S&C agents, eighteen times as he bolted through the corridors. She hadn't even died yet; he'd seen the camera feeds once, and it had been hard to wrap his head around. The entire facility started filling up with Xeroxed copies of her around 6:21, wafer-thin, life-sized and upright, all of them stock still and screaming silently. He actually ran into one of them, accidentally; it blew apart like a sheet of ashes. When she did die, in less than four minutes, he wouldn't be able to see the pipes for the Mukamis.

He could barely see the pipes as it was. For a moment they had been madly cycling through all the colours of the rainbow, and a few he'd never seen before which made his thigh start itching. Now they were bright white and vibrating, pulsating, visibly straining to escape the bounds of their three-dimensional existence. There was a gelatinous orange tentacle snaking between them —

"DOWN," Doug screamed, and Phil dove.

A labcoat fluttered over his head, hanging from a man's flailing body. The man was being hauled into the pipes by the tentacle, and he was hollering; the words came out as text, tumbling down to shatter like black glass on the tiles.

Book Antiqua, he thought, hysterically.

"RUN," Doug screamed, and Phil ran.

"Is anyone in there?" Phil almost stopped at the sound of Amelia's voice reciting Chief Nascimbeni's line, the line which would cause Markey to pause in his flight from the facility and be killed. Fuck. That's awful. I hope she's alright. He clenched his fists and doubled his speed, somehow.

"LEFT." Phil juked, narrowly missing a roaring wave of steam which swept down the hallway towards the airlock. It had a date with Markey.

"RIGHT." Phil shoved off the wall, still running, as the floor beneath him suddenly snapped up to meet the ceiling.

"FASTER." Phil stopped breathing, ducked down and threw himself forward; he heard laughter, sweet and innocent and… green, behind him. He didn't dare look.

He did look at the middle-aged man who stood stock-still at the end of the corridor, holding a suitcase, gaping at the chaos. There was an actinic flash, the suitcase snapped open and Phil's eyes snapped shut; when he opened them, he was charging through a hailstorm of pink half-lemons…

…and struck a wall, hard, head-first. This would normally have been a problem, but the walls were now incredibly ductile. The surface absorbed him, like a massive sheet of rubber, and spat him back out onto his ass. He felt his tailbone implode as lemons and laundry scattered all around him, blue juice soaking the floor tiles, and he shouted in pain and frustration.

"DEERING?!"

Nils Niemenin was cowering against a line of translucent pipes, a crowd of Mukamis surrounding him like a chain of paper dolls. The pipes were filled with a heterochrome orange/green gas; there was so much not-ash swimming within that —

Phil scrambled forward, slipping and sliding on the tiles, and tackled Niemenin to the ground by his legs.

The pipes exploded, and for a moment there was nothing, literally nothing at all above them, just a vast, flat blue void. Ceiling tiles rained down, soaking their clothing and pooling around their bodies like…

…rain.

The void vanished and the corridor reappeared, sans ceiling. The top halves of the Mukami printouts were gone, and the bottom halves fluttered to the floor. They were bleeding.

Phil staggered to his feet, ignoring all the warning signals his body was throwing at him. He grabbed Niemenin by the armpit and hauled him against the wall.

"What," he wheezed, "the fuck."

The doctor's handsome face was streaked with tears. His mouth was twisting and untwisting furiously on his chiseled jaw. His sweat-soaked hair even sported a cowlick. Superman indeed.

"YOU!" Niemenin finally spat, shoving Phil back. "You and your FUCKING boyfriend!"

Phil looked both ways down the hallway, warily, as Niemenin adjusted his tie. "We need to get out of here."

Something hit him, hard, and he struck the tiles again. "Every god-damn day," Niemenin barked, rolling up his sleeves. "Phil-this and Phil-that. You'd think you were Harrison fucking Ford, or something." Niemenin clutched his jumpsuit by the zipper and swung him back to his feet. "Like there was nobody else in the world but Phil Deering, Philip E. Deering, the man with the mirror monster." He slammed Phil against a string of unbroken pipes. "Well, you know what you are, now! You might as well join the danse macabre and leave life to the living. She belongs to ME!"

"What?" Phil spluttered.

"DOWN," said Doug.

Phil dropped, dead weight, pulling Niemenin with him. Something bright and blue sliced through the air, splitting the pipes wide open. Music leaked out like treacle; he recognized it instantly. Tchaikovsky.

"We need to go," said Phil. He pulled his protesting bones up one more time, grabbed Niemenin's arm, and ran.


6:26 PM

"It's right here," said Phil, leading Niemenin by the hand. They swung roughly 'round the corner, collided with each other against the wall, and stumbled the last few steps to the vault door.

There was a glass case on the wall containing one canister of abatement fluid; Phil unlocked it, fumbling with the keys, and passed the canister to Niemenin. "Get in," he gasped. "We get in, we close the door, and we spray that shit all over… our…"

Dr. Falkirk was walking towards them, striding intangibly through a clattering, sparking stormcloud of airborne machinery and ruptured conduits. He was holding a scalpel. Clichés on clichés on clichés…

"Hello again, Mr. Deering," said the man who wasn't there. "Further experimentation is indicated."

Phil opened his mouth to say something rude, but stopped when the tank hit him in the back of the head.


6:27 PM

His ears were ringing, but he could still hear the vault door slamming shut like the tread of doom on plankwood.

"Philip. Get up."

He couldn't. "I can't."

"Philip. Get up."

He reached above him, blindly, and found the vault door handle with both hands. He pulled, desperately, hopelessly, and smeared his body against the convex surface. He couldn't breathe.

"Do you want me to go with him, Philip?"

"Falkirk…?" he muttered.

"No," said Doug.

He hung there for a moment, feeling the cool metal against his face, realizing that Niemenin at least was safe. Superman hit me with a jizz canister. The last son of Krypton's in the gunk tank. I'm sorry, Amelia. The thaumic overflow relief system was about to sweep AAF-D clean, drawing all the esoteric insanity into a series of vacuum conduits, incidentally obliterating in spectacular fashion anyone unfortunate enough to still be alive in the facility.

He stopped trying to pull himself up, and simply… did.

He raised the watch to his face.

"No," he said.

"No what?" said Doug.

"No, I don't want you to go with Niemenin."

The apparition blinked. "Why?"

"You fucking know why," he snapped. "You can read my fucking mind." He slumped against the vault door, barely keeping upright. He stared at the hands of the watch, behind Doug's head. Seconds to spare.

A thought occurred to him. "If you go with him, you'll be alright, won't you?"

No response. Doug's scars, all three, were trembling slightly.

"Won't you? We don't know what'll happen if you stay with me, when I…" He was crying, now. "God DAMMIT, Amelia, I'm sorry. Doug, I'm sorry. If you go with him, maybe you'll-"

A klaxon squawked awkwardly. Red lights were flashing overhead. It was time.

"Philip. The vault door."

He closed his eyes.

"Polish the vault door, Philip."

He opened his eyes. "What?"

"Polish the vault door, Philip. Use your jumpsuit." There was a series of loud BANGs, a series of loud SNAPs, and a low hiss filled the air. "Do it now."

Phil stared at the watch for a moment longer, then pulled his right sleeve up over the hand and furiously rubbed it against the matte grey door. The surface darkened gradually, then lightened as the emergency bulbs began reflecting.

"Faster, Philip. Faster."

He pushed his shoulder into the metal and heaved, pressing all his weight against it, buffing the dusky surface to a near-mirror sheen.

A near-mirror sheen…

A wall of steam and colour and fire and lightning and the sound of a lover's lament and the smell of wet cardboard and lavender and the memory of geometry and dozens of whirling Xeroxed Mukamis and an endless knotted string of flesh and gristle barreled down the hall towards him, and the walls pulsated like tin foil, and two bony grey arms burst out of the vault door and pulled him into the rough embrace of oblivion.


9 September


9:14 PM

He opened his eyes.

He was lying on his side, looking into an empty mirror. An empty mirror. He chuckled dryly; his tongue felt like sandpaper. Nobody but me sees it that way.

He was lying in a bed. Hospital.

He panicked.

"DOUG?!"

He flipped onto his back, the fear an icy clutch on his throat, a leaden weight in his stomach. "DOUG?! DOUG?!" He tossed onto his other side…

"Hello, Philip." There was a second mirror.

Phil was still catching his breath when a dour, unprepossessing woman in a labcoat bustled over to them. "The conquering hero awakes," she said.

He stared at her. "What?" He blinked. "Is Dr. Niemenin okay?"

Dr. Helena Forsythe, Section Chief of Health and Pathology, grinned humourlessly at him. "He is, unfortunately, thanks to you. Talk about your undiscerning acts of kindness. You know he told everyone you lured him into AAF-D to kill him? I thought about presenting that to you as the dominant theory, pretending to believe it, but I can see you're stressed out enough as it is." Her grin was wicked, sharp.

"I don't…" He took a breath. "What happened?"

She pointed at the mirror. "They found you next to one of those, a broken one, in the AAF-D control room. Your friend was looking over you from the shards still in the frame. I'd tell you what the security feed shows, but we both know your heart's not strong. Big, maybe, but not strong."

He remembered the vault door, and winced. "You're probably right." He looked around the room; his PDA and a large white envelope sat on a bedside tray.

He pointed at the envelope, eyebrows raised.

"Yep. That's for you."

He picked it up. One of those old drawstring deals; he started unwinding the string.

"You want a drumbeat?" she asked.

There was a single piece of thick card inside the envelope.

"Two hundred and fifty-one months," Doug remarked. "Much lower than four hundred and fifteen."

He didn't know what to say. He didn't know if he could say anything.

There was a tiny, typewritten note clipped to the corner:

Nothing official, you understand.
- A.J.M.

He rose up on his elbows, forcing the pillow back against the bedframe, and admired the certificate.

"Something for the sprog," said Dr. Forsythe. "Grampy was a good janitor."

He sighed. "Sprog. Yeah." He carefully slid the certificate back into the envelope and curled the drawstring over the fob. "So, uh… has anyone been in to see me?"

Forsythe was checking an ECG machine. He belatedly realized he was leaded up again; he'd nearly pulled a few out in his excitement. "Yeah, someone," she said vaguely. "Had to kick them out three times." She pointed at the PDA. "Maybe you'd better read up before you go looking for them."

He picked it up, and turned it on.

43NET Bulletins
Attention, all sections: Having completed his duties ahead of schedule, Dr. Nils Niemenin has departed from Site-43. In his short time at our facility he has done impressive work with the security systems, and we wish him the best of luck with his new posting at Site-17! [09/09/2020]

Attention, Chairs and Chiefs: Dr. N. Niemenin attempted to thwart security protocols for SCP-5243 (cascade containment breach/unstable time loop) yesterday evening, nearly resulting in his death. He spoofed the personnel tracking database through unknown means and redirected the cameras in Acroamatic Abatement Facility AAF-D to obscure his presence. Suspecting foul play beforehand, Dr. L. Lillihammer had already installed safeguards allowing her to independently monitor the facility; her full report has been filed with Security and Containment.

Dr. Niemenin has been removed from Site-43 by MTF Pi-43 ("Garbage In, Garbage Out") and remanded to temporary psychiatric care at Site-17.

Chief Amelia Torosyan (Janitorial and Maintenance Section) was preparing to file a formal complaint against Dr. Niemenin for harassment. According to the complaint, on 09/07/2020 Chief Torosyan broke off her romantic relationship with Dr. Niemenin via SCiPNET. He immediately requested a transfer from Site-19 to Site-43, ostensibly to undertake a computer systems upgrade for the Arms and Equipment and Acroamatic Abatement Sections. In actual fact he intended to resume his relationship with Chief Torosyan, and interfere with containment of SCP-5243. He refuses to divulge whether this action was intended to impress her in some way, or instead to end his life.

S&C Chief D. Ibanez theorizes that Dr. Niemenin lured Technician JM64, Philip E. Deering, to AAF-D in order to confront him. (In addition to acting as Deering's supervisor, Chief Torosyan is friendly with Deering; Dr. Niemenin's motive may have been jealousy.) He appears to have spoofed Deering's location as well to disguise this act. Video feeds show several altercations between the two, though Deering was apparently attempting to save his attacker's life. Dr. Niemenin has refused to comment on this aspect of the incident.

Chief Torosyan has requested, with Dr. Niemenin's agreement, that he be amnesticized so that the events of the past two years will no longer interfere with his duties. The Ethics Committee has approved this request, with the added stipulation that Dr. Niemenin be permanently barred from fraternization with Foundation personnel, placed on permanent notice for sexual harassment, implanted with a tracking chip, undergo therapy, and be subject to regular conduct reviews for the duration of his employment. Should his value to the Foundation as a security systems expert decline, more drastic measures may be taken.

JM64 is to be commended for his valiant performance under difficult circumstances. [09/09/2020]

He gawped at the screen, dumbstruck.

She seemed happier that day… she gasped, when she saw Niemenin… she looked at Phil, then looked away with a sudden smile… she seemed tired, worn-out, almost intentionally unkempt… she couldn't meet his eyes, but she kept trying… there was something she wanted to say to him, she was distracted, she was…

…she was…

…she dragged the pot of noodles in a circle on the tabletop, still massaging it with both hands; the soup tossed and swirled. "It must be great, having someone who knows exactly what you're thinking about."

He dropped the PDA onto the bedsheets. His hands were shaking.

Holy shit.


"Holy shit."

"Right? What an asshole."

"I don't… wait. Why did I even get that last message?" He picked up the PDA again, and showed Dr. Forsythe the screen.

She shrugged. "I guess McInnis CCd you. Probably a one-time deal; I wouldn't expect to get much Level 4 mail, going forward."

He shook his head. "I can't believe… god, poor Amelia." Sympathy and fury were fighting for control; sympathy was winning, but fury was putting up a good fight.

She nodded. "I wouldn't be surprised if she transferred to 43 to get away from him in the first place. Men like that don't know the meaning of the word 'no'."

His mind was racing. "That fucker," he said. "He kissed her."

She nodded again, a look of pure disgust on her face. "Of course he did. I'll bet she started writing the complaint in her head at that exact second. She gave him a whole day, kept up appearances for him, tried to let him keep his dignity and take it with him out of her life, but nope. Had to press the issue, do whatever he thought he was doing in the Sorcery Sewer."

"He was trying to take Doug." Phil looked at the mirror; the mirror looked back at him.

"Like I said, what an asshole. Wiping his mind? They should bring back that demotion to D-class thing. People like that don't change."

He looked down at the PDA, barely seeing it. "I can't believe I saved his life." There was something else on his mind, clamouring for attention, but it was too new, too huge, too terrific to even consider at the moment.

Dr. Forsythe patted him on the shoulder. "You saved his life because you," and she carefully began removing the ECG leads, "are not an asshole. And it hasn't gone unnoticed." She gestured at the tray again; a smaller envelope was sticking out from beneath the first one.

He tore it open, and started to laugh.

She looked down at the card. "Look who's popular, all of a sudden."

It was a custom job, printed on high-quality, high-brightness matte paper in colour ink. Dominating the front was a rather lame artistic representation of Doug, glaring gormlessly at him from what was presumably the frame of a mirror. He recognized it instantly, though he'd last seen the sketch eleven years prior. There was a caption, above and below: "GET WELL SOON! We'll be watching!"

It was signed. His eye was drawn immediately to the red squiggles by Doug's left shoulder, but through dint of great effort he forced himself to read the others first. There was a bad joke in bad taste from Eddie Simms ("Can I borrow 5056?"), an almost illegible dismissal from Dr. Blank ("Walk it off"), some unreadable chicken scratch from whoever "R" was, a misfired cliché from Dr. Sokolsky ("SHOOT FOR THE STARS"), and…

He bit his lip.

"Wuss," said the message in the top left corner. It was signed "Azad."

"Chief Torosyan brought that in. Contacted Site-01, had it shipped over with the sealed orders from Ethics. Passed it around for people to sign… she got your PDA from your hab unit, too."

"That was nice of her." That was nice of her. I hope she burned that fucking… file…

The thought vanished into his subconscious. There was no room left up front for anything but the final signature on the card.

He wondered if he really was going to have another heart attack.

Three symbols, red ink: ♥ A T

His hands were shaking again. "Can I get out of here?"


10:02 PM

He could breathe again, he could think again, he felt a weight lifted from the pit of his stomach as he walked into the cafeteria, and saw her.

Amelia Torosyan was sitting at the same table, under the same mirror, wearing the same jumpsuit and the same slicked-back hairstyle from the previous night. Her face was wall-to-wall redness and heavy black bags; if she'd slept at all, he couldn't see it.

Her eyes had already been fixed on the doorway, and his met hers across the empty room. The smile which broke across her face like the sun on a stormy day was the brightest, most welcoming thing he'd ever seen in his entire life.

He walked to the table, gesturing at it with one trembling hand. "Why are you sitting in the cafeteria, late at night, by yourself, with no food?"

Her eyes were shining, now. "I'm meeting someone." His heart almost broke at the sound of her voice; he'd never heard such plain, undisguised relief.

He sat down at the table, and they watched each other in silence for a moment. He wasn't sure where Doug was, but that was fine. He was around, somewhere near, and that was good enough.

Her hands were in her pockets.

He reached out with his own, tentatively, heart fluttering.

Without hesitation she placed the sleeves of her jumpsuit on the table, hands nestled in the cuffs.

He slid his fingers past the ridged fabric, and she turned her wrists, and their fingers entwined, and his hands stopped shaking, and hers became warm to the touch. He drew them out of the sleeves, clasping them close, and she stroked his palms with her fingertips.

Their shared gaze hadn't broken for more than an instant since he'd entered the room. She was positively glowing.

He caught a faint flicker in the mirror with his peripheral vision, and he heard Doug beginning to hum. It was a soft, comforting sound.

I'm off to my love with a boxing glove, ten thousand miles away.

She narrowed her eyes impishly, cocking her head to one side. "What's he saying?"

He didn't look at the mirror. He didn't know how he'd ever be able to look away from her ever again.

"He's not saying anything."

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