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Two figures trudge through a mountain valley in a foggy part of Ukraine at dusk, one complaining to the other.

"...I mean, abstractly, I knew temperatures this low existed, in laboratories, but I didn't know it was possible to be this cold. How much further? Can we stop? I think I'm dying." This is Rula. She isn't actually dying. She just hates weather. Of almost every variety.

Alexander thinks it isn't that cold, but doesn't say so. "If we stop now you'll just get colder. There's a cave coming up. It can't be more than a kilometre."

"Yes! Alex! And this mysterious cave! It was summer the last time you made this hike. There was sun! And, you know, visibility! I have never been this cold in my whole life. If we die of exposure I'm going to kill you."

"Look, it's not going to get too much worse today and it'll be better tomorrow. We find the cave, set up the stove, get warm, we'll be fine. We'll be fine! It's around behind these trees. We'll watch the stars. Tomorrow's going to be beautiful and sunny and we'll reach Skoliava by midday. It'll be all downhill."

"You said it'd be picturesque. I hate this. All I see is fog. And scrawny pine trees. We'll never find it."

Twenty minutes of relatively silent trudging elapse. Then, Alexander announces, "This is it." He points at an long, smoothed rut of cold dry mud just coming up ahead. "This is where I slipped over on the way down the hill last time around. We turn left here, and the cave's about two hundred metres up this track. We'd have been able to see it on the way down into the valley, if there wasn't any fog."

"I see a chocolate wrapper," says Rula, accusingly.

"Where?"

"There."

"Well, then," says Alexander, guiltily, picking it up and stuffing it in his pocket. "We know we're in the right place."

Another ten minutes later they have made it. Rula grudgingly admits that the cave, while dark, miserable and scary, at least offers protection from the elements. She climbs into her sleeping bag for warmth while Alexander gets the stove out and starts heating beans up. She is asleep by the time he's done, so he eats them all himself. Then he cuddles up to her and tries to get comfortable.

*

"Wake up."

Alexander flails around, unable to escape his sleeping bag. He makes primitive proto-human noises and screws up his eyes. It's still dark. Very dark, actually. He checks his watch and it is not yet seven in the morning.

"There's a tunnel," says Rula. "Do you see it? Inside the cave."

Alexander squints in the direction he knows Rula must be pointing. Some distance away in the depths of the cave is a very faint yellowish circle, the mouth of a man-sized tunnel illuminated from within by what must be a tiny incandescent bulb. The light is barely visible; in daylight it would have gone completely unnoticed.

"It's nothing," he lies. He actually has no idea what the tunnel is. All he knows is that he is still technically asleep, and wants to stay that way.

"It was there before," says Rula. She is holding his digital camera and apparently has flipped backwards through the photographs until she found the ones Alexander took when he was on the previous hike. "Here." She hands the camera over with the screen showing a photograph taken inside the cave. Two men in their fifties - Alexander's father and his uncle - are standing side by side smiling, in walking gear. There is camping equipment scattered around the place. The flash has lit up the interior of the cave behind them. The rim of the tunnel mouth is just about visible, if you know what you're looking for.

Alex compares the photograph with what he can see in front of him in reality. Same scenery. Same tunnel mouth. He and his father and uncle must have completely missed it last time through.

"So who built that?" asks Rula.

"It's six-forty in the morning," complains Alex, handing back the camera. "Go back to sleep."

"I can't sleep," says Rula. "It's too cold and there's humming."

"Humming." Alexander listens briefly. She's right. It's coming from the tunnel.

*

It's narrow, barely wide enough for a man to slide through sideways. There's a lot of dust and rubble on the floor around the mouth and going down into the interior-- whoever built it didn't clean up after themselves very carefully. A series of tiny light bulbs on twisted black wires is screwed into the ceiling at intervals of a few metres. There's enough light to see that the tunnel goes down for ten metres or more before curving out of sight.

"What do you think is down there?" asks Rula.

"It must be a mine. Or an archaeological dig. Rula--"

Rula flicks on a torch and begins to descend, brushing crumbs of stone from both walls as she steadies herself.

"I'll be back up in a few minutes," she says.

Alexander has the distinctly unnerving feeling that he's seen this movie. "It could be dangerous," he replies. "There could be a cave-in."

Rula keeps going and soon she is out of sight. The words "I'll be back soon" echo up from the tunnel.

Alexander squints into the depths. He shuffles around the cave, with his hands in his pockets, for half a minute. Then he curses, grabs a torch of his own from his kit bag, and descends after her.

*

After thirty metres of scraping Alexander emerges, blinking, into a fluorescent-lit subterranean corridor. The walls are painted a greenish grey and the ceiling is low. To his right the corridor ends in a heavy wooden door with a small window of wired glass revealing only darkness beyond. To his left it extends a little way before turning right and continuing into the mountain. There are similar doors opposite the tunnel mouth and just around the corner. On the floor is a very large mechanical drill and a pile of rubble large enough that Alexander is forced to clamber over it to get past. "Rula?"

Rula shouts. "Oh, you came. I think it's an old Soviet lab!"

"We really shouldn't be here. What if someone's here?"

"Nobody's here. Listen. It's just a hum. It must be an old generator." Rula tugs Alexander and he reluctantly follows her as she leads him off down the corridor.

Seemingly every other fluorescent light tube is dark or flickering.

"So somebody built this, just in the last year?"

"No, it must have been here for decades. And then somebody dug their way in recently."

"So how come the generator still works after so long?" asks Alexander.

"Because whoever dug the tunnel reactivated it, dummy."

Alexander stops momentarily at a fat line of yellow and black striped warning tape in the floor. The tape runs all the way across the floor and up the walls and across the ceiling above, forming a complete ring around the corridor. There's a second ring of tape about ten centimetres further along. On the floor and ceiling between the two rings are narrow metal rails; inside each wall a thick slab of metal is visible. Alexander notes a pair of small keypads on the wall flanking the tape, each with a big red button with a warning stencilled below. It is a containment door, retracted.

Rula doesn't notice that he has hesitated and continues past more dark doors and around the next corner. Then she screams. Alexander rushes over, sees the skeleton slumped against the wall and screams also.

It's grey, and very decomposed. Its sex would be difficult to guess at if not for the man-sized heavy sweater the corpse is wearing, knitted in several horrifically clashing colours. Dark trousers, thick glasses, cheap watch. "He's got a gun in his hand," says Rula, recovering. "He was trying to defend himself. Look. Big hole in the sweater. And the stain on the wall. Somebody shot him. Big damn bullet."

"Here?" Alexander stares at the situation for a long time. The wall behind the corpse is grey, not the loathsome pale green of the rest of the facility. In fact, it looks like there was more corridor there at one time, before it was sealed off. There is just a single strip of yellow/black tape, then another indentation in the walls, floor and ceiling, and then just blank concrete.

Rula takes a photograph using Alexander's camera. "At least a decade old," she says. "This way."

*

Alexander realises that Rula is following a fat blue industrial power cable on the floor. "I want to see where it goes," she says.

They pass two more bodies, these ones clothed in Soviet military gear, sprawled on the floor with machine guns nearby. Rula nearly slips on a spent ammunition casing. She takes more photographs of the bleak, labyrinthine facility. As they proceed further, here and there are more guns on the floor, and scattered paperwork. Dropped styrofoam coffee cups. And a great deal of dust and a smell of stale air. Alexander stoops to pick up a photocopied piece of paper. He can read the text, but it's still impossible to understand. Too much scientific and military terminology. "There's a picture on this file. It looks like a big egg."

"Alex, does it look like this?" Rula is up ahead at the next T-junction.

He hurries to catch up with Rula, looks in the direction she is staring, and stops in his tracks. There are two severely bent and broken blast doors lying convex on the floor, with signs of many different colours plastered across them, red and white, blue and white, yellow and black. Warning. Unidentified object. Warning. Unknown hazard. Possible radiation hazard. Possible biohazard. Possible memetic hazard. Behind them is a warning-striped archway like elsewhere in the facility, and behind them all is a gigantic cubic vault, perhaps twenty-five metres on a side.

At the centre of the vault, suspended in a complex gantry composed partially of conventional scaffolding and partially of padded hydraulic shock absorbers, is a mirrored egg. It is colourless (the only colours are reflected from elsewhere in the room) and held upright, and it is about the right size to hold a coccooned, adult male. There are two bright spotlights focused on it from above, which reflect directly into Alexander and Rula's eyes, making it look as if the egg has two blazing white unblinking eyes.

In The Event Of An Emergency This Door Will Close And Lock Automatically

All Personnel Requiring Access To Vault A/T/Y Must Receive Authorisation From The Operations Commander, INCLUDING EMERGENCY PERSONNEL

*** CAUTION: E.B.S. Containment Procedures Are In Effect Beyond This Point ***

There are eight dead people on the floor around the room. There is dropped scientific equipment all over the room. There is an antique 1980s computer terminal to the immediate left of the door with a skeleton in a white coat slumped over it. As Alexander advances gingerly behind Rula he realises there is a balcony running around the upper half of the room, accessible by ladder, with several more dead people observing from above. The blue cable Rula was following is plugged into an industrial electricity outlet embedded in the floor in this room.

"What do you think that thing is?" Rula asks, transfixed by her own reflection. "American satellite technology? It looks like it could be an advanced model Sputnik. Or just a big blob of mercury."

"I don't like being in here," says Alexander. His skin is crawling. He feels like he is being watched, like the bodies are shifting when he isn't looking. "We need to get out."

Rula photographs everything. She photographs the egg twice, because the first picture has a bright white spot in the middle, the reflected flash.

There's a wheeled medical stretcher halfway up the egg's supporting scaffold. Rula climbs up a ladder to get there, though there is a small elevator platform. The stretcher has leather-and-sheepskin ankle and wrist restraints. The restraints are torn. To the side of the stretcher is a platform where a doctor could stand to treat a patient who was lying on the stretcher. There are two tanks, presumably oxygen or nitrous oxide, with a plastic face mask on the end of a long hose. To the other side of the stretcher is the egg, precisely where the patient can easily insert his or her arm into it. If such a thing were possible. On closer inspection it looks like the wrist restraint on that side isn't torn.

Rula leans forward and gently flicks the egg with her finger and it just goes tap, softly, absorbing most of the sound, like a solid stone.

"Rula, there's blood on that thing," says Alexander suddenly. Rula stands back. Alexander is right. There is a bone sticking out of the egg right where the gurney is, and there is a trail of blood which dribbled all the way down the shell to the bottom tip, and underneath it, obscured by shadow, there is a wide dark puddle.

Rula begins to say, "So, someone stuck their hand in there and-- and they had to saw--"

"--there is blood all over this room." Alexander is turning around, suddenly looking more carefully at the walls. He was paying too much attention to the egg. Maybe his visual cortex just wrote it all off as water damage, peeling wallpaper, whatever. But the pillow on the gurney isn't dyed red, it's stained, and several of the big wall panels have explosions over them, like splattered paint, and there are wide dried dark red shadows below many of the corpses. (Looking closer, Alex sees at least two femurs shattered, and arms broken at angles which hurt just to think about. In fact, even the bone in the side of the egg looks like it was broken off, not neatly sawn...) There's blood dripping down from the balcony, below some of the corpses up there, where it must have pooled and then overflowed, and there are even a few patches spattered on the floodlights, suspended from chains twenty metres up in the air. There are bloody footprints.

A human body contains a great deal of blood, but it is not stored under high pressure.

When Alexander's eyes meet Rula's it is clear that she is finally getting it. She reaches the exit before he does and sprints away along the corridor, again following the blue cable along the floor. As they run, Alexander spots green emergency exit signs here and there on the walls. When they return to the T-junction where they found the first skeleton, the blue cable goes right, back the way they came, but the green luminous running man points left, towards the dead scientist and corridor which is filled with cement.

"I think that's the exit," says Rula, pointing.

"I know," says Alexander. "He was trying to escape, opened the blast door and found solid concrete behind it. When they found out what was happening everybody was sealed in. To stop whatever-it-is from getting out."

"Whatever what was?"

"Just run," says Alexander, "just run. I don't want to know."

They hurry along the final few dim and dirty corridors. They pick their way past piles of black dusty rock hewn out of the mountain and reach the tunnel mouth, its tiny yellow bulbs still illuminating the way to the surface.

Alexander bends down and scoops up the electric drill from the rockpile. "Rula," he says, holding it up, just as she is about to duck into the tunnel and start climbing. He raises the drill and revs the trigger, once. Pyeeeeoooooooow. "This is the cable we've been following."

*

By the time they get to the top of the tunnel day has broken. The sun is in exactly the right spot to shine its orange rays directly into the cave, dazzling them and casting sharp shadows on the interior wall. The morning air is fresh, even warm, and from their vantage point Alexander and Rula can see all of the rest of the mountain valley and the plains beyond and even the town of Skoliava, half a day's walk away.

From here it's all downhill.

 

< The artifact was completely impenetrable to all forms of matter except living human flesh | Fine Structure | Leaving Berlin >


Title is from the lyric to "Rag And Bone" by The White Stripes

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