There was an airlock cemented into the wall at the bottom of the stairs with a monitor, keyboard and mouse set into the wall on the left of it. John looked up at Kelly as she walked down the stairs.
‘You’ll be surprised what you can find on the internet.’ he said.
Kelly blinked heavily and leaned against the wall.
‘What do you have in there that you need an airlock?’ she said.
He put his palm onto a flat black rectangle of glass, encased in rubber and cemented into the wall to the left of the airlock.
‘It’s where I do my work.’ he said.
She narrowed her eyes as he stepped back and let the airlock depressurise with a thin, loud hiss. He pulled it open and stepped through.
‘Come on.’ he said.
He had taken it on as a project to ensure his lucidity. He had stripped out the bunker, reproducing surgical conditions and acoustics with an air filtration systems which made it as clean as the forest above it and just as quiet.
It housed a set of machines and instruments Kelly had seen on her regular trips to the hospital with her mother or the emergency room but only in passing. Scanners and rows of arms set on gyroscopes which moved around, they hummed and whirred like fairground rides.
‘Ok, so this is where I study, well, me.’ he said.
Kelly stared at him then the machines in turn.
‘John, you’re going to have to explain it to me because a basement full of surgical equipment is a lot to take in ‘ she said.
John looked up.
‘Hey John.’ he said.
The arms on the machines began a sinuous dance and Kelly cried out.
‘Hi Kelly, I’m John. I’m a digital approximation of his consciousness. I have all his surgical knowledge and experience but independent of his physiology.’
John smiled at Kelly and glanced upwards.
‘John, I’m giving Kelly cookie cutter access, ok?’ hd said.
‘Of course.’ the voice came from the speakers mounted into the corners.
Kelly stared at John.
‘How?’ she said.
He picked up the briefcase and set it on the table.
‘I found having a particular problem focuses your attention and you have to come up with different approaches to crack the nut.’
‘Reproducing myself took some doing but there’s a lot of things I can do now I’m free of my meat body.’ the voice said.
John frowned and shook his head.
‘Hey, we don’t refer to me as meat, okay?’ he said.
Kelly shook her head.
‘So, you study yourself?’ she said.
‘John directs the stereotactic equipment and we study the biology of what I am. We figured out how to control the episodes based on studying my brain activity. It’s basically deep meditation and behavioural triggers.’
Kelly rubbed her hands together.
‘So, what do you know about yourself?’ she said.
John’s face grew sombre and his eyes softened as he turned and folded his arms.
‘That I’m dangerous if I don’t treat myself like someone I’m responsible for.’ he said.
He looked away before he did.
‘I have equipment which can look in this case before we have to open it.’
Kelly ran her tongue over her lips.
‘You don’t think it’s guidance chips, do you?’ she said.
He shook his head as he wrinkled his nose with distaste.
‘It triggers a disgust reflex in me. I want to know what’s inside before I open it.’
His voice was solemn and low.
‘There are two versions of reality we experience. Emic and Etic, one is what we experience and agree on. The other is out of our range of experience and it tends to end up in situations like mine. I’ve experienced it and now, I’m experiencing a similar situation with this briefcase.’ he said.
He asked where she took it from.
‘We stole them from an armoured vehicle. I broke in through the computer system on the truck and shut it down.’ she said.
He pulled out a keyboard and typed in a series of short commands.
‘Tell me.’ he said.
Kelly walked over to him.
‘This is the most you’ve said to me in days, you know. You had all this stuff going on and you kept it all in.’ she said.
He looked at her.
‘I tend to act more than talk. I didn’t make John because I was lonely, I did it because I need someone to help me conduct tests. I can’t take samples when I’m having an episode.’
The speakers crackled.
‘But I can.’
It moved two telescopic arms at right angles to one another, emitting patterns of light in peacock feather patterns over the case.
‘It’s a Faraday Cage.’ the speaker said.
It blocks everything out, Kelly thought, but it could not explain John’s visceral reaction to it.
‘We can go outside and have you open it then run diagnostics on the contents.’ he said.
The speakers sighed as John and Kelly walked out of the laboratory and through the airlock.
‘If it’s just the chips, it doesn’t address what your concerns are.’ she said.
He glowered as he shut the airlock.
‘It feels wrong to me. I know a lot about myself, but some of it escapes my rational analysis. It could be damage, which is a theory I’m working on, but I try and trust myself as much as possible.’ he said.
Kelly shuddered at the way he said damage. The wolf was never far from the surface, she thought. A primitive intensity ran through her as she looked at him. It made her warm beneath the coat, and she was not sure it was fear or excitement. The certainty of him, the dichotomies he carried with a quiet ease had made her feel safe despite the things which made him different.
‘You’re not like anyone I’ve met before, John.’ she said.
He narrowed his eyes and stared at her with an amused frankness.
‘There’s another question here, Kelly.’ he said.
She took a deep breath and nodded.
‘I need to know If I’m safe with you.’ she said.
He scratched his beard and looked away, thoughtful and sincere before he turned his attention back to her.
‘You are. That came from studying myself. Showing you is part of that.’ he said.
‘Part of what?’ she said.
He sighed and stared into her eyes.
‘Trusting you.’ he said.
She looked down and sighed.
‘What do I need to know?’ she said.
‘I can control it. I live out here, I study what has happened to me and I’m trying to find useful things to help other people.’ he said.
The artificial intelligence sent a message through the monitor and John opened the airlock.
‘But I want to see what is in the briefcase, don’t you?’ he said.
Kelly shook her head.
‘It’s worth a lot of money to bring it to the right people.’ she said.
John stepped through but looked at her as he did so.
‘You were supposed to meet them in Los Angeles.’ he said.
‘A few days ago.’ he said.
‘I have to neutralise it.’
Kelly looked up at the speaker, wishing she had a face to look at.
‘It wasn’t computer chips?’ she said.
The computer John sighed as John walked over to the open briefcase. White smoke leaked from the side in lazy wisps as he clenched his fists.
‘No, it wasn’t.’ he said.
Whatever was in the briefcase gave a piercing scream which made him flinch as he reached his hand and picked something up which flickered a thin, black tail and revealed a faceful of filament sized tentacles. He crushed it and black liquid dripped between his fingers. He threw it down and shut the case.
‘John, what was this?’ he said.
‘One of the canisters had opened during transit. The lack of any electronic signals kept it, well the best way to put it would be inert. I thought carbon dioxide would restrain it and I used a surgical laser to cut it in two but I had not considered it to being biomechanical over being biological.’ it said.
John looked around for something to wipe his hand on. He walked over to the sink set into the corner and stripped off his jacket, ran the tap and scrubbed the liquid off his hand.
Kelly put her hands to her mouth.
‘I had it on the plane with us. It crashed and what would have happened if it had opened?’ she said.
John wiped his hands on a green surgical towel before he dressed and turned around to face her. His chest was dark with hair, thick pectorals and a taut, hard stomach. There were thin, white scars across his abdomen and one red crescent of scar tissue across his shoulder.
Kelly tried to look away as he came over and put his hands on the case.
‘The people you stole this for, they shouldn’t have it.’ he said.
Kelly bent over at the waist.
‘What the fuck am I going to do?’ she said.
He swallowed and looked back at the briefcase.
‘We incinerate it and get out of here. They’ll send someone to find it. We opened it in a sealed environment down here but information wants to be free.’ he said.
Kelly shook her head.
‘Oh god, what the fuck am I going to do?’ she said.
She hoped she could choke start her brain into an answer.
‘We’re going to burn this then get away from here before anyone comes looking for it.’ he said.
Kelly looked up.
‘I can’t ask you to do it.’ she said.
He strode forwards and stood in front of her.
‘I’m not a monster, Kelly. I want you to survive this, and I can help you do that.’ he said.
She looked up.
‘I brought this on myself. I told myself it was too much money, but I wanted to get out-‘ she said.
He nodded and put his hand out.
‘We can lose them through the woods. I can smell them coming out here. If we’re in the city, it’s too much for me sometimes.’ he said.
Kelly stood up.
‘We might have to kill these people because they’re going to try and kill me along with anyone who’s with me.’
He walked over to the keyboard, typed in a series of commands.
‘I’ve uploaded him to the cloud. We’ll sign in and pick it up when we can.’
Kelly grimaced. Isn’t that kind of purgatory, what does he do in there?’ she said.
‘Well, he’ll work on whatever information he found from the eel thing and whatever he found in the vials, make comparisons and run simulations on the data from a medical perspective, plus papers from whatever he can find on the internet. Plus, he has access to my Netflix.’ he said.
Kelly looked at the briefcase.
‘Do you know what it is?’ she said.
‘It’s alien. It carried synthetic tones in the scent. Ceramics and the smell of oil in there plus something that smells like mushrooms fried in acetone. It was fucking horrible.’ he said.
Kelly pointed upstairs.
‘What about Tony and the others?’ she said.
John looked down.
We’ll go and pack now. I’ll go and move the other two then we can go.’ he said.
Kelly glared at him.
‘I’ll come with you.’ she said.
He shook his head.
‘No, i’m faster than you.’ he said.
They walked upstairs and out into the open air.
Kelly took a deep breath as her eyes welled up with tears. She was scared and excited because there was a small hope they could get clear of this. Whatever John was, he would accompany her to somewhere safe from these people.
She had taken this on without being able to know who had decided all this and she ached to know who they were.
Survival was her priority and John walked with her the cabin, saw her inside and gave her the key and told her to lock herself in before he walked away.
Through the window, she saw him take his coat off, running as he unbuttoned his shirt and the cry of anguish he gave as something stung him and she saw the gleam of blood against, no from his skin on his shoulder before he disappeared from view.
There were fairy stories when she was a girl, like how the little mermaid walked on land but every step caused her agony and Kelly wondered if this was like that for him.
He was gone for two hours. She saw him picking up his clothes and dressing on the way back to the cabin. He shivered as he opened the door and stepped inside.
‘It’s done.’ he said.
He showered, changed into fresh clothes, cooked two more venison steaks and made a pot of coffee. Kelly ate one, just to keep her strength up as she sat there, waiting for terrible things to happen.
Kelly got up and said she was going to bed. John nodded and stubbed out his cigarette. She looked at him across the table, and bit her bottom lip.
‘Can I ask a favour?’ she said.
Her voice was a whisper, nothing of the coquette about it, just a clean burst of need.
‘Could you sleep in the same bed? I’m a little freaked out about this and I just want someone to hold me.’ she said.
He stood up and we walked into the bedroom. He took his boots off, but left everything else on. He exuded a warmth and she liked how his skin smelled. His breath smoothed out as he fell into sleep and she pulled his arm over her as she rolled onto her side.
She made a small prayer,little more a murmur in God’s general direction before she fell into sleep herself.
Before they left, he came back with a handgun for her, and two clips of ammunition. She turned it over in her hands, checked it was unloaded, tested the safety and the slide then loaded a clip in and nodded. It made her feel better to have something to fight with but John had the tomahawk on his hip.
;You don’t have a hunting rifle at all?’ she said.
He looked up and frowned at the idea.
‘No, never needed one. I can smell them if they come near and take them down clean and quiet.’ he said.
Kelly shouldered her rucksack.
‘It hurts you to change, doesn’t it?’ Kelly said.
John’s face grew solemn and he looked away from her.
‘Yes, but I’m used to pain. I just want to find an end to it.’ he said.
Kelly sighed and looked around the cabin.
‘I’m taking you away from that though.’ she said.
He shook his head and walked towards the door.
‘You got in a bad spot. I want to help.’ he said.
She wiped her eyes and smiled at him as she nodded and forced herself to walk out after him. The day beckoned and they walked out into the woods.
By nightfall, a team was descending on the cabin.
It had begun.