This story is by William Carter and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The cell door closed with a clang. How many was this now? Four, five? The man was immaculately dressed in a black suit, his bald head and jaw perfectly shaved. He sat opposite me and calmly withdrew a holopad and a syringe from his black leather briefcase. I recoiled at the sight of the small needle, my cuffs strained against the table and a buzzer sounded somewhere just outside. I winced but there was no shock, not this time.
The man looked me over, the inlaid circuitry of his steely blue eyes clicked and whirred. The augments were high grade and beautifully arranged. Must be getting pretty high up the chain. He reached into his blazer and carefully placed a finger-sized device on the table. A red light on the tiny device blinked a few times before turning solid. I leaned in close to the cuff that bound my wrists and wiped at my puffy eyes. Here we go again.
“Tell me everything Doctor Grayson, from the beginning.” His voice was low and flat and devoid of emotion, the kind of voice you’d expect from a lecturer or a judge.
“Just ask the last guy,” I said. How many times did they expect me to tell the same story? “I haven’t done anything wrong.” Fear clawed at my stomach and my hands were shaking again. Were innocent people supposed to feel this way, like monsters? I carefully took off my glasses, having something to hold helped.
“You have two counts of murder levelled against you and we have twenty-nine indentured employees missing, Doctor. Do you want to add obstruction of company interests to that list?” The man was deliberate and unhurried, he posed the question casually as if he were asking if I wanted milk with my coffee.
“You’ll think I’m crazy. Just like the others.”
“It is important that we get to the truth Doctor Grayson, it really is your only chance. We have scheduled your trial for tomorrow and the evidence against you is substantial.”
“Is that what that’s for?” I said, pointing at the syringe.
“In case you need help remembering.” He smiled a cold, predatory smile and steepled his hands. “Begin please.”
I took a deep breath and looked around at the interrogation cell again, desperate for a way out. The room looked every part of the simple space it pretended to be. Clean white walls, a desk with two chairs and a single potted plant to offset the smell of disinfectant. That was a nice touch. It almost made me forget about the suite of security sensors that peppered the walls, the chem darts trained on me in the ceiling and the two armed guards just outside. There was no way out. I put my glasses back into place and met his gaze.
“The burial chamber was exactly where the drones indicated, my team encountered no resistance. It took two full cycles to excavate and catalogue everything. We had to remove a school of Paravin that had nested in the arches, that delayed us by a few hours.”
“Tell me about the object.”
“The Archon’s body was well preserved. They encase their nobility in a carbon-based, highly viscous compound which keeps them remarkably safe from the passage of time, even out there.”
“The object. Focus, Doctor.” He said, his tone raising just a fraction.
“I found it around the specimen’s neck, among the ceremonial jewellery.” An image of it flashed on my mind and my temples pulsed with pain. Focus Amanda.
“It seemed innocuous, a crystalline polyhedron marked with their symbols, it emitted no radiation or biological signals. I indexed it as Object Argus and shipped it back with the others.” My throat tightened and dried as the runes intruded on my vision once more. A cold bead of sweat trickled down my neck and I could hear my pulse hammering in my ears. “I’ve already gone over this! How does this help me? I haven’t killed anyone.”
“There were no signs? Nothing that could have warned you?” The man leaned forward slightly, causing his tie to crease, his eyes clicking and refocusing.
“I have been studying this species for over a decade.” My fists clenched. “I am not some academy grad looking for fame out in the belt. This was my seventh excavation. The object was inert.” I took a deep breath, I was too tired for this. Maybe that was what they wanted. “All xeno-archaeological regulations and protocols were strictly followed as you will see in the log.”
“Of course Doctor Grayson.” The man leaned back in his chair and motioned towards me. His emotionless mask never changing. “Continue.”
“Three cycles after we returned, one of the archivists reported hearing strange noises in the labs. I thought nothing of it at first, pranks among colleagues are not uncommon on long expeditions.” My skin prickled as I dredged through the memories again.
“A few days later it got worse. Healthy well-adjusted professionals, people I have known for years were hearing whispers, reliving things that never happened, having strange dreams. Then the blackouts started.”
“Blackouts?” The man leaned in. Was he really interested? The others had simply gone through the motions.
“Sarah was the first. She didn’t show for her shift, we found her walking in circles mumbling incoherently, cradling object Argus like a newborn with no idea where she was.” The pain in my temples pounded again. Sarah hadn’t deserved this, none of them had. “Sarah had recently miscarried, I thought maybe she was still processing.”
“Did you experience any of these blackouts, Doctor?”
I paused for a moment, feeling nauseous at the gaps in my memory. “Yes, a few times.”
“I see. What happened next?”
“We ran the object through every test we could think of, nothing. I sealed it in the vault, sent Sarah to the infirmary and filed a report. I thought that would be the end of it.”
“But it wasn’t. Was it, Doctor Grayson?”
“Of course it fucking wasn’t, you already know that!” I slammed my hands down, my cuffs crashed on the table. The tears came again. This wasn’t fair. Why was he making me do this? I haven’t done anything wrong.
The man raised a hand to his ear. “No, the situation is under control.” His eye circuits clicked several times and he turned back to me, his voice still calm and relaxed. “Tell me how Sarah Cho died, Doctor.”
“One of the guards found her that evening in her room, her implant alarm had triggered.” I swallowed hard. “She had cut her self open and drawn the symbols all over the walls in her blood, then she hung herself. Object Argus was there, on the floor.” My nose was running from the tears and the pain.
“Then the next day the guard, Ian I think his name was, started chanting some strange language before shooting himself in the head. He had the object in his hand. Then was the Mortician. Then the janitor. Then the rest. Anyone who had seen the object, like it was protecting itself.” I knew it sounded crazy, he would think so too, how could he not?
“You said you locked the item away, Doctor. How do you suppose Ms Cho and the others got access?” His words were still so damned calm.
“I don’t know,” I said. “We checked the logs and the camera. No one had opened the vault.”
“This is where we have a problem, Doctor.” The man said, leaning back in his chair. “You claim this object drove thirty-one psy-evaluated employees to end their own lives. Yet you have no evidence to support this, not even the object in question.”
“I spaced it, it was too dangerous. Check the security footage if you don’t believe me!”
“We have, most of it has been erased. That would take someone with high-level clearance, wouldn’t you agree, Doctor? Perhaps a department head.” The man said flatly.
“What?” My head was spinning now, the insidious tendrils of doubt grasping at my mind.
“Fortunately for the company interests, the security AI backed up several files it deemed important and encrypted them. Above even your clearance, Doctor.” The man called up a recording on his holopad and turned it towards me.
The pad showed two researchers huddled together in the corner of a lab. A woman stood over them, her own lab coat splattered with crimson. She held a gun in her left hand, levelled at the two others. In her right, clutched tight was Object Argus, that damnable thing. I screamed inside but could not look away. As the woman pulled the trigger I saw a flash of power in her eyes. My eyes. My world fell out from under me and I buried my head in my hands.
“Very well.” The man returned the pad to his briefcase, stood and tucked his chair under the desk. “We’ll see you tomorrow, Doctor.”