Here is the next chapter of The SubVersion Complex. Hope you all enjoy! If you missed Chapter Fifteen, click here.
This book is intended for a more mature audience, so be advised.
╗ SIXTEEN ╚
They emerged into a long hallway, narrow and gloomily lit by caged blue lamps at infrequent intervals. The stale air bit with a strange subterranean chill. Captain James went first, followed by an apprehensive Anna. The stifled quiet and dim light unnerved her, and despite being able to see at least well enough to walk she still found herself feeling her way along.
They came to a door at the other end of the hall, which Captain James unlocked with a swipe of his badge and again he proffered a hand to Anna. She stepped through without enthusiasm and he followed. The new chamber proved to be a bit more welcome. The walls and ceiling merged together overhead into one big barrel-like shape, and Anna realized that they were standing in what looked to be a section of old subway tunnel. When she asked James about it he confirmed her suspicions.
“Yes, these were subway tunnels, built before they dug some of the newer ones under the Potomac River. I believe this used to be an underground power substation for the trains.” He beckoned her down another hall leading to a smaller room with two doors facing each other from opposite sides. Anna squinted through the vague lighting and saw that the door on the left read “Subterranean Prison Command Central,” and the one on the right read “SubVersion Complex.”
Captain James motioned to both doors. “Prison Command Central is my side of things, and I also handle general security matters down here. But you claim that you came down to see Neville.”
Anna nodded with more confidence than she felt. “As long as he is the administrator of the SubVersion Complex, then yes.”
Captain James stood and regarded her for a long moment before speaking again. Anna saw a strange look in his eyes and it filled her with an inexplicable dread. He touched her arm. “Perhaps you would like to rethink your choice?”
The touch was meant as a gesture of concern but Anna reflexively jumped away from it. “Of course not,” she replied bluntly. “I have business with Neville and it's important, I am not simply going to walk away.” She frowned at him. “Why?”
Captain James dropped his hand. “I don't doubt that whatever business you have down here is important, Miss McLean, seeing as not many people even know we exist. How you know is beyond me. However, I have to warn you about Neville. He is . . . ah . . . “
Anna stared at him, afraid of what the answer might be and irritated at all the half-answers. “He is . . . what?”
“Unstable,” James replied at length, “to put it politely. I don't trust him. Neither should you.”
Anna cocked her head at him with an attempt at a smile. “I work with a slightly unstable scientist upstairs, that shouldn't be a problem. Is Neville dangerous? Are you suggesting I need an armed escort?”
James shook his head. “It's not what I'm afraid he'd do to you, Miss McLean. It's what I'm afraid he'll show you. He has a certain . . . relish for his work.
“Ah,” Anna said in an attempt to sound positive, but her soul had begun to shrink inside her with apprehension. She almost considered turning around and heading back upstairs but the thought of never finding out what she wanted to know killed that impulse. She motioned to the SubVersion Complex door. “I understand if you might be concerned, but this is something that I must do. So, if you please.”
James gave her a resigned shrug and she could feel the worry in his expression. “As you wish.” He stepped closer to the door and tapped the intercom button next to it. “Margaret? Tell Neville that he has a visitor, a Miss Annalise McLean.” Anna heard the buzz and click of an electronic lock opening. Captain James leaned over and pushed the door open for her.
Anna stepped through into a lobby area, a room that could have been more hospitable had it been painted in a more cheerful color. However, industrial taupe was the decorative choice and it lent an oppressive air to an already oppressive place. Captain James remained outside; he looked her long and hard in the eye before wordlessly shutting the door.
It took five long minutes for Neville to appear. Margaret, the middle-aged receptionist at the desk across the room proved to be no decent company in the meantime, preferring to ignore Anna and sulk behind her omni-monitor viewing some unknown content. All Anna could see of her over the screen was her graying hair and a pair of suspicious beady eyes that glanced over every so often.
Finally the far door swung open and a tall man entered, sweeping in with an uneven gait and white coat flowing behind him. He had a surprisingly youthful, handsome face, a shock of blonde hair that floated around his head in a golden cloud, and piercing blue eyes that immediately engaged her from across the room.
He wore a wide easy smile and he approached her with a hand outstretched in greeting. “Good to meet you at last, Miss McLean! I've heard so much about you from our colleagues at HomoGen but it is a pleasure to see you in the flesh.” The voice that emerged surprised Anna with its strong British accent, but she realized that with a name like Neville Sanders she should have known better. She shook his clammy hand in a bit of a daze.
“It's good to meet you too, Mr. Sanders, but I have to be honest and say that I have no recollection of you from HomoGen. No one there ever spoke of you.”
Neville released her hand. “Ah, well, they wouldn't have spoken about me to you. Proper policy and whatnot, they are sticklers about that sort of thing.” He played with his lab coat with an odd nervousness. “But of course your business at HomoGen has always been intimately connected with my work. Shall we proceed?”
Anna was taken aback. “My business connected with you?”
“Of course!” he replied cheerfully. “Why else would HomoGen send me the cream of their crop?”
Thoroughly confused, Anna shook her head. “What cream of who's crop?”
Neville looked at her. “Did HomoGen not send you?”
“No, I don't even work with HomoGen anymore, I am with Central Admin now.”
“Ah.” Neville shrugged. “Well . . . I had felt for sure that they had sent you for some purpose or another, considering our especial relationship. Why HomoGen would send a computer programmer to us instead of a biotech scientist was beyond me, but I have to say they didn't tell me programmers came with such fantastic bodies.” He eyed her up and down. “But no matter! What was your purpose here then, if not for a tour or other such thing?”
Anna was too perturbed to register offense at his leering. “You keep saying HomoGen has a special relationship with this place and with you, but I must insist that I had never heard of you or this place until very recently. How are you connected?”
A look of genuine shock crossed Neville's face. “How are we connected?” he repeated incredulously. “Why, this is where your SubVersions are housed!”
“What do you mean?” Anna asked, her confusion giving way to alarm.
“Your SubVersions . . . “ He frowned at her. “Surely you know what a SubVersion is?”
With growing fear Anna shook her head. “I've never heard of a SubVersion before.”
“There are Versions, and then there are SubVersions,” he explained. “The Versions go out into the world, into families and homes and training centers and such. The SubVersions come here.”
“But HomoGen doesn't make anything called a SubVersion,” Anna insisted in a frantic tone.
“Are you so sure?” Neville asked ominously. “You say that with such assurance, and yet you had never heard of me or this place until recently. What else mightn't you know?”
“But I don't understand, what is a SubVersion?”
Neville locked his fingers behind his head and stared up at the ceiling. “As I said, there are Versions and then there are SubVersions. Women come in, they donate their eggs and the men come in and donate the sperm. HomoGen does the matching and processing and fertilizing and incubating and voila! You have a perfect little Version, ready to go to a new home just like a regular child. But for every one Version HomoGen makes, they get between two and eight other fertilized eggs that grow as well. Just part of the process. We call them SubVersions. Those never go to any customer anywhere, instead they come here.” He gestured around him. “A SubVersion is not part of a regular HomoGen order, it's merely a by-product of sorts. HomoGen figured 'Why waste it when we can use it?' So they all get shipped here.”
Anna felt sick to her stomach. “And . . what do you do with them here?” she croaked.
Neville suddenly chuckled. “You act shocked!” he said mirthfully. “No, Miss McLean, let me assure you that the SubVersions are a product, pure and simple. A product we have been able to do fantastic things with, but a product all the same.”
“If they are merely a product, then why hide them down here?” Anna whispered fearfully. “What do you have to hide?”
Neville turned on his heel and swung open the door he had entered from. “Because most people are less understanding than us few. We simply have the stomach to do what must be done.” He gestured with his head. “In you go?”
Anna automatically complied and Neville followed. Anna's insides immediately convulsed as her eyes adjusted to the dimmer light and her nose acclimated to a strange mix of clinical antiseptic and filth. They were walking down a long hallway with thick glass doors down each side. As she looked into the blandly lit cells behind the glass doors Anna realized that there was a person inside each one. Some wandered about inside their cells, others lay curled up in the corners; almost all of them exuded a resigned and lifeless air. Most of the subjects were men but Anna saw a fair number of women as well, and in one of the cells she was shocked to see several children all sitting in a group.
But the last cage on the left brought her up completely short. Inside crouched a man, or at least what was once a man. Something looked wrong with his face but Anna could not tell quite what it was. He crouched next to the side wall, bent over the prone form of what appeared to be a small boy. As Anna pressed up against the glass to see him better, the man perked up and turned his head quickly in her direction. She gasped when she saw blood draining from the man's teeth and down his jaw and neck. The man visibly panted with an opened mouth and extended tongue, and when he had stared at Anna with wide soulless eyes for a long minute he suddenly lunged for her.
Anna screamed and backed away, just as the man crashed headlong into the other side of the glass and fell away bruised and whimpering. She cowered against the opposite side of the hallway for a full minute, the blood pounding in her temples hard. Neville stood chuckling, however. “He really frightened you, didn't he?” he remarked, grimly pleasant. In response to a terrified look from Anna, though, he decided to explain. “He could smell you, even through the glass.”
“Smell me?” Anna asked blankly.
“This particular SubVersion was checked out to a biotech firm on the other side of D.C. They specialized in DNA sequence splicing and they needed a subject for an experiment they were conducting on combining the DNA of bloodhounds with that of humans. Well, this fellow was the subject of that experiment.” Neville sighed wistfully. “But it would seem the project was only partially successful. The subject's sense of smell and hearing increased a thousand-fold but he began developing rabies-like symptoms for no apparent reason, so they sent him back here for observation. He's been an interesting one so far. Likes to kill for the sake of killing.”
Anna nodded incredulously at the explanation. Her mind roiled in an agony of guilty repugnance as she watched the feral dog-man slink back to his previous position. Versions are people, Anna. Real people. Mr. Vicker's words echoed in her mind like a faraway bell, plaintive but insistent. She wanted to shut them out, wanted to squash away the raw emotion of seeing her life's work slobbering and growling in front of her in that cage. But it was impossible. Maybe they are truly human, and then again, maybe they're not. That had been her response, and it now sounded weak and stupid.
Neville turned to her with a quizzical look on his face. “To be honest, I don't remember you ever telling me why you were actually here. I assumed you merely wanted to tour the proverbial pet shop, but you never answered that question. Was there something specific you needed to know?”
It took several seconds for Anna to remember that he was still standing there, and still more to recall that she was indeed down there on a particular errand. She marshaled what was left of her courage and pulled out Daniel's paper with the numbers scrawled on it. “I- I need to find this serial number,” she stuttered, handing the paper to him. He took it from her and his eyebrows suddenly shot straight up.
“Wow,” he whistled, “you are in luck! I am intimately familiar with both of these subjects. One of these, the first number, is no longer here. Checked out for a long-term project with a neurologist upstairs. Sweet little thing, her. But the other number is still here. She's packed away in cold storage, but we can take a little stroll in that direction if that suits your fancy.”
Anna nodded without a sound and followed Neville through the next two sets of doors into a huge high ceilinged rectangular room lit entirely with the blue caged lamps. The temperature dropped precipitously as they entered and with a start Anna realized she could see her breath smoking in front of her. She gazed around and then upward in combined awe and trepidation. All four walls were intersected with grid lines and, after a moment's observation, she saw that it resembled a giant morgue, and each grid square was the front panel of a closed human-sized drawer. Another man in a lab coat and overcoat worked nearby and nodded to them as they entered.
Neville didn't even have to look twice at the number on the paper; he handed it back to Anna, made a beeline across the room to a drawer at waist-height marked SVC5403-1F, and pressed his thumb to the scanner next to the number. The drawer emitted a faint clunk and Neville grabbed the handle and pulled hard. The drawer appeared heavy but it slid out of the wall smoothly enough. Inside was a closed coffin-shaped black container, similar to Sonya's box in all respects except for its larger size.
“Here you are,” Neville remarked, unlatching the box and shoving the lid open. Anna peered over the edge and felt the familiar pang of horrified sadness as she saw the prostrate body of the young woman inside. The woman was even more beautiful in the flesh than in her picture; the resemblance between mother and daughter also resonated much more strongly now that Anna had observed both.
She turned to Neville but barely knew what to ask. He needed no prompting, however, and immediately began talking.
“Now this one has always been a special specimen to me,” he noted with a weird fondness in his tone. “She's one of our oldest SubVersions, and has definitely been here just about the longest. A long-term companion of mine, of a sort. She's been checked out more often for experimentation than any other SubVersion we have.” He reached out and caressed one of the woman's cheeks and sighed. “My little angel. Never raised a fuss about her time here until that man showed up.”
“What man?” Anna asked, already knowing the answer.
“Daniel Marcus, that bloody fool. He fancied himself in love with the poor creature and got her pregnant. Normally we would have terminated such an unauthorized pregnancy but the decision came down from the top to keep it for observation. Then as luck would have it, Dr. Konrath Jarrod needed a child for a project of his so we permanently moved the child out of here. Mama stayed put though.” He gently touched the woman's face again. “It's amazing how human she looks, is it not? Beautiful, just beautiful . . . Anyways, after all that the order came to freeze her like the others. She had been relatively free to move around before that. Too bad she's been through so many freeze and thaw cycles.”
“Why?” Anna's questions were automatic, unthinking, as she stared in gathering horror at the frozen woman in the box. Neville sighed again.
“Just like a piece of beef in your freezer at home,” he explained. “Freeze and thaw it too many times and eventually it's worthless.”
Shocked, Anna turned to face him. “You mean she's dead?”
“Oh, no, not dead. Not yet, anyways. But at this point it would take quite a bit of work to bring her back from her most current freeze. She'd probably still be comatose for weeks before the revival procedure was complete.” He shook his head. “Too bad. She's been here for more than twenty years and I still haven't gotten my fill of her. I normally don't take liberties with my SubVersions but she was simply too special for me not to take a shag.”
In that moment Anna felt the urge to strike him but all she could do was gape open-mouthed at his flippancy. Neville didn't even seem to notice her anger but instead gestured to the other man standing nearby. “Jeremiah, it's time to say goodbye to my little angel.”
The other man approached. “Really? How many freeze/thaw cycles has it been for this one?”
“Twenty-two. And you know what that means.”
The man shook his head. “I'll be back.” He exited the cold storage room for a few moments, then returned with a gurney-like trolley which he wheeled up to the open drawer. Neville clicked a latch on the front of the drawer and it dropped down, allowing the black box to slide forward out of the drawer onto the gurney. After detaching a mass of cables and piping from the box the man closed it and wheeled the woman away.
“Wait, where are they going?” Anna asked, her anxiety growing.
“You needn't bother to watch this part, really, Miss McLean,” Neville dissembled quickly.
Anna watched as Jeremiah and the black box headed for a wide set of double doors to their left, then turned an incredulous eye on Neville. “I'm not letting that box out of my sight. Where are they going?”
For the first time Neville appeared genuinely uneasy. “Miss McLean, out of all the things I could show you down here, I'm sure you don't want to see this. Let's go back, I have some other fantastic projects to demonstrate-”
Anna grabbed him by the arm and wrenched him towards her. She was rapidly beginning to panic as she watched the woman in the box disappear through the double doors. “I don't give a shit about what you want to demonstrate to me, I want to know where he's taking her and what you are planning on doing with her. So show me now!”
“Miss McLean, really, there's no reason for violence-”
“Damn you, show me! I want to see it, I want to see everything!” Anna immediately regretted the request but she was not about to take it back.
Neville threw up his hands. “Fine! If you insist. If you must, you must.” They traversed the space to the double doors and Neville hesitated until Anna threw him a furious glance. He sighed. “But don't tell me I didn't give you a word of warning.”
He pushed open the doors and let them swing wide.
The blast of noise and heat caught Anna completely by surprise and she stood blinking in the scorching breeze, her hair thrashing her face and her eyes tearing up. She put up a hand to shield herself and glanced over at Neville with fear and uncertainty. He gave her a look that Anna could not fathom; madness, maybe? Or was it terror?
“You said you wanted to see everything,” he muttered, just loud enough for her to hear over the din. “Your words, not mine.” His unnerving smile reappeared, albeit not as broad as before, and he waved her in. Anna reluctantly complied and they stepped through the doors together.
The new chamber arched up and over them in a tremendous half-barrel, dimly lit by widely-spaced rows of yellow lights affixed to each curved roof support. To the left, emerging at an angle from a rectangular hole in the floor rose an enclosed conveyor reminiscent of a strip mining machine. Its long frame carved a stark black shadow into the air and terminated near the ceiling high above. The whole assembly angled over an enormous hopper that began at the floor and spread its gradually widening neck towards the conveyor's terminus.
Because of their low angle Anna could not see into the hopper, but she realized that it was creating both the noise and the heat. The ceiling above flickered with a reddish-orange glow and the tremendous machine ground out its cacophony as if in some dreadful agony.
“Follow me,” Neville shouted over the noise, pointing towards a metal stairway that led to the top of a maintenance gantry to their right. They began to climb the steps, and the entire time they did so Anna's eyes were glued to the hopper. She began to feel more sick with every step she took, and when they had surmounted the last stair and reached the top of the gantry her stomach had turned to mush. From the top of the platform she could finally see down into the mouth of the machine.
It stretched at least twenty feet wide at the top, a gaping metal maw with a flaming interior. The bottom of the machine glowed brightly but the fire seemed to breathe from deep within, and more than that she could not see at the moment. She had never believed in hell before, but feeling the heated wind rise up from the mechanical beast and seeing the glow of fierce flames inside reminded her of nothing so awful as hell. The picture that had terrified her so badly in her childhood came vividly to mind again, the two men walking through the flaming underworld as the bodies of the damned burned all around them.
She looked back down from her high perch and saw Jeremiah and another worker standing down near the base of the conveyor structure. They had the lid of the black box open, and after several seconds of squinting Anna realized with a fright that they were struggling to remove the limp body of the woman inside.
“What are they doing?” she exclaimed. Neville glanced over, then smiled his grim, insane smile.
“Doing their job.” He folded his arms and his tone took on a fatalistic air. “Since you really wanted to see it all, then you're in luck. This happens to be disposal day and that means you get to watch.”
Without ceremony Jeremiah and his helper inserted the woman into an opening in the side of the conveyor. Anna would have shouted to them to stop but the words died in her throat in a dry squawk. With a sickening flop the petite form of the woman fell into the dark and disappeared. Neville shook his head.
“Such a beautiful specimen,” he remarked pleasantly. “Ah, well, all good things . . . “ He put two fingers in the air and signaled to the men down below. Jeremiah nodded back, shut the door in the conveyor, and tapped in a command on a control panel. Motors sputtered, wheels ground, and the conveyor assembly began to roar to life.
Anna, violently agitated, turned to Neville and tried to form a question but her powers of speech had failed her. He leaned closer to her, trying to hear. She tried again. “What are they doing? What is that machine?” she rasped, her mind closing to the truth that was dawning on her with horrible clarity. He turned away from her and fixed his eyes on the conveyor's peak, face expectant and hands clutching the handrail.
“That machine is where we will all go,” he intoned. “It is where everyone in this city goes who is not wanted.” He raised his face up. “Where the SubVersions go when they are finished with their usefulness, where the elderly from the geriatric homes go. An author of old once wrote that if you have a problem without a solution, the solution is to burn the problem.” He turned to Anna, and when he smiled his teeth gleamed orange in the wretched light. “Watch the problem burn, Miss McLean. Watch them burn.”
Something emerged from the top of the conveyor. Long hair at first, then the inert body of the woman Daniel had loved appeared. The machine dispassionately ejected the body headfirst into the air, and Anna could not tear her eyes away as the woman plunged through the void towards the fire below. She saw Neville out of the corner of her eye blow a kiss to the victim as she fell; then with a awful suddenness the woman struck the side of hopper and Anna heard the dull crack of smashing skull. The body slid down the inside of the hopper, trailing blood behind it as it vanished into the fire. A roar erupted from the machine and flames swirled up to meet their prey, engulfing the hopper in yellow fire. Then when Anna's unbelieving eyes were drawn upwards again she realized it was only the beginning.
From the mouth of the conveyor a stream of something began to pour out, a lumpy brownish choked flow that at first Anna could not discern. She blinked in the heat and looked again, and the individual forms of human bodies became visible in the stream. Aged, broken bodies, men and women, gaping dead eyes and slender naked limbs. In a massive tangle the stream of corpses poured out, crashing unceremoniously into the hopper below. Bones smashed, congealed blood flowed down the stained metal, and the fire thundered its enormous all-consuming din.
A powerful nausea rolled over Anna in a wave that she could not hope to control. She could look no longer. She wrenched her way past Neville and ran for a door at the end of the scaffold. Opening it and stumbling into a hallway on the other side, she collapsed onto the floor and vomited hard.