Sunday, July 27, 2014

The SubVersion Complex, Chapter Eighteen

More surprises, as usual. Let me know what ya'll think, I love getting feedback on the new material.

Here is Chapter 18 of The SubVersion Complex. This book is intended for a more mature audience, so be advised.



Daniel glared at Mr. Vickers. “I only ever did to her what I told you,” he snapped. The older man glared back.

“Which was quite enough, if I recall. I never authorized you to blackmail this woman or anyone else for that matter!”

Anna's head spun as she tried to process what she was hearing, but in another moment she knew her knees were going to give way from beneath her and she fell into a nearby chair without being asked. Mr. Vickers knelt beside her and pulled a quilt from the sofa. “Here, wrap up in this, your teeth are hammering.” He tried to smile at her.

Daniel, now agitated, knelt on her other side and looked her in the eye. “You said you had some success with my numbers.” When Anna nodded he continued with more passion, “Well? Did you find them? Both of them?”

Anna nodded but couldn't say anything. She opened her mouth to explain but her voice died and she was left to move her jaw in vain. Daniel moved closer to her; Anna could again feel that masculine warmth and dangerous tension near her face and she retreated into the chair. “What did you find, Anna?” he asked. “Tell me!” Mr. Vickers attempted to pull Daniel away but the younger man shook him off violently. “Let me do this, Father!” he growled.

“Father?” Anna finally managed to blurt. Daniel ignored her and repeated his question.

“Tell me, did you find them?”

Anna nodded.

Daniel's voice rose. “The woman? You found the woman too?”

She nodded again, wilting.

“Is she alive? Dammit, tell me she's alive!”

Anna began to tremble from head to toe. Her breathing quickened, her heart pounded in her ears. “No,” she gasped out in a hoarse whisper.

A fearful transformation overtook Daniel. It was as if a bright fire in his eyes had been quashed and all that remained were the freakish charred remnants. His breathing turned ragged, and she could see him fighting back hot tears. “You're lying,” he whispered.

“I watched her die,” Anna replied weakly, her eyes filling with her own tears. “She was thrown into an incinerator and was burnt up.” Her heart felt near to bursting with grief for the poor man. “She's dead.”

Even Mr. Vickers was taken aback. He and Daniel exchanged appalled looks, then Daniel looked away, fighting a powerful maelstrom of emotion. Finally the younger man stood and paced the room while Anna and Mr. Vickers watched him warily, unsure of what to expect next.

“Are you sure she's dead, I mean could there be some mistake?” Daniel stammered brokenly. Anna shook her head.

“There was no mistake. Neville found her and sent her to the incinerator,” she whispered back. “He said she had been frozen one too many times to be of any more use . . . “

Daniel clawed at the air. “Neville, that sickening beast,” he exclaimed. Then he turned on her with a fierceness that truly frightened her. “And you did nothing to stop it? You were right there and you did nothing?”

Mr. Vickers turned to him. “You don't know that, Daniel.”

Daniel waved him away. “Let the bitch speak for herself, Father.”

Mr. Vickers stood, and his old frame shook with anger. “That's quite enough, Daniel.”

“Like hell it is,” Daniel replied. He pointed to Anna. “She's the reason for all of this, don't you see? Her work is what industrialized all of this horror, the Versions and the SubVersions and all of it!” His demeanor turned suddenly calm, but Anna knew better than to relax. She was proven correct when Daniel pulled his own pistol from his belt and dispassionately held it against her head. She stifled a scream and shied away.

“This whole damnable business is her fault, it's on her head. Would it not be just to take her head for it?” Daniel remarked coldly. “Eh, Father? You're always spouting about justice and mercy, you tell me what you think! Then perhaps I'll decide not to pull the trigger.

Anna saw to her surprise that Mr. Vickers had slid between her and the barrel of the gun. “Daniel, this woman is special to me. But even if she wasn't I would still stand between you and the commission of a grave crime against your own soul and this woman's body. She deserves to be shot just as little as you do.”

Daniel threw up his free hand in exasperation. “Is there no justice in this world? What would be so wrong about blowing her away for her crimes?” he cried. “She is HomoGen! She is the enemy!”

Daniel.” Mr. Vickers voice was soothing but firm. “You are grieving. But you will not grieve with a gun in your hand, nor will you threaten Annalise with any more violence. You will not.”

Suddenly Anna found herself exasperated with Daniel. She astonished even herself by pushing Mr. Vickers aside, grabbing the gun and placing the muzzle against her forehead. “No, it's all right Mr. Vickers. Go ahead and kill me, Daniel. Go on, do it. Pull the trigger. Talk about me like I'm not here and have no say, blow my brains out. I am the cause of all your problems, I am sure. I'm not sure why I care to live anyways, go ahead!”

Daniel was taken aback even in his rage. “Why?” he asked.

Because I've seen enough today to make me doubt there is anything good left here or in you or anywhere else. So pull the trigger!” Anna's voice exuded desperation.

“That's enough, both of you!” Mr. Vickers said, quietly but in a voice of authority. He gently grasped the gun and pointed it away. To Anna's dumbfounded surprise Daniel let the gun drop completely into the older man's hand and then walked away towards the fireplace.

She watched Daniel grasp the mantelpiece and put his forehead against the wood. What was passing through his mind she couldn't know, but she did see several tears land on the hearth below and her heart again went out to him. Her anger had been brief, and all the feeling she had left for him was sorrow. She then remembered Sonya and her pulse intensified. All was not lost. She cleared her throat. “Daniel?”

He turned slowly to glare at her. Nothing daunted, she continued. “Your daughter, Sonya. She's alive. She's alive, and I spoke to her.”

A change occurred immediately. Hope visibly returned to the grief-stricken face and he approached her cautiously yet with unmistakable excitement. “You spoke to her?”

Anna nodded. “After a fashion.” She swallowed. “They -they're using her for an experiment.”

Daniel stood still, waiting. Whether it was patience or pent-up fury that kept him rooted to the floor she couldn't tell, but he waited nonetheless. Anna continued fearfully. “It's the project that they originally hired you for, the reason they took your brain scans. They built a system that used your scans to interface with other human brains via a special computer. Except,” she swallowed again, “that the heart of the transfer computer is a person.”

“Go on.”

“Sonya. She is the computer. And I spoke to her through the interface.”

Behind the mask of his face Anna detected a hint of dismay, and Daniel stood for a full minute with his arms crossed, breathing slowly. He then roused himself, rounded the bend to the hallway and shut himself in the nearby bedroom with a slam.

Anna shivered and sighed a long sigh of relief. He was gone, at least for the moment, and now that she could relax a powerful exhaustion seeped into her bones. She closed her eyes and leaned back in the chair, pulling the quilt closer around her clammy body for warmth. The quilt smelled good, a kind of delightfully shabby grandmother type smell, and she buried her face in it and breathed slowly.

“That was my wife's,” a voice said, and Anna felt a warm hand on the back of her head. She tensed, then relaxed at Mr. Vicker's touch. Somehow his was the first touch today that she trusted, and she let his hand rest where it lay until she turned to look up at him.

“I'm sorry she's gone,” she whispered.

“And I as well,” Mr. Vickers replied, sitting down in the chair opposite her. He looked even older than usual today. He folded his hands in his lap and looked at them for a minute, then his eyes flicked back up to her face. “I can only guess the kinds of questions you have for me right now, and you deserve the answers to them.”

She did have questions, and they threatened to jumble together as she tried to decide which to ask him first. However, she decided to save the most obvious one for second and ask him the more burning one first: “How did you know?”

Mr, Vickers' brow furrowed. “How did I know what?”

Anna's pride suddenly threatened to choke off her explanation, but she forged ahead despite her discomfort. “You said . . . you've warned me for years that I would regret what I did one day.” She paused, hesitant. “Because I- I do regret it.” She stared back at him, straight into his soulful eyes. “How did you know? How did you know that . . . that I was not happy?”

Mr. Vickers looked back at her mildly, his only movement the rise and fall of his chest. Anna almost thought she saw a smile brewing deep inside him. He cocked his head at her and rubbed his forehead with his fingers. “Annalise,” he began, the smile that she suspected beginning to curl the edges of his mouth, “Annalise, I am old. I've watched many people grow and change, I've grown and changed myself. And if I've learned anything from my observations of people, young and old, that would be that I know when they are unhappy. When someone is unhappy it isn't usually difficult to find the cause, as long as one takes the time and the care to get to know that person.”

Anna frowned, unsure if he had answered the question. “But- but how did you know? Specifically?”

The full-blown smile appeared. “Because HomoGen's work, and Central Admin's work, are fundamentally untrue. You cannot be happy following that which is untrue.”

The concept was so foreign to her that she sat silently, trying to let the words penetrate. Untrue? Why was it untrue? Before she would have laughed in his face at such a suggestion, but now something in her soul resonated to the concept, though she didn't know why.

Mr. Vickers leaned forward towards her and he took her hands in his. “If you really want to know how I know, all you have to do is look around you, and think. You are unhappy because you know deep in your soul that what you do and what you've seen are troubling things. They are not good, they are untrue.” He released her hands. “There is no love in what HomoGen does, and there never will be. And you desire love. I see it with you and Jesse, I see it with your devotion to your job, I see it in everything you do. You want to love and to be loved.”

Anna's breath caught in her throat. One part of her demanded she rebel against his words, that she drive him away. She felt her desire for her work, her memories of HomoGen being pulled away from her and her body screamed that she resist. Then suddenly she heard the Secretary's words again: There is no love in this entire process, and it's about time the charade was dropped.

Adam knew that what he was doing was untrue.

The other part of her found itself listening to Mr. Vickers. “Jesse doesn't love me,” she blurted out. “He never did.”

“Probably not,” Mr. Vickers agreed.

“Did you know the SubVersion complex existed?” she asked, trying to change the subject.

“We had a pretty good idea that the part you saw did indeed exist, and of course Daniel is familiar with a certain portion of it. But we weren't absolutely sure what was going on there until this afternoon. You'll have to give us the rest of the details later of course,” Mr. Vickers said, leaning back again in his chair. “Which leads to your next question: why is Daniel in my house?”

Anna nodded.

Mr. Vickers shrugged. “He is Verité. So am I.”

Even though she had already begun to guess, the revelation still shocked her. “How could you be Verité?” she demanded.

“Because Verité was my idea.”

Now she truly gaped at him. “Your what?”

“Verité is the brainchild of none other than myself, your father, and your mother,” Mr. Vickers continued. “It exists now partly under my supervision and guidance.”

Anna's head spun. She struggled to hold her rising ire in check and she sat up straight, the quilt falling away from her shoulders. “You run Verité? And my parents used to as well? Then how in the world did Verité justify killing my parents? What sort of rationalizing did they have to do, did you have to do?”

Mr. Vickers shifted in his seat, less with discomfort it seemed than a kind of disappointment. “Annalise, why in the world would we have killed your parents? They were our biggest allies.”

Confused and faltering, Anna continued: “But- it was all over the news! It's what I've been told for ages, the Secretary even corroborated it!”

“And you believe everything the media and Central Admin put out?” Mr. Vickers eyed her. “The Party Secretary, he is a trustworthy and honest man? He has never lied to you before? Annalise, Central Admin denies that the SubVersion complex even exists. Their mission from the first day of Verité's existence has always been to discredit and destroy us, by any means possible. Back in the day a warning came to us, that someone from Central Admin knew that your parents were with Verité and within that same week your parents were dead.” He stared hard at Anna. “Killed with a weapon we didn't even possess at the time. I assure you, we had nothing to do with it. It wouldn't have made any sense.”

Anna shook her head; all of this new information was almost too much to bear. She felt a new anger now, the horrible thought that everything she had ever known was a lie and that she would never know the truth. Mr. Vickers' story rang true, but she felt afraid as her old opinions crumbled to pieces around her. Suddenly her anger could center on no one but herself.

Her next question surfaced and she decided to change the subject again. “Daniel called you 'Father.' Are you his father?”

Mr. Vickers smiled. “In a way, yes. I am a Catholic priest.”

Friday, July 25, 2014

The SubVersion Complex, Chapter Seventeen

We are finally back to new content again! We left off of course with Anna in the hallway outside the incinerator chamber, vomiting her guts out. We pick up with what immediately follows that incident and continue from there.
You all are in for a couple of big surprises coming up, and the end of this scene contains one of them. So without further ado, here is Chapter 17 of The SubVersion Complex. This book is intended for a more mature audience, so be advised.



Her whole body heaved and shuddered, attempting to eradicate the images from her imagination and the contents of her stomach from her body. Tears streamed from her eyes in racking sobs, her soul raw and straining for some sort of release from the horror in her mind. She pounded the floor in her torment and tried to make sense of it all, but strangely only Mr. Vickers' words would come to her.

Giving up the devil's work or simply transferring to another post to do it more efficiently?

She shook her head feverishly, again engulfed in a flood of guilt as she realized the gravity of her mistake. So this is what HomoGen really did. Adam was right, this had nothing to do with love. She cried out and leaned back against the wall, clutching at her hair and weeping harder. She suddenly saw the image of that lesbian couple the previous week who had come to HomoGen to order their Version. They would indeed get their Version, and Neville would receive the two to eight SubVersions created at the same time, to defile with his sickening hands and his even more sick mind. Those SubVersions would be experimented on, frozen, hacked up, and eventually cast into the same furnace that had just destroyed Daniel's lover.

The limp form of that falling woman once more possessed her, and the awful guilt followed. She could have stopped them, couldn't she? She could have saved her, could have rescued her from that horrible fiery destiny. Or perhaps she could not have done a thing.

She heard the door open again and someone entered behind her. The noise of the furnace beyond had not died down a whit, but instead seemed to be gaining strength. She turned and saw Neville standing there.

“I did warn you, I really tried,” he opined. “It's not a sight for everyone, only the hardiest should really be allowed to see that. But shall we continue?” He bent down to help her up.

Anna's entire being swelled with enraged terror, and without thinking she rose up and struck him across the face. “DON'T TOUCH ME!” she screamed. She pulled her gun from its holster on her back and aimed it squarely at Neville's head. “Let me out of this place now,” she gasped, almost incoherent.

Neville startled and took a step backwards. His hands rose into the air of their own accord and his voice assumed a conciliatory tone. His face was white. “Now, Miss McLean, let's not be hasty, there is plenty more to see that we haven't even gotten to yet.”

“You will let me out of here now or I swear I will kill you.” She couldn't believe the words coming out of her mouth; she felt out of control of her actions. The only thing that mattered any more was getting out of this dungeon, and with every passing moment it felt more and more as if the walls would close in on her. Holding a steady bead on Neville's forehead, she repeated her request.

Neville slowly backed up to the console on the wall and tapped the button. “Captain James, Miss McLean says that she is finished down here and would like to go back upstairs. Come to the south exit and escort her out please.” He released the button and turned frightened eyes back to Anna. “Satisfied?”

“Almost,” Anna stammered. She could feel her tears returning and sincerely hoped Captain James would show up before she was blinded by them. With astounding quickness the door at the far end of the hall opened and Captain James appeared.

Anna holstered the gun and ran. James watched her fly out the door, then turned to Neville in a rage. He grasped the white clad man by the front of the shirt and lifted him almost off his feet. “What the hell did you do to her?” he demanded.

Neville twisted and choked, but his smile made a reappearance and he tried to sound unconcerned through his gasps. “I did nothing she didn't want me to do. Weak stomach I suppose.”

Disgusted, James threw the man onto the floor and followed Anna out the door. She had already made it out to the elevator and was pounding at the button desperately trying to make the elevator come faster.

He grabbed her by the shoulders in concern and tried to turn her around but she fought his grasp. “Get away from me!” she screamed again, wrenching herself free. James let go of her, just as the elevator pinged and the doors slid open. Anna raced inside and he followed. She slapped the button for the parking garage level and the elevator began to move.

When the doors slid open an ashen-faced Anna emerged into the cavernous garage followed by a troubled Captain James. As both of them raced across the concrete Anna vaguely noticed Officer Terry Garnham walking to her own car. Terry gaped in surprise and dismay as she saw traces of vomit on Anna's clothes and the tear stains on her face. But it was Anna's expression that alarmed her the most.

“Anna,” she breathed with concern, “what happened?”

“I have to go,” Anna blurted out, the gurgle in her throat suggesting she was not finished disgorging her previous meal.

Terry persisted. “What's wrong, Anna?” She looked closer and saw the chaos raging in Anna's eyes, and her concern grew sharply. “What in the world happened?”

“I am going, I need to go,” Anna replied sharply, shoving everyone aside and rushing for her car. As she disappeared around the corner Terry turned to Captain James and silently asked “What?”

James shook his head. “I wasn't there, I have no idea what she saw,” he said, “but whatever it was, it's bad.”

“What was bad?” Terry asked, confused.

“The Secretary sent her to visit with Neville.”

Terry turned white. “Oh no . . . “


Anna never knew how she got home that day. She somehow stumbled to her car and programmed it to get her back to her address, but much other than that remained a blur. She was dimly aware that her car had emerged into the dim light of a tremendous late evening thunderstorm and that rain and wind began to lash the vehicle in powerful rolling buffets. With the rain came her tears again, and she found she could not stop them no matter how hard she tried. Wretched grief boiled inside her to overflowing and all she could do was ride the cresting wave of her own emotion.

After an eternity had passed, her home appeared and the car dutifully parked itself in the driveway and cut the power. Anna automatically moved to exit, but as the door opened her foot caught and she fell almost prostrate with a splash onto the soaked concrete.

She noticed the rain, realized it felt good pouring onto her head and limbs and back. She stayed motionless for several long moments, feeling the water droplets strike her and split into fragments, listening to the deep thunder roll in the background. It felt . . . cleansing. Her hair rapidly grew saturated and limp around her face, her wet dress clung to her body and her shoes filled with water. She didn't care; she didn't care about much at that moment.

She shut the door of her car and slowly began to crawl towards her front door. It seemed so far away. She tried to stand and walk but as she did so she heard a sound from the street and stopped to look.

It was Jesse's car, and as it halted at the curb under a blazing streetlight Jesse himself jumped out clad in a business suit, an umbrella in tow. Anna gaped at him uncomprehendingly. Why is he here? She tried moving faster towards the door but her own condition and a cry from Jesse halted her.

“Anna!” he shouted, running up and shielding her from the rain with the umbrella. She blinked the water out of her eyes and looked at him like she didn't know him.

“I like the rain,” she said stupidly.

“What are you doing out here in all this?” Jesse shouted over the downpour and thunder. “Let's get you inside.” He grabbed her arm and began to haul her to her feet.

“Don't touch me!!” she screamed, recoiling from him and stumbling backwards. Jesse stared in surprise but tried to lift her again. Again she repulsed him and backed away.

“What is wrong with you, Anna? I'm here to help you!” he barked, gesturing in frustration. She still backed away, finally reaching the door and fumbling to unlock it with slippery fingers.

“I don't want to see you right now,” she whispered. “I don't want to see you ever again, not ever. Please leave.” She backed into the house away from him. He suddenly strode up to the door and pushed it open.

“No, Anna, for some reason you're not thinking straight, now tell me what's wrong.” His presence was overpowering as usual, his scent and overbearing attitude made her shrink deeper inside herself. For the second time that day she reached behind her back and pulled out her weapon, pointing it squarely at his stomach.

I said leave,” she cried desperately through her tears.

Jesse's eyes nearly popped out. “So they did give you a gun,” he breathed, putting his hands uncertainly into the air. Anna pushed forward, and he reeled backwards out of the doorway. She grabbed the door and slammed it shut, locking it and resetting the alarm. Then she sank to the floor inside against the wall and wept again.

What to do? She couldn't go to Adam, he would wonder too many things. Terry was no good either, and Anna had just threatened her only semblance of a friend with a gun and forced him back out into the rain. With sudden clarity she realized that she had no friends, no real friends anyways, no one she could call or go to and spill herself out. In that moment of despair she glanced over at an end table nearby and saw a bottle of her best brandy sitting on top, next to the familiar framed picture of her parents smiling back at her.

Sonya's plea for her mother came rushing to Anna as she saw the face of her own mother staring back at her, and for the first time in years she really felt the festering wound of their death on her heart. She wanted her mother, her father. She wanted them back so badly. She reached over, grabbed the bottle in her frustration and hurled it against the paneling of the far wall. It disintegrated with a loud crash and she watched the brown liquid spill down the wall and onto the floor. Then, through her tears, a thought came to mind.

Mr. Vickers. He had been a friend of her parents. She could call him.

No, he hates me. I've hated him for so long that he would never want me. Or maybe he doesn't . . . In the midst of her musings she pulled out her commex, ironically glad that they were built to be waterproof, and was about to dial his number when she remembered she didn't even have it. Had she never even bothered to get his number? In her frustration she tossed her gun to the floor and pulled her knees up to her chin. So there was nothing that could be done, and she despised herself.

Then the reason why all this trouble had been heaped on her came back in a flash, and she practically ran up the stairs to her room and dropped to her knees in front of her safe. She unlocked it and pulled out the commex that Daniel had given her and powered it on. It came to life without a fuss and displayed a single icon in the center of the screen, a button cheekily marked “Push Me.” Gritting her teeth, she tapped it and put the device up to her ear and waited.

The line rang once, then twice, then a click. “Who is this?” It was Daniel's voice.

“It's me, Anna.” She licked her lips. “I . . . I have what you want.”

A long silence. Then: “You will meet me in person, and you will leave your personal commex in your bedroom, turned on of course.”

Anna frowned. “Why do I need to leave it behind?”

“Your house is being monitored, at this very moment,” Daniel's voice crackled. “I watched two trucks follow you in, no doubt from Central Admin. Your commex is being geo-tracked by them, and you need to leave it at home.”

In confusion and sudden panic Anna raced to the window and looked up and down the street. At the very end to her left she could make out two parked black trucks. A chill shot through her entire body. “Am I in danger?”

“I don't know, but I do know they definitely saw that stunt with your boyfriend and your gun.”

Anna stiffened. “You saw? Where are you?”

“Come out your back door, close and lock it and set the alarm from your remote key. Then cross backyards to your next door neighbors' house. The divider fences and the rain and twilight will keep you out of sight of the trucks.”

Anna was confused. “Which next door neighbors? The ones to my right?”

“No, your left. You know him as Mr. Vickers. Come to his back door and knock three times. Daniel out.” The line went dead.

Mr. Vickers? Anna couldn't fathom what Daniel would be at his house for. Then a horrible thought occurred to her: Perhaps Mr. Vickers is being held hostage? But why? She placed her commex on her bed like Daniel asked, then flew down the stairs and to the back door. She locked it and set the alarm, then proceeded across the back lawn towards Mr. Vicker's back door.

The rain still fell in sheets and she was forced to take off her heels and step barefoot in the soaked grass, keeping her head down so as not to be seen from the street. The rain did not feel half so pleasant or cleansing now, but dribbled in cold rivulets down her back and legs. By the time she reached Mr. Vickers' back door she was shivering and her teeth chattered. She stepped up onto the back stoop and rapped three times on the door.

The door swung open and Mr. Vickers himself emerged. He stared for a long moment at Anna's bedraggled form, then reached out to her and gently took her arm, pulling her in. “Come in, Annalise, come in out of the rain, you're soaked.” She watched his face darken with anger and he turned to the doorway of the next room. “Daniel! Get in here now.”

Daniel's tall and wiry form appeared from around a corner and stopped short. The befuddlement evident in his face matched in intensity the bewilderment that she felt. He turned to Mr. Vickers but had barely opened his mouth when the older man turned on him.

“What in the world did you make her do?” Mr. Vickers' tone was ice.


The SubVersion Complex, Chapter Sixteen (Revised)

Here is the last chapter that I rewrote, before we get back to the completely new content. Two separate scenes were merged here to create one long unbroken introduction to the actual SubVersion Complex and the horrors contained therein. After this chapter, we will be back to the story. Yay!

So without further ado, here is Chapter 16 of The SubVersion Complex. This book is intended for a more mature audience, so be advised.



Late afternoon thunder rattled the tall window and the restless wind cast stray raindrops against the glass. Caught in sharp relief in the waning light that shafted through the window, the Party Secretary's face betrayed that his mood boded little better than the weather. As Anna entered his office she felt like she was once again in boarding school, being sent to the headmaster's office for a well-deserved chiding. Except that this was much, much worse.

She crossed the seemingly insurmountable space between the door and his desk, stopping awkwardly only a foot or two from the chair she had spent so many hours in just yesterday. She could feel him breathing from behind the desk, could watch his nostrils flaring and his eyebrows kneading. He seemed to take forever to speak. Finally he pushed himself backwards in his chair and regarded her over touching fingertips. A strange anger smoldered in his eyes.

“What are you doing, Miss McLean?”

Anna felt her own anger and fear rising but she managed to hold his gaze without looking away. “It may be cliché to say so, but I could ask you the same question. Assuming of course that we are talking about the same thing.”

The Secretary appeared taken aback at her boldness. “Careful, Anna . . . you do not have a default pass to my approval and affection. Just why did you think it would be a good idea to threaten the integrity of Dr. Jarrod's experiment?”

Anna's anger mounted a little higher but she struggled to control it. “Were you aware that there is a little girl inside the reactive computer? And could you tell me why, exactly?”

Adam didn't even blink. “That wasn't the question I asked. I asked you why you thought it might be a good idea to open the box in the first place?”

He already knew, Anna concluded. “I am a computer scientist, and I am working on a computer that supposedly mimics the human brain. I was curious as to what exactly was inside the box that made it run, after the computer talked to me. And I find a little girl inside. Now I've answered your question, so please would you answer mine as to why and how she got there?”

The Secretary cocked his head at her. “Are you objecting to this state of affairs, Miss McLean?”

Anna's face burned but she choked down her growing rage. Of course she objected, but she wasn't about to reveal her whole hand to him at this point. She tried for the least outraged tone she could muster. “I find it irregular at best. Where did this girl come from, and what right do we have to lock her inside a box and plug her into a computer?”

“What right do we have?” Adam asked, slowly rising to his feet. His height made her wilt. “You speak as if the creature in that machine was a real person, with rights. I can assure you, Anna, that she is not. That 'girl' is so far below what is real as to make it ridiculous.”

Anna's conversation with the little girl surged back into her memory and it was all she could do to keep from losing her temper. “She looked pretty damn real to me,” she said quietly.

“They all do, but they're not. You have just seen your first SubVersion.”

Despite her anger Anna stopped short. “What is a SubVersion?”

“The inevitable next question,” the Secretary said testily, tapping his cane on the floor. “I had not planned on doing this so soon, but it would seem that you stumbled into this on your own and so I have very little choice. You may or may not like what you see but you do seem determined to charge headlong into the thick of things.”

“Very little choice in what?” Anna asked, her anger rapidly changing into dread.

“You are going on a little tour.”

Anna blinked. She knew well enough now to fear Adam's little tours. “Where?”

“Downstairs. All the way downstairs.” He tapped a button on his desk. “Get me Captain Ander James in Level Three.”

A man's voice crackled back from the speaker in the desk. “This is Captain James. “

“Captain,” Adam said, “I have a woman here that needs an escort down to Level 3.”

There was a long pause and Anna heard only breathing on the other end. Then the voice returned. “Are you sure, sir?”

“Yes, I am sure.”

“And who is this that I am taking down?” the voice continued reluctantly.

“Miss Annalise McLean, our newest member.”

“Ah,” Captain James replied noncommittally. “Will she be visiting my side or Neville's?”

“She will be on Neville's side of things.”

“I'll be up in five minutes. Have her meet me at Elevator 2. Captain James out.”

The Secretary tapped the button harder than necessary, cutting off the call. “Satisfied?” he inquired darkly.

Anna's jaw worked back and forth uncertainly. “Should I be?”

“You're the one who can't leave well enough alone.” The Secretary sat back down but still managed to feel imposing. “You tell me.”

Fear began to lick at the edges of Anna's consciousness. “What exactly is down there? What am I supposed to see? And what's a SubVersion?”

“Neville will explain all of that to you when you get down there. I try to avoid the man if at all possible, as does just about everyone else, but you should find out what you want to know.” Adam waved her to the door. “And once you are done seeing all that there is to see down there, then you can rethink bringing all this huff and indignation into my office like you actually know what is going on. You don't know shit. Go learn something. And be aware that you are being read into the topmost of our top-secret projects. Everything that you see will be classified.”

With growing dread Anna turned and left the office and walked the long walk to Elevator 2. Her head spun and her insides had tightened into a hard ball. She suddenly had no stomach for this task.

Right on cue, the doors of Elevator 2 hushed open and a man stepped out. He stood only an inch or two taller than Anna, with hair cropped short and a brawny frame clad not in the uniform of the security personnel upstairs but in regular military fatigues. He attempted a smile and held out his hand. “Captain Ander James, at your service. And you are Miss McLean?”

Anna shook his hand. “Yes, I am. You can just call me Anna. You are my escort?”

“Indeed, at least for a very short while,” the man replied. “I will have to hand you off to someone else once we are downstairs.” His manner was one of restraint, of cordial charm that hid below a veneer of military professionalism. “And please just call me James. My friends all do. Or at least, most of my friends. We can leave the 'Captain' off for now.” He motioned to the elevator with his hand. “After you.” They both stepped into the elevator and the doors slid shut. James pulled a key out of his pocket, inserted it into a special lock on the elevator wall, then pressed buttons “Basement 1” and “Basement 2” simultaneously. With a jolt the elevator began to move.

James turned back to Anna. “So . . . what sort of errand would take you down to Level 3 for the first time? I can't imagine what sort of business anyone from your department would have down here.”

Anna swallowed hard. “It has something to do with a project I am working on,” she said cryptically.

James stared straight ahead with a grim face. “And have you ever met this Neville Sanders?”

“No, why?”

“You may want to be careful, is all.”

Anna felt her skin prickle. “What's wrong with him? Anything?”

James scratched the back of his head with one hand; his fingernails made raspy scraping sounds against his stubble. He licked his lips and tried to smile again, but failed. “It may not be my place to say so, but Neville is . . . “ he trailed off as he thought. Anna waited anxiously for the answer, but it was not to be. The elevator doors opened again and James shook himself. “Here we are.”

The doors opened and 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 fear. 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 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. Plus, the Secretary would find out if she never made the tour. 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?”

Anna shook her head. “I'd never heard of a SubVersion before today.”

“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 after her shock that he was still standing there. She was of course only down there for a tour mandated by the Secretary, but she suddenly remembered that she still had the paper with Daniel's numbers on it in her shirt. The only problem was that she was not supposed to know either number. Although, Sonya's number was tattooed into her upper arm. And Adam knew already that she had seen Sonya. Perhaps if she mentioned Sonya she could get word of the woman.

“I . . . I was only supposed to be touring the facility and asking you for explanations of anything I didn't understand, but I did have a question,” Anna said with the little nonchalance she could scrape together. “I am currently working with a SubVersion from down here, a little girl named Sonya. Do you happen to remember her?”

Neville laughed strangely. “Remember her?! Of course I do! How could I forget? Most of our SubVersions only have numbers, no names. Makes things easier that way, and less attachment to the subjects. But her mother insisted that she have a name.”

“Her mother?” Anna asked in excitement. Her idea was working.

“I am intimately familiar with both the daughter and the mother. The daughter obviously is with you, but the mother 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 need to look up the number or anything, but 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. Anna saw with satisfaction that it was the correct 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 but 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 roared 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 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 an 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 dribbled 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.