~~~

There was only one room on the eastern wing of the observation facility. Four enormous industrial-sized generators filled the large space. A narrow mesh walkway ran between them, two generators on each side, as Stephen and Logan stood at the center of the walkway and marveled at the large, ten-foot tall machines. They were surprisingly quiet and ran automatically, switching on some sort of timed relay that always left two generators running while the other two cooled down and went into standby mode. This room was lit up better than all the rest with an abundance of overhead lighting, half of which still worked.

“Very efficient set up,” Stephen said. He looked down through the mesh grating where numerous large fuel tanks stood lined up across the lower floor with a large network of fuel hoses running up through the floor, feeding the massive generators.

“Very expensive,” Logan added. “Whoever these people are, they were planning for the long haul. There’s probably enough juice in this room to last the next twenty years.”

“And now we know why they wanted their damn compound back,” Stephen said, but wasn’t quite convinced.

Logan nodded and then stared ahead toward the end of the walkway. “Gee… look. Another door.”

“Hopefully an exit,” Stephen said, urging them forward.

Logan kept a nervous hand on the gun holstered at his side.

The last door exited the large generator room, leading them into a small dark hallway that ended abruptly before a tall airlock door.

“Shit,” Stephen hissed. “I don’t like the looks of this… at all.”

The small hallway walls looked like the western wing. There were blood stains smeared across the walls and floor, but it was the airlock door that filled them both with dread.

In thick black blood was the infamous three-pronged symbol of Mother, hastily scrawled down the front of the door. Just beneath it, in bold, erratic smears, were the words:

EVERYTHING’S DEAD IN PARADISE!

“‘Paradise’? Didn’t Megan say that?” Logan said.

“Yes,” Stephen nodded. “She told us that one of her abductors called the place behind the windows… Paradise.”

“Taven!” Logan snapped his fingers. “That’s the infected one she was going on about. He called it that.”

“Maybe this blood is his?” Stephen cringed, stepping away from the airlock door.

“What do you suppose it means?” Logan whispered.

Stephen was staring at a small window built into the door the size of a garage door window. He slowly approached it and peered through the thick glass. The airlock was black. “No lights in there,” he said. He put his hands on the door and felt a familiar vibration, but much more intense. He pulled his hands away and then turned his ear toward the window. “I can hear it again… those vibrations. Just like at the observation windows.”

“Can you see behind the airlock itself? Should be a secondary door with another window.”

“Nothing. It’s all black.” Stephen stepped back to Logan. “I suspect this door leads directly into the heart of this place.”

“You mean… whatever these freaks are observing from the main room, right?”

Stephen nodded.

Logan nodded toward the bloody message. “That’s a damn warning to stay the hell out of there. Might be a good reason, too.”

“That could also be our only way out of here,” Stephen added.

“We should head back and check out the cabinets. Maybe there’s something in there that can explain all this before we blindly stumble into whatever madness seized this place.”

“Agreed,” Stephen said. “Maybe we’ll find some blueprints or a map, if nothing else.”

Logan nodded and turned, eager to be away from the airlock door.

Stephen started to follow, then stopped.

Logan turned. “What is it, little brother?”

“I need five minutes here to wrap my head around that message. You head back, make sure Meredith and Megan are okay.”

“I should wait with you,” Logan said.

“I’ll be okay… really. I’ll be right behind you in a minute or two.”

Logan gave him a questioning look, then glanced back at the airlock door. He shrugged his shoulders and turned. “I don’t see you in four minutes, I’m coming right back.”

“Fair enough.”

Logan departed.

Stephen waited thirty seconds, his back turned toward the airlock door, then he took a deep breath, closed his weary eyes, and said, “I know you’re here. I know where you hide now so you might as well come out… Nicole… or whatever you really are.”

~~~

Meredith checked on Megan. The young woman still refused to leave the corner of the large observation room. Megan had wrapped her arms around her folded up legs, resting her forehead on her knees. Meredith was relieved that Megan was breathing normally. She appeared to be sleeping.

Poor thing, she thought. Of all the amped-up emotions I’ve seen this girl suffer through—the rage, the sadness, the pain—I’ve never seen her with such intense fear before. It’s… unsettling. Meredith scanned the quiet ruins of the observation room and finished, Perhaps, Megan is right to be afraid… and we should all take note of it.

Meredith shook her troubled thoughts away and focused on one of the large file cabinets. She walked over to the dusty cabinet and pulled the sluggish middle drawer open. The drawer was full of paperwork. There were several manila folders with small divider tabs, indicating some organizational system.

Let’s see what manner of evil has been happening down here, aside from the abduction of pregnant girls. Meredith squinted her eyes to read the small tabs, which were barely legible. Many of them had blurred dates. Some were listed with titles. Where do I even start?

The answer struck her in the face as her eyes went wide and her heart skipped. She focused on one tab near the back of the file cabinet.

“No,” she whispered, taking a step back from the cabinet as if it were on fire. She placed her shaking hands over her mouth.

The tab read:

PROJECT: HOME (1965 – 1975)

“That’s just a coincidence,” Meredith said. “It’s a common word. They could be talking about anything.” But she knew. Deep down, Meredith knew that this file could only mean one thing. Along with the familiar dates and the fact that she already knew that Mother was behind the orphanage all along…

“That’s what they called the place,” she whispered. “They called it ‘Home’.”

Meredith took a deep breath, returned to the file cabinet, and removed the large file from the drawer. She walked over to the closest table and set the file down carefully.

There was a label printed on the front of the folder adding additional information. Meredith just stared at it, her heart now racing within her chest.

The label confirmed her fears:

PROJECT: HOME (1965 – 1975)
STATUS: TERMINATED
APPROVED BY: A. EVANS, MPO

The name, A. Evans, could only mean Miss Evans, the big woman who ran the orphanage. But… ‘Terminated’? She thought. What does that even mean?

Meredith reluctantly opened the file revealing a stack of aged, but still preserved memorandums. At the top of each segment, some stapled together, was a date printed beside the three-pronged symbol of Mother in the upper left-hand corner. On the very next line was the subject title of the project. Beneath, was a long black line separating the business-looking, yet, vague, originator from the subject content.

Meredith started scanning the very first page, which was dated: March 15, 1965. Several sentences gave her pause:

…As you all know, since discovery of the first anomaly, several attempts have been made to stabilize the boundary, and have failed…

…Project Home will introduce female test subjects, with unusual mental perception, to the entity, in order to establish contact…

…All previous attempts to secure Labyrinth Level 1 have failed, resulting in extreme cases of mental and emotional distress, hallucinations, manic behavior, and psychotic episodes…

…It is our belief that these extraordinary test subjects can withstand the physical stress associated with prolonged exposure to the anomaly, and it is highly believed that communication may be established through a ‘psychic’ link between the entity and the girls…

…Due to the increased number of deaths, Labyrinth Level 1 remains a quarantined area. All personal are advised to stay clear of the lower level and remain behind all electromagnetic barriers for their own safety…

Meredith stopped reading. She walked over to one of the large windows. She could hear the faint buzz get a little louder. She stared out into the darkness beyond, her thoughts locked within the past. “Finch,” she said. “He tried to tell me about the other girls, the ones who were at the orphanage long before I arrived. He’d never said where they went… only that none of them ever came back.” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “This… this was where they went. My God! They’ve been sending children down into this dark place for years! This… ‘anomaly’ place that makes people go… insane!”

And then she realized who, or what, the entity was.

Toby. It had to be!

She immediately stepped away from the large window, sensing that something might reach in from the darkness, like a monstrous hand made of black madness, and pull her down there, into this… Labyrinth.

“What about the others?” she thought with alarm, turning back toward the file. “After… after I was…” She struggled to piece the fragments of her memory together.

Elsewhere.

She stopped. The strange word struck her mind like a crowbar, attempting to knock the truth loose. All she knew was that she’d been at the orphanage… discovered the dolls, and Toby… and then…

Elsewhere.

And then… she’d become someone else.

Meredith shook the disturbing thoughts away. She needed to know what had happened to those girls. She started frantically flipping through the files, toward the back, until she reached the last memorandum dated: January 23, 1975.

The final memo was surprisingly brief. She started reading:

After test subject Clementine eliminated all remaining female subjects and Michael Finch, she was sedated and incarcerated in-house to avoid outside criminal investigation. Considered ‘weaponized’ test subject and extremely unstable at present time. Further study pending.

Evacuation and cleansing of the Home facility is complete. Primary Subject has been safely relocated to off-shore operations.

Effective immediately: Amelia Evans, reassigned to Labyrinth Level 1 location as Manager Project Oversight.

Dr. Clara Forester reassigned to off-shore operations.

Project Home status: TERMINATED.

Meredith dropped the file and stepped back. “Oh, no,” she whispered. She hadn’t thought about her old friend, Clementine in a long, long time. “I knew she was dangerous… they all did.” Meredith balled her hands in frustration as she closed her eyes to fight off pointless tears. She tried to picture the girls’ faces, but it had been a lifetime ago. She did remember Finch. “He was always kind to me.” Meredith wiped the tears away. “He deserved better than that.” Her shoulders fell as Meredith found the nearest chair and sat down. She felt faint. “If there’s any justice in this world… Clem perished in one of Mother’s rat cages.” She immediately regretted her words, not wanting anyone—even Clementine—to suffer in some horrendous experiment.

“Too much… too much death,” Megan said from behind her, causing Meredith to jump.

The older woman turned. Megan was standing now, nervously pacing back and forth in front of the entrance door. She kept staring through a tangle of knotted long hair toward the western wing where Meredith had found Stephen and Logan. “What’s the matter, honey? Are you okay?”

Megan didn’t seem to hear her. She continued to pace anxiously is if expecting a horde of the dead to come storming into the room. “I can… I can smell it… I can smell all that death,” she said. “So much violence and blood. This place is bad! Rotten!”

Meredith dared a few steps toward the girl. She raised her hands. “Just stay calm, Megan. Don’t let this bother you. We’ll be out of here soon enough.”

Megan stopped and stared at her, registering the older woman for the first time since waking back up. “Meredith?”

“Yes. I’m here.”

Megan glanced once more toward the left and then lowered her head. “It’s still… it’s still here, Meredith,” she said.

“What is?”

Megan looked up. “The violence… the madness… the blood. It… killed them all—murdered their minds!”

Meredith was getting spooked by the young woman’s words. She, too, glanced toward the western wing door and then tried to ignore it. “Can you… sense what happened here, Megan?”

“I can… I can feel it. It’s like a poison seeping in through the cracks. We’re not safe here, Meredith! The madness… it’s all around us!”

Meredith’s face went grave. “I don’t understand, honey. How can know that? This place, and everyone in it, is either long dead, or gone.”

Megan pointed a shaky hand toward the observation windows behind Meredith. “It came from in there! The sickness! They thought they were safe in here… but they weren’t! They tried to keep all the death out… but they failed! It’s like… It’s like I can taste it… in the air!”

Meredith turned back toward the observation windows. She can sense something in this place. Part of her belongs to it—death—and she can sense it as something tangible!

Meredith turned back to Megan.

The girl resumed pacing. She nodded at Meredith. “I’m not… I’m not crazy! It’s coming for us… just like it came for them.”

“Who, Megan?”

“Death!”

~~~

Stephen gave the airlock door once last glance. ‘She’ would know what’s behind that damn door… I’m sure of it, he thought. Nicole was the one who reminded me of the mystery door, right in the middle of all that chaos. Stephen looked around at the empty room, then shook his head with a laugh. “That figures. Now that I really know who you are—or rather, who you’re not—now, you’re too chicken shit to show yourself? All that bullshit about how you loved me and needed me to understand you and accept you for who you are—was it all just a lie?” Stephen turned toward the generator room door.

“I only wanted you to be safe, Stephen.”

He stopped, refusing to turn around at the contemptuous sounding voice.

“You were so determined to die for all those leaches that I almost considered letting you go… almost. But I couldn’t just stand by and let you die… so… I reminded you of the door into this place.”

Stephen turned around. He expected to find the hideous one-eyed version of the girl he’d killed—expected this monster to stab at him with another round of the guilt it had been manipulating him with since the beginning. What he found instead was the brown-haired young woman with her hair tied back in a tight braid, wearing what appeared to be a black funeral dress. She stood directly in front of the airlock door.

“A bit dramatic, don’t you think?” Stephen said, waving his arm toward her attire. “Is this supposed to be symbolic of the death of our love?” he said with a sneer.

Nicole’s face was a pale unreadable stone. She took him in for a moment, then smiled faintly. “I missed you, Stephen. Even when you’re pissed at me… even when you’re cruel to me… it’s still better than being away from you.”

“Please… spare me the bullshit. I didn’t ask for you, so we could continue this sick game of yours. Let’s just get this over with. You are not Nicole… and whatever we had together… is finished.”

Nicole appeared unaffected by his cold words. She took one step toward him, causing Stephen to step back. “It doesn’t have to be this way, my love. Regardless of what you think you know… what we have is real.”

“If you’re referring to the part about you… possessing… my body and poisoning all those grieving people with your words, making them take their own lives—then, yes, I wholeheartedly agree with you. That shit’s as real as it gets!”

Nicole sighed. “You don’t understand, my love.”

“Stop calling me that.”

“You don’t understand. Just because you read my notebook doesn’t mean you’re seeing the whole picture.”

“What the hell does that even mean?”

“What I’m trying to say… Stephen… is that a part of me is… very sick.”

“You’ve got that right.”

“Before I met you, I was in a very cold and dismal place. A place where the darkness rules everything and… well… then I got away—I escaped. But it wasn’t until I discovered you and your pain and suffering, that I realized I could be so much more than what I was. You were full of darkness, Stephen. A darkness that I understood. Your remorse for what you’d done to that girl was consuming you. So, I tapped into that pain, felt the full blunt of it with you, until I found a way to save us both.”

“What are you saying? What the hell are you?”

Nicole smiled. “I’m saying, Stephen, that I was that darkness. That’s the only way I can explain it that will make sense to you. You needed Nicole to be alive again. And I needed you to need me… to give us both a new purpose. We created something beautiful together… something more than I ever anticipated. I did not know that I was capable of love… until you loved me.”

Stephen turned away. “Enough! This is all bullshit! You pretended to be a dead girl to play me… to suck me dry like some emotional fucking vampire! And when that wasn’t enough, you invaded my flesh… and made me do God-only-knows what, to the people I care about!”

“That’s not true,” Nicole defended. “I really do love you.”

“You said it yourself, creature. You’re nothing but darkness! You stole the memory and the shape of a dead young woman and wore her like a fucking Halloween costume!”

Nicole’s face started to change. Stephen could see a glimmer of fire behind this thing’s calm exterior.

“I can see that you’re very upset right now, my… Stephen. I get that. I should’ve been more truthful with you from the start.”

“‘More truthful’? You’re fucking kidding me, right?”

Nicole took a deep breath. “If you will allow me, after you’ve calmed down, I will try to explain myself better. Just know that the woman you see before you, right now, is the woman I’m desperately trying to hold on to—for both of our sakes. That’s been the case since the beginning.”

“That’s a load of-”

“But also know,” Nicole interrupted, with a more forceful tone, “that the other part of me, the darker part, has always been trying to reclaim me… and that darkness wants you, your friends, and this entire world to go up in flames. So, please… allow me to remain with you… like this… as Nicole.” Her face became dark. “The alternative would be… devasting for all of us.”

“Is that a threat?” Stephen took another step back.

“You’ve read some of the words in my notebook, Stephen. Please, read them again… very carefully.”

“What the hell makes you think I kept that damn thing?” Stephen shifted uncomfortably.

Nicole laughed lightly. “I know you, Stephen. I know you ripped those pages out of my notebook, folded them up, and put them in your back pocket.”

He averted his eyes. “For all I know, you possessed me and made me do that, so you could play this game with now.”

Nicole let that go. She shifted gears, understanding their time was short. She couldn’t risk being seen by the preacher… again. “Why did you call for me?”

Stephen looked back toward the generator door, then back at Nicole. “If you want us to talk again, then you need to prove that I can trust you,” Stephen said.

He could see the glimmer of hope appear in the monster’s eyes.

“Yes, Stephen. I completely understand that. I want you to trust me again… I want… I want what we had. Is that possible?”

“Maybe,” Stephen lied. “But you have to stop lying to me… and the possession shit has to end. I’ll kill myself before I let you do that to me again!”

She was quick to nod. “Of course. And… I’m so very sorry… for everything I’ve done. In time, I hope I can explain my actions… and that you can forgive me.”

Stephen ignored this. Logan would be back any minute. “You said you wanted to save me. Is that the only reason you led me down here?”

Nicole frowned and turned to face the airlock door. “You want to know what’s beyond… in the darkness,” she said. Without turning to meet his gaze, she sadly answered, “Death, Stephen. That’s all there is beyond this door.”

“Explain that to me.”

She gazed into his eyes for a silent eternity before answering.

For a moment, Stephen believed he saw actual fear in this creature’s face.

“Madness, Stephen. That’s what you’ll find if you go beyond this door. Others have tried… and failed.”

“Could you be more specific?”

She shook her head. “No. I can’t. I brought you down here to spare you from the Shadow Dead slaughter above. But know this, what lies beyond this door is much worse than what you faced up there.”

“It might be our only way out of here,” Stephen reasoned. “Unless you know another way?”

Nicole said nothing.

Logan was returning.

Stephen pushed. “We’re almost out of time. Is there anything… anything at all you can tell me that will help us?”

“I don’t know, Stephen. But your big preacher friend had the right idea. This place has a history. You used to be a teacher. Don’t we read history to learn from others’ mistakes?”

Stephen lowered his head, pinching the bridge of his nose. He was more exhausted than he realized. “Yes, but-”

By the time he looked back up, Nicole was already gone.

A moment later, Logan stepped through the generator room door. “Time’s up, little brother,” he said. “You started to make me worry. Everything alright?”

Stephen laughed. “Sure.”

“I could’ve sworn I heard you talking to someone right before I came in.”

“That was me talking to ghosts,” Stephen said. “In case you haven’t noticed, this new world of ours is full of them.” He added a wink.

Logan laughed. “Well, speaking of ghosts, we started digging through the archives. You should hear what the ghosts of this place have to say… unless you haven’t finished talking to your airlock ghost, yet.” The big preacher bumped him lightly in the shoulder.

Stephen looked back at the airlock. He could still picture Nicole standing there. “No… I think I’m done here.”

“What did your ghost have to say?” Logan teased.

Stephen shook his head. “Not much… not anything that can help us presently, anyway.”

“That’s too bad. Ready to go?”

“Yeah,” Stephen said. “Hey, what’s the old expression about the devil? My mind’s burnt toast right now.”

“You mean, ‘Dealing with the Devil’?”

“Yeah, that’s the one,” Stephen said, still thinking about Nicole.

“Why do you ask, little brother?”

Stephen smiled. “I was just wondering if that ever turns out to be a good thing.”

Logan gave him a puzzled glance, but Stephen offered nothing. The big preacher sighed and said, “I guess it depends on who made out in the deal… but no matter what… there’s always a price.”

~~~

Next Episode 48-3

Previous Episode 48-1

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 48-2: Hell” Copyright © 2018 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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