The Sign Is A Lie

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Tens of dull, hand painted signs hang upon James' building. He hurries to open the hatch over which hang two signs. The first reads: Bernie Gladstone's Artisanal Animals. The second written in a less formal hand, letters packed tightly, reads: James Braxton, Detective. Anomalies, Curiosities & the Supernatural, inquire within.

The second sign is a lie.

In Refuge there are believers of all stripes, and some of those stripes are less than informed. James knows this, sympathizes as much as one can for stupidity, and then routinely capitalizes on it. People believe spirits wallow in nooks of metal, abandoned factories, and ventilation ducts to lower zones, but they don't. If the spirits of the dead haunt the earth they would overrun the living through their sheer numbers. Others believe in curses, hexes, wicked energy. Not James.

But there is that one thing, that one big thing, that he alone believes in. The universe is a many faceted and complex place, hiding within it's folds dimensions and spaces not yet known or understood. And the thing keeping these layers of reality separated, the Veil as James calls it, is thinning near this dying planet. James considers himself a rogue researcher, gathering field evidence on the nature of the universe. If exploiting a few misinformed survivors is what it often cost, he'll pay the price without a twinge of remorse.

Inside the dark room, James removes his mask and flips a switch. The lights don't even flicker. The nightly blackouts have begun. He feels his way past a synthesized bear taxidermy — the bristles against his fingers feels so real — easily climbing the tight stairs to his office.

He pulls an electric lantern from the wall and it flickers to life. He sits at his desk, rubs his neck and yet again pushes the images of three figures in the night, the sound of an explosion, the permanence of death, out of his mind. Forget that you did nothing. There was nothing you could do. Even so, you didn't even try.

Unable to sleep, he sits and waits for the power to return. Twenty minutes pass, the sound of the explosion sneaking it's way back into his mind again and again. The whir of the air announces the return of power. He waves a hand over his desk.

"Allie?"

"Good evening James, anything I *shzzt* do for you?" It was a monotone female voice pushed through a corroded wire and out a frazzled speaker.

"Can't sleep."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Would you like me to update you on intercepted messages?"

James yawns. "You know I do."

"Keywords with new documents. Nihilists, one new document. Disease, one new document. Satellite, one new document."

"Just read them through to me and I'm going to close my eyes."

"From Susan Ericson..."

James leans back in his chair and half listens to the relaxing static hum of Allie's voice. He's dreamt of her before, falling asleep like this. In dreams she appeared in the body of a woman he met drinking. She'd lean in close, lips touching his ear and she'd say, "Subject, attraction. How *shzzt* you want me."

In this moment though, she said, "The young boy with the disease, aged 7, experienced several episodes *zzztcht* exposed to the outdoors."

"Wait, stop," James says. He leans forward, curious. "What're you reading from, just now?"

Allie's static voice modulates mid word, cut short. "Title: Report. Possible Plague in Clayton. Assistance Requested."

"Assistance?" He scoffs. "My ass. What did it say, just now?"

"The last sentence read, 'The young boy with the disease, aged 7, experienced several episodes *chrrt* exposed to the outdoors."

"Episodes?" James eyes the thick window, the tan fluff spores rap against it, collect in the corners. "Go on, what's it say after that?"

"'His outbursts were violent. We observed this incident from afar, so details are hazy. He calmed when returned to his burrow. We weren't permitted to examine him, and have *chht* instructed to follow the villages customs, so we haven't pressed the matter.

"'Today, two days later, we learned the boy was brain dead. Even in this state, exposure to the outdoors insights mad violence in him. His survival is unlikely. Due to our restrictions, we could not effectively diagnose the child, but we fear he may be contagious. A second child has begun to show the symptoms.

"We can only hope this isn't the start of an outbreak. Extraordinary measures may be necessary if the disease takes hold. We must prevent it from reaching Refuge. Experts with power to override restrictions requested for formal assessment. Action must be taken.

"End of document."

"Formal assessment." James laughs bitterly. "Good luck with—" He pauses. "Wait a minute, do we have anything else related on file? Not from the network, from, uh, Dao-Tai Yen I think."

"Nothing found."

"What? Shit." James hurries to a cluttered shelf. "I never installed her stuff, did I?"

"Nothing from Dao-Tai Yen."

"Ok, how long until the next blackout?"

"Estimated six minutes until next blackout."

"Damn." James scans the mess of mini drives, each one looks the same as the other. He shuffles through them and the lights shut off, Allie's speakers pop, and everything is dark. The blackout came early. James lights the charged electric lantern and continues searching.

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