“Wake up. We’re going to the beach.”
At the sound of his supervisor’s voice, Researcher Riven Mercer looked up from his stack of documents, a slightly-crazed look in his eyes. “…Is this an assignment?” he managed to croak out, after realizing he’d all but passed out at his desk during the usual end-of-the-month manic paperwork cram session.
Anomalous items processing, while routine and streamlined at its peak of efficiency, still managed to involve a mind-numbing amount of paperwork. As the second-in-command of Site-19’s Kiryu Labs and resident Foundation intern babysitter, Riven Mercer found himself devoting hours every month to supervisory documentation. He made sure that everyone who clocked hours for the Labs was credited appropriately, that any fire damage that occurred during test trials was repaired, and that the monthly caches of paranormal-but-effectively-harmless things were stored away in the proper skeleton-free closets.
Dr. Mark Kiryu regarded his assistant/right-hand research man/tea-drinking buddy with an air of long-suffering patience. “Rivs, how long have you been processing these cases?”
Riven remained quiet for a little while. He looked at the stack of paperwork to his right side, and then picked up his coffee mug sitting on the left. It was the goofy dinosaur-shaped one, he noted blearily. The Labs must have been really swamped this month if he resorted to drinking out of that sentimental souvenir garbage. “Three, four… a couple cups of green tea? I started sometime in the morning,” Riven answered vaguely. “I made a pretty big dent in the stack, but we did bring in a lot of other Level-2s from other departments for this month’s an-items cache, and different people take different notes and we still need to handle hours crediting…”
“Yeah, we’re going to the beach. Pack your sunglasses. Find someone to feed your lizard…”
“I’ve been in the Labs since this morning. I’ve already notified three people that Crellan’s bowl needs to be full by—”
“Beach. Now. Transport shuttle in fifteen.”
“You decided on jeans?” Riven shielded his eyes from the sun as he stepped off the Foundation shuttle. A crew member deposited a box of “protocol essentials” nearby, and after Dr. Kiryu stepped off, the shuttle promptly departed.
“It gets cold when the sea breeze picks up. You went with cargo pants.” Mark replied as he cheerfully shouldered the large beach umbrella and scoped out the scene in front of them.
Riven joined in the scoping. The beach was, well, he reasoned, a beach. The sky above was a sedate azure, scattered with picturesque, postcard-perfect white fluffy clouds. A few seagulls dotted the airspace. Below, pale-colored sand stretching along a coastline, bordered by rocky cliffs and purple sea fig flowers, with the ocean calmly lapping at the shore. It was a private beach, (the beach, not “a” beach, Riven remembered, Mark had said) and the sand and rocks and water were free of litter and human-generated debris. Apart from the cleanliness, the absolute feeling of normal the place exuded was rather unnerving, Riven thought.
“Cargo pants are practical. I might need to wrangle a rabid lizard. Can’t hurt to be prepared.” Riven examined the box, determined it had wheels and an extendable handle for pulling, and approved of the wonders of convenient luggage. By his guess, he could probably throw the box a good few meters in the air if he had to distract a giant rabid lizard.
“I’m really hoping you’re joking, because if not, you’re completely missing the whole concept of ‘relaxing’ you’re supposed to—” Mark had picked a spot in the sand and was stabbing the umbrella into the ground, with limited success.
“I’m joking. I just like cargo pants. Are you sure I’m not missing anything back at the Site?” Riven grimaced as the sun peeked through the clouds and into his eyes. He ran a hand through his shaggy hair (normally it was kind of spiky, according to Mark, but it seemed like today even his hair was tired). Squaring his shoulders, Riven started dragging the box across the sand. The wheels were useless.
“Yes, I’m sure.” Mark scuttled around the umbrella, kicking up sand into a mountain at the base to hold the umbrella up. “Maintenance is taking advantage of our absence to move all your files and stuff into your new office.” He scuttled some more, picking up a wayward rock and tossing it into the tide. “Now that you’ve finished your veterinary doctorate with the Foundation, you’re entitled to your own office, your own hoard of snacks, and your own army of filing cabinets. Remember I told you to pack up your paperweights last week?”
Riven paused in his box-lugging. “Actually, no.”
“This is why you need a beach day, Rivs.”
“Look at this majestic seagull. I dub him the King of Seagulls. Observe his regal crown of feathery authority.” Mark pointed. He was, at the same time, also hogging three lawn chairs: one for himself, one for his propped-up feet, one for his plate of snacks.
“I think he’s just scruffy-looking.” Riven had elected to sit in the sand.
“You’re not very good at the whole ‘beach day’ thing, are you, Rivs.”
“You have a pterodactyl costume and a ninja suit in your office storage. Can you blame me for wondering if there’s some ulterior motive involved?” Riven grabbed Mark’s plate of kettle chips from the lawn chair and made waving motions when the King of Seagulls came within foodstuff-theft range.
“I’m going to walk on the beach. Be courteous with the King of Seagulls.” Mark abandoned his three lawn chairs, kicked off his sneakers and socks, and padded towards the darker sand of the shoreline.
Riven watched his supervisor leave, a retort on the tip of his tongue, but decided against calling out a reply. So he settled into one of the vacated lawn chairs, stretched out his legs in the sunny sand, felt the salty sea breeze waft over his face. It was nice, he concluded. It may have been routine, or protocol, or even a requirement based on HR reasons, but for a moment it was nice to be away from the piles of paperwork and the ever-present unknown, untrustworthiness of the anomalous. It was nice to remember what “normal” felt like… or at least was supposed to feel like. The researcher let that train of thought pass by and closed his eyes. This was peaceful.
The umbrella stuck in the sand promptly teetered two inches in the wind and collapsed into Riven’s lap, sending the plate, kettle chips and all, into the path of the King of Seagulls and his royal entourage.
“Beach day. Right.” Riven scrambled up from the wreckage of his food, cursing gravity and the wind in all their many forms.
Mark laughed discreetly from the shoreline. He’d been tracking footprints in the soft water-brushed sand, and watching the ocean wash them away when the tide came in.
“Are there ever times when the absence of anomaly is scarier than the presence of it? When we’ve spent so much time studying the paranormal, the normal is what becomes uncommon for us?” Riven was sprawled out in the sand again (this time with beach towel on Mark’s insistence), the umbrella having being righted and held down by the lawn chairs, the box, and the extra-large bag of kettle chips (for what little support it could give).
“It’s a risk all Foundation personnel run into,” Mark replied evenly, moving some seashell fragments around on the pages of an open book. He snapped a picture of the arrangement with his phone. “That’s one reason we have such a large Psych department.” He tilted the book, slid the seashells into his hand. The fragments clinked pleasantly as he cradled them in his palm.
Mark stood up, walked a few steps, and tossed the seashells into the approaching tide. He turned and walked back to the umbrella. Riven raised an eyebrow.
“‘Take only pictures, leave only footprints’.” Mark shrugged, sitting cross-legged in the sand next to his assistant. “If this place was anomalous, and I’m not saying it is, what would you hope the effects would be?”
“Benign, of course.” Riven stuck an elbow in the sand to prop himself up, for a better view of the ocean.
“More than five words, please.”
“Something to do with the aesthetics.” Riven flopped back down. “Something with the flowers on the cliffsides, or those shells that get tossed in by the tides…” Riven stuck an arm out of the shade cast by the umbrella and picked up a flattened stone, well-worn at the edges and fitting nicely in the palm of his hand. “Or, hell, if the effect was that every stone I tossed into the waves would skip three times exactly, I’d be happy with that.”
“Didn’t skip stones often, when you were in England?”
“Lived in the city. No place to skip.” Riven grumbled, not particularly keen on revisiting memories of his childhood. He’d been such a dork.
“Well. Let’s test your hypothesis.” Mark picked up a stone.
Twenty-seven stones and five collective total water-skips later, with no conclusive results, Drs. Kiryu and Mercer looked for another anomaly.
“Isn’t it a little out of date, the violin?” Riven had taken down the umbrella, which, after being pointed in various directions respective to the wind, was declared not affected by a potential beach anomaly. The sun dipped on the horizon, casting shadows that hadn’t been there an hour before.
“Oh, never. Every box office hit needs a killer soundtrack. Musicals need pit orchestras. People like sensitive flesh-and-blood musicians. You can tell a computer to play like someone’s crying, but it won’t have a clue what to do unless it’s directed by a human who fucking knows how to cry.” Mark was lying on his chest on the box of beach essentials, arms draped over the sides, stomach cushioned with several towels.
“…yes, I swear here.”
Riven shut his mouth. Mark barreled on.
“Ever played a duet with anyone? Ever seen two musicians sing or play together, totally in sync? There’s something transcendent about that sort of moment.” Mark scooted himself off the box he’d been lying on, did a quick about-face in the sand (it came off as more of an acrobatic twirl) and stretched out his arms, as if to embrace the sea winds blowing in from the waves. “It’s as meaningful as a secret handshake between two old friends, or two lovers sharing a waltz. I played the flute. Lots of lovely duets for the flute.” Mark, silhouetted against the fiery oranges and pinks of the setting sun, let the sound of the tides wash away his words. The night’s approaching darkness painted the sky in muted rainbow hues, melting to the eventual dark blues and blacks in the distance.
Riven snorted. Mark turned around. “Hey, manly men play the flute. Shen and I can crank out a mean Mozart duet, I’ll have you know.” Riven sighed, and held up his hands in surrender.
“I’m not judging. I studied piano for several years, back in England,” he admitted.
Mark grinned widely. “I’m forcing you to learn some chamber music. We’re going to sweep the Site-19 talent show this year.”
Riven shrugged and agreed, and the sun went down. The transport arrived just as they finished packing up the kettle chips.
It was dark outside when lab director and assistant arrived back at Site-19. No one in the facility's laboratory wings would know the color of the sky outside; the halls on this floor were always lit with the same standardized, clinical white lights.
“So was there actually anything anomalous about that place?” Riven put the dinosaur mug in the Kiryu Labs’ sitting room sink, along with his plethora of other backup tea mugs. He’d wash them all tomorrow.
“Nah, unless there’s something the first sweep team, the second exploration team, and the successive test teams didn’t pick up on. You’re not the only paranoid one, Rivs.” Mark stuffed the remains of the kettle chip bag into the food cabinet.
“It’s nice to have a sanctioned beach close to the site, huh?”
“Yeah, it seems like something Site-19’s staff would make good use of.”
“It’s good to get out of the Site from time to time. Remember that there’s an outside.”
“Mark, if Crellan started rampaging around the lab, what would you do?”
“Speed-dial you. Your fat lizard, your responsibility. What are you going to do when you get back to your office?”
“Find out when someone fed Crellan today. He’s not fat.”
Mark sent his assistant a textbook-quality withering look.
“I’m kidding. I’m going to transfer all the beach pictures to my laptop. Probably print one out and stick it to my office door, to remind me to take a break when I can’t feel my eyes.”
A week later, Mark walked by Riven’s new office. He spotted something on the wall behind his assistant’s new desk and smiled.
Taped to the wall, next to Dr. Mercer’s official veterinary program completion certifications and small collection of framed Foundation accolades, was a glossy picture of the King of Seagulls.
Dr. Kiryu went back to his own office, and replied to the memo he had received that morning. It had contained an attached file, his assistant’s quarterly psychological evaluation report: "everything looking okay", "some evidence of research-based stress", "subject has a a well-adjusted mindset", "best of luck with new duties, request vacation time as needed".
Kiryu breathed out as he signed the documentation confirming he had read and reviewed the file. One more year, four more psyc evals to sign off, and he'd no longer have an assistant, but a co-director.
Remember to take care of yourself, he thought.