The Great Gig In The Sky
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Previous: Time (Reprise)


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Six subjects float in darkness, suspended in water; their unblinking eyes and intubated mouths are obscured beneath featureless black hoods.

They are arranged in a tightly clustered circle with their heads pointed inward. A dense imbroglio of wires and tubing connect them to a small floating island that houses a rudimentary life-support system. This system forces a mixture of oxygen, nitrogen, and nitrous oxide into their lungs; a steady trickle of synthetic mescaline and propofol is injected directly under their tongues.

The interior of the hoods control the subjects' senses. They are bombarded with a stream of visual, aural, olfactoral, and tactile cognitohazards known to induce disassociation. A low-resolution electroencephalogram reads their neural activity, then adjusts the flow of air, anesthesia, and sensory data as necessary to maintain a fugue state and suppress any capacity for individual thought.

The temperature, composition, and motion of the water is tightly controlled. Bright lights, sounds, and digital devices are prohibited. All but one of the chamber's six entrances have been barricaded behind several feet of concrete reinforced with steel. The only remaining entrance requires a key card, pin number, and retina scan to pass. It's guarded by three armed men and a remotely-operated .50 caliber sentry turret. Shaped charges can be detonated to collapse the entire structure instantly — killing or otherwise trapping everyone inside.

Dr. Hamid Rostami steps through the security checkpoint, rubs the bridge of his nose, then sighs. This used to be an indoor swimming pool.

The small town of Darrington, North Carolina was abandoned at some point in 1961. Its obscurity, remote location, and relatively intact modern infrastructure makes it perfect for the Osworth Institute's purposes. Ostensibly demolished, the town was a 'gift' from Myrmidon International's 'mysterious benefactor'. Its many buildings have been retrofitted for the Institute's use.

Dr. Rostami approaches his desk besides the pool where his laptop awaits. There is data to be examined and tests to be run. He does not make it more than three steps before he hears the sibilant tsss of an oxygen tank nearby.

Shit.

Mercer.

In contrast to Dr. Rostami's healthy russet complexion, Mendel Mercer looks like a man who has just clawed his way out of his own coffin. His skin is a pallid shade of orange-white. A few errant wisps of gray are all that remain of his once full, thick head of hair. He requires constant oxygen, which he receives via a small stainless steel tank he keeps clipped to his belt. Two plastic tubes are connected to it, looped over his ears and under his nose.

Still, there's a fierce strength in the old monster. He wears sharp, handsome suits and keeps himself well-groomed. He refuses to use a cane. That oxygen tank on his hip? He designed it himself. Dr. Rostami cannot help but respect the man's many admirable qualities. None of that changes the fact that Mercer terrifies the shit out of him.

"Doctor." Tsss. "Any progress working out the 'glitches' with Delta-6?"

Dr. Rostami closes his eyes and counts back from five. When he opens them, Mendel Mercer is still there. "Not much. We're fighting just to keep this new cluster from degenerating. I doubt we'll have the same success we did with Gamma-7."

Tsss. "Why?"

Dr. Rostami turns to his desk and rotates the laptop for Mercer to see. The spreadsheet extends well beyond the bottom of the screen. "I've been re-examining our numbers for all the times Gamma-7 achieved psychogenic symbiosis. I think — I think the key is that they actually got along."

Mercer raises an eyebrow. The psychogenic data clearly means very little to him; he is an engineer, not a parapsychologist. Dr. Rostami sighs. "You know how complicated one person's mind can be, right?"

"Mmn."

"Now imagine how complicated it gets when we build one mind out of several. Linked together, they become one brain, one psyche, one will. Multiple sets of memories — multiple unique experiences — multiple lifetimes. All mapped to the same consciousness, at the same time. This is why clusters that include older adults often fail — too much information, too little neuroplasticity. It's also why the largest cluster we've ever managed is Gamma-7. The fact that we got Delta-6 online at all is nothing short of a miracle."

Mercer looks unimpressed. His eyes drift toward the pool where Delta-6 remains floating. "I thought we were trying to suppress their consciousness." Tsss.

"We are. But we can't completely suppress it without breaking the connection. There needs to be just enough for them to maintain the link. For whatever reason, whether it was similar experiences or just a similar psychogenic makeup, Gamma-7's members were able to reconcile with each other. They were able to integrate into a single, cohesive unit. Think of it like… think of them like puzzle pieces. They have to fit together. If you try to force the wrong pieces together — "

" — instead of a Thomas Kincade painting, you end up with a mutilated hellscape," Mercer finishes. Of course. Engineering metaphor. Dr. Rostami should have thought of that earlier. "Akin to what happened when we first tried to bring Delta-6 online to recapture Gamma-7."

"Precisely." Dr. Rostami shudders. He's seen the footage; it's not something he'd like to revisit.

Tsss. "Fortunately, we have a lead on where Gamma-7's remaining members are. I've already sent out a task force. We ought to have them back in custody by tomorrow. You can figure out how to replicate their success using what members remain." Mercer turns to go.

Dr. Rostami hesitates. "There is, uh, one other thing, sir."

Mercer pauses mid-step, turning. "Yes, Dr. Rostami?"

He takes a long breath. "When you first brought me here from the Foundation, I was grateful. An opportunity to use what I know about psychotronics — ontokinetics — for something positive. Something other than just locking miracles away and hiding them from the world. A chance to use that knowledge to make the world a better place. And we've done that — we've used this technology to do miraculous things."

"And?"

"Sir, we're — these are children." As much as he doesn't want to, he forces himself to look Mendel Mercer in the eye. "Delta-6 are prisoners — volunteers, commuting their sentence. Most of our subjects are. But Gamma-7 — they're kids. We're hunting kids. We're hunting kids so we can sedate them, wire their brains together, and turn them into a living weapon."

The heat and force behind his words surprises him. His heart is pounding harder than he even thought possible. For quite some time, Mendel Mercer says nothing.

Then, the old man turns to face him completely: "Dr. Rostami, are you familiar with Alexandra Sanchez?"

He is. "Gamma-7-B, I think. Electrokineticist."

Tsss. "Correct. Anomaly-6307. Escaped with the others. Before she arrived here, she had been in and out of juvenile detention centers her whole life. Do you know how she ended up in our custody?"

"I don't."

"When her ontokinesis manifested, she escaped a detention center. Killed a prison guard and one of her cellmates. And just in case you think that might have been an accident, she's also murdered one of our staff. Do you know why?"

Dr. Rostami lowers his head. He does. He's seen that footage, too. It's now part of Osworth Institute's mandatory safety training. "Because he suggested increasing her dosage."

"Correct." Tsss. "Make no mistake. These are not helpless, innocent little children. They are not heroic martyrs on the run. They are not victims, Dr. Rostami. Each and every one of them is a violent criminal who will kill anyone they perceive as a threat — and each and every one of them possesses the power of a God."


They've found a cabin in the woods.

"Cabin," Alex whispers. She then turns and signs back to Seph: CABIN.

Seph rolls his moon-yellow eyes. The blue-skinned teenager is wearing Sunny like a backpack; the unconscious boy's brown arms are draped over Seph's shoulders, with several tentacles wrapped around him to keep him steady and secure. Sunny's brightly colored lungi drapes behind Seph's legs like a multi-colored skirt. The tourniquet around Sunny's left arm is stained with blood.

Seph signs back with his head-tentacles: CAN SEE LIPS. He waits a moment, then adds: ALSO CAN SEE CABIN.

"Right," Alex says, turning to look toward the cabin. It's a small one-story home tucked away in a grotto out in the middle of the Virginian woods. It has a quaint, rustic look to it. There's a big pond out back — Alex thinks she even sees a couple of ducks. Like something off the front of a frigging Hallmark card.

Machine-Head hovers near Alex. The six quarter-sized metal 'plugs' that poke out of their dark-sienna scalp glimmer in the fading sunlight. "Sunny needs shelter. Temperature dropping. Also, food." Machine-Head pauses, thinks, then: "Also, wolves."

"Alright. Let's go." Alex rises and moves toward the house's entrance. If it's locked, well — locks never stopped them before.

They're ten yards away when the door suddenly opens. An old man with a shotgun steps out.

They freeze in place.

He's an immense, shaggy brute with a big poofy gray beard and a camo baseball cap. His sleeveless white shirt is stained with sweat, beer, and several other fluids Alex won't speculate on. The denim overalls he's got on are one size too large. They hang past his hips like a flag flapping in the breeze. He holds the shotgun in one hand, keeping the barrel aimed at the ground. It probably won't take much for him to point it elsewhere, though.

"You with the government?" His voice is a low, growling snarl. It sounds like an avalanche crashing down on all their heads. He also sounds slurred — like he's been drinking.

Alex feels herself tensing up. Her fist clenches. "Do we look like we're with the government?"

"That ain't an answer." The shotgun shifts, but does not rise. Little sparks weave their way between Alex's knuckles.

Alex forces herself to stay calm. "No. We aren't with the government."

The old man considers this. His eyes drift between the four of them, then settle on Seph. "The hell you supposed to be?"

Seph makes a sign. Alex only catches it from the corner of her eye. "He's a cephalopod."

"You sure you ain't with the government?" The shotgun lifts a little. Alex's heart pounds; her teeth clench. She feels the lightning stirring beneath her skin.

Machine-Head grabs her by the wrist and steps forward:

"We are four teenage anomalies on the run from a research company that abducted us as part of a military contract to weaponize our abilities. One of us is injured as a consequence of a recent car-crash that involved a Virginia State Trooper. We are outlaws in need of shelter and food." Machine-Head pauses, then adds: "Also, wolves. We need protection from wolves."

There is a long, tense stretch of silence.

The old man slings the shotgun over his shoulder. "Alright, then. Y'all like pork and beans?"


He tells them to call him Al, although Alex is certain that isn't his real name. She doesn't trust him — but the house is cool, the food is hot, and he has a first-aid kit Seph can use to treat Sunny's wounds.

Alex helps Al cook the pork and beans. It's polite, and — more importantly — it means she gets to watch and make sure he doesn't try slipping anything into their food. They used to do that to her at the Institute. When that stopped working, they'd just hold her down and give her an injection.

By the time dinner is ready, Sunny is awake and talking. He still needs help moving around. Seph supports him with an arm and a tentacle, walking him to his seat at the table. He ends up next to Machine-Head — who promptly hugs him. Sunny grimaces, but proceeds to smile and reciprocate.

Alex brings him out a plate of pork and beans, minus the pork. "I know you, uh, don't eat meat. Right?"

"Oh! Yeah," Sunny responds. He's slurring his words a little. Seph warned her that he might have a concussion. They'll need to keep an eye on him. "Thanks."

"No problem." She realizes she's hovering over him, her hand squeezing down on his shoulder. She retracts her arm and steps back. "So, yeah. There you are." God, she sucks at this.

One by one, she sets out the rest of the plates. They sit down. Al bows his head to say grace. Sunny and Machine-Head follow suit; Seph and Alex do not.

At last, they start to eat.

Outside the gentle clink and scrape of utensils, the room is quiet. They've all got their heads down, eating silently. That's when it hits her: This is the first time they've actually just sat somewhere and eaten something. Somewhere that wasn't the back of a car; something that didn't come wrapped in a package.

Normal people are supposed to talk when they're eating, right? Make conversation. Socialize. Isn't that how it works?

"Uh," she tries. "So, how's… everyone doing?"

God, she really sucks at this.

"Better," Sunny says. He then looks to Seph. "How about you, old… chum?"

Oh no.

Please, no.

Seph pauses mid-bite, his fork hovering in the space between his plate (already half empty) and his mouth (full of razor-sharp teeth). The tentacles atop of his head swirl into signs: WILL NOT FALL FOR IT.

Thank G —

WILL NOT TAKE BAIT.

Goddammit.

"What bait?" Sunny replies. "I'm just asking if you're gonna… finish your plate."

SHELLFISH BASS HOLE. CONCH YOU SEA ME EATING?

FUCKING HELL.

Machine-Head watches the 'contest' with the sort of rapt focus people typically reserved for extremely close chess matches. Al looks on with a raised brow. Alex drops her fork and mops her face with her hands.

"My God," Sunny replies, eyes as wide as saucers. "Are you — are you sure your anomaly isn't fish-based puns? Maybe the whole blue-skin tentacle-thing is just a side-effect."

WAIT WHAT? WHAT BLUE SKIN TENTACLE THING

Oh my G —

"Seph, I am sorry if no one has previously made this clear to you," Machine-Head speaks, their tone intense and somber. "But you deserve to know the truth: You have blue skin and tentacles."

Seph drops his fork. His face twitches; his tentacles frantically start to spasm. His chest is heaving — he looks like he's having a seizure. Alex can't read what he's signing.

A cold shot of dread bolts down into her gut. She reaches for him. Is he choking? Could it be the food? Out of all of them, he's got the weirdest biology. Maybe it's the beans. Are beans poisonous to him? Maybe it's —

— it's —

— oh.

Oh.

He's not choking. He's not having a seizure.

He's laughing.

Silently laughing. Laughing so hard it fucking hurts. She couldn't tell, because she's never seen him do that before.

For the first time that she can remember, Alexandra Sanchez does not feel the hot pressure building up under her skin. For the first time, she does not feel angry or scared. For the first time, she lets herself think: Maybe they can make this crazy thing work.

Maybe everything will be all right.


The next day, three dozen of Myrmidon's best men move into position.

They've found a cabin in the woods.


Next: Us and Them


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