Sean's Bizarre Adventure
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15

Sounds like a spy movie. A computer at the end of a dusty hallway, a facility built under a sleepy eastern European mountain town, a lone fiberoptic cable leading to the outside world…

Only sixty seconds in the hallway till the guard would check again. Sean Lee sat down, opening up the email link, typing…

To: moc.liamg|19eeLylliM#moc.liamg|19eeLylliM
From: moc.liamtoh|30184301#moc.liamtoh|30184301
Subject: Long time, huh

hey, it's sean. hope life is treating you right. tell your husband I forgive him for 3am last time I visisted, u can figure that 1 out. tell molly she's a cool big sis and tell ben I thought his lego collection was aawesome, sorry I got called away so sudden. can't answer any of ur questions, but don't worry.

best job I ever had
- Janitor Sean

The ASF guard at the door nodded as Sean passed. "Hey, half a minute over the limit - but who's counting?"

"Yeah, and thanks for not making a fuss. You see everything I type, anyway."

"That we do," the guard chuckled.

"That you do," Sean blandly repeated. "See you around, Smith."

"Sure, just don't forget to - wait." the guard rose from his seat, spreading his arms in mock outrage. "I'm Carter. Ryan Carter. You dumb Union bastard, you know that, I've been behind this desk all month."

Sean stopped to face the guard. He really didn't have the time for this, but banter kept him sane down here. "Do I? You all look the same under those helmets. Put a flower on it, I'll recognize you then."

"Yeah, piss off," the guard snorted, crossing his arms. "The Maintenance Union's got a castle of sand to speak about looks."

Covered in grease and sweat, up since 2AM and looking like a man-sized trainwreck: Sean Lee, proud janitor of the Maintenance Union with the lock-and-sword emblem of the Containment Division sewn into his shoulder, had to concede that point. And he was still short on time.

"Okay, Carter," Sean chuckled, heading for the door. "Stay safe."

"You need to more than me. How long on the vat?" Carter asked, pointing at the covered tub of liquid Sean was pushing along on a dolly.

"Half hour, supposedly," Sean shrugged, then raised his hands defensively when Carter's eyes widened in alarm. "It's fine, probably. No grenades this time, they melted some Care Bears to make this. Expiration times when it doesn't clean anymore, not when it explodes."

"Care Bears?" Carter raised an eyebrow, his facial expression churning from alarm to disbelief and right back to alarm. "Grenades? They melt grenades in those vats? You guys… you guys clean spills with that, right?"

Sean shrugged again, amused. "That's an understatement, man. When you security types manhandle an anomaly to its cell, and glowy juices go everywhere, takes some real weird ingredients to get the stains out. And the disembodied screaming out, from the walls," he winced, cupping his right ear at the painful memory.

"I knew that, weird messes need weird soap." Carter said, slowly relaxing, "but grenades and Care Bears? Cleaning liquid? How the hell they do that?"

"Guys who've been around longer than me," Sean replied, shaking his head. "Don't worry, mystery to me too. Just follow the instructions, don't spill it on your arm, get back to Sanitation on time, and I'm fine."

"Speaking of that, you better quit wasting time and actually get to Sanitation," Carter said, waving him away. "Think you'll make it?"

Sean paused halfway through the door. "If the shortcuts are safe today? With time to spare."


It was a short walk to the Maintenance Union's outpost on this wing of the facility: a rusted door and a tiny room for monitoring the clusters of pipes that drew slurry off from certain containment cells. Sean sidled up to the door, knocking twice fast, once slow, and once with the palm of his hand - a Union code for "it's not urgent, but I'm not Security".

A grumbling technician greeted him a few seconds later - over his shoulder, Sean could see modern flat screens next to ancient-looking bronze gauges. The usual collection of old and new you found in the lower levels, all lovingly maintained by Union men. Hell, those gauges might have George Washington's blood baked into them for all he knew; legacy Authority tech was Weird with the capital W.

"Running late on the vat?" the technician gussed, blinking at the harsh hallway lights.

"Uhuh," Sean nodded, "is the mirror hallway safe?"

"Last I heard, yeah," the technician replied, "Liz was spooked by something, but her fault for looking. Fine to walk through it."

"Thanks."

Sean lingered at the door for a moment. Felt like a frontier fort, an Old West palisade, and the desert full of Indians was in front of him. The deepest maintenance tunnels - the maze called 'Basement Maint' - had zero personnel stationed there on a permanent basis. Clusters of offices, containment chambers, labs, workshops, civilization in the lower levels; only Union men crossed the space between on a regular basis, and they did it quick.

A curt nod, a deep breath, and a brisk pace. The distant thunder of ancient machinery; air howling through ventilation shafts in the walls. Gut-wrenching guttural groaning as the weight of three hundred meters - steel, stone and monstrosities above - pressed down on the foundation of the Site.

Basement Maint made a man feel very small, in tunnels so cramped he could barely stand straight. Musty air, reeking with age. Stained concrete walls. A memorial in the corner of an empty supply closet, long-wilted flowers and a roughly-hewn cross.

Down here, the Site felt like a living, breathing thing. Countless decades old, countless men and women treading these halls. Physical age and that imperceptible age, of uncounted memories made here, hanging in the air, ghosts of past personnel.

Weird things happened down here.


Over decades, the core of the Site's activity had expanded upwards; perhaps some anomalies were left behind, undocumented or uncared for. Sometimes, Sean knew, strange things just appeared in the Basement. When a Site grew so old and so storied, reality was never fully intact in the lower levels.

Exhibit A: a lonely hallway filled with mirrors of all makes and sizes, covering the ceilings and walls. If the lights were off, enter and never come back (so it was rumored, at least). Lights on, safe to cross - a convenient shortcut between Runoff blocks; impassable columns of filtration machinery that processed waste from the containment chambers above, spiking through to the lower levels at regular intervals like nails, cased in armor a meter thick. Lights on, safe to cross, but look into the mirrors at your peril. See impossible things, more than your reflection… or worse, see your reflection, different, or a Lady in flowing white dress. He'd heard dozens of stories, and hopefully he'd make no new ones today.

A convenient shortcut, and the Union's ghetto equivalent of a security checkpoint. The mirrors showed you unsettling things, but they also revealed things you couldn't see. Things that didn't want to be seen. Spirits, shades, transient anomalies, invisible kill-lizards - whatever you couldn't see, sometimes slips out of its containment cell or gets unknowingly brought inside the Site. The mirror hallway, more reliably than most Security tech, revealed the bastards. Sean had beaten a kill-lizard to paste with his wrench once in this very hallway.

The air was colder under the mirrors, the Basement odors suddenly absent. Sean sniffed the air, wrinkling at the slight shock, looked over - and nearly stopped. You don't stop in the mirror hallway.

Forcing himself to walk, a chill running down his spine, he saw himself in a foreign uniform, an arrogant scowl on 'his' face and a calm cloaked girl by his side. Strange reflections of yourself were common - Sean the ASF guard, Sean the scientist, Sean the CSD, Sean with a fish head - but the girl… it was real, somewhere else in another world. Was that an upside-down Authority logo on their shoulders?

He tore his gaze away, trying to focus on the end of the hallway. God, nothing good came of looking in the mirrors. Least it wasn't the infinite vista of claws and tentacles, not like last time. Alternate Sean couldn't replace that in his nightmares.

Nearly at the end - a quick glance to the side, making sure nothing in the real world was following him. A glance, a second glance in disbelief, and Sean stopped dead in his tracks.

The Lady in the white dress, the Mirror Lady. Seeing her was a bad omen, and he'd seen her a half dozen times, distantly in a foggy mirror… she was looking right at him, looking past him with alarm on her face. Slowly, quivering slightly, the ghostly Lady raised a narrow finger and pointed.

Fight or flight. Sean tore the wrench off his belt, whirling to face the threat - a hundred possible monsters flashing in his mind, what could make the rumored Lady warn him?

Sean stood there, mid-swing, adrenalin flowing and heart pumping, not quite believing it. Empty hallway. Normal Sean, mid-swing, reflected in a half-dozen mirrors. What?

He turned, slowly, expecting the Lady to have been a figment of a vivid hallucination - but there she was, a hand delicately poised over her mouth, twisting upwards into a smile. She was snickering, mischievous delight in her eyes, enjoying the look of utter disbelief on his face. And then she was startlingly gone, stepping out of one mirror and disappearing from the next.

Sean stormed out of the mirror hallway, angrily pushing his dolly along. Turns out, it wasn't all lonely melancholy in the Basement. The Mirror Lady was a dick.


Still fuming, Sean had to double back from several dead ends, sealed hatches, and forbidden hallways - navigating the Basement was half instinct, spatial geometry wasn't quite reliable, and Sean was off his game. He was late, pushing the vat up to Sanitation, but he couldn't bring himself to care. It hadn't exploded yet, right?

"Sean, my friend!" an old voice called, straining from deep inside Sanitation. Chief Ebele, a wizened old African man with enough scars to impress an MST operator; never lost a Maint Chief election - twelve spots in the Site-045 Union rolls - since he started running a few decades ago.

He hobbled up to the counter, cane tapping on the floor, warm smile on his face. "Sean, you're late."

The anger drained from the janitor, as quickly as it had come. Old Union hands were a reality check. "Sorry, boss. Had some troubles on the way back."

"Well, we'll need to replace the vat liquid, it's gone bad," Chief Ebele explained, shrugging. "You'll learn how to melt a stuffed bear, Sanitation-style. I'll teach you. Good for your resume."

"Sure thing, boss," Sean agreed, nodding helplessly. His failure. The Chief was a constructive-failure kind of guy, better than the alternatives.

"The ladies," Chief Ebele said, gesturing behind him, "they're naturals. You'll learn a thing or two from them, not me. My old hands…"

Sean leaned to the side, looking past the Chief - in the backroom were three Asian women, young and old and wearing hijabs on top of Authority coveralls. All hard at work, carefully lowering an ornate Persian rug into a vat, where it dissolved… "Garment factory, from Bangladesh," the Chief was saying, "anomaly trashed their place, yadda yadda, resistant to most amnestics. Wanted to help, and they're good at it. Freed up Tech Warner to go back to his precious machines, and quit bitchin'."

"Yeah, speaking of ladies…" Sean hesitated, wondering if he'd sound crazy. "I saw the Mirror Lady today. Real close."

"Really?" That got the Chief's attention, the humor gone from his voice. "That's rare. Did she speak to you?"

"She can speak?"

"You wouldn't want to hear it. Look, tell me if she does, now I understand why you're late…" the Chief trailed off thoughtfully. "Okay, come back tomorrow, thirty minutes before your shift. You'll learn some basic vat-making then. Right now, go get lunch."

"Ah, thanks boss," Sean said, awkwardly rubbing the back of his neck, "but I'll be way late. Cold leftovers. Better off grabbing a pack from the closet and throwing it in the microwave like most days."

"Not today." Chief Ebele shook his head, "You'll get there just fine, the roots are happy."

Sean perked up, the dread of tasting expired frozen vegetables leaving his mouth and mind. He might make it, for one, and he'd been looking forward to taco day. For two, the roots were a wonder, and a little terror at the wonder; rare enough to help keep the job interesting. Sean would never pass on a chance to follow the roots.

He could see them from the door; you could see them from just about anywhere in the lower levels. Nestled into the dark corners of hallways, hiding underneath the grating, or woven into the clusters of pipes on the ceiling; the roots were omnipresent in the Basement. Thin, spindly growths winding along the darkest and deepest lower level passages, standing stark against the dusty steel or hewn rock. Nourished from an unseen spring and growing from a tree that never appeared and no one could find.

Nobody could say how the roots came to be; and if old hands like Chief Ebele knew, they kept quiet. Sean could guess, though; another weird thing appeared in the Site's lower levels, something bad happened when the janitors tried to tear it out. Catalogue it in the most obscure, least-accessible database (such was the power of the formidable Containment Division bureaucracy) and leave it alone. Bigger things to worry about.

Harmless, to be sure - truly dangerous oddities were reported to Security - and sometimes even helpful. A navigation aid, signs of a living Site, a weapon against intruders if the rumors were to be believed… and Sean could believe them all. There was a strange intelligence in the roots, with an uncanny knowledge of the Site. When the roots were willing and their path followed, an hour's walk took ten minutes, spatial geometry folding on itself and hallways you didn't recognize, taking you to your destination all the same…

Lunch on his mind, Sean walked into the labyrinth. Sure enough, the roots were happy - a little healthier, a little fuller, and he followed the largest root. A left, a right, past a turn that would usually take him to the cafeteria, towards a dead end…

Come to think of it, the constant rumble of the Basement had faded away.

Where a locked blast door should be, a devastatingly rusted hallway. Holes worn into the floor, dust on every surface, an endless maze of pipes visible through the gaps below. The roots weaved in and out of the holes, dancing among the pipes, and Sean followed.

A normal hallway, but the floor was moving - the whole hallway was heaving up and down, like a ship on waves. There were closed portholes in the right side wall; Sean resisted to urge to open one, and followed the roots through a hatch.

A hallway of crumbling sandstone, brilliant carvings in the walls. Sean could hear voices echoing from a side passage - a woman shouting in a foreign language. The roots lead past her, and forcing down his uneasiness, Sean walked on.

Like breaking out of a trance, he rounded a corner and found himself in the Site-045 east wing cafeteria. Sean blinked once, looking behind him - a normal hallway, crowded with personnel from the upper levels.

Jesus Christ, the Basement was weird.

A few minutes later he was chowing down on the best damned taco in the Authority and exchanging pleasantries with the local Union guys. And, unavoidably, thinking about the day.

Completely crazy. Cleaning eldritch spills with liquified Care Bears. Alternate Seans in the mirrors. Ghostly jerks in the mirrors. Creepy sounds 24/7. Walking through alternate Site-045s, other worlds, whatever that was - just to get a hot taco.

Absolutely worth it for the last part, and dumb as it was, that was kind of important. Weird was normal in the Basement. The Lady messing with him, the roots leading him… and there'd be a dozen weirder things just this week. That was the Maintenance Union's job: brave the strange, overlooked places in the Authority, doing their part to keep the show running. Protection was facing down horrors with a gun and guts on the daily, and Research was dissecting the anomalous equivalents of hand grenades with no blueprints. Everybody had their hell.

What did the Lady want with him? What were those worlds he'd stepped foot in, passing through for a taco? What did it all mean?

Nothing he'd figure out any time soon. The Basement was dangerous and weird and wonderful.

"Best job I ever had," Sean muttered, and meaning every word.

He took another bite of the taco.

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