“Dinner is served!” Jon gestured to plates filled with mashed potatoes, chopped vegetables, and fried beef resting on the covered self-serve bar. “Even got a meat-free plate for the witch.”
Everyone went to grab a plate and sat down at various tables in the cafeteria.
Francisco grabbed a plate of his own and sat at a table next to Jeremy. He looked around at the other’s. Martin was nowhere to be seen, despite the invitation, but Michelle, Andrei, and Felix had all come down.
There was movement in the doorway, and Francisco turned to see Jack lurking for a moment, before coming in and taking a plate of his own. He sat at a table and started eating, the captives giving him a wide berth.
“Why don’t we push a couple tables together?” Francisco called out. “Have a quick debriefing? I have to give a report tonight remember.” He stood up and took an adjacent table, Jeremy rising to help. Jon grabbed another and it wasn’t long before they had three tables pulled together. Everyone but Sofia joined the group, but even she, after looking back and forth between Jack and the others, came over.
Jon stabbed a steak with his fork and held it up for all to view. “Here’s my report. Juicy, and just barely pink. Doesn’t get much better than this.”
Sofia rolled her eyes and scoffed.
“Noted. Thanks, Jon,” Francisco said. “How’d it go in the computer room?”
“Still looking,” Andrei said.
The others looked at him for explanation, and Francisco summarized what Andrei had told him as best he could, with a few correction from Felix.
“Internet?” Cheng said. He looked at Jack a few tables away and leaned in, lowering his voice. “You say that some websites are blocked? But maybe if he only speak English then I can see if–“
“Thought of that,” Andrei said. “Tried a Russian site to get messages out. Blocked.”
“Maybe still worth a shot with Cantonese site?”
“I’m not sure we should risk,” Andrei said. “Barnabas is smart. He lock down computers good. He took you from Hong Kong, so knows you speak Chinese. Probably filters it too.”
Cheng looked down at his plate and poked at his food.
“Ok. Thanks.” Francisco turned to the others. “And how about the file room?”
“Lots of initial sorting,” Matthew said. “Jeremy and I were working on separating reports from references.”
“Lots of books on the occult,” Jeremy said. “Paganism, Satanism, Wicca, unaffiliated spell books, conspiracy books.”
“A reference for the scientists or for us?” Francisco wondered aloud.
“Does it matter?” Jeremy asked.
“I guess not. Anything else?”
“They have several Books of Shadows,” Riley said. She was met with confused looks so she continued. “It’s a Wiccan book. It has the rede, ritual instructions, and spells. Each one is different. Kind of.”
“So…like the Wiccan bible?”
“Not really,” Riley said. “Like I said each one is different. They all have a similar backbone, but each Wiccan is encouraged to remove spells they don’t find useful and add ones that they do, so each one ends up being somewhat personalized. They’re usually deeply personal and secretive, and destroyed when a witch dies, so it’s very strange that they not one, but several. I don’t know how I feel about going through another witch’s Book of Shadows, but these are extenuating circumstances. I’m seeing if there’s any clues about who wrote them and when that might help with what we’ll be dealing with here.”
Francisco nodded. “And the previous team? Did we find anything on them?”
“I’m sorting the documentation,” Sofia said without looking up from her plate. “There’s quite a bit. I’m trying put them in order. I don’t read English quickly though, so I had Jeremy look through one that I found on the first underground floor.”
“Oh?” Francisco looked at Jeremy. “What’d it say?”
Before Jeremy could respond, Martin entered the room, loudly stomping to the self-serve bar. He took his plate and sat in an empty seat. “Hey all. What are we talking about? Doing our little secret meetings?”
“Martin…” Francisco narrowed his eyes, leaning toward him to emphasize his warning.
“Don’t mind me. I’ll be good. Just here to listen.” Martin started to dig into his food.
Francisco grunted. “Anyways. Jeremy. You were saying?”
“Right, so I read the report from the team about the first floor. Good news first; it’s all cleared out!”
“Cleared out?” Francisco asked. “What do you mean?”
“Here, let me start from the beginning. The first floor down is actually living quarters. Like actual tiny apartments. For the scientists, I guess. There’s an extra layer of protection, similar to the one that separates the floors above from the ones below. You know, in case things start climbing up.”
“Nice,” Sofia said. “So why aren’t we sleeping there?”
“Yeah, actually, I’m good with being as far away from the demons as possible. Thanks,” Martin said.
“Yes, please,” Felix said.
“It was overrun anyways,” Jeremy said. “Zombies.”
“Zombies.” Jon crossed his arms. “Really.”
“Well, maybe not zombies exactly. But people. Acting insane. The previous team thought they might have been possessed, but they attacked on sight. Since there was so many rooms to cover, and lots of places where the zombies might be hiding, they thought the best course of action would be to clear them all out. They went in guns blazing and took them all out. It seems they could be killed just fine.”
“So the first floor has no monsters,” Francisco said. “Did they find anything?”
“They referenced a tablet that belonged to a scientist. I realized they probably had an extra task or two given to them by Barnabas that they probably completed, otherwise we’d have them too. So I think that was one of the things they were looking for. It was a long report, so I’m not done with it yet, but there’s a sketch of the layout too that I think we should all familarize ourselves with.”
Matthew nodded. “Who knows how much time has passed between the last team and us. Even though the last team says they killed them all, we should probably go in assuming danger.”
“Agreed,” Francisco said. “We’ll prepare thoroughly before-hand.” He turned back to Jeremy. “Is that it?”
“For now. I’ll let you know when I finish the report.”
“Speaking of going down,” Jon said, “What’s that going to be like? I mean, I’m assuming I’m going, but who else is?”
A silence fell over the table. Michelle shrunk back in her seat, and others began poking at their food.
“I’ll go,” Francisco said. “I think it’s important that I’m there.”
“And I’m guessing being a ‘runner’ doesn’t mean I’m supposed to run around the top floors,” Jeremy said. “So I guess I’m in too.”
“Anyone else?” Francisco asked.
“Well, the report did mention they sent down five,” Jeremy said.
“We don’t have to do things like they did,” Sofia said. “In fact, maybe it’s better that we don’t. They’ didn’t succeed, after all.”
“So is that you volunteering then?” Jon grinned.
“No,” Sofia said. “I’m a nurse. Not an demon explorer.”
“Well if one of us gets hurt down there, you think you’ll be much help on the surface?”
“I said no!” Sofia took her empty plate in her hand and stood abruptly.
“Where are you going?” Francisco asked.
“To my room.”
Francisco stood as well. “But we’re not done here.”
“I’m done here.” She gave the group a withering glare and went to put her plate on the bar.
“Should we,” Jeremy started, looking around the table.
“Fuck her,” Jon said. “If she doesn’t want to help then she’ll just be a nuisance, I say.”
“It’s not that simple,” Matthew said. “She’s a nurse, and there’s a real chance of injury.”
“Speaking of,” Francisco interrupted. “I didn’t see any medical supplies in the supply room.” He thought for a moment. Perhaps it was just overooked, although with it didn’t seem possible with how thorough Barnabas had shown himself to be so far. He shook away his thoughts, and saw everyone looking at him. “Er. Don’t worry,.I’ll discuss it with Barnabas tonight.”
“Peachy,” Matthew said. “So let’s get back to the previous conversation then. So far we have Francisco, Jon, and Jeremy going down. Anyone else?”
“How ’bout you?” Jon asked.
Matthew froze. “I mean, if you think it will help. I’m a psychologist, and I don’t know how that would be useful down there.”
“You don’t do anything else?” Jeremy asked. “No hobbies?”
“I also don’t think fly fishing will be particularly helpful.”
“Yeesh.” Jon crossed his arms. “Remind me not to get old.”
“What about me?” Cheng asked. “I don’t want to go, but if it’s helpful to get out of here then I will go.”
“Come to think of it, I wonder why Barnabas was insistent on having an engineer with us,” Francisco said. He looked at Martin. “A chemist too.” Martin didn’t look up from his plate, and everyone else either shrugged or didn’t reply.
“No offense pops, but I saw you moving in the kitchen, and I noticed you have a limp,” Jon said. “I think you’d slow us down. Maybe if we need something…engineered.”
Cheng nodded, a look of relief on his face.
Francisco thought about calling Martin out, but decided that if he was keeping quiet on his own accord, it was best not to tempt his anger.
“Well, that just leaves Riley, Felix, Ma–” Jeremy started, but Francisco interrupted him.
“And Michelle.” He gave a stern look to Jeremy, hoping that he would catch on and leave Martin alone for the time being. Jeremy looked confused for a moment, but relented the floor. Francisco gave him an apologetic smile. He would explain later.
Felix shifted in his seat, and Michelle wrapper her arms around herself. She raised her head to briefly meet his gaze. He could feel the fear in her eyes from across the table.
“I don’t feel comfortable taking Felix or Michelle down there,” Francisco said. Michelle looked back down at her plate, but he could see an invisible weight lift from her shoulders.
“That just leaves you,” Jon said, giving Riley a smirk.
She too began to squirm in her seat, and turned away from Jon’s expression, choosing to look instead at Francisco. “I,” she began, stuttering. “Do you really think I’ll be helpful down there? I wouldn’t exactly say I’m athletically gifted.”
“I think we got the muscle down,” Jon said. “We just need to know what we’re looking at.”
“But I told you,” Riley raised her voice. “Wicca is kind of what’s considered the occult, but it’s not all of it. If we encounter any Satanic stuff, I’ll be just as clueless as you guys.”
“Hilarious,” Jon rolled his eyes and looked back at Francisco and Jeremy. “Just us three then?”
“Seems that way.” Jeremy nodded.
Francisco sighed and looked at his food which he had barely touched. His churning stomach didn’t give him much of an appetite, but he knew he should probably eat anyways. Food wasn’t guaranteed.
“Ok,” Matthew said. “So that’s figured out. I’m guessing the rest of us should be keeping busy up top in the meantime?”
“It’d probably be good for everyone to familiarize themselves with everything that we have on hand in the file room,” Francisco said. “We never know when any of it will be useful. In the meantime, Andrei, you say you have limited internet access, right?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“It may be worthwhile for some of us to also do some online research on the occult. They may have some things not written about here.”
“It might be better to start that after we’ve gone through everything we already have,” Matthew said.
“Question,” Cheng said. “When talking about the occult, we mean things from the west, right? Satanism like from Christian Satan?” Nobody spoke so Cheng continued. “China have superstition also. It is illegal, and government officials get in trouble for using it.”
“What does it look like?” Felix asked.
“Mostly ways to see future or see fate,” he said. “China is atheist country, so superstition is viewed by government as bad, but still popular with working people and young Chinese.”
Francisco looked around the table, but again was met with silence. “Honestly I don’t think any of us here know much about it. We also don’t know exactly what they studied here. Maybe they did look at Eastern occult-type things. If they did, would you be able to tell us about them?”
Cheng shook his head. “I don’t know much. But I can learn.”
“That might not be necessary,” Jeremy said. “We should look first to see if they studied that at all here.”
“But if they did, then yes you should,” Francisco said. He turned to Andrei. “And what about you? Know anything about Russian occult stuff?”
“Nothing,” Andrei said. “I’m too busy for stories to scare children.”
“What, are you saying you don’t believe any of this?” Matthew asked, leaning forward with interest. “I mean, I guess an atheist wouldn’t be too worried in this situation. Should be simple for one of them to go down, find the things, and get back up.”
“Bro,” Jon interjected. “What if there is no demons and Barnabas is just scared to go himself because he watched too many exorcist movies?”
“God, every time you open your mouth I feel like I get stupider,” Riley grumbled. Jon made a face indicating she hadn’t phased him, and looked around for comment.
“I think no matter what you believe, it’s unlikely that there’s nothing down there. In the report I read, the previous team found something. Spiritual or not.”
“Yeah, but there’s nothing to say that these people were ‘possessed’.” Jon emphasized the last word with finger quotes. “Maybe the previous team just killed a bunch of people out of fear.”
“They attacked. On sight.” Jeremy hissed. “Did you even listen to what I said earlier?”
“You’d be pretty pissed too if you were locked in an underground apartment for a long time.”
“Either way,” Francisco interrupted before the conversation could go any further, “we’ll find out for ourselves soon enough. As we read through the documentation and when we go down ourselves. For now I think we should assume great danger and prepare accordingly.”
“Well,” Riley stood from the table with her plate in hand. “This was a lovely discussion, but I think I’ve had my fill for the evening, thanks. I’ll be headed up now.”
“Same.” Matthew also took his plate, placed it on the bar and left, and it wasn’t long before everyone else had followed suit, leaving only Francisco behind at the tables, Jack having seemingly left some time ago.
“Hey man,” Jon said, gathering the plates on the bar for cleaning. “Doing ok?”
“Yeah.” Francisco rubbed his temples. “Just thinking. Putting my report together in my head.”
“Hey, listen.” Jon set the dishes back down and approached the table. “Sorry I gave you so much flak earlier in the file room. I was stressed, and I have a weird way of showing it, you know?”
“I figured,” Francisco said. “You cope by showing that you don’t care and joking it off.”
“Sorry if that’s too douchey,” Jon grinned. “But everyone has their own way of dealing, yeah? Like Sofia’s is being a huge bitch.”
Francisco didn’t respond.
“Anyways, just want to let you know, that you have my support, despite what I said earlier. And let me know if you need somethin’. Oh, and I ain’t no idiot either. I’m getting all A’s right now, so don’t think of me as just the muscle, all right?”
“Good to know.” Francisco gave him a tired smile and stood from his chair. “I’m headed to the file room. Going to do some reading before my report. Thanks for dinner.”
“You got it.”
Francisco left the cafeteria and ambled his way over through the empty atrium and to the file room. The light was already on, and Matthew and Jeremy were sitting at different tables, poring over various files.
“Great timing,” Jeremy said. “Matthew and I are learning more about the previous team, and we found a few interesting tidbits.”
“Oh?” Francisco sat next to him. “What’d you find?”
“The last team was only ten,” Matthew said. “Similar group of people. Chemist, engineer, leader, runner, etc. No psychologist.”
“It’s looking like a few of them died on the third level, and the rest turned on each other.”
“I see,” Francisco said. He turned to Matthew. “So you’ve been added to keep that from happening?”
Matthew shrugged. “I guess so. Helping people traverse the trauma, grief, and uncertainty to keep everyone in good psychological condition would indeed be a benefit in keeping everything running smoothly.”
“Then I think you have your work cut out for you,” Francisco said. “I’m sure everyone is experiencing trauma right now, even if only a few are really showing it. Even you, I’m sure.”
“Oh, believe me, I am definitely not doing ok,” Matthew gave a half-hearted smile. “But I too want to get out of here alive, so I’ll do what I need to.”
“Maybe starting tomorrow we can have everyone attend a short introductory session with you?”
“I’d be open,” Matthew said.
“Start with Martin.” Jeremy snorted. “Maybe Sofia too.”
“Yes, and Michelle,” Francisco said. “I think those three need it the most right now.”
Matthew nodded. “I’ll bring up the idea tomorrow.”
“Actually,” Francisco said, “let me bring it up. I’m going to try to have a morning briefing to recap what we know, divvy up tasks, and lay down a plan for the day.”
“You’re really taking this ‘leader’ thing serious, huh?” Matthew asked.
“I mean, I know there was some disagreement about that in the morning, but I think I’m going to have to take that on whether we want it or not. Since I’m the one handling supplies and giving reports to Barnabas, all information is going to have to flow through me anyways, and a natural result is I’m going to have more of the ‘puzzle pieces’ than any of you, so to speak. Good decisions are made with good, plentiful information. Despite some misgivings from others, I think, for practical purposes, it’s going to fall to me to make most of them.”
“Makes sense to me,” Jeremy said.
“I certainly don’t have any arguments,” Matthew said.
Francisco looked up at the clock on the wall. 8:00 PM. Still plenty of time. “I don’t suppose we know if that clock is accurate?”
“Haven’t the foggiest,” Matthew said.
“Well, if that’s what Barnabas left me, then I’m going to have to assume he won’t punish me if it’s wrong.” He turned back to the files. “All right. I’m ready to start digging into some of this stuff. Let’s get reading.”