Footsteps hurried down a brightly lit hallway, sneakers squeaking on the polished linoleum floor. A clipboard was tightly clamped under one arm. It was a man, 25 years of age, hair already greying with worry. Sweat rolled down his face and dripped down into the collar of his lab-coat. His breathing was quick. On he ran, oblivious to the looks and greetings of the other scientists. Finally he stopped before a pressure-sealed lab door. He frantically smoothed down his lab-coat in a vain attempt to look presentable before placing his palm on a reader.
“Welcome, Dr Von Schernoff.” A female robotic voice greeted him as the door slid open.
He hurried into the room. All about monitors and test equipment blinked with external/internal temperatures and other such esoteric signs. Scientists were spread around the room, muttering to each other in low voices. In the center of the room, a large, futuristic object was situated. Constituted of 5 large, white rings, the object looked very much like an advanced MRI scanner.
Schernoff tried to compose himself. Wiping away the sweat from his face, he walked over to another young scientist standing over one of the monitors.
“So, how is the progress today, Galin?” He asked.
The one identified as Galin looked up from his work. He pushed his glasses up onto his forehead and frowned. “Not very good. We are still trying to stabilize the Project enough for tests to begin again. Last time the power output was too great, and…”
“Yes, yes,” interrupted Schernoff impatiently. “I know what happened. What I want to know is: can we start experimentation by today.”
Galin looked at him with disbelief written all over his face.
“B-but… it is not ready yet…”
“I know. But the Boss himself will be coming today. We must have it ready.” Schernoff turned away sadly from a pale and spluttering Galin.
Schernoff went over to a microphone in the corner. He quickly cleared his throat.
“All personnel involved in Project Manifest, please proceed with preparing the machine for live experimentation.”
Startled looks and audible gasps resonated around the room, but quickly died down when Schernoff spoke again.
“The Big Boss will be arriving any minute. I want to show him some progress.” Here he paused to run a hand through his sweaty hair. “And from what happened last time… he must, at all costs, be pleased.”
The other scientists glumly turned back to their work. Schernoff walked out shakily from the announcement booth. He was not an evil man, and hated to see his scientists worked to and beyond their limit. But what could he do?
All of a sudden, the pressurized door slid open. A figure dressed impeccably in a gray suit strode in, his dress shoes echoing on the polished floor. Following closely behind were 6 others in matching black coats. The murmur of voices died instantly, as if it was Death himself.
Ignoring the other scientists in the room, he strode right up to Von Schernoff. He took off his mirrored sunglasses, revealing a pair of piercing, icy-blue eyes.
“So, is the Machine ready?” He asked Schernoff.
The poor man was sweating profusely, while at the same time trying not to show his panic.
“Well… you see, sir...” Schernoff stammered, feeling smaller every second.
Hermano Diabolos stared down at him with his penetrating gaze. Schernoff started wishing that the floor would open and swallow him whole.
“It’s… not… ready.” If he shrunk any further, he would’ve simply disappeared.
“Not... ready?” Here he started pacing the floor with his hands locked behind him.
“Already a month has passed. And you dare to say that the Project must be held up because of YOUR incompetence.” Diabolos stopped abruptly in front of the lead scientist and grabbed the front of Schernoff’s lab-coat.
“And now, I will ask one more time.” Diabolos’ eyes flared.
“Is. It. Ready?”
Schernoff nodded wildly. Diabolos smiled in the way an alligator might when it’s deciding which part of you was the tastiest. He dropped the nearly fainting scientist into a heap on the ground.
Faint with fear, Schernoff managed to scramble to his feet. The other scientists had taken the cue, and were bustling about the lab, switching on the instruments and turning dials and fiddling with knobs. A low but audible hum slowly filled the room. Schernoff glanced around before slipping into a small, glass-protected cubicle.
The machine in the center of the room began to power up. The 5 rings slowly lit up with a bright, dazzling light. The hum grew louder. A tunnel made of energy began to form, linking the rings together in one solid tunnel. The hum grew into a whirr. The tunnel eventually stabilized, creating a chain of pure energy between the rings. Almost collapsing in fear, Schernoff turned to his boss, who remained expressionless.
“Bring in test subject number K-7,” Diabolos said, at which the two bodyguards nodded and left the cubicle. The door hissed shut behind the two.
“Wait, K-7...?” Schernoff began, only to be silenced by a look from Diabolos.
The two men presently returned, this time carrying a plastic cage between them. They made straight for the Machine. One of the men opened the cage, and the other reached inside and seized the tiny animal. The squirming bundle of fur was thrown into the Machine. They picked up the cage and retreated hastily.
Schernoff watched the empty cage numbly as it went out of the room. Diabolos nodded at him.
“You may begin.”
Hardly knowing what he was doing, Schernoff set the countdown timer for 1 minute. As his hand hovered over the large, red button, he hesitated, looking out at the spiralling tunnel of energy. For a while he struggled horribly with the decision. Suddenly something slammed his hand down on the button. An alarm started to wail. Diabolos took his hand off Schernoff’s and leaned back against the wall.
The other scientists were busy either evacuating the room or crowding into small cubicles like the one Schernoff and Diabolos was in. The alarm continued blaring over the speakers as the timer slowly ticked away.
A voice called out over the P.A. system.
“Ten seconds to ignition. 10…9…8…”
The air grew tenser as the seconds ticked down. A few of the other scientists were debating about what would happen if the test failed. Most expected they would be laid to rest.
The tunnel and its contents were a blur by now, emitting an ungodly hum which resounded around the lab. An odd blue light flooded the room. All of a sudden, the wall behind the machine slowly but noticeably began to crack. All eyes watched in horror as test equipment began to move towards the Machine as if by some horrible magic. The tunnel was now so bright it seemed to suck out all the light from inside the room.
All of a sudden, a burst of energy ripped through the lab. The blast broke the bulletproof glass of the cubicles and sent everyone flying backwards. Schernoff forced himself to his feet, ignoring the pain from his bruised and bleeding body. Staggering slightly from the immense power of the Machine, he fought his way through to the control panel. With a heroic effort, he slammed his fist down on the emergency shutdown button. With a terrible shudder and a moan, the machine gradually died down.
Scientists began to crawl out from underneath shattered glass and wreckage of test instruments. Diabolos himself was unscathed, having ducked behind his bodyguards before the blast. He walked over to Schernoff, who was leaning against the controls.
“I suppose that would be another of your failures,” he whispered into the man’s ear.
He walked out of the room, with his staggering bodyguards trailing behind him. The door hissed shut with a cold finality.
Once they had left, Schernoff immediately began stumbling around in the darkness. “Galin!” he called. “Galin, are you okay?”
A groan came from the corner. Schernoff rushed over to the source of the sound. “Galin, are you alright?”
Another weak groan was his only answer. Schernoff snatched up a badly cracked phone from the ground and switched it on. In the dim glow the screen emitted he could see Galin’s bruised and dirty face.
“Come on, let me help you up.” He set the phone aside and gripped both of Galin’s arms, but the other cried out in pain. A frightened Schernoff quickly let him go.
“Johann…” Schernoff crouched down to hear his weak voice.
“What should I do?” he asked.
“Johann… I’m sorry…” Galin whispered.
“No, no. It’s not your fault. Stay here. I’ll go get help.” Schernoff was about to get up when Galin reached up a shaky hand.
“Please. Don’t leave me… please don’t leave me…” He made a noise like a man choking and could say no more.
Schernoff took Galin’s hand and folded it in his own. “Don’t worry. I’ll be right beside you. The medical team will be here.” He swallowed. “Just, hang on, okay?”
“I’m not going to make it.” He wiped a tiny speck of froth off his mouth. “I’m sorry.”
Schernoff couldn’t bring himself to believe those words. He frantically tried to convince the other that he was going to be fine. All Galin did was shake his head slightly.
“I'm not going to make it,” he repeated.
“You have to! You can’t leave me!” Schernoff was close to shouting. “You’re the only one I have left!”
A surge of emotion overwhelmed him. In the piercing silence, the ghost-like voice of Galin spoke again.
“Before I go,” he said. “Could you hear me out one last time?”
Schernoff nodded. Galin kept silent for a little while more, just thinking. A thin rivulet of blood started to drip out of the corner of his mouth.
“I still remember the day we were hired. Together. Didn’t think it would end up this way, though.” He coughed hard. It was a little while before he spoke again. When he did, his voice was even softer than before. Schernoff had to lean in closer to listen.
“After I leave, don’t let Diabolos find me. No matter what. I’ve heard stories, stories that do not bear repeating. Understand? You must, you must…” He started gasping for air like a drowning man.
“What must I do?” Schernoff was panicking. “What do I have to do? Don’t go now, please, not now.”
The rivulet of blood grew into a stream. Schernoff tore a piece of cloth from his shirt and wiped away the blood. Galin’s labored wheezing died altogether.
“No, no.” All Schernoff could do was shake his head.
Galin suddenly gasped. Schernoff instantly looked back up.
“Johann,” Galin began in a much more normal voice. “Diabolos is looking for something. Something very important to him. I don’t know what it is, and why he wants it, but if he gets it, it could mean the end of the human race.
“You cannot finish the machine. If it does what we made it do…”
Schernoff nodded. “I understand.”
“Good.” Galin smiled for the first time ever since Schernoff met him. “And… don’t forget to feed my cat.”
Schernoff forced a laugh. “Don’t worry. I won’t.”Galin nodded and took a deep breath. “I’ll see you around… my friend.” A single teardrop rolled down his cheek as he closed his eyes for the last time.
It was then Schernoff knew he was truly alone. He sighed and got up. He would have rather stayed beside his friend for the last time. But he had made a promise.