Jonathan Laidlow

 Art by  Tracy Durnell

I walk past the leak numerous times as I navigate between my office and those of my co-workers. Each time, I glance down at the plastic basin that has been placed on top of the stained carpet tiles then up again at the void where there should be a ceiling panel. The basin contains a small amount of fluid and some detritus, probably fallen from whatever recess lies between the ceiling panels and the roof of this level.

 The detritus fascinates me.

I sit in the darkened office, the lights gone, thinking about the leak and the fluid as I type up my report. The report is not yet urgent, and there are many tasks I need to complete before the deadline, but it has been playing on my mind, so I concentrate on it, for now. I tell myself that the web pages, spreadsheets and emails can all wait a little longer, though of course each is important and time-sensitive in its own way.

I was unable to sleep last night and so I sat outside on the back doorstep, smoking cigarette after cigarette, contemplating what I should say about Terri, Graham and our first contacts with the other Company. Eventually Pin woke up and noticed I was gone. She brought me tea in her dressing gown, stroked my head and shoulders. She said very little, so we sat and watched the stars going out until dawn. I knew she wanted to talk about Jess, but she didn't ask and I wouldn't—couldn't—have answered. Then I got ready for work and came back.

My recommendations are a muddle, and while there was a brief moment last night when I was convinced I had found a careful path through the maze of options, this morning I can think only of the leak, dripping slowly down outside my office. The leak and that news report about the incursion in Turkey. They're saying it was another natural disaster and so far the news channels are running with the story. I find myself impressed by the work of our counterparts over there, and depressed by the Obtrusion Rate, which we will no doubt discuss on Thursday with the report. My insomnia has impaired my ability to resolve the report in a way that will satisfy both the Committee and myself, but it has given me a much broader perspective on the work that must be done.

The detritus consists of a grey sludge mixed with pieces of a dark and moss-coloured wood, a mummified mouse, half a key, some droppings, though not mouse droppings, and some shredded pieces of what may have been, once, an identity card for an as yet unidentified colleague here at the Firm. I have dedicated a section of one of my appendices in the report to the nature of the material contained above the ceiling panels. This appendix is keyed to the main section concerning the leak, which continues to drip, slowly and steadily, outside the office.

Yesterday I heard harsh banging and the noise of several people. By their voices I could tell that they were from a maintenance department elsewhere on the campus. Their rough accents and the nature of their utterances told me that they had been sent to investigate the leak. I had not reported it, but I was glad that someone else had. It was then that the basin appeared and the ceiling panel was removed. I do not know where the latter has been taken. Prior to this intervention, there had been several buckets and bowls, and a stain on four or more of the carpet tiles. They are large and grey, and while the leaky effluent is milky in the basin, the stain yesterday was a much darker grey, as though it were water. Though it is not.

It was Graham's suggestion that we meet with the Company in a neutral location and I commended him for his initiative. The branch of a local coffee chain in the city centre was chosen. I did not select it and can find no record in the minutes of whose decision it was. Abiding by the code of neutrality, three representatives of each side established operations in the coffee house. While unarmed, each of our operatives was deadly, and we can safely assume that their opposite numbers were equally so.

The leak slowed after the maintenance yesterday, and I was glad. The temporary buckets and dishes had all been full to the brim. The liquid was cloudy but still transparent at that point, but the steady metronomic drip, the first loud, the next small, as if some obstacle regulated the flow in a shuffling one-two metre, had wormed its way into my being, and I realised this morning that I had been writing the report in emulation of this beat, long sentence followed by short. It has taken the rest of the day to remove these flourishes from the document.

Graham was one of the operatives in the cafe. He was not the lead. I hope to interview him for another of the appendices once he is able to speak.

The dripping resumed this morning but it is much less insistent. Perhaps one of the maintenance workers found whatever pipe or drain was the source of the leak, and tightened a valve, without entirely resolving the problem. I hear the drop into the basin every five minutes, and every ten I get up and nonchalantly investigate the level in the basin.

The detritus is not yet covered, but the desiccated mouse now lies in a pool of translucent liquid. It is possible, I believe, that the mouse will be revived by this elixir and I wonder whether it will thank us for the chance to live again. Given the choice, will it take it? Will it be aware enough to seize this opportunity the way Terri seized hers?

Johnson enters the room. We sometimes share the office, particularly when we work on one of the cover stories. He's a good public relations man, despite the overwhelming smell of cologne that enters every room with him. He considers himself a charmer, and always wears the best suit that he can afford. He appears to have had some success with our colleagues, and often regales me with outlandish tales of his sexual adventures, which I dutifully relay to Pin in the hope that she will see that our duties also involve the normal human exchanges and activities of any workplace.

There's a desk in the room that Johnson uses when we collaborate and now he perches on it, facing me. He runs his hands through his brown hair and I notice that it is patchy, as though tufts have been pulled out. He licks his lips and looks down before he speaks. Could he be concerned about the leak too?

"Graham woke up."

 I counter with, "How do you know it's really him?"

There's nothing more to say, and so we both get up and set off for the cafe.

I wonder when Maintenance will deign to fix my lights? It's true I smash the bulbs on a regular basis and I don't pay enough in bribes, but still. If they have time to investigate leaks then they have time to attend to my needs. I think I smashed them yesterday, after I returned from the cafe. It is possible that I cut my feet here, on the remains of the tube and spotlights, rather than at home. Or at the cafe.

 I was filled with such rage when I returned. I was still wearing the white forensics overalls, and the smell of the blood was so pungent that it made me gag and cry and try to put my fist into things. I couldn't show that at the scene, which they endeavoured to make as emotionally sterile as possible, but once I got back, I found that I had to impose my will, and my fist, on something.

 Before I arrived at the scene I had hoped that even though the operation was a complete failure, we might find that there were salvageables and take-homes for my report, and that it might still point us in the direction of how exactly to work with the Company. Then I saw the coffee counter, its edges still glistening and sparking as our team moved gingerly around it. The milky residue of the incursion still glistened on the upturned tables, blending with the red spatter and the otherworldly light. Jess, I thought. The fluorescents flickered like a bad art-house horror film, and I had the inappropriate realisation that so much of the atmosphere in such movies is controlled by lighting and camerawork. The reality before me was both more mundane and more horrific than anything I could conceive of. I had only ever been a field agent in the very early days, before there was training, and I would never have coped with this.

We were lucky to lose only one operative, and indeed I should be used to it by now, but I am not. One lost, one dead, one returned to us. The rule of threes continues to operate. There were also some civilian casualties, but we are attempting to prevent civilian deaths in their millions. Naturally we cannot directly concern ourselves with so few.

I'm told that when the Impact Team arrived, the incursion was already subsiding. They successfully managed to halt the dissolution, which explained the state of the counter. They deduced the fate of our team from the remains: the grim crimson spatter indicated the liquidation of one; Terri's abandoned personal effects, including her clothes, imply that she is now lost to us; and the weeping and shivering wreck that we sent to the medical centre in the basement was Graham.

Forensics weren't sure who had written in the blood. They were taking photos of the message and I expect it will be one of the agenda items in the Committee meeting tomorrow. They were sure the blood belonged to our guy. All cafe staff and non-operatives had been accounted for, and they have tests for these sorts of things.

I picked up Terri's belt with my tweezers, and watched it disintegrate slowly. I turned back to make sure that one of the audio-visual technicians had caught it. I wondered idly where it would rematerialise, though Blake tells me that these locales cannot be visualised with a brain used to only five sensory inputs. Arsehole.

The principal question that concerned me at the time was this: where were the Company representatives who were supposed to meet them in the cafe?

Understanding what had occurred was central to our cooperation, or otherwise, with that nebulous organisation. I gingerly walked around the scene and asked questions about each position: the corner table strewn with teacups and milk, now soured; the barista station gleaming as though new and polished; the checkout computer, circuits completely blown and inoperative. I then took one of the security men and checked all of the exits and identified where we might find footage from nearby surveillance cameras. If anyone had left the area on foot, we ought to be able to see them.

The police outside were growing restless, so I made a report to them. It was meaningless nonsense about the Apocalypse terrorists attempting to bring about catastrophe. There really is a group with that name, though it's debatable whether they are actual insurrectionists. We suspect they are a cover story used by the Company. We do not know what they are covering up.

There were no answers, so I returned to the office and smashed things until the drip-drip-drip of the leak returned my brain to its usual rhythm.

Johnson and I both come in for the meeting on the following day in our best suits. Mine is brown and slightly shabby, but clean. I got married to Pin in it and it still fits, though its cut is no longer quite as fashionable as it was. Johnson, pungent as ever, wears a new suit in navy pinstripe. I despise him for it.

It's an all-office meeting this week and so we have to sit through some stirring words about the importance of what we're doing, which makes us chortle, because most of the roles in the office involve misdirection and cover stories. Only a few of us are directly involved in investigating the Incursions. I notice that the men and women leading the meeting all seem appropriately grey, as if the dress code indicated grey formal wear. They are pale, too, and they remind me of the leak and the liquid and the residue.

The leak was faster today, but the basin had been emptied, or replaced. Nevertheless it was nearly full when we went past it to go to the meeting. I nearly commented upon it, but then realised that to Johnson it was simple maintenance, so I refrained.

Bald and bearded, Dr Blake stands up to give us the scientific briefing. I swear most people don't listen to Blake on account of his voice, and in their defence, I always find him hilarious too. His accent is southern and harsh to my ears, and when he gets agitated, as he does when he talks about the incursions, he starts to spit out flecks of liquid that dribble through his beard.

 I look around the room, noticing peacock Johnson whispering to one of the senior accountants. She glances at me, and laughs, and I wonder what they are saying.

The scientist begins, "It has become clear that the rendezvous between our operatives and those of our counterparts was engulfed by a localised incursion. We're currently piecing together what happened."

Blake always reminds us of the science behind the Bleed. If the notion of the Multiverse was once regarded as theoretical, events have proven its reality beyond all reasonable doubt. At the highest levels of government they understand that another reality is seeping into this one. Different nations seem to have different theories about the cause. Most of Europe believes it is an entirely natural phenomenon, that this is just one of the implications of extra-dimensional physics. The Russians are certain that somehow the Americans are behind it, but then, it was unfortunate what happened in Saint Petersburg. The Americans are convinced both that it is a hostile takeover by para-dimensional intelligences, and also that if they can solve this problem there will be a whole new reality available for plundering and pioneering.

Our organisation views things slightly differently. Blake is our chief advisor, the creator of the first Paratime Collider, before we nabbed him from research. He made contact with the Company, though exactly how is above my intelligence grade. His theory is that the bleed between these two realities is alive, and that each incursion, whether it's the evaporation of a shopping mall in Yorkshire, or the beasts that roamed the streets of Bristol for three nights last year, or the displacement of ten thousand people in China, are a form of communication. He is our guide and our advisor, but he is not in charge and the suits laugh at him.

He bangs his fist because we're not listening. He continues explaining that the patterns in the incursions and visitations are a grammar and a syntax and that if we can make contact with the Company then we may be able to understand this meta-linguistics of the universe. The rhythm of the banging reminds me of the leak. It was true I wasn't listening. I was thinking about Graham. I was wondering what it was they did to him, what has come back, if it is just a body. Like Jess.

I think I'm nodding my head in time with the drips.

Bang! He slams his mug down on the table now and I look up at him and find him staring back. He speaks to me but his voice is sharp and his mouth is bladed. I try to shake it off and I find myself looking down, not risking eye contact as I bow before the creature in the room. I don't know what he is saying.

Bang! The others are nodding and smiling, so I wonder if I have missed anything important.

I stand to summarise my report, passing out the written version that I did not circulate beforehand because it is so sensitive. I explain that the penalty for leaking the report is extreme sanction, and the room goes quiet. Nobody moves as I outline my conclusions: "The Obtrusion Rate is increasing exponentially. The incursions are now occurring almost daily and despite Dr Blake' optimism, we have no way to prevent them. Furthermore, the latest incursions, such as the one in the Cafe, are much more localised."

Bang! Blake punctuates my report with his fist. I wonder if he too smashes things when nobody else is around. I could check the small items requisition logs. He says, "To recap, people, the obtrusions are now localised and intra-personal. Be on your guard."

It's clear that some great breakthrough has been highlighted because the meeting breaks up and people are getting up and slapping Blake on the back and shaking his hand. I still can't look at him directly, but I see Johnson striding towards him. His eyes are ashes and I wonder whether I have eaten the mouse or Johnson has eaten the mouse or Blake has eaten the mouse.

I rise and push my chair back. I weave through the people, wondering how I will ever make it back to Pin. Will she still be Pin when I reach her? I wonder about these people in the grey suits who lead the Committee but whom I no longer know, and I make my escape while everybody clusters around them. I hear Johnson calling after me, "Director!"

 I ignore him, and turn right out of the meeting room and go up the stairs, taking the long way round the building to avoid the leak. I make it to the car park before I squat forward and vomit up an evil grey liquid, sticky and glistening in the harsh winter sun.

There is nothing solid.

No mouse.

I huddle in the office as a pink sunset fills the windows. I hear everyone trooping back to the big open-plan on the other side of the corridor. They chatter about whose turn it is to make the tea, then the task is delegated, and an order taken. A few minutes later I hear the clatter of mugs on a tray, then silence as the door is closed.

Is that what it was like for Graham and Terri? Did Jess feel this encroachment in those last few days when she would not see me?

The phone rings but its digital bleeps seem muffled and off-key. I check the number and it is Pin ringing from home. I wonder what she wants. Is she checking what our plans are for supper? Is she worried about me, knowing I no longer sleep? She asked me, last night, about the Apocalypse group, and I could not reassure her beyond saying, "It's not what it looks like." She has grown used to my gnomic explanations for the chaos all around us. She was so understanding about Jess.

I don't pick up the phone. Something is terribly wrong and speaking to Pin might lull me into the dull acceptance of my fate, like the leak and its soothing beat has done all week.

I rummage in the desk drawer for my ID card and the keys for the substation. They're not there and I struggle to remember where I must have left them. Maybe at home? Why would I take them home? Johnson has left his in the desk on the other side of the office so I take his, making a mental note to lambaste him for his inability to grasp basic security measures.

I step into the corridor and try to move past the basin and the leak and the mouse and the detritus without disturbing them. With my back to the wall I inch along until I am past them, ensuring that by observing them they do not change in any way.

I use Johnson's card to access the lift and descend to the laboratory and medical centre. I marvel at how the shiny facility we envisaged has become a dank and badly maintained basement.

I go to Graham's room. I let myself in, again, and the system registers me as Johnson. As I'd hoped, his security level is the same as mine.

Graham sits up and grins at me. He is naked to the waist and his tribal tattoos seem to move before my eyes, as though some inky life-form survives subcutaneously. His eyes are razors.

I ask him, "Where did Terri go? Can she live there?"

Where is Jess?

He responds with the words scrawled on the wall of the cafe, "We are the white blood cells of the universe." His grin is impossible.

I unfasten his restraints and lead him to the door, to the lift, to the corridor, to the leak. I don't know what I am expecting him to do, just hoping for some glimpse of what happened to Terri, to Jess.

He says to me now, "Terri has seized the opportunity to live anew." He nods, runs his hands through his hair then calmly opens the door and makes an incursion into the main office, where the tea drinkers live.

I stay in my office until the screaming stops.

The corridor is quiet now, so I step out again. The automatic light flickers on as it senses my presence, casting a lime-coloured fluorescence over the tiles, the stain and the basin. I don't remember this green haze so I rub my eyes, which have grown accustomed to the rosy haze of night.

I carefully lift the basin and its contents to one side, then pause, waiting to see if anyone will investigate my obtrusion into the work of the maintenance crew.

Nobody comes.

I smooth back my hair, grown long and unruly. I have not been out of the office long enough for a meal, let alone a haircut, and I wonder sadly when the job first obtruded on me. I take off my suit jacket and unfasten my tie, placing them both carefully on the door handle of the office. I lean down, run my hands across the stained carpet tiles and find them still tacky. I lower myself, joints clicking, to the floor, and lie down, my head in place of the basin and look up, into the ceiling, through the vacancy where once there was the panel. There's nothing there. No ceiling, no bundles of telecommunications cabling, no trace of the rodents we hear running above our heads, just an empty grey space, a void opening up before me.

I contemplate this notion for a second, and then open my mouth, waiting for the next slow drip to fall.

JONATHAN LAIDLOW  grew up in the North West of England, near the Sellafield Nuclear Power plant, which regularly leaked. He has one good leg, one good eye, and one good ear… His last publication was Hyrmnal at Daily Science Fiction. His story "Inundated" will be available to listen to in mid-May at Far Fetched Fables, and in June Strange Horizons will publish "Darner." He lives in Birmingham, UK, tweets @burtkenobi and blogs occasionally at http://jonlaidlow.com.

Back to Issue 3 - Spring / Summer 2017