Part 1: Chapter 1


"What is it, Penny?" I asked, looking up at the screen where Penny's golden retriever avatar was barking at me.

A window in a window opened up, showing a group of six figures in identical white lab coats and suitcases approaching the building. Based on how closely they were walking together, they were visiting as a group.

Another group coming here to test Penny, hoping to debunk our research.

A quick glance at the clock at the bottom right of my monitor confirmed that It was as late as I thought.

It's after seven PM. Well outside visiting hours. Did someone schedule something at odd hours and not tell me?

"Who's still in the building, Penny?"

Penny whined and looked out of her monitor at me, clearly confused.

A teachable moment then. I'm surprised I hadn't thought of this before. It's a very good, very useful thing for Penny to know.

The desk camera was active and positioned so Penny could see my screen and keyboard. I opened the security package and typed in the command to show a list of people inside the building.

"Who's still in the building, Penny?" I said again, as I pressed the carriage return, initiating the search.

There was a substantial spike of CPU usage from the facility's small server farm, which was definitely not from my simple inquiry. On my screen, there was a list of names. I was the only researcher present. There were two of the janitorial staff, and Jamal, the security guard.

There was another bark from Penny, and I looked at her screen. Four camera views popped up, windows inside Penny's window. One showed me, one showed Jamal, and the other two showed the two janitors. All four popup windows had a name associated with it that matched the security program's list.

I picked up the phone on my desk and dialed security as I pulled up the schedule for the next day. It wouldn't be the first time a delegation had gotten their AM and PM mixed up, though I'd never had a group actually show up late. They were usually professional enough to at least call and verify odd meeting times outside normal business hours.

As the phone rang, I determined that there was, in fact, a meeting for the next morning. A group of Indian scientists from the TIJ Group. Looking at the approaching men, it was very possible they were from India. The fact that they were all fairly thin with dark hair and dark-olive complexioned didn't mean they were from India, but it seemed reasonable. If they had all been almost seven feet tall and built like Norse deities with giant red beards and pale skin, well, the chances of them being a delegation from India would be quite a bit more difficult to believe, at best.

In the window, I saw Jamal staring out the glass front of the building at the approaching men with a frown on his face. He looked at the phone on his desk as it started to ring, then back at the group approaching the building. He picked up the receiver and spoke crisply to me. "Yes, Doctor Smith, how can I help?"

"Jamal, those people are probably with the TIJ Group. Please advise them that their scheduled appointment is for eight AM tomorrow, not eight PM today. I would greatly appreciate it if you would assist them in calling a cab to get back to their hotel if none of them have a phone that works in the US. They are not to be allowed in. Doctor Ajibana is who they are scheduled to meet, and he is not present. I have plans for this evening with my wife and daughter."

"I'll let them know, sir." Jamal firmly responded. "Anything else?"

"No, Jamal, that will be all. Thank you."

Jamal was good people. An ex-marine with a prosthetic leg from the knee down, we had hired him because he was a veteran, handicapped, and came with some very good recommendations from a local politician. Unlike most other things forced upon us by politicians over the years, I was very happy with Jamal working for us.

Jamal stood and began walking towards the front of the building to speak to the approaching delegation. He could have simply spoken to them through the intercom, but he didn't. Despite his leg, he always went to the door when afterhours visitors arrived. I had asked him why, once, and he said "I can't let the leg make me too lazy, sir." After that day, I had a lot more respect for a man who I had barely paid attention to before, and made certain he got a nice raise and a solid Christmas bonus every year.

Now that he had instructions from me, Jamal would handle the approaching men calmly and politely, I knew, so I turned back to my screen and started reviewing the last email I planned to write that evening. I had only finished the first paragraph when I heard what sounded like books falling off a shelf.

I sighed and made a note to have Florence, the head of building maintenance, check the tiles around bookshelves in the waiting areas for damage.

Penny started barking and growling loudly, in a menacing tone. I turned to her monitor in surprise. She hadn't shown anger in months, after she had acclimated.

"What's wrong, Penny?" I asked before my eyes took in the single windowed image on Penny's screen. It wasn't a fallen bookshelf, it was seven men. Six men in white coats with pistols drawn, walking through shattered glass and towards the fallen body of Jamal.

I watched Jamal try to crawl away, but the first man through the door jogged forward, and pushed his pistol against Jamal's head. There was another sound like a book falling to the floor. Jamal's head jerked, hitting the floor, and the tiles around him were splattered with red.

I stared, shocked, at the screen. Penny was growling and barking. Staring at me. Exactly what I had trained her to do in the case of an intruder in the house. Bark, do not engage. Wake Jen and I up.

I tore my eyes away from the screen, snatched my phone off the desk, and started dialing.

No signal. I waved the phone frantically in the air around my office. Still no signal.

I looked at the screen again, and Penny showed me an image of three men with white coats. One was kneeling beside a device connected to the wall by an electrical cord. The other two were using something to tie the two janitor's arms and legs together, and then tie arms to legs.

The janitors, at least, hadn't been killed.

I glanced at my cellphone, which showed 'Searching...' Then the device plugged into the wall.

They brought a signal jammer.

"Penny. Secure shutdown!" I yelled as I jumped to my feet and ran towards the fire exit closest to me, carrying my phone.

I should have started running immediately, of course. Hindsight is 20/20.

The building simply wasn't large enough for me, an overweight man in my fifties to escape from the building before three very fit young men caught up with me. They didn't even need to shoot me. It was really quite embarrassing how easily they ran me down in the hall way leading to the stairwell. I'm not going to talk about it.

After being subdued, I was dragged down to the meeting room. They didn't even carry their pistols.

There was some muttering in a language I didn't know as the three men brought me to the break room. The two janitors were in two opposite corners of the room, laying on the ground, hogtied, but conscious. There was an office chair set up in front of a camera, and there were several lengths of rope hanging over the back of the chair.

Four men were in the room. Two of the others were elsewhere. A man with a little grey in his hair and a poorly-healed scar on his cheek turned around from where he had been setting up the camera. "Good Evening, Doctor Neil Smith. Are you prepared to go to Hell today?"

A camera. A chair. Ropes. Going to Hell. It suddenly struck me what their plans were for me. I grabbed one of the young men next to me and slammed him bodily into another with a burst of adrenaline, knocking them both to the ground. As I turned to face the third, something hard struck me on the side of the temple, and there was a brief moment of tunnel vision before darkness.

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