“There’s something wrong with these folks,” Jaspers muttered darkly as we crossed the threshold. “I mean, who bloody buys one of these things at all, much less puts it out in front of the damn entrance?”
I bit back my initial response. “Sara said that her father’s a scientist,” I reminded the Brit. “Scientists are geeks and nerds, for the most part. They’d buy these sorts of things. It makes sense.”
Jaspers still gave the three-foot-tall Star Wars stormtrooper standing beside the front door another glare. “Ought to be forbidden. Bloody offense to properness, it is.”
Sara’s father, if he had been the one to decorate the house, certainly had… eclectic tastes, I thought privately to myself as we headed up the gravel path towards the front door. We caught up with Sara as she stood on a welcome mat labeled with the words “Home is where the Hearthstone takes you”, impatiently tapping her foot as she looked back at us.
“Come on,” she sighed, gesturing to the door – I’d taken the key from her after she retrieved it from inside the fake rock. “Open it!”
“Sara, are you sure that you want to go inside?” I asked, trying to keep my voice soft, calming. “Your father probably isn’t here. We haven’t found other survivors in the cities we’ve visited. This might be better if you waited in the car-”
“No!” She stamped her foot, glared up at us. “It’s my house,” she pointed out insistently, “and I’m the one inviting you inside. So you can’t make me wait out in the car! I could make you wait in the car!”
I glanced back at the others hoping for support, found none. Sergei even sniggered, holding up one hand to cover his mouth. “She is right,” he pointed out between barking laughs.
Well, fine. I slid the key into the lock; it turned smoothly to open the door. Sara immediately ducked past me, despite my earlier words of caution. I sighed, fighting the urge to curse.
“I’ll watch her,” Corinne spoke up, chasing after her inside the house.
We moved inside, leaving Henry to watch the front door. I blinked for a moment at the dimness, then began looking around.
The house wasn’t particularly large; the entrance opened up into a living area, a couch and a rocking chair both facing towards a television mounted on the mantle above a fireplace. Pictures hung on the wood-paneled walls, and a counter separated off a small and slightly untidy kitchen area. The place looked lived-in, more like a bachelor pad than a family home. I briefly considered how Sara never mentioned her mother.
Sara, meanwhile, had sprinted towards the stairs leading up to a second floor, probably where the bedrooms were located – but she paused, looking down at us. She leaned over the rather rickety banister, pointing towards a closed door back further into the house.
“You’ll probably want to look back there,” she said. “That’s where my dad’s study is.” And with that comment, she ran upstairs, taking them two at a time.
Corinne followed after her, and the entire staircase creaked even from her relatively light weight. Jaspers immediately moved towards the door that Sara had indicated, although Sergei lingered for a moment, circling the living room.
“Ah,” he said, reaching out to lightly pluck an unframed picture, one that might have come from an old-fashioned film camera, off the wall. “The father.”
I moved behind him, peering over his high shoulder. The picture he’d taken showed a younger Sara, taken perhaps two years ago. A smiling, slightly squinting brown-haired man had his arm around the girl, and they both beamed up into the sunlight at the camera’s lens. The man looked rather mild and non-threatening; I’d probably pick him out as a scientist, researcher, or someone else who worked in a lab instead of with his hands.
“Nathaniel,” I recalled. “So that’s him.”
We finished our circle around the living room. Two doctorate degrees hung in frames on the wall, one for Quantum Physics, the other for something called Neuroengineering. Both bore Nathaniel Hobbson’s name. Sara wasn’t kidding about having a smart father.
“Okay, let’s take a look at this study of his,” I announced, and Jaspers huffed out a breath.
“Finally,” he grunted, and took the lead heading further into the house.
A short little hallway led to a bathroom, one that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in some time. Across from the bathroom was a closed door, with a business card attached to it by way of a single pushpin. Jaspers pulled the card off the door, frowned at it, then passed it to me.
The card bore Nathaniel Hobbson’s name, listing him as “chief researcher” at a company called Blue Diamond Engineering Solutions. For some reason, that company name sounded vaguely familiar to me, and I frowned as I tried to remember where I’d heard it before.
“You know that company?” I asked. “Blue Diamond? Where have I heard that before?”
Sergei shrugged. Jaspers, not waiting for my thoughts on the card, had already opened the door to the study.
“Brian,” he called from inside. “You want to see this.”
I entered – and stopped a couple steps in, staring at the huge diagram pinned up on the far wall.
The diagram looked at first like an engineer’s design of a perfect donut. A huge ring, with all sorts of intricate details and notes at each coupling around the circle. Other pieces of paper were pinned around the edges of this central design, some with arrows pointing in to other components on the original diagram. I had no idea what the machine might be, or what purpose it was intended to serve, but it looked devilishly complex.
“Now, I’m no bloody scientist,” Jaspers said dryly in the understatement of the century, “but there are notes over on this wall about some sort of ‘global neural network framework’. That sounds like the kind of doomsday shit that could make a billion bloody people vanish, doesn’t it?”
“Don’t jump to conclusions,” my mouth replied automatically as my mind raced. It did indeed sound like it could be the sort of wild idea that caused a chaotic doomsday scenario like the Event. But us stumbling on it, in this particular house, after finding the daughter of the head scientist?
My brain screamed out that this was some sort of setup, a trap. I agreed – I just couldn’t yet see the bars of the cage closing around us.
“An address,” I said abruptly. The other two glanced at me, eyebrows raised. “Where Nathaniel worked. We need to search this place for an address.”
It took a bit of digging, but we found one. It didn’t seem too far away. That would, it seemed, be our next destination.
Before heading out, I cautiously climbed the rickety staircase up to the second floor. I found Sara sitting on her bed, Corinne cross-legged across from her, wearing…
I blinked, rubbed my eyes. The vision didn’t go away. Corinne had a splash of bright red lipstick across her mouth, spots of pink rouge on her cheeks. She wore a disturbingly fuzzy feather boa around her neck, and held a small teacup in between two fingers.
“Hi!” Sara said brightly. “Doesn’t she look so much sexier now that she’s got makeup! My dad isn’t good at teaching me how to put it on, but I’ve seen how on YouTube.”
“Very sexy,” I agreed, trying desperately not to laugh as Corinne alternated between smiling at Sara and firing daggers out her eyes at me. “You ready to go?”
To be continued…