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Denny was the first to find her voice as we all let the realization of what we were going to have to do sink in. “Um, if your–I mean if this Mr. Ecclestone guy was murdered too, was it in this room?” She slowly looked around, an apprehensive look on her face. “You said this was his, like, apartment, right?” Her gaze lingered a bit on the Nintendo system by the television before she turned back to the robot man. “O-or was he killed somewhere else?”
I had a pretty good idea of what was going on inside her head. The subject of murder coming up had to be making her think of all the people Ammon had killed. And not just think about. She had his memories. It wasn’t like reading a book about it. This wasn’t academic knowledge she picked up from studying horrible things. She essentially experienced the murders first hand, as though she had actually done them herself. Which, on the one hand, had to make this entire thing incredibly uncomfortable, to say the least. But on the other hand, it might also give her a unique perspective about the situation. Well, I supposed it was unique either way. But it might help, was the point.
Shaking those thoughts off, I focused as Sitter replied, “Master Valdean Ecclestone was not killed in this room. His murder occured in the kitchen area. If you would like, I will escort you to investigate the scene.”
“Wa-wait!” Marina blurted as she exchanged a quick, wide-eyed glance with me. “You mean the murder scene hasn’t been cleaned up yet? It happened years ago, right? What would–I mean that must…” She trailed off, turning a bit pale at the obvious thought of what a scene like that would look and smell like by this point. Honestly, I couldn’t blame her.
It was Dakota’s turn to speak up, her voice faltering a little, “Why would you just leave it like that? Wait, are people still using the kitchen? The ones who weren’t murdered, I mean.” Like the rest of us, she looked like she was going to be physically ill.
Dakota had her own unique perspective on this whole thing, of course. She had been even more of a child than she still was when Kwur had forced her entire family to murder each other. She had… helped to kill several people she loved, and watched even more of them kill one another. When I thought about how I would have developed if instead of just having my mother disappear, I had been forced to participate in Mom, Dad, Grandpartie, and Grandmaria all killing each other and trying to kill me, I just… I couldn’t. And now she had developed powers connected to the monster who had done that.
Well, okay, that part we had in common. And she was putting her acquired gifts to the best possible use by helping to give the Eden’s Garden rebels working apples. But still, there had to be a lot going on in her head. Especially right now.
Was that weird? Was it odd that I had ended up trapped in this place and needing to solve these murders alongside these two in particular? They did have an awful lot of personal and unique experience with homicide. To be fair, it wasn’t as though Heretics in general were exactly strangers to the concept of killing. But still, they were different.
Sitter’s mouth-lights shifted to a bright blue glow. “Aha. I do see where some misunderstandings have occurred. The crime scenes, as you might put it, have been frozen in time. When the first murder occurred, Master Valdean wished to maintain the integrity of the scene. So he had the room time-locked, a stasis field positioned over it so that no one could enter and the… body itself would remain in the exact condition within which it was found.” He turned a bit to look at the door he had come through. “When the second murder occurred… when his murder occured, I chose to lock down the entire vault. This would preserve both crime scenes, as well as prevent any other murders from occurring until the investigators arrived.” His head tilted slightly. “I did not anticipate it taking quite this long. But you say there were outside influences preventing our message from being passed along?”
Absorbing that, I took a second before blinking. “Wait, you mean this whole bunker is–every spot except this room is frozen in time? How long have they been like that?”
“Every other room is, yes,” Sitter confirmed. “Those areas, and my own chambers, lie beyond this room. Each individual’s chambers, and all of this facility’s two-hundred and eighty-seven guests themselves, have been time-locked for decades now. My decision to lock them down came in the mid-nineteen nineties, just after my master’s murder and a few weeks after the first death.”
“That’d probably put that first murder just before the Rebellion eraser,” I murmured with a nod. “We were right. So for all of these years they’ve just been frozen? They don’t have any idea that any time has passed?”
“They were unaware that they would be locked down in their rooms,” Sitter informed me. “I chose not to inform them of my plans, or my reasoning.”
“So you just froze them in time for decades with no warning?” Sesh demanded. Her finally speaking up after the past several minutes of silence reminded me that she too would have her own unique perspective on murder. After all, being the daughter of Fahsteth would mean that she’d seen plenty of it. She’d grown up around it, even if she had ultimately rejected her dad’s ways. I had no idea how much time she’d actually spent around him, to be fair. But I was willing to bet that she had more than her fair share of horrible memories to deal with. Which made her yet another special person to happen to have with us on this little trip. We were just lucky, I supposed. For a certain definition of the word.
Sitter was shaking his head, the mouth lights shifting to a very soft yellow. “Leaving them unaware of what was about to happen was the only choice I believed I had. It was the easiest way to go about things without giving undue warning to the murderer. I do regret such actions for most of them, yet it was necessary to preserve both their lives and the crime scenes as they were. The murderer, whoever they may be, has not had any opportunity to kill again.”
Right, well, that was a fair point. Still, I wondered how the guests themselves would feel once they were unfrozen and found out how much time had passed. They had willingly, as far as I knew, come to live in this vault away from everyone. So maybe they didn’t have families out there waiting for them. Either way, however, I was pretty sure they would have some pretty strong opinions about blinking their eyes and suddenly finding out that decades had passed.
“We can let them out, right?” Marina put in a bit hesitantly. “I mean, we can unfreeze them?”
Sitter focused on her, mouth-lights shifting to greenish-blue. “It would be best for you to examine the crime scenes first, before speaking with our guests.”
Sesh grimaced a little, her voice uncertain. “So–so wait, we’re actually gonna solve these murders? Do we even know how to solve murders? I mean, my dad taught me how to do plenty of murder, but I don’t think it’s exactly the same skill set.”
“You were brought in as the promised investigators,” Sitter reminded us. “As far as the system that Master Valdean put in place is concerned, you are here to solve the murders. It will not release you from this place until that has been accomplished.”
“Can you just let them go?” Marina asked quickly, nodding toward Dakota and Denny. “They’re just kids, and they don’t–they shouldn’t be here to see this. They’ve been through enough.” The last bit came in a muttered voice as she clenched her hands tightly, clearly thinking the same things I had been about Dakota and Denny’s pasts.
Sitter, however, shook his head once more. “You have my every apology, but it is not a decision that is up to me. Master Valdean was quite concerned about the situation, particularly about bringing in outside aid, no matter how well-recommended it was. His programming was quite adamant. It will not even provide me with the necessary information to release the lockdown until these mysteries have been solved and the murderer identified. I cannot, as you might say, fake it.”
“It’s okay.” That was Dakota, speaking quietly. “We don’t wanna leave. I mean, we didn’t really want to end up trapped in here to begin with, but… but now that we are…” She looked toward Denny.
“Now that we are,” the other girl finished for her, “we want to help. I can’t help any of the people Ammon killed. And I definitely can’t stop him. He’s already… he’s already been stopped. But maybe we can find out who this killer is and make sure he never hurts anyone else.”
Dakota’s head was bobbing quickly in agreement. “Uh huh, what she said. I can’t help my family anymore. But I can help these people. And maybe some of the stuff I umm…” Her face paled visibly, as her mouth opened and shut a couple times. She was fighting to find the right words and get them out. “Maybe some of the stuff I saw when my family attacked each other could help us figure out what happened here.”
Marina put a hand out to the girl’s shoulder, then put the other on Denny’s. “If you guys are really sure about wanting to help, okay. But as soon as this whole thing gets to be too much, you come back here and sit down for a while, okay? You can play video games or something.” She was nodding toward the television with the attached Nintendo. “It might be out of date, but–” Shaking that off, she finished with, “It’s okay to need to take a break. These people have been time-locked for this long, a little more time isn’t going to matter that much.”
“Speaking of which,” I found myself asking, “how did you time-lock this place for so long? Wait, how did you time-lock it at all? I mean, no offense, but you’re a robot, right? So how could you use any spell, let alone one that powerful? And where is it drawing so much energy from?”
Sitter’s mouth-lights brightened and shifted to green. I had the impression that he enjoyed answering these sorts of questions. It had obviously been a long time since he’d had the opportunity to answer anything. Or talk with anyone at all, come to think of it. “To answer the simplest query first, yes, I am what you would call a robot. I was created by Master Valdean. Which leads to the answer for the rest of your confusion. The time block on this vault, its ability to block out any ability to transport into or out of it, and its very existence within a pocket reality to begin with. All stem from the same source. My master created this place, and all of those effects. They are not magic, they are technological. He was a very brilliant man of his own right, and several of the… beings he killed in the course of his work as a Heretic were also focused on invention and modification of technology. His passing was truly a great loss for many reasons. He knew that the others of his kind would, at the very best, attempt to talk him out of his decided retirement. And if they knew he was allowing beings they considered monsters to stay in this place, it would…” His mouth lights dimmed to a low orange-amber color. “It would prompt them to take dangerous actions. He wanted this place to be safe from any invasion, and so he ensured that it was. That is another reason why the system will not allow you to leave until the murders are solved. He wished to be certain that the Heretics who were called in would not simply… massacre everyone inside and then leave. There was a certain amount of trust between Master Valdean and his friend, Detective Ashby Banks, but he was not a fool. He knew that mistakes could happen, that the wrong person might have been brought along on the trip. The system was originally programmed only to release any investigators once he gave the word. But with his death, it has defaulted to allowing it only with the identification and apprehension of the murderer himself.”
Sesh was rubbing the side of her head, seeming to narrowly miss cutting her own palm on those sharp spikes of gray hair. “So let me get this straight. Your dude, the guy who created you and this place, was a techno-genius. He built all this and then got killed, but the system’s been running for decades to keep the place locked down. He’s got some sort of power source that maintains a time-stop spe–sorry, time-stop technological effect over almost the whole place for decades?”
Sitter gave a short nod. “That is, as I believe they say, about the size of it. This vault was designed to operate independently, without any outside aid, for over two thousand years in normal conditions. The time-stop on each of the individual rooms has drained some of that power, but that is somewhat counteracted by the lack of need for other things which would have drained power. In the end, I believe we could have continued in this form for another eleven decades before the energy cost would have become too much.”
“Then what would’ve happened?” I asked. “Would the time-stop just turn off and let them out?”
Again, the robot nodded. “There are protective measures put in place against many eventualities. If this vault were to become dangerously low on power, it would release all residents. Both from the time-stop and from the vault itself. They would all be ejected to surface reality. Earth, that is. Master Valdean did not wish for this place to become their prison or tomb. He was attempting to help them, to… make up for past misdeeds.”
Maybe I was imagining it, but I could swear I heard the pain in the robot’s voice. Really, I had no idea how sapient he was, or how–yeah. It was a lot to take in. This whole place was. Still, it was pretty obvious that we were going to have to actually find out who the murderer in this place was. And more than that, after hearing the story so far, I actually wanted to find out. This Valdean guy had been trying to do good, and from Sitter’s account, he would have been a pretty brilliant man to have on our side. If he was willing to do all this to protect Alters, it seemed like he would’ve been willing to help the rebellion. Which–wait.
“How come he didn’t help the Rebellion? The first one, I mean.” While asking that, I squinted thoughtfully. “He wanted to help Alters. He knew they weren’t all evil, and you said he had this whole place set up throughout basically the entire time the Rebellion existed. So why wasn’t he helping with that?”
“Put simply,” Sitter informed us, “he was not aware of any rebellion throughout most of that time. As I said before, his knowledge that Ashby Banks was a member of a Heretic rebellion was recent then. When he cut himself and this place off from the outside world, Master Valdean did a thorough job of the cutting. He had no interaction with Heretics for decades, as those within this place simply carried on. We had connections with the Bystander world, and even brought in bits of their achievements, technologies, and media.” His head turned a bit to look at the television and game system. “Yet as far as Crossroads, and even Eden’s Garden were concerned, he paid absolutely no attention to them for a long time. He did not know that the Atherby rebellion existed.”
After letting that settle for a moment, he continued, “It was not until only a year before his death that Master Valdean left this vault for a supply run for new treats that he wished to surprise our guests with, that he met Ashby Banks. As it happened, a group of Crossroads Heretics staged a raid against the warehouse near where Master Valdean planned to do his shopping. When he saw what was happening to the innocent Alters within, he intervened. The Heretics he fought believed he was part of the Rebellion, which he had no knowledge of. Despite his best intentions, he likely would have been overwhelmed were it not for the timely aid of Ashby Banks. The two of them dispatched the Crossroads-Loyal Heretics, and then Detective Banks explained the situation, as well as the fact that the once-very loud Rebellion had become a far quieter and more secret affair since the loss of their founder, Joselyn Atherby. Master Valdean expressed interest in aiding the rebellion, but wanted to take time to do it properly. Between that and the Rebellion itself being slower and quieter than it apparently once was, nothing of note happened before my master was murdered.”
“That could be a clue,” I pointed out thoughtfully. “If Valdean let the people in here know that he was planning on doing something to help the Rebellion, maybe someone got scared that he’d accidentally let in the wrong people or something. You know, maybe they thought–wait, you said he was the second death, right?” I was starting to rethink my assumption.
“Yes,” Sitter confirmed. “His death came three weeks after the first, and eighteen days after he had requested aid from Detective Banks. When no aid appeared to be coming, and no one answered his messages, Master Valdean believed we had been abandoned intentionally. Or that his friend was not taking the matter seriously. Whatever the reasoning, he grew angry and blocked outside communication before attempting to solve the murder himself. Thirty-six hours later, he himself was murdered. Perhaps the killer knew he was close and grew paranoid. But whatever the case, shortly after discovering his body, I chose to lock this facility down. I ensured that all of our guests were in their rooms, then locked them in and established the time-lock across the facility. It was… not something I wished to do, but I felt there was no choice when it came to both preserve the crime scene and to protect the guests themselves from the murderer amongst them.”
For a moment, I thought about just how much Tabbris and everyone else was freaking out right now. They had no idea what was going on. All Jeanne, Avalon, and Miranda would know was that we had vanished after Sesh had touched that doorknob. And my communication with Tabbris had been cut off entirely. How much were they tearing that entire mountain apart while we were standing here talking?
With a grimace, I focused on Sitter. “Are you sure there’s no way we can even get a quick message out to let the people who care about us know that we are okay? I’m not saying we don’t want to help you, we do. But we’ve got some really… uhh, let’s call it bad history with being abducted by terrible people. So it might be a good idea if we could just tell them we are okay so they don’t rip the whole countryside apart looking for us.”
There was a brief pause as the robot considered that before his mouth-lights turned cyan. “I believe there may be a way of passing a very short message to the outside world. It will require a short detour to the primary communications room, and you will not be able to speak for very long.”
“Anything,” I quickly agreed with a glance to the others. “Just so we can let them know we’re not being held by some psycho monster. I’d name the suspects for that, but the list is longer than I’m comfortable with thinking about.”
Marina swallowed visibly. “Yeah… yeah, we have to let them know we’re okay. Then we’ll try to help you solve these murders, we promise. Right, guys?”
Sesh, Dakota, and Denny all bobbed their heads rapidly, the latter speaking up. “If um, if this Valdean guy wanted to help people, and then someone murdered him, I uh, I want to help. I wanna help stop the killer from hurting anyone else.” Her voice cracked slightly with those words, making it clear just how personal this whole situation felt for her.
“Me too,” Dakota put in. She was also clearly personally affected by the idea of being able to potentially stop a murderer.
“Right then.” I exchanged a quick look with Marina before turning back to Sitter. “Lead the way. Communications room first. We’ll send a message to the others, then help you stop this killer.
“But for the record, I’m very disappointed that I didn’t think to wear my deerstalker cap today.”