The metal shutter opened. A single eye peered out.
'Ma'am, we—' began the DocSergeant.
'He say Pastman only! Pastman only!' snapped a female voice. The accent was Eastern European — Romanian? Over the shoulderpads of giant marines, Mark could see the skin around the eye was black, sagging a little. Middle-aged.
'Ma'am we—' tried the DocSergeant again.
'Did I stutter? Stutter yes no? Pastman ONLY!' shouted the lady, slamming the shutter.
The DocSergeant sighed, turned to give Mark a quick snarl through his helmet, then ordered the troops back out of the giant gates.
Veta looked at him as they filed out. Her face was stern. 'I should be going with you. Definitely.'
'I know. But you can't.'
'Right. I can't.'
'Pretty sure you can't.'
'Are you going to be okay? This is not protocol. Not protocol. Definitely not protocol.' She ground her teeth. Clearly she needed more comforting than he did.
'I'll be fine. Looking forward to it.' She nodded, looking extremely troubled, and left too.
The giant iron gates swung closed behind him, with marines comically piled up behind the garden wall on the sidewalk, peering back curiously. Mark looked up at the imposing door, steel reinforced with more steel. He looked down, and saw a cheerful gnome fishing at his foot.
The door slid upwards, which took Mark by surprise. The old lady was waiting in a cosy, comfortable hallway. She flashed a sad smile at Mark. 'Welcome, Pastman. Quick quick.' She then scowled an infinite scowl at the marines on the pavement, as the door slid closed again.
The Oracle had gone missing.
No-one knew where — He only lived on the internet, and He was always there. For a few hours His sudden absence had electrified and terrified the entire world. He didn't live anywhere at all, but He was always there, and then a strange call to the Federale Force de Securité had revealed He did live somewhere after all.
He wanted the Pastman.
The hallway was warm, and warmly-coloured. Yellow carpet, pale wood and tastefully-framed prints made everything seem bright and dignified.
The lady rushed past him, a hint of panic in her stride. 'He never like this. He never like this at all no no no.' Mark followed her through a small kitchen into a large lounge, equally warm and sensible. All very middle class. Not quite where he'd expected the Oracle to live. But where better to hide all these years?
'I have a camera,' Mark said, unclipping a broach from his hoodie and dropping it in a waste paper basket by a cream sofa...
(The surveillance team, lurking in an unmarked military van several streets away, winked at each other.)
'...and another one,' he smiled, peeling off a tiny skin-coloured patch from his left cheek and disposing of that too. The lady nodded smartly.
(Inside the surveillance van, an enthusiastic party of swearing and blame-dodging broke out.)
From the lounge, a flight of carpeted stairs curled upwards neatly. Beneath them, a dull wooden door simply read in faded gold lettering: OFFICE.
'Pastman, you help,' breathed the lady, nodding to the door. 'You must. He only want you. He say, Pastman, Pastman, Pastman. I cannot help. I cannot help.' Her eyes were filled with moisture and worry.
'So you're His secretary, or His sister...?' started Mark awkwardly.
'Please you go now. He knows you here. Now.' She retreated back to the kitchen, sniffing, almost sobbing.
Alone in the lounge, Mark breathed a few times, then walked carefully to the door. He touched the handle. To actually meet the Oracle? Here in a dull suburb*, in an ordinary house with an armoured front door and a little garden gnome — the actual Oracle?
And under such disturbing circumstances too.
He opened the door — to reveal concrete steps and strip lighting, leading down at least 3 storeys underground.
Probably a bad sign.
The strip lights were bright, at least, and showed no signs of flickering like some cheesy horror film. He dropped down the stairs quickly enough to reveal a short landing, before another flight of stairs took him to a long concrete corridor.
About halfway down these second stairs, Mark heard the noises.
Ugly, animal noises. Just one. Or maybe two?
Something angry, or in trouble, or both.
He slowed to a stop, and took one careful step after another. The soft hum of electronics greeted him before the first open door — a bare room full of computer servers in metal frames, lit in eerie blue light. Another door revealed a simple office, again with bare concrete walls, empty. Jugs of fluid and metal toolboxes sat under the desk. The other doors were closed.
Another flight of steps awaited.
Now the animal sounds were louder. Something sharp and hoarse. He could hear coarse breathing. And something else. A small animal. Nothing human yet.
Come on Pastman, Mark thought. You can do it.
Dirty smells brought him down these last steps: dung, and damp, and fear. The cold nasty strip lighting held strong, and revealed a shorter corridor, with only a few doors, the nearest one open, from which all the sounds and the fear were coming from.
He slowly peered into the chaos.
A large room. Blood on the floor. Animals in cages, all silently staring at him. A surgical table. Blood all over that. Computers on tables. Medical equipment. Something flapping on the floor next to the surgical table. A horse? No, the horse looked dead. An eagle. Some kind of giant eagle, also staring at him, crying its last quiet death cries. Wires and white tubes snaked from inside its body up to the ceiling.
The horse was only half a horse.
'Oracle?' Mark called out hopefully. That smaller sound, the small animal, sniffed louder. Straightening up, looking over the operating table, and past the crying eagle thing, he could see a small girl in the far corner, hands over her eyes.
'Are you okay?' he shouted. 'Where is the Oracle?'
And then slowly, Mark started to realise two things at once.
That the dying giant eagle was bleeding from a back end cut open, with stitches ripped out — stitches which still, barely, kept it attached to the rear half of a small horse. Two sets of blood had stained everything in sight. Torn nerves and vessels and guts hung out of both messy bodies. Someone had tried attaching them together — someone with just enough biomedical knowledge to get it badly wrong.
And that this girl child smiling weakly at Mark, panting and still sobbing into her bloody, rubber-gloved hands, was the one who'd done it. Mark would check the other doors, but knew he didn't need to.
He, this girl, was the Oracle.
* No offence, Motojai Newtownia District 5b. I'm sure your lives are all meaningful and have purpose and everything, I just, uh, no, I couldn't live there.