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Scheduled Integrity Checks

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The sky was battleship grey, and Hank Levin just made the gates in time before the sirens began screaming. Lights flashed, soldiers ran to posts; there was a tense feeling in the air. Perhaps this was more than just a drill? He ducked into a tiny building marked “VISITORS HERE” and flashed his press badge at the MP behind the desk.

“I have an interview with Sgt. Shellcross at oh-nine-hundred in B building.” The man took the badge and turned it over. A door behind the desk had three locks, only one of which was fastened. A voice came from behind it, singing a song Hank didn’t know.

“Sgt. who?”

“Sgt. Shellcross. I’m with the Tribune. Henry Levin.” The voice began a different song. “Got somebody in the drunk tank? Wish I had that good a night.”

“We don’t have a Sgt. Shell—“ A commotion began outside. Men were shouting. There was a sharp crash of metal against metal and then a loud scraping like nails on a chalkboard. “Sit down. Stay here. Don’t move.”

The soldier bolted from behind the desk and out the door. Hank heard the click of a key in the lock of the outer door.

“Well, isn’t that just great.”

A moment or two passed without incident and Hank’s curiosity got the better of him. The last lock on the door behind the desk was easily unbolted and the door swung open to reveal a short hallway and a partitioned cell. It contained ancient desk chairs and peeling tables, and a rumpled-looking man with dark curly hair and an aquiline nose. He was leaning against the wall with his eyes closed, unmoved by the shouts from outside.

“Hiya, pal,” said Hank. The man’s eyes opened and he stopped singing.

“Hello. Can you take me to Sgt. Shellcross? I have information for him.”

Hank took a second to register the question through the speaker’s thick accent and the sudden realization that the face looking up at him was covered in bruises.

“I can’t even get out of the building, buddy. Ain’t even got any windows. You alright in here? How’d you get all bruised up?”

“The MPs did not like my face.”

“Well, that’s not…” Hank frowned. The man was probably lying, but you’d think even the MPs could have made him an ice pack. Instead of finishing his sentence Hank turned around to find the supply cabinet and a handful of clean rags that he ran under cold water.

“Here, buddy. Clean yourself up.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m here for an interview with Sgt. Shellcross, if you want to know, but the chump behind the desk told me there wasn’t any such person. Don’t suppose he knows what he’s doing.”

The prisoner was dabbing at his face gingerly and wincing.

“Sgt. Shellcross may have been compromised. I don’t know. I’m just a contractor. I thought…” He glanced up. “When you find him, can you tell him something for me?”

“Well, I—“

Footsteps were heard outside, walking the length of the building. Two soldiers talking in tones of relief after the brief adrenaline rush. Both men in the building tensed, listening. Then the prisoner spoke hurriedly.

“Tell him the checksums don’t match. It was a simple, routine, scheduled integrity check and the checksums don’t match.”

“I..” Hank furrowed his brows, not sure he understood.

Just then, a key was heard in the lock and Hank dove back through the door and over the desk to the grimy floor of the guard post.