Area 54 - This article is part of a series.
“You got a date, or something?”
Phillip looked up to see Beth smiling at him like a kid who just discovered a secret, her brown eyes sparkling. They had been colleagues for little over a year, and he considered her one of the brightest post-docs he’d ever worked with. He was going to be sad to see her go, but such was the boom bust cycle of project funding.
With a stern tone, he replied, “You better keep an eye on those power levels,” raising his eyebrows and pointing a finger.
Beth snapped her head back to the instrument panel, her beaded braids clacking as they smacked against her shoulder. With a quick over the shoulder glare, she said, “Not funny.”
Phillip smiled, and continued, “And to answer your question, no, I don’t have a date. Where’d you that idea from, anyway?”
Beth flipped a series of switches, scribbled down a few notes, and turned back around to face Phillip.
“You’ve been fidgeting with that scrap of paper all day long, and your mind has been anywhere but here.”
Looking down, Phillip saw he was still clutching the scrap of paper in his hand. Nodding, he said, “Well, you’re partly right.”
“I knew it!” Beth exclaimed, clapping her hands together.
Phillip quickly rebutted, “No, nothing like that. Have you ever heard of Doctor Martin Rahm?”
Beth looked away, thinking, and muttered, “That name sounds familiar, but I can’t seem to place …”
“The Mad Splicer?”
Beth clapped her hands together, “Yes! That’s where I’ve heard it. When I was a grad student there were open bets about whether he really existed, or if it was just a pseudonym. There were so many stories.”
Phillip frowned, and looked down at the paper. “Oh, he’s quite real. I worked in his lab for a short stint, though that was forever ago.”
“Busy cloning dinosaurs?”
Phillip continued to stare at the paper as an awkward silence filled the room.
“Sorry,” Beth muttered.
“He wants me to meet him tonight. Apparently he has some big project in the works, and says he needs my help.”
“Wait, what? Has he ever been in touch before now?” Beth’s tone shifted from serious to concerned.
“No, not at all. It’s very odd. Shortly after I left is when the controversy started to swirl, which then grew into the … well … it’s own mythology, which clearly spread far and wide.” With shake of his head, Phillip returned the scrap of paper to his pocket, and said, “Anyway, you good to lock things up?”
“Who knows, maybe I’ll have an interesting story for tomorrow.”
“You better,” Beth replied.
The residence was a large family estate that had fallen into some disrepair over the years. Waving at the security camera perched outside the iron gates, a few seconds passed before a loud buzz initiated the sound of a clanking chain. Once the gates were open, Phillip drove slowly along the gravel path until he reached the main house. Dusk had fallen, and only a single set of ground level windows were illuminated. As Phillip stepped out of his car, a bright light illuminated the front door as it opened. Squinting, he saw the dark outline of a short man, a wispy halo surrounding his head.
“Dr. Rahm?” he asked.
Stepping into the light, the wisps resolving into wild silver grey hair, surrounding a wrinkled face. From behind thick black rimmed glasses, vibrant blue eyes shone. Holding out his arms, the man exclaimed, “Phillip! So nice to see you again! And please, dispose with the honorifics. Martin is fine. Come in! Come in! How long’s it been?”
As Martin gesticulated for Phillip to enter, he closed his car door, and stepped into a foyer covered with wooden paneling. Closing the door, Martin stepped, almost bounced, past Phillip. “Time seems to be treating you well,” he remarked.
“So true, so true,” Martin replied, as he ducked into a room off a long hallway. “Would you care for a drink?” he called.
Entering the room, Phillip felt like he had travelled back in time. It was a small library with two walls covered in books. Windows filled the back wall, and in front of them was a massive wooden desk littered with papers and notebooks. In the center of the desk was a metal box, slightly larger than a cigar box. It’s sides were scarred, and pitted, and it seemed out of place amidst all the paper. Multiple lamps threw yellowish shadows all about the room, and Phillip could smell the distinct odor of burning wood, from a distant fireplace.
“No … no, I’m fine. Thanks,” Phillip said softly.
Martin stepped around to the back of the desk, his hand resting on the metal box for a moment before he motioned for Phillip to take a seat in one of the leather arm chairs facing the desk, “Please, sit.”
“You’re probably wondering what this is all about,” Martin continued.
“Well, to be fair, I don’t recall you being particularly interested in social engagements.”
Phillip thought he saw a faint shimmer, like a oily film over water, slide across Martin’s eyes. It must be a trick of the lights, he thought to himself as Martin sat down behind the desk.
“Quite correct. I recall you were always one for getting straight to the point, which I appreciate.” Pointing to a manilla folder that was just within Phillip’s reach, he continued, “In that folder is an outline of a project I’ve been working on for quite some time now. It has been moving slowly, but enough progress has been made that I have recently been able to secure … resources … to greatly expand it’s scope.”
Phillip took the folder, and started to flip through the pages. As he skimmed, Martin continued to explain that the project was extremely sensitive. Phillip had gathered as much based upon the heavy redactions in the majority of the documents. Knowing Martin’s specialty, he surmised it had something to do with bioengineering of something. Reaching a series of pages that described a facility, labeled only as Area 54, Phillip asked, “Is this a … fallout shelter? And that name, is it related to …”
Crossing his arms, Martin leaned back in his chair, and smiled. “It’s just a naming designation for a location. A great many facilities were constructed during the Cold War for various purposes that have since been largely abandoned. They were, however, built to last. Due to the …. sensitive nature of this project, I’ve been having that particular one refurbished to be a functional lab and living environment. It’s quite spacious, really.”
Phillip’s brows furrowed, “…living environment?”
Before Martin could respond, Phillip closed the folder, and returned it to the edge of the desk. “Look, Dr …. um, Martin. This sounds fascinating. Truly. But I’m a bit confused about how I factor in. As you know, my specialties are more on the chemical engineering side of things.”
Martin stood up, and leaned forward, propping himself up with fists pressed against the desk. His gaze seemed to drill directly into Phillip as he said, “I need that kind of expertise. Specifically, your expertise.”
“But … without knowing more details, I couldn’t … "
“Your current grant is almost done, is it not?”
Phillip felt a knot form in his stomach, “Yes.”
“And your next project is …”
After a long pause, Phillip replied, his tone icy, “As I’m sure you’re aware, having gaps between projects is not an uncommon occurrence.”
Martin straightened, and walked around to the corner of the desk. Resting against it, he said, “Yes, I am quite aware. This, however, is a chance to be part of something revolutionary. When this succeeds, you won’t have to worry about chasing project dollars ever again. I can promise you that. I can’t go into more detail unless you first agree to some ground rules. You know how it is. Now, where’s that insatiable curiosity that I so fondly remember?”
“Maybe I will have that drink,” Phillip said.
Looking in his rear view mirror, Phillip watched the wooden door close as he pulled away. His mind was racing. What Martin had described to him bordered on the incomprehensible. If he hadn’t taken him down to his personal laboratory, he wouldn’t have believed any of it. Even after seeing for himself, he found it hard to reconcile. Martin had a reputation for grand visions, and dancing close to the line of fringe science. That, along with a penchant for exacting absolute control over his projects, had provided the fuel for all kinds of fantastic stories. That control was something Phillip had witnessed first hand so many years before.
While Martin wouldn’t come right out and say it, his funding was obviously coming from military, or at least government, sources. Grey funding wasn’t uncommon in academic science, and some folks even considered it a holy grail of sorts. Basic science could get funded, and when the outcomes were shown to be of limited practical use, the progress was able to benefit the larger scientific community. There were always the mutterings about what happened with the projects that did provide practical use, of course. Phillip also thought it a little strange that Martin, of all people, would agreed to anything where he might have to later abdicate control, or ownership.
While Martin had capitulated to his insistence that he sleep on it before giving a final answer, Phillip was certain he had done so only because they both knew that the decision had already been made.