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Scene 04

1490 words·7 mins
Area 54 - This article is part of a series.
Part 4: This Article

Phillip watched a beaker of reddish liquid through the plexiglass shield of a fume hood. At the bottom of the beaker was a pill shaped teflon coated magnet. It was spinning with all it’s might, powered by the magnetic hot plate upon which the beaker sat. The color of the liquid slowly shifted farther into the red spectrum. A smile started to creep onto Phillip’s face, though it was thoroughly obscured by his thick beard.

Leaning back, he pushed a red button on the bottom panel of the fume hood. The magnetic spinner slowed to a stop, and a parade of tiny bubbles began to cavitate around the beaker’s glass walls. Thick oily foam frothed over the edge, and with a sharp crack the entire inside of the fume hood was covered with pink sludge. Smacking his hand against the side of the fume hood, Phillip cursed.

“Bad day?”

“You could say that,” Phillip said, trying to keep his calm as Gus continued to scratch the plastic spoon around the sides of his cup.

Gus nodded, and said, “When I have a mental block, I find that ice cream helps.”

Before Phillip could respond something caught Gus’ attention. With an awkward wave, he said, “Sorry professor, gotta bounce,” and was gone.

Shifting his attention back to the pink soiled fume hood, Phillip soon became lost in thought. Help is what he needed. He knew that, and even knew the perfect person for the job. The hard part was convincing Martin, who had shot down the idea every time Phillip had brought it up. The growth rate of Martin’s latest batch of specimens was being stunted by these delays, and it was obviously irritating him.

Phillip flinched as he heard Martin’s voice behind him.

“That doesn’t look promising.”

Turning, he saw Martin’s gaze fixed on the catastrophe in the fume hood.

“Well, I know one more thing that doesn’t work,” he said with a forced smile. “Do you need me for something?”

“No, I hunting for Gus. I thought I saw him lurking in here.”

“He was. He mentioned something about ice cream, and then scurried off.”

A small storm seemed to roll across Martin’s forehead and eyebrows. While Phillip thought Gus a bit odd, he did like him. It wasn’t his favorite role, but he often found himself acting as a buffer between the two of them.

“I agree, he’s a strange bird, but this equipment barely runs with him pampering it all day long. This facility was built decades ago, and you’re trying to do cutting edge science down here. Normally a whole team of people would be working on any one of the dozen…”

Cutting him off, his tone sharp, Martin said, “I am well aware, but my patience isn’t infinite.”

Feeling his face flush, Phillip replied in kind, “And neither is my expertise.” After a long pause, he continued with a softer tone, “Look, I understand the need for secrecy, but let me bring in just one person. She’s the brightest scientist I’ve ever worked with.”

Martin’s blue eyes fixed on him, magnified by thick lensed glasses. Phillip felt a strange itching sensation at the base of his neck. It was like he was being pinned into place, an insect on a specimen board.

The sensation lasted only a moment, and was gone. In its wake Phillip’s forehead felt chill as tiny beads of sweat evaporated away. Blinking, he saw Martin was now standing a foot or two away from where he had just been. A odd kind of vertigo turned his stomach, and Phillip stabilized himself with a nearby table.

“I’m sorry. You’re right. I’ve been a little … well … preoccupied of late. There are so many … pressures. You don’t realize how …” Martin’s voice trailed off. His body seemed to deflate, and he even looked strangely frail.

Still shaking off his disorientation, Phillip started to speak. Before he could, Martin straightened up, and said, “Bring your friend onboard. I’ll leave the paperwork on your desk, and look forward to meeting …”

It took Phillip a few seconds to register that Martin was waiting for a name. “Oh, sorry. Dr. Jones. Dr. Bethany Jones.”

Martin nodded, and left the lab. Phillip rubbed the back of his neck, and absently walked over to a stool. After sitting for a few minutes, the strange feeling evaporated away. The harder Phillip tried to recall the sensation, the faster slipped away, as if he had just awoken and was trying to remember a dream.

“Maybe Gus was right, and I just need some ice cream,” he muttered to himself as he went to large stainless steel sink in the corner, put on some rubber gloves, and grabbed a roll of paper towels. As he cleaned out the mess in the fume hood he started thinking about how he could try to explain to Beth what exactly they were working on, while also convincing her to join them.

Martin’s eyes flew open. The room was dark and silent, though his heart felt like it was going to beat right out of his chest. Pulling himself into a sitting position, his damp bedsheets clinging to his skin, he looked to the far end of the room. Hanging in the darkness were a pair of amber numbers, 02:14.

Rubbing his face, he thought to himself, I have to get some sleep. This would be the third night in a row that he wouldn’t have gotten more than a couple hours of rest. It wasn’t sustainable. Leaning his head against the cool stone wall behind him, he closed his eyes, and tried to relax.

scratch .. scratch .. scratch

The sound brought him to instant full alertness. Reaching to his bedside table, he clicked on a small lamp, and felt for his glasses.

scratch .. scratch .. scratch

Sliding out of bed, he tried to determine where the sound was coming from. It reminded him of when he was a child, and squirrels had gotten into the attic. His parents hadn’t believed him at first when he told them that something had been trying to claw its way into his room during the night.

scratch .. scratch .. scratch

The door. It was coming from the door. Placing his ear hard against it, he could detect nothing but the faint rhythmic thrum of the facility’s power generators as their vibrations rippled through the concrete like waves on a lake.

Opening the door, he stepped out into an empty hallway. Phillip had gone into town so he could try and recruit his helper, and Martin didn’t expect him back until later that week. Gus was probably asleep in his room, and was the last person Martin wanted to see.

scratch .. scratch .. scratch

The sound was louder, and seemed to be coming from above him. It made no sense. The ceilings, like the floors and walls, were solid concrete. Below was a level that was mostly storage, and below that were the generators. Above were the labs. Cinching his robe, he headed for a stairwell.

As he approached his lab, he saw the door was ajar. He knew he had closed it when he’d left. If Gus was in there, he would make sure he was gone by morning, consequences be damned. Pushing the door open, he readied himself for confrontation.

The lab was empty. The various illuminated dials and buttons of equipment glowed in the dim light. Against the far wall four large specimen tanks gently bubbled.

scratch .. scratch .. scratch

The sound was coming from directly in front of him. Martin stepped towards his specimen tanks. Nearing, he saw a collection of tardigrades, each about the size of a tree frog, undulating in the liquid. They were about twice as large as he expected. Bending over to get a better look, he placed his palm against the cool surface of the tank.

One of the larger creatures swam up, stopping directly in front of him. A dark beak extended from the center of it’s head, ringed by fleshy stalks, each terminating in a black glassy sphere. The creature pushed the ring of spheres against the tank, and with a violent motion, the beak thrust forward, exploding the glass.

Martin screamed as he felt his arms pull tightly against his chest. He had a brief sensation of weightlessness, followed by a sharp pains in his shoulder and head as his body struck the ground. All about him was pitch black. Thrashing, he realized that his arms were bound up in the sheet from his bed. Disoriented, and breathing hard, he disentangled himself, and struggled to his knees. Scanning the darkness, he saw a pair of glowing amber numbers, 02:15.

“It was a dream,” he whispered aloud, repeating the phrase like a metronome. “It was just a dream.”

Climbing back into his bed, Martin stared into the darkness, unable to sleep.

Area 54 - This article is part of a series.
Part 4: This Article