Area 54 - This article is part of a series.
“Doctor Bethany Jones,” she yelled at the small metal box at the end of a pole. The heat of the day was causing sweat to bead on her brow as she sat with her car window rolled down and the air conditioning running at full blast.
There was a crackle of static followed by a loud buzzer. In front of her the thick gauge chain link gate shuddered as it rolled to the side. Rolling forward, she drove towards a distant collection of buildings that wobbled in the heat haze.
As she approached, she saw a small windowless building with a flat metal roof, which matched Phillip’s description. To the right of it was a half-domed structure that looked a little like a hanger bay. It’s canvas roof was torn, and the tattered pieces flapped violently as the dusty wind rolled over it. Next to it was a tall metal tower. As she pulled up she could see a thick black cable snaking across the ground from the tower to the central building.
Bracing herself for the heat, she exited her car, and stepped up to the building’s double wide green metal doors. Wrapping her hand with the bottom of her shirt, she grasped the burning brass knob, and gave it a sharp turn. To her relief the doors swung open so smoothly that she almost fell inside. Without a moment’s hesitation she pushed them closed, and looked about.
The space seemed larger than she would have guessed from the outside, mostly due to it being practically empty. Pushed against the side wall, the one that faced the hanger bay on the outside, was a metal table. On it sat an ancient looking computer. She was certain this was the first time she’d seen a CRT monitor in what felt like decades. On the wall beside it a cable as thick as her arm poked through the wall, and split into a dozen smaller cables. The vast majority of them ran along the edge of the floor before vanishing beneath a metal plate.
At the far end of the room was a metal cage. Beside it was a panel covered with buttons. It was clearly some kind of freight elevator, which made sense considering the kind of gear that Phillip had described. Absently she looked at her phone to check the time. Noticing the “No Service” indicator at the top, she remembered Phillip’s advice to just turn off mobile devices, so they wouldn’t go dead from constantly searching for signal.
As she slid the “Power Off” slider, the room was filled with a screech of rattling metal. Startled, her phone tumbled to the concrete floor. Picking it up, she cursed at the newly cracked screen as she realized that the ruckus had been caused by the cage of the freight elevator as it rose into the room. Through the metal mesh, Beth recognized a familiar figure.
“Phillip!” she called.
Stepping from the cage, a smudged lab coat covering his lanky frame, Phillip waved as Beth closed the distance between them. Shaking hands, Phillip said, “It’s really great to see you. I know it’s only been a couple weeks, but …” His voice trailed off, and Beth noticed the obvious signs of tension and fatigue.
“Is everything alright?” Beth asked. She silently prepared for Phillip to explain that the situation had changed, and they wouldn’t be able to bring her aboard after all.
“What? Oh, yes … well … listen, there’s a ton to do. How about I get you situated first.” Phillip glanced around the floor, “Suitcase?”
“Oh right! It’s still in my car. I couldn’t see anything in that dust, so I just parked it right outside. I hope that’s okay.”
“That’s fine. Tell ya what, go fetch your things. I’ll show you to your room, and then give you the nickel tour. We’ll worry about the parking later. It’s not like anyone’s going to be upset that you’re in their spot.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Beth said.
As she retrieved her suitcase from the backseat of her car, she couldn’t shake the feeling that Phillip was nervous about something. It’s probably just normal stress, she told herself.
Back inside, pulling her suitcase behind her, Phillip waved Beth into the large freight elevator. After sliding the metal mesh door closed, Phillip pressed a button marked with the number three followed by a green button. There was a squealing lurch, and the metal cage began to descend.
“Yeah, this isn’t weird at all,” Beth said with a smirk.
“Oh, just wait, you haven’t seen anything yet,” Phillip replied as the concrete room vanished from view.
The living quarters were large, and bigger than her tiny apartment back home, though a bit spartan. The temperature was comfortable, but there was a coldness that seemed to leech warmth directly from her bones. Looking up, the stone ceiling was a good ten feet high, with ventilation ductwork and cabling all exposed, suspended by metal rods.
“You’ve stayed in hotels far worse than this,” she said to the empty room. Not receiving a response, and happy that her voice didn’t echo back at her, she heaved her suitcase onto the bed. A few moments later there was a faint knock at the door.
“Come in!” she called.
There was another knock, this time a little louder. Beth walked to the door, and opened it. Phillip was standing in the hallway.
“You didn’t hear me? I said come in.”
“Oh, no. This whole place absorbs sound like a sponge. I think you could probably fire a pistol in these rooms and no one would hear it.”
Beth started to say something, and then stopped.
“You want to come see the lab?” Phillip asked.
“You know it!” Beth replied, closing her door. Pausing, she pointed at the number pad on the wall next to it. “Do I have a code?”
“Not yet. I’ll introduce you to Gus later, and he can get you setup.”
As they headed for a stairwell, Phillip explained that there were four underground levels. The lowest was mostly for storing equipment, and where the power generators were. The next one up was living quarters, then the labs, and the first level was a mixture of Gus’ computer rooms, and the kitchens. Stairwells connected the underground floors, and there was about fifty feet between the top level and the surface, which was itself only accessible via the elevator.
“Power generators? This place is off grid?” Beth asked.
“It was originally designed as a fallout facility of sorts, and has been modified a lot over the decades. Most of the power is geothermal, and there’s some assist from topside. That’s about all I know. Gus really is the one to ask.”
After reaching the second level, Phillip stopped at a closed metal door, and punched in a code on the adjacent keypad. There was a dull thud, like magnetic locks being disengaged, and he pushed the door open. Stepping into the lab, Beth’s attention was immediately drawn to a collection of massive glass tanks along the far wall. She guessed that they had to be at least two hundred gallons each, and from across the lab, they could have been nothing more than bubbling aquariums full of fish. As they got closer, Beth saw that the inhabitants were anything but fish.
“Those look like … tardigrades?”
Phillip smiled, and replied, “That’s because they are … mostly.”
“What? But how? Tardigrades are microscopic. These …. these … are …”
“Still not full size. The serum that keeps them growing is what I need your immediate help with. But even at this size, they’re exhibiting some remarkable characteristics. Come look at this.”
Beth joined Phillip next to a computer console, and watched a series of jagged lines crawl across the screen. She recognized the pattern, but it didn’t make any sense in their current context.
“That looks like … an EEG? If I didn’t know better, I’d say these were delta waves from a sleeping person, but I don’t see anyone asleep in here.”
Phillip caught her attention, and looked towards the bubbling tanks. Beth’s eyes went wide.
“Hey Doc, food’s ready up … hey, who’re you?”
Beth turned to see a young round faced man standing in the doorway, giving her a hard stare. His brows were bunched together, and he looked like he was trying to decide whether to run or fight, while clearly wanting to run.
“Gus, let me introduce you to Doctor Bethany Jones,” Phillip announced. “She’s going to be helping Martin and myself for a while.”
Beth extended her hand, and took a step forward, expecting him to come into the lab. Instead he remained in the doorway. After an awkward silence, Phillip said, “Gus is actually a pretty good cook. You hungry?”
“Now that you mention it, yes, famished,” she said. “I’m also looking forward to meeting Doctor Rahm.”
At the mention of the name, Phillip and Gus exchanged a strange glance. Gus looked like he was about to say something when Phillip interjected, “He … Martin … I’m sure he’ll be around in the morning.”
Beth didn’t want to cause any trouble, especially on her first day, and tried to defuse the charged atmosphere. “Okay, not a problem. Food sounds great.” To her relief the tension in the air dissipated as both men seemed to relax.
After exiting the lab, Phillip pulled the metal door closed, and Beth heard the same faint thud as locking bolts slid into place. She made a mental note to ask Phillip later what that was all about as Gus led them down the hallway.