Area 54 - This article is part of a series.
The elevator cage screeched as it slowed. Light spilled in as the edge of the floor moved from the top of the cage to the bottom. With a shudder the cage came to a stop. Gus looked up through the metal grating. Light from the floor above illuminated the slightly swaying cables connecting the cage to the motor that was topside. It felt like he was looking up from the bottom of a deep well. Sometimes he wondered just how old the contraption was, but tried to not think about it too much. Having been a government contractor for years, he lost count how many times “low bid” jokes were made, and how they weren’t really jokes.
Pulling the latch on the cage door, he slid it to the side. Before he stepped to the floor there was deep rumble that seemed to cause every muscle in his gut to clench. Instinctively he bent his knees, trying to lower his center of gravity, which his rational mind knew was pointless while standing in the elevator cage. The metal fittings of the cage rattled with a dull rasping sound. As quickly as it had begun, it stopped. Straightening, Gus stepped out of the cage, and looked around. He wasn’t looking for anything in particular, and it was another behavior that was more instinctive habit than rational action. While he was looking around, the lights running along the ceiling flickered once, twice, and then remained on.
“These people need to get done, and I need to get out of here,” Gus muttered to the empty hallway. It’s not like he couldn’t leave, but his contract clearly stated that he was to remain on premises at all times. It was pretty standard, and for the most part he didn’t mind. The money was crazy good for what mostly amounted to sitting around and babysitting awkward researchers. This gig, however, was starting to get under his skin.
As he passed the door to Martin’s lab, he saw the old man sitting on a stool in front of his tanks. Something caught his eye. Stopping, he leaned over to peer into the lab. In each of the tanks there was a single creature that looked almost too big for its tank. He was reminded of his uncle, who had a fish he named Oscar. It was years before he realized the fish itself was called an oscar. His uncle kept getting bigger tanks, because the thing would keep growing so long as there was room in the tank. After it had gotten to be about a foot long it had ceased to seem “cool” to him, and had shifted over into freaky territory. He had that same feeling now, though magnified by a thousand. Those things weren’t some innocuous fish.
Even from across the lab, Gus could clearly see the ringed segments of the body, reminding him of the descriptions of sandworms in Dune. Except these things had little arms extending at every third ring terminating in what looked like tiny malformed hands, with a black curved claw extending from every digit. At what he assumed was the front was a segment that swelled out into a roundish head. There was a ring of fleshy stalks that made it look like the creature was wearing a crown, and at the end of each stalk was what looked like a giant black marble. In the middle was a beak, almost like a crow beak, that extended out about half the distance of each stalk. On the floor, just in front of the tanks, there was a glistening puddle, like some of the fluid from the tanks had sloshed out. It may have been a trick of the lights, but it seemed to have an almost oily sheen.
These things in the tanks were not just mutant shrimp anymore, Gus thought. They were straight up monsters, and he didn’t relish being stuck in a real life enactment of a David Cronenberg fever dream.
Gus also didn’t like confrontation, and could feel a knot of anxiety forming in his stomach. He was reaching the end of his tolerance for whatever freaky shit these people were up to, and had contacts that he could reach out to, in the case of an emergency. What constituted an emergency was conveniently undefined. There were stories of folks that had needed to “pull the cord” on projects, but they had always seemed to him like people just trying to ego embellish what was really a mundane and boring job.
His stomach cramped again, and he coughed, trying to Martin’s attention. Maybe he could find out if whatever this project was, was almost done. The old man turned on his stool like a slowly moving turret acquiring a new target. He didn’t say anything, and just stared. Gus could feel his intestinal discomfort start to shift a little further downstream.
“Hey, um …. so … those … um …. things. They’re, you know … pretty big now.”
He felt like an idiot, but everything he had thought of saying, including asserting some authority, flew from his mind as soon as he started speaking.
Martin tilted his head to one side, like a confused puppy, though sweetness was not the vibe Gus was getting. Then he heard a strange clicking noise. It seemed to fill the room, and he wasn’t sure where it’s source was. Martin’s mouth wasn’t moving, and it almost sounded like the noise a film reel made when running out and slapping around, but lower pitched. Much lower pitched. Gus glanced up at the lights, his thoughts immediately going to the sound being caused by an electrical problem, but there were no signs of disturbance.
“Yes,” Martin said.
Looking back at him, he had straightened up, and was now standing.
“Riiight, so …. does that mean … you all … are … about done?”
Again, Martin tilted his head to the side, though this time without the accompanying clicking sounds. His head still tilted, he replied, “No.”
“Okay, ummmm, thanks,” Gus said, his gut was insisting that he needed to leave right then, and he dutifully obeyed. Scurrying down the hallway, he ducked into the nearest bathroom, silently thanking whoever had designed the place that each floor had a multitude of facilities.
Gus sat in his oversized chair staring at a blinking cursor on a screen. He had typed out the command to initiate a connection to what he thought of as “the mothership,” though in reality there was probably just another drone like himself on the other end that got to relay messages to another drone, and so on, until it eventually landed on the desk of someone that had the right clearance to understand what it meant. All he had to do was hit enter. The thick binder of codes was in front of him, open to the page of “emergency” designations. He wasn’t sure which was most appropriate, and his anxiety level was high enough that he felt paralyzed.
“Hey, what’s up?”
Startled, Gus jumped in his chair. Beth was standing in the doorway, giving him a look that was part curiosity and part concern. His hands suddenly shaking, he hit Ctrl-C repeatedly on the console’s keyboard, and closed the binder.
“Hey … Hi … nothing,” he managed to stammer, while trying to calm himself down.
“Didn’t look like nothing. I can come back later if…”
“No, no. It’s fine. Just … I don’t know. Whatever it is you all are growing down there is starting to give me the creeps. Those …. things …. are kinda huge now.”
Beth stepped into the room, and said in a lowered tone, “Yeah, I’m not entirely sure what’s going on, and frankly that isn’t a position I like being in. I also don’t intend for it to last. Phillip has had me working on something that should slow things down, and then we’re going to have a serious discussion. I was actually looking for him. Have you seen him?”
Beth, surprised by Gus’ outburst, said, “Well, that’s not the reaction I was expecting.”
Gus rubbed his temples, and replied, “No, it’s not you. Phillip asked me to dig up some maps for this place, and I completely forgot about it.”
“Yeah, we were on the bottom floor, and … well, anyway, he was asking if there were any layouts of this place.”
Beth, a look of confusion on her face, said, “Huh, that’s interesting. Are there?”
“Are there what?”
“Layouts of this place.”
“Oh,” Gus said, feeling a bit of relief, “yeah, I’m pretty sure they’re in here somewhere. Probably in one of those lockers.” He gestured at the far wall that was lined with lockers looking like they belonged in some abandoned high school.
“You want some help?” Beth asked, stepping towards the lockers.
“Uh, yeah, sure.”
She popped open the first door. The locker had a number of shelves dividing it up, each one full of equipment. Rifling through it, Beth removed something that looked like a small baton.
“Where’d all this stuff come from?” she asked.
“No idea,” Gus said, “facilities like these are reused all the time. Cleanup usually involves folks like me just stuffing things into boxes or … lockers. What is that?”
“It’s a jet injector. They’ve been around for twenty years or so, and usually used to deliver vaccines to lots of people at once.”
Beth saw Gus’ confused stare, and continued, “You know, Star Trek, pshhhhtttt.” As she made the sound she pushed the device against her shoulder.
“Ohhhhh, those are real?”
Beth rolled her eyes, slid the device into her back pocket, and moved onto the next locker.
“Hey, have you reupped the ice cream supply yet?” she asked over her shoulder.
Gus looked at his watch, and exclaimed, “Damn it! Thomas might already be here. I left the front gate open, but he doesn’t have any way of contacting me once he’s here. I need to head topside. If you find any rolled up papers, just set them aside, if you don’t mind.”
“Sure, though It’s gonna cost you a couple scoops.”
Gus smiled, and said, “Hey, you can have a whole pint as far as I’m concerned.”
“I’m gonna hold you to that,” Beth said as Gus left the room.