Area 54 - This article is part of a series.
The next locker was full of flashlights. Beth started to close the door, but paused. Removing one, she pointed the clear end towards her face, and clicked the button. A bright LED light lit up her face. Wincing she turned it off, and sat it on the ground, as fuzzy round ghost followed her vision.
She was genuinely surprised that the flashlight had worked, and it served as a benign reminder to be more careful. She wasn’t sorting through some weekend yard sale at the side of the road. There was the real potential of coming across something more dangerous than a loaded flashlight.
The universe seemed to acknowledge her thoughts as the next locker she opened was full of black plastic cases, neatly stacked. Pulling the top one out, the saw the yellow word TASER imprinted on the top. Flipping open the color coordinated plastic tabs, she opened it, and stared in amazement. Nestled in protective styrofoam was a taser gun.
“What is this place,” she muttered aloud.
As if in response she felt a strange sensation in her gut. It was like the feeling of uneasy weightlessness that could happen when driving a car a little too fast over a slight hill. The lights in the control room flickered. She looked around, not sure what to expect. Other than the single flicker, there was no other indication of trouble.
“Okay, that was weird,” she said.
Closing the lid on the taser case, she put it back onto the stack in the locker. As she pushed the flimsy metal door closed a loud roar filled the room. It was less of a sound, and more like a physical presence, as if the noise had taken corporeal form. Her body was thrown backwards as all the lockers burst open. Their contents rushed out towards her like a tidal wave of detritus.
Landing hard on her back she saw giant fissures open up in the wall nearest her, like a Hellmouth ready to let loose all manner of horror upon the world. Something hard struck the side of her head just as the lights blinked out.
As consciousness returned, it felt like she was waking up from the worst hangover of her life. Her eyes, scratchy with dust, burned as she barely opened them. Her throat felt raw, like she had been yelling for hours on end. The side of her head throbbed, and she reached her hand up to feel for damage. There was a smooth raised bump. It was tender to the touch, but it didn’t feel like the skin had been broken.
Small favors, she thought.
There was a dull yellowish cast to the room. Everywhere was a fog of rock dust. It seemed motionless at first, but against the backdrop of the lone emergency light she could see the grey motes were falling in slow motion through the still air. Raising herself up, boxes fell away from her, dropping to the floor with distant hollow sounds. That’s when she noticed the persistent ringing in her ears.
_Probably haven’t been out that long.
Turning, she saw the side of the console desk was right beside her. Reaching up for the edge, she pulled herself up to a standing position. As she rose, the room spun. Steadying herself, she took a deep breath. The back of her throat itched with the inhalation, and a fit of coughing brought her back down to her knees.
Head bowed, she again forced herself upright. Pulling the bottom of her shirt over her mouth and nose, she focussed on breathing slowly. Her throat was still raw, but the compulsion to cough calmed down. Making her way to the other side of the desk, she pressed random buttons on the console. Nothing responded.
“Great,” she said.
Sitting down in the chair, which somehow had managed to stay with the desk, she tried to clear her thoughts. Staring at the cracked stone walls, she surmised that there must have been an earthquake. A big one.
Or we were bombed.
“Not helpful,” she told her inner voice.
So, now what?
“Let me think”
This kind of internal conversation was a habit she’d picked up long ago when trying to puzzle out problems. She had assumed everyone did the same thing, until being branded as “the weird nerdy kid who talked to herself” in high school. How anyone looked back on adolescence as anything other than a time to be best forgotten was beyond her.
The main power was out, but the emergency lights were on. She considered that a good thing. While the walls looked bad, the ceiling hadn’t collapsed, so that was another thing in their favor. Her mind shifted to the others, Gus, Phillip, and Martin. She needed to find them. Order didn’t really matter, but she hoped to find Gus first.
Sensing no dissent from her inner voice, she scanned the floor until she saw a pile of flashlights. Standing up made her head throb. She tried her best to push the pain away. Picking up a flashlight, she pointed it at the shadow of the hallway, and pressed the button. Nothing.
“You got to be kidding me,” she said.
Dropping it to the floor, she picked up another one. It wasn’t until the fourth one that a bright beam of white light blasted through the dust, illuminating the door and hallway beyond. Scanning the walls, she stepped out, and headed towards the elevator. That’s where Gus had been headed, so it made sense to start there.
Turning a corner, her light illuminated on a body on the floor, pressed up against the wall.
“Oh no!” she whispered, moving closer.
As she got closer, she could see it was Gus. He was sitting against the wall. Hurrying to him, she put the light on the ground, and knelt beside him.
“Are you hurt?”
Gus shook his head. She noticed a blue nylon strap across his chest, looking like a seatbelt. It was attached to a square cooler that was sitting on the floor. The beam of the flashlight was pointing down the hall. Her eyes followed the beam, revealing an empty shaft where the elevator cage should have been.
Looking back to Gus, she said, “What happened, Gus.”
He started to speak, but just shook his head. Beth looked back at the empty elevator shaft. Taking a deep breath, she said, “Look at me.”
Gus didn’t move.
She spoke again, trying to channel the tone of authority that normally came from her mother.
“Gus. Look at me.”
After a pause, he looked up, his face a wreck of grief.
“I saw him fall, Beth. It was my fault. Thomas should have never been in that elevator. It should have been…”
“Gus, we have to find the others. That means we need to make our way down to the other floors. I need your help.”
She watched as his expression of shock was partially replaced with a blend of recognition and resolve.
“All of the others,” he said. It was a firm statement, without a hint of a question or suggestion.
Beth nodded, and said, “Of course. Are you hurt at all? Can you stand?”
“I’m fine,” Gus said as he struggled to his feet. “Just got knocked around a little. Nothing serious.”
Beth picked up the flashlight, and scanned the walls, focussing on the cracks and fissures.
“I have no idea if this is fine, or if everything’s going to collapse around on us at any moment.”
Gus adjusted the position of the cooler, moving it to his side, and said, “It should be fine. These places were built to withstand a lot. I think if it was going to fall in it would have already, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Beth smiled, and was keenly aware that Gus did not.
“There are more flashlights back there, though quite a few seem to be duds.”
Gus half smiled, and said, “Yeah, low bid.”
“We should probably get a few extra.”
“You’re right. Let’s go.”
Beth nodded, and started back towards the control room. Gus followed, the cooler of ice cream lightly bouncing at his side.