Area 54 - This article is part of a series.
The beam from Beth’s flashlight cut through the dusty air of the control room, overpowering the dim emergency lights.
“You were in here?” Gus asked.
Beth nodded. The side of her head still ached, and the memory of the actual event was like a fuzzy dream. Certain elements were crystal clear, but there wasn’t any sense of time. It was like a sequence of polaroids had been taken, and then scattered across the floor. The images on top were clear. Some were partially covered. Others were completely hidden.
“Damn,” Gus remarked as he stepped past her.
She moved the light towards him. He was picking over the console. Pressing buttons, flipping switches. He even gave the monitor a gentle tap on it’s side.
“This is not good,” he said.
“It’s also not our primary concern,” Beth replied.
Stepping through the debris covering the floor, she gathered a small collection of items. Flashlight wedged under her arm, she stepped over to Gus, handing him a flashlight and a taser. He clicked the flashlight on and off, and held up the taser.
“What’s this for?”
Gus raised his eyebrows. Before he could say anything Beth continued.
“We’re going down to get Phillip, Martin, and your friend. What was his name?”
“Thomas,” Gus whispered.
Beth held his gaze. Gus nodded. After a moment Beth saw his eyebrows bunch together.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
“Umm, how does this thing work?” he asked, turning the taser over in his hand.
“You’ve fired a gun before, right?”
Gus strained a smile, “Do video games count?”
Beth couldn’t help but laugh. Shaking her head, she said, “It’s simple. Point at the thing you want to immobilize, and press the trigger. These have two cartridges, which is kind of surprising, but it means you have two shots before having to reload. I’m putting more in my bag. Hopefully we won’t need any of them. It’s just a precaution.”
Gus stared at the taser.
“How do you know all this stuff?”
Beth looked at him. There was a tension in the silence.
“Army brat. Sorta came with the territory. But that was a long time ago. Come on, lets go find the others and get the hell out of here.”
Gus relaxed, and started to shove his taser into his waistband.
“You really don’t want to do that,” Beth said with a quick urgent tone.
“Right! Of course!”
Beth smiled, and shouldered a backpack.
Gus nodded, and they moved out into the hallway. It wasn’t long before they reached the stairwell door, it’s frame badly bent. It took both of them to get it to open, and the metal screeching echoed up and down the hall like escaping ghosts. Once inside, Gus swung his light to the left, and swore.
The short run of steps leading to the next landing up was completely blocked by a wall of rock and dirt. Little rivers of silt dribbled down the side, dusting the floor.
“What if the elevator shaft is collapsed too?” Gus asked, a slight tremor in his voice.
“One problem at a time. First we get the others, right?”
To Beth’s relief, the damage to the rest of the stairwell was minimal. It wasn’t long before they reached the next floor down, where the labs were located. Giving the door a gentle push, it swung open a few inches without any resistance, before bumping back into place. She looked back at Gus.
“You’re my backup. Don’t go shooting anything unless I tell you.”
“Got it. No Leeroy Jenkinsing.”
“Nothing, just a video game thing. I’ll show you sometime after we get out of here.”
“Deal,” Beth said with a nod.
Holding her flashlight above her taser, she pushed the door open wide with her foot, and stepped out into the hallway. Gus followed.
The first lab was her own. The half height glass panels running along the hall side were all shattered. The glass fragments crunched under their feet as they entered the lab. Beth swept the flashlight all along the floor, and then the ceiling.
“Looks clear,” Gus said.
“Yeah, Phillip’s lab is next.”
The crunching of the glass echoed in the hallway. Beth thought the dim yellow glow of the emergency lights might have been worse than no light at all. They made the shadows harder to decipher. She wasn’t even sure what she was watching for. The specimens, even if out of their tanks, shouldn’t be an actual problem. But something had spooked Phillip. And then there was Martin’s strange behavior of late. She wanted to be prepared for anything.
Phillip’s lab was in a similar state to her own. There was a lot of damage, but it seemed like normal damage. She almost laughed at the notion of “normal damage,” but caught herself.
“Okay, just one more to check.”
“What if they aren’t there?”
“One problem at a time, Gus. One problem at a time.”
She was aware that Gus was keeping closer to her as they approached Martin’s lab. Swinging her light into the room, the first thing she noticed was the floor was covered with water, or what looked like water. What she saw next stopped her in her tracks.
“Back up,” she hissed.
“What?” Gus whispered.
“Back … up … now.”
She heard the crunch of glass as Gus backed into the hallway. She saw his flashlight sweep down the hall. Slowly she took a couple steps into the lab. On the floor she saw Phillip. He was lying on his back, his clothes soaked. On top of him was one of the specimens. It was about the size of a large dog. It’s segmented body was resting on his chest, clawed arms outstretched. The creature’s ring of eyes, or what they thought were eyes, were pressed against Phillip’s face. Its beak was pushed into his mouth. There was a strange sparkle of light rippling up and down its segmented body. Beth took careful aim, and fired the taser.
The barbs struck the creature dead center. It detached from Phillip, and let out an intense high pitched sound. It was like a scream, but different. Beth thought she could feel the sound of it within her body more than she could actually hear it. The sensation faded as Gus raced into the lab.
The words were barely out of his mouth before a loud clicking filled the room. Both of them trained their lights on the two remaining tanks. The glass was cracked, but not broken. Each of the creatures began to thrash while clawing at the cracked glass. The cracks grew, and the tank closest to them burst, spilling liquid and creature onto the floor. The creature rolled, getting its claws underneath itself. The ring of fleshy stalks waved to and fro, like grain blowing in the wind.
Beth, her taser trained on it, glanced to Gus. He was standing in the doorway, frozen.
“Move!” she whispered loudly.
He looked at her, his face a mask of fear.
His back pressed to the wall, he moved towards Beth, his eyes locked onto the creature. The glass of the second tank shattered. The two creatures seemed to scan the room. Gus was now beside Beth. He was holding up his taser, but his hand was shaking so much that she wasn’t sure how he hadn’t dropped it.
“Stay here. Don’t fire unless they come at us.”
Stepping over Phillip’s prone body, Beth trained her taser on the body of the creature that had been on top of him. She noticed that the strange glimmering light was gone. With a smooth motion she pushed her boot against it’s side. It was like pushing against a water mattress. The creature didn’t stir.
“Bethhhh…” Gus whispered loudly.
Looking up, she saw the other two creatures had turned their heads away from them, and seemed to be focussed on the far wall. As if they were of one mind, their heads swung towards the hallway, and they began to scuttle across the floor, their clawed feet barely able to gain purchase against the concrete.
“Let them go,” Beth whispered.
“What?” Gus said.
It was a bit louder than Beth would have liked, but the creatures didn’t seem to notice. They were almost to the door.
“Let them go,” she repeated.
This time she pointed down at Phillip. Gus looked down, clearly having not noticed Phillip until just then. He lowered his taser, and slumped against a nearby console.
“Is he?” he muttered.
Beth watched as the creatures reached the door, and turned down the hallway. The sound of broken glass scraping against the concrete echoed behind them. Kneeling down, she placed her fingers to the side of Phillip’s neck, and then put her hand just above his mouth and nose.
“There’s a pulse, and he’s breathing.”
Beth heard Gus exhale as she trained her light on Phillip’s face. Her chest tightened as she watched his skin ripple, as if it were the surface of a pond disturbed by a dozen rocks. Along the ridges of the ripples were tiny specks of blue luminescence. She looked to the body of the creature just feet away.
Taking her light off of Phillip, she looked to Gus, who was staring at the ground in front of him. At his side hung the ice pack, still filled with ice cream.
“Gus, I need you to go get me something.”
He looked at her, puzzled.
“In my lab, in the refrigerator in the far corner there is a collection of vials filled with blue liquid. I need you to pack as many of them as you can into that cooler, and bring them here. As fast as you can, Gus.”
He looked at the cooler, then at Beth.
“Is he going to be okay?”
“Only if you get me those vials, Gus.”
He looked back towards the door.
“They went the other direction. The path should be clear.”
He looked back at her.
Gus looked away for a moment. A wave of dedicated resolve seemed to wash over him. He nodded, and without another word, walked to the doorway. He paused, seemed to take a deep breath, and stepped out into the hallway.
“Hang on, Phillip,” Beth whispered, listening to the sound of crunching glass echo down the hallway.