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Scene 16

1607 words·8 mins
Area 54 - This article is part of a series.
Part 16: This Article

Before Gus entered Beth’s lab, he shone his flashlight down the hall. The path he and Beth took was marked by a path of crunched broken glass, like a trail in snow. She had said the creatures had gone the other direction, but with every step he couldn’t help but wonder if he was about to hear another scrape or crunch that was not his own. The inside jam of the door brought him some comfort, as strange as it seemed. It was something that still made sense. 

He hadn’t seen what had happened with Phillip. Part of him didn’t want to know, but then the pitter patter of questions started to rain down around his mind. Why did Beth want the serum from her lab The serum was only for the creatures, wasn’t it? Why would Phillip need it? He noticed the beam of his flashlight jittering in the air, the movement of his shaking hand amplified by the haze of rock dust that filled the hallway.

Some part of him recognized that he was just experiencing an adrenaline crash. He forced himself to close his eyes, and take a series of slow, deep breaths. By the third one, the dust in the air tickled his throat, and sent him into a coughing fit. Pushing himself away from the door frame, he gave the metal surface a high five.

“Thanks for the support, buddy.”

He felt a jittery wave of giggling build up in his chest, but knew if that started that he wouldn’t be able to stop. Pushing all his questions from his mind, Gus forced himself to focus, and swung his light into Beth’s lab. When he reached the first refrigerator, he pulled open the door.

The wave of coolness was so refreshing he wanted to just stay where he was, and bask in it. He didn’t know what the unit had been set on, but it had to be close to freezing. On two shelves there were rows of small sealed vials filled with blue liquid. To him, they looked like so many blueberry vodka shots.

Zipping open the cooler, he stared at the two pints of Rocky Road ice cream. Moving to the second unit, he cracked open the door, and stuck his hand inside for just an instant. It too was frigid. With a quick motion, he opened the door a crack, and pushed in the two pints of ice cream. Closing the door, he felt a certain kind of relief. 

When they got the power back online, and called for help, then maybe, just maybe, they would be able to share some ice cream to celebrate the occasion. He knew it was ridiculous, but it was just the right kind of hope for him to hold onto. Moving back to the first unit, he filled the cooler with as many vials as would fit. It was a lot, and he couldn’t imagine why so many would be needed, but he also wanted his only trip back to be for fetching that ice cream.

Beth was still kneeling beside Phillip when Gus returned. She had sat her flashlight on its end, so it looked like a floor lamp made for garden gnomes. Hearing his approach, she motioned for the cooler. Sitting it down beside her, Gus got a good look at Phillip. His skin had a porcelain look to it, and looked like somebody was projecting a filmstrip on it. With a start, Gus realized that what he was seeing was Phillip’s actual skin rippling, like it was the surface of a pond disturbed by a cascade of pebbles.

Removing a single vial from the cooler, Beth loaded it into the injector device she had found in the control room.

“Wait, those fit into that?”

“Yeah, it’s a standard housing. Basically the same thing that’s attached to the needle injectors we use with the…” Her voice trailed off.

“What’s that going to do to him?”

Beth looked up. Even in the dim light of the flashlight, he could see the uncertainty on her face, blended with palpable fear.

“I’m not sure, exactly. But it’s the only option.”

Not waiting for him to respond, Beth placed the injector to the side of Phillip’s neck, and pressed the rubbery red button on it’s side. There was a loud hiss, and he watched the blue liquid drain from the vial. Pulling the injector away, Beth placed it on top of the cooler.

The next few seconds seemed like hours. They both watched, neither one knowing what to expect. Gus crossed his fingers.

The rippling effect ended with an startling abruptness, and was replaced with dozens of tiny red dots. It looked like microscopic pins had stuck Phillip all at once. And then his body started convulsing.

Beth pushed aside the cooler, and yelled for Gus to grab his feet. He watched as she turned his head to one side, and laid on top of his chest, like she was going to give him a bear hug.

“Gus! His legs!”

Snapping out of his daze, Gus kneeled down, and tried to hold down Phillip’s legs. He couldn’t believe how strong Phillip was, and had to lay down crossways, using his full weight to keep them down.

Pulling over the cooler, Beth unzipped the top with one hand, and fished out another vial. Rolling over on her back, keeping her weight on Phillip, she loaded the injector. Rolling again, she pressed it against his neck, and delivered another dose.

There was another violent kick. Gus coughed as air was forced from his lungs, and then Phillip’s body went limp.

He could hear Beth smacking the sides of his face, repeating his name. Gus struggled up into a kneeling position, his ribcage aching. He prepared for the worst. It was one thing to know about risks, and to be told about dangers via endless slideshow presentations. It was something else to be present when a real catastrophe happened. He didn’t even know Phillip that well, but the sensation of impending loss was suffocating.

A series of coughs cut through the silence of the lab. Gus scrambled to his feet. Beth leaned back, resting on her knees. Phillip rolled slowly onto his side, and tried to push himself up into a sitting position.

“Easy,” Beth said.

Turning to her backpack, she removed a plastic bottle of water. Cracking open the lid, she pressed it to Phillip’s lips. He took a few sips, and nodded.

“I’m good,” he said. His voice was hoarse, like he had been yelling for hours.

His eyes scanned the dim room. He took note of Gus, Beth, the shattered tanks, and stopped at the injector sitting next to the cooler and an empty vial. He looked to Beth. She nodded past him. Gus followed her indication. Phillip turned, and they were all looking at the still form of a giant tardigrade.

“Right,” Phillip said. “Okay. Where’s Martin?”

Gus felt the shaking in his hands return. Before he could think, he barked, “Seriously? That’s your first concern?”

Phillip stared at him. While he was clearly exhausted, Gus also thought he could feel that stare, like a physical thing, pushing against him. He half expected his feet to start sliding back across the floor.

“Gus. One problem at a time.” Beth’s voice was calm, yet firm.

“Fine,” Gus said as Phillip looked away. He walked to the far end of the lab, and paced, trying to walk off his frustration.

He could hear Beth and Phillip talking, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. After a few minutes, he had calmed down. He never could stay mad at people, even when he had a good reason.

“Sorry,” Phillip said as Gus rejoined them.

“Me too. It’s all good. Well … I mean, it’s actually pretty freakin’ terrible,” Gus said, gesturing at the shattered lab.

Phillip struggled to his feet, and Beth handed him the cooler pack. With a bit of awkwardness, he pulled the strap over his head, and pushed the cooler around to his back.

Phillip broke the awkward silence, “So, how’s the elevator?”

Now it was time for Beth and Gus to exchange a look.

“Ummm,” Gus began.

“It’s out,” Beth interjected. “And the stairs to the surface are blocked.”


“Not without power,” Gus replied. “Which, I mean, we have to get back on anyway. Otherwise we’re toast.”

It took Gus a few moments to notice that Phillip and Beth were staring at him, waiting for him to continue.

“Oh, um … the air handling is offline. And it’s getting warmer, if you haven’t noticed. I know I’m sweating in places…”

“Don’t even go there,” Beth interrupted.

“Yeah .. umm .. so, yeah. Technically there’s enough air to last, but it’s gonna get bad fast. Assuming the comms station up top is still on, once we have power I should be able to get an outside line.”

“That Atari thing? That’s your link to the outside?” Phillip said, genuinely shocked.

“It’s not an Atari, it’s … look, these places are built on ancient crap like that. It’s janky as hell, but one thing it has going for it is that stuff can usually take a beating. My guess is a breaker got thrown, or a coupling got disconnected. We get down there, get the lights back on, gather up the others, and we’ll be on our way to being some of those obnoxious story telling people, starting every conversation with let me tell you about the time.”

Gus noticed that Phillip was looking at him with an odd intensity.

“Others?” he asked.

Area 54 - This article is part of a series.
Part 16: This Article