Area 54 - This article is part of a series.
“Well, I just meant, Martin and … umm … Thomas,” Gus said.
He shot a glance at Beth. She was looking at Phillip.
“Thomas?” Phillip replied. “Who’s Thomas?”
“Is it really that important? I mean … perhaps there are bigger issues?” Gus gesticulated around the trashed lab.
Phillip took a step towards him. Gus really didn’t think of Phillip as a particularly intimidating man. Martin was the one whose very presence pushed all of his anxiety buttons, even before he had started acting more bizarre than usual. Phillip was easily a foot taller than Gus. It was a lanky height, and didn’t project a sense of dominance. But right then Gus felt real fear. It wasn’t just anxiety. It wasn’t an ambiguous sensation of dread. He was, in that moment, viscerally afraid, like a strange dog had just lunged at him from out of nowhere.
Gus stepped back, and held up his arms. Phillip looked at him, confused, seemingly unaware of the effect he was having.
“I just need to know. As you obviously realize, we’re in a bit of a situation here. Who is Thomas?”
Gus glanced back at Beth. She was still staring at Phillip. She a look about her, like someone trying to figure out a puzzle.
“A friend, that’s all. He’s the one that brought me all the goods. You know, the ice cream and whatnot.” Gus gestured towards the cooler slung around Phillip’s chest. “Normally we just met topside, but I was in a bit of a mood, and decided to show him around. Didn’t think it was a big deal, but then…the elevator…”
Gus stopped as Phillip snapped his head to one side, as if someone had just yelled his name. Gus again looked to Beth. This time there was concern on her face.
“Phillip?” she said.
Turning back to them, Phillip removed his glasses, and rubbed at his eyes. Returning the thick frames to his face, he said, “Right. Well, we have to go to the basement level anyway. Maybe we’ll find your friend along the way.”
“And Martin?” Gus asked, after a moment of hesitation.
Phillip nodded, but said nothing.
Beth broke the awkward silence.
“You still have that taser, Gus?”
“What? Oh, yeah. Sure.”
“Okay, the two of us in front then. Phillip, stay close.”
Gus wasn’t sure that Phillip had heard a word she said, but when they started for the hallway, he followed them.
“Is he okay?” Gus whispered out of the corner of his mouth.
“Shush,” Beth replied.
Gus, feeling a little bit like he had been reprimanded for talking in church, smiled, and focussed his flashlight on the dark hallway in front of them.
The air got thicker and the heat more oppressive as they made their way to the next level. He had often thought it odd that instead of one continuous stairwell that they alternated, so one had to walk all the way across a level to get to the next one. Occasionally he imagined that must have been why the elevator was put in.
The dorm floor, as Gus liked to think of it, was normally a pleasant series of hallways for him to walk through. It meant he was going to be getting some sleep, or was about to get the first coffee of the day, which was always the best coffee. This time, though, he felt like he was walking through another dimension, where the hallways looked the same, but were just replicas of the ones he knew.
“It’s like the upside down,” Gus muttered.
“What?” Beth whispered.
“Nothing, just a show.”
A hand with a grip of iron grabbed Gus’s arm, forcing him to stop. He almost cried out before realizing it was Phillip. He had also grabbed Beth’s arm, bringing them both to a full stop.
“Wait,” he hissed. “Cut your lights.”
Gus looked at Beth, hoping beyond hope that she would say no. She gave Gus a serious look, and nodded. Her light went out. Gus shook his head, wondering if his life was about to flash before his eyes. He wondered if that was just made up, like if some story teller couldn’t think of anything else, scribbled that down, and now everyone thought it was true. Unless, of course, it really was true. With a soft click, Gus’s light went out.
It didn’t take long for his eyes to adjust to the dim haze of the emergency lighting. They were stopped almost in between two sets of lights, so everything surrounding them was about as dark as it could get. Ahead, the yellowish light spilled out into a hallway that ran perpendicular to their own. They were only about ten feet away, by Gus’s estimation. To the right, he knew that hallway ended with the door to the stairwell that led to the next level down. To the left was a whole set of rooms that were mostly empty, as far as Gus knew.
It had only been a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity. Gus was about to say something when he heard scratching. Quick, short scrapes against the concrete. He felt a strange tingling across his skin, as if it were being tickled with static electricity. Then, from the corner of the hallway, a ring of antennae emerged. Each one adorned with a black shining orb. The scraping sounds were joined by a rough dragging noise, like canvas over rough wood. A reddish brown tardigrade, about the size of a large dog, was pushing its segmented body across the floor, long sharp claws scraping against the concrete. The ring of antennae were pointing straight ahead.
Gus held his breath, and watched at the creature stopped midway across the span of the hallway. The tingling sensation intensified. He thought he could see a strange blue light at the very edge of his peripheral vision. The creature lifted its head, almost like it was sniffing the air, bent it back down, and resumed dragging its bulk across the floor. As soon as the tail end of it disappeared from view, Phillip’s iron grip released. Turning, Gus thought he caught a glimpse of a blue haze, almost like the after glow that happens after looking directly at a bright light. Gus clicked on his flash light.
Phillip staggered back, collapsing against the wall of the hallway. Swinging around the cooler pack, he removed the injector, loaded in a blue vial, and pressed it against his neck. The dose delivered with a sharp hiss. Gus thought he saw, just for an instant, a strange rippling wave flutter over the skin of Phillip’s face, and then it was gone. In an instant, Beth was at his side.
“Phillip, can you hear me?”
“Yes, I’m okay. I’m fine.”
With the look of someone that had just gotten the wind knocked out of them, he pushed himself away from the wall.
“We should get going,” Phillip said.
“The hell we are,” Gus said, his voice raised.
“Gus!” Beth said, her voice a harsh whisper.
Lowering his voice, Gus continued, talking directly to Beth, “They’re probably just growing some mutant slug things to make tastier imitation beef, I told myself. Maybe it’s for MREs, ‘cause who cares what those taste like. But this,” he pointed in the air, drawing lines between Phillip and the end of the hallway, “What the hell is going on?”
Beth started to speak, but Phillip, his voice hoarse, interrupted.
“There’s no time. Suffice it to say, Martin’s work was focused on the origins of self awareness, from a biological perspective. He thought he had found a link. Something buried in the genetic sequencing of a particular strain of tardigrade that most believed to have never existed at all. Things then, well, got out of hand.”
Gus’s head spun. All his other questions evaporated from his mind.
“Out of hand? And … those things … they can think?”
“It’s not as simple as that.”
“Really,” Gus snipped.
“The important thing is we need to get the power back on, and then we need to find Martin.”
Gus looked to Beth, “Do you understand all this?”
“Some,” she said. “Enough.”
“And that stuff he’s injecting?”
“It’s a suppression serum,” Beth said. “It’s designed to suppress the expression of … much of the tardigrade’s genetic code. The parts we thought were relevant, at least.”
“So, he’s …. infected?”
A bead of sweat snaked around Gus’s eyebrow, stinging his eye. He winced, and pulled the the front of his shirt up to wipe his face while backing away from Phillip.
“I don’t think it works like that, but that’s as good a term as any for right now,” Phillip said. “I got lucky. The serum seems to be keeping at bay whatever is happening. What that is, though, I don’t fully understand. We need to find Martin.”
“So, you … heard that thing? Felt a disturbance in the force?”
“For want of a better phase, yes.”
Gus stared. He felt like all the gears in his mind had ground to a halt. Some part of him wanted to pinch his arm, as if all of it might be a bizarre dream.
“We’ve already wasted too much time. We need to get to the power panels.”
Gus nodded, his brain fog fading.
“The tasers. They kill those things?” he asked Beth.
“Seem to,” she replied.
He looked at Phillip, watching as he replaced the injector into the cooler, and zipped the top shut.
“Alright, well. Thanks, I suppose, for not letting the slug monster get us.”
Phillip smiled, or at least Gus thought he did. It was hard to tell with all the weird shadows and the scruffy beard. Without any further discussion, the three continued down the hallway towards the stairwell.