Outward: Chapter 9: Underneath

“What’s the situation?” TSgt Abernathy demanded as soon as she set foot in the lab. SrA Grant followed her in, stationing herself on the side of the door as SrA Roberts who, in turn, was no longer listening to his iPod.

“Over the past nine hours,” Todd began, “we’ve recorded five separate changes in the object’s position. Each time it’s dropped vertically by a few millimeters, sometimes accompanied by a lateral shift of a few micron.”

The previous night, he and Luke had abandoned their attempts to scan inside the object, and had replaced their equipment in the chamber with a series of infrared lasers aimed at varying points on the sphere’s surface, each one continuously measuring the distance between it and the laser. The results confirmed their suspicion from last night: the object was indeed moving downward. Not quite enough to notice visually, but easily measurable.

“The cause?” TSgt Abernathy asked.

Luke shrugged. “It still doesn’t look like it’s actually doing anything. I think the pallet it’s resting on is starting to buckle under the thing’s weight.”

TSgt Abernathy considered this. “That pallet’s rated to support objects heavier than it. It’s possible making the hollow for it to rest in weakened it a bit, but it shouldn’t have by that much.”

She opened the door to the anechoic chamber and cautiously stepped inside. It didn’t look like anything was different, but she could hardly push the object out of the way to take a peek underneath it to see if the pallet was damaged at all. She stepped back into the lab and shut the door.

She needed to think. She paced back and forth across the lab for a few minutes as everyone looked to her for instructions on what to do next.

Finally she said, “I want to look underneath it. You, get some men in here to lift it up. You, get that equipment out of there. They’re going to need room to move. How delicate is it?”

As Todd lifted the phone to call the crew at the loading dock, Luke replied, “Not particularly, as long as you don’t drop it or anything.”

“Good, then you,” TSgt Abernathy continued, pointing to SrA Roberts, “help him clear it out of there. Let’s move.”

Just as Luke was carrying the last of the laser arrays out of the chamber, two work men with a cart loaded with portable jacks arrived at the lab.

“Good, just in time,” TSgt Abernathy said to them. “Lift that thing up in there.”

The work men looked at each other, and then at Todd. Todd nodded at them, and the two got to work.

“You know,” Todd said, “we may be working on your contract, but you can’t just give orders to the other employees here.”

“In fact I can,” TSgt Abernathy countered. “The National Security Act of 1947, as amended, grants full authority over situations involving alien activity on earth, supplanting any other civil or private authorities, to three individuals, in descending order: the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Commander of Air Force Exosolar Command,” she recited, ticking off each on her fingers. “And the Commander of AFEXOCOM has delegated control of this particular operation to me. So yes, I can tell your employees what to do when it involves that thing in there. Is that clear?”

Todd gulped. “Yes, ma’am,” he replied.

“Wait,” Luke said, “isn’t the National Security Act something to do with intelligence? What do aliens and the military have to do with it?”

Before TSgt Abernathy could regale Luke with tales of last-minute amendments slipped in to unrelated must-pass post-9/11 intelligence reform legislation and congressmen with strange theories about Roswell and Area 51, the room shook and a loud crash thundered from the chamber next door. She immediately burst through the door to see what had happened, followed by Luke and Todd.

The pallet supporting the object had snapped in two once the workmen had began lifting it by either side. The object was now resting directly on the floor of the chamber, stationary. At least, stationary as far as anyone could tell.

TSgt Abernathy pulled one of the halves aside to get a look at what the object had until moments ago been resting on. The hollow that had been dug into the center of the pallet to hold the sphere in place was now a hole that went clean through the pallet. There weren’t any scraps or shavings to suggest what had happened to the material that was supposed to be there. It was just sort of…

“Eaten away,” TSgt Abernathy said quietly. She straightened herself and turned to the two engineers. “Is there anything directly underneath this room?”

Luke thought. “The subbasement? I don’t know what’s underneath here, specifically, but it’s mostly storerooms and a couple equipment rooms. Never been down there myself.”

“First time for everything, then. Grant, you, Mr. Aaronson, and I are going to go down and take a look. Roberts, you keep an eye on the object. Radio me if there’s any change. Mr. Wright, you try to monitor the object as best you can. Move out.”

Before he was quite able to get a grasp of what just happened, Luke found himself riding the service elevator down to the subbasement with TSgt Abernathy and SrA Grant. He looked over and saw SrA Grant doing something with her sidearm.

“Do you really think that’s going to be necessary?” he asked.

SrA Grant shrugged. “‘Be prepared,’” she said, slipping it back into its holster.

“I thought that was the Boy Scouts.”

“Still a good motto.”

The doors slid open. The subbasement floor plan was pretty much identical to the basement’s, just with dimmer lighting and dirtier hallways. He led the other two down the hall to what, according to the plate on the door, was an equipment storeroom underneath the anechoic chamber. He swiped his badge, opened the door, and flipped on the light. He then quickly stepped out of the way to let SrA Grant enter first.

The room was full of dusty metal shelves stacked with boxes or, failing that, clumsily stacked piles of equipment. The sort of room where old or broken hardware went to die. The contents in the shelf in the center of the room, however, had a different fate. Something from the ceiling had been dripping on it.

A few metal stubs poking from the shelving’s support columns were the only sign that there had ever been a top shelf. A good chunk of the shelf below that had also been eaten away by something. There was a wide pool of something viscous atop a pile of discarded network switches on the middle shelf.

“Well there’s your problem,” SrA Grant joked.

“What is that stuff?” Luke asked.

“Don’t touch it,” TSgt Abernathy said.

“Well, duh,” Luke replied.

Luke heard a quick burst of radio static behind him. “Roberts, this is Abernathy, come in, over.”

“Was it leaking?” Luke wondered.

“Leaking, oozing, peeing, bleeding, does it matter?” SrA Grant said.

“Roberts, contact Maj Raskin. Tell him we have a situation here. Containment breach, still assessing. Over.”

“Bleeding?” Luke asked. “Like, alien blood?”

“Who else’s blood would it be?” SrA Grant replied.

“No, I know it’d be alien blood. But is it like alien blood? I mean, Alien alien.”

SrA Grant looked at him.

“No, I mean, Alien alien, like the alien from Alien. The movie. You know, facehuggers, and acid for blood.”

“Oh, you mean Xenomorphs. It’s not that.”

“How do you know?”

“A, Xenomorphs don’t build ships. B, Xenomorphs are too big to fit inside that thing. And C, Xenomorphs are fictional.” SrA Grant started walking around the room, checking the other shelving units for similar damage.

“Roger that, no change in the object so far. Be careful up there. Abernathy out.” TSgt Abernathy slid the radio back into her uniform.

“Ma’am, the damage seems to be limited to the shelf underneath the object,” SrA Grant reported.

“If it’s acid,” Luke wondered aloud, “it seems awfully specific about what it dissolves.”

“What do you mean?” TSgt Abernathy asked.

Luke pointed up at the ceiling. There was a small hole in the drop tile above the ruined shelf. “It ate through there, but only just enough to drip down to here. And then look how it’s just pooled on top of here, when it had no trouble getting through the two shelves above it. Shouldn’t it keep dissolving this too, on and on until it, um, whatever you call it when acid’s dissolving something and then stops dissolving it when the acid runs out of itself?”

“Nervous? You can head back up if you want.”

“Eh.”

“He does have a point, though,” SrA Grant added. “Besides, if it was getting dissolved, there should be a big puddle of melted stuff. It’s just… gone. Weird.”

TSgt Abernathy nodded. “Just like the pallet it was sitting on.” She wished she had a way to scoop up a sample of whatever was pooled atop the equipment on the shelf.

Luke froze. “Did you hear that?”

The other two fell silent. “Hear what?” TSgt Abernathy asked after about ten seconds had passed.

“It was a kind of metal tinkling noise.”

“I hear it too,” SrA Grant announced. “It’s coming from this corner.”

The other two converged on her position. She was staring at a shelf full of boxes, listening intently.

“It’s definitely coming from behind here,” she said. “Here, help me move this junk out of the way.” She began slowly picking up boxes from the bottom shelf and setting them on the floor behind her.

“There!” TSgt Abernathy said, pointing.

They all saw it. The shadows prevented any of them from getting a good look at it, but there was definitely movement along the wall behind the shelf. Whatever it was, it quickly slipped through a hole in the wall.

“What’s next door?” TSgt Abernathy asked.

“Another storeroom, I think.” Luke replied.

“Let’s check it out.”

The three went back out into the hallway and half-ran, half-creeped to the next door down. SrA Grant flattened herself along the wall next to the door and gave a hand signal.

“Wait, what does that mean?” Luke asked.

“She wants you to unlock the door and step back, then she’ll open it a crack and look inside,” TSgt Abernathy replied.

“All that from a… whatever she just did?”

“Just do it.”

Luke swiped his badge and stepped back. SrA Grant slowly inched the door open. “Sergeant,” she said, “you’re going to want to see this.”

TSgt Abernathy pressed her head against the door to see inside. There was more than one of them. Half a dozen, at least. They were small, and made of metal, and skittered across the floor on little feet. No, scratch that. Not all of them were quite so little.

She grabbed the handle and shut the door. She then pulled the radio out of her pocket. “Roberts, this is Abernathy. Contact Maj Raskin. Definite loss of containment. Potential foothold situation developing. Recommend evacuating and quarantining the facility. Awaiting orders. Over.”


Chapter word count: 1,855 (+188)
Total word count: 16,020 / 50,000 (32.04%)