Outward: Chapter 25: Forgotten

The metal detector squealed. Private First Class Bennett waved the detector back and forth over the spot of ground. It squealed every time. He set the detector down on the grass. Then he pull a bright orange flag out of his shoulder bag and stuck it in the ground. He hefted the metal detector back up and continued his assignment.

PFC Bennett vowed never to sneak out of barracks at night to pick up a couple six packs from the liquor store down the street from Fort Blackstone. The metal detector sounded briefly as he advanced. With his foot, he prodded an aluminum can partially hidden in the grass. He ignored it and moved on.

He retracted his vow and replaced it with a more realistic one: he vowed never to get caught again sneaking back onto base. Flagging the locations of spent ordnance on the Fort’s old artillery range had ceased to be interesting after the first ten minutes or so. Coming back later to clear out all the stuff that time had buried there, that might be able to hold his interest for quite a bit longer. But pacing back and forth over the old, disused field, making sure the metal detector passed over every square inch of land, was not how he had wanted to spend the day.

But pass over every square inch was what he was going to do. His Sergeant had made it known that the next private caught sneaking off base was going to be punished by making sure PFC Bennett hadn’t missed anything. His Sergeant had also made it abundantly clear what would happen to him if that other private found something.

That clinched it. No more late-night beer runs unless Corporal Smith was on guard duty at the side gate. CPL Smith was the kind of guy you could count on to look the other way in exchange for a cold one.

The metal detector screamed. PFC Bennett took a quick step backward to silence it and keep his ears from ringing. Must be something big. He slipped the headset off his ears and moved forward again, sweeping the detector back and forth in front of him. It sounded continuously. He took another couple steps forward. It continued squealing, and didn’t stop until he had advanced another thirty paces.

Something very big. Using the metal detector as his guide, PFC Bennett traced out a thirty pace by thirty pace square of land, around which he got a continuous signal. He planted flags at each corner. He then approached the center of the square, where the detector seemed to squeal even louder, if that was even possible. He tried sticking another flag in the center, but it hit something buried about six inches down. He took another flag out of the shoulder bag and probed several other places within the square, each time encountering resistance at about the same depth.

Whatever was buried under there, it was one giant thing instead of a whole bunch of little things. PFC Bennett had never heard of any kind of ordnance that large, especially none that would be fired on a training range thirty years ago. Some kind of underground bunker, perhaps? But there’d be no good reason to put something like that on the range itself.

In the end, PFC Bennett did the only thing he could think of. He dumped the rest of the flags in the center of the square, then ran to let his Sergeant know what he had found.

Colonel Griggs took in the scene. “Captain, why did nobody inform me there was this secret underground bunker on my base?”

“Because nobody else knew about it either, sir,” Captain Young replied. He juggled an armload of maps and blueprints. “Nothing about it is in any of the plans, and I couldn’t find any mention of it anywhere I looked.”

COL Griggs frowned. He liked to run a tight operation, and finding out there was an entire building he had never known about until today did not fill him with warm fuzzy feelings, regardless of the reason for it.

“I want to know what that thing is, now,” he ordered.

“The men are working on it as we speak, sir,” CPT Young replied.

Before them, a dozen soldiers were finishing removal of the soil that had buried the top of whatever had been hidden underground. It wasn’t like any bunker either of the officers had ever seen. Whereas they would expect to find a concrete exterior, this object seemed to be made out of a dull grayish-green metal, or at least its exterior was covered with it. The top was square, about thirty paces on a side, with no apparent entrance hatch and no indication of just how far down it went.

“Let me know as soon as you find something, Captain,” COL Griggs said, turning to leave to return to the logistics planning meeting he had ditched after hearing the news.

“Yes, sir,” CPT Young replied.

Once the top of the object was fully exposed, the soldiers set to work finding out what was inside of it. A few of them prepared blowtorches while the rest set up safety harnesses in the ground around the object. Even though the top hadn’t caved in from the weight of the soil that had been on it, there was no telling what would happen once they started cutting into it.

The soldiers spend hours assaulting the top of the object with blowtorches, making headway into what turned out to be several inches worth of metal. They cut away and removed successive layers of the metal, creating a widening and deepening dent in the top of the object. As the sun began its descent, some of the other soldiers set up spotlights to illuminate the object. CPT Young had made it clear that work wasn’t going to stop until he had some answers to take back to the base commander.

Finally, sometime well after midnight, the third team of soldiers manning the blowtorches had created a small hole through the six-inch top of the object. After triple-checking the safety harness, one of them took out a flashlight and shined it through the hole. There was nothing but darkness on the other side. Whatever it was, it was hollow, and it was deep.

One of the soldiers went off to wake up CPT Young while the rest set about widening the hole. By the time CPT Young had arrived, anxiously gripping a large mug with most of its coffee gone, the hole had grown to a foot in diameter.

“Report,” CPT Young said, stifling a yawn that had made it past the onslaught of caffeine.

“Sir,” one of the soldiers replied, “we’ve made a hole in the top of the bunker.”

“What’s inside of it?”

“We don’t know yet, sir. It’s too dark to see inside. We’re getting ready to lower a camera to get a better look.”

One of the soldiers was knotting a cable around one of the harness mounts as another finished duct taping a second flashlight to the video camera the other end of the cable was wrapped around. Soon two more cables were tied to the assembly; together, the three cables, secured at different points around the object, would give the soldiers just enough control to prevent the camera from swinging and twisting uncontrollably as they lowered it down. It wasn’t elegant, but a Macguyvered solution was better than even ten minutes’ additional delay satisfying COL Griggs’s orders.

CPT Young glued his eyes to the screen displaying the camera’s live video feed as the soldiers slowly lowered it down through the hole. The image was shaky as the camera lurched downward inch by inch, but the video revealed the interior to be cylindrical, and lined with the same sort of metal as the outside.

“Can you point the camera down?” CPT Young asked. “I want to know how deep this thing is.”

“Easier said than done, sir,” the solider next to him warned before relaying the order to the soldiers feeding the cables down. After some shaking of the camera, the soldiers managed to lower the front of the camera a bit more than the back, revealing that the cylinder went down for some indeterminate distance.

“Well, I guess we’ll find out when it hits bottom,” CPT Young said. He considered asking them to rotate the camera so he could see the rest of the way around the interior, but from the improvised setup the soldiers had come up with, he guess that was probably impossible. “Proceed.”

The camera continued downwards, a few inches at a time. The cylinder wall turned out not to be completely featureless. About every five feet down, there was a ring of highly reflective red or blue material, each about a foot high. When one of the flashlights shined upon it, the light scattered brilliantly in all directions, brightening the video by an order of magnitude.

Thirty feet. Forty. Fifty. Sixty. The cables had looked comically oversized before the camera had begun its descent, but now they were proving to be too short. There was only another couple feet of slack in the shortest of the three, and still no sign of hitting bottom.

“Bring it back up,” CPT Young ordered. “Then point the camera straight down and send it back in. I want to know how deep it goes, and what’s at the bottom.”

The specifics of the design were beyond CPT Young, but his gut was telling him that this was some sort of secret underground missile silo. At least, that was the only explanation he could think of, even though the presence of missile silos was precisely the sort of thing he or the Colonel ought to have been told about before being assigned to Fort Blackstone. And if it was indeed a missile silo, he absolutely needed to be able to tell COL Griggs whether there was anything still in it.

The camera began its descent anew. The wall of the silo ringed the video feed, but the center was still a circle of almost total darkness. As the camera continued downward, faster this time, there was a glint of something in the center of the screen, at the bottom of the silo. The camera ran out of cable before the object could be clearly seen. As the camera swayed slightly back and forth, the light from the flashlights moved slightly across the object’s surface, faintly tracing out the basic contours of whatever the object was, down in the depths.

CPT Young squinted and leaned closer to the screen. The way the light was playing off of it, it didn’t look conic, like a nosecone would. It was more… spherical.

“Bring it back,” CPT Young ordered. “Your four, go find more cable. The rest of you, stand guard. I’m going to go wake the Colonel.”

Chapter word count: 1,825 (+158)
Total word count: 44,284 / 50,000 (88.568%)

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