Washington City, New Cinalia
“Not feeling too well today, over.” A woman’s whispering voice begins the broadcast, and after a brief pause, she continues with a louder, more confident tone. “I know you’re out there.”
The only person not wearing a white lab coat leans forward and jots words into the margin of the first page of her information packet.
“I know life is going as good as always for all of you. Eating, drinking, sleeping in comfort. Things are going awful here. Real awful. Kids are running off scared and alone from people that should be protecting them. You don’t understand this. You’re safe.” The audio recording plays from a small rectangular speaker at the center of a long, wooden conference table.
Out of the many black, cushioned office chairs settled around the rustic furniture, five of the seats are occupied. To the right of the conference table is an imposing reinforced metallic door. The long bulbs lining the ceiling thoroughly illuminate the photocopied pages laid out on the table and give the scientists an unattractive pallid look upon their skin. Each employee was served a tall glass paired with a plain, black coaster.
Sterile, white walls block all sound from the rest of the facility and contain any noises that may be projected from the occupants currently settled in the room. You could imagine this room is one of the most secure, quieter office spaces in all of New Cinalia, and you’d be right. Finding such a place outside their facility would be problematic, and unlikely, since they were one of the few establishments to have an inkling of what truly occurred on March 18th, 2018. They were the few that had been prepared.
Shifts in tone. The woman in the black turtleneck adds to the margin of her page. She scans the faces of the scientists assembled within the meeting room. I can see the negative effects of living underground just by looking at their sickly complexions. Thank God for my transfer to those bumfuck islands before the start of this clusterfuck.
“I bet if you truly wanted to call your family or friends, they’re a button away.” After those words a long stretch of silence begins.
For the first minute, the woman leans back in her chair and watches her new associates. The scientist sitting beside her cradles her information packet atop thin legs. Her name tag reads Dr. L. Mitchell. Along the other side of the table sit three people. One of the men is the head scientist, the other isn’t, and the last is a blonde with short bangs flush against her forehead.
The woman’s name tag is clipped sideways to the left breast of her lab coat. After skimming through her packet, she carelessly tosses it to the tabletop and rests back in her chair. She reaches for her glass and clutches it to her chest.
After another minute goes by, the woman in the turtleneck begins rubbing her thumb along the body of her green pencil while her eyes roam the windowless walls of the room. The bland, white paint job makes the room feel like it belongs in a hospital overseas, but the absence of the stench of cleaning supplies and the rumble of the vents pushing out recycled air reminds her where they truly are.
Abandon all hope, all ye with claustrophobia. The woman closes her eyes and attempts to ignore the annoyance that’s gradually been brought to a simmer. After the third minute of silence, she sets her pencil down. Her amber eyes open and roll to the side to glare diagonally across the polished table at the scientist sitting in front of a slim, grey laptop.
His greasy brown hair hinders any view of his pale face while he taps a finger at the touchscreen display. The name tag clipped onto the right breast of his lab coat reads Dr. E. Adams.
Her glare doesn’t go unnoticed. He sighs and lifts his chin. His anxious brown beads meet her gaze and he flinches at the attention. “It’s not malfunctioning,” he blurts out. “One more moment… She stops using her transceiver. We…well…we assume she was completing a task of some sort before leaving the facil…uh…facility. She uuh…well…um…she returns to add a closing statement.” Adams grabs the laptop by the sides of the display screen and turns it around so the woman can view the recordings’ progress. “You said you wanted to hear the recordings as the…they were originally broadcast, so I—” It’s very near completion.
The turtleneck woman nods at the explanation and picks up her pencil once more before the recording begins again. “It used to be like that for me before I got trapped here in this disgusting place,” the young woman’s voice has a hint of anger in it. “I can’t breathe without a taste of dread. I just hope that you are safe in America, Aaliyah. I love you. Please, at least be safe.” The broadcast ends there.
Dr. Adams turns the laptop to face himself and taps at his screen a few more times. “This broadcast was longer than her first broadcast by…uh…by…um…but shorter than most of the broadcasts sent over the days prior…to…to…to the last one.” After voicing his thoughts, he swallows thickly and peeks over at the head scientist.
The stern, greying man sitting across from the woman in black has a name tag that reads Dr. W. Lee. He has his packet flipped to the fourth page and gestures to it with his other hand before continuing to fill the newest addition in on the situation. “The information we’ve gathered on Chen, Sia begins on page four. Pagesix lists all her known relatives, living and deceased. She mentions a person named Aaliyah, which is the same name as her youngest living sibling. On page five, we have her resume. She was hired to be a part of the janitorial staff of River City in 2018. The records state Ms. Chen had a shift change from morning to night two days before her disappearance. She was scheduled to work the night shift March 18th, midnight to 7 am.”
“She would have been inside the building during the bombing.” Dr. Mitchell speaks up with an anxiety-tinged voice, rolling her packet in her hands. “She had a clean background. Her parents were divorced. She was a dual citizen but had not entered the United States in the six years prior to her disappearance. She has not been legally pronounced dead. Her family has not withdrawn their missing person report.” Mitchell pauses and unrolls the crumpled packet to skim the details inside before continuing. “Yet they continue to mourn her every year on social media and support any disaster aid groups that come to investigate the coasts. None of which have gotten authorization to enter further into the country in the last eight years. It’s unlikely she has contacted them without us knowing, and not a blip has shown up on her social accounts or call log records in sixteen years.” Mitchell’s green eyes hesitantly glance at the woman in the black turtleneck when she finishes. She averts her eyes to the table and grasps her glass with a trembling hand. Only a meager sip passes her chapped lips before she sets it onto the black coaster.
The next scientist to debrief sits on the other side of Dr. Lee and has her packet flipped over, splayed out across the oak tabletop. She has been sipping at her beverage for quite some time. Dr. Lee clears his throat and smiles back across the table at the newest addition. The woman in the turtlebeck observes the way Dr. Lee’s lips fight to hide the disdain clearly seen in the tilt of his head and within his cold, coal black eyes. Finally, the woman with the sideways name tag, Dr. S. Plum sets her glass atop her packet and raises a hand to cough into it.
The woman in the turtleneck leans forward to pick up her own drink. She presses her smirking lips to the edge of the glass to swallow lukewarm water. I want what she’s having.
“We’ve got nothing. She shouldn’t be alive. There’s no trail to find. We don’t know why she would be at the Coldstone facility; it was one of the first places evacuated and there shouldn’t be any leftover data at that site,” Dr. Plum’s slow, depressed drawl highlights how she feels on the matter. “All facilities were ordered to enact Operation Blackout.” She pauses a moment to swallow. “There’s nothing there. Our sources say there is nothing but scavengers out there and those creatures. It’s a dead end.” She finishes the report with a shake of her head. She runs a hand over the top of her head to settle a few unruly strands of hair. Debrief complete, she wastes no time reaching for her glass and gulping the last of the clear liquid within.
Finally, the woman in the turtleneck joins the discussion. She leans back in her chair and steeples her hands against her chin while peering at her lap. “Where has she been hiding? Who has she contacted? Was there a defector in the River City branch? How did she survive the bombing without hiding inside the underground shelter? What is her physical condition? Does she have any of the mutations exhibited by—” She picks up the small, black leather notepad on her lap and reads the words on the pad verbatim, “—the subjects of the gene therapy project 5S.Q held by Muller-Brady?”
“Ms. Royal. We’ve—” Dr. Lee interrupts.
“Dr. Royal, please.” The consultant corrects while glancing at another page of her notepad.
“We’ve given you all the information we have.” Dr. Lee taps a hand on the sheets of stapled pages. “None of those questions can be answered at this time. We lack resources and have no samples from her.” His jaw clenches as he refrains from scowling at the younger woman, her pierced eyebrow, and closely cropped hair. How could you possibly make sense of this situation?
“A lot has happened in sixteen years. We’ll have to work together to figure this mess out. That’s why I’m here, correct? I’ve already begun going over the personnel files of the employees who worked within the River City branch before its destruction.” Dr. Royal flips a page in her notepad. “I’ll need to see all the inventory logs, project listings, summaries of each of those completed and incomplete from the start of 1999 to 2018. I’ll need all the records for the subjects involved in Project 5S.Q., and send me a copy of all of Chen Sia’s audio broadcasts along with the transcripts.” She flips to another page in her notepad, but lifts her chin, assessing the scientists.
The head scientist remains still yet his glare and posture screams tense, the very opposite of the calm image he is trying to portray. Dr. Adams keeps his attention fixed on his laptop. Dr. Mitchell tenses up, reaches for her packet on the table to hide its crumpled form on her lap. Dr. Plum’s gaze is transfixed on her empty glass.
The youthful consultant closes her notepad and sets her amber gaze upon him once again. “Have you made any contact with Charles Williams?” Her brown arms drop to the leather arm rests. Air releases from them with a soft hiss.
Lee doesn’t repress the grimace that comes with hearing the name, beside him, Plum nearly chokes before swiveling her chair sideways. She throws her head forward as she tries to contain her coughs. Dr. Lee talks over the disruption, “He was last seen at the National Park. Mercalia National Park, which surrounds Washington city. It usually takes us approximately three days for our courier to make contact and return with a response, unless an incident occurs before or after contact is made. It’s not ideal.”
“And you’ve kept the company informed of all the developments pertaining to him up until this point?” She speaks the words to Dr. Lee, but her eyes settle on the woman stroking her throat.
Dr. Lee nods. “More or less.”
Dr. Plum swivels her head back onto the headrest and meets the other woman’s eyes. The table blocks the sight of her fidgeting hands. She inches a gold band up and down her ring finger. The consultant nods and assesses Dr. Plum’s unfocused green eyes and feverish cheeks. She reopens her notepad and flips through a few pages until she finds the correct one and sets it on the table. She swivels her chair to the side to focus on Dr. Mitchell. “Tell me about the Savages. Charles Williams seems to have made a name for himself in all this…chaos. How much of an advantage does that bring us?”
Mitchell tenses and attempts to sit straighter than she already is. “The most traveled areas of Cinalia are fought over by the…the Savages, the scavengers, and the…rest of the surviving animals. The Savages are resilient but seem to avoid the more…uuh… frigid regions of the country. Most exhibit abnormal strength, speed, and healing abilities, but the magnitude varies per subject. With Charles’s current standing with the Savages, no group can step within Washington City without his say so. It gives us protection.”
“The status of the rest of Project 5S.Q are all marked as unknown. There have been no break-ins. No unusual deaths have been reported. Actually, it seems everything has been going swell until those radio broadcasts started.” Royal’s laid-back position in her chair reveals close-fitting black jeans. She crosses her legs. The blank look on her face is disconcerting as her gaze moves from Mitchell to Adams and back. Adams appears to be transfixed by the data on his display screen.
Lee regains Royal’s attention. “The rest believe ExplorerTech to be a graveyard. Charles is loyal. We give him and his people supplies and continue to enhance him when needed. He has not given up our position in all of sixteen years, he can be trusted.”
“But not the others?” Royal uncrosses her legs and pushes back on her chair to rise. She picks up her information packet and notepad.
The scientists remain seated.
“I’ll need you to contact Mr. Williams and find out what he might know about Ms. Chen. What’s being muttered up and down the grapevine?” Royal pushes her chair in until the elbow rests collide with the side of the conference table. “Is there a reason you haven’t requested an aerial retrieval?”
Adams timidly speaks up and glances at one of the empty chairs at the other end of the conference table. “The last air retrieval unit dispatched resulted in the dead…dead…deaths of several assets whose presence have been sore…sore…ly missed.”
“We won’t be making a mistake like that this far into the operation,” Lee adds.
Royal grabs hold of the cold metal doorknob, turns the curved handle, and yanks the door open. She aligns herself with the heavy door and leans back against it, gesturing to her new colleagues. Shall we?
Lee sighs and examines each of his subordinates. The other doctors rise from their seats, but Lee shakes his head as he stands. “I’ll take it from here.”
Plum releases a loud sigh of relief and collapses back into her chair, her coworkers exchange a glance while Lee exits the room with the new addition right on his heels. The moment the door shuts behind them, Royal’s questioning continues, “How long until we renew contact with Shrell’s Syndicate?”
The hallways are wide and cement is the key element in the decor. The smooth walls are identical if one ignored the strip of color bisecting each wall, a clear indicator for which part of the underground facility a person is in. A number is engraved and highlighted in black beside each door they pass. No sounds emit from any of them, no matter how close you stand to the entrance. Keypads or locks are unnecessary on this floor. The extensive security on the upper levels makes entering this floor without the proper clearance an impossibility.
“The agents have not shown up at any of the well-known outposts.” He leads the consultant to another empty hallway without checking if she is following. Her steps are almost silent compared to his own, but her voice is loud and confident right behind his right shoulder.
“You said they were notified of your success in waking the subject and retrieving the information they needed?” She stares at the back of his head as he navigates them through the halls. She doesn’t pay any mind to which turns they take, this transfer was a long time coming. She already memorized the most important areas with their blueprints, especially the room they were approaching.
“I don’t think this is the course we should be taking. How long before they arrive and we have to display our findings to them? They aren’t blind, Doctor. They’ll understand we have nothing.”
“It’ll break. They all do.”
“It hasn’t. Its limits might be beyond your reach. The others aren’t sufficient comparisons for a creature of its stature. Its species has withstood events we can only theorize. An Underling wouldn’t expire under the same conditions as a human, why would it succumb to the same level of torture?”
“Have you reviewed the subject’s updated medical logs?” Lee stops walking and glances at the notepad in her hand.
“Not as of yet, but I can’t imagine it’s much different from its comatose readings. It didn’t exhibit many signs of life after it was first transferred here.”
Lee presses a button on the wall to call an elevator. “Well, our colleagues have definitely upped the ante. You are correct, nothing we could do to a human could ever elicit the same reaction from an Underling. They are superb creatures. We’ve exhausted our imaginations trying to draw reactions from it. Some of the methods may seem unorthodox, but we’ve gotten positive results ever since its’ awakening.”
The elevator arrives and they descend an additional three floors within the earth. The ride is silent between the two, but the silver cage creaks as it stops at the lowest level in the facility, the purple sector. After a final shutter, they exit the elevator, but Lee shoots out a hand to impede Royal’s progress forward.
A group of scientists pass by holding folders or pushing a tray of syringes, followed by five assistants pushing wheelchairs the opposite direction toward the designated holding cell areas. The subjects strapped into the wheelchairs are bound by magnetic cuffs around their ankles and wrists, muzzled, and blindfolded. Her eyes pass over their forms without a second glance and focus on the hallway to the left.
Finally, they approach an examination room with two identical doors beside one another. They choose the second and enter a small dim room with two swivel chairs. A control panel lit up along the side of a two-way mirror, providing an unobstructed view of the occupants within the other room and their prized subject.
Royal promptly steps inside the room and ignores the chairs. The tip of her nose almost presses against the chilled glass. The creature is convulsing against the chair as high-pressure hoses blast water at its scaled body. A long dark appendage writhes along the tiled floor in a puddle of viscous, green fluid.
“Tell them to shut it off!” She gestures at the control panel while drinking in the incredible sight. A real, honest to god Underling right before my very eyes and these fools are going to drive it to an early grave. God, it’s bigger than I thought.
She barely reacts to the annoying noise blaring within the examination room before the hoses stop and the other scientists enter the back room.
“What exactly have you been—”
She ignores the head scientist as he questions his subordinates. The back of her head itches with the interest one of the scientists pays her. She ignores them as well and tries to get a better look at the lower extremities of the creature.
“A consultant informed us of the psychological significance of showing a patient their flesh after removal. We don’t know how important Underling hold organic material they can regenerate, but this is an opportunity to acquire that knowledge. No matter how irksome the process.” The scientist standing the closest to Lee has her brown hair gathered into a bun and is wearing tight fitting safety goggles. “Unfortunately, it’s been reacting to all of our tests as expected.”
“How long has it taken for those nubs to grow out of its abdomen?” Royal raises a hand to the glass and presses her index finger against it.
The younger scientist is delighted to share his thoughts on the subject. “We’re not sure. We’ll have to review the video footage, but not as quickly as the other specimen have exhibited in the past. Approximately eight days after the self-induced coma ended, we began to see outward signs of healing.” He untucks a folder from under his arm to open it. “The newly separated appendages will give us a better idea of how rapid this particular breed heals while under distress. None of our past specimen have had such a thick pseudo-metal casing to the back of the occipital lobe. It’s definitely not—” He’s gesturing to a diagram and chemical formula when the folder is snatched from his hands.
“Wasn’t it made clear neither of you are to touch the device?” The sheets within the folder jut out around Lee’s large palm before he tosses it on a chair and glares down his nose at the young man.
“Of course, sir. But we needed to examine the device to infer what may negatively react with the compounds used during—” the female scientist tries to clarify the situation.
“Forward me all of your current findings. Send over transport. Move it to its original holding cell. You’re dismissed.” The two scientists leave without protest.
Once again, the Dr. Lee is left alone with the consultant. Royal wordlessly walks over to the thrown folder. She thumbs through pages until she pulls out the diagram of the well-known, yet ever mysterious Underling device. “They still haven’t proposed a way to detach the device without killing it?”
Lee presses his lips together until they are thin, pink lines on his pale face. Royal looks up from the diagram and he reluctantly begins. “The location of the duplicate given to us by Shrell’s syndicate was mislaid during the transfer from our River City branch. Nothing could be retrieved from it, but if we can extract this model from its cranium I think it might be a pivotal avenue to getting back into Shrell’s good graces. They’ve given us the key to enter the heavens, all we need do is show them we aren’t afraid to work for our reward.” His black eyes harden as he approaches the two-way mirror. Lasers fed through a diamond would be far less intense than the gaze the man focuses on the unmoving life form in the next room.
“It’s overdue, isn’t it? They proposed this project, yet were the ones who cut off contact after the bombings. To my knowledge, we’ve made good on our side of the deal thus far.” She slips the diagram into her folder and sets the research folder back onto the cushioned chair beside her leg. “Remember. I’m not the one you need to convince to further this alliance; the main branch is. When the review period is over, I’ll deliver all the intel to Halling and the Branch, who will send someone else along with their response.”
An enigmatic smile spreads over the wrinkled, sickly face of the head scientist. “They don’t understand. We’ve been given a chance to redeem ourselves after all of our failings. The Underling is the key. Trust me.” He steps toward the glass and silently stares into the next room.
After a few beats, while the head scientist sinks into a trance, without a word, she removes herself from the room and eases the door shut. After turning a corner, she abruptly stops and presses her back against the cool cement. When she shuts her eyes, she can still recall the sight of the creature’s wounds oozing green fluid. The head scientists’ words ring once more in her mind. The key… the key to what? Human evolution? She shakes her head at that, rolls her shoulders, and resumes her journey toward another part of the labyrinthal facility. Only 182 days to go.