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2034

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 voice. “I know you’re out there.”

The only person not wearing a white lab coat leans forward and jots down some words in 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 recording of a young female voice plays for the ExplorerTech personnel from a small rectangular speaker placed 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 an imposing reinforced metallic door. The long bulbs lining the ceiling thoroughly illuminate the many photocopied pages laid out on the table and give the only surviving scientists of the ExplorerTech Industries, River City division, an unattractive pallid look upon their skin. To the right of each employee sits a tall glass paired with a plain, black coaster.

The sterile white walls block out all sound from the rest of the facility and contains all the active sounds that may be projected from the occupants currently settled in the room. You could imagine that this room is one of the most secure, quieted 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 an idea of what truly occurred on March 18th, 2018. They were the few that had been prepared.

Several shifts in tone. The woman in the black turtleneck jots down along the margin of her page before 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 the bumfuck islands of Cinalia before the start of this clusterfuck.

“I bet if you truly wanted to call your family or friends, they’re a button away.” The recording continues, but following those words begins a long stretch of silence. For the first minute of silence, the woman leans back in her chair and watches her new associates.

The scientist sitting beside her is cradling their information packet in their lap. Her name tag reads Dr. L. Mitchell. Along the other side of the table sits three people men. One of the men is the head scientist, the other isn’t, and the last one is a blonde woman 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, reaches for her glass and clutches it 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 usual cleaning supplies stench 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 ignores the annoyance she can feel panging at the back of her head.

After the third minute of silence, she sets down her pencil. 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 looks up; his anxious brown beads meet her gaze and he flinches at the attention. “It’s not malfunctioning,” he blurts out. “Just another 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 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 before she quickly finishes the broadcast. “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 employee in on the situation. “If you turn to page four, you can see where the information we’ve gathered so far on Sia Chen begins. Page six lists all her known relatives, living and deceased. She mentions a person named Aaliyah which coincides with the name of her youngest known 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 that Sia Chen had a shift change from morning shift to night shift 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, and she had dual citizenship but had not entered the United States in six years. 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. “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 through a radio broadcast, and not a blip has shown up on her social media accounts or call log records in sixteen years.” Mitchell’s green eyes hesitantly glance at the woman in the black turtleneck when she finishes then averts her eyes down at the table, reaching for her glass of water. Her hand trembles as she drinks from the glass and sets it down on 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 employee, but she can see the way his 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, that reads Dr. S. Plum, sets her glass down on 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 evacuated 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 down 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 looking down at her lap. “Where has she been hiding? Was there a traitor in the River City branch? Who has she had contact with? How did she survive the bombing without hiding inside the underground shelter? What is her physical condition? Has she had any mutations that were exhibited by—” She pulls up a small, black leather notepad from 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 begins.

“Dr. Royal, please.” The consultant corrects while looking down at another page of her notepad.

“We’ve given you all the information we have on the subject. None of those questions can be answered at this time. We lack resources and have no samples from her.” Dr. Lee gestures to the room with the hand still holding sheets of stapled pages. 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?” Dr. Royal flips a page in her notepad. “I’ll need to see all the inventory logs for River City branch from the start of 1999 to 2018.  I’ll need all the records for all the subjects involved in Project 5S.Q. Send me a copy of all her audio broadcast along with the transcripts. I’ve already begun going over the personnel files of the employees that worked within the River City branch before its destruction.” She keeps her attention on the scientists in her peripheral as she flips to another page in her notepad.

Dr. Adams keeps his attention fixed on his laptop and 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 head scientist appears calm as the youthful consultant closes her notepad and sets her amber gaze upon him once again.

“Have you had any contact with Charles Williams?” She leans back in her chair and waits for an answer.

Dr. Lee doesn’t repress the grimace that comes with hearing that name, beside him, Dr. Plum nearly chokes on a laugh before swiveling her chair sideways. She tilts her head to the side while making eye contact with the other woman. The smile plastered on her face doesn’t reach her eyes. “He’s last been seen at the National Park that surrounds Washington city. Mercalia National Park. 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 of the developments pertaining to him up until this point?”

Dr. Plum lifts a thin hand, the gold band around her ring finger shines in the light, and tips it back and forth like an uneven scale. “More or less.”

The consultant nods and assesses Dr. Plum’s unfocused green eyes and feverish cheeks. Slowly, she reopens her notepad and flips through a few pages until she finds the correct one and sets it down on the table. She leans back in her chair and swivels it to the side to look at 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?”

Dr. 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 animals that have survived. The Savages are resilient but seem to avoid the more…cold…uuh… frigid regions of the country. Most exhibit abnormal strength, speed, and healing abilities- clear advantages in the current climate. With Charles’s current standing with the Savages, no group can step within Washington City without his say so. It gives us protection.”

“The rest of Project 5S.Q are scattered among that group. They don’t come back for scraps? No break-ins have occurred. No unusual deaths have been reported. Currently, 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.

“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.” Dr. Lee regains Royal’s attention.

“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 silent.

“I’ll need you to contact Mr. Williams and find out what he might know about Sia Chen. What’s being muttered up and down the grapevine?” Royal pushes in her chair until the elbow rests collide with the side of the conference table. “Is there a reason you haven’t requested an aerial retrieval?”

“The last air retrieval unit dispatched resulted in the dead…dead…deaths of several assets whose presence have been sorely missed,” Dr. Adams timidly speaks up and glances at one of the empty chairs at the other end of the conference table.

“We won’t be making a mistake like that this far into the operation,” Dr. Lee adds.

Dr. Royal grabs hold of the cold metal doorknob, turns the curved handle downward, and yanks the door open. She aligns herself with the heavy door and leans back against it before looking back at her new colleague. Shall we?

Dr. Lee sighs and examines each of his subordinates. The other doctors rise from their seats, but Dr. Lee shakes his head as he stands. “I’ll take it from here.”

Dr. Plum releases a loud sigh of relief and collapses back into her chair, her coworkers exchange a glance while Dr. Lee exits the room with the new employee right on his heels. The moment the door shuts behind them, Dr. Royal begins speaking again. “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 cement walls are identical if one ignored the strip of color that bisects each wall, a clear indicator for which part of the underground facility a person is in. A number is engraved into the wall and highlighted in black beside each door they pass, and no sound emits from any of them, no matter how close you stand to the entrance. No keypads or locks are needed 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 down an empty hallway without looking back to see 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 looks up 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 and she’d had time to memorize the most important areas of their blueprints, especially the room they were approaching.

“Yes.”

“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 that we have nothing.”

“It’ll break. They all do.”

“It hasn’t. Its limits might be beyond your reach. The other projects aren’t sufficient comparisons for a creature of his stature. Evolutionary, its people have withstood events that we can only guess at. An Underling wouldn’t expire under the same conditions as a human, why would it succumb to the same level of torture?”

“When was the last time you reviewed the subject’s condition?” Dr. Lee stops walking and looks 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 even after it was first transferred here.”

Dr. 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 had to exhaust our imaginations to draw reactions from it. Some of the methods may seem unorthodox, but we’ve gotten positive results ever since it’s awakened.”

The elevator arrives and they descend three more floors down 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 Dr. Lee shoots out a hand to impede Dr. Royal’s progress forward.

A group of scientists pass by holding folders or pushing a tray of syringes down the hallway followed by five assistants pushing wheelchairs the opposite direction toward the designated holding cell area. The people strapped into the wheelchairs are bound by magnetic cuffs around their ankles and wrists, muzzled, and blindfolded. The test subjects are no concern for Dr. Royal, they aren’t the reason she’s here. Her eyes pass over their forms as if they’re a few overgrown shrubs that need to be avoided before continuing down her path to the hallway on 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 and a control panel lit up against a two-way mirror that provides a view of the occupants within the other room and their prized subject.

Dr. Royal promptly steps inside the room and ignores the chairs to stand in front of the two-way mirror. The tip of her nose almost presses against the chilled glass. The remarkable creature inside is convulsing against the chair as high-pressure hoses blast water onto its scaled body. She can see a long dark appendage writhing along the tiled floor in a puddle of viscous, green fluid.

“Tell them to turn 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 notices the annoying noise that blares into 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 to her. She ignores them and tries to get a better look at the lower extremities of the creature.

“A consultant has told us the psychological significance of showing a victim their flesh after removal. Something about confirming reality. We don’t know how important Underling hold organic material that they can regenerate, but we have an opportunity to acquire that knowledge, no matter how irksome the process is. Only…we have no way to be sure it won’t dissociation and lock itself away into its mind again.” The scientist standing the closest to Dr. Lee has her brown hair gathered into a bun and is wearing tight fitting safety goggles.

“How long has it taken for those nubs to grow out of its abdomen?” Dr. Royal raises a hand to the glass and presses her  index finger against it.

“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. Around ten days after the self-induced coma ended, we began to see outward signs of healing.” The younger scientist is delighted to share his thoughts on the subject and 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 is gesturing to a diagram and chemical formula when the folder is snatched from his hands.

“Wasn’t it made clear that neither of you are to touch the device?” The sheets within the folder jut out around Dr. Lee’s large palm before he tosses it down on a chair and glares down his nose at the young man.

“Of course, sir. We kept our attention on other things but printed out information on the device to know what may negatively react with the compounds used to—” the female scientist tries to clarify the situation.

“Forward me all of your current findings. Send over word to transport, so it is moved to its original holding area. You’re dismissed.” The two scientists leave the room without protest.

Once again, the head scientist is left alone with the consultant. Dr. Royal wordlessly walks over to the thrown folder to look through the pages until she pulls out the diagram of the well-known, yet ever mysterious Underling device. “They still haven’t been able to remove it from the back of its head.”

Dr. Lee’s sigh is almost silent, he pressed his lips together until they are thin, pink lines on his pale face. Dr. Royal looks up from the diagram and he reluctantly begins. “We’ve lost the replicated version that was given to us by Shrell’s syndicate during his transfer to our River City branch. Nothing could be retrieved from it, but if we can extract that piece of tech from its cranium…I think that might be one of the keys to getting back into Shrell’s good graces. They’ve given us the key to enter the heavens, all we need to 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 were the ones that cut off contact after the bombings. We’ve always made good on our side of the deal.” She slips the diagram into her folder and sets the research folder back down on the cushioned chair beside her leg. “I’m not the one you need to convince; the main branch is. That’s why they sent me. 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.”

Dr. Royal remains silent for a few beats and while the head scientist sinks into a trance, without a word, she removes herself from the room and silently closes the door. After turning down a different hallway, she abruptly stops at a corner and presses her back against the cool cement wall before breathing deeply and blinking a few times. When she shuts her eyes, she can still see the creature’s wounds oozing green fluid. The scientists’ words ring once more in her mind. The key…hmm…that’s a thought.

After gathering her wits, she rolls her shoulders and resumes her journey to another part of the underground facility. Only 182 days to go.

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