The rain was pounding against the roof of the Humvee. Every few moments, the dark road was illuminated by a brief flash bulb of lightning, immediately followed by a whip crack of thunder that seemed to jar the fillings in Pritchard’s head. The driver made no concessions to the muddy road or the weak visibility as the vehicle barreled down the packed dirt road.
Pritchard leaned forward, pushing his long black hair out of his face. “How much further?”
“Should be almost there, sir,” the young private answered, yelling back over his shoulder as he jerked the wheel to avoid a deep pit of water in the road. “It’s a little difficult to tell exactly, but they marked the turnoff with flares so we’d be able to find it again.”
“Can’t you just use that?” Pritchard asked, gesturing towards the GPS screen mounted on the dashboard.
“No, sir,” his driver said, shaking his head. “They stop working when we get within a kilometer of the site.”
As he spoke, the bright glowing screen flickered twice, then went an odd grey, flickering weakly. Pritchard’s eyebrow climbed half an inch, and he pulled out a small digital camera from his pocket to take a photo.
“That’s not going to work either, sir.” The private peered forward at a bright red flickering to the right, and slowed the Humvee as they approached. “You’ll be able to take the picture, but when you try to look at it afterwards, there won’t be anything there.” The vehicle bumped over something in the road as they turned between two burning flares. Lightning flashed again, and Pritchard caught a glimpse of four soldiers standing next to the turn, their faces obscured by bulky night vision goggles and their figures hidden under bulky ponchos. The lightning faded, and they returned to invisibility.
Stuffing the camera back into his pocket, Pritchard peered out the front windshield. Though fogged, he could make out a faint glow over a berm. They crested the short rise, and the site came into view.
It was bigger than Pritchard had expected, at least twenty trailers and tents clustered around the large construct of scaffolding and tarps in the center. Red lights ringed the site, and cast an eerie glow around the concertina wire that formed a loose perimeter. Soldiers dotted the wire every twenty feet, and at four different points, a Humvee sat with a soldier manning a large weapon on the roof. As they reached the wire, two men pulled the makeshift gate aside, and they drove through. As soon as they had cleared the gate, the Humvee came to a stop, and someone opened Pritchard’s door.
“Dr. Pritchard?” The soldier was older that the driver, although still looked to be in his twenties. “Would you follow me, sir? The major is expecting you.”
Nodding, Pritchard started to gather up his briefcase and the heavy plastic trunk he’d brought, but two other men reached in and took them. Pritchard’s boots squelched in the mud as he climbed out, sinking nearly five inches into the muck. Together, he and the older soldier jogged over to the closest trailer, and walked in the door.
The bright neon lighting was jarring after the dark road, and Pritchard shielded his eyes for a moment, listening to a rapid series of clicks as his vision flared. When his eyes adjusted, he saw a small room with a table in the center, and four men standing around it, examining a series of photos spread out on the surface. The walls of the room had maps and other forms stuck to it with thumbtacks. In the corner was a man sitting at a small table, his finger tapping furiously at a small brass machine.
“Is that..” Pritchard walked over, staring in disbelief. “Is that an actual telegraph?”
“It is.” The deep rumbling voice came from the tall officer standing at the end of the table. Stepping forward, he offered Pritchard his hand. “I’m Major Walter Ward. You are Allen Pritchard?”
“What? Oh, yes,” Pritchard said, still watching the telegraph operator. He looked back to Ward. “Why a telegraph?”
“It’s the only reliable method we have of sending messages. All of our radios are completely useless, and satellite communications haven’t worked since the structure opened.” Ward gestured to the table. Pritchard followed him over, and began pushing the photos around. They were all black and white, and extremely grainy. They all showed a large hemisphere pushing up from a muddy pit. An opening gaped in the side about three feet off the ground, a perfect circle of deep black.
Ward waited for a few moments while Pritchard examined the photos. Finally, he asked, “Dr. Pritchard? What exactly have you been told?”
“Not much.” Pritchard continued to shuffle through the photos as he spoke. “Yesterday, I was in Heidelberg, Germany, giving a lecture on the behavior of ionic fields in the upper atmosphere. After the lecture, I was approached by a pair of embassy field agents, who asked if I would be willing to consult on a project for the Department of Defense. They said they couldn’t go into detail, but it was based on my expertise.”
“Which is?” Ward asked.
“I have doctoral degrees in physics and mathematics, as well as a master’s in engineering. My specialty is field theory.”
Ward gestured for Pritchard to sit, which he gratefully did, shrugging off the soaked rain coat. Beneath he wore a blue polo shirt and a pair of khaki pants, both damp from the constant rain. Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, he began to clean his wire rimmed glasses. “When I arrived in Kabul, I was told that I would be driven to the location of an unidentified structure. The general at the air base told me that your men had found something that was disrupting communications and electrical equipment, and he wanted me to analyze it and make sure that it didn’t pose a threat.”
“That’s all they told you?”
Pritchard shrugged. “Yes. I saw a bit of the disruption on the way in. My cell phone stopped working two kilometers out, and the GPS in the car went down too.”
Nodding, Ward said, “That’s all been going on since our advance team found it. It got worse after it opened, and the radius of interference nearly doubled.”
Pritchard pulled out a leather-bound notebook and a pen. He began to scribble a few notes. “What do you know so far about this thing?”
“At first, we thought it was something left over from the Soviet occupation.” Ward grabbed a manila folder from the corner of the table. Opening it, he continued, “One of our reconnaissance teams was looking for a Taliban communications station in this area. We lost contact with them three days ago, very suddenly. We were worried they’d been ambushed, so we sent a team of Marines in an Osprey to provide support. Before the Marines got to the site, the recon team reestablished contact. They had moved far enough away that their comms were working again.”
Pulling a sheet of paper from the envelope, Ward handed it to Pritchard. “We think that the rainstorms caused a landslide in the area, and that exposed the top of the structure. It’s been raining nonstop for almost two weeks, and the ground’s like peanut butter. One of our Forward Operating Bases had to move after half their tents got buried in a mudslide.”
Pritchard skimmed the report as he spoke. “You said that you opened it? When was this?”
Shaking his head, Ward said, “We didn’t open it. We were establishing a perimeter around it when we came under fire from a Taliban mortar and RPG team. We drove them off pretty quickly, but one of the RPGs struck the side of the structure. It didn’t damage it, but a few seconds later, one of my soldiers reported that the opening appeared in the side.” Ward looked up, and called out, “Sergeant?”
The older soldier who had escorted Pritchard to the command tent poked his head in the door, fat drops of water splattering off the floor. “Yes sir?”
“Could you bring Private Walker to us?”
“Yes, sir.” The sergeant disappeared back into the wet night.
Pritchard picked up another photo. “These pictures were taken with film camera? I know my digital won’t work.”
“Yes, but it took us forever to find one that wouldn’t shut down as soon as we got close. Even the few 35mm cameras we tracked down wouldn’t work. The autofocus and aperture control completely shut down inside the interference zone. Finally, we found an officer in a supply company that’s a photography hobbyist. He had a vintage Brownie camera he’d been restoring. That worked, although the picture quality isn’t very good.”
“That’s strange. Have you taken radiation readings?”
Ward nodded. He handed Pritchard another piece of paper from the folder. “They sent an Air Force officer down from Bagram Air Base with three different radiation detectors. This is his report. Nothing dangerous, although he did say that there was a slightly higher level of alpha particles. I’m not really sure what that means, but he said that we were safe.”
Pritchard scanned it, then set the paper aside. “It’s could be a strong electromagnetic field. That would account for the disruptions, but I’ve never seen one that extended so far.”
“It’s more than that,” Ward said. He rubbed the bridge of his nose for a moment, and Pritchard noted the dark circles under his eyes. “We figured it was EM interference, so we brought in equipment specially shielded with Faraday cages for use after an EM pulse. None of them worked. Besides, that won’t account for the strangest part about this.”
Ward stood, and walked over to a large map on the wall. The site had been sketched in with grease pencil on the laminated surface, and a large blue circle surrounded the site. “That circle is the range of the interference. You’re the expert, but I thought that a field like this would gradually weaken the further you get from the source.”
Pritchard nodded. “That’s correct.”
Tracing his finger over the blue line, Ward said, “That’s not what’s happening here. This line is absolute. An inch inside, and nothing works. An inch outside, and there’s no interference at all.”
Frowning, Pritchard stood, and walked over. “That shouldn’t be possible. Even a tightly focused EM field has a dropoff in strength.”
Ward started to respond, but stopped with the door opened. A soaking wet soldier stepped into the room, removed his helmet, and said, “Sir? Casperson said you wanted to see me?” Water puddled around his boots as he stood stiffly at attention.
“At ease, Walker. Take a seat.” The young man settled onto a metal stool, and Ward said, “I want you to tell Dr. Pritchard here what you told me about what happened during the RPG attack.”
Walker nodded slowly. “Yes, sir.” Turning to face Pritchard, he began. “At first, they were hitting us with mortar fire. We knew their team was on the southern ridge, and Sergeant Casperson ordered a squad to move up to flank them. He told me to stay by the dome in case one of the hajjis tried to get close. We realized they were using the mortar fire to keep us pinned until another team could get close, so we were trying to spot the second team.”
One of the officers in the tent offered Walker a steaming paper cup, which he took gratefully. Sipping carefully, he continued, “I saw movement to the east, and called it away, but by that time, they were firing at us. They shot four or five RPGs, just one right after the other. Most were high, but one shot straight towards our third Humvee. I actually watched it come in. But right before it hit, it went haywire, and started corkscrewing and wobbling through the air. It zipped over the roof of the Humvee, hit the dirt about ten feet away from me, and bounced up into the air before it slammed right into the side of the dome. It didn’t blow up, though.”
“A dud?” Pritchard asked, furiously taking notes.
Walker shook his head. “I don’t think so, sir. It hit the side of the dome, and the metal wobbled, like rubber. I didn’t see exactly what happened, but it looked like the dome just swallowed it up. After a few seconds, the spot where it hit opened up, and the hole just opened in the side. There wasn’t any noise, it just kind of stretched open.”
Pritchard raised a dubious eyebrow, and Ward spoke up. “Walker’s been under my command for two tours now. I trust him completely. If he says that’s what he saw, that’s what he saw.”
Nodding, Pritchard gestured for the private to continue. Shooting a grateful look at Ward, Walker said, “They kept firing RPGs, but after the thing opened, all of them were going wonky. You’d see them fire, and then the rocket would just whip off in some crazy direction. One of them actually seemed to spiral around and come back at them. It blew up about ten feet from where they were. The hajjis bugged out at that point.”
“Did you notice anything inside the hole? Did anything come out?”
“No, sir. I couldn’t really see into it, and we had orders not to get any closer than ten feet. The only thing was the smell.”
Pritchard paused in his scribbling. “The smell?”
Walker nodded. “Yeah, there was a nasty odor coming from inside the thing. It went away after a few minutes, but it was pretty bad. It smelled like the chemicals at my aunt’s funeral home, but sweeter. Not sweeter in a good way, more like the sweeter you smell when you have rotting fruit, you know?”
After asking a few more questions, Pritchard thanked him, and Walker took his coffee back out into the rain. As the door closed, he looked at Ward and said, “When do I get to see it?”
“Right now.” Ward stood up, and grabbed an olive green raincoat from the wall, tossing it to Pritchard. Donning one of his own, the pair went out of a second door on the other end of the trailer.
The rain was still coming down, but it had lessened somewhat. As they squelched through the mud, Ward said, “Look, I don’t think this is something the Russians left here in the 80s. But I don’t have any clue what it actually is. The big problem is what happens next. The radius of interference doubled when that RPG hit the structure. Since then, every 92 minutes, it’s increased by about 4%. It’s getting bigger and bigger, and that’s enough to make me very nervous.”
Pritchard took off his glasses, which had completely fogged over. Stuffing them in his jacket pocket, he said, “So you want me to find out how to switch it off?”
“Exactly.” Ward angled to the right, and Pritchard jogged after him. “We can bring in archeologists and other researchers all we want, but until we figure out how to shut down the interference, we can’t even take a decent picture of the thing. I have 70 soldiers out here near Taliban territory, and I can’t ask for air support because we’re worried that this field will bring down an aircraft. I need a better idea of what we’re dealing with, and if that’s going to happen, I need you to find the off switch.”
They reached the base of the center structure. A framework of scaffolding towered almost thirty feet off the ground. White plastic sheeting was stretched across the sides and top, forming a massive cube of flapping tarps. A door was cut in the side, flanked by two soldiers, each of who saluted sharply as Ward approached. Ward snapped off a return salute, and he and Pritchard stepped through the door.
Inside the structure was slightly more dry, although the drumming of the rain on the taut plastic was irritatingly loud. The ground was still churned mud, bootprints tracing circles around the perimeter. Pritchard came to a stop as soon as he walked in the door, staring.
The dome rose up out of the mud, but the surface was immaculate. There wasn’t a spot of mud anywhere on it. The metal was a dull grey. The drop lights strung from the walls and ceiling bounced off the surface, but the reflection was muted, like brushed steel. The footprints circling the dome stopped about three meters away. Pritchard stepped closer, and then looked back at Ward. “Is it okay if I take a closer look?”
Ward nodded. “That’s what you’re here for.”
Pritchard stepped up to the dome, and cautiously reached out his hand. He watched the back of his hand to see if the hairs were beginning to stand up, but there was nothing. His fingertips brushed the surface quickly, then with a bit more assurance, as he confirmed that it wasn’t going to electrocute him. He settled both palms onto the metal, and began to examine it closely.
“There’s no grain,” he said.
“Excuse me?” Ward asked.
Pritchard glanced back at the major. ”There’s no grain to the metal, no sign of machining. It looks perfectly smooth. Once we shut off the interference field, I’ll want to check the surface with laser depth gauge, but as far as I can tell, it’s nearly flawless.”
Pritchard began walking slowly around the dome in a counterclockwise direction, pausing occasionally to peer closely at the surface. His boots squished into the mud deeper with each step, until he was having to pull his foot out every time he wanted to step forward again. After ten minutes of careful examination, he reached the opening. He peered at it for a moment, then called out, “Major? Could you please have someone bring my case?”
Ward barked out a command, and one of the guards nodded and left. While he waiting, Pritchard ran his fingertips over the edge of the opening. The corner was slightly rounded, and as he peered inside the hole, he could see a tunnel of the same smooth metal disappearing into an inky blackness. Pritchard paused for a moment, then carefully felt the metal at the edge of the opening. Moving a foot to the right, he felt the surface of the dome. He repeated this action four or five times.
“What are you doing?” He jumped slightly as the Hispanic soldier came shuffling through the mud, holding his metal case with both hands.
Pritchard set down the case, and flipped the latches. As he began rummaging through the contents, he asked, “What’s your name?”
The soldier glanced over to Ward, who nodded slightly, and said, “Specialist Ramirez, sir.”
“Ramirez, could you do me a favor? Feel the rim of the hole, then feel about a foot away from it. Tell me what you feel.”
Hesitantly, Ramirez stepped forward and extended his right index finger out as if he were afraid the metal would leap out and bite him. He brushed the rim, and then placed his other hand against the metal. ”I don’t know what I’m looking… Wait.” His brow furrowed, and he stepped closer. ”The rim feels warmer.”
Pritchard smiled. ”Good, I wasn’t imagining it.” He stood up, clutching a tape measure in one hand and an old glass thermometer in the other. He handed the thermometer to Ramirez. ”Could you take surface temperature readings on the rim, and then one foot out for six feet? You’ll have to hold the thermometer for thirty seconds per spot.”
“Yes, sir.” Ramirez moved to the right, and began wordlessly mouthing a count as he pressed the bulb of the thermometer to the metal. Pritchard began taking measurements of the hole, pausing every few minutes to scribble notes in his notebook. After fifteen minutes of this, he stood up and stretched his back, and motioned for Ward to come over.
“What do you think?” the major asked.
“The hole is exactly 144 centimeters in diameter. As near as I can tell, it’s a perfect circle.” Pritchard consulted the sheet of paper Ramirez had handed him. ”The temperature around the opening is about 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and drops three degrees for every foot away from the hole. That’s warm enough to tell me that there’s a power source in there.”
“How deep do you think the hole goes?” Ward asked. ”We brought a laser rangefinder, but it won’t work either. I was thinking about using a plumb bob on the end of some paracord, but I didn’t want to risk damaging…”
Before he could finish, Pritchard pulled a pen out of his pocket and tossed it in the hole. They could hear it skittering and clinking for about five seconds, then the sound of it rolling across a surface. Grinning at Ward, he said, “I’d say about ten feet.”
Ward looked annoyed. Pritchard laughed. ”Major, if this thing can handle a direct hit from an RPG, I don’t think we’re going to damage it.”
Mollified, the major asked, “So what’s your next step?”
Pritchard shrugged. ”I don’t think there’s much we can do from out here. I need to go inside, and see if I can switch off its power supply.”
“Are you sure about that?” Lightning flashed outside the plastic walls, and a rumble of thunder rolled through the camp. Ward peered into the hole, and said, “We don’t know what’s down there, and it might be risky to go poking around.”
Pritchard knelt down, and pulled a harness and a coil of rope from his case. ”I don’t intend to poke around. I’ll make one survey trip, get an idea of what we’re dealing with, then come back up and discuss our next steps with you. But we need to have some idea what we’re dealing with, and I can’t do that unless I get a look at what’s inside this thing.”
Ward considered this for a moment, chewing the inside of his lip as he thought. When he didn’t say anything, Pritchard kept talking. “I’ll be tethered the entire time, and if three of your soldiers are holding the other end, they can get me out in seconds. Obviously, it’s not that deep, and you’ll be able to hear me. If anything feels wrong, I’ll call out, and you can get me out.”
Sighing, Ward slowly nodded. ”Okay, but you keep constant communication with us. If I go more than ten seconds without hearing your voice, I’m pulling you out. Understood?”
Pritchard nodded eagerly, and the major called Ramirez over. After a brief discussion, Ramirez jogged off, and Ward knelt down next to Pritchard, who was searching through his case. ”We’re going to set up a winch frame and bolt it to the bumper of a Humvee. If we have to get you out fast, we’ll be able to haul you out very quick. It won’t be a fun ride, but it will work.”
“Deal.” Pritchard began selecting his tools. He slid ten red flares into his belt, as well as a bundled tool kit and a Leatherman multitool. He pulled the belt on over a pair of blue coveralls. As he dressed, a group of ten soldiers quickly assembled a small metal frame. A spool of half-inch metal cable was mounted in the center of the frame. After it was finished, two soldiers carried it outside, and Ramirez returned, pulling the cable with the hook at the end. He walked over to Pritchard, and started snapping the harness into place.
“You sure this is a good idea, sir?” Ramirez asked as he yanked the straps tight.
“I’ll be fine. Just make sure to pull me out if you see a guy with a big grey head and a space helmet.”
Chuckling, Ramirez hooked the cable through the heavy-duty D-ring on the back of the harness. He gave it a few hard yanks, and Pritchard winced as the straps pulled up into his groin. ”It’s a little snug.”
“Good,” said Ramirez. ”Snug means secure. The major’ll have my ass if I drop you into ET’s hot tub.” Satisfied, he pulled a pair of green chemical lightsticks out of his pocket. Snapping them, the sergeant shook them until they glowed brightly, and used zip ties to affix them to Pritchard’s harness. Ward stepped up, and watched Ramirez finish.
“All right, here’s the deal.” The major began double-checking the harness as he spoke. ”You have fifteen minutes. If you have any problems, just yell, and we’ll haul you back out. If I call your name and you don’t respond, I’m hauling you back out. If that opening starts to close, I’m going to yell for Walker there to hit the gas, and we’ll pull you out of there so fast we may break a few bones in the process. Any questions?”
“Nope.” Pritchard smiled. ”Relax, Major. It’s going to be fine.”
Ward simply nodded, a worried expression camped out on his face. He called out, “Standby!”
The throaty growl of a Humvee engine starting up rumbled through the structure, and Walker’s voice called out, “Standing by, sir!”
Ramirez set a large wooden crate on the ground in front of the opening, and patted Pritchard on the back. ”Good luck, sir.”
Nodding, Pritchard stepped up onto the crate, and leaned into the hole. As soon as his head entered in, the sounds of rain and engines became muffled. Briefly, he thought he smelled something strange, but as soon as the thought crossed his mind, the scent was gone. Standing back up, he lifted one leg into the opening, then pivoted, bringing the other leg in. He sat that way for a moment, his torso and head outside the dome with his legs dangling down inside. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and called out, “Going in!” With one smooth motion, he dropped through the opening.
The surface was slick, and he started to slide immediately. The soft glow of the chemlights lit the tunnel with an eerie light, and he briefly saw the pen he’d tossed in sitting on a ledge, half of its length protruding over a sharp drop off. He threw his arms out to try to stop, but it was too late, and he slipped off the edge and dropped.
He didn’t have time to panic. By the time he registered what was happening, the cable snapped tight, and he jerked to a stop, dangling in darkness. There was a brief, terrifying jerk, and then a sharp twang, and he dropped three feet, slamming into a floor hard enough to jam his teeth down on his tongue. He tasted coppery blood, and rolled onto his back.
“Shit!” The major’s voice was muffled, but clear. ”Pritchard? Pritchard!”
Pritchard sat up slowly, wincing. He spat, and yelled out, “I’m okay! What happened?”
“The cable snapped. We’re not sure why, but it broke just after you went in. How far down are you?”
Pritchard looked up. He could see a faint glow in the ceiling where the tunnel angled sharply down. He looked around slowly. There wasn’t much that he could see by the chemlights, but he could see their reflection in the walls of the chamber. Slowly, he got to his feet, and reached up above him. His fingertips brushed a smooth surface when he rose to his tiptoes. ”Not too far! No more than twenty feet from the opening. The tunnel ends in a drop. I fell through and landed in a chamber.”
Ward shouted down, “Are you hurt?”
“A little banged up, but nothing’s broken.” Pritchard spat again. ”I damn near bit my fucking tongue off.”
“Don’t move! Just stay where you are. I’ll get a rope down to you.”
“I’m not going anywhere, Major.” Pritchard pulled a flare from his belt, and popped it against his thigh. With a sharp snap and hiss, the room was suddenly bathed in red light.
Pritchard was in the middle of a large round chamber. The walls were made of some reflective material, polished to such a high sheen that he could see his distorted reflection all around him. The floor was the same smooth metal as the exterior of the dome, but sloped gently down to a drain in the center. To his left, Pritchard saw an elevated platform with four tall control panels, covered in gauges and switches. The rest of the room was empty, and immaculately clean.
Popping three more flares, he tossed them to the far corners of the room. He began to walk to the control panels, and winced as a sharp pain stabbed through his ankle. Gingerly, he tested his weight on it. It didn’t seem to be broken, so he hobbled forward. He passed the drain in the floor, a small circular grate about the size of a manhole cover. It glistened wetly as he walked past, and he made a mental note to check it closer. Stepping up on the platform, he began to inspect the panels. A loud thump caused him to jump, and he spun around, heart pounding.
Two coils of thick black rope lay on the floor, stretching up into the tunnel above. A pair of black boots appeared from the ceiling, quickly followed by the rest of Ramirez, as he slid down the rope to the floor.
“Doc! You okay?” Ramirez looked around wildly until he saw Pritchard waving at him from the platform. Grinning, he uncoupled his harness from the rope, and yelled up, “I’ve found him! Go ahead!”
There was some clanking, and then a second soldier dropped into view. His name patch read Hofstetter, and he wore a sergeant’s stripes. He swore as the rifle slung across his back got tangled in the rope, and Ramirez shuffled over and helped him get loose. The pair jogged over to Pritchard.
“Major Ward is shitting a brick right now.” Ramirez stepped up on the platform. ”We’re supposed to bring you back up, right now.”
“Give me a few minutes.” Pritchard turned, and limped to the first panel. ”I need to get an idea of what we’re looking at.”
Sighing, Ramirez gestured to Hofstetter, who walked back over to the ropes and yelled up, “Major?”
Ward’s voice echoed back down. ”Do you have Dr. Pritchard?”
“Yes, sir, but he’s requesting more time. He found some equipment down here, and he wants to get a better look at it.”
Exasperated, Ward shouted, “Negative! Tell him I want him out of there, now!”
Hofstetter turned back to the panel, but Pritchard was already coming over to him. He shouted up, “Major! I’ve found a set of electrical panels and control boards. The labels are in English. I don’t know what exactly this is, but if you give me those fifteen minutes you originally promised, I can have a concrete plan for how to proceed.”
There was a long pause, and then, “Sergeant Hofstetter?”
“Do you believe Dr. Pritchard is safe?”
Hofstetter looked around, and yelled up, “I don’t see anything dangerous, sir. It’s a shiny room with some switches. We can keep him secure until he’s finished, and then get him back topside without a problem.”
“Fine.” Ward sounded anything but happy. ”Fifteen minutes, then all three of you get out of there. Is that clear?”
“Understood, sir!” Hofstetter looked over at Pritchard. ”You have your fifteen minutes, Doc. I suggest you get started.”
Pritchard nodded, and hobbled back to the panel. Ramirez was peering at the second board, frowning. Pritchard stepped up next to him. ”Problem, Sergeant?”
“No, just something strange.” Pointing to a gauge, Ramirez said, “Read what it says under the manufacturer.”
Leaning close, Pritchard read out loud. ”Proudly made in the UAS.” He straightened back up. ”So? It’s a typo.”
“I guess,” Ramirez said. ”But there’s quite a few mistakes like that. One of the pressure gauges skipped 30 through 60. Another switch has two off labels, but no on setting. It’s like those cheap knockoffs you get in Brooklyn, the televisions that are labeled Somy or Parasonic.”
Pritchard started to reply, but his answer trailed off as his eyes began darting over the various gauges and switches. His brow furrowed, and he fished his glasses out of his pocket and pulled them on. He limped back and forth, scanning the control panels. He stopped taking notes, and started muttering to himself. Finally, he straightened up, and said, “This isn’t right.”
“What?” Ramirez looked over the panel.
“These gauges and switches make no sense.” Pritchard pointed. ”This here, this is a pressure gauge for a industrial air compressor, but instead of reading PSI, it reads PSSI. Over here is a level indicator for a liquid tank, but there’s no needle. The switches are labeled, but I’ve never seen acronyms like this before. None of these systems have anything to do with each other. It’s like a small child had access to a junkyard and built what he thought a mechanical control panel should look like, but I don’t think any of these are real. Here, look.”
Before Ramirez could stop him, Pritchard reached out and pressed one of the switches. Nothing happened. The switch didn’t move. Pritchard tried three more, with the same result. ”You try.”
Ramirez pressed his finger against a toggle switch labeled SAF3 PUMP. The switch was solid and unmoving, as if cast from solid metal. He frowned again. ”Why would someone do that?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen…”
Pritchard was interrupted by an excited shout from Hofstetter. ”Hey, look at this!” The pair turned to see him at the other end of the chamber, kneeling over a crate sitting next to the wall.
Ramirez jumped down from the platform, and Pritchard followed. ”I thought you said the chamber was empty?” Ramirez said.
“It was,” Pritchard answered. ”I don’t think that was there before.”
Ramirez looked at Pritchard,frowned, and unslung his M-4 carbine from his back. He called out, “Hofstetter, what is it?”
Hofstetter was staring in the crates. ”RPG tubes, maybe?”
“What do you mean, maybe?” Ramirez asked. Pritchard kept following him, but felt a squishing sensation under his shoe. Looking down, he saw he had stepped on the drain in the center of the room. He knelt down to inspect it while Ramirez moved over to Hofstetter. Prodding two fingers on the grate, he felt a thick liquid coating the metal. The moment his fingers contacted it, his skin began to tingle.
Hofstetter was trying to pull one of the RPG tubes out of the case. ”They’re stuck. It’s like they’re glued to the crate.”
Ramirez looked back at Pritchard, and started to say something. Pritchard never found out what it was. Hofstetter shrieked, and they turned to see his hand and arm disappear into the crate to the elbow. Hofstetter’s feet skidded on the smooth floor, and he fell to the ground, thrashing around and screaming. Pritchard couldn’t see much by the flickering red light, but his stomach lurched as he saw a thin tendril snake out of the crate, wave gently in the air for a moment, then lash against the side of the young soldier’s face. There was a crunching sound, like a dog biting down on bone, and blood sprayed out from Hofstetter’s face as his jaw was torn cleanly off. He was still trying to scream, but a gurgling sound was the best he could manage as bloody foam sprayed from his ruined face.
Ramirez shouted something, and his rifle leapt to his shoulder as he moved towards his friend. He was still ten feet from Hofstetter when the floor beneath him warped and rippled. He stumbled, falling to his knees, and the smooth metal of the floor erupted into dozens of tendrils, each capped with a swollen tip covered in spines. Half of them wrapped around his limbs, tightening in violent spasms and snapping the bones beneath. The others reared back like angry cobras, and lashed out, burrowing into his belly and chest. Ramirez’s head lolled back, and Pritchard met his wide and empty eyes for a brief moment until one of the tendrils erupted out his right eye, and wrapped around his head, dragging him down to the floor.
Pritchard felt his bowels let go, and he screamed, a shrill voice that seemed not his own. The sound was muffled, as if he was yelling inside a comforter, and he looked up to where the opening had been to see a thick membrane pulsing over the tunnel. He pushed back on his hands and feet, skittering back like a crab away from the writhing masses of tendrils and gore that had been soldiers. For a brief moment, he thought the platform might offer safety, and he rolled over and tried to climb to his feet. Stepping forward, he felt his ankle howl in protest, quickly followed by a white-hot flare of agony in his calf. Looking down, he stared at the bloody tentacle threading through the meat of his calf. It caressed against his blood-soaked leg gently for a moment, then with a sharp spasm, ripped the calf muscle from his leg.
He collapsed to the floor, feeling it wriggling beneath him like a sack of writhing insects. Hot points of fire erupted from dozens of points, and he looked down to see his belly rip open, and a trio of tendrils poke out, his intestine dangling from the tip of one of them. He couldn’t scream, couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything other than lay there and feel the tiny teeth tear gobbets of flesh from his bones. His eyes fell on the control panel, and he saw the gauges and switches flow like liquid, forming into a smooth, still surface. There was a pause, and the surface began to vibrate like a speaker. That was the last thing he saw before the tendrils wrapped around his head. The last thing he heard was his own voice, muffled and distorted, but still understandable, shouting.
“Major? Could you send a few more men down here? I’m almost finished.”