Chapter 11: Disappearing Act
The bare, unapologetic rock beneath our feet abruptly ended.
Seamlessly, it transitioned to a white, polycarbonate tile which reflected the intense fluorescent lighting above quite efficiently. My eyes fully adjusted to the ambiance—a laboratory of sorts. I'd never seen anything like it, obviously a facility on the cutting edge of science and technology. Towering from floor to ceiling at every wall were equipment chasses bolted to the deck with computing consoles and telecommunications equipment locked away inside each one of them. A slow pan across the breadth of the room revealed a flurry of blinking LED status indicators, twinkling on and off like the stars of a cloudy night. Bench stations with electron microscopes, high-reliability soldering stations, automated fusion-splicers and spectrum analyzers hummed as technicians operated them in their tasks. In a protected, cage-like enclosure twenty meters left was a bank of cryogenic tanks. A polyp of steel-braided lines blossomed from its top plate and snaked into a nearby wall. At the far end of the chamber was a blast incinerator, its heat tamed by a translucent plate of plexiglass.
"Busy in here." Haze murmured. "Very busy."
"Raised floor." Holmes said. A few of us looked at him. "Cryogenics over there cool down the equipment. We're standing on top of its ducting."
And just off to the right was another vault door much bigger than the one in Omega Wing. It could easily fit ten people shoulder to shoulder and two high. The grandeur of the room caught me off guard. We were face to face with a Naval Captain.
The Gunny called, "Room, tench-hut!"
We all snapped to attention and turned to statues. The Gunny snapped off a crisp one to the Captain for us. In turn, it was properly and promptly given back.
"Sir," Gunnery Sergeant Smith said, "Lima Company reporting as ordered."
The Foreclay Mining Outpost was getting stranger for every minute elapsed and more shadowy for every meter descended. Something important was happening in this laboratory. The amount of skilled labor taking place this moment was reason enough. If it wasn't reason enough, surely the Naval Captain standing in front of the largest vault I had ever heard of, was. "I wonder if we'll ever know what's happening here."
Holmes replied. "Well, apparently the only surprise left in store is to see what this device is."
"...Then we can get some shore leave." Haze said with a dry humor.
"At ease, Lima Company." the Captain ordered, stepping forth. The field-grade officer in front was tall and lean with a proud and commanding posture about him, just like I envisioned Naval Captains to be. He smiled and swiped his cap off with one hand and tucked it in the crook of his arm, studying us briefly just as we did him. He wore a full head of silvery-grey hair cropped extremely close. His face was chiseled, very much similar to Gunnery Sergeant Smith's. Like him, he appeared young, though weathered around the edges at the same time. At a distance, I might've mistook either one of them for the other, though the Captain's physicality was certainly much less than that of our NCOIC.
"I am Captain Lawson, commanding officer of the Foreclay Outpost. Sorry for the unusually cool climate. Make yourselves as much at home as you can before we leave."
The Gunny looked around the bustling laboratory, almost frozen with confusion. "Leave, sir?"
The Captain did not reply to the Gunny, but instead cast his perceptive gaze over to Doctor Kleiner who announced almost on cue, "Per protocol, I have not disclosed the full scope of the project, Captain. That includes egress."
"I think we can skip protocol now, Doctor Kleiner. I'm sure we owe it to them at the very least."
The Doctor's brow furrowed slightly. "Lima Company still hasn't been given a proper demonstration, not to mention, we haven't even completed the remaining test and evaluation sessions."
"Well…what are you waiting for, Doctor? Show them."
Kleiner turned to us. "This way, Marines."
Kleiner strode to the vault door and produced a finger print and a retinal scan. Once his true identity was confirmed, he punched in a PIN on a mounted keypad. Then, with his entire weight, he thrusted a huge lever lock counterclockwise. A braying hiss nearly robbed me of hearing as the door swung open on inward-facing hinges. All of Lima Company was motionless as Kleiner enacted his routine.
Haze gaited towards me just before the door reached maximum angularity. "Think you can pick that lock, Shakespeare?"
As we entered, scientists carried on with their tasks, oblivious to Lima Company and its new friends.
Lawrence looked all around at our new surroundings, satisfied that the mines were now a safe place, wholly human-controlled. He gladly let down his guard, proceeded to care for his favored rifle. He deftly unbuckled it, performing a drill-spec pirouette that would make a U.N. Color Guard Leader nod respect. He sealed the rubber dust covers over the top-mounted 3x scope with great care. Him and Haze still had a standing bet, but were unable to put the new BR-55 to the test just yet, maybe never. The Covenant would unlikely breach the Omega Wing and infiltrate the mines for all that we understood of this place. I felt Lawrence would win that bet. What the new Battle Rifle lacked in bullet barraging, it likely excelled with accuracy.
Struger was ahead talking tactics and techniques with the other rocketeers of Lima. He had the new BR-55 Battle Rifle anchored to his rucksack. Struger, the consummate heavy weapons professional, always took time out to make sure his weaponry was clean and in good working condition. He also had inscribed personal art on the rocket launcher since we entered the mines, did it while he walked. Holmes was just a few paces away, his arm healing nicely off hemostatic agents alone. It wouldn't be long before he was a strong rifleman again. Haze was far ahead, almost out of view. He was in better condition than before. Covenant glassing had a way of demoralizing entire planets. I wondered how long it would take for them to finish their orderly and methodical criss-hatched patterns of destruction.
At least now I could let my mind occupy other things than unit morale. Haze was in the lead and wanted to be in the action again. It was all that mattered.
I was the last through the massive door. I looked back. The hinges whirred as the Captain saw us in and shoved the door closed.
Kleiner was our guide once again.
The corridor was dark, nearly pitch black aside from a few meek glow rods paving the way for us. But stranger than the surrounding darkness of this ultra-secure chamber was perhaps an even more humbled light. It covered the walls like an army of ants, teeming with docile business and a sense of socialism—a luminous community. I wouldn't even have noticed it if I was still in the middle of the pack. I stole a moment for myself and ventured closer to a wall for a look. Something was different about these particular walls. I hadn't seen this display before. These walls didn't just have a few gems and crystals glittering in the rock, no. I saw a pattern emerging as I stared harder.
There were coherent symbols embossed with logic in their arrangements—spirals and dots and bars, squares and triangles. I bent even closer, my nose nearly brushing the sparkling surface. Suddenly, the characters seemed to blur around the edges and fade from my vision. They were moving in place. I blinked and stepped back ever so slightly, straining my eyes in the dark.
There they were again, back into focus.
Like a symphony, the lighted symbols moved in unison. The rest of the team had already pressed further on and disappeared around a corner. Part of me wanted to follow, another part had me riveted right here. I had never seen anything like this. It was alive. I peeled off a polypropylene glove from one of my hands, the sweat of my palms cooling in the ambient air. I risked a touch against the surface of the wall.
I set a finger down right on top of one of the symbols—a spiral mosaic that diminished into ever smaller curls, its curvatures fading seamlessly into bare rock. It was glass-smooth. Strangely, it warmed to my touch. I curiously switched on my helmet-mounted light to see it better, but it was barely any use. The glare fully reflected back to my face as if the symbol rejected everything in existence.
I switched it off and the symbol had taken on a new luminosity of its own—a faint red, like metal heated in an open flame. From the center, the red bloomed outwards and spread into the arms of its spiral, warming to a pleasant orange, then brilliant yellow-gold.
From the depths of the rock, a new symbol appeared that hadn't been there before. It seemed conscious to input, alive. It emerged from the core, a triangle of pure white. I touched it and static sparked between us. In the next instant, warm, radiant light raced to its surroundings and spread into the farthest foreseeable distance. Symbols exponentially materialized everywhere—on all sides of the mine shaft—until the entire corridor was alive with light and shadow. Even with full luminosity attenuation of my HUD, I still had to blink and squint.
For as far as I could see, the tunnel was alive. If light frequency was audible to the human ear, I would be deafened.
I had initiated a chain reaction of whatever this was. I felt a tinge of fear as hairs started to stand on my body. But the only thing happening was light—dazzling, white light. My fear went away.
I began to think of explanations. What was this, reactive alkali embedded into the igneous matrix? I could try and think of reasons for why this was happening, but I was no scientist. I had no way of proving theories by myself. Maybe they had already accomplished that long before Lima Company came into the picture. Whatever it was, it clearly had my attention.
I then remembered Homer's Odyssey—how beautiful bird-like women enchanted sailors to their death with beautiful songs, much like this manifestation of light stole me now. Sirens…they raised their sweet voices as ships passed by, causing sailors to become dazed, losing all recollection of their former lives. The wayward men were contented to waste away on the beach, continuing to listen in as the Siren's songs filled their ears...until the only thing left of them were their sun-bleached bones.
Lima Company was out of sight. I felt lost. I needed to regroup with them.
I carried on in the same direction as earlier, before I found myself dizzied by this discovery. I turned a corner and found a side-passage ahead with fresh footprints. Next, I managed to round the correct corner and sneak back into formation unnoticed, black spots swimming in my sights as I tried to adjust to the darkness we walked into.
I already missed the inviting, bright light of before. I looked back and could barely make out the beautiful glow, so faint now.
I made my way to Struger's side. Doctor Kleiner was still rattling on.
"It's really quite a shame that you all could not take a longer ganders at the lab facility. It's marvelous. It's the largest and most advanced workshop of its kind...ever built. The clean sectors are free of moisture and oxygen, of course. And we also house the largest static-free room, even though only a handful of people know this. Consider yourselves very lucky, Marines. The whole underground complex has been awarded every major ISO certification ever published. We've garnered several awards already, and if not for its secrecy, they would be published into the public domain.
"Maybe one day the scientific community by and large can enjoy its amenities as we have. Ah, we have been blessed. But nonetheless, I digress from the real issues here. These facilities were built for one purpose, to study the device. And judging by the ignorance the Covenant has displayed so far, we can assume that whoever built the device was of a technologically-advanced society unrelated to the Covenant. Advanced far beyond our culture, beyond even the Covenant culture, beyond all reckoning!"
"Eli looks like he needs a breather to me." Struger said, glancing at me and thumbing toward the Doctor.
"Yeah he's getting all worked up and all of us haven't even seen this little gadget yet."
But that was about to change. I could feel it as Doctor Kleiner halted just outside a small, sturdy doorway. "This, Marines, is where the treasure lies…just beyond this airlock."
"Never mind." Struger whispered. "Here we are."
I looked the access way over. The doorway in front was merely two meters high, just enough to fit the tallest Marine in our group. And it was narrow, only able to accommodate one human at a time. Lights crawled over its surface, status indicators of pressure integrity and whatever else. They reminded me of the light show I saw further back in the corridor, though it was a synthetic mockery of the real thing.
But after everything I'd experienced in the outpost and in these mines, the door itself seemed to beckon as Kleiner waited for us to refocus our attention. It was likely my imagination, but it desired to be unlocked, as if entering might just define a life's existence. It was another hunch. Something strange and, perhaps wonderful, was through this ominous doorway. I was mere footsteps away from crossing through and making the discovery for myself, but maybe I was just miles away again, musing as usual.
The Doctor suddenly took on a new energy. The faint, glowrod reflection from his thick glasses barely masked his wide-eyed excitement. "Hold on to your helmets, Marines."
He opened the door and a tang of metallic air surged forth with a hiss, engulfing Lima Company with its coppery synthesis. The smell was altogether strange. The Gunny was first in, followed by Haze, Holmes, then me. Others behind me followed, but for some reason, I was no longer aware of how many Lima Company numbered at present. It was of lesser concern; and I didn't want to look back.
We entered single file down a short, dimly-lit corridor. Almost immediately after the entrance was an identical door to the left, thin and short. As if sensing our confusion, Doctor Kleiner said:
"Proceed to the end and take your seats, Marines." He held the outer door open until the last of us were in. The narrow hallway dead-ended about twenty meters in.
Approaching the end of the corridor per the Doctor's instruction, the right hand wall recessed further away by a couple of meters, giving room for rows of chairs—staggered in ascending height. The left hand wall in front of the bleacher-like seating housed a section of plexi-plate glass, a small room on the other side of it, too dark to see. Our attention was redirected at the sound of Kleiner closing the outer door behind him once everyone was seated. He took two steps inward, turned towards the door off to the left and tapped in a command to a nearby keypad. A blast of air descended on him from ducting above, blowing his lab coat into waves. Lint and dust fell into metal grating below.
"We like to keep the resonance field as dust-free as possible." Kleiner said as the door opened. He walked through.
Within seconds, he was within our view beyond the plexi-plate transom—at least half a meter thick by my watch. Motion-sensing electronics in the room he occupied activated overhead lights, which graually grew brighter until we could see the inside of it clearly. It was mostly empty, except for a single pedestal in its center. "Don't tell me we're up for another death-by-holo-pedestal-briefing again." Haze said.
"I think your assumption is wrong." Holmes answered.
The Doctor unhinged the top of this monolithic stand. His face lit up with exhilaration, incongruous to the character of a chief scientific figure.
From the inside, he pulled out a single object: a black ball, so black that I had to stare at it to believe it was real. Black as if it sucked in all the light around it, distorting the very air surrounding it. The sitting chamber was abuzz much like Omega Wing was before. Marines looked at one another as if they had explanations to offer. Others stared in disbelief just as I did. Struger in front of me was on the edge of his seat, marveling at whatever this thing was.
The Doctor cleared his throat, the hoarse sound resonating into our chamber a half-second later through a PA system in the corners. "This," he said absentmindedly, "represents the fruits of our labor." He glanced up through the plexi-plate and into our chamber.
"Who will volunteer to aid me in this demonstration?"
I heired on the side of caution this time and only looked around. A handful of Marines had their hands raised. Others were like me, testing the proverbial waters, wisely spectating.
"You there!" Kleiner pointed into the window pane. Struger stood up, his curious hand gesturing inward to himself. "...Yes, you."
Struger stepped out of the bleachers and towards the pressure door. "Lucky bastard." Haze mumbled.
Struger waited there for a moment at the threshold to the antechamber. The fierce draft from above procedurally cleansed him of dirt and dust, then the door opened. He stepped through.
I jostled around in my seat, wondering when he'd come back into view through the glass. There he was, nearly by Kleiner's side who was still at the stand in the middle. As Struger approached the Doctor, observing the black ball as best he could without interfering with Kleiner or the demonstration, we could clearly make out his confused face from the other side. "Doctor," he said with an overwhelming amount of curiosity in his voice, "what is it that I need to do?"
We all felt the same. The device was so strange and intriguing to look at, but I couldn't even fathom what it did. Not one soul here could except one civilian. As so many times before, Lima Company didn't have a clue what it was doing here.
"Nothing, Private. Do nothing. Now," Kleiner announced facing the spectators, his muffled voice crackling through the loudspeaker, "we can begin the presentation. What I am about to attempt has been done many times before. All previous trials have been successful and there is no cause for alarm. Everything you are about to witness is perfectly normal."
Despite the calming words, we all knew something extraordinary was taking place here. He turned to Struger—on the other side of the pedestal. "What is your name, Private?"
"Jon Struger." he replied, his voice wavering with adrenaline.
The Doctor held the ball in the palm of one hand, manipulating the ball with the other, tinkering with its surface, all his concentration vested into it. The lines of his face hardened. He touched the device as one would a datapad. It then seemed to shimmer and haze the air. "And how old are you, Jon?"