As soon as I heard about the discovery, I knew I had to be
there. It was an unscratchable itch under my skin, and as I sat in the backseat
of the car, I drummed my fingers impatiently on the plush leather. My
credentials were impeccable; degree in biology, a Masters in Biochemistry, and
a PhD analysing the hardiest organisms this planet had produced. For someone just shy of thirty, that wasn’t
bad at all. What had made the difference was how damn pushy I could be.
“Dr Martins, we’ll be there in about twenty minutes,” said the driver in a gravelly voice.
“Yeah, yeah, no problem,” I said, struggling to contain my excitement.
I was contract staff, of sorts. After a veritable landslide of paperwork and some thinly veiled threats of death, I found my employers to be the darker aspects of the government. There were lots of us, some for PR, some for translating the horrific events of the modern era into something a bit more palatable for the general populace, and then some for analysing said events in the first place. It was always like a spy thriller; a phone call in the middle of the night, or a black car waiting patiently outside the house. Frankly, I loved it. This time, I’d actually heard about this one in advance. Some frantic emails had found their way to me, panicked reports from a team hoping to re-open a disused mine. I’d been ready for the call when it came, and using every single ounce of attitude I had, I made sure that I was given this particular job. An unknown hazard, potentially deadly, in a sinister underground environment? How could I resist? I had no idea if there would be fallout from my conviction, and a small knot of worry formed itself in my stomach. I peered out of the windscreen, the headlights of the Landrover picking out very little in the gloom. A dirt road, miserable looking plants seemingly desperate to be illuminated. In the distance, I began to make out the blistering white of halogen bulbs, and as the tyres of the vehicle slid in the gravel, we rounded a corner to the mine entrance. A hastily constructed basecamp appeared, tents fluttering in the breeze, and military vehicles squatting stoically in a semi-circle. Soldiers met us, black-clad, stony faces impossible to read. The nearest knocked on the window, and the driver lowered the glass. Cold night air smacked into my face, distracting me briefly. The soldier was glaring at me impassively, and I finally remembered to show him my ID. After a few long seconds, he nodded, and beckoned us forwards. We parked, and I exited. Gravel crunched beneath, and I realised how inappropriately dressed I was for the occasion. Jeans, t-shirt and jumper didn’t really cut it. I shivered slightly.
“Dr Martins,” said a soldier. It could have been the same one, I honestly wasn’t sure. It also wasn’t a question. I nodded anyway.
“This way,” he said, and strode towards the largest tent. As I pushed open the heavy tarp, warm air assailed my numb fingers. The interior was fairly basic by military standards, metal tables, chairs, and a hastily thrown together computer station. Multiple monitors seemed to be relaying CCTV footage from elsewhere, but no amount of squinting could elucidate the details. The tent had been split into sections, and I could make out vague silhouettes in the next section. I started towards the internal flap, but before my curiosity could be sated, it opened. I knew both of the individuals that emerged. Lieutenant Colonel Thornhill, a man who always looked as though he had just sucked a ripe lemon. Matter-of-fact, quick to regain control, and ultimately rather dangerous. His presence said more about the nature of the threat than anything else. The other arrival was Dr Elizabeth Boardman, a physicist with a nuclear background as far as I could recall. She was tall and stick-thin, slightly younger than me, but apparently no more prepared for tonight’s adventure; she was wearing jeans and a hoody. She pursed her lips at the sight of me, and although I had only worked with her a handful of times before, it seemed rumours had beaten me here.
“Harrison Martins,” said Thornhill, shaking my hand stiffly. His grip was like iron, and I was acutely aware of the rifle fastened to his chest.
“Thornhill,” I said politely. “Hello Elizabeth,” I added at the end, smiling for added effect. She crossed her arms and shook her head.
“She thinks you’re a fool,” said Thornhill with no trace of humour.
“Oh? And why’s that?”
I perched on the edge of the table. This should be good.
“Because you fought for this position like a dog does for a treat. It suggests a lack of perspective. This isn’t about you, Martins. Did you even know what was happening here?”
I hesitated a moment, unsure of the best way to answer. In my anxiousness to get started, I had actually forgotten the bulk to the original emails. I opened my mouth to speak, but Thornhill raised a hand.
“Never mind. You’re here now, and unfortunately for us, you are highly qualified. We need an additional perspective.”
I smiled, my ego re-inflating itself.
“Also, all the other specialists are at least four hours away. So we don’t have a choice,” added Elizabeth. If I didn’t know better, I could have sworn that Thornhill smiled slightly at that one.
“So enlighten me. Contaminant? Disease?” I asked the room.
Elizabeth visibly shuffled. I mistook it briefly for irritation, but then I realised that it was fear. My skin prickled slightly. Elizabeth had seen some horrific things in her position, and I had never seen it seep to the surface. She stared at Thornhill for a few seconds. Her eyes looked hollow, shocked.
“Show him the footage,” came the reply, and with that, Thornhill strode out into the night.