Dr. Hammond sat on his bed and stared at the digital clock on the wall above his computer screen. Each second stretched out into an eternity, the slow revolving movement of abstract time drawing him in with its beautiful simplicity. 603,900 seconds since his last interaction with a living human. A mere 900 more until he was blessed with mindless small talk accompanied by a hypodermic needle pulling exactly thirty milliliters of blood from his arm.
He watched the seconds slide away Pavlovian anticipation. A decade ago, he would have raged at the interruption to his work. But, that was when he stayed locked away in his lab by choice and not his own quarantine protocols. Now, any contact with a living, breathing human was a welcome respite, even if it came with a protective layer of protective teflon.
The last seconds passed. The clock struck 3:00 PM. No one came.
Dr. Hammond stood from his bed and moved closer to the clock. He stared at it, trying to decide if it were real or another addled delusion. He reached up with one hand and poked it with his finger. It was solid enough. But, other things he’d seen since the incident felt real under his touch as well. Even if they were impossible.
“Computer,” he said aloud. “Time and Day.”
“Fifteen hundred one hours. Friday, First, July,” the computer said in its cheery voice. “Do you need anything else, Dr. Hammond?”
“Status report. Subject #62186,” Hammond said. “Audio, please.”
“Subject number six-two-one-eight-six is currently in protective quarantine,” the computer said. “No updates to status have been made since previous inquiry. Would you like me to read the most recent report?”
“No.” Hammond tapped the screen on his computer to bring it to life. He typed in his password override and asked, “Computer, has there been a change to sampling schedule for Subject #62186?”
“None logged, Dr. Hammond.”
“Show me the location of Dr. Lina Dettermeier.”
“Dr. Dettermeier is not currently in the facility.” The Black Phoenix logo appeared on his screen, slowly rotating. “I cannot locate Dr. Dettermeier’s location.”
“Is her beacon still online?” Hammond asked. “Is there an entry about termination in the employee personnel records?”
“There is not a termination notice,” the computer said. The processing logo appeared on the screen again, this time lasting much longer. “I appear to be incapable of accessing the satellite network at this time. Would you like me to try again?”
“Continuous ping. Screen only.”
Hammond paced back and forth across the room. Lina was nothing but punctual. She never arrived late to his samples. She never stayed more than fifteen minutes. Years ago, he’d tracked her every movement across the globe for months and never once saw her arrive at any appointment at anytime other than the exact moment she was scheduled to arrive. She even kept times for using the lavatory in her agenda.
He leaned against the glass wall separating himself from the rest of the transcendent genetics lab. It was empty. The equipment off and stowed away. A thin layer of dust slowly growing on the protective plastic sheets.
“Computer. Schedule a cleaning drone to administer to the transcendent genetics lab,” he muttered to himself.
After several hundred more seconds of pacing, Dr. Hammond returned to the screen. The Black Phoenix logo was still spinning in an endless search for Dr. Dettermeier. He touched his fingers against the screen and squeezed the logo down until it was small enough to sit in the corner without being a distraction, then pulled open his network browser.
Instead of loading to his normal internet home screen, the browser redirected to the Black Phoenix employee intranet. A modal appeared with a large red exclamation mark and the words:
Containment failure on level 13. Nonessential personnel are advised to evacuate until further notice. Per your union agreement, you will be compensated for you time. Non-disclosure agreements are still in effect. You will be notified when it is safe to return.
“Computer? When was the evacuation notice entered into the log?”
“Wednesday, Twenty-eighth, June. Eight hundred eleven hours,” the computer answered.
“Has there been an update?” Hammond asked. “And why wasn’t I notified?”
“No updates have been issued. You disabled notifications on Seventh, January. Direct instructions was to ‘Turn off that noise. I don’t want to hear it again.’”
“List all personnel remaining in the facility.” Hammond eyed the hazmat suit hanging on a peg in the corner. There were protocols for evacuation. Lina should have come to escort him to the backup facility.
“None currently located in the facility. I cannot connect to any other Black Phoenix locations.”
Hammond nodded to himself, then began the tedious work of climbing into the suit. “Computer. I am initiating evacuation protocols. Begin sending recovery notifications to the other facilities and keep sending them until you connect. There is a hardwired line in the gatehouse. I’ll go there and try to find someone who can get me to site two.”
He sealed the suit and stepped up to the heavy door for the first time in ten years. The inner doors slid allowed him into the decontamination room, then locked shut behind him. The walls ignited in hot orange light, a short blast of microwaves burning away any possible infection from the outer layer of his suit, and then the second set of doors slid open.
Hammond stepped into the lab and bounced on his toes. If everything went well with his relocation, he might allow himself a bit more freedom. The hazmat suit was durable and the scrubbers would keep the contamination in his blood from leaking into the general atmosphere for weeks at a time.
He smiled as he made his way from the transcendental genetics lab to the elevators. It would be nice to have real sunlight on his face again. Even through the Plexiglas. The melanin in his skin might not be able to tell the difference between real sunlight and the special UV bulbs, but his mind could.
The elevator slid open without being called and closed again as soon as he was inside. The light for the ground floor was already lit. Curious, Hammond reached out and hit a button for another floor.
The computer’s cheerful voice echoed from a speaker in the panel, announcing, “Evacuation protocols in effect. Please proceed immediately to exits on level one.”
The elevator began to rise, and Hammond counted the seconds it took to carry him the one hundred and twenty feet up to the surface. He hit three at the same time the doors dinged open to the ground floor.
Strange light poured down through the tall windows at the front of the atrium. It cast a purple glow across the polished marble floor.
Hammond made his way to the door, and stopped.
The long, grassy yard of his memory was gone. In its place a craggy field of greenish brown stone extended as far as he could see. The facility’s outer walls were also gone, as well as the guard-house.
The clear sky overhead was off as well. In place of the distant yellow sun, a massive purple star hovered behind a visible latticework checkering the sky.
Exactly as he had seen it during the incident ten years before.
He stepped out of the building and looked out to the west, where memory told him he could see the Golden Gate Bridge on the distant horizon.
In its pace a massive silver crystal rose from the empty bay, calling to him again as it had all those years ago.
315,354,219 seconds since he’d laid eyes on the obelisk. 315,354,223 seconds of believing it was a radiation induced illusion.
He reached up and pulled his hood free and began walking toward it, slowly removing the suit as he went.
Finally, he’d come back. Finally, he would have real answers.
I’m sliding in under the deadline on this one, but I have to admit, I’m really proud of it. It turned out pretty well and it got my mind working for something special coming down the pipeline.
Hope you enjoyed it.