Simultaneously, they rose from their chairs, slowing only briefly to adjust their air force uniform jackets. They passed through an outer office, then steered themselves to a nearby stairwell. While whistling a few bars of “Little Drummer Boy,” Stone slipped his identification badge through the electronic access lock and then held the door open for Lanham. They bounded ahead, their spit-polished black shoes tapping downward.
“Are you ready to deploy?” Stone asked.
“We can go in tonight if we have to.”
“Including North Range?”
“And it won’t overload?”
“No, the reactor has more than enough capacity. ELF will be ready.”
After three flights of steps, they exited the stairwell and walked briskly through a corridor that curved to their left. They moved in tandem, as the tube was too narrow and its ceiling too low for humans to walk sidebyside.
They reached a security station attended by two air policemen. One of the guards, a sergeant, stood next to a podium with a computer console and checked IDs. The other guard, M-16 across his chest, positioned himself adjacent to a circular hatchway. The computer chirped an authorization, and the hatchway’s double doors slid apart, revealing a dim compartment. Once both officers stepped inside, the entrance closed. Two firm clicks, and then a second hatch opened.
After walking twenty steps or so, they arrived at their destination, Arena Four. Dr. Schmidt, Saint Mary’s chief exotics physician, waited for them. An elderly, beefy woman, Schmidt retained a dense Bavarian accent despite her decades of residence in the United States. Even in the low, almost nonexistent light of Arena Four, Stone easily spotted her, partially because of the white smock she wore, but mostly because of her face. Schmidt lived underground virtually year-round. Sunlight deprivation had taken a heavy toll on her complexion. Ghostly pale, wearing her medical garb, and stoically awaiting the two senior officers, Schmidt looked very much like a Doric column: heavy, white, and old.
An empty black box, Arena Four was about the size of a child’s suburban bedroom. A sixty-inch surveillance monitor, telephone, and intercom panel adorned one of its walls. The panel hung next to where a one-way mirror once existed that allowed observation into an adjacent room, an empty white box known as Enclosure Four. Alien telepathic skills had made the mirror obsolete. The staff sealed it years ago and covered the void with interlaced metal plates to prevent the exotics in Enclosure Four from sensing the presence and thoughts of anyone observing them.
“Bring it in,” Stone said.
Schmidt lifted the telephone receiver and said, “We are ready for you.”
Arena Four’s occupants gathered around the surveillance monitor. Digital lettering, an opaque horizontal message on the lower part of the screen, read, “Class 5[Restricted]: 7 DEC (SAT) < Auto\REC > E-4/16:22:02 (EST).”
A door slid open, the blue cushions of a gurney in the corridor behind it adding a momentary splash of color to the image on the screen. Then, more white. And gray.
An exotics technician, encased in an environment suit, entered the room, gazing downward through the clear faceplate at the specimen by her side.
“Which one is that, Doctor?” Stone asked, comparing the screen’s time display with that of his Casio sport watch.
“Thirty-Eight is still in quarantine.”
Enclosure Four’s door closed. The technician took baby steps, leading her three-and-a-half-foot-tall companion to the center of the room. Kneeling, back to the camera, the technician’s hood revealed her nodding head. Even in this position, she stood over the extraterrestrial, easily concealing from view its thin gray extremities and disproportionally large head.
“As you can see,” Schmidt said, “the tech is responding to the EBE. From what we have learned, Thirty-Seven is a botanist. It is also exceptionally talkative. Its telepathy is profusely invasive, our highest category. Some of the staff describe their experiences with it as generally pleasant, but tiring. It asks many questions, ‘why this,’‘why that,’ and so on, or so Professor Moresby believes.”
Lanham’s shoulders tightened. “What precautions have been taken?”
“The technician has no knowledge about the nature of this test. I told her to escort Thirty-Seven into the enclosure, as the isolation cells were in need of some maintenance. In trying to simulate field conditions, we will only visually observe the effects of ELF. The use of electrodes would tip our hand, so to speak.”
After this reassurance, Schmidt activated the intercom, instructing the technician to exit, which took approximately thirty seconds.
Alone, the creature stood with long, spindly arms at its sides, tilting its large head. Big black eyes stared at the camera recessed behind a glass plate.
“Go ahead, Don,” General Stone said.
Phone fast in hand, Lanham said, “Control, you have omega clearance. Proceed with the program.”
Its face filled the screen. Scrutiny of the equipment followed. Elongated fingers touched the transparent shield, leaving no smudge or prints. It moved away.
Stone’s palms sweated.
It poked at the seam around the doorway. In an instant, it withdrew its hand and then moved away, stumbling toward the camera.
“Boy,” Stone said, wiping his hands, “you can really feel it.”
Extremely low-frequency sound waves resonated through the building’s structure. As the sound waves grew in intensity, the volume from the associated vibration and hum also increased.
“Just like my son’s stereo,” Lanham said.
Its torso heaved. In, out. Black, almond-shaped pupils constricted. A milky film dripped from its slit of a mouth onto the floor. It moved erratically around the room, seeking escape. Its large face pressed against the shield over the camera, leaving an orange smudge. Its gangly legs failed. Thirty-Seven fell to the floor.
Arena Four’s occupants coughed several times, swallowing phlegm that ELF’s deep, pulsating tones loosened. The vibrations diminished. When they ended, Stone noticed his ears rang.
Its torso heaved again.
“It looks subdued to me,” Lanham said.
“Let’s make sure.” Stone cleared his throat and picked up the telephone. “Send him in.”
The door slid open, and a blond man, about thirty years old, entered, walking to the middle of the room.
The blond man’s black turtleneck, brown corduroy pants, crimson cardigan sweater, and brown suede loafers contrasted with the white walls of Enclosure Four. Beneath neat andtrim blond hair, the man’s blue eyes examined the lump that struggled to reach out at him. The man kicked away Thirty-Seven’s hand. He stepped back, unbuttoned his sweater, and removed a Colt .380 pistol from a holster concealed in his waistline. Aiming center mass, the man said, “Aren’t you going to stop me, Thirty-Seven?”
“I’m waiting, and I’m not known for my patience.”
The .380’s sights aligned. Easy breaths. Two staccato blasts followed. A third round penetrated the target’s head.
Activating the intercom, Stone said, “Thanks, James.”
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