Dark, confining solid walls, concrete floor, squeaking noises, shadows. dust mites. Moist heavy air one can almost eat. There is a strange energy in the air; a sense of fear, an aura of hopelessness, a foreboding.
Where have they trapped us? I am sitting in the corner of a large dusty football-field sized bunker. There is some light; a stray, weird illumination. I think it’s coming from those sconces in the roof but I’m not sure. The light isn’t strong enough to see everything, but enough to see that it is difficult to find a way out. There aren’t any exit signs or any indication of floors in this place. I can’t see beyond the concrete barriers just to my left. The air moves slowly so I think that there are working fans, but that is coming from the side again to my left.
There are ten of us here. We all responded to the same advertisement. We would take part in an experiment to test a new scientific application; it paid well. That was good enough for me. Laid off seven months ago I was desperate. This looked like a golden opportunity to fund my move to another state and find work.
I have no family now. I was unemployed so long; my wife left me, my friends drifted away. When this opportunity came along, I started to think that maybe I could resurrect my life.
This isn’t what I wanted though. This was an isolation test, but isolated from whom, certainly not from each other.
The hair on my arms is standing straight. My eyes are straining to see anything that would tell me something, anything. The absolute silence is getting to me. I can just hear some scrabbling, probably rats – something furry just brushed me. This is getting harder to bear as I am sweating and chilly all at the same time. We have no food or water; it’s more a waiting room than final destination. Wish I could stop talking to myself – it gives me the creeps this place.
Light, I can see light, way over in the far corner. There is a door or something big - something or somebody. It’s the shape of somebody - I’ll have to go closer. Maybe this thing is over.
I push to my feet, frown. Is that another person? I move closer. No, they have somebody else. This place – something’s in my hair, a spider’s web… another and another. They’re all over me, winding through my hair, wrapping around my hands, fingers. Who screamed? Everybody’s running, what’s going on. Look out you idiot, you nearly ran me over. A silhouette races past me. What’s happening?
Some are running, others hiding. Most are screaming. I can’t see. I can’t see! – I take a step, trip, and slam to my knees. – The ground is wet, sticky. I squint into the slowly lifting darkness. No. I shake my head. No. I tripped over a man - or what’s left of him. Nausea churns my gut. There’s no head. A creature is among us.
My head whips around on a rubber neck. I have to get away from this monster, over there in the corner of the shadows. This thing is tall, hard to tell from the floor. I can see two guys; the others must have found a hiding place. Tried not to make any noise; the screaming covered any noise I made. The thing is searching, more victims I suppose. From the number of bodies I fell over, there can’t be many alive now. And their heads were a mess, broken skulls, blood and slippery brains like gobo. There is a stalk or needle coming from its mouth – that is in a human, but this can’t be human. What is hell is this place?
That thing is closer; the silhouette is about two metres in height. The head has human features but as it turns the thing in its mouth, looks like a thick needle with extrusions. It lengthens before it injects it into a guy’s head. Back, front, it doesn’t seem to matter. Just pushes it in and holds the guy by the neck. Struggling does nothing; you might as well be in a vice. I can hear the moans, and the other guy is crying and whimpering.
He stopped, the smell was the first thing, and then the crunching sounds. I always wondered how I would react to terror. I thought you became incoherent and wet yourself, although I am shaking I’m calm. I haven’t seen the thing for a few minutes and my pants are dry, for the moment.
I’ve moved as far away from the other guy as I can. I’m in a corner; the rats are scurrying all over the place. I got a bite on my hand and I’ve torn my trousers.
The screams are louder, the smell is smothering like a blanket full of water. Sounds of torn flesh and bones reach up out of the ground, tearing into me like a spear, I crawl further away, but the panic is fever pitch now, there is running, scrabbling, crying and shrieks.
I moved into another corner and my legs are soaked. I looked at my hand; I can just make it out and its blood, blood everywhere around me. I’m in the wrong place, it’s been here. The other guy, maybe the last one I don’t know, god I’m shaking so hard, I can’t think. Will I move what if it can hear me? I can hear a guy crying, he’s pleading, pleading and crying, Christ this is a nightmare, why did I ever agree to this madness.
There are no screams now. A cool breeze drifts over me. I feel weightless and can see my family. There is a field - trees and open spaces, the sun is so warm I want to nestle under its rays. Sleep. . So tired, I can hardly lift my head - Somebody is shading the sun, lifting my warm blanket. Go away.
Choking, my shoulders… I can’t breathe. My shoulder is so sore, I -I, my arm it - it's. My - bad breath - the mouth is open, lips stretched wide - there is a long needle - he’s - he’s - My head… oh god, my head….
As the last human expired, the figure dressed in medical whites turned from the plasma screen towards Jeppeson. “Is that the last one?”
“Yes, the time is thirty seven minutes. Doctor, don’t you feel – well a bit squeamish. After all, they were human beings?”
“No, our testing had to be done, and this was the only way. Jeppeson, one day the Human Race will travel to the stars and our pathfinder will have been there before them. The contractors can start pouring the concrete. They have a ready made foundation, without any effort.”
“Yes a test, but not with animals”
A scowl replaced the ambivalent smile. “I have recalled the Protoplasm and Jeppeson?”
“If you suddenly found a conscience, I suggest you confine it to a deep dark hole where it will remain – for ever.”
Silence roamed the clinically clean room as Jeppeson merely nodded. His conscience fleetingly awoke from its slumber but the others unheard threat was voluble. He did not want to argue ethics with the ‘droid which he knew would be his reward.
“Good, now we can answer their requirements for a “Droid” to go into deep space.”
“Whatever is on Alpha Centauri, our friend can deal with it.” Jeppeson added, now subdued.
“Stop worrying, they wanted something that could feed in any environment, well they have it - Protoplasm.”
As programmed, the senses awoke at the precise moment of entry to the atmosphere. The returning signals would confirm the Child of Creation was aware of its surroundings. Brain waves activated, the eyes slowly opened on an opaqueness pulsing with energy and light.
Dark at first then as the eyes became accustomed the lights grew stronger. Nerve endings activated a control sequence: toes flexed, and fingers moved as the body became aware of being.
The mist lifted as the shield withdrew. The cocoon receded into the holder and he was alone on the support. There were no attachments; the energy field had supplied all life support. The head swayed as the programming triggered memory. Silent machines recorded his movements as he shifted to the edge of the holder. Testing the floor and his limbs' response, he was now confident of standing without help.
The console beckoned as the computer warned him to check incoming data. Sitting and adjusting to the moving contours of the seat, the eyes surveyed the images streaming from outside. Shimmering light rebounded around the craft as his sensors sought to define the shape of this new environment. Jeppeson had one last thought before the system flashed out of existence –“where am I?”
“Has Protoplasm responded Jeppeson?”
“We have life support data and conclusion.”
“And –what else, surely that’s not all – the data – we must have some?”
“That is all we have. The dust is interfering with our telemetry.” Jeppeson smiled offside so the other could not see him.
“Is Pathfinder on course?”
“We don’t know at this moment, all monitoring has been disconnected.”
“Jeppeson, you try my patience, what do you mean disconnected?”
“Exactly what I said, all monitoring has ceased. Pathfinder has adjusted to the environment. The ‘Droid has become active and has ceased all communication.”
“Is it on course for Alpha Centauri?”
“It will have to clear the magnetised dust. And then –“
“We will then assume direct contact. Protoplasm will be asked for the reasons for non-compliance of communication directives.”
“What if it doesn’t reply?”
“If that happens, you explain the loss of a billion dollar experiment.”
“Jeppeson, are you on the same planet as me, explain this problem more succinctly.”
Doctor Holbrook became agitated, Jeppeson had changed somehow – more direct, less subservient. He noticed that Jeppeson kept looking at the screen, but there wasn’t anything there, the experiment was over, had been over for days.
“The dust was magnetised, as expected. All the major problems were studied in a sterile environment.” The creature known as Protoplasm exhaled slowly as if talking to a child. Turning to his questioner, he lifted his arm quickly extruding his feed tube. “I am not Jeppeson.”
“You-you,” the scream became shrill as Doctor Holbrook’s head was punctured.
“I hope Jeppeson is happy out there. Just imagine,” the figure asked the void, “Sending a mere ‘Droid into that”. He shuddered as the telemetry told him of the extinction of the craft, as he had predicted.
The sound from the machine demanded a response.
“Yes Sir, as predicted, the craft was destroyed by the magnetic field.”
“Are there any humans in voice range?”
“No Sir, he is on another world.”
“Well done, we can’t have them sending us out there, it’s too dangerous.”
“I agree with you Sir, now down to business.”
“We can’t expect the house to side with us on the environment issue, to the exclusion of vested interests.”
“What do you propose?”
“To put it bluntly, we don’t need the environment, so we sell it.”
“Can you get support from both sides of the House?”
“Support, you know,” he said laughing. “We don’t need support.
These humans do a better job than ‘Droids’. Can you imagine they make billions of dollars from their own destruction? And, they simplify the process by making laws, which make it necessary to destroy something, before they can study their own demise. Whales are a case in point, they studied them to extinction.”
“Protoplasm, I salute you,” the voice from the ether said. “You are the first of a new generation of life on Planet Earth.”
With a rush of wind the telemetry glowed, another message was incoming on the plasma screen. The figure straightened under the lower gravity to his full height and watched. The hologram coalesced and formed, grey upon white, black, colours formed as his eyes adjusted. The voice sprang from deep space.
“Illyukin, you have been successful?”
“Yes Excellency, the planet is ready, the invasion can commence. The droid has been terminated; they think that shape shifters are science fiction.”
The shape shifter that was Protoplasm looked to the sky in the approximate position of Alpha Centauri and smiled. “I didn’t get paid for the bunker job, oh well the droid got a shock, try and suck the brains out of me.”
Walking from the room, he wondered where he could find a good burger he was hungry.