She brushed dangling blonde curls out of her face, scratched at a sizable mole under her eye, then smacked my behind on her way out of the room. I yelped but didn’t scold her. It’s not every day you meet Bombardier Betty, even in such a fleeting manner. Soon I was on my hands and knees in the little booth inspecting the radio internals via an open service panel.
Evidently there’d been issues with hissing, popping and whatnot. I protested that I was trained in the operation and maintenance of field radios but she deemed that close enough, and added that everybody specifically trained to service the equipment in question was either dead, or deadish.
“Well the first thing that jumps out at me is the burnt mercury arc rectifier. I can’t guarantee that’s your only problem but it’s the most obvious. Do you have any spares?” She set down a case next to me. “Just what’s in there.” I rummaged through it, finding only a single magnetron and a few different types of vacuum tube. I peered up at her and shook my head as she looked on with exasperation.
“Well can’t you jerry rig something? That’s what you’re good at, right?” I smirked. “Lady these things don’t run on wishes and dreams. Only the right elements put together in exactly the right way will do the trick. Either you’ve got another arc rectifier on base, or you haven’t got a working radio.” She fretted about for a minute before struck by an epiphany.
“Now I’m no radio whiz but I’d bet my last pack of cigs that if there’s another one of those things around here, you’ll find it in the lab. My husband Fritz does his pokin’ and tinkerin’ there, so I’ve got a pass that’ll get you inside. Tell anybody who gets in your way that you’re on an errand for Gertrude.” She produced a photo ID strung from a lanyard from within her blouse and handed it to me.
Good enough for me. Got me out of that stuffy little booth for a while, anyhow. On my way out I took a closer look at some of the comic art. Lil’ Abner in a Brodie helmet, fending off legions of the dead is just one of those things you never expect to see in your life. Near the end I passed Betty, thin trail of smoke from her cig sucked continuously up into a ventilation duct.
“Hey big fella. You look run ragged! But when you get a chance, clean yourself up and swing by my room. I might have some more work for ya.” Now, no doubt some of the men on base found her overtures enticing. But that crowd doesn’t include me so, face a slightly pinker shade than usual, I hurried past.
In the central chamber with the stacks of monitors, I noticed a new addition. A board bearing a map of the world with scattered, illuminated bulbs all over it. A group of officers stood before it, rubbing their chins, pointing to various bulbs and chatting nervously. I stood just behind them, studying the board for clues to its meaning. Just then one of the bulbs flickered and went out.
“That one just went dark.” It took another two repetitions before they noticed me. I pointed to the bulb I meant, and one of them gestured dismissively. “The bulb simply burnt out. Thats all, no concern of yours. I’ll have it replaced soon enough.” That explanation might’ve satisfied me too, had he not been visibly sweating.
On top of that, the fellow he was talking to shook like a leaf, and all of them were smoking. A habit I’d noticed a sudden, widespread uptick in during my stay. No time to dwell on it just then. A bit of asking around and checking usefully placed wall mounted maps of the facility delivered me to the lab entrance.
I stood before a great metal hatch inset in a concrete wall. Something like the series of blast doors I’d come through on the way in. To one side there was a booth with a small porthole, glass that looked to be an inch or so thick and undoubtedly bulletproof. The bored, muscular looking woman within barked at me over an intercom as I approached. “Present your security pass, please.”
I held it up to the glass and she peered through with a penlight. I began to explain why I was not the slender freckled woman with frizzy red hair in the picture but she cut me short. “So you’re Gertrude’s errand boy today, huh? I keep tellin’ her that’s against protocol. What’s your business?” I explained that I needed a replacement mercury arc rectifier for the broadcast studio, and added that Gertrude must’ve sent me for fear that she wouldn’t remember which specific part was needed.
I stood there fiddling with my hands while she placed a phonecall. “Gertrude. This is Harriet. You send a scrawny rat faced lookin’ fella to pick up a part for you?” I thought to object to her description of me but decided against it. “Alright, you check out. Go on through, but you gotta decontaminate first. I suggest you hold your breath, no idea what’s in the stuff you get sprayed with.”
That didn’t sound promising. And indeed, once the outer hatch sealed behind me, I was blasted from all directions with some sort of foul smelling vapor. I covered my mouth and nose in time but didn’t think to shut my eyes, so I wound up rubbing away tears as they turned red and puffy on my way through the inner hatch. I could not, at first, make sense of my surroundings.
It is to some degree common knowledge that the level of technology available to the military exceeds by a few decades what is available to the general public. That’s fairly academic. Quite a different thing to step, bodily, into something which seems straight out of a penny scifi rag. The room was vast but darkened, the only illumination coming from rows of internally lit glass chambers along the far wall.
I could faintly hear the same familiar whirring and clicking from the computer room the other day, as well as the all encompassing low frequency hum. However I tried to navigate the room, on account of the darkness I only wound up banging my hips and knees on every possible surface as I fumbled around. I heard a gurgle, and stood as still as I could to listen for more. When only the usual hum and clicks followed, I resumed trying to locate a light switch.
“Just stay where you are, you blasted simpleton.” I spun around trying to identify the direction it came from. Out of the black recesses of the room, a pair of dim red eyes approached. What I figured for eyes anyway until, my heart thumping more and more violently as they drew near, I realized were tiny bulbs of some sort. “I’m sure I gave you a start with this contraption on. But you’re quite lost. Who let you in here? Was it Harriet? My work is terribly delicate, I can’t have random people barging in at all-”
I cut him short and hastily explained who sent me and why. The mystery voice fell silent for a bit. “That makes sense of it. Bless her heart but Gerty doesn’t mind interrupting my work in the slightest. Never did. You wait here while I fetch the part. She was right to send you to me I suppose, I’d just have liked some advance warning.” The pair of faint lights bobbed and swayed off into the darkness in the direction from which they came.
I heard rummaging in an adjacent room. But after several minutes of it, I was no longer content to stay put. So, I gingerly made my way towards the only source of light I could see, the glass cases along the wall. I immediately regretted the decision once I got close enough to glimpse the contents.
Stay Tuned for Part 8!