B.G. Hilton – Writer

Specimen Boxes

Image by Foundry Co from Pixabay

Box 1: Legs

Operating the elevator was better than guard duty, outside in the sand, with the scorpions. Jimmy was from the Bronx and felt no fear for any rat, roach or spider, but scorpions scared the bejeesus out of him with their claws and stingers, like they were poisonous crabs or something.

No, the elevator was safer. When Jimmy ran the elevator, he was Buck Rogers and the metal box was his rocket to the stars. It sure felt like travelling from one world to another as he ascended from the cool, dank underground world of the base to the fresh dry air of the surface, like he was going from a submarine on Aquatica to the planet Aridia.

Or maybe that was from Flash Gordon? It was easy to get those two mixed up.

Jimmy was all the way down in the lower levels when the ground floor bell rang, and it took him over a minute to take the elevator to the surface. Jeff was waiting there with some guy from the Air Force, sweltering in the concrete pillbox at the top of the elevator shaft.

“…all lost between Roswell and Santa Fe. You remember what the Mexican Air Force said…”

Jeff gestured the Air Force guy to be quiet, and showed Jimmy his ID. He would have shown it already to the guard outside, but the big man was a stickler for protocol. Jimmy examined the ID and saluted. “Sir!”

“Level one,” Jeff said.

At the turn of a brass lever, the elevator descended. After a moment, the Air Force guy spoke again. “Well, the Mexican reports are unconfirmed, so make of them what you will. Your patient is all we’ve been able to salvage from this fiasco, so this doctor of yours…”

“You flew a bomber in the war, I believe?” Jeff drawled.

“That’s right. Little honey of a B-29.”

“Must have been noisy.”

“I’ll say!”

“It was quieter in intelligence,” Jeff said. “We rarely had to speak loudly to be heard.”

The Air Force guy reddened and remained silent for the rest of the trip.

As Jimmy opened the elevator doors, the Air Force guy began talking again before he was even out in the corridor. “SAC is still pissed about you using a Project Paperclip scientist without clearing it through–“

Jimmy slid the doors closed behind them. Occasionally he tried to make up stories in his head about the little snippets of conversation he heard, though of course he was never foolish enough to share them. The patient in Dr Gustav’s care, he decided, was not a Russian spy. That was too obvious. The patient was Mussolini, who had changed sides at the last moment, but had been wounded getting out of Italy.

It wasn’t likely to be true, but Jimmy liked the story anyway. His dad had always admired Mussolini, and Jimmy thought it was a shame that the Duce had thrown in with a louse like Hitler.

Box 2: Hands

he electronics workshop was half the size that it should have been for Abe and Don to work comfortably. The two men were crammed in tight among piles of copper and cast iron, of dull Bakelite and gleaming vacuum tubes, which didn’t do much for Don’s mood.

Don was the meanest old man Abe had ever met. Some days, Abe amused himself by prodding his boss into explosions of fury. Right then, though, Don didn’t need the encouragement.

The older technician was cursing Dr Gustav like words could kill the man. “Fucking squarehead cabbage-eating kraut prick! Philips screwdriver!”

Abe handed Don a screwdriver. Don removed another piece of the machine’s housing and swore again. “Sausage-sucking Hun bastard!”

“The Doc’s Czech, not German,” Abe said.

“They snip your brain as well as your cock? He’s a Sudaten German. And he can’t design circuits worth a damn.”

“The doctor is cutting edge,” Abe said. “Maybe his apparatus is too much for you, old man.”

“Go suck a lemon!” Don said. “You want cutting edge? I was at Las Alamos during the war. Half the wiring in those A-bombs was mine. There’s a million dead Japs who’d tell you who’s on the cutting edge. This stuff? Junk! I’m pretty sure it’s what keeps screwing with the fuses in Section Three.”

“I heard the Doc’s a genius.”

“Genius doctor, maybe,” Don said. “As an electrician, he’s a goddamn moron. Look at this! What is this?”

Abe looked where Don was pointing. “I’m not sure,” he said. Usually nothing made Don quite as angry as an admission of ignorance or uncertainty on the part of his junior technician. This time Don simply nodded. Abe continued: “It’s a thermionic valve, but it’s not a standard type. Not German either… or Russian… is it… home-made?”

“What kind of guy is smart enough to make his own valves,” Don said, “but so dumb he wires ’em into a Thessinger circuit with no lateral oscillation dampeners?”

Abe shrugged. “What’s all this for anyway?”

“It’s some kinda high-voltage electrical converter, I think,” Don said. “Though what a doctor needs with that, I don’t know.”

“Electroshock therapy?”

“Like for loony-birds?” Don sneered. “Well, you’d be the expert there.”

Box 3: Stomach

Music echoed and re-echoed off the concrete walls of the little mess room, the harsh acoustics lending an uncanny tone to the usually mellow crooning of Mr Perry Como.

The security chief of the base, Colonel Richard, had tried to confiscate the record player, calling it a potential hiding place for listening devices. Marta, the cook who ran the mess hall, had responded by removing the machine’s housing, leaving its guts exposed as proof that it was bug-free. In a snit, Richard had taken down the magazine photos which Marta had Scotch-taped to the wall in a valiant effort to make the place less gloomy. Marta had responded by taping up a US flag and a picture of President Truman, which so far Richard hadn’t dared make her remove.

Between meals the mess hall was mostly empty, but Jeff and Dr Gustav stood by the stove, smoking. Tobacco smoke tended to gum up the air system, so smoking was banned. The kitchen extractor system worked independent of the rest of the base’s air, so Marta was used to people standing under the range hood, puffing away when the cravings became unbearable.

The record came to an end. Marta meant to turn it over when she finished slicing tomatoes. In the sudden quiet, she could hear the two men talking. That didn’t much matter, since Marta was cleared Top Secret. Even the janitors had clearances so high you couldn’t jump over them.

Top Secret. Not bad for a dinner lady from Minnesota.

“You had to resuscitate again?” Jeff said.

“Either that or let him die,” Gustav said. “His recovery is so haphazard. The process is unpredictable at the best of times, and when you consider the complicating factors…”

“Spare me,” Jeff said. “When will your patient be fit to be questioned?”

“I don’t know,” Gustav sucked on his pipe. He reminded Marta of her uncle Lars. Although Lars was Norwegian and Gustav was Czech, they were both short, thin, pale, pipe smokers with gold incisors. Both thought that moustaches suited them. Both were wrong. But where Lars had been a quiet, slow mechanic, Gustav was a doctor full of frantic energy.

“You don’t know?” Jeff said.

“I don’t,” Gustav said. “This patient is a special case. My prognosis is: I don’t know when he’ll stabilize. A day from now, a month, a year, never.”

“When will you know?” Jeff said.

Gustav fussed with his pipe, his head shaking wildly. Marta knew that he drank too much coffee and never finished his meals. People who didn’t eat properly were hardly better than Communists.

“I’ll run some more tests.”

“Do so doctor,” Jeff drawled. “At your earliest convenience, please. Is there anything else?”

Marta liked Jeff better than Gustav. He was built like a linebacker, and spoke in the slow, mellow tones of the Southern gentry. Perhaps if you put Rhett Butler’s head on Tarzan’s body, you’d get someone like Jeff.

“There’s the matter of my brother,” Gustav said.

Jeff silenced him with a gesture. “Marta, darlin’,” he said.

Officially, Marta did not see anyone smoking in her kitchen. When she looked up, she feigned surprise that someone was standing barely three yards away. “Oh, hello Jeff. Dr Gustav.” Everyone at the base was on first names—”for added security,” they said–but try to tell a doctor he can’t be called “doctor” and see how far you get.

“Marta, m’dear’, the Doc was just saying that he’d appreciate some music,” Jeff said.

For all his flirting, Marta knew Jeff wasn’t attracted to her. Sometimes she caught Dr Gustav staring at her, but then, European men seemed to prefer fleshy women.

“How about some Perry Como?” she asked. This was a running joke. Marta’s collection of 78s had been damaged, leaving only her Como singles intact. The joke wasn’t funny anymore, but Jeff chuckled politely.

“Perry Como… What do you say, doc? Can you stand another day without Wagner?”

Gustav’s reply was drowned by the rising intro of If You Were the Only Girl.

Box 4 Eyes

The concrete corridors of the base were exactly 6’8 high, and Frederick was 6’4. In theory this gave him ample clearance, but in practice it meant that he was constantly dodging light fittings and low hanging cables. Frederick never complained. He was paid twice what his job was worth, and the only trade-off for this largesse was that he could never tell anybody where he worked or what he did. As a single man with few friends, he did not find this requirement onerous.

A fuse had blown in Junction Box 3f. That hadn’t happened in a couple of days. For a while there, 3f had been blowing up regularly, but Frederick had thought it settled once they’d got on top of whatever they were up to in Section Three.

Frederick had left some spare fuses in the box the last time he’d needed to fix it, so restoring power only took a moment. He noticed that a couple of bulbs had burned out in their grimy wire cages, so he took the opportunity to replace them. The only good thing about being a tall man in a low corridor was that he never needed a ladder to change the bulbs.

As Frederick worked, Dr Gustav came wandering by. That was strange. Gustav usually walked quickly, but now he ambled, unfocused, like he was half-asleep.

“Hello, Doctor,” Frederick said.

“Not Doctor,” Gustav said. “Freiherr.”

“‘Scuse me, sir?”

Freiherr,” Gustav said. He spoke like he was stoned, though he didn’t look the jazz-club type. “It means ‘baron’. My… my older brother died.”

“Mighty sorry to hear that, sir.”

“It was five years ago… back in the old country. The authorities suspected he was dead, but only just found confirmation.”

“And he was a baron,” Frederick guessed. “So now you a baron–a lord?”

“Yes, yes, a lord, exactly,” Gustav said. He fell silent for a while, his mouth half open, his tongue running over his gold tooth. “Frederick…” he said at last, “do you have a brother?”

“Yessir, I did,” Frederick said. “Not a big brother. He was my little brother.”

Frederick was not a yakker. He had said all that he meant to say, but the next words forced themselves out of him as if speaking themselves: “He died too.”

“How?”

Frederick closed his eyes. Inside his lids, he could see burning crosses. “He got in a fight. With some bad folks.”

Gustav let out a bitter little laugh. “Same as my brother,” he said. “Fool! Damned fool! I told him not to fight back! It hurts to knuckle under, but at least you get to live.”

“Sometimes, a body don’t have a choice,” Frederick said.

Gustav shook his head. “No choice!” he spat. “You know that bulb there is starting to flicker?”

“Yessir. I’m fixing it next.”

Frederick expected Gustav to move on, but the little man just stood there, shaking his head silently at the floor. Usually, Frederick loved the quiet, but now there was something terrible in the silence, something that sucked at his lungs and throat, forcing more words up to his mouth.

“When my brother died,” he said, “it felt like a piece of me done died too.”

“Of course,” Gustav said. “No man is a thing complete and whole in himself. We are built from pieces. Some are lost, others are added. It is perfectly normal.”

“It’s rough, man,” Frederick said.

Both men started at this familiarity. Embarrassed, neither could meet the other’s eyes. Gustav gave a curt nod and scurried on his way, and Frederick returned to his lightbulbs.

Box 5: Larynx

Patricia ran the communications system, which was one of those jobs that have no middle gear. You were either flat out busy for hours, or else killing time tidying and retidying in between episodes of nail filing. Today was the second sort of day, with two short communications to the base and one slightly longer one from Jeff to the Pentagon, but otherwise nothing.

A fly which had somehow gotten all the way down here was turning lazy circles in the air. No, not circles. Squares. Flies travel in squares. You can see the corners. How had she never noticed that before?

A knock roused her from her reverie. Pat opened the door with the annoyance that often overcomes the bored, interrupted in their boredom. It was not a message, it was Marta and the afternoon coffee cart, which softened Pat’s mood.

“Usual, Pat?” Marta said. Patricia nodded. Marta always made the comms room her last visit on the coffee round. This gave her a chance for a chat before moving off to cook the evening meal.

Pat and Marta sat, shared a coffee, and demolished the remains of the pastry tray. They discussed dinner menus and cheap army ingredients and rude electricians and poor Frederick scraping his head on the ceiling. He’d probably go bald early, but then baldness doesn’t ruin a black guy’s looks the way it does with white men.

“Are there more pastries than usual today?” Pat said, between bites of strudel.

“No one in Section Three wanted anything to eat today,” Marta replied, gesturing with a disapproving forkful of strudel. “Dr Gustav just made me leave a big pot of coffee. Ugh. Gives me the creeps, that guy.”

“Don’t be hard on him,” Pat said. “He just found out his brother died.”

“Pat! Really!”

“It’s not classified,” Pat said. “Besides Gustav told Frederick, who told Abe in electronics, who told me.”

“Didn’t you see Gustav’s message already?”

“That’s not the point,” Pat said. “I heard it again through unofficial channels, so it’s not a breach if I tell you.”

“I don’t know…”

“Honey, I could tell you things about Gustav that would make your stomach turn,” Pat said. “But you know me–I’d never say anything to you that I couldn’t repeat in front of a court martial.”

The door crashed open and Jeff strode in, his face pale, his hair and suit awry. “Pat! Message for General Brieling at the Pentagon,” he said.

Pat offered him a pad and pencil. Jeff held up his right hand, which was oozing blood. “I believe I shall dictate,” he said. Marta jumped for the first aid box and began cleaning his wound while the big man spoke and Pat transcribed.

“Sir: at approximately 1500 hours Dr Gustav attempted to free the prisoner, stop. Claimed he was discharging his patient, stop. Gustav’s repeated resuscitations in error stop. Patient was somehow–somehow storing energy from the converter, stop. Gustav dead, stop.”

Pat gasped. Marta dropped her bottle of iodine, which shattered on the concrete floor.

“More things run in Gustav’s family than we thought, stop,” Jeff continued. “No, scratch that last line. Patient shot dead, stop. Pvt Dwayne killed, stop. Deaths to be confirmed as soon as new doctor procured, stop. Message ends.”

For a while, there was no sound but the buzz of a fly and the scratching of Pat’s pencil on a notepad as she coded the message. Unable to stand it any longer, she dropped her pencil and clapped the insect to death.

“Are we safe?” Marta said, her voice taking on a sing-song Scandinavian accent as stress overtook her.

“The threat has been nullified,” Jeff said. His mouth opened and closed as if he wanted to say more–as if he wanted to explain, or perhaps merely to comfort. He snapped his lips shut tight and breathed deeply. “The threat has been nullified. That is all you need to know.”

Pat finished coding the message and reached for the controls on her wireless. The machine was dark… dead. She felt her throat close in panic. When the lights went out seconds later, she found she couldn’t even scream.

“I see,” Jeff whispered. “Well played. Girls, I’m going to have to go out. Lock the door behind me.”

Pat forced herself to her feet, pushing past the shaking Marta. Marta flinched at her touch and knocked something over–the trolley, maybe. It didn’t fall far before hitting a desk with a dull ‘clunk’.

Then the door opened. The silent darkness exploded into blinding light. The fragile silence gave way to the sound of bullets, like mallet-blows to the ears. The universe was brightness, chaos, cacophony — and then the door was closed and the quiet blackness returned.

When her ears stopped ringing, the only sounds Pat could hear were Marta’s breathing and the drip of coffee from the overturned urn onto the concrete floor.

It wasn’t until she found the flashlight that they saw Jeff’s body. It would be hours before it was cool enough to touch.

Box 6 – Birth canal

Alarms summoning the sentries from topside rang in Jimmy’s ears. The sentries would take the stairs. That was protocol in an emergency. The elevator should be shut down completely.

There was no light in the little metal box, not from the ceiling light, not even through the gap between the doors. Jimmy could feel the brass handle of the lift control– useless, but comforting in his hand.

Desperate for light, Jimmy patted his pockets for the dented metal shape of his cigarette lighter. It didn’t light first try, nor the second. Jimmy was almost in tears when the wick finally caught. It was low on fuel and produced only a feeble glimmer, but it soothed the crackling in his nerves.

Procedure! Come on, what’s the procedure? Oh, yeah: if the operator was in the lift when it was shut down, he was supposed to lock the door from within until the all clear. The private fumbled out his keys. One caught on his pocket flap and the entire key-ring clanged to the floor. He went on all fours to find them by the dim flame of the lighter. An image struck him: Buck Rogers on hands and knees searching for the key to his rocket. He wanted to laugh, but choked it down.

The doors slid open. In the second before the change in air pressure blew out his lighter, Jimmy had barely time to see a pale figure. It was about the size and shape of a skinny little girl, maybe ten or twelve, but with no hair and with the biggest eyes Jimmy ever saw. The doors closed. The little room filled with the scents of bleach, aniseed and blood.

“Surface,” a voice said. There was nothing juvenile about this voice. Nothing feminine. Jimmy forced himself back up onto legs that felt like they were stuck in quicksand and pulled the control handle up. He expected nothing to happen, but with a jerk, the elevator began its ascent.

The trip took two minutes. The trip took an hour. The trip took five years. Jimmy knew that when his passenger opened the doors, he’d get a better look. The idea terrified him even more than the thought that the passenger might kill him. When the lift came to a halt, he closed his eyes tight, and prayed like he hadn’t since he was a choirboy.

Jimmy’s right hand was gently grasped. He whimpered. Now he could not help opening his eyes a little, and in the ray of desert light that shone between the elevator doors, he saw that the hand that held his was long and slender, with smooth, bone-white skin, crisscrossed with lines of ugly, black surgical stitches. Jimmy forced his eyes shut again.

“Open hand.”

With another whimper, Jimmy opened his hand. Something small, hard and sharp was placed on his palm.

“Tip,” said the passenger. “For elevator operator. American custom.” The elevator doors opened to the dessert heat and the passenger was no longer present. Gunfire and screams from outside the pillar box barely even registered to Jimmy, who wept such copious tears of relief that it was a long time before he could even see golden tooth that he held in his hand.

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