The Odd Job

 
 

The Odd Job

By Adam Allegro

The air was frigid and still and the room was quiet and black except for the glowing end of a cigarette. Dennis was awake, leaning against the beige headboard with his knees bent towards the ceiling, feet flat on the made covers. There was an overflowing ashtray to his right, the nightly remains of restless boredom and willing isolation. An empty bottle of Canadian Club Whiskey was resting on its side next to the broken TV and the floor was dotted with dirty clothes and empty takeout boxes. The wallpaper was an obnoxious mix of yellow and green lines dotted with patterned daisies and sunflowers. The fan only worked on the lowest setting and the bathroom kept having plumbing issues. The manager and the housekeeper had each been through a number of times to unclog a clog or stop a never-ending drip. He missed his tiny studio in the Castro.

Despite the booze and the lack of sleep, Dennis felt sharp and his mind was active. He was driven here five days ago and had been impatiently waiting for instructions the entire time. How much longer would they keep him waiting in this cheap motel room? Should he have asked for more money? What was the actual job they were keeping him in the dark about? He took a deep drag from his cigarette and stared at the faint glow behind the window. A flash of light danced across the curtains and then there was a subtle screeching, followed by the steady idle of an engine. A few seconds later the silence was shattered by three serious knocks at the door.

“It’s time guy! Wake up!” bellowed a deep voice from outside.

“Yea, yea, I’m awake. Give me a few minutes,” replied Dennis

“Hurry up! We gotta go now!” yelled a different voice, higher pitched and more muffled than the first.

Dennis extinguished his cigarette and scooted out of bed. He put the empty bottle to his lips in hope of a final drop and was rewarded with a beggar’s sip. He got dressed and gathered his things. All of his newly acquired gear was already packed in the black duffel bag in the corner near the door, as his employer made sure to emphasize the importance of haste once the time arrived. For some reason they didn’t want him using his regular equipment for this job. He learned to not ask questions when working with these suits; the pay generally satisfied any curiosity that arose.

Dennis used the bathroom and collected the rest of his essentials. He made sure not to forget the pair of 50 ml bottles of Jamison and his pack of smokes. He picked up his bag and seized the lined leather jacket that was lying on the desk, put it on and then walked out the door.

The icy air bit at Dennis’s cheeks when he emerged from the motel room and he shivered. The larger of the two men who was guarding him the last five days held open the back door to a black Chevy Caprice. Its brights were pointed at the adjacent room and its engine hummed loudly in the morning chill, steam and condensate shooting out of the exhaust pipe like fire from a flamethrower. The windows were all tinted black and only added to the uncertainty and secrecy surrounding the current job.

“Tick tock guy, tick tock. They’re waiting on you,” said the larger one, emotionless in the reflected glare of the headlights. Dennis wondered if either of the men had changed their black suits in the past five days. Didn’t look like it from the stains and wrinkles. It seemed like both of them were there at all hours, sitting in plastic chairs on either side of Dennis’s room, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, mostly in silence. He had tried to befriend them the first day but they were having none of it. The only real interaction was centered around food deliveries.

“That it?” asked the larger suit, gesturing towards the duffle bag.

“Yea. Everything’s there.”

“What time is it?” asked Dennis as he walked up to the car. He hadn’t worn a watch since the conflict overseas and the clock in the bedroom was broken.

“Early. Get in.”

Dennis ducked in to the back seat and slid over. The smaller man guarding him was behind the driver and Dennis settled in to the middle seat with nowhere for his duffel bag but his lap. The larger man ducked in to the seat behind the passenger and closed the door in one motion. The mustached man with horn-rimmed glasses behind the wheel gave Dennis a hard look in the rearview mirror and then threw the Chevy in to reverse. The man in the passenger seat stared forward and didn’t move. They backed out of the Vagabond Motel parking strip and turned on to the main road that ran through the city of Ridgecrest, California. Dennis turned his head around and only saw glowing red dust turning up in the blackness behind them.

It was quiet and vacant as they glided through the town, as most towns tend to be at this hour. Dennis guessed it was around 3am, maybe 3:30. He was squished between his week’s guardians and both had already established their territory over personal space. The fact that they smelled like marathon runners didn’t help the situation. The two suits were clearly trying to assert dominance and further intimidate Dennis, which was fine by him. He didn’t mind. He thought back to his time in the Marine Corps and the overcompensating that these two clowns were doing made him smile. He laughed aloud quietly at the contrast in the two, and the contrast in his world. He was a walking contradiction, had been all his life.

The black Caprice rode unopposed through the early morning darkness and stopped at a red light next to a used car dealership and high-interest loan shop. An empty intersection unfolded in front of the car and a static E8-BProwler sat kiddy corner on a stand surrounded by sand and more shadows. A few moments later the light turned green and they proceeded down the road. The veered left and drove through a half-closed gate that restricted traffic from four lanes to two lanes and then came to a stop at a security checkpoint. There was a uniformed guard in full combat dress with an M-16 rifle, his finger hovering next to the trigger. A sign above the wooden guard shack read: Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. The driver rolled down his window and the guard approached.

“Good morning sir, may I please see your papers,” said the young soldier, his tone stern and serious.

“We’re here under the orders of Dr. Herbst. Here are our ID’s. I’m just going to reach in to the glove compartment to get our papers,” replied the driver, calm and composed. 

The mustached driver slowly reached across the center console and opened the glove compartment. He picked out an oversized envelope and revealed to Dennis and the passenger’s side of the car, a shiny handgun and two extra clips of ammunition. The other men in the car were also carrying guns, no doubt. The driver covered the gun with another piece of paper and closed the compartment. He handed the envelope to the young soldier and then rested both of his hands on the wheel.

 

            “bet, weave with soldier walking and talking. What else can you say?

 

The soldier took the envelope and ID’s and looked around, his breath visible from his mouth like smoke from a chimney. He methodically walked around the rear of the Caprice and shined his flashlight on the license plate, jotted down the numbers and continued around the other side. When the soldier finished his circle he went back inside the wooden shack and picked up the phone, relayed the gathered information. A couple minutes later the soldier returned and handed back the paperwork.

“Thank you for your patience, sir. Please stay on the roads and proceed directly to Station 31 with no detours. They are expecting you.” The soldier walked in front of the car and opened the gate in the illumination of the headlights. Once the heavy metal gate was cleared the black Caprice accelerated in to the desert.

They drove through the early morning stillness in silence. Dennis thought about making a joke about how talkative the four of them were but thought it better to avoid sarcasm among such serious company. Instead he asked about the job.

“So, what’s the deal with this job?” Dennis asked all of them and no one in particular answered. He got the message.

Further the drove down the narrow, dusty road. The moon was absent from the black sky and a billion stars took the opportunity to twinkle wildly. Rolling hills and amateur mountains stretched out inconsistently in all directions while random stations dotted the empty landscape. Most were dark but some were illuminated. The further they drove the farther apart the station became. The road turned from straight to squiggled and the wind picked up, lapping at opposite sides of the black Caprice as it continued along the sandy, curving road. Dennis was beginning to get anxious; there were more variables at work and he preferred.

Further afield, over the horizon, a radiance of manufactured white light extended upward and emanated in the distant darkness. The black Caprice continued over the desert landscape, the night sky still resolute in its persistence. The stars were brilliant and twinkled with an intensity Dennis had never witnessed before. He wanted to stop, get out of the Caprice, walk around. He wanted to lose himself in that sky. He also needed to take a piss. A cigarette wouldn’t hurt either, thought Dennis. He would be patient; its not as if he had any other options.

Distance, deceptive and misleading in the never-ending Mojave, slowly revealed a huge hangar with bright white light spilling out in random places. The Caprice continued forward and the hangar grew until it towered above them. There were a few cars and trucks in the makeshift parking lot that was just adjacent to the front of the hangar. When the high beams breezed across their dusty frames Dennis could tell they hadn’t been used in days, maybe weeks. The mustached driver pulled the Caprice around to the front of the warehouse and put the car in park. A pair of soldiers, each also in full battle dress with loaded M-16’s, stood guard on opposite sides of the entrance. A sign to their left read the following: Station 31 – Restricted Access Modules.

Dennis felt his caretakers beginning to stir and readied himself to move.  

“It’s been great getting to know you boys; really enjoyed our conversation,” remarked Dennis. There was a grunt from the driver and silence from the passenger. In fact, come to think of it, Dennis hadn’t seen the passenger move once the entire ride. The trip had taken over an hour, he estimated. The mustached man behind the wheel watched Dennis in the rearview mirror through shadowed eyes as he followed the larger suit out of the Caprice.

Outside the company car, in the biting cold and darkened dawn, his larger caretaker said, “We’ll be here waiting for you when you’re done guy. Once all of it’s processed you’ll get the rest of what you’re owed. Don’t fuck this up.”

“Got it,” said Dennis, nodding to the larger suit, anxious to get inside the hangar and figure out what the job was. He turned around and began walking towards Station 31’s entrance.

After a few steps the glass door opened and an older man and younger woman, both clad in white coats, walked out in to the desert night to greet Dennis. The soldiers came to attention as the scientists walked past them. The older scientist spoke first in a thick German accent.

“Good morning Mr. Owen. My name is Dr. Herbst and this is my assistant, Dr. Fairchild. I apologize but we haven’t time for the appropriate formalities, we must begin as soon as possible. Do you have the equipment?”

“Hi. Um, yea, its all in here,” replied Dennis, holding up the duffel bag as he responded.

“What exactly are you paying me to do?”

“Ah, you will find out soon, Mr. Owen. Please be so kind as to follow us now. Everything will be explained to you shortly.”

Dr. Herbst and Dr. Fairchild turned and walked back through the glass door and Dennis followed, still anxious and unsure of the situation. The two armed guards flanking the glass door were still as stone as he passed them. The three of them emerged in to a white airlock, and when the glass door shut, a constant burst of air blew on them for 10 seconds before the opposite door clicked open. They walked through it and emerged in to a giant white atrium with numerous doors off to either side and two massive sliding doors in the back. The scientists led Dennis off to the left and stopped at the farthest door. Dr. Herbst turned to face Dennis.

“Before we go in I wanted to make sure you understand that everything you are about to see is classified at the highest level. You have been granted temporary clearance in order to complete your work, which is essential to our efforts. If you can do that, maintaining the highest degree of discretion when you depart, everything will be fine and you will be paid handsomely for your prudence. If you decide you want to tell stories, well, let’s just not go down that route. So, Mr. Owen, are we clear on what is expected?”

“Well, I’m still not clear in the slightest about what’s expected. I haven’t been told anything, despite my best efforts trying to find out. As far as me telling stories, I’m a shitty storyteller anyway so no point in even trying,” replied Dennis.

Dr. Herbst laughed harder than the situation warranted. “This will be a difficult story to keep to yourself, Mr. Owen. As for the details, those will come very soon. Now, we must hurry, there is not much time.”

The old scientist swiped a card across a small box next to the door and held the door open for the other two. The three of them emerged in to a long, white hallway that extended out to the right. Dr Herbst walked down the hall with the other two in tow. To the right was a glass window that ran the length of the hallway which looked upon the inside of the hangar. Spaced around the giant shelter were smaller “rooms”, temporary structures over various shapes and sizes covered in a white, translucent plastic. Objects as large as planes could just be made out behind the plastic drapes with figures moving about. In between the “rooms” more scientists moved around here and there accomplishing various scientific tasks. It was like something out of the movies.

Dr. Fairchild had still not said a word and instead watched Dennis closely. It made him feel like she didn’t trust him or maybe suspected him of something. It made him uncomfortable.

Dr. Herbst led them a little further down the hallway before turning to his left and stopping in front of another door labeled Locker Room. He opened the door with his keycard and the three of them walked though.

“Here you can change in to sterile clothes. We have already prepared an outfit for you and a place to put your… soiled linens.” Dr. Herbst pointed to an open locker in the corner of the room. “The environment in which you will be working is a clean room and no contaminated items can be permitted inside. You will need to change everything. Please get ready with haste. Someone will retrieve your duffle in a moment and then give you what you need on the other side after it has been properly cleaned. The additions require a separate process for sterilization. We have no time to lose here! Beeile dich!”

With that Dr. Herbst turned on his heels and the two scientists departed the room. Dennis was finally by himself. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

“What have you gotten yourself in to, Dennis?” he asked himself aloud. They still hadn’t told him what his role in all of this mystery actually was.

Dennis exhaled everything and opened his eyes. He felt less anxious but the nerves were still there, like levee’s keeping a monstrous storm at bay. He walked over to the corner of the locker room and gently placed his duffle bag on the floor and sat down on the narrow wooden bench. He undressed and placed his worn outfit in one of the open lockers in front of him. The anticipation began to well up inside of him and his thoughts began to wander. There had been odd jobs in the past, shrouded in a similar degree of secrecy, but nothing quite like this one. As Dennis stood up and pulled on the provided white underwear and undershirt a younger man walked in to the room. He looked like he could be an intern and wore a skinny mustache above serious lips.

“Good morning Mr. Owen. Is that it? Fantastic. I’ll get everything sterilized and bring it to you when you’re inside the clean room.”

Before Dennis could reply to the young intern he scooped up the duffle bag and was out the door. Dennis continued to dress, stepping in to both legs of the blue hazmat suit and pulling them up, then inserting each arm in to the sleeves. He kept the hood down for the time being and picked out a small bag with the rest of the items he needed to wear. While sitting on the bench and putting on the slippers and booties the inside door opened and two men in the same type of hazmat suits, only white, walked slowly to the center of the room. One was as large as a small bear and the other was short like a tall tree stump. They faced each other and larger one looked down when he spoke. The words struggled to get out of his trembling mouth, his big belly moving in and out intensely with his cavernous, panicky gasps. He gently shook his trembling head side to side as he spoke

“I…I…Wha…What the fuck was that?” He looked over to the door they had just entered from and said softly, almost in a whisper. “What was that Charlie? What the fuck was that Charlie!”

The shorter man reached his right arm up and rested it on the larger man’s shoulder.

“Hey, buddy, everything’s alright. It wasn’t real. C’mon big guy, look at me. Walter… Walter!”

The larger man looked back to his friend and began to weep gently, then more intensely. The smaller man pulled the larger one in for an embrace and was met in kind and the two of them stood there together in each other’s arms. What could be behind those doors, wondered Dennis. He realized that he had been staring and went back to getting dressed, leaning over to finish pulling up his left bootie. He pulled on the latex gloves and fixed his facemask, then pulled his hood over his head. He collected everything he was wearing and shoved it in to the locker and closed the door. The two men in the center of the room separated and turned to Dennis. The larger man looked directly at him and spoke as a child might to an adult.

“Did you see it? Did you? What is it…? Where is it from…? What does it all mean…? How did it know about… her…? There’s no way…” The large man in white trailed off and began to sob again. The smaller man embraced the larger man as he cried. Dennis had no idea what to say and instead stood up and managed a meager “I’m sorry.”

The front door to the room swung open and Dr. Herbst entered with his assistant in tow, both suited in similar white hazmat suits. He appeared to be in more of a rush than before from his erratic movements. He gave the embracing pair in the center of the room a curious look as walked over to Dennis. His face was obstructed by his mask and his words were muffled.

“Is everything in order? Ready to go? All right Mr. Owen, follow me. No time to spare.”

Without waiting for Dennis to reply, Dr. Herbst turned and walked passed the pair to the far end of the locker room. He swiped his ID card at the console and the three of them walked though the inner door.

They emerged in to a control room with a man and a woman in the same white suits at opposite consoles typing away on their keyboards. Both turned their heads when the trio entered. Between them was a large metal door with a circular glass porthole in the middle. Dr. Herbst nodded to the man on the console to the right as he approached the metal hatch. He turned the airlock wheel and opened it. They walked in to the next room and Dr. Herbst closed the metal hatch behind them.

The grey ceiling was covered in hundreds of tiny, shiny jets and the gunmetal floor was made of porous, steel grating. There were no windows except for the portholes on the heavy hatch they just came through and the one on the hatch on the opposite side of the small room. The man from the console appeared on the other side of the porthole and gave them a thumbs up. Dr. Herbst returned the gesture and then turned to Dennis and Dr. Fairchild.

“There will be a continuous stream of foggy air from above that will cleanse you of all your, how do you say it, stowaways.” Dr. Herbst laughed for a beat and then continued. “It is rather jarring but do not be alarmed. I assure you, it is quite safe. The chemicals we use for sterilization are reasonably safe, I assure you.”

Without warning every overhead jet turned on at the same time with a tremendous roar. It sounded like a massive wave was crashing endlessly on a floor of hot coals. The airlock filled with thick, white fog for 30 seconds. The fog sat for another 30 seconds before a substantial vacuum started up below their feet and sucked everything out of the room. When the room was clear Dr. Herbst stepped forward and opened the far hatch.

Dennis stepped over the lip and emerged in to a large bright room with a low ceiling full of what appeared to be one continuous recessed light. Everything was white including the bare walls and the opaque, porcelain floor. It felt overwhelmingly clinical and every instinct told Dennis to turn around and walk out while he still had the chance. He couldn’t do that. Instead, he looked around and noted all the important things. The space would be sufficient for whatever his employers wanted. There was a large pair of doors to his left and a matching set to his right. He moved forward a few inches after gauging the distance to the other wall and decided this is where he would set up.

“Well, Mr. Owen?” asked Dr. Herbst, impatiently.

“I think we’re good to go Doctor.”

“Alright then. Your equipment should be here momentarily. I will go and see that everything is prepared for you. Please wait here.”

Dr. Herbst turned and hastily walked away through the doors to the right with his assistant following close behind. Dennis was alone again. He looked around again and wondered what was about to happen. He was nervous and anxious and wanted all of this to be over, to be heading back to his shitty motel room to sleep off the morning. He wanted a cigarette. He wanted a drink. All in good time, he thought. Just get through this, whatever this is. The airlock behind him opened and the intern stepped through carrying a cloth, white bag the same size as his duffle. He gently rested the bag next to Dennis’s feet and murmured a muffled “good luck,” before turning and walking back through the airlock.

It’s happening, he thought. Dennis bent down and unzipped the bag. He reached inside and felt for the metal poles and removed them. He extended each leg slowly and methodically as a professional would and. When each of the three legs was extended he raised the metallic neck slightly so that it was at the same height as his chest. He adjusted the head so it aligned with the far wall. When Dennis was satisfied he reached in to the bag for again and removed the bulky, sterilized machine.

When Dennis secured the heavy Rolleiflex camera to the top of the tripod everything became real. He looked down through this plastic protecting the top lens and carefully tested his focus with the customized dial on the lead cover. The manual cable release was already attached, fused to the armor during modification. He looked around and took light readings in his mind and then, drawing on his experience, adjusted his aperture and shutter speed accordingly in preparation. The light was constant throughout the room, which would make for fewer factors and thus fewer decisions when he was working. He knew the drill now after decades behind the lens but worked attentively nonetheless. The stakes were sky high for this one. When Dennis was sure everything was dialed in he advanced the film with the covered lever and stepped back. He was full of excitement and nervous curiosity. It felt like the night he lost his virginity; the second time.

The doors to the right opened and two new scientists walked through. Another scientist, this one short and plump, was pushing a cart that contained an enormous, transparent diamond box. It glistened and sparkled like an engagement ring as it reflected back the light from above. Inside the box, fixed to the top, a round, black object protruded down an inch. It was connected to an identical object on the bottom of the box by a small black pipe running vertically on the outside. There was a small control panel attached to the pipe. Scattered around the floor of the clear box was a mix of cloud and ash, a plasma of sorts. It was moving, or rather there was an energy moving through it. Tiny waves of lightning silently throbbed through the substance but otherwise it was still.

Dr. Herbst and Dr. Fairchild followed the cart to the middle of the room while chatting quietly. Dr. Herbst was pointing to something on Dr. Fairchild’s clipboard. A few seconds later he broke off from the group and walked towards Dennis.

“Remarkable, is it not, Mr. Owen?” His proud voice was muffled under the mask.

“What… is it?”

“That I can not tell you. Both because your clearance does not permit it and because we only know very little of the entity.”

“Entity?”

“Yes, Mr Owen. We have nothing else in our language to classify it. It is not alien, since it might be from this very planet. It just appeared, where I cannot tell you, because of your clearance. It is not like us. Instead of DNA it has something… else. You will see in a moment. It is extremely reactive to sounds, even in its static state. You see Mr. Owen, it needs energy to exist, like us. The difference is that with this creature, this specimen, there is no central nervous system, no circulation, no transmission in the physical sense. Yet it behaves as if it possesses some type of consciousness. We do not understand it yet. We have discovered if we set off a small EMP from that black distributor under the top of the box we can knock down the entity for a few minutes. Then we remove the atmosphere and introduce a vacuum with the bottom mechanism. This process renders the entity more-or-less inert and we are able to study it. Think of it as general anesthesia for an inter-dimensional being.”

Dr. Herbst paused and looked over Dennis’s left shoulder to Dr. Fairchild, who just finished writing on her clipboard and was turning to approach them. The doctor continued.

“Now, this is where you come in Mr. Owen. We have been unable to capture any images of the entity. All of our attempts have failed to produce anything of value. We have concluded that the problem is the equipment. Any small electrical devices were getting fried, which ruled out many cameras. After more experimenting we found that the film was being exposed as soon as it was in the same room as the entity. Now, we have developed a camera dressed in a lead suit and high-density synthetics for the lenses. I was told you are familiar with the operation?”

“I am. What do you want me to do?” Dennis was hanging on the doctor’s every word, lost in the mysterious and bizarre monologue.

“Well Mr. Owen, it is very simple. We would like you to take a series of photographs of the entity. We are scientists, not artists. If we were to capture this creature it would be completed in a calculated and clinical way, and I fear we would be doing ourselves a grave injustice. We would miss half of the essence, the beauty, our reflected humanity. We are not simply trying to study this entity from an objective standpoint. As much as we strive to understand it, we want to admire and be moved by it as well, the way one is when they see the Faberge Eggs or the Pyramids of Egypt or their child’s drawing. So, Mr. Owen, please get to work. As you know there are 12 pictures on that roll and we do not have time for another, although I believe you won’t need half that. Please work with haste, the vacuum can only be maintained for so long.”

Dr. Herbst whispered something to Dr. Fairchild and she turned and walked over to the diamond box. After saying a few quiet words to the other scientists the four of them hurriedly departed back through the door they had emerged from, leaving just Dennis and Dr. Herbst with the entity. Dennis nodded to the doctor and then picked up his tripod with his left hand, supporting the blocky camera with his right. He crept up to the diamond box and stopped a few feet away, slightly off to the right. He softly situated the tripod on the white, porcelain floor and lowered the metal neck so that the shielded Rolleiflex was even with the box, slightly higher than the substance. Dennis turned and glanced at Dr. Herbst one more time and then back at the inert entity in the box and felt the gravity of the moment crash in to him like a crashing wave at the beach. He took in a deep breath and closed his eyes and imagined everything in the world evaporating with his exhale. When he opened his eyes everything was clear. Dennis looked down at the shielded reflex screen, quickly found his focus and raised his head again to look at the box.

            Dennis picked up the shutter release and counted down from three. On zero he pressed the shutter release and in the same moment there was a loud snap and the inert entity jolted up to the top of the box and took the shape of a contained fog, a miniature storm cloud that flashed the most brilliant, shimmering blue. A rush of sensations reverberated throughout Dennis’s body. In the span of a few seconds he heard intense colors and smelled delicious sounds. He tasted the sweet palate of a vivid sunrise and looked upon the sublime nature of a melody. He felt his body wither and decay and turn to dust. Then he felt nothing. A spark of fusion followed and then a burst of expansion, and Dennis felt his heartbeat grow from a single cell in to a man. He felt all of this.

It was the entity. The explosion of senses evaporated as it fluttered gracefully down to the bottom of the box. Dennis almost felt normal again. He made an attempt to wrap his mind around what had just happened but he could not; it was like trying to grasp infinity. Something compelled him to continue.

            Dr. Herbst was in the back of the room writing in his notepad and appeared not to have noticed the peculiar occurrence. Dennis picked up the tripod and walked around the diamond box to its rear. He set up the Rolleiflex to include the doctor in the background. Once he finished advancing the film with the protected lever he went through the process of focusing again. Dennis raised his head, looked at Dr. Herbst, back to the entity, and then looked down in to the lens again. A bead of sweat slid like a snail down his sideburn to his cheek, dispersing around the stubble that covered his chin. He rotated the tripod head slightly to the left to balance the frame and then looked up at the scene again. He counted down from three, this time aloud, and then depressed the shutter release.

At that very moment there was a booming crash as the entity smashed hard against the diamond wall, wobbling the large box. The lights flickered and the room danced between day and night before steadying on day moments later. The entity glowed blue and violet and red as it hovered and vibrated inside the box. It all occurred as if it had been planned in advance, choreographed with the shutter release. Like the senses before, when he took the picture, a flood of emotions bored through Dennis like a drill. He experienced an unbound sense joy mixed with the deepest despair. Then an orgasmic bliss eclipsed by uncontrolled laughing and fury. He alternated between crippling regret and relief simultaneously, depression and elation concurrently. He felt loss and longing and he wanted to kill himself. He felt love and he wanted to live. The cacophony of emotion forced violent sobbing and irrational laughing. He could feel the blood pumping to his brain, the supply of oxygen barely enough to keep up with it’s demand. It was the most liberating thing Dennis had ever experienced.

When he gained control of his senses his head tingled the way a sleeping limb does when finally moved. The entity was now moving freely inside the diamond box, vibrating and bouncing from wall to wall. It pulsed violet and blue and purple and red and took different geometric, organic and abstract shapes. Once again Dennis looked past the box to the doctor and saw he was still writing in his notebook. Had he not noticed any of this, Dennis asked himself. The situation was getting weirder, if that was possible, but Dennis was already too wrapped up to go anywhere but forward.

Like an early-world explorer he pushed on, his fear and uncertainty muted by a profound sense curiosity and adventure, by the entity. He advanced the film and moved the tripod to the left side of the box, close to the diamond box this time. He lowered his head and viewed through the lens. He focused and opened the aperture to let in a little more light, then looked up again. With the anticipation of a child before her birthday party he readied himself for the next picture, counting down from three once again.

When Dennis clicked the shutter release there was a monstrous reverberation of sound, a cannon blast in uncharted waters, and the room went dark. The entity materialized in to black, rainbow ink and crashed hard against the far diamond wall of the box. It froze for a second, seeming to draw on some unknown energy, and then shot forward in to the front wall of the diamond box with the force of comet. The impact sent the cart rolling forward and fractured the diamond in to a circular web of cracks. The splintered circle of fissured diamond was the last thing Dennis saw as he flew backwards through the air from the impact inside the box. Instead of landing on the ground he accelerated through the floor and fell down in to blackness. There was a unique sucking sound and Dennis felt like he was following the last drip of water down an black drainpipe to nonexistence. The brief feeling of unbridled terror was followed by a sense of peace and equilibrium, stasis.

This was the abyss. Nothing. Dennis had been thrust in to oblivion. For an eternity he existed in the blackness, all sense of time and space alien to his unmeasured experience. In perpetuity he floated until there was a blinding light in the endless distance. Creation unfolded in front of Dennis and he beheld the tragedies of being, the echoes that bounced the stars in to existence and molded planets in to havens of life. He saw the Earth and her violent beginnings and the eons spent shaping her in to paradise. Then he saw life take hold in the black depths of the oceans and watched it mutate and compete until it was walking over rich soils, mutating and competing still; life and death never-ending.

He watched the dinosaurs slowly die off and his ancestors take over. He saw future world leaders breastfeeding from their mothers and evil despots rotting in radioactive soils. He lived ten thousand lives and saw war and peace and love and hate and all that came before and all that will be. Dennis saw that he and his were not the first, nor would they be the last to dance amongst the heavens. He saw everything, and the more he saw, the less he understood, until none of anything made sense. It was all unbridled chaos. Creation and destruction, life and death, entropy ongoing until the momentum runs the lights out. Then it all repeats.

            The bright lights of the room were flickering as Dennis awakened back in his previous reality. He was lying on the ground a few feet behind his tripod, which was miraculously still standing. He didn’t question it. Behind the tripod was the fractured glass box. The entity inside now was now an inky cloud with shifting colors and textures. It bounded throughout the box, banging here and there against the diamond walls. Dennis turned and saw Dr. Herbst still looking down writing in his notepad. This was something else, thought Dennis. He knew he needed to take one more picture. The entity was calling to him, the tone was familiar and pleasant, like sleeping in a childhood bed. He picked up the tripod and walked back to the front of the cracked, diamond box. From this distance, he wanted to get farther, show some scale and distance in his photo. Maybe he was just a little scared, and realized he was a little too close to the edge of the chasm and needed to step back. Whatever it was, Dennis was compelled to continue. He advanced the film and then focused his lens and recalibrated his aperture. When he turned around to check with Dr. Herbst, he was still scribbling away in his notebook, seemingly disconnected to the events unfolding in front of him. It was as if his body was paralyzed and off of his energy was thrust in to his fingers which wrote feverishly on the pages.

            Dennis turned around and glanced down through the lens once more to finely tune focus. When he was satisfied, he looked up and inhaled deeply again. The entity was flying around the diamond box like demon enraged, its cephalopod-like camouflage morphing through a glowing rainbow of electric colors as if it were a panicked cuttlefish in a small aquarium. It reminded Dennis of a caged animal and he quietly hoped the next exposure would set it free. He held up the shutter release in his hands and skipped the countdown this time.

            There was a kinetic, earth-shattering boom; the sounds planets make when they collide, and the diamond box exploded in to 10 million pieces. All of the lights in the room went out. They flew outward with the force of falling meteorites and then froze in space and time around the room. The entity followed, crashing through the still diamond fragments on its path towards Dennis like an inbound missile. It came to a stop a few feet in front of him and hung in the air, still as a statue. The rolling rainbow of color began to slow and the entity began to change in to a human form, its features and details unfolding gradually like a sketch artist’s rendering of a suspect. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. It was Richard; his everything. He was glowing like a star. Dennis’s knees lost their strength and his balance followed. In steadying himself on the tripod, he knocked it over, the Rolleiflex crashing to the porcelain floor and separating from its prior foundation. A knowing smile formed on Richard’s face and he spoke.

            “Dennis… Oh Dennis. Let me look at you… This must be confusing for you. This isn’t really me. I am here though. I’m always here. I think you know that, my love”

Dennis was still, trembling from shock, as a tear fell from the corner of his eye. How was this possible? It really was Richard. It had been over 7 years since the virus took him.

“Oh, how I miss you Dennis. I am just fine. Its… different after you die.”

Richard paused and reached out his arm to Dennis’s face, held his cheek tenderly. More tears escaped from Dennis’s eyes and they hissed and evaporated as they touched Richard’s charged hand.

“You need to let me go, my love. I am somewhere else now, and you will be with me again. It won’t be the way you think it will be, though. Can the jellyfish in the sea ever comprehend the Aurora Borealis? Can a man understand the experience of a 5,000 year old bristlecone pine tree? One day you see. This, is only a sliver of what is, my love.”

Dennis began to panic, realizing this liminal moment would never be long enough and was nearing its end.

“I have so much I want to tell you. I… I don’t know where to start.” Dennis got flustered.

“Start with the most important. If you could tell me one thing, what would it be?”

“I love you Richard.”

“And I, you, Dennis.”

Dennis stared into Richard’s eyes, realizing what he had been trying to tell him. Richard continued.

“I need you to do something for me, Dennis. Say goodbye to me and move forward with your life. I need you to do that.”

Dennis was sobbing when Richard embraced him. Richard kissed him once on the lips. It was electric and otherworldly. Dennis understood what he needed to do and he accepted it. He could move on now. Richard backed up and his form began to flicker. He was smiling proudly now and his features started to fade. Dennis felt lighter and as Richard changed back to the entity, he finally, truly accepted everything and realized there was a path ahead.

“Goodbye Richard,” said Dennis through his hears.

“Goodbye Dennis.”

Richard steadily degraded in to pure energy and began reassembling itself back in to the cloudy, inky entity.

There was a clank to Dennis’s right followed by closer clank an instant later. The EMP grenade erupted with blue, electric light and Dennis was thrown back for the second time that morning. This time he was hurled in to the back wall and his vision went blurry.

When Dennis regained his senses, he saw the scientists from earlier running towards him with haste. They immediately covered the entity with a huge, metallic bag and sealed it with a device at the top. There were slow and inconsistent jerks and movements from inside the bag and they increased in intensity with every passing second. The entity was awake seemed strangely human as it struggled inside the lead bag. Dr. Fairchild stepped up to the group of scientists and without hesitation, pressed a red button on top of the bag. There was a contained burst of some sort inside the bag and then it went limp. Dr. Fairchild picked up the bag, which now resembled a sack of sand and walked with it to the opposite corner of the brightly lit room. One of the scientists picked up the Rolleiflex and the tripod and followed her. Dennis looked around and saw Dr. Herbst unconscious along the wall to his left.

Dennis was extremely confused and still jumbled from his impact. He staggered to his feet and followed Dr. Fairchild and the other scientist as they disappeared through the double door on the left side of the room. The two other scientists tried to hold him back but he persisted, their calculated attempts no match for his adrenaline fueled determination. When he opened his double doors things just got weirder. Scattered around the floor were the remnants of what appeared to be at least seven other diamond boxes. Browned ash covered everything. Dr. Fairchild was dumping the contents of the bag in to a pile on top of fragmented diamonds. Bordering the mess was the most unusual collection of items.

First there was a painting of a box that looked strangely similar to his own, except this box had different shaped cracks. There was an unfinished sculpture, square and partially hollow with an object in the middle, one of its corners badly chipped off. A book lay in the ashes with its page open to an incomplete, handwritten passage. Dennis made out some words and concluded it was a description of the entity. It was half of a book of descriptions. Half of a record was leaning against a large diamond in the back corner, its other half lost somewhere in the mess. There were sketches and song lyrics and movie scripts, none of which were completed and all of which aimed to describe the entity. All of this was strewn amongst millions upon million of diamonds. Half-finished art resting on top of treasure and all of it was shut away in this hidden room on a secret base. The scientist who picked up the Rolleiflex has discarded it carelessly in the opposite corner of the room like it was a worn shoe. Dennis didn’t understand.

“What is all this?” he asked the scientists, the way a boy asks his parents when he walks in on them having sex.

Dr. Fairchild turned around from the ash pile and saw Dennis standing there, then turned to the scientist who had just thrown down the Rolleiflex, its exposed film nestled inside. Would they even process it, he wondered.

“What the hell is he doing in here? None of the artists are ever supposed to see this room!”

Four pairs of arms enveloped him in that moment and he was dragged backwards through the bright room, past a waking Dr. Herbst and dumped in to the airlock. The hatch slammed shut and he was left lying on his back as the decontamination process started. It was all too much. He waited for the roar to finish and then slowly rose to his feet and stared forward. On autopilot, he walked forward, opened the inside hatch, and walked past the man at the woman in white from earlier without acknowledging them. He walked in to the locker room and stood in front of his locker. He removed all of his gear and threw it in a pile on the floor. Dennis wondered if he was in shock. He opened the locker and got dressed and then took a seat on the wooden bench facing outward, going over the events of the previous hour in his mind.

The door to the control center opened and Dr. Herbst emerged.

“Hello Mr. Owen, how are you feeling?”

The doctor didn’t seem to indicate that he had any idea what Dennis had experienced.

“I apologize about the ending there, I must have slipped and bumped my head, lost consciousness. It was fortunate that Dr. Fairchild and the other scientists were so prepared or who knows what might have happened.”

Dr. Herbst paused and stared at Dennis. Dennis remained silent.

“Well, I wanted to personally thank you for your efforts and want to assure you that they are not in vain. Your art will now be a part of history, a bridge between art and science on the newest horizon. Unfortunately, because of your clearance, I cannot go in to any further detail about the events that unfolded. Additionally, please do not mention a word of this to anyone. I would very much like to avoid that path, Mr. Owen. I believe you will be rewarded adequately for your creativity and discretion when you leave here. Once again, I want to thank you on behalf of the United States Government.” Without waiting for Dennis to reply, Dr. Herbst turned and hastily walked back in to the control room.

Without any other reason to stay, Dennis walked out of the locker room, down the hallway and through the hangar’s atrium to the airlock leading outside. He waited for the air to finish blowing and then opened the hangar door. The fresh air felt amazing and he took deep breaths as if it was a limited resource. The two soldiers came to attention as Dennis walked past them towards the black Caprice which was parked further afield. The sun was just lighting up the sky to the east and the wind pushed against his frame and it made him feel like a giant sail. The smaller man in the suit, the one with the higher voice, was pissing in the dunes behind the car and the larger one was walking towards him with a think envelope.

“Well, what was it?”

Dennis didn’t reply. He couldn’t. It was his turn to be silent. He took the envelope without looking inside and slid past the man in to the Caprice. He slid to the driver’s side and made the smaller guy in a suit sit in the middle. The Caprice swung around and accelerated back to town. As the company car flew through the building dawn, Dennis looked out the window and the symphony of colors and silently said his final goodbye to Patrick.