He found himself standing in total darkness and utter silence. When the lights went out and the hum of the complex machinery in the room wound down to nothing, Dr. Neil Ross stood quiet and still so as not to accidentally bump into any of the controls on the boards around him. He was fairly certain that the lights would come back on soon, though he had no evidence to support his assumption; this had never happened before.
Kobram Laboratories was a completely self-sufficient network of buildings and tunnels situated on the edge of a dry lakebed in the California desert between Interstate 10 and the old Route 66. Isolated by endless miles of sand and heatwaves, and powered by its own power generation plant, K Lab, as those who worked there called it, had never before suffered even a minor power fluctuation. It couldn’t. Any fluctuation, even one so small as to be immeasurable, could affect any number of sensitive operations and experiments by affecting either the activities themselves or the readings taken. Therefore, millions if not billions of dollars had been spent on equipment which ensured there would be no fluctuations.
Yet here Dr. Ross stood in the darkness. He was sealed deep beneath the hot surface in a static-free room full of sensitive equipment including an electron emitter integrated into a relatively large vacuum containing a double-slit apparatus. He had been spraying electrons at the apparatus and collecting the resulting interference pattern on the screen behind the apparatus in an attempt to build his set of control data, data against which he would measure the results of his real work.
Because of the location of this particular laboratory deep beneath the surface, the darkness was complete. Dr. Ross pushed the button on his plastic watch that illuminated its face, hoping to see anything other than the pure emptiness surrounding him, but he was surprised to find it not working. There were no other light sources in the room besides those connected to K Lab’s missing power and the emergency battery-powered lights which were supposed to turn on in the event of a power failure. They had not.
He waited for an indeterminable amount of time. The lights didn’t come back on. No equipment hummed, the ventilation was quiet. Carefully, he reached out to his sides with his hands and felt for something solid. His right hand came to rest on the edge of one of the control boards. Using it for a reference point, he turned toward where the static-shielded doors should be. No light could be seen through the glass of the doors from the adjacent room, either. He fumbled his way along, taking slow steps and maintaining reference points with his hands in an attempt not to crash into anything. When he felt the cool glass of one of the doors, he slid his fingertips along until he found the seam where they met when closed. There was very little to get a grasp on but Dr. Ross pressed and pulled and twisted and shoved. The doors wouldn’t budge. Helplessly, he reached toward the left side of the doors until his fingers found the large round pushbutton that opened the doors. He pushed it again and again, panic rising within him and giving him voice.
“Help!” he called, but hearing the absurdity of such a call, he changed his request to, “Hello? Is anyone there?” He held his breath in an attempt to listen.
“Hey!” He held his breath again. He wished he could make his heart beat more quietly. Its pounding was sure to drown out any sounds he might hear from beyond the doors. He thumped the soft part of his fist against the glass. “Hello?”
He turned around and pressed his back to the glass, gasping for breath. The emptiness of the blackness encroached upon him even more as panic set in. Even his logical mind turned to the tens if not hundreds of feet of earth between himself and the surface, the maze of corridors cordoned off by doors similar to the ones he leaned against now, the elevator which was surely as nonfunctional as the equipment in this room. Surely there were stairs somewhere.
Then reason emerged again, and the doctor felt foolish for panicking. There were others down here, too. These laboratories housed a constant bustle of activity, and it was just a power outage. Unprecedented though it was, it would be short-lived. Teams of people were working to solve the problem and would have the power on at any moment.
Another indeterminable amount of time went by and Dr. Ross found himself sitting on the floor and leaning back against the sealed glass of the only exit from the room. Staring into the darkness caused his eyes to play tricks on him. The blackness was not quite complete. There were ever-changing shapes, morphing bubbles of a not-quite-so-black as the rest of the room, taking form and then falling apart again right before his eyes. He knew—he really did—that this hallucination was caused by his own eyes. The longer it went on, though, the more uncomfortable it made him.
Suddenly there was a muffled bang behind him, from the other side of the doors. Dr. Ross climbed quickly to his feet and turned to stare blindly through the glass. Another bang and a metallic screeching followed. Dr. Ross stared intently but could see nothing. There was some more banging, clanging, and scratching, and then the noises fell silent.
Just when Dr. Ross was about to call out again, there was a bright yellow flash. It came from a point somewhere in the next room and it was very bright, but it was gone as quickly as it came. A half of a second later, another flash occurred and this one resulted in a small yellow flame which swayed instead of flickering in the still air. Slowly, by the light of the flame, a hand, arm, and face became visible. It was his intern, Michael, and he was holding a Zippo lighter as a light source.
“I’m in here!” Dr. Ross called through the glass, banging the soft part of his fist against the glass again.
Michael crossed the room and came face to face with Dr. Ross through the glass. He spoke loudly so Dr. Ross could hear. “Stand back a second.”
With that, Michael snapped the lighter shut and Dr. Ross found himself in blackness again. Quickly, though, came more of the banging, clanging, and scratching. Having been too stunned to do so at first, Dr. Ross now took a step back from the door. In a moment, the door was open and Dr. Ross could hear Michael breathing, could hear him fumbling around with something, and then saw the flash and flame reappear.
“Are you okay?” Michael asked.
“Come on. We should start finding our way out of here. I don’t know how long my lighter will last.”
“Thank God you came,” Dr. Ross said.
“Hold this.” Michael handed him a large flat-headed screwdriver. “Don’t lose it. That’s the key that will get us through all of these doors.”
“Have you heard what happened to the power?” Dr. Ross asked.
“Nobody knows,” Michael said. “We’ve lost all communication with the surface.