It was a quiet morning in the Admin offices, something that occurred all too infrequently these days. I took my coffee downstairs, to the internal monitoring room. It had been too long since I’d last checked in.
Joe was seated at his semicircle of screens, as he always was. I’d never seen anyone else on duty down here, and I was beginning to wonder if he ever slept. Well, none of us slept much anymore.
“Hey,” he greeted me without turning around.
“How’s it going?” I hitched one leg up on the edge of his desk and sipped my coffee.
He sat back, turned to me, and grimaced.
“That well,” I said, and sipped again.
He shrugged. “Could be worse.” He gave me a sharp, assessing look. “You look like hell. How are things upstairs?”
“The boss still isn’t sleeping, so none of us are, either.” He made a sympathetic noise. “It’s getting bad. Last week, one of the interns just fell over while she was walking to the kitchen. She sat up again after a minute and went back to her desk, but she’s got this strung out look I don’t like.”
“You look pretty strung out, yourself.”
“Yeah, well, we’re all a little ragged up there. And Systems is reporting all kinds of weird glitches.”
“Well, you know how at first everything was just really sluggish, and the external sensors’ reports didn’t make any sense?” He nodded. “That’s gone away, but now we’re getting surges in processing, followed by gaps in the memory.”
He frowned and said, “We’ve got glitches, too. The plumbing crew is reporting an unusual amount of gas in the lines, but they say it’s not causing any problems.”
He snorted. “You want weird? Take a look at screen number six.”
I scanned his array of monitors. Screen six was blank. “There is no number six.”
“Exactly. Been off since this whole mess started.”
“You can’t fix it?”
“That’s the weird thing. Nothing wrong with the monitor. We’re just not getting any input from that sector.”
I set my coffee down. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, it’s there. It’s just not reporting its status anymore. But — something’s going on in there.”
“No idea. Without eyes in there, we’re just inferring from changes in the system. For example, it’s draining power. Not so much that it’s shut us down, but it’s noticeable. And it’s raising the temperature, too.”
I stared at him. “Something in there has control of the thermostat?!” That would be very, very bad. There were all sorts of delicate systems scattered throughout the facility. The slightest deviation…
“No,” he assured me. “I think it’s just that… well, there is something in there, and it’s warm. Raises the ambient temperature a bit.”
“Something warm is in there,” I repeated. I scrubbed one palm over my face. This was just too weird. Maybe I was starting to hallucinate.
“Yeah. We hear something thumping on the walls every now and then. Sometimes it’s hard enough to rattle the plumbing in sector seven.”
“It’s moving?! Can’t you get in there and see what’s going on?”
“Nope. Sealed up tight. Maintenance did run sonar, though. Take a look at this.”
I held up the printout he handed me. “What the hell is that?”
He sat back again and shrugged. “Beats the shit out of me.”
I rotated it this way and that. It didn’t help. “It looks kind of like a cross between a gray alien and a manatee.” I squinted at it again. “This is what’s thumping on the walls in there?”
“So Maintenance says.”
“And … what? You’re just going to leave it in there?”
“Not much we can do about it without knocking down the walls,” he pointed out. “And Maintenance says it’s not going to cause any major problems, and it’ll come out when it’s ready.”
“Yeah, they keep telling us everything’s fine, too.” We exchanged glances, and I said, “I’m not sure I trust Maintenance these days.” I rattled the printout. “Can I take this upstairs?”
He grinned. “Better you than me.” I picked up my coffee cup and slid off the desk. He nodded at the mug. “I thought the boss hated coffee.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t let her catch me drinking it.” I gave him a tired grin of my own. “Thanks, Joe. Um… let me know if that thing starts to cause trouble.”
“Oh, he drawled. “Believe me, if it starts causing trouble, you’ll know about it.”