'A Trip to the Roof'
by Troy Blackford
“How long have the feeding hoppers been empty?”
“Well, gosh--I don’t know, Dr. Pettinger.”
“You don’t know?”
Eric tugged at his collar. “Well, you see: usually Pete does that, and he’s out today. Today, and yesterday, actually. And he’s not answering his--”
“Did you try calling and asking him?” the imposing scientist--a tall woman in a white coat, her arms crossed--asked the nervous worker.
“I was trying to say: he’s not answering his phone.”
Pettinger swore. Eric continued, hoping to get through this and escape the fiery woman’s wrath. “Worst-case scenario, they’ve been empty a couple of days.”
Eric, looking at Pettinger’s eyes, could see the gears of her mind turning. “Alright,” she said in a measured, even tone. “That should be fine.”
She seemed placated. Eric restrained himself from visibly sighing in relief. Just as he was about to nod and get back to work, she erupted again.
“Just you remember--and you can tell Pete yourself if you want,” she growled, spitting out the name ‘Pete’ as though the sound of the word were distasteful, “that these are very expensive, very dangerous test subjects. We can’t just decide not to feed them.”
“I understand that, ma’am,” Eric said, more solidly. “I’ll take care of it for you, don’t worry.”
Dr. Elmyra Pettinger gave a grunt and a nod of her head, placated enough to turn her attention elsewhere. As she walked away, Eric allowed himself the sigh from earlier, and went to perform his task.
It wasn’t something he had ever been asked to do before at his job at the National Unexpected Countermeasure and Preparedness Agency. He usually worked in the other facility building, across the lot, and knew Pettinger only by reputation. Eric was most often deployed to work on the facility computer networks. Occasionally, he helped assemble temporary installations and spec-test esoteric electronic systems.
But he never, ever understood what he was doing. Not the actual nature of the work, and never the ultimate goal of the projects. He rarely even saw the immediate outcome of the work he did. He was just a small mechanism in a large, anonymous machine.
Accepting that was just part of Agency life, at least for someone of his lowly rank. For people like him, the facts were on lockdown and the overall purposes shrouded in mystery. The people down on Eric’s level only ever needed to know what they needed to know. Which was never much.
He slung a twenty-pound burlap sack, known only to him by a printed code which matched up with the activity orders Pettinger had given him, over his shoulder and began to haul it up a newly-built metal staircase--really, little more than a scaffolding. As he trudged up the clanging steps, he wondered what he was about to see.
Something that needed to eat, he knew that much.
He shuddered. He had never had to work on a project with subjects that needed food. At least not that he knew of. For all he knew, maybe most of them had involved subjects that needed food. Here, maybe even the computer networks needed food. It was that kind of a place. He didn’t really, he reflected, know anything about what he did.
And this was a completely different type of job than what he usually did. He wouldn’t even be here, doing this particular task, if Pete hadn’t skipped out the last couple days. At a normal job, they wouldn’t send a network engineer to do a facility management job. But this wasn’t a normal job: they couldn’t just bring someone new--with no clearance--in to do a simple task.
Eric wasn’t sure what was up with Pete. It was unlike him to miss work, and it was very unlike anybody on-site to not even bother calling in. Whatever was happening, Eric hoped Pete would be back to his post tomorrow. Dr. Pettinger was so intense. Eric didn’t want to have to keep dealing with her.
He neared the top of the staircase, and braced himself for anything. It seemed eerily silent in the wooded clearing, save for one thing: the sound of birds seemed unnaturally loud in Eric’s ears. He chalked it up to mere nervousness. Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself and cleared the horizon of the rooftop.
His breath ran out of him in a rush. He began to laugh. He saw a row of small enclosures on the roof, but it wasn’t the enclosures that filled him a sense of relief.
It was what was inside them.
Not monsters, not mutant hyenas. Not any of the million random, terrifying things that had been racing through the back of Eric’s mind. Inside nine out of the ten enclosures installed along the length of the facility’s roof, there sat an ordinary-looking housecat. Some were big, some were small. Some had black fur, some had a grey mottling. There were tortoiseshell cats, tabby cats. Whatever color fur you liked.
But still, nothing but nine housecats.
Stepping over to the food distribution unit, Eric dropped the bag with a solid thunk. About half of the cats turned to look, fixing him with their feline gazes. He laughed again. Some of them were pretty cute.
He drew the string on the bag, exposing the grainy, dry contents within. “Of course,” he remarked aloud, thinking that this kibble-looking stuff seemed about right for the job. “I’m working for a top-secret government agency, carrying around a bag of cat food. This is completely normal.”
One of the cats hissed, and Eric looked up. They were all looking at him now.
“You can smell this stuff, eh kitties? You guys must be pretty hungry after a couple days with no food.” He began to load it into the hopper. “Poor little cats,” he said to himself. The bag went slack as its contents emptied.
The hiss came again.
“What?” he said, still focused on draining the last of the food into the distribution system. Looking up, he saw the cat at the farthest edge clinging to the front of its cage with its front paws. It looked like an insane version of those ‘Garfield’ dolls that stuck to car windows with suction cups. Its curved claws tightened on the enclosure bars. Its face wore a hateful snarl. It gave a low, menacing growl that seemed too loud for the small throat that issued it.
“Look, I gave you the food. I don’t know what more you want.”
The sound of birds intensified.
Eric stepped back from the hopper, and something caught his eye. Down low, tucked between the food distribution system’s boxy interface and the closest of the cat enclosures, he saw a sneaker.
He bent down and picked it up. Strange, white dust fluttered out of it in the light breeze--as though the shoe had been filled with a wispy, ash-like sand.
“What?” Eric remarked. There was a large Atari symbol on the sneakers. Only one person at the Agency wore shoes like that.
Pete. These were Pete’s shoes. Eric craned his head, investigated the small gap further. He gasped. In another pile of ashes sat a pair of glasses.
“What the he--” Eric began, but a crow struck him in the head like a misthrown baseball. He dropped the sneaker and yelped in his pain. The crow fell to the surface of the roof and slid along it, like a metal object being dragged across a tabletop by a powerful magnet underneath the surface. The large black bird flapped its wings pitifully, but to no avail.
What Eric was seeing made no sense. He touched the side of his head, and felt blood trickling out from the impact of the bird’s beak and talons. A moment later, a robin glided past him, across the surface of the roof. Shortly after, it was followed by a pair of cardinals.
“What in the blue fu--” Eric cried out in alarm, but was cut off by something that took him by the foot and pulled him off balance.
As the unseen forced dragged him to the far end of the roof, he instinctively clawed at the rough, rocky cement for purchase. His fingernails screamed with pain, and he failed utterly to slow his momentum. As he was hauled along, he saw the crow, robin, and cardinals being sucked into the metal screen of the furthest cage. Their bulk caught in the square spaces between the bars.
Eric skidded across the roof with gathering speed. He watched in horror as the birds folded in on themselves, squeezing to fit through the bars, pulled into the cage as though by some horrendous suction. They looked like large objects clogging the tube of a vacuum cleaner.
The air didn’t churn. There was no more than a light wind. But the force pulling him was like some massive tornado sucking everything into its vortex.
Bright blue lights like fireworks burst inside the final enclosure, exploding like an electrical storm. Eric saw the cat inside, lit by this unearthly glow and exulting in pleasure as the four birds burst apart into sparks and flew into his waiting mouth. Eric began to scream.
It began as a long, low moan, but when Eric’s feet struck the metal bars of the cat’s enclosure, it became a high-pitched wail. A wail which somehow turned into sparks, into flashes of light, as his body both liquefied and became electricity. The energy flowed towards the waiting maw of the cat.
And somehow, through it all, Eric kept seeing, and feeling, everything that was happening. Seeing, and feeling, and screaming.
The sky was now filled with birds. They slammed into the roof like rockets and shot along like hockey pucks until they reached the final cage. Bolts flew out of the enclosure like a symphony of welding irons. The door shot off its hinges like a champagne cork. The air began to sizzle and swelter as small blasts of lightning churned.
And still, somehow--despite being nothing more than a hail of sparks landing on a housecat’s tongue--Eric Sampson kept on seeing, and feeling, everything.
Seeing and feeling through it all, and--in his own strange, dissolving way--screaming.
To learn more about the experiments at the NUCPA facility, check out my novel 'Through the Woods,' on Kindle and Paperback. Links on the right sidebar - including links to signed paperback copies only available on this site.