“Welcome to the Heaton Laboratory and Assembly Center,” the tour guide said. “As you know, Heaton has been a proud partner to the US government in providing the military with the latest in weaponry technology. Projects that will save countless lives are being researched in this building as we speak.”
More likely they were projects that would cost people lives, Ethan thought. His partner had her hand linked in the crook of his arm comfortably. She appeared to be completely absorbed in the tour guide’s lecture, but he suspected she was looking as vigilantly as he was for the next clue. The morning had been quiet. No clues. Burgstein, still with an entourage though of diminishing size, had gone with an earlier group, and one more tour from the conference would start in 10 minutes or so. If there was going to be a clue today, it was likely to be here at the weapons facility.
“Of course, much of the facility is restricted,” the tour guide was saying. “We wouldn’t want this technology to get into the wrong hands. We won’t be able to visit those areas. And I need to remind you that photographs of any type are prohibited. If any of you have not yet placed your personal belongings– including cellphones, in a secure locker, please do so now.” Everyone appeared to have already completed this step, so the guide directed, “Please follow me.”
The guide swiped his security card and held the door while they all filed into a hallway lined with metal doors, access pads on each. “Remember that we are on a bit of a tight schedule with the three tour groups, so there is not time to stop for questions, but during the reception afterwards there will be an opportunity to address any questions or comments you may have, so don’t forget them.” He led them down the hall to a door, swiped his card and they shuffled into a large and noisy room. It was open to the roof—four stories, and various stairs, walkways, bridges, and platforms webbing out above their heads.
“This contains the ‘engine’ of the manufacturing portion of our facility,” the tour guide yelled over the mechanical din. “Electricity is stored and turned into the various forms we need for the different projects we are working on. Because we cannot afford to lose power, we have five different power sources contributing to the building, so if any one method fails, the others can pick up the slack until it is restored.”
The girl on his arm was looking all around with a pleasantly distant expression, that he tried to match as he too searched the room. There were guards positioned at various places on each level, each looking more alert than one could hope if one might need to sneak around. The tour guide rattle on about the five power sources for another couple minutes before they continue around the outside of the room.
Ethan and Kathleen had positioned themselves near the end of the group and at the front, the tour guide opened another door which led back into a quieter hallway. Absently, Ethan noticed that the open door had a scratch or scuff that looked a lot like a “ht” when beside him, Kath, swayed, pulling him to a stop. He looked down at her, and then quickly followed her eyes. Although her body and facial expression suggested another fit of sickness, her eyes were intensely focused. Ethan followed her eyes to his right where he now saw another scratched mark on a railing that looked amazingly like a G. Just past it, was a circle. Then the number 2 further on.
“Is everything alright back there?” The guide asked. The girl swayed woozily.
Ethan caught a scratched “th” as he said, “Are you alright Kathleen?”
She took a wary step forward. “Sorry, I think so.” They moved forward to the tour guide who was watching them closely. Ethan managed to see an L (or maybe it was a 1) and another g before they reach the door where the “ht” and the tour guide waited. “I’m so sorry,” she said again, to the tour guide this time. “I just got a bit dizzy. I must have been looking up too much.”
“And the noise,” Ethan added. “That probably doesn’t help.”
“Well, the rest of the tour is much quieter,” the guide said a little more sympathetically. He closed the door after they stepped through and the cacophony faded into a steady hum. “If you are not feeling well, I can direct you to a restroom. Or you can go directly to the reception area to wait,” he suggested.
“Thank you, but I think I’m okay now,” She said weakly.
The tour guide did not look particularly happy with that answer, but he nodded and addressed the whole group, “Please follow me this way.”
“You saw the word?” she asked so quietly it was almost imperceptible.
“I saw some letters and numbers. G, zero, 2, th, then a ht,” he answered just as quietly as they walked.
“The word light. Was the ht on the–?”
“Door,” he confirmed.
They were interrupted when Alison Black sidled up next to them. “Still not feeling well?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” Kathy said a bit defensively. “Just a bit dizzy.” Neither Ethan, nor Alison missed the oddly guilty look she flashed at him, before turning back to the other woman. “It’s nothing.”
“Well, that’s good,” Alison said eyeing them curiously, but they were about to go through another door, and she caught up to her husband.
The tour guide was explaining that the room they had just entered—a laboratory set up to look as if it was being used, but was definitely just for show—was the location where anthrax counter measures had once been studied. Ethan was thinking about the message, not dangerous white powders.
Apparently so was his partner. “Were there any gaps? Could we have missed any numbers?”
“It’s possible. I didn’t have a lot of time to look. Do you think it’s a code?”
She shrugged slightly. The tour guide, who was beginning to sound bored himself, directed them back out of the room. Ethan and his wife were the first to leave, having been the last in. Ethan saw a guard casually strolling down the hall.
The tour guide led them over to an elevator, and just as the doors were closing he heard the faintest snort come from his partner. When he looked down at her, she was smiling a half smile that he knew meant she was thoroughly amused. He couldn’t imagine what she found so funny. He couldn’t wait to find out, but the elevator was not the place to ask.
When they reached the second floor, the group exited the elevator and started down another hallway. Ethan waited for her to say something, but when she didn’t he whispered, “Are you going to tell me what you find so funny, or should I guess?”
She looked up at him with her smile and leaned closer. “G-O, 2, T-H light. Go to the light.” She snorted again.
“That’s…unsettling,” he whispered back, not nearly as amused by the clue as she was. He hoped it didn’t mean death would be a possibility. Still, knowing the clue was helpful. Now to figure out what it meant. Light was the key. After they figured out what that referred to, all they had to do was go to it. There were lights in the hallway. Fluorescent and uniform, it didn’t seem likely that this was what the clue meant. And as the guide led them into another room, there were more fluorescent lights here, along with a lot of computers, all of which were off. Not a single light emanated from the electronics, which was pretty unusual and clearly a sign that this was not a place to waste time.
Ethan looked for other sources of light. In the room there were windows. Cheap blinds blocked most of the light, but some snuck through. Ethan studied the pattern the light made, but there was nothing there, and the guide was ushering them back out in to the hall, where the only light was from the overhead fluorescents. Another guard strolled past the group, nodding to the tour guide, who swiped his card to get them through another door. But Ethan noticed, that while the access box the guide had swiped had a light, it was not on, nor did it turn on when he swiped it. This seemed odd. Usually those tiny little lights were red and flashed to green when the correct card was used, indicating the door had been unlocked. Quickly, before they left the hall, Ethan looked behind him. Each door had an access box, and none of the lights were on. Ethan’s heartbeat sped up in anticipation of finding the light. Now he just had to keep his eyes open.
The tour continued down another long hall where all access box lights were off. Finally, as they walked down a third hall on the other side of the building Ethan spotted what he had been looking for. A door along the inside wall, about midway down the hall that had an access box with a tiny red light shining. Ethan looked around. None of the other doors’ boxes were lit up. They’d need a security card to get in. Ahead, another guard was strolling towards them. Ethan could borrow his card easily enough. They would have to break off from the tour. How were they going to do that?
“Kathleen? Are you okay?” he asked suddenly, a little too loudly. He held her arm and stopped walking. His partner’s face changed in an instant, just as he knew it would. It was almost comical the way she went from alert and healthy to pale and wobbly. It was fast enough that by the time the whole group had turned to look at them, she looked about to pass out.
“I…maybe I should find a restroom,” she answered. Ethan couldn’t be happier that she’d known just how to react.
The tour guide was not pleased. He glanced at his watch as he pushed through the other people to reach them. “The restroom is down the hall the way we came, right by the elevator,” he said. “But you will not be able to continue with the tour. Unfortunately, we are already behind and will not be able to wait for you.”
“That’s fine,” Ethan said impatiently. The guard had slipped past them and was walking away. Ethan needed to get to him before he disappeared behind a locked door.
“Once you’re done, just find a guard. There is always one nearby. He’ll take you to the reception area on the fourth floor to wait for the rest of us,” the tour guide said.
The girl didn’t respond, just took an unsteady step toward the restrooms, and Ethan reached out to steady her instinctually. He was fairly sure she would have just fallen to the floor otherwise. “Thanks,” he said and began walking back the way they’d come.
His partner continued to lean on him as they walked, slowing them down. The guard had stopped to watch their progress but Ethan was worried they’d miss their chance and tried to pick up the pace. She resisted. “Sick people move slowly,” she said quietly. “And they are still watching.”
“Alright, let’s keep moving,” he heard the tour guide say. Ahead of them the guard had continued his slow stroll.
“Where are we going?” she whispered.
“To the bathroom first until everyone clears out,” he said.
They had quickened their pace, and he guided her around the guard, just brushing against him enough to extract his key card. The guard didn’t have a clue. When they reached the bathroom, she said, “knock twice when the coast is clear,” and disappeared inside. It was only a minute or two before the tour group had disappeared and the guard turned a corner. He knocked, and she popped out, miraculously healthy again.
“Where are we going? What did you see?” she asked as they moved down the hall quickly.
Ethan explained about the lighted access box. It’s red light was still the only non-fluorescent light they could see.
“How are we going to get in? It’s locked,” she asked. He pulled the key card out of his pocket instead of answering. “Where did you get that?” she asked, surprised and impressed.
They had reached the door. “From the guard we passed on the way to the bathroom.” He swiped the card and the little light blinked green. They heard the locking mechanism click.