Relocation to a top-secret, underground facility felt different to the hospital-hopping Milton was used to. Before Area 51, he went where his assignments took him: wherever he was needed. A few weeks. A few months. Cases thrusting him into medic-aid helicopters flying him directly to a patient. Whatever the length or type of work, it was exciting work, exhausting, challenging, and most importantly, made him feel like he made a difference.
Area 51’s environment didn’t have that immediacy. The medical wing housed eight beds in one ward. Six-monthly medicals for a staff of fifty-five were spread throughout the year, and a few hypochondriacs among them gave him cause to research symptoms he’d never come across. More often than not, it turned out to be nothing serious. An army medic from the topside base occasionally asked him for a second opinion. The odd clumsy scientist got a chemical burn that required dressing.
This relatively laid-back existence allowed Milton to spread his talents further than hospital work. He had time to study alien tissue samples, to dissect and reassemble organic elements of the alien craft and expand his knowledge with technologies and equipment the medical world wouldn’t get their hands on for years. The quantity of work was unparalleled, but he was one of a handful of people doing it. He couldn’t publish papers or tell anyone besides colleagues about his theories and discoveries, but one day his experiments with Earth’s sole link to extra-terrestrial life might make a difference, maybe even save the world.
Yet, with all the facility offered, there was one thing it didn’t have: pagers. During his first few weeks in Nevada, he was continuously checking and rechecking his belt only to find nothing clipped there, and nothing to roll over and squint at on his nightstand in the middle of the night. Communication in the facility was almost archaic: if someone needed him, they knocked for him.
Everything was done on paper. No telephones. No access to the outside world besides a locked, guarded door six stories above. A PA system was used in emergencies, apparently; he’d never heard the cobweb-covered speakers announce anything. There didn’t appear to be a need for pagers in Area 51. They didn’t seem possible either, not without the costly installation of a transmitter that functioned underground. But a lot happens in three years.
Thanks to an increase in UFO sightings—and an apparent increase in taking them seriously—the government funneled more funding into the facility. This resulted in a shiny new research wing and refurbishment of the common areas and living quarters. More staff meant more medical assistance, so an intern and two extra nurses joined the team. Oh, and Milton fell head over heels in love with Dr. Okun, the Research Director. That was a life changer.
Milton had been meaning to re-suggest pagers after the increase in staff and floor space. It was ridiculously old-fashioned to run about after each other when there was technology available to combat the needless: ‘Have you seen Dr. Abbot?’ or ‘If you see Polly, can you tell her she missed this morning’s briefing?’ Though, like most things in Area 51, progress occurred at a snail’s pace. The suggestion kept slipping Milton’s mind, sliding to the bottom of his to-do list and eventually off it. Then Alf died, and he wished he’d made it his top priority the moment he first walked through the facility’s heavy, double doors.
It was an accident. A tragedy. The scaffolding around the alien craft needed replacing. Wooden trestles installed in the late forties were rotting and cracking, and numerous people had reported their instability. Dr. Alfred Bornholm was investigating one of the craft’s external ports one night—he preferred night shifts: less chance of people distracting him—when one of the scaffold struts gave way and sent him flying the full fifteen feet to the floor. It was the first time in three years Milton investigated a death. The sad fact that a pager could’ve saved Alf’s life, as he’d survived for some time with a broken pelvis and internal hemorrhaging before succumbing to his injuries, urged Milton to put in an official request for a paging system that same day.
He oversaw the transmitter’s installation. The main unit covered labs and stairwells, all the way down to the records room and storage bays. The ramshackle collection of checkpoints and control buildings on the surface got reception too. The furthest, deepest corridors—personal quarters mostly—needed small signal boosters installed at each end.
Everyone got their own pager, regardless of role, and everyone was taught how to use it. No one questioned it. Alf’s death demonstrated a need and Milton’s advocacy of their usefulness in an emergency only strengthened it. It didn’t take long for everyone to be on board.
They were the best pagers money could buy, the kind of two-way, text-enabled models with a clamshell keypad and a screen capable of displaying up to thirty characters. A step in the right direction should an emergency occur. Though, questions soon arose concerning what exactly constituted an emergency.
Some of the older staff thought paging was an invasion of privacy, though if one of their assistants was late, they considered the threshold crossed.
Two interns used theirs to share dirty limericks a line at a time and told everyone they crossed paths with about it as if they’d found the Holy Grail.
A group of baseball fanatics who couldn’t get radio signal to follow the game underground set up a deal with one of the armed guards who could; they’d invented a code (HR for home run, 3B for third base, etc.), meaning those who didn’t care for the sport could always tell when there was a game on – the frustrated or elated reactions drifting through the corridors were hard to ignore.
Milton didn’t particularly care how the staff used their pagers. If an emergency arose, they were covered. Attaching something to his belt loop or his lab coat’s breast pocket made his morning routine feel complete again.
The problem was, Milton was used to his pager going off. Every morning he transferred the small plastic rectangle from his nightstand to his belt and every night from his belt to his nightstand, and never once did it alert him to anything at all. The lack of messages made him feel quite useless. He’d probably never be needed urgently in theatre again. No speeding ambulance would shake him where he stood while he saved someone from a freeway disaster. His new career meant the same faces over and over: his colleagues and the freak show.
Brackish always knew when something was bothering him, but Milton had no intention of telling him what that something was this time. It’d only make him feel guilty, and it was dumb anyway. He’d known the life he’d chosen when he’d signed his contract and he’d lived it three years already. Though, how could he help it if it came up naturally in conversation? That wasn’t his fault.
Their breakfasts were rapidly going cold. When Milton called Brackish to the kitchen—for the second time—he saw him studying his pager’s screen in the doorway and jealousy flared in his gut.
“Babe?” Brackish asked, still staring at the screen. “What’s brown, has no legs, a head, and a tail?”
Milton blinked. “What?”
“It’s a riddle.” Well, he gathered that.
“I’ll think about it. Come eat your breakfast.”
Nodding, Brackish pulled back his chair and finally looked interested in his food. The second he put a forkful of omelet in his mouth, his pager sounded. He checked the screen, then spoke with his mouth full. “Damnit.”
“What is it?”
“Donovan got it.” At Milton’s slight head shake, he elaborated. “It’s this thing Simon from chem’s doing. Every morning this month he’s sending a riddle to the department heads. Whoever gets the most right at the end of the month gets six bottles of that vanilla homebrew he’s making.”
There were two things wrong with that. One: the pagers were for emergencies. Two: Milton was a department head and hadn’t been included in their little game.
“I know, I know,” Brackish said, reading his mind. “We should only use these thingies for emergencies, but it’s only for a month and Simon’s homebrew is really good and—”
“Why didn’t he ask me to join in?”
Brackish looked surprised. “Oh. Well…” He rubbed his neck. “I guess he didn’t think it was your bag. You take these so seriously” —he raised the pager— “so maybe he thought you’d think it was… you know, unprofessional.” At Milton’s blank look, he added, “Do you? Want to join I mean?”
Milton’s cheeks felt hot. It was like being picked last for sports all over again. He shook his head softly, his half-eaten breakfast no longer appealing. “No, thank you.”
He stared through Brackish finishing his food, pager silent. On second thought, it was worse than being picked last for sports. At school, it was because nobody wanted the nerdy kid. Now he was surrounded by professional nerds and none of them wanted to include the serious, pedantic fusspot who was clearly no fun. Regardless of the fact that he would’ve declined an invitation, because pagers were emergency tools and nothing more, he still would’ve appreciated one.
“You okay, babe?” He hadn’t noticed Brackish finish his breakfast, yet he’d managed to clear the table and was already pulling on his lab coat.
“Yeah, sorry. I’m fine.”
“You sure?” He smoothed a hand along Milton’s shoulder and between his shoulder blades.
“I just…” He rubbed the bridge of his nose while Brackish’s hand continued its soft attention at his back. “When I was in general surgery, this thing went off every ten minutes.” He unclipped his pager and tossed it on the table. After bouncing against his untouched coffee cup, it landed face-down. “Now it doesn’t go off at all, even for fun.”
“Well, you know, maybe people worry about contacting the head doc on one of these.” He picked up the decumbent pager and handed it back to Milton who took it without thinking. “To be honest, babe, you’re the only one who actually needs one. In an emergency, who else would we need to get hold of?”
He hadn’t thought about it like that.
Brackish bent and pressed a conspicuously gentle kiss to his temple. “I have to get going. It was a penny by the way.”
Forcing a half-smile onto his face, Milton nodded. “Clever.”
By the end of the week, Brackish topped the riddle league. It may have been cheating that Milton helped him out over breakfast, but he’d only answered one of them fast enough to pip the others to the post. Even if the thought of vanilla-flavored beer made him wince, he was getting into the game.
The following Monday, during the med staff’s morning briefing, Milton’s pager went off. The rapid succession of high-pitched beeps had sweat prickling at the back of his neck and transported him back in time momentarily to that moment of heightened urgency in a busy hospital, legs tensing ready to sprint. He excused himself, fumbling with the device as he pulled it from his belt and opened it.
The message scrolling across the thin digital screen read:
[04.11.94] I LOVE YOU
It was from Brackish’s extension. Funnily enough, Brackish himself appeared at that moment at the end of the corridor, a goofy smile on his face as he met Milton’s fierce gaze. Rushing over to him, Milton dragged him into his office by his arm and kicked the door closed.
“Brackish, what the hell? You know these are for emergencies!” Before Brackish could get a word in edgeways, Milton raised his voice and spoke over him, throwing his hands in the air. “For the first time, I thought someone actually had something important to tell me!”
Brackish’s face dropped, eyes on the floor. He looked like a kicked puppy and, oh… oh, shit.
“Baby, no…” Shit, shit, shit. “I didn’t mean it like that. Of course it’s important, but couldn’t you have written it on a note or told me in person?”
Brackish’s eyes remained on the floor, hands squeezing together in front of him. Speaking quietly, utterly defeated, he said, “I wanted you to get the message immediately.”
He stroked Brackish’s face, hoping to wipe his sadness away with a soft touch, get him to look him in the eye. “Well,” he ducked and smiled up at him. “It worked. That’s the most urgent ‘I love you’ I’ve ever received.”
Brackish finally looked at him. “A total emergency,” he said with a half-smile.
“Yeah. Almost gave me a heart attack.” He grabbed his chest in demonstration, then stroked Brackish’s arm.
“Sorry.” Brackish sighed. “I won’t page you again.” He still looked hurt. Milton couldn’t have that.
“I guess, once a day would be acceptable.” When Brackish perked up, Milton raised his finger. “When I’m not working. So… mornings, evenings, days off—”
“And lunchtime?” Brackish nodded excitedly.
They shook on it.
Brackish’s first sanctioned message came through the next day. Thanks to a time-consuming experiment, he’d already left when Milton woke up. Five minutes after he snoozed his alarm, the pager sounded on the nightstand.
[04.12.94] YOU LOOK CUTE WHEN YOU SLEEP
It followed the pre-approved rules. Just one message, sent while Milton was off duty.
Milton had a smile on his face for the remainder of the morning.
The daily messages continued, usually arriving in the mornings or at lunchtime. No one had paged Milton in an official capacity once, but he didn’t care about that anymore. All he cared about were the messages Brackish sent to make him smile, always keeping to the rules, and always squashed into thirty characters or less. He never missed a day.
Sometimes, when he needed a pick-me-up, Milton messaged first.
The first evening message Milton received—following a day of concern that Brackish had forgotten about the sweet thing they had going on—arrived just before Brackish turned up at his quarters.
[04.31.94] GUESS WHO WON 6 VANILLA BEERS?
The door lock chittered as Brackish scanned his pass and waltzed in, holding a cardboard crate of cloudy bottled beer high in celebration.
The pagers were phased out as new technologies emerged. Luckily, there hadn’t been any real need for emergency communication like Alf’s accident in the thirteen months pagers bobbed on the belts of every person walking the floors of Area 51. At least, not until the biggest emergency in recorded history. No technology could’ve prepared them for that.
Brackish was one of hundreds of thousands of casualties on that dark day. A day that merged into forty-eight hours, then seventy-two, until Milton was so physically and mentally exhausted from healing the injured he’d collapsed at the foot of Brackish’s hospital bed and slept on cold tiles until he was needed again.
Keeping busy was all he had. Going back to his quarters without Brackish was almost as frightening as the alien swarm that blackened the sky before their defeat. But there was only so much he could do, only so long he’d remain useful in his fragile condition.
Even when fatigue threatened to knock him out cold, Milton couldn’t rest. He couldn’t eat. Couldn’t cry. Couldn’t function. Knowing Brackish was at the other end of the facility, alone and showing no signs of regaining consciousness, was a waking nightmare.
He’d heard what happened to him, how the captured alien violated the man he loved by using him as a disposable voice box. Brackish must’ve been terrified.
The coma had to be temporary. Brackish was a fighter. He had to wake up. The odds were slim, wafer-thin, but he just had to. If he didn’t…
He couldn’t contemplate that possibility.
There had to be something he could busy himself with before his next shift. Digging through both nightstands for his puzzle book, he noticed their old pagers lying side by side at the back of Brackish’s bottom drawer. He’d meant to throw them away last year when military-encrypted intranet made them obsolete. He was sure he had. There was no point in keeping them cluttering the place up. But there they were. Brackish must’ve wanted them.
Their screens were dead, batteries removed to stop them leaking and corroding the contacts. Fishing through the kitchen drawer of useful bits, Milton found some spare AAAs and slotted them into his pager, the one without a smiley face sticker on the side.
The display flickered to life and alerted him that its memory was at capacity. All twenty slots were full: the last of Brackish’s daily messages. Twenty portals back in time.
Sitting on the bed, Milton wondered if he had the strength to read them. But he needed to hear Brackish’s voice. He needed to feel his presence, somehow. These one-sided snippets of communication might satisfy a slither of that need.
Thumbing the arrow key, he cycled through them, oldest to newest.
[05.15.95]: CAN’T WAIT TO KISS YOU TONIGHT
[05.16.95]: I MISS YOU
[05.17.95]: COME TO R-LAB 7 WANT CUDDLE
An appointment ate into his break that day. He hadn’t managed to get to the lab before his next shift. Brackish didn’t mind—he’d gotten enough cuddles that night to make up for it—but grief sank like a hot stone in Milton’s gut that he wasn’t there cuddling him right now, and that Brackish couldn’t cuddle back even if he was.
[05.18.95]: I THINK SB HAS A CRUSH ON ME
And god, hadn’t he been jealous about that!
[05.19.95]: GOOD LUCK TODAY
No idea what that was about.
[05.20.95]: LOVE YOU BABY
[05.21.95]: HAPPY ANNIVERSARY!!!!!
[05.22.95]: LAST NIGHT WAS… INCREDIBLE
He couldn’t help smiling at that warm memory.
[05.23.95]: LOVE YOU MORE!
[05.24.95]: ALIEN WOKE UP ––– JUST KIDDING
[05.25.95]: HAVE A *GOOD* DAY
[05.26.95]: SCORPION IN LAB2 – JN FREAKIN!
Brackish always found it amusing how some of their colleagues feared desert-dwelling species when they shared a home with freaky aliens. Milton hadn’t mentioned his phobia of the small spiny lizards that occasionally wandered in from the desert until one found its way into their kitchen last summer. Brackish had rolled up his sleeves and happily plucked the intruder from the floor with his bare hands, carrying it all the way up to the salt flat to toss it outside. He hadn’t shut up about it for days afterward, proud to be the brave hero.
[05.27.95]: BE LATE BACK TONIGHT SORRY
[05.28.95]: KNOCK KNOCK
He’d answered with the typical ‘Who’s there?’ but received no reply until he saw Brackish in person.
‘Olive you so much!’
Milton groaned at the time. He’d do anything to hear one of his lame jokes right about now.
[05.29.95]: YOU SNORED LAST NIGHT
[05.30.95]: HOPE YOU’RE FEELING BETTER
A new research assistant passed a cold virus onto him during her initial health assessment. Brackish wasn’t much of a caregiver—he’d spent most of his time sitting with his sleeve over his mouth to avoid catching it—but he made dinner two nights in a row. That alone made Milton eager to get well again, and fast. Brackish was a terrible cook. Milton smiled. Again, anything for his bad cooking.
[05.31.95]: 3RD DRAWER
He hadn’t put the utensils back where they were supposed to go. Obviously.
[06.01.95]: WERE YOU LATE?
[06.02.95]: VEGAS TRIP IN 1 WEEK!!!
It was only a day trip, but Brackish had been thrilled to get out of the facility. They blew half their paychecks on a game of craps and the other half on the fanciest Italian meal Milton had ever eaten. A wonderful day. A wonderful memory. They’d make more memories. They would.
The counter in the corner of the screen told Milton the next message was the last.
[06.03.95]: I’LL LOVE YOU FOREVER BABY
He dropped the pager. While he sobbed into his palms, Brackish’s final message scrolled back and forth across the screen.