06 Jun Neverscape
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Estimated reading time — 28 minutes
“We’re going down!” Captain Raul Santana yelled over the intercom. “Everybody, brace for impact!”
Hazard lights blinked a pulsing symphony of angry red while alarms bleated in terror. The plane’s nose tore through the final layer of thin white clouds as the island rushed up to catch the doomed airliner. The 747 shook violently. Screams from the passengers strapped into the cabin pierced Santana’s ears. A buried image of his final tour in Afghanistan erupted before his eyes. He winced, shoving the burning intrusion back into its shadowy box, and wrestled with the yoke. Santana’s co-pilot desperately fought for the radio controls as turbulence tossed him against his seat restraints.
The island’s golden beach taunted him as it swelled in front of the cockpit’s forward windows. Santana let his body go slack: stiffening up on impact was a guaranteed way to break bones. He turned to offer the same advice to Jenkins.
The plane slammed into the earth with a deafening boom of crunching metal. Its wings sheared cleanly from the fuselage, peeling back metal skin like a banana, throwing free the broken bodies of those too slow to buckle in. The jet’s carcass carved a path of fiery ember across the pristine beach. A flock of birds nestled in the palm trees at the sand’s edge panicked and took to flight in a flurry of flapping wings.
Get your head out of your ass, Marine. We are leaving!
Santana’s eyes popped open at the sound of his old sergeant’s voice and a gigantic breath burned into his lungs. His temples pounded like an angry war god beating a drum. The cockpit swirled as he cut through the cobwebs in his mind. He coughed a few times. With shaking hands he fumbled for the restraints’ release mechanism.
“Fucking Christ, we’re still here.”
The shoulder belts snapped free with a liberating click. Santana massaged the back of his neck and turned to Jenkins. “You still with–”
Jenkins lay slumped over the co-pilot’s yoke. The control column had splintered during the crash and impaled the young pilot through the heart. Jenkins’s hollow eyes stared back at Santana, arms dangling lifelessly. Santana reached over and closed his partner’s eyes with a gentle hand. He thought of Jenkins’s wife and their unborn daughter that would never know her father.
“I’m sorry, brother.” He wrapped his fist around the gold cross hanging from his neck and muttered a quick prayer. Santana clutched Jenkins’s shoulder as he made for the cockpit door. “I’ll check in on them.”
The cabin reeked of sudden terror and suffering. Oxygen masks hung limply beneath broken overhead compartments that had vomited their contents into the aisles. Bodies, bloodied and battered and broken, sat strapped into their death thrones, heads lolling. Some wore masks of eternal surprise. A fortunate few found their faces frozen in peaceful resignation. Santana slumped against the cockpit doorway.
“Mother of God.”
Santana’s stomach soured. He pressed the back of his hand against his mouth to fight back the retch aching to free itself. The scent of salt water wafted in from a gaping hole in the plane’s side. Santana picked his way down the aisle towards the slanted column of moonlight marking the new exit. In a seat halfway down the aisle, the body of a man in his thirties leaned over the chair to his right. The still body of a boy rested beneath his father’s sheltering arms.
Santana fought back the lump in his throat and straightened the boy’s Red Sox hat. He patted the sleeping angel’s head, repeated his prayer, and stepped outside.
Sterling moonlight painted the landscape. He squinted and panned around the crash scene. Wreckage from the plane and discarded luggage littered the beach. Fire crackled from two dozen burning piles left in the plane’s wake. Waves gently breaking against rocks sounded from a nearby crag. It’s all a joke, he thought, or a dream.
Any minute now and I’ll wake up at home.
Santana squeezed his eyes shut tight and held his breath for a moment. A shrill bird call pierced the air. He opened his eyes and looked out over the endless dark ocean blue.
“No such luck, I’m afraid,” a man’s voice, accented in heavy French, called from alongside the plane.
Santana tracked to the new voice, squinting against the glare of one of the larger fires. The man had dark skin and was dressed as though he were due to deliver a keynote speech at the U.N. And tall. Ridiculously tall. “What’s that?” Santana said.
The man loosened a bold red necktie and the top two buttons of his tailored shirt. “We all had the same feeling once we got outside. That this was all a dream.” He shrugged off his suitcoat. “My name’s LaSalle. And, sadly, I can assure you that this is no dream.”
Several sets of footprints headed away from the hole in plane’s side. “How many survivors we got down there?”
Lasalle’s head sunk. A moment passed before the Frenchman answered. “Only myself and two others.”
Only four souls out of 113 had lived to share the misery of being stranded. The weight of the perished poured concrete into Santana’s lungs. He had seen friends, more than he could count, cut down in combat. Indeed, Lawson’s final screams had haunted his nightmares right up until last night. He had lost his father one breathless gasp at a time to lung cancer. But the deaths of so many at once…
Marine, we are leaving!
Santana shook the memory of his old co-pilot’s voice free. He nodded back at the cabin. “I’m gonna check the emergency supplies. God only knows how long we’re gonna be stuck here.”
“No need. We have already salvaged all we could.”
“There’s a few other things I gotta check,” Santana replied.
He worked his way back towards the cockpit, stepping over the sprawled remains of a woman whose neck was twisted obscenely backwards. Inside the cockpit, he tapped a few buttons on the main control panel. Hidden computers whirred and a warbling beep groaned before dying. The lights on the emergency locator beacon dimmed. “You’ve got to be shitting me,” Santana said. He picked up his headset and punched a few buttons on the radio, drawing nothing but static. He checked his wristwatch, then wrestled his cellphone from his pocket. Both faces showed no signs of damage. Neither responded to his frustrated tapping.
God only knew how long it would take for the flight to be declared overdue. He entered the five digit passcode into the keypad mounted on the captain’s locker. After a satisfying click, he opened the door, and retrieved the old Marine Corp sidearm. He stuffed the Glock-19 into the back of his waistband, taking comfort in the cool, familiar presence.
Moments later, LaSalle lead Santana a short distance from the fuselage wreckage to the survivors who had taken refuge in the shade of a wide palm tree. Santana didn’t like the look of the supremely fair-skinned man who introduced himself simply as ‘White’. Probably the shifty eyes, Santana thought. White’s neck craned upwards to Santana’s lean silhouette. The intricately tattooed swastika covering his throat smiled back at the pilot.
Santana extended a hand but White only smirked. Santana tried again with the heavyset woman seated to White’s left. Purple streaks flashed through her jet black hair. She sat with her arms folded and her chin resting against her chest. “I’m Santana.”
The woman took his hand and gave it a weak shake, before jerking her hand safely back. “I’m Melody.” Sweat glistened at Santana’s temples. He swiped at salty beads with the back of his wrist. “Nice to meet you Melody. Try and relax, everything is gonna be just fine.”
White chuckled and rolled his eyes. “Why is it every time something bad happens you G.I. Joe types are always telling people that everything will be alright?” He pinched a smooth stone between his fingers, letting it roll across each digit like a poker chip. “You know that sounds like total bullshit, right?.”
“We say it because it turns out people don’t really like hearing things like ‘Holy shit we’re all gonna burn’,” Santana replied. “And whether or not it’s true, people who believe everything will be ok can focus and be useful.”
LaSalle moved beside Santana. “He’s right. We all have to stay focused if we want to survive. Captain, how long before we can expect a rescue?”
“Tough to say, but this far out to sea standard procedure when a plane falls off of the ATC grid is to scramble a pair of Navy interceptors– F-18’s to do a fast pass of the last known location. Trouble is…”
“Go on,” LaSalle replied.
Santana sighed. “The trouble is I don’t think they’ll have any idea where to look.”
White scoffed. “Look I’m not the brightest bulb in the box, but didn’t you just say they’ll just fly on out to the last place the plane was on the GPS or whatever you call it? Look at this flaming pile of shit. The smoke has to be a mile high at least. Even Mr. Fucking Magoo could see it, especially from the air.”
“Normally I’d agree with you. But since this island isn’t supposed to be here I’d say we’re looking at some pretty out of the ordinary bullshit coming our way.”
LaSalle touched Santana’s shoulder. “What do you mean it’s not supposed to be here? How can an island just appear from nowhere?”
“Yeah, professor. How does an entire island just pop up?” White added.
Santana threw White a frigid glance. The muscles tensed in his shoulders, but he resisted the urge to ball his fists and go to work. “I have no idea. But what I do know is that I’ve made this flight a thousand times and it’s never fucking been here.”
A bird cackled from within the dense jungle. White mimicked the laugh and raised his hands in mock defense. “Hey, take it easy soldier boy. If you say it’s never been here then that’s perfectly fine by me. But I think I’m speaking for me, Beanpole and Chunky over here when I say then what the fuck are we supposed to do?”
Santana didn’t see the point in holding back the truth. They were all in the same boat. They were all facing the same longshot odds. They deserved to know exactly how long. “I don’t know. And the radio’s down… along with our locator beacon.”
Sand flew as White scrambled to his feet, throwing up his arms in exasperation. “Wait a minute. You mean to tell me that not only are we stuck on a island that doesn’t exist, but there’s no way we can call for help?” White kicked over a stack of cases of bottled water. “Well isn’t that just the icing on the fucking cake.”
LaSalle stepped forward to calm White’s outburst, but the pale-skinned man swatted the gesture away without a second glance. He marched a few steps towards the doomed flight’s captain. Santana let his right hand drift to his waistband, letting it rest just shy of his concealed sidearm.
“Well what’s the plan, Captain America? It’s your fault we’re all stuck out here on this little slice of paradise. What’s our play?” White stabbed at the air in front of Santana’s chest but wisely avoided contact.
A voice cried out from the back of Santana’s buried subconscious. Lawson. Screaming. Burning. I should have done something. He shook the memory off. “Take it easy. We’ll figure something out.”
LaSalle nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, yes. We will find–”
The arrow tore its way through LaSalle’s throat, spraying a mist of warm blood over White’s face. The tall man staggered back, clutching at the wound. His breath came in ragged wheezes and gurgles. He sank to his knees in the soft sand. Surprise swelled in his eyes as he looked to Santana for explanation, but the pilot’s own wide eyes were little more than a reflection of terror.
Before Santana could react, a second arrow exploded through the back of LaSalle’s skull, spearing an eye free of its socket, momentum plowing the dying man into a face plant. Santana snatched his pistol from his waistband and took aim at the wall of emerald jungle. “Everybody move! Now!”
“Where the fuck did that come from?” White shouted, pointing at the gun.
“Go!” Santana yelled back at the other man. An arrow sailed by his cheek, missing by inches. Santana dropped to a crouch and squeezed off two shots. A cluster of wide fronds rustled but no screams retorted..
Melody struggled to her feet, sandals flapping, nearly tumbling forward onto LaSalle’s twitching body. Her arms waved frantically for balance as she stumbled. She grabbed for White, but he knocked her desperate hands aside and bolted back for the wounded plane.
“Asshole!” Melody shouted after the fleeing man. The coarse sands scattered as her heavy footsteps plodded in pursuit. An arrow whistled from the canopy. The razor sharp stone head tore through her calf, shooting a steak of searing agony up her leg. She collapsed with a scream. “Help me!”
Two more arrows thunked into the sand by Melody’s outstretched hands. White ducked an arrow of his own, diving behind a hulking piece of wing debris. He peeked around the torn metal. “Sorry, sweetheart. Seems like we got a ‘survival of the fittest’ thing going on here. And you don’t look all that fit.”
White quickly scanned the treeline and then bolted the last twenty feet to the makeshift entrance torn out of the plane’s side. As he breached the jagged threshold, an electrifying jolt surged through his system, throwing him aside like a discarded toy. Steam wafted from his chest while the world swirled in front of his eyes.
Santana kept the pistol raised as he reached down and pulled Melody to her feet. Icy shivers swept over her in violent waves. Her lower lip quivered as her eyes darted back and forth over the trees. He grabbed her by the chin and locked his eyes with the woman’s. “I’ve got you. We’re gonna be fine. But we gotta move now. I can’t do it alone. I need your help.”
Melody gave an unconvincing nod. Santana returned the gesture and pointed to the trees. “We need to get out of sight. And by the looks of it, that racist asshole twitching on the ground proved the plane isn’t an option. On two we’re gonna run to that break in the trees. Looks like there’s a path there.” Santana took a deep breath.
“Ready. On two. One–”
The arrow sliced through his shirt, nicking the skin just beneath his underarm. He jerked away from the sudden sting and yelled. “Go now!”
Melody hobbled for the trees, wincing with each step at the burning in her calf. Foliage crunched under unseen footsteps hidden behind the trees. Santana took aim and fired once, freezing the hidden assailant. “Keep moving!”
Fighting his better judgment, Santana raced across the beach. White had already begun to stir by the time the pilot hovered over him, pistol swinging back and forth over the treeline. “I’ll probably live to regret it, but I’ve decided I’ve lost enough people on this flight.” He reached and pulled White to his feet by a handful of T-shirt. “Even a piece of shit coward like you. Now move.”
They caught up to Melody a few minutes later. She cowered behind a wide palm tree at the side of a sandy path a hundred yards from the beach. She had gnawed the nails on her left hand down to bloody nubs. Dark eye liner traced streaks from the corners of her eyes down her cheeks. She glared at White, her eyes thinning to slits.
“Yeah, yeah. I heard you the first time,” White replied.
“Shut up, both of you,” Santana said, scanning the surroundings, “If we have a prayer of getting out of this you need to stay calm and stay quiet.”
White scoffed. “Easy for you to say, captain. You’re the one rocking the piece.”
Santana ignored the barb. There was no movement behind the trees. No more arrows. The jungle had grown deathly still; quiet as though it were holding its breath. Santana was suddenly aware of the ache in his shoulder from having kept the Glock at the ready.
“I think we’re ok.”
Melody raised a trembling hand. “Uh, arrow in the leg. Definitely not ok.”
Blood trickled down her meaty calf. Inklike streaks crawled away from the wound. Santana crouched beside her, inspecting the injury. He had seen more than enough gore from improvised anti-personnel traps in Afghanistan. “Holy hell.”
“Is it bad?” Melody stammered.
It broke his heart to lie to the doomed girl, but Santana knew the telltale signs of a neurotoxin at work. “You’ll be dancing again in no time.” He reached for the arrow, then paused.
“This is going to hurt.”
Melody bit her lower lip. “Just do it.”
Santana didn’t hesitate. He snapped the arrow’s shaft and pulled it free. Melody winced but managed to will most of the pain into silence. Santana tore a sleeve of his shirt free and quickly cinched a tourniquet. He forced a smile. “You did just fine. Last time I tied one of those the guy cried for an hour.”
White pressed a hand to his chest in mock sentiment. “How moving. But seriously, what the hell are we supposed to do? We got a bunch of assholes out there shooting arrows at us, something threw some serious smackdown on my face when I tried to take cover on the plane–”
“You mean when you ran like a coward and abandoned me?” Melody said.
A derisive grin spread over White’s lips before he continued. “And no one knows we’re here.” He gestured with a sweep of an arm. “Wherever the Hell this is.”
He hated it, but Santana knew that White was correct. He nodded. “That about sums it up.”
Melody winced. The burning in her leg unleashed a hot barb that sent her hands reaching for the injury. Tears stung her eyes, but there was an ember of fierce determination slowly being stoked behind the misty veil. “Well then what do we do? I don’t want to die here.”
“Hang on a second,” Santana said. There was a faint roar of water coming from the trail leading towards the island’s jungle heart. He was suddenly aware of the rough, scratching sensation in the back of his throat. He knew that if they were to survive long enough to escape they would need fresh water sooner than later. “We need water. We’re gonna head deeper inland, maybe find somewhere to hold up until we can figure out our next play.”
The trail wound away from the smoking wreckage and gentle lap of the ocean tide. Santana took point, head on a swivel, weapon snapping to any rustle or snapping of foliage that sounded larger than a small animal. Melody hobbled close behind, slowing every now and then to check her saturated bandage. White trailed a short distance at the rear, shirking from shadows that the cool breeze scattered over the path.
Walls of steam-soaked plant life enclosed the path, threatening to collapse on it like an emerald avalanche. The non-stop flitter of birdsong and chattering animals was overpowered by the constant buzz of unseen insects. Santana tugged a couple of shirt buttons open. He hadn’t sweltered like this since his last trip to the sandbox.
“I don’t know how much longer I can go,” Melody panted between breaths.
Santana caught a quick glimpse of her leg. The bandage was saturated with blood and a trickle of thick pus oozed down her calf. She fell, catching herself against a tree trunk. He threw her arm over his shoulder and helped her back upright. “Look,” he said, pointing, “there’s water just ahead. We’ll get you cleaned up best we can and take a rest.”
The waterfall’s cascading flow glistened in the moonlight like a million diamonds washing away from the cliff above. It crashed into an oval-shaped lagoon painted a similar glistening coat of sapphire. Together, Santana and Melody worked their way down the hill towards the promise of freshwater. White ran past them without a second glance, falling to his knees at the lagoon’s bank. His hands were a blur as he frantically scooped water onto his face and into his mouth.
Santana eased Melody down to the golden sand and turned back to the jungle, scanning it before setting to work on the woman’s dressing. “It was stupid to run down here like that. There could have been more of them waiting.”
White flipped a final handful of water onto his head and massaged the back of his neck with the cool fluid. “Chance I was willing to take, boss. What else could go wrong?”
“You have no idea,” Santana replied, taking a drink of his own. His eyes followed the edge of the lagoon’s perimeter. Halfway around it appeared to vanish into the rocky cliff face. Santana tore his remaining sleeve free. He gave Melody a warning not to look and then quickly peeled off the old bandage. A moment and a pair of tears later, Melody’s leg, swollen and purple, was clean and ready.
A deep sound like a rhino’s bellow shook the trees behind the survivors. Their heads twisted in unison.
“The hell was that?” White asked, quickly springing to his feet, ready to bolt.
Santana’s Glock stared down the sudden, deafening intrusion as the pilot dragged Melody once more to her feet. Puffy bags had appeared under eyes, stretching her makeup into distorted shapes that streamed down her face. “Christ if I know. But we’re moving. And we’re moving now. Go!”
Fifty yards to their rear, the lush tropical vegetation feverishly rustled. A group of muscular figures clad in animal skins, carrying primitive bows emerged from the trees. Crude brands and ugly scars marred the skin of their faces and chests. Their eyes were hollow sockets of leathery skin. Melody screamed and hobbled faster, dragging her wounded leg with Santana’s assistance.
A hulking figure emerged from the growing horde. He was dressed in similar filthy pelts and scars. A necklace of sharp fangs dangled from his tree trunk neck. His left arm ended at a mottled stump below the elbow. A three-foot long length of shark jaw had been driven through the bruised flesh. Serrated teeth clung to the jaw fragment, eager to feed.
White stumbled a few steps. He leveled a shaky finger at the nightmarish figure and the horde massing at his back. “I’ll say it again. What the hell is that?”
“Don’t know, don’t care. And unless you wanna ask him why he’s missing half a limb I suggest you move,” Santana called back over his shoulder.
Santana trotted as quickly as he could, Melody’s arm draped over his neck, finger resting on the Glock’s trigger guard. The picturesque lagoon disappeared into the rocky cliff face, the moon casting a long throw of shadows over the sparkling water. A smooth path dared the survivors to enter at the edge of the golden sands.
“You can’t be serious. We’re really going in there?” Melody asked, looking ahead at the gloomy darkness.
A chorus of war cries reverberated in the night air, boring its way into Santana’s skull. He winced at the chilling sound. “I know you’re scared. But it’s either the cave,” Santana said before nodding back at the pursuing horde, “or them.”
“To hell with Fatty, here. I’m heading in,” White said as he pushed his way by.
Santana’s fist tightened around the pistol’s grip. Melody eased him off with a nervous smile. “Don’t worry. I’m used to it. Price you pay for being a chocoholic.” The bloodcurdling sound of the mob closed. Melody’s chin bobbed in the affirmative. “Cave. Now.”
The path leading into the cave looked like the maw of a lamprey: circular and with rocky crags for fangs that looked as though they’d be happy to clamp shut the moment prey drew close enough. It was dark beyond the entrance but the straining moonlight revealed a narrow passageway winding off into the shadows.
White disappeared inside first, anxious to put as much space between himself and the creatures hunting them. Santana and Melody followed, limping along as best they could manage. A moment later White’s voice echoed from around the bend.
“You guys are definitely going to want to see this.”
As they rounded the final bend, they found White staring slack-jawed at the far side of the voluminous cavern that was easily the size of a football stadium. A collective gasp escaped their lips. But it wasn’t the size of the enormous space that stole their breath.
“Jesus Christ,” Santana whispered, awestruck.
Towering above the embankment on the far side of the lagoon was a stepped pyramid that nearly touched the cavern’s ceiling. Several slanted spears of silvery light gleamed on the pyramid’s glossy obsidian facade. A long rope bridge stretched from the survivors’ promontory, reaching all the way to the steep stairs climbing to the pyramid’s entrance.
Santana recovered from the bewilderment first. “Come on. We have to keep moving.”
“Where?” White replied. “Do you honestly want to cross this rickety ass bridge and investigate the temple of doom over there? Are you insane?”
Santana shifted his weight, but did not let Melody down to the ground. He had no intention of waiting around for committee votes to be tallied. Inaction is what gets Marines killed. He knew it better than most. He had seen it happen before all too many times.
Move to live, Marine!
“Look, you can stay here and meet the locals if you want. But we’re moving. We’re gonna reach the temple, lock down what we can, and hopefully live long enough to regret asking you to come with us.”
The sounds of the hunters grew louder. It would be only moments before they surged around the bend. Santana tested the first plank of the bridge with his foot. The board groaned but held fast. He nodded to White. “You go first. I’ll send Melody next and cover the rear.”
White opened his mouth to protest his role as guinea pig but the steely glare in Santana’s eye convinced him otherwise. “You’re the boss, boss.” The pale-skinned man took a handful of the rope rail and took his first tentative steps onto the bridge. He flashed a gap-filled grin. “See you on the other side.”
Santana covered the cavern’s entrance while White made his way across. He was just about to guide Melody onto the bridge when long shadow wrapped around the corner of the passage. The Glock roared and a shower of bright sparks burst from the passage wall freezing shadow in place. Murmurs of a hushed language Santana didn’t understand seeped around the bend. He turned back to Melody whose knuckles had blanched from squeezing the bridge’s rope handrail.
“That won’t hold them forever. You gotta go. Now!”
Melody inched her way across the first two planks. Santana dropped to a crouch, taking aim at the lone entrance. Beads of frigid sweat trickled down the back of his shaved scalp. He reigned in his focus and began a tentative retreat to the bridge.
White reached the opposite side, collapsing to the ground as though he’d just run a marathon. He rolled to his knees and wildly swung his arms. “Hurry! The bridge isn’t as solid on this side.”
“Oh God,” Melody squealed, strangled the rope, her progress grinding to a halt.
The support cables of the bridge swayed. Santana’s hand flew on its own to the guide rope. Stabilized, he shouted for Melody to move. Instead she screamed.
Mako breached the entryway flanked by his band of hunters. Silence smothered the cavern. And then came the wretched groan of bows being drawn. Santana fired into the killbox framed by the narrow passage. Blood exploded from the chests of two hunters. One fell to the ground; the other slumped and fell from the promontory. The body splashed into the lagoon below, shattering its serene surface.
The body floated face down in a cloud of crimson. A moment later dozens of tooth-filled jaws tugged at the hair and flesh of the fallen man. Santana’s stomach lurched as the piranha ripped the hunter’s arm free to the sound of tearing meat. The captain recovered quickly. He had seen more than his fill of dismemberment and had learned long ago how to bury the ugliness of the world. Santana backed his way further down the bridge, firing a shot every few paces to ward off the hunters’ arrows. They seemed happy to remain safely away from the bridge. All but Mako.
Mako’s jaw stretched unnaturally as though it had come undone at the hinges. The gaping maw revealed row after row of serrated teeth that matched the fearsome weapon impaling his arm. He threw his head back and thrust his chest out, unleashing a roar that chilled the very air.
“Hey, I’m no expert, but I’m thinking maybe your next seven or eight shots should probably hit the asshole with the fucked up arm,” White shouted.
Santana leveled his sidearm in agreement. “Grab Melody and head for the temple or whatever the hell that is.”
White found the courage to venture five steps out onto the bridge to meet the limping woman. As she reached for his hand a crunching exploded into a snap. Melody’s uninjured leg drove through a rotten plank. She flailed for White’s hand, but he had already retreated to solid ground. She plunged through the jagged splinters of broken planks just managing to grab a fistfull of the bridge’s lower rope. Shrieking, she dangled above the piranha filled lagoon.
Santana quickly panned to the endangered woman. “Melody! Hang on.”
Mako’s demonic maw shortened to tooth-filled grin that stretched ear to ear. He dashed over the promontory, rushing for the bridge and the promise of prey. Santana darted across the rattling planks as though it were a perfectly level piece of race track. A step from Melody, he spun on a heel, took aim and fired. The bullets stung Mako’s chest and shoulders like a swarm of angry yellow jackets. The giant staggered to a halt, shielding his face with his arm’s lethal prosthesis. Santana clamped down on Melody’s wrist and began pulling the woman up. White re-appeared at the bridge’s end. Holding a long survival knife.
“Sorry, boss. Can’t take any chances.” White set to work, sawing at the bridge’s anchoring ropes.
Santana’s eyes widened to saucers. “No! What the hell are you doing?”
White ignored Santana’s desperate plea and let the serrated blade work itself through the rope. The first line snapped, causing the bridge to lurch wildly as it dropped. Santana fell through the planks, grabbing a length of rope with one hand, clamping down on Melody’s wrist with the other. The Glock tumbled from his hand, seemed to freeze in mid-air for an agonizing second, then disappeared into the crystal-blue waters. Arrows sailed over the bridge, shooting for the opposite promontory. White shrieked in pain. He cursed at the hunters before his footsteps faded into the distance.
Melody’s lips quivered as she dangled twenty feet above the dark waters. “Please.”
Every muscle in Santana’s body twitched. Veins popped in his temples and neck. The rope tore into the skin of his fingers. His jaw clenched and he pulled at Melody’s wrist with everything he had. Her soft skin slid through his vice-like grip until he held her by little more than a handshake. Santana’s face burned a hot red. “I’m sorry…”
Melody’s scream rattled the massive cavern, rousing bats from slumber amongst the stalactites, and drawing a round of guttural cheers from the hunters. Mako roared his approval and pumped the serrated teeth of his handless arm into the air.
She splashed into the lagoon with Santana’s eyes locked onto the doomed woman the whole way down. A moment later bits and pieces of rent flesh and fabric floated to the surface amidst a plume of red.
Santana sealed his eyes shut. The rope cut deep into his hand and for a moment he considered letting go. He had lost so much when the plane crashed; lost even more in the sandbox. He had watched men die before, had seen the child-like look of innocent terror of not knowing what would follow the dimming light. But Melody was different. Melody hadn’t signed on the dotted line. She hadn’t boarded a transport plane into some third world shit hole that time had forgotten. She was just a kid flying home.
Something sparked in the back of Santana’s head: A tiny voice demanding justice. It clawed its ways through his mind until only a singular, laser-focused thought remained.
White must die…
Santana ignored the plinking of arrows deflecting on the promontory and slung his free hand up to the rope. He pulled himself onto the tattered bridge and maneuvered over the final swaying planks. Behind him, Mako held his position at the bridge’s halfway point. Blood seeped from his bullet wounds.
“I’ll be back for you later,” Santana said as he trotted off, following White’s footsteps, “but first I have to deal with a more pressing pile of shit.”
The climb up the obsidian pyramid’s front stairs set Santana’s legs and lungs on fire. They terminated two stories beneath its the peak, leaving him facing the blackened maw of a twelve-foot entrance. The crackling of fire snapped from within.
Santana slowly let the darkness swallow him. Leading with his hand sliding along the smooth, glass-like wall he slowly advanced, using the snap and pop of the fire as a guide. He rounded a bend and was greeted by the faint light of a lone torch flickering on the wall. He pulled it free of its brazier when it hit him: why would White have left a trail?
The torch swooshed as Santana swung it ahead into the dark. Dancing shadows on the walls revealed the tight corridor advanced in a subtle circular fashion while the telltale burn in his calves indicated a gentle incline. Rodents squeaked and scurried somewhere in the blanket of blackness. Scenes from old mummy movies ran through Santana’s head. “Better not be any snakes.” He looked up at the sky that wasn’t there. “At least give me that.”
The passage finally emptied into a dome-shaped room one-hundred feet across. A ring of burning braziers circled the chamber, bathing the walls in a fluid, amber glow. Santana’s eyes fell immediately on the room’s centerpiece. Four columns of strange greenish stone stood watch, towering nearly two stories over the floor. Angular symbols that looked as though they’d been crudely carved with nothing sharper than primitive tools of rock decorated the tall stoneworks. Reflecting pools of still water rested beneath each column.
Santana approached, eyebrows raised at the amazing sculpture before him. The hair on the back of his hand stood on end as he reached for the nearest column. A shriek echoed along the fire-dressed walls. White bolted into the chamber from a darkened entrance at the opposite end, screaming as though he’d looked into the Abyss itself. Santana raised his fists and dropped into his stance, focusing his breath. “Come on, you fucker,” he muttered.
The screaming man blew right by Santana without even acknowledging he was there. He barrelled into the wall face-first by the chamber’s main entrance. White’s nose gave a sickening crunch and the pale-skinned man tottered and collapsed. Blood bubbled from his ruined face, pooling behind his head.
Santana hesitated, then approached. White’s alabaster fingers were wrapped tightly around the survival knife’s handle. Santana stepped on his wrist, securing the limb to the ground. He pressed his fingers into the side of White’s throat. Dead. Santana tilted White’s broken face to the side. “What the hell happened to you?”
Scarlet track marks lanced White’s features from the top of his skull, over the swastika tattoo at his neck and over his heart. The Marine reached to touch one. An abscess welled up beneath a large inflamed line and raced from White’s cheek down into his neck like something crawling just beneath his skin had been startled.
“What the–” Santana said.
A second abscess erupted in the middle of White’s forehead. Santana glanced at the door, then White’s weapon. He pried at White’s fingers but the stubby digits may as well have been set in concrete. “Come on, goddammit.”
Several more roving abscesses raced from White’s skull and disappeared into the side of his neck. Santana stood hastily from the writing mess and drove the heavy heel of his shoe into White’s wrist. On the third stomp, bone snapped and White’s ghostly fingers snapped open. Santana snatched up the knife and then retreated to his dropped torch. White’s body twitched. Santana’s eyes all but burst as White pushed his way back to his feet. Abscesses at his face and arms ruptured to the grotesque sound of sucking mud, spilling an oily green mucus onto the ground.
“Nope. Nope. Not happening,” Santana said. He scooped up the torch and held it towards White’s shambling corpse as though it were a sword. White advanced, feet shuffling, moaning. His neck rippled as though something were trying to claw its way free. There was a tearing sound–
“To hell with this.” Santana flung the torch at White’s bloated feet. The fire roared as it surged up White’s pants, greedily consuming his rotten torso in seconds. A high-pitched death wail came from the unseen terror dying within White’s throat. Charred skin peeled back over burning flesh until finally White collapsed in pile of burning rot.
“Impressive. Most people forget about the torch.”
Heart still pounding, Santana spun to the voice, knife at the ready. His jaw slackened when he located the source of the heavy French accent. “I saw you die.”
LaSalle smiled, flashing a mouth full of gleaming, oversized porcelain. He stroked the length of the arrow spearing his throat. “Oh this?” he said, casually pulling the arrow free. “Not to worry. I’ve had worse..”
The sandy floor crunched as Santana subtly shifted to a more defensive stance. “Last time? What are you talking about, last time? This temple, this whole damn island isn’t even supposed to exist.”
LaSalle’s laugh echoed through the chamber. The well-dressed man adjusted his tie, cinching it tightly in place. “And yet here we both are.” His voice dropped to a mock whisper as he regarded the stone columns. He shielded his mouth with the back of his hand. “I’ll let you in on a little secret… they’ve been bringing people here for years.”
“Who?” Santana replied. His hand instinctively reached to the back of his waist where the Glock should have been.
“You know, I’ve never actually met one of them in person. One of the Others, that is. They come in my dreams. They let me know when they hunger. They tell me which plane to get on and before I know– boom! Here I am again.”
Sweat trickled down Santana’s temple. “Those eyeless fuckers outside? The ugly bastard with the mutilated arm? How the Hell could they bring a plane down?”
Again LaSalle laughed. “No, no, no. Of course not. They’re just the sorry shits who lived here when the Others first arrived.” LaSalle closed his eyes and tilted his head back as though he were basking in the glow of a tropical sun. “They can do things you couldn’t dream of.”
“Like crash planes full of innocent people? And then you do what? Make sure any survivors find their way here? That seems like a really stupid method to secure dinner. What if no one survived the crash?”
“Christ be merciful, they were right. Humans are dense. They know who will survive. The Others aren’t after meat. Hell, they’re not even after our blood despite the centuries of urban legends about bloodthirsty monsters creeping in the shadows,” LaSalle replied, wiggling his fingers as though he were telling a ghost story.
“What then? Can’t be our brain power according to you.” Santana’s hand balled into a fist around the survival knife as the Marine advanced. “What else is there?”
LaSalle snapped his fingers and pointed excitedly at Santana. “Ah, there it is. The Others thrive on consuming the urge for conflict in other beings. That part of the soul that consumes the warrior’s heart when battle is near. The Others drink it up like fine wine. It’s powerful stuff, believe me I know. It’s extended my own lifetime decades beyond what it should have been. It stretches theirs into immortality. They can sense that spirit in certain humans. They use me as an anchor that they may draw them in.” The dark-skinned man paused a moment before continuing. “But there is a price to be paid.”
“A price of what?” Santana asked, barely controlling the rising fury in his voice.
“Why blood for life of course.” LaSalle said, smirking.
Santana assumed a fighting stance. “I’ll see that I get plenty of yours then. Melody’s blood, the blood of the whole flight and God knows how many others, is on your hands. And I’m going to make sure you understand that as you die, you son of a bitch.”
“Ah, my dear Captain Santana, I won’t be doing any fighting today.” LaSalle nodded to an entry way at the chamber’s far side. Mako emerged from the shadowed entrance, striding forward, chest puffed out. Thick, dark blood dripped from the teeth protruding from the length of shark jaw spearing his arm. The bullet wounds at his chest had healed and shrunken to minor scars.
“Sure. Why not? I figured something like this would happen,” Santana said, shrugging his shoulders loose.
LaSalle stepped aside, freeing the floor for the combatants. “The rules are simple, captain. You both fight. One of you dies. The other lives if he survives his injuries. But I want to be clear on a single, most important point: The Others are watching. If they feel as though you’ve not fought to your fullest, they will simply force you to repeat the ordeal.” LaSalle looked down his thin nose for emphasis. “From the plane crash onward.”
Santana considered the entrance to his rear but something told him there was little point in retreating. Nothing about this strange island made any sense. It was as if he were living a nightmare for someone’s viewing pleasure. In that moment, Santana decided to give them their money’s worth.
Mako moved to the center of the space framed by the quartet of runic columns. In the brazier light, blood from the shark’s jaw molded through his arm spattered onto the floor. His lips curled into something resembling a ghoulish smile.
The sight of the demon chilled Santana’s blood. A shiver climbed his spine as though Lady Death herself had softly blown on his skin. He gave up an easy sixty pounds and at least two feet of reach. To win meant getting in close. And striking with brutal efficiency. He would let the beast come to him and then carve out his heart.
Mako circled left, then, with a burst of speed alien to most beings his size, slashed his arm at Santana’s throat. The Marine was well-prepared. Santana ducked the blow and thrust the knife at what should have been a soft spot between Mako’s ribs. The knife deflected harmlessly, nearly throwing Santana off balance. Mako hardly seemed to notice the scratch.
“What the Hell are you?” Santana shouted at Mako. LaSalle’s disembodied voice answered.
“He is the instrument of the Others’ will. Nothing more. Persevere, my good captain, and I assure you you will emerge victorious.”
Santana barely heard LaSalle’s cryptic reply. Instead he changed tactics. He rushed Mako, feinted another slash at his belly, and then sliced at the demon’s eyes. The blade bit into the soft flesh. His roar echoed through the chamber and the knife came away sheathed in blood.
“So you do bleed. Good to know,” Santana said, smiling. He advanced again, dodging a furious backhand and then a savage overhead slash, before cutting into the thick muscles and tendons behind Mako’s left knee. The demon staggered to one knee with a howl. Santana moved in for the kill, but Mako’s deadly arm sliced across the Marine’s abdomen. Santana cried out and teetered backwards. He pressed his free hand to the stinging gash stretching across his stomach as the demon fell.
Santana held his bloodied hand in front of his face. It blurred around the edges, then seemed to separate into three images. An invisible hand squeezed his throat. It took a moment to cut through the panic, but eventually he understood. Poison. The knife clattered on the floor as he clutched at his constricting windpipe.
The room spun and Santana’s legs felt like rubber. The braziers’ light muddied into rings of filthy yellow that raced through his vision like warped halos. He pressed his fists into his eyes.
A man’s voice, heavy with sorrow, whispered. “You left me there. How could you just leave me?”
Santana stumbled, nearly toppling into one of the reflecting pools at the base of a column. “No. It can’t… You can’t… be here. You’re dead.”
When Santana finally pulled his hands away, stinging tears burned his eyes. But he saw him clear as day. Lawson stood not more than five feet away. Still burning. The spectre’s skin was a grotesque mixture of mottled and singed. Its voice deepened into the accusatory as a furious finger was raised. “You sorry piece of shit. You said you would always have my back.”
“This isn’t real,” Santana muttered. Lawson’s once strong features were gone, melted away by the blast of the anti-aircraft missile that tore his UH-1Y Venom from the sky. Lawson had been the only crew member not able to rescued from the wreckage before the auxiliary tank had ruptured.
“You left me in the fire! You left me to burn!”
A chorus of moans rose into a hellish symphony of screams. The acrid scent of the helicopter’s burning bones poured a bitter taste into Santana’s mouth. He jammed his hands over his ears like a child who refused to hear his parents. He shouted at the top of his lungs. “You’re not real!”
The chamber went suddenly still. The ghost of Santana’s deceased crew member and the collage of horrible details of that fateful memory had vanished. Santana’s heart pounded and his lungs ached for breath. Mako’s heavy breathing hissed at Santana’s back, his shadow falling on the Marine like a storm cloud. Santana spun on a heel and drove the survival knife deep into the soft flesh beneath the creature’s jaw, burying it to the hilt. Mako gurgled oily blood through the corners of his sealed mouth, teetered as he clutched at the blade and fell face first into a reflecting pool. His lifeblood stained the pool, clouding the fire-lighted water.
A flash of emerald surged at the center of the four columns, then arced into the quartet like lightning. Applause came from nowhere. “Nicely done, Captain. It has been years, decades probably, since a Mako was felled. You have earned the appreciation and gratitude of the Others. You may rest assured that they will be slumbering easy for some time and that your services will not be required again in the immediate future.”
Santana spun in the chamber, panning for LaSalle. “What do you mean immediate future? You said if I survived than I was free.”
LaSalle’s haunting laugh echoed through the chamber. “My dear, dear captain. I said that if you survived than you would live. We made no such deal regarding your freedom.”
Nausea welled in the pit of Santana’s stomach. He squeezed his hands into fists, ready and willing to pound LaSalle’s skull into sand. “Why don’t you come out so we can make a new deal.”
“Ah, but I’ve already told you captain. I won’t be doing any fighting today,” LaSalle replied.
Pain flared through Santana’s left arm, starting at the fingertips and scorching its way through his elbow. He screamed in agony as inch by inch the layers of skin and meat and bone crumbled to ash and fell away. He fell to his knees, cradling the grievous wound, only vaguely aware of the sound of footsteps behind him.
Several of the hunters entered the chamber and pulled Mako reverently from the reflecting pool. They rolled the creature onto his back and quickly set about preparing the body for the ritual burial. Santana turned and watched in horror as one of the hunters ran a crude stone knife through Mako’s mutilated arm, freeing the shark’s jaw. The eyeless man held the severed limb over his head like a prized trophy. He regarded Santana with a nod.
Realization crushed the breath from Santana’s lungs as the hunters circled him. A pair of muscular brutes held him down while the man with the jawbone impaled the flesh of Santana’s stump with his replacement arm. The Marine struggled against his captors, hurling curses and screaming in anger and pain as the weaponized limb was attached.
A tiny spark of euphoria took hold. Santana thought at first he was going into shock. He fought to block out the searing pain in his arm and keep track of his mind. His name. His home. His final flight. Minutes later the details suddenly seemed less important and he felt the memories floating away. He had a new mission now.
Santana didn’t even flinch as the hunter took the stone knife to his eyes.
Credit: Ghost of Seven Echoes
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