Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
The elevator rumbled and shook as it descended. I could hear the massive gears grinding into place as they lowered the cage-like box deeper into the earth. I felt my heart racing in my chest as the humming of the generators grew more and more distant, and the light from above filtered away into darkness.
The descent was much faster than I’d anticipated it to be. My fingers gripped the bars in front of me, watching the walls of the dirt tunnel speed by. Small chunks of soil and debris clattered dully to the steel floor of the elevator, bouncing against my boots.
I couldn’t see very much or for very long. The over-bright lights had been installed every 100 meters, leaving me listening to the sounds of the descent in complete blackness for large chunks of time.
Lower and lower I went, the meters flying by large chunks at a time.
“Depth status: 250 meters,” chimed an automated voice.
My breath began to steam over my glass visor, and a notification appeared in my periphery.
Warning: rapid decrease temperature detected. Approximate external temperature: -5 degrees Celsius.
That couldn’t be right. It should be getting warmer, not colder. There was no way the temperature could be sub-zero this far down.
I tried to remember if the Director had mentioned anything about temperature fluctuations during the briefing, but I was blanking. All I could recall was what I was supposed to do once the elevator stopped.
“Depth status: 500 meters.”
Another notification appeared shortly after the depth message. Approximate external temperature: -18° C.
Unsure of how to proceed, I pressed the largest circular button on the inside of wrist, causing a command prompt to appear at the centre of my visor display.
“Please state your command.” The toneless, female voice momentarily replaced all sounds in the elevator. There was a bright flash of light as the elevator quickly flew past another light.
“Contact the surface,” I said aloud, my voice muted and dull within my helmet.
“Contacting surface,” the voice responded, and I was left listening to a series of rhythmic beeps.
“This is Commander Jones, what’s your status?”
I swallowed before responding, my throat suddenly dry. “This is Cartographer 4. Status Clear. I’m calling to report… an anomaly.”
“Granted,” the Commander told me. I could hear him exhaling loudly into his mic.
“My life support system has detected a drop in temperature from 30° Celsius to now -18°. How should I– I mean, what do I, like, is this normal, or–” My tongue tripped over my words as I struggled to figure out how to put my statement together. My foggy breath now completely obscured my view.
“Relax,” the Commander instructed, his voice even and calm. “The Director did mention that there could be any number of fluctuations the further down you get, including temperature. Your stasis suit will keep you safe until you’ve completed the mission. Hang in there.”
I exhaled through my nose, my fingers loosening and then tightening once again around the bars in front of me. “Roger that.”
There was an audible click, followed by three a three-toned chime, indicating that the call had been ended. I felt relieved knowing I could just radio the surface if something came up.
Another bright spot zoomed past, the elevator continuing its journey down. I felt the weight of my supply pack pressing down on my shoulders. I became very aware of how sticky the inside of my gloves felt against the palms of my hands.
“Depth status: 1,000 meters.”
Approximate external temperature: -30° C.
Unease grew within me, tangling into a knot deep in my gut. I could do nothing more than readjust my fingers around the metal bars, watching the lights slip by.
Time seemed to slow down and speed up in bursts. I didn’t know how quickly or slowly I was moving; at times it felt as if the elevator had shifted directions and was pulling me up instead of down. I became more and more disoriented, though I found comfort in the constant, periodic depth updates.
“Depth status: 1,250 meters.”
“Depth status: 1,500 meters.”
“Depth status: 1,750 meters.”
I knew the ride down wouldn’t last much longer, and so I braced myself. I released the bars, stepping backwards until my pack made contact with the back of the elevator, the plastic casing clinking against the steel bars.
I bounced from foot to foot, preparing myself for my mission, watching as the lights fell away.
“Depth status: 2,000 meters. Estimated arrival time: 10 seconds.”
My body became hyper aware of the suit that was encasing it. Every breath in burned within my chest, my fingertips tingling in anticipation. Somewhere within me, gnawing at my courage, was fear. It kept me in check, reminding me that I was the fourth person attempting this mission. It forced me to stay alert, and gave me the extra kick of adrenaline that I needed to go forth with my task, and be the first one to actually complete it.
The elevator made a violent bang as it collided with the surface. The metal box rocked and heaved as it adjusted itself to the docking platform, throwing me from the rear to the side. I steadied myself against the bars, regaining my footing.
“You have arrived at the desired location. Mission protocol in effect,” explained the automated status system.
My boots crunched once they made contact with the ground. I shut and locked the door behind me before I looked down to find the surface covered in what appeared to be snow.
I set the mapping software into tracing mode, which would allow it to track my movements to map out an area.
I looked up and around, turning in place as I tried to fathom what I was seeing.
I was in a massive cavern, the walls matte and grey like the skin on a rhino. There was a soft, white light coming from somewhere high above me. It lit the room up the way the moon would in a forest clearing. There were no man-made lighting fixtures that I could see. They wouldn’t have been necessary anyway with how bright it already was.
The ceiling was too far up for me to get a good look at, but what looked like snow seemed to be falling from some source at the top, completely obscured by shadow.
Across the room was a pair of monolithic stone doors. They were carved out of a glossy, ivory material that glistened as if wet in the pale light from above. Intricate swirling patterns covered the doors, along with strange runes made of lines and dots, their facets and curves bouncing brightness and shadow along the length of the doors.
To the sides of the doors were rusted, metal crates labeled “Barricade Material.” Pillars of stone and lumps of darker rocks were piled on top each other, each crate overflowing with debris.
To the left of the doors, a bit farther behind the crates was a large, blue tarp covering an expansive, bumpy mass on the ground. Patches of snow painted portions of the tarp white, while small rivulets slid to the ground where the build-up grew too heavy. I approached it tentatively, unsure of what to expect.
I grabbed a corner of the tarp and lifted it, crouching down to get a better look with the light from my headlamp.
There were hundreds of what looked like human skeletal remains, laying side by side, layered on top of each other with only a thin, knit mesh between each row of bodies.
I dropped the tarp and backed away, pressing the button on my wrist as I faced the doors. They were massive, towering so high that the cavernous ceiling cloaked the upper ends in darkness. I wondered how something like this could’ve been constructed so far underground. I wondered what purpose it served.
“Please state your command,” the electronic voice interrupted my thoughts.
I felt fear dancing through my skin. “External status report.”
“Scanning within a 100 kilometer radius.” There was a short pause before the machine spoke again. “External status report is as follows: Depth status: 2,000 meters below surface. Temperature: -32°C. Precipitation: 90% chance of light snow. Flora: Undetected. Fauna: Unknown.”
My brows creased in confusion. “Elaborate on fauna.”
“Fauna of an unknown species and or origin has been detected.”
The silence that followed was too loud.
“Approximate distance to fauna.” My voice was only slightly louder than a whisper.
“Fauna detected at a distance of approximately 15 kilometers north west.”
I looked at the doors in front of me, glancing at the compass that was always present in the upper right corner of my visor. North was directly in front of me, and west was to my left. Whatever it was, it was beyond the door.
I pressed the button twice to reset the command prompt.
“Please state your command.”
“Contact the surface,” I responded, running my gloved hands over the designs covering the right door, looking for a way to get them open.
“Contacting the surface.”
I waited anxiously for a response, chewing on my lower lip as I turned my back to the door.
“This is Commander Jones, what’s your status?”
I exhaled in relief that he answered. “This is Cartographer 4, status clear. I’ve arrived at the destination.” I paused, glancing at the snow-covered tarp. “I’ve gotta ask… What happened down here?”
The Commander took a moment to answer. “We don’t really know. When we sent the first clearance team down there, they took some photos and… I’ll send one to your visor display now.”
I heard him clacking away at a keyboard, and then an image appeared in the center of my visor.
The doors were there, but they were mostly obscured by a large mound of boulders and slabs of stone. The skeletons were lying all over the mound in various positions, like they were applying their weight against the doors, and had died doing so.
“It appears that the humans we found down there barricaded themselves in the chamber you’re in now in order to keep those doors closed,” the Commander explained, “Though, why they did so is beyond us. What do you see down there, C4?”
The photo disappeared and I described the snowy cavern, slowly turning back to the doors.
“My external status report also detected fauna down here. The origin is unknown, but it’s quite a ways away. It’s about 15k north west on the other side of the door,” I told him, finding myself to be oddly calm.
There was a lengthy pause from the Commander’s end. I waited for him to speak, feeling worry crawling up my chest, constricting my throat.
Before I could say something to break the silence, he spoke.
“C4, do you wish to proceed?”
I pursed my lips, taken aback by his question. “I guess… I mean, I might as well…” My voice trailed off.
“Very well. Make contact once you have mapped at least 5 kilometers of the area beyond. If at any point you wish to withdraw, do not hesitate to do so.” I heard his breathing hitch. “We don’t need to lose another team member for this mission.” He cleared his throat. “To open the doors, you need to apply pressure to the set of circular engravings where the two doors meet. You’ll know when it’s working.”
“Hang in there,” he said, before he ended the connection, the three toned chime signifying I was alone.
I stood in solitude, listening to the sounds of my breaths bouncing around the inside of my helmet.
It was time to proceed.
I found the circular markings that he described very easily. They were they only ones on the doors, making them stand out from the other nonsensical patterns.
I reached up, the very edges of my gloved fingertips brushing the circles. I could just barely get my hand up enough to press down on it.
The cavern filled with the clicking sound of gears turning rapidly. I watched as the circles spun in place, realigning themselves to blend in with the other whirls and spirals.
A resonating boom sounded as the circles came to a halt, and the doors began to part.
They came towards me, slowly, the heavy stone dredging up mounds of snow on either side. The doors groaned deeply on their hinges as they moved, their weight carrying them out.
I stepped back enough for them to open without accidentally getting caught in their path.
And suddenly, they stopped. Their hinges creaked tiredly, as if crying out from not being used in many years. I blinked, using my hand to wipe the fog that had settled on the outside of my visor so I could see what lay ahead of me.
Beyond the doors, I saw nothing, just an expansive blackness that leeched out into the silvery chamber I stood in. If I stared too long, I could swear I saw tendrils of thick, black smoke snaking across the floor of the cavern, racing towards my boots, but as soon as I blinked, the vision would pass, and I was left staring into the abysmal darkness in front of me.
“Approximate distance to fauna: 16 kilometers northwest,” exclaimed the automated voice. I jumped, the notification catching me off guard.
I knew if I stood there shaking I would never make any progress. I might as well call the surface and have them haul me back up, but that would be a waste. I wouldn’t forgive myself for not even trying.
Before I could change my mind, I trudged forward, my boots crunching purposefully through the snow into whatever lay beyond.
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but a network of buildings and tunnels wasn’t something I had considered, especially since it was intact and well persevered for the most part.
As I travelled farther and farther away from the doorway, my headlamp illuminated more the skeletal remains of the complex city. It was carved from the same pale, glistening stone as the doors, and was just as detailed in its architecture.
The city was composed of high arches and squared roofs, reaching into the cavernous ceiling. It was maze-like and cramped, the towering walls boxing me in between them, forcing me to follow their wide paths. The fitting of the blocks was seamless, each stone fitting precisely in place. Each brick was cut with an incredible amount of precision, the edges straight and clean.
The buildings were spaced tightly, packed next to each other without many gaps. All had double doors in the same arched style of the city doors, though smooth and without the engravings.
Slabs of stone propped up on table-like structures outside various buildings were carved with a runic script, the style different than of the markings on the city doors. I took a photo with my visor cam, adding a note that the runes were likely the written language of the inhabitants.
Pillars supported a net-like structure of arches high above the rooftops, the pillars themselves detailed in the same, swirling patterns of the doors to the city.
I marveled at the masterpiece that lay buried beneath thousands of meters of earth, and wondered what had happened to those that created it.
I walked for about an hour, following the path deep into the city. The father in I ventured, the more damage the buildings had undergone. Significantly more buildings were falling apart, the patterns of destruction resembling the aftermath of an attack, rather than the passage of time.
I made my way past building after building, pausing as my headlamp ghosted over a particular series of structures. I’d almost missed it amongst the other bent and broken constructs.
Rough chunks of loose stone and fine dust littered the area, the walls snaked with wide cracks. Every few steps I had to maneuver around a section of dislodged bricks bigger than I was. On one side of me was set of buildings, possibly residences. They all bore the signs of surviving a massive impact with varying degrees of success. One was completely demolished, a few collapsing at one side or another. Though carved across them all was a deep groove, like something huge had slashed across the street, destroying everything in its path.
I snapped a few photos with my visor camera before carefully moving on.
“Approximate distance to fauna: 7 kilometers north.”
I yelped at the sound of the notification. Though it continued to startle me, I didn’t want to disable them for fear of being uninformed.
Whatever was out there was moving fast, and coming closer. I had to hurry up and get out as soon as possible.
I took a step, and was knocked to the ground as the earth around me began to shake.
A low, vibrating rumble filled the air, the sound more of a sensation than something I could hear. It made my teeth clench and my chest ache. My vision grew obscured as my visor monitor picked up interference, blocking my line of sight with mismatched pixels of green, grey, and white. Dust and small stones got dislodged, clattering off the side of my helmet as they fell.
As quickly as it began, it ended, and I was left leaning against a wall, panting.
I wiped the excess grit off of my visor as the display screen cleared up, just as another notification came up.
“Approximate distance to fauna: 5 kilometers north.”
It was too close, and I was too far in. I needed out, now. Whatever it was, it had caused the vibration and the interference. I had no idea what else it was capable of. I wasn’t willing to find out. That wasn’t my job as a cartographer.
Deeming my mission a success, I set my mapping software to reverse mode. It would now show me the path I took in reverse order, making it easier for me to find my way out.
I turned my back on the city, letting the map I’d created lead me out the way I’d came in.
I picked up my pace, suddenly finding a burst of energy within me. I leapt over boulders and easily skirted around debris.
“Approximate distance to fauna: 2 kilometers south.”
South was directly behind me.
I kept up my pace, my breath fogging up my visor.
I rounded bends and ducked under low arches, my footfalls thundering over my heartbeat.
“Approximate distance to fauna: 1 kilometers south.”
The scenery sped by in a blur of white and grey, the snow from above melting instantly as it made contact with the warmth of my visor. I wasn’t thinking anymore. I was just running, blindly following the line on the map.
A second tonal vibration sounded, the force of it using my momentum against me. The pathway heaved, throwing me onto the ashen ground.
I slid forward a few feet, vaguely aware of the sound of something tearing. I laid on my stomach for a moment as the vibration continued. That single moment of rest was all I gave myself before hoisting myself up onto my hands and knees, my boots scraping against the slippery surface beneath me, just as my health monitoring systems kicked in.
“Warning! Rapid depressurization! Warning! Loss of oxygen imminent!”
The system repeated the notification over and over again, audibly and visually at the centre of my visor display, but I couldn’t do anything about it. Somewhere, my suit had been torn and my oxygen supply was leeching out. I had no time left to worry about it. I needed to be back in the elevator, now.
I managed to right myself, getting back onto my feet as the intensity of the sound of the vibration picked up. Without hesitating further, I broke into a sprint.
My ears felt full, like the sound was coming from inside of my head. The buildings quaked as large bits of roof and wall and pillar came loose, crashing to the ground around me as I ran past. I dodged the bigger ones while using my forearms to block the smaller ones from damaging my visor.
My display began to malfunction, the screen filling with large sections of pixels, obscuring my view. The speakers within my helmet began to play the sound of static, clipping in and out. Occasionally, a few high pitched notes would sound before the static returned. The warning notification didn’t stop, though it grew more and more distorted as I continued on.
My breaths scraped down my throat, each one more painful than the last. My lungs burning as I inhaled dust and whatever other toxins were present down here.
The garbled, almost incoherent voice of the notification system sounded as I dashed around a corner. I could see the light of the entry cavern in the near distance.
“Approximate distance to fauna: 350 meters south.”
A piercing screech blared out of my helmet’s speakers as I approached the exit. By this point, my visor display was completely illegible with its interference.
“Warning! Oxygen levels at 40%.”
I was so close to the exit now. I could see the looming brightness beyond the massive doors. I was almost there.
I was a few feet behind the mouth of the doorways when the notification system coughed out one final update.
“Approximate distance to fauna: 15 metres south.”
The vibration intensified, the sound consuming everything. My displays died, and my audio systems cut out. I couldn’t hear it, I just felt it. It was inside of my bones, inside of my cells. It was invading my body, tearing me apart.
It forced me to my knees, just beyond the line where the light of the chamber met the darkness of the forgotten city.
I dragged myself forward by my forearms, my gloved fingers reaching out to try and pull myself into the light.
The sound pressed down on me, as if attempting to merge my body with the earth. The pressure was immense. It was bearing down upon my back. It was rippling across my skin, biting into my flesh. It was forcing itself from my body in screams I hadn’t realized I was letting out.
A shadow blacker than the expanse around me descended over my fallen form. Tightness coiled around my left leg and yanked me backwards.
My screams became audible over the unending sound as I watched my fingers sliding over the snow covered terrain, feebly trying to grab hold of something, anything to stop myself. The gloves I wore dug ruts into the snow, reminding me of how close I’d come to getting out.
I began to kick with my free leg, using any and all remaining strength I had to try and free myself from whatever had a hold of me.
My leg connected with something solid and the tightness recoiled. The tone of the vibration shifted even lower, the sound no longer audible, but it was impossible to miss.
Suddenly I was upright and sprinting. I ran until I crossed the threshold of the doors and slammed straight into the elevator doors.
Behind the thin metal bars of the elevator, I pressed the “return” button in rapid succession, briefly glancing at the open doorway as it began to haul me upwards.
I couldn’t see whatever it was because it was as black as the darkness from where it came. I did, however, see something, a mass, writhing in the shadows, its tendrils leaking out into the cold whiteness of the clearing.
I understood now what those skeletons had been trying to do. I understood now that we had failed them. They died keeping those doors closed, and now, as I was being hoisted back to the surface, fear gripped me as tightly as the entity had.
Amongst all of the unknowns surrounding the city, there was one truth.
The doors of stone were open, and I had no idea what had been unleashed upon the world.
Credit: Sabrina S.