Estimated reading time — 24 minutes
Four years in the army, and not once did I hear an order from anyone ranked above a Major(O4). Now I’ve been at the Dalton Power Station for two months, and I’ve already received three phone calls from James Mattis, the US secretary of defense.
It seemed like a mundane enough job, right? My stint in the army helped pay my way through a bachelor’s in power plant technology after I got out, and I was ready for a reliable income with good honest work. I spent a few years in equipment operations, then checking readouts, and on up to personnel supervisor. Nothing more exciting than a few power lines being blown over in a storm until I was promoted to Plant Operator in Dalton.
“You’re going to notice a few anomalies with this plant,” the old manager Nathan told me. He was retiring, although by the size of his waist-line and the dull glassy glaze over his eyes, I’d guess he retired about ten years ago and just hadn’t left yet.
“But I don’t want you to worry,” he added. “I worked here 20 years and nothing going on will interfere with your job.”
“Looks normal enough to me,” I replied. Was this some kind of test? “Single open cycle gas turbines, probably around 140 megawats right?”
If I was expecting praise for my perception, I didn’t get it. That was the first time I’ve ever seen a grown man spit on an office floor.
“Not about the output boy, I mean our client. We’re just supplying one building up in the hills. The rest of the city is handled by that hydroelectric station downtown.”
This had to be a test. It didn’t seem fair since they already offered me the job, but there wasn’t any harm in playing along.
“No sir, that’s impossible. This station should be able to supply around 140,000 homes.”
“Or one government building,” he grunted.
“Are we not producing at capacity?”
“We are. Hell, they’d take more if they could get it.”
“What are they doing up there? I don’t understand.”
Nathan clapped me on the back like I had just won an award. “And they like to keep it that way. So if you want to stick around like I have, then you’ll do what I did and keep your nose out of their business. Besides that, everything should run pretty smooth for you here.”
But Nathan was wrong. Right from the start, nothing ran smoothly. First of all, the other plant workers acted mighty strange toward me. Every one of them kept their eyes locked on the floor, all wearing that same glassy eyed complacency I had seen in Nathan. They followed orders readily enough, but they did so without the slightest initiative or individuality.
I caught one guy, Robert, chewing his pencil for ten minutes straight in the break-room. I asked him what he was doing, and he mumbled that his schedule dictated a break every two hours. As soon as his ten minutes were up (to the damn second, I think), he stood up and left the room without another word.
And then there was Mattis calling every few weeks. Those were the most awkward, forced conversations I’ve ever had to sit through in my life.
“Acting Manager?” were always the first words out of his mouth.
“John Doe (not my real name) speaking.”
I’d give it to him, and then he invariably asked a string of the vaguest imaginable questions. It felt almost like he was being held hostage and had to speak in code to gather information. A few examples:
“Would you consider everything to be more or less ordinary than usual?”
“Have you had any unusual requests for output to anywhere besides that building?”
“In an emergency, how fast could you shut down power to everything if you had to?”
The financing is another thing that didn’t make sense to me. Usually a plant this size will have a couple dozen workers and need its own financing department to keep track of everything. Here we’ve just got Megan.
“There’s not much to do really,” she told me. “There’s no money coming in. I just prepare a folder every month with all our expenses, mail it to some office down in DC, and they take care of it. They’ve never denied anything before.”
Three days ago topped it all off when I received the strangest question yet from Mattis. He asked: “Have you noticed any of your employees trying to escape?” Then he coughed like he was trying to clear his head, not his throat. “I mean, any of them try to quit or just stop showing up?”
The mystery was unbearable to me, but I was trained to follow orders and despite everything I could have maybe still accepted the situation if it wasn’t for the black van which came by two days ago. “Shuttle service,” they called it, although it was only picking up Robert and another technician named Elijah. I watched the van take them up the dirt road winding into the hills.
Yesterday morning they were back at work and I asked them what happened, but they both just laughed and said they went out for a few drinks. Even the laugh felt wrong – like they weren’t doing it because they thought it was funny, but rather made the sound in the hopes that I would find it funny and move on.
First thing I learned about working in a power plant is that a pair of professional overalls and a condescending attitude can get you in just about anywhere. All I had to do was strip one of the underground cables leading to the building, file a report on the output fluctuation, schedule my own appointment, and show up. There was a guard post out front, but I showed them my diagnostics appointment and they let me inside (under escort) without complaint.
I called it a building before just because I’d only seen its location on a map. A mine shaft might describe the phenomenon more accurately, or perhaps a crater. The complex was clustered around an abyss located at the bottom of an enormous valley whose jagged slopes looked like the result of some cataclysmic primordial explosion, long since eroded and overgrown with spruce and pine. There was an unusual energy about the place, and I felt compelled to walk gently as though stepping atop a living creature. That was probably on account of the constant vibrations rippling through the ground as though something deep below the earth was stirring.
Most unsettling of all perhaps were the rows of black vans parked outside. Four of them were being loaded with long bags about the size and shape of a human body. I caught the eye of the guard accompanying me and noticed its glassy shine.
“Any power cuts have serious repercussions here. Please resolve the issue as quickly as humanly possible.”
Humanly. Maybe my discomfort had me imagining things, but somehow it seemed like he said that in the same way you or I might say ‘He’s pretty smart for a dog.’
The guard led me to a control station about a hundred feet away from the main complex. I couldn’t get a good enough angle on the abyss to glimpse what could be down there, but up close the vibrations resolved themselves into the distinct sound of drilling.
“I don’t suppose I’m allowed to ask -” I started.
“Won’t do you any good,” the guard answered promptly. “I don’t know any more than you, and that’s already more than enough.”
“Have you ever been inside?”
He shook his head, glancing around nervously. Then in a hushed whisper:
“I never seen anything, but sometimes I’ll hear things. Like something is down there that don’t want to be.”
I raised my eyebrow, hoping he’d continue. He opened his mouth like he was going to say more, then shook his head.
“None of my business, none of yours. How long is this gonna take?”
I didn’t push my luck by staying long. I traced the power restriction to the cable I striped and followed the line back away from the complex to the spot with the damage.
I’ve been keeping an especially close eye on Robert and Elijah all day today. I can’t shake the feeling that they’re not quite here. I caught Robert chewing his pencil again, but he was doing it so absent minded that by the end of his ten minute break he had eaten straight through the entire thing, graphite, eraser, and all.
Elijah was even worse. He was microwaving a cup of noodles in the break room, anxiously pacing back and forth like he was waiting for a bomb to go off. Then it beeped and he actually collapsed to the floor in shock. I retrieved his glasses for him and helped him to his feet, noticing his eyes were so pale as to be almost completely white. I’m positive they weren’t like that before he went into the building.
I searched through the computer databases for any unusual mentions of the two, and found this log written by Nathan dated two months before I arrived.
Robert and Elijah first pickup service today. Good for five rounds each before they’re used up. Current staff:
Round 0: 3
Round 1: 5
Round 2: 11
Round 3: 4
Round 4: 2
Round 5: 1
I am the only one at round 5. Requesting replacement for myself in two months after my final round. Suggest replacement exempt from rounds to preserve his functionality. May God have mercy on our souls.
I scanned back further through his logs and saw a list of similar numbers. It seems like every week another pair of people are sent to the building and their “rounds” are increased by one. Elijah was currently a 4, while Robert was a 3.
There was also a schedule of future pickups. I scanned ahead a few pages and didn’t see my name anywhere. It was a relief at first, although the more I searched, the more unnerving it was to be the only one not on the list. Well, here goes nothing.
I edited the next week to switch my name with Megan’s (she was a round 1). It seemed like people were returning from whatever was going on there, and I know I’m not going to rest easy until I got a look inside. I don’t know what happens past round 5, but after trying to call Nathan’s personal number, I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to know.
I learned from his wife that he put a bullet in his brain the day he left the plant. If all goes well, I hope I’ll get to the bottom of this before I reach that point. And if not, well it’s as Nathan said.
May God have mercy on our souls.
“Tell me everything you remember,” I ordered Elijah. I had waited until he entered the bathroom before following and locking the door behind us. The black van was going to be here in a few hours, and my excitement was quickly being replaced with dread. I needed answers, and I needed them now.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied in a monotonous voice. Forcing myself to stare into his cloudy white eyes was harder than I expected.
“On the nights you’re picked up by the ‘shuttle service’,” I said. “I know you’ve gone four times now, and I know you weren’t just drinking. I want you to tell me what really happened.”
A euphoric smile replaced his pallid countenance. Then a frown, as though trying to remember the insubstantial details of a passing dream.
“But that’s all that happened,” he said. “The shuttle picks us up and they give us something to drink. Then I wake up in my home and it’s time to go to work again.”
“And you feel just the same as you did before?”
The frown deepened. Then his eyes stretched so wide I thought they would pop straight out of his head. For a second he seemed about to scream, but then his face reverted back into a blank slate. It all happened in such a flash that I couldn’t be sure the expression was there at all, but when he smiled again, I could sense the tension still trembling in his cheeks.
“Better than ever,” Elijah replied. “I find it invigorating.”
He continued staring me in the face while he opened his belt and dropped his pants around his ankles. I would have liked to ask him more, but I was shocked and revolted when he began to piss in the sink right beside me. I just turned around and exited the bathroom without another word. Whatever was being done in the building had seriously damaged these people, and it looked like there was only one way for me to find out the truth.
When the van arrived, my name was called alongside Wallace Thornberg. Fat guy in a bulky coat with a hat pulled low over his face – I don’t remember seeing him before today. He nodded curtly at me but kept his distance, shoving his way into the van the moment the doors slid open.
“Fransisco with the shuttle service.” The driver bounced out from his seat and held the door open for me. He was dressed in the same blue suit as the guard who had escorted me before, but this man’s eyes were perfectly clear.
I hesitated. “Where are we going?”
“You know,” the Fransisco replied. I found his tone overly familiar and my doubts redoubled.
“What happens if I don’t want to go?”
“But you do.” The driver grinned and put on a pair of headphones. After that, he didn’t speak another word for the remainder of the drive.
I climbed in and sat on one of the two benches bolted to the metal floor on either side of the van. The fat man sat across from me, arms crossed, hat pulled low over his face, looking like he was trying to disappear into himself.
“You been there before?” I asked.
“Wouldn’t remember if I did,” came the gruff reply. “You’re not supposed to be here though. You weren’t on the list.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Because I wrote the damn thing, and I didn’t want you to be,” Nathan finally looked up. He grinned to see the shock on my face. “Of course I’m not supposed to be here either, so I won’t tell if you don’t.”
Nathan did his best to explain the situation to me as we rumbled into the secluded hills. After each of his first five rounds of procedure, his memory had been wiped clean every time.
“Waking up afterward felt like I was an alien in an unfamiliar world,” he told me. “Books, songs, people I had seen a thousand times before, they all started giving me trouble like some sort of puzzle. I even tried to quit once, but the longer I went without another round, the more lost I felt. It became like an addiction, and I couldn’t live without my fix. It would have been damn irresponsible for me to keep working when I could barely tie my own shoe laces, so I requested a replacement. That’s why I wanted to keep you off the list – so we could have at least one level headed soul to keep everything running.”
“Your wife said you put a bullet in your brain.”
Nathan chuckled and slid his hat further up his head. A bandage was wrapped around his temple with a great bloody spot like a Japanese flag.
“You blame me? I didn’t think I could go on after my fifth round, and this seemed easier than having to manage without it. Next thing I know, I’m back awake and swearing like the Devil. How’s that for clearing your head? Worked like a charm too. I felt more like my old self than I had in years. Now I know they’d never let me walk after a stunt like that, so I let people keep believing I was gone.”
“What are you?” I knew he couldn’t remember what they did, but the question slipped involuntarily from my mouth.
Nathan glanced at the driver, still wearing his headphones. We were descending at a sharp angle now and must be entering the valley. Nathan moved across the van to sit beside me, speaking in a hushed tone. “I figure there are two possibilities: that they made me into something that isn’t human, or the good Lord brought me back. Either way, I figure it’s my obligation to stop them doing this to anybody else, so I switched with Wallace to throw a wrench in the cogs. Can I count on you to have my back?”
He caught me staring at the bloody bandage and slid the hat back low over his face. I nodded stiffly, although I hated the idea of committing myself to a war when I didn’t have the first idea who was in the right. It didn’t seem like people were being forced here, but if they were being manipulated with an addictive drug then that was just as bad.
The van pulled straight past the control station and stopped in the parking lot where I saw the bodies being loaded last time. The hum of drilling was omnipresent here, and my whole body vibrated like my bones were looking for a way out.
The guard handed us each a pair of headphones as we parked outside the building.
“Wear these,” he practically shouted. “It’s only going to get louder inside.”
Nathan shifted his coat awkwardly, clutching something in his pocket with one hand while he put the headphones on with the other. When he said wrench, did he mean he was smuggling some kind of weapon in here? The guard didn’t seem to be paying any attention and simply walked into the towering structure with us at his heels.
“Can you hear me okay?” Fransisco’s voice came through the headphones. I nodded, absent mindedly walking forward in awe of the gargantuan internal structure. Three, maybe four stories tall on the outside, but it must have been built down into the abyss because the balcony I was standing over dropped down further than I could see. In the distant depths I thought I could make out a faint red glow, but my eyes were repelled from the void by an instinctual terror that I could not overcome.
Endless rows of balconies marched below me into the penumbra of shadow, each containing a massive machine with cables extending downward into the pit. Each machine had a tether of wires extending from the other end which connected with a helmets being worn by a men sitting beside it. There must have been hundreds of them sitting so peacefully in repose that they might have been asleep, and hundreds more men in blue suits attending to the machines.
“What the shit?” I couldn’t believe my eyes. I took a step back toward the entrance and almost tripped as I walked into something. I turned to see the guard offering me a glass of clear liquid. Nathan was already studying a second glass in his hand.
“You’re going to take a drink and sit down at the machine,” the Fransisco said. “When you wake up none of this will have happened, but you’re going to feel so alive that you might as well be dead now.”
“Not remembering it and not happening are completely different things,” Nathan said. “But if we ain’t gonna remember, you might as well tell us what’s going on.”
The guard sighed and rolled his eyes, languidly pulling a .44 magnum handgun from his belt and playing with it in his hand. “I’ve told you every time, Nathan, and I must admit it’s getting old. And every time I’ve told you, you still took the drink, so why not just trust me and do it again?”
Nathan growled and pulled his hat off to reveal the bandage. He reached inside his coat and produced a cellphone with a prominently flashing light.
“Well maybe I’m not as easy to convince anymore,” Nathan said. “So why don’t you humor me?”
Fransisco calmly leveled the gun at Nathan’s face as Nathan lifted the cell to his ear. I took the opportunity to begin circling the guard, but then the magnum pointed my way and I froze.
“Five rounds might keep you alive, but how well do you think your friend will bounce back from a bullet in the face?” the guard asked.
“Acting manager?” Nathan spoke into the phone. His voice was different. I’d heard that voice over the phone before, but it had been from the office of the secretary of defense.
“Put the phone down or I’ll shoot,” the guard said. “I swear to God Nathan -”
“Clearance Code?” Nathan asked. “I want you to shut down the plant the moment I give the word. Are you ready?”
“You can’t,” Fransisco said. “If we have a power out, every one of these people will die.”
“Bullshit. You’re just trying to save your own ass,” Nathan spat. “Tell me what’s really going on?”
“He’s telling the truth,” I interjected. “It happened last time there was a power restriction too.”
“I don’t fucking care!” Nathan bellowed. He gripped the phone so tight his fingers turned white. “Living like this – they’re dead either way. I want an answer. Now.”
Fransisco swallowed hard. He nodded. “We’re feeding it. If we stop, it’s going to be angry.”
“What is?” Nathan asked. I caught the guard glancing over his shoulder and turned to look. Another man in a suit was holding a rifle on the opposite balcony.
“Nathan watch out!” I shouted.
“Put down the phone, Nathan,” the guard said. “You have to trust me.”
“What is down there?” Nathan shrieked.
“Nathan put it down!”
The guard beside us nodded sharply. A crack split the tumultuous sound of the drill and blood sprayed from Nathan’s face. The rifle bullet had punctured straight through the back of his skull to emerge from his mouth. He looked over his shoulder in bewilderment at the man with the rifle, his whole face splitting open as he turned his head.
Two more cracks rent the air from the handgun. Nathan was staggered to his knees. He hadn’t let go of the phone. He spat a mouthful of blood onto the floor and rattled off a rapid string of numbers. Another bullet slammed a hole straight through his forehead, but he didn’t even hesitate.
The guard lunged at Nathan, but I blocked him with my body and we both went spinning to the ground.
“Authorization granted. Shut it all down,” Nathan said.
My face went numb as the butt of the handgun slammed into my forehead. I groped the air blindly and caught hold of the guard’s suit jacket, but he ripped free and dove at Nathan. The former manager scrambled backward, screaming into the phone the whole while.
“Do you hear me? My name is James Mattis. I want the whole station offline right now.”
The four bullets in Nathan didn’t even slow him down as he scrambled away from Fransisco. I locked eyes with Nathan right as he reached the edge of the balcony.
“Did I save them? Did I do the right thing?” his voice broke with desperation into my headphones. I pulled myself up from the floor, unable to tear my eyes away from his bloody face.
“You did what you thought was right,” is all I could muster. Everyone held their breath, looking around at the lights and the humming machines.
“Connect me to the plant,” the guard screamed into his headphones. “Tell them to keep the power -”
And suddenly the silence and the darkness were all there was. Red emergency lights flashed along the walkways for a moment, but row by row they snuffed out as the backup generators were overloaded. The lights on every balcony winked out. The hum of every machine spluttered to a stop. The vibrating pressure of the drills grinded to a halt. In the absence of all other light, my eyes adjusted to see faint outlines visible from the red glare in the pit.
Fransisco roared with frustration and ripped his headphones off. He grabbed Nathan by the coat and rammed him against the railing. I leapt to Nathan’s aid, but too slow. Nathan didn’t make the least move to resist as he was tipped over the balcony to plummet into the abyss. I ran to his aid – too late. The last glimpse of him I saw was a spiral of blood raining through the air in his wake.
“What’s going to happen now?” I shouted.
The guard didn’t answer with words, but his message was clear enough. He dropped his gun and started sprinting for the door. I should have just followed him, but I couldn’t let all of this be for nothing. My feet plodded pulled me like a moth being drawn by flame until I could directly over the balcony and into the abyss.
Somewhere miles below the earth where the drills once tore through the crust emanated a baleful glow. I watched transfixed as it shifted, seeming to slide from one side of the pit to the other. I turned and ran from the building. Guards, mechanical technicians, doctors, streams of people poured from the place to fill the black vans. The men tethered to the machines were being left behind, but they couldn’t have all been dead. I saw one slide to the ground and begin to crawl, only to be trampled beneath a stampede of men in blue.
I helped the man to his feet and dragged him out of the building with me. His lips kept moving as though he were muttering something, but I couldn’t hear it over the sounds of panicked screams and thundering footfalls.
No-one seemed to notice that I didn’t have a blue suit in the mad escape. I crammed into one of the vans and huddled in the back while it roared up the valley walls. A noisy rush of speculation surrounded me, but I was incapable of joining the conversation. I don’t know if anyone else stayed to look like I did, but I couldn’t tell them what I saw. Somehow speaking it would be enough to make it real.
We were about halfway back up the valley when a deafening explosion knocked half of us from the benches to sprawl on the floor. The van bucked and heaved like a wild animal, but managed to stay upright as it roared down the road. There wasn’t a back window, so we all had to wait along the right side until the van made a turn up the switchback road before we saw it. The foundations of the building had been detonated and the entire structure slid off into the pit.
The man I had saved from the machine, haggard fellow with a long beard and eyes as white as starlight, kept muttering along the rest of the drive. He was hard to look at because of the bloody sores on his head. The “helmet” he was wearing had wires which plugged directly into his brain, and when I had torn him free I had left great patches of his scalp behind.
“It can’t die. It’s already out. It’s inside us all.”
No-one else spoke along the drive, so they all must have heard him too. We all just fixed our eyes out the window though, afraid to acknowledge what we all knew. I don’t know how many people had looked into the pit before they ran, but I’m sure enough of us knew that the the red glow wasn’t really sliding like I thought at first. It was opening, and from somewhere in the depth of the earth, I had looked into a colossal an eye staring back at me.
After the convoy of vans exited the crumbling valley, we made a stop about a mile away from the plant. I heard mention that others were continuing on to a nearby army base, but six cars (mine included) peeled away from the rest. The vans parked in a sharp circle, bumper to bumper, with their sliding doors all opening toward the middle.
“Everyone out of the vans and into the circle.” It was Francisco. He was holding a rifle now, prodding people as they filed out. “Remove any hats, bandages, glasses – anything which obscures your face. Nobody is leaving here until I get a chance to look at their eyes.”
He had to be looking for signs of the treatment. The bearded man I had saved was still in the back of our van with me. He looked so thin and weary – I wonder how long he’d been down there. I caught his eye, and the pure white orbs looked back with helpless pleading.
We both flinched as a gunshot echoed throughout the caravan. Then three more shots, one right after the other.
“Filthy animal. Just die already,” Francisco said.
Three of us were left in the van: the driver, the haggard man, and me. I was about to step out when emaciated probing fingers clutched desperately at my shirt.
“Help me. Please. I only did what they told me to do.”
The driver pushed past us to exit in front. If it hadn’t been for Nathan’s interference, I would have had my first treatment today. Then I would have been the one to be executed, assuming I hadn’t already been killed when the building was detonated. These people had been strong armed and manipulated into obeying orders, and now they were being punished by the same people who made them do it.
Besides that, I still wanted more answers. By the enormity of the thing’s ancient presence, I had no doubt that it was still alive down there. The people who had been “feeding” it must know as much as anyone what we were up against. Mankind might be diversive in our values at times, but when a common enemy as calamitous as that whispers our doom, we’ve no choice but to stand together against it’s oppression. Anyone like Francisco who sought to divide us had to be labeled as an enemy too.
I saw the car keys poking out of the driver’s back pocket as he climbed out of the van. I snatched it, applying pressure to his back to distract him. I was trying to be subtle, but he lost his balance and fell straight out of the van onto his knees.
“Hey, what the hell man?” the driver was loud. Too damn loud. All eyes fell on me.
“That’s the guy who helped Nathan!” Francisco shouted. I launched the van door shut just as he was raising his rifle. The haggard man shoved me to the floor, but before I could fight him off I heard the metallic clang of bullets punching through the door where I’d stood a moment before.
“Let’s move!” the bearded man shouted, practically flinging me through the air and into the driver seat. The van roared to life, smashing into the adjacent van to make enough space for us to escape.
More bullets were raining through the wall, and a spiderweb of cracks filled the passenger side window. It must be bullet proof glass, but it still wouldn’t hold up for long under this assault. The pale-eyed man grunted as a bullet punched through his door and into his shoulder, but the bullet seemed to barely break his skin before deflecting onto the dashboard.
I slammed the car into reverse, plowing into the van behind me and finally edging out enough room to drive. The car shot off down the road like a stone from a slingshot, the bullets rattling off the back as we went.
“Are you hurt?” I asked the man.
“It’ll take more than that to slow me down, so don’t let it slow you either. Not until we reach the plant.”
“We can’t stop. That’s the first place they’ll look,” I said.
“They’ve all had rounds, and that makes ’em targets now. We have to save as many as we can.”
“How do you know about that? Who are you?”
“Dillan, I used to be called. Don’t seem right to call me that anymore though. Not much of Dillan left.”
We didn’t have long to compare notes before I reached the plant. Two of the other vans were close on my heels the whole way. I’m not sure if we can fight them off and escape, but having a whole crew that can take bullets like vitamins seems like a pretty solid advantage to me.
I didn’t slow as we passed through the checkpoint – rammed straight through the automated gate. I didn’t want to risk crossing any more open ground than I could help, so I drove right through the glass door at the front of the building and parked inside.
A bullet skipped by the ground near my feet the second I opened the door. I thought I had gained some ground on them – they couldn’t be here already. Another bullet – this was coming from inside the building. They must have begun clearing the plant before I even got there.
Dillan pulled me from the van and covered me with his body as we sprinted through the building. I saw him take two more bullets, both rattling to the ground after impact. Every room we passed was already strewn with bodies.
Robert is dead. Elijah, Megan – both have been decapitated. Undergoing the treatments seems to have given these people a considerable resistance to injury and death, but there’s no coming back from that. Dillan and I managed to get to the security surveillance room to see if anyone is left, but it’s only a matter of time before they find me. All the video feeds showed men in suits fanning out through the power plant, most armed with long machetes still stained with blood. There’s nowhere left for me to go.
“Look! There’s a few hanging on,” Dillain pointed at one of the screens. Three plant workers – didn’t even have a chance to learn their names yet – were huddled in terror in inside one of the supply closets. Dillain showed no hesitation, already bounding out the door as though he knew the way by heart. I started to follow, but he was quick to close the door behind him.
“You stay hidden,” he said. “I’ve been down there too long. There’s nothing they can do to me that they haven’t already tried, but you – you’ll pop like a ripe melon hit by a hammer.”
That thought was vivid enough for me to stay put. I watched him on the security feed as he dashed through the hallways with inhuman speed. If you’d asked me before this started, I would have always told you the humans are the good guys and the monsters can go to Hell. Scanning the familiar workrooms and seeing the bloodbath, watching the men with machetes butchering corpses which still struggled to move, then following the trails of bloody footprints all over the building – well maybe there are no good guys here. Shit, I don’t know, maybe I’d even better off joining Nathan and the thing in the pit.
Even thinking that felt wrong though. The visceral terror I experienced while looking down into that great red eye will be enough to haunt me for the rest of my days. If I could just get out of here though, I could let the whole mess of them tear each other apart and stay out of it. I was just about to make a run when the door was kicked open.
Francisco stood alone with a bloody machete in each hand. His eyes were wild, looking even less human than Dillain’s vacuous stare. Red hand-prints crawled their way around his legs where his victims doubtlessly clutched at him right before the killing blow fell.
“I thought I’d find you here,” he said, his dress-shoes making a wet squelch as they plodded across the room toward me. I backed up against the wall, but I was cornered.
“I’m still human. Nothing’s been done to me,” I said. “You don’t have to do this.”
“I didn’t have to kill the others either,” he said. “I wanted to. The moment they were plugged into those machines, they were more beast than man.”
“We’re both men though – we’re both on the same side.” I was throwing any words that came to mind into the space between us, but nothing seemed to slow his relentless advance. I picked up the office chair and brandished it at him, but he only laughed. Think again, smart-ass.
I hurled the chair into the surveillance screens and watched it smash them to pieces. Francisco’s smirk twisted into a snarl.
“I know where the others are,” I said. “You won’t find them without my help. Not before they escape.”
“Fine – I’ll let you live,” he growled. “Just tell me who is left.”
“Not good enough,” I replied. “I want to know what’s been going on. I want to know everything you know.”
“There’s not enough time -”
“Then stop wasting it.”
He glanced at the broken monitors, then again at the long track of hallway where he came from. Francisco expelled an irritated sigh, propped the chair up, and had a seat. That’s when I finally got the whole story.
The valley had been the result of a primal asteroid smashing into the Earth. A scientific expedition to unearth fragments resulted in the discovery of unusual movement within the lithosphere of the Earth’s crust. Two tectonic plates had switched directions and were moving against the surrounding mantel, which resulted in much of the mountainous terrain in the area.
The government deployed a mining expedition, looking for clues as to the buildup of pressure. That’s when they discovered IT – the Devil – the beast – the monster – whatever impoverished word man has in the face of such a cataclysmic being dwelling beneath the Earth. The scientists speculated that it was much too large to have been carried on the asteroid, but perhaps a seed or a hatchling had survived the journey and grown through the eons into the monstrous form that was uncovered.
The mining further served to disturb the being, and its increasing activity threatened its pending escape. Nothing short of a nuclear weapon was likely to harm it, and this would be impossible to covertly detonate without radiating the groundwater and devastating the nearby population centers.
The only method which seemed to slow the being down was crudely refereed to as “sacrifices”. The thing displayed considerable less activity after it consumed the initial miners, and subsequent experiments devised a way to feed it via the network of machines and mental energy which I had witnessed. The had powered the machines for the last 20 years, but the sudden cessation of energy seemed to have woken the creature, prompting the shaft’s demolition.
If there was more to the story, I didn’t get a chance to hear. Francisco was getting impatient, and I didn’t know how much more time I could buy. Luckily, I didn’t have to. Dillain returned during the recounting, and while Francisco’s attention was still distracted, he pounced.
I say pounced, because only an animal could have flown through the air like that pale eyed Demon. Before Francisco could turn his head, Dillain had wrapped his thin arms around the guard’s neck and snapped it like twig. I would have been grateful if it hadn’t been for what happened next.
Dillain bit deeply into Francisco’s neck while his limp form was still convulsing in Dillain’s arms. Even with human teeth, Dillain was able to rip out great chunks of flesh from the man. The teeth sank through the mesh of veins and arteries, crunching through the spine, and straight out the other side. It took almost a full minute for him to gnaw his way through; I don’t think he was even eating it, but simply reveling in the satisfaction of his power.
I didn’t say a word. I didn’t look away. I just let it happen. Every time I thought I knew what I was doing, the scale of events far surpassed my expectations and I was left a helpless onlooker. After Dillain finished, he gave me a sloppy grin before leading me safely through the building. Heads were separated from bodies everywhere we went, and it was clear which were cleanly severed with a machete and which had been gnawed lose. Dillain had saved the other three people though, and I owed him my life as well. That’s how I learned the last part of the story that Francisco had left out.
The people hooked to the machines – they weren’t just feeding the thing. It wasn’t just the human mind passing down the cables, it was also the mind of the beast passing up into them. With each round of treatment, the subjects became a little less human and a little more monstrous, until they became something like Nathan or Dillan that couldn’t live and wouldn’t die. Dillain had been one of the original scientists who sacrificed himself to the creature over 20 years ago, and he had voluntarily shackled himself to the machine all that time. He’s right though, I shouldn’t call him Dillain anymore. Dillain died a long time ago.
As soon as I was out to freedom, I parted ways with the subjects. I got in my car and I drove as far and as fast as I could. As far as I know, the creature is still down there, buried beneath countless tons of rock in the hills of Colorado. I don’t know whether its body is still trying to get out or not, but I don’t think it even matters. The beast thinks with Dillain’s thoughts and moves with his body, and like an avatar of some forgotten God, he now freely walks the earth. His zealous protection of the other subjects makes me believe it is the beast’s imperative to protect his own, so I can only assume that Dillain is now working to either free the creature or spread its influence by bringing more sacrifices to its underground lair.
I don’t know that he can be killed – don’t know that he can be stopped. He must feel some sense of human compassion or he never would have let me go as thanks for aiding him, so one enduring hope still remains to me: that once the beast has risen to the height of its size and power, it still finds enough room for mankind.
Credit: Tobias Wade