Chapter 32: ...And Now the Screaming Starts
“-Alpha 10,” finished the voice, and as it did the faint image of a young man in army greens became visible. “The time is 0807. We are here assisting Dr. Totenberg and his assistant Dr. Delambre on their expedition of the caves.”
“Blah blah blah,” came another voice, and the camera shifted to reveal another soldier, walking toward the first. “Do we really gotta do this shit?”
“This ‘shit’ as you call it is important scientific research,” came an angry German voice. Now the camera focused on a third man, a man wearing khaki work clothes over a button down shirt and tie. He was balding, his dark brown hair making a little scoop along the center of his head like it was a solitary starfighter in the epic battle against time and age. Tall, thick glasses hung on a small, round nose that looked as though it would not be able to support this weight without the aid of the bushy brown mustache standing so firmly beneath it. “Need I remind you that Ryerson pays your bills, Private?”
The impertinent army man rolled his eyes. “Maybe the army’s bills, ya corporate stooge. I ain’t gettin’ shit for this.”
“There is no need for all the profanity, Private Waters.” Again everyone turned, this time to see a young, beautiful woman. She was standing with her hands on her hips and a stern look on her face, like a disapproving mother who just walked in on her children fighting after she had asked them a hundred times to stop.
She wore black, baggy shorts that ended in tight loops just above her kneecaps. Her shirt was grey, short-sleeved, button-down, and similarly baggy. She wore ankle high work boots over thigh-high white cotton socks. Her hair was raven black, and hung long and loose down to her back, with bangs that looked like the teeth of a monster attempting to swallow her head-first. “You were briefed. You know the dangers here as well as anyone else.”
“So a couple scientists went missing,” Waters responded, shrugging. “I don’t understand how that makes it army business.”
“You’re not paid to understand,” Dr. Totenberg snapped, “You’re paid to follow orders. Now you have your orders. Follow them.”
“Yes… sir” the private muttered, unhappily. Then, once the doctor was out of earshot, added, “Herr Hitler.”
With little more conversation, the group began to gather up equipment and move out. The camera shifted about, revealing a sunny grove in a beautifully green, wooded area. The trees gave way to hard, dark-colored rocks as the ground began to rise rapidly upwards. The group was gathered at the foot of a mountain, and from the look of things, were headed toward a cavernous opening in its base.
The cave entrance was small and cramped, forcing the team to go through it one at a time, and each person ducking down – except for Dr. Delambre, who was short enough to pass through with only a slight tilt of her head. The cameraman brought up the rear. He handed the camera off to someone already inside the cave in order to enter himself. Moments late it was back in his hands and the group was moving again.
Now below the earth, there was little but darkness greeting them. No rays of sunlight broke through the rocks to reach down into the depths of earth in which they now found themselves. All light here was artificial, jutting forth like lances against the blackness from the flashlights each person carried. The cavern was clearly massively voluminous, the rays of light occasionally fading off into the dark without reaching a wall or ceiling.
Despite these awe-inspiring depths, the group continued steadily forward, almost as though they had been here before and knew where they were going. In reality it was simply that despite the enormous size of the area they were currently in, it all narrowed down to only one exit at the far end of the cavern. Once they reached this area, the cave became more of a corridor, with slick, rounded walls left over from thousands of years before when an underground river had run through it. Here they were forced to walk two by two. This continued on for a time, until they came upon a room where the corridor split off in four directions. One of the lead army grunts shone his light down each corridor in turn, before calling out for directions.
Dr. Totenberg consulted what looked like a map. After a moment, he flipped it upside down, and then a moment later turned it sideways. He cast a meek expression at Dr. Delambre, and shook his head. “I… don’t know. It is hard to say. We have so little information on what happened down here.”
“It’s simple enough,” said another of the army men, in a voice that suggested he was used to being in charge. “We follow from the right. If it doesn’t work out, we come back, and try the next one.”
Following this advice, they left down the right-most corridor. It seemed to take them upwards, but as they continued on the corridor grew narrower and narrower. Eventually it dropped off to a tiny crawlspace. The lead soldier called out that after a time the crawl space seemed to close off without going anywhere. They returned to the branch room.
The second corridor led downwards, deeper into the earth. It quickly opened up into another cavernous region. As they made their way here, one of the flashlights suddenly flicked across the room, drawing patterns on a far wall. “Did you see that?” Someone asked.
“You’re jumping at shadows,” said the authoritarian voice.
“Bats,” said someone else. All lights turned up to the ceiling, and it was as though an explosion had gone off. Immediately the air came alive with motion and screeching as thousands of bats ripped about over the heads of the group, making a break out the entrance tunnel.
Private Waters invoked his favorite word. “Shit!”
“All right, ladies, keep it moving. It’s a cave, this kind of shit happens. Let’s go!”
The room led off into another corridor, which opened into another subterranean chamber. This one, unlike the previous two, was not a large, almost endless seeming pit but rather a short, claustrophobic jungle. Stalactites and stalagmites rose from the floor and jutted from the ceiling like the teeth of an ancient creature. The floor here was wet, jagged, and slippery, forcing everyone to walk carefully and for the group to split up a bit as they traveled.
Here the cameraman began to admire his surroundings, and for the first time the camera really strayed from the group as it looked left and right at the various structures surrounding them. The view jolted suddenly as the cameraman took a misstep.
“What the hell?” came his voice, and the camera swung around dizzyingly to face in the opposite direction. “Hey, I think I bumped into something. Oh, God!”
The camera took a moment to focus, but once it did they could make out the torn remains of a person. Its clothing had been shredded, and its skin was ripped in so many places that it was almost unrecognizable as a human being. The others came running.
Dr. Totenberg seemed to catch something familiar on what pathetic remains there were. “Oh God,” he said, “oh God, oh God.” He took a step back in horror, covering his mouth as if trying not to throw up. “It’s Dr. Argola. He was in the last team…”
His voice trailed off as he turned away. Moments later the sound of retching came in over the tape. The man with the authoritative voice was kneeling next to the body, looking it over as if it was just a pile of torn clothes, no human corpse included. “What the hell could have done this?”
A scream burst through the stillness, followed by a crash, and everyone spun in the direction of the sound. There was nothing there except for the broken remains of a flashlight.
The man in charge pushed through the stunned soldiers toward where the abandoned flashlight lay on the floor. “What the hell was that? Who’d they get? Who’s missing?” He turned around and looked through the gathered faces. Nobody responded. “Well?” he demanded.
A nearby soldier glanced at the camera, and then at his commander. “They?” he asked meekly.
The commander opened his mouth to respond, and then quickly shut it again. He hurried back through the gathered soldiers over to Dr. Totenberg, who stood with his hands on his legs, his face still sickly green. He grabbed the doctor by his collar and hauled him up so they stood eye to eye. “What the hell is going on here?” he demanded.
“What makes you think I know?”
“You had a damn good reason for pulling a group of soldiers into this little operation of yours. Now spit it out before I beat it out of you!”
“I… I don’t…” squeaked the little man. “Just, the others… they disappeared…”
“Like Hell,” growled the squad leader. “’Just disappeared’ and you could have brought the cops. Hell, you could have hired security. But no, you pulled the damn army in here and I want to know why.”
“I…I…” Dr. Totenberg stammered helplessly.
“Just humans,” Dr. Delambre interjected. She stepped over to them, and with one hand gently pried the army man away from the frightened doctor. “We have reason to suspect that humans have been living here for generations, subterranean. We were hoping to study the effects this would have on human physiology. But we believe they may be wild, uncontrollable. They’re likely very dangerous.”
The commander pointed to the broken flashlight. “That was not human.”
“We believe they may have some… unique mutations. We’re not sure what caused it, possibly a combination of factors due to lack of sunlight, inbreeding, and unique diet. We don’t know. But whatever the case, you were warned of the dangers before coming here. It’s your duty to handle it.”
“Don’t speak to me of duty,” the army man growled, but he turned away from the doctors and tightened his grip on his service rifle. He stepped back through the group. “All right,” he began, “let’s…”
He never got any further. Another scream filled the air. The cameraman spun in the direction in time to see Private Waters disappearing into the darkness. The force of whatever pulled him had been strong enough to cause him to accidently fling his flashlight across the room, straight at the cameraman. It hit him hard enough for the man to fall to his knees and lose his grip. The camera clattered to the floor and spun around a couple times before resting in the general direction of the troops.
By now, the unit had begun firing, and the sound of semi-automatic rifle bursts filled the cave. At various moments shouts could be heard to the effect of, “Over there! Something moving! In the shadows! What the hell?” These exclamations would always be punctuated by more rapid gunfire.
Despite their frantic efforts, however, the soldiers were being picked off one by one. In the corner of the screen, two more were pulled away by an unseen force. Something large and white pounced on a third and disappeared out of the frame. Only two soldiers remained on screen. They took a few steps as they fired, and then when something landed on the man furthest away from the camera the last man turned and fled. He was definitely not the only one in the group, as the echo of footsteps resounded like canon fire against the walls, and shouts of “Retreat!” and “Get the hell out of here!” could be heard.
The camera man yanked up his camera and turned from the room, quickly running back the way they had come. The shots here were dizzying and frantic as the camera bobbed wildly in the running man’s arms. Then suddenly it came to a stop in one of the multi-corridor rooms. Here there was a soldier grabbing his head and chanting, “Oh God, oh God, which way, which way?” over and over again.
Something hit the cameraman from behind and he went sprawling. Once more the camera crashed to the ground and spun. When it came to a stop, there was a brief moment where something – something disturbingly zombie-like – was on screen, but then it leapt off the screen, and after a moment, there was only blackness.