If Leslie Twilling returned to the town she was born in, she wouldn’t recognize it. Dark suits, military uniforms, and the miscellaneous gear of scientists and specialists fill the streets and homes. Military personnel run drills down main street, and a putrid yellow smoke billows from the old pharmacist building.
All of this could be ignored, though. With a pair of nostalgic rose colored glasses, you could ignore the new inhabitants, the vehicles, and the noise. You could still see the old buildings, homes, and even a playground tucked behind the school that no one has bother to tear down. It would almost be like going home, until the sun began to set, casting a shadow across Rosmire, drawing your eyes to the towering behemoth eclipsing the sun.
The obelisk is still there, if you look up high enough. Perched on top of the Catacombs, almost sixteen stories up, it still seems to soak in the sunlight like some kind of massive, stoney plant. No one has figured out how it continues to rise; maybe it is photosynthesis. It’s as good a theory as any.
When the agents finally dragged the truth out of Leslie, the investigation turned to the Obelisk, now known as Area A-100. When Fred Aster took the agents through his fields, yattering away about the years corn crops (I read the entire transcript. He didn’t seem to have much in his mind beyond growing things. I really hope he managed to find a new farm elsewhere), he didn’t expect anything other than the looming rock he’d been mowing around for years.
And the stone was still there, but it had risen almost four feet from what had been previously measured. At the base, dirt had begun to slide inward, revealing a hole in the base of the inky black stone that seemed to resist any light shone in it.
It hadn’t been there the day before, the farmer swore up and down. There’d been no hole or he’d have sent for Bobbie Lang to come check for groundhogs again. No way he’d have ignored a possible infestation.
The agents ignored him, assuming that the two missing kids had dug their way in, maybe hurting themselves in the process. Eva Brown, Federal Agent, License number EVBR19077, took off her jacket, tucked a flashlight beneath her arm and let her partner lower her down into the darkness.
She came out an hour later.
Or, well, some of her did.
We were told very little about the Catacombs during training. We had no idea where we were aside from the name ‘Rosmire’, or ‘Area X2291’. We were kept indoors for the first three months of our training, not a chance of glimpsing the towering megalith. We were told there was some kind of mysterious temple of unknown origins. That was enough for all of us.
We were a group of scientists, adventure seekers, and those stuck on the fringes. We craved new things like water, and the idea of discovering something that no one else had, solving a mystery no one had even seen…that’s what brought us together, what bonded the group as a whole.
We didn’t learn much else about it. Not directly. Occasionally, in our afternoon puzzles, symbols that didn’t seem to quite fit would appear. Odd drawings that I struggled to focus on, that my eyes would slip across like glass and move right on to the next. I never mentioned it, still a little afraid of being chucked off the team, of loosing access to the mysteries that I needed now to survive.
I realize now that, while I did have the most experience in code breaking, there were others far more suited to the job than I. Brilliant men and women on my team who’s abilities far surpassed my own, but for some reason stumbled on the simplest of cyphers at the oddest times. I stood above the rest, and in my hubris, thought it to be because of my studies. My training.
It was simply, though, that I could see. Those glass symbols, the ones I spent weeks training myself in secret to focus on, to not miss within the greater puzzle, my coworkers couldn’t see them at all.
If we had been honest, if I had told them how I felt, if they had explained their frustrations, perhaps we would have been better prepared. They kept us on edge for a reason though; paranoid and internalized. They left the threat of removal hanging over our heads to keep us from all but the most basic of collaborations. To keep us blind to the other secrets, the ones that even I was blind to.
The first time I saw the Catacombs, I thought it was some kind of ridiculous joke. That someone had tricked us all for some kind of reality show. Sixteen stories tall, and still growing by the day, the massive structure dwarfs anything else for miles. It’s so preposterous that the mind rejects it, refuses to admit it’s reality.
I don’t want to call it a pyramid. That brings to mind smooth sides and clean lines. The Catacombs are somehow more organic than that, sheer cliffs and twisting columns, cascading slopes and perfect platforms. It’s wider at the bottom than at the top. I guess that’s all I really mean by ‘pyramid’.
It’s made of stone, or at least, they think it’s some kind of stone. I’m not a geologist, not a scientist at all really, so the explanations about the chemical make up of the inky blackness — matte, opaque, and glossy in turns — that fills the horizon went way over my head.
The stone (we’ll call it stone, for simplicities sake) doesn’t reflect light. This makes it hard to do any kind of real visual inspection of the outside. Our eyes create images by picking up reflected light. So when no light is reflected, well, we can’t build an image. We know it’s there, and we can see the outlines. By moving around it during the day and overlaying multiple silhouette drawings we can start to get a general idea of the outside of the thing. There are some sections that are visible; the Obelisk for one. They must be made of something different. I may have learned that at some point, but I can’t remember anymore.
That isn’t my job though, and I’ll leave that to the upper deckers.
The name ‘Catacombs’ isn’t really precise either, that implies some kind of religious site, a place for burials. The name some bucket head had used stuck though, and considering how many people I suspect died in or because of it…even if it wasn’t an apt name at the beginning, I’m pretty sure it is now.
There are even part of it that are restful. Quiet. There were times where I considered just laying down and not giving up, but in the end, I’m just too stubborn. Who knows, though. Maybe it’ll be my place of rest too. That seems fitting, really.
The last month of our training was spent in complete isolation.
I don’t want to talk about it.
One of the things that has lingered in my memories the longest from training were the scents. People often wax poetry about how smells can be used to draw out memories, to make them stronger, and while that is entirely true, it’s also possible for a scent to be a memory, all on its own.
Take the scent of artificial lemon and bleach. I remember that scent, vividly. I can almost smell it now as I think about it. I don’t remember cleaning, specifically, but I remember the scent. It’s the smell of childhood, teenaged years, it’s the smell of marriage. It’s not a smell that attaches any particular moment, no event, it’s simply a scent of reminiscences of life.
Training smelt like sweat and chocolate chip cookies.
Not once did I eat a cookie during training, but that is what it smelt like. In the dorms, in the halls, in the cafeteria. The entire place smelt of cookies and sweat.
I know realtors will bake cookies in houses they are trying to sell to make them feel ‘homey’, pleasant. I suppose the smell could have been a relic of some random kind hearted program organizer who wanted the trainees to feel at home here, to find comfort in this space. Somehow I really doubt it.
Maybe it was to try and get us to drop our defenses; a false sense of comfort, protection, even childlike dependance.
Oh, now there’s a thought. Perhaps it was to attempt to bring our minds back to an earlier age. A more impressionable age. I haven’t done enough research into hypnosis and subconscious development to really be able to say if that would work, but a lot of the things they did to us seemed more like someone in a board room had just said ‘hey, wanna try the thing with the rats?’ and the rest had just shrugged.
Or maybe it was the opposite. Maybe they did it to instill the idea that something lovely smelling, looking, seeming could bring about terrible things. As though I needed reminding of that.
They locked me in the room alone. After a month of isolation, being thrown into another tiny cell set my chest on fire. I remember, through the sheer and utter panic, wondering if my body could actually combust from the friction of my blood rushing through my veins.
It took nearly an hour for the darkness to recede from the edges of my vision. I found myself curled in the corner of the small room, only a desk covered in paper pads and various pens and markers scattered across it like someone had been dragged out kicking and screaming seconds before I had been dragged in.
I sat there, on the freezing cold tile, trying to make my shaking legs work again. It took another quarter of an hour but I did manage. I made my way over the two small steps to the table, rifling through the papers. Finally at the bottom, scribbled on a tiny post-it note, was a green sigil. Two lines across a circle, three dots on either side.
Light flared in my vision and again, when I opened my eyes, I was sitting on the floor staring up at the ceiling. The same room, the same table, some of the papers scattered from my fall. Or, I would have sworn it was the same room, except the walls we covered in scrawling symbols all glowing in greens and yellow. The papers scattered around were covered in identical scrawl in red, notes in English, Spanish, and oddly enough, Ancient Greek, just from a first glance.
A pile of perfectly clean notepads were set at the corner of the table, a blue pen placed perfectly on top. Anger joined the panic still burning in me, making it flare into hot determination. They were challenging me; they wanted me to prove myself again, after all of the nonsense I’d survived, the horrors they’d thrown our way, the grueling training and mental warfare.
I glared at the camera in the corner of the room. If they wanted to see what I could do, I’d show them. If they were going to lock me in a room with a puzzle, I’d solve it.