We’re supposed to be brutally honest with ourselves about everything that happens in the Catacombs. Anything we feel, anything we sense is supposed to be checked, double checked, and then documented. I didn’t understand why until I’d finally entered the threshold.
For the sake of that honesty then, I have to say, approaching the gate of the Catacombs was underwhelming. The aching hugeness of the mountain of light devouring stone had perhaps set me up with falsely high expectations. I never asked any of the others if they felt the same.
We were all crammed into the back of a windowless trailer, to keep our knowledge of the defenses and protections wrapped in onion like layers around the site minimal. The ride was silent, except for one terrible joke from one of the geologists about someone farting. The glare from the expedition leader shut him up fast enough. I didn’t mind the joke so much; after so much time dehumanizing ourselves, it was nice to see that at least one of our number had managed to keep a shred of personality in tact.
We were led out into the odd darkness of the shadow cast by the Catacombs. You never really experience a shadow in broad daylight that doesn’t have at least reflected light. It’s a very unnaturally feeling phenomena. I followed the noisy geologist around the corner of the truck, and I think I frowned. I couldn’t see anything. We’d been prepared for it, of course, but it’s one thing to be told you will only see ‘darkness’ and another to actually see it. Or, not see it, as the case may be.
Tucked at the bottom of the darkness though, was a wooden staircase leading up with odd orange lights, to a tiny patch of dark stone. Not whatever most of the Catacombs are made of, but just dark stone, barely visible, but there.
That was it. A doorway barely any bigger than the one into my bathroom, with a wooden staircase, and a stone threshold. Like I said, underwhelming. It almost made our expedition seem promising, hopeful again. If our first step inside was to be so non grandiose, maybe the rest of it would be to.
I might be good at puzzles, but I never said anything about having the best sense of self preservation.
I grew up in a small town, not too unlike what Rosmire used to be. Everyone knows everyone, everyone is in everyones business. You grow up with thousands of nosy aunts and uncles, and hundreds of concerned grandparents. It’s like being in a fishbowl at a fair, people constantly watching you, judging and deciding your worth. Some people thrive in communities like that.
I did okay. I was a bit too ‘curious’ for a girl, a little ‘bookish’. Rumor flared from the moment I picked up ‘The Great Gatsby’ in grade three. I would never get a boyfriend with my nose in a book! The naysayers went quiet when Sammy Douglas asked me to the middle school dance. I think it was a dare, but we had fun anyways, enough that he kissed me on my doorstep.
It was one of those rare, easy relationships. I’d bring a book and watch from the bleachers during soccer practice. He’d bring a video game over to my place while I worked on my advance placement homework. Our first time was in a tiny hotel room after a concert in the city, a step up from most kids quickies in the back of a smoke stained Buick.
We got married at nineteen, right before he shipped out on his first term of service. There were people struggling, hurting over there and he wanted to help. He needed to be needed, and there wasn’t much need for a so-so soccer player in a tiny town. He sent me emails, even the occasional letter. He send pictures of his buddies in uniform, and of the rare flowers he found blossoming in the desert heat that he thought I would find pretty.
I never saw him again.
He came home in a box, with a flag and a letter of condolence for the young widow. No one ever explained what happened. No one ever told me why the casket was sealed.
I don’t think I want to know, even though there’s part of my soul that screamed at me to tear through the dark mahogany to see what they had done to my Sam. I didn’t.
I left, after that. I couldn’t handle the idea of being trapped in that fishbowl when all the curious gazes had turned to pity. That weight was just too heavy.
So when I walked into the Catacombs, and felt millions of eyes on me, it was almost like coming home.
I called them Watchers. We all had different names for them. Some of us called them ‘Eyes’, or ‘Demons’, or that odd archeologist who decided they were ‘Angels’. I didn’t want to assign a personality to them, to anthropomorphize them until we knew more. All I knew was that the moment we crossed the threshold every hair on the back of my neck stood on end.
It had nothing to do with the sudden drop in temperature, or the eerie light from our flashlights that only reflected at all off the ceiling and ourselves. Watching the surveyor and his team walk forward on inky blackness was definitely disconcerting, but that wasn’t it either. It was the sudden sensation of eyes on you, staring relentlessly at the back of your head.
Like that boy in elementary school with the crush that leads to spitballs, but who is never looking when you turn around. We could all feel whatever it was, a heavy, itchy weight on our shoulders from the moment we entered, but all that was behind us was more darkness.
Even when we emerged from area E-101 and moved away from the Dark Stone (the oh so creative name the geologists had given it), and we could see for ourselves without a doubt there was nothing there, we could still feel it.
We caught the archeologist praying to them on day three. We sent her back to the entrance for retrieval. There was no space in our mission for someone who lost it that quickly. The examiners really should have caught the edge of potential religious fervor during the initial testing periods, but hindsight is twenty-twenty.
Those eyes were constant companions. A lot of us began talking to them, absently. We fought it, and we’d tell each other, if we caught another at it, but it happened. It was sort of like talking to a pet. When the real fractures in our group began to show, those eyes were oddly comforting.
The Archeologist, Ashley Davids, spent the rest of her life building monuments to the Angels in obsidian she painted black.
We set up camp in Area E-18S, Designated Safe Zone Alpha. Each of us carried a heavy pack, stuffed with provisions and emergency gear, a few electronic pallets having joined us at the site. Those pallets were meant to stay at SZA, but they were simple enough to get around, as long as you didn’t have any stairs getting in your way. Tents, nonperishable foodstuffs, and gallons upon gallons of fresh water we tucked into the corners of the gigantic, empty room.
Area E-18S is a perfect cube. It stretches sixty feet in every direction and the walls are made of a non-local variety of igneous rock. The walls are smooth, with no markings or divots aside from ones our researches have made except for two doors on opposite walls. We were told that every Expedition had a camp here, set up and used as a stable return point for various groups as they dove deeper.
So we went on and did the same. Perfect rows of identical tents were set up, for privacy more than anything else. Mine was at the far end of ‘Literacy Row’ as it was immediately dubbed, and it only took ten minutes to get it settled the way I wanted it. Supper was an unexciting affair. Most of us were too nervous of our new surroundings to talk much, though that odd geologist did go on for ten minutes about his ability to guess if a given person was a dog or cat person.
He was right more than he was wrong, so I suppose that’s something.
We knew our assignments, we knew our goals, and we knew – we thought we knew – the dangers that awaited us. The auto dimming lights that had been left by previous expeditions were nearly dark by the time I crawled into my sleeping bag, exhausted and thanking god for my ability to sleep regardless of where I was. I took a moment or two to document my day, though nothing of note had really happened, before falling back onto my pillow and letting sleep take me.
I woke up to the sound of rain.
It took a few moments for my mind to register the sound. I was in the middle of a mysterious tower, under at least sixteen stories or more of stone and rooms. I feel like I can be forgiven for not immediately assuming the steady thrum if white noise was actually a steady downpour rushing down the sides of my tent. I lay there for a few minutes, just enjoying the familiar, if baffling, sound before finally tuning in to the shouting that was probably what had actually woken me up.
“The hell is going on?”
“Is that rain?”
“FUCK! Don’t touch it! Fucking burns!”
“SHUT UP, ALL OF YOU!” The commander’s voice was distinctive, to say the least. The camp fell silent at her shout. “Roll call. Everyone check in. One!”
The numbers came out quickly, each person following the one before them. Panic was beginning to creep into my belly as I stared at the roof of my tent. If this was some kind of acid rain, it would eat through the fabric quick enough, and we’d have to make a run for the entrance. Assuming we could get that far.
“Thirty-five.” The geologist was the number before mine.
“Thirty-six.” I called, loud enough to be heard over the unceasing drumbeat of the rain. The numbers kept going as I stared up, waiting for the telltale discoloration that would tell me when I was about to lose the shelter I’d set up so carefully.
“Sixty.” The roll call ended, and SZA was silent except for the rain again.
“Alright. We need to know what we’re dealing with. Fitzgerald-“ Her shout was suddenly overly loud, the racket of rain on canvas disappearing abruptly.
It was a long moment of silence that left my ears ringing before it was interrupted by the slow slide of a zipper.
“Clear.” It sounded more like a question than a declaration, but the group took it. More sounds of shuffling and zippers as the thirty-sixth expedition began to emerge like animals from their cozy burrows. I listened to the confused chatter for a few minutes longer before rolling up and poking my own head out.
There wasn’t a drop of water to be seen anywhere.
Three hours later and the geologists and engineers were huddled together at what they had decided was the lowest point of of the room. The psychologists were rambling about mass hallucinations and psychosis brought on by stress and the unfamiliar. The military men and women were stations at regular intervals around the edges of the room, guns in hand, watching the ceiling warily.
I told my team to go back to bed. It was the only practical choice. With no codes to decipher, no message written in rain drops, we weren’t useful then, but we might be later, and we needed rest to be ready. A few glances upwards, but no arguments were made and the team spread across our half row of tents.
I glanced back towards the commander, to where she stood, hands on hips, glaring at the ceiling like it had affronted her personally. I made my way back into my tent, curled back up in my sleeping bag and proceeded to stare at the canvas, sleepless for the first time I could remember in my life.
We remained at SZA for two more days while the scientists argued. Two days of scouring every inch of the room, of creating massive and uncomfortable human pyramids to inspect the ceiling by sight and touch. Two days of nothing but dark stone and endless speculation. There was no trace of the rain, just like so many other of the things we encountered, except a dark red scar streaking down Lieutenant Jacobson’s arm, and a reminder to everyone to always look up.
It’s a lesson I’m glad I learned.
We finally made our first outreach from SZA two days after the imaginary rainstorm. Literacy Lane set off with a subsection of the military constituency, and a ragtag groups of the others who felt up to it. It was an outward spoke. The further down the into the Catacombs you travel, the more maze like it becomes. There were vague reports of rooms ‘moving’; of being different than what they were before.
No one had ever found another living being, never mind one with the sentience to redecorate within the Dark Stone walls, so the reports were definitely a curiosity. Or if they had met someone, something, they hadn’t made it bad to report it. We’d been told to be ready for anything, but that is always the stupidest thing anyone can say. How can you be ready for things you have never encountered? Things that shouldn’t exist?
I’m getting ahead of myself.
We left SZA with a general feeling of relief. We had been sent here to work, and with the warnings of ‘extended exposure’ and ‘unknown reactions’ still ringing in our ears, none of us wanted to waste time sitting on our asses in our tents. The day was spent mostly just hiking down stairs and halls, and examining a few documented rooms for any sorts of deviations from the reports.
It was like playing one of those brain teasers, two almost identical pictures to find differences between, except in this case we didn’t know if there were any differences at all. If there were warnings written on the walls there, we didn’t notice them at the time.
We did find a single left boot. Laying carelessly in the middle of one of the hallways it was a gut twisting sight. The last expedition had been nearly a year ago, and there was no way to confirm who’s it was. The geologist that had joined us packed it away in a sealed container for examination by the chemists later. I simply tied my own boots tighter.
We returned to SZA late that evening with no real news, and nothing to report. It was a boring, but productive day. A good day.
We weren’t going to have another one of those for a long time.