I’ve always hated canned food. There is something intrinsically wrong with meat mashed up and jammed into a preservation chamber and stored on a shelf for however long. Fruits a little better, but I’ve never enjoyed the mild hint of tin in my peaches.
There wasn’t much of an option though, in the meals provided for us. I will give headquarters that the food was a step up from our training meals. Our daily mush was flavored, in a variety of horrifyingly creative ways, and supper was ‘real’ meat, normally canned fish or chicken.
If you’ve never had the joy of eating canned chicken, well, bully for you.
We also got occasional canned fruit, vegetables, and puddings, which had turned into currency by day two of the expedition. I traded two of mine for an extra pair of boots when mine-well. I’m getting ahead of myself. On days when we were sent out, we were given trail rations of energy bars and jerky.
We were never hungry, but we were certainly never full, either. So when I overheard two of the sergeant’s hushed whispers of ‘missing food’ I knew there was going to be trouble. We had enough supplies to last us three months, the longest any group has ever attempted within the Catacombs to date. That number was carefully calculated. We might be able to get extra supplies now, so close to the entrance, but once we made our way down to SZB, contact with the outside world would become difficult.
The Commander (Staff Sargent, I think, before she was thrown into the Delve Program) wasn’t going to be able to risk having a thief in the group, or even just someone bad at counting boxes. An inquest started the next day, yet another delay, keeping us in SZA just like every group before us. Safe Zone Beta had been discovered by the thirty-fourth expedition and we were the first group intent on making it our permanent settlement.
Tensions were high. We still went out on our investigations, though in limited groups while the others tents were searched and they themselves quizzed and questioned relentlessly. A thin coating of distrusted was laid down over the three days, like dust settling after someone stamps dirt into a house.
We found the thieves eventually, but not until much later. The Commander gave us a harsh speech on reckless behavior, endangering others, and a variety of punishments for theft. I was impressed by her creativity. A guard rotation for the rations and water was created, much to the grumbling irritation of the lower ranking military folks handed that glamorous job.
Finally, seven days after arriving in SZA we moved forward.
I’m not going to walk you through the areas between SZA and SZB. If you have the clearance to be reading this you have the clearance to those files as well.
If clearance even matters anymore. It probably doesn’t. Suffice to say we arrived hot, sticky, and with a much better idea of what we were facing. Humans can only scare humans in so much as we don’t know what the other might do. The tenants of the Catacombs, well, we are afraid of them – it – whatever – because we don’t know what it is. That is a kind of fear that settles like sand in your lungs, flaring into a dust storm at that first shocked inhale. It chokes you, filling your nose, drying your mouth and leaving you desperate for something, anything to rid yourself of the feeling.
Most of the military slept with their guns like pacifiers by our first night in SZB. I slept with this notebook. I suppose it’s just my obsession with words. No matter what happens, words somehow manage to cling to things long after the humans are gone. They fade too, eventually, if they aren’t found, but it’s like a temporary reprieve from death, knowing my words will survive me.
At least for a while.
SZB was discovered completely by accident. The linguist in Team Red 34 was examining a odd scrawling on the wall, taking a step back to photograph the finding she fell through an unseen hole in the floor. The occasional stretches of walls or flooring made in Dark Stone create real dangers when moving around the Catacombs. When you can’t see the floor, how can you see when it isn’t beneath you?
The hole was six feet by six feet and dropped straight down a hundred and fifteen feet. When appropriate climbing gear was collected, two privates made their way down. They found an exact copy of SZA, sixty feet cubed but this time of sandstone. It was the first room in sandstone found.
After the linguists remains were removed, and a watch was set. I’m not sure exactly what the requirements were for a Safe Zone, but apparently SZB passed muster and the thirty-fifth expedition spent a number of days setting up a lift capable of hauling supplies and people up and down.
Our expedition was to push further, to set up camp in SZB and to explore the two entrances found on the north and south walls, surveying and reporting back. We were also to bring back any remains of the thirty-fourth and fifth expeditions we could find.
I immediately preferred SZB. The light sandstone walls didn’t reflect the same way the dark crystal ridden walls of SZA had. It felt warmer, and while I banished the word from my mind the minute it arrived, it felt safer. We set up camp slowly The ‘elevator’ limited the amount of supplies that could be moved at a time, and a number of stairs and rough spaces between meant that the lifts had to stay in SZA until they too could be carried down.
The tents went up in the same lanes as before, and that odd geologist, Bernie, waves from the next row up. I waved back with a bit of a confused smile, heading in to arrange my belongings again. Team Yellow 36, my team, was assigned to camp maintenance and food prep tomorrow, so I’d have some time to clarify the notes I’d made as we travelled between areas. I had studied the notes that had survived previous expeditions, but it was different to see them myself.
The day after, well, I’d be foraying out into undocumented territory.
Gods above, I was such a fool to be excited.
[Specimen 2201.026 Ripped notepad paper, burnt in bottom left corner found in area L-192]
15 separate statements were translated by R32. Notes seem to imply all from same room. Original images lost – only have sketches made by R-113, B-166.
“In solitude there is a fragility of mind.”
“Dreary day incoming.”
“The last remnants of a mind known are memories.”
How they figured out the difference between leave and exit, we aren’t sure. Missing those symbols. Rest of list is just odd jumbles. Sort of wonder if they were just already loosing their minds.
Blue team thinks they might have found matching room through area f-17. Will check out tomorrow.
[Specimen 1224.221 Notebook Block, found in Area L-192
Notes: Sixteen notebooks that have been fused together. There is no glue, no adhesive of any kind. It is clear that all of the pages are still there, when examined beneath a microscope. We have tried separating them using everything but an REDACTED but nothing has worked. The notebooks are now also seemingly impervious to fire, water, and REDACTED . Additional funds requested; QED impermeable body armor. Full requested filed with form UH-119-B.]
[Specimen 326.631 Spanish Gold Coin circa 1730, found in Area L-192
Notes: One of the oldest Spanish gold coins on record. It looks brand new. It is pure gold, with absolutely no impurities, making it unlikely that the coin was ever in circulation, or actually made in the 1700’s. All testing tells us that it was created in the 1700’s.
Why do I even bother trying to make sense of this crap? No one actually reads these notes. We have so damn many specimens that we barely have time to process the all. Did we actually even test this coin? Probably not. What would I know though? I’m just clerical.
I hope someone catches this. Just fire me already. I’m bored out of my mind.]