An essay by Cassius Carter, as provided by Lucas Leery
Art by Luke Spooner
I invite you to assist me on my next expedition. The site is in remote, northern land that I trust you will remember well. Your task will be simple: to record data thoroughly and accurately.
I apologize, but I cannot share more. You must understand the significance of this project. Please keep my offer private, as my research is of a most sensitive nature.
I leave Thursday.
Though we had been friends since childhood, Kent’s proposition was strictly business. The letter nonetheless excited me, snapped my thoughts from the doldrums of my daily routine. Despite its vagueness, I accepted his offer in hopes of reconnecting with a friend lost to time. The letter was stark and abrupt, much like the writer himself, but I sensed in its language something as close to a plea as ever a man like Kent could make. Somehow, though I had not heard from him in over a decade, I felt a responsibility to respond. Besides, the trip was an excuse for escape, if but brief, from my life as a bachelor in the city, a situation I found exceedingly tedious as the years wore on me.
Kent worked as a geobiologist studying the evolution of Earth’s relationship with life. Though we had fallen largely out of touch since our schooldays, I kept up to date on his studies by following him in academic publications. In recent years, however, his name had disappeared from headlines, and I assumed that he had taken his career elsewhere. I myself, a former laboratory technician who now struggled as a freelance science journalist, was surprised to hear that he still practiced research in the field.
I was not surprised, however, that he had chosen me for his companion. We grew up together exploring deep within those northern reaches, woods I once knew more intimately than anyone alive. Moreover, I pursued science seriously enough to make a career of it, was familiar with equipment and repairs, and was a trustworthy, if not predictable, friend. Besides, I was a budding science journalist. He made it clear from the start that he intended the story of this expedition to make headlines.
We were not an hour on the road when the weather turned. Kent drove through the downpours with no apparent thought for delaying our journey and despite my attempts at conversation would not be distracted from the road. Due to his solemn demeanor, inklings of regret already began to creep across my thoughts.
He had always been a stoic man. His features were sharp and angular with a jaw perpetually defined by a shadow of stubble. His long nose had a slight bend where it had been broken as a boy. He was the tallest of our class yet always had loose clothes that gave his height a kind of ghostly, looming quality. Even growing up he had a gravity about him, a contemplative sobriety I had admired, but seeing him now after all these years, paled by the gray light of the road, I recognized a change. The lines of his face were more severe, deeper than a man his age should have, and his eyes, which had always been dark and piercing, were blacker and more intense. His knuckles, I noticed, whitened on the wheel as the sky steadily darkened.
It was deep dusk by the time we reached the point at which the road became impassable by car. Despite the rain and my partner’s disposition, I strove to keep my spirits high and forgive his preoccupations. Though he was stern in regard to the professional nature of our trip, I anticipated sharing drink, laughs, and memories once settling into camp.
In my years as a technician, I had never before seen anything like the instruments Kent had packed. Along with basic water and soil sampling gear was an array of sophisticated honing devices, colorimeters, and complex sensing systems with long antennae that protruded from our packs. Methodically he wrapped them for protection within enormous coils of rope, the purpose of which was at that point a mystery to me. One contraption in particular caught my eye for its elaborate system of beeping lights, though I knew better than to ask. After all, my place was as documentarian, not scientist, and I refrained from embarrassing myself with questions that would only expose me as an amateur and disrupt Kent’s concentration.
We waded through the growing darkness, our packs covered and our hoods pulled low. With increasing frequency, Kent paused to scrutinize the data on his instruments until suddenly we veered off the road into the brush. By this time, we had strapped headlamps about our hoods and only the branches within the bouncing circles of our beams were visible. It irked me then how the darkness tangled beyond our light seemed more and more to tighten its grip, how our vision seemed ever shrinking in the density of such night.
What minimal conversation there was had ceased upon leaving the vehicle. Other than the occasional directional beeping of Kent’s instruments, the woods were eerily still. In fact, the night was so static and black that I succumbed to a habit I developed as a boy, alone and scared in the woods at night. Then, I would convince myself of voices throbbing within unseen grottoes, indistinctly swathing me in a choir of my name. These voices, natural manipulations of night sounds and projections of internal fears, were of the kind that terrorize young boys and leave them afraid to breathe, paralyzed within their sleepless bedrolls. Now a rational man many years beyond that childish fear of the dark, I had altogether outgrown such anxieties and ignored the sounds. The longer the night wore on, however, the farther my mind wandered into whispered choirs and muted drums that summoned me through the tortuous brush.
I am not one for complaining, particularly on excursions in the elements. I was brought up to worship the wild and hold myself to be a high-quality outdoorsman, but to press on through raw, midnight rain tested me. More than once I stopped to demand that we make camp for the night or that Kent explain his mission, but something in the look about him propelled me forward without a word. The torchlight split his face in a way that obscured his eyes, revealing only the fixed line of his mouth and clenched jaw, and his looming figure, clad with poncho and pack, was shapeless and grotesque in the blackness. Still, it was not that Kent intimidated me, but that I sensed in him a pleading dedication, if not possessed determination, that provoked me to continue. It is as though by recognizing his enthusiasm, his craving for results, I became an equally motivated accomplice in the mission, fascinated by the intention of which I was miserably ignorant.
We had not been in the woods long when I found that my wristwatch had frozen. Blaming faulty batteries and moisture, I pocketed it and tried to ignore a gnawing feeling of nakedness. But my inability now to track the time nagged me and gave me an unsettling sense of detachment from the outside world, a notion of helplessness I had to consciously fight from consuming my thoughts. Swiftly now the night darkened, and the brush thickened around me.
I am unsure exactly how many hours passed, but the plod seemed to drag on for more time than could fit within one night. Eventually, after deliberating with his nameless machine, Kent motioned for me to push through a thicket just west of where we stooped dripping in our momentary pause. Upon splitting open a path wide enough for one man and a pack, I entered a place unlike any I had before experienced. A cleared circle opened, and I could tell by the abrupt ceasing of my lamplight that a cliff gaped before us. The rain broke suddenly, and the moon exposed itself for the first time, a pale orb dimmed beneath torn shrouds of mist. In the peeling light, I dropped my pack and approached the cliff. The enormity of what I beheld stunned me. I think if Kent had not grabbed my shoulders that I would have plunged over the edge right then and there.
Staggering on the ledge, I moved my torch to follow the rim of the cliff extending in both directions. Steadily the edges curved inward. I watched the dot of my headlamp bounce weakly on a surface of rock directly across from where I stood and realized with shock that I teetered not on the face of a cliff, but on the edge of a terrible hole. As I followed the wall downward, my light disappeared within its descent, swallowed by a lurking blackness. From my estimations, the chasm was roughly circular, about sixty meters in diameter and immeasurably deep. It was as though, and I propose this without lightness or jest, the hole was not drilled from the surface by man, but carved outward by some awful industrious species born from the earth itself.
It was here, amidst anxiety and darkness upon the edge of the chasm, that notions of regret for accepting Kent’s offer began to take hold. That so easily he could have let me fall off the cliff angered me, and I began suddenly to resent my partner for his solemnness and silence, by which I now felt endangered. Then, with more vigor, I turned my resentment toward myself. I recognized the direness of my situation, how, without knowing our location, assignment, or even the time, I was completely dependent on a man who had essentially become a stranger to me. What is worse, I had no one but myself to blame for so easily letting Kent use me for his benefit. The more I thought, the more deeply I understood the severity of my condition. I knew no solution to my predicament, no possible comfort for my worries, and with no one to talk to, I felt trapped within my own dark mind.
This is why when Kent wordlessly adjusted his equipment and set out to survey the site, I elected to stay back and set up camp. The idea of venturing along the ledge petrified me, and the fact that Kent had chosen to do so with the same reticent commitment that prodded us through the woods only compounded my resentment for him. Yet as his torch diminished in the distance, I discovered solitude to be a terror more unbearable than strained companionship. As quickly as the moon cast its pallor upon the clearing did clouds return to suffocate all trace of lightness. The vague beginnings of song again hummed lightly in my mind, and my dread eventually spurred me to rush to Kent’s side. Without the moon, our headlamps were futile against such impenetrable blackness, but Kent would not be swayed to delay his investigation. I felt even more powerless in the face of his determination.
Kent’s company offered little to relieve my anxiety. He still did not say a word, and though I felt the aching need to break the silence, I could not bring myself to speak first. I walked beside him, exercising tedious prudence for what would have proven a fatal misstep, and in vain I urged myself to gain the courage to speak. My resentment toward him grew with every silent step until soon I stopped wanting him to speak altogether, believing that the longer he went without words, the more certain I could be of his cruel intentions.
Continuously I checked my naked wrist and continuously endured the unease of being out of touch with time. I constantly expected our packs to appear and our survey to conclude, but still we pressed on. Though I knew our route was a circle, the farther we walked, the farther I felt we ventured into depths from which we could not return. I began to worry that our packs would be indecipherable in the thickness of the night, that we would walk forever through the darkness in a never-ending circle around the hole. Still I walked on, terrified to continue but thoroughly unwilling to break from my course.
The fear that so steadily grew within me seemed to imitate the darkness emanating from the chasm. I felt it where it tugged at the edges of my consciousness. Eventually self-scrutiny seized my mind, and Kent no longer mattered. My thoughts shifted from the present, and I contemplated what I now recognized to be the stagnant cycle of my daily existence: waking, working, sleeping, waking, all the while moving closer and closer to death. Every step along the brim of the abyss drilled the awareness of my pathetic existence deeper into my consciousness.
And the deeper these thoughts plunged, the more my fear transgressed into a black and spiraling frenzy, a maelstrom mimicking my worry that we had actually been circling the hole for hours, making countless trips about the perimeter while inching closer toward its tremendous rim. I felt my course bound as though upon a magnetized track, and I saw myself now distant from Kent, who eventually ceased to exist entirely. This sensation of solitude and doom, that I had walked myself into a slow-moving vortex steadily ripping me to the depths of my fate, became so real in my mind that I felt a crippling panic well from within me. I saw my life rutted in a steepening course, dropping to darkness resonant with soft and terrible choirs, and I heard a pounding like some muffled drum grown quicker and louder, quicker and louder within the pulse of my sickened thoughts.
Eventually it became too much. In a wave of sudden clarity, I determined that nothing could qualify my life as livable. I resented myself for finding any part of my tedious existence worthwhile and hated the fact that I had wasted myself on living for so long. All at once, I saw humankind to be a child lying in wait for his mother to sing him to sleep. To my horror, that feeling of doom so overwhelmed me that I abruptly resolved to embrace the song and plunge my soul into infinite darkness, to realize immediately the fate of man rather than endure the torture of inching ever near it.
Yet just before I broke the trance and hurled myself over the brink, Kent’s voice salvaged my thoughts: “Here we are. Better make camp.”
Through the pounding of my shaken heartbeat, I muttered in response and splayed my pack on a tarp. While Kent set to adjusting his equipment, I tried to distract myself by preparing a fire, though I failed to make the matches take. All the papers I scrapped together glowed only momentarily in streaks of heat, succumbing quickly to darkness as though swallowed by the night. Either my shuddering nerves or some violent element of the place refused a flame. I was quick to give up hope.
Finding some comfort in the thought of rest, I proceeded to build my tent with an absent mind and trembling hands. I then assisted Kent in sheltering the equipment, which he had organized around his prized contraption. Just as we had secured the tarp, the drizzle turned to a bitter sleet that bounced from our hoods and collected in the creases of our coats. Without so much as “good night” we crawled into our tents.
I lay awake with my torch swinging from the roof and heard Kent outside tampering once more with the machine. It was with the soft patter of ice and the distant sound of unknown instruments that I drifted into uneasy sleep, my light casting strange pallor through the canvas walls. The darkness was an enemy I resolved not to let enter the safety of my tent.
Teetering there on the brink of sleep, my mind sunk to fears of that depthless hole, and I drifted into dream-induced awe of its profundity, dreading what again seemed my inevitable draw into the overwhelming power of its blackness. And as I lay there, perhaps asleep already, the same distant choir edged upon my consciousness, a lullaby that softened my dread and replaced it with feelings not altogether unlike comfort.
To my delight, I slept through the night, awaking to the abrupt scrape of ice sheets sliding off my tent. Ashamed of my previous night’s behavior, I determined to approach the day and my partner’s assignment with a new perspective, blaming my emotional weakness on stress and a lack of sleep. The outside world was ashen with a mist that rolled about the clearing and made it impossible to tell the time of day. Though the appearance of the place was certainly tamer, the pervasive aura of unnaturalness had not altogether dwindled with the rising of the sun. The sleet that had accumulated in the night now covered the ground, trees and tents with a ghostly frost, and in conjunction with the mist, it refracted daylight in a dull pallor that fused earth and sky in disorienting lightness. There lurked as though within the fog itself a quality of sickliness, and I consistently worked to quell that pervasive notion of unease.
Following the tones of Kent’s instruments to the edge of the hole, I found him busy at the rim. Though I wished to keep my distance, I willed myself to approach the ledge and offer my assistance. The winds from within the hole made me shiver, and I noted, swallowing my fear, how the blackness emanating from the depths seemed palpably to devour the colorless light of day. It was as though that darkness was a living beast, perhaps an infinite pack of beasts, and it swarmed from the abyss to nip fiercely at surrounding light, consuming the very air within the void that was its only substance. Standing several yards away, I felt that awful pull on my thoughts, and I saw myself edge upon an inner, more terrible darkness than what my eyes beheld. A pit opened within my stomach.
“Hand me a flare.”
Kent’s voice wakened me to the world beyond the chasm, and I became aware of the tools and equipment littering the granite ledge. His nameless contraption had grown in the night and was now equipped with shoulder straps and a leather harness. Two massive spotlights straddled its topmost antennae like the eyes of a wraithlike beast.
I found the flares within a pile of equipment and approached Kent with calculated steps, kneeling beside him as he loaded and fired a round into the hole. The flames died with startling abruptness, as when a candle is stifled by wetted fingers in a hushed and darkened room. He lobbed another over the center of the hole. It was extinguished before it crested to descent, leaving in its sudden absence a well of darkness impenetrable even in the light of day.
That dying flare mimicked for me some element intrinsic to my humanity, and it was all I could do to prevent myself from sliding into that loathsome vortex that tortured me the night before. I crawled away from the ledge and shut my eyes, fighting the black thoughts that whorled within me. When I opened them, I realized with renewed horror why he brought me here.
The three antennae that so baffled me on our journey into camp protruded from the instrument’s topmost section and toned periodically with yellow and red flashes. The spotlights were fastened below them, their lenses reinforced with caging and the bulbs, faintly visible through layers of glass, the largest I had ever seen. On closer inspection, I perceived that each bulb housed a team of hundreds of smaller bulbs organized as a complex union of filament and glass. A strap descended from the padded panel below these lights and from it hung a helmet rigged with goggles, a respirator, a microphone and an additional headlight. From the lower shoulder protruded a retractable arm upon which a screen was fastened. The screen, equipped with a number of labeled buttons and controls, corresponded to various devices for measuring depth, temperature, pressure, color, humidity, wind speed, and radiation.
From the shoulder straps hung various tools: a pick adze, long-handled tongs, a walkie-talkie, two handheld flashlights, a compass, and a whistle. From the waist belt hung two massive coils of rope, another flare gun with packets of flares, three additional flashlights, a knife, sheathed, and a small first aid kit. The attached harness was of the kind that climbers wear and was well equipped with titanium karabiners, small rope loops, and detachable connection straps that bound it to the overall unit. On its side were two more compartments, one a housing for additional batteries and a repair kit and the other a data storage locker I recognized to be pressurized with an airtight seal.
“Kent,” I managed to stutter from the depths of my sickness. “You’ve lost your mind.”
He was jotting messages in a pocket notebook and for a long time did not make any sign of recognition. I wondered then whether he could perceive life beyond the abyss or if he had fallen so deep within the vortex of astonishment that his fellow man had become a mere instrument in his exploration.
Finally he turned and approached me. His eyes were not on me but on the terrible apparatus whose tones strengthened as the morning wore past.
“Do not try to persuade me,” he said, caressing the edges of his machine. “There’s no use. I brought you to do a job, not to be a friend.”
I stepped carefully backward to increase the distance between us, between me and that awful abyss.
“This site is everything. Since I first found it I knew what my research would entail. I’ve spent years studying it but have failed to retrieve data that means anything. Half a dozen universities have rejected me and twice that number of research teams have cursed me. They vow never to return. My former partner disappeared here. His body was never recovered, and my funding was never renewed. I understand the fear, all of it, but how can I explain it to a board of professionals? Without data, science cannot conceptualize what happens here.”
He stopped adjusting his equipment and looked at me for what seemed like the first time. His voice lowered and something vague about him changed, as though he was pleading with me to believe in him, begging, as a friend, that I would relate to his fascination and understand the sad delirium I know now that plagued him. He leaned slightly toward me as though to confide some personal insecurity, and his posture shifted to that of a child flailing for reassurance. His stature seemed shrunken. He spoke in a slow, deliberate whisper.
“Something is in that hole,” he said. “It’s not an animal, but it’s so much more than rock, water, and air. I have felt its pulse. There’s life within it, a form of the likes that science has no language to understand. It lurks somewhere between the darkness and the air. We can’t know more than what’s proven, but I feel that this thing, this being, is vast and sentient and moves with the fluidity of darkness itself. It is silent and invisible, survives on the absence of light, and acts with a force that flexes on the human psyche. Its black wind, my partner would claim, preys on the mind, strangles the will for life and wrenches the spirit into a vortex of delusion. I have seen it, I have felt it, and I have fought it every moment since the day I found it.
“I am not a superstitious man. I don’t believe in the lore of mysticism but in the systematic methods of science. But without evidence, my critics are right to laugh. As of now, my subject fails to exist in the material world. It’s just a spirit of improvable myth. My name is tarnished. Former colleagues call me mad. They blame me for my partner’s death. They claim I’m in the science of dark arts, that my studies are more concerned with the supernatural, the fantastical, and the spiritual than the physical. Which is why I chose you: you have nothing to lose, but everything to gain. When my research publishes, it will change the natural field of inquiry, forever.”
“I assure you, I am not mad. This is not a plea. Today you are to help me quantify this darkness and debunk the myths. That is what men of science do. I will die if only to prove my research has not been in vain, to pioneer a breakthrough and quantify what pulses beneath the earth.
“You have a choice, not as a friend, but as a scientist. Either stay to record the making of history, or leave me alone, risking the loss of my findings. I can’t make you stay, but know that nothing you do will stop me from entering the dark.”
I will never fully rationalize my decision. Reeling from disbelief and recovering still from wretches of panic, I learned that desperation possesses a potential for persuasion that exceeds violent coercion. Perhaps because of our childhood friendship or my aversion for dispute, or perhaps because some curious part of me also craved an answer despite or, God forbid, due to the consequences, I wanted to support my friend, and I wanted to trust what he told me. I would like to believe that Kent reached the scientist within me, the part that craved answers and needed to see experiments through, but not a day has passed that I have since feared it was instead some darker element of my nature that drove me to stand by and witness what I knew to be the imminent destruction of human spirit.
Regardless, I stayed. Forever the observer, I stood stone still while Kent resumed rifling through his gear, finalizing details for his exploration. He then unfolded from his pack a reflective suit and stepped delicately into it, zipping the chest closed to make a seal around his neck. I was entranced, staring into the abyss from a safer distance and feeling its darkness tug at my spirit. Before any time had passed, he spoke.
“You hold the radio. I will relay measurements for you to transcribe every thirty meters of depth. The audio box will record our communications, but you must document everything in writing. I am not willing to take any risk in losing this data.”
He shoved the two-way receiver into my hand and walked off with one end of the enormous rope, wrapping it about the trunk of a spruce and belaying it to a nearby boulder jutting from the undergrowth.
“I have rigged a pulley system to my belay line and will hoist up samples of air, rock or water, whatever is down there, for testing at the lab. All that I ask is for you to remove the canisters and pile them a safe distance from the edge. In the event of communication failure, I will haul myself to the brim, sending a message on the pulley rig for you to help me resurface.”
With that he donned his contraption, the beeps of which had sped to a constant drone, buckled his helmet, and spoke a message into his radio. The automatic recording device at my feet simultaneously blinked and stamped the log with the baseline “0 HRS 0 MIN 0 SEC 0 M.” Before I could speak, he heaved the rope over the brim, rocked his heels on the edge, and rappelled himself backward. He did not so much as look at me as he dropped himself over what might well have been the brink of infinite night.
Immediately he was out of sight, the hum of his instruments silenced. For the first time, I felt the stillness of the clearing. Breezes whispered through high spruce boughs, and in the airy distance, a trunk creaked lightly. Far off, a wood thrush fluted. From where I stood at a safe distance from the edge, I was startled to see the dim flash of his spotlights when he switched them on, though they too receded abruptly into nothingness. In my mind, I heard the gently throbbing echo of song.
It seemed a long time before Kent’s voice crackled through the radio to report on his surroundings: “Everything in check at negative thirty meters; walls sheer and granite; winds increasing from below; temperature rising to five degrees; radiation levels normal; will relay report from next checkpoint. Is the equipment set up top? Over.”
The recorder flashed and incorrectly stamped the log with its label: “0 HRS 0 MIN 0 SEC 30 M.” I found the error peculiar but not noteworthy and responded in the affirmative, to which Kent ended the conversation. The radio silenced once more.
He checked in with similar notes for the next several hundred meters. Though the composite of the walls changed only subtly, other details progressed consistently. Humidity and temperatures rose drastically, while wind gusts accelerated to levels that forced Kent to shout his measurements into the receiver. Every one hundred fifty meters he extracted samples of rock and stored them in his pack.
“Report from negative 450 meters: pegmatite walls enriched with beryl; winds 136 kilometers per hour; temperature 58 degrees; radiation normal; sending 10-centimeter sample of pegmatite for analysis. Over.”
Due to the steadily worsening conditions, the lapse between Kent’s calls grew progressively longer, though the recording device defectively refuted the passing of time. My nerves grew between radio checkpoints and, though I strove to resist, I felt my thoughts spiraling to those same sensations of doom that panicked me on the previous night. The deeper Kent descended and the longer I waited at the edge of the chasm, the more difficult it became for me to remain lucid. I closed my eyes and saw myself churning through the tortuous descent of my life, flailing uselessly as the hollow world spun me downward to my doom. Repeatedly I found myself reeling on the rock, crawling closer to the rim of the abyss, whispering nervous nonsense, and receding incrementally deeper into the void of my own black thoughts. By the time Kent was eight hundred meters down, I was slowly scrabbling along the edge of the chasm, inching toward the pit and feeling through the fits of my mind the weight of darkness’ heavy pull. Each time, it was Kent’s voice that shattered my delirium and wrenched me rushing back to the safety of the woodside.
“Still with you down 960 meters. Walls sheer and very smooth quartz; winds 152; temperature 64. No sign of a base. I will continue descent. Over.”
When he spoke, I could only picture him thrashing like a paper doll, dropping like a single grain of sand into the blackened hourglass of eternity. The conditions he endured were astonishing, but he never once uttered a word of complaint. It was as though the project so consumed him that he no longer had regard for his physical body. All that mattered to him was collecting data. The darkness thickened, and my mental state worsened.
At negative fifteen hundred meters, the pack’s sample locker reached capacity, forcing Kent to extract one final sample before sending the lot to the surface. The rock at that depth had become a variety of the likes he had never before encountered, yet his tools were ineffectual at piercing its façade. After a great effort, he finally settled on providing a detailed description, marking the vital importance of returning with more aggressive instruments to conduct extraction. His account of the stone represents the first significant evidence of his mind loosening its grip on the expedition’s professional nature.
“This is something. It is beautiful. Science must see this. Nothing I have heard of matches the substance of this rock. It feels as though it has been wave-washed over such a vast expanse of time that all exterior particles have worn away and only the very heart of rock, the innermost element of its existence, remains. To touch it sends waves of impact through my veins. It is of a horrifying hue. Its color matches that of my surroundings within the cavern, a blackness that would blanch anything previously conceived of by science. The walls and the darkness between them are latent with something like electricity. I feel it pulsing within me. Its weight is momentous, its beauty hypnotizing, its blackness purer than any substance of the known natural world. Everything has changed. I must descend.”
At that, his voice was overtaken by the wind, and soon thereafter, his radio cut out altogether. Despite my frenzied efforts to contact him, to plead with him to resurface or at least to send the samples, Kent did not respond. It was as though his radio had been switched off, and I was now subject to a new level of silence within the dwindling daylight about me. Very quietly I perched at the woodside, clutching my knees and holding my breath as nighttime seemed slowly to seep over the brim of the abyss, ever so slightly deepening the greyness of the air. I feared the extent of my soul’s loneliness. From far off within the darkness, I perceived the beating of muted drums, and voices began faintly to beckon me in song. The recording device blinked and stamped zeros on its time log.
He radioed at negative twenty-one hundred meters but was deaf to my attempts to inform him of the radio malfunction. Though he continued to relay data, it had lost all structure and had deteriorated into a string of meaningless figures and wild observations. He spoke of a violent wind, of rubber melting off his goggles and of walls too dense to hope for further samples. He continued on and conditions only worsened. His calls became more sporadic.
Down what the instruments recorded as nearly twenty-five hundred meters, he radioed to describe markings he discovered on the rock face. He neglected to give any information regarding conditions, but instead rambled on about images he swore to be primeval hieroglyphs of an unknown species.
“There’s no time,” he shouted through blasts of wind. “Cannot describe them now. It’s language, but it wasn’t made by man, I assure you of that! You must come down to view them yourself.”
My appeals for him to return went unanswered, perhaps unheard or perhaps ignored, but I knew that our communication had degraded into a one-way radio. All I could do was exactly what he wanted of me, to listen and record, all the while fighting the pull of a darkness whose grip only tightened on my spirit.
Steadily the clearing filled with a twilight that seemed born from the cavern itself. I knew not how much time had passed but felt the toll of the darkness gnaw at my wearying mind. It was all I could do to stay conscious, to keep hold of the will for life that seemed ever slipping through my grasp. The sleet had melted through the day, and the forest was deepening to a cold blue-black light, the dark forms of trees silhouetted against a thick and colorless sky. A faint choir’s trembling pulse drifted to me from beyond the spectral darkness.
It was almost too windy for me to hear Kent’s next call, but I could make out pieces: “My name! My name! [static interruption from wind] … them calling me? Singing me! Can’t you? … Beautiful!” His voice broke and returned crackling at intervals singing the tune of some awful song that seemed blown straight into the deafening void of black wind.
It was too much. I shouted into the receiver until hoarse, but never received a signal that Kent could discern my voice in the chaos of his depths. I was on the verge of panic when he radioed once more and spoke with the regained tone of a professional.
“Instruments disabled. Depth unknown. Spotlights failed and batteries drained. Backup lights powerless. Flares useless. Wind speed tremendous, temperature severe, but I can sense a solid mass below me. Reason to believe I am finally approaching a bottommost surface. Must continue my descent. Over and out.”
Moments later, I heard him singing on the radio, then laughing, then sobbing into the wind. The very image of him underground brought me to my knees, and when I fought my thoughts, the terror only grew. The darkness was steadily debilitating my senses. I could feel it, feel myself weakening within the clutch of overwhelming dread. I used the last of the matches to set flares around my gear and fend off the enveloping murk, concentrating my strength to fight the pull of darkness. I strove to control the urges that tugged like rips beneath my consciousness, and I prepared rope in the event of what seemed to be imminent rescue. But when I approached the cliff, I felt myself succumbing incurably to the paralysis of fear and, peering over, I began to cry. My intentions balanced on the verge of the void once more.
I was there, fixated on the brim, crippled by the stalemate of my mind and the silent dusk that had befallen me when for the final time, Kent’s voice splintered my trance and moved me to action.
It was calm, eerily so. No longer did the slightest breeze blow through the radio nor did Kent present himself as anything less than a reasonable man with a reasonable fear. I cannot capture the essence of his message for words cannot convey such horror. It bore an undertone of catastrophic epiphany, a resonance of arcane knowledge so far beyond the comprehensible that the trauma of enlightenment plunged the seer into obscurity. The terror in his voice was devoid of panic, the statement nothing short of a demonic revelation. It seemed that Kent had accepted his fate without regret, that he had recognized his failure not as a mistake but as a step forward in the name of a grotesque and agonizing science. Yet still the circumstance of his doom tinged his voice with such incommunicable dread that to think of it now weakens my spirit.
“I’ve got it,” he spoke with perfect lucidity. “Now I know. There is no bottom. There is nothing. My rope is out and the line is down. There is no time. It moves quickly to me now. It is nothing. Nothing! I was wrong. It was all wrong. There is no bottom. There is no time. It is nothing and it moves to me. It flies. Run! I am lost, but you might salvage this yet. Run! Run!”
With that, he let out a cry so terrible that the pitch of it has never once ceased ringing in my ears. I listened on the radio, momentarily stunned by his convictions as the wind overwhelmed his wails and the blackness, that ultimate roar of chaos and ruin, overtook him. That sound, the crescendo of all infinite horrors, swallowed him and receded into a silent void from which I heard, floating at first faintly from the depths of darkness, a beautiful choir singing in tune, building in strength and clarity until I could make out through the hissing of my receiver the syllables of my own cursed name.
As strange as I know it seems, I felt a certain comfort in that song, a placidity I had not known since childhood. Yes, I still felt the pull of the abyss, but this time without the violence of my previous fears. It was now something more like a lullaby, summoning me to embrace the night. I heard it far off over the radio yet sensed it pouring like soft dark clouds from beneath the bedrock of the earth, and for the first time since entering the clearing, I felt calm. I felt then like how a child feels when after a wearisome day his mother makes his bed and strokes his hair, singing softly of the pleasures of sleep. And like that child, I felt my weight edged happily upon the brink, eddying across the border between wakeful sentience with all its troubles and fears and the perfect ignorance of the unconscious, that ultimate surrender.
The choir built to a crescendo of ethereal grace and delicately it overwhelmed my every sense. It strengthened, swelling to the beat of every breath, the chorus of my every thought spun sweetly through my spirit. Steadily I rose, lifted within the song that grew quicker and louder, quicker and louder until all I knew was the throbbing pulse of the earth itself, and I felt beneath the world a wonderful darkness into which one might choose forever to dissolve.
Then all at once the rhythm broke.
The rope to which Kent was tied pulled taut with a snap that ripped me from my dreams. Before the earth could catch its breath, the trunk buckled and split, careening top-first over the verge of the chasm without so much as scraping the ledge. A delicate shower of splinters rained down upon me. Immediately the boulder to which it all was fastened came crashing from the undergrowth in an explosion of rock and dirt and hurtled through the hollow after the tree. The noise of it thundering against the cavern wall shook the very ground on which I stood, and I had the sudden impression that the woods were spinning, sliding swiftly downward into a vortex of stone and destruction at the center of which Kent waited within absolute nothingness.
It was then that I ran. I seized a flare, futile weapon against the penetrating blindness, and I drowned my panic in adrenaline as I struggled to conquer the force with which the darkness beckoned me. I groped through the night, black noise rushing from the clearing behind me, drawing all the light in the sky past me and into the void from which I flew.
I know now there are voids from which a soul can never fly.
Kent has taught me that mankind will never realize the depths of darkness upon which he lives. The concepts we have designed to rationalize our world are insubstantial in the face of a reality vaster and grimmer than that with which we are able to reason. Not only do we lack the language to conceive of the phenomena that occur between the physical and spiritual realms, but our consciousness is incapable of enduring the profundity of life, as we might inadequately label it, that subsists beneath the fibers of both being and not being. We have been happy to stray not from the very surface of our potential, to seal the chasms of our spirit with relative innocence and idleness, ignoring the terrors that lurk both within and about us, haunting us if but fleetingly at the fringes of our nightmares. Because we fear the truths we cannot understand, we ignore them.
Until that day, I was amongst the fortunate ones. Yet now I have witnessed a breach in the shell of sanity, have peered beyond the rim of fear, and have discovered how every being, every infinitesimal thought that pulses through the human spirit is verged upon the darkness. One by one, we drop over the edge.
Cassius (Cass) Carrington, born 1904, was a lab technician and science journalist who lived most of his adult life in Boston, MA. Quiet and reserved, Cass was known for his love of stories, whiskey, and the outdoors. He perished on a camping trip in 1966, leaving behind a wife and two sons. His body was never found.
Lucas Leery lives on the coast of Maine and spends a lot of time outside, collecting treasures found in the ocean and on land.
Luke Spooner, a.k.a. ‘Carrion House,’ currently lives and works in the South of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first class degree, he is now a full time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence. He believes that the job of putting someone else’s words into a visual form, to accompany and support their text, is a massive responsibility, as well as being something he truly treasures. You can visit his web site at www.carrionhouse.com.
“Within the Pulse of Darkness” is Copyright 2018 Lucas Leery
Art accompanying story is Copyright 2018 Luke Spooner