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Deeper

 
p={color:#000;}. DEEPER

By

Jeff Long

Synopsis

Hell exists. It is a real, geological, historical place beneath our very feet. And it is inhabited savagely. In an intense and imaginative tour de force, New York Times bestselling author Jeff Long takes readers into the depths of the earth where a primordial intelligence waits in the darkness. A decade has passed since doomed explorers unveiled a nightmare of tunnels and rivers honeycombing the earth’s depths. After millennia of suffering terror and predation, humanity’s armies descended to destroy the ancient hordes. Deep beneath the Pacific Ocean, a doomed science expedition killed the subterraneans’ fabled leader, and suddenly it seemed that evil was dead and all was right with the world again. Now Deeper arrives to explode that complacency and plunge us back into the sunless abyss. Hell boils up through America’s subways and basements to take its revenge and steal our children. Against the backdrop of a looming war with China, a crusade of volunteers races to find the vestiges of a lost race. But a lone explorer, the linguist Ali von Schade, learns that a far greater menace lies in the unexplored heart of the planet. The real Satan can’t be killed, and he has been waiting since the beginning of time to gain his freedom. Man and his pitiless enemies are mere pawns in the greatest escape ever devised. Mesmerizing and concussive, this darkly brilliant work of imagination galvanizes Jeff Long’s reputation as a prodigious talent. At once a love story, the ultimate thriller, and an extreme adventure, Deeper will leave you breathless.

To Ada

Acknowledgments

My deepest gratitude to the following.

Emily Bestler is one of those rare and magical editors every writer dreams about, an editor who rolls up her sleeves, tackles your language, and tames your story, all with a Southern accent.

Equal parts gentleman, gladiator, and prophet, my agent, Sloan Harris, continues to light my path and guide me through the wilderness.

For some reason, film agents never seem to get mentioned in literary acknowledgments, maybe because real writers aren’t supposed to be starving for Hollywood’s attention. The fact is that my remarkable film agent, Josie Freedman, has helped keep the wolf from our door for years now.

The greatest fly fisherman in the world, Cliff Watts, has been doctoring both the town of Boulder and my fictional walking wounded for the last three decades. Any and all errors should prove once and for all that you probably ought not go to a novelist for your brain surgery.

Finally, Barbara and Helena, thank you for lending me to the dark depths for so many years. Now let us ride off into Mustang dawns.

And in the lowest deep a lower deep

Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide,

To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n.

(Satan peering into the abyss)

—JOHN MILTONPARADISE LOST, BOOK IV

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prologue

Ike surrendered.

As he stole from bed, naked, the cave dust in his old wounds and tattoos flickered like lightning. He paused at the door to listen. Ali was seven months pregnant and seemed to have found all the sleep Ike was losing. But he could not hear her soft breath, only the song.

For more than a month it had been waking him in the middle of the night, always the same song sung by the same woman, or maybe it was a child. Ike couldn’t decide what to call the thing, a war hymn or a ballad. Or the death of him. Bottom line, he knew, the abyss was fishing for its faithless son. His time had come.

His pack was ready inside the garage, behind the garbage can. Tomorrow was pickup day. Ike dutifully lugged the can to the road, one final chore in this world. Then he saddled on the pack and set off into the moonlit hills.

When the song first began, Ike had blamed his ramped-up senses. All those years in the deep had retooled him, inside and out. Metamorphosis came with the territory, a medical fact. Everyone changed down below, some more than others, he more than most. The depths had spared him disfigurement, but left him half-animal. Tonight, for instance, he could count the birds in a tree by the rustle of their wings. The moon literally uplifted him: its gravity pulled the fluid in his spine. He could hear his child’s heartbeat…still growing in the womb.

Thinking the song might be coming from a sleepless neighbor or someone’s radio, Ike had spent a week of nights prowling through the yards in his bare feet. But the source eluded him, even as it grew stronger. He wondered if something in nature might be calling to him, some creature, say, or the sea. Maybe the muse was teaching him a song. Maybe this agitation was how you came to create something.

But a few days ago, at last, he had tracked the song to the mouth of a cave. That was his destination tonight. A short walk brought him to a gash in a limestone cliff. He stood there, facing the source. It did not exactly invite him with its dung and rot. But Ike was a veteran of such places. In a sense, he had been born in there.

The song guttered out from the cave. It lured him with his memories of the deep earth. The words were indistinct at best. Maybe Ali, the linguist, could have made better sense of them. What he perceived was what he imagined: come away, leave the golden apples of the sun. Or whatever. With a last glance back at the world, Ike nodded good-bye and began to descend.

Over the coming days, the abyss acquired him at an average rate of seventy-five heartbeats per minute. That was how calmly Ike abandoned all that he loved in the world. One step at a time, inching down his ropes, braving the tunnels and subterranean seas, Ike cast himself into the stone.

A week passed. His food ran out. His batteries failed.

Most people would have turned back. Most people never would have come down. Ike just kept on sinking deeper. From his days of captivity, he knew tricks for seeing in this infinite night.

Drink from black rivers.

Eat the flesh of midnight animals.

Listen for colors.

Smell for shadows.

The darkness unfolded before him.

For a while, Ike recognized the veins and cavities and chambers, not by name, but by the scent of their subterranean animals and minerals. Gradually, with intent, he got lost. No map, no memory, no compass served to guide him. Ike simply navigated through the planet’s basement by the tug of gravity, that and the slivers of meat left for him to find.

The meat was bait, he knew. The cave tribes were luring him into the depths, or thought they were. In fact, he was as much a creature of the void as they were. This labyrinth of tunnels and holes was his home, too. The only difference between him and those feeding him was his relentless quest. They were bottom dwellers, but not really, because this was not yet the bottom. They had their limits. He had none. They were hiding from humankind. He was trying to save it.

Every now and then, Ike scratched his initials onto the pillars and walls. He wasn’t quite sure why he bothered. His mark wasn’t meant to guide others who might follow, nor to point his way out. He did not harbor the slightest expectation of emerging. Unlike his other descents, this was a one-way ticket. Whatever waited for him down below—whatever had been infecting his dreams, whatever ruled this place—would never let him go, he was sure of it.

Once upon a time, he might have come for the pure adventure. As a young man, Ike had been a climber and trek guide, a professional vagabond and survivor, and that was the beginning of his curse. While muscling through the Himalayas, he had accidentally strayed into the planet’s far-flung cave system and its terrible mysteries. In reaching for the sun, he had ended up reaching for the darkness. By going high, he had been going deep all along. Everything in his life seemed to have been a prelude to this final descent.

In his wildest imagination, even stoked by Afghani hash or Johnnie Walker red, he could never have conjured up this world within the world. In retrospect, it should have come as no shock to him or anyone else that hell really existed, a vast network of arteries and chambers inhabited by primal nomads and lorded over by a sovereign of sorts. Since the beginning of time, mankind had suspected as much. One civilization after another had built a vocabulary of demons, ogres, and vampires to explain the predation from below. When the occasional human escaped and brought up wild tales, he or she was thrown into a dungeon or an insane asylum, or burned at the stake, or made the subject of some epic poem. As it turned out, shamans and exorcists had been trying to repel the darkness since the invention of fire.

Not so long ago, he had guided a scientific expedition into the tunnel complex riddling the Pacific Ocean subfloor. Along with a single other survivor, Ali, he had barely managed to claw his way out from the depths before a plague swept the inner earth. Afterward, people were convinced that all subterranean life had been exterminated, and that the devil was dead.

But now, as Ike soloed down into the bowels, it was plain as day that people were wrong. The abyss had never quit living. Some restless spirit existed down below. It was singing to him. And it wanted out.

Three Years Later

1

BENEATH THE INTERSECTION OF THE PHILIPPINE, JAVA, AND PALU SEA TRENCHES

He snapped his fingers. Let there be light. And they popped the flares.

The faces of his crew sprang from the darkness, flinching. The flare light hurt their eyes. It painted them green and hungry.

The city of stone materialized around them.

Clemens gave a nod. The clapboard snapped shut like a gunshot. In grease pencil: “HELL, scene 316, take 1. IMAX.”

“Dead, all dead,” he intoned as the camera panned across the city. It was a bony thing, hard and empty, ancient long before Troy was built, before Egypt was even a word. Walls stood cracked or breached by geological forces. Arches hung like ribs. Windows stared: blind sockets. The camera stopped on him.

Clemens turned his head to the lens. He gave it the tired bags under his eyes, and his shaggy salt-and-pepper beard, and the greasy hair, and the bad stitch job along one cheekbone. No makeup. No concealment. Let the audience see his weariness and the marks of five months spent worming through the bowels of the earth. I have sweated and bled for you, he thought. I have killed for you. And for my cut of the box office. He put fire in his blue eyes.

“Day one hundred and forty-seven, deep beneath the deepest trenches,” he said. “We have reached their city. Their Athens. Their Alexandria. Their Manhattan. Here lies the center.”

He coughed quietly. The whole film crew had it, some low-grade cave virus. Just one more of their shared afflictions: a rash from poison lichens, fouled stomachs from the river water, lingering fevers after an attack by crystal-clear ants, rot in their wounds, and headaches from the pressure. To say nothing of the herpes and gonorrhea raging among his randy bunch of men and women.

Clemens approached a tall, translucent flange of flowstone. It had seeped from the walls like a slow, plastic, honey brown avalanche. A carefully placed flare lit the stone from behind. The dark silhouette of a man hung inside, like a huge insect caught in amber.

Clemens glanced at the camera—at his future audience—as if to ponder with them. What new wonders lie here? He pressed his flashlight against the stone, and peered in. Through my eyes, behold.

He moved his light. Inch by inch, the shape revealed its awful clues. This was no man, but some primal throwback. A freak of time. The camera closed in.

Clemens illuminated the pale, hairless legs covered with prehistoric tattoos. His light paused at the groin. The genitals were wrapped in a ball with rawhide strips, a sort of fig leaf for this dreadful Adam. That was the creature’s sole clothing, a sack tied with leather cord from front to back across the rump. Leather, in a place devoid of large animals…except for man. These hadals had wasted nothing, not even human skin.

“We were their dream,” Clemens solemnly intoned to the camera, “they were our nightmare.”

He scooted the light beam higher. The beast was by turns delicate, then savage. Winged like a cupid, this one could not have flown. They were more buds than wings really, vestigial, almost comical. But this was no laughing matter. Like a junkyard mutt, the creature bore the gash marks and scars of a hunter-warrior.

Moving higher, his headlamp beam lit the awful face. Milky pink eyes—dead eyes—stared back at him. Even though he’d seen the thing while they were setting up the shot, it made Clemens uneasy. Like the crickets, mice, and other creepy crawlers inhabiting these depths, it was an albino. What little facial hair it had was white. The eyelashes and wisps of a mustache looked almost dainty.

The brow beetled out, heavy and apelike. Classic Homo erectus. This one had filed teeth and earlobes fringed with knife cuts. Its crowning glory, the reason Clemens had picked this over all the other bodies, was its rack of misshapen horns. Horns upon other horns, a satanic freight.

The horns were calcium growths, described to him as a subterranean cancer. These happened to have sprouted from its forehead, which fit his film’s title to a T. Every hell needed a devil.

Never mind that this wasn’t the devil Clemens had come looking for. This was not the body of Satan, said to be lying somewhere in the city. Never mind that through the millennia man’s demons had been ancestors of a sort, or at least distant blood cousins. Clemens would deal with the family tree later, in the editing room.

“Now they’re gone,” he spoke to the microphone clipped to his tattered T-shirt. “Gone forever, destroyed by a man-made plague. Some call it genocide, others an act of God. This much is certain. We have been delivered from their reign of terror. Freed from an ancient tyranny. Now the night belongs to us—to humanity—once and for all.”

Clemens stood back and gazed upon the horror, like Frankenstein contemplating his monster. He held his pose to the count of five. “And cut,” he said.

The cameraman gave a thumbs-up from behind his tripod. The soundman took off his earphones and signaled okay. A clean take.

“Get a few close-ups of our friend here,” Clemens said. “Then break down the gear and pack up. We’re moving on. Up. There’s still hours in the day.” A running joke. In a place without sun, what day? “We’re heading home.”

Home! For once the crew jumped to his command.

The exit tunnel lay somewhere close. It would lead them to the surface in a matter of weeks. For the millionth time, he pulled a sheaf of pages from a waterproof tube and studied its hodgepodge of maps.

The pages came from the daybook kept by a nun, one of only two survivors to emerge from this region three years ago. It was the ghosts of her doomed expedition that Clemens was chasing on film. Hers had been one of the most audacious journeys in all history, one to rival Marco Polo’s or Columbus’s, a six-thousand-mile passage through the tunnel system riddling the bedrock beneath the Pacific Ocean. It had been a journey with a punch line, a journey of scientists who bumped smack into an unpleasant article of faith. For here they had found the home of Satan, or the historical Satan, the man—hominid, take your pick—behind the legend. The leader of the pack.

The nun, a scholar cunt named Ali Von Schade, had written of meeting him. The city had still been alive back then, the plague not yet released. The last she’d seen of this Satan, he was wearing a warrior’s suit of green jade platelets. For three days now, Clemens had been scouring the city for the body or skeleton, looking for his film’s money shot, the one that would shock and amaze and bring the story all together in one image. He’d found a suit of jade armor all right, but it was empty, discarded, ownerless, not a bone in it. Despite his disappointment, he kind of liked that. In the end, Satan had been nothing more than an empty suit.

Clemens had made numerous requests to Von Schade for an interview, all in vain, always meeting the same polite refusal. I don’t wish to share the details of that disaster. As if the story belonged to her. As if intellectual property had some sacred protection. Cunt.

He and Quinn, his film partner, had needed her maps and clues to plan this journey. Clemens had tried flowers, dinner invitations, offers of money, even a percentage of the film’s net profit, yeah, net, not gross, an old Hollywood joke. Nothing worked with her. Zip. Nada. Quinn said to leave her alone. Instead Clemens had hired a burglar to steal her journal, copy it, and then return it. What was the harm? If she wouldn’t talk, her diary would.

Von Schade’s maps were as much memoir as cartography, laced with fanciful tales and ink-and-watercolor sketches of the Helios expedition’s progress. Along the way, every time Clemens was sure she must be wrong or had made something up, her maps would prove to be right.

A waterfall thundered in the darkness, hidden in the distance. That was on the map, too. Bound and blindfolded at the time, Von Schade had later recorded it in her daybook, an acoustic landmark. Through the waterfall lay their shortcut to the sun.

Long, ghostly strips of clouds drifted overhead. The cavern was so big it generated its own microweather. Geologists theorized that millions of years ago great bubbles of sulfuric acid had eaten upward from the earth’s deeper mantle, carving out this labyrinth of cavities and tubes known as the Interior. The perfect hiding place for a lost race.

Clemens rolled up the pages of Von Schade’s diary and switched off his headlamp. They were running low on batteries, and everything else, for that matter. But the shoot was largely over. His crew had reached its summit, so to speak, this dead city in the deepest reaches of the sub-Pacific cave system. Now they could ascend, back to the surface, back to the sun. Back to Clemens’s faded name and glory.

Most of the kids on this crew hadn’t even sprouted pimples when he’d won an Academy Award for his documentary, War High, about jackass athletes braving international war zones in their search for the ultra-extreme. After that, he’d coasted on his Oscar laurels, getting work as a second-unit director on Hollywood action vehicles.

Then the earth’s Interior had been “discovered.” Overnight, everyone’s attention had shifted to this vast, inhabited labyrinth right beneath their feet. The market for movies and books about adrenaline junkies had gone out the window. Clemens learned the hard way that there was no competing with the demons and fiends of religious lore. Within a year, he was bankrupt, divorced, and shooting porn videos for $200 per day.

Around that time, Quinn had come into his life. Quinn was an old-fashioned explorer who had dipped his toe in the subterranean world and had a film in mind, this film, about an expedition following in the footsteps of an expedition into hell. In a coked-up revelation, it had occurred to Clemens that in order to beat the devil, he needed to be the devil. And so—fifty-two years old—he’d convinced Quinn to partner with him on the production. Together they had assembled this desperate, calculated slog through the earth’s basement. Clemens figured that if “Hell,” splashed upon giant IMAX screens, couldn’t revive his career, nothing would. He’d have to go back to work for the skin mafia.

Unfortunately Quinn had proved to be a problem. Quinn the decent. Quinn the grin. Quinn the Real McCoy. Quinn for president! The crew had loved Quinn’s easygoing style and his insistence on safety. And his sense of story and scriptwriting that made Clemens look like a dumb-it-down hack. Which Clemens was. But which he didn’t need to have the little people snickering about. Thus, Quinn the scream. Quinn the dead.

After his partner’s disappearance, Clemens had assumed things would get better. But the crew only grew more disrespectful of him. They suspected him. Idiots. Murder didn’t exist in a wilderness with no laws. And besides, no body, no crime. Quinn had chosen a bottomless pit to fall into. It had been easy, the slightest of nudges from behind, barely an ounce of adios, amigo. Clemens had made a few attempts at placating the crew, even giving them two days to search for their fearless leader. Then it was crack-the-whip time. On with the show.

Joshua. There it was again, that whisper. Clemens whirled around.

He jabbed his light left and right. As always, no one was there. It had been going on ever since they’d entered the city. The crew was screwing with him, whispering his name with Quinn’s voice, winding him up.

“Fuck ya,” Clemens said to the darkness.

“Likewise,” said a woman’s voice. Huxley came striding into his light. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Was that you?” said Clemens.

“Yeah,” she said. “It’s me. You said we were making camp here.”

Huxley was a veterinarian Quinn had hired to be their medic. It was the pet doctor’s unsteady needle that had sewn together Clemens’s cheek after a rockfall in the tunnels system. He could guess what she wanted.

“Those wings,” she said. She went to the creature suspended in flowstone, the mineral seepage. “I need to take his measurements and get tissue samples. And I want those wings for my collection. The wings of an angel. A fallen angel. This specimen is unique.”

My ongoing rebellion, thought Clemens. The crew was an inch away from outright mutiny. They couldn’t wait to get out of here. Daylight was waiting up top. They could practically taste it. And Huxley wanted them to stay?

“You’ve been saying that about every bone and body we’ve stumbled across,” Clemens said. “We’re done here. Onward. Upward. Miles to go before we sleep, all that.”

“You don’t understand,” Huxley said. “Wings on men? And we saw that one yesterday with amphibian gills. And the reptile lady last week.”

“What do you want me to say?” said Clemens. “They’re hadals. Mutants. A dime a dozen down here. A dime a thousand. Besides, you’ve got your degree, Doc. What more do you want, the Nobel?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “What more do you want, another Oscar?”

It wasn’t Huxley’s ambition that Clemens resented. Once this was over, each one of them meant to squeeze the lemon for all it was worth. He’d been hearing their big plans for months. The kayakers were going to buy ad space in Outside and Men’s Journal to lure adventure travelers. There were dark, class IV tube rapids down here, and river beaches made of polished white marble. The cinematographer wanted to open an art gallery and publish a coffee-table book with her still shots of the Interior. Three of the climber types meant to incorporate, raise venture capital, and return to prospect the outrageous veins of gold they’d all touched, but left behind.

In short, there was money and reputation to be grabbed down here. Huxley was no different from the rest of them. Having suffered the darkness, she wanted her piece of the pie. But the thing about Huxley was that she didn’t have manners. Just because she’d been Quinn’s girlfriend didn’t exempt her from the rules. This was Clemens’s show. Everyone else, even the hotshot climbers, had asked his permission to capitalize on the expedition. Not Huxley, though. She treated him like he was stealing the descent.

“We had a deal,” she said.

“What deal was that?”

“I came along as a scientist.”

“You came along as a medic,” Clemens said. “That’s your job, to tend the sick and wounded.”

“You said we were camping here one more night.”

Clemens stared a hole through her. “End of discussion,” he said. “We’re leaving.”

“I’m staying.”

“By yourself? In this place?” The flares were dying. The shadows loomed.

“You’re not a man of science,” Huxley said. “You wouldn’t understand.”

Clemens thought for a minute, not about staying with her, but about getting shed of her. He wasn’t born yesterday. She was going to try to bring a murder charge against him once they got up top. That or slap him with a lawsuit. Lien him to death. This was his retirement she was threatening here.

Clemens shrugged. “You got to do what you got to do, Doc.”

Huxley blinked. She’d been bluffing. Too late now. Clemens gave her his crocodile grin. “That’s right,” she said. “I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do. With or without you.”

“We’ll be on the trail leading up,” Clemens told her. “You go through a waterfall and there will be a tunnel. Don’t forget.”

Huxley lifted her chin. “This won’t take more than a few hours. I’ll be right behind you.”

“You’d better be. I’m telling you, man, don’t miss the bus. Because nobody’s waiting for nobody anymore. It’s dog-eat-dog, Huxley. You hear me?”

She stared, as if he’d just confessed. “I’ll catch you before night.”

Night. There it was again, their strange conceit. Even, in this lightless place, they clung to convention, calling their wakefulness day, and their sleep night. Never mind that their bodies had forgotten the sun and they dreamed in shades of blackness.

They left Huxley in a tiny puddle of light. Good night, sweet princess, thought Clemens. Fantasizing, he began to write the sad loss of Dr. Huxley into his mental screenplay.

For three days they had been meandering through the city, gathering a bounty of images. It was like Pompeii among these ruins, with this difference: instead of being locked inside volcanic ash, the dead hung in translucent flux. The plague had killed them; the mineral ooze had made them immortal. You could see them underfoot, suspended in the flowstone, hundreds, no, thousands of them. For three nights they had slept atop the last resting place of the ultimate barbarian. Now they were done with it.

A gigantic waterfall seemed to block the end of the cavern. They shot a flare into the heights. As it drifted down, the spray lit with rainbows in the blackness.

“Lord,” one of the kayakers said. That said it all.

Just as the nun’s daybook promised, a tunnel lay behind the central waterfall: caves within caves within caves. It was like Swiss cheese down here.

Clemens tried to get his crew to set up the camera and take a shot of him entering the falls tunnel. But they pretended not to hear him. He had been waiting for their muttering and scowls to spill over into actual defiance, and now that it had, now that they had broken from his command, he was relieved. Finally he could quit lashing them deeper. He could just float back up to the world.

The path led up and up in giant circles. The stair steps, carved from solid stone by a subterranean civilization that some scholars dated to twenty-five thousand years ago, had been worn to faint corrugations. The stone was slick from the humidity that blew at their backs on a warm, steady draft.

It didn’t take long for Huxley to change her mind about staying behind. Clemens was at the back of the line for a reason. Her voice began echoing up to them after the first hour, but Clemens was the only one to hear it. He couldn’t make out her words, but her distress was clear. Maybe her batteries had run out. More likely she couldn’t find the tunnel entrance. Bummer.

Soon her echoes grew almost faint enough to ignore. Almost. The whisper still reached him. Joshua. How did she do that?

The tunnel walls tightened. The current of warm air quit rushing from below. Clemens could sense the space closing around him by the change in his hearing. Things just sounded closer.

Joshua. He ignored her.

As they went on, Clemens kept looking for debris, bones, or other signs of the original expedition. Funded by the Helios conglomerate, the party of scientists, soldiers, and porters had numbered over two hundred at their start beneath the Galapagos Islands.

Following their lead, Clemens and the crew of nineteen had hiked, climbed, and rafted some six thousand miles. They had retraced the Helios expedition’s route by its remains, finding clues to its long breakdown in their graffiti, trash, dried dung, and, near the end, their bones. Quinn had likened the doomed explorers to Lewis and Clark crossing America, except the sub-Pacific journey was almost three times as long, and they had been slaughtered by the natives, these so-called hadals of this geological Hades. Only Von Schade and the expedition’s scout had lived to tell the tale, though they had barely told it. The scout had vanished without saying a word about anything. The nun had gone into therapy, and then academic seclusion. Which had left their story ripe for the picking.

Finder’s keepers, thought Clemens. It was his now, the scraps of diaries and logbooks, the rags of uniforms, the broken instruments, the forlorn skulls mounted on stalagmites, the hadal bones lying where the plague had felled them…all collected and digitized on large-format tape.

Climbing higher, they found hadal symbols cut into the walls or floor. One, in particular, suggested they were on track. It was a simple, recurring spiral shape. For months, they had been seeing different versions of it, like a blaze mark, only more beautiful and ornate. The closer they got to the city, the more elaborate the spirals had become. Here, for instance, the spiral was woven so deftly into an arabesque engraving that it seemed to be hiding.

Clemens still found it hard to believe the brutish hadals had once conducted an empire that extended throughout this tubular maze. While humankind was still learning to make fire, the hadals had been busy constructing a metropolis far from the sun. Some experts even claimed the hadals had tutored man at the dawn of agriculture and metallurgy.

A lot of people objected to the notion. Us? Schooled by them? Now that he’d spent time down here, though, it made terrible sense to Clemens. Why not get your meat to grow its own food, to breed, and to cluster in villages and cities? Fatten them up before bringing them down.

At a fork in the trail, the group halted for the night. Without a word, the men and women shucked their packs and laid out their sleeping pads. The daybook said nothing about a split in the trail. Indeed, it said almost nothing about the ascent from the city. Apparently the nun had been in shock after her captivity and rescue there. That or she had intentionally concealed where the tunnel exited in New Guinea.

Bobbi, another one of the alpha females, took it upon herself to reconnoiter ahead and determine which of the two trails they should follow in the morning. Within minutes her shout for help rang down the tunnel walls. Immediately everyone got to his or her feet. No hesitation. Out came their motley collection of rifles and handguns.

Not once in eight months had they needed to fire a single shot. There was nothing left to shoot down here. The darkness had been sterilized. The Interior was scrubbed clean of threats. Exorcised, as some put it. The pandemic had erased the hadals from existence. Haddie was out of business.

They found Bobbi in a broad hollow, speechless and pale beneath her subterranean pallor. She pointed up the trail. Clemens watched as the women gathered around their sister and the men flocked ahead with their firearms. They rounded the corner.

“God help us,” barked a man.

A long row of human mummies stood tied on either side of the trail. There were thirty of them, still wearing pieces of military webbing, boots, and uniforms…with the sun and wings of the Helios corporation logo on their shoulder patches.

“Finally,” said Clemens.

They looked at him. “Finally?”

“The lost patrol,” he said. “I wondered where they went.”

For the past three hundred miles, Clemens’s crew had been finding what was left of the Helios scientists, but always absent their hired guns. Here at last were their bodyguards, dried and arrayed for public view, complete with arrows and darts and various death wounds. A black obsidian ax blade with a broken haft jutted from a skull.

“What is this? What happened here?”

“Stone Age taxidermy,” someone said.

“Custer’s last stand, dude.”

Their soundman murmured, “Like sinners burning in hell.”

Bound with ropes, their jaws agape and flesh shrunk to the bone, they did look tortured. A chorus of the damned. No wonder mankind had feared the underworld. The subplanet really had contained the torments of legend.

The money shot, Clemens was thinking to himself.

They walked up and down the line like visitors in a darkened art museum, shining their lights on different mummies. The soldiers looked alien to Clemens, like barrel-chested insects with bulging eyes.

Then he saw the incisions. Their rib cages seemed so huge because their abdomens were so small. The men had been gutted. Their eyes had been scooped out and replaced with round white stones that stared into eternity. Their shriveled thighs and biceps all bore the same cut marks, some kind of ritual mutilation.

Their assault rifles lay at their feet, stocks splintered, so much kindling wood. Except they were plastic. Broken into pieces. Clemens could almost see the hatred in it. The hadals had despised these men.

“What’s this?”

“Christ, it’s his heart. They tied his heart into his beard.”

Clemens went over. Sure enough, the dried fruit of muscle was a heart knotted into a man’s black beard. “But why didn’t they eat it?” Clemens asked. “That and the rest of their bodies?”

Bobbi stared at him. “What are you talking about?”

“There must have been two thousand pounds of meat here when they were fresh,” Clemens said. “But instead of eating them, they dried and displayed them. I mean, why go to all this trouble preserving them?”

Hunger ruled this world within the world. No protein went wasted. From what they’d seen, the remains of the scientists, and even of the hadals, were always eaten to the bone, and the gnawed bones broken open for the marrow. And yet these bodies were whole, or mostly so.

Clemens’s crew was somber. He listened to them trying to make sense of the atrocity.

“It’s a warning,” a climber said. “Keep out. Beware of dog. Here dragons be.”

“The Romans used to do this. Crucify prisoners on the roads leading into the city. Behave, or else.”

“No, no. It’s like a trophy case. These are their war souvenirs.”

“Why did they do that to their eyes?”

“Jeez-is, would you look, they’re castrated, too. The bastards cut their nuts off.”

That got them, the men especially. “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

“You think any of them are still around?”

“You saw the city. They’re extinct. Dead and gone.”

“But what if some of them survived?”

“Impossible.”

“There are always survivors.”

“She’s right. The place is one giant hiding place.”

Their lights spun this way and that, scouring the blackness.

“Impossible.”

They were freaking themselves out. “Go get the camera and sound gear,” Clemens said. “The least we can do is record them for posterity.”

This time no one balked at his command. When they went, it was all together, leaving Clemens alone with the bodies. He began framing camera angles and composing narrative.

Pan left to right. “These few, these lucky few, this band of sons and brothers.”

He edited himself. People didn’t go to IMAX to hear Shakespeare. Give the crowd their boom, bang, kapow. He started over.

Shock cut to a mummy’s face. Pull back to show the dead. I step from their midst.

“Since the beginning, man has been at war with the dark side…”

He walked down the line, shopping for the right face. Their bared teeth gleamed. The stone eyes stared. Blackbeard, he decided. The one with the heart dangling from his chin.

He strode on and picked his mark, and backed between two bodies. The wall was cool. They smelled like a tanner’s shop, and a gym, too. Even dead, their different body odors clung to them. Leather and sweat. Dry as cornhusks.

Joshua.

The whisper jolted him. How could Huxley’s voice reach him here? Or was it another one of them messing with his yin/yang?

He shoved away from the wall, out from the carcasses. “Who is it?”

He thrust his light beam up and down the tunnel, hunting for the trickster. But he was alone.

Joshua. Again.

He splashed light across the faces, each grinning his death grin. The air, he decided. It moved in these tunnels. It made them whistle and moan sometimes. That was all. The whispers were just air.

In the middle of the night, Clemens woke with a start. He sat up and shook his head, looking around. This evening’s choice of chemical night-light was orange. His little tribe slept all around him in a jumbled orange clump, their limbs tangled and heads pillowed on one another, breathing each other’s breath. A fortress of snores and twitches. And guns.

The clustering had become a reflex. By day they were a bold bunch, all muscle and trash talk, itching to beat every cliff, river, or squeeze chute that got in their way. But when it came time to sleep, they huddled like children lost in a forest.

Joshua.

It slid in from the outskirts, a kitten of a sound, barely a breath of a word. He scanned the sleeping pack. None of them was the culprit. The whisper had come from beyond their bubble of orange light.

And then again, Joshua. So soft it might have been in his head. Was he dreaming? No. He was wide awake now.

“What?” He kept his voice low.

Joshua. It called to him. Someone was out there.

He counted them and, sure enough, came up one short. Then he remembered Huxley. She’d never shown up. In all the excitement about the mummies, they had forgotten about her.

“Huxley?” he whispered.

One of the women stirred. She lifted her head. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he said. “Go back to sleep.”

Her eyes closed.

He sat there for another few minutes, listening intently. But the tunnel was silent again. He lay back and tried to sleep. No dice. Voice or not, Huxley was in his head now. She was alone down there, terrified no doubt, probably lost. She’d asked for it, staying back. Accusing him with her glares.

At the end of a sleepless half hour, Clemens sighed and stood up. He didn’t believe in conscience. But the voice had him going now. Screw it, he thought. Bring her in. Maybe she’d show a little gratitude.

He stood up and tiptoed from their orange halo. No sense waking anyone. By morning, he’d be back, with Huxley in tow. One more rebel to add to his collection.

As he headed down the tunnel, the image came to Clemens of an immense throat about to swallow him, and for a minute he almost returned to get his sawed-off shotgun. But his knees were bad enough without the extra weight. Besides which, for the past six thousand miles they had found nothing alive larger than a lobster. Satan is dead. Long live…whatever.

Down he sank through the tunnel. The thunder of the waterfall grew louder.

Huxley was waiting just inside the entrance. Her pale face appeared in Clemens’s light. The whites of her eyes bulged. She looked indignant.

“I told you not to stay behind,” he said to her.

She didn’t say anything. Sulking. Probably hungry. It was going to be a chore prodding her up the trail.

Just the same, Clemens was glad he’d come to fetch her. He would work it into his script, the tale of his midnight rescue. Never mind that it had taken him less than three hours to descend. He’d make it eight hours. Hours? Days. Milk it for all it was worth. People would hail his compassion. Reviewers would note his guardian care of the crew. Couldn’t save everyone, poor Quinn, but not for lack of trying. Everything helped during awards competitions.

Huxley went on staring at him. She didn’t make a move to come up the trail. “So let’s go,” he said, descending the final stretch.

She glared at him.

“Can’t we just get along, Hux?”

Clemens stopped. Now he saw the blood painting the spike between her legs. Her mouth was sewn shut. She was impaled on a stalagmite. “Jesus, mother,” said Clemens. He stepped back from the mess.

Huxley’s eyes followed him. Impossible. She was still alive.

Joshua.

Clemens knifed at the shadows with his light. The darkness parted. It sealed shut again. The walls glistened with waterfall sweat. There was a crevice. Something moved in there. He thrust the light at it.

Eyes glittered back at him. A face in there. It spoke his name again. But this time it was out loud. “Joshua.”

Clemens jumped. “What?” The thing didn’t answer. For a moment, he thought his buddy in the flowstone had come back to life and broken free. But the eyes weren’t pink. There was no rack of horns. He had a tattered, greasy cowl of hair and a ragged beard, years long.

The beast eased from its womb of a crevice.

Stone scraped on stone as it emerged. To Clemens’s shock, it was wearing that suit of armor made with green jade Clemens had found on the ground. The green platelets tinkled like chandelier glass.

The stone tube began crying from above. They sounded like puppies. The men’s screams were even shriller than the women’s.

Reject. Refuse. Make it go away. Clemens tried to pace his breathing. This couldn’t be happening. The city was dead. Killed. Just bones.

Clemens remembered his camera. Even as he backed away, he could not help thinking what a great shot this would have made. In the belly of the abyss, in a city of lost souls, out of sweating stone…Satan was resurrecting himself.

ARTIFACTS

The United Nations Subplanetary Treaty

Recognizing that it is in the interest of all mankind that the subplanet shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord; acknowledging the substantial contributions to scientific knowledge resulting from international cooperation in scientific investigation in the subplanet; etc…. The signatory governments have agreed as follows:

Article I [The Subplanet for Peaceful Purposes Only]

1. The subplanet shall be used for peaceful purposes only. There shall be prohibited, inter alia, any measures of a military nature, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications, the carrying out of military maneuvers, as well as the testing of any type of weapons.

Article IV [Territorial Claims]

1. All previously asserted rights of or claims to territorial sovereignty beneath the international waters of the Oceans and Seas shall be frozen for the duration of this treaty.

2. All previously asserted rights of or claims to territorial sovereignty beneath the existing boundaries of sovereign nations shall hold jurisdiction over their own nationals in those contained areas.

3. Nothing contained in Article IV re territorial claims shall overrule Article I. There shall be no military measures of any nature in the subplanet, whether beneath the Oceans and Seas or beneath sovereign nations.

Seven Years Later

2

SAINT MATTHEW ISLAND, FAR WESTERN ALASKA

Mommy?

The little voice floated through the blue fog.

Ali straightened in the long cut of earth. It had rained last night, turning the sedge emerald green. The muddy bones were spattered with white drops.

She stood still for a minute, listening for more, trying to make sense of the haunting. The heart is an echo chamber. Memories round on you. Ali accepted that. But her daughter had been dead for seven years now. Maggie had finally let go of her.

It was the bones, she decided. All these children’s bones.

“Maggie?” she whispered.

The fog made no answer. The presence faded. Ali looked down. Her yellow galoshes glistened beside the tumbled ribs and skulls.

Sleep, baby.

Ali returned to her work. Summer was nearly over. In a few weeks, the island would return to the wind and ice. The dead could have their peace.

Like so many digs, this one resembled a sewer project with its trenches, shovels, string, and colored pin flags. Besides the bones, the dig held the usual pottery shards, carved trinkets, and bric-a-brac of days long gone. But there was no Babylon under here, no lost Atlantis, no gold of kings. Only mystery.

Math-3, as they had dubbed the third of the St. Matthew’s excavations, was a common, even sorry, place. Yet it promised to change the story of man. Her task was to decipher the slaughter of these Ice Age children.

After seven weeks of soggy work under a midnight sun, they were close to solving the mystery. Ali could feel it. The bones were guiding her someplace. Going forward meant seeing…seeing like a hadal, not a human. But she kept bumping up against the Sape barrier.

“Sape” referred to Homo sapiens, and barrier referred to an engrained mind-set. It was probably going to take another generation before people finally came to accept that they and their ancestors had been sharing the planet with a separate and once superior species of man until just a few years ago. Technically both species were human, but that offended the hell out of folks, so the street divided them into human and hadal.

A little over one decade had passed since the planet’s Interior had been “discovered.” That was when it became clear that Homo hadalis (for Hades Man) had preceded his cousin throughout early Europe, Asia, and the Americas, including this island that was once part of the Bering Strait land bridge. Archeologists had gone scurrying back to their supposedly exhausted sites—ancient tells, pyramids, and middens—to figure out how they could have missed an entire epoch in mankind’s history. Digging deeper, down through the Sape barrier, they were uncovering a tale of codependency, competition, and racial warfare that dated back twenty thousand years or more.

Even with all the renewed archeological vigor, Saint Matthew Island should have been irrelevant. It was an uninhabited flyspeck in the middle of a hostile sea. Before World War II, the U.S. Coast Guard had placed a small, irrelevant installation here that lasted barely three years. In between storms, an intrepid seaman named Jones had gone exploring the island on foot and strayed across odd petroglyphs half-buried at the root of the grassy mound that Ali now stood before.

Shortly afterward, Jones had gone AWOL. Until getting here, Ali had not realized how unlikely going AWOL would have been. The frigid sea chopped at the island, a relentless boundary. Swimming would have been impossible. A raft would have been swept away. The tallest vegetation stood no higher than your ankle. There was no place to hide, no way to escape. Ali wondered about foul play, or suicide. At any rate, the commander had written off Jones’s glyphs as “Eskimo scrawl,” and they were forgotten about.

Then a year ago, a grad student from northern Spain had stumbled across the old Coast Guard file with its black-and-white photos. Suspecting these might be pictures of hadal glyphs, young Gregorio Montaña had taken them to the Institute of Human Studies, Ali’s brainchild. In short order that had led to this fogbound excavation.

Ali was a linguistics expert, not an archeologist. She had come for glyphs, not bones. But when she and her team had peeled back the thick lichen mat—on a whim of hers, a whispered suggestion—they had found the bones waiting. Ever since, she had been wrestling with them.

Forty-three sets of children’s bones lay in a row at the foot of the mound and its wall of glyphs. The children—all girls, all Ice Age humans—had been ritually sacrificed. Even Ali’s untrained eye could read the knife marks on the front of their neck vertebrae.

“Here you are, Alexandra.”

The voice jerked Ali from her thoughts. What emerged from the fog was the handsomest man she had ever seen. It was not a matter of personal taste. Some creatures are simply born perfectly formed. With his long black hair and Basque cheekbones, Gregorio was one of them.

“It is like hide-and-seek with you,” he said, waving at the fog by way of explanation. But also he meant the kiss. Things had actually gone that far last night. Just one quick good-night peck. Enough to crack the earth open. “You like to be by yourself too much.”

Ali saw the bouquet of little wildflowers in his fist. Gregorio was in full siege mode.

“I’m trying to make sense of things,” she said. “Before it’s too late.” She gestured at the bones by way of explanation. But she also meant the kiss.

For some unfathomable reason, this god had decided to fall head over heels in love with a woman fourteen years and three months his senior, a woman who had been a nun before she became a mother, a wife who had never been married, a widow whose husband might not even be dead. Ali still didn’t know what to do with Gregorio, scold him or run from him. Or jump him. For what it was worth, Gregorio didn’t know what to do with himself.

“Yes,” he said, turning to the bones. “It is time to put the children to bed for the winter.”

Unable to properly excavate the site, they had decided to leave everything in situ and cover it over again with the blanket of lichen mat. A larger team would come for the bones the next summer.

As if suddenly noticing the bouquet in his hand, Gregorio laid it beside a skull. That eased some of the tension. Now they could be on the same page, he and Ali, attending to the mystery of the bones.

“This is eating me up,” said Ali. “Why kill these children? What a horrible day that must have been.”

Gregorio shrugged. “Savage gods,” he said. “One more sadness in the universe.”

Ali could smell him. “There are too many of them,” she said. “All killed at once. All females.”

“An orgy of blood,” he said. “A hadal thing.”

“That’s what gets me, though,” she said. “It’s not a hadal thing. There is not a single instance of child sacrifice in their world. They were vicious, but when it came to human captives they were pragmatists. The women were used as breeders. The men became slaves. But it was the children who were the real treasure. They were integrated into the life cycle of the underworld. They were beloved, especially the girls. There are captive tales of hadals sacrificing themselves in order to protect a human child.”

“There is a limit to love,” Gregorio declared.

“Excuse me?” Just last night he had declared the very opposite.

Others in the office made do with Greg. But from the very start she had pronounced every vowel in his name. It sounded rounder and richer. And it drew out his presence, even when he wasn’t in the room. Also, of course, it was his actual name. In turn she was Alexandra. Alek-sondra. And Gregorr-io. Only slowly had she become aware that their courtship was a public affair, or even that it was a courtship. Everyone in the office listening to their weaving of sounds could tell something was in the works.

“What I mean is, we were just animals to them,” he said.

“Agreed,” said Ali, “but child sacrifice wasn’t their style. Capturing humans meant training hunters and sending expeditions to the surface and maintaining a slave network. Their empire was built on slaves. We’ve found codes of law that dealt with the treatment of slaves. Killing a slave was a serious offense. How do you explain this then? Forty-three children, in one fell swoop, their throats cut, their bodies abandoned. And these were girls who could have produced hundreds of more children for them.” Girls, she thought, like her Maggie.

“It was evil.” Gregorio said it very quietly. He knew about Maggie. He let Ali have her anger.

Breathe, she told herself. Maybe she didn’t have any business among the bones this morning. But day after day, the long-lost children kept pulling her up from camp. It was as if they needed a mother. And she needed a daughter. It was that simple.

“There is no evil,” she said. “Satan is dead. I saw him killed. He was just a man in a mask.”

In a sense, that incident had closed the book on hadal civilization. The man, a Jesuit named Thomas, had recruited her to join the first scientific expedition beneath the Pacific. Her mission: to hunt for the historical Satan. It had made a sort of holy sense at the time. Hell was freshly opened, and she was a nun and he was a priest. Only later, after the hadals captured her, had Thomas declared himself to be the same immortal creature he had sent her to find. She had fallen for his deadly charade, just in time to see him gunned down.

“Then he wasn’t Satan.” Gregorio glanced around at the fog, as if his basajaunak, the shaggy ancient ones of his homeland, might hear her blasphemy. “Because there is still evil in the world.” At times like this, he seemed very young to her.

“Evil doesn’t need a name, though,” she said.

“But it does,” Gregorio insisted. “We need the devil.” He touched his heart. “In here, it feels only half complete without him.”

“Why? Because if he’s dead, God is dead?” That was the hand grenade in the theologians’ shop these days. It was something of a religious crisis. Unless evil had a face, man was left alone looking in his mirror. “We had to grow up eventually,” she said. “We’re all alone now. There is no one else to blame for the wicked things that happen to us.”

Gregorio gestured at the skeletons. “So it is okay for the children to die?”

Her eyes dropped to his bouquet of wildflowers by the skull. “I’m simply saying there’s no use in blaming it on wicked spirits,” she said. “The best we can do is to make the universe speak for itself. Language is our salvation. Without it there is only chaos.”

“Music, I think,” he said. “Music is our salvation.” His great work in progress was a symphony for prehistoric instruments. What a sight and sound that was going to be, the bone flutes and violins with sinew strings.

“Words or notes,” she said, touching the long wall that girdled the mound, “we are left with only glyphs for our clue.”

Standing a foot high, the glyphs ran the length of the exposed stone. They were like a badly weathered jigsaw puzzle in a language from another planet. Some of the symbols already belonged to her growing database of hadal alphabets and pictograms. The rest were so ancient, they had probably gone extinct long ago.

“I still can’t figure out how that Coast Guard boy found them in the first place,” she said. “What possessed him to walk across the island to this spot?”

“Voices.” Gregorio said it without hesitation.

It startled her. “Voices?” He heard them, too?

“Well, not real voices. Memories. In the case of our friend Jones, he was hearing the voice of his dead lover,” Gregorio said. “I am reading between the lines of the commander’s report. But after she killed herself, I think Jones had a curse on him.”

“His girlfriend was a suicide?” Ali had glossed over that part of the report, going straight for the old black-and-white photos of the glyphs.

“She was pregnant by him, and they were not married yet, and her parents were very religious,” Gregorio said. “She killed herself. It was only a matter of time before he did the same, don’t you think?”

“Not necessarily.”

“He went missing on the anniversary of her suicide. It’s completely obvious. She was calling to him. He was haunted. I think he jumped into the sea.”

“Come on, haunted?”

“Yes, I know, my Old World superstitions.”

“Okay, a broken heart and guilt might explain Jones’s wandering, but not his discovery,” she said. “Something tempted him to pull away the vegetation and find the glyphs.” Just like something had tempted Ali to pull up part of the lichen mat and find the bones.

Gregorio laid one hand on the stone. “Luck,” he said. “His, then ours.”

Ali looked at him, then looked again, but this time over his head. Last night’s rain had washed away a chunk of the mound’s green turf. Something lay underneath, carved from the rock face. “Is that a stair step?”

Gregorio grabbed a shovel, but couldn’t reach the step. He tossed it, and the shovel head rang on the stone.

“Give me a boost,” she said.

“You want to go up there?” Gregorio’s expression darkened. “No. I will go.”

“Just give me a boost.”

She stood in the stirrups of his hands, then on his shoulders, and got a good grip of the sod. Her misplaced husband, Ike, the mountain climber, would have waltzed up. Ali thrashed and flailed without shame. The turf sheeted off below her waist.

“That’s high enough,” said Gregorio. Covered with mud and wet grass, he stood ready to catch her.

The prospect of climbing down was worse than going up. Struggling higher, she reached the step. She tore away more of the turf. “There’s more than one step. It’s a whole staircase.”

The edges of steps laddered higher. “Go get the rest of the gang,” she said. “Something’s on top of the mound. Or inside it.”

“I’m not leaving you,” he said.

He looked so small down there. To his left and right, half digested by the fog, the bones rested in a long line of white piles. They were arranged at the base of this buried staircase. It was so obvious from this height. The children had been sacrificed to the secret in this mound.

“I’m not going to fall,” she said. “Start them digging from the bottom up. Expose the stairs.”

“Don’t go any higher.”

“I promise.”

The moment he vanished, she started higher, attacking the turf with her bare hands. The mud was chilly. It avalanched past her legs. None of the bones lay in the fall line. The children were safe.

The stairs rose into the fog. She lost sight of the ground. The mound was not natural. Massive blocks of stone lay buried under the dirt and lichen. Someone had built this small mountain by hand, and then someone else had buried it. But why?

The summit was a disappointment, flat and empty and viewless. Tufts of grass jutted from the stone joints. Bits of broken blue eggshell littered the tufts. Ali walked around, hunting for hints of what the pyramid might once have balanced on its head. She bent to examine a long furrow, partially grown over, that offered the possibility of more recent activity up here. She pressed her fingers into it, then heard someone huffing for breath behind her, and stood.

Gregorio arrived, smeared with mud and carrying his shovel. He blew a cloud of frost. Far below, the ocean broke against invisible cliffs. “What have you found?”

“I don’t know. The glyphs at the bottom are hadal. This must have been an outpost, the farthest reach of their empire. Beyond this point, the surface held only an Ice Age wilderness. Does that explain the sacrifices? Were they trying to hold back the forces of nature with a blood sacrifice? Or warn away their human rivals. Or…what?” They were close, but winter was closer.

“We are not done yet, Alexandra,” Gregorio vowed. He struck his shovel at the inscrutable earth.

Without a sound, the ground opened at his feet. It swallowed him to the hips. One moment he loomed head and shoulders above her, the next she was staring down at the top of his head. There he stood, a man with no legs, still gripping the majesty of his shovel.

Ali burst into laughter.

Gregorio made a face. He patted the dirt at his waist. “This is funny?”

His wounded dignity only made it worse. “Stop,” she said. “Give me your hand.”

“Never mind,” he said. “I’ll work from where I stand.”

He began sawing away the grassy carpet from around his hips, widening the hole. The hole contained steps leading down inside the mound. Gregorio started down, then looked up and saw her hesitation.

“Maybe we should wait for another day,” he said.

She had every reason not to go in. People were pouring into the earth’s caverns by the thousands each day, seeking their fortunes, finding their dreams. But for Ali, the Subterrain remained a nightmare. It had stolen the father of her child, and then stolen her child. It had stolen her life, or one of them. That’s how it felt.

She had made a career of staring into the abyss, but from a distance, in the safety of her institute in San Francisco. Eventually she was going to have to go under, though. She felt halfway gone from the world anyway.

“We don’t want to be wondering all winter what’s in here,” she said. “Show the way.” She had a flashlight in one pocket, a compulsion, light. She handed it to him.

The stairs snaked down. What began as a man-made structure with quarried stone soon married an old volcano vent. The passage followed nature’s lead.

The rewards came almost immediately. Untouched by the elements, glyphs in pristine condition decorated the walls. Ali and Gregorio wound deeper into the tube.

“The volcano was like a throat singing words into the wind.” He shined her light here and there. “But what was it singing? Who was it singing to?”

“Have you noticed this symbol?” Ali pointed to a mark similar to a bent N. “It keeps repeating. And the deeper we go, the more frequently it repeats, like a drumbeat practically, drowning out all the other sounds.”

Soon the walls bore a steady stream of nothing but N’s. The glyph teased her. She felt like she should know it. Her head tilted. The glyph fell into position. “It’s an aleph.”

Gregorio came back up the steps.

“Do you see it?” She traced a modern aleph beside the incision in the stone. “It’s from the Semitic alphabet, the first letter, a silent letter. But this symbol must predate that by ten thousand years or more.” Ali glanced around. The alephs spiraled upward. “How elegant.”

Gregorio waited, helpless.

“It’s the sound of silence,” she said. “See how silence turns into words as it ascends.”

Her intuition shocked Gregorio. “That has to be it.”

“I could be wrong,” she said. But she was right. She knew it in her gut.

“How deep does this go?” Gregorio said.

“If it connects to the network of tunnels, and I suspect it does, then you’ve discovered a new entry point. Congratulations. You can add your name to the register.” Once upon a time that would have been unique. Anymore, it was like climbing Everest, a dime a dozen.

“We can’t stop here,” he said. The hook had set in him that quickly.

“And when the battery goes dead?” she said. “And, let’s see, I have a Luna bar for my lunch. Oh, and a bottle of Aleve.” For what she feared were hot flashes, she did not say. “How about you? Got all the descent gear?”

“The deeps provide,” he said. “You told me so.”

“To those who know them, they provide.”

He handed her the flashlight. “Then you guide me. This is your province.”

“It’s not that easy.” In fact, it was. Going down into the earth was as simple as breathing. Climbing back out, though—leaving hell and all its magic behind—that was the challenge.

“Here’s a path. Our very own. Think what we might find, Alexandra.”

“Another time.”

“Just a little farther.”

They did not have to go far.

Gregorio saw the body first. He froze and crossed himself. Ali went around him and kneeled by it.

More bone than leather, the carcass rested at the foot of a raw stone column. The man had been wearing a heavy, cable-knit sweater and sailor’s pants.

“Petty Officer Jones,” she said. She had no doubts. Here was the Coast Guard boy, the would-be Orpheus. He had descended barely a quarter mile before lying down for a nap here. Maybe he had died dreaming of his dead sweetheart.

Gregorio took off his wind jacket and covered what remained of the face. He straightened. And hissed. “And what is this thing?”

Ali followed his eyes and ran her light up the pillar.

“A Minotaur?” she said.

It was a statue, two stories tall, grotesque in the classical sense, part man, part beast. The thing had been carved from a single twisting column of stone. Spiraling up from the base, veins of dark granite served as mineral ropes. The sculptors had begun their work at its stomach, leaving coarse chisel marks and gouges at the start, and refining their strokes as they went higher. In effect they had partially freed the man-bull creature from his roots. But they had, fearfully it seemed, not freed him entirely. Only the horns were polished.

“This is what killed the children,” said Ali.

“A fairy-tale monster?” Gregorio circled the pillar like a moth.

“Here is the voice of the aleph,” she said. “It fits perfectly. The aleph and the ox’s head.”

“What are you talking about, the ox’s head?”

“Ah, grasshopper,” she said. It was one of their private jokes, the wise teacher and her intern. With her fingertip she sketched the symbol’s evolution. “The Phoenicians drew it with horns.”

“Here is the shape of a head, here are the horns. The horns became legs, this went here, that went there.”

It came tumbling out of her. She was excited. “The aleph is the origin of the first letter in our alphabet, a celebration of our contract with nature’s power. It’s the beginning of our written language, an animal turned into a picture turned into a letter. A humble letter. A powerful letter. Written on the head of the golem, it was the letter that brought it to life. Did you know the aleph is the first letter of God’s mystical name in Exodus? ´Ehye ´Asher ´Ehye. ‘I Am That I Am.’ ”

“Yes, Alexandra. But this is no golem. This is not God. It’s a monster.”

“It must have been their god,” Ali said. That sculpted mouth, half open, was roaring the silence that became language. “The aleph made flesh. Or stone.” She spoke a word in the hadal’s click language. It meant “Older-Than-Old.” Their god, our devil.

By accident, it seemed, lured by a memory of her daughter’s voice, she had jumped twenty thousand years back in time. Long ago, a simple letter in the alphabet had lived in these dark caverns in the form of some monstrous cult. But also, she suddenly realized, not so long ago.

“I’ve seen this before,” she said. “It was a different version and grown over with scar tissue. But it was the same thing, an aleph.”

“Scar tissue?”

“They cut it into Ike when they captured him.” Gregorio’s little smile faded. Ike, again. Though Ike was probably dead. As dead as poor Jones. “It was at the base of his spine,” she said. “He told me it was an ownership mark.”

“He belonged to this?” Gregorio shoved at the stone column as if his hand could topple it. But the statue was immovable. It almost seemed to support the earth on its shoulders.

“He had no idea what it meant or who had owned him. It was different from all the other slave marks. It bothered him. Obsessed him. He said it was like being an orphan who didn’t know his father’s name. I think it’s why he abandoned us.” Us: she and Maggie and all his own kind.

Even before his daughter was born, even before Ali chose her name, Ike had vanished back into the earth, leaving one child fatherless while he searched for a name and a father that were not his own.

They stood quietly. Water drip-dropped in the shadows. Otherwise, the place was silent as a tomb.

Ali shined her light into the tunnel. It wound deeper. “We should go. The others will wonder where we disappeared to.”

Suddenly he was alarmed for her good reputation. “Yes, immediately. We must tell them about the tunnel.” He looked down at the body. “What about him?”

“We’ll inform the authorities. But for now, poor Jones has his tomb.”

“Good. Very good.” Gregorio’s face blossomed with relief. Someone else could handle the dead.

“You might as well take your jacket with you.”

He shuddered. “Let him have it. For his journey.”

They started back. Partway up the steps, Ali felt something, not quite a hand, but a grasp nonetheless, reaching for her.

Mommy.

She froze.

Ali glanced up the stairs at Gregorio striding on. Plainly he hadn’t heard a thing. She stabbed her light at the lower reaches, searching for the voice. The stone Minotaur seemed to be watching her.

“Maggie,” she whispered. She waited for the voice to speak again. It didn’t. Sleep, baby. Turning, she climbed after Gregorio, unaware of the lullaby on her lips as she hurried toward the light.

ARTIFACTS

THE WEATHER CHANNEL

A COLD DAY IN HELL

A persistent tubular airflow will continue to cool the Nine Rivers Gorge region. Patchy fog early, then clear and unseasonably chilly. Highs in the upper 40s to low 50s. Lows, the same.

River levels—steady at norm. Be alert for flash flooding.*

Interior extremes (last week)

High—148 degrees in Wink, Grosse Tunnels, Arctic provinces

Low—39 degrees in Nueva Loca, Argentine Protectorates

ALERTS: a fast-moving cloud of sulfur will reach the Henners network late today. Expect olfactory distress. Tube 666 in the L-Zone is closed due to electromagnetic storms.

SUPERALERTS: a methane plume has been detected in the Xining-New Toronto territories, at minus-3 miles elevation and rising. Methane is combustible. Mixtures of 5 to 15 percent in air are explosive. Methane is not toxic when inhaled, but can produce suffocation by reducing oxygen concentrations. Carry gas masks. Observe flame discipline. Be prepared. Be aware.

* Always wear backcountry survival beacons in case of rock slide, earthquake, flood, or animal attack. Always carry backup light sources.

Happy hunting!

3

BENEATH THE NORTH PACIFIC FLOOR

They paused in their great walkabout, lightless, nine of them, resting on their haunches. The last in line, Li, idly fiddled with the growths covering his head. His fingers toyed with the coral-like horns, tracing the bumps and buds that boiled from his skull. Every day the configuration was a little different, a little more advanced. Like their long journey, his helmet of bone was relentlessly building upon itself.

Up the line, one of them groaned quietly. For three days he’d been trying to pass a stone in his urine. No one suggested slowing down for him. Each of them had suffered torments along the way, and you kept up for the sake of the band. You just did. Pain couldn’t kill you, and there was too much territory to cover with too little time. They were in a footrace against the hordes of man.

Li didn’t need his nose anymore to smell the human trespass. You could taste it in the air. The rancid stench breathed through the living tunnels. For days now, he and his comrades had been picking up traces of the colonial advance. Sewage and chemicals poisoned the subterranean waters that flowed down to them. It burned their skin and roiled their stomachs. Man was a curse. A weed.

He wished he could lead their little band away from the civilization looming ahead. For almost two years they had been picking their way through the remotest arms of the deepest mazes, keeping one step ahead of the mushrooming colonies. Before it was too late, before the hordes completely overran the warren of tunnels shooting through this part of the planet, they were visiting what remained of the People, to bear witness.

In one collapsed city after another, Li and his comrades had clambered among painted acropolises, and coliseums carved in one piece from the bedrock, and spires whittled from stalagmites, and passageways decorated with cryptic lettering and images. Where rivers had cut underground canyons, they had walked between giant statues of kings whose names were probably lost forever. Ancient canals had worn away to broad mineral deltas. What you took from the stone returned to the stone.

The faintest tap-tap of an insect’s feet came to Li’s ear. Slowly, still squatting, he turned to face the wall. As his eyesight had atrophied, or rather altered, his other senses had sharpened. He could smell the difference in minerals. He could feel shapes by the sound of his voice bouncing back. He could sense colors without seeing them.

It came again, that slight tap-tap, the cautious telegraph of escape. The insect sensed his presence. Too late. With a swift motion, Li trapped it under his cupped palm.

He removed it carefully, still alive, and let the details tell him what kind of insect this was. It mattered. Some carried bizarre toxins in their vessels. Inside their bodies, some had barbs built that released during digestion. This one was harmless. It had the familiar length and weight of a common cave beetle.Coleoptera bailey, he had named the species.

With a flick of a finger, he killed it. He broke off the wings and the head with its long antennae, opened the body, and stripped out its innards. The meat and shell crunched between his teeth, nutlike. Yes, beetle, definitely.

They were constantly on the prowl for such snacks. Insects, lizards, fish, snakes: anything that had survived the plague, and wasn’t poisonous, fueled their pilgrimage. Living off the land had changed their metabolism. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on the bunch of them. They slept three hours a night. Every five days or so, Li laid a hard little turd, which he saved and dried and contributed to the rare campfire.

He had found the rhythm of the depths. Here was home. Unfortunately, not enough of them felt the same way. They were the ones pulling their dark voyage back to the light. Surrendering to nostalgia. It was a useless, one-way longing, though. They were forgotten by now. And there was still so much to record down here. But the majority ruled, and that was that. In these outlands, cohesion was everything. Dissent was death.

“Light,” their leader warned up ahead.

The coral man shielded his eyes. A blue penlight clicked on. It burned too brightly for a minute, or seemed to, then dimmed to a bearable round bead.

“John,” said his neighbor.

John Li took away his hands. He blinked at the sight ahead.

Dressed in rags, or loincloths, some of them, his comrades looked like a row of monstrosities. In fact they were, lusus naturae, freaks of nature…bearded, shaggy haired, bearing satchels and backpacks and scratched, battered tubes and boxes housing their scientific instruments. Every man sported sores, fungal rot, spider and sand-lice bites, scars in various stages of healing, bruises, and the burn marks they’d gotten while crossing an intramarginal hot zone. What really made them birds of a feather, though, were their deformities.

The depths had grown on them in more ways than one. Even as they had acclimated over the months to the darkness and isolation and endless hunger, even as they had acquired some sense of the flora, fauna, geology, and lost culture of this realm, even as Li and others had fallen in love with it, the subterranean world had quietly been at work infecting them.

They had come prepared, or so they’d thought. But their motion sensors had proved useless, for there were no large animals, much less hadals, left to defend against. Their radiation badges and gas detectors had alerted them to the defined dangers, but not the undefined ones. They had learned the hard way that there were rare gases, acids, salts, and liquids never classified by man. Once they got back to the surface with their discoveries, the table of elements was going to grow another few appendages. In short, the explorers had unwittingly become guinea pigs in the Subterrain. For what it was worth, they weren’t the first. The hadals had been enduring—indeed, celebrating—these and other mutations for millennia.

Skeletal warp, it was called. Osteitis deformans, or Paget’s disease. Skeletal tissue went wild, raging through cycles of breakdown and rampant growth. As a result, Li and his companions all had misshapen skulls and bizarrely shaped horns. The good news was that the disease was not a cancer. The bone growth didn’t invade their cranial cavities. It didn’t impair their intellect.

The bad news was that, in varying degrees and shapes, NASA’s North Pacific Subterrain Exploration team number two had turned into a pack of elephant men. Or a flock of fiends. Or a gaggle of gargoyles. They had made a game of it, sitting in the darkness, cracking each other up. A pride of ogres. A murder of monsters. A drift of demons. A sleuth of brutes. Maybe, Li thought, the bone growths had impaired their intellect after all.

Li preferred the term “charm,” used for goldfinches, or better yet, “watch,” as in a watch of nightingales. Personally he saw nothing ugly about their metamorphoses. It was a mark of passage. God’s way of speaking through your body. But Li understood the group’s black humor. Underneath all the quiet joking, they were terrified. Most had families out there. One version of them had gone down into the earth, and another version was about to come out. Would their children and wives still recognize them?

“The station can’t be far now,” said their leader, Watts. He had a Medusa head of calcium serpents. Next to him, holding the penlight, Childs—who knew more sheep jokes than any other man alive—had a unicorn shaft growing from his forehead. In the orb of blue light, Watts rolled up his dog-eared maps.

They were describing a huge two-year circle, returning to their departure point, the Sitka Station beneath Baranof Island, off the Alaskan shore. If not for circling back upon themselves, their maps would have been useless. They only knew where they’d been, not where they were going. GPS didn’t work down here. Magnetic north got fouled by gremlins in the Subterrain: strange, wandering electromagnetic fields. Most radars couldn’t penetrate this deep. Only low-frequency radio waves worked, though even they were subject to still unexplained anomalies.

“We don’t need to do this, you know,” said a half-naked biologist wearing Adidas running shorts.

“We know, Bill,” someone said.

“We can still go back,” said Bill. “Down. Deeper.”

“Bill, we voted.”

“But think about it,” Bill said, “think about the things waiting for us.”

It was true. Who could say what else lay in the far tunnels? They had sampled just a tiny fraction of the underworld. They had found strangeness and beauty, like in a dream.

Li remembered. They had crossed a bottle green desert made of ground limestone, fine as powdered sugar, with little tongues of flame for flowers: a hot five days of trekking.

Braced for more and more fierce heat, because the inner earth was supposed to be a place of fiery rock, they had descended instead into cold zones with ice that threatened to clog the passageways. The ice came from glaciers dyed pink and orange, whole fields of crevassed glaciers filled with plankton, yes, plankton carried from ancient, now buried seas. Still alive, too. Thaw the ice and they wriggled about under the microscope.

In one tunnel they had walked barefoot upon an anaerobic moss that was the largest living life-form on the planet, miles long and eons old.

They had found the bones of bizarre animals that could have wandered straight out of—or into—a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The species variation was incredible. The mutation rate was off the scale.

Somehow evolution had superaccelerated down here. More astonishing yet, acquired traits got passed along as inherited traits. The trend ran counter to all that was Darwinian. It verged on Lamarck’s theory, which held that giraffes stretching their necks for food would have offspring with longer necks. No one had bought that idea for almost two hundred years. But here it was, a menagerie of proofs, in effect, that pigs could fly. Or hadals, apparently, some of them. Wings. Webbed feet. Scales. Claws. You name it. Remarkable, truly.

And then there were the ancient cities melting away as minerals invaded, and the seemingly endless network of paths, lanes, stairways, and bridges over black rivers…the architecture of a once great people. And their bodies and bones. Tens of thousands of them, unceremoniously felled by the plague and left unburied. In the beginning, Li and a few others had attempted mass graves. But there were too many remains and it took too much energy, and future colonists would only excavate the bones to grind for animal feed and fertilizer.

For that very reason, when four of their members had drowned in a river accident eighteen months ago, they’d gone to great lengths to mark their graves as human. Li was pretty sure even that wouldn’t stop the colonists, though. Everything was getting ransacked down here. Progress was the watchword. It was Manifest Destiny all over again, except this time the Wild West was four miles deep and perforated the crust of the entire earth.

What more might be waiting for them deeper? More gold, more glory, more species, more cities. Someone else would have to find out. Team two of NASA’s Subterrain Exploration was going home.

No one replied to Joe. It was over. At some point it had to be over.

Li had to restrain himself. Like Joe, he would have been happy to stay under for years to come, meandering and exploring. But unlike Joe, he had not fought when the group voted to turn around and finally start their retreat. For months he had been hearing the yearning when they murmured in their sleep. You could not fight heartache. Yes, their grand exploration was drawing to a close.

Their team of geologists, biologists, and a botanist had been dispatched to map and catalog regions lying beneath the northern third of the North Pacific Ocean. Sooner than later, like it or not, the stone frontier was going to be occupied and stripped of its natural resources. Like true field scientists, even the Republicans among them had come to wish this dark wilderness could be preserved as it was.

There were wonders down here that defied their combined sciences, a design whose shape and purpose Li had merely glimpsed in this darkness. He had always prided himself on his atheism. It was a measure of his rational mind. How ironic then that this literal, physical hell should usher God into his life.

He had always disliked those scientist-believers who couldn’t seem to come down on one side or the other of the issue, the types who rigorously arrived at a big bang theory, for instance, and then conceded it might represent the divine spark. To him such gymnastics amounted to intellectual schizophrenia. To superstition dressed in wire-rim glasses.

Yet here he was, swept away like some Biology 101 student by the balance and symmetry and mystery of it all. Just when science had finally nailed together a tidy explanation for the workings of the planet, this other planet inside the planet had wrecked the whole neat scheme. Humans, meet your long-lost cousins. It was like suddenly meeting a secret roommate who has been sharing your skin with you since birth. Most troubling. In such close quarters, sharing this chunk of rock circling the sun, how could they never have met?

In the old days, mapmakers had concocted fictional continents called Australia and Antarctica to serve as counterweights to real continents. And then the fictional continents had become real ones. Such was this, a secret mirror reflecting the unknown to the known, an inner world that inverted the outer world, a dark truth to match the sunlit one above, a perfect balance of stone, air, and animals.

The yin/yang of his revelation embarrassed Li, and so he had not spoken about it to anyone else on the expedition. Indeed, for a time he dismissed his notion of harmony as a cosmological itch born of his Chinese-American heritage. But then Li discovered he wasn’t the only one thinking such thoughts, nor the first, not by a long shot. He had found his notion confirmed, exactly confirmed, written in stone. Carved in it. By hadals.

Not being a cryptographer or archeologist, Li had no definite idea what the hadals had been communicating with their glyphs, writings, and other cave art. Like the others, he had snapped photos of the more remarkable examples, and speculated on the meaning of this or that rune or symbol. Underneath their bloody-mindedness, the hadals had apparently been a whimsical race. They had left stylized depictions of flowers, animals, the sun and moon, along with murals and tableaux of wars waged and humans sacrificed, their hearts pulled out, their heads chopped off, their skins flayed. Very Aztec.

Then one day Li had found something that took him beyond the superficial, and turned his universe upside down. Or inside out. There, cut into the base of a high obelisk, was a yin/yang symbol. It was unmistakable, the circle enclosing conjoined opposites…and yet probably fifteen to twenty thousand years older than the Chinese sign.

That had been the beginning of his sympathy for the devil, so to speak. He was doing his best not to get carried away with it. Only a fool would romanticize the hadals as noble savages. Everywhere Li looked, he had found a culture built on slavery and murder. Even at the height of their civilization, they had used humankind as their cattle. In their pictograms, in statuary, in the iron chains and shackles and cages used to secure human prisoners, in the drinking cups made of human skulls, the hadals had celebrated sadism and bloodletting and predation.

And yet, at the same time, only a fool would ignore the civilization they had built down here, so far from the sun, one might almost say so far from God. For two years now, the ghosts of the hadals had been speaking to him, not with their sad piles of preserved flesh and bones, but with the glory of their ruins.

While humankind had still been figuring how to put iron in the fire and seeds in the ground, the hadals were sculpting domed monuments to emperors. Their Michelangelos were engraving magnificent bas-reliefs, their da Vincis were inventing, their Newtons were arriving at basic truths. Li had found math equations etched into slabs overgrown with yellow and blue lichen. Yes, whole theorems, using hadal numbers and symbols!

In this perpetual night, dynasties had replaced other dynasties while their cousins, H. sapiens, were still loping about on the surface terrifying the mastodons to death. While man was just beginning to daub ochre bison onto cave ceilings, the history of the hadal empire had been written and forgotten. And not only the history of their empire, but also of their religion. Because Li was convinced they had worshipped a single deity.

The rest of his team refused to grant the hadals a god. It was still an affront to them that an offshoot of H. erectus had preceded man in every aspect. That the evidence now showed human civilization had probably leaked to the surface world, borne by escaped slaves. That man was not the first. How could it be that mutants, mere hominids, these slope-browed primitives, these living fossils, could have been our superiors, ever? God was the answer, or so the politicians and evangelists—more and more they were the same—would have you believe. Something had to distinguish us from them, and so people had fastened on to monotheism as the grand event that had catapulted humans past hadals.

But Li had walked through huge structures that could only have been cathedrals and temples at one time. Even after all these eons, their acoustics were crisp and precise. A voice at the front carried through the whole chamber. Whose voice but a hadal bishop’s or rabbi’s or imam’s or rinpoche’s?

And how else did you explain the presence of the same recurring glyphs and images and spirals carved in the walls leading to the most impressive buildings in each hadal city? Prehistoric graffiti, his scientific companions said, dismissing it. God, Li knew. The hadals had found the sacred down here. How could they not? Who else but God could have created—and hidden—a world of such beauty and wonders? The only question in Li’s mind was what kind of god they had worshipped, a dark one or a light one, or one that embraced it all, including the crickets.

“A little more,” Watts said to them. He stood. The rest of them stood. Their coral branches of horns scratched against the tunnel ceiling. After two years of walking, they were all leg muscle.

Bill stayed squatting. He wasn’t going any farther with them. It would mean the end of him eventually. There were no hadals to dodge. But somewhere in the darkness a rock slide or a swift current of black water or an insect with venom had his name on it. Or he would simply starve. No one argued with him. He no longer existed. They walked past him. Not one so much as murmured a good-bye.

Li was the last in line. “Tell me what it was like,” he said.

Bill gave a grin with what was left of his teeth.

Farther ahead, Morris, the geologist with the kidney stone, grunted as he walked. The team had run out of pain medication ages ago. The colony would have drugs and a doctor. Their suffering was nearly at an end.

But two days later, when they reached the outskirts of the well-lit colony, Li realized their suffering had only just begun. Bill was right. They should have kept going deeper out there.

There was no challenge, no warning. A gunshot snapped through the tunnel. Brooks, their botanist, dropped in a heap.

“Don’t shoot,” Watts yelled into the blinding light. “We’re friends. Don’t shoot.”

A man’s voice said, “They talk?”

Li and the others were quiet as mice. Quieter. Almost as quiet as Weber.

Another man shouted from the light, “Lay down. Right now. Noses into the floor. Kiss it. Anyone moves and we open up on the whole shitload of you.”

After a minute, Li heard boot steps. There were seventeen of them. They had been eating beef, he could smell the grease in their pores. Deodorant. Skoal’s chewing tobacco. Quartz dust in the cleats of their boots. Gold miners.

“This one’s dead. You got him through the eye.”

Brooks had been the one pressing hardest to go home. Two years of surviving in the tubes, just inches away from the ride home…he’d almost made it.

Watts started talking fast, part plea, part blame. “We’re team two with NASA. The space agency. Only inner space. Scientists. Unarmed. What have you done? Don’t shoot. Isn’t this the Sitka Station? We left here twenty-three months ago. Is Graham still in charge here? I want to see the person in command. Right now.”

“Enough of that,” a big man said. “Calm yourself down.”

“He has a family. You just shot him. Calm myself? Six thousand miles. We were here. We made it back. What have you done?”

Li could smell the inside of Brooks’s head. The blood traced past his fingers along a runnel in the floor.

“Let’s see some identification, mister.”

“Here, in my pouch, take it, damn you.”

After consulting one another, the men let them stand. But they kept the rifle muzzles trained at their faces, fingers on the triggers.

“Talk some more,” one demanded.

“Talk?” Watts snapped. “You’ve killed a man. A good man. Are you crazy? Lower those damn weapons.”

“He speaks English,” one of the men slowly observed.

It hit Li. The sentries thought they were hadals. Even up this close.

“They’re human?”

“What the hell happened to you boys?”

“Take them in,” a big man said.

What remained of team two entered the colony in a line, tentatively, barefoot and blinded. Li’s head throbbed. The acid light burned his eyes.

Blurred shapes bracketed the path. Voices fenced them in. Li heard them clearly.

“Who are they? What are they?”

“Team two, NASA, that lost bunch. Feds.”

“But they died out there.”

“Not a word in two years.”

“What happened to them?” Over and over, that question. “How could this happen?”

“Mommy, that one’s crying.”

Tears were running from Li’s eyes, flushing the smog and blaze of light. And the sickness in his heart.

“He’s coming home,” said the mother. “He’s just glad to be back.”

That wasn’t it, though, far from it. Li tasted the salt. He had made a mistake. Bill.

“Simms shot one. Hell, look at them. Horns and near naked. How were we supposed to know? Shoot first, ask later.”

The air gagged Li. It reeked of diesel fuel and engine grease and electricity and cement dust. Leftover food lay rotting in their homes. Even their sewage was ripe with waste. Overfed, their bodies had cast off the abundance.

He felt panic. What have you done? He didn’t belong here. This was a terrible mistake. But it was too late to run. They had him hemmed in from behind.

The shapes clarified. The crowd took on substance, lots of it. Subsisting on protein bars and whatever they could catch, his sticklike comrades had become the norm. These settlers shocked him with their immense shoulders and chests and padded stomachs. Even the thin ones seemed plump. Like cattle. He shut out the thought.

He should have known better. He had known better. And yet he was here.

No one offered water, or rest, or even a hey or a nod. No one spoke to them, only about them, as if they were wild animals sliding through. Li could feel their fear. It went beyond that. Revulsion. It was hard not to take it personally, but he tried. They were defending themselves. It was that simple.

Driven by poverty, greed, desperation, or dreams, these people had descended from all that was familiar to find what they were missing in their lives. They had carried light into the darkness, full of blind faith, believing their rewards lay just around the next bend. Now this little NASA parade of monstrosities had appeared from deeper yet, and it threatened them. It terrified them. They had thought they could muck around in the basement of the earth and not be changed, at least not like this. They had thought they could have deliverance without transformation.

“They must have done something wrong.”

“Went too deep, that’s what. It happens. Those boys went to the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Li’s misshapen companions were silent, because now they had their answer. The loathing would only get worse as they neared the surface. They could no longer pretend the Interior had not left its mark on them. Their wives would flinch. Their children would have nightmares about the creature in their house.

As he walked between the gawking settlers, Li withdrew deep into himself. He pictured Bill wandering like a monk into the core of darkness, padding through the tunnels, roaming through the hollow cities. He imagined Bill slowly starving or falling through a shaft or losing his mind among the empty temples and fortresses, and thought, What glories will I never see?

ARTIFACTS

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The Underground Economy: “Deep Dollars” Both Boom and Bane

Fueled by a surge in raw exports, the Subterranean economy grew an astounding 282.1 percent last year. Meanwhile tax revenues, corporate profits, and earnings sent home by workers in the Subterrain, have sent federal and private spending on the surface into overdrive.

Fueled by “deep dollars,” the U.S. has seen a boom in spending in all sectors, from health and education to information technology, transportation, and the military. Analysts predict the recent record deficit will be wiped out in the next two months. Unemployment rates have tumbled. Wall Street broke 15,000 last week.

And yet President Wayne Burr has called for a range of economic sanctions to be imposed upon the entire Subterrain. “Plain and simple, we are getting bought off by rogue states,” Burr said. “While we spend the riches sent up from below, Subterranean regimes are building armies, stockpiling weapons, and trafficking in humans and drugs. The international order is disintegrating before our eyes, undermined by warlords and modern-day conquistadores using petroleum and precious metals to bribe the surface nations. Unless we reject their temptations and take control, we will find ourselves hostage to our own appetites.”

Of particular concern, says Burr, is the recent spate of coups in sub-Atlantic regions, the assassination of UN peacekeepers in sub-Africa, and China’s continuing violation of immigration limits throughout the Pacific commons. Numerous terrorist organizations are known to have bases under the surface.

But one man’s terrorist is another’s revolutionary, at least according to several Subterranean politicians. On a recent swing through the Subterrain, this reporter found uniform consent among colonists that surface fears are overblown.

“If anything, it is we who are being held hostage to the needs and demands of surface nations,” said Tommy Hardin, the disgraced ex–House representative from Texas, and now a governor within the Pacific Confederacy. “We are subject to taxation without representation. Surface tariffs cripple our factory goods. Food, medicine, and other critical supplies are sold to us for outrageous profits. UN troops are garrisoned in our settlements at our expense, where they act above our laws.”

President Olmec of the Correo Pacifico Sector has set off alarms with his pledge to seize control of all drilling and mining operations in his region. “There must be just compensation for our labor and resources,” he says. “No more pillaging by the sunshine pirates.”

4

BENEATH THE MUSICIANS SEAMOUNTS, NORTH OF HAWAII: 5,635 FATHOMS

You saw the most amazing things through a sniper scope.

At the moment, Ian Beckwith, Navy SEAL, was admiring a strange, leathery hummingbird licking the inside of a cave “flower” made of gypsum crystals. Hovering a few inches to the left of his target, at a range of 938 yards, it pulsed in his night optics. Unless he was wildly mistaken, this was a species never before seen. Later he would add the bird to his sniper log.

Every sniper kept a sniper log. The front page had handy algorithms for reckoning distances, plus human physiology factoids, like how long a head was, or how many inches it was from your neck to your navel. The rest of the book was for recording kills. This is where Beckwith kept his life list. Encrypted.

A life list was the birder’s version of a sniper log. It listed every new species one saw. Beckwith’s life list also served as a sort of memoir. Peregrines reminded him of a certain city where he’d stalked and shot a terrorist. Parrots summoned to mind a drug cartel he helped root out, one shot at a time. A whippoorwill once sang to him while he smoke-checked—shot dead—the leader of a Communist coup. In a sense, they became the souls of his kills.

To say the least, watching birds wasn’t part of his job. He had to be careful. A gunnery sergeant once came close to finding him out. Luckily Beckwith was jotting down his sighting of a great tit flicker, and the gunny decided that if anything could be excused, it was most definitely that.

They trained you in sniper school to focus your mind the way you focused your scope. Dial it in. No distractions. Watch. Wait. Make the kill. Pack up. Get away.

But Beckwith couldn’t help himself. After a time, the targets reduced to mathematical calculations. Whereas every time he uncapped his scope, a whole new world lay waiting.

“Wind?” said Beckwith.

“One minute right,” said his spotter.

A military sniper rifle is considered a crew-served weapon. It takes only one finger to pull the trigger. But your spotter provides you with an extra pair of eyes, and a second brain, and backup if the enemy starts to close in.

“Elevation?”

The spotter told him the numbers. Beckwith adjusted the knobs. The hummingbird flickered like a little tongue of fire inside that crystal flower. So beautiful!

Until sniper school, Beckwith had never paid the slightest attention to birds. He’d never been a hunter, a student of birds, or even much of an outdoors person. Sniper school had changed all that. Now he hunted men for a living. He lived outdoors mostly. And he was an avid birder.

The first time it happened he was on an exercise like this one, but up on the surface. He was wearing a ghillie suit, one of those monstrously hot and fetid lumps of garbage and grass they sometimes used for camouflage. He had been dressed as a cow pasture that early morning, and was lying next to a pile of flyblown shit, glassing the far-off weeds for a target, not exactly hating his life, but not exactly loving it either.

He had joined the marines ten years ago, when the deeps were first revealed and Haddie seemed to be lurking in every shadow. Like so many other young recruits, he had heeded the call of the president to “join up and take the fight to hell and back.” But by the time he finished basic, the fight was over. Haddie had been exterminated. Mission accomplished, the president announced. Beckwith had never even seen a live hadal, much less shot at one.

Stuck with three more years of service, Beckwith had decided to improve himself. One thing had led to another until the morning he found himself sharing space with a pile of cow flop, peering through a sniper scope, and contemplating his lowly station in the universe. That was when, through his scope, he strayed upon two creatures dancing face-to-face. Time had stopped for Beckwith. Wings spread, the two whooping cranes—he looked them up on his next leave—went on dancing and flapping and bobbing their heads hypnotically. After that, out in the field, whether training or manhunting for real, Beckwith could not seem to escape the beauty waiting in his scope.

“I’m holding center chest,” he said to his spotter.

“Roger, on scope,” his spotter said.

“On target.” Beckwith exhaled half a breath and softly squeezed, taking up two of the three pounds of trigger pull. The hummingbird glowed.

“Fire when ready.”

Beckwith finished the squeeze. His bullet left a vapor trail of disturbed air, but with a difference. Here in the darkness, lit by the optics, the hole in the air was full of rainbow colors.

“Hit. Center chest,” said his spotter. “That’s one dead piece of paper, Becky.”

The paper target was an older version, left over from ten years ago, back when Haddie was a threat. The new targets had Chinese soldiers on them. The Chinese army used American soldiers on their targets. That was the point of these training exercises. Wars always loomed for the warrior. Eventually the paper would turn to flesh.

Beckwith lingered with his scope. The hummingbird was gone, though. “Shake a leg, Becky,” said his spotter. “We’re moving out.”

Beckwith reached for his drag bag, sheathed his rifle, and started walking.

One by one, other sniper teams met them along the trail. None was in uniform. Loosely speaking, they didn’t exist, not as marines and SEALS, not in the DMZ. It was just a matter of time before the niceties of international law wore out, though. Once the landgrabbing began at the international level, subterranean warfare was going to be the next big thing. Until that day, however, uniforms—and targets with Chinese soldiers on them—were forbidden down here.

Their cover—when they passed through the settlements and mining outposts—was a fictional NGO called Paramedics for Peace. Beckwith and his fellow snipers were supposed to act like barefoot doctors, never mind the rifle cases. People saw right through their disguise, but if it meant free medical care, they were happy to play along.

So it was in the town they now entered. Margaritaville was built into a cliff side. The citizens crawled from their burrows and caves like insects. Two navy corpsmen set up a medical clinic, and Beckwith got enlisted to help stitch some cuts.

Coming in, they had dispensed drugs, pulled teeth, and fixed a tree’s worth of broken limbs. Cave life could be brutal. Walls collapsed, machinery ate fingers and arms, animals bit you, pockets of gas migrated, underground rivers flash-flooded, and miners got sloppy with their explosives.

It was all pretty standard until two miners carried in a man on a section of aluminum ladder.

The man was a mapmaker. His name was Graham. He looked tough as wire, more like an old-fashioned mountain man than a cartographer, whatever they were supposed to look like. Like Peter O’Toole at the beginning of Lawrence of Arabia, thought Beckwith. Not like this, slashed and mauled.

After getting raked by the talons of some animal, Graham said, he had crawled through the darkness for three weeks, to safety. The old mapmaker couldn’t quit grinning. “Boys, I’m the luckiest man in the planet,” he said. “I made it. I’m going home.”

Beckwith and the corpsmen went to work on the slash wounds on Graham’s chest and abdomen. A crowd of onlookers formed around them. Graham never quit talking despite his wounds. He was a contract worker for one of the big multinational land companies. He had gone out with a long-range surveying team.

“Where’s the rest of your crew?” someone said.

“In the belly of the beast. The black beast.”

“You left them?”

“There was nothing much to leave, believe me.”

“Where are they, Graham?”

“I’m not telling you, boys. That’s my gift to you. Because if I tell you, you’ll go, and if you go, you’ll die, too.”

“They’re dead?”

“They are. We trespassed on the beast, and it got us.”

“What beast is that, old man?”

Graham’s eyes shone with a damning gleam. The man was mad. Beckwith opened a stitching packet.

“By beasts, you mean animals?” said a lanky man. “Was it dogs?”

Beckwith had been briefed on the wild dogs. Left behind by miners or settlers who could take no more of the Hole, the pets went wild, packed up, and were prone to attack the unwary traveler.

But the mapmaker’s wounds didn’t look to Beckwith like a dog attack so much as a knife fight. That disturbed him. Tales surfaced now and then of remote outposts running out of food, and parties lost in the tunnels. It was a documented fact that a group of Japanese lepidopterists, trapped by a cave-in, had resorted to murder and cannibalism.

“Not dogs,” said Graham. “There was just the one of him, and he was only part animal. The rest of him was man, or something like it.”

“What are you talking about, Graham?”

“An ogre or a demon, I don’t know what exactly. Something that’s been living down there a long time, hidden away in the bowels of the earth. Leave him buried, boys.”

“Where is this demon of yours living?”

“I’m not saying.”

“Why is that, Graham?”

“No trespassing. Even here, we don’t belong. That’s the lesson, boys, don’t go any deeper. Just pack it up and walk away. That’s my plan.”

That brought a chorus of snorts. Beckwith glanced around at the grim faces.

“There’s no burying something like this, Graham. Tell us what happened. We’ll decide how to deal with it.”

Beckwith started sewing.

“We only saw snatches of it,” said Graham.

“Start at the beginning, Graham.”

“Promise not to go down there?”

“Convince us we shouldn’t.”

Graham took a breath. “It followed us for a week,” he said. “Probably it was hunting us longer than that. We heard little noises but passed it off as our imagination, or the caves playing tricks on us. One of us would see something and everybody would hit his light. But there was never anything there.

“We blamed the water, or gases that weren’t registering on our monitors, or the air compression. Your brain gets twitchy in all that dark, but not everybody’s at the same time, not unless you’re all drinking the same Kool-Aid. And the thing was that none of us was seeing the exact same thing as the other fellow or even the same thing we’d seen before. We were like blind men feeling different parts of the elephant. One of us would see the scales, another the paws, another its hands. It had all of those things. And a sort of shell for a head. See what I mean, different beasts, none of them real. Except they were all the same thing, and it was real.”

Graham looked like something chucked out of a lawn mower, sliced right down to the white of his bones, and yet he went on with his concoction of a creature. Beckwith was impressed. You don’t get through SEAL training without learning the thresholds of pain, and this old man raised the bar to a whole new level.

“A week goes by,” someone said. “You’re getting buggy. You’re seeing things. Then what?”

“We kept doing our job,” said Graham.

“You said something was hunting you, though.”

“We didn’t know that yet,” Graham said. “But then Sheriff goes missing. We were setting up camp, and that was the first we noticed he was gone. We looked for him. We tried infrared for a heat signature. I rapped down a few potholes in case he had fallen. But there wasn’t a trace.”

The mapmaker looked at Beckwith. “A little more water would be nice.” Beckwith held the bottle to his lips. “That’s tasty,” said the old man.

“Keep on with it, Graham.”

“We decided that whatever happened to Sheriff, it was an accident. We only had another few days before the job was finished. So we kept working.

“Reilly was next on the menu. I was the one who discovered him. I smelled blood, and right away switched my night goggles to infrared, and by God if the walls weren’t glowing with a heat signature. The blood was so fresh it was still radiating some of his body heat. It was like standing inside one of his arteries, that tube of stone all painted with blood.”

“What next?” someone said.

“P.J. and I knew it was time to get out. We ditched the surveying equipment…”

“Goddamn it, Graham,” said a man, and one of the citizens walked away cursing. Beckwith guessed he was the owner of the surveying equipment, and that it wasn’t insured. Probably nothing was down here.

“Cut to the chase, Graham,” another man said. “If you’re talking about Haddie, say so. Are you saying one of them lived through the plague?”

“This was no hadal,” said Graham. “It was too big.”

“A big hadal then.”

“It had claws, and a shell for a head,” said Graham.

“Okay, a big hadal with claws and a shell.”

“And it ate hadals. Lots of them. Hadals and humans and creatures I’ve never seen. Ate ’em all.”

That quieted the audience.

“Let the man tell his story,” someone said.

Graham resumed. “We started out, not running, but always on the move. Two days and nights, never a stop. By the third day, we were getting punchy from the lack of sleep. We decided we’d outrun the thing, so it was okay to take a rest. It wasn’t.” He stopped.

“Go on,” someone said.

“Our lights were off. We were sleeping. All of a sudden I thought I was on fire. At first I didn’t know it was the claws going at me. In the darkness, it just felt like fire. Then it was P.J.’s turn. He started screaming. I turned on my light, and these eyes were waiting for me, eyes like ours, intelligent, but totally wild. Then my light got smashed, and those claws went at me again. They tell you to play dead with the bears and lions, right? I didn’t have to. I pretty much died, I figure.”

“You blacked out?”

“How can you black out when everything’s already black?” Graham said. “Time passed. I felt pain. At some point I realized I’d been moved. This wasn’t our tunnel anymore. It smelled like the inside of an intestine, like digestion and bad gas and shit. Then I heard the sound of teeth on bone, like a dog working for the marrow. Gnawing away. Splintering it. I realized that I was in this thing’s den, and that it was saving me for later.”

“What did you do?”

“Counted my heartbeats. Stayed still. Tried to think about something else, the sun, the blue sky, riding my Harley along I-70. Better times.”

“Then what?”

“It spoke.”

Beckwith paused in his sewing.

“It what?”

“It said something.”

“It talked?”

“I know. Crazy. I thought, Graham, you’re losing it. An animal that talks? But that’s what it was doing, gnawing on bones and talking to itself, or trying to talk. That scared me more than everything else put together. This thing had the beginnings of a voice. It was alone and trying to talk to itself, but couldn’t quite form the words.”

The skeptics quit challenging Graham. Everyone listened in silence.

“Finally it left. I could hear its nails on the rock. Things got quiet. That’s when I heard P.J. groan. He was alive. We found each other in all the bones and muck. In the darkness, I couldn’t tell who was hurt worse, him or me. We lay against each other whispering, trying to decide what to do. P.J. said he still had his light. I said give it to me. He said no, it would only bring that thing back. The light would be the death of us. Finally I just took it from him and turned it on.”

Beckwith gave him another drink.

“It was bad,” Graham continued. “Reilly’s head was up there. Yes, just his head. And a hand with Sheriff’s Sigma Chi ring on one finger. P.J. was all ripped up. I saw the wounds on my arms and legs.

“We weren’t the first of its victims. Like I said, it ate hadals, too. And it doesn’t just eat, it collects. It had leg bones stacked like firewood, and skulls on a shelf, human and hadal and others. No animal does that.

“Then we heard it coming back. P.J. said Graham, you just fucking killed us. But I saw a hole at the back of the den. We crawled over and squeezed in, and sweet Jesus if it didn’t hold a chimney going up.

“Well, we started climbing. The chimney was tight. It got tighter. We were both leaving skin and blood on the rock, and there was no rope to protect us if we slipped and fell. But what was our choice? That thing was coming right behind us, talking at us with its grunts and barking.

“We wormed up higher and higher, me first, and I was beginning to think we could beat it. Right about then, we came to a squeeze slot. I tried it one way and then another. P.J. was under me yelling hurry up, get it done, that fucker’s coming. I would have let him try the slot, but the chimney was too tight to switch spots, so it was up to me. I stretched long and blew all the air out of my lungs, and it worked. I shimmied through the slot and the tube opened up. I saw a feeder tunnel just above. All P.J. had to do was finish the slot.

“But he was a big man, you boys remember? I turned myself around, upside down, and I told him the moves, one arm up, a foot there, now blow your air out. I held the light. I touched his fingers. I was sure he had it. Just a little more. But then he took a breath. His rib cage swelled up and that was that. He jammed in the slot as tight as a nail. He couldn’t come up and he couldn’t go down.

“I slid down some more. I reached his hand and pulled. You’re killing me, he says. No I’m not, come on, you’re almost there, I say. We go back and forth like that. I’ve got the light. His face is all red. His eyes are starting to get the black panic in them. If he loses his cool, I know it’s all over. Smooth and easy, I tell him, just a little more.

“All of a sudden he gave a big jerk. His mouth opened up like a fish out of water. His eyes bugged out. He didn’t scream. No air for screaming. He just looked at me. It was like the most terrible knowledge written on his face.”

“What are you saying? Graham, what happened?”

“The thing had caught up with him and taken a bite. Then it took another. This little squeal came out of poor P.J., like air leaking.”

“What did you do?”

“Well, I stayed with him as long as I could. Every now and then he would jerk hard and it was that thing tugging on him, trying to uncork the hole and get to me. But P.J.was jammed. So it fed on his legs. P.J.never quit looking at me. Finally his eyes glazed over. The light went out of them. I said good-bye, brother, next life, all that. I scooted myself around and reached the feeder tunnel and left him behind. Pretty soon, the battery died.”

The mapmaker got quiet. His eyes closed. Beckwith thought the drugs had knocked him out. It seemed the old man might get a chance to heal and see the sun again. Beckwith hoped so. He didn’t know the man from Adam, and this was none of his business. But he had come out of the infamous hell week convinced that suffering was ultimately redemptive. Whatever had happened down there, the mapmaker had definitely suffered.

“Hey,” said a man with a bull’s neck and shoulders. “We’re not finished with you yet.”

Graham’s eyes opened. He looked around. The grin surfaced. “Here I am.”

“You think we’re fools?” said the bull. “An animal that talks killed everyone but you? And then you spend three weeks crawling, with no light, lost and alone? And somehow you land right back in Margaritaville?”

“He got lucky,” someone else said. “Ease up, Mick.”

“There’s no such thing as lucky, not in the tubes,” Mick said. “We’ve all been out there. We know what it’s like. I say he planned it. It was premeditated, it had to be.”

“Planned what, Mick? Look at him. Do you think he cut himself to ribbons?”

“He must have hidden caches of food along the trail when they were going down,” said Mick. “And made secret marks in the tunnels to guide him back. There’s no other way he could have made it out alone. I want answers. P.J. was my friend.”

“You’re right, Mick,” Graham said. “The truth is, I wasn’t alone. I got aided and abetted. I had help.” He smiled. His eyes gleamed. “Inside help.”

People muttered darkly.

“There,” said Mick. “By God, who was in on it with you?”

Graham smiled a little wider. “P.J.”

“What?”

“And Reilly. And Matthews.”

“What are you saying, old man?”

“They talked me in. It was like a radio call, but without the radio.”

“Quit your hogwash.”

“I’m telling you straight,” said Graham. “Whenever I wanted to quit, they kept me going. Wherever I got lost, they led me right. They were with me every inch of the way, whispering me in.”

“He’s lost his mind.”

“God’s truth, boys. Clear as crystal. Souls,” said Graham. “Dead souls. Whispering away down there as real as you and me.”

Beckwith would have told him to shut up. The fool was pouring gas on the flames with his crazy nonsense. But it was too late.

“First a demon creature, now dead souls,” said Mick. “What next, angels with flaming swords? Out with it, old man. Where’d you leave the bodies?”

“Down where you’re not going because I’m not telling,” Graham said. “Now I’ve seen. There’s places we shouldn’t go. There’s things we want to leave alone.”

“You’re hiding something more than bodies. What was worth killing three men for? Gold? Diamonds? What? Where’d you leave them, old man?”

“Not another word from me,” said Graham.

“Tell us, you murdering bastard.”

Beckwith felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. It was Mick. The veins stood out on his temples. “We’ll take it from here,” he said.

“I’m not finished,” said Beckwith.

“Yeah, you are. Your work is done, mister.”

Beckwith stood up. Like many men in special ops, he was under six feet and not heavily muscled. This pissed-off miner had a hundred pounds on him easily. “The man’s hurt and tired and dehydrated,” he said.

“Step away,” said Mick.

“He’s delirious. He doesn’t know what he’s saying.”

“You’re in my way,” said Mick.

The corpsman folded his kit shut. He leaned close to Beckwith. “We’re done here,” he said.

“Not yet,” said Beckwith. The corpsman glanced at the crowd and frowned at him.

Another of the snipers stepped in. “It’s over, man. We’re out of here.”

“You know what’s going to happen once we leave,” said Beckwith.

“We can’t save the world. Let’s go.”

“You don’t just turn a man out to the wolves.”

“We did our best,” said the corpsman. “Let go, Becky. Walk away.”

“They’ll kill him. I’m not signing off on that.” He sounded crazy, even to himself. The mapmaker was a complete stranger. His welfare had zip to do with their training mission. They’d descended to this region to shoot paper targets, not tangle with the locals.

“Saddle up, Becky. We’re leaving.”

Beckwith didn’t budge. He looked around at the crowd and saw the bleakness and severity of this place on their faces. They belonged to the cave. They werethe cave. Someone had to fight that. Otherwise the darkness won.

“I’ll stick with you,” Beckwith said to Graham. And he meant it.

The old man pushed at Beckwith’s leg. “Thanks, but no thanks, friend. Get back to where you came from. Don’t waste yourself on the dark places.”

“You’re going with me,” Beckwith said.

He shoveled his hands underneath the mapmaker and started to lift him. It could have worked. The crowd would have parted for him and he could have carried the old man out of there. But Graham yelled out in pain, and Beckwith set him flat again.

“Fight,” said Beckwith.

The mapmaker closed his eyes. “I’m tired, son. I hurt.”

“You said you want to go home,” said Beckwith. “Let’s go home.”

But Graham turned his face away.

“A savior with no one to save,” Mick scoffed.

One of the snipers stepped forward. “If I were you,” he said to the giant miner, “I’d quit crowing and go get drunk and thank the gods. Because today’s the day you looked into the eyes of the angel of death, and for some fucking reason he let you walk away.”

Mick’s grin died.

An arm went around Beckwith’s shoulder. It was his spotter. “Grab your gear, dude. You did your best.”

Beckwith looked down at the old man on the ground with his half-sewn wounds and emaciated body, and for the first time in his life he surrendered. And it did not feel good.

ARTIFACTS

From NAVAL SPECIAL WARFARE BASIC SNIPER TRAINING

Equipment

The sniper should have with him the following items:

1. Suitable paper in a book with a stiff cover to give a reasonable drawing surface
2. A pencil, preferably a number 2 pencil with an eraser
3. A knife or razor blade to sharpen the pencil
4. A protractor or ruler
5. A piece of string 15 inches long

From CUSTOMS

A Medieval Carthusian Monk’s Equipment

He (the monk copyist) should be given an inkwell, quill pens, chalk, two pumice stones, two horns, a small knife, two razors for scraping the parchment (one ordinary stylus and one finer), a lead pencil, a ruler, some writing tablets, and a stylet.

5

TEXAS

When the crickets started up, Rebecca laid aside her book and went to the window. Lightning flickered to the south. Something was coming in from the Gulf.

Jake was doing battle under the big oak, killing weeds and getting raked by the rosebushes and slaying the mosquitoes, all in the name of his so-called lawn. It was a ratty, sorry thatch of a thing, but that did not diminish his territorial imperative. Until the blue northers came breasting down from Canada with their hard cold, the suburbs would stay green. Meaning Jake would have his bit of grass to defend for at least another month.

Further out she spied Sam dancing on the edge, all too literally, and her mother’s heart gave a squeeze. Sam was not a bold child in most things. The prospect of fourth grade frightened her. And she had what Rebecca considered a proper loathing of snakes, bees, doctors’ needles, and dinosaur movies. But when Daddy was around, Sam had the courage of lions. Or cubs.

Just now Sam was performing bits of ballet upon the very lip of the limestone cliffs that fell straight to the river. Jake looked perfectly oblivious in his salt-of-the-earth way. It took everything for Rebecca to keep from rushing out. Have a little faith. Things were fine out there. Somehow, with Jake around, they always were.

By her Aggie standards, Jake was not so very big. But she had seen him lift fallen trees, and once carry a man with a broken leg over nine miles of bad trail, and hold her family strong after her father passed on. On a trip to Ireland, he had talked his way out of not one, but two sure brawls…and left the pubs with everyone in fine humor. Jake took care of things. Sam worshipped him. As did Rebecca.

Watching them together, she began to relax. Father and daughter were in perfect wordless synch. Without actually looking at each other, Sam never strayed more than twenty feet away from her daddy, nor he from her. They were like satellites orbiting each other.

Lightning stitched the horizon. There was no thunder. The storm was far away.

At last Rebecca went out onto the porch. “It’s time, you two,” she called.

Sam resisted. “Watch this, Mama.” She did a pirouette. Right on the edge.

“Come away from there,” Rebecca said.

“But Daddy said—”

“I don’t care, young lady. You’ve gone plenty close.”

“You worry too much, Mama.”

Jake laid aside his bag of weeds and grabbed her. “Let’s go, Junior.”

That was her new handle, self-selected. When they’d pointed out that Junior was a boy’s title, she had shrugged. She already went by a boy’s name. And wasn’t Daddy a room mom at school? If he could be a girl, she could be a boy. Or something like that.

Coming in, they smelled of grass and lemonade. “It’s bedtime,” Rebecca said.

Sam looked at her. She looked at her father. “Not yet,” she said.

“Yet,” said Rebecca.

“Please, Mama?”

“School starts next week, Sam. We have simply got to get you back on schedule.”

The girl glanced down the hall at her bedroom door and gave it a moment’s thought. She solemnly shook her head no.

“Not this again,” Rebecca sighed. “You’ve had Daddy three nights in a row. When do I get him?”

“When they go away,” Sam said.

Her monsters.

Jake thought it had to do with the recent and premature demise of Santa Claus, leprechauns, and the tooth fairy. The Baptist minister’s boy had ever so helpfully broken the news on the playground. And it had happened with the minister right there watching, not saying a word. Rooting out the heathen from man’s dark heart. Setting straight a child’s beliefs.

Jake held up a finger, as if suddenly remembering something. “What do we have here?”

With a magician’s flourish, he produced a small paper sack from the HEB store. Inside was a Disney mermaid night-light. “You won’t believe how pretty this is in the dark. I asked the lady at the store. She said her little girl still uses hers, and she’s off to college now.”

Sam looked at the night-light. She admired it. But she didn’t touch it. You couldn’t buy her off that cheaply. “They’re in my closet,” she said. It was becoming a broken record.

“I checked last night, baby. And the night before that. There’s nothing but clothes and shoes in there.”

“I can hear them in the crawl space.”

“I checked down there, too. Clean as an elephant’s ear.”

An elephant’s ear? But Sam was in no mood for distractions. “Underneath the crawl space, then,” she said. “They’re hiding.”

“Come on, Sam.”

“It’s true. I’m too young to lie. You said so.”

It was a test. Sam was up for some imagination if they were. No Santa, then no monsters. But if there could be monsters, then there might be a Santa. Meaning, maybe the fat elf had some mileage left in him after all. If Daddy would sleep with her again.

Jake looked at Rebecca, who nodded in a sort of happy resignation. Monsters it was.

“Okay, kid,” he said, and picked his girl up. “First the teeth, then the pillow. Do I get the outside of the bed again?” He headed down the hall with her slung over his shoulder. “I’m not sure we finished our story last night anyway.”

“Are you sure there’s no monsters?”

“There used to be, darlin’. In the old days.”

“What about now?”

“What do you think?”

“Yes,” she said. “There’s monsters all right. Lots and lots and lots of them. They’re just waiting, is all.”

ARTIFACTS

THE WASHINGTON TIMES

China’s Bare-Branch Policy Denounced

The secretary of the Interior Department today charged that China is waging a “shadow war” with the U.S. by flooding the Pacific underground with tens of thousands of its “surplus” adult males. This has created a “Chinese octopus,” said Secretary Tom Tancredo, with tentacles now reaching over a thousand miles out from the Chinese coast.

“China is emptying its prisons and ghettos into the Subterrain,” Tancredo said. “China offers financial incentives, pays for transportation, and provides housing and food for the criminals and gangsters going down. China is conducting a slow-motion conquest of international territory. This is a deliberate strategy aimed at destabilizing the entire sub-Pacific.” He labeled this strategy China’s “Bare Branches Policy.”

For centuries China has preferred sons over daughters, resulting in an imbalance of 120 (some claim 150) males for every 100 females. With too few women to go around, poor, unskilled, and illiterate men are increasingly unlikely to marry. These are the fruitless “bare branches” who historically form gangs or bandit armies, control crime, and fuel nationalistic wars.

“China’s population disaster is spreading disease, corruption, Han supremacy, and a culture of superviolence through the Pacific Subterrain,” Tancredo said.

China’s ambassador to the U.S. calls such language “inflammatory and counterproductive.” The bare branches are “floaters,” said Ambassador Yao Deng. “If they wish to leave the motherland to better their lives, we cannot prevent them. Freedom of travel is a human right, yes?”

6

DIALOGUES WITH THE ANGEL, NUMBER 1

The angel and his disciple are walking along a path. They come to a colony of ants. The angel stops and picks up one of the ants.

You came to kill me,” the angel muses to the disciple. His voice rings against veins of metal in the stone.

I came to learn, Lord,” says the disciple.

To learn how to kill me.”

To learn how to kill evil, Rinpoche. But that was before.”

Before?”

Before I realized that ignorance is the evil. Before I understood that you cannot die, Teacher. Before you taught me to renounce all violence.”

The angel is amused. “And so I am no longer the source of all evil?”

You are the diamond, Messiah.”

The ant struggles in those marble white fingers. Hold it too hard, and the angel would crush it. Too lightly, and it would escape.

It is a lesson. Every motion, every step, every breath he takes is another lesson. The disciple watches everything. Nothing the angel does is accidental.

Do you know how many assassins have come to me over the eons?” says the angel.

Many, Lord.” The disciple has seen the Collection.

Do you know what I have done with them?”

Destroyed them one by one, Ocean of Wisdom.”

The angel places the ant to one side of their path, safely on its feet. “I offer myself to them. I try to overcome their unawareness, and in the process I recall all the things I know about the universe.”

Yes, Lord.” But the disciple has seen the Collection.

Some I trained and sent back into the light of day. Some I dressed in my powers and let them pretend to be me, so that I could shape my legend. Others, like you, I keep with me in my solitude.”

The disciple bows his head respectfully. But he does not lower his eyes from the angel’s face. The angel has warned him. Never look away. I am a hungry god.

Let us continue on your path to knowledge,” says the angel.

Lord, lead me on.”

The angel turns. He goes on. The disciple watches as he crushes the rest of the ant colony beneath one foot. The disciple learns the lesson. Many are called. Few are spared.

ARTIFACTS

Diary Notes for a Symphony Subterranea by Gregorio Montaña

*

As a boy I was spellbound by the discovery of the Neanderthal flute in 1995 by Dr. Ivan Turk of the Slovenian Academy of Arts and Sciences (SAZU). It was made from the femur of a cave bear and dated to forty-five thousand years old. Also by the discovery of the flutes (from the wing bones of the red-crowned crane) and tortoiseshell drums at Jiahu, China (7000 to 5800 bc), and a triangular-shaped lyre on a statue at Keros in the Aegean Sea (2700 bc). That was when I first thought of a prehistoric symphony. I made versions of the instruments and learned to play them.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. The oldest known song was recorded on Assyrian cuneiform tablets (2000 bc) and used harmony and the diatonic scale (do, re, mi, etc.).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Then the inside of the earth was discovered, and I began to see instruments of every kind. Now, with my own lips, I have played notes from Subterranean flutes twenty-five thousand years old (standard diatonic to heptatonic, including a flatted la and a neutral third for mi, i.e., a blue note). I have translated fragments of hadal songs. I have listened to recordings of recaptured slaves singing. One woman has heard the hadals sing their own songs. After my doctorate I must get to America and meet her. Her name is Alexandra Von Schade.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What does music have to do with the underworld? My professors mock me. I don’t know the answer to my own question. It is like a riddle God has planted in my hands. The connection eludes me, but I feel it in the middle of the night, when everyone else is asleep. Somehow music is our salvation.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dr. Von Schade wrote back to me! Suddenly I am not alone. Now there is someone to discuss what came first, music or words. She is a linguist, and feels strongly for words. We argue in our e-mail. We have passion for what we believe. I feel drunken on this. Someday I will finish my symphony and dedicate it to her.

7

AMERICA

It was Halloween, the one night of every year that American parents can be depended on to send their children out into the darkness like eager sacrifices. The sun had barely set. Costumes were just appearing, a nation’s little nightmares on parade.

With so many disguises that night, the task of distinguishing the missing from the dead would be all the more difficult come morning.

A dad—this one’s name was Dave—was walking behind his little gypsy on her Schwinn. He’d taken off the training wheels that very morning. Growing up. Too fast. “Slow down, Jen.” Of course she only pedaled faster. Got to make more time for the munchkin.

Down the path she wobbled, beyond the reach of the park’s vapor lights. She gave Dad one glance over her shoulder. A smile. He was there. All was safe. Onward she went, into the darkening woods.

The orange-lit plastic pumpkin on her handlebars dipped out of sight.

“Jen.”

Silence.

Louder. “Jenny.”

A deeper silence.

Dave’s dad alarm went off. Boogeymen sprang to mind, the gangs, the crackheads, the unregistered sex offenders, the homeless. Who knew what all lived in these shadows? They were legion.

He wasn’t in the best of shape. Too many Dairy Queens on summer nights. Too much grazing in Costco. Memo: Cut down, Dave. Huffing and puffing, Dave pounded along the pathway.

It smelled of loam and rotting leaves among the trees. Water was trickling in hidden veins. Shadows loomed, a bony web of branches. The pale moon watched.

“Jennifer.” Again. Strictly. They were going to have to have a talk. There is a time and place for games, but not in dark and dangerous woods. “Jennifer.”

Animals skittered. Leaves stirred. He was getting a little scared, but had not the slightest doubt that everything was fine. He would find her around the next bend. They would have a story to share. Remember that time in the park…

Four kids—two Spidermen, one Jason, one Ring girl—crouched behind a swaybacked picket fence. Their target was an old ranch-style tract home. The lights were out. They were never on. The lawn hadn’t been mowed for years. A Re/Max sign waggled in the breeze, long forgotten by its neglectful realtor.

Spiderman One: “There’s two of them living in there.”

Spiderman Two: “Three’s what I heard.”

Jason: “My dad says they’re lesbians. Or Democrats.”

Ring Girl: “That’s mean.”

Jason: “The country needs some spine. That’s what my dad says.”

Spiderman Two: “They’re witches is what they are.”

Spiderman One: “Vampires.”

Jason: “They never come out. They don’t have kids. My dad says they don’t even own a car. Vegetarian dike atheists.”

Spiderman One: “No car? So how do they eat?”

Jason: “Pets. Stray cats. Remember the Browns’ dalmation?”

Spiderman Two: “You don’t know that.”

Jason: “Roadkill. And mushrooms.”

Spiderman One: “I say we TP their trees.”

Ring Girl: “Like they’d care. Look at the yard.”

Jason: “Rock their windows then.”

Ring Girl: “You’re getting psycho, Billy. Again. They’re just old ladies.”

Spiderman Two: “Nan’s right, man. What’d they ever do to you?”

Jason: “They don’t belong. That’s enough.”

Ring Girl: “They could be your grandma.”

Jason: “Or your mom.”

Spiderman Two: “Whatever, Billy.”

Ring Girl: “I’m going up there.”

Jason: “Forget that, Nan.”

Ring Girl: “I’m going to ring their doorbell. I’m going to say hi.”

Spiderman One: “No you’re not.”

Ring Girl: “Watch me.”

Spiderman Two: “Awesome. She’s doing it!”

Spiderman One: “Nan, get back here.”

Spiderman Two: “Now what?”

Jason: “What do you think? She’ll tell everybody we were pussies. We have to go with her.”

Spiderman One: “I’m not going up there.”

Jason: “Pussy.”

Spiderman One: “Take it back, Billy.”

Jason: “Or what?”

Spiderman Two: “Hey, look. The door’s opening.”

Spiderman One: “She’s waving to us.”

Spiderman Two: “Nice, Nan. Now they know we’re out hiding in the grass.”

Jason: “Come on, you guys. Maybe they’ll have some good stuff. Like poison apples.”

Spiderman One: “Or eyeball soup.”

Spiderman Two: “Or dalmatian burgers.”

Spiderman One: “Hey, Nan, wait for us.”

“Ten dollars a head,” Reverend Robbins said to the couple.

“But I’ve got a coupon.”

The reverend smiled. Joe Quarterback was trying to Jew him. Like Robbins was born yesterday. Like he couldn’t take the musclehead down in a heartbeat. Pop his knee out, stomp his head. In one Rocky Mountain heartbeat.

“That coupon’s from last year, son,” he said.

“There’s no expiration date. It says seven bucks. So here’s fourteen for me and her.”

“Twenty dollars, friend.”

“I don’t have twenty.”

The girlfriend started pulling at the hero’s big arm, like, let’s go make babies in the parental SUV. Just then a bloodcurdling scream ripped from the mouth of hell. Robbins calmly kept his back to the maze entrance. He watched the effect on his two young customers. It sent a shudder through them. It made them think. It made them want.

The girlfriend quit trying to leave. She looked at the entrance to the maze. Oh, joy, her eyes seemed to say. Another scream—and these were real screams, that was the beauty of it, real teenage terror, nothing canned—and the deal was swung. “Fifteen dollars and twenty cents,” said the golden boy. “That’s all I’ve got.”

Robbins looked out across the parking lot. More customers were approaching, all clean-cut Jesus types, the guys in Dockers, the girls prim, with long sleeves and buttons all the way to the throat, with little crucifixes on chains, like they were peasants in Transylvania or something. Lots of hormones in motion tonight. Not much T & A, though. A pity, some of these gals. But the upside of all the sanctity was no dopers, no inner-city gorilla eyes, no guns or blades, no trouble. Robbins didn’t need trouble. Just lots and lots of clean green pouring in.

“Fifteen,” said Robbins. “Keep the change. Just don’t tell anybody I caved in for you.”

Joe Quarterback brightened. He looked at Suzy Q like he’d just won state or something.

An hour went by.

Robbins sat there taking money, counting it up, listening to the kids scream their heads off. This year’s “hell house” had cost him an extra fourteen hundred in lumber, paint, and accessories. It was a lot of money, but you had to keep up with the competition. An hour and a half up I-25, two Denver preachers—one a reformed felon like Robbins—were running their own hell houses.

There was good money to be made scaring the secular crap out of nice young Christians, and every year demanded new refinements to the art. Not so long ago you could get away with a few gory dioramas of the punishments awaiting the needle fiends, glue sniffers, drunks, sluts, queers, Hollywood blasphemers, and other fuel for the evangelical flames. Anymore, though, you had to be Cecil B. DeMille.

This year, for instance, Robbins got a Toyota car body from the junkyard, and hung it in midflight as it careened off a fake cliff…with a horrified drunk driver at the wheel. Farther on, a wax figurine of the filmmaker Michael Moore was getting the radical fat roasted off him in a lake of red cellophane “fire.” A perennial favorite was the evil abortionist, played by Robbins’s brother Ted this year, who slowly turned from the metal gynecology stirrups (a pair of horseshoes spot-welded to poles) and held up a bloody fetus (a Wet Baby with the cry voice dismantled). In a nod to current events, the abortionist then sold the fetus to a stem-cell scientist. Another crowd-pleaser was the human vegetable, played by Ted’s wife, who begged for her life while the atheists yanked out her tubes one by one. Farther on, a teacher was beating the snot out of a child for reading a Bible in biology class.

But the real scream machine, this year’s big moneymaker, was the climactic “Inferno” display. Word about the exhibit had spread far and wide. Kids were driving from as far away as Cheyenne to take the plunge—down a plastic slide from Target—into the pit of hell.

Robbins had gone all out making this one, truly his masterpiece. It had pools of darkness, strobe lights, dry-ice fog, and “Sympathy for the Devil” playing really loud. And ghastly fiends that sprang from nowhere. Besides brother Ted and his wife, several more of the Robbins clan had driven all the way from Eugene to dress up as demons and jump out, grab hair, run around on all fours, moan, howl, bark, and generally terrify the sinners half out of their wits. Judging by the screams, Team Robbins was doing a damn good job in there.

Around nine or so, the first Concerned Parent came up. Every year there were Concerned Parents. They always parked at the far end of the lot, where their embarrassed sons and daughters consigned them. Every year they would approach about this time wondering where their Johnny or Corey was. As if he was a babysitter.

“You haven’t seen a girl about this tall, have you?” the mom asked him. “She has blond hair and glasses. It’s been almost an hour.”

“She’d be inside,” Robbins said, hitching a thumb at the hell entrance. “No one’s come out yet. What the young people do is circle around in there. They’re supposed to go straight through and come out. But they get all caught up.”

A caterwauling shriek overrode the Rolling Stones. The mom jerked. Nice legs. No wedding ring. Robbins shook his head and chuckled. “They just love the fear.”

A boy roared. It was a lion’s roar of outrage and pain. Not bad, kid. It died away.

“Good lord,” the mom said.

“Kids,” said Robbins.

But she was staring past him, over his shoulder. “Sally?” she said.

Robbins turned.

A girl was standing there, clothes ripped, face slack, drenched in “blood.” She didn’t answer. Her thousand-mile stare didn’t even see them.

Damn it, thought Robbins. Didn’t I tell Ted and them, no paint? And no goddamn rough stuff. This was the problem with relatives. Upside, they worked for free. Downside, you couldn’t fire them. Now he was looking at a bill for new clothes. And Sally here wasn’t exactly dressed in Wal-Mart blue-light specials.

“Sally?” the mom repeated.

The girl collapsed in a heap.

“Jennifer!” Dave yelled again.

The Schwinn was lying at his feet. Her pumpkin bucket rested in a ball of orange light on the mat of leaves. Around and around, Dave turned. Where to begin? Moon shadows striped the forest floor. Crevices gaped like open mouths among the boulders. Not a soul in sight. And his cell phone was on the fritz.

“Jennifer!” This couldn’t be happening. Any instant she would come bounding from the trees with a “boo” on her lips. But as the woods squeaked and scratched their branches and the seconds became minutes, Dave finally broke the peace and started hollering for help.

Spiderman One: “Nan?”

The boys entered the house tentatively, flashlights slashing at the darkness. There was no furniture. It stunk. Even to their boy nostrils, the place was a violation.

Spiderman Two: “What is that?”

Spiderman One: “Shit. Dog poop.”

Jason: “That’s not dog shit. It’s human.”

Spiderman Two: “On the carpet?”

There were piles of it all over the place. It shocked them. They were ready for bodies, eyeballs, skulls, or bat wings, the stuff of witches. But this house wasn’t so different from their houses, and the women had used it like a way station. Like an animal den.

Spiderman One: “We don’t belong in here.”

Spiderman Two: “What about Nan?”

Jason: “Take a look in here, you guys.”

It was the master bedroom, no bed, no bureau, no mirror. A fire ring set in the middle of the floor had burned right through the Berber carpet. The ceiling was black with smudge.

Spiderman One: “Are those bones?”

Like little twigs. Skulls like strawberries. The boys clustered.

Spiderman Two: “Squirrels.”

Jason: “Or mice.”

Spiderman One: “Cool.”

Spiderman Two: “Where’s Nan?”

Spiderman One: “Quit messing with us, Nan.”

They found a briefcase lying on the kitchen floor. Among the papers was a real estate contract with the signature pages flagged.

Spiderman One: “What’s that stink?”

Jason: “It’s coming from the oven.” The cold oven.

Spiderman Two: “Don’t open it, dude.”

Jason: “Voilà!”

Spiderman One: “What is that?”

Spiderman Two: “Meat.”

Spiderman One: “Meat?”

Jason: “Old meat. It’s all gray. There must be a hundred pounds in there.”

Spiderman Two: “Maybe they got a deer.”

Jason: “There’s no deer around here.”

Spiderman One: “Is that a fingernail?”

Jason: “No way.”

Spiderman Two: “Don’t touch it, numb nuts. Great, now you dropped it.”

They stared at the thing lying on the floor.

Spiderman One: “A hand? Someone’s hand?”

The oven door gaped at them.

Spiderman Two: “That’s a person in there.”

Spiderman One: “I’m leaving.”

Spiderman Two: “What about Nan?”

Spiderman One: “Let the cops find her.”

Jason: “We can’t. They’ll bust us.”

A noise came from the open basement door. The smell of raw earth poured up from below. “Nan?” Another noise.

Spiderman One: “She’s down there.”

Spiderman Two: “I’m not going down there.”

Spiderman One: “We have to.”

They armed themselves with pieces of sharp bone or lumber torn from the walls for firewood. Down they went.

Their lights played over mounds of dirt. Mountains of it.

Spiderman Two: “Prairie dogs? In their basement?”

Jason: “It’s a cemetery, stupid. They’re serial killers.”

Now it made sense. Ghoulish sense. They relaxed.

Spiderman One: “Silence of the Lambs.”

Spiderman Two: “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

Jason: “The Devil’s Rejects.”

Spiderman One: “Uh-oh.”

Jason: “Now what?”

They gathered at the edge of a hole in the back corner. Here was the source of all the dirt. The tunnel snaked down and under the concrete footer and far beyond the reach of their lights.

Spiderman Two: “Nan?”

The hole yawned.

Spiderman One: “Did you hear that?”

Dirt shifted in the corner, hissing faintly.

Jason: “We’ve got to get out of here.”

Their lights slapped at the concrete walls. The stairs suddenly looked so far away.

Jason: “Run.”

“Sam?” Rebecca spoke it from the bedroom doorway. Sam’s bed was empty, though.

“No playing, Sam.”

But Sam didn’t play like this. Plus, she had a fever. Something was going around at school, and they’d finished their trick-or-treating early. Rebecca dropped to her knees and looked under the bed. Toys and a book. Madeline. The little Disney night-light blushed in the corner. That useless thing.

“Okay, Sam, you can come out now.” She threw open the closet door. In her haste, she almost missed the hole under a pile of clothes. The floor-boards had been pushed loose.

“Jake!” she screamed.

He came running, bare feet, bare chest, clutching the big Mag light like a club. He took one look at the hole and, like a bull, ripped more floor-boards loose. It scared her even more. “What are you doing?”

He didn’t answer. “Sam,” he yelled into the hole.

“What is it?”

“I think I know,” he said.

Rebecca stepped back, frightened by his strength, frightened by his certainty.

He jumped in, just like they say, with both feet. She peered through the lip of broken boards, and her husband was plowing at the foundation wall, tearing away cinder blocks. It was like watching him demolish their world.

“Jake?”

He didn’t look up. He didn’t say good-bye. Why should he? He just went right through the wall, from the inside of their safety and boundary to the outside.

Rebecca spun and darted to the window. Like a madman, or a were-wolf in a movie, in his pajama bottoms, nothing else, he raced through the moonlight toward the cliffs above the river. The porous white cliffs. Riddled with lairs.

She tried not to read into what he’d just said. I think I know. But now she thought she knew, too. Which couldn’t be. Jake had told Sam there were no more monsters. He’d promised her with a pinkie shake.

No, it had to be something else. Rebecca defied the evidence. She deliberately ignored the torn-up flooring and the hole leading to another hole to the holes in the cliff. Sam was sleepwalking, that was all. She had wandered off in a dream. Jake would find her. He knew all her hiding places.

But then the moon shadows came alive out there. They boiled up. The oak and the thorn brush and the toolshed suddenly vomited up a whole yard full of animal motion. Watching through the window, Rebecca almost screamed a warning. But the glass stopped her, that’s what she would tell herself later. The impenetrable glass.

She was shocked by how quickly Jake went down. He took a few swings at the pale, moonlit things. He kicked. She heard his faint bellow. Then he disappeared under a small mountain of jackal frenzy.

Rebecca quit watching. She slid from the window. She clutched Sam’s fallen pillow and breathed her baby’s smell. Sam. Sam. Sam.

Later she would replace her cowardice with something stronger. Not tonight, though. Not this endless night.

What they found inside the reverend’s hell house put to shame his little skits and interactive parables. The adults lay slaughtered and left behind, unwanted. To their credit, several of the football players had ganged together and made a sort of last stand. They were the easiest to identify because of the remnants of their letter jackets.

All the other children had been taken.

Hour after hour, they had come and paid in dollars for a taste of hell.

Then hell had come to get a taste of them.

ARTIFACTS

TUCSON, AZ—DAILY POLICE REPORT—10/31

 

table<>. <>. |<>.
p<>{color:#000;}. Time |<>.
p<>{color:#000;}.  

|<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Offense |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Comment | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 4:57 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Dog Pick Up |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 2 dogs fighting | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 6:32 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Disturbance |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Reports loud music in area, contact made and will comply | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 7:15 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Public Service |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Deliver box of Halloween candy to YMCA | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:05 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Disturbance |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Barking dogs in area, no further assistance made, bring dog in | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:06 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Battery |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Reports hearing screaming in area, units in area | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:07 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Residential Alarm |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Basement alarm, Rp called back to cancel, false activation | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:08 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Residential Alarm |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Rear motion and basement motion, Rp did not want house entered | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:08 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Shots |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Shots fired in residence | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:08 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Disturbance |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Children screaming, Rp elderly, officer explains it is Halloween | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:09 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Suspicious |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Female heard screaming for help next door, no victim, no perp | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:09 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Shots |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 25 shots fired in condos, units in area | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:09 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Disturbance |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Man yelling for help | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:10 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Injury Accident |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Homeless man runs into street, struck by car, medical aid on way | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:10 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Disturbance |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 2 women screaming | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:11 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Reck Driver |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Reckless driver in area, units in pursuit | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:11 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Animal Bite |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Bite report, Rp not certain about animal…etc. | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:24 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Overdue Person |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Children late, unit in area | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:24 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Injury Accident |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Body reported | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:24 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Reck Driver |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Reckless driver in area, no pursuit | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:24 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Overdue Person |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Child missing, units in area | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:24 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Injury Accident |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Body reported | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:24 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Medical Aid |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Medical aid requested for fight wounds | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:24 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Animal Bite |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Bite report, not dog; Rp claims hadal; med aid | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:24 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Shots |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Shots fired | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:25 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Overdue Person |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Child missing, units in area | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:25 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Injury Accident |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 3 bodies reported | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:25 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Overdue Person |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 5 children missing | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:25 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Shots |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Shots fired | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:25 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Medical Aid |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Medical aid requested | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:25 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Overdue Person |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 2 children missing | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:25 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Overdue Person |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Child missing…etc. | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:26 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Suspicious |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Rp claims hearing loud thumps on roof, advise stay inside | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:26 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Amber Alert |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Amber Alert issued for missing child | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:26 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Emergency Alert |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. All off-duty officers recalled…etc. | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:38 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Amber Alert |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Second Amber Alert issued for 5 missing children…etc. | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:49 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Amber Alert |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Sixth Amber Alert issued for missing child | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 8:49 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Amber Alert |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Seventh Amber Alert issued for missing child | <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. 9:03 |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.   |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. System Failure |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.  
<>.
p<>{color:#000;}. Amber Alert system crashes

8

THE MORNING AFTER

No parent slept that awful night. Those without televisions got the news from frantic relatives or from school districts on red alert. Police cars threaded the neighborhoods. Helicopters drifted overhead with spotlights filleting the alleys and overpasses. National Guardsmen appeared on lawns in pieces of uniform. In dozens of cities, trigger-happy citizens gunned down unfortunate burglars, vandals, graffiti artists, and pizza-delivery people.

At two in the morning, the president declared a state of national emergency. By dawn the nation’s highways were empty. School and work were canceled. For some reason, despite the fact that the dangers were subterranean in origin, air traffic was shut down, too. Americans turned on their NPR or FOX or Good Morning America or Yahoo. Like intelligence analysts, they called each other to discuss every new blog, interview, factoid, theory, or video clip.

The U.S. had taken the brunt of the attack. Yes, northern Mexico was reporting an incident near the American border, quaintly linked in their media to the Day of the Dead. And yes, a portion of southern Canada had been struck as well. But clearly America had been ground zero. Her children had been stolen. Anyone defending them had been killed.

The figures varied wildly. Some reports suggested thousands of victims. More thoughtful commentators cautioned that the figure might be as low as several hundred or less. Even if it were several dozen, the terror would be the same. On our soil, in our homes, in our modern times, a monstrosity from long ago had once again trespassed against us.

“For those of you just joining us…”

“…numbers continue to be revised. Reports are coming in from across the country. The official count keeps creeping up, Jim. Upward of twelve thousand…”

“White House press secretary Arthur Young has revised initial estimates of last night’s toll—downward—to seventy-three missing and one hundred thirteen dead. He has assured us that fewer than five cities were affected, not the scores of cities that were reported in early reports. Those numbers could change. Meanwhile he is urging calm.”

“And this just in. Los Angeles is reporting widespread rioting and looting. The governor is rushing in troops…”

***

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Deeper

Hell exists. It is a real, geological, historical place beneath our very feet. And it is inhabited savagely. In an intense and imaginative tour de force, New York Times bestselling author Jeff Long takes readers into the depths of the earth where a primordial intelligence waits in the darkness. A decade has passed since doomed explorers unveiled a nightmare of tunnels and rivers honeycombing the earth’s depths. After millennia of suffering terror and predation, humanity’s armies descended to destroy the ancient hordes. Deep beneath the Pacific Ocean, a doomed science expedition killed the subterraneans’ fabled leader, and suddenly it seemed that evil was dead and all was right with the world again. Now Deeper arrives to explode that complacency and plunge us back into the sunless abyss. Hell boils up through America’s subways and basements to take its revenge and steal our children. Against the backdrop of a looming war with China, a crusade of volunteers races to find the vestiges of a lost race. But a lone explorer, the linguist Ali von Schade, learns that a far greater menace lies in the unexplored heart of the planet. The real Satan can’t be killed, and he has been waiting since the beginning of time to gain his freedom. Man and his pitiless enemies are mere pawns in the greatest escape ever devised. Mesmerizing and concussive, this darkly brilliant work of imagination galvanizes Jeff Long’s reputation as a prodigious talent. At once a love story, the ultimate thriller, and an extreme adventure, Deeper will leave you breathless.

  • Author: ExTerra Publishing
  • Published: 2016-10-04 13:05:11
  • Words: 132691
Deeper Deeper