Toby Petry stared into the gaping mouth of the tunnel, hands tight on his rifle as he nervously watched Craig Kent step into the darkness. Armed with only an LED flashlight that barely revealed anything that the mysterious void concealed within, Craig looked back and, with a shrug that seemed to speak of his apathy towards dangers, entered the realm of the unknown. Toby had to wonder if it was due to the ominous nature of the cave itself that the light seemed to just bend and fade into the black hole rather than illuminate the abyss. Just standing before it seemed to drain any optimistic thoughts of success from him, but he kept his pessimism to himself. He thought that Craig was a brave man for being the first to step into the gates of Hell, but Craig was also curious. Curiosity could get a man killed. Being the engineer, it was kind of a given for Craig to have that mindset, and Toby felt sorry for the ambitious young man.
The tunnel was carved out in such a way that a downward incline led farther beneath the crust of the planet, and underneath the entire mountain itself. The recovery team knew they were flirting with death by agreeing to descend into the depths, but the contract stated that the drilling company’s boss demanded an answer as to why the crew of his revolutionary drilling machine had suddenly ceased radio transmission somewhere below, even as it continued burrowing into the abyss. The four mercenaries were to escort the engineer to the mechanism safely so that he could diagnose the issue and, if necessary, pilot the thing back to the surface. Everyone knew that there was a strong chance that the crew was dead, and it would take more than an engineer to determine the cause if that was indeed the scenario. Toby was no expert on geothermal energy, or earth sciences in general for that matter, but something told him that drilling near a known volcanic site, dormant as it was, was probably not the best idea.
Seismograph readings from that morning suggested that the machine had finally stopped functioning, but much farther than the intended length of the tunnel. For fear of volcanic activity triggered by the unsupervised drilling, each member of the recovery team donned fire-retardant flight suits with their gear in harnesses worn over them, and gas masks just in case of a chance encounter with any of the numerous gases associated with volcanic activity. Underneath their masks were their radio earpieces so that they could communicate even at a distance. Each of their primary firearms were fitted with flashlights on the Picatinny rails, each powerful enough to light up a small room if placed in the middle with the beam positioned straight up at the ceiling. They also carried oxygen tanks on their backs, much to Toby’s concern. Not rebreathers to filter the carbon dioxide, but pressurized oxygen tanks. He felt he was probably the only one who actually thought about the risks of carrying pressurized oxygen to deep depths with the risks of toxicity and the presence of weapons, not to mention the unknown volcanic variables, but then again he was always running negative scenarios through his head. His argument was that someone had to consider the worst cases to keep hesitant enough to stay alive, but that was back when he was a solider in the British Armed Forces. It had kept him alive during the invasion of Iraq, and it would hopefully prevail here too.
The other three men of the expedition to retrieve the tunneling machine were all former soldiers as well. Former Indonesian Army soldier Nurul Amir was standing with his Pindad SS2 cradled in his arms before him as he curiously watched after Craig, who was still taking small cautious steps forward into the cavern. The man had joined up with Tiamat Unbound after witnessing the conflicting ideals of his religion wage war with one another for far too long. He sought to fight in a way that didn’t shine a villainous light on Muslims, and hoped to do so under the contracts of the PMC that gave aid to all who were in need. After the invasion of Fallujah last month, he wanted to prove that not all who shared his beliefs were extremists who bathed in Western blood. Then there was Brock Silverstein, the large, proud and exuberant young man who always donned the Star of David, even if it was underneath a vest or his uniform. Silverstein came from a wealthy family in London who wished to see him prevail in college and business rather than on the battlefield, but he sought glory much like any ambitious young man with a strong will. He relished in the freedom of being able to explore the world and become a hero in his own mind. Silverstein always tried to look calm and collected with his MP5 slung under his right arm. Right now he was gazing off at the nearby coast as Nurul was commenting on the naïve nature of the engineer now out of sight, checking the first few yards of the interior. Toby found it ironic that Nurul and Brock were such good friends given that their two religions had a long hate-filled history involving one another, but he wasn’t complaining. There was something inspiring about such a relationship considering what was going on in the Middle East at the moment. Finally there was the squad leader, James Noble, standing off to the side and staring up at the summit of the mountain. James was an interesting man, at least to Toby. Like him, James was a careful individual who analyzed everything before taking action, and respected the unknown as forces not to be underestimated. He was also a pagan, further completing their little group of cultural diversity. Toby had met many people who took their faith seriously, but James truly believed that the gods of ancient Rome still played their roles in the modern world. Since most of the Roman beliefs were taken from Greece, Toby didn’t really see why he had to pick one over the other.
“Any predictions?” James asked Toby. Toby shook his head in the negative, never taking his eyes off of the mouth of the cave.
“I know that look,” Nurul remarked as he looked at the fixated man, “that’s the look you always have before something bad happens. No offense, but you’re a walking bad omen.”
Toby shrugged at the comment, “Call me superstitious.”
“Rather funny,” Brock said with a grin, “coming from the atheist.”
“I’d prefer agnostic,” Toby replied as he returned the look, “I believe in a higher power, I just don’t necessarily agree with you knobheads.”
“Well what do you believe caused a giant drill to suddenly plunge deeper into the earth?” Nurul asked. Toby shook his head.
“Almost a kilometer below sea level?” Brock challenged, “Bollocks. That’s a lot of human error.”
“A kilometer below and even more off course,” James reminded them, “that tunnel is longer than it is deep.”
Brock was about to reply with a rude statement when Craig called out to them from the entrance. All four men approached the engineer who appeared a little too excited to begin. He was pointing into the cave like a child, “It’s magnificent! I can’t believe it worked as well as the models indicated! The Mjölnir truly did a fine job! It’s a perfect circle carved through the very earth itself! It truly is a revolutionary machine!”
“I think this is your joy to be had,” Toby remarked, “since none of us are enthusiastic about delving into a hole drilled near if not into pockets of lava.”
“The correct term is ‘magma,’ as it is still-”
“I don’t really care for the specifics of a molten substance that can kill me,” Brock chastised, “Hot is hot, and death is death. What I care about is getting in and out of that tunnel and getting my pay. What in the bloody hell were you oafs working on here anyway?”
Craig scratched the back of his neck, “I’m…not allowed to disclose that.”
“Hell,” James said in exasperation, “I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t even know. You’re just a giddy tunnel digger, after all.”
Craig’s spirit was crushed by that statement, “Sorry, it’s just that my job is to operate the machinery, and that job is my passion. I wanted to be placed on the team that participated in this endeavor, but my spot was given to that righteous bastard Hoffman instead,” he said in spite. Toby wished that his conflicts between coworkers were that simple. His usually consisted of keeping his squad members from going on blood-rages after botched operations, and death was a consequence. Craig was still ranting as Toby thought on that one, “This was supposed to be a monumental moment for the company,” he continued, “the one hundred and thirty-fifth tunnel we have been tasked to create, carved out by the most advanced machine in the world on its first ‘voyage’ into earth,” his excitement died as he turned back to the opening of the mountain, “and now it’s lost in the throat of the planet,” he snorted, “I’ll wager that Hoffman really cocked this one up.”
“We do not much care for your passion or your petty trifles,” Nurul remarked, “and I would say that you won by losing out.” He walked past the engineer and turned his weapon-mounted flashlight on, stabbing the beam into the entrance, “I cannot make out anything.”
“We need to get a move on,” James said, shouldering his rifle and advancing towards Nurul’s position, “Everyone move together and proceed with caution. Mr. Kent, you’re at our center at all times.”
“Understood,” the engineer replied, falling in line behind Nurul and James. Toby and Brock brought up the rear as the group moved forward and stepped into the shadows of the tunnel. Flashlights were turned on, and their beams filled in lines of the absence of light. The first few steps alone were enough to cause discomfort. It was times like this that Toby hated the conditions of taking up missions under Tiamat Unbound; you didn’t get to choose them, you were assigned to what the higher ups thought best suited you. That sucked, because Toby really hated this one for a very crippling and embarrassing reason; he was afraid of the dark. It was hard enough being a grown man with such a debilitating phobia, but to actually have to be surrounded by others who expected no expressions of weakness from him only complicated the matter, and he had never had to really face his fear under such circumstances. He would gladly trade this assignment to be back near a battlefield, and considering the last field-op this squad had participated in resulted in the deaths of two other Tiamat members, that was saying a lot.
All was quiet for the first few yards into the tunnel, and Toby kept glancing behind him every now and then to see the daylight that seemed to cease at the mouth of the entrance. At least there was some comfort to be found knowing that the light was still behind him, and that allowed him to move forward. The rest of the group didn’t seem too distracted by such foolish things, as they were all trekking with caution in every step, lights constantly shifting to unveil the unknown. The farther they went, the smaller the source of light became behind them, and Toby’s breathing became heavier. They weren’t using the oxygen yet, and that was a good thing considering he would have probably been taking in way too much.
Lights from each of their weapons tried in vain to pierce the black veil of darkness surrounding them, but to no avail. The ceiling was high above them, but they couldn’t make it out even though they all knew it was there. The darkness simply wouldn’t allow their illuminating beacons to cut through the Stygian shaft. All was silent for the next five minutes until a loud impact stole everyone’s attention, and guns were trained on a spot behind the group. Toby had tripped over a dislodged rock.
“Dammit, Petry!” James hissed, “Get yourself together!”
“S-sorry,” Toby stammered, scrambling to his feet. Nurul wheezed a laugh.
“Petry, you’ve seen the horrors of war, but I wonder, are you scared?” he asked the youngest member of the squad. Toby was turning red, but he hoped none of them could make that out as they moved forward with their lights fixed on the path up ahead…the long, pitch black path that only led to more unknown territory. Toby really hated overthinking things.
“Petry,” James started, almost as if hesitant to ask, “Are…are you afraid of the dark?”
Everyone was looking over their shoulders at the youngest member, whose face was masked in the shadows since all lights remained forward. Nurul was enjoying the awkward moment, “Is your silence confirmation that-”
“Just keep going,” Toby grunted.
Nurul snorted, “then I guess-”
“It’s a threat if you keep pushing it, you damn wanker,” Toby interrupted sternly. Nurul laughed aloud.
“There is quite some spirit in this one today!”
James shook his head with a grin. Toby caught him snickering and muttering something to Nurul as the beam from his own flashlight happened to graze their faces, and that only served to infuriate him more. James had let the comments slide, fully aware (and used to) the fact that his men were going to rile each other up during uncomfortable situations. He had learned from his former lieutenant that a little horseplay never hurt as long as it was utilized effectively. If anything, it was something he encouraged. If soldiers were going to be nervous, they needed to get it out of their systems before trouble rather than during the direst of circumstances, “Hey, Petry?”
“Want Silverstein to hold your hand?”
Toby muttered something under his breath as the others minus Craig failed to stifle laughs. To Toby, it was one thing to have the two jerks poking fun at him, but for their leader…
James stopped abruptly and put his right hand up to signal for the others to halt. Only Craig failed to notice, and ended up walking right into James.
“Idiot!” James hissed at the engineer, “Be still!”
“What is it?” Toby asked in alarm, eyes scanning the nothingness for any hidden dangers. James didn’t answer, but instead pointed his rifle at the ceiling where his light revealed something dripping from the black. It was faint, but the glowing red substance could be followed with the naked eye as it fell to the floor of the cavern. Brock gasped.
“Magma,” Craig answered for him, “there must be a pocket right above us.”
“Oh, great!” Brock exclaimed at the vexation, “It’s not enough to have to trek through this damned treacherous-”
“Silverstein!” James barked over his shoulder, “If you want to go back, don’t let us stop you, but don’t expect any of the pay!”
Brock grunted before shouldering his submachine gun and following the others as they advanced, careful not to walk directly underneath the dripping magma.
“This wasn’t part of the initial plans for the tunnel,” Craig informed them, “They would have known not to drill near this spot. The tunnel was supposed to cut to the right…”
“Why?” Nurul asked.
“It was meant to go out onto the shore for an effective naval base.”
That got James’ attention, “You mean you were preparing the layout for a naval base here? Underneath a volcano?”
Craig shook his head, “Forget I said that.”
“No,” Brock chimed in, “No pissing around. What is this place supposed to be?”
Craig looked back and forth from each man, outnumbered and no in a position to argue against the armed mercs, “Fine…but this stays in the tunnel…”
“You say that like you don’t expect us to get out,” Toby remarked, a slight hint of fear present in his tone. Everyone was too focused on whatever secrets Craig was hiding to care at the moment.
“Fine,” James agreed, “Now talk.”
Craig sighed and shrugged, “Our company was contracted by the U.S. military to drill through this mountainside so that they could establish a new naval base here,” he told them reluctantly, “That’s all we were supposed to do.”
“So that is why we are here,” Nurul said, “You would have had the Americans breathing down your necks, so you want us to help solve the problem as quickly as possible before they start asking questions.”
Craig nodded, “That’s right.”
“That explains the high payout,” Toby remarked. James growled under his breath. Being discharged from the U.S. Army for a disagreement over the conflicts in Iraq, he didn’t really want to have much to do with America anymore. That was why he had joined Tiamat Unbound.
“So we are to get no recognition for this from them when the assignment is completed?” Nurul asked. Craig kicked at a spot on the ground.
“Sorry, but this is confidential. It’s a hush-hush job to be completed swiftly and quietly.”
“That is a shame,” Nurul commented solemnly. It was in his best interests that the Americans knew of his aid.
“In any case, we need to get a move on,” James announced from the front, “We need to get this over with before Petry chickens out on us.”
Toby growled as the others carried on down the tunnel with their amusement. He was forced to catch up once he realized they had left him alone in the dark. As he got back into position he noted that their descent steepened. They had to be away from the mountain by now.
“Should we use our oxygen yet?” Brock asked their leader, “I’ve never had experience with one of these, so I’m not sure when the appropriate time would be.”
“Yeah, go ahead and turn them on,” James informed them, “Everyone help each other out. It’s kind of a reach to get back there,” he added as he fumbled for his valve.
Seconds after Toby’s valve was opened up by Brock, he started to relax. The pure oxygen that he was breathing in was calming him down, and suddenly he wasn’t so worried about the dark confines of the cave…until he realized he was thinking about it again. Everyone could hear him breathing heavily through their earpieces, and they all kept their heads forward while faces split into broad grins.
“You know, Petry,” James started, “My dad once got me over my fear of water by throwing me into the deep end of the local swimming pool. Maybe when we’re done here we could see about throwing you into a pit?”
“With all due respect, sir,” Toby replied quickly, “piss off.”
Even Craig shared the laughter, and that really served to agitate Toby even more. He could feel himself growing hotter by the second… that wasn’t right. Why was it so hot? Looking down, he could see the rocks beneath his feet beginning to emit an ominous red glow. Faint heat waves were visible where he shined his light.
“Um…” he started nervously, “Gentlemen?”
“What is it now, Petry?” Nurul inquired, not bothering to turn around to see what was disturbing the man in the rear. Toby was watching the glow stretch out farther towards the rest of the group, a creeping danger that now was brushing the ground beneath Nurul’s feet.
The man looked back in frustration at the coward behind them, but when he saw Toby’s weapon-mounted light aimed at his feet, he stared down at the source of the panic. The rock beneath his feet was scorching, and steam began to seep through the forming cracks. Lifting his foot, he noted that some of the material on the bottom of his boot had stuck to the rocks, “Noble?”
“What is it, Amir?”
“Petry’s right to be afraid,” Nurul replied.
James looked back and at that point the heated rock was quite easy to make out in the darkness. The glow was still dim, but the danger was eminent, “Everyone hurry up.”
The group’s advance into the tunnel picked up in speed with the threat of the ground melting away at any second. There was no telling just how many pockets of the melted rock were surrounding them at any given moment, but James wasn’t letting that concern bother him as he began to gain some distance between the others. Craig was keeping up, eager to fulfill the task his boss had assigned him with while the other three members of the party were cautiously sweeping their lights along the floors of the cave, not wanting to get surprised by a pool of magma that would sweep them off of their feet…or as Toby was thinking, burn them off. Pessimistic thoughts aside, he just really wanted to get the hell out of the tunnel. The deeper they went, the more frantic he was becoming. They couldn’t even see James’ light ahead of them anymore. Toby feared he had been swallowed by the endless gloom, when Craig’s voice sounded in his earpiece.
“That’s odd…” he said through his panting.
“What is it?” James’ voice replied. He too was audibly breathing hard. Toby wondered just how far ahead of them the two were.
“We should be hearing something by now,” Craig answered, “A grinding sound of steel on rock or something with the machinery.”
“Are you sure?” Nurul inquired. Toby was quiet, still worried about the fact that they couldn’t even see the two men in front of them.
“A tunnel boring machine of that size isn’t going to be very quiet,” Craig assured him, “We should have heard something from where it’s at by now.”
“How deep is it?” Brock asked rhetorically, “I can’t imagine something that slow going that far.”
All Craig did was pant as he kept running ahead. After another minute he spoke again, “We should have found it by now.”
“Craig,” Nurul spoke sternly, “We can’t see you or Noble anymore. Where are you?”
“We’re down here,” James responded, “But…wouldn’t…to…”
“Repeat that, Noble,” Nurul spoke into the mic, “That transmission wasn’t clear…” he trailed off and stopped running. Brock and Toby stopped next to him, both looking around for anything that might have gotten Nurul’s attention. Finally Brock shook the man by the shoulder.
“Amir!” he shouted. It was in Toby’s ear too, and caused him to jump at the furious voice, “What’s…” Toby could hear him through the visor, but the sound didn’t repeat through his earpiece. Brock tried again, “What’s wrong?”
“There’s interference in the transmission,” Nurul said calmly.
“And?” Brock pushed on, “We’re…” his voice cut out again, and that frustrated him as he shouted to be heard through the mask, “We’re in a mountain!”
“Silverstein,” Turul said dully, turning to the large man, “Do you know how radio transmission works?”
“Do you?” Brock challenge. Nurul glared at him.
“This tunnel is clear between us and them, and you’re right beside me. Tell me,” he said intimidatingly, “what could cause interference in such a transmission?”
Brock just stared at him, clueless as to the point of what this all meant. Nurul shook his head before running off farther into the tunnel, leaving Brock and Toby to hesitate before following.
“What are you getting at?” Brock asked.
“Electromagnetic interference,” Nurul heaved, “It’s not normally strong enough to actually cause a disturbance, but if there’s volcanic activity-”
“But this mountain is dormant, right?” Toby asked. Neither man answered him, so Toby went back to anxiously scanning for anything hidden around them, “Sod’s Law be damned.”
“Noble!” Nurul shouted, “Where are you?!”
“We’ve…it…here…now,” was all that came through.
“Crap,” Toby muttered. The only thing that terrified him more than the dark at the moment was the idea of the volcano somehow erupting while they were still in it. He shined his light ahead with the others and was mortified by the fact that the beams weren’t even visible. How was that possible? Was he imagining it? He flipped his gun in his arms and saw that the LED light was still on, but why wasn’t it projecting anything? Fear swept through him, and his feet grew heavier with each step. He stopped running and fell on his hands and knees as the others carried on. Brock finally looked back and realized he was still up the tunnel.
“Petry!” he shouted, “Stop being duff and hurry up!”
“I can’t!” he yelled back, “I…I just can’t!”
Nurul turned back, angry at the hindrance, “We can get him on the way back, just come on!”
Toby caught that through the earpiece, “NO!!! Don’t leave me here!”
“Then come on!” Brock commanded. Toby mustered everything he had to rise to his feet. Slowly, he took one step, and that alone made him feel more confident in himself. He could see after his light again, and with that his nerves began to build up into a force once more.
“Come on, you pansy,” Brock ordered. Toby swallowed hard and took off after them as the trio continued down the vast passage. Finally, a source of light emerged from the darkness ahead of them, followed by another. James and Craig had their lights on them as they approached.
“Sir!” Nurul wheezed, “There’s a problem.”
“You’re right,” James agreed, turning around and pointing his weapon at what appeared to finally be an end to the tunnel. The light reflected off of some parts of the surface, and it took the others a few seconds to realize that they had found the Mjölnir. All of their flashlights were scanning different parts of the monstrosity before they all converged on the open latch into the back of the machine. James dipped his light lower and revealed the body on the ground.
“Damn,” Brock hissed.
Toby’s heart sank along with his gut, “What happened?”
“We’re not sure,” James explained, “but judging from the radio interference, I’d say this place isn’t exactly dormant like you guys thought,” he said, pointing the weapon at Craig to illuminate his face. Craig held his hands up.
“I didn’t know!”
“Well it does not matter now,” Turul stated, “Can you get this machinery running?”
“I can try, but we’d have to go in there, and judging from the body…” Craig was kneeling down over the corpse with a lamentable expression, “Hoffman, what did you do?”
“What could have caused that?” Brock asked.
“Assuming that the volcano is more active than we had originally anticipated,” Craig started, “More than likely toxic gases.”
“Toxic gas?” Toby repeated in horror.
“Yes,” Craig stated, “That is why we supplied you with the clothing appropriate for the assignment.”
“Let’s just get this over with,” James said as he approached the opening of the machine, “We don’t want to wait around and see if this place is going to be filled with hellfire.”
Together, James, Craig, and Brock climbed into the giant contraption, with Craig leading the way. Toby and Nurul stayed behind to keep an eye out in the tunnel. Toby felt more comfortable standing in a place that he had already been through rather than going into unfamiliar territory.
Turul shined the light back up the tunnel and swept the floor and ceiling, “So Toby, do you not like the darkness?”
“I’m not a fan of it,” Toby answered, nervously glancing around after his light.
“In my faith, black is sometimes associated with mourning.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Toby asked. Nurul lowered his weapon, and Toby had to point his light at him to see that he was staring at the body of the crew member nearby.
“It is supposed to make you be more respectful.”
Toby lowered his head. This place may not have been his grave, but to someone else it was where they met their demise. He didn’t want to imagine the terror of dying so far away from the sun.
Suddenly the interior of the tunnel began to rock violently. Toby stumbled and fell to his knees as Nurul stepped back and braced himself on the backside of the Mjölnir. The tremors dislodged a few spots from the ceiling that came crashing to the bottom of the tunnel.
“What the hell?!” Toby exclaimed, curled up on the ground to make himself as small of a target as possible against the debris.
“We need to depart soon,” Nurul replied, light flashing across the ceiling of the cave in search of any incoming threats, “The cavern is unstable.”
A spine-numbing scream cut into both men’s ears by a decibel that far outmatched the sounds of the tunnel’s violent rumblings.
“James!” Toby shouted into his mic, “Forget the machine! Forget the money! We need to leave!”
There was no reply. Toby leapt to his feet and ran to join Nurul beside the machine, where he was leaning into the hatch and shouting for their teammates, hoping that either their radios or his voice would get his cries through. His pleas carried into the interior of the tunnel borrower, but nothing else was heard. The shocks continued as they awaited some sign of life from the darkness. Finally, a narrow stream of light fired off horizontally somewhere deep inside of the belly of the beast before turning on them. Nurul and Toby backed away as the source of light became more and more intense as it approached. It shifted up as a figure leapt through the hatch and landed in a mess on the ground between the two men. Toby and Nurul crossed their beams over the man and illuminated James and the mangled mess of a person slung over his left shoulder. The individual’s fire-retardant suit was black and melted at spots under the waist, but that wasn’t what had Toby gagging. Half of the individual’s left leg was missing at the knee, and his right foot was gone, but there was no blood spilling from the grievous wounds. Upon closer inspection, they looked as if they’d been burned closed; cauterized.
“James!” Nurul cried, “What is going on?!”
“Who the hell is that?!” Toby added, still tracing his weapon over the unknown body.
“There’s no time!” James yelled as he stood shakily. His voice was overwhelmed with pure terror, “We need to go!”
Nurul too was attempting to identify the figure in James’ possession, “Who is-”
“Craig?!” Toby exclaimed from James’ other side. He had a better view of the face of the engineer who was out cold…at least Toby hoped.
“Where is Silverstein?!” Nurul demanded. James shook his head.
Nurul swore as the tremors increased in magnitude, “What happened?!” James hoisted Craig into a better position over his back and began to sprint as the other two followed behind. Nurul wanted an answer, “Noble!”
Before James could even attempt to answer, a gut-churning crack sounded off behind them. Toby dared to look back as the machine was made visible at the base by a brilliant yellow glow that became more prominent with every passing second as flames licked through the gap between metal and rock.
“What is that?!” Nurul shouted.
“Vulcan,” James panted, “calm your hammer, and…” the rest of his utterance was interrupted by static. Toby swore that his leader was praying as another crack filled the tunnel, followed by a series of crumbling sounds. Toby looked back once more to see the end of the tunnel bathed in a radiant red and yellow as the Mjölnir sank into the pit forming beneath. It disappeared in a great splash of magma that was underneath their view.
“Masya Allah!” Nurul cried. The sight actually brought out the man’s native tongue.
“Keep running!” James ordered, “Keep running!”
Not one of them dared to look back and see if the disturbance was isolated to the end of the tunnel. For them, looking back meant the risk of seeing molten rock spewing after them, and sometimes not knowing the risks was a good thing. Ignorance of dangers tends to keep people moving forward, like rushing headfirst into a jungle without knowledge of the guerilla combatants waiting to strike, or not knowing if it was futile to attempt to run away from a flow of magma that may or may not have been at their heels. Then Toby noticed the absence of light all around once more. Not counting their flashlights, the ego-crushing darkness had returned to create a void of unknown dangers around them, and once again Toby swore that their lights were doing nothing to perforate the vacuity. His eyes followed his light as he looked for anything waiting to take his life in the darkness. They found it; from the ceiling he could make out dripping red fluids much like from before, only now it was seeping through whatever crack existed up there in a gooey drip that was more like mucus dripping from a nose. Toby stopped and tried to call for Nurul’s attention before he walked right under it, but the drop of fatal high-temperature fluid substance finally broke loose from the source and fell right onto Nurul’s right shoulder as the words came out. Sound might travel fast, but human reaction time trailed behind as Nurul spun around and aimed his weapon in alarm as the beginnings of the sizzling sensation tore into his nerves.
“GAAAAAAHHH!!!” he cried out, the pain and terror enough to pull James back from the front of the trio. He turned around to see a flashlight’s beam swinging about as its weapon dangled on its sling. It wasn’t until Nurul spun around in his pain and confusion that James’ eyes found the source of the trouble. The magma was eating right through Nurul’s suit and into his skin as the unfortunate soul tried in vain to wipe the substance away, severely burning his left hand in the process as the solidus matter clung to his suit. Toby ran to him and attempted to scrub the hot substance off with his weapon, but was horrified at the sight of skin and muscle exposed past Nurul’s suit. The magma had broken through his skin and was burning away at his insides now even as the rest of it that had dropped from the ceiling continued to ooze down his arm and wreak havoc on him. Nurul collapsed from the immense pain and cried incoherently as his arm was devastated by the volcanic matter. When it didn’t seem like his anguish could get much worse, the oxygen tank on his back suddenly ignited from the magma that had flowed down onto it. His only fortune was that the straps managed to burn off and let the ruptured tank fall aside as he rolled away, but the damage had already been done. Nurul stopped on his stomach, his back exposed and the burns gruesome.
“What do we do?!” Toby demanded of his commander. James stared on, his very will melting away faster than Nurul’s arm. Toby snarled in anger and reached down to grab Nurul under his left shoulder and hoisted the croaking man to his feet. After a few more seconds of noise, Nurul fell silent. Toby panicked and looked into the man’s face through his visor, and felt just the slightest bit of relief when he saw the moisture appear before Nurul’s mouth from a breath. Toby positioned him to carry the weight and slowly set off to join James a few yards away. His leader was still grounded, unable to move from the shock of such a horrendous event.
“James,” Toby grunted, “move! Please!”
James looked to Toby and only nodded as his composure remained the same. Both men carried their maimed colleagues only a few feet when the tunnel’s fury hit a boiling point. Crackling was audible overhead, and Toby’s head snapped back on his neck so fast he pulled a muscle, but that pain was nothing compared to the mental shock that hit when he saw the vibrant red tracking across the ceiling. He couldn’t bring himself to move as a chunk of the rock above him gave way to the weight of the magma that burst through. Hell was here, in this tunnel. Toby’s mind was screaming for action, but his body refused. There was no escaping, not with…
Toby blinked as the flow came within feet of him, and instinct kicked in, leaving his conscience behind as he leapt forward and let Nurul fall from his shoulder. A feeling of warmth stuck his right foot as he hit the ground and rolled, but halfway through the curl it was gone. When his feet hit the ground before him, the magma hit it behind. Toby was on his feet and running before he realized how much easier it was, and then he realized what he had done. Guilt tearing through him, he turned around to see the mixture of black, red and yellow pool out as the source flowed down from the hole in the ceiling. Nurul was gone, and it was his fault.
Toby’s attention was drawn to the man over James’ back, now awake and aware of the pain that had been constantly trying to break into his unconscious mind. He writhed until James let him fall to the floor of the tunnel, where he squirmed and screamed aloud in a mixture of agony and panic. His microphone was still on, and the shrill screams were eating away at Toby’s ears. He couldn’t take it anymore, and while the man continued to terrorize them with his wails Toby ripped his helmet off and tore the radio away from his face. Now he could hear the cries echo into the darkness surrounding them, and that only escalated his fears as the sounds seemed to amplify even without electronic aid. Toby had seen many men lose their lives, and had witnessed many terrible things during his service under the British Armed Forces, but nothing compared to feeling trapped within the dark crevices of the planet with no idea if he’d make it out of his worst nightmares come true. His greatest fear was that he would die alone in the dark, and though he wasn’t alone, he welcomed solitude over the pandemonium. Craig’s despair was driving him insane.
“Toby!” James shouted, “Grab him low and help me carry him!”
Though James’ directions were quite clear, Toby displayed no indication that he had heard him. He was too busy trying to mentally block out the sound of Craig’s anguish. The man was still emptying his lungs faster than he could inhale. He had to pass out eventually. Toby just knew he had to. Craig would eventually be rendered unconscious again, and Toby didn’t even feel selfish in hoping for that. James was still desperately trying to get his attention.
“Toby! We don’t have time for you to be afraid! Get your ass together and help me carry him!”
Toby took a deep breath and nodded, stepping over to Craig and leaning down. James lifted the injured man up as he continued to sob between the wails, but Toby had another idea to help the distraught man. James lifted his head, wondering what was taking Toby so long to help him. The glow of the flowing magma behind him illuminated Toby’s silhouette enough from James to see him thrust the butt of his rifle into Craig’s face with a loud crack that turned the engineer into dead weight in James’ arms. James looked from the engineer to Toby, mouth agape in shock.
“PETRY!!!” he shouted, letting go of Craig to stand and shout into his subordinate’s face. His own visor was filling with spit from his barking, “YOU’D BETTER HAVE A DAMNED GOOD EXPLANATION FOR-”
A blinding light struck his retinas, and James backed away with a hand to cover his face as he realized that Toby had just trained his weapon on him. With the only sounds now the sizzling of the molten rock spreading out in a pool a few yards away, James could actually hear Toby’s hastened breaths.
“I just wanted him quiet, sir,” Toby stated calmly, “I couldn’t take the screaming…I couldn’t handle hearing his torment.”
James was still worked up, but turned his back and exerted his rage into the darkness up the tunnel. When he turned back Toby had the light on Craig’s body, and was in a stance to take a shot.
James couldn’t reach him in time, and the entire tunnel was filled with the rapid sounds of automatic gunfire. Toby’s body was alight for a few seconds as he ripped bullets into Craig’s body, the recoil causing a few shots to impact the ground and send bits of rock flying. The last brass casing hit the ground with a ping that joined the echoing gunshots still reverberating throughout the tunnel in the distance, and Toby’s eyes were fixated on the body on the ground before him. His hands wouldn’t stop shaking as he let rifle hang from its sling around his torso, the bolt locked back from his refusal to release the trigger.
James slammed the rifle into Toby’s chest and shoved him back with as much force as he could muster, sending the man on a collision course with the earth. Toby’s head hit the ground only inches away from the magma that was still pooling out, and he wasn’t moving to get up very fast. James ran to Craig’s side and put his light on him, but his body was riddled with gunshot wounds. One had gone right through his visor, which was splashed with blood from the inside. His crew dead and their mission an absolute loss, James stood up and contemplated his next plan of action as Toby recovered. Both men stood in silence until James heard the sound of a magazine hitting the ground. He spun around and saw Toby raising his weapon, and brought his up in turn, both of their sights obscured by bright LEDs that pierced their eyes.
“What are you doing?!” James demanded, “TOBY!!!”
Toby took two more steps, and then turned his back on James and dropped to his knees, sobbing. James kept his rifle on him as he backed away, deciding that carrying the traumatized man with him would spell his own doom before they ever say the light of day again.
“It was too much,” Toby whimpered, “It was too much, and he was suffering.”
“Toby, he could have made it!”
“No…” Toby replied under his breath, “No, he was going to die down here. We’ll all die down here.”
James lowered his gun, “Toby! Stay with me man! Toby!”
Toby could hear his leader, but the voice seemed too distant to make out. He was slowly being enveloped by his nightmarish surroundings, and it was stripping his humanity like peeling skin.
“Toby! Snap out of it! Don’t go crazy on me down here! We need to get out, and I need your help! Toby!”
Toby felt the hand shaking his arm as James stepped closer to tug him back into the horrid reality that was the tunnel, but the pleas couldn’t reach his mind. He had killed a man because of his overwhelming fear, and it was just too much. There was no going back, be it the surface or his former self. He too had just died.
“Toby, if we’re getting out of here, we have to do it now! I’m not leaving you!”
Toby’s mind was lost in the world this tunnel conceived for him. Hands darted out of the abyss and grabbed for his neck, ready to drag him into the Hell he had already damned Nurul and Craig to. His air was constricted, and it was beginning to kill his sanity…no, there was no sanity anymore. To be sane meant to accept what he had done. He could still see the faces of the others that had joined him on this investigation. They were appearing and then fading back into the shadows over and over again as the hands strangled him. His teammates were gone now; lost to this forgotten crevice of the Earth. The hands finally relinquished their grasps after they’d drained enough. Toby was frozen in place, and his very will broken. He didn’t want to accept this world, but he didn’t want to die down here either, so he mustered up what little strength he could and reached up to grab the knife from his vest. James backed away and raised his gun again, now disturbed that he hadn’t mistaken the knife for something else.
“Toby, what are you doing?” he asked hesitantly.
Toby didn’t answer. He stared at the blade, and broke out into a cold sweat amongst the climbing heat as he gripped the handle with both hands. They trembled violently as he raised the knife above his head, and James’ gloved finger was wrapped around the trigger as the tension rose as high as the temperatures.
“Toby, listen!” James hissed, “You took your helmet off, and there’s not much oxygen to breathe down here. What you’re taking in is toxic, and it’s messing with you! Put your helmet back on!”
Toby was breathing heavily now. Where was the helmet? It was gone; the darkness had taken it, and he was next! Gritting his teeth, he closed his eyes as James called out to him again. He didn’t listen; he was too busy trying to come to grips with the reality of their situation. Fear had taken control, and it was ravaging his very mind with each passing second.
“I won’t die here…I won’t die here,” he kept repeating. James didn’t want to risk being stabbed by the man who had already killed another, and was mentally prepared to defend against him, when Toby suddenly plunged the knife into his own leg. James’ confusion and befuddlement drowned out Toby’s cry of pain, and he slowly lowered the gun, backing away from the scene as Toby flopped backwards onto the ground. The blade embedded into his flesh was painful, but it served as a reminder. Toby was still connected to his body and his senses. He was still alive.
“Toby, are you still there? James asked, terrified for the man who had stabbed himself. Toby’s breathing had slowed, and the shadows fleeted back into the darkness around him.
“I’m…I’m fine,” Toby said, grabbing the handle of the knife and, after greatly inhaling, ripping it out. The blade took a chunk of flesh with it, and Toby wailed again as the blood spurted and flowed. He could fix that on the surface. He just had to make it that far.
“I’m not so sure you are,” James commented, staring at the grotesque wound on Toby’s left leg that had given his suit a red sheen as he pointed his light at it.
“I’ll live,” Toby said through a wince, “let’s go.”
James looked at Craig’s body, and Toby could see the grim expression there on his face. The next words out of his leader’s mouth betrayed his appearance.
“You did the right thing.”
“What?” Toby inquired, unsure if he’d heard him right. What was right about what he’d done?
“You were right; he wouldn’t have made it,” James continued, “he’d lost a lot of blood and was in complete shock. His heart would’ve given out eventually.”
Toby didn’t want to accept that assumption, “I…”
“You’ll have time to regret it later,” James stated as he reached down and grabbed Toby’s helmet off of the ground before handing it to him, “for now, we need to run.”
Toby looked at the crumpled material in his hands as James turned away and began to move on, and fit it back over his suit before running to join him. The oxygen was flowing again, and his nerves relaxed as best they could in this hell, which wasn’t much considering his accelerated heart rate from running for his life and his elevated blood pressure from everything else. His leg was killing him, but the pain was a good reminder that he wasn’t dead yet.
Then fear struck again, because his light wasn’t able to cut a way through the black in front of him. The panic began to stab sharp fingers into his mind again, and he shouted for James. There was no response. Somewhere in the hysteria he remembered that he didn’t recover his radio ear piece after discarding it. There was no way to directly communicate with James, even if he was out of sight. He couldn’t be that far away…could he?
The rumbling picked up again and swept through the tunnel, almost as if it was emitting a roar of anger at the prospect of them escaping. There was no way Toby was considering stopping again.
“SOD OFF!!!” he roared at the void and null. His fear of death overruled his fear of the dark for once, and the fear of what resided within it. Of course, he knew what was in it; a death so terrible. He was more afraid of something so natural rather than the seemingly unnatural absence of all that gave color to the world. He just had to make it through that void to find the light again. It was up there, and he was damned determined to reach it. Flicking his light to his left and right as he ran, his imagination ran wild with tormenting images. Was that Craig’s body? No, he was farther down the tunnel opposite of the direction he was running. What about Nurul’s incinerated and liquefied remains? Was that what he’d seen out of the corner of his eye to his left? Or was it Brock? Where was Brock? James hadn’t told him what had happened, so was he lost to the boiling stomach acids of the planet? While the thoughts and visions mounted up, his feet carried him faster and faster. When the images became too much he closed his eyes with the hope that the darkness inside would be less haunting than the prancing shadows that appeared to move just outside of the area his light covered. They were not.
Craig’s contorted face that wailed in excruciating pain, Nurul walking beneath his utter demise, and the menacing red glow awaited him, and each one he pushed out dragged another sight with it. Soon he was seeing the war in Iraq; the bodies of his close friends who had fallen during the opening days of the invasion and the innocent who were mistakenly gunned down in the most brutal cases of misunderstandings.
“Leave me alone,” he spat through breaths, “Leave me alone!”
Then Toby tripped. He hit the ground with enough momentum to slide a few feet as his suit stretched and threatened to rip against the rough surface. Wincing in pain, he dared to open his eyes and look back at what had obstructed his path. There was light in this part of the tunnel, and it took him a few seconds to register that it had come from the molten substance spewing from the wall. He felt like such an idiot; he could have stepped right into it and it would have all been over. With protest from his body, Toby got to his feet and backed away from the scene, when his eyes fell upon radius of light that lit up the wall. Toby followed the beam back to the source, and seconds later he was running again. It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. James wasn’t that weak! He wouldn’t have died!
He finally hit the incline. His hopes began to soar as he gained altitude. He didn’t want to leave James behind if there was even the slightest chance that he was alive, but there was no evidence of death or life. Toby kept running until his legs threatened to buckle under the sharp pain in his leg, but his mind kept telling him to run. Then another voice accompanied his own, much more sinister in sound.
You should just give up and die.
Toby felt his legs getting heavier and heavier. He slowed to a halt just as the tinniest glimpse of daylight became visible. His flashlight seemed to dim as a cold chill swept over him. It was as if another presence was surrounding him.
He spun around and shined the dying light behind him, but there was nothing there. He began to back towards the exit when a hand grabbed his shoulder. He shrugged it off and pointed the light back to the front of the tunnel. Before him stood Nurul’s grotesque body. It was melted in places, and his skin was dangling loose from the muscle. He went to speak, but his jaw fell off. Toby screamed and leapt backwards into another object shrouded in the shadows, and he turned to face another person. James was standing in the dark, staring blankly at Craig.
“You weren’t fast enough, Petry.”
“You weren’t fast enough to save me, and you won’t win against Vulcan. There’s no point in running anymore, Petry,” James spoke lifelessly, “Sorry.”
“Vulcan?! What are you on about?!” Toby shouted at him, “No! I’m not staying here! How can you…forget you both!”
Toby ran past the horror that was Nurul’s body and made a break for the exit that just had to be near. It was before him now. There was a hope in the shadows; a light in the dark. The flashlight died as the light at the end of the tunnel became more and more visible. It grew from a speck to an aura that was close to filling the surroundings. Craig was nearly within feet of the exit, when it remained fixed in place as he continued to run. Slowly, it began to slip away. The light shrank further and further away from his vision. Craig could feel his body growing cold. The light was eclipsed by the darkness surrounding him, and all hope of escape was drifting from his mind.
You deserve this for what you’ve done. You will die here just like the rest.
Suddenly, his vision became blurry. The sight of the end of the tunnel was replaced with the pool of magma and James’ gun next to it. Toby was on the ground where he had fallen, and his leg was killing him. Somewhere in the depths below, another groan evolved into a roar as the minacious red created light from the dark ends of the cave. He was delusional, and he knew it. Between the horrors below and the blood loss, he had lost his mind. Toby Petry had died in the tunnel, and his shell didn’t feel worthy of carrying itself out. Rolling onto his back, he reached a shaking hand to his waist and withdrew his sidearm from its holster and worked the slide. Torn between which death would prove more painful in the end, Toby stared into the red glow as the magma exploded into view. He beheld the sight as images of his unit stood in its wake. All were staring at him, and all appeared unfazed by the imminent doom that was fast approaching. One by one they were consumed by the fires. First went Silverstein, then Nurul. Next was Craig, and finally James, who only shook his head as the harbinger of hell struck him from behind and stole him from view.
Safety off, Toby held the gun underneath his chin and closed his eyes, “The power of Vulcan is an incredible one.”
Compromise is a funny term when associated with death, because Toby didn’t die completely in the dark, but he was indeed alone.