“It’s all lies,” Seth told us, as he passed the joint to Cam. “The government will never tell you anything important.”
Seth and Cam and Kyle huddled in the shadows of Cheyenne Mountain military base, partying, telling conspiracy theories as if they were ghost stories. Civilians could not enter the actual Cheyenne Mountain military base, but the city had built a public park below the military base. The park served as a no man’s land between the military and the public, complete with parking lots and bathrooms and campfire rings. As a result, had turned rather quickly into a place to party among the teenagers of the area. Several wealthy neighborhoods had sprung up around the park as well.
“Like, the Earth’s hollow,” said Seth. “Did you know that?”
Cam sighed her typical here-we-go-again sigh.
“Halley, the guy who discovered the comet, you know, Halley’s comet, he believed it. He believed the earth was hollow. And he was a real scientist. He discovered a comet!”
Seth smoked a lot of weed. He watched a lot of Youtube videos. He listened to crazy late-night radio stations at night. Kyle was never really sure if Seth believed the theories he heard, or just liked to talk about them.
“There’s a famous polar explorer who flew over the entrance to the inside of the earth. Admiral Byrd. Look it up! He flew over the North pole and saw a hole that led to the center of the Earth. The hole was like, a thousand miles wide.”
“Scientists?” Kyle’s girlfriend Cam, the third member of their party, was paying only nominal attention.
“Some scientists, yes,” said Seth. “The government muzzles real science.”
He laughed, and passed the joint to Kyle.
“Everything grows really big, even the people grow to like fifteen feet tall. And they are an advanced species. Their technology is far beyond ours. Endless energy, space travel, telepathy.”
“Do you really believe any of this?” asked Kyle as he passed the joint to Seth. It was a question he’d asked before.
Seth ignored the question, as he usually did. “It’s why birds go north for the winter. Why else would they? It’s cold up there.
“And it’s where icebergs come from. Why else would icebergs be made of freshwater? They’re in the ocean, right? Shouldn’t they be saltwater? Explain that.”
No one attempted an explanation. Seth took a large hit from the joint, and held it in. He let out a cloud of cloyingly sweet smoke into the warm summer night air.
“The holes that let people in are called Symmes’ Holes. Named after another guy who knew about them, John Symmes. Here’s what I believe: I think Cheyenne Mountain is a Symmes Hole. I think there’s one, buried deep in the mountain. And that’s what’s really down there, under the mountain. Alien technology, but the aliens are not from another planet. They’re from underneath the Earth.”
The joint had been smoked down to the very end. Seth held it out to Kyle and Cam, offering one last toke, but they refused. Seth did what he always did: he put the roach out with his tongue and swallowed it back as a loopy smile spread across his face.
Kyle enjoyed Seth’s ramblings about Cheyenne Mountain, though he knew the heyday of Cheyenne Mountain had waned. Histories more traditional than Seth’s talked about the facility being built toward the end of the fifties, when anti-communist fears were on the rise, the threat of nuclear war echoed by newspaper headlines and avuncular television anchormen. A military base had been built inside the mountain to protect it from nuclear blasts and resultant radiation.
When the Cold War ended, the facility began to fall into irrelevancy. The military moved operations fifteen miles away, to Peterson Air Force base. The space underneath Cheyenne Mountain was repurposed toward more prosaic military purposes.
Cam called Kyle away from Seth’s endless monologue. They walked toward his car, away from him.
“I’m tired of this,” she told Kyle. “It’s boring. Every time we come out here, we get high and listen to Seth ramble until he runs out of things to say.”
“He never runs out of things to say,” said Kyle, attempting humor, but Cam would have none of it.
“He told me he dropped acid about a half-hour ago,” she said. “It’s not healthy. It’s dangerous. Please tell me you aren’t going to do it with him. You have work tomorrow, right? And I don’t want to be out here all night while you two act like idiots. It’s cold out. I’m tired.”
“You just don’t like Seth,” said Kyle.
“I like him okay. But it’s all a big time-suck. Sit around and wait for the drugs to kick in, then wait around for them to die down so I can finally go home and get some sleep.”
“All right. I understand. I get tired of it too. We’ll pack things up here and go home soon. I promise.”
They walked back to the park. Hanging out at the park, getting high with your friends, was fun in high school. Kyle had a job now. And a girlfriend. And a future.
Cam was right. This was a gigantic time-suck. He’d take Kyle home, let his parents deal with the upcoming ten to twelve hours of drug-addled aftermath of his drug use.
“Oh fuck,” said Cam.
Kyle looked to the picnic table they’d been sitting at.
Seth was gone.
They searched the immediate area, then tracked back to the parking lot, looking between and under cars. Kyle checked inside his car, behind the seats, even the trunk. Nothing. Kyle found no one in the bathroom either.
They walked the hiking trails of the park, cell phone flashlights on, calling for Seth. Occasionally someone would respond to their calls, but it was only other kids in the park.
Kyle and Cam discussed leaving him there, in the park. Cam argued that Seth had made his choice, he’d need to deal with the consequences. It would be cold out, but it wouldn’t kill him. Maybe he’d learn a lesson. High school was over. It was time to act like a grown-up.
Kyle disagreed. Seth was tripping hard, a few thousand yards from a large military installation. That alone was enough to worry Kyle, but Seth’s obsession with conspiracy theories about the installation worried him more. Kyle thought he might try to break into Cheyenne Mountain. He wouldn’t succeed of course. One drug-crazed teen could not outwit several thousand soldiers and state-of-the-art security.
Arresting him for trespassing and putting him in jail was a best-case scenario.
“So we’re going to be out looking all night?” Cam stopped, mid-step, hands on her hips. “Until we find him? He could be anywhere!”
“No.” Kyle came to a decision. “Let’s walk up to the checkpoint. It’s just past the gate up there.”
“They have guns!”
“I know. And if they raise them we’ll stop and raise our hands. We’ll tell him we have a friend who is lost up here. That he might be under the influence of mind-altering drugs.”
“You think?” muttered Cam.
“They’ll be on the lookout for him that way. They’ll know he’s up here. They’ll probably even search for him. We’ll tell them about Seth, then we’ll go home. It’s what, a quarter of a mile to the checkpoint? We’ll be home by 11.”
“What if I want to go home now?”
Kyle sighed. “Then I’ll take you home, and come back and tell them about Seth.
Cam didn’t respond, which Kyle guessed meant she approved of the plan. When he began walking toward the road that led to the gatehouse, Cam fell into step beside him.
They didn’t say much as they walked. Kyle welcomed the silence. He was glad Cam had chosen to walk with him to the gatehouse, but the argument they’d had about Seth hung in the air between them. Kyle listened to the gravel crunch under their feet as they walked.
Cam broke the silence to ask, “Isn’t it a little weird that there’s no traffic on this road? We’ve been walking for almost an hour.”
Kyle's only response was, “It’s night. And it’s not the main road, it’s just an access road. See the houses just over the fence? That’s a residential neighborhood. I don’t think this road is used very often.”
The outline of the gatehouse appeared over the hill just ahead of them. Barbed wire on top of chain link rose up on either side of the gatehouse, along with yellow-on-black warning signs announcing this was government property, with restricted access.
“Thank God,” said Cam.
No lights shone through the windows of the structure. The parking area held no cars.
Kyle and Cam slowed their approach, and stepped toward the middle of the road, to be more easily seen. No lights pointed toward them, no one stepped in from of their path to stop them.
“Should we raise our hands?” asked Cam.
“This is weird,” said Kyle. “Stay here.”
Cam stopped in the center of the road. Kyle thought she looked grateful to not have to approach the gatehouse.
He walked toward the building deliberately, one considered step at a time. His heart rate ratcheted up as he approached, his breathing grew faster, but before he got halfway, his body’s default fear responses slowed. It was clear no one waited for him in the gatehouse. No soldiers, no guards. No Seth. No anyone.
It made no sense. One of the largest, most technologically advanced military facilities in the world loomed over them. A facility deemed so important they built it inside a mountain to protect it had been left unguarded.
He arrived at the entrance to the gatehouse. He rattled and turned the doorknob; the door remained locked shut. peered through the window. No one inside. No markers of recent activity. The lights were off. No food or drinks or cigarettes or cell phones had been left out on the desks. A thin patina of dust covered every surface.
He flattened his palm against the window. No warmth emanated from the room. The glass felt as cold as the temperature outside.
“It looks abandoned,” said Kyle.
“How can that be?“ asked Cam. “It’s the road to frikkin NORAD!”
“The soldiers take another entrance up,” offered Kyle. “Maybe it’s because of budget cuts or something.”
“Should we go on?”
In lieu of a response, Kyle ducked under the red-and-white striped gate arm. He took a few steps forward, looked around, then turned back to Cam, and shrugged his shoulders. On either side of him, large signs warned, WARNING, RESTRICTED ACCESS, OFFICIAL GOVERNMENT BUSINESS ONLY.
“We have a legit excuse,” said Cam. Looking for a friend we’re worried about. It has the added benefit of being true.”
“Plus, if anyone approaches us, all we have to tell them is that Seth is lost somewhere on the premises. After we tell them, we can go home.”
“I’m game,” said Cam. She ducked under the gate arm to join her boyfriend. “I’m not the biggest fan of Seth, but I am a fan of how loyal you are to him. I’m a fan of how much you care.”
She hugged him. After they disengaged, she took his hand and they continued walking. The road narrowed as it neared the mountain. Fine, graded gravel replaced the asphalt, highly reflective red markers running down the center of the roadway. The shoulders of the road disappeared. Sturdy, waist-high guardrails appeared in their place
They turned a corner and saw a police car, canted across the roadway. Lights off, doors closed, no tire marks, no damage they could see, no other vehicle on the scene.
Nothing about the car struck Kyle as being particularly ominous, yet the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end.
“I want to turn around,” said Cam.
“Just a little bit farther,” said Kyle. He crept toward the police cruiser. Cam followed from a short distance behind.
Kyle placed his palms on the driver’s side window and peered inside. “Nobody inside. No sign of a struggle.” He checked the door. “Locked,” he reported to Cam.
After circling the car and checking all four doors, he stopped.
“There’s something in the back seat.”
“Let’s go,” begged Cam.
“Just a sec.”
“It’s all drippy with something. Like, I don’t know. Goo. In the back seat. It’s like the stuff from that kids show, Nickelodeon. Slime. It’s slime!”
“What color is it?”
“It’s blue. A weird glowy blue. Why do you ask?”
“Because there’s footsteps continuing down the road. You can see the goo in the gravel.”
Kyle straightened up and turned.
“I’m scared, Kyle.”
Kyle walked out from behind the police car. He stepped out into the roadway and knelt down over one of the prints.
“Looks like the stuff in the back seat,” he said. He took a few more steps down the road.
“No. Oh, no,” said Cam. “Please don’t tell me you want to go farther.”
Kyle stopped, walked back to Cam. He hugged her.
“He’s my best friend,” he told her.
Cam pulled out her cell phone. “I don’t have a signal. No bars. Which is weird, there’s a cell tower just overhead. No service. No Google Maps. Nothing.”
Kyle pulled out his own phone. “Nope. Me neither. Flashlight, though. I’m at 37%. How about you.”
“Okay. It’s 12:40 right now. Give me twenty minutes. Give me til one.”
Cam looked down at the ground.
“Promise we’ll turn around if we see anything else weird,” she told Kyle.
He put his arms around her. “Really, I promise. Turn your phone off and put it away, we’ll save it for when mine runs out of juice.”
Ash began to fill the air about fifteen minutes later, falling like a light snow. It collected on the gravel in the road, the guardrails, their clothes, their skin. Kyle drew a line in the ash with his finger along the guardrail as they walked.
Cam brushed it off her clothes and skin continuously.
As the ash collected, the gooey footprints faded.
They did not turn around.
At one minute after one, Cam gently took Kyle’s arm. “Honey, it’s time. We need to go. We’ll be lucky if we get home before daylight. Your phone is dying. This place is abandoned. We can’t help. Look, as soon as we get cell service, we can call the police. About Seth. And about whatever is going on here at Cheyenne Mountain.’
“All right,” he said. “I agree. Thanks for coming this far.”
“You’re welcome,” she said, and kissed him.
Two bright lights shone down on them from the surrounding hills.
“Stop! This is government property!” an amplified voice bellowed from the hillside, echoing down the face of the mountain. “You are trespassing!”
Cam and Kyle abruptly stopped, and raised their hands.
“Step forward and raise your hands over your head.”
“Our hands are already over our heads,” whispered Kyle.
Cam shushed him. They both stepped forward. The two lights did not follow them.
Ash fell in the silence. No one approached them.
Kyle took another step forward. The lights still did not follow. He quickly hopped two steps back.
"Stop it,” hissed Cam.
“Stop, this is government property! You’re trespassing!” came the refrain from the mountainside.
“He used the exact same words he did before.”
“STOP it,” demanded Cam.
“It’s a recording,” said Kyle. He lowered his hands. Nothing. He rushed from his spot and scrambled up the side of the hill, quickly disappearing into the underbrush.
“Goddam it, Kyle,” Cam said. “First you drag me all the way up here. Now you’re gonna abandon me in the road?”
“I’ll be right back,” he cried over his shoulder. He followed the light source to a floodlight mounted on a pole. He kicked aside some brush at the base of the pole and uncovered a small loudspeaker. The speaker struck him as cheap and easily broken. It did not look like military issued equipment.
“Cam! There’s a light and a speaker up here. We must have tripped some sort of automatic alarm.”
Cam tried to whisper, but the force in her voice turned it into a low growl. “Shut UP, Kyle. Listen!”
Her tone instantly silenced him.
“Are you listening? There’s two soldiers walking this way.”
“Run up here!”
“I can’t. They’ve probably seen me by now. I’m out in the middle of the road, and so are they, walking straight toward me.”
“Do they have guns?”
“I think they have rifles,” she said. “I’m not gonna move. I suggest you do the same. Just stay up there. Maybe they won’t see you.”
Kyle stood still. He craned his neck until he could see the two soldiers approaching through the falling ash. Fresh footprints trailed behind them, leaving an odd blue glow in the ash.
“Maybe I should wave to them?” asked Cam, trying to keep her lips from moving as she talked. “Maybe they don’t see me.”
“Stay absolutely still. They might sense movement or something. If we’re lucky they’ll just walk past.”
“Kyle. It’s a narrow two-lane road with no shoulder. And we’re all walking down the center of the road. They’re gonna come within like ten feet of me.”
“Stay still. Trust me.” As Kyle said the last two words he understood how hollow they rang.
The two of them watched as the two soldiers walked toward them. The soldier’s feet fell and lifted in unison, as if synchronized. 100 feet away. 50 feet away. 20 feet away.
And then they were directly in front of Cam. She stepped to the side as gingerly as possible to allow them to pass.
Neither man acknowledged Cam’s presence. Even when she stepped to the side, the soldiers mere feet away, they paid no noticeable attention. They walked in simple lockstep, eyes straight ahead.
Kyle wondered what would have happened if they’d bumped right into her.
Cam ran to Kyle after they’d passed. “Oh my God, Kyle, their skin was blue. They had these veins in their face, they were all blue, and, like, sticking out. And their eyes. That same weird blue. Like they were looking at me from deep underwater.”
“Did you notice the uniforms?” asked Kyle.
“They’re olive green. They call it olive drab. Standard army issue.”
“They quit wearing that color in 1981. Switched to camo. I remember because my uncle was in the military back then, and complained like crazy.”
“So they’re wearing old Army uniforms,” said Cam. “What does that mean?”
“It means they’re a bunch of frikkin’ robots,” exclaimed a voice from the direction the soldiers had come from.
A figure turned the corner and walked down the roadway toward them.
It was Seth.
“Yes!” cried Kyle.
“Shhh,” warned Cam.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Seth. “They won’t hear. You can scream and they won’t hear. Watch!”
A giddy smile flashed across his face. He reared back and howled like a wildcat. The three of them listened to the echo work its way down the side of the mountain, bouncing from peak to peak.
No new lights turned on them. No soldiers came running. No weapons fired.
The two best friends ran to each other and hugged. Cam joined Kyle a few seconds later and joined in.
“This is…this makes no sense,” said Kyle.
Cam said, “They’re like ghosts. Ghost soldiers.”
“Exactly,” said Seth. “Follow me. I’ll explain on the way.”
“You’re tripping,” said Cam.
“You need to go home. We need to go home.”
Seth laughed. “It’s bad acid. I peaked an hour in. All I see is a few trails, that’s all.” He held out his hand, and followed its movement for a few seconds. “Fucking Kenny, he sold me this shit. It’s mostly speed.”
Kyle looked to Cam, who shrugged her shoulders. Her curiosity to learn what was going on seemed to outweigh her fears of getting arrested. Or killed.
“I need to be home before six,” said Cam, after a theatrical sigh. “That’s when my parents wake up.”
“We can be back by six, Seth?” asked Kyle.
“Not if we stand around here talking,” said Seth. “But yeah, sure. We can be at the entrance in half an hour.”
“Let’s go,” said Cam.
The three of them fell into step together, and walked the last few miles to the entrance to Cheyenne Mountain.
Ash fell all around them, thicker than it was before.
Seth said, “There’s hardly anyone here. Skeleton crew. No skeletons, but you know what I mean.” Silence. “That was a joke.” More silence.
Seth’s tone turned more serious. “I heard you talking about the uniforms, and yeah, you’re right. I know all the uniforms, my whole family is military. The ones you saw are like 40 years old! That olive drab. The thing is, there are uniforms from all different times. Olive drab, like you saw. The camo uniforms that replaced the olive drab are around too. The old school forest camo, and the desert camo, and that weird new digital camo. Dress uniforms from all different eras. Every uniform since 1967. It’s like they broke into a museum or something.”
But why?” asked Kyle. “I mean, what’s the point?”
“I don’t think it’s something they did on purpose. I think it just happened. When they discovered the Symmes Hole.”
“Here we go,” mumbled Cam.
“Those two soldiers who walked right past you? They’re doing stuff. Regular maintenance stuff. They have jobs. Everybody has their job to do here. But if you aren’t a part of their job they don’t see you. They see the things they need to see. They can work computers. They can fire guns. They can drive jeeps. But if you aren’t part of their job description, they don’t see you.”
“So you’ve been able to just walk around, free as you please, and nobody notices?” Kyle shook his head. “Why would the Army do that? Why would the Army want that?”
“They control things as best they can. I don’t know how much control they have. Soldiers come to work here, and then after awhile they turn into ghosts. I think the Army just accept it as the cost of doing business.”
Cam asked, “What business?”
“Weaponry,” said Seth.
“What’s the weapon?”
“You’ll see,” said Seth, doing his best to sound ominous. He flashed the same giddy smile.
They tripped another alarm a few minutes later. Twin spotlights hit them from either side, as the same recorded voiced warned them, “Stop! This is government property! You are trespassing!”
The lights and the warning barely slowed Seth down. Cam and Kyle, seeing Seth so unfazed, kept up the pace.
Conversation stalled, then subsided. They were tired. It was late. The sound of their footfall in the crunchy, high-tech gravel bounced from hillside to hillside.
The fences on either side of them began to grow in size and sturdiness. The base of the fence changed to brick and mortar, with the poles that supported the chain link fence mounted in the brick. The chain link reached 10 feet into the air, topped with razor wire. Signs every ten feet warned the metal of the fence was electrified.
When they turned a corner to find the blast door, Kyle thought it looked like something out of an old sci-fi movie. A huge half-circle, at least 20 feet high, had been cut into the rock face of the mountain. Metal slats of razor-wired fencing arced over the entrance. The open door--a matching half-circle of metal and electronic circuitry, four feet thick--loomed off to the side.
“Isn’t that cool?” Seth exclaimed. “I even seen them open it! I’ve been here before.”
Kyle and Cam both stopped and looked at him. Kyle sputtered, “You’ve been here before? After this all-night search for you, with us thinking you were lost, or hurt?”
“That’s so irresponsible!” Cam added.
“It’s SO worth it. Trust me,” said Seth. “Wait til you see what is coming up!”
He galloped through the opening. Upon arriving at the far side of the doorway, he turned. Jumping up and down like a little kid, Seth said, “Come on, come on! This is the fun part!”
Reluctantly, Kyle and Cam followed him inside, into a large circular room.
Rock walls surrounded them. Conduit and thick cables climbed up the sides of the walls, meeting at huge junction boxes that looked to Kyle like the centers of spider webs. The roof of the cavernous space hovered high overhead.
A few soldiers worked at monitors set into walls and desks around the periphery of the room. None of them paid any attention to the three young people who walked into the most secure military facility on the planet.
Trails of blue slime led from the soldier’s workspaces to hallways leading from the main entrance. Kyle understood he was looking at well-worn footpaths of traffic for the soldiers. Since they were never distracted from their duties, those paths were consistent and unyielding.
“See, look here!” cried Seth. He hopped excitedly up and down, pointing to a soldier sitting before a monitor. Kyle stood petrified, unable to discard the notion that the solider would turn and look directly at Seth.
The soldier stared at his monitor.
"This is where you open and close the blast doors,” said Seth. “I saw them do it, bringing in a big tank of something. They’re fast! Ninety seconds to close, ninety second reset, ninety seconds to open. The main doors at Cheyenne Mountain, they only closed them once, on 9/11, back in the day. But these side entrances are access tunnels, they open and close them all the time, bringing equipment and supplies in and out.
Cam addressed Seth directly. “Seth, this is crazy. You did it. You showed us how to get in. Very cool. I’m impressed. But it’s past two in the morning, I am tired, I’ve got things to do tomorrow, and Kyle has to go to work. And if my parents find out I’m gone, they will freak out. You’ve had your fun. It’s time to go.”
“It’s almost time to go.” Seth giggled. He sounded on the verge of sanity.
“Come on! Five minutes! We’re almost there!” And with that, Seth bolted into one of the hallways, his unhinged giggling echoing back through the hall as he disappeared.
“Is he skipping down the hallway?” asked Cam.
“Look, you’ve been here far longer than you planned to. If you want to go, we can go. I will understand.”
Cam said, “We’ve come this far. And I’m kind of curious about what he’s gonna show us.”
“He’s tripping balls. He might just show us an aquarium or a lava lamp or something.”
Cam laughed. “Let’s just find him and go home and go to sleep.”
They followed the sound of the still giggling Seth. Outside of the main chamber, the rock walls and ceiling had been replaced with standard walls and floors and ceilings. If it weren’t for the occasional high-tech keypads and sensors, they could be walking through a normal office building.
The humming started a few minutes later. It was difficult to pinpoint the exact direction the sound was coming from, as it sounded like it was coming from all directions at once. The noise grew louder the farther they walked.
They encountered only a handful of soldiers as they followed Seth’s path. As with all the others, the soldiers did not notice them. They followed their predetermined paths, footsteps glowing slightly in the pale artificial light.
Their path widened. The hallway opened up as they entered deeper into the mountain, growing wider, the ceiling higher. The humming grew loud enough to make ordinary conversation difficult.
The last door opened up into a large, round, rock-rimmed chamber, not unlike the room behind the blast door.
Ash filled the air, identical to the ash they’d seen outside.
Flat banks of computers and monitors lined the periphery of the room, occasionally broken up by large archways. Tiny color-coded lights set in lines and grids flashed on and off. Rolls of black tape spun, stopped abruptly, started again. Thick sheafs of cables ran in every direction.
“How old are these computers?” asked Kyle.
“It’s like we’re in a Radio Shack,” said Cam. She reached out to something on the desk in front of her, and held up a three and a half inch floppy disc. “What even is this?”
Kyle didn’t know.
A large hole, maybe twenty feet wide, dominated the center of the room. A concrete and metal wall, three feet high, circled the hole entirely, so that they could not see directly down into it. Glass shields had been set into the concrete, rising another six feet into the air. While banks of bright lights hung over the computer consoles, no lights shone on the hole.
Rather, blue light poured from the hole, spreading an eerie glow over the rocky ceiling of the chamber. Blue sparks of light floated out of the pit, rising high into the air. As the sparks approached the top of the chamber, the blue light faded, the sparks turned to grey ash, and fell back to the floor.
The hum they’d been hearing clearly emanated from here. The floor shook with the vibration.
“You want to, don’t you?” Seth sneered while saying it, which struck Kyle as odd; for all Seth’s faults, Kyle never knew him to be sneering, or mean. Something else seemed off about his appearance, but Kyle could not quite place what it was.
“Want to what?” said Cam, but they all knew what he meant. Kyle felt his initial rush of fear battle the rising curiosity about what was being held inside the hole.
“Look into the pit,” he said. “It’ll look right back at you.”
“You know we’re going to look,” said Cam to Kyle. “Let’s just get it over with.”
Kyle took Cam’s hand. “Okay. You lead.”
Cam snickered. “I’ll lead.” She took a step forward. Kyle followed.
With every step closer to the hole, they saw a few feet deeper inside. Blue light shimmered from the dark, growing more intense as they moved forward.
A thick slab of meat slapped against the glass. Cam jumped, Kyle screamed.
The meat detached from the glass with a sickening plop and sank back down into the hole, out of eyesight, leaving a semi-transparent blue imprint of slime where it had hit the glass. Kyle noticed other spots on the glass with a blue, sludgy, coating, and wondered how often the thing in the hole rose up to the glass. He wondered how often the glass needed to be cleaned.
They were a few steps away. Kyle and Cam shared a pause, knowing their next movements forward would reveal the thing at the bottom to them.
They stepped forward.
The surface of a churning blue sea confronted them from below. Waves leapt from the surface toward them, before folding back into the mass.
No, not waves.
Not a sea.
Something reached for them from the void. This was not a liquid surface, but one unified, quivering mass, changing with each moment. Those parts of it that rose upward toward them morphed continually, looking to Kyle like arms, like ropes, like tentacles, like teeth.
The blue mass spit a jetty of blue flesh straight at their terrified faces. The tentacle thudded violently against the glass; Kyle and Cam jumped back in fear.
Seth laughed again.
He stepped between them and threw his arms around their shoulders.
“You don’t need to be afraid,” he told them. “It’s not going to hurt you.”
“What’s not going to hurt us?” asked Kyle.
“I don’t know what it is. I just found it here, once I figured out I could walk inside. It doesn’t want to hurt us. It’s not the enemy. This thing wants to help.”
“Help? How could it possibly help?” asked Kyle.
“Have you been hurt?”
“You won’t be.”
Kyle figured out what had been bothering him about Seth’s appearance. The irises of his eyes were shot through with blue specks, as if colored glass had been shattered, then embedded inside.
Blue veins pulsed from beneath the mask of his face. Surrounding skin mimicked the cold underwater colors.
“It wants to make us better. That’s why we keep it alive.”
“Okay, I stand corrected. That’s why the army keeps it alive. That’s why the scientists figured out how to feed it, decades ago, back during the Cold War.” He pointed toward a cluster of thick pipes nestled inside at the edge of the room, running down into the ground. “That hum? It’s not the blue thing. It’s the food they feed to the blue thing. It’s the sound of the pumps, injecting the stuff straight deep underground.”
“How far underground?”
“How far?” Seth’s maniacal giggle erupted again. “It IS the underground! This is a Symmes Hole, it leads to the hollows underneath the Earth. That’s where this thing lives. It’s always been there. It will always be there. Long after we are gone.”
“What are they feeding it?”
Seth only smiled.
Cam said, “So they’re feeding it? And keeping it safe by hiding it under a mountain? Just so they can use it for a weapon?”
“Look. You guys don’t have to stay. You’re free to go. But I’m staying. I like it here.”
“Whatever. I’ve never felt a high like this before. I’ve never felt so free.”
The cold mechanical click of a bullet being chambered into place interrupted Seth. An older man in a military service dress uniform stood in front of the doors, pointing a gun at the three of them. Medals, bars, ribbons marched down the cloth of his uniform. Epaulettes perched on his shoulders.
No blue shone from his eyes, his skin, his veins.
“No one move,” said the older man.
“Hello, Major,” said Seth. He waved.
The man known as Major shot Seth in the shoulder.
The impact of the bullet knocked him back, slamming him against the rock wall. The last remnants of blue faded from his eyes and skin. He slid down the wall.
Kyle was relieved to note his blood was still red.
“Dude,” said Seth. Cam dropped to Seth’s side to examine the gunshot wound.
“Again. No one move. A security force is their way.”
Kyle and Cam did not move.
“A human security force.”
Seth whispered, “We gotta go now. Once security arrives we’ll be outnumbered. I know these tunnels better than I know my own home. There’s a bunch of doors out of this room. We gotta get to the closest one.” He nodded to toward the doorway.
He barely acknowledged his injury, and if he felt any pain, he did not show it. The blue had faded from his irises, but the wild-eyed intensity brought on by the drugs remained. The drugs may have helped mask the pain.
Seth and Cam both looked to Kyle for a decision.
The Major appeared to notice as well. “You’ll never get out of here. This is the most secure military installation on Earth. So far you’ve only met our…subsidiary troops. Their job isn’t to report or detain you. Trust me, the guys coming in here have guns, and have been trained how to use them.”
“So you’re going to kill us?” asked Kyle.
“You broke into a top-secret military installation. You endangered not only your own lives, but the lives of the people in this community. The safety of our great nation. The security of the world and the human race. Do you know what would happen if the…subject…were allowed to escape?”
“Who excavated it? Who woke it up?” asked Kyle.
“We need it to fight our enemies.”
“You’re the enemy,” said Kyle.
The Major raised the gun to eye level, aiming over the barrel of the handgun.
“Now,” cried Kyle.
The three of them ran toward the closest doorway.
Three shots sounded in quick succession, hitting the wall behind them, spitting dust and bits of rock.
“There,” shouted Seth as Kyle approached the doorway. Kyle cut to his left and entered, hearing the footsteps of his friends closely behind him. They entered a bright hallway.
“Straight ahead! Go, go, go!”
Kyle slowed slightly to allow Seth to overtake him. Seth passed him in seconds. Cam fell in by Kyle’s side.
Seth turned to them while running, and smiled that same old goofy smile he always flashed when he was in trouble. If their lives had not been in danger Kyle would have laughed.
“The security force is the real deal,” said Seth. “They’ve got guns, and they’re well trained. They came looking for me once. But there aren’t many of them. Only a few soldiers run this entire place. Most of them turn into those slimy blue ghost things, and after that, they’re too stupid to be dangerous. Turn left here!”
Seth cut left, and Kyle and Cam followed.
Kyle said, “How come you didn’t change? Like the ghost soldiers did?”
Seth laughed. Kyle saw he was actually having fun.
“Better living through chemistry,” said Seth, cryptically.
They heard footsteps ahead of them and took a sharp right, then another series of evasive turns when alarms began to clamor and red warning lights began to flash. Kyle had to admit, Seth seemed to have a good grasp of the layout of the mountain.
Darkness enshrouded most of the hallways in this section of Cheyenne Mountain. Offices shut and locked, lights off inside. The falling ash that the military had scrubbed away so thoroughly in the active portions of the building had reaffirmed its presence here. Grey ash hung in the air like monochromatic confetti, and coated the walls and floors and ceilings.
These rooms had been built to help fight the Cold War, back in the days before any of them had even been born. Now they were darkened and unused. The entire facility had been constructed to fight a war against an enemy that no longer existed.
The photographs that lined the halls showed men from another generation, another time. They dressed in their combat fatigues and their dress uniforms. They posed in front of tanks and battlefields, friends and family, gravestones and homes. They fought and sacrificed in service to their county.
They were all almost certainly dead by now.
How many had died fighting a non-existent enemy?
How many died protecting this literal monster, hidden under layers of concrete and rock?
The three of them slid and skidded their way around the corner and saw the main room they’d first entered. The blast door loomed over the far side of the room like a promise. Kyle had been sure they’d close it as soon as the alarm sounded, to cut off any path of escape, but either through stupidity or negligence or maybe a simple lack of man-power, the door had been left open. The first rays of sunrise lit the rock face on the far side of the door.
The sun was rising.
The door was still open.
The path to a successful escape lay on the far end of the room.
Between the three of them and the open door, soldiers went about their tasks, unable to break free from their programmed duties, oblivious to the shrieking alarms, the flashing emergency lights, the three teenagers huddled in the doorway at the end of the room.
A handful of soldiers gathered at one of the other entrances to the room, halfway between the three of them and the open door.
“We’re not gonna make it,” said Cam. “They’ll shoot us off if we run for the door.”
“We’re not gonna run to the door. You guys are gonna hide while I close it.” He pointed. Kyle recognized the workstation his friend pointed to.
“You’re gonna close the door?” asked Kyle.
“Ninety seconds to close, ninety seconds to reset, ninety seconds to open. Remember? It’ll give you a four-an-a-half-minute head start. When you get outside, take a hard left through the brush. I cut a hole in the fencing, it’ll take you into the rich people neighborhood next door.”
“Isn’t it electrified?”
Seth laughed. “There’s a sign that says it’s electrified. Not the same thing. Remember, the government never tells you anything important.”
Cam asked, “What about you?” Fear and concern bubbled in her voice.
“I’ve run from these people before. I know this place better than they do. If anyone can find their way out, I can.”
“How will you eat? What about water?”
“There’s bathrooms. There’s snack machines. I’ll be fine. I kinda like it here, remember? I ran because the Major was shooting at us. But I wouldn’t mind exploring the place for awhile. I'll find my way out.”
“How long is awhile?” asked Kyle.
Seth ignored the question. “We gotta act fast. We gotta do this now.”
Kyle found Seth’s logic unassailable. He hugged his best friend.
Cam hugged him as well. She wiped tears from her cheeks.
“We’ll wait for you. In the park at the base of the mountain, where we always hang out. Every night, until you find your way out.”
“Every night,” agreed Kyle.
Seth rolled his eyes and flashed that goofy smile at them one last time.
“Whatever. Love you guys. Give me a head start. Run when you hear me do that Red Dawn thing.”
“What Red Dawn thing?” Cam asked.
Seth rushed into the center of the room. When he was far enough away from Kyle and Cam, he shouted, “WOLVERINES!” He let out an unhinged laugh.
Kyle and Cam shot toward the blast door, crouching low to the floor of the chamber. He prayed Seth would be able to open the door in time.
Seth was nearly at the console that controlled the doors before the soldiers spotted him and took their positions. Seth hit a few buttons on the keyboard, then brought the palm of his hand down on a large round button.
“Now!” he cried. A shot fired and missed, ricocheting off the metal console to his side. He rolled onto the floor, then hustled into a side hallway. Several soldiers followed in pursuit.
Giant tumblers rolled and bolts fell into place, rattling the floor. The door groaned and began to move.
Ninety seconds to close. Kyle figured it would take them thirty seconds to get there.
Gunshots cut the air above Kyle and Cam. Cam quickly slid behind a complex of thick pipes. Kyle tucked himself into the tiny space beside her.
They’d never make it to the door on time. And, if they tried, they’d probably be shot.
Several of the blue-skinned ghost soldiers of Cheyenne Mountain were walking inside the cavernous room, attending their duties, oblivious to the uproar taking place around them. Kyle rolled toward the closest one, keeping it between him and the soldiers firing at him.
As he wondered if he was hidden safely from view, a bullet hit the ghost soldier in from of Kyle right in the chest.
The ghost soldier fell.
Every eye in the Cheyenne Mountain control room fell in the direction the shot had been fired.
Apparently, the ghost soldiers were not oblivious to everything.
Apparently, they were programmed to protect themselves.
They all turned, as one. They marched toward the direction of the human soldiers, unslinging their rifles as they walked.
Kyle reached back, grabbed Cam’s hand and ran.
They heard the first of the screams just as they reached the door. Not wasting precious time to look back, they shot through the opening and collapsed on the gravel of the roadway.
“Quick, we’ve got 90 seconds,” said Kyle.
“I’m not sure anyone’s gonna come out of that door when it opens again,” replied Cam.
Remembering Seth’s last words, they took a hard left into the brush at the side of the road. Sure enough, a wide space showed the fence beyond the brush, wire cutters glinting on the ground in the early light of dawn. It took considerable self-control to grab the metal chain link with signs every hundred yards informing them the fence was electrified, but Kyle gritted his teeth and reached out to the metal. Nothing. He pulled himself through, then reached back to help Cam through.
Five minutes later they were walking down the center of a residential street, million-dollar houses on either side.
“Nice neighborhood,” said Cam. “Jeez.”
“I know. Not a lot of people can afford to live up here. The car’s close. We’ll be there soon.”
Most of the houses were dark. A few showed signs of waking to the new day. Garage doors opening. Porch lights turning off. The wispy exhaust of newly started cars hanging low to the ground in the cold, dewy air.
Behind them lurked the bulk of Cheyenne Mountain, towering over them like a disapproving parent. Antenna bristled from the top of the mountain like needled teeth. The primary blast door of the facility gaped like an open, hungry mouth.
Thick rock walls and reinforced concrete hid its secrets from these public residential streets, as it publicly declared its promise to keep these streets safe.
How long would those doors hold?
How long would these secrets remain hidden? Everything crumbled eventually, everything fell apart, even steel and concrete.
“Is Seth going to be okay?”
“I don’t know. Probably. He’s pretty smart. He knows how to survive.”
“Do we know how to survive?” Kyle looked to Cam. She continued, “The army knows we were in there. There must be tapes of us. Somebody must be watching what’s going on there, right?”
Kyle didn’t know.
Bikes lay abandoned on empty driveways. A car passed them slowly, on the way to work. Two kids walked down the sidewalk in the other direction, knapsacks slung over their shoulders. A radio played somewhere, morning drive time, music and jokes and advertising.
A typical American neighborhood. A car in every garage. A lock on every door. Prosperity for everyone.
It all seemed so normal. A basketball sat in the gutter of the street, next to a portable hoop. Kyle scooped it out of the gutter with his foot and gave it a soft kick. The ball took unexpected flight, bounding down the street until it settled into a roll and followed the safe suburban roadway down the side of Cheyenne Mountain, marking the path forward, guiding them home.