The Distant Echo, a Short Story: Part 2
Still weary, he turned and inspected the walls of his citadel, checking for breaks in the fence or other weak spots. A small cinderblock building loomed out of the fog ahead, several pipelines running in over the fence and through the roof.
Curious and in need of shelter, John clambered into the structure through one of the ruined windows, finding himself in a dark corridor. The floor was strewn with broken glass which crunched under his feet. Three doors stood ajar down its length, complete blackness lying inside.
Pistol in hand, John cautiously opened them one by one, finding a break room of sorts behind one, a closet behind another, and a control room through the last door. The panels were dusty, the lights broken. Large coils of pipes sat against the far wall. Searching for answers, he looked for some sign of what he was looking at, finding a clipboard hanging from the wall nearby.
Still clasped in it was a piece of paper bearing a letter dating to the seventies. Intrigued, John gave it a once over.
North Rim pumping stations are to begin scaling back operations. All should be operating at 65 percent of maximum by no later than 29 August, and to 45 percent by 9 September.
Beginning 21 September an inspection will be made of all northern shafts to determine which pumps are still necessary for operations. Operators are advised to take this opportunity to make certain their systems are functioning properly.
-Dr. P Karkov, Project Directorâ€™
Glad to have even a little context, John shoved the paper under his coat. All around him the dim light that pervaded the world was fading. Shivering in the cold and dark, he ventured around into the closet, searching for anything of assistance. In the back he found a gas lantern, but was unable to get it working. Frustrated, John ventured back out, searching for anything he could use for warmth.
During the final moments of light, against the rear wall of the control room, he discovered a large hatch. After a minute of prying the rusted hinges gave way and he was confronted by a dark oblivion, warm air wafting from below. Desperate, John gingerly put his foot into the darkness, finding a hard surface to sand on.
A set of unseen stairs guided him down into the pitch blackness, the light fading away above as well. Completely cut off from the light, John groped around, finding himself in a maze of pipes large and small. Bizarre echoes sounded around him, reverberations of unseen movements, which formed an unearthly chorus. Low hums, shrill chimes, uneven creaking, and distant tapping, all added their voices to the symphony.
The sounds tolled around him and all at once John lost all sense of direction. He fumbled around, trying to find the wall, but came up empty. Directionless, he crawled around the floor, the chorus growing louder, more insistent. The noises caused his head to ache again, a gnawing pain which threatened to drive from him whatever sanity remained.
John knocked something lying on the floor, a clattering crash nearly deafening him. Stunned, he groped around at the debris he had disturbed. His hand clasped around a paper cylinder, which he instinctively ripped in half. A blazing red light dispelled the darkness of the pump-room, the unearthly noises fading away with the shadows leaving only a dull silence. John stared around the camber, waving the burning flare from side to side.
The room was remarkably small, only around twice the size of the break room above, with a few pipes running down from above and turning at angles through various pieces of machinery. At the centre was a row of five pipes leading down into the earth.
Able to collect his thoughts, John began to search for anything that might be of use. Another flare was lying amongst the spilled tools, but there was little else around. In the far corner he discovered a pipe with a hole rusted through it, a stream of warm air wafting from deep below.
Needing to rest and with nowhere to go, John curled up on the floor beside only source of warmth. Sounds of the deep earth rose up and reverberated through his soul. Ringing, scratching, rumbling.
Unpleasant images filled his head. A suited woman behind a desk shouting at him, miles of chain link fence stretching on for infinity, the clattering of a camera shutter. He was standing in a filing room, the flashlight clutched between his teeth keeping the darkness at bay. Papers slid through his fingers, the text hinting at terrible secret undermining the fabric of reality. There was a shout, or perhaps of gust of wind, alerting him to danger.
John regained consciousness in near total darkness and for the briefest instant believed that he was still in the filing room. Â Then he flailed around, remembering where he had landed. His hand landed on the flare and pulled, dispelling the blackness for a time. The voices of the earth poured from the walls of the pump room, driving him into the bleak fog above.
Heart pounding in his throat, John stood before the yawning oblivion of diffuse light. Then a terrible pang of hunger nearly caused him to retch. As he staggered his head exploded, ears ringing from the pain. John fell to his knees, his hand rubbing the cold steel of his stolen pistol, considering putting an end to the pain.
Only when it subsided did he push such notions whence they had come. After gathering himself as best he could, John ventured back into the haunted structure, knowing somehow that there still lurked inside an item he needed. In the main room, stuffed beneath one of the consoles, he fished out a map of the valley, which provided him at last context for his existence.
A row of Pump Stations were marked along the north end of the place, which were radiated around a research centre labeled Belkovoly, which was also name of a nearby village, the lake it was built beside, and the hole depression in which he resided if he was reading it correctly.
After studying the document for a time, John decided that he would make for the village. If there was any hope of survival it lay in finding people, or at least the supplies they might have left behind. Resolved, he drew his pistol, counting the bullets in the clip before venturing back to the gate. The monsters were gone, and after rattling the face several times, John felt secure enough to undo the latch.
Once out in the grey wastes, he felt a rush of fresh fear wash over his being. The omnipresent fog cut off his distance vision while the oppressive silence seemed to pull the edges of the reality to within a stoneâ€™s throw of where he was. As he trudged out through the rock strewn landscape, a part of him feared stepping over the edge of the world and falling into an endless void.
Time had no meaning in the grey wastes, nor did it even bother John that he was hopelessly lost. Alien colors crept into his vision as the headache returned, a clear landscape forming from the void. It was almost real, the brown poles holding aloft plumes of green paper bits lining the red stone walkway. Above there was a yellow orb, lighting the world so bright that he feared the papers might ignite.
Shielding his eyes with his palm, John made his way along the path towards a shimmering blue oval in the distance. Before he could reach it, a ringing brought him back to the dismal reality of the waking world.
He stumbled over a stream, the frigid water soaking into his boots. Shivering, John continued the trudge as his vision of the alien realm faded into nothingness. Unconvinced that such a place could exist in reality, John wondered if his mind was conjuring images to dull the monotony of existence.
The visions were so bewildering, that when orbs of light appeared ahead of him out of the gloom John was convinced they were simply more figments of his imagination. Only when the ghostly outlines of buildings appeared did he realize that he had reached a settlement.
John stopped in his tracks, unnerved by the sight of peopled structures and the glow of lanterns. As he stood in the fog, watching shadowy silhouettes moving amongst the log cabins and cinderblock cubes, a pain roared through his abdomen, nearly making him retch. Head spinning, John realized that if he did not eat, he would perish in the dark.
Shaking from hunger and fear, John pushed into the village, passing a sign in Cyrillic identifying the place as Belkovoly.
Figures wearing long coats moved slowly between the buildings, at least one stealing a glance at the newcomer in their midst. John gripped the pistol in his pocket, his eyes darting from side to side. The smell of cooking food drew him to the largest structure, a two story wooden building with obvious mud patches plastering its aged timbers.
Inside John was greeted by a blast of light and warmth that nearly overwhelmed him. He staggered several paces, falling roughly onto a stone bench. When he forced his watering eyes open, John saw that he was in some manner of communal eatery. Two hearths washed the long room in heat while cooking a pair of bubbling pots that a great bear of a man was stirring.
Tables and benches ran down the opposite wall, while at the far end was a man hunched over a tall counter, a stack of stone clay bowls stacked beside him. Seated around the hall were ten or so locals, all ragged individuals nursing bowls of noxious soup. Hunger overwhelming all else, John steeled himself as he rose back to his feet.
He tentatively approached the man at the high table, reaching for one of the stacked bowls. The hollow eyed man gave him a weary glance, murmuring something in a language he did not understand. When he retrieved a bowl without issue, he next approached the bear like man overseeing the soup. Hands trembling, John offered the rough hewn bowl to be filled.
The bear man glanced down at him, giving a grunt before giving him a ladle full of chunky grey slop. With the precious liquid secured, John retreated to the furthest corner of the hall, putting as much distance between himself and the others as possible, before digging into the steaming sustenance he had been offered. The soup had no taste, save for a vague oily note that left his mouth feeling dry after each swallow.
The worst of his hunger pains subsided, replaced by a subtle unease. Only once he had finished eating did John realize that every eye in the building was upon him. Most stole furtive glances, though an old woman and her young son stared openly at him. John paled when he realized his hand had slid to the grip of his stolen pistol of its own accord. His head began pounding again, the hollow glares of the locals accusing him of unspoken crimes.
Then the door banged open.
A strange, balding man sauntered into the hall; his face free of gloom that haunted the locals, his white clothes untattered by the ravages of the twilight world. He snagged a bowl and approached the soup pots, wearing a false smile more unnerving than a thousand furtive glances from the locals.
The stranger took a seat not far from John, sipping his soup in silence. Time passed slowly as John stared at the newcomer, while the locals did the same. Once the stranger had finished, he rose to his feet and departed, vanishing back into the gloom outside. It was several heart beats before John stood and stared for the door as well, uncertain himself where he was going and why.
As he passed by the strangerâ€™s seat, he caught a glimpse of a scrap of paper tucked beneath the manâ€™s bowl. He snatched it up, before exiting back into the cold, dreary world outside. By the flicking light of a lantern by the door John unfolded the paper, a small object falling into his palm. He fumbled the metallic disk, discovering upon closer inspection that it was a tiny compass. Confused, he looked over the paper itself, finding a single word written in its centre:
Without meaning to, he began following the command, passing by a hunting party going the opposite direction. The burly locals carried bows on their back, and a few birds in their hands, while two children hauled a sickly, four legged carcass strapped to a pole on their shoulders. None paid him any mind, safe for a glance from the livelier of the children, who looked upon him with genuine wonder, his eyes wide.
John returned the gaze, feeling for the first time connection with another of his species. This young man had never seen a stranger, he knew, and his head was brimming with questions that would never be answered. How John knew these things remained a mystery, and all too quickly the lad vanished into one of the larger hovels, leaving him to ponder such things alone.