The Notch Is Turned, Part Four of a Journey to the Center of the Earth Story By John Pirillo. "Nothing is real."--- John Lennon.
The corridor stretched hundreds of yards in both directions, at which ends it was pitch black, except for the sharp lights of the mag-light helmets of the Forces stationed on guard there. It had been a rugged day for days now and everyone was feeling the effects of adrenaline constantly pumping fear into their veins. At some point the body has to rest or it breaks down.
Only Doctor Brevard was awake in his spot near the front. The Colonel was bivouacked to his right and Jeffries to his left. He was studying the datasheet again, making marks at appropriate points of it, then doing rapid calculations in his brain and making new marks. He was nearing the completion of them when he suddenly stiffened. "No!" He cried out.
He jumped to his feet.
"It's a trap!" He yelled.
Barnes and Claire sat quietly next to a parked drone, its electric sensors dimmed to conserve energy. It was a robo truck responsible for carrying their food supplies. There was a whole train of them. No one knew how long they would be down, inside the Earth, so they had planned for the worst, assuming that there would be no natural food resources there.
Barnes wasn't so sure anymore. She and Diggs hadn't told anyone yet, but the Glow Moss was edible once it dried out. Tasted like dry wheat, but a bit earthier. Reminded her of the spirulina she used to put into her protein shakes back on Shasta.
"Oh." She gasped, not meaning to.
Claire looked over at her friend. "You okay?"
"Yeah." Barnes nodded, and then fell into a sullen silence. The utter silence of their surroundings, except for the Forces gathered around, also talking very quietly, as if their voices might wake up something. And maybe they would. Something had awoken.
"I don't get it."Claire finally said. She spoke what had bothered her for quite some time now. "Milford thinks we're in some kind of rat's maze."
Claire eyed Barnes.
"Maybe. But for what?"
"Your guess is as good as mine, but considering how horrible our experiences have been so far; it can't be for anything good."
"Spoken like a true vet." Claire smiled.
Barnes growled lightly, and then smiled. "Sorry, this place is starting to get on my nerves I guess."
Claire looked at the green and gray rock tunnel they were traversing and the occasional bumps of deformed lava that extruded from the walls and floors. "I don't know why such a pretty place would do that for you."
Barnes laughed, and then squinted at Claire. "It's obvious someone of great intelligence built this series of mazes. Or tunnels. Or whatever the hell they were."
"Or are." Claire corrected.
"That's the part that spooks me. If 'are' is the case, then where 'are' they? Why don't they show themselves?"
"Maybe they can't."
"Or don't dare?"
Claire nodded. "Maybe both. Remember the big to do about flying saucers off the coast of Australia. Drove the world nuts trying to figure out what they were about."
"Always some nuts trying to find salvation that way." Barnes groused.
"No, I'm serious. People really thought the aliens were going to land and bring us into a golden age."
"Guess they were wrong." Barnes sighed.
Claire didn't say anything else. What was there to say? Everything was speculation. They didn't know any more today than they did yesterday about who or what really caused the Big One. Or did they?
She drifted off into a gentle sleep, wondering and hoping that there would be a positive ending to all of this, even if she or no one else yet could see it.
Jeffries unhooked the wires from the new star they had found, and looked at his data screen, as Red looked on. "Do you believe that spew that Milford was trying to get us to buy into?
Jeffries stopped whistling the tune he had started. "Does it really matter what I believe? It won't change anything. We'll still keep going. Deeper and deeper. Fighting the unseen and those strange Insectoid. And God knows what else is down here."
Red slid down beside Jeffries. "But what if all of this is some kind of test? What if we're being graded on how we react to the threats?"
Jeffries shook his head. "Just pray we're getting a passing grade."
Jeffries got up, shoveled his scanner and data pad into his backpack, slung it over his shoulder, then turned to leave. "You know, the only thing I'm really worried about?"
"What happens when we run out of power and ammo?"
With that thought weighing down Red's mind, Jeffries headed back to where the main Forces were. Most of them sleeping or talking quietly amongst themselves. It was a strange sight. Drones, Robo carts. Men. Women. All at the peak of their youth. Heading into the unknown. Traveling into a vast and seemingly endless deep hole of tunnels and pathways.
Red, meanwhile, sat back against the wall and tugged out a ration. "Beef stew." He read.
"I'll split that with you." Diggs said as he dropped down beside Red. "I've got strawberry shortcake."
"You're on." Red grinned.
The two men waited while Red's ration heated up, sharing the shortcake and freeze dried strawberries as they did so. Diggs swiped at his forehead, and then looked at his palm. "A bug." He frowned. "Or..."
He held up the splash of matter in his palm closer to his eyes. "Nah. Just bug."
He wiped it off on his pants, and then returned to eating.
Red opened the Beef Stew and used his service jack of all trades, spoon, knife and fork to scoop out enough for Diggs as he held out his helmet.
"How can you stand putting that on afterwards?"
"Just one more thing, Red. One more thing. And besides, I get hungry; I can always lick it clean."
Diggs broke into laughter. Red gave him a grossed out look.
Diggs poked him. "Just kidding, man. I clean it every night before I slap the zzzzs on."
Red smiled. "That's what I like about you, big guy, and a sense of humor."
Diggs finished his ration and drew his helmet to his lips to get all the remaining juices. He set it down, swiped his mouth clean with the back of his hand, belched, and then sighed. "We have anything else left?"
Red had no answer to that.
Doctor Brevard and the Colonel poured over the flash printout of the data stream that Jeffries had accumulated as he detailed what he had discovered.
"It would appear that the stars are not only warnings, but also distances."
"How so?" The Colonel asked, squinting at the data to understand it.
"See this." Jeffries pointed at the spiky energy at the beginning. "Our star." He poked another spike that was smaller. "The last star we found."
"So what's that prove?"
Doctor Brevard got excited. "I get it. The energy spikes get stronger the deeper we go and weaker the further away we become."
"Not just that, Doc." Jeffries responded.
Doctor Brevard gave him a scowl. He hated that word.
"Not just that, Doc." Jeffries repeated, inwardly gloating at the look of disdain on Doctor Brevard's face. "Not just that, but see these parallel dashed lines?"
Doctor Brevard ran a forefinger along a series of lines both above and below the spikes.
"Yeah. The top ones are the level we have descended from. The lower one...where we're headed."
The Colonel frowned. "This is great, but can you get us a reading yet on how many more levels there are to this march?"
Jeffries became very quiet.
Jeffries finally spoke. "That's the crazy thing. See this and this."
Doctor Brevard and the Colonel leaned closer to look at what Jeffries had fingered on the printout.
"Looks like an eight." The Colonel muttered.
Doctor Brevard looked up at Jeffries. "But this is impossible!"
"What's impossible?" The Colonel asked. "Someone make sense of this for me!"
Doctor Brevard looked to the Colonel. "That's not an 8, Colonel, but the symbol of infinity!"
"What the fark are you talking about, Doctor? Nothing can be infinite down here! Nothing!"
Doctor Brevard leaned back against the wall behind him, brushing aside some glow moss that was growing there. "I wouldn't be so sure, if I were you, Colonel."
The Colonel looked to Jeffries, who shrugged, tugged out some chewing gum and slugged a stick into his mouth and began chewing.
"Oh hell!" The Colonel cursed. "Oh hell!"
Barnes drew Claire's service blanket, a light wrap of insulated aluminum and cloth that kept the body warm or cool depending on where the person was, to Claire's chin, then lay down on her side, her eyes watching the glow of a distant Glow Moss. She often thought about the irony of them. Here they were probably miles deep in the interior of the planet now, with no end in sight and of all the things that lived abundantly here, it was moss. The last thing she would have pegged to make it under these conditions.
She thought back to when she was just a Park Ranger, doing her job by giving tours to Tourists who hadn't a clue how to live in mountainous, or forest conditions. Helping them to start fires, put them out, guiding them to what they should do if they ran into a bear or mountain lion. Helping them to make sure they had enough supplies. Those seemed like the good old days now compared to this mission.
When she signed on, she'd thought she was going to be this great big explorer going into the unknown and discovering wondrous scientific inventions created by some ancient civilization hiding deep within the mountain. But as the expedition descended below the base of the mountain and the tunnels, caves and corridors continued to drop lower and lower, she didn't know what to think of her dreams anymore.
And the strange creatures like that grasshopper. That just vanished!
She smiled fondly at the memory. It was kind of neat having a huge doglike insect to cuddle. As she began to drift off she could swear she saw Jiminy's face peering into hers. "Nah!" She had yawned, and rolled over. It wasn't until she closed her eyes again that she felt a heavy shape droop against her side and nuzzle against her, making soothing bass-like sounds.
She drifted off happily into a netherworld of happy lives she had led in college, in high school and training as a Park Ranger. Nothing dark, dreary of frightening for once.
Claire slid down and rolled over, facing Barnes. She stretched, tugging her blanket more tightly around her shoulders, and then glanced over for a brief second. She closed her eyes to drift off to sleep again, thinking the image of Jiminy cuddled next to Barnes just a figment of her dreams and fatigue.
Doctor Brevard screamed over and over. "It's a trap!"
As men and women jumped to their feet, arms at the ready, the Colonel snapped awake and jumped over next to the Doctor. "What in the hell are you doing frightening everyone like that?"
The ground beneath the Forces began to tremble ever so slightly, and then it began to move more strongly.
Doctor Brevard shoved the datasheet in the Colonel's face. "The spikes are not the positions of stars, but earth movement. And the big one. The one we're next to. That's not the star. It's an earth movement.
The ground and walls began to shake. Pieces of the corridor ceiling began to break away.
As men stumbled to their feet, Doctor Brevard hollered at them. "Grab what you can and run to the rear. Back where started! Now!"
The Colonel joined the Doctor, moving swiftly among the Forces, rousing them and hurrying them.
A testament to the sharpness of those chosen to serve was their ability to retrieve nearly everything they had brought under the earth and even get the drones and robo carts moving towards the rear.
As the ground began to break up as well, the steady rush became a near panic.
Diggs and Red came running up from the front.
"Something's coming, Colonel!" They yelled.
The Colonel turned their way. "Oh God help us!"
"Diggs get the rest of our people to safety. Red, I need your help."
"You're going to need more than mine, Colonel."
The Colonel was about to blast him angrily, when he saw what Red meant. A huge worm, like the one they had fought before was sliming its way down the corridor towards them.
"I think this one's for real, Colonel."
"Oh Holy Mother Mary!" The Colonel prayed, then grabbed a grenade from his belt and rushed the giant worm.
Red shook his head. "I get all the shit jobs!"
He grabbed his rifle and shot after the Colonel.
As they ran the corridor floor broke up in a number of places, cutting off any retreat they might have had. Red and the Colonel leaped over a small chasm from which red-hot flames began to spew forth, and then dodged a huge piece of ceiling that dislodged.
When it landed it formed a wall behind them.
The Worm was still barreling towards them. It opened its mouth to have a snack. Them!
The Notch Is Turned