~~~

Stephen, Logan and Meredith sat at one of the larger tables in the observation room. What they could salvage from the file cabinets lay in a scattered pile in front of them. Megan remained a nervous mess by the entrance door, sitting in a shaking ball and staring around the room at demons only she could see. For the moment, she still appeared in control of her own ravenous demon.

They had searched through the files for an hour, looking for anything connected to this sub-level facility and hopefully provide them with a way out. What they uncovered instead disturbed them to the core as they stared into each other’s shocked faces, waiting for someone to speak first.

Stephen shook his head, placing files on the table. “These all pertain to psychological experiments, some dated back before The Change, but they were obviously preparing for it. There are various locations mentioned throughout Northeast Ohio, some specific, others concealed under clever project names only, where Mother had staged survival equipment and assigned ‘cell’ groups to each location to ‘continue’ observing the ‘post-apocalyptic populace’ in order to weed out something they refer to often as ‘candidates from fodder’… whatever that means. They were watching us before… and after… trying to deduce a pattern to the epidemic as if they believed The Change wasn’t as random as the rest of us thought.”

Meredith’s eyebrows shot up. “Are you saying that Mother was aware of The Change all along? That they were anticipating it, and… studying it’s effects?”

Stephen let out a tired laugh. “It would appear so. If nothing else, they knew something was coming and had prepared in advance to put it under their microscope as if they were excited about it.”

“Probably scared the hell out of them, too,” Logan added. “Assuming they weren’t immune just because they were part of some exclusive group that knew it was coming. I imagine they were as baffled as the rest of us when their Mother co-workers went all yellow-eyed, enraged, and turned on each other, just like the rest of the world.”

“And yet, they knew… or at least considered that possibility,” Stephen said. “Thus, their need to study survivors to find out what ‘type’ of person might be able to resist turning… if that was even an option. Like I said, it appears they didn’t believe it was random.” He picked up one file and started reading midway through a memorandum. “‘…Factory 10A locale in Madison, Ohio; cache of small arms—staged; escape route via small boat abandoned by river—staged; sacrificial scenario 5B5 in effect—surrounded by opposition. Unit is to observe ONLY and record results. Pay particular attention to group leadership, factions, and dissidents within core. Project success results: half of group terminated to achieve escape…’” Stephen looked a Meredith with a frown. “Remind you anything?”

“The marina,” she said, shaking her head.

“I remember that particular ghost story,” Logan said with a laugh. “Was a long winter beneath the ground, and by the end of it, most of us where caught up to speed on your original group’s travels. That story along the Grand River, and the many exaggerations of it, came up quite often.”

Meredith shook her head sadly, remembering Douglas and Ashley. “If only what happened back then was just a ghost story.”

“Well, what’s described here is not quite the same, but it might as well be,” Stephen said, tossing the file back down in disgust. “That probably explains Mother’s symbols on those hangar doors when we got there. These ‘cells’ needed a way to locate their assigned positions, while I’m sure the added ambiguity of their ‘test subjects’ finding those symbols gave them more insight into our collective ‘psyche’ for their notes.”

Meredith was shaking her head. “Of course. That would explain all those boats we found sabotaged along the river, providing us only one boat to find… and they wanted to know what we would ‘sacrifice’ to get it.”

“I guess the real question is, what qualifies us, in Mother’s eyes, as a ‘Candidate’ or not. What would’ve happened if we—You and I, Frank and Gina—had left the others behind in a panic to save our own asses… as intended by the scenario?” Stephen stared down at the table and finished, “I’ll admit it, I remember just wanting to leave when we reached that boat. I was terrified. If Gina hadn’t done the right thing and went back…”

“You don’t know how that would’ve played out, Stephen. I was just as terrified in that moment, as I’m sure Gina was, as well,” Meredith said. “She was the first to come to her senses and remind us, deep down, who we really were and what had to be done. Even Frank had a chance to abandon us… and he didn’t.”

Stephen smiled at the irony. “If it had been Charlie who made it to the boat instead of Frank, I imagine the experiment would’ve had a higher success rating.”

Meredith laughed. “Indeed. So, the question still remains: Were we the ‘Candidates’ in Mother’s eyes that day, and Charlie the ‘Fodder’… or was it the other way around?”

“I wasn’t there with you guys that day, and I can’t say where I would’ve landed on that ‘bail and fail’ experiment, but we can all attest to the quality of people who make up this monstrous group,” Logan said. “From what I know from the stories about your former group member, Charlie, I’m going to say that he, and others like him, are Mother’s ‘type’.”

Meredith and Stephen nodded in agreement.

Stephen stared down at the files. “I’m sure if we searched long enough, I’d find that damn marina experiment, and a dozen more that fit the bill. If not here, then in some other Mother lab.”

“And I’m sure you’d also find a file that explained why a machine was made a deity in that topside camp, and why good people did whatever it told them to do, fearing for their own lives… as intended,” Logan said.

Stephen never considered that. “You’re right. For all we know, that place, the compound we’ve been living in, and God-knows what else, have all been carefully designed experiments to assess the kind of people we are, and we’ve all been living in Mother’s elaborate rat maze ever since.”

“Like this place,” Logan added, staring around the suffocating room. “They could be watching us right now, assessing our decisions in another… experiment.”

This brought an uncomfortable silence as they all considered the mind-boggling ramifications.

Logan let out a heavy sigh, eager to change the subject as he shared his own discoveries. “Some of these files date back to the late 1950’s,” he said. “I can barely read those, but… clearly… this shadow group’s been around a lot longer than we ever deduced.” He picked up one old file and tossed it on the table. “Just dates and titles on these, the rest have faded away on old-ass paperwork that looks like the Dead Sea Scrolls. Stephen, you reminded me of something I found when you said, ‘rat maze’. This one’s the oldest I’ve found: Project: Labyrinth, 1955. There’s nothing left of it, but this appears to be the start of something… or the start of the end.”

Stephen and Meredith stared at the cryptic old file name and gave each other a worried glance.

Meredith looked away, straightened her back, and then folded her hands together on the table, attempting to compose herself. “That name,” she started. “That name came up in a file I was reading. Labyrinth Level 1. I believe it was referring to this place.” She stared toward the observation windows and finished, “Or rather, whatever’s in there. It wasn’t specific, but it was clear that something bad occurred… something they referred to as the anomaly… and it sounded like they were trying to contain it… whatever it is. There was mention of a quarantine.” She was speaking carefully, not wanting to reveal her association with the orphanage. The last thing the Wasteland Witch needed was another reason for her friends to glare at her through the eyes of suspicion based on partial truths. Meredith needed time to process… time they didn’t have.

“That might explain the airlock door with the warning in blood,” Logan said. “Sounds like whatever’s on the other side of that door was some Mother science project that went all to hell.”

Stephen picked up a file. “This one was interesting. Project: Blue Barrier. A lot of its written way over my head like a tech manual, what I could still read of it, but it reminded me of the buzzing sound we’ve been hearing. It makes references to some shielding that was put in place, electro-magnetic shielding, that they believed was successful in containing a ‘breach’. The rest is illegible.”

“Damn… sounds like something right out of a science fiction novel,” Logan said with a nervous laugh.

“You mean that it sounds as farfetched as the dead returning to life?” Stephen added.

“You got me there, little brother.” Logan scratched the top of his head. “If such a… force field… existed, I imagine you’d need one helluva power source to keep it running.”

Stephen raised his eyebrows and nodded. He looked to Meredith. “He’s hinting at the generators we found. It makes sense.”

“So, it’s clear that something happened down here, something that happened a long time ago,” Meredith said. “Something that Mother tapped into that was beyond their control, and perhaps they put up that barrier and started watching this… anomaly… from a distance?”

“Sounds logical,” Stephen nodded.

“Did your file mention anything that happened to these people before they backed off?” Logan asked.

Meredith nodded. “They essentially went insane.”

The big preacher laughed. “This is getting better by the minute. So… we’re basically sitting in a room that was closed off by that big old door we’ve been wondering about all winter, and it turns out that these Mother folks might have had a good reason to do so.”

Stephen was catching on. “That door itself might have been another barrier to keep people out of here.”

“Or to keep Mother’s dirty little secrets hidden,” Logan added. “Probably started off that way, until their little science project went awry.”

Meredith stood up and took a step toward the dark windows. “And now, we’re the only observers left.” She turned and finished. “This isn’t a project anymore… it’s a tomb.”

Stephen sat back and rubbed the standing hairs on his forearms. “I suddenly want to be down here a whole lot less. Thanks for that, Meredith.”

She smiled weakly.

“I haven’t had a moment to add up the math until now,” Logan said, “but… it occurs to me… little brother, just how on earth did you get that damn door open, anyway?”

Stephen shot Meredith a look and met her pleading expression. He quickly glanced away. “That’s not important right now. Ask me again later when I’ve had time to add up my own math,” he finished.

Meredith clearly heard Stephen’s veiled message directed at her.

“Fair enough,” Logan said. He shifted gears. “Not to give any of you another reason to hate being down here, but… if these geniuses, who managed to poke a hole into God-only-knows what, and then realizing their mistake, put up this fancy electro-do-hickey wall and this ‘band-aid facility’ to correct it, then why is there a room down the hall full of corpses after a mass suicide and blood all over the walls that looks like an earlier massacre occurred before that?”

Stephen’s eyes went wide. “Are you suggesting that there might be a… I don’t know… a leak? Something their barrier didn’t protect them from… and that it got to them in here?”

“You said it, little brother.”

“Suicides,” Meredith said. “You both mentioned that earlier.”

Stephen nodded. “I didn’t see the point in scaring you or Megan with the details. But when you found us, we’d just discovered what happened to the research group, or an earlier one, anyway, that was here. Apparently, they all decided to kill themselves.” Stephen nodded to Logan’s sidearm. “That’s when we found the gun.” He let Meredith deduce the rest.

Meredith shuddered. “That’s… that’s awful.”

Logan felt a chill seize him. “Yeah… it was a gruesome scene. One I won’t be able to shake from my mind for a while. We wanted to spare you both from that.” Logan looked toward the floor and finished. “I’ll never understand what would make anyone take their own life. I fear for their souls.”

Meredith covered her mouth and gasped.

“What is it?” Stephen said.

Meredith recalled the exact words from the Home file. “‘…extreme cases of mental and emotional distress, hallucinations, manic behavior, and psychotic episodes…’ That’s what the file I read described as symptoms! Do you think-”

Stephen and Logan glanced at each other. “She’s right,” Stephen said. “It fits.”

“Shit,” Logan hissed. He turned and started to pray under his breath.

Stephen turned to Meredith. “If this barrier wasn’t a hundred percent at containing the problem, then it’s possible that whatever happened, happened in here, too.”

Meredith nodded. “They all went crazy.”

Stephen could feel the walls of this tomb closing in on him. “We need to get out of here before what happened here… happens to us.” He stared down at the scattered files. “Unfortunately, I have no idea how to do that. We either head back up and let the Shadow Dead in… or we attempt the airlock.”

“Damn, little brother! That’s death either way!” Logan chimed in. “You saw that bloody message on the door! It was pretty plain! And then there’s that damn force field thingy!”

“Written by some madman who’d spent too much time down here,” Stephen added. “We don’t know enough yet about what’s down here. But what we do know is what’s guaranteed topside. We need to keep reading. There has to be something we’re missing, something in these files that will help us get out of here.”

“Agreed,” Meredith said, stepping back to the table.

Logan calmed down. “Okay. Why don’t you two keep reading. I’ll go explore again. Maybe there’s another exit we missed… or maybe there’s a damn map somewhere.”

Stephen nodded. “Be careful. Come back immediately if something… doesn’t feel right.”

Logan pointed to the holstered gun. “I’ve still got this, little brother. I’ll be okay.”

Stephen frowned. “You’re not hearing me, preacher. Remember the symptoms Meredith described?”

Logan’s face paled. He nodded. “I’m hearing you now.”

“And remember… they had a gun, too,” Meredith pointed out. “And we know how that turned out.”

The big preacher suddenly felt the weight of the handgun on his side. He pictured himself standing in that dark bloody room full of bodies, except this time, he was the one holding the weapon to his own head. Heavenly Father, please keep whatever madness this is far from us, in Jesus’ name, amen.

Logan walked over to the table, removed the gun belt, and placed it carefully on the table. “I think I feel safer without this,” he said. “You know, just in case.”

Meredith and Stephen stared at the gun, both wishing they’d never come across it.

Stephen picked up the gun belt, walked over to one of the file cabinets, placed it inside, and then closed it. He nodded to the big preacher. “Just in case,” he repeated.

Logan smiled and turned toward the generator room. “I’ll start back there. May God watch over us and protect our hearts and minds from the evil in this place,” he prayed, walking away.

Stephen glanced back toward Megan. The girl appeared to be sleeping again. He turned to Meredith. “You ready to delve into some more dark history?” he joked.

Meredith, remembering her own involvement with said ‘dark history’, shook her head. “Not really. Thank you, by the way.”

“For what?”

“For not calling me out about the door… and how I happened to know the exact phrase that would open it.”

Stephen smiled. “I was wondering about that, too. But right now, I just want to get out of here.”

“Logan’s already wary of me… he always has been. He’s more tolerant than the others, but I can still see the suspicion behind his eyes… especially since he doesn’t understand why I’ve kept Megan alive.”

“I used to be quite the history buff, Meredith,” Stephen said. “There was a time I’d find digging into some mysterious old files like this exhilarating, now I just find it frightening.”

Meredith laughed.

He looked her in the eyes, placed a hand on the older woman’s shoulder, and finished, “But one bit of history that doesn’t terrify me, is the history that you and I share together. And that means more to me than all the unanswered questions surrounding your own personal history. I know you’ll tell me what you can, when you can. And that’s enough for me.”

Meredith smiled. Her eyes started to well up. “Thank you for that, Stephen. Thank you for being… and for remaining my friend.”

“You got it,” he said. “Now, don’t get all emotional with me or you’ll get me started, too.”

She nodded with a laugh. “Deal.”

“Where do we even begin?” Stephen said, addressing the mess of files.

Meredith closed her eyes and confessed, “Start with anything you find related to orphan girls with extraordinary abilities. I believe Mother used them to try to contact the ‘anomaly’ that’s on the other side of this wall.”

Stephen gave her a surprised look.

She smiled. “I’m trying to tell you what I can, when I can, Stephen. You’ll just have to keep on trusting me through the rest of it—the things that I can’t tell you.”

Stephen gave her a long look, then nodded. “Okay. We’ll start there.”

~~~

Logan was half way across the grated mesh walkway when he noticed a metal ladder to his left, descending into a small opening in the generator room floor. He carefully climbed down the ladder, which took him below the mesh flooring, and that’s when he noticed the tool crib in between two large fuel tanks. The small caged area was dimly lit by one overhanging fluorescent lamp—only one of two long bulbs still functioned.

The preacher stepped between the two tanks for a better look. The cage door wasn’t locked. He opened the door and entered what appeared to be a narrow maintenance workstation. There were two long wooden tables covered with scattered power tools. A rack was fastened to the fencing above the tables, displaying an assortment of hand tools. At the center of one of the racks was a black and white diagram of the observation station.

Logan smiled like the devil. “Praise God,” he whispered, stepping over to the diagram. “Time to get out of here.” The diagram looked old and none of the rooms were labeled, but he clearly identified the half circle section, which resembled a smiley face of rooms with faded measurements and illegible notes drawn in pencil. He located the generator room by the equipment that was included in the diagram, which led him easily to the airlock door. Logan started searching for anything that might indicate another exit or door anywhere in the facility they might have overlooked. Aside from the stairwell that led them down here, he could find nothing. He looked above the circular section at an odd grouping of rooms that stood by themselves at the center of the diagram. There didn’t appear to be any hallways connecting where they were to this unknown section.

“Perhaps this thing’s outdated,” Logan mused out loud, rubbing his bearded chin. “This facility could have been unfinished when this map was made.” But he didn’t believe that was the case. Two things were clear from the diagram: This new wing of rooms was positioned right where the observation windows could see it, and the airlock door was the only access north of the circular wing that might lead to this unknown area. “Shit,” he said. “This isn’t good.” Whatever this mystery wing was, it was disconnected from the rest of the facility, and currently quarantined.

Logan was about to remove the diagram when he noticed an unusual feature just north of the mystery wing. He almost dismissed it as piping, or electrical cables, since there were several long lines that overlapped and ran across the north that seemed to indicate this, but the feature was shaped more like a ladder—a very long one.

Could be a way up to the surface, he thought. Makes sense. He took the diagram down and rolled it up. As he turned to head back up the ladder, he stopped as the light coming down through the mesh flooring shifted. Someone had just walked over his location.

“Stephen? Is that you?” he called up.

No answer.

One of the powerful generators kicked on as a second started to shut down, making the room temporarily very loud.

He can’t hear me down here, not over all that noise, Logan thought. A second more disturbing thought struck him then. We’re assuming we’re alone, but what if someone’s still down here? And what if that someone just hit a switch to shift those generators, so I couldn’t hear where he went? There’s lots of places someone could hide in, especially in this big-ass room.

Logan waited by the ladder for his heart to stop racing. He stared up through the grating, hoping to catch a glimpse of a friendly, familiar face.

The generators quieted down to a steady hum.

“Stephen? Meredith?” he called up.

Again, no answer.

~~~

“I think I found something.” Stephen was scanning through the latest files and working backward while Meredith started from the Labyrinth file and worked forward.

Meredith’s expression was an odd mixture of trepidation and curiosity. She knew there were answers in these files that shed light on her past, but she loathed what they might uncover as much as she needed those answers. The older woman sighed heavily. “What is it?”

“I found a more recent file dating back to this previous group… looks like random notes written by this Evans person at the tail end of their assignment. The odd thing is that she makes references to this Taven, even back then.” He stopped and shook his head at Meredith. “Just how long has this Taven been around? He was still here when Megan was abducted last fall… and yet… he was there, too.”

“What’s the file say?” Meredith was nervously rubbing her hands together. Stephen had informed her that Miss Evans was not only among the bodies in the back room, but that she appeared to be the one in charge of her group’s mass suicide. Whenever a file they found mentioned the stern former headmaster of the orphanage, Meredith expected her own name to also pop up in some diabolical fashion.

“Like I said,” Stephen continued, “just random thoughts scribbled down on the blank pages at the back of some outdated memorandum about station communication procedures. I almost overlooked them. She’s got Taven’s name underlined several times… that’s how I spotted it.” Stephen started scanning the pages again. He read a few excerpts out loud:

… No one understands what happened to the man. Since returning from Labyrinth Level 1, not only has Taven’s physical manifestations eluded our top scientists, but something is clearly happening within him, as well. Perhaps he wasn’t completely immune to the affects below and is now finally showing signs consistent with the paranoia and delusional behaviors that have infected the rest of us. Taven continues to be obsessed with returning to what he calls, ‘Paradise’. He believes the children are the key and that the anomaly feeds upon their essence… whatever that means. Taven believes we should broaden our scope and look beyond the girls with special abilities, and that we should be seeking to sample all children below the age of puberty. Taven’s research below with the girls from Project: Home has proved disastrous, and he gives me no reason to believe that any other children would make a difference. On a personal note. The man… if you can still call him that… appears to have no clear objective with the children other than wanting to sacrifice them to the anomaly. I am still bewildered that Mother continues to back his insanity, and me and my staff must tread cautiously around him. I fear what the man would do if he was put in charge of this place… I fear for the children… TAVEN IS DANGEROUS!!!

… Taven has become increasingly persistent about returning to Labyrinth Level 1. Several times, he was stopped while attempting to breach the airlock door and disregarding the quarantine. He insists that it’s safe to return to the ground level facility, but manic symptoms continue to spread throughout my entire staff, proving him wrong. Taven refuses to heed all warnings and I fear we may need to lock him up for our own safety, while we still possess the mental facilities to handle him…

… TAVEN IS A LUNATIC. I can’t prove it, but I believe he’s found a way to sabotage the shield. I think he’s trying to kill us all…

…Haven’t seen him. Don’t care. DON’T WANT TO LIVE LIKE THIS! Can’t control my team. Can’t control myself. I want to go below… and I know… that’s… death. But… I can’t stop thinking about it! He did this! TAVEN DID THIS! I don’t know how… or why… but that monster has pushed us… pushed us all to this point. We’re going to break soon… unless… unless I put an end to it. I’m going to get the gun. I’ve talked to several staff members, the ones who haven’t gone rogue or turned into savages, and they agree with me. It’s the only way to beat this… to end this… I haven’t seen him. I WANT TO SHOOT THAT FUCKER IN THE FACE! I… I think he knows what’s coming. Taven’s hiding. He’s letting the madness do his dirty work. Then… once we’re all gone… he’ll breach the airlock door… and feed the anomaly with the blood of all the children…

Stephen stopped reading and put the file down. He started rubbing his arms. “Did it just get colder in here?”

Meredith let out a nervous laugh. “No, I felt it, too. Evan’s was starting to lose it in the end. They all were. And whatever happened here, this Taven seems to be at the heart of it all.”

Stephen’s eyes went wide as he recalled something. “Do you remember Tony telling us about how the Shadow Dead attacked the topside camp and took all the children?”

Meredith frowned. She could see where he was headed. “If you’re right, Stephen, then Taven’s been feeding whatever lives behind the glass for quite some time. No one’s ever been able to figure out where all the children disappeared to. It was assumed the Shadow Dead ate them. Of course, we know better now. But back then, they thought the Shadow Dead were monsters.”

“They still are,” Stephen spat. “If the Shadow Dead stole the children, then brought them back here through the waterfall access, then the rest can be deduced.”

Meredith nodded. “They brought them to Taven… and he took them to Paradise.”

Stephen sighed. “Looks like this infected freak did a lot of damage. He caused the breach that made his old team crazy, and when he was able to call the shots, he sacrificed a bunch of frightened kids to the darkness.”

“Let’s not forget that this infected animal also abducted pregnant women.” Meredith turned to look at Megan and froze. “Stephen!”

Stephen turned toward the observation room entrance.

Megan was gone.

~~~

Next Episode 48-4

Previous Episode 48-2

~~~

If you’re enjoying Don’t Feed The Dark so far, please consider voting for it on Top Web Fiction and Top Site List by clicking the links below. This will help increase its visibility and draw in more potential readers. No registration is required. Thanks for your support and for reading :)

Vote for DFTD at topwebfiction

Vote for DFTD at Top Site List

__________________________________________
“Chapter 48-3: Hell” Copyright © 2018 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Advertisements

Comments? I love to read them

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s