~~~

Stephen wiped sweat from his brow as he finished tying the knots in the electrical cord, binding Megan’s feet together.

The half-dead girl started to wake as her head whipped back and forth, lying on her back with her hands bound behind her. To Stephen, she appeared to be battling for her life in whatever nightmares tormented her sleep. Do they even have nightmares? Stephen wondered. What monsters plague monsters when they sleep? He shook the disturbing thought away, reminding himself that Megan was still half human.

“This isn’t right,” Meredith mumbled from behind him. She was pacing back and forth in front of the observation windows, trying not to get upset every time she looked at Megan. “It’s not her fault that she attacked you. You do know that, right?”

Stephen sighed, then gratefully stepped back from the savage when he was certain the restraints were secure. He turned to Meredith. “Regardless of what set her off, she nearly ripped out my throat. If you hadn’t drugged her-”

“Yes, yes!” Meredith’s frustration was evident. “I just… I just don’t like this. She’s not going to respond well to being restrained.”

“And you’re certain that what’s left of the tranquilizers won’t matter?”

She shook her head. “I used most of it just to keep her from killing you, Stephen. There’s not enough left to knock her out again.”

Stephen nodded, then stepped up next to his exhausted friend. “We need to find Logan and get the hell out of this madhouse.” He nodded to Megan. “But I don’t know how we’re going to take her with us if she loses control again.”

“We all lost control, Stephen,” Meredith reminded him. “I can calm her back down. I know I can. But it’s going to take a little time.”

Stephen looked over at the gun belt laying across the table of scattered files. “I need to find Logan, but I hate the idea of leaving you alone in here. Would you at least strap the gun belt on… just in case?”

“Not going to happen,” she said. “I don’t trust any of us with that loaded weapon right now… and neither should you.”

Stephen couldn’t argue against her point. “I don’t understand what’s happening… but it’s clear that our perception on reality is becoming severely distorted. I think the longer we remain here, the worse it’s going to get.”

Meredith laughed lightly. “Is that your nice way of saying we’re losing our minds?”

“Yes. I’m starting to believe we should just head back the way we came and take our chances with the Shadow Dead. Maybe they’re all gone now.”

“We need to go through the airlock,” Meredith said.

“Are you sure that’s such a good idea? All things considered, I think what’s altering our minds started on the other side of that airlock.”

“It’s the… entity,” Meredith said. “The one that’s written about in those files—I’m certain that someone or something is reaching out and attacking our minds.”

“So, we’re being attacked?”

“More like manipulated,” Meredith corrected. “I believe this entity is attempting to communicate that our only option is the airlock.”

“But what if it’s a trap?” Stephen said. “What if this… entity… wants us on the other side of that force field just to come at us directly?”

Meredith shook her head. “No, I don’t believe it wants to harm us… at least, not yet.”

“Well, that’s a relief.” Stephen rolled his eyes for emphasis. “What does it want with us? Maybe it just wants us to open the airlock so that it can get out.”

“No, there’s more to it than that.”

Stephen sighed. “I sense you know more about this entity then you’re letting on.”

Meredith stared hard at him. “It knows what I’m capable of… probably more than I do. I think it believes that I can protect us from whatever’s on the other side of that door.”

“You’re talking about your superpowers, right?”

She laughed. “I wouldn’t call them that… but yes.”

“You’ve done some incredible things that I won’t pretend to understand, saving us on more than one occasion with your abilities. But I do understand the toll it takes on you, and the risks involved—I’ve personally seen it—and it’s damn frightening to watch.”

Meredith nodded. “I don’t believe it’s like that this time. This entity is aware of what I can do, and whatever that means, it believes I’m… strong enough… to take us through whatever madness is on the other side of that field.”

Stephen’s eyes went wide with understanding. “That electric field, that’s the reason you haven’t used your abilities anymore—that you can’t. That’s also why you never left the compound, isn’t it?”

Meredith nodded. “Although I didn’t know what it was until we got down here, I’ve always suspected that the humming behind the walls had something to do with why my abilities were blocked. And to tell you truth, Stephen, it’s been wonderful getting to be a normal human being again.” She stared sadly out the dark observation windows. “But once I’m over there… it will come back… all of it.”

“And that terrifies you, doesn’t it?”

She gave him a grave look. “Yes, Stephen, if most definitely terrifies me. At one time, I believed the source of my abilities came from within—but once we made it into the compound, I started to understand that whatever made me what I am… and what I can do… it all comes from somewhere else.”

Stephen let the weight of her words sink in. He stepped up to the windows and stared out into the darkness. Finally, he asked, “You know what this entity is, don’t you?”

“In part. And it knows me,” she said, refusing to look him in the eye. “But… I don’t remember how I know this… or what our connection is… and that torments me to the very core.”

Stephen didn’t know what to say. He simply stared at his friend who looked more vulnerable than he’d ever seen her before. She had the look of someone who knew she was alone in every crowded room… as was the case her entire life.

He put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “We’ll figure this out. But right now, we need to find Logan and-”

“Consider him found,” came the loud voice of the preacher as he barged into the observation room. He was carrying the rolled-up diagram with a look on his face that clearly showed that he wasn’t exempt from whatever was afflicting them.

“Thank God,” Stephen muttered, walking over to the big man who met them at the table.

The preacher did not have his usual jovial demeaner. Instead, he seemed frantic—urgent—as he quickly spread the diagram out across the table. “You’re not going to believe the shit I went through to get this thing,” he said, looking up at Stephen, then to Meredith, and then finally staring at the bound half-dead woman on the floor. He stopped and finished with a big forced smile, “On second thought, by the looks of things here, maybe what I have to tell you will come as no surprise at all.”

~~~

After quickly sharing the highlights from their strange encounters, Logan brought their attention back to the diagram he’d discovered, showing them the layout of the present facility, the mystery structure to the north, and most importantly, the ladder that appeared to be an exit.

“Aside from seeing dead relatives,” Logan started, “I was grateful to realize that this map wasn’t imaginary after I’d seen Jonas. Insanity or not… this seems to be the real deal, and something to focus our rational minds on while we still can.” He hadn’t bothered to elaborate on anything else he’d seen after the Jonas-thing started to change. In truth, he was still having a hard time processing it all.

Stephen sat back down and leaned forward, placing his forehead into his hands. “This is crazy… all of it.” He glanced into Meredith and Logan’s faces and found mirrors. “So… we are either losing our damn minds, like all those corpses in the back room, or we’re being manipulated and pushed into going into a potentially worse place than this one. Either way, we can’t stay here any longer. I say we focus on that. Suggestions?”

Meredith held up her former dead headmaster’s keycard and said, “I don’t think we have much of a choice. Judging by what happened to me, I believe the entity mentioned in the files is responsible for everything that’s happened, and that if we don’t do what it wants…”

“…then one of us, or all of us, might be forced to kill each other, like what almost happened between myself and Megan,” Stephen finished.

Meredith nodded.

“I think I need to point out that my slice of madness near the airlock had nothing to do with being pushed toward that darkness on the other side of these windows, but rather, the opposite,” Logan said. “It was very clear that whoever or whatever I saw, wanted me to sabotage that airlock.”

“Yes,” Meredith nodded. “That was very strange. Why would the entity suggest one thing to us, but the contrary to you, Logan?”

Logan shrugged his shoulders.

“That’s like expecting madness to make sense?” Stephen added with a laugh. “No offence, Meredith, but… keycard or not… we all could just be going nuts. This ‘entity’ mentioned in the files, could all be some fiction created by insane scientists to rationalize what was happening to them. I can imagine a similar conversation going down in the past that yielded no results, and ultimately led them to taking their own lives.”

Logan shifted uncomfortably. “I’d rather do anything, even something as reckless as walking blindly into the fire on the other side of that airlock than let it come to that.”

Stephen nodded. “I completely agree, my friend.”

“No, it’s more than that,” Meredith insisted. “I believe we’ve been led to this point for a reason, and that reason isn’t so some malevolent presence could just kill us in some horrific way. Why not just do that now? No, I believe the entity is real… and that it’s been manipulating us for a while now.”

“Explain that to me?” Logan pushed. “What are you not telling us?”

Stephen deliberately kept his eyes off the older woman.

Meredith stared at the preacher, feeling those suspicious eyes of old behind that exhausted face. She took a deep breath and said, “It wants me. The rest of you are collateral damage as far as the entity is concerned, but as long as it gets what it wants, it’s in its best interest to keep you alive… to get to me.”

Logan’s eyebrows shot up. He looked at Stephen.

“I don’t understand it, Logan, any more than you do,” he said. “But I’ve known this woman since the beginning of all this mess. We’ve been through the fire together and she’s saved me from the flames on several occasions… and I believe her.”

Meredith smiled at her friend.

Logan nodded and then glared at the older woman. “Yes. I’ve heard the stories. We all have at one time or another over the long winter. But I also know that your friend here has not been very forthcoming about explaining what or why she can do what she does. As I recall, Gina was with you both from the beginning, too, and she had her doubts.”

Meredith averted her eyes. “Yes, Logan. I’ve got my secrets. Stephen knows this. Gina knew it as well. If I’m withholding anything, it’s either because I’m still trying to understand it myself… or it’s to protect the people I love. I’m trying to tell you what I can and that’s all I can do.”

“Maybe the time for half-truths is long past,” Logan said. He nodded up toward the ceiling. “You know what just happened up there. Do you still think keeping secrets have protected any of them?”

Meredith flinched at the verbal punch.

“That’s not fair, Logan,” Stephen said. “She’s not responsible for the Shadow Dead attack.”

Logan raised his hands. “I’m just saying. Maybe now’s the time for putting all our cards on the table. Us three… may be the only ones left. It might be time for all of us to step into the light. Secrets these days could get us killed.” The preacher looked down at his feet, feeling the weight of his own words.

He wasn’t the only one. Meredith felt it, as did Stephen. The former school teacher knew he was not off the hook. Stephen had publicly admitted to killing Nicole… but he’d kept the rest to himself—his relationship with the dead woman.

“Four,” Meredith said.

Logan looked up. “What was that?”

Meredith looked over at Megan. “There’s still four of us left.”

Logan glanced over at the half-dead woman and frowned. He could hear the voice of his dead nephew mocking him:

That’s alright, uncle. Those half-breeds never counted anyway… no matter what breed it is, dead or otherwise.

“Yes… I’m sorry,” he said, staring sadly at Megan. “Four.”

Meredith was thrown by the preacher’s honest admission and the humbled expression on his face as he glanced over at the tormented girl. It was the first time that she’d seen Logan look at her as an actual… person.

“And then there’s still that,” Stephen reminded them, also staring over at the slowly waking woman. “She’s going to be a problem.”

Meredith scowled at him but softened immediately. She knew he was right. She started to speak but Logan stepped in.

“We’ll find a way to play nice together,” he said. The preacher looked over at Meredith and smiled. “I was talking about that moody young woman over there, of course.” He added a wink

Meredith was genuinely surprised. She laughed at the preacher, then stared at Megan and thought of Coop. “Yes. We will find a way to make this work.” She turned back to Logan and finished, “All of it.”

Logan smiled and nodded.

“We can talk crossing bridges after we’ve decided on passing through airlocks,” Stephen reminded them.

Meredith walked over to closest observation window. “It would certainly help if we could see what was-”

“We… we need to leave.”

Megan’s voice caught them all by surprise. They turned and found the young woman conscious, and thankfully, calm.

Meredith smiled at her and said, “Welcome back, honey. Are you… alright?”

“I’m not… I’m not angry anymore,” she said, throwing an apologetic look at Stephen.

He caught it. “It’s alright, Megan. We were both… not ourselves. I won’t point any more guns at you if you promise not to… you know…”

“Look at you like… like snack food?” Megan’s intense, savage face softened by her attempted half-smile.

The smile and the joke surprised Stephen into silence.

Logan’s obnoxious laughter broke the moment. “Oh… she got you there, little brother! You should see your face!”

Meredith snickered, then covered her mouth when Stephen stared at her. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s been a very long day.” She started to crack up.

This made Stephen smile. Maybe we have lost our damn minds… and maybe that’s not a bad thing any more, he thought, joining in on the laughter.

Megan stared at them, her head half-cocked like a dog hearing a strange sound.

Logan thought she was doing it deliberately. He pointed at Megan and laughed harder, nearly falling out of his chair.

The half-dead woman wanted to join them but was incapable. It took all she had just to achieve the smile… and the joke… for their expense. The deep well of sadness within contained only pain… and it was the only thing genuine or human that she had left. The savage possessed the rest. She turned and stared toward the observation windows while the rest of them settled down.

Logan wiped tears from his eyes. “My, oh, my, that felt good. Just to laugh again at anything… even now in this dismal place…”

“… means everything,” Meredith finished, with a smile.

Logan turned to her and nodded. “Yes. It does.”

Stephen stared at them both, thankful to find his old friend and his new one, starting to break the ice of misunderstanding. We need this, he thought. Might not matter so much right now… but it will… assuming we survive the rest of the day. Now, all we need to do is figure out-

Megan snapped her restraints very quickly and effortlessly. By the time anyone had a chance to react, the half-dead woman had already moved toward the left side of the ancient control panel.

“Watch it! She’s loose!” Logan said, rising to his feet.

Stephen immediately started toward the gun belt laying on the table.

Meredith took a step away from Megan, then turned to Stephen with her hand up. “Wait!”

Stephen stopped, his hand resting on the holstered gun.

The half-dead woman deliberately stopped before an unmarked panel, her shaky right hand hovering over several illuminated lights and buttons. Then, she made a fist, and slammed it down hard on one dusty faded white button.

The lights in the observation room flickered as the sound of machinery kicked on.

“Shit!” Logan said. “What now?”

Stephen looked around nervously, irrationally expecting the floor to open beneath him.

Meredith kept her eyes locked on Megan.

Megan took a skittish step back from the panel, then looked toward the observation windows and pointed.

They heard several loud popping sounds from just beyond the windows as spotlights came on, illuminating the darkness beyond the glass and electrified barrier.

Meredith looked out the closest window and her jaw dropped. “Stephen, Logan,” she whispered. “Come look at this!”

Stephen and Logan joined Meredith in front of the observation room windows, keeping a cautious eye on Megan who just stood there, staring out at the bright lights.

“What the hell is this?” Stephen said, stunned.

A circle of flood lights, erected on towers several hundred feet high, illuminated what only could be described as an enormous crater in the center of a vast cavern. From where they stood, staring out the windows, they were looking down into the cavern. Large stalactites dripped down from the cavern’s limestone ceiling, closest to the windows, like some ancient monsters rotting brown teeth about to shut on them. At the base of the crater was the remains of an old facility, assembled together to look like a congested trailer park on the moon. Beyond the old facility, where the lights were not focused, it was hard to see what else dominated the cavern floor, but it was clear that this cave continued outward, extending into the cold shadows, highlighting many disfigured stones and stalagmites spread out across the darkness.

Logan took a step back from the windows, feeling a sense of vertigo kick in from realizing how high up they were. “That’s the largest damn cave I’ve even seen. It looks… endless. Could easily be a half-mile wide! The diagram I found doesn’t mention anything about any cavern, but it does show that structure down there.”

“That… that place is very humbling,” Stephen added, feeling like he’d just discovered something like the indoor version of the Grand Canyon. “It’s hard to believe that such places could exist beneath the earth.”

Meredith frowned at the large cavern and let out a heavy sigh. “Paradise,” she whispered. “Not likely.”

“What was that?” Logan asked.

She turned to them. “That’s where we need to go. I’m sure all of you realize that.”

“Go!” Megan called out, pointing frantically out the windows. “No choice. Just… go.”

They all looked at the half-dead woman. Megan had voiced the obvious.

“She is right,” Stephen said. “We really don’t have a choice… do we?”

Meredith shook her head. “I don’t think we ever did.” She took a step toward Megan and asked, “Honey, how did you know? How did you know which of these flashing buttons to hit to turn on the lights?”

Megan stared at the older woman through her grime and blood-covered face for what felt like an eternity.

Meredith was reminded of those old stones on the cavern floor as she stared back at the tortured young woman.

And then, a tear streamed down from the corner of one eye on that stone as Megan answered, “My… my dead baby told me.”

~~~

Next Episode 48-7

Previous Episode 48-5

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 48-6: 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.

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