The ocean embraced John. Only the faint sound of his own breathing within the diving mask accompanied him. This peaceful bliss was the reason he’d started diving. Here, he was impervious to the evils of the world, an unexpected benefit that provided him a sanctuary to reflect upon life.
With this thought, he sucked in a deep breath and let it out slow, allowing his lungs to compress before plunging further into the darkness below.
At around ten meters he paused, flicked on the light attached to the side of his mask, and continued his descent. Sometimes diving made it feel as though he were falling through the sky, drifting against wind resistance. A significant temperature drop reminded him of where he was, a warning that he didn’t belong.
It’s okay, baby. I won’t stay long.
This was a lie, of course. He had no idea how long he would stay. When it came to this wondrous oasis, he often lost himself and all sense of time.
He got his first look at the ocean floor at twenty-three meters, sloping away at a steep angle. There was nothing so special about this, but it had a way of making him feel like an astronaut about to take that initial step on the surface of a new planet. Only this time, something was different, and he moved in fast to inspect.
At first glance he thought it a fissure, but as he drew closer he was able to discern that it was actually an impact zone. A substantial trail of debris ran off from this spot, comprised of rock and broken pieces from various sea structures that had ended up in its path. He could only imagine what might have produced damage of this nature.
Bounding down the slope, he was mindful of the debris. He stayed close enough to observe, but far enough away that he wouldn’t disturb anything.
As the slant righted itself on the ocean floor, he spied a large indentation. Inspecting the area, searching for clues, he wondered if such a thing might have taken on some sort of buoyancy and been set adrift. Bearing in mind the devastation at the point of impact down to where he now stood, he didn’t think it likely.
A small school of blue fish skirted by on his left. As he watched them pass an opening came into view, barely discernable along the left side of the slope. At the foot of the cave, there was disruption indicative of what he’d already seen. He crossed to it. There, he found metal shavings scattered about the debris.
How very strange.
He stared up into the darkness of the cave.
What could have left these?
The image he couldn’t shake was that of a treasure chest, perhaps chock full of coins. Maybe there would be enough to retire. With that thought firmly in place, he braved the cave entrance.
The task was easy at first, the opening large enough for him to squeeze through. The farther he advanced, the more difficult it became as the space narrowed. It left just enough room for him to squeeze through. After a short span, the tunnel turned upward.
When he came to an opening, he heaved himself up, using his feet to push off. Here he discovered something extraordinary. The utter darkness remained, the light on his mask offering only a dim view. But the constant pressure he should have felt against his head was absent.
An air pocket?
He adjusted his light in an attempt to see. He heard a trickle of water running down some unseen wall, across the rocky platform to his right, and into the pool where he floated.
Beneath him, where he should have felt safe, came an odd sensation that made his skin prickle. It was the sensation of being watched, as if someone or something had trailed him up through the tunnel.
Feeling anxious, he dragged himself up onto a stone platform where he gazed down into the pool, seeing nothing of consequence.
When his mask started to fog, he yanked it from his face and inhaled what air the cavern had to offer. The quality wasn’t as bad as he expected, but there wasn’t much of a flow to keep it fresh.
The dribble of water running down the walls seemed to help oxygenate the hollow. If nothing else, the air was tolerable and the uneasy feeling soon dissipated. He sat and tried to clear his worries.
He turned the mask’s light against each wall, continuing to inspect the hollow. The cavern couldn’t have been more than fifteen feet wide and maybe twice as long, but he wasn’t able to see much of it or the ceiling at all. He stood, holding his mask as high as he could manage, but still, nothing. If he could find some higher vantage point, maybe he could find an alternate exit.
Reaching into his suit, he withdrew a pack of cigarettes and his lighter. With the cigarette lit, he took a deep drag, filling his lungs and holding it in before exhaling a large puff of smoke. The cloud hovered motionless for a second, then dispersed as if something had disturbed it. Again he peered down into the pool, even turning his mask light to it. Still he saw nothing save for a small swirl of water that dissolved into a flat motionless bed.
His legs began to twitch.
Calm your nerves there, Johnny boy.
He reached back into his suit and tore off a small section of his T-shirt, careful not to damage the wetsuit. The rip reverberated in the cavern, but it wasn’t the only sound he heard. This other noise was unusual. He stared up into the void, wondering how far it went, and realized what that other sound might have been.
It’s probably just bats.
If there was an opening, dozens of the winged devils had likely been bothered by his intrusion. They might even be readying to take flight should the agitation continue.
He unbuttoned the sheath to his knife and slid the blade out. He wrapped the small fragment of clothing around the blade and tied it off. When he heard the sound of moving water again, he turned his light toward it and identified that same swirl of water easing into calm, as it had before.
What the— That can’t be me.
But if there were bats, it could be their droppings. He stared up into the darkness, once more lifting the light. Yes, that was more practical. Or it could even be condensation gathering up and then dripping down from high above. He sighed with relief.
He returned his attention to the lighter, holding it to the scrap of clothing. His makeshift torch caught fire and spread up the blade faster than he’d hoped. He bent his hand, twisting and turning the blade, and held it up high.
He still couldn’t identify anything overhead. But he did glimpse the far wall, and there he had spotted something. Unsure of what it was, he saw it could be accessed from the boulders piled against it.
It’s as if they were trying to keep it from meddling eyes.
At a glance it looked like metal, and the image of treasure popped back into his thoughts. He felt a slight scalding at his hand, and looked in time to watch the fire burn out. He let his blade cool for a minute before replacing it in the holster.
Lifting the mask, he used what little glow it offered to guide his way. The rock formation was an easy climb, and within seconds, he was nearing the metal object. As he closed in, whatever questions he’d formed in his head now doubled upon viewing this object in the dim glow of his mask.
Upon recognition, his thoughts reeled out of control. He breathed heavy, and his heart clamored inside of his chest.
“Oh good lord,” he said, and then covered his mouth, biting down on the side of his hand.
What is this I’m seeing?
He was dumbfounded and attempted to regain his composure, but his legs took on a jelly consistency, making it difficult to stand at such an odd angle. He rubbed his eyes with his free hand, trying to wipe away what he saw and convince himself it was all a figment of his imagination. He even bit down hard on his cheek, but still the saucer remained.
Not wanting to disturb anything, he thought of everything he’d seen on television or in movies, warning him that he should proceed with caution. Although he should have considered the risks, all he could do was marvel at its beauty, thinking of how he’d come in contact with some distant part of space that no other human being had ever seen.
When he got close enough, he set his mask aside and caressed the unusual metal, tracing its contours and sliding his hand as far as he could reach across its surface. The craft stretched into the darkness, disappearing into the wall of the cavern.
Where did it come from? How did it get in here?
It wasn’t possible for a saucer of this size to pass through such a snug tunnel. Perhaps the shavings at the bottom weren’t from moving the thing through the cave entrance, but from some other activity.
He considered several obvious possibilities, but none made much sense, except one. Whatever had arrived in the saucer must have built this cavern around it. In an attempt to hide the ship, they had placed rock over much of it and in the process, scraped several shavings of the metal free. Over time, the trickling water had helped them along, down through the tunnel and to the cave entrance. That seemed logical to him, and he smiled, quite proud of his deductive reasoning.
A low bellow echoed around him and he spun, nearly falling. A hammering sound began to pulsate in his ears. He balled his fists and shoved them in his ears to dull the ache, but this only intensified the noise.
His face flushed. A sweaty fever of panic rushed over him. Then he realized the excessive beating was only his own terrified heart resounding in his ear canals.
Each beat struck louder than the last, like some inevitable countdown to death.
The beat would come, and he would be forced to watch as some hideous creature eased its gnarled face out of the calm water below.
Another thump thump, and the creature would crawl up to the landing he had scaled.
Thump thump, and the beast would sense his presence, see him squatting there, pissing himself.
His heart struck louder. Thump thump, and the creature would be approaching him with drool dribbling from its ever thirsty, fanged mouth.
His fear would be a strong scent, wafting down to the creature, causing its stomach to rumble with hunger.
And then there would be one last thump. No second beat would follow.
To his surprise, he did hear a grumbling noise that shook him out of his atrocious thoughts. The ship behind him hummed a monotonous tone, and a metallic crack filled the cavern. As the saucer shifted, so did the rocks he was squatting on, vibrating as the saucer slid open.
Beyond the sound of the ship opening was another tone. This one was different, reminding him of pigs, a chorus of high-pitched squeals.
He seized his mask and quickly retreated halfway down the rocks he’d just climbed. There, he struggled to remain steady. As his senses intensified, it became difficult. All the while his heart kept rapping against his ribcage, screaming for calm.
Blood pulsed through his veins, surging into every limb, causing his body to feel hot and weak. His face was on fire, dripping with sweat. His eardrums swelled not only with the thumping of his heart, but also with the increased sensitivity to each and every movement and sound around him.
A weight surged from the craft to the rocks right above him. Rubble and small stones rolled toward him, some colliding against his back. A musty air drifted down, the easy breathing of a confident dweller within its lair.
A rotten smell that was similar to what he pictured as decaying flesh and vomit found him with each breath, an odor his nose struggled to deny.
The sensation of gagging overwhelmed him, but he choked it back as the creature hadn’t yet sensed him. If he made the slightest noise, it might be alerted to his intrusion.
He shrank into a ball, making himself as small as possible. As his weight shifted, his foot slipped, and he watched his mask clatter from rock to rock until it came to a rest below.
It should have surprised him that in this fall, the dim light of the mask would come on, but it didn’t. His inclination was to look up, to see what was standing over him, but he refused to let his eyes wander from the fallen mask. Two things caught his attention.
The first was unmistakable, and he couldn’t believe he’d missed it. An oxygen tank lay half-buried in the rocky structure closest to the landing he’d first emerged upon. The other would have been easier to miss from below, as it would have appeared as a rock. Yet from this vantage point, he identified a human skull. His eyes traced the rocks to his location, identifying at least a dozen or so skulls scattered about.
The stale smell filling this cavern fueled his imagination. He realized that the air he’d been breathing was the decay of corpses. Whatever creature lurked above him hadn’t built this lair to hide anything. It had merely constructed its dwelling as close to its feeding ground as possible.
His eyes darted upward, fixating on where the creature should have been. There, he found nothing, and eased himself to a half-standing position. He was careful not to make any further sound.
As if to defy his wishes, his left knee complained with a pop. He hesitated, but when nothing came of it, he lifted himself the rest of the way. From there, he glanced about the cavern with paranoid eyes. Still, he saw nothing, but that didn’t feel right. Somewhere within this cave was a creature, and it was watching him.
Everything spun uneasily as he turned back to the water and thought about making a break for it. Before he could, another noise found his ears, this time much closer.
He whirled around, but caught nothing save for a glimpse over his shoulder, and rotated again in an attempt to find it. His cheek struck a large mass, which sent him stumbling back toward the edge of the rocks. He fell on his ass.
The soft light of his fallen mask outlined the creature standing over him. A dozen or so appendages squirmed about its lower region. While its torso didn’t seem unlike that of a man, it had no arms other than those flailing tentacles. A bulbous head sat atop the torso, regarding him with a familiar expression of hunger.
He sank back against the rocks, among the bones of those who had perished before him.
The decision came fast. He dove for the pool of water, but instead, he landed on the rocks below with a crunch, and then a ping from his air tank.
For whatever reason, the creature hesitated. Perhaps already full from its last meal or thinking him dead. Or maybe the noise resulting from his failure had thrown it off. It might have even been amused by the futile attempt at escape. He was certain if their roles had been reversed, he might have been in stiches upon witnessing such a thing.
Writhing in pain, the taste of warm blood reaching his lips, he lifted himself. At first he considered going for the mask, but that seemed so far away now.
Any obvious movement might shake the creature out of its contentment. Clawing behind him, his fingertips discovered something familiar. He let his fingers define its contour. He pulled hard on the abandoned tank, grasping it in his arms. A quick twist of the nozzle assured him that there was still oxygen inside, and he quickly shut it off.
Before the creature became too interested in what he was doing, he yanked a cigarette and his lighter from his chest pocket. He tore the cigarette in half, and poked the unfiltered portion into the nozzle of the tank.
He lit the cigarette and blew on it, encouraging a steady ember. Then, he eased the tank on just enough to feed the burning cigarette. He set the tank upright at the side of the platform, crawled to the edge, and rolled into the water. The creature roared with disapproval as he hurried down through the tunnel, placing the regulator in his mouth.
Halfway back, he started feeling tentacles lashing out at his feet, trying to prevent his escape. He did his best to fight each one off, struggling to keep out of reach.
One feeler seized his leg and began reeling him back up the tunnel. He turned and punched into the darkness, feeling his hands land blows, but unaware of their effectiveness.
Most hit solid matter, but one struck something soft, bringing a frustrated grumble. The creature’s grip loosened enough for him to slip free.
Swimming hard and fast toward where he believed the cave entrance might be was far more difficult now that he was in complete darkness. But a sense of freedom fueled him as he spied a hint of the light glow the open ocean offered.
That feeling didn’t last long as the creature once more latched onto his leg. Then it had his other leg and was dragging him back inside against his will. Bracing himself in the cave opening, he held on with all his might. He turned and stared into the face of his assailant.
At the center was a full beard of smaller tentacles. Seeming to sharpen themselves against one another in anticipation of tasting his flesh, several rows of teeth chattered in an endless procession of clacking.
The creature’s mouth was large and torn. Tell-tale signs of the struggles it had endured in finding food. This served as evidence that it wouldn’t be easy to stop this beast, or its insatiable appetite.
Its body pulsated in the water, a mass of muscle and ribs encasing a stomach that held little regard for its prey.
A dark liquid stained the tear ducts of its three baseball-sized eyes, making it appear as though it were crying. Only he knew those weren’t tears of pain. This was the sort of weeping that came of joy, of happiness and, oh, what hunger he saw in those eyes.
With the cave walls constricting him, he fought against the creature. In doing so, some of the air escaped around the edges of his regulator, sending a cluster of bubbles on a path to the surface where he longed to join them.
The more he wrestled to free himself, the harder the creature pulled. He was certain this was a fight he would soon lose. One way or another, he would end up a meal. Then the explosion came, upsetting the cave.
The loud boom was followed by a rush of debris down through the passageway, and out past the creature. The water pushed past him, and he used it to maneuver himself out of the cave.
He was free. He watched the cave collapse around the creature. But to his surprise, the creature wasn’t trying to escape. Instead, it flexed its muscles, as if trying to expand and endure the falling structure, to keep it open.
Confused, he wondered why the creature would be so willing to sacrifice its life to do so.
Three of them emerged, surprising him. He drew his knife. They were quite small in comparison to their mother. And although he was shocked, he regained his composure, and fought them off with his blade, killing one instantly.
Behind those three, others were coming. Two more squeezed out. The dark trails of blood running down their mother’s face increased.
The mother’s stomach stretched, struggling for release. Right as the cave crushed the voracious beast, her stomach burst.
Before the collapse finished, several of the young creatures spat out into the open sea where John waited.
He found himself surrounded by more than a dozen of the miniature beasts. Gazing into their tear-stained eyes, he saw no sadness for their loss, only hunger.
Together, they turned on him, grinding their teeth in preparation to whet their appetites.
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