The Black Forest, Allegra
“Listen, Horton, I don’t have all day,” Hreve snaps as he scowls at his companion. Horton had been stammering through the same complaint for the past three minutes and wasn’t showing any sign of finishing.
Horton huffs before he weakly says, “Well, I’m just saying that we shouldn’t wander all the way back here alone!”
Hreve ignores Horton and he continues deeper into the cave system that they had claimed as their apocalypse bunker upon the news of the alien invasion. Hreve didn’t know if the claims of the alien invasion were true or not, but he didn’t care. He was more than ready to fall off the grid and cease to exist as far as any governing officials were concerned. For that matter, he didn’t care if anyone else from the Thessalonian Shipbuilding Company knew if he was alive either.
In short, he needed a break. Any sort of excuse would do to get him out of Thessalonia.
Hreve chuckles as he thinks, And to believe it took an alien invasion to get me out of there. I wonder if it’s even legitimate, or if it’s even still going on…
Glancing back at Horton, Hreve’s brow furrows and he can’t help but ask, “How long have we been up here anyways?”
“Well over three weeks, I’d say.”
“Think they’ve beat back those aliens yet?”
“I still don’t know if the stories were true.”
“Well, I was hearing a few scattered words from someone on the radio we brought up here… whatever the story, there are other people up here too.”
“We could just be picking up some transmissions from somewhere else.”
“Not with the magnetic field around here.”
“Magnetic fields mess with radio waves, don’t they teach you framers anything?”
“They teach us to weld and rivet, that’s all you need to know to build a ship.”
Hreve shakes his head and sighs. I can’t believe they put idiots like Horton in charge of building my designs, he thinks in disgust, All it takes is one mistake on Horton’s side of things and I could be out of a job. Everyone at the shipyards could be!
Taking a few more steps, Hreve stops suddenly, and he shines his flashlight ahead. As was common in this network of caves, the tunnel splits off into a few different directions. That was nothing new, and Hreve had been following the ‘right-hand rule’ for most of this exploration trip.
What stood out this time, however, was that one of the tunnels was made of a different kind of material. Rather than be a dull grey, tan, or brown, this particular tunnel was almost black. In many ways, it reminded Hreve of an oxidized obsidian, just with a hint of green to its matted color.
Behind Hreve, Horton gasps, “I’ve never seen anything like that,”
That would be why I stopped, Hreve thinks with a slight chuckle. Something that he had always enjoyed about Horton’s company was how the man would voice his every thought. Sure, it could get annoying, but it would be funny more often than not. In this instance, Hreve managed to see the humor in things.
“It doesn’t look natural, how do you think it got here?” Hreve asks Horton. He didn’t expect an answer, but he was open to whatever idea the other man might offer. He approaches the odd tunnel and stops just a meter away from the nearest chunk of the greenish-black stone it was made of.
“Someone must have put it down here,”
Hreve nods in agreement, happy that Horton was thinking the same thing he was. Problem was, no one should have even been in this cave before them. It wasn’t on any maps—not even the bootlegged maps that Allegrian natives made of parts of the Black Forest. The mouth of the cave appeared to have been sealed off for centuries and was completely overgrown. A recent rockslide was the only reason Hreve had even been able to locate the tiny breach that he cleared away to allow everyone into the cave.
Reaching out, Hreve runs his finger along the cold stone face. It was several degrees cooler than the surrounding country rock, which he found strange. Just to confirm, he reaches out with his other hand and touches a piece of the natural grey stone that he was used to. He frowns when he notes that his initial impression was correct. Looking back once more, he asks, “But why would they go through all the work of building something down here?”
“There must’ve been something important down here.”
“Either that, or they wanted their own apocalypse bunker,”
“I don’t know… this doesn’t look like anything anyone we know would build. It looks…”
“Alien, I know.”
“But Allegra was uninhabited when it was settled,”
“That’s what they say.”
“You think that was a lie?”
“It could have been, or the alien race that lived here was extinct. Maybe they moved on when the water started drying up. I mean, if they were advanced enough to build with whatever this stuff is, then I’d guess they knew what to expect from a planet that was drying up.”
“Why not work to save the planet? That’s what the colonists did when they found Allegra.”
Hreve shrugs, “I don’t know, Horton. All I know is that we have to check this out.”
“I don’t know…”
“Haven’t you ever wanted to discover a lost race of aliens and be remembered forever for the discovery? We could be famous!”
“But you said you didn’t want anyone knowing about us,”
“That’s because we were nobodies back at home. With a discovery like this, we could be somebodies! You know what the Coalition does for somebodies?”
Horton’s stomach growls as if on cue, “I’d guess that they feed you at the very least.”
Hreve yearningly looks at the tunnel and smirks as his mind races with images of splendor and riches. He knew full well that this could just be the opportunity that got him and his family off this planet once and for all. With a find like this, he could get some cushy job in an office making records of this find for the rest of his life. No more risking his life to do something as monotonous as approving and improving the same old ship designs day in and day out. With a job like the one he was imagining; he could finally see the galaxy and not just the same few streets between his home and the shipyard.
Smiling wistfully, Hreve lets his friend in on his thoughts, “There would be a whole lot more than just food waiting for us… We could get out of the shipyards once and for all.”
“You know, some of us like our jobs.”
Chuckling, Hreve reminds Horton of their conversation yesterday, “You called your job a premature cancer ward and you said you were happy that you got away from it all.”
“Well, it’s fun when you’re not breathing in the welding fumes… Or cleaning up after someone’s mistakes… or—alright, I guess you’re right. I could use a new job.”
“Just imagine what they’d have us do after this…”
“Well… I think we’d spend a lot more time in caves. I don’t really like the sound of that.”
Hreve shrugs and he takes his first step into the darkened tunnel. When the world doesn’t suddenly explode or anything like that, he continues walking deeper into the cave. Turning back, he calls out, “Come on, let’s check this out. If you don’t like the job they offer you, then you don’t have to take it. All I know is that I’d rather explore caves and see something new every day than be stuck in that stuffy office at the shipyard.”
Horton hesitantly follows.
Hreve can’t help but notice that the dark, matted walls of the cave seemed to absorb all the light from his flashlight. While he still had enough light to continue deeper, he found himself squinting in an effort to see further. The limited light situation fortunately didn’t seem to phase Horton, either that or the man didn’t notice the change. Either way, Hreve was happy that Horton had stopped complaining.
At that, Hreve momentarily wonders if he might have lost Horton. He quickly looks back and sees that the man is in fact still behind him, and he continues ahead.
After a hundred meters or so, the tunnel begins dipping downward at a much sharper angle than it had been. Rather than be a five-degree slope like much of the cave, it is now dropping at about a thirty-degree slope, which makes it harder to stop and makes Hreve’s ankles ache. After maybe a hundred meters of that, the ground levels off and feels almost perfectly level, which Hreve finds odd. He is about to mention it but opts against it when Horton fails to say anything.
“It looks like the cave opens up ahead,” Horton notes as his faint flashlight beam shines ahead further than it had been.
Hreve nods slowly in response and he quickens his pace. He wanted to see if what he and Horton were seeing was true, something about the dark walls of the cave had made everything seem so tight that the thought of it opening up was both a surprise and a relief.
Stepping into a much wider section of the cave, Hreve stops once more, and he looks all around. This large cavern is about twenty meters tall and is easily three times that in length. As far as Hreve can tell, its ceiling is also a near-perfect semicircle, which he finds odd. In addition to being odd, it confirms his suspicions that the structure was in fact man-made—or more accurately, alien-made.
The walls of this cavern are made of the same dark material, but this stuff seems to have a slight glow, a glow that really highlights the geometric crystalline structure of whatever the walls were made of. Just to be sure, Hreve approaches the nearest bit of glowing wall, and he turns off his light. Horton seems to pick up on the idea and turns his off as well. A few moments pass before Hreve’s eyes adjust and he sees that the walls are in fact glowing ever so slightly.
“Weird,” Horton whispers.
“Yeah, very weird. I wish I brought our Geiger counter along, it’d be interesting to see if this stuff is radioactive.”
“Are we going to die? I mean, if all that smoke from welding didn’t get me, will this?”
“I don’t know… I wouldn’t think so though.”
“Why not? Doesn’t radioactive stuff glow?”
“Some does… but I don’t think this stuff is dangerous. The aliens wouldn’t have built with it if it was.”
“But they could have gone extinct from it.”
“That’s a possibility, but I don’t think it’s the case here.”
“I… I think I like it. It’s pretty.”
“I like it too,” Hreve agrees.
“I saw another tunnel at the far end of this room.”
Hreve nods slowly as he asks, “Think we should check it out?”
“We’ve come this far,” Horton answers.
Nodding still, Hreve grabs his flashlight and warns, “Lights on!”
Flicking on his light, Hreve squints against the bright light and he waits for his eyes to adjust. A few seconds pass before he feels confident enough to trudge on ahead to the far side of the cave.
“I was thinking,” Horton announces as they walk.
“Do you think that these structures could be what’s causing the magnetic fields? Like, they’re weird anomalies, so they’d have to be made by something weird, right?”
“I don’t see why not,”
“Well, what are we going to call the aliens that made this thing then? I think it should have something to do with magnet in their name.”
“I don’t know about that—”
“How about Magnet-heads?”
“We don’t even know what their heads look like.”
“Field Layers? Magnet-ites? The Polarity?”
“The Polarity sounds pretty cool. A bit ominous, but cool.”
“I liked that one too.”
Hreve stops yet again, this time at the end of the large cavern that they had been in. He is looking through the cave ahead of them and he blinks a few times to confirm that he was in fact seeing what he thought he was. When that doesn’t help or change what he was seeing, he flicks his light off once again and Horton follows his lead.
Ahead of them, a faint light is shining from further down the tunnel.
“That can’t be daylight, right?” Horton asks after a few seconds.
“No… We’re way too far underground.”
“And we couldn’t have walked all the way under the mountain range… right?”
“Then… could it be lava?”
“It could be, I’ve never seen the stuff before though. Shouldn’t it be warmer in here if it was lava?”
“I don’t know… maybe these rocks don’t let heat move the same way.”
Hreve finds himself nodding uselessly in the dark and he also notices that his jaw had dropped. He quickly clamps his mouth back closed and he begins walking toward the light, this time without the aid of this flashlight. The light ahead of him and Horton appears to be almost aqua in color, which isn’t too unlike the sunlight on the surface, however, there still remained the issue of how far underground they were. There was no way that the light could be coming from the surface.
“I’m nervous,” Horton mumbles.
Again, Hreve just finds himself nodding along. His original thoughts of grand appearances and notoriety were gone now. All he could think about was just what could be ahead of him. He didn’t know if it was dangerous, if it was alive, or if it was nothing at all. All he knew was that it was something and that he had to find out what.
“I was thinking it could be some sort of light,” Horton rambles on, “Like, we’ve got our flashlights, maybe these aliens had lights too. Those glowing walls probably didn’t keep things bright enough for them, after all.”
“But how could it still be going all these years later?” Hreve asks, knowing that Horton wouldn’t know the answer.
“Alien tech. They’ve always got stuff we don’t. Just think about all the stuff that the Toaz had that we made use of—these aliens are bound to know some stuff too.”
Again, all Hreve can do is nod.
Horton continues babbling about everything that pops into his head for several minutes and Hreve allows it. There were better things to do than bicker, and on top of that, Hreve couldn’t muster his voice to say anything anyway.
Turning a corner, Hreve gasps when he sees a door that is being silhouetted by the aqua-colored light that is seeping through on all sides of it. Something about the presence of a door makes the entire situation seem somewhat normal and it makes the aliens—the Polarity as Horton named them—seem more human. No more were they some wispy civilization that may or may not exist, they were concrete and real—just like the door that is only a few meters away. In a way, Hreve thought that the presence of a door was funny, out of all technologies to find that humanity and the Polarity had in common, a door was not something that Hreve would have put on the list.
“Think it opens?” Horton asks suddenly.
“It’s got to,” Hreve answers as he boldly approaches the door. Stopping just in front of it, he begins feeling around for a door handle or a console beside the door or any other way to open it. He does so for a good minute before stepping back.
“Maybe it’s more simple than we’re thinking,” Horton offers as he steps forward for his own turn.
Hreve watches as Horton puts forth both his hands and rests his palms flat on the face of the door. Horton then takes a few deep breaths, the light from the door casting strange and eerie shadows off Horton’s body as he does so.
Then Horton suddenly presses on the door and it gives way, but not in the way Hreve expected.
Rather than swing one way or the other on some sort of hinge, the door glides into the area beyond in the same direction that Horton had pushed it. For a moment, Hreve is awestruck and confused, but his brain quickly catches up to the present and he realizes that the door was utilizing some sort of magnetism to work, a fact he found quite odd.
Horton stops pushing and he examines the door. Planting his hands on his hips, he happily exclaims, “Magnets!”
Hreve lets out a short laugh as he takes in Horton’s happiness, but he cuts his joy short when he realizes that he and Horton are both being bathed in the bright light that they had been pursuing. His eyes snap upward, toward the source of the light and he is greeted with what he can only describe as a massive screen at the top of the cavern he is in. The screen is at least a hundred meters above him and, if he isn’t mistaken, it appears to only be about fifty meters or so wide, which he found surprising. His eyes drop so he can take in the size of the cave that the screen is so easily illuminating when his heart skips a beat.
This was no empty cave.
It wasn’t filled with stalactites, or trash, or ruins, or anything that he had been expecting.
The floor of the massive cave is made up of gently rolling hills and a handful of valleys, all of which are spread across the huge five or so kilometer circle that the screen above Hreve is keeping bright. Scattered haphazardly along the hills and in the valleys are mostly small structures, buildings Hreve could only describe as hovels or huts.
However, those buildings were anything but primitive, like that description would imply. Rather than be built out of mud or brick, these structures are all built out of the same crystalline blackish stone. Roads made of the same material weave their way through the landscape, connecting all the buildings to each other and to the small assortment of larger structures.
“It’s like… it’s like some sort of vacation destination from the commercials!” Horton calls out joyously.
“Don’t!” Hreve grabs Horton’s shirt and stops the man from racing toward the nearest structure.
“And why not?” Horton demands, “This right here is everything we could have hoped to get from a discovery like this, and we can have it right now!”
Hreve shakes his head slowly. He isn’t sure why, but something didn’t seem right about all of this. As he shakes his head, he continues scanning the scene before him, and he begins noting the rusting hulks that are on the roads and scattered elsewhere as well. He sees that the pieces of machinery are more plentiful closer to one of the large structures, and he examines it more closely. After a few moments, he realizes that the structure appeared to be some sort of barracks.
Taking in a sharp breath, Hreve finally says, “I think this is some kind of military base.”
“Military? No way! Look at that over there! They’ve got a lake! There’s no way—”
“No! Look at those things out there! The ones with the rust. Those look like some kind of futuristic tanks to me! And look at these buildings here!” Hreve points at the nearby structures that seem like they would funnel anyone going through the door they had just entered through right to, “Tell me they don’t look like a checkpoint for people to check in before being let in.”
“But it’s so pretty!”
“Maybe that’s just how the Polarity builds their military bases.”
“But… why all the way down here?”
“I don’t know… maybe it was a bunker or something.”
“But aren’t bunkers supposed to house tons of people? This whole place,” Horton makes a big point of waving his hands around, “That’s a lot of work to just house a hundred or so houses!”
“I really don’t know,” Hreve sighs, “But I don’t like it. I know that much.”
“Well, are we going to look around at least?”
Nodding slowly, Hreve agrees, and he allows Horton to take the lead for a while.
Hreve and Horton make their way through the abandoned checkpoint, and Hreve can’t help but look inside. He stops long enough to poke his head through the open window and he takes in the sight of everything inside. He can see what appears to be a filing system of sorts for square, green crystalline plates. He can see what is clearly a chair sitting before what he believes is a computer, and beside that is something that he immediately recognizes as a rifle-like weapon.
Hreve makes a point of pointing out the rifle to Horton who simply shrugs and nods at the discovery before marching ahead.
Exiting the checkpoint area, Hreve immediately notes the green and red plants that make up the ground cover of the cave. The plants remind him of both moss and clovers at the same time, and he can’t help but wonder how the plant life hadn’t taken over the entire cave in the years since the area had been abandoned. Sure, there were some places where the plants encroached on the black road a bit, but they had yet to cover it completely.
Hreve continues following Horton for quite some time and he stops at the first of the rusting hulks that he is now certain are war machines. Horton continues on ahead, somehow unfazed by the machine.
Unwilling to part with the tank-like machine just yet, Hreve lets Horton leave and he begins circling around the machine. The machine is largely made up of the same blackish material that the alien race seemed oh so fond of, but there are parts of it that are made of what Hreve assumes is some sort of steel. The steel is where all the rust is coming from, and that rust has stained parts of the black material over the many years.
There aren’t any wheels or treads on this tank, and Hreve ascertains that it must use some sort of levitation to move along. The lower half of the tank appears to be just an armored carrier for whatever moved the machine, much like the tanks Hreve was accustomed to seeing the Coalition use. The upper half, much like a normal tank, was clearly the weapons platform where weapons that were a lot like the one in the checkpoint were pointing out every which way. There didn’t appear to be any front or rear to the upper portion of the tank, which just made it appear even more fearsome.
“Horton, I think we need to leave this place,” Hreve calls out to his traveling buddy as he quickly retreats from the tank. Something about all of the guns pointing out of it made it seem threatening and scary, even if it appeared to be very much dead.
“You can leave, I’m on vacation!” Horton calls back.
“Something happened here, man!” Hreve shouts, “I don’t think we should stay!”
“Whatever it is, it’s gone now,”
“You can’t know that.”
“It’s been forever since anything living was here.”
“We don’t know that,” Hreve starts. He is about to say more as he walks toward Horton, but he stops dead in his tracks. At his feet is something that he can only describe as a footprint. The print is easily a meter long and a little under half a meter wide and it appears to have been left behind by some sort of mechanization, based upon the sharp edges of the print. Not too far away, there is another print and then another and another. Judging by the state of the plants that had been crushed, the steps were not too terribly old.
“Horton…” Hreve says in a shaky voice, “I’m leaving right now, and you should too.”
“Just go already!” Horton snaps, “I’ll take all the credit for discovering the Polarity for myself!”
Hreve looks over to Horton and he feels a pang of anger, fear, and sadness as his friend threatens to cheat him. After so many years of working together and getting to know each other, Hreve expected more of the man. He had had Horton and his wife over several times over the years to have dinner with his own family, and here the man was threatening to throw all of that away.
Shaking his head, Hreve immediately thinks about what his father always said about how power always corrupts. People, no matter how good they once were, they always had a propensity to do horrible things in the name of gaining or maintaining power. That was one of the reasons why the Coalition had gotten so bad, or at least that’s what Hreve’s father said.
Before he can say anything else to Horton, Hreve sees something move on the crest of a hill in the distance.
A split second later, there is a flash and a beam of light.
Hreve’s eyes follow the beam and his heart stops for a moment when he sees a smoldering section of the green and red grass where Horton had been standing not long before. All that remained of the man is a few small scraps of clothing.
Somehow remembering the emergency drills from the shipyard, Hreve’s body immediately drops to the ground, just like he was trained to do in the event of explosions. While there hadn’t been an explosion, Hreve somehow instinctively knew that dropping to the ground would be his sole means of survival.
After a few seconds that seem to take hours, Hreve allows himself to look toward the distant hill where the flash had come from.
To his terror, there is something coming his way from that hill. It is walking in a soulless disjointed way that tells Hreve everything that he needed to know—the thing that killed Horton was a robot. Whatever it was, it had to of played some sort of role in this military bunker. It was a resident of this horrid underworld beneath the Black Forest.
Realizing that the machine hadn’t fired until it had a direct line of sight with Horton, Hreve concocts a plan: he would make his way back to the door he had come through whenever the machine was out of view.
Hreve immediately laughs at his plan, but he cuts his laughter short because he feared the robot would shoot at him if it saw his movement. A few seconds pass and Hreve’s thoughts return to the absurdity of his plan when he reasons that the robot hadn’t seen him. I’m literally about to play some psychotic version of red light green light to save my life, Hreve thinks, the craziness of it all bringing him far too close to laughing once more.
Before he can rethink his plan, the robot slips beneath the crest of another hill and out of sight. Without giving the order, Hreve’s body leaps up and begins sprinting back up the road. He was on autopilot, and he knew that his instincts were the only thing keeping him alive.
As he runs, Hreve looks back every few steps to ensure that the robot cannot see him. He gets a good three minutes of running in before he sees the glint of metal that the robot is made of, and he dives to the ground amidst some of the roadside plants.
The war machine is still stumbling along closer and closer to where Horton had been murdered. Whatever its agenda, the robot seemed intent on investigating the scene of the killing it had conducted.
Several painfully long minutes pass as the robot works its way down the hill and toward Horton and Hreve. As he waits for his next chance to run, Hreve realizes that he has to pee and a few tears stream down his face as he wills his body to ignore the urge for just a little while longer.
Before he has a chance to wet himself, the robot slips back out of sight, this time behind a building, and Hreve races closer to the door he and Horton had entered through an eternity ago. He gets to the checkpoint in time to see the robot emerging from the building that had come between it and Hreve, and Hreve dives through the open window into the room he had examined earlier.
Inside the building, Hreve takes several dozen unsteady breaths before he steadies his breathing to the point that he can calm down and think once more. As he thinks, his brain immediately jumps to the idea that there would be questions if he were to return without Horton. People could think that he murdered the man. He needed some sort of proof of what happened.
And at that, Hreve realizes that he jumped into the perfect place to take his proof. He reaches for the green plates, but he stops when he remembers just how badly he had to pee. Not wanting to risk his life to respond to the call of nature, he opts to pee inside of the checkpoint room he is in.
Finished with that, he then grabs a plate and the strange rifle as well. These two prizes in hand, he peeks out of the window just far enough to check on the robot. It is now standing over the charred earth where Horton had been standing not long before. Every now and then the machine takes an awkward step or two, but it seems like it has no idea what to do next.
And then it begins marching back the way it had come, just as suddenly as its showing up in the first place.
Hreve briefly considers making a run for it while the killing machine’s back is turned, but he can’t bring himself to risk it. He knew that he’d have a better opportunity as soon as it crested a hill.
He keeps repeating this line of thought for several minutes until the robot is finally out of sight. At that, he crawls back through the window, grabs his artifacts, and runs. He is several steps past the door he had entered through before he stops himself. He can’t help but feel like he had to shut the door. That he had to put the lip back onto Pandora’s box.
But, at the same time, he couldn’t help but feel like doing so would get himself killed.
Letting out a shaky, emotional groan that he is happy no one is around to hear, Hreve retreats, and he races away from the door, from the false paradise, and the killing mechanization. He doesn’t stop running until he steps out of the blackened tunnel and feels the familiar natural, cool stone underfoot.
Finally back on familiar ground, Hreve drops to his knees and he sets down the two pieces that he had taken as proof of what had occurred. With his hands now free, he drops down further, bowing to nothing in particular as he allows his emotions and thoughts to catch back up to him.
The terror that he had felt upon seeing the robot that killed Horton causes him to shake uncontrollably and he feels like his bones have been replaced with ice as the fear somehow reaches that deep into his being. The adrenaline that had kept him alive is easing up, and it is filling him with a pain that he can only describe as broken glass that is cutting at his insides. The excitement that he had originally felt is there as well, but it feels foreign and like it is an abomination. Any level of excitement right now felt like it was spitting on the grave of Horton.
Hreve isn’t sure just how long he had been sobbing on the ground by the time that he wakes up.
The ground beneath him is wet from his tears, and he can see several small streams of moisture that had found their way downhill from his face. As he looks at the wetted streambeds, he momentarily wonders how he could see in the dark. A moment later, his eyes find that he had somehow managed to bring his flashlight along and he had left it on as he sobbed and eventually fell asleep.
Swallowing, Hreve realizes that he hadn’t drunk anything for quite some time. He reaches for where his water had been but finds nothing. That is when he remembers that Horton had borrowed his canteen and had been carrying it when he was killed.
Swallowing once more, Hreve rises to his feet shakily. Bending down, he grabs the plate, the rifle, and his flashlight and he begins shuffling back toward where his family is near the mouth of the cave.
He didn’t know what he would do when he got back to them. He didn’t know what he could tell them. He didn’t know how to explain what happened.
All Hreve knew was that he had to get all of them out of this cave. Anywhere else would do. Even the open air would do. Better yet, Hreve thinks, Better yet, we can just get out of the Black Forest! Get away from all of this. Surely the alien invasion is over by now. Surely things are looking up out there.
Nodding resolutely, Hreve commits to the plan. He was going to get Horton and his families both out of here and far from that horrible cave.
Whatever the race of alien was that built that cave, they must have had no interest other than making war.
Interesting concept, well worth expanding.