To our right, the Reaches fell away into bottomless blackness. We struggled down a narrow trail, hugging close to the rock, every hundred yards or so coming upon the mouths of inner caves that coiled away where our lights could not penetrate. We hurried past, feeling the exhalations of dry air from deeper galleries, no one wishing to linger on those thresholds despite the escape they offered from the brink.
I began to imagine that down in the valley of blackness, luminous shapes stirred and swam. These may have been afterimages of lamplight and my companions’ faces, or the random firing of sensors in my optic nerve; but that knowledge, uncertain at best, did nothing to reassure me when I began to imagine huge blind eyes floating up like helium balloons from between imaginary grey-glowing peaks deep in the abyss.
My fear, in fact my very behavior, became childlike. Not since childhood had I felt any such terror of the dark. It was nothing I had ever imagined facing again, not as an adult, an experienced explorer among others of equal skill. It took me by surprise, nor was I reassured to discover I was not the only one.
Katherine was the first to speak of it. Ward had begged a halt some three hours into our descent. We squatted down on the trail carved unknown ages before, and untouched for millenia– until recently. Still tethered together, we shared water and food. As I offered the canteen to Katherine, I noticed her gaze fixed not on the abyss, the sight of which I also kept avoiding, but on the unbroken ceiling of darkness above us.
“Can’t see it anymore,” she said.
I knew she meant the outer threshhold, which for a time had hung behind us like a dim grey star, visible only in contrast to such utter blackness. Now it was long gone, and except for the light we carried, or could generate, there would be no more until we reached the camp. I squeezed her shoulder. Like me she was covered with perspiration despite the chill of the Reaches. Mine was an icy, unpleasant sweat, like that which one feels when rising from a nightmare.
“Why am I so frightened?” she said.
Justin, a veteran of the Reaches, laughed. “Afraid of the dark?”
“There’s just so much of it,” she answered, unashamed. “No stars…nothing.”
“Try turning off all the lights,” he said. “Then you’ll really feel it. It’s a good idea to let yourself get used to it. “
“That’ll happen soon enough,” said Beth, our leader.
“Really,” said Ward, who like Katherine and myself was making his first trek into the cavern. “I’m in no hurry. It’s claustrophobic enough already.”
“Claustrophobic?” I said. “There’s nothing but open space.”
“But the blackness feels solid. As if, if we didn’t have lights, it would completely crush us.”
“Jesus, don’t say that!” said Katherine, rising. “You’re really scaring me now.”
“Relax,” I whispered, trying to pull her down next to me.
It made me nervous when she moved so near the edge of the trail. But my own reaction, though I kept it to myself, was the opposite of Ward’s. I felt as if I were expanding outward infinitely, sending my mind into the Reaches, to touch their limits, to fill the entire interior tracts of the icy cave-riddled planet.
“You’re like a bunch of kids around a campfire,” Beth said. “Come on, we’re not doing any good sitting here scaring each other. We’ve a long way to go before…”
Katherine laughed, forcing it. “Before what? Nightfall?”
“Before we can stop,” Beth finished. She was already striding away, forcing Justin to jump up before the cable could pull taut between them. Ward followed Justin, and I rose up reluctantly, clasping Katherine’s hand for a short moment.
“It’ll be all right,” I said. “When we get to the catacombs, it’ll seem worthwhile.”
I didn’t understand her expression of doubt.
We had covered less than a third of our journey, as Beth indicated, but we were already near the end of the ridge route. Within a short time the trail broadened further. We pulled away from the brink of the abyss, still without any sight of its bottom, and moved first along the face of a sheer wall that rose to our left, then headed directly out across a broad stone plain whose surface undulated like the swells of a petrified sea, crazed with deep rifts. The narrower of these were spanned by rigid plastic ramps, still nearly brand-new, scuffed by very few boots. I grew a little bolder on the plain, because the fear of falling was gone, and I walked with ever lighter steps despite the occasional thought that I might be visible to anything peering down from above—though what I expected to be watching from the black heights above, I could never have named. I stabbed beams of light out into the surrounding plains, picking out heaps of stone, shattered scales that must have flaked and fallen from the cavern’s ceiling miles above. It seemed strange that the whole surface was not thickly littered with these piles, as if they had been swept up into tidy mounds over the eons, leaving all else clear. They reminded me disturbingly of enormous anthills, and after a time I stopped looking at them.
Justin fired a flare out into the dark; and while Beth cursed him for wasting it, the rest of us stood and watched it arc up and up and finally peak and fall, to land sputtering far out on the plain, somewhere beyond a jagged wall of stone scrapings. It made the silhouettes and shadows of those heaps twitch and shamble toward us. Dreadful illusions multiplied behind my eyes, and I felt an unlikely terror grow until I had to look away. The dull flare flickered for much longer than seemed right, and I glanced back at it repeatedly as we marched on.
Hours later, we saw another light ahead of us, first a dim suspicion, like a wishful mirage; but gradually it brightened. As we gained higher ground, we saw a raw spark of white fluorescence, stationary, with three smaller reddish sparks beneath it. It was the central beacon of the catacomb camp. As we grew closer, we saw the somewhat dimmer lamps mounted on shorter poles all around the site for constant illumination; and then we gradually made out the shapes of the camp shelters, tents and prefab huts, scattered pieces of machinery and vehicles, even a one-man pedal glider—all the necessities, as well as the detritus, of a three month occupation. The camp was staffed with nearly fifty people, yet none were visible as we approached.
Beth raised her radio, addressed the main station loudly, but received only static in reply.
Suddenly Katherine collapsed. I called to the others and sank down next to her to find her gasping, hyperventilating, full of repressed terror.
“Goddamn it, what now?” Beth said.
“She’s dizzy—she needs to rest.”
“Well stay with her then, unclip your line, we’re going on.”
“No!” Katherine said, struggling to pull herself upright. “I’ll be fine.”
“Have it your way.” Beth tried the radio again.
“Where are they?” Justin said.
“In the catacombs, where else?”
“All of them?”
We hurried to keep up, Katherine keeping one hand in mine, but we needn’t have worried about falling behind. Beth hadn’t gone fifty yards when suddenly she stopped short, cursing. At her feet was a rift much wider than any we had crossed thus far.
“Where’s the bridge?” Justin said.
Beth didn’t speak for a moment, watching the luminous screen of her hand-map. She shone her light left and right along the fissure, but there was nothing. Finally she aimed it straight down into the cleft, but I could tell without moving to the brink myself that she could see nothing down there.
“It was here,” she said.
“Hey, there’s someone,” Ward said, and he began to shout, waving in the direction of the camp. I looked toward the tents and sheds and at first saw nothing; then a figure pulled away from the shadow of one shelter and began to move across our view. Ward waved his lantern from side to side, the beam cleaving the air like a banner, until Justin struck his arm with a nervous cry and the lantern flew from Ward’s hand, striking the edge of the ravine and shattering before it rolled over into the darkness and began its plunge.
“Goddamn it “ Ward said.
“Shut up!” Beth cried, whirling on him, pushing us all back from the brink.
Somehow, I had kept my eyes on the figure between the tents until Beth got in my way. The last I saw, it was heading toward us, perhaps coming to help; but when I looked again there was no sign of it.
“What’s wrong?” Justin said desperately. “What’s happened?”
Beth turned her lantern down to its lowest setting, still herding us away from the edge. “I don’t know. I don’t like it. Put your lights out, all of you. We don’t want to attract attention.”
“Attention?” Ward said. “From who?”
“Just do it!” she hissed.
Katherine, trembling beside me, made a fearful sound as she switched hers off; then I did likewise. We needn’t have feared the coming of utter darkness, for the lights of the camp still towered on the far side of the fissure, bright enough to print our own shadows on the plain. The five of us, Beth still leading, moved behind a small stone heap. We sat there without speaking at first. I gulped some water and wondered how frightened I should be, and of what.
“We have to go back,” Justin said.
“Maybe. But not yet,” said Beth. “We’re not sure it’s anything.”
“But the radio, the bridge….”
“You’re inferring too much, and you’re in a paranoid state of mind. There’s no evidence of…of anything.”
“What?” Ward said. “What are you two talking about?”
Beth glared at him sullenly, then away.
“It’s true,” Katherine said. “You’re mystifying us deliberately. You two are the only ones who’ve been down here before. You must tell us what you know.”
“We don’t know anything,” Justin said. “No more than you.”
“That’s not exactly true,” said Beth. “We’ve visited the catacombs. And I know they scared you, Justin, just as they did me. “
“That has nothing to do with this!”
“No? Maybe you’re right. But the feeling is similar, isn’t it? When you were in there, didn’t you feel as if they were simply sleeping? Wasn’t there a mood of fear that came over you as in a nightmare? Isn’t this the same mood, but wide awake now?”
“You’re crazy,” Justin said.
“I don’t know what to think,” she admitted.
“Please,” Ward said. “Let’s just go back. I’m tired, but we can’t stay here.”
“Unclip yourself,” Beth said.
“I want to climb up and have another look.”
“But—no. We’ll all go.”
“Christ.” She stood up. “All right, then. Let’s move.”
We started up the stone heap, careful not to put our feet wrong, for it would have been easy to twist or even break an ankle among the gaps of sharp-edged stones. The mound was higher than it looked. We ended up unclipping anyway, for each of us climbed at a different rate. I was second to the top, just behind Beth, who crouched peering out at the lights of the camp, shaking her head.
She and I were alone there when we saw a figure again—the same one, or another, dashing silently across the compound. It threw itself behind a piece of treaded machinery, some sort of a digging device, and vanished.
“Did you see that?” she said. “It was a man.”
I nodded. “Of course it was.”
The others came up around us. I turned to give Katherine a hand, so I missed what the others saw, though I heard them gasp.
“What happened?” I said.
“A light went out,” Justin said. He pointed, though there were a fair number of lanterns about the camp and I couldn’t remember the location of any particular one. That didn’t matter much, though, because another went out as I watched, and another. These were the main lights around the camp, at its outskirts and between the tents, mounted at perhaps a third of the height of the central pole which bore the three red indicators strung along its height. There were no lights on inside the tents any longer; I couldn’t be sure I’d ever seen any.
“What’s doing it?”
“Listen,” Beth said.
The silence of the Reaches was utter, as thorough as the darkness. Away in the distance, as another light blinked out, we heard a fragile tinkling sound, the crashing of glass. I knew the bulbs were extremely durable, thick glass, and could barely be shattered with a bullet at close range. Yet they were exploding right and left, dousing greater portions of the camp with darkness. The very light which lit the scene for us was on the verge of going out.
Suddenly, unnervingly loud, Katherine screamed. I clamped my hand over her mouth, anxious that she make no further sound or bring us to the attention of any possible listeners. Huddling down beside her I asked what was wrong.
“On the pole,” she said. “It was climbing. A-and then, one-handed, squeezed it out.”
“What, a light? But that’s impossible. Why would anything trouble to climb the poles and crush the glass when they could simply switch off the power?”
“Maybe they don’t know how it all works,” Beth said.
There was no irony in her voice.
“Well, you don’t see anything do you?” I asked.
“I’m not sure what I see.”
I stood up to look over the top of the mound, and was in time to see a huge winged shape blotting out the remaining lights of the camp, including the red bulbs on the central post. It went soaring over the tents, a black shadow swinging toward us, and I nearly lost my footing in terror until I realized what it was.
“The glider!” Justin said. “Someone’s gotten away.”
It drifted higher as it approached the fissure that had blocked our approach to the camp, and now Beth grabbed my lantern and rose up with it and her own, waving the pair in a signal pattern. Twin beams swept the upper air. The craft veered toward us, seeming to buck on an updraft as it passed above the cleft.
“It sees us!”
“Here he comes!”
Behind the glider, the last of the low lamps went out. Only the central pole with its three red and one tall white bulb remained lit.
We hurried down the treacherous slope, flailing our lanterns. The plane circled above us, humming like a dragonfly. When we reached the ground, the plane passed so low that we could see the pilot’s white face in our lights. He waved, managing a grin despite his obvious exhaustion, and then he lifted again, coming around for a landing. As the glider came about it suddenly dipped one wing drastically, for no apparent reason. I shone my light back at the pilot again, not wanting to blind him, and for an instant my light seemed to glitter on a blank patch of darkness where his face had been. Several of us screamed then, and the plane came down abruptly, crashing into the hard rock floor. We ran for it, and I tugged at Katherine, but she stood stock-still, staring back at the camp. On the central pole, the lowest of the three red lights had gone out.
“Come on,” I said, suppressing my panic. “He may be hurt.”
I would have been more surprised if he’d been alive at all. When we finally caught up with the others standing around the shambles of the craft, there was no need to ask. Beth rose and faced us, shaking her head. There was blood on her fingertips; I pulled my light away, but not before I saw that his head was a crushed ruin. I decided that what I’d seen before his plunge was a premonition. There was no sign of any black thing, nor any reason to think that it and not the fall had destroyed his face.
I don’t think anyone was surprised to find the last of the red lights had been extinguished. And now the white bulb, high on its pylon, began to sway back and forth, stretching our shadows and the shadows of those black heaps around us, causing everything to rock nauseatingly.
Then, matched with the sound we had grown accustomed to, it too went out.
“Now we’ll head back,” Beth said, as if this were the release she’d been waiting for.
Thank god for our lanterns. I had been dead tired from the march when we came in sight of the camp, but all that was fled now; adrenaline gave me new strength to match my renewed sense of purpose, though my nerves were frayed to such an extent that I thought a month’s rest could only begin to heal them.
Our thoughts must have been remarkably similar as we started back toward the trail, across the plain. If the others were at all like me, then they tried not to think of the black fissure, of the silent camp behind us, of the uncharted Reaches spreading away to either side. And the nameless pilot’s fruitless flight, what had it accomplished? Questions like this, for sanity’s sake, were forcibly suppressed. Later would be the time to ask them. Later, when we stood in the sunlight of the world above, where night was a thing that came to an end and not an endless constant. It was important to think of the sun as a reward for our harrowing journey. I was to think of it often in the hours to come, when I could push away those other thoughts.
I’m not sure how long it was before we noticed we’d lost Ward. Ward, who had been without a lantern. Beth was the one who noticed, and none of us could remember who’d last spoken to him, or what had been said. Cursing herself, Beth insisted that we refasten our lines before we made a move toward searching for him. We had been straggling along separately in the dark, watching Beth’s lone leading beam.
Justin began to call his name, but the night seemed to swallow it up without a second chance. No one wanted to head back; and it seemed unlikely that if Ward had strayed away, he would be in any place we were likely to intersect. Why hadn’t he cried out when he lost sight of Beth’s light?
“We can’t just leave him alone out there,” Justin said.
“We’ll be sending a search party back before long, to look for everyone. He won’t get very far, and it should be easy enough to find him if he just holds still and doesn’t blunder into a crevasse.”
That was a gruesome thought. We had crossed several of the black plastic bridges so far. Worse was the thought of what would happen if, in retracing our steps, we found any of the bridges vanished, snatched away, like the one near the camp.
“Come on,” Beth said.
But Justin held his ground, even though she tugged her line taut and threatened to pull him off his feet. “Justin! Listen to me don’t!”
This last command was ignored, as Justin raised his flare gun again and fired another signal flare straight overhead. We stood petrified and blinded as it shot up and up, dwindling. I half expected to see the ceiling lit as it approached, a dim distant reflection in an obsidian lid. But there was none of that. The flare reached its peak and began to fall, and should have continued burning throughout its descent and long after landing. Instead, a quarter of the way down, it snuffed out as completely as any of the lights in the camp.
“A dud,” Justin told us, hopelessly. Beth seized him by the arm and wrenched him away.
“He’s not coming, Justin. We have to keep on. It’s the best hope for him or for any of us.”
Justin began to weep, but it didn’t stop him from following her now. She went in the lead, Justin behind her, and then Katherine, and finally myself. Justin’s weeping, soft and mournful at first, began to turn into ragged curses and phrases I couldn’t at first understand. Gradually I realized, as Beth exhorted him futilely to silence, that he was speaking of the catacombs, of the camp, of something he had seen on his prior visit to the Reaches.
“What about the bridge?” I heard him say, and Beth ignored him pointedly. “Did they push it in? I mean why? To cut off the team’s escape? Or did the team do it, to keep them from crossing over?”
“You know what I’m talking about!” he said. “Why don’t you admit it? You know what I mean!”
“Shut up!” she screamed, her voice falling among the rocks of a heap nearby. Then she struck him, hard, on the mouth. Katherine caught him before he fell. He lay unmoving, sobbing through a bloody mouth, his face as red as a wailing infant’s. Beth looked sickened, with herself most of all. She knelt, speaking softly, apologetic now, and clutched at him, trying to draw him to his feet. But he resisted her, rolling about, becoming knotted and snarled in the line. Katherine and Beth finally had to unhook themselves in order to sort out the tangles, and as they began to work at the knots, Justin scrambled to his feet and scurried away, quiet now, as if his sobbing had been a ruse, a distraction, all along.
We all screamed for him now, oblivious of how loud we might have sounded, how far our voices might have carried. Hidden by darkness all around us, still we felt naked and exposed, utterly disadvantaged by the nightscape. No one made a move to follow him except with our lights, and he moved quickly beyond their pale. His own light roamed across the ground, flickering on and off, and as he ran we could hear him calling for Ward. But there was no answer, and eventually his light went out as well.
Katherine and I looked at Beth. Beth looked at the luminous map. Then she clipped herself to Katherine, and we set off again.
We walked abreast now, except where we had to cross bridges. But we didn’t speak. Beth offered no thoughts, and I found I had nothing to say. In the darkness, chameleonlike, I had decided to become more like it myself. We were all reverting to a childlike state; we existed in an aura of pure awe. It was all a strange dream. Katherine’s hand felt very firm and warm, if slightly sticky, in mine. She was like a companion in a dream, a good imaginary friend whom you miss very much when you awake. And God, how I wished for a time that I could have woken, even if it meant losing Katherine.
We were crossing a bridge, not far from the base of the trail. “This is the last bridge,” Beth said. She stopped in the center and looked back briefly, as if waiting to see if Ward and Justin had been tagging behind us all this time, as if now they had decided to show themselves.
Katherine and I stepped to the far end of the bridge. There was some slack in the line connecting Katherine and Beth. Beth wouldn’t move, staring backward, her face hidden from us. I watched the map screen glowing faintly in her hand. It had begun to flicker, that was what caught my attention. I started to point it out to Beth, when something—some density of the darkness, a form with no apparent origin–crept over the map and snuffed it out. Only a tiny dim greenish light, yet its symbolism surpassed in importance the strength of any actual illumination it offered.
“Beth,” I said. “Beth, the map.”
She didn’t move. Katherine, I noticed, had begun to tremble.
“Beth, what is it?”
As I started onto the bridge, Katherine whimpered and pulled me back. I turned to see her unclipping her line, shaking her head. “Don’t you see?” she said to me.
There was a sound that made no sense, and I swung around once more to face Beth. She was making the sound but I couldn’t see how because I could no longer see her face. Her lantern left her fingers, still glowing for the moment; it struck the edge of the bridge and the beam swept upward as the light dropped down into the chasm. It lit Beth’s face, and I remembered the pilot’s face—a brief reminder that nothing is impossible. Katherine pulled me quickly from the bridge, her own light charting the way for us now, and we ran wildly, hand in hand, somehow finding our way to the head of the trail just as our lights, too, went out.
As we headed up, knowing that hours of a taxing climb lay ahead of us, we listened first for the sound of Beth, or anything, following. Sometimes we paused, clinging to each other, and rested for as long as we dared, but only because our bodies would be punished or pushed no more; and like swimmers miles from the shore, who dream only (longingly) of drowning, we forced ourselves to move on as soon as our breathing slowed. All I really wanted was to lie down on the cold slope and stay there till darkness found me. Which was absurd, because of course it already had found me. It owned me, permeated me. I climbed through darkness, swam in it, ate it, inhaled it. And soon…very soon…I became darkness.
For the longest time Katherine failed to realize the change that had come over me. The Reaches were utterly dark, so I was indistinguishable from the rest of it. Her hand rested warm and secure in mine, apparently not noticing how mine continued to grow cold and even insubstantial. Our route grew easier for me;
I felt as if I were floating, sometimes tugging Katherine along behind me, sometimes being towed by her, as if I were a black balloon drifting along behind. Then, climbing higher, we entered the realm of the yawning mouths, those tunnel openings that had frightened me on our descent but which now beckoned, so that I wished to follow their contours inward to the deeper completion of the dark. But a small voice, or a collection of voices, a droning hive of sleeping voices recently awakened, spoke to me, promising a larger emptiness somewhere ahead, a great expanse more suitable to my vastness, something I could swell to fill and feed upon and thoroughly engulf, as it had been my dreaming desire to do for as long as I’d lain bottled in the inner realm.
Katherine saw it first, as I watched her. A grey speck of starlight far above us, dim rays falling down the ceiling that had been my upper limit for impossible ages. I watched her outline dawning ahead of me, her graceful silhouette, the edges of her downy cheeks, the polished crystal convexities of her eyes, oblique rays of light scattering over them, promising immensities, veritable oceans of light just ahead. We were almost there. The nearness of our escape quickened her step and her breathing, and I realized that she was laughing as she pulled me along. Laughing so loud that she couldn’t hear the sound I made, until she glanced back at me and, in the light from above, saw what I had become.
She let go of me then. It was almost painful, and I regretted it. I had grown so used to Katherine that I had almost become her. But now all gentleness fled. Her screaming fell harsh upon the rock as she turned and rushed away from me, toward the bright round opening no more than a hundred feet ahead, the gap through which sunlight streamed freely, that fissure with shards of carved and mortared stone scattered at its base, the broken remains of the Threshold itself, its lintel carved with sigils no one could remember how to read, nearly erased by time and then finished off completely by the helpful excavators.
A hundred feet, and she ran fast, with a good start ahead of me on the narrow trail.
Yet I slipped around her easily and passed through the neck of the evil stone bottle whose exterior was so thickly inhabited by those ignorant of its interior; whose contents had been a black wine aging slowly in the dark, growing more potent with each passing cycle. I slipped out and felt myself expanding, much grown in strength since the time of my confinement, all my voices rising rapturously, my millionfold wings unfurling, black sails hurling me outward into space as they caught and quickened in the all-enveloping–but all too easily smothered–light.
And poor Katherine, coming up to her salvation, found only a black sky, curdling, and me in it.
* * *
“Nether Reaches” copyright 1996 Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in The Cthulhu Codex, Vol. 6 (1996)
I wrote this one to read aloud at a WeirdCon, an annual gathering of weird fiction fans held in and around the Bay Area, in or around 1996. The reading went well but I think that was partly down to the musical accompaniment–Dennis Rickard, our host, put on Paul Giger’s Chartres. I completely forgot, until I came across a copy of the Cthulhu Codex, that it had ever been published; but that was certainly a result of some of the contributors and editors being among the audience it had that night.