They say drowning is one of the worst ways to die.
It takes anywhere from mere seconds to an estimated three minutes.
It is natural to try and hold the breath. This is an involuntary action. A slow unconsciousness, followed by suffocation. During this unconscious stage, there is a chance of resuscitation. Then the breathing stops, and the heart slows. This can last for several minutes of its own. The next stage is hypoxic convulsion. This appears as a seizure, when without oxygen, the body turns blue and may jerk around erratically. The stage beyond revival is called cerebral hypoxia. Clinical death follows at its heel.
It takes you thirteen minutes to die.
Routine is a well-meaning lie.
Everyday a clockwork of time and schedule, and you yourself are another ant in the vast hive, a gear in the massive machinery of existence. You learn to play your part. It is less dreary than it sounds. You have friends, you have three dogs, and you have a home. You love, and are loved in return. Inhale, exhale. Life cycles by, a game of give-and-take that you master with every loss, every gain.
You are a repair technician working under an established railway company. You have a reputation.
On Thursday, from precisely 3.12 to 3.43 am in the early morning, there is the faintest tremor that emanates somewhere in the mountainous Adinrock region many miles south of your bustling city. You go to work in ignorance of this fact, until your employer pulls you aside and confides that he has a job for you. He dangles the temptation of a substantial raise in front of your face, and of the hook, you bite.
He tells you of structural damage caused to one of the lesser-known stations on the outskirts of the country. He tells you that you are in charge, and that it is your responsibility to pick a team to help you. He leaves a clipped folder with all the pertinent details, and you pretend to turn a blind eye as his meaty fingers swipe a pen from your desk and stuff it into the bulging, grease-stained fabric pocket of his uniform.
You pick up the folder.
There are five of you, and it is dark by the time you reach.
You spot the security cameras at the corner of your eye. You are reasonably acquainted with the staff of the security department, and you spare a moment to wonder if it is one of your friends on the other side of that blinking red lens. Then you shake the thought out of your head, because it is one that will serve you no purpose. You hand out the emergency communication devices to the rest of the team, and spend barely a minute briefing them, because you know they are well-experienced and professional.
You also know they are your friends.
Zahner has worked side-by-side with you for as long as you can remember, and Eric was your office partner during those first few hellish months before you climbed the bureaucratic ladder. Isalie smiles at you as you take your morning coffee in the canteen, and Runa breaks you out of the storage cabinet that few times you got yourself locked in.
They are as unsettled by the dark as you are. It swamps to the town, clinging like a miasma of oil and rot, and you think to yourself, you have never seen such emptiness before. The town buildings carved into the side of the mountain – braided and bruised rock – boast barely any sign of life, and the small movements that slink across the landscape are as dead as the breath of a corpse.
The curtains of a two-story shift; the dim glow of a candlelight in another plunges out.
When you check your phone, you know your hunch is right. There is no service.
This is all the warning that you get.
You check if you are in the right place.
Eric cracks a joke of the lights being out, or something of that variety. It is not funny; you smile. The foreman emerges from the fog; he is a gruff, severe man with skin as rough as sand and a scowl etched upon cracks lips. He says nothing, except nods a greeting, before beckoning you and your team to follow. He leads you deeper into the darkness, the soles of his rubber shoes crunching softly a lullaby, and deposits all of you in front of a gaping chasm into the rock face.
If not for the corroded tracks that run beneath, you would believe it to be the mouth of hell.
It still may be, you think grimly, and regret much of your life choices.
Much like the tracks, you steel yourself, and know your team does the same. You say your thanks to your guide, but he is already gone, springing into the dark fog of night like a mountain goat disappearing over the precipice of a ravine. You pull out your flashlight, and the light struggles to carve its path through the dark. You have a distance of around five, maybe six, feet if you squint.
It is Zahner that voices what all of you are thinking – is it not better to wait for morning?
You quietly agree. But your employer’s instructions were very clear, and you remember the iron-tight grip he had upon your coat as he told you to start as soon as possible, no matter the time of day nor any other considerations. Not even the night to stand in your way, he’d said, and something deep and primal within you had warned you then, and imprisoned you now, against the doubts and fears that crowd your mind. You give the order.
There is nothing more impressively oppressive than the crush of the dark and the knowledge of several hundred thousand tons of solid rock bearing down from above. Your bones shrink in protest, already anticipating the moment of their grinding to dust. The ground is wet beneath your feet, the thin trickles of water pooling silver, caught by the light, on either side of the track depression.
The metal that sprawls a horizontal ladder into the dark ahead peels at places. You catch sight of the corroded spots and bent vertices, rust and verdigris moss eating away at the base, squelching as it clings to the bottom of your boots, and you grimace. Perhaps it is not only the tremors to blame. The reports you have read made no note of the extensive damage caused by time and neglect. You will be having words with your employer about this.
Your work has shifted to surveillance. It is too big a job for your team to handle alone. You neither have the manpower nor resources.
A few more miles, you tell yourself, and check your watch.
Time is endless trudging in the tunnels.
You do not know if it has been minutes or hours, and your watch is a stilled heartbeat against the faint flutter of your pulse. You do not know when you are drawn back to yourself, when the shards of reality pierce the haze in your mind, and coherency and lucidity hits with all the force of a sledgehammer. What you do know, is the way your head jerks every so slightly and the mental braking you have been doing for the past half an hour finally halts your feet. You are ready to turn around, salary and employer be damned, because it is so dark and nobody speaks a single word and you want to go home and forget that any of this has ever happened.
Then you look up, and your eyes widen.
There is a train.
The stretch of metal and carbon of it stands stray and stranded, like a carcass of the whale washed up ashore. The water laps at its crusted wheels, half of it seemingly swallowed by the very ground. But when the lights hit, you realise it is not ground, but the rippling black waters of a pool so vast that it has at least a quarter of the train engorged in its wet throat.
There’s something eerie about the sight that freezes the breath in your pounding chest. It is the train itself. The metal grill of the front is bent and twisted, exposing a mass of piping and wires within, like the ribs over a heart does much the same. It is old, and the make and model is not one you recognise; the entrance is picked clean of its hinges, the rot so deep and vibrant a colour that it seems to glow softly in the dark. The rats scuttle, but there are no rats.
There are no panels, no sleek metal walls. It is as if it was stepped out of the pages of a history book – welded, unwieldy metal and an underbelly of brittle piping, the phantom curl of smoke and ash rising above its crown of dented pieces, a halo befitting the corpse-like appearance of its existence. You are inexplicably convinced that it does in fact stretch out endlessly. Beyond the horizon. Beyond the depths.
You, you are still the ant in this metaphor.
You barely register it at first. The sound of the faint bubbling in the black waters of that small lake.
Your eyes are fixed on the train, in horror, amazement, confusion or perhaps unease; it oscillates between a certain measure of all three. You get the sense that someone is swearing behind you, and the sounds of their scuffling feet seem to float and stretch in the strange chamber of the tunnels. Now that you are looking, you see that the earth narrows above, sloping in a subtle curve, as if hollowed out by a spoon.
You drink in the sight of the train, the musty choke of the earth wrapping its dry fingers around the inside of your neck, the weakness of your knees and the fallacy of your vision turning the ground into the darkest plateau that rocks beneath your feet, a living writhing sea of glittering glass and obsidian shards that cut and squirm and dig and bleed. The dust are the dancers suspended with the cold of your breath; sometimes, you see them sway and spin and twirl thump-thump-thump, and you feel them crawl and carve a home within the pulsating flesh of your lungs.
The flashlight in your hand fizzles then dies,
The jump of fear is normal; but you do not cross that threshold from fear to raw terror yet. Yours was not the only flashlight of the group, and your team’s presence is a solid weight at the base of your spine and at the edges of our consciousness. You expect this – you fall, they catch. You falter, they strengthen. Your light goes out… well, they still have theirs, right?
This is the pattern of your thought.
You are, incidentally, horrifically wrong.
You were right about the dim glow, but it is not solely of the train.
By the time your eyes adjust to the dark, the words clinging like clumps of itchy sand to the inside of your throat, the cry of terror seeking reassurance has lived the span of a burst then death before it even touches the chilled air. You call out for the others – your voice a ragged sandpapered thing – but none answer. There is no hand on your back, no artificial light shielding you from the terrible dark. There is no whisper of comfort or platitude, no familiarity offered, not even in a Faustian bargain.
You know, even before you turn around, that you are Alone.
You are Alone, and you are Afraid.
Now, you finally hear the bubbling in the pool. That awful, endless stretch of empty water. You watch the air bubbles rise and dissipate, small sharp pinpricks of silver floating and stagnating, lapping, pooling against the bulk of the freight. The water breathes and breathes, and within the depth of its belly writhe with the pulse of something dark and something hungry and something whose eyes are irregular on either side of its monstrous face.
Those eyes stare at you now – the viridescent, purpling hue of those dead-eyed fishes that you remember from your trips to the supermarket.
You cannot quell the shriek that tears from you, nor can you stop your body from reacting. You step backwards, trip, and crash to the ground behind. Even that solid stretch is wet; moisture clings to your clothes and helps the tears that leak crust your eyes open. You breathe in the mineral smell, the nascent smell, the smell of rot and fungi and moss and rust and corrosion. You breathe in the smell of the dark, devouring it the same way that it devours you.
The glass face of your watch is cracked.
Your own face, you think distantly, is cracked.
Where is your team and where are your friends and where is the light, where, where, where, you do not even know where you are
The train watches you with pity, its lights crooked and dead.
It is still watching, as the innards of its wiring scratch against the ground, and as they wrap around your feet in relief, cut and wound, and its silent plea to save it ringing in your ears. It is the train’s blind desperation that clouds your mind and mirrors your own chasm of loneliness, as it tries to pull itself out of the endless water. It croons in the dark, shifting, settling like the thick porridge of gravel, the metal teeth of its grill trilling a mournful note.
You barely have time to scream, not before those wires pull, and you, you are drowning.
You do not remember death.
Perhaps that would have been a mercy, because all you know is the taste of freshwater and blood, and this is the sensation you suffer through as you splutter awake upon a dry shore of more rock and darkness. You have a good idea of how a stomach lining tastes. When you recover, you realise the flashlight is in your hands, your fingers curled around the plastic casing with part of your fingernail wedged into the battery compartment. You turn it on, and understanding settles in your bones.
You are not a you.
You are a thing of water and flesh, as much as you are one of blood and bone. It is calcium in your bones, and it is calcium that lines these walls. Your breath is the breeze that roils through the staleness, the only symptom of life for the dead, and you are as subservient to your own human frailty in the same way that these sprawling tunnels are servant to the whims of nature and man and destruction.
You will never be a you again.
The tunnels sprawl before you – a labyrinth of endless miles and treacherous steeps and dead ends as abrupt as the turn of fate. Sometimes, the tunnels split; at others, they seem to crash into the other, amalgamating into all that is deeply unnatural. They are a winding mass, the hardened skin of a snake coiled and coiled around its own papery tail, akin to the impossible navigation of the millions of stars within the void of space.
There are no train tracks to guide your feet.
Many miles above, the radio crackles.
Those still with ears listen. Those still with eyes watch.
There is a man in the tunnels, the Voice croons, and he is alone.
There is an altar.
It is a raised platform above the slightest decline of a depression in the rock, those same black waters cutting a perfect outline of its vertices alongside the swathe of rock. Above, you see a figure hang, so old that all that exists are bones and scraps of cloth and the hook-like mechanics that raise it over your head. The braziers are sticky with oil, and the scraps of kindling flutter and land before your feet a greeting.
What are you, you think, if not the sum of your memory.
You are a thing formed from the impressions of a thousand other people, a sum of catalytic reactions. You speak the words that have been spoken a million times before by a million different other people. The language doesn’t matter, in the same way that the passage of time doesn’t either. You suffer the same emotions, the same limited thought pattern of the world; you breathe in the same smog-ridden air and eat the same processed food and live the same mundane life.
You used to be a finite you.
You do not have to be.
Written by: Trishta