When Malcolm Roberts broke through the underbrush, he found what they were looking for: a half decent cliff for climbing, and something else that caught his attention. A metal door leaned against the hillside leading up to the rock face, like those cellar doors that leaned against the outside of old houses.
His friend Steve wasn’t far behind. They had skipped their afternoon classes, headed out of Auxerre around noon, and come up past Kegan’s Bluff looking for new routes to rock climb. Steve trudged through the brush and looked up, his eyes going right to the metal door. “What is that?”
Malcolm squinted. “An old mine?” Whatever it was, he didn’t like it being there. It didn’t look right, out there in the middle of nowhere.
“Let’s check it out.” Steve bounded up the slope and Malcolm went after him.
The door was solid, heavy, but patched with rust all over. A large padlock secured the latch. Attached to the front was a wooden sign which they could barely read: Danger. Keep out. Property of Auxerre University and The Agartha Project.
Steve looked around for a large rock and started prying one loose from the ground.
“What are you doing?” Malcolm said.
“I think I can break that latch. Looks pretty rusty.”
Malcolm looked down the hill. The nearest road was almost a mile back where they had left his Jeep. There was nobody around. “Let’s not mess with it.”
“It says property of Auxerre University. We paid our fees, so this is basically ours. I just want to see.” Steve hefted the rock with two hands, raised it up, and smashed it down on the latch.
Malcolm watched. He could never talk Steve out of anything. Steve never listened to him, ever since they were kids. “What’s the Agartha Project?”
Steve didn’t answer. He hefted the rock again and brought it down with a grunt. The latch broke. He dropped the rock. “Give me a hand.”
“Don’t just stand there, give me a hand.”
Now that the lock was gone, what harm could there be in looking? Malcolm grabbed the side of the door and they lifted together. The hinges screeched as they swung the door up and pushed. It crashed down on the far side and they peered into a dark hole in the ground.
Steve shrugged his pack off one shoulder, fished out his flashlight, and clicked it on. He crouched down and aimed the beam into the darkness. The passage cut through the solid rock. It angled down for about twenty feet and then leveled off. “Looks safe enough,” he said and jumped down; it was about a three foot drop to the tunnel floor.
Malcolm looked up. White pigeons took flight from a roost high up on the cliff face. He followed them for a moment as they flew overhead, then climbed into the tunnel and got out his light. “Just a little ways,” he said.
Fifteen feet in, Malcolm glanced back. The entrance seemed a long way away, a tiny window of light in the darkness.
After the passage leveled off they entered a large natural cavern with a smooth floor. They moved their flashlights around, casting light and shadows about the room. Fraying wires and caged electric lights were fixed to the stone walls, but there was no power. They must have run a line in from a generator at some point.
Steve stepped toward the middle of the room. “Look at this.” He had one foot on the top step of a staircase that spiraled downward.
“This doesn’t look like a mine,” Malcolm said.
“C’mon. There must be something down here.” Steve took a few steps down the stairs.
“C’mon. It’s just a staircase.” Steve took another few steps, rounded the curved inner wall, and descended out of sight.
Malcolm watched the glow of Steve’s light on the outer wall of the stairwell get dimmer. “All right, wait for me.” And he hurried down after him.
The stairs, like the tunnel above, were carved out of solid rock. The surface of the steps and walls were roughly formed, but the spiral was perfectly regular. The inner core was a column of rock about six feet across, and the stairs themselves were about four feet wide. The air was cool and damp.
They descended a ways in silence, curving downward, each moment expecting to find the bottom. But with each turn, the stairs kept going. “Just a little farther,” Steve said. It was a strange thing though — up, down — it looked the same step after step, turn after turn. Soon it was difficult to tell how far they had come, or how long they had been going down.
“We should go back,” Malcolm said.
“A little farther. I just want to see what’s down there.”
They kept going. Five turns, ten turns, twenty turns, Malcolm couldn’t even tell anymore. He tried to think of anything that might change Steve’s mind about seeing the bottom. “What if our lights go out?”
“Turn yours off,” Steve said. “That way we can still see if mine dies.” He continued down without waiting for Malcolm.
Malcolm considered the prospect of being stuck down there without any light. Reluctantly he switched his light off and hurried after Steve, whose light still illuminated the downward spiral of the stairs. How long had it been? How deep had they gone? An hour? A mile?
“Stop!” Malcolm said at last. “Please. We have to go back.”
“I just want to see what’s down there.”
“I don’t! Whatever it is I don’t want to see it.”
“Just a little farther. It can’t go on forever.”
“Just a little farther? Listen to yourself. You never listen. You never listen to anybody.”
Steve turned to keep going.
Malcolm grabbed the handle at the top of his pack, stopping him short as he took a step.
Steve whirled around. “Get your hands off me!”
Malcolm just pushed, that’s all, but Steve lost his footing and tumbled backward. He bounced once off his head, an odd angle and an ugly sound. Then his body went limp, twisted, all arms and legs, and rolled down several stairs.
The silence was so loud it echoed off the walls. Steve’s light had landed a step above him, illuminating his shoulder and a patch of the inner wall.
Malcolm took a few steps down. “Steve?” He picked up Steve’s light. “Steve?” Steve’s head was twisted away from him and blood was flowing onto the staircase. “Steve?”
When Malcolm put his hand on that still shoulder, something changed inside him, something shifted, as if the whole world was knocked over on its side. It was shocking how matter-of-factly a person could die, how fragile the human body was, and the mind too for that matter.
Malcolm turned and ran up the stairs as fast as he could, as if just getting away might change what had happened, round and round, until the stairs blended together in the bouncing beam of the flashlight ahead of him.
When he reached the top, he kept going, out into the night. He crashed through the brush and down the hill, weaving through the pines. He found the road, and then the Jeep. He unlocked the driver’s side, got in, and shut the door. Crickets chirped loudly outside. His hands shook. His legs ached. He had killed Steve. There was no other way to explain it. He thought he might be sick. He thought…oh God…had he meant to do it? In that moment, had he wanted to kill Steve?
Malcolm started the Jeep, jammed it into gear, and turned around in the narrow dirt road. He sped off, the Jeep throwing rocks and dust into the night air. The road flew by underneath him. Trees whizzed by, right and left, passing from the beams of the headlights into the shadows of the darkness behind him.
Just before he hit pavement, he saw a body in the middle of the dirt road. It was Steve, lying there in the same crooked position, exactly the way Malcolm had left him on the stairs. He slammed on the brakes, swerved, and came skidding to a stop half way up the side embankment. The engine idled. Malcolm exhaled. He looked back at where he had seen Steve. There was nothing there.
Malcolm didn’t remember driving the rest of the way home or climbing the stairs to his apartment. He fumbled with his keys at the door, his hands still shaking. When he switched on the light, for the briefest flicker of a moment he saw Steve sitting on his couch, his face bloodied from the horrible wound in his head. Then he was gone. The apartment was empty.
There had been times before, episodes, when he had wondered if his mind had gone wrong. Like the time he had stopped to look at a discarded Coke can on the sidewalk. It was like he had looked at the can for just a moment too long, and something changed. Main street had looked different…sort of granulated. He had spent hours lying on his floor staring up at the popcorn ceiling where he saw faces and spiral shapes, half terrified that he was going insane, that he might never come out of it. They would lock him away, and he wouldn’t even know what was happening. There was no explanation for that, unless, as Steve had suggested, somebody had just dosed him with acid.
Malcolm paced the room in random patterns. He tried to think straight, to make sense of what had happened, but his mind was at one moment numb, seized by a blank inability to even believe what had happened, and at the next moment a jumble of thoughts spiraling out of control. He knew he should call the police, search and rescue, somebody, but he couldn’t do it, not yet. He couldn’t bring himself to pick up the phone, not until he could explain what had happened. He saw the spiral of the stairs descending into darkness. If he had killed Steve…if he couldn’t explain it…if he had meant to do it…they would lock him away.
But it had been an accident, hadn’t it? He couldn’t have known that Steve would hit his head like that. Why did he have to be so insistent about going down there? Why couldn’t he just listen? Why couldn’t anybody just listen? Some things were best left alone. The sign had said as much: “Danger. Keep out.”
The sign, he suddenly remembered the sign: “Property of Auxerre University and The Agartha Project.” What was the Agartha Project? Why were those damn stairs there to begin with? Malcolm wiped the tears from his eyes, opened his laptop and searched for the Agartha Project.
He couldn’t find a single reference to any Agartha Project, but the word “Agartha” referred to a legendary city at the earth’s core. He thought about the stairs…but that couldn’t be true. That was impossible; Agartha was impossible. The earth just wasn’t hollow as some people used to believe.
Nevertheless, Steve was still down there. That was real. His friend was still down there on that staircase. And Malcolm had left him there. Could he really be dead? Malcolm closed his eyes, as if by shutting out the light he could shut off the thoughts that tumbled through his mind. But every time he shut his eyes he saw that staircase, spiraling down into the dark. And when for a moment, in his exhaustion, he dozed off for a moment, he saw Steve’s face, a white, moon-like thing, surrounded by darkness. “I just want to see what’s down there,” he said.
He knew he should call somebody for help, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t stop thinking about the stairs, about the darkness, about the skull he saw in the pupil of his eye when he looked in the mirror. It was like those Escher prints that were in all the Auxerre University dorm rooms, and perhaps dorm rooms everywhere. His white birds – the tessellations of his being – bit by bit were turning into black ones.
At last Malcolm knew there was only one thing he could do. He had to go back. He had to see Steve again. He had to understand what had happened, and get him out of there if he could. Then he could set things right. Call the police if he had to. And maybe he could set himself right, too.
The moon had risen by the time Malcolm made it back up past Kegan’s bluff. An eerie light settled over the darkened landscape. He parked the Jeep in the same spot, grabbed his pack, and headed up the hill. Crows fluttered from the trees as he approached.
The metal, hatch-like door lay open, just as he had left it. He jumped into the tunnel and descended. He kept telling himself that he just wanted to see Steve, as he spiraled down farther and farther, around and around, his feet carrying him faster and faster. He scanned the steps ahead, increasingly desperate, looking for the place where he had left him.
At last he found it. He saw the blood on the steps. Spatter marks dotted the stone where Steve had hit his head. A little farther down, blood had pooled in the grooves where the rock had been chiseled out. There was a lot of it, but no Steve.
Malcolm’s eyes darted up, and then down, but there was no Steve. He crouched down to look at the largest stain of blood. He looked for a long time. Perhaps he looked a little too long. He saw now there was something unusual about the stain. Yes, a strange smear, and streaks as if Steve’s body had slid down the stairs. Had someone or something dragged him down…or had he still been alive after all?
Because of the curve in the stair he couldn’t see very far down, even with the help of his light. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry. His throat muscles just ground through the movements. “Steve?” he said. And then louder. “Steve? Are you down there?” His voice echoed down the hollow stairwell.
He took a step down, and then another and another, following the curve of the outer wall as more and more steps appeared. Soon he was running, skipping steps, bounding downward as fast as his legs would take him, until he tripped, fell forward, and tumbled down the stairs. The light slipped from his hand and bounced downward on its own catastrophic trajectory. Malcolm seemed to hit every bone in his body as he landed. Something in his leg snapped, and he skidded to a halt in the darkness.
The light had gone out, and it was now completely dark. The jar of the fall brought him momentarily to his senses, but he couldn’t see the stairs, or even his own hand a foot away from his eyes. He groped around for the light, running his hands over the coarse stone steps, but he couldn’t find it. If he started to climb now, even in the dark, perhaps he could still make it out.
He tried to stand, but searing pain shot up his leg and he collapsed back onto the stair. All his fears came upon him then, as he lay there in the dark, breathing hard. He began to think strange things…impossible things. He dreamt of Agartha – that fabled city at the center of the earth.
It couldn’t go on forever. Could it?
Steve’s voice whispered in his ear, “Something’s down there.”
His breath stopped, then resumed with a steadier pace. Slowly, he turned and put a hand on the step below. And in the endless black he began to crawl downward, dragging his mangled leg behind him. He mumbled as he crawled, “I just want to see…”
Matthew Lowes is a writer of weird fiction and games. His stories have appeared in a variety of print and online magazines, including Dark Recesses and Anotherealm. Lowes lives in the Pacific Northwest where every day he pursues the dreams and ideas that are the inspiration for his work. He is currently working on a trilogy of fantasy novels, a collection of horror stories, and two roleplaying games. Visit his website at matthewlowes.com.
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Story illustration by John Donald Carlucci.