I pushed back the brim of my hat. Looking through the trees, hoping for a sign of it. Nothing. The forest was alive with sounds. The sound of the stream pushing through the rocks thirty meters to my left. Birds sang to one another in the tall branches. In the distance, something was rustling among the crags. But where? There were no bushes to hide in. This was sparse wasteland.
Even though it had been fruitless so far, it was only a matter of time. I wasn’t the world’s finest tracker - I’d never been hunting in my life - but I did not lose. I regretted nothing of coming here; there was no more important mission. Aun Serpentis — The beginning and end of all things.
A year ago I hadn’t even heard of it. I was another biologist, working away at a small university in Oregon. I had no illusions of grandeur. I did not want fame, of even an adventure. I wanted to finish my research on starling flight patterns. That would be enough.
Once I finished that, I’d take a month off. Not go anywhere mind you, just not come into work. Then I’d move on to another one, another class, another paper, another bright-eyes research assistant, in the never ending cycle of academia.
The letter was light on details. They always are. No matter how pointless the operations, all the alphabets thought they were John Wayne, playing Cowboys and Indians. Never mind that battle was good and done. They wanted to tell you to your face.
So I went. The only person at the briefing not wearing a blazer. I must’ve been the fourth scientist they shuffled through. They’d do whatever they wanted anyways. They liked bringing us along for the ride. Made them feel like they were playing by the rules.
I figured it’d be something typical: Another trek to inspect the effects of “conflict” (we don’t say war these days) on the local fauna, or to see how the pollution we outlawed and continued was treating the migratory birds. You can imagine my surprise at the little slide show they put together.
Here’s what they had: A rare species of snake, Aun Serpentis, had a lifecycle of over a thousand years. It was born in the dark, and would die in the dark. Only a handful had ever been recorded; they thought there must only be one breeding female in the world per cycle. And of course, they wanted it. If they could find it. If I could find it.
Never mind that my field of study was birds. They must’ve seen the title on their stack of resumes and pulled the trigger. That was the crux of it, wasn’t it? Of course I didn’t believe a single slide from their presentation; but that made me only the more interested in finding it. I grabbed my daypack, and set off.
The rustling continued. Rule number one of field biology: the rustling always has a source. I continued pushing my way around the trees, which were packed just tight enough to be obnoxious.
I was halfway wedged in a bank of birch when I saw it. A flash of red. I froze. There, on the ridge, was a fox the color of the setting Sun. It lay on the ground, crawling in a circle. Its mouth was foaming, and clenched tight around its own tail.
I must be getting close.
I went further up the ridge, trying to get a better look. I pushed through trees, almost pulling out my machete, not that there was any rush. The fox wasn’t going anywhere.
It seemed young, definitely a male. Thick trenches carved in the ground from where it had tread for so long. Poor thing had probably been there for a day or more. It’d starve soon.
My foot caught on a rock and I fell. Directly in front of me, only five meters away, a small hole was carved in the face of the split Earth. The darkness was immense. No light escaped. It was a lead, and I took it.
The ground swallowed me whole.
I fell my height down into the Earth. Luckily I landed on my feet.
The cave wasn’t big enough for me to stand in if I wanted to progress, so I got down on my hands and knees. I started to crawl, grasping and fumbling in the dark, hoping to find something. I had a lantern in my bag, but my bag was too out of reach in the small tunnel.
I have never been claustrophobic, but that cave was making me understand. Just when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, when I thought I was doomed in that dark grave, it gave way.
I couldn’t see the size of the room I was in, so I carefully stood up. It was tall enough for me to stand, at least. I was struck immediately by the smell. It was rancid, like rotten death, creeping into my nostrils. Right away I wished I hadn’t come.
The smell was bad, but the sound was worse. If the smell was enough to convince me whatever lay in front of me was dead, I could not be fooled by the sound. It was like a slow writhing and shaking, muscle on rocky ground, scraping and grating against the very dirt beneath, with a thick mucous to soften the blow.
I took the lantern out of my bag to fill in the rest of my senses.
It was a massive pale worm, at least two meters tall and six wide. It crawled slowly, section by section, grinding itself further into the ground beneath it. It wore away the earth like a river. I waited, gripped my terror, as it spun.
Its head came around, and I understood.