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For about the tenth time, Jack thought to himself that he had not dressed in warm enough clothes for the weather today. His wife had warned him as he was getting dressed before dawn this morning that the temperature had dropped thirty degrees over night, but he hadn’t paid it enough mind. He was so cold that his knees ached and the muscles in his legs didn’t want to work. Walk he must, though, if he wanted to get back to the truck. There would be warmth and leftover Thanksgiving dinner back at the house.
Jack and Hector, his brother-in-law, were deer hunting in the Ouachita National Forest, not far from where Jack’s mother Linda lives. This was an annual Thanksgiving tradition in his family, going back generations, though Jack expected the tradition to end with him. Neither of his girls showed any interest in it, and there were no plans with his wife Sarah to try for a boy. His family didn’t live nearby his mother, in any case, so they’d stop making these trips down from Tulsa when she passed someday. Jack, Sarah, and their girls had made the three-hour drive Wednesday morning.
“Time marches on,” he thought, though it would be sad to close this particular door when that time came. “How do you close the door on yourself?”
This year’s hunt had not gone well. Beyond the miserably cold weather, he hadn’t seen any deer in three days. He was certain Hector hadn’t had better luck. He would’ve heard rifle shots and the forest had been silent. Jack suspected his brother-in-law was already back in the truck, listening to the football game on the radio. He was relatively sure Hector only went on these hunts so that Jack didn’t have to go alone – or give up going altogether. After his dad had passed four years ago, there had been no one else to go with him. Hector was a good guy. He always said that he looked forward to the opportunities to get away from everyone and enjoy nature, but if Jack had ever met a more extroverted man than his sister’s husband, he’d eat his boots.
When he got back to the truck, just as he thought, Hector was already there, but he wasn’t sitting in the truck, soaking up the warm. He had jumped out of the truck when he saw Jack coming and he was all but bouncing on his toes.
“I never heard your rifle, but you look like you bagged one,” Jack called out as he walked up.
“Ha! No, no, nothing like that, but I found something I want to show you.”
“Something to show me? What do you mean?” replied Jack, as he stared longingly at the truck cab.
“It’s like an artifact, or something. It’s crazy. There’s a giant polished-looking rock with weird symbols carved onto it.”
Jack paused at this and thought for a moment. “There’s all kinds of Indian stuff in this part of the state, and up near Heavner there’s supposedly a Viking runestone. I’ve never heard of anything like that out where we are though. Maybe you found something new.” They started walking, with Hector leading the way, but continuing to talk.
“It makes sense that nobody has seen it before,” he went on. “On the deer trail, I came across a tree that looked like it had been ripped out of the ground pretty recently. The dirt around it was still loose. I walked around it instead of trying to climb over it, and the rock with the markings was under where the roots had been. The tree had been growing on top of it. It must have been under there for decades. It’s at least as old as that tree.”
The two men continued walking, their heavy breaths making fog in front of them, and after about twenty minutes, Hector stopped and pointed out the tree. It was twenty yards ahead. Jack looked toward where the roots were.
“It looks like someone dug around it and ripped it out on purpose,” Jack said as they got closer. “I think I see the rock. Is there light coming off of it?”
“Yeah, you’ve got to see this up close. That’s what made me look more closely in the first place. The rock looks polished, and it’s black, but it’s like a gemstone where light can pass through it… except that there shouldn’t be any light passing through it with the cloud and tree cover. I don’t know how to explain it.”
They approached the stone. Jack could see where Hector had cleared it a little, but together they made a better effort at it. They used their boots to clear away dirt and branches. Jack used his flannel shirt sleeve and tried to wipe the markings more thoroughly.
“That’s not like any rock I’ve ever seen,” Jack said, getting up off his knees and brushing dirt off his pants and sleeve, before adding, “and those marks on it look too straight and precise to be something someone chiseled with a rock. This has got to be modern, but it can’t be too modern if it was under that tree.”
“How old do you think that tree looks?” Hector asked, “I’ve never counted rings before.”
“Me either,” Jack answered, shivering and starting to really feel the cold again. “My completely uneducated guess is that this is probably around a hundred years old. If someone who knew about trees told me it was fifty years or five hundred years old, though, I’d have no reason to argue.” He continued on though, his brain firing up in defiance of the cold. “The thing that makes sense is that this is about a hundred years old. It could be something from World War 1 or 2. They could have been doing something secret out here with the military and then covered their tracks with trees.”
“Yeah,” Hector replied, “but that’s not English markings. Why wouldn’t it be in English?”
“Who knows,” Jack answered, “but if this place is secret, maybe they didn’t want to make it too easy. Maybe it’s a cypher for whatever is down there.”
Hector was kneeling down, trying to determine the actual perimeter of the stone and he began scraping the dirt away from its edges with his fingers and a stick. The soil was relatively soft from a recent rain, so the work went quickly. The stone was circular in shape, with about a three-foot diameter. Jack got his cell phone out to take a picture.
“No signal,” he said to Hector. “We’re too far into the woods. I’ve got a picture to show Sarah and the girls when we get back, at least.”
“Yeah, I took one for your sister,” Hector said as he was feeling around the edge of the stone. “I didn’t think to send it once I got back to a cell signal at the truck. Does yours show the engraving or the weird light inside the rock because mine didn’t.”
Jack looked at the picture he had taken. “Now that’s strange. It’s just a big black rock in the picture.”
“Yeah,” Hector said, “that’s why I really wanted to make you come out and look. I didn’t think you’d be too impressed with a picture of a rock.”
As he had said the word ‘rock,’ Hector’s voice became strained, and abruptly, Jack heard a loud scraping sound from beneath the stone.
“This isn’t a rock… or at least not just a rock. I think it’s a lid or a door and I just figured out how to open it,” Hector said, breathing hard but smiling. “There’s a kind of handle under the lip, on this spot here,” he said, pointing. “This is definitely modern. It’s just weird. I pulled and I could feel something in the rock – the hatch – move. I’m guessing that whatever moved will let us open it if we push on it or pull on it in the right way.”
“Let’s take just a minute and think about what we’re doing, and what this might be,” Jack responded.
“So… this rock thing is the lid on some kind of underground hatch or tunnel. And,” Hector said as he tapped on the rock, “that means whatever this rock is, is man-made. It’s just made out of something I’ve never seen before.”
“Or whoever made it wanted to make it look like a rock in case that tree ever fell over. If we hadn’t been here within a day or two of that rock being exposed to the elements, it probably gets covered up by nature and we wouldn’t have looked at it closely. Good timing for us, then. But that doesn’t explain what it is or why it’s all the way out here.”
“I’ve got an idea of what this could be,” Hector said. “Maybe this was – or is – a secret bug-out bunker for elites in case nuclear war ever broke out. It’s out here in the mountains, in the middle of nowhere. Seems pretty ideal.”
“The only downside I could see in that is that it would be a haul to get here. There’s no airport nearby. And then there’s the markings on it,” Jack went on, before answering his own objection, “but like I said, maybe that’s some kind of code for what’s inside.” He rambled on, picking up speed. “Maybe instead of it being a bunker, there are post-war supplies or something.” Jack paused and then asked, “You reckon we should open it up?”
“Ah, you know, two guys out in the woods, opening up some secret underground bunker. What could go wrong? If some monster crawls out, I guess it’ll eat us first. Maybe this is where Bigfoot lives. We’re armed at least.” Hector was still bouncing on his toes. Despite what he’d just said, he was clearly the more eager of the two. “If there’s a bunch of gold or something down there,” he said, trailing off.
It hadn’t occurred yet to Jack that there might be something of value beneath their feet, though he guessed it should have occurred to him given what he thought the this place might be. “I was thinking this is probably a seed vault or something along those lines. You’d need something like that to rebuild if we were coming out of a nuclear war. It’s not guarded. It’s not even locked. I think they’d at least have put a lock on it if there were gold and jewels in there.”
“Or maybe they thought planting the tree on top of it was a good enough lock,” Hector added hopefully. “Either way, there’s only one way to find out what’s in there. I’ll pull on this handle, you be ready to shoot at the squatch when he comes screaming out,” Hector laughed, adding, “and we’ll both high tail it out of here if some kind of alarm goes off.”
“So we’re just gonna open it up?” Jack asked. “Just like that?”
“Who’s gonna stop us
,” Hector answered. “You can’t tell me you never thought about doing something like this as a kid. You’re never gonna get another chance.”
“I was a stupid kid,” Jack replied, but he signed and nodded his agreement.
With courage bolstered by their hunting rifles, Hector pulled again on the latch’s handle and the same scraping sound was made as before. “It’s heavy,” he said, straining. “Can you push on it and see if it slides or pulls up?”
Jack set his rife down beside him, but within quick reach, and pushed hard on the lip of the lid next to Hector. It moved parallel to the ground about an inch. “I guess that means it doesn’t pull up,” he said. The first inch was the hardest. It was like they broke a vacuum seal with that first inch. It slid much more easily once it had started moving. The strange black stone pivoted away from the hole, but remained attached to it, on the opposite side from the handle, and whatever was holding it in place was underground.
With the stone moved, a hole was exposed below where it had been. It was roughly the same diameter as the stone lid. The two men looked down into the hole and couldn’t see a bottom.
“Shine your cell phone flashlight down that underground Pringles can,” Hector said. When Jack did so, the light revealed a new mystery. The walls around the hole’s perimeter seemed to be made of solid rock, all of one piece, and not soil, wood or something else man-made. In place of a ladder, or stairs, whoever made the hole had cut notches into the rock walls, at regular intervals, about a foot deep each.
“That’s actually pretty smart,” Jack said. “A rope or a ladder might degrade over time, but you could rely forever on being able climb in or out using these hand and footholds in the rock. It’s narrow enough that you’re not gonna fall in. If they dug this thing not knowing when they’d need to use it, they’d need to make sure it could be functional for a long, long time.”
The two men just stood there, staring down into the hole. Jack took some more pictures before putting his phone back into his pocket. Hector broke the silence.
“You think there’s someone in Washington keeping track of this place?”
Jack thought about it for a moment. “Maybe someone was watching this place at one time, but I can’t see how that’s the case now. Wouldn’t they have shown up when the tree was pulled up? Wouldn’t you have expected some type of alarm to sound just now when the hatch door got opened – to scare us off if nothing else
. They left the thing unlocked. Either there used to be something down here, and it’s been cleared out long ago, or whatever is down here isn’t valuable enough to guard and keep track of.”
“If your idea about this being something like a seed vault is right,” Hector said, looking more doubtful about his impending wealth, “then there’s probably a bunch of these all over the country. Maybe they wouldn’t miss one if got, uh, pilfered.”
“Or,” Jack said, “this might be some kind of time vault with a bunch of stuff from the 1940s. Think about it. You’d want to preserve modern technology in some way after a nuclear war, just as much as you’d want to store some seeds. And…” he went on imaginatively, “you wouldn’t guard anything like that, necessarily, but it would probably be valuable.”
The idea that there might be something valuable here seemed to reinvigorate Hector. “Well, brother, I’ve talked myself into climbing down there to take a look,” he said. “If there’s anything good, we can cover this spot up and come back tomorrow, early, to bring it out.”
“You’re braver than I am,” Jack said as he forced a chuckle. “You don’t have long, though. We need to start back toward the truck within an hour before it starts getting dark.”
“If it looks like I’m gonna to be climbing down more than twenty feet I’m coming right back up,” Hector said. “No need to worry about this taking anywhere near an hour. I’m about half scared to death thinking there are going to be big ugly bugs or snakes down there.”
“For whatever it’s worth, I don’t know that real life treasure hunts are exactly like an Indiana Jones movie,” Jack told him. “If you find a 900 year old knight down there, though, choose wisely.” They both laughed.
Hector got his own cell phone out, and turned its flashlight on. He then sat down next to the hole. Gingerly, he stuck a leg down and pressed his foot hard on an indention into the stone wall. It held firm.
“Well, here goes nothing. Point your flashlight down over the hole, too. Maybe between the two of us, there will be enough light that I’ll see anything that might turn into a problem in time to start climbing back up.”
“Go slow,” Jack said. “I got some rope in the truck but I don’t know how I’ll get you out if you fall and knock yourself out.”
“I just want to see what I can see. I’m not going to climb down far.”
The two men became silent, and Hector descended down the hole. It was easy to keep sight of him because the hole was so narrow. Hector realized quickly that the flashlights were not going to be any use, due to how narrow the shaft was. He couldn’t see past his own belly while he was climbing.
A few minutes passed. Jack was just about to suggest to his brother-in-law that he climb back up when the other man called up, about 15 feet down, that he had found the bottom of the footholds.
“I’m going to move around a little bit and squeeze my gut in enough to shine the light down toward my feet,” Hector called up. “I can kind of lean back against the wall, with my feet on either side.” Jack thought Hector was narrating to keep him – or maybe himself – from worrying. He could still see Hector’s head relatively well, with his own flashlight, as far down as he was, but he was well beyond being able to help easily if something happened or
If he fell.
“It looks like about a four-foot drop beneath my feet to the ground below,” he called up. “It would have been pretty funny if I’d have screamed and let go without saying anything.” He laughed nervously.
“You married my sister,” Jack called down, “but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t close the lid up here to save myself.” They both laughed nervously this time. “So you’re gonna drop down and look around? You sure you can climb back up if you do that?”
“I should be able to shimmy down and have hands on a handhold when my feet touch bottom. I won’t be dropping, entirely. I won’t let go unless I feel something solid beneath my feet. If there’s gold down here though, I want a bigger share for going first,” Hector laughed again.
“I’m not sure you’re in a great position to bargain,” Jack joked, “but I don’t object to splitting 60/40 on account of you being the lunatic who crawled down there first.”
“It’s a deal,” Hector called up.
Jack watched as the other man continued to descend down, grunting with the effort of doing most of the climbing now with his upper body. Finally, he called up. “I’m on the ground.”
“What do you see?” Jack called down. His brother-in-law was now beyond the reach of his cell phone flashlight.
“I feel like I’m on a spaceship,” Hector called back up. “After you touch ground, you lean down under the lip of the rock tunnel and find yourself in a large room on the other side of it.” He waited a minute and called up, “you’ve got to come look at this. There’s nothing to take, but you’ve got to see this. We can bring a game warden or a forest ranger or something down here tomorrow.”
Jack was confused. “It’s like a spaceship?” he asked. “How is it like a spaceship? You’re twenty feet under ground.”
“I don’t know,” Hector answered. “It all just looks… technological. Half the stuff down here is made of the same polished stone looking stuff from the hatch door, but it’s in different colors. I bet you were right about this being a military installation at some point. But there’s this thing in the middle of the open area that’s got two large rings, about a foot wide each, one up and down, and another parallel to the ground, around each other. Inside of them, there’s a small silver sphere in the middle just suspended in the air. I’m not brave enough to reach in and touch it. You need to see this in case we aren’t allowed back down here again. You’re going to want to have seen it.”
Jack was very unsure of this plan, but Hector didn’t sound like he would be willing to come back up unless Jack went down there with him. Finally, against his better judgment, he relented.
“I’m going to make sure that this lid doesn’t close on us while we’re both down there,” Jack hollered down. He looked around. About ten feet away were a few large rocks. He rolled them, end over end, to either side of that polished rock hatch door. If it tried to close, those rocks would hopefully block it. That wouldn’t stop someone from moving those rocks out of the way, and closing it on purpose, but that seemed to be a risk he had decided to take. He looked around and saw nobody. He’d heard nobody else all day.
Several minutes later, satisfied that his rock barrier was going to hold, Jack called out to Hector. “You still alive and well down there?”
“Yeah, it’s fine. You coming down?”
“I’m on my way.” Scared and excited, Jack began to climb down the rock tunnel. His fear began to dissipate the further he went. The stone felt solid and other than Hector, he felt unaccountably alone. In this instance, at least, being alone was positive.
As he got to the place where the drop was, he couldn’t bring himself to trust Hector, who was standing nearby. He shimmied down the hole, too, just as Hector had done, waiting for his feet to hit solid ground. They did. Just before he dipped under the lip of the rock wall, to enter the big room beyond, he looked up the tunnel one last time.
Framed inside the small circle of light high above him was a face staring down from above. Even from this distance, he recognized it because of how familiar it was. It was his own face. Then the lid of the hatch closed shut.
To be continued