Excerpt from ‘The Mind Altar’

from Chapter 31. 

They shuffled single file through a series of corridors separated by security doors like bulkheads in a ship.  They neared the end of the mapped part of the Facility, and they slowed as they reached the paddocks.

Gray led them.  With a stubborn mind that never seemed to forget anything, he remembered the combinations for all of the doors.  He propped each door open with a stone calved from the tunnel walls, in case the others needed to get out without Gray to lead them.

Rubble danced off a wall when they shuffled passed the corpses that riddled the paddocks like ash from some great sacrifice.

“Those walls.  They don’t look too stable, do they?” Gray asked Eury.

“I don’t know.  Why don’t you ask Boulder what he thinks?” she said.  He hadn’t said a word to her since Lovelace died.  “Boulder knows about a lot of things. Last of the Renaissance men.”  She stepped as close to ingratiation as she could get without throwing up.

They tread through the paddocks, children stepping through a graveyard at night.  Their silence held an unspoken fear that if they spoke, they might summon the dead.

Shade lit a cigarette in the high cavern, brightened only by their headlamps. The bodies on either side were frozen in mad contortions, crisp with pain.

Eury saw movement on her left side.  She glanced over; a riffle of sand streamed out behind a rock loosened by explosions from the far off fires.  The desiccated eyes in one of the bodies did look her way when she beamed her light down on it.  All just the coincidence of the dead, and where an unseeing eye happened to stare, like her own dead eye.  Empty and meaningless.  No haunting behind it. Cold glass.  Dried flesh.  It didn’t matter.

“Eury,” Boulder said, farther ahead then she imagined.  “What’re you looking at?”

“We have to stick together,” Gray said far ahead.

She’d fallen behind.

“What makes guys turn like cancer on themselves?” Shade said, his voice grated by smoke.

“When the soul is starved of hope, it feeds off nightmares,” Boulder whispered as Eury caught up.

The sound of metal twisted like dissonant brass horns screeched from somewhere deep in the earth.  They froze.

“You hear that?” Boulder murmured.

“Yeah,” Shade said.  “Metal falling.”

“Shhhh,” Gray whispered, listening for more.

After moments of silence, Boulder spoke.  “No, the laughing.  Did you hear the laughing?”

They glanced at each other.

“No laughter, Jim,” Eury said.

“It came from further in.”  He looked to Eury.

You need him, Eury, to show you what you don’t know that you don’t know, Mother’s voice sounded inside her.

“This is no laughing matter, Boulder,” Gray said, letting his hard eyes wander over Boulder’s soft ones.  “You ain’t gonna spin out, are you?”

“Gray is trying to say we need you,” Shade said, emitting meager wisps of white smoke that seemed more like stone dust in the dull beam of Gray’s unwavering headlamp, still trained on Boulder’s confusion.

“Sometimes, Boulder hears what people think,” Eury explained.  “He’s clairvoyant.  Maybe it was more like an impression he had than the sound of a real laugh.”

Boulder closed his jaw into a vague smile. Digging his hand-carved, Celtic walking stick into the dust, he hiked the causeway that ran down the center of the paddocks.

“That’s right.  I heard the impression of a laugh.  A feeling,” Boulder said.

The others stood for a few seconds, uncertain whether he was lying or being sarcastic.  Eury followed Boulder’s footfalls.

“He’s alright,” she murmured to Gray as she passed.

Gray caught up and led them to the end of the paddock.  He walked a ledge on the far side of the cave that led to an arched adit and out of sight.  They followed the edge.  Gray’s leanness stooped under the uneven joist, his close-cropped hair brushed against the wood.  The lintel sagged under the conglomerate above it.

A virgin odor replaced the stench of the paddocks  – the skin of stone never meant to feel air, let alone travel up the soft flesh of their nostrils.

The darkness seemed to thicken into a medium unlike air.  Four headlamps swayed and scoured the powder beneath their caked boots, the coke-colored walls that narrowed to a single file passage like an abandoned mine, the uncertain ceiling propped here and there by railroad ties fixed with iron spikes.  Only the scrape of their boots grinding the patches of sand against the floors broke the noiselessness.

“The walls are closing in,” Boulder said as the sharp relief heaved and slithered along with their jiggling headlamps.

“You’re claustrophobic,” Gray said, distracting himself from the rock shadow that crawled like vermin alongside him against the motion of his headlight.

“No.  I’m just noticing.  It’s happening slowly.  Last time I tried to reach my fingers out to touch the walls, I couldn’t.  This time I can.”  He stood second to last in line, ahead of Eury.  He stopped, holding up Eury’s progress.  “Look.”  Shade and Gray turned and watched as he stretched his arms.  The middle fingers barely grazed a pair of bracings along each wall.  “See?  It’s getting narrower.”

Eury?  Better come home, honey. Mother warned in that singsong she used for lecturing.   You’re the one who’s claustrophobic and you’ve hid it this far, but from here on in, it’ll get harder.  

Eury breathed a little heavier.  She loved lime plains and silver seas married to cotton skies.  That kind of aloneness became an ecstasy.  But when horizons became walls and sky shrank to ceiling, memories rose from their graves and smothered—

Eury is 7, sleeping in Mother’s bed.  She’s quarantined.  Doctor Smithson talks to Mother in the kitchen but Eury hears.  Seems like she can hear everything, every creak in the house, squeals of mice in the crawlspace below.  Her skin becomes the plaster walls, the dome of her head the cedar shake roof.  She’s caught an upper respiratory virus, the Doctor says.  The fever makes her delirious.

What Doctor Smithson cannot know are her nightmares:  She lies in an ossuary covered head to toe in a cast of stone, cold and rough.  She can’t breathe.  Chest constricted like something sits on it.

She wakes in a country surgery, strapped down, with an alien instrument, a black, rubbery anesthesia mask, coming down over her screaming mouth, growing larger until it smothers her field of vision.  Puss-colored paraffin drips from the white ceiling, fixing like melted wax hitting water as it splotches the silvery tray of scalpels and saws.  Father Pareti performs a blessing.  Whiffs of incense curl the air in hoary fingers.

Between 7 and 8, Mother says, bringing her back from the memory into the cave.    

“Eury, you okay?”  It was Boulder.

“Yeah,” she panted soft, a bead of salt rolling off her nose in cooling air.

“You’re eye’s moving, but only one.  Do you have a—”

“—lazy eye,” she shut him down.

He scrutinized her, and didn’t like what he saw.  She seemed to be folding into herself.  Not that he could read her.  Boulder could never read Eury, not in a thousand hands of poker.  But his honed powers of observation worked almost as well to divine her state of mind.  She was collapsing into her thoughts, in defense against an attack coming from where?  Outside?  Inside?

She made her mind blank, unrolled the red brick walls of her old house on the edge of town in Prairie City, and went to the Ugly Room, the place where even ghosts felt afraid to go, insulating herself from the voices, from Boulder’s nosy intuition, from the winnowing tunnel.  No one would ever follow her into the Ugly Room.  The place where Mother had always threatened her with, where Mother told her bad girls went and from which they never returned.  And in her old house in Prairie City, the Ugly Room was the old root cellar in the basement   And one more time, her empty face, configured from a hidden mind, formed creaseless armor.  Boulder hovered at the edge of the light of her headlamp.  He nodded and they moved on.

The corridor opened up into a crudely excavated burrow, a round room about 4 meters across.  Their nervous headbeams scanned the walls for information.  These walls glinted a little more with veins of ore than the sandstone walls did in the outer precincts.

They took in deep breaths as if the added space of the alcove held more air that they could gulp down and hold.  On the other side of the excavation, the tunnel narrowed again and Gray’s dim beam shone down the cave no more than a few meters before the blackness ate it up.

“Let’s keep going,” Gray said.  He seemed queasy, fidgeting with his utility belt.  He’d suffered through an al Qaeda kidnapping and two IED explosions.  No PTSD.  But now, he felt his bones rattle.  He couldn’t let the others lose confidence in him.  He had to keep his mind off the doom.  “You two never told me about that work you did together,” he said to Boulder and Eury as Shade lit a smoke and straggled to bring up the rear, wrapping his beaten knuckles around the fag, knuckles with whorls like gnarled oaks.

“Well,” Boulder began, “Eury and I did have another job together.  That was about three years ago, wasn’t it?”

“Something like that,” she mumbled.

The tunnel banked right, just enough that they each noticed the bend.  “That job had its moments,” Boulder said.

“You’re being diplomatic,” she said.  “It was a train wreck.”

“Didn’t start out that way.”

“Train wrecks never do.”

“You know what the Orpheus Project was, don’t you?” Boulder asked Gray.

“Wasn’t it some kind of intel software program?” Gray said.

“Orpheus was a satellite,” Boulder said.

“I’m sure it’s obsolete by now,” Eury said.

“But in its time it was quite powerful.  It tracked individuals, mostly terror suspects, all over the world, based on one piece of vital identifying data that can never be faked.  Orpheus was the ultimate in psychometric profiling.  It interrogated brainwave signatures.  Just like all the biometrics, brainwaves are unique identifiers, and because you can’t switch out brains, you can’t fake them.  They’re low level EM emissions, so brain waves can be read at a distance, unlike irises or fingerprints or handwriting.  DARPA had a special satellite system built and tasked.  It was like the terrorists wore radio collars worldwide for us.  The Government could tell where someone was down to a few square meters, anywhere in the world, just based on Orpheus.”

She felt he was revealing too much, and at the same time painting an inaccurate picture.  Orpheus wasn’t a satellite.  There was nothing material about it.  It was software coded on infrared waves.  You couldn’t hold it in your hands.  How elegant that was.  How like . . . a soul, she had to admit, if only to herself.  Pure EM spectrum.

“And?” Gray wondered.

“And, well, Orpheus crashed at a CIA fusion center in Virginia.  Eury and I were contracted to find out what went wrong.  There was a hardware problem, but the software seemed impaired, too.  After we got it back up and running, Orpheus started bringing back data on government operatives, our spooks.  It didn’t rat out the other guys like it was supposed to.”

“Sounds like poetic justice,” Gray said.

“For a soldier, you’re not overly patriotic, are you? Eury observed.

“Ex-soldier.  I’m a private contractor just like you, ma’am.  Call me that.  I’m a hired hand, thank you.  And I need to eat.  I got kids back home.  Two girls to be exact.  And in any event, when I got my security clearance in internal security at the end of Iraq II, ol’ Uncle wasn’t busy torturing its own citizens back then like it is now.  Times were different, Ms. Wiles.  It’s Uncle that’s changed, not me.”

“Fighting the War on Terror wasn’t yet a Bushism in the works,” Boulder observed, bandying about the term for a maneuver to avoid a danger which creates the danger sought to be avoided.

“You got that right, Dr. Boulder,” Gray concurred.  “The terrorists weren’t out after our asses because of Afghanistan I and Iraq II.  And we hadn’t rolled back the damn Bill of Rights yet.”

“Yeah, okay, I get that.  I agree with it.  I mean, I only subcontract because I need the cash too.  My littlest two progeny are fourteen and sixteen,” Boulder said.

“You have family?” Eury asked.  She’d never known.  Boulder never mentioned them.  Surely he would’ve talked on and on about them like he did everything else.

“Their mother’s dead,” Boulder told her.

“Ohh,” Eury said.  It was as close as she’d come to an ‘I’m sorry.’

“And yeah, I’ll admit, the work can get fascinating,” Boulder said.  “It’s only the feds that have the complex programs like Orpheus.”

“So what happened with Orpheus?” Gray said.

“Orpheus went down.  We got it back up.  Before it went bad—”

“Boulder, you know the meaning of ‘security clearance’?”

“I got top clearance,” Gray said.

“Me too,” Shade replied.

“Before Orpheus crashed, its satellites fed the data on terrorist whereabouts to CIA relay stations, which sent it on to agents in the field responsible for tracking the world’s most dangerous men.  But after we got the software in the satellite net running again, the process reversed.  It fed back on itself.  Orpheus gave the names and locations of U.S. field operatives to foreign terror organizations and our agents were slaughtered.  Somehow, the al Qaeda agents knew.  They knew who it was that was tracking them.  Orpheus turned on its masters.”

“And I was the one who made it happen,” Eury said.

“What?”  Gray sounded like he hadn’t heard her right.

“I restored functioning to Orpheus to make that happen,” she said.

Shade just listened.  He seemed always to be gathering data.  That made Eury edgy.  Shade hid something, hid his hand.  Did DHS send Shade to spy on them? 

“Eury, pretty soon, you’ll be the only one to fit through these passages,” Gray remarked as he ducked to fit under a lintel.

Their shadows grew and shrunk with the relief in the walls.  Each of them had two sets of shadows – one moving forward with the step of their bodies, lit by their own halo lamps; and one thrown backward from the lamp of the person behind.  The first shadows were sharp, dark, crisp.  The second hazy and pewter, cast slanted and wide limbed, shifting against the bodies, peeling off and sliding back into darkness behind them like prisoners on a chain gain.

Gray turned a soft bend in the tunnel and led them into the receding darkness.  His head lamp flickered and the bulb died.

“Damn these things!” he cursed and reached for a new battery.  “They got a working life of about ten minutes.”

“May I make a suggestion?” Boulder proposed, his nasal twang muted where it should have reverberated off the walls.  The darkness seemed to be swallowing sound as well as sight, word as well as light.  “We could just use one headlight and save the others for backup.”

Gray slapped his own lamp against his palm.  The heat blisters he sustained from the burning door had already hardened into calluses.

“Damn straight, Boulder.  About time you came up with a practical idea.  Now fork over your lamp.”  He held out his hand and Boulder handed him his lamp.  “Turn yours off, lady and gentleman.”

They switched off their lamps.

“If you lose my light, feel for the person in front of you before you step,” Gray said.

One by one, they set off, first Gray, then Shade, then Eury, and finally Boulder.  The tunnel arced, seemed to go down and then up like the ribs of a great snake, and they’d lose sight of Gray, which meant they lost sight.  They stayed quiet as they acclimated to the rhythm of the footsteps of the person in front, as their ears scanned the air for each others’ breaths.  They loitered in the atmosphere of bats without the bat’s natural advantage.

“Did you know that Seifer helped pioneer Orpheus?” Boulder said.

“No shit.  Now that’s a coincidence,” Shade said.

“Maybe not.  I believe, and I’ll bet Eury does too, that we were selected for this assignment because of our prior experience with Seifer’s software,” Boulder said.

The silence returned, only the muffled footfalls and the brush of their clothing rubbing against itself punctuated it.

“Orpheus wasn’t your fault,” Boulder finally said to her.  He abhorred silence as much as Eury adored it.

“You’re goddamn right it wasn’t,” she said.

“It was mine,” he said.

She whispered an Amen.

“I was the one who argued to re-initiate Orpheus’s systems,” Boulder said.  “We realized too late that Orpheus was, in essence, a computer-brain interface, software fed into the brainwaves of the subjects.  But it wasn’t a one way street.  Since the software was quantized and coded on the electro-magnetic spectrum itself, it was subject to manipulation by brain waves, by human thought.  We didn’t know that at the time.  Seifer, who designed it, couldn’t have known that.  Once it hit the brain of a monitored subject, it synced with his brainwaves.  The subjects manipulated it somehow.  They knew things.  They could delve into Orpheus, find out who was following them.  They knew everything Orpheus knew.  Who could have predicted that?  Not even Seifer thought that would happen and he gave birth to Orpheus.”

Shade chuckled:  “So let me get this right:  Seifer’s shit gets agents killed out in the field, and they give him a promotion by letting him run this place?”

“I wouldn’t call hunkering down in caves with psychopaths a promotion, Mr. Shade.  And I wouldn’t blame Seifer.  Orpheus was possessed by the terrorists it was designed to track,” Boulder said.

“I’d rather take the blame than blame it on possession,” Eury said.  In debriefings and in the supersecret NSA commission of inquiry that followed, she’d always rejected the position that the surveillance subjects hijacked the Orpheus software.

“It was possessed.  How else could the cover of all those American agents in the field have been blown?” Boulder said.  “And how could Seifer or I have known Orpheus would double back and allow direct brain interface, brains hacking into the system?  In a sense, even Seifer and I weren’t responsible.”

“Bullshit,” Eury said.  “Seifer designed it and both of you fought me to make sure it went back online.  If the actions of men lead to a certain result, they’re responsible for that result.”

“Something took hold of that program, Eury.  You know it.  It’s easier for you to have us take the blame so you can preserve your belief in the rational than it is to accept the irrational,” Boulder said, letting his accusations sink into the blind world they waded through.  “Why is that?”

“Quit trying to figure me out,” she said.  There were a few more moments of footfalls. “Machines don’t get sick.  Only their makers do.”

“You ever heard of design bias?  Maybe we build our own pathology into the machines we make,” Boulder said.

“Your logic’s fuzzy, as usual,”  Eury said, then bumbled hard into a solid shoulder – Shade’s.

“Whoa, you okay?” Shade asked as she swiped her lip with her finger to check for blood.  But she couldn’t see.  She could only taste the iron.

The footsteps of the others stopped.

“I’m fine.  Let’s keep moving.  We need to get to the bottom of this place soon if we want to get back to the dorm before nightfall.”

Nightfall, she thought.  She wished for stars.  Her foot drops down meant the tunnel declined in a shallow grade.  Bright Angel led them further into its starless night.

“This ghost thing’s going to haunt you.  Whether it’s in a program or in a person,” Boulder said from behind.  “You’ve got to confront it or it’ll follow you around.  You’re your own ghost.  You, a ghost, haunting yourself while you’re still living.  Haunting others.  Remember what happened when you were seven.”

Eury felt her head flush with blood.  How did Boulder know about what happened between 7 and 8?  Was he reading her from the inside?  Shade’s footfalls accelerated to keep up with Gray.  She fell behind.  The air warmed around her.

“You ever look in a medical dictionary?  There’s no such thing as the Devil’s Grip,” Boulder said.

She felt exposed, as if he could see her even in the blackness.  How did Boulder know?  She’d never told anyone.  Could he have compromised her defenses?  He was reading her.

“Your mother wasn’t born superstitious, you know.  She became that way for a reason,” he went on.

“Save your gas for the generator,” she said.

“I won’t stop telling you the truth.  Because it’s too painful for you to believe the things that happened between 7 and 8 might’ve been real.  It’s too painful for you to forgive your mother; to believe that, no matter how crazy she might’ve been, her beliefs held grains of truth – that there are ghosts and demons.”

“Shut up, Boulder,” she said.

“They only called the doctor because they didn’t know who else to call.  They assumed you were sick because they didn’t know what else to call it.  There were no cognates for what was happening to you, no real world correlates in anyone’s experience.  All your dad had to work with when they called him in a panic a thousand miles away in Manhattan was a medical model, the disease model he was trained in.  Yeah, yeah they knew you missed your dad.  But this was more than that.  You were sitting up in bed and speaking tongues that corresponded to no known language.  You were sleep walking into the backyard and digging up bones of animals they couldn’t identify.  They even sent them to the University of Iowa and no one knew what they were.”

“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, Boulder.”

“You had those nightmares of being buried alive in stone.  Now that could mostly be explained by a fever.  Even the night terrors could.  But not that last part.  Not the last thing that happened.  Remember that ball lightning that came into the house?  No one knew what it was or where it came from but you, and you never told anyone.  It came from your nightmare.  You dreamed it, and there it was.”

“Shut up.”

“That last thing was what pushed your mother over the edge into spiritualism, séances, voodoo.  She was worse than ever after that.  Because you proved that stuff was real.”

“You don’t talk about that!”  She stopped.  Boulder slammed into her in the perfect black.  His rotting breath crossed her lips.  It was a familiar odor, newly familiar – formaldehyde, acetone, epoxy.  Plastinate stench.  She flipped on her headlamp.

There was no one there.  No one behind.  No one in front.  Not as far as she could see behind or up ahead.  No one even within speaking distance.  Boulder hadn’t even been talking.  She trembled as the last vapors of acetone invaded her.

“Where are you!?” She spun in a circle.

“Eury,” she heard Boulder’s voice call from far ahead.

“Jim!  I’m here!”

“Stay still,” he yelled far off as his footsteps closed in.  Was it really Boulder who called out now?  Running steps approached from up ahead and she trained her headlamp there.

Boulder and Shade popped their heads from an opening in the side of the tunnel. Boulder jogged up, puffing.  Shade took his time.

Boulder grasped her shoulders, brittle with fear.  “What the hell happened to you?  Where’d you go?”

“I, I don’t’ know.  I must’ve got turned around.”  She felt sick.

“We’ve been looking for you for 20 minutes.”

20 minutes.  She’d lost time.  “What happened?” she asked.

“Hurry up, Boulder!  I’m alone and I don’t like that,” Gray said from somewhere up ahead.

Boulder closed his arm over her back, loosening her shoulders.  Shade poured his spotlight on her face.

“Gray saw a ball of light,” Boulder said.  “He followed it.  Somehow, we got separated.  This place opens like a maze up ahead.  I don’t know how we lost you.  If you wouldn’t have called out my name  . . . ”

But you were here talking to me, Boulder.  She wanted to say it but knew she shouldn’t.  Not unless she wanted them to think she’d gone off the high dive like Highsmith.

She took in a breath.  “You smell that?”

“I just smell rock,” Shade said, spitting into the dirt.

‘What do you smell?”  Boulder asked.

Formaldehyde, acetone.”

Boulder shook his head.  Shade shrugged.

“Must be on my clothes.”  She sniffed her sleeve.

“Shade and I, we saw sparks, but nothing like what Gray saw.  He followed a ball of light.  It had to be ball lightning.  But down here?”  Boulder turned his head.  “Call out, Gray!”

“You’re getting warmer,” Gray sounded in the distance.  Eury slipped from Boulder’s arm and walked in front of him.  Shade followed.

“Warmer!” she called out.

“That’s closer,” Gray said.

They were nearing him. The tunnel opened into a honeycomb of stone.

“How the hell could you have fallen so far behind?” Boulder said.

“I don’t know Boulder.  Anyone could down here,” she said.

“That’s just not like you.”

They found Gray crouched over a violet flare blazing in a portal between two tunnels.  His face a crevassed jigsaw of consternation and will.  He examined her face for signs of pain.  Pain meant injury. “We shouldn’t have turned off our headlamps,” he said.

Eury nodded.  Gray looked at Shade, who dangled his lamp in his hand like a lantern.  “Gimme your lamp,” Gray said.  “I gotta save the battery in mine.”

Shade shook his head.  “I don’t know what’s goin’ on down here, but I think we’ll all need our own equipment.  Case we get picked apart again.”

Gray drilled unflinching eyes into Shade, into sprawled cheeks that marred his animal good looks.

“You take orders from me,” Gray said with less fire than customary for him.

“C’mon, don’t pull rank, Gray.  We’re mercenaries, not Special Forces anymore.”

Gray could separate Shade’s lamp from him in a moment but he wouldn’t risk losing Shade to a broken bone. Shade strapped his lamp around his long black mane, perfecting his fait accompli.

“Leave if off for now,” Gray said to save face.

“You just said to switch it on, but oh well, I take orders from you.”

Gray wrapped a bandanna around his hand, picked up the torch and led them on through the labyrinth of tunnels, cast purplish by the star-like glow.  Their shadows shrunk, leaned along the walls like a frieze of centurions, changing shape, raging when the torch flickered, cringing when it flared.  The maw that digested them subdivided itself while it shrunk in size.

© 2018 by Michael C. Just