This weekend we will be posting the five finalists for the 2018 Voorheesville Short Story Contest! These are stories that made it through the local faculty and staff judging panel, and were sent on to be evaluated by our professional writer panel of judges. Our next story, Andrea Rojas’ “Timore Experimentum,” reminded our judges of an episode of the Netflix series Black Mirror, and that it “has the potential to evolve into a thoughtful commentary on the ways in which we think about punishment, technology, gaming culture, and their intersections.”
What kind of game was this? Something so twisted and horrifying should not exist. Considering the situation at hand, I was surprisingly calm, and somehow still managed to get distracted. It was dark, very dark, but not quite pitch black. The little light that existed came from the soft glow of the crystals that were randomly strewn about, each sporting a different shade of different colors. Some were brilliant blues and greens, others a soft orange or bold red, and despite not knowing where I was, I got caught up in their beauty. The hair on my arms rose sharply, something else was here too, something dangerous, but unseen. I could hear an occasional scream, a rather unsettling sound, which seemed to come from below me. After the first couple of times it happened, the rest of the crowd that stood behind me stopped murmuring, and instead elected to wonder and worry silently. I couldn’t tell how many people were there, but it was a sizeable crowd. I decided to examine my environment, and squatted down to one of the crystals, which cast its light onto the ground immediately below it. Eventually my eyes adjusted enough, and it seemed like we were somewhere deep inside of some kind of mine, but the concentration of crystals made it seem unlikely, since it seemed like they might be something of value, and not mining them, especially with so many in close proximity, would make no sense.
So I quietly pondered the situation, but didn’t get very deep in thought before people suddenly turned around and shuffled together, murmuring about something. I made my way to the front to see what people were looking at and looked down into the mine. Deep in the cavern a large curving mass glided into equally massive holes in the wall. I looked over my left shoulder at some of the people beside me, but other movement caught my eye. Whoever it was made the gesture again, and I went over to see what they wanted.
“Do you have any idea what’s going on here?” I shook my head no, and we conversed a little in hushed voices. He seemed to have thought I knew something, apparently because I was the only one who didn’t look scared out of their mind. But I didn’t know anything, so we exchanged theories and names, his was Bromley, and he knew he had served with a branch of the armed forces, but couldn’t remember which, or anything else for that matter. I realized my memories were blank too, and had no idea what I did for work, who my family was, where I lived or had grown up. It made everything that much more unsettling. Instead of dwelling on that, we instead turning our focus to finding out what to do next. I looked back down into the cavern to see the creature moving again. This time I noted the noise that accompanied its slithering to and from the different holes in the wall, and it was a dull and eerie sound, which unsettled me further.
“Any ideas?” he whispered softly.
“Sort of, but I’m not sure,” I replied, doing my best to match his whisper. “I think we need to get to the bottom.”
“The bottom? Of what? This place?” I nodded in response.
“That thing must be guarding something. It keeps moving around in the same place down there. I mean, why else wouldn’t it go somewhere else in this cavern?”
“Maybe it just likes being down there. Or maybe it doesn’t know we’re here and doesn’t care about us,” he suggested. I grunted a response, having nothing further to say, but started thinking again. We started talking to other people, trying to build some semblance of a story that could explain how we got here, but nobody seemed to know anything, nor could anyone remember anything about themselves aside from their first name.
Eventually we settled on a plan. We needed to find a way out, so we would split into groups to try to cover as much ground as possible. I would lead one of the groups that would go down into the mine, and had convinced Bromley to go with me. Other groups would search for a way to go up higher, and others would cover the space between. We had found a few small tunnels, some just large enough for us to duck into and walk relatively upright, until we got a little further down, where I could have stood on someone’s shoulders and touched the ceiling with my outstretched hand. The crystals guided the way, and we used them as footholds when the tunnels got steep. Many of us broke off sections of some of the larger crystals and used them as handheld lamps . A couple of times we had to drop down to the next level through abrupt holes in the tunnels, and sometimes we ran into another group. The entire place was a dark labyrinth of tunnels and holes, and we weren’t yet deep enough to have to worry about the creature we spotted earlier. But soon enough, the floor of the cavern was within five levels of my group.
“C’mon, we’re almost there.” I looked down to see another group, one we had encountered a few levels up. They stood around, somewhat idle, and I saw another group join them.
“Look out!” someone yelled from above. I looked up, seeing a few groups crowded together, looking down, so I followed their gaze. The giant creature was back and it’s giant body was slithering through multiple holes in the walls. It violently snatched up two or three people in its giant maw, which separated into four sections, and inside were rows and rows of giant, sharp teeth. People screamed, panicked, and ran. The scene was horrific, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away. Suddenly there was a loud grinding sound, and the ceiling, which had blocked out way up before, slowly opened, flooding the mine with light. There was another giant commotion, as people began to run back up. The creature abruptly stopped attacking the people near it, its giant head snapping toward the groups of people above. Quickly began making its way up through tunnels, then beginning to attack the others. Bromley roughly grabbed my shoulder.
“Look!” he yelled, pointing at one of the tunnels the creature had vacated, where there seemed to be daylight down one of the side passages of the tunnel. I quickly understood, and we sprinted to meet with the remaining survivors on the ground floor.
The creature was making an incredible racket, and the mine echoed with its noises and the screams of those getting eaten. The creature turned its focus back to us, and quickly, terrifyingly made its way back down. But suddenly it made a bloodcurdling scream. One of the larger crystals had fallen from the damage the creature was causing, and had lodged itself into the creature, which was now entering another tunnel, breaking off the crystal, causing another loud screech to be torn from the creature’s mouth.
“GRAB THE CRYSTALS! GRAB THE CRYSTALS!” I yelled frantically, my heart pounding against my sternum as if it were trying to break out of my chest. I was crazed with adrenaline coursing through my veins and sweat pouring out of me, making it difficult to grab crystals tight enough to break them with my foot. I kicked frantically at a long purple crystal until it broke. I quickly wiped my hands on my shirt, then took up the crystal. I hear the monster coming down the tunnel near me, and without thinking I yelled a sort of battle cry as I ran towards its opening, the large crystal held in both hands, the open mouth of the terrifying wurm racing toward me.
Another screech, deafening because of my proximity, but it quickly died off. I think I was still yelling, and tears poured down my face. My whole body felt hot, and I collapsed, breathing hard, trying desperately to draw in oxygen. I felt my shoulders being rocked again.
“Hey! Hey! C’mon we gotta go. It’s gonna be fine.” It was Bromley. “Look! You did it! Now c’mon, let’s get outta here!” I looked up, the once purple crystal was now covered in the creatures dark blood. It had gone into its mouth, and a tiny bit of the point stuck out of the top of the creature’s head. Bromley helped me to me feet, and I gripped his arm tightly, struggling to regain balance on legs that felt like jello. Finally, I tore my eyes from the creature and followed them towards the light, where we went up a passageway onto a large white terrace and blinding light. We rounded a corner, and I followed close behind Bromley. Off to the right we saw the mine and the what was left of it after the creature had caused so much damage, having crashed into the different levels, causing rock to go everywhere. We couldn’t see the bottom, nor did we stay to look further.
Eventually, we came upon a set of giant wooden doors. We all exhaled, tired of seeing another challenge and from the previous encounter. We all went to push the door open, but it opened to the touch, no effort required. We walked in, and nothing seemed extraordinary about the place, but the moment the last person was through the door slammed shut. When we turned back from looking at the door, there was a medieval-looking village. We were in a large open area, a town nearby in front of us, and smoke was rising into the air. More screams came from villagers that were running, futilely trying to escape the ugly winged creatures that were terrorizing them. Houses burned, crops burned, and people lay dead or unconscious all around paths and roads that we could see. Some of the creatures, which bore incredible resemblance to harpies, came towards us, and the group scattered. I ran as fast as I could, terror gripping my heart as the harpy-like creature reached towards me, with talons outstretched . . .
I was yanked awake, and immediately berated at the servant who had abruptly torn me from my sleep, cursing him and his family in the foulest way I knew how. I summoned my scientists, who joined me in my study within the half hour, and told them of the experiment I now wished to conduct on our most recent prisoners. I would see to it that my empire reigned strong. As I awaited my breakfast I stood at the window, looking over my city, with my soldiers in the streets, creating the empire that I felt was fit to rule the world. Then, I sat down to paint.