The helicopter’s blades thup-thup-thupped steadily as the small yellow machine flew low over the forest. The morning sun gave a coniferous green glow to the trees that spread in all directions like a bristly shag rug. Beside the pilot sat a young geologist in new blue overalls and fresh leather boots; nodding and staring intently at the screen of a laptop. His screen displayed data from the GPR transceiver that was mounted underneath the helicopter, and to him things looked promising. The pilot had no idea what it all meant, and he didn’t need to; he just needed to fly the grid-pattern that was laid out on his navigation screen. The mining company contracts paid well, and the pilot hoped to be easy to work with, so he could win more of them. He spoke into his headset.
“Our grid is going to take us right past an old ghost town. It’s just over this next ridge here. You want to take a look?” he said.
Harris, the geologist, looked up from his laptop and adjusted the mic by his lips. He was new and enthusiastic.
“Ghost town? Ya, for sure, let’s take a look.” Harris liked this pilot, he was mostly business, but partly fun.
The pilot pulled the stick a little to the left as they passed over the ridge, and Harris saw a well-manicured town appear below, through the clear bubble window of the helicopter.
“This is Kitsault. It was built all at once in the seventies, by a big mining company.”
“It’s crazy that they used to build these insta-towns.” Harris said. He looked down at the empty streets, lined with identical houses but devoid of life. There were no cars, no laundry drying in the sun, no people anywhere. It was an eerie sight.
‘The whole town is empty?” Harris asked.
“Yup, they built it all state-of-the-art. Then the market crashed for the metal they were into, and they just moved everyone out.”
“Do you know what they were mining?”
“Aw man, you got me there. It was some metal with a weird name.”
“Ah, ok. The town looks so clean though, who’s mowing the grass?”
“Well, some rich guy bought the town for whatever reason, and now he keeps everyone out. There’s just a couple of caretakers now I think. They even have electricity here still.”
“Wait, he keeps everyone out? How?”
“It’s private property, there’s a big locked gate a long way down the road.”
The pilot eased right, starting a loop around the town. Harris looked down on this strange town that wasn’t a town. The caretakers obviously did a good job. He could see neat stacks of firewood and gardens that were obviously tended, almost like everyone was going to come back any day and resume life as usual. It seemed like a lot of upkeep for a ghost town. Then the pilot said something about the hospital and school below, but Harris wasn’t listening, he was looking at rocks. In a field below, someone had laid out rocks and wood to spell out that universal call for help, in letters twenty feet across.
S O S.
“Uh, we have an SOS in the grass over here.” Harris said.
“We just passed it, right off this side.” Harris turned back in his seat, looking to where they had just come from. “Just in the field with the goalposts; looks like a school.”
The pilot slowed and brought the helicopter around. He could see it now too.
“Well I’ll be darned. There’s something I never thought I’d see.”
Harris pulled out his phone and took a picture of the SOS in the grass. There was no cell reception.
“Do you think we should land and check it out?”
“I don’t know…it’s pretty well-known that no one is allowed to visit this place.” the pilot said.
“Ya but, I mean…it’s an SOS. Where do you think the caretakers are?”
“Tell you what, I’m going to just drop down a bit and hover over the field here. We’ll see if anyone comes out.”
The pilot worked his craft and brought the helicopter to a hover about 100 feet above the ground. Both men scanned the empty town and field below them, looking for a caretaker to come running out from a building with arms waving, but nothing happened. The pilot was thinking.
“Alright, let’s put her down here by the SOS. No one is going to fault us for stopping to help.”
It seemed to both of them like the right thing to do.
Nobody came speeding up on a quad. No one came out to greet them or admonish them for trespassing on this forbidden land. Once the engine wound down and the blades stopped spinning, everything was still. Chirping birds returned to the forest at the edge of the field. A woodpecker played its staccato rhythm on a tree. Harris and the pilot got out and stood pondering the SOS on the mowed-not-so-long-ago grass, as if somehow the nature of its emergency would be revealed by their contemplation. The field was dotted profusely with large puff-ball type mushrooms, and was bordered by thick forest to the east and southeast. The edges of the field were lined with rocks of various sizes, presumably piled up there when the field was leveled.
“This took awhile, to lay all this out.” said Harris, looking at the SOS.
“Seems like a lot of work to go to.” said the pilot. “I wonder why they didn’t just use a radio?”
The pilot looked at the two buildings nearby. There was a large antenna protruding from the roof of school. Harris followed the pilot’s gaze.
“Let’s go see if the school is open, maybe we can find out what’s going on.”
“Alright, sounds like a plan.” said Harris.
“Maybe those caretakers are around here somewhere.”
The two men started walking across the grass the short distance to the school.
“What’s with all these mushrooms? They’re crazy!” Harris said.
“We’re in the wilderness man, shit gets big out here! Just don’t step on them. They probably stink to high heaven or something; it’s the last thing we need on the trip home.”
Harris took the pilot’s advice and walked carefully. The men rounded the northeast corner of the school and found the main entrance. A sign above the door read “Kitsault School - A Place For Young Minds To Grow”. The front door of the school opened just like it would’ve on a regular schoolday morning. A skylight let light into the foyer, illuminating bare bulletin boards and an empty office with a tidy, unused desk. On the desk was a rolodex, a vintage computer, and a rotary phone, dustless and frozen in time.
“This is so weird” said Harris, “I feel like I’m entering a time capsule.”
Harris looked down the hallway to the right of the office. The hallway had skylights too, but Harris could see electric light coming from a room a little way down the hall. He looked to the pilot.
“There’s a light on down here.” he said, and then he called down the hall.
The air was close and still. Harris paused, listening, but there was nothing.
“We’re coming down the hall. We saw the SOS in the grass!”
His voice held a mixture of nervousness and hope; nervousness because he felt he was about to uncover the big mystery, and hope that they might be able to help someone.
The room the light was coming from was a lab. It had once been the science classroom, so it had all of the accoutrements required to make it a good lab. Instead of desks there were long workstations. There were plugs, wires, and lines coming from the ceiling. The workstations were covered in modern implements of science, and did not belong in the time capsule. A large centrifuge sat at the near end of the row. There was a modern computer, and a “Thermo Scientific Fridge” full of all kinds of plastic trays and sample containers. There was a grey apparatus that looked like a rice cooker, except that it obviously wasn’t, because on it read “BIO-RAD MyCycler”. Harris and the pilot surveyed it all with silent awe. This was not what they had expected to find. They had expected a body or two, perhaps some mangled bloody groundskeepers, but there was no one here. Harris walked into the room and looked around. On the wall opposite to the door, staring him in the face, was a framed quote.
He who is unable to live in society,
or has no need to…
…must be either a beast, or a god.
Beside the framed wisdom was a row of coat-hooks, with one white labcoat. An embroidered name was obscured by a fold in the fabric, and Harris reached out to see just who had been working here.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Harris said under his breath, more to himself than to the pilot on the other side of the room.
“What’s that man?” called the pilot.
“The guy who works here is named Einstein. Can you believe it?” Harris said, walking over to where the pilot stood. He was examining the radio that was mounted to the wall.
“I figured out why they didn’t use the radio.” he said. He held up a spiral cord with nothing at the end but some cut wires. “Mic’s missing.”
“Well, there goes my hope of ordering pizza” Harris joked.
“What do you think they were up to out here?” the pilot asked.
“I honestly have no idea.”
“What do you mean, what kind of a scientist are you?” the pilot joked back.
“I’m a geologist. I study rocks. This lab was set up for…I don’t know what.”
“Oh come on rock-doc, you can figure it out!” The pilot chuckled.
Harris walked over to one end of a workstation and looked at some books that were stacked there. Genome Editing, Rewriting Our DNA, Uncommon Theories on Common Elements, Plants and Mushrooms of North America. There were many more, but Harris got the point.
“Correction, I do know what” he said. “They were up to something they shouldn’t have been.”
“What do you mean?”
“These books are on gene editing and DNA alteration, and we’re a long way from any regulators or prying eyes. Why else would they be out here?
The pilot shifted his weight from one foot to the other, suddenly nervous.
“So you’re telling me this is some crazy movie scene right here? Like where the mad scientist makes a crazy monster in a remote lab, and then everything goes terribly wrong?
“Well, I don’t know for sure. Maybe” Harris said.
“People shouldn’t go messing with that kind of thing.”
Harris couldn’t quite tell if the pilot was joking now, or if he was genuinely worried. It certainly did seem to be like something he described though, at least the mad-scientist-in-the-woods part.
“Tell you what, let’s get out of here. There’s no one here anyways.”
“I’ll second that motion” said the pilot. Between the ghost town SOS, the cut radio cord, and the abandoned DNA lab, he was at his daily limit for weird adventure. He would feel better when they were back outside.
The two men headed back the way they came. The fresh air and warm sunlight felt good after the stale air and empty, crypt-like silence of the school. Harris and the pilot started heading back to the helicopter, but as they were passing the other small building across from the main entrance, Harris was struck by one last morsel of curiosity.
“I’m just going to go poke my head in here, to make sure” said Harris, motioning to the other building with a nod of his head.
“Alright, but I’m going back the bird. We should get going anyways, schedule and all that. If no one has shown up by now, there’s no one here. It’s not like they didn’t hear us land.”
“Alright, I’ll just check it, you never know.”
It seemed to Harris that the second building used to be an office. There was no sign bearing cheerful platitudes from better days, but there was exposed timber-framing and river-stones adorning the entrance. It was like managers from the mine had worked here and wanted the building to look like a ski chalet. The front door here was unlocked as well, and Harris walked in tentatively.
“Hello?” he called out again, though he was less expectant of finding anyone this time. Again, there was no answer. What Harris was immediately struck by was a collection of molybdenum samples on a plinth in the middle of the room. Unmistakable with its almost reflective silver surface and jagged appearance, Harris had no doubt what he was looking at. He was a geologist after all. He was aware that molybdenum was present in the strata in this area, and now he knew what the mining company had been after here back in the seventies. These days, “Mo” was used in many things. Why hasn’t this mine been reopened? he wondered.
Harris walked to the closed door on the other side of the room, calling out another ‘hello?’ on the way just to be sure. When he opened the door, he found himself looking at a makeshift living area. There was a small kitchen that had obviously been in use, a little sitting area, and through another open door he could see what looked like an office converted into a bedroom. Hungry for explanations, Harris walked into the bedroom. There was a foul musk in the air, a man’s stale sweat mixed with something like wet dog. Rumpled clothing sat in dirty heaps around the room. The bed was unmade. Beside the bed was a small table with another beautiful, almost luminous sample of molybdenum on top of a small book. Harris picked up the glorious rock and felt the solid weight of it in his hand. The molybdenum chunk had been covering the writing on the cover of the book, which read Project Log. He put the rock in his pocket, picked up the log book, and turned to the bookmarked entry. There wasn’t time for detailed reading, but as he scanned the log, several phrases caught his eye. The spores have triggered Mo absorption…changes noticeable…unforeseen effects…abnormal muscle/hair growth…painful…last entry I think.
Suddenly the air outside was filled with a wild and angry howl, like a demon had just clawed its way out of a hole to hell. The raw, inhuman volume of the scream penetrated through the walls of the bedroom, and all of Harris’s instincts yelled RUN. He didn’t run, but clutching the log book in his hand, he left the bedroom and made his way through the living are and then out the door. He heard the helicopter turbines start to whine as he went down the steps and fear inexplicably materialized in his stomach like the arrival of an uninvited guest. He looked to the chopper as he rounded the corner of the building, and didn’t see the rocky cannonball that hurtled through the air and viciously struck the building beside his head. His eyes were wide with panic now as he looked at the splintered wood and then back to the pilot, who was motioning him frantically, his lips mouthing the word “RUN!”
He ran across the field towards the machine as the blades began to whirl. The mushrooms he had so carefully avoided exploded now in puffs of green as his boots crushed them on the frantic dash. He didn’t look back, he only looked towards escape. He ducked his head, opened the door, and jumped into the seat, and the pilot opened the throttle and pulled up on the collective.
“We are getting the hell out of here!” the pilot said with firm, fear-fueled certainty.
“What was that?” Harris asked.
“It was THAT!”
As the helicopter began to lift off the ground, Harris saw a creature emerge from the edge of the woods. Taller than a man, a giant man-but-not-a-man. It was covered in hair, except on its hands and part of its face. Its features were huge, big eyes, huge beard, ferocious muscles rippling as it took a massive stride towards the pile of rocks and picked one up. The rock in its hand was the size of a ten-pin bowling ball, but the creature held it like it was an orange. The helicopter was twenty feet off the ground now, and the beast threw the rock like a missile, in a searing straight line towards the bulbous lower window. It hit with a crack that Harris and the pilot felt shudder through the aircraft, but the polycarbonate held. The giant creature let out another feral scream, unmistakable rage on its almost human face. The helicopter engines were strained to their capacity as the pilot asked for everything the machine could give, and then they turned, and were away.
The two men were silent, in shock at what they had just seen. Sunlight shone sideways through the aircraft cabin, as it did on any day. Sweat beaded on Harris’s brow. He held the log book in his hand. His right knee bounced with agitation and adrenaline. The sunlight highlighted the heel of his boot, tap-tap-tapping on the floor, almost in time with the blades above. With each tap of his boot the greenish spores that dusted the leather fell off into the air; illuminated floating motes. The helicopter chopped the air, back towards civilization.