“They feed us shit and keep us in the dark …”
It was just an ordinary door. All the whitecoats in the basement knew about it. In fact, the mystery of what lay beyond the door was such an obsession, it was said that late at night, even the walls would whisper.
“ … You’d think that they’d allow the minds making their new machine a little carte blanche, considering they keep us cooped up down here, starved of sunlight.” The subject irked Coleman more than most, a fact he would remind anyone willing to listen. He’d been working at Los Alamos forever and felt an even greater entitlement than most of his colleagues. He was old-school and he lapsed into French clichés whenever he got steamed up.
“Carte blanche?” Avery chuckled. “We don’t even know what we’re building.”
Avery enjoyed this light-hearted, afternoon chat. Their rhetoric had become almost a ritual. But, inside he knew that construction wasn’t their remit; it was more of a deconstruction, an un-building, akin to the unearthing of a fossil, one gentle brushstroke at a time. He looked across at the older man, whose grey hair flopped forward obscuring his face as he rode.
The men continued cycling up the slight incline of the long corridor. In front of them and behind, disappeared into darkness. Sensor activated ‘light-paths’ eerily illuminated only the workers’ immediate radius. Bicycles were standard-issue on base, Uncle Sam’s contribution to cardiovascular health. The morning descent was simple, but the afternoons were all uphill.
“Hell, we don’t know how far down here even is,” Avery continued, “you know what I’m talking about. You’ve heard the sounds.”
“It’s pathetic,” Coleman said, ignoring the latter comment, “we have higher clearances than that fool up on Pennsylvania Avenue.”
“I think the President’s too pious to believe a place like this could exist.” Avery said. “The briefing would read like a Philip K. Dick story,” and then as an afterthought, “with a dash of Dante maybe.”
An automatic door whirred open and the two men idled through, then came to a halt at an intersection. The gradual slope to the main elevator rose before them, but the men’s gaze was drawn down the deep corridor on their right. It descended perhaps half a mile but it was impossible to tell, as there was only one light at the very end of the tunnel; a light which shone down upon a door, the door. It had become another ritual in their daily pilgrimage to the surface, to the light. They would stop and observe, and contemplate. The desire to make a right hand turn was compelling. But for a few months ago, the tunnel was black, a passage into a void that commanded its own odious reverence. Now there was a door, and a guard with earmuffs and an automatic, and a compulsion to know.
With more than a little struggle, the men tore their gaze away and cycled on.
“A little room on nature’s floor, without windows, without a door.” Coleman broke the silence.
A less healthy part of the men’s daily routine was an old watering hole called the ‘Proving Ground’; a western-themed, refurbished relic that serviced the silver miners of the turn of last century. The gloomy darkness was a welcome contrast to the artificial light of the facility.
“Without windows, without a door …” Avery mumbled, scratching his head. Coleman chuckled as he returned with a fresh pitcher of beer. His older colleague reminded him of his maternal grandfather, who could always make him laugh while teaching him something.
“Still ruminating? Thought a smart kid like you’d crack it in no time.”
Avery drained what was left of his drink and scowled, “You and your fucking riddles.”
“It’ll come. It came to me.” Coleman said, leaning back in his chair. “You ever heard of the Stoned-Ape Theory?”
“Does it have something to do with the riddle?”
“It might. Years ago, back when the flower children were just waking up, there were a couple of brothers, whitecoats like us, to a degree, who were doing experiments on their brains. Walls of perception, you know?”
“Yep. Back when you could get dosed on the government’s dime.”
“These days they won’t even comp our beer,” Avery laughed. “Blood out of a stone.”
“Anyways,” Coleman went on, “these guys postulated that, after the last ice age, when all the shit melted away, our ancestors, homo-something-or-other, came down from the mountains and started to wander on the plains. They began to follow herds of ungulates, eating, amongst other things, a certain fungus that grew on the scat.”
“Wildebeest’s shit-fungus?” Avery asked, refilling their glasses.
“As the theory goes. This fungus contained a powerful hallucinogen called psilocybin.”
“So the apes started tripping?”
“That’s right. Apparently, the introduction of this chemical into their diet had profound effects on the primates. In a nutshell, over time the synaesthesia, or the blurring of the boundaries between the senses, allowed the development of spoken language, the idea of forming pictures in another’s mind through the use of vocal sounds. They then started using tools, forming culture, began imagining, dreaming.”
“Indeed, and that’s a good segue to something I’ve been pondering. You see, a fungus is a perplexing thing. In fact, the largest organism in the world called the honey fungus, grows up in the mountains of Oregon. It measures two and half miles across.”
“You’ve been a closet-botanist this whole time.”
“Mycologist. A fungus actually more closely resembles an animal than a plant; its colonies surviving on waste matter, dead, rotting organic material. It’s the same relationship of symbiosis that gave us these big brains of ours.”
“Sounds kinda far-fetched.”
“Here’s where it gets funky. As I’m sure you know, fungi reproduce through tiny particles called spores. A fungus will produce a mist of millions of these spores, and they ascend, blowing in the wind. But a spore itself could very possibly survive, under the right circumstances, tens of thousands of years or more, travelling on an asteroid or any other piece of flotsam out there.”
“Or jetsam, right? You mean the only reason we’re able to have these bouts of philosophising, is some ancient, space-faring spore was lucky enough to find our blue speck of a home?” Avery laughed. “Makes more sense than the Bible at least.”
“It’s in there too. That book’s full of occult symbolism. What does Moses see on the Mountain?”
“God, in a burning bush.”
“There’s a chemical our brains produces both when we’re born and when we die. Again it’s a powerful hallucinogenic. One that makes the transition more, palatable, I suppose. It’s called dimethyltryptamine. It’s where we get the term ‘tripping’ from right?”
“Right, and where does God come into it?”
“God’s a metaphor, dig it? DMT’s in a lot of things, but the acacia bush has a shit-tonne of it, and burning it is the way to get it out.”
“So Moses, like our monkey-forebears, are trippers, and God’s a bush? You’re sounding like a beat poet.”
“That’s right man. Moses saw a trans-dimensional being who gave him the skinny on how mankind can be groovy to one another, and he scribbled it down on some stones while off his face.”
“So Moses could have just gotten everybody high and he wouldn’t have had to have a tantrum and break his tablets?”
“What university did you say you went to, Haight-Ashbury?”
“Hallelujah!” This brought on another salvo of laughter.
“Want another hint?” Coleman grinned.
“No. Wait, what do you mean another hint?” Avery had forgotten all about the riddle.
“Nukes?” Avery asked.
“Well, the base is the place, as the old saying goes. The bomb was born here, over seventy years ago.”
“The Manhattan Project?”
“After the war they started testing more and more, underground. Much bigger bombs. Seismometers felt them the world over.”
“And, so what?”
“Within a millisecond, these contained blasts create a bubble of radioactive gas, millions of degrees in temperature and several million atmospheres of pressure. The surrounding rock is vaporised, forming a large empty space called a ‘Melt Cavity’.
“How large are these holes?”
“They vary depending on the yield. Most’d be a football field across, maybe bigger.”
“Jesus, we do a lot of these tests?”
“Hundreds! It’s like Swiss cheese down there.”
Both men drank in silent contemplation. Eventually, Avery stood up.
“I’m calling it a night.”
“Of course, of course, you have your riddle to solve.”
“Yeah, and I’m not the only one.”
“The door.” Coleman whispered, staring through glazed, distant eyes.
That had been a week ago. No one had mentioned Coleman’s disappearance, but as the two men worked together in their own cell, that wasn’t surprising. If anyone ‘upstairs’ had noticed or knew anything, Avery felt sure he’d be the last to know. Since then, the riddle, the door, and his friend’s disappearance had held his mind prisoner. And here he was again, at the crossroads, with the familiar tug of temptation; to make a deal. With whom or what he didn’t know, nor what bounty might be gained by making the dark road’s descent, or what must be sacrificed to find out. The allure of the hum, that rising, iambic pulse was hypnotising, even his heartbeat following it. Today, however, there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
“At least Ulysses was tied to a mast,” he thought.
Finally, he could resist the temptation no longer. When Avery finally reached the end of the tunnel, he dismounted leaving his bicycle resting neatly beside another: Coleman’s. He looked back, up the steep path that led into darkness but for a pinhole of light at its apex. He couldn’t possibly make it back there, not now. Noticing that Coleman’s was gone, he unclipped his bicycle’s torch and switched it on. The deep thrum assured him that behind the door was the answer to all his questions. There would be comfort, his mind could rest.
As Avery watched his hand turning the knob, part of him realised that the door was different. Not only did it look far older than the sterile, polished whiteness of the rest of the facility, it was covered in splotches of mould. Suddenly the door was closed and he was inside, his beam of light illuminating a spiral staircase descending before him.
After an indiscernible amount of time and depth, Avery made it to the base of the staircase. At first thought it seemed just a simple dead-end. Then he saw it. In the centre of a small square of space was a manhole with its ornate, heavy cover, slid aside. On the cover were inscribed symbols Avery thought to be Sanskrit, but couldn’t decipher. A simple ladder disappeared into the darkness of the pipe-like hole.
Avery had never felt less in control of his body; it was like it was leading him. Again he found himself descending, this time the ladder. He was more and more becoming an observer, watching his actions through the portholes of his eyes. He had no idea of how far down he had gone, but he was sweating and his arms ached. After a few minutes, the narrow space opened around him. The sounds that he had become accustomed to became more intense. Avery couldn’t see anything, but, acoustically, the place felt immense. As his vision improved, he noticed small pink dots, glowing below him. This must be one of those ‘melt cavities,’ Avery thought.
Another swathe of time passed and Avery realised he was standing on solid ground. He could see the ladder nearby, lit in a scarlet hue, disappearing upwards. All around him, rising up to a false horizon, were the pink patches. He crouched down and picked up a small piece that grew near his feet. It felt soft and spongy and wonderful.
“Some kind of phosphorescent fungus,” his distant voice said. “A tremendous new truffle, and I’m the pig.”
From behind him floated a familiar voice. It was Coleman’s, although it sounded gargled, as if spoken underwater.
“Come,” it crooned.
Avery imagined that the voice was really in his head but dared not turn around, certain that if he glimpsed the face that spoke that word he would surely die, eternally entombed in this strange place.
“Come … come and see.”
Now, Avery realised his hand was attempting to feed his mouth the pink thing and he strained to regain control. His brain bourgeoned, bubbling with madness. All the while the rhythmic grinding grew, the whispered beckoning continued; a malignant orchestra.
“Come … come and … all the things you’ll see.”
As time passed, his vision began to improve. Avery realised that he was chewing, swallowing, eating. He watched as a large white shape seemed to appear from a darker area ahead of him. He imagined, knew, that it was a tunnel leading yet deeper down, also that he was probably hallucinating. The shape got closer and eventually he could see it. An awful, segmented creature with no eyes, larger than a bus. Its translucent skin was mottled with sores and growths. The stench should have overwhelmed him, but didn’t. The creature continued over, stopped, then idled back the way it had come.
“Behold a pale … thing.” Avery said and laughed absently.
It was no doubt here to guide him further down his path. He was no longer afraid. He began to follow.
In those final moments, as his individual mind melded into the hive-consciousness of an ancient intelligence, Avery understood everything. He understood his place in the world and the true importance of his work. He saw the majestic complexity of this changing of the guard. It was brilliant. He saw the colonising ships almost two-million years ago, we thought to be asteroids, slamming into earth and countless planets like it, destroying and resetting the life-cycle. With the ships came the spores, catalysts for intelligence and culture of beings that evolved for eons until they reach their zenith. The precipice of creation and destruction: splitting the atom, fission and fusion; tolling the bells that wake the gods.
The inevitability of the formula was all too clear. His was one of the final pieces in this jigsaw of world-seeding. His final moments of being James Lee Avery were pure elation. He realised that not only did he know that the inscription far above him was Sanskrit, it was Oppenheimer’s fateful quote from the Bhagavad Gita: Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds; he also finally knew the answer to Coleman’s riddle: A little room on nature’s floor, without windows, without a door. It was the answer to everything. It was star Wormwood. It was the rising cloud of man’s apogee, the smoke signal to herald a new age. It was a mushroom.