We’ve spoken a few times regarding the writings of Princess Sofia. Below is one of his stories.
We hope you enjoy it.
by A.W. Jones
23 December 2018
From: Howard Astur, VP of Drilling Operations
Subject: Arctic Drilling Incidents (12/20-12/22) [CLASSIFIED]
A near miss occurred in the early morning hours of 12/20/18 involving the drilling vehicle for the Alaska section of Arctic operations. At approximately 0215, the vehicle came upon a cliff’s edge unexpectedly. Following company protocols, the operators backed the vehicle up to the substation and waited with it for an investigatory team, for which Doctors Ward and Sarnath (geologists) as well as Shawn Armitage (senior drilling technician) were dispatched.
At this time the investigatory team has not returned. Arthur Derby (fresh graduate MIT, drilling engineer, veteran of Afghanistan) has organized a search party from his shift to search for the three while Armitage’s shift takes over operations in his absence. The search party will be going at daybreak 12/24.
The operators driving the vehicle at the time of the incident refused to return to their posts and resigned when ordered to resume duties, and were sent back to the mainland by helicopter. On a related note, a recent storm downed one of our helicopters in transit from the rig to the mainland. Our losses number the pilot and copilot and a UH-60 modified for work in the Arctic. Also onboard were two former employees.
The payments for the untimely deaths of our pilots will be paid out double, and they will be included with the price of the helicopter and categorized as business losses for this fiscal year–as will the training of two additional operators and two additional pilots. We have graciously sent the families of our two former employees the full payment they would have been entitled, if they were still employees, for deaths in the field–pending the signing of nondisclosure agreements and waiving of rights to any lawsuits targeting us or our subsidiaries. These payments will be categorized as charitable gifts for this fiscal year.
This has, unfortunately, caused us to go behind schedule at least four days, but the unknown circumstances of the incidents–as the operators were sequestered before questioning–should prevent a federal investigation into this incident.
26 December 2018
From: Howard Astur, VP of Drilling Operations
Subject: Arctic Drilling Incidents (12/20-12/25) [CLASSIFIED]
Derby and his search party have returned to the rig. Derby wisely kept his men out of the area of the findings–we should consider an advance in grade at soonest convenience. As such, the only report will be his, which will be transcribed into this memorandum and then destroyed.
‘Approaching the site of the original incident I ordered my men to stay back and attached a rope to the roof of the tunnel. My men held the rope. I was concerned the floor of the tunnel may have been weak and may have caused the loss of Armitage and his group.
‘At the site of the original incident I discovered a fifty foot diameter spherical chamber. There were no geological formations, and the walls appeared smooth. At the lowest point of the chamber I found their bodies, naked, arms spread, on their backs. Their eyes were closed, and they were found waist-deep in a pool of oil.
‘Beside Armitage was his pocket notebook. No debris or supplies were found in the chamber, despite reports that they had each left stocked with spelunking kits. The notebook was immediately placed in a bag and sealed, uninspected.
‘Upon removing the bodies it was found that their bodies terminated approximately two inches below the waist. There was no sign of violence on any of the bodies save their…truncation. I probed the pool of oil with my walking stick for the other halves of the men and found none.
‘However, at the center of the pool is a hole roughly two feet in diameter–likely the source of the oil. I placed the bodies back in the oil, not wanting to scare the men. I will report to all that they were not found, and pass this up the chain to be dealt with.’
Several of our security contractors were brought in as structural consultants and were sent to inspect the pool. No bodies were found, and it must be assumed they somehow fell into the hole at the bottom. No mention of their truncation will be used in official reports.
We will be tapping this newly found source of oil and will expand the tunnel and our operations once this fortunate discovery is up and running.
28 December 2018
From: Howard Astur, VP of Drilling Operations
Subject: Arctic Drilling Incidents (12/20-12/26) [CLASSIFIED]
The new well discovered was set up quickly and without incident, with special thanks to Mr. Derby. He has worked like a man possessed to get this operation running.
Of special note is the oil itself. It is a clean product, rivalling that of our Saudi competitors. As such, I recommend we transfer product from some of our dirtier operations to this location, relabel them as sourced from here, and send them for treatment as a business expense of this operation. Flows are at 110% of the initially expected rate. It’s going to be a good year.
I have attached the notebook of Armitage. I think we can all agree that he was mentally unstable and the psychological screening processes should be examined at all levels of employment.
I believe our current message of Armitage, et al., falling into the pool and down the hole is sufficient coverage, so I recommend destruction of this notebook following your perusal.
When I was young I was terrified of the dark. Mother would hold me, let me sleep in her bed while my father was at work, check all the closets and dark corners, even bought me a nightlight. None of it helped. The darkness was still there, not conquered but merely held at bay. This went on for the better part of a month, when I was six. My father was working in a chemical plant, on a rotating shift. For three out of every four weeks his life was dictated by the demands of his job–awkward sleep schedules, twelve hour shifts, and overtime. But that fourth week he was home. Seven straight days with him home and on a regular sleep schedule–those seven days easily made up for the other twenty one.
It was his second night off. I’m sure he was aware of my nightly ordeals, but this was the first bad night where he wasn’t worn thin. He came in that night, while I wept in fear. My father told me that we don’t fear the nothing of the dark, we fear the imagined something of the dark. That our fear isn’t based on reality but the hypothetical, the impossible that our imagination tells us is possibly, even probably, lurking just outside our vision. Or in the ancient darks, the forgotten places, the areas which are better left lost. It was a strange way of comforting a child, to tell them not that there was nothing in the dark to fear, but that the fear came from an irrational place and that the object of my fear was in some other dark–some place we shun.
His approach worked. It took some reinforcing over the next few nights, but by the time he went back to work I was sleeping within minutes of laying down. He tackled all his problems this way, a rational explanation and a reason for the problem to cease. He was a good man, and he was happy to see me follow in his footsteps.
When I graduated high school, my parents wanted me to go to college. I was never a strong student–smart enough, but bored. I prefered action, but I was never really invested in sports. My high school job had made me a manager quickly, in recognition of ‘my work ethic and problem solving ability.’ Their words, not mine. I think they were as upset as my parents initially were when I quit the summer I turned eighteen. I had been given a new job, working in an Iranian oil field. I was just manual labor at the time, but I advanced quickly. More of that work ethic and problem solving ability, I suppose.
My parents weren’t keen on it, given the area I was in, but my father understood that sometimes you have to make your own opportunities. I told him I was going to request a transfer to a different oilfield after a year or two, if for no other reason to allay my mother’s fears. The company I worked for had its fingers in a lot of pies, the American-Iranian-Iraqi Oil Company. A mouthful, and the basis of millions of conspiracy theories about politicians. The fact that the companies that initially funded AIIO are only a degree or two away from a president who declared war on Iraq and another that warmed relations with Iran doesn’t help that cause.
Our Human Resources department was able to move me off the Iranian field after a year, a promotion, and three sizeable raises. They shifted me into a few other locations over the years–Texas, Canada, a few offshore rigs. The company even paid me to get a degree online–and I found out that I wasn’t all that bored when I was getting paid to study. By the time I was thirty I was considered one of the up and coming stars in the oil industry.
Shortly after my thirty-second birthday the company made an announcement. The US and Canadian governments had agreed to allow a pair of rigs to be set up north of Alaska which would tap into some major oil deposits under the Alaskan and Canadian landscapes–provided we could drill into them without destroying said landscapes. The company decided upon a long distance approach from international waters, coming in from the side. The idea was a huge venture, and a bit of a risk since nothing like this had ever been achieved before. I was chosen to head up the team doing the initial drilling, and I wasn’t sure how excited I was to have my name attached to this precarious project.
The first few months I was in Anchorage and flying out to the rig every other week. On the rig I would oversee some aspects of construction, but in Anchorage I was in meetings all day. Those meetings didn’t make me more comfortable about the project, as we seem to have jumped in without fully looking. The rigs were about twenty miles offshore, and designed to service multiple pipes if need be. Because of this, the pipe from the rig to the land was airtight, ten feet in diameter, and had a substation at the middle which could be used as a junction for additional pipes in the future. The cost of this pipe alone was astronomical, I doubted the company would ever drill enough oil to pay for this setup.
Once we hit land, there was a problem. We were angled more sharply than the engineers anticipated, five hundred yards below the surface and still two hundred miles from the oil. The geological samples were taken at a level of three hundred yards below the surface, and were apparently much less dense than they were at lower levels. The idea was to have substations every fifty miles here and shortly after the first the massive drilling vehicle we were using lost its bit.
That was the first revelation of the lack of prep work done. The second came twenty five miles later, when the drill hit a void. It was hours before I was set to fly out to the rig, and I was woken at 0300 to a panicked phone call from some low level executive. The call at 0303 was what got me on my feet, with the VP of drilling operations, Howard Astur, on the other end. This was his baby, and a call from him personally meant it had hit the fan. By 0315 I was in a conference room taking notes on the situation, with my counterpart, Arthur, on the rig trying to relay what little information he had.
The drilling vehicle hadn’t fallen in, there was no damage to it at all. The operators were shaken up, but had acted quickly and likely saved the entire operation. Two geologists, Drs. Ward and Sarnath, would accompany me to the rig that day, and we would go down to the void to assess the best course of action. As I would be in the line itself and it was problematic to maintain communication, Arthur would be staying on the rig as well. Astur would also come out, but only for a day or two so he could prepare a report on the incident with Arthur. The meeting ended well, a plan is an excellent source of comfort.
Sixteen hours later I was in the final substation meeting with the crew of the vehicle following its inspection–they had backed the vehicle up almost thirty miles in accordance with our protocols. They were ready to go back up to the rig, surprising given how much colder it was up there. Older men, just shy of retirement. I felt they had a good job, an easy job, and one they had earned after decades of hard service in the industry. I thought maybe they expected to be sent home after the incident, but that seemed pretty unlikely given how minor it was. A near miss, really.
Track had been set down for twenty five of the next thirty miles, but the last five miles we would be walking. Ward and Sarnath were only a few years older than me, and we were all in excellent shape, so we were fine with this. The two were amateur spelunkers and passionately interested in their field, so I expected to learn quite a bit in those five miles.
Actually, it was hard to get them to shut up about their field. The first mile or two were intriguing, discussing volcanoes and earthquakes, but then they drifted off into discussions of the makeup of the ground we had drilled through. I really only got that it was incredibly dense, even denser than we had expected following the failure of the original bit, and that they’d never seen anything quite like it. They would compare it over and over to ground found in Central Asia and Antarctica, but they couldn’t see why there would be similarities with those two utterly dissimilar areas. It appeared to be pitch black, without any luster, hard and cold–much colder than the air. It felt dry on my skin, but thick–almost like a clay. It clung to my hand and I had to wash it off with water.
We reached the edge of the void in good time, a little over an hour after we had begun walking. If not for my pedometer letting us know we should be near it we might have walked straight off into nothing. It was suddenly in front of us, the ground was so black it blended in with that impossible darkness that only nothing can provide. Our lights couldn’t reach the other side, even the special spotlight we had brought that I swear outshines the sun. None of us wanted to guess how far the nothing stretched before us, we just stared into it in silence for what seemed like an eternity.
Sarnath broke the trance with a sneeze. We shone the light up and found nothing still, but off to the sides there was a perfectly flat, perfectly black wall. And, maybe thirty feet down, there was a ledge. We couldn’t tell how far it went, our lights just never seemed bright enough. So, we decided to climb down. We attached LEDs to both sides of the mouth, and Ward hooked a rope into the floor. The climb down was agonizingly long, far longer than I felt it should have been, but I chalked it up to using muscles I didn’t regularly exercise.
Bringing our lights down to the ledge didn’t improve their output, and we once again almost walked into a void about fifty feet in. The edge seemed absolutely straight, and to stretch on forever. We couldn’t see the bottom without lights, but a dropped flare seemed to stop after about fifteen yards. We climbed down again, and repeated the process, over and over. My watch went off at 2300, signalling us to rest. We made a small fire and ate our energy bars in silence, until Ward spoke up to tell us we had to be at least three hundred feet down. The ledges felt like they were getting wider and wider, but we had all noticed that the edges were absolutely straight.
Ward and I voted to go back up to measure out the width of the chamber at our initial level, to see if maybe we could follow the ledge to another wall to drill into. Sarnath disagreed, and maintained we needed to go deeper, that bridging the gap would be more feasible. Majority ruled, on the condition that we attempt to use some laser range finding equipment at this level. A task for the morning, we all agreed, and I set my alarm for 0900. I dreamt of darkness, of hands reaching out to me from the deepest shadows, trying to drag me in. But the hands were made of shadows themselves, so they couldn’t pull me. Every time they touched me I felt colder, from the inside.
I woke to my alarm and opened my eyes to nothing. I began to roll over only to realize I was on the precipice, barely catching myself before I tumbled down. I rolled the other way, calmed myself, and turned on my flashlight. I finally spotted the handheld spotlight searching out from the camp and made my way over to it. I could hear Ward’s whispered curses as I approached, but I didn’t see Sarnath. We started a fire again, assuming he’d gone off to do his morning constitutional, but when we pulled out our rations we discovered that some of the spelunking gear was gone, and the laser range finder had been set up. I supposed the range wasn’t what he wanted to hear so he was forcing us to follow after him, but the range finder didn’t show anything in its history.
We couldn’t find his rope set up, so we had to climb down using our own rope. We had five fifty foot lengths left, of the fifteen we came with. I was confident we would find Sarnath on the next ledge. Looking back, I don’t think it’s strange we didn’t call out for him. It would have felt wrong, the void gave off an aura, a feeling of being sacred, like a church or cemetery. I could barely bring myself above a whisper, a shout would have been impossible. It’s clear to me that Ward felt the same way, as we searched this ledge and the next four in silence. Neither of us bothered to point out what we both knew, that there was no way Sarnath could have made it down this far–he didn’t have enough rope.
After climbing down our final rope, we discovered no edge. We just kept walking forward, and after an hour we came to a wall. Taller than I could reach, and perfectly flat. I just stood at its base, I’m not sure for how long. When my watch went off again at 2300, I realized Ward was no longer with me. I reasoned that he must have turned around in silence and walked back to the opposite wall, so I headed that way. I reached the wall at 2335, much more quickly than the first trip across, but I couldn’t find the rope. Or Ward. I looked around and all I saw was nothing.
I started a small fire and ate, then I took out the laser range finder. It said 15.24 meters, fifty feet on the dot. That wasn’t possible, it had taken at least an hour to cross initially. I turned it off and turned it on again, and it said 15.24 meters. Then the reading blinked to 9999 meters, then back to 15.24. I turned it ninety degrees and it once again read 15.24 meters. Fifty feet by fifty feet. Nothing in nature is that precise. I restarted it once again, and it alternated between 15.24 and 9999. I held it vertically, to try to get a reading. By the number of ropes we had used, the ceiling had to be more than 150 meters.
It read 15.24, then 9999. Then it turned off, and I couldn’t get it to come back on. The charge indicator had said it was good, but the device was dead. As was my fire. I checked my watch and it said it was 0540. I had been taking ranges for at least five hours. I don’t understand how that’s possible, they don’t take but a few seconds each. Suddenly I felt exhausted. I unrolled my sleeping bag, turned off my morning alarm, and drifted into the darkness.
I dreamt of echoing booms, and heat. It was warm enough down here, but I dreamt it was sweltering, steam pouring off black terraces rimmed with the shadowy eyes of unimaginable predators, eyes I could see in the absolute darkness. The eyes roamed the ledges, sometimes on two legs but sometimes more. I heard hooves and wings and gasping cries, while the echoing booms grew faster and louder. When one boom started to merge with the next one, no rhythm but now a constant bass, a speck of light appeared above. The booming grew in volume, filling the void, pushing back the predators into a reverent repose, and the light spread.
The light fluttered outward, ethereal and somehow final, like a moth dancing ever closer to a flame. I felt it never touched the darkness, and the darkness was kept separate from it. It did not illuminate anything beyond itself. As it grew I felt I had seen it before, ribbons of vibrant color spreading across the sky. But, that wasn’t right. I was underground, that wasn’t sky above me, and the aurora borealis could never reach me here. The logical part of me wrestled with the dreaming portion and I awoke, eyes closed and screaming. It seemed to me that my scream swallowed the echoing boom, but only barely, and then was swallowed by the imposing darkness.
I kept my eyes clenched tightly, illogical proof against what I feared I would see, an undulating stream of colors reaching out to me from the darkened underworld. I fumbled about in my sleeping bag and called for Ward and Sarnath, with no effect and no echo. As I rolled I brushed my face against the ground, far warmer than it had been yesterday. I opened my eyes and searched for eyes glowing, reflecting nothing. There were no eyes, no steam, and no aurora. After I quickly broke my fast, I discovered there were also no ropes. I was trapped.
I spent the better part of the day inventorying what I had. A small LED flashlight, five flares, the handheld spotlight, and rations for three days. The malfunctioning rangefinder was missing, along with the rest of the climbing supplies and the fire kit.
The loss of my fire kit was disheartening. Fire has always been how we take back our surroundings from the darkness, how we have driven the nothing from the night and populated it with something, anything. Even if it was purely psychological, it was a powerful step forward for our species, to be able to push back against our fear of the unknown. I lost this during the night, and I had never felt more imperiled.
I gathered my supplies and began tracing the walls, measuring from corner to corner. The walls were perfectly smooth, not polished but merely lacking detail or definition. Each one seemed as long as the last, about fifty feet–a coincidence with the rangefinder that sent a chill down my spine.
I stopped in one of the corners to set up camp. I wanted a wall against my back, I felt like I was always being watched, being measured against some unspeakable hunger. I looked around for piercing eyes glowing black on black, but found none. I would not need my sleeping bag tonight, it was far too warm.
After I ate my dinner cold I was shocked to find it was 0300. I had missed my alarm somehow, the only sound in the deafening quietude. Then it occurred to me–I should have been able to hear Ward or Sarnath climbing out. The smallest sounds should shatter the silence. But no one had heard me crying out, either.
I sat in my corner and drifted off into a dreamless sleep, my first since coming down here. When I awoke something felt wrong. I could hear a rustling in the distance, like something moving through bushes, but there were no bushes down here. The acoustics maddened me, I couldn’t tell if it was coming from before me or behind me, above or below.
But below and behind shouldn’t have been possible. I fell asleep on the bottom level, with my back to a wall. I scrambled back, feeling for the corner and my gear, and I realized the ground was no longer smooth. I felt lines in the stone, softer and raised slightly. I traced them, felt their bifurcations, their junctions, like a raised map of the arteries of a city. Like veins.
Then they pulsed. Faintly, so soft I thought I had imagined it at first. I heard that echoing boom, keeping time with the pulse, both growing stronger with each beat. I could hear the pulsation starting behind me, at the center of this level. I backed away from the source, slowly, blindly searching for my corner to hide in. Expecting only to find a wall behind me, I almost fell off the ledge.
I felt that impossible edge, a drop where before there were fifty foot walls. The veins ran over it and down the sides, pulsing all the while, but the rest of the surface felt pockmarked and weathered. I found the corner, broken off with the uneven smoothness of a scar. I felt eyes upon me, unseen watchers in the dark, and backed away from the edge.
Every inch I backed up the pulsation grew. I could feel it strongest against my toes, where the surface had taken a warm, soft, and slightly damp feel. I don’t know where my boots went, I was wearing them when I fell asleep. The veins were more prominent now, easily as thick as my arms. I dared not move forward to the edge, but I feared what was behind me, the nothing beating out a rapid tattoo. I curled in on myself, tried to focus only on my rapid breathing, my eyes clenched tightly to ward off the darkness.
I knew what would happen next from my dream. The pulsing rhythm became a constant sound, and the veins stood taut open the ground. They hummed, below my ability to hear but I felt it every time I touched one. They were forming small branches, capillaries reaching out to their neighbors. I could see them in the birthing light.
I slowly gazed up, praying with all my empty faith that I would not see what I knew would be there, that impossible aurora staring back at me, unblinking. The ribbons of light were slowly spreading out of its origin, separate but together with the darkness, neither consuming the other. I looked and saw only nothing in the distance, no walls to bound the darkness.
I turned to the source of the veins, where they grew to be as big as my thigh, and saw an object so black it cast no shadows in the growing light, so dark it stood out against the void. It pulsed constantly, three rapid wringing motions in succession, leaving no gaps between them. It grew out of a pedestal of veins, at least six feet wide though the shadow object was easily three times that. Out of the top sprayed fluid, black and shining in the ghostly light of the aurora taenarius.
And below, around the tree and covered in that dark arterial spray, were Ward and Sarnath. They swayed in rhythm, each with one of the wringings of that dark heart, standing upon a dais. There was a third dais in front of me, and I did not need them to tell me that I was expected to stand upon it. They did tell me, though, together but as slightly off unison as the individual beats they swayed with.
They told me I must heed the outer signs, must take my place, as the light comes from darkness I must help it to grow. I started to run back towards the edge but slipped, face first, into a pool of that shining dark fluid. As I rose I knew instantly what it was, the liquid I had chased and captured my entire adult life. The dark heart with its maddening draw was spraying oil.
The aurora taenarius has spread, and I still cannot see the outer walls. The eyes have appeared on the dark ledges below me, glowing shadows hiding within nothing. I have written this account as well I can in the ghostly light I’m given. I can hear them call to me, Ward and Sarnath but also voices from elsewhere, maybe not voices but something within me and yet external to me, I believe them to be the outer signs.
I do not know if what I do is for good or for bad, for right or for wrong. I do not know if those distinctions matter in this impossible place. I go because I fear the darkness, the nothing that exists in the ancient places best left forgotten. There can be no light without darkness, but surely there can be darkness without light.
I go now to help it grow. I go now to take my place. As I must, as the outer signs demand.