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The Magmatic Fear 2

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At his personal quarters he sought relaxation among the project’s latest technical evaluations. This sheaf of neutered virgin white documents, firm and reassuring as an ax handle in his grasp, expertly belied the true reality of the past week’s events. Nowhere in its sterile language was any hint of a billion dollars in unforeseen expense, nor a whisper of the pending class action lawsuit from the displaced natives and their slick east coast civil liberties lawyer.

According to fifteen pounds of raw data in his lap, absolutely nothing was wrong with the project. Down to every last screw and wire the machinery executed flawlessly: a eurythmic symphony of steel flutes, rubberized basses, and electronic violins. After all, the problem was not in the gears, but in the minds of those who turned them.

For most mercifully of all, he could scour every last blot of ink and still pretend ignorance to the inexplicable rash of suicides among laborers at the valley site. Even now, he desperately tried to direct the beam of consciousness away from this gruesome specter and find sanctuary in technical minutiae. But like a lighthouse operated by inhuman gears, his thoughts were inexorably pulled toward the phalanx of piercing rocks on the shore. No amount of raw data could bury such extreme horror.

The first death occurred shortly after the initial hydrogen bomb had been detonated in the valley site. The ex-marines assigned to guard duty that night reported hearing a shrieking laughter that bordered on the most excruciating cries of pain any had ever heard during combat; it apparently persisted for several minutes until ceasing abruptly and permanently. The next morning they discovered one of their number missing, leaving only a fully loaded rifle in the sand as a record of his existence. Like the insane howling, he never returned.

From then on, a methodical continuum of unexplained disappearances developed. Eventually men refused to near the valley after dark, and no amount of carrots or sticks could alter their resolve. But it was only a short time until the deaths began in broad daylight. The progression from unassailable sanity to gibbering madness and self-inflicted necrosis transpired in an identical fashion each time; only the victim’s proximity to the pit’s center hastened or slowed the process.

At first, a laborer innocuously curled his upper lip, revealing the pink flesh of his gums, and breathed through the chinks in his teeth. Regardless of his dental health this resulted in a distinct musical whistle—a tune unknown to even the worldliest ears. Next, the unfortunate soul began to clench and unclench his hands, digging nails hard enough into the flesh to summon rivulets of blood. Untold fear now appeared in the victim’s face and eyes writhed in sockets like larvae struggling to break free of membrane prisons; then, with the ultimate predictability of clockwork, the man’s features relaxed and acquired the emotionless fixed expression of a saurian predator.

Finally, the damned soul emitted a shrill incoherent cry and leaped limbs flailing into the black abyss. Aerobacter had observed this unfolding nightmare a dozen times from a safe distance, and in every instance he was convinced he witnessed a hopeless psychic contest between resident and intruder.

Reactions to the suicides varied drastically according to vocation. The Chaplin shook his long knobby finger at the devil and provided a tidy preemptive exorcism for all. He was generally ignored after the first death in daylight. On-site investors disregarded the matter entirely; although most stopped short of genteel revulsion, few regarded the laborers as anything more than stupid and expendable cogs in a greater machine. Perhaps the most disturbing rationale originated from the legion of geologists wearing identical overlarge glasses, childish hairstyles, and wrinkled khakis. Aerobacter’s hackles rose when he recalled one man explain--in a tone a dentist might use to soothe his patient before plucking a rotted tooth--that the suicides were simple neurological reactions to stimuli from biochemical reactions in the valley. It would have made B. F. Skinner shed tears of paternal joy.

Once more he tried to submerge himself in data, but it was no use. There could be no reprieve from the wanton horror devouring every moment of waking thought. Worse, for the first time in his life he had absolutely no answers, not even a dim intuition of the right course of action. Stalling the project had worked until today, but thanks to Freddy Davis and the powers above, he would be faced with a real decision come morning.
He flung down the sheaf of documents in disgust and switched off the electric bedside lamp. Perhaps in the morning his troubles might shine in a different light, and the situation would seem less dire. After stripping away his remaining clothes, he pulled the thin white sheet up to his chin and screwed shut his eyes. With a great mental exertion, he willed himself into sleep.

In moments, his thoughts plummeted into the deepest caverns of slumber. Into the profound unconsciousness betrothed to death, man’s closest union to alien eternities. A dream vision swirled into existence, and like a skin wrapped over cosmic certainty, it owned an immutable permanence superior to any material object in the waking world.

Before his disembodied awareness, there appeared the valley laid bare of all the equipment save the payload device. Hovering over the fathomless core, the machine delivered bomb after bomb into the darkness. As in daylight hours, the charges fled down a chute of solid rock and struck a jagged fissure beneath the ocean. With each detonation, the fissure expanded and wept evermore lava in an upward jet that erupted on the valley’s eastern rim. On the surface, the lava instantly cooled into basalt which slowly accumulated and increased the landmass.

Even in dream, he could not help but smile at this grand sight. The artificial island, first of many planned resorts, was almost complete. But then his satisfaction gave way to a soul crushing terror. The surface stream of lava suddenly accelerated into a hellish geyser a thousand meters high. A wicked gale swept across the land and froze the fire in mid-air, creating a monolithic structure that dominated the eastern horizon, blotting out the sun and burying all in shadow. He tried desperately to make out the structure’s dimensions, for he had the uncanny perception that the basalt had assembled into a distinct and recognizable form. But the darkness was complete, and the dream quickly extinguished into nothingness.
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