An Unlikely Tale, Part 2

(probably not all true)

Jerry was having trouble sleeping, so got up and checked his gear. The drive out to the old plant site cleared his head, and as was often the case, refreshed his energy. He knew that tomorrow at work he’d pay for having gotten only a couple of hours sleep, but something kept pushing him to go back, even after all this time and all the nights spent searching.

It was ten years since the clean-up was completed and a little longer since Jerry had worked out there as a guard. The industrial buildings were almost all gone or buried, and that part would never be reopened. The buffer area surrounding the old nuclear weapons plant was supposed to become a wildlife refuge open to limited public uses, but bureaucracy and some activists stirring up the public had kept the site closed.

But Jerry knew. He had seen things that no one believed and, as a result, had been fired and subject to ridicule. Even now his face burned with the injustice of it all. He knew, but maybe tonight would be the night he proved it to the world.

On the south side, he could park his car where it wouldn’t be disturbed. It was a long walk in the dark, but his night-vision goggles offered some help. He had been out here often, mostly when he couldn’t sleep, the glowing attack-rabbits and giant prairie dogs stalking him in his dreams. Out here, alone with his automatic rifle, he felt no fear. He had faced them before and this time he would prevail.

He found the trail without trouble, and started off at a steady pace. With travel time, he’d still have several hours to look around and be back at his car before dawn. In the old days, he’d never have made it without being detected. There had been a camera on top of the now-demolished water tower that could read license plates on cars ten miles away. Any car parked near the site boundary was closely scrutinized and information collected on the owner, how long it remained, and where the occupants went. (Rumors circulated about the camera catching a local city council man having an extramarital dalliance in his parked car over six miles away. For some reason after that the councilman was always supportive of the plant’s initiatives.) There was an unmanned, weaponized tracked vehicle that could be directed anywhere on the site remotely, to investigate potential trespassers.

Jerry imagined the surprise of some of those peace activists that had tried to infiltrate the plant back in the good ol’ days. He’d personally have voted to blow them away, but Security usually just called the sheriff to arrest them. He patted his weapon lovingly. It might be the closest emotional relationship he had.

Tonight he wanted to work the short drainage on the south side of the old plant site. He had read that the building there, one of the first to be constructed back in the ’50’s, was not totally demolished, but was buried in place. He’d have to get into the restricted zone to scout that area, but that just meant climbing another, higher, unguarded fence.

The plant was built at the height of the cold war, modeled after the nuclear weapons plant at Los Alamos, NM. The original buildings were largely below ground, shielded from a direct hit by a nuclear missile. The newer buildings where most of the more recent processing took place were less robust, but larger and more modern. During the plant closure, the cost of exhuming these older, less contaminated buildings with six-foot concrete walls and ten foot concrete ceilings proved to be too high. The solution was to seal and bury the entrances and openings. Some wanted the openings grated and left accessible to bats, because the long hallways and small side rooms offered perfect cave-like conditions. But, the concern about residual radioactivity had scared the Fish and Wildlife people off of the idea and the closure proceeded as planned.

Jerry knew where to cross the first creek, then found a likely place to scale the chain link fence into the restricted area. He tried to vary his access points, so that he didn’t leave a trail that could be easily followed or predicted. However, in his many nights out there, he had never seen anyone else on site. No security patrols, no spotlights, no cameras, no motion detectors … basically no security. On the other hand, there really wasn’t much there with the buildings gone or covered up. However, what he searched for wasn’t from the buildings; it had to be out here somewhere, and he ached to find it again. He was ready for it this time.

Ahead he heard hoof beats and saw the movement of the deer simultaneously. He had unthinkingly snapped the rifle up to fire, but stopped when he realized it was just the resident deer herd. They were probably bedded down and he had walked up on them in the darkness.

Starting at the head of the small valley, he worked his way down stream, closely scrutinizing both slopes, looking for disturbed areas. He had once been fooled by a disturbance on another stream, but it turned out to be just natural slumping. Several times he heard or saw night-birds in the valley. He couldn’t quite make them out, but he wasn’t much for birds anyway.

The night vision goggles helped, but made him clumsy on the rough terrain and thick brush, and he tripped and fell a few times, once into the small stream. He stopped to check his rifle. Wouldn’t do to have it plugged with mud when he needed it. He cleaned it off and used a small flashlight to verify it was in good shape. The light messed with his night vision for a few minutes, so he sat next to the stream to allow his eyes to adjust.

It was a tiny noise at first, just a faint rustling, a little louder than the stream or the grasses in the light breeze. He froze and listened harder, and it increased slowly. It was clearly something moving, something big. He stayed very still and tried to breath slowly and quietly, but his heart was racing. Snapping the goggles back down quietly, he very carefully looked back where the sound had come from. In moving he scraped something hard with his boot or rifle. He must have been heard, because there was a rush of noise and he turned in time to see a blur slipping across the top of the slope.

He froze in place for a few minutes, then slowly tracked up to where he had seen the movement. He found a faint path, and what might have been fresh tracks. Large, padded paw prints with large claws.

“Got ya,” he thought and smiled grimly.

He followed the path along the slope downstream for a couple of hundred yards, but wasn’t sure if he could see tracks. The path dropped down the slope and there was a darker spot against a clump of brush that turned out to be a hole into the side of the slope. Several feet in diameter, it was large enough for a large creature, or for him, to crawl in.

Sitting on his heels just below the opening, he considered his options. He had probably scared it earlier, so reasoned that it had returned to its den. He could wait for it to come out, but it was close enough to morning that it might stay there until the next night. If he could devise a trap, he could come back tomorrow night, but he didn’t want to leave now that he had it cornered. He might have scared it away from this den and it could be somewhere else tomorrow. Really, there was only one option.

He momentarily flashed on the bunkers in Vietnam, where soldiers had to crawl in to get the Cong. Or was it the underground caves in Afghanistan, where one soldier at a time could creep in after the Taliban, not knowing what lay ahead. Oh, he had always wished it could have been him in those wars. But tonight, it was his turn.

He taped the flashlight on the rifle barrel, sprawled out in front of the opening and crawled in. The light illuminated the dirt of the tunnel and the roots of vegetation dangling from the roof. Nothing moved, but he was uncertain of any noises, since his heartbeat and breathing were so loud. The tunnel widened as he proceeded and he shifted from his belly to his knees, then found he could crouch and duckwalk forward.

The dirt walls changed to a mixture of rock, concrete chunks and sand. He had to climb over a large pile of debris and under a huge tilted slab of concrete. Abruptly he was inside a concrete corridor that stretched off into the darkness beyond the reach of his light. He stood in a hallway, maybe a dozen feet wide and eight feet tall. It was dirty and dusty, and the air was a little stale with a mix of smells he couldn’t identify.

He was in one of the old underground structures that was supposed to be buried and sealed. He was amazed and used his light to trace the wires stretching the length of the hallway, intermittently interrupted by lights hanging from the ceiling. His breathing seemed unnaturally loud in the empty space.

The tunnel had breached the plug used to seal off this building. Looking back, he could see that the ceiling had caved in, probably when the heavy equipment had created the plug. Above the tunnel was another opening that seemed to go straight up.

Slowly, he moved down the corridor, reaching a cross-hallway that seemed to go several hundred feet each way off the central corridor. Ahead and to both sides, there were doorways off the corridor. He took a few steps down the left one, and noticed the odor had strengthened. He followed it down to the first door, which was open to reveal a bare concrete room roughly twenty feet square. Across the hall, the room was similar. Exploring carefully and quietly, he checked out a handful of nearly identical empty rooms.

He was barely aware of the smell, but could tell the air was thicker this way. A large open double door sat at the end of the corridor, and he heard some rustling and chittering as he approached. The floor was darker, and he slipped, “Oh shit!” he cried as he caught his balance against the wall.

Looking down he realized how appropriate that ejaculation was. The floor was running with what seemed to be gooey excrement. Carefully he shone his light into the room. At first it confused him, the ceiling was much higher, maybe twenty feet above. “Probably sized for some equipment,” he thought.

But this room wasn’t empty. The ceiling seemed to move, and as he looked he realized, “Bats!” He played his light over them, then backed away slowly, being careful not to slip or make a noise, he retreated back into the hallway. He shivered and trotted back to the main hallway, checking over his shoulder frequently.

Somewhat unnerved by the bats, he squatted against the wall and tried to calm himself. He shone the light down each of the remaining corridors. The right corridor appeared to be a mirror of the left one, but the main one remained hard to see very far along. He thought he had a better chance by checking the shorter one first, since the creature he was following was less likely to get past him without notice.

Everything about the right corridor matched the left one. Similar empty rooms continued until he reached the end. There the way was blocked by two large steel doors. He tried them and found them locked. They were sturdy and didn’t budge to his pushing, but he didn’t want to hammer or make much noise and didn’t try too hard.

Returning to the junction, he took the main corridor. No doorways appeared for the first hundred feet or so. As he went, several of the doors were closed, but opened when he tried them. Similar rooms, similar sizes, all empty.

He became aware of sticks and grasses littering the floor of the corridor. He thought maybe he could discern tracks or at least smudges of dirt on the floor as he went. They seemed to be trending to the left side of the corridor, and up ahead there was a low wide doorway. One of the two heavy steel doors was halfway open, and the room was partially filled with sticks and grasses. “A den,” he thought, “At last I’ve got him.”

Standing in the doorway, he surveyed the room. This ceiling was lower, maybe only a little higher than his head, and several large blocks of concrete were likely platforms for equipment. The brush was piled into nest-like shapes, mostly in the back of the room behind the blocks. Hearing no noise, he crept quietly to peer over the blocks. Nothing moved so he went in further.

As the light flashed across the further nest, a loud squealing started up, and he jumped nearly out of his skin. There in the back of the farthest nest, tan-colored, furry animals wriggled around. He noted the closed eyes and realized that they were baby prairie dogs. Except, maybe not babies. As he got nearer, something seemed out of scale. These babies were the size of a large pig or maybe a dog. German shepherd, or back lab or maybe even bigger. He was at once amazed and jubilant, “Proof,” he thought, “I knew what I saw but no one believed me.”

They would be too heavy and wiggly to carry, he thought, and he hadn’t brought his camera. He decided maybe the best bet would be to shoot one, then maybe he could drag it back to his car rather than try to carry it. He moved closer to the nest. Since the flashlight was still fixed on the rifle, all he had to do was aim and squeeze.

As he aimed, a slight noise intruded, and he turned with a start. Not four feet behind loomed a giant prairie dog, fully the size of a cow, blinking in the light. In its mouth it held the carcass of a freshly-killed badger. Behind it another figure loomed, also carrying something in its mouth.

“Food for the babies,” he thought. Turning, he scrambled to get around the cement block, swinging the light and rifle around jerkily. He tripped on something and landed on top of his rifle. The flashlight went out.

He crawled to try to pull the rifle up, but something, maybe a giant paw, stepped on the middle of his back and pinned him there.

The babies squealed and squealed and squealed — then went silent as they fed.