On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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It was called Ağrı Dağı in Turkish, but to the Armenians it was sacred Մասիս. Despite lying outside of their borders, it was their national symbol, and central in the country’s coat of arms.
The English-speaking world knew it as Ararat. Over five thousand metres at the greater peak, and thirty-five kilometres wide at ground level, myth and legend had shrouded the mountain for millennia.
Those who believed in the great flood said that it was the final resting place of Noah’s Ark, and satellite imagery of a glacial anomaly amongst its snow capped upper slopes had been claimed as evidence that the vast ship remained there to this day. For a long time, climbing either of the peaks was forbidden for religious reasons. In modern times, special military permission was required, a Turkish guide was mandatory, and any straying from established climbing routes could result in coming under fire without warning.
All with good reason, of course. We’ve been operating in the general vicinity of Ararat for more than seventy years, and the tourists and alpinists and pilgrims are a pain in the backside. Too many eyes, and these days, every pair of eyes is accompanied by a pocket-sized videocamera too.
We’ve been lucky, but we’ve also been careful. There’s nobody luckier than someone who’s well-prepared.
The first secret international conference regarding the Ararat problem was held in 1942, and even the Germans attended. Some things were larger, in every sense, than warfare. The conference was between only eight nations, with others admitted very infrequently and begrudgingly into enlightenment ever since.
Almost of a quarter of the way through an entirely new century, the situation has evolved but not materially changed. We have permanent satellite and covert overflight surveillance of the mountain, and a mesh of sensors installed all over its surface. We have a real-time and constant seismic and electromagnetic analysis of the entire massif. Most importantly, we also have the capability to launch a devastating strike within seconds, intended to reduce much of the rock elevation to dust, and render the surrounding area utterly uninhabitable for decades. The yield of the weapons pointed towards Ararat at all times is in excess of five thousand megatons, and the warheads, delivery and launch systems, and base installations are subject to perpetual readiness evaluations.
Nonetheless, we suspect that they’re all worthless for their intended purpose.
We strive to create new technologies of ever-more-apocalyptic destruction, also in secret, with no intention of ever using any of it against foreign nations. Virtually all advanced weapons research in the latter half of the twentieth century, and beyond into these opening decades of the twenty-first, had as its primary and secret intention to completely disintegrate the entire landscape around Ararat, if the need should arise.
Many of us, whether we’re theoreticians, soldiers, strategists, physicists, or anything else, live in fear of that eventuality. And even the most pacifist among us would trigger the launch without question if the omega scenario were to become active. We receive weekly psychotherapy as a mandatory condition of appointment to our very unique multinational task force.
We keep a tally of all the people we’ve lost. Surprisingly few, given that our organisation has existed for the best part of eighty years. The figure currently stands at only one hundred and seventeen, with a direct fatality rate of zero at time of exposure. We haven’t even had a single loss since the millennium. But it’s always a possibility, each and every day.
If anyone was foolish enough to climb Ararat beyond the reserved ascent areas, they would be shot immediately by Turkish troops. We pass it off as the usual blend of a trigger-happy regime and religious overprotectiveness, and the government in Ankara grumbles but allow us to perpetuate that unflattering perception.
In the nigh-impossible event that someone managed to evade our surveillance net during such an ascent, and reached a particular point near to the greater peak but somewhat below it on the southern side, they would come upon a very heavily guarded natural opening in the rock face, concealed by a security door with camouflage that makes it almost invisible to the naked eye.
If our rogue climber were somehow to penetrate that security door, evade the shoot-on-sight team of guards who are on rotating thirty-minute duty shifts, and then proceed down the rough-hewn incline within the mountain, they would reach something that they wouldn’t be able to explain: a column, of the same rock as the mountain itself, aglow with self-luminescent glyphs. The glyphs are indecipherable, not just in terms of amassed human knowledge, but also intrinsically and by design. They cannot be understood, and nor can they be perceived in any stable manner. They’re like writing in a dream; fluid from one glance to the next.
Going further in, another column. And another. And dozens more. We’ve mapped several hundred in the passageways surrounding the primary chamber. All are impervious to harm, not that we’ve tried very hard. The columns are our first — and probably last — line of defence.
Leaving the perimeter passageways via any of the multitude of openings along their length would admit our hypothetical nosy mountaineer to the primary chamber, which we call the cell. A smoothly excavated cavern of almost two kilometres in diameter of general floor area, and more than a kilometre in greatest height, it simply should not exist given the time period during which it seems to have been created. But in comparison to its occupant, it’s positively mundane.
The creature is of unknown exact height, but the portion protruding from the subterranean area below the primary chamber is at least eight hundred metres tall. Its general profile is that of an upright primordial arthropod, species unknown, with numerous atypical appendages given the assumed phylum. Eyes, if those organs have been correctly identified at all, are distributed widely and irregularly over the visible body surface. The creature does not appear to age or deteriorate, and has no obvious means of ingesting sustenance. It is immune to small arms fire, grenades, anti-tank ordinance, and various other weaponry. Further testing is difficult given the risk of cave-in, and fear of damaging the columns.
Any human being coming under the creature’s gaze — the direct sight of any of its many eyes — suffers a virtually instantaneous, irreversible, and catastrophic psychological breakdown. These individuals fairly often attempt to throw themselves off the interior precipice and towards the creature, but are repelled by whatever force the columns generate, accompanied by a very impressive light show and electrical disturbances. This seems to cause great agitation to the creature every time, but no perceivable injury.
We’ve retrieved several of the victims, all of whom remain in states of profound emotional trauma. Disorganised thoughts and crazed utterances are laced with visions of biblical apocalypse, and the creature’s dominion over all life on the planet. In every case, the victims are prone to acts of animalistic violence without provocation, and in the moments after their first exposure to the creature, they consistently show a desire to destroy the columns. We believe that these individuals have fallen under the creature’s control.
The columns are shackles, of a type we don’t understand, but it’s futile to try and avoid the obvious word: they are magical in nature. Inscribed in an unknown and unknowable language, the very shape of the glyphs seems sufficient to imbue the inscriptions with power, whose ultimate source is equally unknown. Our scientists believe that the phenomenon may only be comprehensible to intelligences and sensory organs alien to our own. Whatever their means of operation, the columns have held the creature imprisoned in its vast cell within the icy mountain for many thousands of years.
Should it ever manage to leave its tomb, a situation we refer to as the omega scenario, our surveillance imaging systems will give us at least several milliseconds of warning, and a cobalt-nuclear strike will be launched automatically. Our best estimates show that, if successful, up to eighty-five million people will die as a result of shockwave, fallout, and secondary contamination. This is the ideal outcome.
If unsuccessful, we believe that within a maximum of twenty-six days after its escape, no human being on earth will remain sane. Given sufficient time thereafter, the death toll will be total.
And so we wait, and we watch tirelessly, and we hope that it will remain entombed in the darkness within and below Ararat, holding its contagious madness in its own mind for eternity.
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