My chest planted in the ground, the sordid stench of damp earth was my entire world. I was deliberately coated in moss and mud, such that, even if trodden on, it would give the impression only of the soggy forest surrounding me. This perfect camouflage was a necessary precaution, but deeply uncomfortable. An infestation of cold seeped through my skin, as swirls of icy mist sliced through me, and thin droplets of condensation trembled from goosebump-addled flesh. Above, the cheery blue of day had grown sickly, with purple bruises breaking through the choking grey that now threatened to envelope the entire sky.
After several, aching hours of crawling, I had arrived close to a clearing in the woods. Before me, an innocuous little sign, somehow perfectly illuminated despite the gloom, had, however, given me pause. Keeping adjacent to the path frequented by various guards, straight and faithful to my left, had directed me here, though now abruptly ended. Even from my angle, I clearly read ‘Please stay on trail’. This was the precise, physical threshold, and I teetered on the edge. But there was no real question. The mental threshold, my decision to proceed, had long-been passed. This arbitrary juncture was surely an admission that the most determined would survive to this stage, having evaded all other security measures. Yet, it somehow froze me more than the chill of developing dusk, halted me more than any other obstacle. Innocent, pleading a perfectly reasonable request, it was, however, imbued with almost supernatural power and purpose, transcending far beyond its mild size. There was mocking, daring; despite all appearances it was desperate to lure me into the unknown. Free of the suffocating moss pervading every other inch of forest, these words of polite restraint dripped with secret scorn.
Skulking forwards, I resolved to complete my mission. It was vital I discover what lay, still barely out of sight, outside that thick, forest wall. As a great mass of floor, in inching shifts, I pressed towards the distant trees, still blurred by fog and fear. It was undoubtably something hideous, some product of vile experimentation shunned by their own disgust. Drawing closer, an urgent wind seemed to claw at my shoulders, its desperate grip begging me back towards the safety of the known path. The leaves rustled an anxious melody, a forlorn appeal to my deadened senses, whilst the clouds rolled in, anticipating an imminent spectacle, casting further, bleak grey darkness over the mist. Even the trees snatched murmured whispers amongst their elitist, secretive ranks. Their chorus swelled and blossomed into a dreadful cacophony until, it stopped.
Suddenly free of the trees, I saw it. So much more fearsome and grotesque than even the machinations of the most perverted imagination could conjure. My vacant eyes processed the scene across an eternity, barely registering the hideous tableau. Everything they had told us was a lie.
It confirmed to me the necessity of all the security measures I had just bypassed, whilst making me increasingly anxious to return with this news. Reaching this stage had been an operation involving weeks of planning, trusting only myself with any and every detail. Through preliminary reconnaissance, I had uncovered the two outer fences, four meters high, of flexible chain-linked steel, lethally barbed at the highest point. Attempting to navigate them alone seemed impossible, even removing the regular guard patrols which enhanced the difficulty. Months ago, my first, unwary probe into the woods had foolishly blundered into one of the many traps littered about the ground, the dense forest riddled with hidden cameras. These alerted the central security compound, capable of dispatching a hundred guards with immediate effect. An experience I would never forget, though I had barely even reached the first fence. Thankfully, then, I had passed for an overly-inquisitive but harmless wanderer. I could scarcely fathom the treatment my current actions would warrant.
Under the guise of maintaining secrecy, it was clear to me the relevance of this security. This company, still shrouded in mystery, had offered assurances to the residents of my struggling community that it was to our benefit. Instead, they obviously wanted to guarantee we would never witness the horrors of their work. But now I had. If only I could return, laden with my burden of knowledge, a fruitful warning, we could advocate the dismissal of this rotten presence from our lives, rid ourselves of their oppressive shackles.
Before departing, I took pictures as evidence, praying they would emerge, even if my body did not. The return journey would be almost impossible, even compared to the outward trials.
Morphing into the dirt, in my slithering, my body rode through soil clumps like crashing waves. I was captivated by the same spirit of the first inter-continental explorers, intrepidly embarking upon new discoveries. It transported me away from the agonising care with which I conducted the kilometre of wading back to the fences. The outside of the security complex had been completely abandoned. That was one element of the plan. Still, it afforded me little comfort, and I took no risks. I was flat, advancing like a sloth.
The cloudy dusk was generous, but easily penetrated by the severe spotlight beams blasted through the night, alive with that sterile electric hum. For the first time, I considered the absence of any wildlife. It seemed the continuously disorientating faux-daylight must have driven it from this realm. I was completely alone, but the challenge had only just begun.
The significance of the compound’s desertion had crawled over me in icy tendrils of heavy dread, injecting my veins with poisonous doubt. Just ahead, proving my anxieties accurate, clustered a mob of armed guards, curiously inspecting a prominent tear in the fence line. Evidently, it had drawn much of their attention: similar regiments were speckled across the entire line of fence at equal intervals, seeming to vanish any notion of escape into the inky vacuum of space.
Hours earlier, I had cut that fence. From prior investigation, I had deduced that it was alarmed, and not a viable route to pursue directly. Thankfully, the fence only extended a metre into the ground, and had been out-tunnelled in a painstaking endeavour, over the course of virtually a month. Today, this cack-handed gouge into the fence had proved an effective diversion, leading their focus away from the path into the woods, but now immeasurably heightened the challenge of my mission. Representing a swarming plague of disease, the fence-line boiled like a wound fresh with maggots. I had to reach my burrow, like a frightened rabbit. Trying to gauge their attitudes, the location of the tunnel was drawing far less attention than the fence slit, so was perhaps undiscovered. That was my first objective. Everything was about timing.
My moss-suit brought me within five meters of the opening. Waiting, interminable, until they collectively gazed elsewhere, I lurched forwards in an awkward gallop, still pressed low.
My tunnel was a haven of fleeting safety, eagerly engulfing me as I permitted a momentary pause. I had to detect a shift in their attention from my spot, and run. My excruciating efforts to remain invisible now had to be discarded with reckless abandonment. Merely reaching the outskirts of the community, my message could be heard. A short dash, two hundred yards.
Somewhere close, voices amplified in volume, resonating all around my cocoon of dirt. Flecks of soil fell as dust onto my skin, the whole earth trembling with the proximity of footsteps. I felt sick. A torchlight briefly flashed into my hole. Would they uncover the opening, leaving me hopelessly stranded? It was all a matter of trust. My tracks were sufficiently covered, I was sure. Unless, here I was, stupidly, impotently, waiting upon my inevitable discovery. Tension drummed downwards, as clumps of soil now fell.
I felt them pass overhead. Everything paused.
They had me. I was certain. Bursting from hiding, I erupted into a sprint, piercing the ring of five guards circling the entrance. Sizzling with adrenaline and burning with a crackle of hot terror, I thundered through the darkness, with flailing arms and debris. I screamed ‘IT’S A LIE’ into the hollow darkness, colluding with the wind in a pleading covenant to carry my words forth. Seething with the indignant fury of one proven right, I was unstoppable, surging into the trees,
I smacked my head on a tree, and was down.
For one second, the earth was again my home, until I was hauled upright by arms around my shoulders and dragged back to the fence. Dazed, weeping, I could muster no sound. All my energy immediately drained, a searing pain pulsating against my temples. Foolishly, stupidly, I merely cried.
My suspicions were right. I knew the truth, but I had failed. My community had been imprisoned for years, now. With little explanation, this occupying force had promised to defend us against the desolation of climate change to our forest. By their insistence, we had little choice, leaving only faith in their good intentions. Instead, we were throttled, at the hands of an arrogant and wanton abuser. The forest, once running luscious and unimpeded, was our true homestead. We had sensed it growing weaker, the wildlife less abundant, the trees less vibrant. They had promised to deliver its restoration and with it, our own. Only in the hopes of that project, had we gradually surrendered our liberties. But I had seen, with my own eyes, the truth. Where my forest once bloomed, it was nothing but decaying wasteland, a bare plain of hopeless mud. An empty blanket of soiled land.
That delicate little sign was a loathing command. No one would ever know.
This was inspired by Creative Writing Ink’s prompt (picture credit to them) – check out their website here:
Thanks for reading! This is my first attempt at posting any creative writing online, so I would love any feedback below – positive or criticism – on either the writing or the formatting. Feel free to check out some of my other short stories too!
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