Our company had been tasked with a geological survey of Fallenfield Mountain in southwestern Kentucky. Situated at the intersection of the Cumberland and Allegheny Mountains and the Cumberland Plateau, it stands at the center of a depression in the terrain entirely uncharacteristic of the surrounding area.
Having recently acquired a permit from the state for a fracking exploration, the petroleum company that hired us was anxious to see what they could exploit in this new area. We were to set out as soon as possible.
We began our hike on a Monday morning. The weather was predicted to be favorable and the four of us were excited to cover some ground. We stopped at a small store near the edge of the forest to purchase last-minute supplies and anything else we thought we might need. It wasn’t a particularly difficult journey ahead of us, but we wanted to be prepared.
While we were browsing, an employee began a conversation with Jake Lemont, one of our geologists. Jake was forthcoming, as we were under no obligation to keep our work secret. I walked the aisles and drifted in and out of their conversation, which grew noticeably more animated as time went by. The employee was not keen on the mountain being used for petroleum exploration. It turned out he wasn’t speaking from an environmental standpoint.
In the 1940s and 1950s, multiple coal companies had attempted to mine the area around Fallenfield Mountain. Each attempt had resulted in the deaths of local miners. Due to the hideous regulatory framework surrounding the mining industry in the mid-20th century, little was done about it. The companies just shut down the mines and moved elsewhere. According to the employee, who had lost his father in one of those accidents, we were setting ourselves up for another disaster.
Undeterred, we began our trek at 10am.
As expected, the first day’s hike was pleasant. Gorgeous weather and lovely scenery kept our spirits high. Around 6:30pm, we set up camp for the night. Raphael built a fire while Jake and Matteo went fishing in the nearby river. An hour later, they came back with a couple beautiful fish. They scaled and cleaned them and before I knew it, we were enjoying a spectacular meal in the woods.
We had two tents and I shared mine with Raphael. We got to sleep shortly after 9pm. Around 2am, we were awakened by a strange, droning sound far in the distance.
“There’s a military base about a hundred miles from here,” Raph told me. “It sounds like they’re doing engine testing or something.”
I nodded and forgot about it. I slept like a log for the rest of the night.
We broke down the tents and were all packed up by 7:30 the next morning. We ate on the go. The walk grew more difficult as the terrain became rugged. We were in the mountains now. They weren’t sheer, towering slabs of rock, but they still took time to hike up and over or, in most cases, go around. We were decked out with climbing equipment for when we needed to climb, and once we reached Fallenfield we knew we would have to, but we wanted to keep it to a minimum. Despite us all being trained climbers, we didn’t feel like we needed to take any unnecessary risks.
Toward the middle of the day, we heard the droning sound again. It was louder now and birds took to the air, squawking in protest. The four of us looked around, trying to get an idea of where it could be coming from. Raph reiterated his explanation to Matteo and Jake about the military base, but he seemed more uncertain this time. We’d been walking in the opposite direction of the base all day. The sound should have been getting quieter. It wasn’t.
We pushed ahead, interrupted frequently by the drone and the subsequent stopping and speculating by the four of us about what it could be. Jake even used the sat phone to call up the company and ask if there was any industries or stations in the area that we didn’t know about. In fact, there were.
The abandoned remains of three coal mining operations stood on the edge of the basin surrounding Fallenfield Mountain. None of them had been in use since the late 1950s and had long succumbed to the wilderness. In the 1990s, the state had sent crews to the sites to seal up the more dangerous aspects of the facilities like the mine shafts, the furnaces, and whatnot, but from what our company would tell us, their multiple flyover surveys showed no activity around there whatsoever. If the sound was coming from those abandoned sites, they had no idea why. This information did little to put us at ease.
Toward the end of the day when we were setting up camp, I realized it’d been hours since we’d heard the droning. I felt good about that, and the feeling lasted about three hours. That was when it started to rain.
Jake called the company and we got bad news: it looked like there was a cold front that had reached us sooner than expected. The next 48 hours were going to be a washout. We were encouraged to continue walking, but we were cautioned to take our time and be careful.
The rain pelted our tents all night and soaked us from head to toe the next day. Rivers swelled and ran over their banks, dirt became clingy mud, and visibility went down to only a few feet. Still, onward we trudged. There was no hint of the droning noise at all that day, and after a while it had been 24 hours since we’d last heard it. All we heard was the rain, wind, and the cascade of profanity from our group as we tried to push forward.
Mid afternoon, the rain intensified. We gave up trying to walk and set up camp. Everything was muddy. Everything was wet. Everyone was cold. We huddled together and shared a bottle of whiskey Matteo had brought, which helped a little.
When it was dark, Jake and Matteo decided to call it a night and went to their own tent. Raph zipped himself in his sleeping bag and was snoring within three minutes. Eventually I fell asleep and was met by frequent, vivid nightmares. The drone permeated my dreams and carried unintelligible whispers within it. I felt like I was being pulled through the forest toward those abandoned mining facilities and the mountain behind them.
At some point after dawn, after Raph had left the tent to presumably take a leak, he rushed back a declared, “Matt and Jake are gone.”
Still bleary eyed from the atrocious night of sleep I’d gotten, I croaked out, “what?”
“Matteo. Jake. They’re gone. Their tent is a wreck and they left a trail of their stuff going out into the woods.”
Now Raph had my full attention.
“What are you talking about?,” I asked, knowing exactly what he was talking about but still unable to comprehend why they would’ve done something like that.”
“Let’s go,” Raphael said, and started packing up.
I extricated myself from the sleeping bag and got dressed. Raph pulled the tent down after me. Within ten minutes, we were following the trail of food and sleeping bags and clothes through the sopping forest.
“Did you call Becky and Hansen to let them know what happened?,” I asked Raph.
He shook his head. “Jake has the sat phone.”
We traveled in silence for well over an hour. Neither of us had experience tracking anything through the woods, let alone in the driving rain. Still, Jake and Matteo had left a trail of belongings that made it easy enough. We found the sat phone, waterlogged and destroyed, in a puddle next to a tree. We found their shirts soon after. And their pants. And shoes.
Eight hours later, I looked at my watch. 3pm. The rain pummeled us.
“How far do you figure we are from those mining facilities,?” I asked Raph.
“Hard to tell. We’re probably a few hours away, then another hour or two from Fallenfield.”
Sure enough, three hours later, as the light in the forest washed away, we stood in front of a large, dilapidated industrial building. One of the mining facilities.
Raph noticed one of the windows on the ground floor was broken, and he suggested we go inside and set up camp for the night. I stared at the rusty, metal facade of the old building. I didn’t like the looks of it. Not at all. Still, with daylight ticking away and the constant, god damned rain, I knew it was what we had to do. We climbed in.
It was dark inside. Not pitch black, but hazy gray. The windows were covered in grime and let in little of the remaining daylight. Shadowy silhouettes of decaying mining equipment loomed around us – ore extractors, conveyor belts, furnaces, and a whole bunch of things I couldn’t recognize.
The air was still. The rain on the metal ceiling sounded like gunshots.
“I don’t see a sign of them in here,” Raph observed. “I was hoping they would’ve come to take shelter on the way to wherever they were headed.”
I didn’t answer. My eyes were acclimating to the dimness. I studied the massive room for a minute or two.
“What do you think?” asked Raph.
“I don’t think we’ll get anywhere tonight in this rain,” I told him. Raph nodded. He began laying out our sodden sleeping bags.
For the first couple hours, I didn’t sleep. I gazed at the ceiling and let my mind wander to terrible places where Matteo and Jake were dead or dying in a flooded ravine, screaming for help. I imagined them caught under rocks after a landslide, bodies broken and covered with mud, waiting for wolves or bears to finish them off.
When the rain tapered off at 3am, I slept. Again, I felt as if I were being pulled toward Fallenfield Mountain. The pull was soft and seductive, like a lover guiding me by hand into the bedroom. More droning came through my slumber – not bellowing, but still insistent, like heavy breath in my ears. I thought heard more whispers in that breath. The voices sounded like Matteo and Jake.
It was as if they were inviting me to come get them.
When I woke up at 6:15, Raph wasn’t next to me. His clothes lay crumpled on his sleeping bag. Across the room, the far window was broken. When I went over to investigate, I saw fresh blood on the glass. I knew whose it was.
I realized that all the objectives of my original job had to be put on the back burner. I needed to do a number of things:
The first was to find my colleagues. I didn’t know what had happened, but there was no way I’d leave them.
Second, and I surprised myself by how far away this second priority was, I had to get myself out of there safely — if only to warn the company not to send others out here.
Third, if this could even be considered a possibility, if everything turned out to be a bizarre case of happenstance, the four of us could continue the survey. But that might as well have been a joke.
I gathered the minimal supplies I had remaining and set off.
Right outside the property of the mining facility was the descent into Fallenfied Basin. It wasn’t particularly steep, but it went a long way down through mud and pulverized shards of rock. I guess the best way to describe Fallenfield Mountain is that it’s like a castle surrounded by a moat. Luckily for me, there wasn’t much water I’d have to slog through.
There was some, though, and it was doubtless more than usual thanks to the rain we’d had to deal with. As I trudged ahead, I was greeted by that same droning sound, louder than ever. There were no whispers, though. For that, I was thankful. I could attribute the droning to the military base, despite it being nowhere near me anymore. The whispers, though — those were the stuff of nightmares. I didn’t know what I’d do if I heard those while wide awake.
It took three hours to get to the bottom of Fallenfield Basin. I’d been forced to change paths multiple times due to flooding and mud that threatened to bury me to my chin. A few times, I saw depressions in the mud that could have been the footprints of my colleagues. They didn’t lead anywhere, though — just to more water or mud. For all I knew, I could have passed them without noticing hours ago.
It didn’t matter. I knew, if they’d survived, they would have gone toward the mountain. My memories how I felt when I slept made me certain they’d experienced the same sensation of being pulled. Except, in their cases, it seemed like it had been more than just a sensation. It had been a compulsion.
Sometime around 10:00, I reached the base of Fallenfield Mountain. I studied its heavily-forested side, grateful I wouldn’t have to be climbing up sheer rock-faces until much later in the ascent. The wooded climb, while steep, wasn’t very difficult. Even my unclothed, supply-lacking colleagues could have done it. Why they would have, however, eluded me. And terrified me.
Two hours were spent climbing up the wooded mountainside. The trees grew sparse after that. Sheets of rock replaced forest soil. I starting using my climbing axe. I thought to myself there was no way the three guys could have gotten this far. They simply weren’t equipped to handle the climb.
A half hour later, as I maneuvered the climbing axe into a fissure in the rock face, I saw a streak of red. I looked closer. A detached finger was sticking out of the crack.
A wave of nausea and vertigo rolled through me and I almost lost my balance. I took a few deep breaths. Summoning up my courage, I plucked it out. It wasn’t old. And it was definitely human. I looked up the slab I was climbing. The red streaks continued onward up the mountain. I shuddered and dropped it. A second later, the sky was split by the loudest droning sound yet.
The rocks shook and I hugged the wall as tightly as possible. It only lasted for a few seconds. Every part of me wanted to turn around and go back. I’d get to the bottom and walk all day and all night, however long it took, to get me back into town. “Forget those guys,” I kept telling myself. “They’re the ones who left you, not the other way around.”
Those were the thoughts that echoed through my consciousness as I climbed.
I was on autopilot from that point forward. My mind shouted “go back!” while my body pulled itself up Fallenfield Mountain. Now I understood how the others had been compelled. Up and up and up and up I went. My body was baking in the sunlight. It was so unbearably hot. Hotter than it should have been. Hotter than it could have been. I found myself shucking off articles of clothing every chance I got. It could have been my imagination, but I would have sworn I saw steam coming from cracks and crevices in the rock.
There was a point when I knew I had to be near the peak. Fallenfield Mountain is a little more than four thousand feet high. When I looked over my shoulder, I knew I had to be close. I hauled myself onto the edge of an indentation in the rock and realized, after a moment spent catching my breath and trying to regain a semblance of self control, how deep the indentation really was.
I’d reached the mouth of a cave. From floor to ceiling, it was probably fifty feet high. It didn’t go back particularly far; I could see the rear of it maybe a hundred yards back. I got up and walked forward. I was wearing nothing but my shoes and underwear and still I felt like I was boiling in my skin. Another drone shook the mountain. That time, I was sure I saw steam oozing from the fissures in the rock.
I smelled it, too. It was like charred, rotting meat. I saw things stuffed inside the cracks. Dead animals, mostly birds and squirrels in various stages of decomposition. My brain fired its “run away!” messages over and over and over but my body simply ignored them.
In the distance, dim against the rock at the rear of the cave, I saw three shapes. I walked toward them. Before I could make out what they were, I knew who they were. A few seconds later, I was standing in front of the bodies of Raphael, Jake, and Matteo. Their fingers were worn down to bloody nubs. Their toes were almost all gone. Even their teeth were missing and their gums were frayed all the way to their jaw bones. I felt profoundly ill.
Another drone. This time, it felt deeper and more resonant. Before my eyes, a chasm opened in the rock below my three colleagues. They dropped inside, maybe two feet. Steam erupted from below and the odor of charring flesh filled the cave. I backed up and clutched the wall to my left, just for a second, when I felt the rock move against my back.
I whirled around, surprised I had that much control over my body. It was as if whatever had been compelling me had brought me to that one spot and released its hold. I stared at the spot that had moved. Eight, shiny black ovals dotted the surface of the granite wall, each about two feet high and a foot and a half wide. They were featureless.
The steam from the corpses of my colleagues had gotten thick and choking. It was hard to see what had happened on the wall. I got closer to one of the ovals, my face only inches away, when it moved. The shiny blackness slid apart on either side. A colossal, gazing eye stared back at me. In my peripheral vision, I could see that the seven others had done the same.
I screamed and struck one with my axe. Thick, yellow fluid squirted out onto the floor. The droning sound exploded from all around and the mountain shook as if an earthquake were tearing it apart.
I took off running toward the mouth of the cave. I could see, all along the walls, more and more of the eyes were opening. Their vile pupils followed my movement. I struck a few more with my axe as I ran, trying not to fall as the shaking threatened to hurl me to the ground.
In a panic, I looked over my shoulder at the rear of the cave. The entire back portion had fallen away, revealing a cluster of more eyes, fifty feet high thirty wide. They glared as I ran.
Around me, more rock faces started to change. Not just eyes, this time. Limbs. They twitched and writhed and seethed and enveloped; how things so large could move with such serpentine agility confounded me, but the confusion only came long after the fact. In the moment, terror was all I felt. Detached, otherworldly terror.
I reached the ledge that had brought me to the cave, fully expecting I would jump off and fall and leave my fate to chance. The mountain had changed, however. It was sinking into the ground. The sheer faces I’d climbed were now like leathery, pocketed flesh. And they were at an angle I could run on.
My imagination whirled even as I ran. I imagined impossible things chasing me. I imagined the ground lurching and heaving with hideous breath and grasping limbs; things that couldn’t actually be happening, but in my stark horror, I knew they were real. The mountain bellowed what sounded like words and phrases and chants and I felt my eardrums crackling and fraying. My feet pounded the porous ground as I ran away, hearing over the noise the slithering and hissing fronds of formerly solid rock following after me.
I reached the forested side of the mountain and fell. I somersaulted and whirled through the air, striking the ground and trees with such force I felt bones break, but the impacts slowed me enough that the subsequent hits weren’t strong enough to kill me. I saw nothing but swirling sky and ground, but that drone, that hideous, cacophonous drone filled my head and embedded itself into my mind. The last thing I remembered was landing in the mud of Fallenfield Basin and staring into the blue, cloudless sky. My world washed away in a sea of blue.
I awoke to searing, wrenching pain in my left shoulder and ankle. My eyes opened to an orange, late-afternoon sunset.
I struggled in the mud, the whole event rushing back to me in a series of disjointed flashes. Writhing in the muck like a worm, I found a system of roots that allowed me to roll over and hoist myself up on my one leg that wasn’t ruined. I pulled a branch over to me and put it under my good arm and stared in disbelief at what was in front of me.
Or, rather, what wasn’t.
Fallenfield Mountain was gone. In its place was a gaping hole. Water from the basin oozed into it, falling along its edges but dropping so far I couldn’t hear it land. There were no trees. No rocks.
I don’t remember how I managed to get back to town or how long it took me. All I knew was a steady, relentless stretch of pain and sleeplessness. I was found unconsciousness in a residential driveway on the outskirts of town and woke up in a hospital what turned out to be two weeks later. I returned to work a week after that.
I expected there to be more of a story when the public learned about the disappearance of an entire mountain. Our company did a good job keeping its actual findings quiet, though. Once they’d debriefed me and sent me back to work at the headquarters, the explanation that everyone ran with was “an earthquake caused by experimental fracking technology.” The news media loved the opportunity to take on the practices of a fossil fuel company and the public ate it out of their hands.
We took some heavy losses and endured a public relations nightmare, but only I and the upper brass and a few researchers at the company knew the truth.
It was a year later, once I’d healed up and the outrage had died down, that I believed I had the emotional fortitude to look into the actual events of those days. I pressed my higher-ups to let me see what I could find. It didn’t take much pressure. They wanted to know just as badly as I did. The last thing they needed was another “incident” like what I’d been through.
I sat with the researchers and studied the early surveys of Fallenfield. Nothing hinted that anything organic lurked under or inside the mountain – certainly nothing that could have alluded to what it actually was.
Months went by and we were at a loss. All the analyses of Fallenfield came back looking no different than any of the other mountains in the area. It was only when Ingrid, a senior researcher who’d formerly worked for the companies that had owned the old mining facilities surrounding the mountain, remembered they had conducted studies of the rocks on the outskirts of Fallenfield Mountain, in the basin.
Those rocks, it turned out, were of a different composition than those in the rest of the mountain range. They were rich in iron and had hallmarks of things Ingrid called “carbonaceous chondrites.” When she announced this, I noticed the jaws of some of the other researchers fall open. I wasn’t sure what she meant, so I inquired.
“Carbonaceous chondrites are a type of meteorite,” Ingrid said, her voice slow and thoughtful. “It means a large one hit there at some point.”
It took me a minute, but it all came together after that. For so long, we’d wondered why Fallenfield Mountain was at the center of a depression. It didn’t make any geological sense, but we’d just chalked it up to being “one of those things.” But now, it all clicked. Fallenfield Mountain hadn’t somehow risen from the center of what we’d called Fallenfield Basin. Fallenfield Basin had been an impact crater. And the mountain had been something else entirely.