Beneath the Nameless City
Summary: In postwar Iraq, a squad of US Marines are trapped with two strange researchers in a prehuman underground city.
I left the Nameless City, but the Nameless City never left me. It was about a decade ago, but those memories are forever seared into my mind. My eyes remember sights meant for no human. My body remembers sensations beyond the reach of human language. My nose remembers the pungent, miasmic odors of those cramped tunnels. My ears remember the otherworldly ululations that echoed through those lost corridors. My skin remembers pressing against those squamous, rugose hides. And those are merely the senses I can properly relate in words.
I will nevertheless try to render you that service, as that's why you're here. Tell me, Sam, you don't think I can't sense your unease? Oh, come now, I can sense what's going on, beyond that false bravado. I see your pupils dilate by ten percent. I see perspiration shifting your skin conductivity by half an ohm. I see blood flow into your eyes, as though anticipating an attack. Not that I blame you, because I know you're new at this.
I know why they entrusted a novice like you with my debriefing. I can smell the professionals from a mile away. They wanted someone they thought would put me at ease. They wanted someone expendable, some sap they could lock in the tiger cage. You know what? I'm not here to break you, like the last fool they sent in. I'm here to warn you, and the chickenshit cowards beyond you, exactly what they're dealing with. I'm going to warn you they can't control what they're hoping to. I guess my first debriefing was ignored, and some upstart paper-pusher thinks they can get more out of me. I'll be happy to tell the story again, even if it will get them nowhere. Especially if it will get them nowhere.
Back before I vanished into this rancid hole, I was officially known as Lance Corporal Gabriel Marquez of the United States Marine Corps. Unofficially, I've been known as Mark since Parris Island. In 2007, I was deployed in Iraq as part of the surge. I remember a few engagements, but none as thoroughly as the one you're interested in. That's the sort of experience one never forgets.
I remember driving there in a Humvee with Sergeant Hodgson, the hulking non-com that bestrode our squad like an ebony titan. His stentorian voice echoed over the staccato of machinegun fire, and it was due to him we survived dozens of firefights. I didn't know much about his personal life, but he'd always be reading books on history and philosophy. I'd heard he was studying for a degree online, with the ultimate aim of attending OCS. I'd always thought he'd be a great mustang officer.
We had two PFCs with us, Private Hastane and Private Swanson. Hastane was a reliable young man, although I knew he was something of an aspiring poet. He'd be writing blank verse in this copybook he'd lug around with his kit. I barely knew Swanson, as he'd been transferred in from another unit. From that brief interval he was with us, he was unremarkably competent at the tasks to which he was assigned.
The reason we were driving to the middle of the Iraqi desert was to provide security for two VIPs, archaeologists there to determine if insurgents or looters had damaged the dig site they'd been excavating earlier. They'd been chased off by an insurgents in the previous year, but their return was blocked due to bureaucratic delays. There were no reports of enemy activity in the area, but we were nevertheless sent to provide security.
Driving through the featureless Iraqi deserts was always an exercise in monotony. I overheard a discussion between Sergeant Hodgson and one of the VIPs, Dr. Sean Pullman of Miskatonic University. Pullman was a spindly man with a rat-like countenance, who spoke in an accent I could not quite place. He was explaining to Hodgson the shortcomings of prior work into the city known as Ubar or Irem in the Quran, and the Nameless City spoken of in al-Azif. I remember he said the two were wrongly conflated with each other, especially as the latter was far older than the former. The dig, he stated, would prove that theory concisely. I remember listening in due to how empty the horizons were in all directions, in desperate need of any sort of stimulation.
When we stopped, I caught my first glimpse at Dr. Pullman's associate, a postdoc named Dr. Sarah Mason. I recalled she dressed in a hooded trench-coat that looked like she'd stepped out of a film noir detective's office. I hoped it was lighter than it looked, given how hot it was. She carried herself with a particularly haughty stride, as though she was in a royal court of sycophants instead of a desolate desert wasteland. Her silence was nevertheless preferable to Dr. Pullman's incessant yammering.
As we got out of the Humvees, we were surrounded by an ochre cloud of dust. Even through that sallow sand, I felt the heat of a simoom come across my face. Burrowing my face in a scarf and sunglasses, I struggled to look for familiar geometries. Before my shaded vision, the sandstone buildings stood like dark, predatory beasts ready to pounce. I thought I heard some peel of musical metal, some otherworldly chime, resounding beneath my feet. The others turned their heads to search for the source, and I took small solace in the fact I was not hearing things.
The sandstorm dissipated rather rapidly, and I took the chance to brush myself off. The Sergeant ordered us to check our weapons, as they'd jam like rock stars in the ubiquitous sand. I remembered how eager the Corps was to exchange our M4s for something more reliable, like an HK 416 or even an AR-18 pattern design. Tragically, our current weapons were stuck with the same delicate direct gas impingement system that had been the bane of our forebears in Vietnam. Even with more reliable weapons, I had little doubt the incident would've turned out the same.
Dr. Pullman was overeager to descend into a series of trenches cut between the buildings. In the desert sun, we beheld the signs of recent earthmoving: loose soil, dropped shovels, and hastily-filled trenches. The treacherous soil around us could easily conceal a minefield's worth of IEDs and other unpleasant surprises. Strangely, there was no signs of human activity aside from that, as though they were filled in hastily in prior months. I received the impression that whomever held the site between the archaeologists' banishment and return wished to conceal what they were digging up. The land was avoided by Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish factions alike, but any one of them might seek to exploit the wartime void. Power and nature abhor a vacuum.
In contrast, Dr. Mason advanced cautiously behind us, as though sensing the invisible burden of history that place held. The only structures we saw were three empty stone houses, all empty structures that once comprised a deserted village. While we saw no insurgents there or on the horizon, I saw even Sergeant Hodgson felt uneasy at that place. We were in an ancient country, and we stood upon soil trodden by history's greatest conquerors. From Sargon of Akkad to us, we'd been the latest of human polities to venture into this sandblasted hell. Like those antiquarian invaders, we too bled and died here.
I was distracted from such macabre ruminations by Dr. Pullman frantically brushing dirt off a steel door behind one of the houses. Since he'd worked here before, I presume he know the site better than we did. Privates Hastane and Swanson joined of their own volition, as they were both clearly bored out of their minds. Noting the padlock on the steel door was apparently untouched, I saw the archaeologist's excitement rise as he jammed a rusted key into the lock. He took a long, suspenseful breath before turning it. The chain around the door fell, and the Sergeant interposed himself between the overeager explorer and the subterranean portal.
"Could be trapped," he said. "Step back."
Dr. Pullman opened his lips, as if to protest, but no words came out. Instead, Hodgson loaded a breaching slug into his underbarrel Masterkey shotgun, and blasted the hinge off the door. The door partially collapsed into the stairwell beneath, and Hodgson examined the aperture with his flashlight. Seeing no tripwires or structural damage, he gave the all-clear to us. I recalled a radio broadcast that our Quick Reaction Force was bogged down with an ambush, so we'd have to fight smart if we ran into anything.
"Was that really necessary?" Dr. Pullman asked.
"Yes," came the Sergeant's instinctive reply.
Dr. Mason said nothing, instead nodding briefly in a display of quiet gratitude. The Sergeant returned her gesture before ordering the rest of us to descend. A narrow stairwell would be the perfect bottleneck for an ambush, as we'd learned the hard way in Fallujah. I formed up, allowing my training and experience from MOUT engagements to do the rest. I descended that tunnel with my carbine ready, my flashlight aimed like a torch against the void.
Dr. Pullman flipped a switch on the wall, and a line of electric lights illuminated the corridor. They dispelled the ambient darkness like an exorcist's ritual, save a few nightmare-conjuring shadows in the edge of the hall. I half-expected to see cuneiform writing on the walls, fragments of worn pottery, or grotesque statues of Annunaki. Instead, the walls were a strange arrangement of sandstone blocks, tight shapes locked together without mortar. The floor was a gritty, pebbly expanse. The ceiling arched upwards slowly, bearing a similarly seamless construction to the walls.
I noticed the profile of the corridor was too low for human heads, necessitating we slightly crouch to avoid hitting our heads. The walls possessed a wider profile than I suggested, as though intended for a parade of crawling supplicants of some forgotten fane. The entire tunnel was stale and fetid, like the hot breath from some great beast's gullet. Guns ready, we waited at the mouth of that tunnel.
"We need to survey the complex," Dr. Pullman said. "Only then we'll be able to see if they've looted it."
Dr. Mason resumed her place behind us, and Dr. Pullman tried to cut in front of us. The Sergeant's glare was enough to send him back to the protective formation we made, but he was becoming giddier as we proceeded down the corridor. Despite our inconvenient posture, we moved with a well-honed belt of deliberation and operational alacrity. As we crushed the gravel beneath our boots, we marginalized the fact any misstep could be our last, given the tight warrens.
As our company's EOD resources were directed towards counterinsurgency operations, we'd have to mark and leave any IEDs we happened upon. The stones on the floor were all potentially lethal shrapnel, and the passageway was close enough a single well-placed grenade or explosive could end us all. We spread ourselves out in long haul to mitigate that as best we could, but I sensed we were nevertheless far more exposed than I'd prefer to be. With the VIPs in tow and single corridor, we'd have nowhere to run.
Just when I thought it could not get any more uncomfortable, an explosion rocked the corridor behind us. A cloud of dirt and earthen shrapnel struck us from behind, and we dove to the ground, covering the civilians with our bodies. For a long moment, we waited in those antediluvian warrens for streams of insurgent bullets to rip by our heads. The claustrophobic corridor we took positions in had no other living beings, although I felt we were being watched. What was clear, much to our horror, was that we were sealed inside.
Immediately, Hodgson took initiative and tried to raise our comrades on the radio. However, the unit was damaged in the blast, and it would be likely we'd be able to dig our way out anytime soon. While we bore no illusions about the cave-in being caused by a bomb, we had no idea if it was an insurgent IED or some misplaced excavation charge. I found both possibilities unlikely, as the IED was placed in a rather poor position for inflicting casualties, compared to the one that blew off my old squadmate's leg. Private Tregardis was lucky the Corpsman got to him in time after that. I was unsure of how precise archaeological excavation was, but I doubt it involved blasting tunnels in delicate ruins. Now isolated and entombed, I heard the Privates begin to panic.
"There's another exit," Dr. Pullman said, his finger tracing an invisible line down the tunnel. "But we'll need to follow the tunnel deeper."
"Dr. Mason, is this true?" Sergeant Hodgson asked. "And is it safe?"
"I've never been that deep," the other scientist said, shrugging. "But I think it's stable."
While we were still lugging our rucksacks, I knew we'd be hard pressed to wait for rescue. With the radio shot and tunnel collapsed, it would be easy to write us off as dead and dig us out once the fighting calmed down. The Corps would not leave us behind, but holding out on limited provisions with two civilians would be a challenge. Despite the explosion, there was no sign of insurgent activity in that dank hole. Believing it was his responsibility to get the civilians to safety ASAP, I could see the Sergeant weighing his options.
"Move out," he ordered us. "Dr. Pullman, mind showing the way?"
Dr. Pullman's face widened into a grin too wide to be sane. At the time, we were only too happy to get out. The thought of being reassigned from glorified babysitting was a tempting one, especially as it meant we could get back out into the fight. Inhaling dust in these choked tunnels was an ignoble endeavor compared to our fellow Marines' engagements, one that made fighting insurgents under the punishing desert sun tempting. If I only knew how right I was.
As we continued downwards, Dr. Pullman led us down a tunnel that was dimly illuminated by some unseen light source at the end. Along the walls, I saw the stones were of a different style of masonry than those on the surface, hewn flat and slotted together without mortar like they'd been taken from Machu Pichu. The floor of the central passageway was denoted with quinquangular flagstones that looked as though they'd been carved of black basalt, quarried at some distant volcano. To say such things were rare in the Middle East would be a gross understatement.
The corridor bore the terrible weight of antediluvian eras, and I felt as though we were grapes in history's winepress. We had to crawl down part of the corridor, which had ladder-like rungs at short intervals. In that peculiar light, we swept the walls with the muzzle-mounted flashlights. I saw Dr. Pullman navigate that tunnel without drawing his flashlight, presumably from the time he'd spent down here. The grin only widened as we descended. I followed his glances to the side, and I beheld the ghoulish, macabre sights that adorned the walls.
We saw oblong, coffin-like cases spaced at regular intervals through the tunnel. Their polished wood and glass construction raised more troubling implications than I hoped to consider. Beyond them, the unearthly radiance grew brighter. As my eyes adjusted, I saw they were made of a peculiar golden wood, and the glass seemed exquisitely polished for something so old. It was their contents that truly drew my horror.
The beings within them were most assuredly not of this world. The creatures within were charitably described as an unholy, grotesque combination of balding human, chupacabra, seal, and crocodile. Their bulging, feline eyes were stuck within a cranium with an alligator-like and protuberant forehead. Whatever those grotesqueries were, they did not lack in sartorial taste. The bestial nature of such aberrations was horrifically belied by the gaudy robes they wore, bejeweled garments lined with gold, silver, and other reflective metals.
In a case of ill-advised curiosity, Dr. Mason tried pushing one of the cases, but it was firmly fastened to the floor. I was honestly tempted to smash the glass of the nearest case and take those robes off as trophies, but the Sergeant's stern gaze was more than enough to dissuade us. Gold was no good to the dead it was entombed with, and I had no intentions of joining them. Despite the lurid stares their eternally gaping eyes gave us, we nevertheless continued downwards. By this time, I could tell the Sergeant sensed something was greatly amiss.
Sergeant Hodgson ordered us to halt and survey our surroundings. I scanned the walls with my flashlight, revealing the breadth of the hideous obscenities in the wall frescos. I saw a mélange of broken images, each forward in the story it told. I saw a port city abandoned by the meanderings of some forgotten sea or river, turning inwards with bizarre rituals. The inhabitants of the city, depicted as creatures like those preserved in the hallway, eventually dug beneath the city, interring themselves against the march of history. They became increasingly bestial and famished in the artwork, as though passing directly into decadence without civilization in the interim. Beyond that tessellated corridor, we found the exit Pullman spoke of.
Before us was a great brazen door, carved with elaborate base reliefs worthy of an epoch-old civilization. It was beyond the mural-filled hall that we set up a perimeter. Hastane kept his M203 leveled at the door, while Swanson leveled the M249 at it. I watched behind them, and Hodgson watched over the civilians. Dr. Mason's indefatigable demeanor seemed to waiver as the Sergeant's face expressed an unfamiliar, vulnerable terror.
"Behold!" Dr. Pullman stepped forwards, and pulled the door opened. A metallic clang reverberated in the narrow corridors. "A way out!"
Before us, we at last beheld the source of that transmundane effulgence: a portal at the end of the corridor. The sepulchral darkness was broken by the brilliant light radiating from the door. The view was not unlike how I'd envision gazing down from a mountaintop, towards the sun-kissed sea of clouds below. That terrible, subterrene light shined over us, as we beheld the illimitable void beyond. I wondered if it would give me cancer.
Despite the aura of false tranquility, I reminded myself how unnatural such a thing was, for a doorway this far underground. I had little doubt I was humbly beholding a majestic thing far beyond my own, limited comprehension. Just as I was a replaceable cog in a great war machine, what I beheld reminded me of my paling insignificance in the indescribably strange cosmos.
Sadly, the universe did not have Sergeant Hodgson to whip it into shape. He slapped me out of my reverie as he leveled his weapon at the door. I saw Dr. Pullman step towards the open door with arms outstretched, as if to embrace the infinite. "Dinner time!" he shouted, maniacal grin stretching ear to ear.
Hell broke loose a moment later. They surrounded Dr. Pullman, biting into his ankles with half-material jaws. They dragged him, screaming and bloody, back through the portal. His hand was severed by the scintillating jaws that engulfed him from that edge of reality. The wispy vapors of that eldritch doorway wreathed him like a New England fog. His scream was muted, like some tomb-born echo. His face vanished, and something dropped from his pocket. As his last visible fingertip was pulled inexplicably into that doorway, I almost ignored the detonator that clattered across the floor.
At the time, I was primarily focused on providing cover fire. Sergeant Hastane ordered us to fall back from the door, as to evacuate Dr. Mason somewhere far away from the seething mass of creatures advancing on us. The air was saturated with angry lead hornets. The spent brass casings reflected the eerie light of that supernal realm beyond the door. I saw them through my sights as they relentlessly advanced, responding to massed rifle fire as though it was no more than hailstones before an oncoming torrent.
The cursory glimpses at them through my sights told the conclusion of the story the mural started. The creatures, whose sybaritic forebears stood mummified in the hall, degenerated into bestial caricatures worse than the mosaic suggested. Most of them wore threadbare clothes, clad in faded metals and fraying threads by time and wear. Their claws and teeth were sharper, and they called out like a pack of rabid wolves. Their half-transparent forms were of ephemeral materiality, complicating our attempts to use conventional weapons on them. They descended upon us with the celerity of a charging leopard.
"Frag out!" shouted Hastane as he hurled a grenade door the corridor.
The explosion reverberated into the ancient stonework. When I looked once more, I saw all traces of the reptilian creatures were gone. All that remained of our engagement were the spent casings littering the narrow hallway. Given their apparent ferocity, I had little doubt this was a major thoroughfare of theirs we'd stumbled upon. Dr. Pullman kicked the hornet's nest, and then led us towards it for reasons we'd never know. Cautiously, we continued to fall back.
Our brief moment of respite did not last, vanishing with an alacrity due a headsman's axe. The ethereal abominations acted us from the walls and floor, shedding their earlier reticence to do so for whatever reason prevented them. They ripped Swanson apart first, forever silencing his SAW. Another of them lashed through Hastane's neck with jaws that only remained in our universe long enough partially sever his head. He was still thrashing when they dragged his and Swanson's remains through the gate.
Sergeant Hodgson knew this was his time, but he would die doing his best to save Dr. Mason. He dropped a smoke grenade, but the creatures did not seem to notice. I could see their shapes forming and un-forming in the billowing smokescreen, like Tsathoggua's amorphous servitors. Something lashed out and caused the Sergeant's body to jerk forwards, and that was the last I ever saw of him. I fired a few spiteful rounds as I retreated towards that narrow, stone throat that led upwards.
By this point, I'd abandoned all hope of surviving, let alone completing my mission. I figured the creatures would simply rip me apart, then finish off Dr. Mason. As the tunnel was sealed, I believed we'd be dead no matter where we were in the insane, underground complex. Whatever was on the other side of that brass door was undoubtedly baleful to humanity, and I had no desire to witness that firsthand. Just as things that fell to the ocean floor were consumed by the benthic scavengers, I would be slain by chthonic carnivores.
Having exhausted my ammunition, I reached for my sidearm to find it missing. Dr. Mason somehow lifted it from my possession without my noticing, and she walked into the wall in a similar manner to the creatures. I saw her hand emerge from the wall, holding my pistol. Like the creatures, it flickered in and out of existence. I heard its deafening report in that cramped hallway, and the brightness from the muzzle was far stranger than any weapon discharge I've seen before or since then.
Each of Dr. Mason's shots struck a creature, passing through it like their claws did to us. I must have been struck by a blow or ricochet earlier, as faded in and out of consciousness in those surreal moments. I recall her advancing steadfastly towards the door, the creatures retreating from the sight of her. The pistol discharged more rounds than I counted in the magazine, but I am not sure of my own memories at this point. I recall her slamming the door shut on the fleeing creatures, and then rematerializing.
"You will tell them," she said in a curt, commanding tone that human speech organs could not produce.
That is the last thing I remember before waking up in a field hospital. I gave my name and rank to the nearest person I could find, but I was told I was delirious and ordered to rest. Officially, I was told everyone died in an insurgent booby trap that collapsed the tunnel, resulting in closed-casket funerals. The dig site itself was bulldozed and filled in by Iraqi security forces, under the pretext of destroying insurgent weapons caches. Strangely, Dr. Sean Pullman was not amongst the official dead there. As I'd later discover, the real Dr. Pullman was found in a shallow roadside grave shortly after my excursion, leading me to wonder exactly whom the imposter was. After my discharge from the hospital, I found myself here.
I do not know exactly who or what your superiors are, Samuel Prescott, but I will let you know one thing. Since that time in the Nameless City, I've had a very different perspective, in more ways than one. I see your prison as no more than a binding of lace. I see your mind as no more than a muddled jumble of fear-addled facts. I see your bosses as naught but a blank void, uncaring about us as the stars in the sky are. Yet they still think there is something valuable here.
Whatever I encountered beneath the Nameless City was something we should not meddle with. Whatever the false Dr. Pullman's agenda was, it died after he was devoured by his presumed friends. What I'm more worried about is Dr. Mason, assuming that is her real name. I've thought long and hard about her message, and whether it refers to sharing my story with you, or the world at large. I doubt I ever will know, however.
Look at my face, Sam. See where the skin's peeled away? See where my fingertip used to be on my left pinky? I'm no longer that young Marine that survived by inconceivable circumstances. Then, as now, I am merely a piece in someone else's game. Assuming there is a game or purpose, at least. That'd be something, eh? Being caught in some epic cosmic struggle? Or perhaps it's just my fevered nightmares. Whatever is afoot here, Sam, we are not in control. We never were. We don't know the players, but we better learn fast. There are other clues, and the Nameless City is just a ruin that's lain dead for a decade. Tell your bosses they're better off chasing other avenues.
I see you've just gotten another message from your bosses, Sam. Mind if I have a look? I think I shall, as my case number's on the file.
Holy shit, Sam. They did it.
They found the rest of my squad.
But I doubt they'll bring them back. As the report says, they're no longer human in any meaningful sense of the word.