The Animatronic [4/7]
We found a half-submerged animatronic, dumped in a local pond. My friend thinks it’s alive.
I shout out loud in alarm, my muscles contract and as my body weight suddenly shifts, the wooden platform begins to rock dangerously on the surface of the black lake.
I look down into the water, and the enormous eye stares back from beneath.
John slips, and in an attempt to rebalance himself he slams the hand with the plank in it down into the water.
There is a clank and a thud as it connects with something below the surface.
A groan follows, and the cavern suddenly comes alive with the sound of hydraulics. The bubbles begin to stream up faster and thicker all around; grinding, thrumming underwater gears and machinery becomes audible, and the owner of the great eye jolts up awkwardly, rising up from the depths.
“Ollie!” Roxy cries out, “what have you done!?”
“ME?” I shout back, “ask JOHN!”
The eye belongs to an enormous, peeling, silicone shark. It clanks above the surface and a distorted, electronic noise- a noise which might once have been a roar- echoes from within it. Its teeth, faded yet sharp, are fixed in a permanent leer, and steam is pumped from its nostrils before it starts to sink back below the water.
Just fake enough to send an eerie ripple of terrible, deep discomfort down to my core, yet real enough that one could imagine it opening its jaws, lunging out to take a sudden bite of the platform. And all around us now, more of these terrible animatronics are beginning to rise up from beneath, appearing at first as only dark, shimmering blurs below the surface, then quickly revealing semi-recognisable forms as they push themselves up and into the cold, damp cavern air.
Another burst of bubbles from beneath me gives me cause to look down between my legs, and through the planks of the platform and the ripple of the bubbles, a dark shape begins to form in the water below.
The unseen hydraulics hiss, all around us.
“JOHN!” I shout, “PADDLE! We need to move, NOW!”
“Which way?” he asks.
“Any way! Just paddle, QUICK!”
He grunts and drags the plank through the water as quickly and forcefully as he can, and what looks like the terrible face of a… a reptile.. a dinosaur, something hungry and prehistoric, forms in the darkness and pushes up to meet us, catching on the edge of the platform. It creaks alarmingly and tips as the animatronic knocks us to the side; Roxy calls out, her arms flailing, and I shift my weight, reaching out to grab her by the front of her hoodie to hold her in place before we crash back down into the water, rocking.
The reptile continues its rise. Part of its silicone jaw has broken away, and I see the metallic gears turn whirringly as it clenches its mouth tight shut, teeth closing around a piece of imagined prey, before it gurgles and retreats back down into the depths.
The faces of Roxy and Wakka are fixed in terror, deathly white, and I imagine I must look much the same. John clenches his jaw in grim determination, steering us around the mechanical monsters as best as he can, his focus fixed on the bank at the other side.
A long, large, silicone fish snakes through the water beneath and beside us. I wonder if it’s attached to an unseen rail of some kind. It rises closer to the surface and connects with the platform. We’re pushed aside again, dangerously; a piece of rotted wood at the edge splinters off, and for a frantic second or two I think Wakka is going to be tipped over the edge.
The outcome plays through in my mind. Gone before we can grab him. Hitting the water with a splash, his arms and legs kicking up against churning, unknown machinery as he panics, struggling blind and dragged deep into the unknown at the mercy of the gurgling monsters in the dark.
My breath catches in my throat, but with guttural relief my premonition does not come true. Wakka regains his balance, and he keeps ahold of his place on the platform.
We’re close now. We’re close to the other side.
I look back.
The animatronics keep rising and rolling rhythmically on their secret pistons. The bubbles stream. Steam is blasted. And in the centre, the very centre of the cavern’s dark lake, one machine rises taller than the rest. Slowly; up, up it goes, only gaining in height.
A plastic-silicone half-man half-sea-monster. His deep green and age-weathered torso melts into the body of a scaled snake, one that continues down under the black water. It is facing away from us, but as it rises I get the cold, lurching, curiously salient sensation that under no circumstances should I look upon its face.
It’s a sense of knowing that I can only compare to experiences I’ve had in nightmares… when you know that something you’ll never be able to forget, something you’ll never be able to unsee, lies just around the corner, but you’re not exactly sure why, or what.
The reptile-man clanks into place. And it slowly begins to rotate. Rotating towards us.
I tear my eyes away.
And we bump up against the rock of the bank.
“Go go go!” I shout, urging them off the platform, and they clamber up onto the shore of the cave, Roxy first, then Wakka, and then myself. John climbs up last, and drags the platform up onto the land behind him. I risk a glance up over the lake.
The reptile-man is still turning, slowly turning towards us.
“RUN!” I urge the group, and they do. Into the tunnel of the cave, round corner after corner until we can run no more, and we collapse in a heap, catching our breaths as we slump up against the damp and rocky walls.
“…Fuck”, Roxy whispers through rasping breaths, and that pretty much covers all our current thought processes, I should think.
“…This is insane”, Wakka murmurs. “Absolutely insane. There’s no other word for it. We’ve stumbled on some serious, otherworldly shit down here”.
“You can say that again”, I mutter in agreement. “Good effort on the steering by the way, John”.
He nods in reply, chest heaving.
“Roxy”, Wakka says, turning to her, “…Do you really think that the thing in the pond could have dragged Stubs all this way?”
She bites her lip, but does not respond.
“He’s alive”, she eventually says, simply. “I can feel it”, then she grabs onto an outcrop in the rough wall and hoists herself up, walking on and determinedly around the next corner. We exchange glances and rise to follow. Following her up to a sudden and unwelcome stop.
…We stop because the walls of rock on each side connect in the middle. We can go no further.
“It’s a dead end…” I murmur. Our eyes have adjusted well to the dark by now, but I scan the weak beam of the torch all around just in case. There is no way through.
“No, no not a dead end”, Roxy says, scrunching her eyes tight shut and putting a hand on her temple. “…This is it. This is where the dreams end… this is where the tunnel ends… where it... it opens”.
She opens her eyes and suddenly turns her head to the left. I follow her gaze with the beam of the torch, and it lands on a shard of bronze, or perhaps copper, stuck out from the side of the wall. Roxy walks over to it and traces her fingertips along it. She looks at the end of the tunnel, where the rock meets the rock, and she tilts her head. We watch her in silence.
After a minute, she speaks. “Do as I do, guys”, she says softly, “and defocus your vision. Try to look beyond the rock, and the way becomes clear”.
She’s so calm. So nonchalantly calm. It’s freaking me the fuck out, but we do as she says. We trace the shard of bronze and angle our heads, focusing hard on trying to see through the connecting walls of wet rock.
And something clicks.
As I narrow my eyes, staring, a passageway becomes suddenly clear. Obvious, even. A narrow path through the wet stone.
“Woah- what the fuck?” I think out loud, returning my head to its original position.
The passage vanishes.
I tilt my head again, and it reappears. Like an illusion. It makes me feel sort of queasy, in a way, but I focus on it. And once I feel like I can hold the image in my mind, like a magic-eye picture, I find I can steadily return my head to a more comfortable position, and the route through the rock is retained.
“You got it?” Roxy asks, and we nod, one by one. I wordlessly pass her the torch and she leads the way, and we walk in single file through the hidden, narrow pathway of the cave.
“This is incredible…” I hear from behind. Wakka.
We stumble through, and shortly, impossibly, we find ourselves forced to a squint. I have to bring a hand up to shade my eyes, shade them from a sudden blast of daylight.
…Daylight? No… not possible.
But the rock ends, and one by one we stumble out onto a narrow ledge, blinded by the light of the sun.
“What on earth? Are we OUTSIDE?” I hear from my left. Wakka again. I squint through my fingers to see him covering his eyes too. They all are.
“I feel AIR”. Says Roxy, “WARM air…”
“But how can that be?” I ask. “The pipe we entered was a good four, five metres below ground! We haven’t gone up at all, have we? Did the route feel like it was rising to you guys?”
They all answer in the negative, and as our eyes adjust to the light, one by one we peel away our fingers, looking out over the scene before us, and whilst I cannot speak for the others, I am dumbstruck by what I see. Their silence and gaping mouths would suggest they share my sentiments, however.
We stand on a rocky ledge in a hill, above a shallow, flooded valley. The sky is bright and blue, and the sun shines down on what can only be… what looks like... an abandoned amusement park, half submerged in the floods. Decaying rollercoaster tracks stick out from the waters; rubbish bins, novelty signs, pieces of park amenities and other such debris floats amongst the wreckage.
Beyond the boundaries of the empty park are nothing but fields, stretched over gentle, rolling hills, all the way towards the horizon in every direction. Aside from what we can see in the valley there are no trees, and there are no mountains, no buildings, no telegraph poles, nor is there even any sight of the coast. Just fields and floodwater, as far as the eye can see.
A little further down the hill, a little closer to the entrance to the flooded theme park, stands a statue. Facing away from us, and made of that same, strange copper/bronze. A cracked, greenish patina creeps round one of its legs and up to its waist. It’s a man, stood proud, looking out over the scene below. Roxy jumps from the rocky ledge and skids down the grass towards it.
“Roxy!” I call out, “wait!” and we stumble down after her, slipping to a stop as a group and turning to look up at the statue.
Roxy is shaking.
But the statue is smiling. One hand in his pocket, the other outstretched. And the words on the pedestal read as follows:
Written by Darkly Gathers