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by Justin Teerlinck
The snow swirled and the wind howled at the mouth of Cave A100957, or as the local Tibetan villagers called it, The Cave of the Lost. At 20,000 feet, it was the highest cave at which any old artifacts had been discovered from ancient times. Three sets of gloved hands protruded from matching sets of Northface expedition outerwear. Each touched the half-unearthed find before them, their exhaled breath crystalizing in the beams of their headlamps.
“The outer circumference suggests a cranial density of 3000-4000 cubic centimeters, twice that of an ordinary human,” one of the scientists stammered into her voice recorder. Her voice came in gasps, a sign of the thin air that surrounded them. “The shape suggests anthropoid, possibly hominid features, pre-modern by at least 100,000 years.”
“This is an incredible find, Dr. Ashworth,” said a male voice. “We’re all getting Nobels out of this.”
“Be quiet, Danforth, I’m not through with my dictation. Snow and ice is melted around the skull to a radius of three meters. It is not found in the same sector as the yak alters found closer to the cave entrance. A spiked brow ridge protrudes in the sagittal plane, midline anteriorly from the frontal to the base of the occipital lobe…”
“Is the lecture over yet, professor? All your science talk and you haven’t even mentioned the coolest thing about it yet.”
“Listen, Bomber, when we need an opinion from a ski-bum mountaineer with a 6th grade education, we’ll ask you,” said Dr. Ashworth.
“Whatever dawg. I don’t give a shiz. Why does the only hot scientist have to be such a beeatch?” said the young man with the bleached-blond goatee from beneath his oxygen mask. He pulled out a bong, slipped it into a customized hole in his mask and flamed up some herb. It took awhile for his lighter to catch, because of the thin air. “You eggheads ever notice how hard it is to get high when you’re already high?” he said, taking a liberal hit from his plastic marijuana inhalation device.
“What did we tell you about toking up in archaeological burial sites?” said Dr. Ashworth.
“I’m sorry bra, just paying my respects is all. I’m not tryin’ to piss on all your science and shit. Didn’t you guys see the gnarly glow coming from that righteous skull you found? Motherfucker gives me the willies.”
“It’s probably just a chemical in the snow,” said Dr. Danforth.
“Yeah, but the eyes, look at the eyes.”
“I’m looking at your eyes, Bomber, and I think I understand your name a whole lot better. Don’t forget that you’re the expedition mountaineer. If you don’t get all of us—and I mean all of us,” Danforth said, glancing at the skull, “back to base camp in one piece, you’ll find yourself giving ski lessons to middle-aged soccer moms on a bunny hill at the biggest mountain in Nebraska.”
“Dude, stop pulling my chain. There’s no mountains in Nebraska!”
“Fuck man, no need to harsh the mellow. All I’m sayin’ is that this old yak-herder Tibetan dude with a long beard came up to me and sold me a ball of opium for like, three bucks. He smoked that shit up with me in his tiny hut and told me this cave is like, cursed. That all who enter are like, doomed.”
Just then, their radios crackled to life. “Base to Archeo One, come in.”
Bomber clicked the transceiver button on the radio pinned to his chest. “We’re here, bra, over.”
“Cut the crap Bomber. You guys need to evac the cave and get down to base now, over.”
“Why the rush, base? We’re having fun with a glowing skull thing, over.”
“I’m serious, Bomber. There’s a storm coming. We just picked it up on the Weather Channel…the minute you guys entered the cave. It’s a big one. It’s a three-hour descent. If you get out of there now, you might just beat it on your way down. You don’t want to be in the next Jon Krakauer book, do you? Get moving.”
“Affirmative, I’ll let ‘em know. On our way.” At that point the radio cut to static, and then a weird groan was heard through the white noise, like the cry of something lost…or dead. “Okay guys, time to pack up your science shit and get off this rock. There’s some wicked blow coming our way. Put your skull in a sack and let’s rocket.”
“Damn,” said Danforth. “Spring is so short. We won’t be able to get back here for another year. By then, we won’t have funding and another team will find the mysterious skull.”
“We have to leave it,” said Dr. Ashworth. “The skull is worthless to science if we dig it up without examining the site further.”
“There’s no time for that. I want my Nobel!” With that, Dr. Danforth shoved his colleague aside.
While Danforth and Ashworth argued, Bomber looked at the skull and laughed. “Why are you so important, dude? I can get a glowing skull in a head shop. Here, thirsty? He popped open a can of milk and poured it between the jaw and mandible. “How does it taste, refreshing? Man, we are going to shred some fucking gnar on the way down, baby. It’s gonna be a long one, so let’s blow a little smoke before we hit the rope.” With that, Bomber lit a joint, took a long pull, coughed and passed it to the skull. “What? Got no pipes, man? Alright, I can dig it brother.” He leaned over and exhaled a cloud of marijuana smoke into the skull. It exited the eye sockets, and rose in the air of the cave, lit up by the stroboscopic effect of its freaky neon glow. “I don’t know any ancient skull from olden times that does that,” Bomber said to himself. “Hey you guys, what kind of ancient skull does this weird strobing shit? Are you sure this doesn’t come from a head shop? I know several places that—”
Dr. Danforth gave the stoner mountaineer a sour look. “Bomber, if you say one more word, it better be to tell me that the gear is stowed and you’re clipped in and ready to descend.” He pried the skull out of its lonely trench and stuffed it into his REI day pack.
“How can I say all that in one word, professor? I’m not like, fuckin’ Socrates.”
By the time they reached base camp, the wind had reached a crescendo of rage, and snow flew in every direction. The tents flapped wildly, and the tiny propane stoves and heaters inside, along with the exhalations’ of their lonely, raspy breaths, was the only sign of life on the forlorn and godforsaken mountain of yak skulls and mysteries. Inside Bomber’s tent, Reggae was piping through the ear buds attached to his digital player. He nodded his head in time with the music as he rolled a joint on his pack.
“Holy roller, I’m roll ya,” he sang. “I’ma roll ya, mon. You think that Jah only live inside holy book but he give Jah people what the man then took. Zion is calling to us fish catcher. Zion is calling to us, shoe maker. Zion is calling to us, Jah farmer. Is calling, is calling, is calling-ussssssss.”
Before he could finish another verse, he popped a can of milk product and hit pause. His mouth opened. A pair of glowing red lights strobed through his tent.
“Whaja want, mon?” he said, laughing nervously. “Come on in and kick the bobo, bra. I got enough to share. You want some milk?”
“Milky, milky,” came a crackling, old-crone-like inhuman voice. It seethed with malicious intent.
“What? Who is that? Dr. Danforth?” There was a note of fear in Bomber’s voice. “Who…?”
“You guys are cray-cray. Fuck it. I’m going back to my Ganja Fields of Zion marathon. Peace!”
Suddenly, two red laser beams cut a rectangular hole in the tent from top to bottom. The shards unwheeled in the wind like the arms of the insane.
“Are you shitting me? I just dropped 2k on this Apex Himalaya Sherpa Trek 5. You better cough up some serious coin…whoa.”
The skull was staring into the tent, emanating a nuclear-looking undulating yellow hue, while the red glowing eyes stared at the fool who was foolish enough to disrespect it. It glanced at the can of condensed milk. Bomber held it out in a trembling hand. “This is what you want, skull dude?” The skull rolled back and forth slightly, seeming to nod.
The following morning, when they discovered Bomber’s charred remains next to his shredded tent, it was unclear how his intact ear buds remained in place in the ear holes of his dead skull, Reggae still blasting, while everything else was a mess of blood, bud, and burnt expensive designer expedition wear. There was a ring of crushed milk cans placed like a halo around his head.
“Maybe lightning hit him,” said Dr. Ashworth.
“No lightning up here. It’s a mountain,” said the expedition meteorologist.
“Look at the cans around his head. It’s like someone placed them there…to send some kind of message,” said an unimportant grad student.
“The char markings are similar to those caused by a red laser,” said Dr. Danforth. “I worked in a plastic surgery clinic once. They had a precision robotic laser. Well, the robot went crazy and took a patients’ face off. This is what she looked like afterwards.”
“That’s insane. It would be too difficult to haul a laser robot up here, and besides where would it get any power?” said Dr. Ashworth incredulously.
“Who says it was a robot,” said the know-nothing grad student. “Maybe it was something else.”
“That is absurd. Do you know what you’re saying? Laser guns haven’t even been invented yet!”
“I guess it’s just a mystery we’ll never solve,” said the meteorologist.
“Come on,” said Dr. Ashworth. “Somebody help me roll up his corpse and stick it in that crevasse. My old back is too creaky to haul this lunkhead down the mountain dead or alive. Come on, I’m not getting any younger.” They all had a laugh at this, but it was a laugh dripping with tension. They broke camp, rolled Bomber’s corpse into a burrito made from his fancy tent, and hauled it to the edge of the crevasse. They stood around it silently.
Finally, Danforth broke the ice. “Anyone want to say anything?” When no one responded, he looked at the corpse and said, “Adios, old buddy. You didn’t have the biggest brain on this expedition, but you did have the biggest mouth.” With that, he booted Bomber’s remains into the abyss, and they turned around and began their descent.
All the while, the skull lay in its sack, biding its time, silent as the bottom of Bomber’s abyss.
To be continued next issue...