Cooper's Creek

When you see what lies behind our reality, you are never the same again.

Photographer Scott Liddell

I wish I had never heard of that place.

The name will haunt me till the day I die, and that's a day that can't come soon enough. I can't even bring myself to write it down. It's as if just writing that damned name will make it real again. If it ever was real; maybe they are right, maybe it was just a psychotic episode.

If it was though, we all shared it.

Three forest rangers and a cop.

Oh and if it was just a psychotic episode, why did they seal the files? Why did they swear us to secrecy? Tell us we could never talk about it to anyone? For that matter, just who exactly were they? In their black suits and sunglasses, all of them with the same haircut. All made to look as much like one another as possible so you couldn't pick them out of a line up if you tried. 'Agents' they said, but from which agency exactly? I don't think they ever told me, but they had the boss rattled sure enough, and the cops.

It's strange the things that trigger the memories and the fear. You always hear people in the movies or in books talking about how they can't sleep at nights. How “It still haunts their dreams.” It's not really like that. Not for me anyway and not for Mitch or Jack either I don't think. Not that I've spoken to them for a while now. Mitch blew his brains out last year and Jack, well I don't know what happened to Jack. I haven't heard from him since the funeral.

No, it's not at night time when the memories come. Night time brings sleep and I sleep as well as I ever did, better maybe. Its being awake that's the problem. Little things like leaving a room because you just never know if the room you step into is going to be okay or not or if it's going to be – different. Losing your keys too. That's a normal enough thing to have happen, right? I mean even before we went – there – we would sometimes put something down and forget where, then swear it wasn't where we left it. Happens to everyone, right? It's just a little glitch in the memory. You forget you moved it or you put it some place without really thinking and then convince yourself that you put it on the desk, or on the table when you didn't.

At least, that's what we tell ourselves. It's not true though. Not always, anyway. I know that now. I know that sometimes doors don't go where they should and sometimes those keys that turned up on the table really were left on the desk.

I know, because I've seen the other version of the world. The one that we aren't meant to see.

* * * * * * * *

I first saw it back when I was still a forest ranger. The local police had contacted us to help them find a team of scientists from the MacReady Springs station in the Alaskan interior. Four of them had set out on a rescue mission in response to some faint distress call that the MacReady Springs facility claimed they had picked up a week or two before. They said the transmission had come from an old monitoring station that dated back to the Cold War. It had been decommissioned with the rise of Glasnost or Perestroika – whatever it was the Russians called it. Anyway, it had brought the Cold War to an end and the station had been closed down and abandoned. There should have been nobody there. Nobody to send that radio signal.

They call that part of the Alaskan interior the 'Alaskan Triangle' or 'The Bermuda Triangle of Alaska,' because of the number of people that disappear in the wilderness. The conspiracy theory types and the Sasquatch nuts love to make up wild stories about it and how weird things happen out there. Of course its just a case that most people who go missing in the wilderness aren't properly prepared for it. I mean its dangerous, cold, treacherous and wild. Its called the wilderness for a reason. There are plenty of real dangers without making up ghost stories.

That's what we all thought anyway. Now though, well now I'm not as sure as I was. Not now, I know that some of those ghost stories are true.

We were certainly well prepared for the wilderness, the four of us. Mitch, Jack, me and the deputy. Ted his name was, Deputy Ted McAigean. What we found out there though, we sure has heck weren't prepared for that.

No one could be.

We got our first glimpse of the station as we rounded a hill and saw it up ahead, about a quarter mile on and nestled in a clearing. It was snowing, as I recall, so we couldn't see it all that clearly but one thing struck us right away. It didn't look all that abandoned.

For one thing, the walls and the roof all looked in good repair as far as we could see from that far out. The radio tower was a dark shape in the snow, but it towered above the rest of the station which was one story high and built up on stanchions to keep it off the ground. At least the main building was. There were two other, smaller, buildings we could see from where we were. One was just a shack really, but the other was quite big and had huge metal shutters for doors. That was the motor pool.

The other thing though was that we could see lights on in the main building. Just a few, but we could see 'em through the windows. Or we thought we could.

Anyway, as we got closer the lights must've gone out. I never did see when they went out, I sort of realised at one point I couldn't see them anymore. That was when the deputy pointed something else out. That well-maintained station we thought we saw from a quarter mile out didn't look quite so pristine up close. Fact was, the closer we got the more derelict it looked. Some of the windows looked to be broken and the roof was rusting through here and there. There were red rust-stains running down the grey concrete walls where parts of the roof were in the worst shape.

The whole compound was surrounded by a rusting chain link fence, you know the sort that wouldn't keep a determined intruder out but they like to have someone climb over in all the cop shows? Yeah, one of them. It had seen better days and there were holes all over it with whole sections fallen down. I remember that real clear because there was a section big enough to drive a car through blown down right next to the gate, but the gate stood defiantly and had the biggest chain and padlock you ever saw on it. That gave Mitch quite a laugh, he loved the irony of it.

You know, I think that might have been the last time he ever laughed again.

* * * * * * * *

We checked the motor pool first and there, safe and sound, was a snowcat. It was just a small one, painted bright yellow and on the doors were the university of Alaska logo and the words 'MacReady Station'. I can't remember if I was more relieved we'd found the thing and the expedition had made it here or more annoyed that we had hauled all the way out here for nothing. Bit of both I think, truth to tell. Anyhow, Deputy McAigean and Mitch headed into the main building while Jack and I checked the smaller shack, the generator shack as it turned out. It was Jack that noticed the odd thing about that geny. The fact it wasn't running, didn't look like it had run for years for that matter. We checked it and it was dry as a bone, no fuel in it, just like there was no fuel in the old, battered, steel drums in the corner. No way this thing had been running when we first got sight of the station. No way those lights we had seen should have been on.

Leaving the generator shack, we headed over to the main building and made our way inside. We had to use our flash-lights; it was pitch black in the entry-way – no windows in there, just a busted neon light that wouldn't have worked anyway, not with the geny being dry. To the left four figures loomed out of the darkness. I don't mind admitting I almost jumped out of my skin there and then and was all set to scold Mitch and the deputy only – it wasn't them. Wasn't anyone actually, just four old parkas hanging on coat hooks. I remember thinking it was weird they had been left behind when the station shut down, 'cos they didn't look like they belonged to the university boffins. These were olive drab and had military patches on 'em. There was something downright unsettling about them, but I couldn't figure out what it was at the time.

* * * * * * * *

We spent what felt like hours searching the derelict listening station. It can't have been more than maybe ten or fifteen minutes - the place wasn't that big - but it felt like hours.

Empty room after empty room.

Cold concrete walls with peeling government issue paint and shattered neon strip lights that wouldn't have worked anyway, with the generator being in the shape it was. Our flash-lights picked out rust stains running down the walls, busted electrical sockets and broken windows. Here and there snow had drifted in and piled up against a wall or a door. Icicles hung from the rafters or the window frames in places. The whole place looked like the set of some ghost story and I guess, in a way, it was. Only this was no TV show, this was real.

Jack was calling out for Mitch and the deputy, but they didn't answer. We knew Mitch could be a bit of a joker, but that deputy? Well, he didn't seem the sort. Wherever they were, they couldn't hear us calling for them... or they couldn't answer.

I could feel the fear rising like it was a physical thing. You ever been so scared you just want to turn tail and run like a frightened cat? So frightened you think your legs are going to give out or your heart is just going to bust right out of your chest? That's how it was for us, Jack and I.

Before it got worse I mean.

We'd found what we took to be the mess hall and the galley. There were still some old, rusting, machines in there – like you see in the big kitchens. I don't just mean ovens, you know the sort of thing, industrial bread toasters, big fifteen gallon boilers, the works. Just left there when the station was decommissioned and now dropping apart. Anyway, behind the galley we found a store room and that's where things really started to get weird.

The light was on for a start. I mean that was impossible, we'd seen the generator and it was dry as a bone, right? All busted up too, so it couldn't have been producing any juice, no way. The station wasn't on the national grid either so there was nothing to power those damn lights but there they were, a sickly, pale light and flickering on and off like a strobe.

That wasn't the only strange thing though. The store room was full of crates and sacks, all of them with the the US air-force stamp on the side and all of them clean and new like they were delivered just yesterday. In a base that hadn't been used in years. Jack and I just stared at the damn things and then at each other without a word. What was there to say? What we were looking at we just couldn't be seeing. I remember Jack had to touch one of the crates just to be sure they were really there. I think I told him not to touch it, like some frightened kid in a horror movie, but there was something about this whole place that I didn't like. Something that had my hind-brain screaming at me to just get out and run and to never look back.

I can't remember how Jack convinced me to help him open the crates, but he did. I didn't want to. Somehow I just knew that whatever we found inside would just make matters worse. It did.

Not the first time though, the first crate just left us exchanging confused glances. I've no idea when the US air-force started shipping out factory wrapped toys to decommissioned stations, but that's what was in the crate. Toys. Dolls mostly. Those pretty little blonde ones girls like but that give them unrealistic body image. Those and some weird little monster figures from some cartoon series or other. It didn't make any sense at all but at least it wasn't like what we found in the second crate we opened!

As we levered the lid off I heard Jack gasp. You don't think people really do that when they get a shock, it's just some overused trope in a bad short story, that's what you think anyway. That day though, that day Jack gasped and all the colour vanished from his face. At first I couldn't see why. All that was in the case was a jumble of fibre glass limbs and body parts from a shop mannequin. I couldn't figure out what had Jack so spooked. I mean it was weird and all, right? Why were the US air-force shipping shop dummies to bases that were derelict? That wasn't it though, that wasn't what had left Jack unable to speak, just staring, wide-eyed, into the crate. Once I saw it, I knew I'd never un-see it.

It was the mannequin's face. A face we both knew. Jane. Jack's daughter. I mean, this was fibre glass and paint, but the likeness was incredible. It was Jane's face alright, just as if she had posed for the sculptor that made the dummy. Even down to that slight scar she had on her chin from the time she fell off her bike.

* * * * * * * *

I can't remember how long we just stood there, trying to make sense of it, but it was what Jack did next that brought me back to my senses. He was ranting about having to get back home to make sure his daughter was okay. I guess that made as much sense as anything else did just then.

There was a big roller shutter door along one wall of the storage room, we knew from what we had seen outside that it opened onto a loading bay. You know the sort that are at the height of a flatbed truck so you can roll supplies right off the truck and onto the loading bay without having to lift heavy crates up and down? Anyway, Jack had rolled it up just enough to get under and before I could stop him he was through the gap. I think he would have just up and run all the way back home if he could have. I took off after him but was surprised to find him just stood on the loading bay platform staring out in the distance. This time I knew why right away, and it scared the hell out of me.

For one thing it was dead of night dark out, only it shouldn't have been. Sure it had been overcast when we got here but it was mid day. Even accounting for the time we had spent searching the station it shouldn't have been night time yet. Worse than that though, there were no stars. No stars, no moon and no clouds it was just – black. Like the world ended just beyond the chain link fence. Jack was staring out into the darkness, trying to figure out what was going on. I switched my flash light on and instantly wished I hadn't. The light it threw just stopped at the fence, like it was cut off by some physical barrier. There was nothing there. The world just... stopped.

Officially we never found the MacReady springs expedition. That's what they will tell you anyway, the authorities – if they will even talk about it at all. That's not really true though. We found them alright, we just left them there.

That still haunts me to this day. We didn't have a choice though. That's what I tell myself anyway. That's the only way I can live with it. I'm getting a bit ahead of myself now though, I'll get back to that.

So there we were, Jack and I, gazing out at where the world stopped, when we heard a voice behind us. It was Rajesh Patel, one of the researchers that had been on the MacReady Springs team and I will always remember exactly what he said with crystal clarity.

“He won't let us leave.”

Jack and I almost jumped out of our skin hearing that voice, but it brought us back to our mission. Rajesh was standing behind us in the storage room with the crates. His hair was wild and he had bags under his eyes as if he hadn't been sleeping. We learned fairly quickly that he was half mad from everything this place had done to him, everything he had seen here. What he told us sounded like the ramblings of a delusional mind, and some of it might have been, but trying to figure out what was true and what wasn't still troubles me to this day.

“He won't let us leave. He might let you leave, but not us”

“He won't let us leave. We entertain him too much.”

I couldn't understand what he meant, then. The words made sense, but not the sentences, not the meaning. I didn't understand what he actually meant, that they were trapped, and it was deliberate. A prison, but more cruel, more evil, than I could comprehend. You see, the place was changing, constantly. You would walk into a room and it would be brand spanking new, everything clean and shining. Then you'd look away and there would be mould and rust crawling over the filthy, decrepit walls. Sometimes there would be food and sometimes, if it amused the being torturing the expedition, there would be no food, no clean water. Sometimes it was cold and sometimes warm. Sometimes the station was isolated in the darkness and sometimes, tantalisingly, the world beyond was visible beyond the fence

Then there was the mannequin. To us it was the very image of Jack's daughter, Jane but to Rajesh – to Rajesh it was the face of his mother and to everyone else who saw it, it was someone they knew. A wife, a girlfriend, a sister. Some sick joke by this place.

Rajesh lead us back towards the refectory, through the kitchen or through a kitchen. It wasn't how we remembered it though. Now the room we had passed through just minutes before was warm, brightly lit and clean. The once empty work surfaces were cluttered with pans and dishes, tins of food, utensils – everything you would expect in a working kitchen. The once rusted and abandoned machines gleamed as if new. The boiler rumbled gently, its lid bouncing a little as if it had been over filtered The smell of fresh baked bread hung in the air. From the next room we could hear the voices of the missing MacReady springs expedition, we could see them through the open serving hatch even. They seemed excited, or agitated, I'm still not sure which it was.

Then Rajesh passed through the door to the refectory and... disappeared. Right in front of my very eyes. There was no warning. No flash of light or puff of smoke, he just stepped into the next room and vanished, just like he had never been there to begin with. We raced into the refectory but the other MacReady Springs personnel were gone too. It wasn't the bright, warm, refectory we'd just seen from the kitchen through the serving hatch either. It was like it was when we had first seen it. Dank, damp, abandoned.

From the main corridor on the far side of the room I heard voices. Racing across the abandoned mess hall I wrenched the door open just as some one tried to come through it from the other side. We collided and fell to the ground in a tangle of limbs. One of us yelled in surprise or fear or both. I still don't know if it was me or the deputy doing the yelling. That's who it was, Deputy McAigean. He was white faced and shaking with fright. By the time we managed to untangle ourselves and stand up he was demanding to know where the hell we'd been. There was an edge of hysteria to his voice. He must have known as well as we did there was no way we could have passed him unnoticed and found our way into the mess hall. At least, no normal way.

* * * * * * * *

Once we got the deputy calmed down we were able to find out what had happened to Mitch. According to the deputy they had been going room by room along the main corridor when Mitch just vanished. It would have sounded nuts if we hadn't seen the same damn thing happen to Rajesh a few minutes ago. The deputy said it was the radio room where Mitch had vanished, they had opened the door, Mitch stepped in and... that was the last he saw of him. There wasn't anywhere in the tiny room he could have hidden so the deputy began checking the adjoining rooms without any success. There was something else too. According to the deputy he came back into the main corridor and it was... different. Far from being derelict it was in use, well lit and warm with uniformed staff going about their business as if the station was still in use and the cold war had never ended. The way the deputy told it, he tried to stop one of the airmen and the guy just walked right through him like he wasn't there.

It was much later when we found Mitch, curled in a ball in a tiny room that had once been the decoding room. He was rocking back and forwards, hugging his knees. Tears streaming down his face. At first he thought we were just figments of his imagination but finally something we said got through to him. I don't know exactly what happened to him while he was gone, he wouldn't tell us and if I'm being honest, none of us really wanted to know. All we wanted was to get the hell out of that place before we wound up trapped there just like the MacReady Springs expedition.

It was all we could do to force ourselves on, to make a quick, final sweep of the building, looking for the missing academics. We didn't enter the rooms now though, just opened the doors and looked in. No one said anything, but no one dared step through. That's when people tended to vanish, when they went through doors.

We took off back down the long passage toward the exit Sometimes the rooms would look like they were good as new, sometimes they were obviously abandoned. Eventually we couldn't take it anymore. We'd checked every room we could reach without going through another room – without risking passing through a doorway.

That's when we just turned tail and ran.

We hurried down the long passage back to the exit, no one wanting to think about what might happen when we tried to go through the doors and back outside.

Four dark figures loomed out of the darkness ahead of us, blocking our way. For a moment we hoped they might be the MacReady Springs team but as they drew closer we realised they weren't. Whoever they were they wore the parkas we'd seen when we came in and they twitched and jerked spasmodically as they shambled up the passage toward us. We couldn't get out! They were between us and the exit. Then Mitch noticed something else about them that froze our blood.

There was no one in the parkas. Just four empty coats twitching and jerking their way up the passage towards us, floating in mid air – if you could call it floating.

I think we were all screaming by the time the deputy opened fire. For all the advancing parkas were just empty coats they sure reacted like people do when they get shot. The first one jerked backwards and fell to the ground. Seeing our chance all four of us rushed the rest, the deputy emptying his firearm at them as we came. We hit them at a full charge and blew right on through. I got tangled up in one and fell head first down the steps to the entrance. I was screaming, kicking and thrashing as Mitch and Jack grabbed my arms and pulled me along the floor to the door. I swear the coat was trying to strangle me right until we made it out the door and into the fresh air. In that instant the coat just fell to the snow and the guys hauled me up to my feet.

We ran.

I'll never know why it let us go. Perhaps it was content with the playthings it already had.

Perhaps it couldn't hold onto more than four.

As for the MacReady springs expedition... well... for all I know they are still there. Or dead. Sometimes I wonder which would be better.

I think I know.


Bryan Irving
Bryan Irving

Born in the North East of England to an Anglo-Scottish mother and a Kurdish Turkish father, Bryan struggled with Dyslexia but was determined to become a writer despite that minor setback.

He has written a novel and several tabletop RPGs

Now Reading
Cooper's Creek
Read Next
Brutalist Stories #8