Red Earth

📅 Published on April 22, 2021

“Red Earth”

Written by J.C. Barnard
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Rating: 9.82/10. From 11 votes.
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There were only a few select things in this world that Corbin Reef hated more than lazy college professors.  Give me a hardass who’ll break you down before midterms, he would say; at least that would show they cared about the class.

Corbin was a first-year Environmental Studies major at Lasich College.  His choice of study was merely elementary, being the son of an alternative energy engineer father and a marine biologist mother, both of whom were heavy hippies in the late Vietnam War era.

His first semester in uni was going along well enough; he packed his schedule with GE credits and one prerequisite class for his major: Intro to Environmental Studies. Corbin didn’t care much for the other courses; they were all easy B’s at worst.  What he wanted to devote most of his time to was the intro class.  However, he didn’t do enough research into the class or who was running it because as he soon found out in his first week, he was stuck with Prof. Slugworth, the laziest tenured professor on campus, for the next seventeen weeks.

Prof. Slugworth didn’t hate his job; rather, he was an animal biologist and didn’t find much enjoyment outside of his field.  He would rather spend time on his research papers or writing his new book than teach a class full of students who didn’t want to be there.  Weeks passed, and while Corbin’s other classes were gearing up for the first wave of midterms, Slugworth’s class was chugging along at an excruciatingly tedious pace.  Corbin woke up one morning to an email sent to his student account.  It was from Slugworth.  Its subject was “Class Canceled,” and it simply said: “Class is canceled today.  Watch the documentary ’Barren Earth’ and we’ll have a discussion tomorrow.”  Even his emails were lazy!  There was no salutation at the end, no links to the assignment, nothing to help him out.  He found a discussion on the online board where his classmates were just as confused.  He learned that the documentary was available on several streaming platforms, but it cost money.  There was speculation that Slugworth chose this specific documentary because he was earning incentives for making his students buy the movie.

Corbin decided he was going to spite his good-for-nothing professor and get the movie for free.  He texted his friend Rami, a computer science major, and said: “I’ve got a favor.”

“Good morning to you too, dickhead,” Rami responded almost immediately.

Corbin ignored his friend’s jab.  “I need you to download a movie for me.”

“What kind of movie we talking about?”

“A nature documentary, get your head outta the gutter.”

“You want it downloaded legally, or…”

“The other option, Einstein.”

“Hey, I don’t want my FBI agent to catch onto my antics.  Why can’t you do it?”

“Because I’ll catch a virus or something if I try.”

“Here’s a tip: don’t be stupid.  Pretty simple if you ask me.”

Corbin groaned on the inside.  He was running late for his nine o’clock calculus class, so he had to seal the deal fast.

“C’mon, man. Throw me a bone, why don’t you?”

“What’s in it for me?”

“You know that hot chick in our English 1A class?”

“The brunette with the huge cans?”

“That’s the one.”

“What about her?”

“I got her number.”  Corbin waited for Rami’s response.  At this rate, he was going to end up late, but attendance wasn’t mandatory for his first class.  The three dots popped up, vanished, then popped up again like a skittish weasel.

“Don’t lie to me, man,” he said.

“I’d never lie to you,” Corbin responded.  “And I’ll send it to you if you get me the movie.”



“How’d you even get it?”

“Prof asked us to get contact information from different classmates.  I already knew you, so I tried swinging for the fences.”

“And it worked?”

“You think I’d let a pretty face like mine go to waste?”

“Don’t get cocky, kid,” Rami texted.  “But you got yourself a deal.”

Corbin breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed.  He slipped his phone in his pocket, snatched his bag, threw on some shoes, and grabbed a protein bar on his way out of the dorms.

* * * * * *

It was well past seven, and night had fallen fast and hard, like a flashlight lowered into a deep cavern.  Corbin had spent his time after classes on campus, looking for part-time jobs, catching up for midterms, and spending an hour with a study group.  He returned to his single-occupancy dorm room and booted his laptop.  Rami had sent an email with an .mp4 attachment.  The subject said: “A deal’s a deal, now send them digits!”  The body said: “Took me a while to find it.  It’s safe to download, I tried it myself. -R.”  Even if Rami tested it himself, Corbin didn’t want to take a chance with his new laptop he got as a graduation gift.  He ran a virus detection scan on the file, and it came up clean.  He clicked the attachment and saved it to his desktop, where he opened it up in a video player.  Before pressing play, he grabbed a bag of corn chips, his hydroflask full of vitamin water, and leaned back in his seat.

The documentary opened with a sweeping landscape of a wide ocean, stretching off far past the horizon and chasing low hanging clouds.  The camera floated above the world then took a nosedive into the deep blue waters where schools of fish and vast coral reefs dotted the ocean floor like ants on a polka-dotted picnic blanket.  A voice picked up suddenly, narrating the fantastic views as the camera swam along with the sea life.

“There is a world that’s been out of reach, until now.  Two worlds lie on either side of a crystalline barrier, thinner than a sheet of paper.”

Sweeping orchestrals accompany several tight nature shots.  Fish swam in the ocean.  Birds flew through dry air.  A frog sat idly on a lonesome lily pad.  The narration continued.  “One world is older, beautiful, and sophisticated.  The other lies above the waters, a younger world that is secretive, tougher, different.  Little in these two sister worlds is as it appears.  This is a story of a consummation between the land and the sea, where miracles and devastation lie around every facet of life.

“We first start our journey into the briny depths of the sea, where life as we know it stood witness to a grand display of evolution.”  The camera panned up and out, flying past the stratosphere high above the Earth, where nothing but deep blue water circled the globe, save for two disks of white in the ice caps.  “Millions of years ago, the Earth was blue, a barren landscape on the surface, but underneath it was teeming with life.”  Pockets of green began to sprout out from the blue expanse like bobbing apples.  “Then slowly the sea levels died down bit by bit,” the narrator said, “and a new world was introduced, one with brilliant new colors and sights to behold: land.”

Corbin thought the CGI was incredibly well done.  They showed the starting formation of Pangea and the continents that would break off from their mother supercontinent.  The narrator went on.  “Over the next few epochs of time, creatures followed an unseen destiny to this new world, guided only by their instincts.  But only a tiny portion made the land their home, while the vast majority of life decided to stick to their roots, so to speak.  Thus, the planet was split in half, with one world thriving on dry land and the other prospering in the sea.  Both worlds collide and clash, and their past relationships, as well as their present, are part of this story.”

The camera swung around the Earth in a wide arc, with the sun and stars spiraling in all directions.  Then it got closer and soon fell into orbit, flying low through the puffy white clouds and finally skimming above the ocean once more.  A thin line of beige lined the horizon, and the camera came to a beach.

“We see here,” the narrator continued, “the bridge between worlds: the coastline.  And underneath the very tips of the surface are the edges of land fringed with coral that disappear into the depths.”  Corbin saw great fingers of cyan laced with veins of deep teal coral.  Majestic music played in the background.  “The reef is a jeweled city perched on the clifftop.  It’s a community with amazing relationships between animals.”

There was a gathering of bright yellow fish with black, spotted gills, surrounded by several smaller thin black fishes.  “Fifteen-centimeter slippery dicks,” the narrator continued, Corbin chuckled to himself, “groom large moon wrasses, even combing the tender gills.  They eat any parasites and dead skin, a reward for their trouble.”

The camera switched to a discolored yellow fish, evidently one of the moon wrasses.  Its skin was covered in sores, and its gills were inflamed with red.  “This sickly fellow is being tended to by a myriad of dicks.”  Corbin stifled a laugh even though it wasn’t as funny anymore.  “They are trying to find the root of the problem.  Signs of infection are emanant on this poor moon wrasse, and it won’t be long until it succumbs to its disease.”  One of the dicks violently thrashes at a spot around the wrasse’s face, then pulls a plump insectile thing from the skin.  “Ah, here we are!  A lucky dick has found the parasite, hidden just above the eyeball.  It’s a large specimen, by the looks of it.  The slippery dick relishes in its hard work, and leaves the wrasse be, and the others follow suit soon after.”  The camera panned out to find large, ominous shadows taking the place of those miniscule slippery dicks.  “Unfortunately for the moon wrasse, the lucky discovery was too little too late, and several predators take this opportunity to feast on a hearty meal.”

Just before the mysterious sea creatures lunge for the kill, the scene changed.  It showed a handsome brown eel hiding in a patch of coral.  The narrator took charge: “The African moray eel, the five and a half meter dragon of the reef, is attended by shrimps.  They enter the jaws of death to keep razor-sharp teeth clean in exchange for any morsels they find.  No opportunity is wasted, however desperate it may seem.”  The eel opened its mouth wide and snapped its jaws in excitement, catching one of the shrimps in its maw.  The scene changed again.

“Devilfish hide in an anemone, protected by tentacles that would paralyze other bigger, more dangerous fish.”  Corbin watched as tiny beautiful fish with hues of blue and deep orange hid in the bulbous sea plants.  “An anemone can close,” said the narrator, “and the local clownfish is finding his home a tight squeeze.”

The camera panned over to a larger anemone.  Unlike the previous ones, this plant had blue skin on the outside and barbed tentacles.  The narrator explained the situation: “The faux anemone, actiniaria imponere, is a carnivorous sea plant that looks and acts like a regular sea anemone.  It attracts smaller fish to its vessel, letting them live and thrive in their tentacle-like teeth.  And when a bigger fish imposes itself on the smaller fish and decides to move in, the faux anemone makes its move.”  A clownfish nudged several devilfish out of the anemone and tries to settle in, only for the opening to close suddenly, and the fish disappears.  “It snatches the unsuspecting bully, and closes its mouth, digesting its food.”  Corbin saw as the anemone made quick work of the clownfish, and whatever else was unlucky enough to get caught alongside its primary victim.  A fine layer of what looked like sand got kicked up underneath the anemone.  The narrator continued: “It releases waste particles around its body that are rich in iron, phosphate, and nitrogen, letting sea vegetation grow around it and inviting other species of fishes to set up shop, ignorant of the terrifying predator lurking in plain sight.  Indeed, relationships like these can have difficult moments.”

The scene changed.  The camera flew past a white-grained sandy beach to a jungle of sorts.  “These underwater communities,” the narrator said, “lie along the shores of ancient human settlements, where the cradle of modern mathematics, medicine, science, and technology were nurtured.  We now journey to the world of land, where we come across a wide and boundless forest in the heart of what was known as Asia.  Over half of all the world’s trees, evergreen and deciduous, stand in these great assemblies.  For many of us, they are places of mystery and darkness.  They are key to our climate, and home to countless unique species.”

Quick consecutive shots of burning trees, barren land, and displaced animals filled the screen while the narration picked back up.  “In the past, we have destroyed them without hesitation.  Yet, forests do have an astounding ability to recover.”

The camera switched to a scenic landscape shot, where mountains of white-tinged trees roll toward frigid waters.  “Take, for example, this luscious location, the southern edge of the boreal forest.  The forest that has held dominion over the far north for thousands of years, but there was once a time when its long reign was threatened by flooding and mass extinction following a great Calamity.  It has since found a resurgence of both life and balance.”

An aerial shot at sunset, with tendrils of dying light stretching over thin tree trunks that looked like hairs on a snow-white head.  “It stretches eastwards across a great continent for thousands of kilometers, and now, in the middle of a harsh winter, where young lakes and rivers are freshly frozen over, it’s largely silent, seemingly empty of animals of any kind.”

“But this is the home of an animal so rare, it’s almost mythical.”  Soft violins play as the camera switches to the ground.  Snowy rocks surround loosely green-leafed trees.  The picture is still, then a bright orange head arises behind a bluff, shouldering a massive feline body behind it over freshly fallen snow.  “A Siberian tiger,” the narrator explains.  “There are fewer than 300 of them in the wild.  These are the most intimate pictures of them in the wild that we have imagined.”  Corbin could hear the tiger panting heavily.  Warm puffs of air sprouted from its mouth and mingled with the trees.  A crow cawed in the distance and the tiger growled at it. Up close, Corbin could see its definitive black stripes and white undertones near its belly.

The narrator went on: “A male Siberian tiger patrols a territory of nearly 800 square kilometers, and it has to do so if it is to find enough prey to keep itself alive during the long winter.  Ancient instinct compels it to search in a wider berth, approximately two thousand square kilometers, but lakeshores and ocean water impose as obstacles upon its quest.  This is an impoverished land, where food of any kind is scarce.”

A quick aerial shot, followed by a bird perched on the ground.  The camera showed it pecking at a bundle of nuts.  “A pinecone,” said the narrator.  “Pine nuts provide vital energy during the winter months.”  Corbin watched as something big and furry sauntered between bare bushes and thick trunks.  The bird flew away.  “Wild boar depend on these nuts.  For them, it has to be grab-and-go, for they themselves are food for a tiger.”  The boar scampered away as the tiger got near, and the camera showed the big cat slowly follow after it.  “This game of hide-and-seek is played out over vast areas of forest, as all animals search for the life-giving stands of pine.”

A closer aerial shot, where the camera tracked the tiger as it stalked its prey.  “Sudden changes to their habitat, as well as the introduction of a new, more ferocious predator, have made the Siberian tiger nearly extinct.  But since the late 60s, their numbers have slowly been increasing.”

The camera changed back to the forest floor, where fresh tracks were scattered around a large pile of broken pinecones.  The narration picked up as Corbin saw a wild boar taking its sweet time with its food.  “Here we see a banquet of nuts, dropped by a pregnant pine tree.  A herd of boars has been through here, although one remains, electing to stay behind while the others move on to avoid danger.”  The tiger lowers its body close to the ground, eyes forward, head low beneath the bare bushes.  “The male tiger creeps low and silent in the underbrush, the packed snow underneath its heavy paws muffle the sound of his approach.”  Corbin watched the wild pig eat as if nothing is amiss.  He had a hand halfway in his chip bag, his hydroflask sitting untouched on his desk.  He was enraptured.  The music picked up pace and intensity as the narrator continued.  “The boar suspects nothing before it is too late.”

The tiger pounced.  The boar squealed and tried to get away, but the big cat clamped its paws around its midriff and sank his teeth into the jugular as the music reached a crescendo.  The snow soaked in fresh red as the narrator spoke.  “The tiger’s days of effort are rewarded as he finds his first meal in quite some time.  He lets out a mighty roar of triumph, although it will prove to be short-lived.  For you see, the boar and tiger share some commonalities, such as their tendency to make their meals ‘to-go’ before they find themselves the main course.”

As if punctuated by those last few words, Corbin felt a sense of dread settle over him.  Not the kind of dread you’d feel watching a suspenseful movie, but the kind of feeling that told the body that something wasn’t right anymore.  He felt watched.  The music had stopped its lovely number.  It didn’t taper off or slow down; it just stopped like a door slamming closed.  Corbin thought the video had paused, but the tiger kept moving through the silence.  This wasn’t normal.  As the tiger kept eviscerating its prey, the dread built more on top of Corbin.  There was something in the video, something dangerous, not just to the tiger but to himself.  He just couldn’t see it.

A noise, like a whip moving through the air before the crack.  Its source was unknown in the video.  Then the tiger was dragged back into the tree line.  It disappeared in the blink of an eye, leaving its prized meal unattended.  Then silence again, nothing moved.  When the narrator spoke, it was like a wall crashing down.

“Mother nature cries out in pain as another member of a rare and beautiful species meets a grisly end.”

The shot faded to black, then the camera was above the ocean once more.  This time, Corbin didn’t feel that same sense of childlike wonder.  He was disturbed beyond words.  Music began to swell again, and the narrator spoke as if nothing happened.  “We return to the sea, where the dust of history has settled into the rising waters as sand, rock, and mud.  Off the coast of what was known as Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, the sea is like a hot tub; it gets hotter and saltier than any other open sea in the world.  It’s surprising that corals can survive; they have miraculously found ways to cope, much to the excitement of sea life.”

Deeper down, the camera showed coral reefs with muted colors.  What once was so vibrant and lively to Corbin, the coral reefs no longer touched him with the same amount of fascination.  The narrator continued.  “It’s different from other coral reefs in the world; this is more like a bombed-out city, devastated by heat and salt.”  The camera followed a small valley filled on both sides with dilapidated rocks, crumbling coral, and gray vegetation.  “And in some cases,” he said, “there are quite literally cities sprouting from the ocean floor, rusted beyond repair and taken over by sea life of all kinds.”  Then the valley dropped off, and there in the distance was an Atlantean city.  Skyscrapers reached up and poked through the water’s surface like rustic buoys.  The streets diced up the city into chunks of crusted square meat.  This cannot be real, Corbin thought, yet it looked real enough.  A lost city in the middle of the ocean.  Corbin asked himself, not for the first time, when this documentary was captured.

The narrator went on.  “Small squid begin to dance along cracked asphalt, courting in a psychedelic language of hues and colors.  Life in all its wonderful forms will emerge in the Gulf, though it’s never obvious.

“Reefs here are small and isolated.  Submerged sandy plains are an extension of the Arabian desert, but here underwater, rocks turn into cuttlefish on closer inspection.  Fan worms cast their nets, mimicking flowers on the sidewalk.  A devious eye and a gill belong to a ray, who takes his sweet time cruising down the avenue.”  The camera moved just outside the city limits, where great swaths of muted green filled the seafloor. “Thousands of square kilometers of sand have been colonized by seagrass.  The underwater meadows may not look like much, but this is one of the most productive habitats on Earth.  Its riches are hard to see.”

Thin lines of what looked like grassy roots swam by onscreen. The narrator explained, “Shrimp fish look and act like floating seagrass.”  The camera showed a bulbous, bug-eyed fish hiding in a secluded shallow pit.  “Sandy stargazers hide in holes.”

The camera cut to a large snake lurking along the grassy sand dunes.  Its emotionless eyes stared off into the distance.  “A six-meter striped sea snake,” said the narrator, “is one of the most venomous creatures in the world, with over ten times a rattler’s killing power.  He hunts fish like little stargazers.”

The snake slithered along, finding a gaping hole.  It struck, a terrifying thrust even submerged in water.  “Got one!”  It wandered a few feet and struck again.  “And another!  The annulated sea snake eats heartily this evening, and rightfully so to maintain its massive body.”

The snake looked titanic compared to the small fish that swim around it. The camera panned to a wide shot where Corbin could see its full length.  Then a chill ran down his spine when a hulking shadow loomed far away near the city.  It moved slowly, almost lethargically.  It inspired a deeply welled fear inside Corbin, the kind of fear he first felt when he saw a picture of Jupiter, its astronomical size making him feel small and insignificant especially when contrasted against the black void of space.  The narrator spoke up.  “However, far across the coral reefs where the drop off takes a plunge into darkness, we see a gargantuan leedsichthys, well over thirty meters in length.  It overshadows the now meek and mild sea snake, making the latter look more like a thread of clothing than a terrifying monster.”

The camera cut away, and none too soon, for Corbin would have turned off the video out of the intangible fear he had experienced.  How many things like that were lurking in the water this instant?  He had discovered a newfound fear of the ocean today.  The narrator continued.  “If the coral reefs are cities abundant with life and culture, then there are bound to be menaces to these miniature societies.”  A long, thin shark swam past the camera, with fins like icebergs.  “A four-meter whitetip reef shark is recognized and feared.  She is the monarch of the elite overworld who flaunts her power and might wherever she goes.”

Then the camera showed a dark cloud of large fish, clustered together in a sinister pack.  The narrator explained: “A gathering of giant barracuda near nightfall are gangsters of the seedy underbelly, casting a shadow over the reef.  Barracuda gather in hundreds by the drop-off.  They’re waiting for evening.”  Corbin watched as they began to swim round and round each other, slowly and methodically creating a barrier.  “The nocturnal pack hunters form the wheel of death, ready to tear apart anything that moves or breathes.  Schools of fish bob and weave when they sense the danger, but some wander too closely and are dragged into the circle, and the center collapses.”  True to the narrator’s words, a plump fish fell into the barracudas’ radar, and the spinning wheel shuts closed like an eyeball.  The frenzy in the water lasted a few seconds, and then Corbin saw that the wheel reformed effortlessly.

The camera pulled up and away from the water to the air.  The scene changed, and feathered wings filled the screen.  “The world of flight belongs to the birds.”  Corbin stared from an aerial view as tiny white specks filled up a small island.  A closeup of the birds showed that they have plump bodies and thin wings and feet.  A long beak protruded from their faces.  The narrator went on.  “Here we see nearly half a million Callao shag, three-quarters of the world population.  These fascinating birds breed here on the island of Callao in what was known as South America.  Featherless chicks shiver each morning; nights are cold here.  Life in the colony is dangerous, loud, and smelly.  Young chicks are of various ages, and the older ones hang out in gangs.  The younger chicks still need babysitters.  Everyone is hungry.”

The camera filled with squawking, squabbling birds.  There were many flying through the air, many more dotting the desolate ground.  “Gulls attack undefended chicks, because they can find little food elsewhere.  Even cannibalism is common.”  To emphasize this, a fully feathered shag snatched a small chick on camera and gobbled it whole.  The mother chased after the deviant bird.  “The females are all white-feathered, and do their best to protect their young.  It is an uphill battle.  Temperatures swing from too cold to too hot in a few hours.  Birds can’t sweat, and pant desperately to keep cool.  There’s no shade and no food.”

Piles of whitish, yellow bones littered some of the ground.  Corbin was horrified to see that some skulls closely resembled those of a human.  “Gulls and shags peck at bones and the remains of a lost civilization, but still find nothing to satiate their hunger.”

The camera pointed to the horizon, where something far away was approaching fast.  “Salvation appears first as a thin black line,” the narrator explained.  The music swelled with hopeful energy.  “After a morning’s fishing, tens of thousands of black-feathered males return to the colony with food.  The first problem for families is to find each other.”  The air was full of chittering birds, and Corbin watched as the females scrambled around to find their partner.  “The lucky ones are fed quickly.  But they better be careful, because the inside of a Callao shag’s mouth is lined with hundreds of needle-like teeth.  Feeding time is a precise yet quick excursion, and can turn messy in a flash.”  Corbin saw a white-feathered mother suddenly pull away from her mate, finding her head covered with gashes.  She went back for more.

“Some females,” the narrator said, “are impatient, and attempt to exhort a handsome passerby trying to look for his family.”  The camera showed a female waddling up to a male and putting a thin wing around his waist like a drunken barfly trying to pick up a much younger woman on the town.  “If the female is too persistent, or if the male is annoyed enough, he’ll bite her head off.”  Corbin stared as the miffed black-feathered male opened its mouth wide, showing slim glittering teeth, and tore the female’s head off her neck.  A red river spilled onto the sand.  The camera cut away quickly.

“After all that,” the narrator continued, “the last thing you want is to be mugged for the only meal of the day.  Hungry shags and reef herons wait until chicks are being fed, then swoop in.”  Fights broke along the shoreline.  Corbin saw that the shags had a hard time defending both their young and their dinner from greedy herons.  More heads topple, and wings were pulled free from their sockets.  Corbin could only stare transfixed and unmoving in a sort of horrid fascination.

“Just when you thought it couldn’t get any tougher, the wind becomes a sandstorm.  Sand, dirt, and blood are blown across the island and into the sea.  The timing could not have been more unfortunate, for the blood begins to attract hordes of sand spiders.”  The camera showed piles of sand moving fast along the shore and into the midst of the small island, where they approached the fighting birds.  Then the spiders burst through the surface.  They were big and fat with bulbous abdomens and long slender legs, the biggest spiders Corbin had ever seen, real or imaginary, as big as full-grown basset hounds.

“These fast and deadly arachnids live underneath the surface of long sandbars and isolated islands.”  The narrator didn’t skip a beat.  “It just so happens that they were lying in wait underneath an all-you-can-eat buffet.  It is an absolute massacre.  The colony is decimated within minutes.  The lucky ones abandon their young and flee for another strip of land.  There are some shags who are too injured to fly, and they limp into the sea past the coral reef, where gangster barracuda extend their wheel of death and the center folds once again.”

Corbin was only momentarily aware that he had dropped his bag of chips to the floor.  He wasn’t hungry anymore. The scene changed to a tall forest canopy, and the narrator kept speaking.  “Nothing is as it seems in the animal kingdom, both in the sea and on land.  Hidden in the vegetation of the moist redwood forest floor is a richly populated underworld.  Male rough-skinned newts are driven by a mysterious urge to return to the pool where they hatched as tadpoles.  And they need to get there quickly.  Not only is the competition always fierce, but predators lurk around every corner of the forest floor.”

The yellow-tinged newts crawled infuriatingly slowly across the screen, dragging their flat bodies across wet dirt and slippery logs.  Then without warning, several bristly prongs sprung up from the ground and wrapped around a newt, dragging it down underneath the soil.  “One very unlucky newt falls victim to the trapdoor beetle’s ploy, and is gobbled up quickly.  The rest veer around the newly formed pit, learning from their fallen comrade’s mistake.  And yet, as they will soon learn, this was never planned to be an isolated incident.”  Columns of dirt blow up as more legs spring up and attack in front of the camera.  The beetles must’ve been huge if they were big enough to grapple an adult newt.  “One by one,” said the narrator, “many more are plucked from underneath the ground by long insectile legs, and the moist dirt lying below the quaint forest canopy turns into a minefield.  Only a small percentage make it to the pond, where females lie in waiting for a suitable mate.  The mating ritual of rough-skinned newts can take up to several hours, and night falls quickly in these parts.  However, unbeknownst to the amicable amphibians, a new enemy makes his grand debut.”

The camera panned from the peaceful pond to a tree nearby.  A grotesque bug crawled out from the roots.  Corbin recoiled from his monitor; the thing made him physically sick to look at it.  “A purple spined centipede scuttles out of its hiding place.  A terrifying sight to look at, it shortly proves itself to be far more dangerous than your wildest imaginations.  It finds the water’s edge and spits into it, turning the once serene pond toxic within seconds.  The newts are cooked alive underwater, and their bloated bodies float to the surface, giving off a horrid stench that is unappealing to any creature except the purple spined centipede.  Eventually, the corpses will make their way to the edge of the pond, where the centipede gorges itself on fresh meat for hours.  Once it is finished, it will go into a quick hibernation, and it won’t be searching for another meal for several months.”  The great monstrosity went back into its hiding hole and the camera cut to black momentarily.  Corbin’s eyes were soon ambushed with a flurry of disturbing images accompanied by discordant music.  Giant lobsters stripping apart the tender flesh of a beached whale.  An orange furred tarantula crawling out of a human skull.  A raven with a moist eyeball in its beak sitting atop a mountain of discarded bones in the middle of an arid desert.  The music tore apart at his ears; the notes were disorganized, pitched too deep with incredibly shrill whines.  He shut his eyes at the onslaught and only opened them when the narrator spoke again.

“Animals of all shapes and sizes pose a threat to certain creatures, even on a microscopic level.”  The camera had switched scenes back to a forest floor.  It showed a large beet-red larva of some sort crawling along slowly.  Only when it passed a tiny acorn did Corbin understand how big this creature really was.  “Here we see a sickly fellow. The behemoth caterpillar is usually a robust and lively specimen, but this one is dying from an unseen predator.  It is infected with a virus, a rather deadly one at that.  The F. vrasmosrumpere virus is a nasty bug that heats up the body temperature of a host well past its capable limits.  All stored fat is used up and burned to generate more heat, causing the insides to literally melt and boil until…”

The poor caterpillar onscreen exploded from the inside, splitting its lumpy body in half and spilling chunks of rancid flesh everywhere.  “The skin ruptures, and the poor caterpillar is split in two.  The stench of raw meat attracts birds and insects, where they peck and tear at the still-living creature until it is nothing but a husk.  Little do these ravagers know that by eating the flesh of the caterpillar they have infected themselves with the boiling virus, and the cycle continues.  The F. vrasmosrumpere virus can be contracted by most animals, spreading through exposed blood and bodily fluids, making it the deadliest and most violent virus on the planet.  And yes, it is infectious to humans.”

The camera panned back, and Corbin saw a CGI rendering of the entire globe, but it was not a world he recognized.  The entire eastern half of Europe was underwater.  Many of the southern states and midwest of America were completely flooded.  A huge lake sat in the middle of Africa.  Massive islands formed in the middle of huge continents.  It was an alien atlas, a world Corbin could not understand nor fully comprehend.

The narrator spoke up.  “But the horror does not stop there, for the world as we know it has steadily taken a trip back in time, where prehistoric-like animals roam freely.”  The images Corbin had seen thus far were only the beginning.  The documentary kept playing, showing a cascade of unending horror.  A herd of heliocoprion, with jaws like a sea urchin, prowling the darkest depths of the ocean.  A titanoboa swallowing a macaque monkey whole.  Disease-ridden millipedes festering over a decaying corpse.  Crocodiles as long as basketball courts hunting along a shallow river bank.  A hive of hornets making a honeypot out of the abdomen of a dying ox.  Corbin didn’t have the courage to check and see how much time was left in the movie.

Then there were the things he couldn’t unsee.  Colossal lumbering mammoths, taller than ethereal treetops.  A bipedal lizard hominid that feasted on wild goats and sheep.  A great wolf with drooling teeth and dark eyes.  Small monkey-like creatures that tore apart their prey with vicious speed.  A mngwa, a feline hyena hybrid, stalking the African Serengeti.  The terrors were unceasing, and Corbin could not force his eyes away.

“It is uncertain where all of these unearthly beasts appeared, but scientists have a relative understanding.”  The camera cuts to an aerial view, where a great ice blanket covers everything in sight.  “Believe it or not,” the narrator continues, “this is the north pole.  A large sheet of ice is all that remains of the polar ice caps.  Both the northern and southern ice caps used to house over two percent of all water in the world, compacted into ice and snow.  But frozen water was not all that lay underneath the tundra.”  The camera cut to beneath the ice.  Corbin saw animals of all shapes and colors, petrified like still-life paintings.  “A prehistoric world, frozen in time long forgotten.  When the rains of Calamity came down from the atmosphere, it sheared the ice shelves and melted the caps, releasing these monstrous beasts onto the world.  They migrated through the glaciers and made their way from the top of the northern hemisphere and the bottom of the southern hemisphere.”

“It was utter chaos.” Amateur footage was plastered on the screen, showing droves of people in cities running away from predators and monsters.  “The advancing tides of terrifying creatures was like a pincer move on the world.  As a result of Calamity and the onslaught of prehistorimals, a third of the world population was lost, both animal and human.”

The camera switched scenes to an incredible cavern, cut deep inside a rich mountain where great columns of stone supported a rooftop which oversaw a complex yet vibrant city.  “Humans have been forced underground, where we have made our home underneath the mountains for the past several generations.  Here we are safe from the dangers of prehistorimals and rising sea levels.  Now, as the bicentennial anniversary of Calamity nears, we look back and remember where we have come from, why we stay in the mountains, and that the world outside is waiting for us when we are ready to fight back.  It is still far too soon to venture outside, but once we do, our civilization will do what it does best: persevere.”

Then it was mercifully over.  The screen faded to black, and a few sparse credits floated from the bottom. Narrated by Tiber Islesworth.  Visual renderings provided by the Rocky Mountain Coalition for the Preservation of the Underground.  Paid for by the Apophis Foundation.  The last credit was followed by a symbol of a small circle with three evenly spaced curly C’s sprouting from the wheel.  As the last image shambled out of sight, Corbin heard the fan on his laptop whirl wildly.  His mouse was unresponsive.  The computer shut down, and when he booted it up again, the video player had closed.  He tried searching for the movie in his files.  Nothing came up.  When he revisited the email Rami had sent him earlier that day, the attachment was missing.  Corbin’s head throbbed with what he just saw.  This has to have been a joke, but who would invest so much time and effort on a simple prank? The visuals were incredibly realistic, but evidently fake.  According to the end, only the visual renderings were credited, meaning they were all an imitation of genuine cinematography.  Lifelike, but an imitation all the same.

He checked his phone.  It was half-past midnight.  There were a few notifications from Rami that were sent hours prior.

They said: “Hey, did you get the email?  Better pay the piper and send those digits.  What was her name again?”

Then later: “C’mon, Corb.  Don’t leave a man out to dry.  What’re those digits?”Then much later: “Whoa, hold on.  Sent you the wrong one.  It won’t play on my media player anymore.  Was probably a bum copy.  I’ll find the real version and let you know.”

And: “So…am I getting that number tonight?”

There was one final email from Rami.  It said: “Sorry, here’s the right one.  This should work this time.  Also, check your messages, numbnuts.” Then nothing else.

Corbin opened the attachment.  A grainy video started to play on his desktop, showing some birds fly by, accompanied by lethargic narration.  This was the real documentary; it appeared as lazy and noncommital as his professor, and it was hardly a half-hour long.

He closed his laptop and leaned back far in his chair.  His head was dizzy with dehydration; he hadn’t touched his hydroflask.  He was plagued with a difficult question: What had he just seen?  No matter what avenue of reason he followed, it all led to a troublesome conclusion: it was a warning.  A great Calamity would strike the planet some time in the future.  It could happen decades down the road, years, days, or even tomorrow.  He had no idea what he wanted to do with that crucial information.

Instead, Corbin flipped off the lights and slipped into bed, clothes and all.  He silenced his phone alarm and rolled over, planning to sleep in late.  He’ll just take the day off tomorrow.  Maybe even talk to his counselor about switching his major.  He fell asleep to heavy rain pounding against his window.

Rating: 9.82/10. From 11 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by J.C. Barnard
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: J.C. Barnard

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Author's Notes: N/A

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