Project CRONUS (unreviewed)
A few years ago, I went on a camping trip with three of my close friends: Darius, Ethan, and my sister, Maddie. It was late in November, and the weather was cold, wet, and grey. We were in the woods, miles away from our town, and everything had become more distant and darker. After a few hours of hiking, we settled into a tent for the night. Our tent wasn't a fancy one, a four-season one with poles and stakes, but it was just right for us.
There was some tension brewing between Darius, Ethan and Maddie, and I knew why. Darius was the butt of my sister’s jokes for one reason—he was a lumberjack’s son. Ethan, understandably, didn’t like this.
For a while, we sat around our campfire listening to music and goofing around. But at some point, the rain started to come down again. I think it’s safe to say all of us were wet, miserable, and cold.
As we sat around an electric heater—cheating, I know—Darius frowned and got up. “This isn’t going to be enough,” he said. “I’ll grab some firewood. I’ll only be a few minutes.”
“Try not to take too long,” Maddie chuckled. “We don’t want the hidebehind getting you!”
Darius frowned and shrugged, picking up a shopping bag we brought with us, and started walking into the forest.
“Don’t be so mean to the guy,” Ethan said, chastising Maddie. “Just because he's a lumberjack's kid doesn't mean you get to make fun of him."
Maddie shrugged. “What can I say?” she said. “He’s—”
“What? What some might call a redneck? Leave the poor guy alone for once, Madison.”
Maddie scoffed and glanced towards me. “It’s fine to make fun of people, right, Sophie?”
“Can we just stop bickering?” I said plainly. “We’re here to have fun, not to tear each other’s throats out.”
There was silence for a few moments. “All right,” Maddie finally said, defeated.
We waited for a few more minutes. Then ten more minutes. Then half an hour. Darius didn't come back. After a while, we started getting a bit impatient, but not especially worried—Darius probably went to the other side of the lake, or the other side of the forest. Or maybe he went somewhere else altogether. We were used to that kind of thing. We’d never known him to turn up more than five minutes late.
“Where is he?” Ethan said after a while. “He’s been gone for an hour and a half now.”
“You're right.” I said, sighing. “Guess we’d better go find him.”
“Hold on, you’re suggesting we drop everything and go into the woods, without so much as a baseball bat to use as a weapon?” Maddie asked, incredulously.
“I just nodded. “Yes,” I said. “He might be injured somewhere, or worse.”
“He’ll know we’re looking for him,” I said. “We’re going to have to follow him.”
“Right,” said Ethan.
As he got up, Maddie made a point of staying put. “I’m staying here,” she said. “Fires keep wild animals away, and I don’t exactly want to end up face-to-face with a grizzly bear.”
Ethan shrugged as I got up. “It’s either this or leave a man who might be mortally wounded,” he said. With that, he began walking into the woodland. I gave Maddie a final glance and a shrug, and followed.
As soon as we’d left the small clearing, Ethan took off running towards the west. He’d reached the edge of the forest before I caught up with him, and a few moments later, we’d found a trail.
The trees here were mostly pine, with a few maples scattered amongst them, and the smell of smoke and the tang of sulphur came with the all-encompassing darkness. During the day, a place such as that would look truly beautiful. In the dark, though, the low visibility lent a sense of foreboding to the area.
“This feels weird,” I said after a few minutes. “I can’t exactly say I like it here.”
Ethan shrugged. “Either way, maybe we’ll find Darius here.”
The trail was almost a straight line, but even in the fog, I could tell that it took us away from the edge of the forest to the west. As we walked, the air grew hotter and thicker, until it seemed to me that I was breathing through a sponge. I could feel it as a weight on my back and chest, and I tried to draw in the warm air as best as I could. But that was when I realized something was completely wrong.
Why was it hot and humid in late fall?
I think Ethan realized at around the same time I did. “This is wrong,” he said, looking around. “It’s not right. This place isn’t right.”
“I know,” I said. “Why is it this hot in November?”
The sky tore apart with a violent crash of thunder. In the distance, there was a flash of lighting. Just our luck—a storm.
We reached a fork in the trail, one that seemed to lead toward the western end of the forest. There was a slight gust of wind, and I cringed as a foul odour, a horrid stench of decay, filled my nostrils.
“What stinks?” Ethan said.
“No clue,” I said.
We looked at each other, and I could tell that he was as confused as I was. We collectively decided to keep walking, and tried our best to ignore the stench. Eventually, though, I gave up. “Screw this,” I said, walking in the smell’s direction. I had to know what it was. I shoved the vegetation aside with one hand, covering my mouth and nose with the other hand, and then, my gaze rested on a large, rotting mass on the ground.
And by large, I mean huge.
The corpse of some immense creature lay on its side, the maw open wide, its cow-like eyes frozen with a look of confusion and panic. Its tongue lolled out of its beaked jaws, hanging lifelessly from the side of its open mouth. Black, putrid fluid oozed out of the many wounds covering its body. The remnants of a small, fleshy comb topped its head, reduced to a flap of greying, desiccated and rotten skin.
“Jesus,” Ethan muttered. “What the hell is that?”
“No fucking clue,” I said plainly. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to know what the creature was.
There was another bright flash, followed by thunder. I tried counting how many seconds came between the lightning and the noise. One second. Two. Three. Four. Five. There was another ungodly crash—five seconds. That meant it was just a mile away.
“Shit,” Ethan whispered.
There was another, closer flash of lightning, above the forest nearby. I could have sworn the trees moved. It was almost imperceptible, almost too fleeting to tell, but I was sure I saw it. Then came the thunder, and something else. The ground began to tremble, as if the earth beneath us was shifting, as if it was about to collapse. Just as quickly as the sensation came, it stopped. The trees ahead began to shake and tremble as the form of some great beast came closer. It was big—it had to be. Nothing else in the forest could do this. The trees kept moving, as if some almighty god of the forest was making its way towards us.
Come to think of it, it may as well have been.
The trees closest to us began to tremble, their branches rustling as if they would snap off. Just then, the thing came out of the trees. I got a quick glimpse of a huge, boxy head, a set of huge, powerful legs, and a long tail, and then I ran.
“What the hell is that?” Ethan shouted. I didn’t reply.
The ground trembled again, like some gargantuan alligator broadcasting its intentions towards us. There was another sound now, like a distant rumble of thunder, which could only have come from the behemoth.
We dived through the trees to our right, the branches scratching at our skin as we forced our way through. We got deeper into the forest, our breaths coming in heaves as we ran. I realised we were running uphill now, and as I looked back to the thing that was chasing us, I could see it was gaining on us. Small, beady eyes glared malevolently at us as it came closer, its mouth opening to reveal huge teeth, each the same length and width as a rail spike.
“Oh shit!” I screamed. Ethan was sprinting after me. I could see he was struggling.
“Sophie, it’s coming closer!” I heard Ethan grunt as we reached the top of the hill, sprinting down the other side.
Something smashed through the trees behind us, and the noise was almost deafening. The wind whistled in my ears, sounding like the scream of a banshee.
“Faster!” Ethan shouted. I heard him stumble behind me as the wind seemed to cut off his shout. I could feel my body struggling to climb the hill, my breathing laboured, my head pounding so hard that I couldn’t see straight. I felt as if I’d been running forever, like I was going to vomit.
Ahead of us, the ground suddenly disappeared, and a huge slope descended into the valley before us. The rumble sounded again from about twenty feet behind us—it was close now, really close. It was a toss-up between the jaws of death and a few broken bones.
I heard the agonized scream of Ethan behind me, followed by the sound of bones crunching. The decision had been made for me. I rushed forwards, towards the ravine. It looked like there was water at the bottom.
The wind blew into my face as I fell, almost deafening. The jaws of the thing above snapped shut on thin air. The water below rushed up to meet me.
I hit the surface of the water with a force that knocked the air out of my lungs. I flailed through the icy water, trying to keep my head above the surface.
I could feel the cold seeping through my body, my muscles seizing up. I could feel my limbs stiffening, but I couldn’t stop struggling. I kept moving downwards, until I broke the surface of the water. I could see the rocks rising up out of the water ahead of me, and the sky above me was so bright that it was almost unbearably bright. I climbed up onto the rocks—I was alive. I could feel the air on my back, warm from the sun. I was so grateful to be alive that I almost burst into tears. I was so close. I could see the opposite rock ledge a few feet away from me. Then, I turned around.
I saw it.
Scraggly filaments covered parts of its body. Powerful jaw muscles worked, crushing and grinding what little bone remained in its unfathomably large maw. A pair of small, white eyes gleamed with a primal malevolence, ragged breaths escaping the gargantuan beast's jaws. The hellish thing before me was an apex predator, I had no doubt about that. A concoction of blood and saliva poured from the monster's open jaws, mixing with the water and clouding the water's surface. This is it, I thought to myself.
This is the thing that just killed Ethan.
The realization hit me that I was looking into the jaws of death itself. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even look away from the thing. I think it was at that moment that I just accepted my fate. Any moment, the thing was going to make its way down the canyon and devour me.
There was a bright light, and the thing suddenly pulled its head back and turned around. A loud rumble shook me to my very core as something flew over, and the light became blinding.
I began waving furiously, trying to get the attention of the chopper. It began descending into the canyon, bathing it in an eerie glow. I looked up and the thing was gone. I watched, wide-eyed and breathless as the chopper landed, not even a hundred yards from me. I ran towards the chopper, excited, scared, and hopeful all at the same time.
I climbed in, hoping and praying for them to have found Maddie, or anyone else for that matter, alive. I felt like I could do anything. I was free. Inside the chopper there was a man, dressed in a bulky uniform with the acronym “CHRONOS”. I’d never seen an acronym like that before—these couldn’t have been search and rescue people.
I didn’t know how to properly address the guy, so I blurted out, “Who ... who are you? What was that thing?”
The helicopter began to ascend as the man replied. “Miss, calm down. What’s your name?”
“Sophie ... Sophie Whittaker. What the hell was that thing?”
The man didn’t speak for a second. It was if he was trying to decide exactly what to say. “A temporal aberration,” he said. “The result of an anomalous change to the time-space continuum.”
“Anomalous? Aberration?” I said. “What are you on about? Is Maddie okay?”
He shook his head. “I’m afraid there’s a lot we don’t know. There’s no one alive on the ground.”
I didn’t know what to say. The truth was that I was terrified—I was afraid that Maddie was gone. There was no way she could still be alive.
“Who are you?” I said after a few moments.
The man frowned, as if he wasn’t expecting me to ask that, and he hesitated before he answered. “I ... I work for an organization called CHRONOS.”
“Yeah, no shit,” I said.
The man ignored me. “We specialize in dealing with situations such as this. Temporal aberrations, I mean. We’re named after the Greek personification of time. There ... there have been many instances like this, all across the globe.”
He paused for breath. “I think we’d better get back to the compound first.”
“Compound?” I said, perhaps a little quicker than I would have liked. “What compound?”
“Well, I suppose ‘compound’ isn’t exactly the best word to use. More like ‘facility’ or something.”
The helicopter flew on for a while. I think it was about twenty minutes until we reached the compound, but I wasn't paying too much attention.
The walls of the compound were made of some kind of dark grey metal, and had that ‘prison’ feel to them. The helicopter landed on the roof and the soldiers opened the door for us. I got out and felt my legs go a little wobbly. The compound was in a bad state, with burnt-out hulks of cars and wrecked machinery everywhere. We walked down a dark, narrow path made out of tarmac and concrete, which eventually stopped at a small metal door with a large red button on it.
“Open it,” the man said. The other man went up to the door and opened it. We entered the compound, where a sign with a few lines of text was painted on the wall.
The word “CHRONOS” was stamped underneath the lines of text, as well as several symbols that I didn't recognize. “What is place?” I asked. “Some kind of government building?”
“That’s right.” One man said.
“Sorry for the mess,” another guy joked, “but we ain’t exactly the most well-funded organization. The government doesn’t exactly believe that dinosaurs are roaming all over the globe.”
We entered a large, open room. It was dimly lit, with only two windows with blinds on the windows. In the middle of the room was a round table with two chairs around it. The man who brought me here gestured for me to sit down, so I obliged. The guy who opened the door came back into the room with two cups of coffee.
“Thanks,” he said as he put the cups down.
“No problem,” the other man said. “You’re welcome.”
“So,” the man said. “I thought you might want to know why you were here, what this whole thing is about, and what the hell a temporal aberration is.”
Not knowing exactly what to say, I just nodded.
“Well, from what we understand, it’s when some sort of ripple effect takes place in the space-time continuum. Somehow, this results in the divergence of certain events from the pre-existing timeline, creating a new reality which runs concurrently with our own. Sometimes, animals from different times just ... appear.”
“Like what?” I asked, now even more bewildered.
“I can name a few examples. There was a farm in Australia that was raided by some sort of megaraptorid—the farmer lost seven of her sheep before it was gunned down. In another incident, the very fabric of reality regurgitated ... something. There was the unexplained disappearance of three people in the Philippines, just a few months back. There was one survivor from the group. A gibbering wreck, the poor girl. Said something about a long neck, long legs, wings. A head like that of a stork. Most of the sightings appear to be of Cretaceous taxa—a megaraptorid theropod, a Quetzalcoatlus, and what you just saw: Tyrannosaurus rex.”
“Hold on,” I said. “You’re telling me my friend was eaten alive by a fucking T. rex?”
The man simply nodded. Something about the way he behaved just unnerved me somehow. It was as if ... it was as if he didn’t even find any of this strange. Finally, he spoke. “We still don’t understand how any of this works. Believe me, besides knowing what exactly results from these temporal aberrations, we’ve just as clueless as you are.”
At first, I felt as if the guy was fucking with me. Obviously, he noticed a suspicious look in my eye or something, because the next thing I knew, he was pulling up some sort of tablet and practically shoving it in my face. “Here,” he declared, “is the evidence.”
I took hold of the tablet. There were a few images—I can’t remember how many, but there were at least seven. I only looked at five. One of them depicted something tall, its legs blending into the trees, with a large, beaked head. Another showed a large cadaver which had apparently washed up somewhere on Essaouira Beach, Morocco—the creature’s neck was twice as long as the rest of it. The third and fourth both showed some sort of large ... well, I didn’t know what it was.
“Jaekelopterus rhenaniae,” the man said, explaining what the thing was. “The biggest exoskeleton-bearing animal to ever live.”
I looked at the final image, which the label said was taken somewhere in the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia. The photo was in sepia, and looked like it was taken with an old polaroid camera. The photograph depicted a snowscape, with a distant mountain range looming in the background. Sandwiched between them was a forest. Maybe 200 feet from the camera, I saw—
“Shit,” I muttered. The thing stood on two powerful limbs, with a large, muscular tail balancing its front half. Its arms were almost comically tiny, but they looked robust, and the head—the head was huge, at least five feet long. The photo was too blurry to make out most of the details of its head, but I could make out that its eyes faced forwards. The snout was long and thick, and through its open jaws I could just barely discern a set of large teeth.
“There’s your animal—Tyrannosaurus rex. That’s from the first case we ever investigated,” the man said without batting an eye. “The photograph was taken shortly before CRONUS’ establishment in 1933.”
The man let that sink in for a few moments, then the interview continued. Nothing else interesting became of it—just some routine questions, and some background information that went straight over my head for the most part. After about half an hour, it was over.
But I still had one more question.
Plucking up the courage to speak up, I asked, “So, what now? Do I ... do I get to go home now?"
The man didn’t look sure of himself for a few moments. It was if he wasn’t expecting that. “How close was the campsite from your home?” he asked.
“About ten miles. Why?”
He sighed. “Large predators have large territories. If our estimates are correct, an animal the size of Tyrannosaurus might have a home range of about 500 square kilometers. It might … it might not be safe for you to go back home.”
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to leave my home, the home I’d lived in for my entire goddamn life, but—
“Temporary accommodation will be provided, of course,” the man said. “We’ll settle things with the authorities—of course, the disappearances of three people are going to seem suspicious. Besides you, we’re the only people who know that.”
I shifted nervously in my chair, still trying to figure out exactly what to say. “Will I be able to move back?” I asked. “To my old home, I mean?”
“Of course,” the man said. “Of course. As soon as the situation’s been dealt with, and things are settled with the authorities, you’re free to go back home.”
“Will I ...” I started, but the man interrupted.
“As soon as you get to your temporary accommodation,” the man said, “yes. This operation isn’t exactly ... under any sort of embargo. It’s more a matter of whether anyone would believe you. Hell, it might even be good for this organization’s credibility,” he joked.
We talked for a few more minutes, and the man got up. I stood, and we shook hands, and with that, I walked out of the room. Questions buzzed through my mind all the while, no matter how much I tried to distract myself. I wondered what other information the man was holding. I wondered what would happen to me if they decided that what I’d said was no longer a part of the organization’s interest.
But none of that happened.
I was given temporary accommodation, only about half a kilometer away. I was assigned a bunk in a small room with two other people, whose names I will not disclose for obvious reasons—they were in the same situation as me. I was given clothes, as well, and was given a little plastic bag to hold my few personal belongings.
And that’s where I am now.
I’m writing all of this to get things off my chest. Except for my roommates, I’ve told nobody about this. I don’t exactly know how to end this, besides with a warning. There’s a lot about the world we don’t understand. The planet on which we live is a mysterious place, and the untamed, primeval realms we have yet to explore conceal all sorts of creatures; species that by all accounts, should no longer exist—or should never have existed to begin with.
It's a dangerous world out there.
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