The Under-Earth

The Mole People

The Mole People

This story is the result of working at The Fresh Market alongside a bunch of absolutely mental people. Back in the prep room, the common topic was bullshit.

And most of the bs we talked about was why, oh God why, the prices at Fresh Market were so high. The only explanation we could come up with was that it was a result of a H.G. Wells-like tale of adventure.

I.

Rebecca Hannigan was used to the uber-inflated prices at the grocer’s down the street, but this was a bit overboard. It’s not that she didn’t like salmon–she did. It was just that $7,000 an ounce seemed a bit pricey. It’s not like she couldn’t afford it–with over a hundred million dollars in net worth, she could–it was just that this price confused her. She called over a seafood clerk, a girl who looked like she was ready to graduate from high school. “Excuse me,” said Rebecca, “can I speak to your manager?”

“Of course, ma’am,” said the girl.

Rebecca waited for the manager. The item marked “Under-Earth Salmon ~ $7,000/oz.” was sealed off from the rest of the seafood in its own glass compartment. It had a vaguely cream-like color.

“Can I help you, ma’am?” asked the manager, a woman about forty dressed in a tan almost-pantsuit.

“Yes. What is Under-Earth Salmon and why is it $7,000 an ounce?”

“Ah. Yes. Well, Under-Earth Salmon is exclusive to us, you see. Imagine, if you will, the best salmon you’ve ever had. This is guaranteed to be four times better. You see, the taste comes from inbreeding: only the second and fifth generation salmon will taste this way. Any other generation is toxic.

“We keep them in the pond out back. It’s sealed off from the rest of the seafood like this because with Under-Earth Salmon, there’s always a chance that the aroma of the salmon will drift from the meat to other meats and spoil them with amazing taste.”

This last sentence made absolutely no sense to Rebecca, and as such, she blinked. “But why is it $7,000 an ounce?”

“Ah. Yes. Well, let me tell you. Please, come in the break room, it’s a long story.”

II.

On the third Thursday of every third month, the employees of the grocer’s drew straws to see who would go to the Under-Earth for salmon and, every other trip, Under-Earth Beef (which was actually the haunch of velociraptors). This time, it was John and Jeff who would go.

They suited up, gathered their sleeping bags, lamps, ninety pounds of dehydrated food, three changes of clothes, rifles and ammunition, supply of clean drinking water, and their blessed crucifixes.

They got on the van, drove for fifteen hours, arrived at a dock in New Jersey, and got on the SS Arabica, bound for the North Atlantic (specifically two hundred nautical miles from any sizable land mass).

Three weeks later, they arrived at their destination where the combination drill/submarine awaited them. The two crossed to the sub on canoes, boarded, and then dove to the bottom of the cold, dark sea. “Man, this isn’t what I signed up for,” said John.

“Don’t worry,” said Jeff, “we believe the raptors are well away from the pond at this point in the year.”

“Then why did the last expedition come back two people short?”

“John, they were there specifically to hunt the raptors. They knew the risks. Besides, the report specifically said that one of them angered the Rex herd. We’ve learned from their mistakes.”

“Is it worth the risk? Thirty dead for just the salmon.”

“We do it for our customers, John. That’s what makes it worthwhile.”

If there was further conversation, it was cut off by the drill on the front of the fifty-foot submersible.

The ship cut through ninety feet of earthen crust and then broke through to the rock chamber leading to the Under-Earth. The two employees stepped out, turned on their high-powered lamps and winced as unseen nothings scurried away from the light, claws scraping on the rock floor. The men walked to the ancient stone staircase in front of them and stopped as a sub-demihuman, a creature vaguely resembling a homo sapien, the sub-demihumans were known to be somewhat intelligent, if horribly mutated, walked down the stairs armed with a spear. “Who be ye trespassers?” it asked in the Lowspeech.

“We come from Above, the Land of Green and Light. We come for the salmon. We mean you no harm,” said Jeff in the Lowspeech.

The sub-demihuman wrinkled one of its three noses. “Tread carefully, the beasts stir as they have not in centuries.” It moved aside, allowing the two men to pass unharmed, for the moment.

They climbed down the next staircase for what was estimated to be twenty-five hundred feet. Once at the base of the staircase, Jeff stood in front of a hundred foot tall carved stone door and said the words attributed to Uk’Thrakdar the Wandering Hawk-God. The door slid open and the two continued.

III.

“Before I continue,” said the manager, “I must ask that you not say a word of this.”

Rebecca, a natural gossip, thought and said, “Very well.”

“Good, we may continue.

IV.

The first thing the pair saw was the plated tail of a stegosaurus. John jumped back a foot. Though this was his third trip to the Under-Earth, seeing seemingly extinct beasts always managed to frighten him. “What’s the matter?” asked Jeff. “You’re acting like you’ve never seen a stegosaurus before.”

John feigned a laugh and the two checked their rifles. When they were sure they had the rifles in working order, John and Jeff began walking. It was forty miles to the pond where they would find the Under-Earth Salmon, and that meant at least two days’ walk, considering all of the obstacles along the way.

For the first day, they came across remarkably few beasts, and those they did come across were skittish, fleeing from sight when the humans came within smelling distance. “Don’t you think it’s odd that we haven’t come across any of the Rexes?” asked John.

“Are you complaining?”

“Not really. Just think it’s odd.”

“Well,” said Jeff, “considering the alternative is being eaten, I wouldn’t complain about not seeing any.”

In the distance, they heard a roar of a beast that sounded as if it were in pain.

The next day, about seven miles from the pond, they came across the body of a triceratops. The back half had been bitten clean off (as clean as it could be, that is). “Wow,” said John.

“No Rex did this.”

“Raptors?”

“Dream on. Whatever did this was gigantic. Let us hope it wouldn’t be interesting in something as small as us.”

There was another roar. This one shook the very ground on which they stood.

A few hours later (and six miles closer to the pond), the pair was cornered by velociraptors. The six dinosaurs formed a ring and had Jeff and John pinned in the center. “Well,” said Jeff, “it seems that our recon was wrong.” He cocked his rifle, a model the closest to field artillery the law would allow.

John cocked his weapon and the two opened fire. Five raptors went down easily, but the sixth managed to put a claw through John’s upper thigh.

“Ha!” laughed Jeff once the sixth raptor was down. “Not bad at all.”

John responded by wincing in pain. Jeff stopped the flow of blood, covered the wound, and had John on crutches in five minutes.

Though one of them was on crutches, the two managed to get to the pond in pretty good time. The pond was about twenty-two meters in diameter and in the center, there was a wooden raft. All around the pond was dense jungle, usually inhabited by various species of apes and monkeys. When the first party of seafood clerks reached the pond and found the salmon underneath the raft, they found a note pinned to the top of the raft, next to a human skeleton. The note read, simply, “Von Hardwigg- 1871.” It was written on paper and the clerks were amazed that it had lasted that long. And then Jeff, a clumsy person by nature, bumped into the raft and the note fell into the water, dissolving. Thus ended speculation about the note.

Now there was no note and only the skull of the skeleton was still on the raft, the rest taken as macabre souvenirs by expeditions.

Jeff, being the one out of the two able to wade out to get the salmon required, went to the center of the pond, moved the raft aside gently, and looked at the school of salmon. The school was about made up of about twelve salmon, all black, all never moving from below where the raft was usually positioned. No one could figure out where they came from nor what was their food supply, but then again, they didn’t really care since the salmon had a tendency to die whenever they were taken out of the pond water.

Jeff took out his collection utensil, filled it with pond water, and gathered three salmon. Once this was done, he returned to shore and showed John his catch.

“Three?” John said.

Jeff took a sheet of paper from his wallet and said, “That’s what the build-up sheet says.”

“Just three?”

“You want to get fired for not getting the right amount?”

“No. But Jesus Christ, I get stuck in the leg for three Under-Earth Salmon?”

At that moment, a short man (he was in fact a human and not a sub-demihuman), mustached, clad in tan safari gear came crashing out from the jungle bordering the pond and said in an English accent, “Oh thank God you’re here! I thought I heard English, but one can never be quite sure when one’s been in the brush for so long, yes? Look, I’ve been stuck down here for months, bring me back to the surface.”

Jeff put down his collection utensil, raised his rifle, and blew the man’s head off. “No one must know of the pond,” said Jeff, reciting the rule.

“No one must know,” echoed John.

The two then made their way back to the starting point. Though the trek was made longer by the limping man, it was much easier; no sub-demihumans approached them, no raptors encircled them, and whatever was making the ground-shaking roar was nowhere to be seen.

V.

“So that’s where it comes from and why it’s so pricey,” said the manager. “Usually it’s only $5,000 an ounce, but we had to raise the price for bribes at the hospital as well as John’s insurance.”

Rebecca thought over the story for a few moments. She considered whether or not it would be worth it to buy some of the salmon. “Well,” she said, “that’s all very interesting, but, you see, it’s simply not unique enough. Harris Teeter across the street has a special on Over-Earth Pheasant for $6,000 a pound, so I think I’ll just go there.”

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