I’m currently writing a novel called The Lost Level. I’m almost finished, in fact, which is good because it’s way past its deadline. Originally, it was supposed to be a novella. Then the publisher (Apex) asked me to make it a novel instead, so I had to start over from scratch. Last year’s heart attack and a few other things have also contributed to the delay. But it’s almost done and I expect to turn it in to Apex soon. To thank you for your patience, I offer the following unedited excerpt as a spoiler-free taster.
The roasted squatosh was delicious, with a taste and texture much like a sweet potato. It was also surprisingly filling. I’d anticipated still being hungry upon finishing mine, but instead found myself pleasantly full, as if I’d just eaten a bowl of oatmeal. Bloop was indifferent about his. I couldn’t figure out if that was because he preferred meat, or if he was just not a morning person. The thought made me crave a hot cup of coffee to wake up with, but when I asked Kasheena if her people had such a beverage, she looked at me strangely and explained the only hot drinks they served were for medicinal purposes, and tasted bitter.
“Here’s hoping a Starbucks gets sucked through the space-time continuum and ends up here,” I said.
“Never mind. Just something from back home.”
We put out the fire and packed up camp and then started on our way. Once again, Kasheena guided us in the direction of her village, and I marveled over her apparently uncanny sense of direction. When we came across a small, swift-moving stream, we stopped. After Bloop had verified that the water was safe to drink, I filled up my travel mug. Then we continued on our trek through the forest, sticking to game trails when they were available, and beating our way through the underbrush when they weren’t. Time passed uneventfully. We didn’t encounter anymore dinosaurs or robots or snake-men. Indeed, we didn’t encounter much of anything at all. The trees were alive with bird songs and the chatter of small animals, but for the most part, the wildlife itself remained out of sight.
After several hours, the vegetation around us began to change. I noticed many new species of trees and bushes, the likes of which I had never seen before. I wondered what world they were from, or if they were perhaps native to the Lost Level. We clambered up a steep hillside that was covered with tall, brown grass and short, stunted bushes that jutted sideways from the rocky soil. At the top of the hill we found the remains of a stone wall. It had collapsed in places, and moss and weeds jutted from between the cracks. I wondered aloud who had built it, but Kasheena did not know.
“I heard something,” I said as we hiked. “While you were sleeping. Bloop heard it, too. It sounded like machines, far beneath the ground. Do you know what they were?”
“My people have heard them, as well,” Kasheena replied. “As has anyone who lives in this land. I do not know what makes the sound. Shameal, the wise man of our tribe, always said that the sounds were made by the Creator.”
“The Creator… you mean some type of supreme deity?”
“The Creator made this land.”
“But when we first met, you said your tribe believes everyone in this land came from elsewhere.”
“Yes, that is true. The Creator made the Lost Level, but not the things that live in it. Those came from elsewhere, like you, or were born here, like me.”
“And you worship this Creator god?”
Kasheena laughed. The sound was light and musical.
“Worship the Creator? No. No one has ever seen the Creator. How can you pay tribute to something you cannot see? The Creator simply is.”
“Okay.” I was intrigued. “Tell me more about this Creator.”
“There is not much more to tell, Aaron. We do not think about the Creator. The Creator simply is. When you hear the rumblings beneath the Earth, that is the work of the Creator. Shameal says it is better not to ask questions about the Creator, and to simply let it be.”
I had more questions, but Kasheena had no answers. She patiently rebuffed my requests until I gave up in frustration. Instead, I let her point out edible plants and roots to me while I slapped at insects. I noticed Bloop swishing his tail back and forth to chase the bugs away, much like a horse or cow would do back home.
We descended the hill and entered a broad ravine with a dry creek bed in its center. The treetops grew close together over-top the gulch, casting a perpetual shadow. The ravine walls were covered with sprawling growths of ivy and vines, and after Kasheena had guided us a few hundred yards, I noticed something jutting from the undergrowth. It was a rusted section of airplane fuselage with the numbers 45714 and FT3 painted on it. I rushed over to the hulk and cleared the vegetation away with my sword, revealing the battered hulk of a World War Two-era TBM Avenger torpedo bomber. As a child, I’d often built model airplanes with my grandfather, so I knew the aircraft well.
I glanced around the ravine and noticed more derelicts, each of which was nearly hidden beneath the ivy. I began hacking at the vines with my sword. Kasheena and Bloop watched me as if I’d lost my mind, and then began to help. Soon, we stood there panting and covered in sweat, staring at the remains of five TBM Avengers. Four of them were TBM-1C models and the fifth was a TBM3. The paint on their fuselage was faded, muddy, and eaten through with rust, but the numbers were still legible—FT36, FT81, FT117, and FT28. The numbers were familiar to me, but I couldn’t figure out why. After a few moments, I realized what they were, and my skin broke out in gooseflesh, despite the heat.
“Holy shit,” I exclaimed. “It’s Flight 19!”
“I have seen a thing like these before,” Kasheena said, “but it was a long time ago, when I was a little girl. It flew over my village like a strange metal bird, before crashing in the jungle.”
“Was there anyone inside of it?” I asked.
She shook her head. “It burst into a ball of flame. When the men from our tribe went to investigate, they said there was nothing left. I remember that it burnt down a swath of the forest, and many were worried that we might have to flee. But our people dug ditches to halt the fire’s advance.”
Approaching the closest plane, I ran my hand across a.30 caliber machine gun which was mounted in the nose. The barrel was rusty and insects had made nests inside of it.
“What is this Flight 19?” Kasheena asked. “Were they vehicles?”
“Yes,” I said, thinking back to my years of research into the paranormal. “Very famous vehicles. These are called airplanes. They’re machines that flew through the air, just like the one you saw when you were little. These numbers painted on the side correspond to Flight 19, which was a group of airplanes that disappeared on December 5, 1945 during a training flight off the coast of Florida—that’s a state in America, the place where I’m from. Each plane had a three-man crew—a pilot, a gunner, and a radioman. The pilot flew the plane, the radioman was in charge of communicating with people on the ground, and the gunner was the fighter. He would shoot at enemy planes.”
“So where are the men who flew in these airplanes?”
“I wish I knew. So do many people back where I come from. Flight 19 was a famous disappearance, connected to something we called the Bermuda Triangle—an area of the ocean where many people have vanished over the years.”
“Maybe those people came here,” Kasheena said.
I nodded. “The crew of Flight 19 did, at least. The flight leader was Lieutenant Charles Taylor. Some people believed it was his fault the planes disappeared. He showed up late the morning of the training mission, and he made some confusing and strange decisions while they were in the air. There was a theory that he might have become disoriented, and then he ordered his men to ditch the planes into the ocean after they ran out of fuel. Obviously, that didn’t happen.”
We searched each of the aircraft, but exposure to the elements had left nothing salvageable amongst the wreckage. Something had nested in one of the cockpits. It was filled with sticks and matted leaves. In all of the planes, the seats were torn and covered with mold and grime, and most of the metal had rusted. There were no skeletons or other signs of human remains, nor were there any scraps of uniforms or survival packs. That meant one of three things. Either Lieutenant Taylor and his men had abandoned the planes and ventured out into the forest, or the site had been looted and time had erased all existence of their remains. Judging by the position of the planes, they hadn’t crashed, but I couldn’t imagine how they’d managed to land them in the ravine without incident. Maybe whatever event it was that had transported them here deposited them in the ravine upon arrival. But if they had survived, where were they now? Were they even alive? Judging by their condition, the Avengers had been here for a long time. How old would Taylor and his men be now? I didn’t know how to tell time in the Lost Level, but I knew how to mark its passage—the stubble on my face or the length of my fingernails indicated that time still passed normally here, just like it did back home. If Flight 19 had indeed landed here in 1945, then they would be old men by now.
Or maybe they’d found a way back to our world. Or their world. There was no guarantee that this Flight 19 was even from my reality. It could just as easily originated from an alternate universe.
“We should move on,” Kasheena suggested. “There is nothing here for us, and I do not like this place. It feels… sad.”
Nodding in agreement, I climbed down from the plane and we continued on our way. I glanced back only once, and when I did, Flight 19 had already vanished again, swallowed once more by the undergrowth.