01 Feb I’m a Photographer Specializing in Remote Expeditions: This is my Last Job
I don’t like people much. Never have. My whole life I’ve gravitated to being alone, outside, in nature. Told my kindergarten teacher I wanted to be an “animal tracker,” kind of pictured it as a Steve Irwin thing, back before Steve Irwin was a thing.
Anyway, I’m getting off track.
I get paid to do it now. All sorts of property owners want to know what types of animals exist out in the middle of nowhere, usually because they want to build something and want to make sure they’re not going to get in trouble for killing a bunch of endangered animals. I’ll get dropped somewhere with all the supplies I can carry, trail cameras, sometimes even a small drone. If I’m lucky I can get paid for a job and also get some photos that I can sell to a nature magazine. It’s a pretty good gig, honestly, and it suits me well.
This one was weird from the jump. Way outside my normal area, and they demanded absolute secrecy. I had to carry a sat phone they provided, that was designed to only connect with them, and no other communications gear. I put that thing through the ringer before I agreed to it, but it was a solid piece of gear. Also had to give them a chance to review all pictures before deciding which ones I could keep, something about evidence of mineral deposits, whatever, the pay was five times what I normally got. They were very clear I couldn’t even tell anyone who hired me, which I guess doesn’t matter now: Aspectu Corp. Who knows if that was real. I couldn’t find anything when I googled them, but when you get paid 50% up front, in cash, being able to google a company doesn’t matter as much.
I worked out my planned route with a lot of input from my client. I’d get flown via a helicopter to a clearing. I’d work my way up a game trail nearby around a lake, leaving some trail cameras. Then I’d work my way north along a river until I reached another clearing where they would drop some additional food for me and take copies of my photos so far. Finally I’d work my way back south to the original clearing, checking the trail cams on the way and they would pick me up there. Three weeks, with a big check for the rest of the payment at the end.
They were big on planning for emergencies too. Said if anything happened I should get to the closest of the two clearings and call for help. Whatever happens though, I wasn’t to cross a stream to the south of the clearing I’d be dropped in. The stream, for whatever reason, was a boundary I was not to pass under any circumstances. Whatever, not a huge deal, this company was paying enough to set some weird rules.
Travel was a breeze. I got picked up right on schedule. Black car to a private jet to a helicopter pad on the edge of the world. Nothing below me but green as far as the eye could see, carved through with rivers and lakes. Nothing man made, not a single road I could see anywhere. The pilot looked like an ex military guy, with a lean build, short haircut and a company polo. It had a little rocker on the sleeve that said “nec divinos,” I asked him what it meant and he brushed me off. Fine, I don’t like small talk either.
Getting dropped off here was a sensation I’ll never forget. I’m used to being alone in the middle of the woods, but this place unsettled me. I felt like I was being watched from the second my feet hit the ground, unseen eyes dotting the dark forest surrounding me.
I choked down the unease creeping up my throat and got to work. I’m a professional, and the feeling faded quickly enough. I was alone in the world, the most comfortable place for me to be, no sound but the birds in the trees and the leaves crunching under my feet. Started my first hike, up around the lake, dropped three trail cams. Worked my way up and around. The place buzzed with life, I got a ton of photos. Slept each night in my tent, felt great.
It was the second night when I realized something was off. I woke up to a start, realizing my fire had gone out. It took me a second to realize what had really woken me, the sense that I wasn’t alone. I’ve honed this over time, it was always good to recognize the feeling when a predator had entered your space to figure out if you were lunch of not. Some lizard brain stuff that evolution gave us and modern life tries every day to dull. I took out my flashlight, and peaked out of the tent. I could vaguely see a shape about 20 feet from my tent in the moonlight. I opened the tent and flicked the flashlight on, and immediately dropped it from the shock.
The flashlight rolled of my foot and I lunged for it, grabbing it and aiming it back at the woods that were now empty.
In that moment though, where the light hit it, I knew what I had seen.
A man. Dressed all in black robes.
I paced around my tent scanning the woods, but he was nowhere to be seen. How had someone gotten out here? In the middle of nowhere, no electricity, no roads, hell I had been flown in via helicopter, who the hell could sneak up on me and then vanish like this?
I didn’t see any further sign of my nighttime visitor as I circled back for the trail cams and started up the river. I downloaded the photos I had gotten with them and flipped through them one night, quickly so I could keep my battery from running down. A lot of deer, some elk, the back end of what might have been a wolf. I paused on one though, the picture was blurry, but almost looked like a man. At least the top did, the bottom half looked like an elk. I tried to sharpen the picture but it didn’t work. I decided not to use that camera again, in case it was malfunctioning. Still, the picture unsettled me in a way I couldn’t quite put a finger on.
I picked my way up the river, feeling more uncomfortable the further north I got. The abundant wildlife had faded to nothing, I didn’t even see birds here. It seemed like a completely lifeless wilderness, and that scared me.
It was the second day when I saw him again. I had rounded a bend and saw him at the far boundary of the woods ahead. He was facing me, and seemed to wait until he was sure I had seen him before stepping back into the trees. I managed to snap a quick photo, at a distance, before he vanished.
The hike north was slow, I took photos to show I was doing something, though I didn’t see any sign of life. I still dropped the trail cameras though, just in case. Every night I briefly turned on my computer to look at the blurry photo from the lake, staring at it as if it would make sense.
The nights were unsettling. I saw strange lights in the sky that didn’t match any meteors or northern lights I had ever seen before. I tried not to look at them after realizing one night that what I thought had been fifteen minutes staring into the heavens had taken up three hours of time. Something was staring back. I don’t know why I wrote that, but it feels true.
My dreams turned dark. I had nightmares for the first time in years where I was running through the woods, chased only be the thunderous sound of hooves that were everywhere and nowhere.
The day before my arrival at the second clearing I decided to try out the drone to see if I could get any good footage. I sent it up the river around a bend and brought it back, stowing it so I could look at the footage later. I continued to hike up to my planned resting spot when I saw them, on a ridge above me. Three men, all dressed in identical black robes. I snapped a photo and they didn’t seem to care, they watched me until I was out of sight.
That night I downloaded the drone video and watched it, I was halfway through some beautiful but lifeless footage when I noticed some movement. In the woods was some sort of thing I couldn’t make sense of. It had the lower body of an elk, but the torso and head of a man, with antlers atop its head. I watched as it gracefully ran from the noise of the drone and then veered deeper into the woods.
There is something wrong with this place.
I sat watching the video and realized I had to make a decision. I could turn this over to my employer, say I was sick and needed to get out, even if I forfeited the money for the job. Or I could take the new supplies and head south, get the cameras I left, try to figure out what is happening here.
Sitting alone in my tent, thinking about the mysterious company that brought me to this place, I realized I had to know more about what was happening. I took the memory card I had prepared to hand off with the photos I had taken so far, and moved the photos of anything unusual to my laptop.
I left at dawn, hiking to the clearing where I’d be resupplied. Half an hour before my arrival the helicopter roared past overhead, and when I made it he was already on the ground. I swapped out batteries and supplies, handing him the memory card to take back.
“How has it been going?” His voice was gruff and unconcerned, his flat affect that of a man who felt he had to make some sort of small talk but wasn’t really concerned with whether or not I responded.
“Fine, not much in the way of wildlife here,” I responded. I hesitated, and my voice caught as I decided to push the issue. “Does anyone live up here?”
He raised an eyebrow at the question and stopped what he was doing to look at me. “Why do you ask?”
I tried, perhaps unsuccessfully, to adopt an air of nonchalance, “No reason, thought I saw someone the other day but it seemed crazy, sometimes your eyes play tricks on you when you’re alone, you know?”
He considered this for a moment and nodded, “Sure. No one is up here, they wouldn’t survive the winters, and you won’t either if you don’t get a move on.” He nodded back towards the river, an indication that the conversation was over.
I grabbed my gear as he got ready to depart. When I was ready I turned to him, “I’m going to get moving, don’t want to lose the light.”
He held up the memory card I had handed him. “Is this everything? Bosses are particular about this stuff.” We locked eyes and I nodded. He nodded back, “Good, stay safe out there.”
Walking south felt different. The feeling of unease in the back of my mind grew into a dread in my throat. I couldn’t explain it, but I picked up my pace. Even as I collected the trail cameras I didn’t check the photos, for some reason I was terrified at what I would see.
My sightings of the mysterious black-robed men increased. Every time I rounded a bend there would be one ahead of me. Every time I made the mistake of looking back there would be one in the distance watching me.
I hiked with my head down, exhausting myself each day before settling in for a night of horrors in my dreams. I saw giant eyes in the woods watching me, I heard a buzzing sound that grew louder until I couldn’t think or move. In one dream I was tied to a tree, surrounded by the black robed individuals, though they just stared at me. They were waiting for something.
Still, the nightmares were better than being awake after dark. The night sky blazed with strange lights that I didn’t dare do more than glance at. It felt as if I had tumbled off the earth into some alien world, so similar to our own but one where every twig and leaf had been soaked in danger.
The night before I was set to leave I finally looked through the trail cameras. I organized the photos by camera and then started clicking through. The progress was easier than I imagined, there was really no life to photograph along the river.
What I did see were the strange creatures I glimpsed from the drone footage. There were a pack- a herd?- of them, and as I stared at the dates I realized they had grown closer to me as I moved north on the river. They triggered the first camera three days after it was set up, but by the time they passed the last camera they were arriving just hours after me. I paused, listening to the sounds of the night surrounding me, straining for a noise that would indicate I was not alone, but hearing nothing.
The nights had grown colder, and the days started to follow suit. I could see my breath as I arrived at the clearing where this journey began. I sat down and picked at my lunch while waiting for the helicopter to arrive.
As night started to fall I started to second guess myself. Had I made better time on the return trip? Was I a day ahead of schedule? I checked the date on my computer and camera. Had I misunderstood? I made my camp and decided to wait until the morning.
By noon the next day there was still no sign off the helicopter and I powered on the satellite phone they had provided. The helicopter pilot answered on the first ring, and I felt a relief so strong I couldn’t help break the ice with a joke.
“You ever have one of those days where you know you’re forgetting to do something but can’t figure out what?” I laughed as I said it.
His pause was agonizing, and in that moment my world crumbled. “I’m not coming back out man, I’m sorry.”
My mind raced and the words tumbled out in a nervous stream, “Stop messing around, when will you be here?”
His voice sounded forlorn, “I’m not. They know you didn’t give them all the photos. The file names are numbered, dumbass.” I swore under my breath. “They won’t let me come back out, but I wanted to be the one to tell you. Anyway, good luck. If I were you I’d off myself before those things got me.”
He terminated the call and my world fell silent. All I could hear was my heartbeat pounding in my ears.
I looked back and forth and realized what I had to do. They needed to come get me, and I could make them. I broke camp and headed in the one direction they had told me not to go, due south.
I crossed the stream that marked the boundary of where I was told in no uncertain terms not to cross. I paused on the far side of the stream, as if I expected a team of armed guards to materialize. Nothing happened, and I continued south.
I picked my way south for two days, trying to ration my food while looking for some sort of clue as to what I should do next. On the second day, I heard the buzzing noise from my nightmares, and it only got stronger the further south I went.
The world seemed to vibrate around me and I began hallucinating as the volume increased. I saw dead friends and family, standing in the trees. Once I saw myself, smiling and pointing into the distance.
At first I thought the building was a hallucination too. I stepped into a clearing in the middle of nowhere and a squat, concrete structure stood before me. I couldn’t imagine how it was constructed, there were no roads to speak of, and it would have taken years to fly out all the materials needed by helicopter, not to mention the equipment and workers.
I stepped into the clearing and walked towards the building. The leaves under my feet gave way to something hard and I looked down I realized I was walking on blackened animal bones. As I got closer to the building the bones gave way to blackened shells that shattered under my feet.
A large metal door stood on the front of the building, with words in a language I didn’t recognize. I reached for the door and opened it, marveling at the lights inside and the warmth from the heat. I stepped and closed the door, surprised again at how the buzzing vibration ceased the second the door closed and locked behind me.
The building was four rooms. A bunk room with six beds, a bathroom, a small kitchen, and a large office room with computers and TV screens. The computers were all running some sort of program I couldn’t stop, but I took a hot shower for the first time in weeks and washed my clothes in the sink before hanging them to dry. I laid in a warm bed for the first time in almost a month, and drifted off into thankfully dreamless sleep.
I awoke and took stock of my situation. There were a few cans of food in the kitchen, and it had running water that tasted fine. I heated up some ravioli over the stove while I considered what to do next. The decision was made for me though, when I heard the satellite phone ringing from the next room.
I picked it up and recognized the voice on the other end of the line as my mysterious client, who I hadn’t spoken to since before my departure.
“I thought I was very clear you were not to venture south of that stream,” he began in a measured voice. “You disobeyed me.”
I frowned, “It apparently worked, didn’t it? I got your attention.”
“You have precisely 30 minutes to pack your items and depart. At that point I will turn off the electricity to the compound. I would advise you to be on your way before that happens, disabling the power that protects that place will create a vacuum, and you know that nature abhors them.”
“What should I do then?” I spat.
“You can give up, it will make everything much easier. I don’t like loose ends.” His voice dripped with ice. “30 minutes, starting now.”
I don’t know why I believed him, but I did. I threw my supplies in my bag and sprinted for the door, moving quickly to put some space between myself and the mysterious building behind me.
I was moving through the woods when an ear-splitting scream pierced the woods. I don’t know what made it, but it was as inhuman a sound as I have ever heard. I looked at my watch, exactly 30 minutes had passed.
I continued south, barely sleeping as I jumped at every noise I heard. Night was no darker than day now, the sky was a kaleidoscope of lights and movement.
I woke one morning to an individual in black robes standing in front of my tent. They removed their hood and I was faced with a rather normal looking woman, not the frightening cultists I had imagined in my head.
“Why did you come here?”
I stared at her, uncomprehending the question. She repeated it, slower.
“Why, did, you, come, here?”
I nodded and stammered out an answer, “It’s my job, I thought it was just photographing some wildlife.”
She nodded. “Pack your equipment now. Follow this ridge south, you’ll find an old cabin 10 miles beyond here. It isn’t much, but it’s dry. Stay there for two full days, on the morning of the third day, if you’re safe, walk due east. You’ll come to a river, we’ll have left a boat there. Take it south, it will be easy going. There’s an encampment three or four days downstream.”
I nodded but was no less confused. “Who are you?”
She smiled in a sad sort of way. “You have to leave now. I’m sorry they did this to you, you were nothing but bait for them. We’ll try to throw it off your trail.”
I scrambled to break camp and move. It was right before dark when I arrived at the cabin. It was as advertised, the winters had been rough on it, but it was dry and removed me from the elements.
Yesterday passed without incident, and as the sun started to set today I let myself get my hopes up for the first time. Maybe I could get out of here, maybe I would survive this.
Dusk had settled across the area when I saw it, standing and staring at the cabin. It must have been ten feet tall with the antlers on its head, but the man/elk creature stood motionless watching me. I looked around and saw another, then another.
They surrounded the cabin.
That was hours ago, and I’ve been struggling to type this since. They haven’t moved once in that time, but they’re waiting for something.
I can hear the buzzing from my dreams again, and now I realize that what I heard coming from that building was not the same sound. It was artificial and synthetic, this noise is alive, it feels like it is coming from the earth itself.
Something is coming.
I took apart the satellite phone the company gave me. I think I’ve managed to get a weak data connection on here. Might be enough to get this up on a text-only website, tell people about what happened to me.
They’ve moved now, but they’re still here. I can see them in the distance, odd shadows cast off their antlers.
I hear something else too. Something unbelievably huge.
It’s here now. I can see it. It is