"I WISH THEY WOULD’VE CLUED US IN A LITTLE more AS TO WHAT WAS HAPPENING BEFORE WE WENT IN, I WAS NOT PREPARED FOR WHAT WE FACED."
Before the Departure: In the year 2100 I, Cayden Steel, was chosen to go into Ground Zero based on an essay I wrote. I remember writing that essay as a joke and my topic was “Why the Government Doesn’t Need to Tell Us Everything.” All of my friends entered the scholarship contest because they were excited to find out what had been hidden from us all these years. I came from a family with true American roots, I was a descendant of the George Washington who founded our great country. Since I was of true American blood, why would I ever question the government that my ancestors created? I grew up in a small town in Alabama with my four younger siblings and two cousins. My family was very wealthy, profiting from decades in the oil business, old money if you will. From a young age I learned how to hunt and when I turn 18, I will be given my very own rifle, a necessity for all Americans. These skills would serve me well when I had to go into Ground Zero, I would be able to provide for myself. I remember the first time I met the other winners, I immediately questioned why I was chosen. Atlas had this all-consuming feeling of responsibility to heal the woods, but he wasn’t too keen on expressing his thoughts. Alana was just about as nerdy as you could get; she was super into science and carried this giant book of notes with her everywhere. The last winner, Kiarra, was another oddity like me. She seemed to be interested in the woods, terrified of some wildlife, but nonetheless she thought it was a creative project and never intended to be chosen. We would train for three weeks to prepare for anything we might face in Ground Zero. They also told us exactly what we were looking for and how to record what we might see. Our rag-tag group of four had no clue what we were getting into.
Day One: The day we were supposed to go into the woods I remember it felt hotter than usual outside and I took note of every little thing I saw. I awoke that morning, in a hotel, at 7 o’clock to my alarm blaring across the room. Since I lived in Alabama, the Murmuration Corporation flew me out to California right after I was chosen and put me up in this nice little hotel located in San Francisco. I wasn’t able to be with my family for about a month prior to this journey, but I called them daily to keep them up to date on what I was learning. Everything we were told was classified, only for our eyes, but I wanted my family to know I would be okay. In the corner of my room sat my go-bag, filled to the brim with all my essentials. I got dressed, put my American flag bandana around my head, and grabbed my Ray Bans as I headed out the door. There was a black SUV outside with the words Murmuration written on the side. I loaded myself and my bag into the SUV and called my family to say goodbye. We drove in silence until we picked up Alana at her house and drove a little more until we picked up Atlas on the side of the road; which I thought was bizarre. Atlas, Alana, Kiarra, and I and were driven out to the fenced in area, off state highway 76. I remember Alana looking at Atlas and I when she said, “Aren’t you so excited to explore Ground Zero? Imagine what we’ll find in there, we could become famous!” Atlas and I just looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders, neither one of us really in it for the potential of fame. “I’m just here to prove to everyone else that there’s no secrets living in the woods,” I said, “if the government had something to tell us about the area, they would, it’s that simple.” I watched as the smile and excitement faded from Alana’s face, we then sat in silence the rest of the way. Kiarra and Atlas kept exchanging these weird, nervous, mischievous glances throughout our drive, as if they were communicating without speaking. They made me feel so uncomfortable; I had this feeling that one of them would end up jeopardizing the goal of this mission for their own personal gain. Each of us brought our own bag of things, items we had chosen to bring, a map of the area from the year 2020, an itinerary that was different for everyone, and some of us had journals while others snuck in audio/video devices to record their time there. In my bag I brought typical camping essentials, a journal, an antique magnetic compass, and a small American flag that I take everywhere with me. We were told we would be in the woods for a total of three days, out of contact with everyone, and they would pick us up back at the guarded fence entrance. They dropped us off outside the fence and the guards let us in, I watched as the fence closed behind us and felt my stomach sink; the fence that was designed to keep us out is the same fence keeping things in. I immediately noticed there were no guards inside the fence, but there were cameras everywhere; a new one every 10 feet probably. I wondered why they needed us to explore the woods if there were already cameras present… I shook my head of the doubt, they’re probably only on the perimeter. The four of us decided to split ways and cover more ground, “Well, good luck, everyone,” I said to the group. We stood there staring at each other for a moment, as if none of us was sure what to do. Atlas turned to Kiarra and asked her if she brought an audio or video device, I tried to cut him off, “We don’t know if there’s audio recordings in this place. There’s cameras everywhere.” Both Atlas and Kiarra rolled their eyes at me, they loved to break the rules, when rules are put in place to protect us. They made me feel very nervous and I was already on edge being in this weird place. I had wanted everyone to do what we were supposed to so we could get out and prove to everyone that there was nothing here to be afraid of. “I’ll see you at the end.” I said to the other three. Then, I watched as the others faded into the distance, Kiarra and Atlas sticking to one side while Alana split off, but I was still standing just inside the fence. I stood there for a long time looking at everything around me, until I pulled out my compass to head north. I had told myself that the government never told us anything about this area because nothing was going on inside and suddenly felt confidence flow through me. The area we entered in at was a perfect example of secondary succession, at least based on the reading and research I had done prior to this trip. I walked for a few miles until I decided to stop and take a break. I pulled out my journal and started to take notes on the things I saw. In the weeks before we were set to journey into the woods, I studied a little on plant and animal species; I wanted the prove to everyone else that there was nothing abnormal in the woods. I saw various fern species like the coffee fern and the narrowleaf sword fern to name a few. There were numerous pine trees all around me like the ponderosa pine, aleppo pine, and coulter pine. I sat down on the forest floor, my back against a small bigcone douglas-fir tree and looked up at the sky above. Just looking up you wouldn’t have been able to guess I was somewhere different than my own backyard. The sky was blue with some small white clouds speckled throughout it and it was quiet. This was one thing I wasn’t used to; how quiet it was. We were so dependent on technology that I would constantly hear videos, phone calls, and music around me, but here it was peaceful. Or so I thought. I had probably been in the woods for a little over 6 hours now, the sun was directly above me, indicating that it was most likely noon. There were birds chirping above me in the tree branches and flying above in the sky. Based on their sounds it appeared to me that there were numerous bird species here, though I couldn’t quite identify all of them. I decided to venture further and find a place where I would camp for the night until the morning came again. Continuing north, I passed a field of various wildflowers, I briefly stopped and started to write about the flowers I was seeing. There were so many clover species: vibrant pinks, purples, yellows, and even bright whites littered the field. I saw white sweetclovers, springbank clovers, tree clovers, and rancheria clovers to name a few. Around the edges I saw wild strawberries that were tiny in comparison to the strawberries I was used to. I decided to pick a few to snack on so I wouldn’t waste the rations I packed. It was then that I decided I was right, there was nothing dangerous hidden here, nothing that the government was lying to us about. I would tell people when I got out that this was just a protected area that we don’t appreciate enough today with technology. The sun had started to set, and I set up my camp on the side of what I believed to be Palomar Mountain. I had packed a tent, lighter, and miscellaneous food items. I had found some twigs on the ground and set them up in a pile, but I made sure to clear the area around it; the last thing I wanted to do was start another fire. I opened a package of beans and dehydrated beef to mix up in a small bowl I brought. I heated them over the fire I made and while I waited, I laid down and looked up at the stars above. Below me I remember I swore I could hear the others, it sounded like they were all together, “Come on Atlas, we have to keep going if we’re going to cover all the forest in three days!” said Kiarra’s voice. I sat up and tried to look down the mountain but all I could see were trees, the forest was too thick to make out anything else. It couldn’t have been them; we were all assigned our own areas of the forest, Palomar Mountain was just a stopping point for me. “Hello? Kiarra? Atlas? Are you guys down there?” I called out to the abyss below me. There was no answer. My stomach sank and for the first time I felt like we weren’t alone in the woods. I took out my hunting knife and laid it on the ground beside me, just for protection I told myself. Then I pulled my bowl off the fire and ate my now slightly burned beef and beans, listening to the wind as it rustled the leaves. After I ate, I put out my fire and crawled into my tent for the night, hunting knife still at my side. The sounds of the woods grew louder as I tried to fall asleep, animals scurrying on the ground, insects buzzing around the tent, and what now sounded like hundreds of birds flying above me. I closed my eyes tightly and told myself I was imagining these things, then I drifted off to sleep.
Day 2: I woke up to the sound of those damn birds flying above my head again, to be honest I didn’t get much sleep that night either. I climbed out of my tent and started to pack up my bag again. “Hello!” I heard from down below and I froze in my tracks. “Um, hello?” I called back down hesitantly. I waited to hear a response, but I heard nothing and saw nobody. Slowly, I started back on my path, headed west, I was supposed to be at Agua Tibia Mountain by the afternoon if I was going to keep up with the schedule. As I descended the mountain, I took out my journal and started to write about my strange night with the birds. It stuck out to me because the birds back home were scarce and even when they were around, they were often quiet. All night long I heard to birds above me, loudly flapping their wings and calling out to each other. On top of the birds, I also heard my friends down below, they were all together even though we were supposed to stick to our assigned areas. I knew they would throw off our mission, so I planned to confront them when I came down the mountain. The further I got down the mountain the louder their voices became. “Okay so we need to keep heading west based on the map.” Alana said. I started to pick up the pace after I heard her. “Hey guys, why are you all together? You know we’re supposed to follow our own assignments. You’re going to jeopardize the mission!” I yelled in their direction. Nobody answered me and I started to get super angry, how were we supposed to prove there’s nothing going on here if they fail to complete their research? “Will somebody please answer me? I can’t see you, but I know you’re out here!” I called out to the empty forest. Again, nobody replied to me, it’s like they were completely ignoring me! This was starting to become very frustrating and I was getting angrier by the minute. After I kept walking, blindly I might add, I had no idea where I was, and my friends were nowhere to be seen. “Okay guys, if this is your idea of a joke, I’m not laughing! Just come out already!” I shouted to no one. I heard rustling in the bushes to my left; I ran towards the noise and tackled the bush. I stood up and brushed off my clothing. Nothing! There was nobody here. I looked back in my journal to see if I had eaten enough meals and drank enough water. There had to be an explanation for why I was hearing things. Maybe the food I had eaten the night before was expired or something. I could hear my heart pounding in my chest as I started to panic. I kept walking, trying to calm my nerves, until I came to the bottom of the mountain and found a clearing. I thought that maybe I hadn’t gotten enough sleep last night and I decided to briefly set up camp to take a nap. There was a small body of water beside me, so I also refilled my filtered water canteen before I rested. I pulled out my hunting knife again and laid it beside me, hoping I wouldn’t have to use it. Then I closed my eyes, trying to shut out the voices all around me, as I fell asleep. (CLICK THE BUTTON BELOW TO HEAR WHAT I DID) It was around noon when I woke up in a fright, hearing someone scream in the distance. I grabbed my hunting knife and quickly packed up my tent. I pulled out my compass and turned to face west again, moving away from the clearing as fast as I could. There was another scream; this time it was closer, so I started to run. I was running so fast that the woods went by in a blur, tree branches hit my face, and I felt my feet kicking up the dirt behind me. The screams got louder, and it sounded like there were hundreds of people around me. I was suddenly afraid that there was something in the woods that got my friends, but I couldn’t stop running. I had to self-preserve here in the woods, or else I could be next. I remember running for what seemed like a long time when I noticed the screaming subsided. My heart was pounding so hard that I could hear it in my ears and my legs felt like jelly. I stopped and stood behind a giant oak tree; my hunting knife clutched in my hand so tight that my knuckles were white. This is when I started to doubt everything I thought I knew. What if I was going insane? What was happening to my friends? Was I going to make it out of here alive? Maybe the government was hiding something from the rest of us… My head was spinning and suddenly I couldn’t keep up with the thoughts in my head. I sat on the ground, my head in my hands, and started sobbing uncontrollably. I was scared and alone, my friends were most likely dead; I had no idea what to do next. I heard a rustling behind me, so I tentatively called out, “Alana? Kiarra? Atlas? Is anyone there?” Nothing. After a few minutes of silence, I heard a voice, almost a whisper, call out to me. “Hello… Cayden…Are you there?” Said the voice. I didn’t recognize it, yet it seemed familiar to me; could it be one of my friends? I was excited at the thought that one of them survived the attack I heard earlier. I rose up from where I had been sitting and stepped out from behind the tree. “I’m here, are you okay?” I called out to whoever was there. A few moments of silence passed before the voice replied, “Cayden… We need to figure out what’s breaking the rules here…” That sounded familiar to me, I remembered that’s exactly what Kiarra said to me before we all split off. “Kiarra, where are you?” I called out to her. I tried to walk towards the voice, but I was confused where it was coming from. There was no reply and it was silent for a long time, so I gave up and kept moving forward; at least Kiarra was alive. I kept trekking through the woods until I came to Agua Tibia Mountain around nightfall. I decided to set up camp at the bottom of the mountain because I didn’t want to light a fire, for fear of being found. I pulled out my dinner for the night, cold beans and beef jerky, and sat in my tent to feast. I listened to the sounds of the forest, as I laid on my sleeping bag, and wondered if I would ever see my friends again. I said a little prayer for them and myself, hoping that we would all be okay and see each other again. I felt so underprepared for what I was facing out in Ground Zero. I had set out to prove there was nothing to be worried about in the woods, yet how could I look back at everyone and tell them what I’ve experienced so far? It was then that I was unsure what I would tell people when I got out, if I got out. These were the thoughts that plagued me as I tried to fall asleep. It was quiet for a while, until the whispers started up again. I tried to plug my ears and think of my family; I tried to manifest happiness through happy thoughts in the hopes that I would sleep better.
Day 3: I woke up, having slept much better than I did the night before; so I set out to survey the mountain. It was barely sunrise, but with this being the last day I was glad to get an early start. Journal in hand, I continued to write down every plant, animal, and insect that I recognized. For the species I didn’t know, I tried to provide a description and a very rough sketch. I encountered the Baja California tree frog, the American bullfrog, an arboreal salamander, and a southern alligator lizard. Each of them was recognizable to me based on the training we received, at least some of it was useful. There were many insects buzzing around me, which were a little harder to identify because they were constantly moving. I observed butterflies like the Indra swallowtail, the California tortoiseshell, and the painted lady; which was breathtaking to me. There was one type of animal that somehow kept eluding me, though I heard them every night, the birds. I couldn’t see them, yet I heard them all around me. I didn’t have binoculars on me, so I had to look up in the trees against the sun to try and spot them. Why did I want to find these birds so bad? They had been keeping me up for the past two nights, yet I still wanted to meet one face to face. I took out some bread from my bag and scattered some pieces all around me, I was determined to find them. I sat behind a tree on the top of Agua Tibia Mountain and waited for them to come to me. Some time passed before the first bird descended to the bread trail, it was an iridescent dark blue/green in the light, but black in the shadows. It had a yellow beak and the feathers looked brown with spots of yellow on them. I wrote everything I could about this bird; a starling. The little starling sat alone amongst the bread for a while until more birds descended; they all looked the same. I froze in my place, unable to write anything else, my mouth fell open. In front of me there were hundreds of starlings, some were covered in a red substance, probably fruit. I rose from my spot and continued to stare at the murmuration before me. Mesmerized by them I continued to watch in silence, then I heard it. “Hello.” Said a voice in front of me, followed by hundreds of replies. I swear my heart stopped and I muttered under my breath, “Shit.” Their heads turned in my direction and I ran. I ran down the side of Agua Tibia Mountain towards what was the city of Pala, California. The starlings were now visible above me, screaming like I had heard the day before. I realized that I hadn’t been imaging things and my friends were most likely okay. This thought alone allowed me to keep running for miles until the screams got quieter and I realized that they had stopped chasing after me. I slowed my pace a little as I got closer to the town and suddenly, I tripped over a branch. I hit the ground hard, my head connecting with a rock, then I was unconscious. When I came to it was most likely the afternoon, based on the sun’s position. I stood up from the ground slowly and held my head groaning. There was a small gash on my forehead which I patched up with a bandage, when I looked down and screamed. Sticking out from a bush was a leg, the pants torn up badly; I nudged it with the back of my hunting knife. “Um hello?” I said down to the bush, hoping that whoever was there was just sleeping. There was no reply so I nudged a little harder, and still nothing. I mustered up the courage and cut back some of the bush to reveal the rest of the body. It was so mutilated that I couldn’t make an ID based on the face alone, so I rifled through the bag next to it. There I found food, a journal, a flashlight, and a machete with an engraving on the handle: Atlas Miller. My stomach sank as I realized I was standing over Atlas, my good friend, who was dead. I can’t recall exactly what I saw because it was far too gruesome for me to comprehend. I remember screaming so loud that I could barely hear my own thoughts and I started to sob uncontrollably again. I sat next to Atlas and tried to write down what I saw, what I thought had happened; his family would want closure. What would I tell the others? How would they find closure? I then wondered what or who did this to him and why, then the answer flew over my head. The starlings had done this to Atlas, I just had a feeling. I knew that he brought a GoPro with him, so I started to search for it, I needed to know what happened to him. I found it about 200 feet from his body, the lens cracked, but everything else intact. There were also what looked like spare keys, why would he have had keys with him? I clicked the various buttons on it until I heard a faint chirp in the distance. I found an ATV, badly damaged a little way away from Atlas’ body, and I turned the key in the ignition. It took a little bit of messing with the engine, but I finally got it running. It was getting late and I knew I had to be back to the entrance soon, so I grabbed Atlas’ bag and GoPro, after covering his body and saying a prayer; and I was on my way. Riding through the forest as fast as Atlas’ ATV would go, I tried to think about what I would tell the others. After a lot of thinking, I decided I would spare them the gory details and tell them he was attacked by a murmuration of starlings. Atlas’ GoPro was tucked into my inside jacket pocket in attempt to conceal it from the guards at the fence. I continued forward until I started to see Kiarra and Alana. I jumped from the ATV and told them what had happened; that Atlas wouldn’t be returning with us. They both shed some tears for our dearly departed friend, and it was silent for a moment. Then Kiarra spoke, “I think the starlings need our help. We need to free them.” I was absolutely appalled at this, they caused me torment, they killed our friend! “Absolutely not! They killed Atlas; they are a danger to the public. They deserve to be shut in here!” I shouted at her. How could she possibly think that the starlings had any redeeming qualities? Obviously, she didn’t go through anything like I did, or she’d be thinking clearly. We were unprepared for this mission; each of us looking for something that we never truly found. I came out of the woods a changed man. I decided I would start speaking out against the government, the things we don’t know can hurt us. I was determined to prove this. This mission caused me to have trust issues for the rest of my life; I was constantly looking over my shoulder. I was never again able to hear a large group of birds without having a panic attack. My friends and I haven’t talked much since, but each year we get together to honor Atlas’ life and bravery.
*DISCLAIMER: The events and accounts in the story above are all fictional, with fictional characters, influenced by real life events that have taken place.