GEOSYNCHRONUS ORBIT ABOVE SATURN.
10 ASTRONOMICAL UNITS FROM LUNA (1.5 BILLION KILOMETRES).
LOCATION: MINESITE KILO-36.
“Who’s there?” Mary muttered behind her into the inky midnight of the mineshaft. Could’ve sworn I heard someone talking.
“Come closer,” the voice barely whispered from beneath the ancient stones of Titan. It came from everywhere, and nowhere, the voice familiar and strange, gentle and firm.
Mary looked behind her, struggling to see anything. Probably just Sigler trying to mess with me. It had his warmth, but the inflection was all wrong.
But the sense that something was watching her from the shadows refused to leave. The dominant post-work-drinks theory was that a minor gas leak of some variety was causing mild paranoia. The company’s doctors had checked the tunnel, and announced the air was ‘safe to breathe.’ Bullshit. Like a kettle left to boil, tensions had risen as the paranoia grew. Some of the miners refused to work until the tunnel was properly ventilated.
That hadn’t ended well for them.
“Anyone else hear anything weird?” Mary called out to her team.
“Just the sultry tones of your voice, Mary,” Sigler replied.
“Piss off,” she said with a laugh. “Must’ve just been the soil shifting, or something.”
Siglar laughed with Mary. “Besides, we’re the first people to dig down here. It’s not like anyone else could be down here,” he said.
Mary sighed, returning to the endless work. The endless rocks. The closest that Mary would ever get to seeing the stars were the lightbulbs overhead. A tunnel rat never saw the surface. Instead of a tapestry of stars, all Mary had to look at was rocks. She would give anything to see the night sky.
Day in, and day out.
Endless fucking rocks. I wonder what they’ve got us searching for? Mary’s back ached, a dull throb that clutched her entire spine. She stretched out and listened to her spine pop like bubblewrap. She often dreamt of life before the Extinction Wars, of an apartment that didn’t have mold, of stars that danced overhead, of trees and grass as far as the eye could see. She dreamed of a time when people had lived on the long-dead planet called ‘Earth.’
I never thought I’d cross the picket line. But I had to. It wasn’t just the stack of bills in her apartment that had forced her into the mines. It was the dreams. The visions. Every night, she saw it. It was a basic, primal longing that filled her lower belly.
Even with the low-gravity of Titan helping, backbreaking labor was backbreaking labor. The tunnel echoed with the zapping of laser cutters and thump of electro-hammers. Titan Industries had them digging for…well, no one knew. Could there be new mineral deposits?
“Sigler, what’s your bet about this place? I heard some big-wig manager, Van Geir, had a ‘hunch’ about this place.” Mary hoped the conversation would keep the crushing dread at bay.
“Gotta be some metal deposits. I heard someone in admin mention that they’d ordered a scan and they’d noticed an anomaly. What the anomaly was, no one knew…”
The manager, Van Geir, had sent in the miners. That had been a week ago. They were far out from the colony now, beyond the boundary of where help could reasonably be expected.
Mary struggled to keep her footing on the steep incline as they dug downwards, slipping on the pulverized stone in the dark. “You’d think there had been enough injuries to our crew to warrant the allocation of new lights.”
Siglar laughed, “They own the medical facilities. Probably make a few credits whenever they fix us up.”
Mary could hear cockroaches scuttling in the darkness, their feet swishing across the floor. “Watch your footing Waggoner, we don’t need you breaking your other leg.”
“Look, if the universe didn’t want me to break two legs, why give me two legs?” Waggoner asked in a mockingly spiritual tone.
She leant against the wall of the tunnel to rest, shaking loose a cloud of dirt. The dirt floated before Mary like dandelion flowers. They always look so beautiful in the old Earth films. A warning pinged on Mary’s visor – CEASE RESTING. RESUME WORKING.
Bastards. Only the company would be greedy enough to install pedometers into their visors to ensure productivity. Must’ve been moving too slowly. If she slacked off for too long, she’d be docked the previous hour’s pay. Back to work. Sighing, Mary raised the laser cutter and resumed drilling into the rock. The joys of being a tunnel-rat.
Mary had bills to pay. Way too many. She grimaced at the thought of the overdue oxygen, water, and electricity bills just waiting for her at home, weighing her down like a chain around Mary’s neck. It was worth it though, to see the green fronds of her plants.
The red glare of laser cutters illuminated their coveralls. Dressed in bright orange, the crew looked like walking safety cones. None of her crew could afford to rent the safety suits anymore, so they just wore the basic mask-and-coveralls uniform.
The handheld laser cutter burnt clean lines through the rocky soil deep beneath the ground of Titan. The rock glowed an angry red wherever the laser passed. Next, she used an electro-hammer to dislodge and shatter the huge block of stone. Finally, Mary would get one of the mining carts to clear away the rubble. The crushed stone could be liquified and be used for 3D printing concrete somewhere in the colony.
After seven hours of work, Mary was a gasping, sweating mess. Dark shadows pooled at the edges of the dim light provided by the cheap globes. “I’d like to see whichever asshole manager sent us to this place come work in this ass-end-of-nowhere mine shaft. They wouldn’t last a day down here.” Her limbs shook from exhaustion, and she struggled to remain standing.
“They’d probably break a nail pressing the airlock button,” Sigler said.
Mary kept her eyes on her work, but she spoke loud enough for her fellow tunnel-rats to hear. “So, any bets on what’s causing the anomaly on the scanners?” Her words echoed off the walls, joining the din.
Half of her crew were hidden in the darkness, relying on skill and dumb luck to stay safe.
“I’ll bet the first round at Billy’s Bar. I reckon it’s just an air pocket or cave screwing up the scanners,” Waggoner called out from his position in the tunnel. He had a leg in a cast, broken during a freak accident a few weeks back. “The other crews keep hearing whispers. Now, since ghosts obviously don’t exist, it’s gotta be wind from whatever cave system is down there.”
Mary said nothing. She’d heard those whispering walls herself. It didn’t sound like a natural airflow. But what else could it be? But she couldn’t shake the thought that something was watching them from shadowy crevices.
Sigler spoke next. “Nah, I bet a pack of smokes that it’s iron, copper, or some other metal that the colony needs. A bastard like Van Gier would make a killing selling that stuff back to Luna.”
“Van Gier makes a quick buck, and we’d still be slaving away in the tunnels.” Mary shook her head. “Day in, and day out. Not that we can even tell night from day down here.” It made no damn sense to her. Without them, nothing could be mined, and yet they rarely saw any boon from their labor.
Shiromi, the newest member of the crew, finally spoke up. “I bet it’s the ruins of an ancient alien civilization, driven to extinction before being buried beneath the land for millennia.”
No one spoke. Mary peeked over at Shiromi. Maybe that’s what she thinks the weird noises are? The slim kid was just fifteen, barely old enough to start working.
Shiromi laughed softly. “I’m joking, obviously. That’s just the plot of the latest Death World film. It’s probably just a cave, or metals like Waggoner and Sigler thought.” She shrugged and bounced away, “Or, you know, aliens.”
Mary chuckled with Shiromi this time. Guess I’m still getting used to having a newbie with us. I’ll probably have to watch these Death World films to underst-
The tunnel shook.
The crew froze, fear carved onto their faces in the half-darkness as pebbles skittered on the floor and dust rained down on them.
Cracks spiderwebbed the ceiling, racing towards them.
“Tunnel collapse! Get out, go, go, go!” Mary didn’t hesitate. She bolted up the rumbling cave towards the entrance, grabbing Shiromi by the shoulder and dragging her along. The kid’s in shock. Mary pulled them both along the tunnel, moving in calculated leaps. The low gravity meant that she almost flew upwards towards the distant light of safety.
Shiromi pushed away Mary’s help, finally coming to her senses. “I can handle this.” She stood on her own.
Mary looked her in the eyes for only a second, seeing Shiromi’s razor sharp determination. “Good, don’t fall behind, kid.”
Waggoner hobbled as fast as he could, keeping his broken leg off the floor and using Titan’s gravity to assist himself. Dust rained down on him, coating Waggoner like a funeral shroud. “Sigler, get Waggoner and move your asses!”
“On it, boss.”
Sigler turned back to grab Waggoner, shoving him up the steep tunnel. “I’ve got you, let’s get the hell out of here.”
The walls of the cave flexed. They warped, cracking and bending under the incalculable pressure.
Ravines broke through the walls, racing up past them.
Mary shouted, helpless to do anything else, “Waggoner, Sigler, hurry u-”
With a crack like thunder, the cave collapsed.
“Sigler? Waggoner? You guys out there? If you can hear my voice, call out.” Mary coughed, spitting out a wad of gravel. She wiped the grainy filth from her face and peered through the clouds of debris.
Shiromi huddled on the floor, staring into the nothingness. “They’re gone.”
It was pitch black in the cave. “The power supply for the globes might have been severed.” Mary activated the flashlight attached to her visor, and a thin beam of yellow light cut through some of the stygian darkness.
Mary tried backing away from the spot where her friends had stood moments ago, her boots shuffling against the pulverized floor. She couldn’t go far. Unyielding stone scraped against her back, cold like the grave. We’re trapped. Panic raced through Mary. The cave must’ve collapsed from both ends. We’ll never get out of here alive.
The dust cloud ebbed, and slowly settled to the ground. The collapsed passage where Sigler and Waggoner had been lay before Mary. The mouth of stone had closed on them, crushing everything within like a fist. Mary edged forwards, keeping her eyes on the walls for any further signs of instability.
The weight of Titan around Mary was endless, pressing in from all directions. She was trapped, kilometers below the surface, and far from the colony. How long until our air runs out? Or until the next quake?
Mary shook with fear, making it hard to keep moving. She swallowed, and tried to project authority. “Shiromi, shake it off, we need to find a way out.”
Shiromi gasped, stopped sobbing, and went quiet.
“Good, because we’re not out of the shit just yet.” Without turning back to check on Shiromi, Mary continued downhill. Into the belly of the beast.
A pale, tattooed arm reached out from the rock. Sigler. The fingers twitched. Oh my god, he’s still alive. Mary darted forward and grabbed Sigler’s hand. “It’s alright, I’ve got you, mate.” She pulled, scrabbling at the rock surrounding the arm in a desperate attempt to free him.
Sigler’s arm tore free from the wall in a geyser of blood and shattered bone. Oh god, oh god, oh god. Choking back acidic vomit, Mary dropped the arm and fell backwards.
Sigler’s arm landed with a wet thump, and blood trickled from the stump crushed beneath the roof. They’re dead. They’re both dead. The fingers twitched one final time. Sigler’s blood looked…wrong. It was purple, like rotten fruit. Backing up, Mary couldn’t look away, her eyes stuck on the crumpled bone and rotten blood. “Shiromi? Are you alright?” her voice rattled like an old engine. “We’re gonna have to try and dig our way out with the laser cutters. We’d better start while we still have oxygen.”
Shiromi didn’t answer.
Only the quiet creaking of rocks settling into place could be heard.
Mary tore her eyes away from Sigler’s mangled corpse. She looked back to where she had left the youngest tunnel-rat just minutes ago. The flashlight revealed Shiromi’s empty resting place.
She was gone. Mary swung her head, the flashlight bobbing side to side. Darkness swallowed the passage as soon as the light swept past.
No sign of the young girl remained.
“Shiromi?” Mary yelled, her voice cracking with terror.
“I’m over here,” Shiromi said, but her voice was no longer the same. It carried the breathlessness of a whisper, and came from too many directions.
The dust on the floor had been scuffed and kicked up, carving lines through the dirt. Mary knelt to investigate. Almost like…like someone dragged her away. Blood had stained the floor, soaking it to the color of rust. She looked fine when I left her. What happened here? Mary followed the scuff marks further into the tunnel. Her flashlight beam narrowed. She couldn’t see anything in her peripheral vision. Someone could be right next to me, and I would never know. That’s when Mary saw it. A hole in the wall.
The entrance was a small oval, almost large enough for a person to crawl through, and lined with jagged edges of stone. Something dripped down the stone. Mary reached out, slicking her fingers in it. Her hand came away red. It must be Shiromi’s blood.
The whispering from the walls, the noises that Mary had been trying to ignore all week, grew louder. She knew what the whispers were saying now. She’d known all along, but she hadn’t accepted it. Mary could resist no longer. An itch burned behind Mary’s eyes, spreading like pins and needles throughout her skull. No, no. I must warn the colony. I have to get out, get help. The pain grew with each denial of the whispers. It was a blunt knife, peeling back her flesh and stripping her will. Mary sobbed.
Getting down onto her hands and knees, Mary obeyed the whispers. The pain lessened, becoming a soothing kiss. She shuffled inside the gullet of the cave. Her shoulders pressed against the walls, and she had to lie on her stomach just to fit. If she became stuck, there would be no escape. The walls were too close, the stone too smooth.
The whispers kept echoing around her. Mary crawled deeper and deeper. Whenever she felt the need to give up, the whispers would come back. The tunnel narrowed, small daggers of stone flensing her apart. Hours passed as she slowly shredded her body on the smooth stone, worming her way forward by inches.
With a stuttering click, the flashlight died. Mary cried then, tears pouring down her face. She didn’t know why she had come down here, only that she had to. The whispers had made her do it.
Something reached out and touched Mary’s hand. It was warm, and wet, and wrong. She tried screaming, but couldn’t.
The thing in the walls spoke to her once again, a soft lullaby of family, friends and belonging. It told her she didn’t need to be afraid ever again. Told her of the millennia spent alone in the dark, so very alone. Told her of the ancient war, long gone to the ravages of time, of the cold and the hunger. It made promises, so many sweet promises. It’s an angel.
It dragged her down into the depths of Titan.
Mary gazed at the angel, sweat dripping from her muscles. She’d arrived. Mary knelt. Pressure built in her skull as she looked up in rapturous wonder.
The cave glowed an ethereal purple, alive with sounds of wet things rubbing and sliding against each other. The walls reached out with worm-like appendages. It enveloped Mary, tenderly touching the parts of her body that had been shorn off by the tunnel walls.
Mary was vaguely aware of something sliding inside her, slipping underneath the torn skin of her body. Her body swelled as more of the angel’s beautiful gifts filled her. Mary’s skin stretched across the worm-like parasites writhing in her flesh. It’s beautiful, so beautiful. Deep down she’d known it would be. Ever since she’d heard the first whisper. After all, how could a messenger of God not be gorgeous? Webs of veins spread away from the holy manifestation, spiraling through the rock of Titan. The purple veins throbbed with a moist slurp. It’s spreading, oh god, it’s growing.
The angel had spoken to Mary, whispered beautiful things in her dreams. It was why she’d taken the job in the first place. It called to her through visions, promising wonders, if only she could believe.
The angel warned Mary that the others would try to stop it. They would have to be careful growing their new family. It throbbed rhythmically. The walls shuddered, flexing inwards and outwards. It’s breathing. The walls are part of it. It must stretch so far. She just had to do one thing for it. She had to see the truth. The pressure in Mary’s skull turned into an ache that burned as she stared. It was an electric fire, consuming everything. It tingled down her spine, setting nerves alight with pleasure and pain. It reminded Mary of childhood memories, of grabbing a red-hot frypan and screaming for help.
The angel wanted her to see the real dark. It wanted her to understand. It needed her to know the truth. The angel reached out, caressing her with hungry limbs. The tendrils were a rotten purple, the purple of bruised flesh and smashed plums. They wrapped her up in a moist embrace, pulling her closer.
With a shudder of ecstasy, Mary reached for her eyes.
This is an excerpt from a novel, Dead Station: Rebellion, that is available on Amazon and Books2Read.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Aaron is an Australian author of cosmic horror, science fiction, and military stories set in the Dead Station and the Containtment Taskforce series. You can find them on twitter @AaronBeardsell or instagram at aaron_beardsell_author.