The hot winds came during the third month of our stay on Eranil. Their core temp was 135 F, which was a real problem whenever we surfaced from the network of tunnels underground. It meant life-threatening dehydration in seconds. Our guru tech, Frank, solved that for us by creating a series of cold grids we could walk through to get from the mine back to the station. The winds penetrated it but only at intervals, and we could get through those if we moved fast and activated our computer jabs in time. Those were Frank’s idea, too, instant overlay programs in our handhelds showing the path to follow. In the devices the wind currents looked like streaking red slices across the landscape, making them easier to circumvent. Good man, our tech.
The work was moving along too slowly, though, despite our best efforts. At first, discovering the tunnels our first week on the planet had been a coup. All we needed to do was send the coordinates and Base would get a crew there to perform the excavations. As the advance team, our job was done and we could go home and salvage some vacation time. That was before we realized how deep the tunnels went, miles down, all of them descending in spiral paths that were lighted by the illuminant embedded in the rock. We had to survey all of them before risking the lives of a work crew. It was the illuminant we wanted, but if the tunnels were unstable, that would be on us. I knew this. Everyone did. We didn’t want that kind of trouble on our watch. We didn’t want anyone hurt. I didn’t.
It was tedious. If there was a chance the walls wouldn’t hold, any vibrations created by our equipment could be the trigger, so we had to investigate on foot. Over a hundred tunnels, seven of us. Descent was the great unknown—how far would we have to go? No one as yet had found the end to any of them.
I pulled everyone in to talk it over. We met in the center hall of the titanium shell Frank had built as temporary quarters. The structure was transparent, letting us see the planet’s activity, not that there was anything going on. It was a lifeless and useless place now, except for the illuminant. Its previous inhabitants had mysteriously disappeared. Not a sign of them, other than a few curious petroglyphs that were carved into the entrance of each tunnel, but the collection of spirals and triangles and jagged lines told us nothing.
Dusk was approaching as we gathered together. I saw anxiety on some faces, boredom on others, intensity on the rest.
“Okay,” I began. “You know what’s going on. We’ll be at this forever if we can’t find another way to finish the survey.”
“Damn tunnels make me dizzy. Climbing back up is a bitch. Every day the same thing. I say give it up.” Dani was a natural-born complainer, lazy and self-indulgent. He liked to drink more than was good for him, or us. He hadn’t been my first choice on this assignment, but the job paid extremely well and he had connections. I’m intrigued, when I’m not annoyed, by people who live in total self-interest.
“We can’t,” Amris said. “We need the rock, you know that. No one’s found this much illuminant anywhere else so far, and we’ve checked eight planets besides this one. The ore has to be processed and sent back to Base. Otherwise, we’ll have to start using fossil fuels again.” Amris was an accountant by profession, part of the team to do the numbers, which were always critical when you were handling field research for corporations. I was pretty sure he was the only one of us not considered expendable.
“Negative, since there isn’t any of that crap left back home, remember?” Dani said, with his usual sarcasm.
“So what choice do we have?” Janis asked, pushing herself out of her chair and going to the counter to get some water.
“Bring me a drink, okay?” Dani said.
Janis laughed with genuine humor, poured herself a glass of water and went back to her chair.
“We were married, my dear Dani, but we aren’t anymore, remember?”
Dani looked away. “How could I forget? Worst part of my life.”
Again Janis laughed, a lovely, chiming sound. She was friendly and kind, and Dani was bitterness incarnate. I wondered not for the first time what could have brought them together.
The twins hadn’t said anything. I always sent them down the tunnels together. It helped, but not enough. Each time they returned they looked like the dead, distressed and exhausted. Having them here wasn’t my idea, either. They shouldn’t have been assigned to the expedition at all. They were hard workers, but newbies and frightened all the time. The selection of an advance team was always in the hands of middle managers who had never left home or faced anything more complex than cutting a budget, at which they usually excelled. It cost a lot less to send the twins than to send an experienced geologist.
I knew I had to stop my train of thought before I lapsed into recurring cynicism, a tendency that didn’t do anyone any good, especially me. After all, what corporations—and people–did was their business. What choices I made were mine. And there were always choices.
Frank was fussing with his computers over in the corner, as usual. He smiled at me and raised his hand in a brief wave.
That left Angel. It always came down to Angel. He never hesitated to do what had to be done. He spent time with the others, making them feel better, or in Dani’s case, just listening to the complaints until Dani wound down and stopped talking, something I couldn’t have managed if my life depended on it.
“Any ideas?” I said to him.
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. You’re right. We’ll all be at this until death do us part if we can’t find a faster way to see what’s down there at the end of those tunnels.
Counting this trip we’d shared three assignments, and I had commanded the other two as well. I thought of him as a friend. Or maybe it was more than that. Or could be. I didn’t know.
“Here’s a possibility,” Angel said. He looked around the room, including everyone in the idea, not just me. It was his skill, establishing rapport, making people feel at ease, as if they belonged. He told me once that was what everyone wanted in their lives, to belong somewhere, to feel like they did. Yet he’d never stayed more than a year or two in any location, on Earth or on assignment. “I’m a gypsy at heart,” he’d said to me once. “I like to follow ancient paths,” he’d added. I had wondered what he meant, but didn’t ask.
“Instead of us all going down the tunnels, how about just one of us, with supplies, so whoever does this can stay overnight, if necessary, and not waste time coming back up? Just go down and down as far as it goes, until the end.”
“What if there is no freaking end?” Dani said. “This whole place is a dead zone. Maybe that’s why. Maybe the tunnels are filled with bodies.”
“He could be right,” Frank offered from his corner. “I looked up those designs at the entrances. They’re used as markers for tombs on several planets, including Earth. Maybe that’s what they are here, too.”
“See?” Dani said. He got up and went to the bar and poured himself a whiskey.
“That wasn’t in your report,” I said to Frank.
“Just did it this morning. Should have checked them out the first day, but I got distracted and then forgot, since I’m always in here and not out there. Sorry about that.”
“There’s an end to the tunnels,” Janis said. “The whole planet is only . . . wait a minute.” She tapped one of the buttons that covered the sleeve of her jacket to activate a small hologram and studied it. “The whole planet is only 40.13 miles in diameter. So wherever the tunnels go, that’s the limit. They could open out somewhere on the other side, except remote reconnaissance shows no sign of that.”
“Or not open at all,” Dani called out.
“Doesn’t matter,” Frank said. “Whoever goes down there finds the exit, or finds a dead-end. Or maybe a lot of dead bodies,” he said to Dani with a grin. “They come back and tell us, any which way it is. It could mean an overnight, since at some point the path might start to spiral upward and it’ll take longer. So whoever gets to go might have to spend two days inside.”
“That’d be me,” Angel said, smiling.
“Hey, Karin, why don’t you send the twins?” Dani asked me with mock enthusiasm. The girl and boy froze, their pallor even more pronounced.
“Thanks, Dani, great idea, but no,” I said, hoping I didn’t sound as disgusted with him as I was. It was a cheap shot, scaring the twins like that. “I think it’s better if two of us go. That allows for backup in case something goes wrong. Janis, you’ve been handling things up here with Frank. How about you go with me this time, since you have all the data at hand? Bring the jabs with you, too. Sorry Angel, but that’s my decision.”
He looked at me with a strange expression. Later, I understood why. But he didn’t object. I was the one who called the shots and it wasn’t like him to challenge that.
We made preparations to leave the next morning, with Frank outfitting us.
“I’m adding a few new jabs, okay?” he said.
I watched him manipulate the handheld, his fingers lightning fast. “What for? There’s no atmospheric danger.”
“Diversion. With these you can think of something, even a dream, and it’ll be there in front of you. Keep you awake, that’s all. Test it for yourself.”
I had to smile at that. He knew me well. I liked diversions. Fine, I thought, let’s test it. I took the device and pressed the edge where he’d placed several indicators. An image of the ocean came to mind, a sunlit day I remembered of warm breezes and the sound of people laughing. The next second I almost jumped back in reflex as waves crashed on the desert ground before me. An unending expanse of water overlaid the hills beyond, green and blue scintillations of light. I could hear the snap of canvas as a sailboat leaned into starboard. My skiff, a relic I loved.
“Thought you’d like it. No limitations except your own mind, so be careful what you want to see,” he said. “Good thing is, only you get to see it.” He attached titanium accelerators to my arms and legs.
“I feel like I’m half bionic,” I said to him. “I can’t use these, anyway, remember? We can’t risk the reverberations.”
“Granted, but let’s say you get to the other side after all. You’ll get back here faster with these, in case the winds chase you there, too.”
It was a good idea. I felt a dormant claustrophobia surge up even at the thought of being underground for forty-odd miles. Wherever we ended up, getting back fast would be welcome.
Angel came up to me just before we started out.
“You’re in charge until I return,” I said to him.
“I figured,” he said, and smiled. “You know, you don’t have to do this. I could take Janis through.”
“True. But it’s my prerogative, right? I didn’t work as hard as I have just to stand on the sidelines. I like to have fun, too.”
“I don’t mean that. I mean you could spare yourself the trauma of closed spaces.”
The words seemed to hang in front of me like something real I could touch.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“The caves on Prema Five, remember? I was there.”
I hadn’t forgotten. Angel was the only one who’d witnessed anything.
“That’s over with. I fainted like a rookie. It’s not something I want to remember. Besides, I’m not susceptible like that anymore.”
“We’re all susceptible to something.”
“So what’s your vulnerability, Angel? Want to tell me?’ I heard the sarcasm in my voice. I sounded like Dani.
He shook his head. “I have so many, I’ve lost count. No kidding. But there’s one I can’t seem to control, and that’s you.”
He’d turned away and began completing a check run with Janis. I watched her spin her holograms out in front of them both but I didn’t try to read anything. I wasn’t sure what he’d just said to me. I suspended the small flame of hope that rose up. I wouldn’t play the fool. Yet one thing I knew about Angel was that he didn’t play games. Not with anyone.
Janis was waiting at the entrance to the largest tunnel. I joined her. The path sloped before us, lighted by the silver scintillations in the rock, which gave the peculiar illusion that we were walking into a starfield. I gave a quick glance at the petroglyphs as we started down. It occurred to me the spiral path of the tunnels resembled them.
The others watched us go. Angel raised his arm in a half salute. Then they were out of sight and there was only the sound of our footsteps. The weight of the equipment Frank had loaded on us was minimal and we made good time. After three hours, however, we were still descending, moving in the slow spiral that created the curious sensation of not moving at all. Janis mentioned it.
“That’s what’s bothers the twins the most,” I said. “They’re always afraid they won’t find their way out because it feels like they’re staying in the same place. It’s like being hypnotized. You have to focus on something different every few minutes.”
“That’s not easy. There’s just all this rock to look at.”
“I mean in your head—change your thoughts often, picture yourself somewhere else, distract yourself from what you’re seeing around you. Interrupt the monotony.”
She didn’t say anything else for a while but then she started humming songs, changing them every quarter mile. I focused on her choices in music, which were definitely not my favorites. It was annoying, but that was a good thing. The grating rhythms kept my senses sharp and kept my attention away from the claustrophobia as much as from the hypnotic effects of the path.
“How far?” I asked her when we stopped to rest and eat at last.
Out came the holograms.
“We’ve gone 10.243 miles. Longest anyone’s got before now is 12.119.”
“We’re still going down.”
“It’s pretty boring. No wonder Dani keeps on about it.”
“Hold on! Maybe Frank’s new jabs will help. Let me test it out.” I activated one of the indicators. For a moment I saw sunlight on the sea again, but then it changed to rain and I saw instead a sea of ancient flora, ferns a hundred feet high and more. The air was humid and I was walking on the border of a swamp forest where my team had set up a makeshift camp. We couldn’t do better, given the terrain.
It was Garon. How happy I had been there. Maybe for longer than anyone had a right to feel the way I did, though in truth it had only been a few months. The place was bizarre and beautiful at once. We knew we could convert the decaying vegetation into coal with sufficient heat and pressure, but that would be useless, given the primitive fuel it was. No, what we wanted from the fern forests were the deadly, poisonous scorpions native to Garon, which could reach a length of three feet. Their venom was seen as a healing agent on planets that preferred natural sources over technology. They sold for a premium, and I was being paid well for my effort.
I had been out hunting. The rains came, drenching us in seconds before we could reach cover. I rushed into my tent to find Samuel there ahead of me. I hadn’t expected him for another week. He laughed and took me in his arms and I let go of everything else but my awareness of him, and us.
To my dismay I was pulled out of the image abruptly by Janis’ voice.
“You look like you’re in heaven. Let me try.”
“Frank made it so we could only see our own the projections, no one else’s.”
“Looks like a wise choice. I—what’s that? Do you see that? Isn’t it wonderful, like a—” Janis doubled up and let out a high-pitched scream that bounced in piercing echoes off the walls.
“What? What is it!”
“Something…a whistling…it won’t stop…like knives in my head…it hurts so much!” she gasped out, the words choked. She convulsed and the next moment lay across the path, blood pouring out of her mouth and ears. She had stopped moving. I realized with shock that she was dead.
I tore a button off her sleeve and activated it. I checked the coordinates of our location and relayed those back to Angel. Then I tried to understand what had just happened.
I looked around. Nothing was different. There was no sign of any anomaly in the tunnel, nothing to indicate what had triggered the ruptured aneurysm, which is what I was sure had happened to her. Atmospheric pressure from the weight of where we were? No. Janis had done excavations with me on Prema Five and gone down almost sixty miles to the depths of that planet without hesitation, which was a whole lot better than I had managed. She’d also been checked out thoroughly by the medical lab. I made sure every member of my team went through every scan available. That included the twins, and Dani, who’d somehow passed everything with flying colors, or else bribed someone to make it that way once he knew Janis was on the expedition.
There’d been no blood clot in Janis’ brain when we set out. I’d stake my life on it.
She lay with her eyes open. She looked so calm. I seemed to hear her laugh just for a moment, the chiming, bell-like sound of it so clear I could have believed it was real.
Angel would come with Dani, I was sure. It’d be Dani who’d have to bring Janis back to the shell, and Angel who’d insist on going with me the rest of the way. I was sure of that, too.
They showed up an hour and a half later. They had run the distance. When Dani saw Janis, he stopped cold. An expression of raw grief crossed his face and he knelt on the stone and cradled her in his arms, rocking back and forth.
“What did you do to her?” he asked, the quiet voice he used more chilling than his usual flippancy would have been.
“Don’t be ridiculous! We were just walking. She heard a whistling, like knives going through her head, she said, and she was gone the next second. She showed all the symptoms of a burst aneurysm.”
“There was nothing wrong with her. She was fine. She was just fine.”
“I need her jacket. There’s no way I can go on without her data and the holograms.”
He didn’t look at me as he gently removed her jacket and handed it over. I watched him lift Janis’ body in his arms and start the long climb back up to the shell. There was no point offering to help. He wasn’t going to let go of her.
“It was so sudden,” I said, half to myself. I shook my head and watched Dani until he was out of sight around the curve. “Ready?” I said to Angel.
“What, no debate about whether I’m coming with you?” He adjusted his gear. I watched him step carefully around the pool of blood that had formed on the path.
“I can’t stop now, even with . . . To my surprise tears threatened. I liked Janis. It was a miserable way for a life to end, in a tunnel on a godforsaken planet. “It isn’t a good idea to do this thing solo, right?” I said to him, getting control of my voice again. “And you’re the only one in sight.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” he said, but neither of us smiled.
I started down the spiraling path again, Angel following. Four hours later, we were still going down.
“What are our stats?” he asked when I told him we should stop and rest. I pulled up Janis’ data.
“We’ve gone eighteen miles, so either we start moving horizontally pretty soon and then up again,” I said, “or we keep going down until we reach the other side of Eranil, which means another twenty-odd miles, and hope in both cases wherever we end up has an opening of its own to let us through!”
“Yeah.” Angel seemed distracted, and kept looking around us as if he expected to see something else.
“What am I missing here?” I asked.
“Karin, what if—” He stopped and didn’t say anything more.
“What if what?”
“That’s not your kind of answer.”
He sighed. “I know. Back in the shell, when we were deciding what to do, when you assigned Janis to go with you, and not . . . I was angry.”
“You didn’t show it.”
“Why would I? You’re the leader. It wasn’t my call. I wasn’t going to challenge you in front of the others, either. Still, what if you had chosen me right away? We’d be finished with this by now.”
“I couldn’t have predicted Janis would—”
“I don’t mean that. I mean… Hell. I mean you and I would have been a team.”
“It seems to me we’re a team already.”
“But not by your choice.”
“For heaven’s sake, Angel, spit it out. What are you talking about?”
“You care about me, but you push me away. Why?”
His words stunned me. I wasn’t prepared for this.
“I don’t. I mean, I’ve never tried to—”
“Yes, you have. But what I’m saying—I’m trying to say it exactly as I mean it, without any false word—you’re still back on Garon, aren’t you . . . there’s no room for anyone else. Am I right?”
It felt as if something had shifted in the very air, like the overlays Frank had created for the grid. They’d created a feeling of being displaced. I felt crowded in, too, the old claustrophobic reaction.
“Where’s this coming from? This isn’t the time.”
“Maybe that’s why.” Angel focused on the tunnel wall. “You’re right. Nuts on my part to even bring it up. Seeing Janis dead, knowing how she died, it . . . ” He stopped a moment and then went on. “It’s such a loss.” He gave a short laugh and pulled out a book from his pack and opened to a page. He read it and stuffed the book in his pocket.
“Going to share?”
“Don’t get maudlin on me, Angel. We have to finish this. Let’s get going. We don’t want to spend the rest of our lives sitting here.” I walked ahead, hoping he’d stop talking, and he did.
Ten minutes further along the path I heard a sound, a piercing, shrill, high-pitched whistle.
“What on earth is that?”
“I don’t hear anything.”
“This whistling that—”
The next moment Angel had covered me with one of the sleep protectors Frank had packed for us. It muffled all sound and shut out all light, yet had a warning sensor if anything from the outside threatened us. But right then all I felt was a massive sensation of being suffocated, a panic compounded with knowing where I was in the depths of the tunnel. I fought with all the strength I had. Then, as suddenly as he had held the protector around me, Angel let it go. I stumbled backwards in surprise.
“What the hell do you think you were doing?” I shouted as I pulled the covering off my head and body. The whistling was gone.
“To protect you,” he said. “I did it for you.”
“You did what for me?” I shouted again. “Try to smother me to death twenty miles under this blasted planet?”
I stopped. His face in the silver light was drawn, the lines of it in sharp relief. His eyes held fear. I’d never seen Angel afraid of anything.
“Tell me what that was about,” I said, forcing my voice into calm.
“You can’t?” I waited. “You never say that. What is it?”
I heard his sharp intake of breath.
“What?” I said again in anger, my patience fried.
“You heard the whistling. Like Janis. I was afraid for you. That’s all.” He didn’t say anything more.
“Great. I don’t know what I heard because thanks to you I could hardly breathe. I’ll put it down to stress—yours, not mine. Let’s get this over with,” I said, redoing the straps on my pack.
There was no night or day, no sense of time. I was tired but didn’t want us to stop again. I doubted I could sleep, anyway, knowing miles of rock lay above me. I needed diversion. Janis had worked a small miracle there with her songs, but I wasn’t about to ask Angel to sing to me.
“Frank gave us augmented reality jabs, just in case. Why don’t we use one of them now? I’m getting hypnotized again by these walls. The jabs helped me before…before Janis…”
“Whatever you want,” he said. His voice was subdued.
“Don’t change personalities on me now, Angel. Save that for when we’re on the surface.”
He smiled. “Not a chance. No, just thinking. Some distraction would help me, too. Though I’d rather read my book.”
“Tell me what it is—I can use it for the jab.”
He laughed again. “It’s pure theater. Not your style.”
“So? I’ll take anything right now if it keeps my brain alert. Give it to me.”
Angel handed me the book. The title meant nothing.
“’Hamlet?’ It looks ancient enough to be your style. Never mind. I’ll feed it in and see for myself.” I let Frank’s device scan the book. Nothing happened.
“It could be the jabs can’t work this far down,” Angel offered.
“They did. Maybe they got burned out . . . ” I didn’t finish. I had no idea why they didn’t work anymore and I didn’t care. “All right, we’ll have to keep extra alert, then. According to the data we’re way past the halfway mark. I’d wager we’re going clear straight through to the other side of the planet.”
“Yet we’re still going down,” Angel said.
An abyss showed before us, the illumined path winding and winding downwards into it.
“Of course, it could be an illusion,” he added.
“I thought of that. It’s not like we have a handle on this place. This tunnel could be a conduit, but the data strip would signal if we’d left the planet or if we’d accessed another tunnel somehow that merged with this one or even if we’d started retracing our steps. No—we’re still heading forward, but I have no idea if we’re going up or further down now.”
It was six miles before I called for another rest. By my reckoning, another ten miles and we should be near the surface on the other side somewhere. I set out some food and water. Angel took a drink and opened his book again, remarking that it was easy to read by the light of the rock.
He held up the cover, a drawing of some massive stone building in fog, with a faint line of hills behind it.
“A castle. My mother gave this to me. She collected books, virtual mostly but some like this one, made of paper, from every expedition she went on. You’d be surprised how many planets have kept them. Others are just starting to record their own experience. This one’s from Earth.”
The water I drank tasted brackish. It was because of the metal container. I’d have to ask Frank to do something about that when we got back.
“And I’ll bet you want to tell me all about it.” At his look, I relented. “I don’t mind. So what does your book have to say?”
“Hamlet is the hero, or at least the center of attention. He deceives himself so much he causes the death of nearly everyone around him, yet he acts with perfect innocence, dwelling entirely on his own perceptions.”
“A man of self-interest, then? I’ve known a few. There’s no innocence in death. Or in perception.”
“Like on Garon?”
A storm of images filled my head. Why did Angel dwell on that again, now of all times?
“I remember.” I could hear the awkward stiffness in my voice.
“You did nothing wrong. I’d stake my life on it. I saw everything.”
“We’d gone as a scouting team, like here, for the Council.”
“I know. You, Frank, and I had already done the setups. Janis was there, too, along with the techs. We could have finished on our own.”
“If Samuel had stayed away,” I added in a whisper. I wanted to hit something, slam my fists against the stone. I thought the feelings had been buried. Better, I had thought them gone. Not now, thanks to Frank’s new jabs. The sensation of rain falling had been so real.
“He came with good intentions.”
“No, he didn’t! He came to destroy me. Are you defending him?” I asked in disbelief. The events on Garon washed around me like the waves of the sea. I lost connection with the path and why we were on it. There was no time for the memories but I couldn’t shake them away.
“I just said I knew you were innocent. Hey, it’s me, Angel, remember? I’m sorry I brought it up. I really am.”
“Right. That’s why you’ve brought it up twice—no, three times now. It must be that book of yours. A bad influence. Old things, old ways.”
“People haven’t changed all that much. Garon reminds me of the place in this story.” He was quiet a moment. “Maybe that’s why I keep reading it.”
Angel needed to talk. Maybe he just wanted a distraction from the monotony, too. But I wished he’d shut up.
Samuel. I had loved him in a way I didn’t know could exist. I tolerated everything he did. I’d watch him behave with such self-absorption and think he was being clever. He was elegant and casual at the same time. His dark hair curled in the humid air of Garon. We’d spend nights in a small tent listening to the sound of the rain on the fronds of the fern trees nearby. The planet was empty of all life, except for our small group, just like on Eranil, or so we thought. We had made forays into the interior and satisfied ourselves the place was uninhabited. Samuel had done most of that on his own. He seemed fearless to me. He was the best lover I’d ever known. As far as I was concerned, we could have stayed on Garon forever. I had no desire beyond knowing him, and being with him. I found in him or perhaps through him a sensation of balance and harmony and I believed that both those elements were my Samuel.
He’d known all this, of course. He’d cultivated it. Making the leader vulnerable was something he did, and not only with me. It wasn’t even a goal he had. He acted without thought of consequences. He used people, yet he did it as if there was no other possible solution. They were simply available so that he could act out his own need to satisfy outcomes. Pure self-interest, right, Samuel?
“Karin, you didn’t kill him,” Angel said, his voice breaking through to me.
“I may as well have. I was so caught by my own emotions I didn’t see anything at all. When he brought Ravella with him to Garon, he left me for her.”
I remembered it all and was astonished to find the fury sweep through me as fresh as when I had first felt it. One night he was in my bed and the next he was not, and never would be again. He didn’t understand what the fuss was about when I confronted him. He told me I was acting as if I were a mere acolyte in love. There is no way to describe what those last four words did to me.
“I sent him back, back into the interior, didn’t I?”
“You thought the planet was empty of life.”
“Oh, Angel, if only that were true.”
I took another drink of the stale water. Where were we going in this tunnel? Where would it bring us? I was curious to note in that moment that it didn’t matter to me.
Samuel had never come back. Angel found him, what was left of him. I was mad with grief. It wasn’t until much later that I understood that I was also crazy with guilt. Yes, I thought the place uninhabited. Yes, I needed some concrete data on the old growth we all assumed must lie in the darker forests. When he didn’t return after three days, I became frantic with worry. Yet another part of me, an unexpected hate, rose up inside, and I felt its power and I didn’t care if he ever returned. It didn’t turn to madness until I saw his body torn into shreds by whatever lived back there. It wasn’t the mark of scorpions.
Angel could have left him where he found him. His own life was at risk from the unknown. He chose instead to honor Samuel by bringing the body back. That was Angel’s way.
I felt as we sat together in the tunnel that maybe I didn’t have the will or the trust in myself that was required to love anymore. I stood up.
“‘Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh,’” Angel read from his book, “that unmatched form and feature of blown youth, blasted….”
“Sorry, just a little too obscure for me.”
“It’s what someone who loves Hamlet says, to describe the change in him. She knows he’ll never be hers. She’s consumed by melancholy. By sadness.”
“I know what melancholy means. Let’s hurry this up. I want out of here.”
Angel closed the book. We pulled on our gear. I glanced at the downward slant of the path and saw something new.
“Wait. Look at that,” I said to him, trying to contain my excitement. I could be wrong. “Do you see?”
He stood beside me and studied the path a minute before it registered.
“The light has changed!”
It had. The shift was subtle, almost imperceptible.
“Maybe we’ve done it?”
“Let’s find out.”
We moved along more quickly. The curves seemed to grow smaller as if the spiral was winding in on itself, and the ceiling became lower, only a foot above our heads. For almost two miles we saw only the same rock walls. Until we went around one curve and shut our eyes against the blinding light of the sun.
We described the end of the tunnel to everyone on our return, which took no time at all and not because of Frank’s accelerators. It wasn’t on the other side of the planet. It was a mile away. The same was true for all the others, once the team set up the eighteen-hour trek for each tunnel. They all opened like flowers along the crest of a hill, but only after we traveled the full distance through them as if our footsteps somehow triggered the exits to show themselves. Why? That wasn’t something we’d ever be able to find out. We had no idea who had built them, if they had left the planet or simply died there and been absorbed into the ground.
Frank had the idea that maybe their bodies were what the tunnels were made of so that the tunnels were burial sites and the petroglyphs were symbols of death after all. Dani harassed him about that, asking if he thought the bodies glowed in the dark, then, when they were alive. Frank said why not.
It was easier to run sound and vibration tests now that we knew the exact parameters of every tunnel. They could be mined. Amris had given us the numbers. Each of us would get a piece of a very lucrative pie. An excavation team was on its way to Eranil and we’d leave as soon as they arrived.
Dani insisted on taking Janis’ body back with us, though I thought we should bury her on the planet. If she had ingested something that caused her reaction in the tunnel, she could be contagious.
“I don’t think so,” Angel said. “I know what caused it to happen, the blood clot, I mean.”
“Which was?” I asked when he didn’t say anything more.
“She told you about the whistling, which saved you, in the end.”
“Are you saying I could have saved her if I’d used the protector? I didn’t hear a thing. And when it happened to me, you didn’t hear a thing, either.”
“No, of course not, you couldn’t have done anything for her. But when you heard the same whistling and told me, I just reacted, sensing I had to keep the sound away from you. Now I know what caused the problem. We know there’s energy in the illuminant. It was the interaction of the illuminant with the holograms Janis wore that accumulated to critical mass. Her brain couldn’t contain the impulses and converted them instead into waves of sound, off the scale levels. That was the whistling she heard—the sound that killed her.”
“So after that I was at risk, since I was wearing her jacket.”
“Not just that. It was the overlays, too, because those new jabs had power trails. You were carrying both, and they were activated. Add the energy of the illuminant in the tunnel walls, and massive power surges were inevitable. It might have happened again, but we were lucky. The jabs did burn out, some technical defect.”
“From where I’m standing it’s a defect I can appreciate. And you know all this because?”
Angel gave a brief smile. “I wish I could say it was all my own deduction, but Frank told me. He’s got the report for you. He’s going to make changes, adjustments. He said the effects were not unlike those where the excess of nitrogen caused ancient divers to become pools of jelly when they decompressed too fast before surfacing.”
“What does Frank know about ancient divers?”
Angel smiled. “I guess I mentioned it to him and he agreed. Something I read in another book my mother gave me. Just a new way to experience the same thing.”
“Another book. You’re a fount of information. Frank should have given me the report first.”
“He knows that. It’s my fault.”
“You never mind accepting the blame for things, Angel, do you.”
“Not true, Karin. I don’t accept blame for what happened to Samuel.”
I stepped back. “I never said it was your fault.”
“I didn’t bring him back alive. You’ve never forgiven me for that.”
We were standing outside the shell, the hot winds long gone. A light drizzle had started. In a few days, there would be a deluge, another part of the planet’s strange climate. It wouldn’t hurt the excavations, though, and we’d be gone, anyway.
I took out my handheld. I needed a diversion. I wanted to try the image jabs again but remembered they didn’t work anymore. When I looked out at the terrain I realized I didn’t need them, after all. Frank was right about telling me to be careful of my thoughts, only it was too late. In that moment, without any help at all, I saw Samuel’s body, a giant overlay on the landscape filling my mind, covering the wide space around me. Shredded pieces of him were interrupted by the low hills that protected the back entrances to the tunnels. His clothing hung in tatters against the overcast sky and his blood seeped into the ground before us where the light rain spit up small swirls of dust. I was staring into his open, unseeing eyes and knew if I walked ahead, even one step, I would never be able to leave.
“You need anything?” Angel’s voice was soft, and his eyes melancholy. Yes, that was the right word.
“No,” I said to him, as we headed back to the shell. Except a different kind of diversion, I thought. One that helps me forget betrayal and death and guilt. One that lets me remember instead sweet words and the sound of rain on the fronds of fern trees.
“I’m here,” he said.
“Yes.” For just a second I felt a long-buried lightness of being. I turned around and looked back and saw low hills and sand against the gray sky. Nothing else.
This story first appeared in Outposts of Beyond April 2018
Edited by Marie Ginga
Regina Clarke lives in the ancient terrain of the Hudson River Valley, and not very far from where Rod Serling grew up and Jane Roberts encountered Seth. Her background at one time was in the field of IT, writing about subjects engineers wanted to explain, including virtual reality, military surveillance software, and augmented reality. Some of these things have inspired her fiction. Her stories have appeared in Thrice Fiction, Kzine, Mad Scientist Journal, NewMyths, Aurora Wolf, Alien Dimensions, T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog, and The Farther Trees, among others. Her fantasy novel MARI was a finalist in the ListenUp Audiobooks competition and three of her stories have been featured on podcasts. You can see her books and story page, book trailer videos, and blog posts at Regina Clarke.