He pulled himself to his feet in stages, taking breaks to hug his knees and give himself a whispered pep talk. He’d torn his shin and warm liquid pooled in his sock. He couldn’t see the far edge of the cavern, only a few glittering rocks far below. The pounding of the waterfall was like the scream of a giant. His ears rang as he pulled back from the edge.
Ames turned away from the waterfall as he got to his feet, anxious hands checking if the earpiece was still in place. It flashed a cool, comforting blue against his fingers. He wished he still had the rum, but it was good enough. He pulled the strap of his pack down from his neck, where it was half-choking him, and fumbled out another flare. He broke it over his knee and the green light painted his futures.
The tunnel ahead forked off in two branches, both yawning expanses of dark rock and ice crystals that glittered like teeth in the flickering light. Which had it been? He halted at the junction, feet twisting first one way then the other. He remembered the mad charge through one of them, heart tearing at his throat and terror on his heels. The gathering roar of the waterfall ahead of him. The smell of sweat and vinegary slime. The screams at his back. That maddening pulse, pulse of warm flesh. Like the rock was an artery in a monstrous heart. How was he supposed to know? Which led up, and which led down? If it even mattered.
His earpiece crackled as he was making his decision, and his heart met his throat.
A harsh buzz of static made Ames curse and fumble at the volume switch. He hadn’t heard from the speaker in a long time. Enough time for him to conduct a rudimentary funeral. Two ration packs and a bigger ration of rum. The guilt ate at his gut along with his nerves as he whispered in the dark.
“Hey,” His voice came out cracked, hollow. Like it had died already and was waiting for him to catch up. “Hey, is that you?”
There was another burst of static, and then a heavy, ragged breath. “John?” He sounded sicker than before.
“Ames.” Ames replied, although he wasn’t altogether sure anymore. “Ames, remember?”
“John.” The speaker insisted, and coughed wetly. “It hurts, John.”
“I know it hurts.” Ames groaned. “But I can help us.”
He’d already established the speaker was in the camp. Even now, he could hear the harsh whistle of the surface winds forcing their way underground in any icy stream through a hole no wider than his finger. The sound was like a screaming child, impossible to pacify. Sometimes there was a rustle of heavy cloth, as if the speaker was lying mortally wounded underneath a collapsed tent or tarpaulin cover. How was he eating? What was he eating? Maybe it was best not to know.
“Guide me back.” Ames pleaded for the hundredth time. “Get me back and I’ll help you. I’ve got water.” There wasn’t enough for two. But the speaker couldn’t know that. Ames sipped as he waited, and his cheeks burned with shame.
“So much water.” The speaker laughed and coughed. His voice was a dull, dead drone. “But we can’t drink any.”
“You’re wrong.” Ames lied to the dying man. “We’ll get to the surface, melt the ice, hold out for Columbo.”
The GCE Columbus, in orbit of the ice moon. Half a million tonnes of blocky grey steel, yellow paint chipped from countless meteor fragments along its generations-spanning haul. Half the holds already filled with lithium and water-ice. Enough raw material to buy a small nation. If nations still existed.
“Water is nice.” Said the speaker.
Ames punched the wall ahead of him and his knuckles split. He sucked the wounds to avoid screaming down the mic.
“All the water you want.” He hissed between clenched teeth. “Just tell me how to get back.”
“Follow your nose.” The speaker laughed again and then groaned in deep pain. “Good boy. Good boy.”
Ames bellowed in frustration, a hoarse shout that he clamped down on within half a second. It echoed around the walls like a demented choir. He shivered as he willed the voices silent, regretting his mistake. It might not even have ears. But it could feel. He hugged his knees and cried.
When he had recovered, the speaker was gone. There was no static, no sound at all. He checked the headset, terrified the battery had given out. The blue light winked slowly at him, taunting him with its silence. He thought the light was weaker than before.
He stopped to consider the speaker’s words. The man was obviously far gone. Dehydrated as well as starved. His blood was probably thick enough to bottle and sell for fuel. Which might be what was stopping him bleeding out. He had no idea who “John” was supposed to be, or if it was what the marines called him. A hundred John Doe’s, faceless men in masks and welding goggles. Meat for the grinder. It probably made it easier when one of the miners met with an untimely end. Another tally on a sheet. Ames sniffed petulantly.
He COULD smell something. It was faint, an undercurrent of an undercurrent. If he hadn’t cried like his son when he’d taken the deal, he might never have smelt it. His sinuses had a way of clearing after a good cry, exposing the background scents he took for granted. Like the smell of the methylated spirits in the steel drum at Alpha site that they washed the hand drills in. And suddenly, there it was.
A warm, damp scent. Faintly vinegary, with a hint of decay. Like vegetables left outside too long. It had been two centuries since Ames had last seen a vegetable.
He walked to the mouths of both tunnels, taking a deep inhale, letting it out slowly. His nose was one of his best features. In an age where worker drones had taken over most of the mining jobs in Sol system, his skillset was outmoded. Drones worked harder, cheaper, longer. And they didn’t form unions. But they didn’t have that fifth sense. The way a man could scent the air, like a mole, and tell if there was gold or shit in the walls. The heavy, hot, pregnant air that might signal a cave-in, and a lot of broken robots.
The right tunnel smelt bad. Like one or several somethings had crawled into hidden nooks and died quietly. He could hear the soft plinking of dripping water around a sharp bend in the rock.
The left tunnel smelt relatively clean. A thin stream of water trickled down a gentle incline, into the shallow pool behind Ames that fed the waterfall. Occasional pebbles of rock and assorted detritus drifted down the thick water. Glittering stalactites hung from a low ceiling. But the smell…was it stronger here? He took another big gulp of air. Yes, definitely.
His hand wandered to the back of his neck and the filthy matted hair that hung down it. There was a bald patch just under his right ear. Where something had torn a chunk of flesh and hair on his escape. The wound had clotted into a mushy black scab that felt hot to the touch. Ames would have bet the last flare that it had been torn from him by one of those stalactites. But if he was wrong…
He couldn’t think about that.