“Are you feeling this?” I ask, low.
Not webs. I know the sticky horror of that all too well. More like . . . wings?
The bounty hunter swings around. “A deraphid, though I have never seen one of such size before, and the wingspan is extraordinary.” He extends a claw, and the insect leaves its inspection of my cheek to light on his fingertips. “Remarkable.”
Once I control my instinctive terror, even I can see the thing is harmless. It has no weapons, no stingers, nothing that could pierce the skin. With its smooth, sleek body and translucent wings shining green-gold, it’s almost beautiful.
“How does it survive down here?”
“It must eat parasites from other creatures and perhaps mold and fungus.”
Vel flicks his fingers gently, and the deraphid goes about its business. Reassured that everything down here doesn’t want to eat us, we head toward the shaft. That reassurance doesn’t last long with the growling in the distance. I can hear movement nearby.
I try to focus on March and Vel. My heartbeat thunders in my ears. It seems I always face my private devils underground, fighting not to relive the Sargasso crash. Instead of charred metal and meat, I have solid stone.
The black walls sparkle with untapped ore. With Vel in the lead, I can only follow, and hope that the beasts I hear all around us aren’t as close as they sound. Maybe the dark and the echoes have disoriented me.
Unfortunately, they are as close as they sound.
The thing lurches out of a side passage, a monstrosity of white fur and slavering fangs. It stands twice as tall as me, and probably five times my weight. The roar echoes off the rock walls, paralyzing me. I stare up at its hideous, eyeless face, and shudder. This creature could unhinge its jaw and swallow me whole.
Thankfully, Vel doesn’t have the same response. He goes for the thing’s hamstring, assuming it has one. March dives low on the other side, and they slice in unison as the monster makes a grab for me. I hit the ground, diving between its legs.
The creature screams in pain. Shit, it’s going to fall on me. I scramble back as it goes down and wind up half-wedged beneath its massive shoulder. It’s not dead, just wounded and furious. It turns its head and snaps at me. The fangs graze my shoulder, sending pain ripping down my arm. Blood trickles from the wound.
The horror of being trapped beneath a dying thing nearly shorts out my brain. It’s all I can do not to lose my mind and scream until my voice is gone, but before they kill it or get it off me, I take the easy way and pass out.
I come to myself later—how much later, I don’t know. March cradles me against his chest. The stink of monstrous blood is all over me, but apparently that’s a good thing because the other cave creatures leave us alone. In fact, they whimper as we pass by.
“Most intriguing,” Vel remarks. “They have acknowledged us as superior predators, and they mourn the passing of one of their own.”
March looks thoughtful in the light thrown from the torch-tube. “That suggests a certain level of sentience.”
Call me crazy. I’m not that interested in the thinking skills of the things. I just want out of here before I give in to the panic clamoring through me.
“I’m okay,” I manage. “You can put me down now.”
March smiles. “I know I can. I just don’t want to. I like holding you.” His voice drops. “I didn’t think I ever would again.”
Huh. Well, I could argue with that, but . . . why? I nestle close to him. Later, we’re going to have a serious talk about his opinion of me.
We walk for a long while. In the dark, I have no way to measure the time. Finally, we reach the first shaft.
“This is it,” Vel says, gazing up.
It’s a reverse pit, no hint of light to give us hope it might go all the way up.
March sets me on my feet. “Somebody needs to scope it out, make sure it doesn’t shrink suddenly so that all three of us will get stuck up there.”
“It is narrow,” Vel agrees.
I try to make myself sound braver than I feel. “That’s my cue. I’m the smallest.”
This is no different than rock climbing, I tell myself. Except that it’s small, pitch black, and I don’t know what the hell is up there. “If you have a rope, I’ll take it up with me and secure it so you guys can follow when I find a good place.”
They won’t be able to climb as I do, using hands and feet to scramble up. They’re just too big. Their shoulders will just barely clear the shaft.
“I don’t want you doing this,” March says. “We’ll keep walking.”
“Like hell. I want out of here.” Without waiting for more protests, I take the cord from Vel and loop it around my waist. “Wish me luck.”
Instead, March snatches me close, despite my stench, and kisses me hard on the mouth. “Be careful. I love you, Jax, and we have a lot of lost time to make up for.”
Tears prickle at my eyes. “Damn right. I won’t be long.”
Going up that shaft is hell.
It’s a good thing I’ve been taking my injections because I need every flicker of strength to keep scrambling upward. Dark looms above and below me. I have a torch-tube in my pocket, but I don’t dare get it out. The yellow-green glimmer might draw attention I don’t want. I’m pretty sure I’ve climbed high enough to hurt myself severely if I fall. I don’t think about that.
My hands are raw, and it feels like the soles of my shoes have given way as well. I don’t know how far I’ve climbed, but I can no longer hear March beneath me. In the beginning, I could hear his soft words of reassurance. Now it’s me and the rock and the dark. The weight of it feels like my tomb.
To my vast relief, the shaft hasn’t narrowed. I think it must have been drilled because it seems to be a uniform width all the way up. I just don’t know where it ends.
I keep climbing. It seems like an eternity. The last time I was alone in the dark like this, I yielded to blind panic. Doc had to talk me through it, but that can’t happen now. March and Vel, the two people I care about most in the world, are down there, counting on me. They can’t come up this way. If I don’t reach the top, we die in darkness.
Scrapes dot my palms from the constant abrasion against the rock, and though they sprayed liquid skin on the punctures at my shoulder, I can feel the bond slipping. My wound will be bleeding soon. Mary grant the smell doesn’t lure something to me.
This is easier if I close my eyes and just focus on heaving myself upward. I can pretend it’s not dark, that I’m not weary and losing faith. My arms and legs are tired, trembling in my muscles.
I can do this. I must do this.
Desperation drives me on. I stop and rest twice in as many minutes. You can’t imagine what it’s like to try to catch your breath, bent double, with only the strength of your thighs keeping you from falling to a hideous death. At this point, it’s more stubbornness than strength driving me on.
I promised myself I’d get him out of here. So I keep climbing.
My muscles strain with exertion, and my mouth is dry. I can feel my lips cracking, but I don’t have anything to soothe them. The dust feels like it’s ingrained in my skin.
At last I feel a cooler breeze on my face, which means I have to be getting close. I redouble my efforts, inching my way upward. My hands scrabble at the stone above me until I feel what seems like a ledge.
With the last burst of my energy I push upward and out onto a stone lip. The shaft has joined a cavern, I think, which I confirm by cracking a torch-tube, the only one I have. For obvious reasons, I didn’t want to carry extra weight when I went up.
Finally, a break. There’s an outcropping of stalagmites nearby, which tells me this is a natural cave. I tie the rope around one of them, three sturdy knots, and tug until I’m sure it will bear their weight. Then I drop it down the shaft and hope it’s long enough.
I don’t think they’ll hear me if I shout, and even so, I’m not sure I want to risk attracting anything else to my position. I have no idea what lives here. I could drop my light to get their attention if the rope doesn’t do it, but I don’t want to wait in the dark.
Relief crashes through me when someone tugs twice on the cord. They’ve got it. In the sickly, citrine light, I watch the rope go taut. That means somebody’s climbing.
I sit there, weak and trembling, until I glimpse March, about ten meters down. Though I’d like to help him, I don’t have the strength to pull him up, so I just stay out of his way. I marvel that he’s able to do this after twenty-four hours of abuse and privation. He’s so damn strong it amazes me.
“Thank Mary,” he breathes when he sees me sitting there. “That was the longest hour of my life.”
Is that all? The time seemed much longer to me, somehow. March comes to me on his hands and knees, shaky with relief. And, despite his filth and my smell, we curl together like interlocking puzzle pieces. Listening to his heart there in the greasy light thrown by the torch-tube is the closest to heaven I’ll ever be.
Vel comes up faster. He’s in better shape than me, and he hasn’t been beaten like March. I’m almost ready to move by the time he unties the rope.
“Good work, Sirantha. Let me scan the area and see where we are.” The bounty hunter goes to work. I don’t know how long it is—I’m content where I am—until he says, “This way. These caverns parallel the surface.”
“Did you find an exit?”
“More or less.” Vel starts walking, just as eager to be gone from here as we are. “I found a fissure I can widen with a laser.”
Then we walk. I’m so exhausted now that I can hardly think. I just follow Vel and March, one foot in front of the other. I’ve lost track of how deep into our twenty-four hours we are. Mary, I hope nothing has happened to Dina and Hit. They have to be waiting for us.
After an interminable hike, we come to the end of the natural caverns. Beyond lies the mountain wall, but Vel simply walks over to a tiny crack, pours some kind of reagent on it, then whips out a cutting laser.
The area fills with smoke and dust, making it hard to breathe. I cover my mouth and nose, but it doesn’t help a lot. March digs through the infamous bounty-hunter pack to find us some water, if nothing else. We can’t eat with so many foreign particles in the air. I sip through the cloth mask, grateful for small comforts. The bounty hunter works tirelessly, crawling deeper and deeper into the fissure to work.
Just when I think I can’t stand it anymore, Vel beckons us. “We must crawl out. I am afraid to risk a wider cut, lest I destabilize the mountain and cause an avalanche.”
Yeah, we certainly don’t want to wind up buried in rock and snow. That’s not how my story ends.
“Thanks, Vel.” I’d kiss him, but I’m too tired. “You did great, all the way.”
March agrees. “I’d have said it was impossible to get out of here. I guess that means you two did the impossible.”
I go first. It’s a tiny crevice that sparks my claustrophobia. At first I have a hard time making myself go deeper. In here, I can hardly breathe. The rock scrapes my sides, so I can’t imagine how it is for March and Vel. They might have to squirm through on their sides or bellies. Thinking about them distracts me, but as it gets colder, I realize I’m almost there, so I crawl faster.