Hollowed Memories, chapter 7, part 4

January 4, 2015

It took them all day to reach their destination.  Far behind the boat, Yarec spotted a dark speck—a rare carrion bird following them through the wilderness.  It must be hungry, and they were potential food.  For humans or condors, this was lonely country.  There was no road nearby now, and the three men in the boat ought to have been the only humans around for many kilometers.  Yarec thought he spied a snake once, basking near the river bank, but it might just have been an oddly bent yucca stalk.  There was hardly any other visible animal life, apart from the scorpions and insects.

The sun had sunk low, and the dust in the air made its light look tired and red, before they finally saw the massive hill they were seeking  Beneath it, the Little Snail River ended its above-ground flow.  “There, that’s where the Georgiansen Mine is,” Thad Solara said, pointing with his half-gloved hand.

“I see,” said Yarec.  He had spotted the small mount himself, and he could see that the river was headed directly towards it.  “The river goes straight in, right?” he asked.

“Sure does,” Thad said.  “I’ve never paddled past the first big room myself,” he went on.  “No real reason to.  But I know you plan to poke around under there for a while.  There are lots of ways to go once you’re inside, so I hope you know where you’re headed.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Yarec said.  He was listening, but only with part of his attention.  He had maps to run through in his head and plans to revisit.  The sun sank deeper as they rode toward the entranceway, and by the time the boat reached the massive concrete arch, Yarec felt confident that he was ready to go.

Water had flowed through the caverns under the hill, off and on, for thousands of years.  Now, as the river approached the entrance, the flow quickened, eager for the plunge underground.  The opening had been widened and reshaped by human tools—lined with cheap concrete to make an arched gallery.

“Watch your head,” shouted one of the pilots, even though the entryway was at least five meters high.  However, as the boat passed into the shadow of the arch and Yarec’s eyes adjusted to the reduced illumination, he saw that the warning was less superfluous than it might have seemed.  Rainwater, trickling down through the rounded mountain above their heads, had cracked through the molded ceiling.  Laden with minerals, it dripped down, leaving a few microscopic grains behind with each drop.  The results were delicate limestone soda straws, hanging down toward the river course.  They were impressively long, in spite of their obvious fragility.  If Yarec had jumped up and rammed one with his forehead, it would have undoubtedly been worse for the rock formation than for his brow.  Still, he ducked his head, feeling as if he owned the slow powers of the earth some respect.

The huge steel gates that had once blocked the entrance tunnel at its midpoint were long gone.  What remained were pieces of their great hinges, discolored and lumped with bits of flowstone.  Just past these protrusions, a small plaque was bolted to the wall.  Dirty and weathered, missing a corner, it commemorated the discovery of a species of weakly interacting elementary particles.  The particles had been produced in astounding profusion in the first few minutes of the universe and lingered, drifting aimlessly across the wide spaces between the stars, without ever interacting again.  There was a ball of them around the Milky Way, held in place by the galaxy’s gravity while the Earth swam through them.  Clever scientists had set up detectors in the basement of the old mine, to detect the rare instances when such esoteric particles would actually collide with atoms and recoil.  The huge weight of the mountain shielded the sensors from the cosmic rays that were constantly impinging on the planet’s atmosphere.  When the new elementary particles were finally observed experimentally, the discovery was celebrated around the world.  It was thought at the time that they might account for most of the mass of the universe.  That hypothesis was quickly ruled out, but what actually accounted for the apparent weight of the cosmos was never figured out; the transcontinental scientific community had turned away from elementary particle physics, as limited resources forced people to focus on more immediately useful researches.

Yarec glanced at the plaque as they slid past, looking at the names, recorded in stylized ancient letters, of the women and men who had labored for so many hours beside their cryogenic equipment, waiting for three or four clicks produced by relics from the birth of the universe.  They must have been dedicated people, Yarec thought, searching for fossils from the dawn of time.  Then he turned and looked ahead again, down toward the delving’s first great hall, and the silty lake that occupied it.

The river led into a vast cavern which had been excavated to many times its natural size.  The water spread out into a long black lake.  Slow ripples glittered in the boat’s floodlight, as the current drained gradually downward.  Far below, Yarec knew there was a tumultuous underground sea.  When the flow reached a precipice, it plummeted down an old elevator shaft, dropping more than two kilometers to what remained of the deepest chambers.  At the bottom, the crashing waters flooded down empty veins of ore and eventually fed an underground river heading south.  It was extremely unlikely that Yarec would need to descend that far, but he had studied the geography of the uppermost flooded chambers anyway.

Whoever had taken up residence here would not be dug in so deep, if they were still in the caves at all.  A group of five people, fairly well armed and carrying a large container between them, had been spotted by a passing airplane.  The group was less than half a kilometer away and headed straight toward the mine.  The aircraft was performing routine passive reconnaissance while ferrying passengers and supplies across the region.  The people carrying the container had not aroused any particular suspicions at the time; at worst, they were probably just bandits.  Subsequent overflights had seen no signs of the group, but for a number of other reasons—not shared with Yarec—it had been decided to send someone on the ground to check things out.

The Solara brothers were under contract to bring Yarec here, but they were not going to follow him any further into the underworld.  They would remain nearby, to provide medical assistance if he emerged from the caverns in need of it, and to provide transportation back to Kruppeen when he was finished.

The brothers brought their canoe up against one wall of the cavern.  They had stowed the motor, and the sounds of their paddles slapping against the water echoed off the arching concrete walls.  Yarec found a place to alight.  The remains of a staircase emerged from the murky waters.  Yarec climbed out of the canoe and followed the slick, crumbling steps up along the curve of the wall.  The boatmen spun their craft around, and it seemed only a few moments before they had disappeared from sight, the remains of their sharp white light retreating around the corner.

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